Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘China’

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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Britain’s Soft Power

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 11th February, 2014

Sir Martin DavidsonVictorian Britain was associated with gunboat diplomacy and there are still some people in this country who think of power in terms of military might. But since the Second World War, Britain’s “soft power” has been more in evidence, not least through the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service. The Council’s Director, Sir Martin Davidson, was the guest speaker at a Global Strategy Forum event at the National Liberal Club this lunchtime and underlined how the teaching of English abroad and the fact that so many foreign students come to the UK to study both help this country’s economy as well as its global  presence. Without overtly criticising the Government for not increasing the Council’s presence around the globe (in stark contrast to China’s Confucius Institutes, for example) Sir Martin did nonetheless point out that the negative coverage in the Indian Press of the immigration and visa debates in the UK had directly led to a fall in the number of students from India applying to study here. I asked him what the British Council is doing or could be doing to counter the pernicious influence of the Daily Mail, Daily Express and UKIP on our reputation not just in India but globally, without getting an entirely satisfactory answer; but of course to be seen publicly to criticise influential British media might be difficult in Sir Martin’s position. Politicians and journalists need not operate under such constraints, however, which is why I spend so much of my time offering an alternative British narrative to that served up in the right-wing red-tops or the Faragistas’ pubs. The UK does still have a degreee of soft power, though it is redcued because of reductions to the budgets of the British Council and the ludicrous decision to integrate the World Service into the main BBC new and current affairs output. That soft power is increased by our membership of the European Union and is often a force for good in the wider world, which is why those of us who believe that need to stand up and say so.

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Big Brother IS Watching You!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 27th January, 2014

Big BrotherGus Hosein 2It’s incredibly easy and cheap to spy on people these days — wherever they are. That was the (depressing) core message of the presentation by Gus Hosein, Executive Director of Privacy International at an Association of Europe Journalists (AEJ) UK briefing at Europe House in Westminster this lunchtime. Technology means that just as George Orwell foresaw, Big Brother can and probably does watch all of us all of the time — only Big Brother could be of a variety of nationalities (or none, in the case of multinational corporations), not just those who, elected or not, in principle have a mandate to rule over us. What is more, a very significant proportion of the equipment used in this new surveillance world is manufactured by companies based in the UK. Gus Hosein identified three main areas of concern: (1) “Upstream collection”: for example the way that Google and others have agreed to allow access to electronic traffic by the NSA (US), GCHQ (UK) et al. By tapping into fibre optic cables underseas, they can literally monitor everything we send electronically, and GCHQ-monitored material captured off the coasts of the UK and Cyprus (sic) play an important role in this. (2) “Tailored Access Operations”: effectively, black ops done from a computer terminal which can compromise networks and computers anywhere in the world, through hacking and related techniques. They can, for example, turn on or off the microphone in your mobile phone without you realising. (3) “Sabotage”: the heavy stuff, which introduces “vulnerabilities” into supposedly secure systems. So can anyone have confidence in the security of any transaction by digital means? Alas, no. So who are the “baddies” in our surveillance world? Line up the usual suspects: Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, Israel — but also the US and the UK. Moreover, British companies have been selling the relevant surveillance technology to regimes such as Egypt and Bahrain (as I know, having been refused entry to Bahrain last time I landed there). So should we be worried? You bet. Particularly now we are in the age of what is known in the trade as “Big Data”, whereby what might appear seemingly innocuous information about us all is stored to make predictions about us (our likely purchases, as well as our beliefs or potential actions) that even we did not realise ourselves. And did you think it was smart to have a high-tech fridge or washing machine? Think again: it could literally be monitoring you and your movements. I asked Gis Hosein about drones, about which I have been quizzed at length on Iranian TV. Do we really need to fear the sophistication of new technology there as well? By now you won’t be surprised by the answer. “Drones can be flying hacking machines,” he replied, “which is what the police and security services would be interested in, more than mere surveillance.”

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Ed Davey, the EU and Climate Change

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 16th June, 2013

Ed Daveyclimate changeThe European Union has been leading the way in the global fight against climate change, not least thanks to the efforts of Liberal Democrat Ministers in the UK’s Coalition government, Chris Huhne and now Ed Davey. The latter was guest speaker at Merton Liberal Democrats’ summer garden party in Wimbledon this afternoon and restated his determination that the Paris summit in 2015 must seal a meaningful new treaty, to build on achievements so far. There are some member states that are dragging their feet — notably Poland, which still relies heavily on coal for its energy needs. But the UK is part of a group of 10 EU member states — dubbed the Green Growth Group — which are on the side of the angels in the related debate. Moreover, Ed has been buoyed by the appointment of John Kerry as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State in his second term, as Kerry was ahead of Al Gore in recognising the problems of global warming. Even China is sending out some reassuring signals. The problems of air and water pollution in China are immense, as a result of the country’s rapid industrialisation and relatively lax environmental supervisory standards. But public opinion in China has become increasingly vociferous about the health consequences for children — all the more acute give China’s ongoing (though modified) one child policy. Accordingly, the Chinese Communist Party has started to take note of ecological protests, instead of just suppressing them, as it realises that its survival in government may be at stake. Back home in the UK, it is the Liberal Democrats who have been keeping the Coalition government on track on climate change issues, despite the scepticism of certain Tory right-wingers. In next year’s European elections (which in London will coincide with all-out borough council elections) the LibDems must champion this success. Furthermore, Ed argued, we should not hold back in attacking UKIP, which is not only the home of many climate change deniers but also tries through its lies and distortions to undermine European cooperation with all its beneficial aspects for our common future. and

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Friendly Steppes

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 2nd June, 2013

Friendly SteppesNick RowanThe Silk Road, linking the empires of Rome and China, conjours up an atmosphere of mystery and exoticism by its very name. Actually, there were many branches of the Silk Road — just as there were many branches of the Great Wall of China — through a range of more northerly or southerly routes, binding West to East over the centuries. In 2006, the young Oxford graduate Nick Rowan (now working in the oil industry in London) spent four-and-a-half months travelling from Venice to Xian, in the hope of recapturing some of the spirit of intrepid traders of various nationalities, who would have spent considerably longer on their journeys, even if few covered more than one or two sections of the road. Inspired by the sights and sounds of Central Asia in particular, Rowan has written a travelogue recording his journey, during which he used many types of transport from buses to taxis to a clapped-out old ferry across the Caspian Sea, and even a few side excursions on horseback. Initially moving solo, he inevitably linked up with various people en route, both Western companions and, more significantly, interested locals. On the final leg of the journey, across China, he was joined by his younger brother. The resultant book is a mixture of travel diary and historical asides, as well as insights into aspects of economic and social development gained by contacts he had through an overseas aid charity. His narrative starts a little hesitantly — it is hard to say anything very new or remarkable about as well-chronicled a place as Venice — but he really gets into his stride when he reaches Iran and he encounters not only the architectural splendours of cities such is Isfahan, but also the engaging hospitality of the Iranian people, so different from what one might imagine if one just listens to Western propaganda. Turkmenistan wins the prize as the oddest country on his epic journey, but one senses that it is really Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan that win his affection. After them, China is something of an anti-climax. Reading Rowan’s book, one certainly feel one is accompanying him on the journey and can share his varying moods of excitement, frustration and boredom. He rather overuses certain adjectives (notably “stunning”), and a little tighter editing would have improved the text. But this is the account of a voyage that clearly was a type of rite of passage for the author and it is both enjoyable and informative for those who may never get closer to Kashgar or Samarkand than the comfort of their armchair.

Nick Rowan: Friendly Steppes: A Silk Road Journey, Hertfordshire Press, £14.95

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Turkey and the Arab Awakening

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 11th January, 2013

Kerim BalciMiriam Francois-CerrahEver since the revolutionary train swept across North Africa and the Middle East (MENA) pundits have been asking whether Turkey could offer a model for post-Revolution Arab states to follow, so maybe it was not so surprising that the Turkish Review (for which I occasionally write) should highlight the issue at its UK launch at the House of Lords earlier today. Three very diverse speakers were on the panel (chaired by the LibDem peer and former President of Liberal International, John Alderdice): the journalist Kerim Balci, the young Oxford academic and political writer Miriam Francois-Cerrah and Gulnur Aybet, who teaches at the University of Kent, as well as in Turkey and the United States. Each put a Gulnur Aybettotally different slant on the subject, Kerim Balci claiming (with some justification) that the so-called Arab Spring actually started earlier than in Tunisia in December 2010, in Kyrgyzstan, and that it is mirrored in various parts of Central Asia, China and India. What we are dealing with has a universal dimension, he argued. Miriam Francois-Cerrah declared that the majority of Arabs do see Turkey as a role-model, largely because it is a secular state that has nonetheless accommodated a variety of parties, including the AKP, with its Islamic origins. Gulnur Aybet emphasized that Turkey is seen by the West as a strategic partner in dealing with the MENA region, which maybe leads to a certain degreee  of wishful thinking as to how much of a model it can be. More a source of inspiration, stated Miriam Francois-Cerrah, echoing a line I have often taken. But in the meantime Turkey has itself all sorts of internal contradictions to overcome; Gulnur Aybet deplored the growing polarisation she has noticed. Certainly Turkey has an enviable economic growth rate and has many things going for it, but it is by no means a perfect state that others might necessarily try to emulate.

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