Thursday, July 28, 2016

Rare Beijing back-down in expulsion row

The strange case of the expulsion of three Chinese journalists from India; Beijing’s initial anger then back-down, throws some light on the intricacies that govern the relationship between the two countries.

It also brings into focus the double role Chinese journalists play as news and information gathers serving the communist State.

New Delhi Bureau Chief for the Xinhua News Agency, Wu Qiang and Mumbai-based reporters Tang Lu and She Yonggang were ordered to leave after being told their current visas would not be renewed.

While the Ministry of External Affairs remained tight-lipped over the reason for the expulsion, media sources claimed the trio had used false identities to access Government Departments.

Beijing’s initial reaction was swift and predictable, warning of “serious consequences” and claiming India had acted in retaliation for China’s blocking of its bid to join the international Nuclear Suppliers Group.

A post in Sina Weibo speculated that the journalists had reported too many scandals and negative events in India, although anyone who has lived here knows the local media need no assistance in that area.

Then, 24 hours later, came a complete about-face. Chinese Embassy officials stressed the need to ‘normalise’ Sino-Indian relations, while Xinhua admitted that two of the journalists had committed ‘transgressions’ by secretly visiting Tibetan exile communities in Karnataka.

And in a fine display of semantics, an External Affairs official said the journalists had not been ‘expelled’ and were simply going home as their visas had expired. “Xinhua is welcome to post new correspondents to Delhi,” the official said.  

But why this back-down from a country that it notoriously sensitive about losing face? One suggestion is that China is feeling increasingly isolated after the International Court ruled against its claims in the South China Sea and had no wish to open another quarrel with India over such a trivial incident.

Less likely is a speculation on the uncertainties in China-US relations that could occur should the mercurial Donald Trump become president with his much publicised liking for Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

Whatever the reasons the incident is a reminder that Chinese journalists operating overseas are often just another arm of the country’s security services, involving themselves in biased coverage and even espionage.

An example of this occurred a few years ago when journalist Mark Bourrie, who was working for Xinhua in Canada, resigned after being told to gather information on the Dalai Lama’s visit to the country, then turn over all his notes without writing any reports.

The status of Chinese journalists was made crystal clear in February when, on a tour of State media outlets, President Xi Jinping said they must give “absolute loyalty” to the Communist Party.   

Friday, July 22, 2016

Civil Service slandered for doing its job

There have been many silly and ill-informed commentaries out of the United Kingdom in the wake of the victory of the Brexit lobby, but none quite as stupid as that of novelist and former journalist Frederick Forsyth.

Writing in the anti-European Union bastion, the Daily Express, the 77-year-old Forsyth has urged new Prime Minister Theresa May to purge the country’s Civil Service of “blatantly partisan mandarins” who went on a “scandalous crusade” aimed at defeating the will of the people.

“Five months ago they were making plain how much they despised the rest of us from their self-arrogated superiority perches. Today they are whining it has all been so unfair. The proles have won,” Forsyth writes.

I’ll deal with that comment later, but first let’s explode the myth of Civil Service bias.

The job of Civil Servants in the UK is to serve the Government of the day. That Government, led by then Prime Minister David Cameron, had the policy of remaining in the European Union under the terms that Cameron himself had negotiated with Brussels. Thus the Civil Service followed that policy and produced statistics and information to support it.

Brexit was a lobby group, successful in the end, which put an opposite view. It had no right of access to the Civil Service and it would have been quite improper for it to have been granted.

Unfortunately Cameron muddied the water by allowing Eurosceptic Ministers in his Government to campaign for Brexit and keep their jobs. In throwing the long-held doctrine of Cabinet solidarity overboard, he gave the impression that this was a contest between equal Government groups, a standing Brexit simply did not have — perhaps the biggest of the Prime Minister’s many miscalculations.

Not content with the victory he has long campaigned for, Forsyth now demands a purge of workers who simply did their jobs. Perhaps he should read his own newspaper and other news outlets which have been consistently reporting that the Civil Service will have to go on a major recruiting drive to find the people it needs for the work of untangling the UK from the EU and facing the world as a single entity.

As an example, Britain has few trade negotiators because policy has been outsourced to the EU for the past 40 years. According to a recent report by a committee of MPs, Britain has between 12 and 20 officials “with direct knowledge of trade negotiations”.

In contrast Canada, which recently negotiated a free-trade agreement with the EU, has 830.

Where these skilled people will come from is anyone’s guess; what is certain is that they will come at a price. Every current member of the Civil Service is going to be needed, plus a significant number of recruits from the private sectors in the UK and internationally, making demands for a “clear-out” all the more laughable.

Finally, a word about Forsyth’s mocking of the pro-EU faction as “whiners” over the result of the referendum. I wonder what he and other Eurosceptics would be writing if it had been the Remain campaign that had sneaked home by 3.9 per cent?

My guess is that the whining from the columns of the Express would have reached fever pitch by now. It would be claiming the people had been hoodwinked by the scaremongering lies of all those Remain stooges, paid for by the wicked, self-interested establishment determined that the proles be put in their place.

But Forsyth would also be saying that 3.9 per cent was such a narrow margin that the fight must go on; a battle lost but ultimate victory assured.      

So perhaps the Express’s septuagenarian correspondent should be a little more tolerant of the Scots, Irish and Londoners who voted solidly for Remain and for the young professionals and skilled workers, who see their opportunities of making their mark in Europe as part of an inevitably globalising world snatched away.

And just as he would have done if Remain had won with a paper-thin majority, he should accept his opponents might consider that while the battle may have been lost, the war is still there to be won.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Brexit: A lost battle, not a lost war

While Tim Farron is virtually unknown outside the United Kingdom and hardly a household name within the country, the Leader of the minority Liberal Democrat Party has a smile on his face these days.

Since the referendum in favour of leaving the European Union last month, the party has signed up 15,000 new members — at one point its head office was handing one inquiry every minute — and has seen swings to it of up to 30 per cent in a number of admittedly minor local government by-elections.

The Liberal Democrats, popularly known as the Lib-Dems, is the only UK political party that has remained resolutely pro-European throughout its history, and after the referendum resulted in a narrow 3.9 per cent majority for leaving the EU, Farron described it as a lost battle – not a lost war.  

His pledge to continue to campaign against Brexit, promising that a future Liberal Democrat Government would seek to restore the UK’s membership, has struck a chord, both with disillusioned pro-EU supporters and not a few who are having second thoughts about their vote to leave. 

As the Conservatives continue to be divided between Brexit and Remain supporters and Labour is in a state of chaos over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Farron has said that while the outcome of the referendum has to be respected, voters should know the Lib-Dems remain committed to the EU and would continue to have a platform dedicated to re-joining.

“For many millions of people, the referendum was not a vote to leave Europe, it was a howl of anger at politicians and institutions that they felt were out of touch and let them down,” Mr Farron said.

“The British people deserve the chance not to be stuck with the appalling consequences of a Leave campaign that stoked that anger with the lies of Farage, Johnson and Gove.

“The Liberal Democrats will fight the next election on a clear promise to restore British prosperity and its role in the world with the UK in the European Union, not out.

“If you agree with us, join us to make this happen.”

At first sight this seems a long shot. The Lib-Dems have just eight MPs in the 650-member House of Commons, down from more than 50 after voters punished them for keeping the Conservatives in power as the junior partner in a coalition between 2010 and 2015.

The latest surge in their popularity would see the party regain that lost ground and possibly more if an election were to be held now.

Of course, one is not due until 2020 and new Prime Minister Theresa May has said the Government will serve its full term. However, given the current volatile state of UK politics, that is a brave statement.    

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Modi seeks profit from African safari

Narendra Modi’s just completed visit to Africa has come late in the peripatetic Indian Prime Minister’s international agenda which so far has seen him make 51 appearances in 42 countries — but it may rank among the most important in the long term.

Modi knew that on this continent he had some catching up to do. China has been there for years spreading its largess far and wide, building roads, bridges, airports and palaces for grateful presidents and potentates. As an example, on the day Modi arrived the Kenyan Government announced some of its brightest young public servants had been selected for training in Beijing.

But if India is going to get an increased foothold on the continent, there is probably no better time. China’s economy has slowed; India’s continues to race ahead. As a result India is now in the best position in years to offer aid, loans and other investment forms as China pauses to sort itself out at home.

Modi can offer personnel equipped to run Africa’s mines and refineries while the historical ties that bind India with Africa were emphasised and revitalised at a time when the attitude of some imported Chinese workers and managers has been likened to that of old-style colonialists.

Modi made a dramatic point during his visit to South Africa when he visited the railway station at Pietermaritzburg where in 1893 the young Gandhi was thrown off the train for refusing to travel in the third class compartment designated for coloureds He stressed this was the symbolic beginning of India’s struggle against colonialism in a country that has had its own long and often violent battles for freedom.   

Symbolism aside, there are very pragmatic reasons why New Delhi needs to build a special relationship with African nations. As India’s economy booms, its need for raw materials increases. Africa’s energy assets are among the cheapest in the world — and growing ever cheaper as international benchmark prices for oil and natural gas decline.

There has never been a better time to lock in favourable contracts that will bring some relief to nations like Nigeria and Mozambique, while giving Indian industry certainty for the long term.

India has imported oil from Nigeria, Angola and Egypt and coal from South Africa for years, but in the overall scheme of things it has been a bit player in Africa. Now global circumstances have turned dramatically in its favour.

While eulogising his country’s seven per cent and accelerating growth rate, the plan to create 500 million new jobs and its ambitious infrastructure development plans, the Indian Prime Minister also repeatedly used the acronym HOPE during his speeches, signifying harmony, optimism, potential and energy, striking a chord on a continent where hope is often in short supply.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

India’s new disease of plenty

For centuries Indians have had to live with the fear of famine and malnutrition. A poor monsoon season and crop failures brought economic dislocation, social upheaval, starvation, disease and death.

In the 21st century that danger, while not eliminated, is receding, just as another is taking hold — an epidemic of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and related health issues linked with overweight and obesity.

India is one of the few countries in the world that must simultaneously grapple with the problems brought on by poverty and over-consumption. The latter came to the attention of the media recently when Air India decided to test more than 3000 of its employees and found around 20 per cent of them were overweight. The airline promptly ordered a strict regimen of diet and exercise on pain of dismissal.

Many Indians find it difficult to get their minds round the fact they should be addressing overweight and obesity when for centuries there have been millions who did not have enough to eat.

When I made my first visit here almost four decades ago, it was a rarity to see anyone in the street carrying excess kilos. Today those same street scenes are very different. The Minister of Finance, Arun Jaitley has had treatment for diabetes. Bariatric surgery, where the size of the stomach is reduced in order to physically limit the amount of food it can contain, is on the rise.

In April the World Health Organisation reported that more Indian men die from diabetes than in any other country, the condition accounting for two per cent of all deaths across age groups.

Inevitably, the rise in western-style junk food outlets, persuasive advertising, and the increasingly sedentary lifestyle of many middle-class Indians have been blamed for this new epidemic and undoubtedly these have had their influence; but there may be a more deep-rooted reason, buried in the country’s psyche.

When for centuries people have lived one bad harvest away from starvation, the tendency has been to tuck into the food in the good years in readiness for the bad times — as in the Biblical seven fat years and seven lean years — now for many the lean years never appear and the fat keeps building.  

A recent European Union-funded study into weight loss and diabetes has revealed that a significant loss of weight in overweight and obese people (around 10 per cent of total on average) is by the far the best way of reducing the likelihood of type 2 diabetes.

While the study concentrated on the soaring rates in fully developed countries, the same has to apply in India and China, which between them now account for 19 per cent of the world’s overweight and obese people.  

Air India’s ultimatum to its over-indulging employees is probably not the best way of addressing the issue on a national level, but it should be a wake-up call to the country’s health authorities that more needs to be done before this already weighty problem overwhelms them.  

Friday, July 1, 2016

China ups the ante in border dispute

Suddenly the rhetoric from China over its long-running border dispute with India has changed.

After months of soothing words and claims that the problem should be settled by negotiation and must not be allowed to interfere in business relations between the two Asian giants, Beijing now says disagreement over the border poses a “major challenge” to the development of bilateral ties.

There is no doubt that China is adopting a much more aggressive approach to its claims on parts of the Indian States of and Jammu and Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh — and the reasons are obvious.

In recent months the relationship between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin has become much closer, especially since Putin’s visit to Beijing. While Western media has generally been dismissive of the meeting as just another part of the diplomatic round, the implications go far beyond that.

Given that the two leaders are authoritarians, indifferent to human rights and distasteful of Western-style democracy, greater contact was inevitable in the long term, but both see rapprochement as especially advantageous at this time.

With the long border between the two countries’ backdoors secure, their leaders are free to meddle in what they consider to be their spheres of influence. For Putin it is the ‘near abroad’ that was once part of the Soviet Empire, and the countries of Central Europe that used to pay homage to Moscow.

He can, and will continue to prop up the regime President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, prolonging the civil war there, ensuring floods of refugees destabilise the despised European Union, as well as snipping off more territory from Ukraine and placing subtle but increasing pressure on the Baltic States of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia.   

Meanwhile China can pursue its expansionist ambitions in the South China Sea, bully nations such as the Philippines and Vietnam which dare to protest and get tough with India, the country it sees as the greatest potential obstacle to its domination of south-east and southern Asia.

The problem for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is that a continuation of his country’s strong economic growth in recent years is to no small extent dependent on doing business with and obtaining investment from Beijing. The question is how much can Modi take in order to keep relations with his neighbour sweet.

In recent weeks, India has seen its application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group vetoed by Beijing, China has blocked India’s attempt to get the head of Pakistani militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed, Masood Azhar, declared a terrorist by the United Nations Security Council, and has been taken to task by Chinese Assistant Minister for Foreign Affairs, Li Huilai for creating unspecified “emerging new issues” between the countries.

There is no question of Modi conceding anything on the border dispute — to do so would be political suicide. His only option is to stand firm and make it clear that China risks conflict if it persists in its demands.

All this points to difficult times ahead for New Delhi as the Moscow-Beijing axis realigns its sights while the United States is distracted by elections and Europe reels from the British vote to leave the EU.