Wednesday 30 May 2012

Working mother scapegoated on Newsnight while bankers rifle world finances

Hopefully we've all seen the BBC Newsnight clip (above) and signed the petition demanding an apology for serious misrepresentation of Shanene Thorpe, portraying her as a benefit scrounger.

What started off innocently enough as an investigation into "what it's like being a working mum struggling to pay rent and housing costs" turned into an interrogation with political editor Allegra Stratton as chief inquisitor and Shanene as one of the irresponsible unemployed who should be living with her child in her mother's two-bed flat.

Shanene is, in fact, a working mother who pays taxes and can't make enough from her job at Tower Hamlets Council to house herself and her children. Like many others, she is dependent on the state to support her landlord – there being a decided lack of public housing in these here parts – but you don't see many of them put through the wringer.

The questions which should have been asked: where is the social housing and where are the decent liveable wages?

Allegra Stratton has been a reporter I've generally trusted, so it's difficult to know whether the final cut of the piece is the work of an editor with an agenda or simply that of a wealthy woman sufficiently privileged to lack any notion of what it's like to have to struggle to make ends meet.

However, there's a bigger issue here than a journalist exploiting and humiliating a young woman: in the current economic climate, the media is simply serving as a shill for the ruling classes when they act like this While the bankers run riot, stealing everything that isn't nailed down, have we noticed an upsurge in demonising the very people who are being made to pay?

Owen Jones's book Chavs makes us all aware of what malicious forces exactly we are invoking when we hurl that "c" word around. But the upholders of the status quo are shapeshifters, mutating and changing tack, coming at the working class from different angles, undermining our understanding of how the world works and turning us into rats in a sack. Because, while we're fighting each other, our eyes are off the culprits who got us into this mess and continue to wreck lives.

Former Newsnight reporter Greg Palast is, thankfully, not in the same mould. Rather than kiss up and kick down, Palast takes on the powerful and puts them under the scrutiny that Allegra reserves for young women with no social or economic power.

In his new book, Vultures' Picnic, we see the pattern take hold across the world. In countries from Brazil and Ecuador to Greece, the World Trade Organisation acts as the battering ram for deregulation of the banks, smashing up economies and privatising state assets. The World Bank makes demands on the beleaguered governments to impose brutal budget cuts and policies on their own people such as raising the price of cooking-oil in Ecuador thirty-fold.

The women in Ecuador who protested on the streets, banging their cooking pots, were quickly silenced (although the story of how their government broke ranks with other underling nations and fought back successfully is a fascinating section in Palast's book). The Greeks are blamed for what damage the banks wrought, not the rich who didn't pay their taxes; the British working classes are bashed for daring to have decent pensions and public sector wages. It is all the victims' fault.

And it blinds us to what's happening in the highest echelons. Palast cites economist Joe Stiglitz as seeing "despots turning World Bank privatization programmes into bribery free-for-alls ('briberisation,' Stiglitz called it), cruel demands on nations begging for food (Ethiopia still bothers him), and the Bank's pathological desire to tear down finance regulations in nations that barely had finances."

They even anticipated the social unrest that would inevitably follow the rape of entire economies and prescribed methods to crush revolt. Stiglitz: 'We had a name for it: the IMF riot. ... They turn up the heat until, finally, the whole cauldron blows up."

Palast continues, "And we could see the squeeze, explosion, and crackdown repeated from Greece to Thailand."

According to this year's Sunday Times Rich List, the top 1,000 in Britain are worth over £400 BILLION and their profits have risen since 2009, so the tired old mantra that there's not enough cash in the kitty simply won't not do. In fact, it's just plain old-fashioned lying.

Shanene finds herself collateral damage in the lie-spinning. But, like Ecuador and Brazil, she's fighting back and deserves all our warmest respect and support.

Like the song goes: It's the rich what gets the pleasure, it's the poor what gets the blame.

Follow Shanene on Twitter.

Tuesday 29 May 2012

Greg Palast Vultures' Picnic: stunning. Everyone should read this book

Greg Palast's Lady Baba-Land: The Islamic Republic of BP (BP in Azerbaijan and worldwide for Channel 4 Dispatches)

If you ever suspected how filthy big business is at the top but never knew the details, investigative journalist Greg Palast's latest book, Vultures' Picnic, will have your jaw hitting the floor every few pages. Greg gives the ins and outs of the dirty deals that are screwing our planet by a bunch of psychopaths (see Jon Ronson's fab The Psychopath Test) with nothing but money and power on their minds.

"You know what the perfect crime is? It's the one that's not illegal."

You knew about BP's Deep Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 men and that we feared would never stop spilling oil (it's still seeping). But did you know this wasn't the first time the dodgy Halliburton cement had failed at a BP well? Yeah, yeah, they swore blind to Congress that this was their first such accident but did you know they'd had one two years before in the land of Eurosong, Azerbaijan? Did you know HOW they got the solo contract in that part of the Caspian Sea?

How about the Euro? You think it's an accident that the new currency is taking us down? Did you know that this was its design? The US under Reagan realised that they hated Europe with its pussy socialist welfare systems and decided to bring it down. Mundell was the architect [Edit: Robert Mundell of Reagonomics infamy]. If that sounds far-fetched, Palast studied under Milton Friedman so he knows the Chicago School of Venality better than most.

Or take the repeal of FD Roosevelt's 1933 Glass-Steagall Act prohibiting saving's banks from merging with the casino "investment" banks: FDR would guarantee deposits but not gambling losses. Following intensive lobbying, US Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin smashed up the act in 1999 and promptly joined Citigroup as co-chair on $126 million "compensation". (Check out Rubin's CV since then to understand how fucked we are.) This is what we're reaping now, swallowing America's toxic financial assets: derivatives, sub-prime mortgages, "and all the other exotica coming out of the mad bankers' laboratories"."Let Ireland, Brazil, and Portugal pay cash money to take on the US bankers' risks.... How do we bust down financial rules across the planet? ... It was not enough to erase the laws against speculating with bank deposits in the United States if it was still a crime to do so in Brazil, India, Spain, and Greece."

And, lo, the Financial Services Agreement (FSA) was rewritten, errant nations brought to heel. And here we are today.

So what of China, "the juiciest target of the new FSA"? They signed, joined the WTO and allowed JP Morgan and Citibank into Shanghai. "In effect, US workers' jobs would be sold for the bankers' right to gamble in the new market." Skynet's tentacles have encircled the globe.

Greg Palast is part Hunter S Thompson, a large dollop of Spider Jerusalem and a hefty chunk of Sam Spade. He pursues his corrupt quarry with a breath-taking zeal and steel. In a wrist-slitting scenario, his great strength as a writer is that he gives us all courage in the face of overwhelming odds and overwheening power.

* * *

Engelbert Humperdinck sang "Only love will set you free" at the Eurovision Song Contest last Saturday. Well, in Azerbaijan that's right, 'cause little else will.

Here's an article written by Greg about BP in the Eurovision host country.

EuroVision in the Islamic Republic of BP
The "sexiest Muslim woman in the world" has already won
by Greg Palast

Will "Beyond Petroleum" oil giant BP pick the winner of the EuroVision Song contest this Saturday in Baku, Azerbaijan? If so, I wouldn't be surprised.

When I was arrested by the military police of Azerbaijan during my investigation of BP for Channel 4's Dispatches in 2010, one of the cops who surrounded our crew in the desert told us, with great pride, "BP drives this country."

Photo: Military police chief, Azerbaijan, photo by Palast, under arrest, with hidden pen-camera.

Indeed it does.

In 1992, the newly independent former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan elected a kindly Muslim professor Abulfaz Elchibey as President.

But the voters had made an error: Elchibey refused to give BP an exclusive contract to drill the nation's massive Caspian Sea fields as the company wished. In 1993, with the assistance and, reportedly, guns provided by MI6, Elchibey was overthrown by the nation's former Soviet KGB boss, Heydar Aliyev.

Within three months, Aliyev handed BP a sweetheart deal, called "The Contract of the Century", to take Azerbaijan's Caspian oil.

The way to the no-bid deal for BP was "greased," to use the term applied by former BP operative Leslie Abrahams, with several million dollars in illicit payments and weekends with lap dancers in London for Azeri officials. I asked Abrahams, who was ordered by BP to provide military intelligence to MI6, whether he understood that he was paying "bribes on behalf of BP and the British government." He replied, "Absolutely, yes."

Photo: BP Executive/MI6 operative Leslie Abrahams at BP Baku office, with Kalashnikov, during 1993 coup.

Since BP has taken control of Azerbaijan's oil, the nation has become fabulously wealthy--at least for those close to the Aliyev family and BP.

And they eat well. The daughters of the new President, Ilham Aliyev (son of Heydar), picked up the tab for dinner in London for a half dozen of their friends. It came to £300,000 (excluding tip and VAT).

According to Robert Ebel, the CIA's former oil intelligence chief, the whereabouts of $140 million in BP and other oil industry payments are "totally unknown."

This week, EuroVision Song Contest viewers will be treated to the images of the ancient city of Baku where the Silk Road streets are filled with Maseratis and Bentlys. The Bently dealership, and much of the capital, is owned by Azerbaijan's First Lady,

Photo: First Lady Hon. MP Mehriban Aliyeva (middle) and daughters.
Mehriban Aliyeva, the Sexiest Muslim Woman in the World. That's official, the vote was taken by Esquire Magazine. (She's actually the twelfth Sexiest Women in the World, but the other eleven, infidels all, can be ignored here.)

I'm not saying she doesn't deserve the title: her fashion model face has been created at great expense by "so much plastic surgery," according to the US State Department Manning/WikiLeaks cables, that Lady Mehriban "appears unable to show a full range of facial expression."

But when I left the Old City and its Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana stores and headed off to Sangachal, the town where BP's terminal operates, I found a nation heading full speed into the 14th century.

Baku, once the world's leading manufacturer of oil drilling equipment, is now one of the world's leading centers of oil-toxin cancers.

Walking along the main street of Sangachal, the aptly nick-named, "Terminal Town," was like doing the rounds in a cancer ward. The local shoemaker, Elmar Mamonov, who hasn't sold a shoe in two years, told me, “This one’s daughter has breast cancer; there, Rasul had a brain tumor. Cancers we had never seen. His funeral was last week."

Azlan, afraid to give his last name, paid to have a cancerous lung cut out,” because employer BP wouldn't pay. He says the oil company fired him after he could not keep up with his work.

And there was Shala Tageva, a schoolteacher, who has ovarian cancer. She needs treatment soon, but how to pay for it, Mamonov can’t imagine. Shala is Mamonov’s wife. Suddenly, Mamonov stopped himself. “If I am arrested, you will help me, yes?”

Sorry, sir, not in the Islamic Republic of BP.

Oil, their main industry, has seen employment drop about 90% according to journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Her father, the former oil production minister, was fired by Aliyev when Ismayilov suggested that shopkas, bribery, was behind the destruction of the industry, bribes which allegedly allowed BP to avoid "local content" laws that would have saved those jobs.

Throughout the nation, we heard the same refrain: nostalgia for the old days of freedom and prosperity under Soviet rule. Under BP rule, the people's health, income and freedoms have decayed rapidly, as pollution has turned their Caspian fisheries into a dead, chemical toilet.

But Azeris are well entertained. The massive expenditure for the EuroVision Song Contest follows the government's spending $1 million for an Elton John concert during a depression.

Today, only one in seven dollars of GDP is paid in salaries (versus four of five dollars in the US and UK). Where have the billions gone?

No one dare look for it, nor the source of the First Lady's wealth. The last journalist who asked about the funds, Elmar Huseynov, was gunned down in his home. A journalist who questioned what happened to Huseynov was jailed. No third journalist is investigating what happened to the first two.

Azerbaijan is, nominally, a democracy. Indeed, the First Lady won a convincing election to Parliament (as did every other candidate supporting her husband's regime–- there was not a single member of the opposition elected). But it doesn't, in the end, matter who is voted in, as long as "BP drives."

Within hours of our arrest, my crew and I were released by the Deputy Chief of the Security Ministry: Imprisoning a Channel 4 reporter would have been an embarrassment for BP. But our witnesses to BP's horrific drilling practices didn't do so well. One made it out of the country, but others disappeared.

When you watch the Euro-warblers compete this Saturday, just remember that in Azerbaijan, the winners are already chosen: BP and the family of the Sexiest Muslim Woman in the World. And that's not a pretty sight.

Greg Palast's book on BP, Vultures' Picnic: a tale of Oil, High-Finance and Investigative reporting, will be released in Britain on June 26.

Welcome to the 21st Century in which Skynet makes its move. In the words of Prince, "I've seen the future and, boy, it's rough!". And, while we're on the subject, the present ain't that great, either.

More on this at Left Foot Forward

Greg Palast on YouTube

UPDATE: Special Guest Warren Ellis (Author of Transmetropolitan), Nick Dearden of Jubilee Debt Campaign and John Hilary of War on Want (more guests to be confirmed) will be sharing the stage at the Vultures' Picnic launch in London 26 June with special guest appearances by Laurie Penny and Anna Chen.

Thursday 17 May 2012

The Opium War by Julia Lovell book review: Smoke and mirrors

The Opium War by Julia Lovell

Book review by Anna Chen

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
George Orwell

With renewed calls for the West to assert its imperial might in the interest of "capitalism and democracy ... if necessary by military force " (historian and BBC Reith Lecturer Niall Ferguson), it's useful to examine one episode in Britain's history when we attempted to do so, with catastrophic results for the conquered nation.

Britain’s craving for chinoiserie in the 18th and 19th centuries resulted in a trade imbalance which threatened to empty the treasury. In order to pay for the tea, silks, spices and porcelain we liked so much, the East India Company mass-produced enormous quantities of cheap Bengal-grown opium and, along with other British merchants, sold it on to China, turning an aristocratic vice into a nationwide addiction.

The profits from the opium trade made fortunes, earned revenues for the British government, paid for the administration of the Empire in India and even financed a large slice of the cost of the Royal Navy. In 1839, when the Chinese tried to enforce their own laws and halt drug imports, the narco-capitalists persuaded Foreign Secretary Palmerston and Lord Melbourne’s government to go to war in order to protect their profits. The first military conflict — thanks to superior technology, more a series of massacres — lasting a bloody three years, resulted in the Treaty of Nanking and the transfer of territory including Hong Kong to British rule. In waging the second war (1856-60) the British finally achieved their goal of seeing opium legalised in China.

That the Chinese government might use this notoriously brutal example of British imperialism to bolster their power is little surprise. That western authors now seek to diminish British culpability and shift responsibility onto the nation that suffered the predations of drugs and war is disturbing, though probably inevitable in the current febrile atmosphere of the China-bashing seen by many western intellectuals as a substitute for informed criticism.

The latest in a string of histories reviving positive images of Empire, Julia Lovell's The Opium War is on a mission to reassess history, presumably seeking to replicate her literary agent stablemate Jung Chang's success with Mao: The Untold Story.

Lovell's argument hangs by the revisionist thread that, far from creating a market for opium, the British were only satisfying what was already there. "What had happened," she asks, "in those four decades [to 1840], to transform opium-smoking from an acceptable displacement activity for an idle emperor-in-training to a perilous scourge?" Not British traders — who were only exploiting an existing weakness, it seems — but the Chinese themselves who were gagging for it and therefore the authors of their own doom. The point that opium was an expensive luxury until the British were able to mass-produce it cheaply in India and transform the market, is buried in a welter of smoke and mirrors.

Lovell sets out to correct the Chinese government's overplayed narrative of victimhood but overbalances into a 400-page vilification of the Chinese: theirs is a response to a Western threat "supposedly" determined to contain it ("supposedly" is wide open to argument); the 150th anniversary of the first Opium War "offered a public relations gift to the government"; it is a "founding myth", a mere "border provocation". Opium is a "scapegoat" for the emperor's problems, those who opposed it "ambitious moralizers" and "ambitious literati".

The Chinese are capable of only the basest motives in their efforts to wipe out the drug that is crippling the nation, their emotional and behavioural range running the Sax Rohmer gamut of dehumanising tropes: stupid, arrogant, cowardly, lazy and pragmatic. "Perhaps they objected for Confucian, humanitarian reasons; or then again, out of indolence, maybe." Their avowed repulsion and fear of what opium can do is dismissed, individual suffering skated over and characters never humanised. I'm not sure I detected any irony in her use of that old colonialist favourite, "wily", and the drooling pages of lurid descriptions in the Yellow Peril chapter might have made room for the moving contemporary accounts of the destruction of the Summer Palace, for example, or the massacres of the Chinese which shocked even hardened British soldiers.

In contrast, although some of the inescapable truths about the British drug-dealers and perpetrators of war are acknowledged, their actions are ascribed to human feelings; they are "generous"; their inner lives are explored; their flaws are treated with understanding for they are men on a quest to better themselves against a monstrous Empire that will not give them what they want.

When the moral high ground runs out, equivalence is strained: it was "mutual incomprehension that pushed both sides towards war". "Contemporary China's line on opium transforms it into a moral poison forced on helpless Chinese innocents by wicked aliens. The reality was more troublingly collusive." Both were as bad as each other. When everyone is guilty, no one can be innocent.

The book's selectivity is irritating, ultimately undermining the story. The British who grew industrial levels of opium and sent the price plummeting, are "diligent", their supply benignly "reliable". James Matheson is described kindly as a "tough Scot" and "living under the influence of the holy spirit", but whose banishment to the wilds of Canada of 500 residents of the Isle of Lewis — which he bought and decorated with Stornoway Castle on his drug money — is overlooked in this hefty tome. Of Charles Elliot, Chief Superintendent of British Trade in China, one of the architects of the first Opium War and later first administrator of Hong Kong, she writes sympathetically that he " ... instinctively disliked the opium trade and everything bound up with it: both its moral dubiousness and its ungentlemanly profit-hungry merchants". Sentimentally, "his weakness was to see a little of everyone's side: he understood the economic imperative of the opium trade, even while he hated the vulgarity of its perpetrators; he understood that his duty was to protect the British flag in Canton, even while he detested what some of Britannia's children were doing in the China seas."

Commissioner General Lin Zexu, who destroyed 20,000 cases (each holding 140 pounds) of British opium in 1839, is presented as a bureaucrat (Niall Ferguson couldn't even bring himself to name him in his account), albeit an incorruptible one, caught between a rock and a hard place. Lovell complains that "History has been kind to Lin Zexu", although it's not difficult to see why such an incorruptible force who tried to right an injustice might be a much-needed inspiration today. Her extensive research does, however, unearth the little gem that, once Elliot had finally handed over the opium stash, Lin made a gift to him of prized roebuck meat before which he "was careful to kowtow nine times".

There are some asinine reductions: "The Ming Dynasty was brought down in 1644 by insurrections led by a postman who happened also to be a failed candidate." (Note the snobbery — how would a humble carpenter fare in her scheme of things?) The Taiping Rebellion with all its fascinating complexity and humane objectives (the abolition of landlordism, the redistribution of wealth for all, and the prohibition of prostitution, bound feet and the smoking of opium) is reduced to a nervous breakdown of a "provincial schoolmaster" — a movement crushed, incidentally, with the aid of the British acting in concert with the Manchu imperial army during the Opium Wars, a fact missing here, at a cost of 20 million lives over 14 years.

It's not as if the Chinese need any lessons in the part played by the rotten Qing Empire in the nation's downfall. The "disorganisation and cowardice of its own officials and armies" is already well known. There was indeed much "self-blame", "self-pity" and outright "self-loathing" during and after the conflict which is still going on, as documented ad infinitum in China, with local militias fighting where Qing armies feared to tread, such as at Sanyuanli in 1841 (also derided by the author). It was the corruption of the old empire which led to its fall in 1911 and the establishment of a republic under Sun Yatsen, and which added grist to the communist mill in trying to stamp out the remnants of the old system described so luridly by Lovell.

Reading her account is a bit like hearing a rapist declaring his innocence because his victim wore a short skirt as she walked up a dark alley. Not only were there an estimated 120 million addicts in China at the trade's peak, but national treasures were looted or destroyed, and massacres and rape perpetrated by the invading troops intent on forcing the drug on the nation. So bad was this savagery that large swathes of British public opinion clamoured against the opium-driven conflict, led by the voices of such as Richard Cobden, William Gladstone and the Chartists. But Chinese outrage is ridiculed, with no room for the possibility that they might authentically feel empathy and concern or be justified in their anger. While paying lip service to some acceptance that a crime had been committed, Lovell offsets the gravity of the injury with a running national character assassination and a downplaying of facts already known and documented.

It's difficult to relax into the rollicking story that's fighting to get out as you are constantly poked in the ear with the author's "they made us do it" mantra. Lovell is much stronger when she tells the story straight and without pro-imperialist spin, but it is largely marred by an unfortunate sneering tone which plays to a gallery of prejudice and jingoism, a Great Wall that will keep out any reader whose bigotry is not being fed. This is a shame because she has done a formidable job by laying out the story in so much riveting detail.

However, far from presenting a brave new take on the history, this is an old dish reheated, a rebranding of Empire (do we still call it the Indian "Mutiny"?). Lovell replays the excuses made in Britain at the time by the narco-capitalists and Lord Palmerston, who tried to win over a public opinion revolted by the idea of a narcotics war by playing the insult to the flag by the Chinese and the "liberating values of Free Trade" cards. To this she adds a steady poisonous drip of various distancing devices and systematic "othering" of the Chinese.

The narrative spin dehumanises the Chinese, divesting them of moral capacity while painting violent drug dealers as acting out of a higher calling, themselves passive victims of force majeur. Hence, while Elliott considers opium smuggling to be "a trade which every friend of humanity must deplore", he wants the Qing to "legalise it, because it would force the Chinese to take full responsibility for its moral dubiousness", the opium trade being the fault of the addicts and not the suppliers. Elliot has a "conscience" while Lin is merely a bureaucrat who is described from the outside in, a bundle of facts with no heart. Elliot possesses an interior landscape. His "weakness was to see a little of everyone's side". He "understood his duty was to defend the British flag in Canton" even though he "detested" what his compatriots were doing. Yet, like Lewis Carroll's Walrus, he weeps into his handkerchief over the plight of the poor oysters while scoffing the biggest ones himself when he lands the British government with the inflated £2 million bill for the confiscated opium and thereby hands them the final excuse for war.

The rest of the book similarly struggles with balance in a scattergun outpouring of distaste for nearly everything and everyone Chinese. Lovell's account of the breakdown of the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 is ludicrously one-sided — she makes it appear that it was all China's fault, with no mention of the Danish Text stitch-up of the talks by the wealthy nations — and she has nothing to say about China's massive efforts to cut carbon emissions and combat pollution. She condemns Chinese anti-Japanese hysteria but never mentions former Prime Minister Koizumi's provocative visits to shrines of war criminals and rewritten history books. Sun Yatsen is a "chancer" who was snubbed by the head of state and that's why he brought down the Qing. Bored students obsess about their careers. Interviewees interrupt their "self-loathing" denunciations of the West with requests for job-tips and enquiries about how to get on in the land of the rising shun. Chinese don't need to indulge in self-loathing while Lovell's on the case because she can loathe for England. By the end, you are willing the poor woman to retrain in another field altogether just so she can find some peace of mind.

Perhaps it's the illustrations which tell the story best. A photograph of Akmal Shaikh, the Briton executed in China in 2009 for smuggling heroin, is juxtaposed favourably with one of an emotional protester following the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, killing three journalists — an outrage claimed by the US as an accident even though the allies had the map co-ordinates and knew where the embassy was. Those of us opposed to the death penalty argued that a prison sentence was a more humane and apt option for Shaikh, especially if he was ill as claimed. But if one picture is worth a thousand words, then the juxtaposition of these two photographs speaks volumes. The British smuggler of 4 kg of heroin into China is portrayed with sympathy while the other is not. It is a deeply flattering, almost saintly, portrait revealing the humanity of the drug-dealer, set against the ape-like rictus of the Chinese protester in the grip of a feral rage. One is humanised, the other dehumanised. One life has value, the three dead and 20 injured Chinese do not even warrant a mention anywhere. This twisted morality evoking a visceral response — empathy for us and revulsion for "them" — as employed in the use of the photographs, permeates the book.

Lovell seeks to make a case against the communist government, but her thrust replaces one orthodoxy with another. In describing the fundamental rottenness of an ossified and decadent empire (China's, not ours) she inadvertently stirs a degree of sympathy with those men and women who tried to build a better society in response to the horrors visited upon a country on its knees but who have tragically failed to avoid writing their own catalogue of misery despite doubling life-expectancy and raising 600 million out of absolute poverty. As a demolition job on the upstart rival on the global stage, this book is sure to do well among those less scholarly than the professor who will seize on this exercise in exculpation with glee.

Anna Chen wrote and narrates The Steampunk Opium Wars.

Niall Ferguson dismisses the Opium Wars

At last, someone else has done a thorough analysis here at Hidden Harmonies.

Wednesday 16 May 2012

Titus Andronicus at the Globe: review

Titus Andronicus
Tang Shu-wing Theatre Studio, Hong Kong
Globe 2 Globe World Shakespeare Festival
Review by Anna Chen
4th May 2012

With the scarcity of east Asian faces in British culture, this past week has been a revelation for London's theatre-goers.

An appetite for Chinese performance yielded almost capacity audiences and praise for both the National Theatre of China's Richard III in Mandarin and the Hong Kong Titus Andronicus in Cantonese at the Globe Theatre's Shakespeare festival.

Director Tang Shuwing's minimalist physicalised approach eschews the Mandarin production's Beijing Opera and kung-fu, bringing us a pared-down version closer to Tang's Parisien theatre training. The only overt Chinese influence is the mesmerising qigong framing device where the actors raise their energy and then ground it after the roller-coaster story ends.

Roman general Titus (Andy Ng Wai-shek) crushes the Goths and returns home with their captive Queen Tamora and her horrible sons in tow. Nobly refusing the throne, he gives it instead to the undeserving Saturninus, whose recklessness make you wonder what the old soldier ever saw in him. When Titus's daughter Lavinia (an ethereal Lai Yuk-ching) declines the new Emperor's proposal in favour of his brother to whom she is already betrothed, he weds Tamora and unleashes hell.

Stupid men manipulated by ruthless women have long exerted a misogynistic fascination across the world: in Titus we get it in bucketloads of blood, albeit off-stage in this version. Dowager Empress Cixi, Madam Mao and Gu Kailai have all fed this most enduring of scapegoats, and in the wrathful Tamora (Ivy Pang Ngan-ling in fine scheming form), we see "female evil" personified.

However, it's a melodrama well served by stylisation. Murder, sex, power and revenge drive this first of Shakespeare's tragedies, a shocking spectacular famous for the queen who eats her sons baked in a pie, a slew of murders, plus rape and mutilation of the beautiful heroine.

Chu Pak-hong as Tamora's lover Aaron the Moor is another Iago, a devilish agent of malicious misdeeds. He's enough of a love-god, though, to make you believe that his "witty queen" would go silly over him even if the birth of their mixed-race baby threatens their downfall. Some disquieting racial banter demonstrates why this "thick-lipped slave" rarely makes it onto the stage nowadays.

With each Cantonese word requiring one syllable, the actors get through the dialogue at quite a lick. Told straight, some of the beauty of the language will have been lost. Nevertheless, there's more than enough imaginative business in the text to keep cast busy and audience happy.

Tuesday 8 May 2012

China expels Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan

Why can't the Chinese authorities stop shooting themselves in the foot?

If you are going to expel a journalist, it had better be for a more pertinent reason than reporting events accurately.

It looks as if Al-Jazeera's only English-language reporter Melissa Chan is guilty of the crime of uncovering scandals such as the perennial one of corruption, including the public officials who've smuggled US $123.6bn out of the country in the 15 years since the mid-1990s to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Based on a report by the Chinese Central Bank, you'd think Chan's coverage was doing the government a favour in helping to name and shame and stem the flow. The final straw may have been an Al-Jazeera documentary — not made by Chan — alleging that China uses forced labour in its prisons.

Chinese Foreign Ministry officer Hong Lei announced that Chan's accreditation would not be renewed but he would not be drawn on the specifics of her infringement of the law, stating blandly instead that: "China addressed this problem in accordance with laws and regulations. The media concerned know in their heart what they did wrong".

Except that we don't. Did she lie? Did she invent these scenarios? Chan may have goaded them with a sharp stick over the years with her investigations, but the government fails to make a strong case as to why this constitutes breaking the law. This is journalism, not PR.

The government is smarting from the unflattering exposure wrought by the Bo Xilai case, but this knee-jerk clampdown just digs them deeper into the same old hole. The world wants China to smarten up, loosen up and address the issues raised, rather than simply shoot the messenger pour encourager les autres.

Thursday 3 May 2012

Richard III from China at the Globe: theatre review

An edited version of this review appeared in the Morning Star.

Richard III — National Theatre of China
Globe to Globe International Shakespeare Festival
Review 29th April 2012

Their stunning costumes may have been languishing in a container ship just off Felixtowe, but even if the cast had been wearing sackcloth, rather than a wardrobe hastily assembled from the bowels of the Globe Theatre, it wouldn't have diminished the fire of Wang Xiaoying's exhilarating production of Richard III.

The National Theatre of China makes Beijing-Opera-meets-Shakespeare every bit as exciting as you could imagine this history refracted through Chinese sensibilities and performed in Mandarin.

Lady Anne, the tragic heroine widowed by the man she is about to marry, is perhaps the clearest exemplar of the demanding Beijing Opera discipline, her fluting delivery and fluid movements mesmerisingly communicating her miserable circumstances.

Richard's two henchmen perform their murderous duties in full martial-arts mode, with expert clowning and tumbling skills. Some wonderfully crude Yo Mama expletives hint at Shakespeare rewritten for Chinese audiences, all aided by an atmospheric soundscape from a one-man traditional percussion band.

Stylised to the eyeballs it may be, yet there's enough naturalism — conveying nuance of emotion and clear delineation of characters — to satisfy modern audiences.

Resisting the temptation to crowbar current Bo Xilai parallels into this review, let us merely report that the opening scene — where dissembling Richard, Duke of Gloucester (the charismatic Zhang Dongyu), lays out his villainous ambitions to rise to the top on a wave of havoc — has a familiar ring, building inexorably to the climax.

Power games abound in this mire of corruption. From the outset, Tricky Dicky congratulates himself on the virtuosity of his various manipulations. With the major conflict of the War of the Roses over, the new dynasty established and Richard's brother Edward on the throne, our anti-hero plots to wipe out his rivals beginning with his brother Clarence. Preying on innocents, he leaves a trail of dead before finally dispatching the young nephews blocking his path to the throne.

Surtitles, giving descriptions of scenes rather than complete translations, announce: "To win over the people, Buckingham praises Richard's virtues." And "Richard pretends to be modest, making a show of refusing to accept power."

So no analogies here, then.

Buckingham's fawning foray into the auditorium in the coronation scene to rouse the masses with cries of "wànsuì" (meaning "long live") sparked mirthful recognition among the Chinese half of the audience. Strangely, they seemed to derive a jolly catharsis from seeing their crafty leader wracked with guilt, suffering and ultimately dying.

And the rest of us still got it, too: proving both the universality of Shakespeare, and that we have more in common than we have differences.

Morning Star review 3rd May 2012