Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘China’

Europe Coalesces as Britain Falls Apart

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th November, 2017

D1AF3920-7B78-406C-A1FD-FA42B713BF62In last year’s European Referendum, UKIP and other arch-Brexiteers argued that the European Union is sinking and is bound to break up, whereas the developments of the past few months have shown that, on the contrary, the EU is pulling together while Britain, mismanaged by a Brexit-drunk Tory Party, is steering the country straight for the rocks. A year ago, the UK was one of the fastest growing countries in the OECD, whereas now it has sunk to the bottom. In contrast, even the previously afflicted nations of Southern Europe are picking up. Moreover, since Emmanuel Macron became President of France, there is a new spring in the EU’s step; “Mutti” Merkel is no longer the sole voice of EU strength. The Franco-German alliance is back with force. The great tragedy is that Britain ought to be one of a troika helping direct the EU, at a moment when China and other emerging economies are in the ascendant. Instead, craven to Little Englander nationalists and the running dogs of global capitalism, Theresa May and her unholy crew are deliberately destroying Britain in order the try to satisfy the most extreme Btexiteers. Britain can have a golden future, as a leading member of the European Union. Cast adrift, alone, it’s bones will be picked over by the carrion crows who unfortunately own the worst parts of the British media, and to whose insistent tune Mrs May dances along with Mad Hatter Boris Johnson and the rest of that unsavoury crew.

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The Future of UK-China Trade

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd October, 2017

JF addressing Chinese LibDems AGMLiam Fox and other Brexiteers in the UK’s current Conservative government are fond of saying that when we are “free” from the European Union, we will be able to enter into a great new dawn of trading partnerships with other big players around the world, not least China. Actually, it was David Cameron and the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who really championed the idea of a bright future hand-in-hand with the People’s Republic, though they never imagined that would be something totally separate from EU-China trading relations. Theresa May, interestingly, has been a little more cautious in her embrace of President Xi Jinping, who has been expertly consolidating his authority at the Chinese People’s Congress this week. But despite the bluff reassurances of Liam Fox, David Davis and Boris Johnson, forging an advantageous new trading relationship with China is unlikely to be straightforward, for a number of reasons. First, until Britain formally leaves the EU — in principle on 29 March 2019 — it cannot make any bilateral arrangement with Beijing. Moreover, there are not sufficiently qualified negotiators in Whitehall to handle such a sensitive matter (as the EU has dealt with our trade negotiations for the past four decades) and little Britain, with 60 million inhabitants, is going to be at a distinct disadvantage in taking tough with the colossus of China, unlike the 500-million strong EU, which is still the largest trading bloc in the world. Bilateral trade is already skewed in China’s favour, and is likely to be more so in future, not less. Other factors make prospects mixed. China under Mr Xi is becoming more assertive in global affairs, having largely sat on the sidelines for many years, even within the UN Security Council. Many people in China believe the time has now come for China to reassert its pre-eminence in the world, as was the case prior to 1500 and the rise of European Empires. The four hundred years of European dominance, followed by a century of American hegemony, may in future be seen as a blip in comparison to China’s long supremacy. Then there is the issue of Donald Trump, who is repositioning the United States to be more isolationist (and certainly more self-centred), racheting up conflicts with countries such as Iran and North Korea in a way that risks souring US-China relations. Yet Theresa May aspires to be Mr Trump’s greatest ally, despite disagreeing with him over the Iran nuclear deal. This could prove awkward. In the meantime, the British government has downgraded human rights as a priority in its foreign policy, which is sweet music to Xi Jinping’s ears — though Britain must be careful to ensure that as a future relationship evolves it does not end up dancing to Beijing’s tune.

This is a summary of remarks I made as the guest speaker today in London’s Chinatown at the AGM of Chinese Liberal Democrats:  https://chineselibdems.org.uk/

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Donald Trump out on a Limb

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 2nd June, 2017

Trump climate changeLast night the US President confirmed Europe’s worst fears, by announcing that he is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. He is on record as saying that he doesn’t really believe in global warming, and although his pledge to give coal-mining a boost went down well in certain areas of the country during his election campaign the potential impact on the global climate is serious. It is encouraging that not only the European Union but also Russia and China have reaffirmed their support for the Paris Agreement, though sadly Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May — keen to enhance her status as Mr Trump’s best foreign friend as Brexit looms — reportedly commented that the US President is free to do as he likes. Whereas that is factually correct, it is politically inept. Britain should not be seen to be aligning itself with a climate change denier at this crucial moment in history. Many world leaders, including former President Barack Obama, have cited climate change as possibly the biggest threat facing humankind, which is why it is so important that countries around the world limit their emissions and take other measures to slow and ideally reverse the trend of global warming. It was a great victory for common sense when China came on board. Now Donald Trump has taken the United States in the opposite direction. I suspect he rather enjoys being out on a limb, such is his monstrous ego. But those who go out on a limb run the risk of someone cutting off the branch on which they are sitting, and for the planet’s sake, I hope that is what will happen before too long.

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Let’s Cool It over Korea!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 14th April, 2017

Kim Jong-Un nukesJapan has reportedly drawn up contingency plans to evacuate 60,000 of its citizens who live in South Korea. This follows more sabre-rattling (or should one say, ballistic missile rattling) by North Korean hereditary despot Kim Jong-Un and the Americans diverting a naval force towards the Korean peninsula. President Donald Trump has said bluntly that he will “deal with” North Korea himself if he has to. Such bravado doubtless goes down well among Trump supporters, but not necessarily in either South Korea or Japan. They both have reason to worry about the unpredictable nature of the leadership in Pyongyang, though they have come to understand that Mr Kim’s bark is usually worse than his bite; indeed, part of his grand-standing and repeated insistence that his country is in mortal danger from foreign forces is a familiar ploy to try to keep his people behind him. Those that in any way oppose him, incidentally, risk imprisonment, torture and death. But as the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington rages, voices in Seoul have been advising caution. Indeed, the lead candidate in the presidential election called to find a replacement for ousted Ms Park, has used this tense time to urge dialogue with the North. China, meanwhile, has called for tension over North Korea to be halted before what it calls an “irreversible” stage. It would appear than in East Asia these days, Churchill’s old maxim tat jaw-jaw is better than war-war has fans. US Vice-President Mike Pence is off to Seoul on Sunday, so let’s hope he can cool things down, too.

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The Kingdom of Women

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 12th April, 2017

The Kingdom of WomenFor most of history and in most of the world, men have ruled the roost. All sorts of explanations have been put forward for that, ranging from men’s physical strength to women’s traditional obligations to bear and raise children. In the post-modern age, with its emphasis on gender equality, such “justifications” for patriarchal systems have been fundamentally challenged. But there have always been a few societies that rejected the norm and developed matriarchal structures and/or matrilineal patterns of inheritance One such ethnicity is the Mosuo people of Yunnan province in south-west China, where a woman is head of the household and decides which male partner (single or plural) she will relate to, on a short- or long-term basis. In the matriarch’s house, ideally, each girl will have a room of her own (so important for independent action and thought, as Virginia Woolf understood!). Not surprisingly Mosuo women have a marked self-confidence from an early age — most unusual in patriarchal China — and that was one of the things that appealed to Singaporean Choo Waihong when she first visited remote Mosuo country, with its beautiful mountains and lake. Dissatisfied with aspects of life in ultra-modern Singapore and emerging from an unsatisfactory marriage, she became enamoured of the place and built a second home there. Out of that experience over several years came material for a book, The Kingdom of Women (I. B. Tauris, £17.99), which recounts both the author’s experiences and what she learned about the customs of her new neighbours and friends. Engagingly written, the book will be of interest to both sociologists and armchair travellers alike, as well as to self-confessed feminists who believe that women can and should control their own lives. But there is also an air of sadness towards the end of the book as the twin threats of modernity and tourism (most of the latter from Han Chinese) inevitably are leading to change.

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Obama in Cuba

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 21st March, 2016

Obama CubaBarack Obama’s visit to Cuba will probably go down in history as a seminal moment, such as Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. I was in Taipei then, taking a year abroad from my Chinese course at Oxford, and I was struck how terrified my host family was. They feared that the United States would then give the green light to Beijing to take over the island, but of course that never happened. But Nixon’s visit did open the door for China to re-enter the global community where, 44 years later, it is firmly in second place in world rankings. The potential rewards for Cuba following President Obama’s visit are unlikely to be so spectacular, but it should put an end to the shameful history of economic sanctions against Cuba by America, which Washington tried to force other countries to abide by too. There will also presumably be an influx of American tourists to the island, which will bring in much needed dollars but may not otherwise be totally beneficial. For all its shortcomings and illiberalism, the Cuban form of socialism did help create a society that had several very positive elements, including good education, plentiful qualified doctors and a remarkably low crime rate. It would be a shame if  the genuine solidarity among Cuban people were to be pushed aside in a headlong rush for modernisation and Americanisation. I went to Cuba seven times in the 1990s, culminating in my making a BBC radio documentary pegged to the 40th anniversary of the Revolution. It is a beautiful country that ought to have been quite prosperous had the Castros not stifled free enterprise. Of course, the American embargo made things worse and enabled the government in Havana to promote a siege mentality. Those days are now over and I can only hope that it won’t just be a well-connected few who will benefit from the inevitable changes, as happened in Russia and other parts of the CIS.

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International Human Rights Day

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 10th December, 2015

Human Rights DayThe Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly 67 years ago today, but the fight for rights is as necessary as ever, not just in totalitarian states and conflict zones round the world but even in so-called mature democracies. Each International Human Rights Day (IHRD), 10 December, is a useful moment to take stock of the situation worldwide and the picture in 2015 is particularly depressing. Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise as part of the collateral damage to the war against ISIS/Daesh and other Middle Eastern and North African conflicts; countries including China, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran continue to implement the death penalty, in many cases for “crimes” that would not even be considered as such in much of the world.

capital punishmentThe theme of this year’s IHRD is “Our Rights. Our Freedoms. Always”, which at many levels is so broad as to be almost meaningless in campaigning terms, but the idea was to commemorate the 50th anniversary next year (sic) of the adoption of International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite being equally broad-brush, these covenants are considered important frameworks for putting pressure on governments that are denying their people a decent livelihood or suppressing their freedoms.

amnesty pngOf course, despite the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, not every country or society agrees on their definition. Uganda, where I am at present, continues to harass LGBTi activists, for example, with the tacit support of much of the local population. Apostasy is still a capital crime in Saudi Arabia, while freedom or religion (and the freedom to choose) is a core value of democratic societies. Double standards are moreover evident in so many fields and it is not always the Western democracies that are innocent. They were right to express outrage at Russia occupation/annexation of Crimea, for example, yet most (with a few honorable exceptions such as Sweden) have remained relatively mute about Israel’s 48-year occupation of Palestine; Russia is the subject of sanctions, Israel hardly at all.

However, that does not mean we should give up in despair. NGOs in particular have an important role to play in furthering economic, social and cultural rights, as well as civil and political ones — not least in holding governments to account. But governments, such as Britain’s, also should not shirk their duty to stand up for what they say support, and the same goes for the European Union. So even if IHRD may seem vacuous at times it is important to remind us of all that needs to be done to promote human rights, both individually and collectively.

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BBC Arabic Festival 2015

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 20th October, 2015

imageArab cinema is remarkably little known in the United Kingdom, disgracefully given Britain’s long involvement in the Arab world and — even more importantly — given the high quality of much of the current output, both fiction and non-fiction, across North Africa and the Middle East. Arab film has come on a long way since the black-and-white Egyptian comedies that still feature on so many Arab TV channels. The so-called Arab Spring (a misnomer, if ever there was one) unsurprisingly has been the catalyst for a number of really powerful new movies both from and about various Arab lands. Last autumn, the BBC ran an Arabic film festival over a weekend, with free showings at the Radio Theatre in New Broadcasting House. The most striking, for me was some of the work out of Syria, made in the most difficult of conditions. This year, there is another BBC Arabic Festival to be held over the last weekend in October (i.e., next week), which alas I shall miss as I will be at the Liberal International Congress in Mexico City.

imageHowever, last night I got a sneak preview of two of the highlighted films of the festival, of which 15-minute edits were shown at a launch event at the House of Commons. Abo Gabi’s Blue is a heart-rending documentary about Ayham, the young piano player who performed around the streets of the besieged Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria, bringing hope and sometimes joy in the middle of suffering and the barbarism of war. Abo Gabi is himself a Syrian-Palestinian musician and singer and much of his film was captured through an intermittent skype connection, making this an intense and dramatic experience. Of an entirely different nature is Pregnant and in Chains, a documentary directed by Christine Garabedian about the fate of female migrant workers in the UAE who get illegally pregnant, in other words outside marriage. Immigration officials at Dubai’s international airport are always on the lookout for any Filipinas, Bangladeshis and other female domestic workers showing signs of pregnancy and also trying to leave the country; if caught, they are liable to imprisonment, even when their pregnancy is the result of rape, sometimes at the hands of their Emirati employer. Behind the UAE’s benevolent and modern facade is the reality of a very conservative society, in which there is a very different concept of human rights from those prevalent in the West. In their different ways, these two films give much food for thought. The Festival as a whole promises to be a feast.

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Astana, Out of the Blue

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 25th April, 2015

imageWhen I first came to Kazakhstan in the spring of 1994, the newly independent country was in a pretty sorry state. Travelling from Nanjing in China, by train, I’d had to shift from a comfortable Chinese train, with bizarre but usually palatable food to a Russian (i.e. ex-Soviet) alternative, on the opposite side of the platform at the border. The delay involved took hours, and I had been warned by the Chinese that the Kazakh “customs” were extortionate, thieves — so I hid everything if any value deep in my luggage and instead left a BBC-branded pen lying on the table. The ruse worked. The Kazakh officials entered my single compartment and with glee seized on the BBC pen, grinning broadly, their mouths all white and gold, and they then made sure I got another single cabin on the post-Soviet replacement train (which had a wider gauge), to the fury of a down-graded British couple nearby who had not been quite so savvy. Of course, speaking fluent Chinese (then) and rusty Russian (learnt at school) helped. As the train then shuddered across Kazakhstan westwards to Uzbekistan (with a long layover in Almaty, for refuelling) I got the opportunity to experience not only warm, generous Kazakh hospitality but also the reality of their economic desperation. Babushkas, both ethnic Russian and Kazakh, lined the railway track, insistingly trying to sell sweet Soviet “champagne” at $1 a bottle or anything else they had to hand. It was exhilarating, but also tragic. I have been back since, but returning now, 21 years later, to Kazakhstan, the difference is stunning. It’s not just that the per capita GDP has shy-rocketed over the intervening period; Kazakhstan with its oil and gas and mineral riches not unrealistically is aiming to become one if the workd’s top 30 developed nation by 2050 — an extraordinary ambition for a nation of just 17 million people, yet living in a territory bigger than Western Europe. This is a member of the nest generation of BRICS — which is why so many Western countries are investing heavily here. Astutely, the Kazakhs have lifted visa requirements for nationals of potential FDI countries such as the UK. The capital, Astana, developed out of almost nothing since 1997, is thrusting with globally significant buildings by Norman Foster and others. I shan’t say this is paradise, which no country is, least of all in Cental Asia, cann be, but goodness me, it is a place to watch!

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The Sindbad Voyage

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 1st January, 2015

imageAs someone who travels a huge amount, researching, lecturing and writing, I never lose the thrill of encountering new places and new peoples. But I’ve always been a bit mystified by travellers for whom the journey and the mode of transport themselves provide the adrenalin: round-the-world yachtsmen, balloonists and so on. But occasionally one such traveller manages to convey the essence of their passion in a book, as is the case with Tim Severin’s The Sindbad Voyage (1982). Severin had form, having travelled by motorcycle with Boris Johnson’s father Stanley from Oxford to Afghanistan while they were undergraduates, then later in a tiny boat made of animal hide across the Atlantic to prove that many centuries before Christopher Columbus early Europeans could gave done it. The Sindbad Voyage project was the most ambitious of all: to build a traditional Arab boom of the type Arab traders used in the ninth century and then sail it all the way to China, as Arabs did when Haroun Al Rashid was the Caliph in Baghdad and the T’ang dynasty ruled the Middle Kingdom. Severin was fortunate to get sponsorship from the Sultan of Oman, and it was in Oman that the craft was built. Omani sailors made up most of the crew, along with a motley collection of European volunteers and scientists. Though the number of places at which the ship made landfall was limited — notably India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Singapore and China — the atmosphere of various ports is well captured. But essentially the book is a love song for the ship itself, the Sohar, with all its weaknesses as well as its strengths. And once again, Tim Severin had proved that something was possible.

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