2018: Not Such a Good Year (‘Great’ Powers)

China’s CCTV surveillance system

Europe  The peasants revolted in France, which seemed to take everyone by surprise.  Seems President Macron’s honeymoon period, following his remarkable 2017 election, may be over.  England thought about changing prime ministers but thought better of it, while it agonized over what sort of Brexit it should have, or whether they should vote on the whole thing again.  New Caledonia finally had a referendum about whether to break away from France.  Slightly more than half of those of the eligible voters who voted said ‘Non’, but they get to do it all over again in 2020, and maybe in 2022 too.

America The Trump story unfolded slowly. But once again, nothing much really happened, and I mentioned the Judge Kavanaugh confirmation in another post. What I mean is that President Trump and America, for all the hoopla, is still a subject for a future ‘Not Such a Good Year’, because I suspect (and hope) we ain’t seen nothing yet.  And of course, it could all end rather wonderfully, and as I said in another instalment of Not Such a Good Year, it’s all covered brilliantly anyway by the ABC podcast ‘Russia If You’re Listening’.

Many separate investigations and lawsuits remain works in progress.  The President reached 7,546 certified, fact checked misleading statements and lies on 20 December 2018, his 700th day in office.  Special prosecutor Robert Mueller proceeded with maximum efficiency and minimal fanfare, jailing Executive Vice President of the Trump Organization and President Trump’s personal lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen, and George Papadopoulos (Trump’s former foreign policy adviser), convicting Paul Manafort (Trump’s 2016 election campaign chairman and consultant to Ukraine) of financial fraud, and obtaining guilty pleas from Michael Flynn (Trump’s former national security adviser who resigned after lies he told about contact with Russia were uncovered) and Rick Gates (an associate of Manafort and campaign official, guilty of financial fraud).  

President Trump fired a lot of people, and a lot of people quit, and ‘quit’.  In 2018 alone: the Deputy Director of the FBI, sacked; White House Staff Secretary, quit; White House Communications Director, quit; Chief Economic Adviser, quit; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, quit; National Security Adviser, quit; Veterans Affairs Secretary, quit; head of the EPA, quit; Ambassador to the UN, quit; Attorney-General Jeff Sessions, fired; Chief of Staff John Kelly, quit (then the hand-picked successor Nick Ayres turned the job down); Interior Secretary, fired; and most worryingly Jim Mattis, said to be one of the last adults in the room, who quit over Trump’s decision peremptorily and against all advice to withdraw all 2,000 US troops fighting in Syria.

The poor bastards imprisoned in Guantanamo continued to rot away. One bloke has been in custody since he was tortured by the Americans in 2003. (By way of excursus: the poor bastards in the Antipodean Guantanamo-lites of Nauru and Manus Island numbered at least 1,000 according to SBS at the end of the year. Most of them are certified, card-carrying refugees. The Federal Court excoriated Minister Dutton for opposing applications to bring critically ill refugees to Australia for medical treatment. The government lost all or nearly all of the applications. It had costs awarded against it. It paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars to its own lawyers. Dr Kerryn Phelps joined phalanxes of what the government calls ‘activist doctors’ (doctors! joining the activist Chief Justice, Justices of Appeal, former Dean of Sydney Law School: it’s starting to sound like Kampuchea), and proposed a bill requiring medical evacuations if two doctors opined it was necessary. And security guards started suing the government for negligently inflicting psychological harm on them.)

One of the more absurd pantomimes in the United States was Trump’s little pow wow with the artist formerly known as Little Rocket Man, which got a lot of coverage compared with Mr Kim’s three conferences with China. Never again are we likely to see a meeting of greater significance carried out by two individuals with more collectively amazing, in a bad way, hair. Great result: Trump managed to get a commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula! That’s cool because Kim Jong-un might have 60 nuclear bombs and devices to deliver them to Australia (or America, for that matter). Trump should really have taken a lawyer though, because a lawyer might have suggested defining ‘denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula’. Turns out what Mr Kim meant was that when the American nuclear threat to North Korea (which seems to include the 30,000 US troops in the South) was completely eliminated, he would get rid of some nukes. And the thought is that Mr Kim stopped testing for a while but continued developing.

India, China, and Tibet Whilst my children’s primary school merrily entertained delegations of Chinese pioneer youth (I told them ‘Don’t mention Tibet’ because that was before I understood the Xinjiang thing), news about China got astonishingly worse, and there was something of a kickback this year, in the West at least, which appeared to grow tired of China’s wholesale theft of secrets, interference in domestic affairs, extra-territorial repression of its diaspora, and construction of a digital surveillance state like the world has never seen before. We worried about its extraordinarily efficient purchase of influence by its infuriatingly comparatively legitimate exercise of soft power (maybe exercising power by invading people and assassinating them with drones wasn’t actually that smart after all?), affronted by the imprisonment of a million Uighers, and sheepish that we failed to notice the imprisonment of a million Uighers. 

The kick back, of course, was partly because President Trump decided that Xi Jinping is just not his kind of strongman; perhaps he became jealous when Xi had himself appointed President for Life.  (Trump’s kind of strongmen include Turkey’s Erdogan, the Philippines’s crazed Nazi Rodrigo Duterte, Kim Jong Un, Brazil’s new bigoted, anti-environment President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, and Hungary’s Viktor Orban.)

I grew up thinking of China as a poor place where millions were starving, which explained why I had to eat my greens.  China has experienced 40 years of economic growth and has an extreme poverty rate of less than 1 percent.  (By contrast, poverty (though not extreme poverty, so the contrast is tres amateur) has soared in children in Britain over the last six years.)

The two extraordinary programmes of the faux-Communist totalitarian dictatorship which gained prominence in 2018 are:

  • the imprisonment in thought re-education camps of a million Muslim Uighers. 

If you’re feeling cheery about China, I cannot recommend too strongly that you read this outstanding social credit scheme explainer by the ABC here (or watch the full ‘Foreign Correspondent’ report here).  Also worth watching is this report of a BBC journalist who got himself added to a watch list and timed how long it took authorities to catch up with him, as in approach him in person, (7 minutes). Time for a revolution in China.

The eyes in the sky social credit scheme, which is not secret, and most worryingly of all is according to Foreign Correspondent supported by many Chinese, is based on all the Party’s records about all its citizens, their neighbours’ reports, their spending and shopping habits, and all the information trapped by the cameras processed by amazingly sophisticated facial recognition and body mapping technology.  There are more than 170 million CCTV cameras in China and Tibet, and it plans on installing another 400 million by 2020 (half a billion cameras watching within two years!).  The official line is direct.  The aim is to ‘allow the trustworthy to roam freely under heaven while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step’, which latter scenario sums up a Chinese investigative journalist’s experience well, according to the ABC; he cannot even rent a car to get out of town. By contrast, ‘we’re all happy little Han Chinese’ get better interest rates and reportedly have their dating profiles promoted.

I watched half of an incredibly dull 2018 film called ‘Anon’ about a surveillance state in which the State tracks citizens’ every move using body mapping and facial recognition.  I had not been keeping up with the news very well and thought it rather far-fetched and certainly futuristic.  But it was absolutely contemporary.

At least we can be confident that it would never happen in a democracy, or a proper democracy at any rate.  But wait!  Britain and Denmark (Denmark!) have been developing this stuff and sending it to Arab leaders to help them crush the Arab Spring and its sequelae.  That’s not so open, but was exposed by the BBC doco ‘Weapons of Mass Surveillance’ which you can watch here for $4, and which was aired by 4 Corners during the year.  And the ABC has also reported that Australia has installed some of these smart CCTV cameras made in China by the two biggest players in the market for police state surveillance, Hikvision (42% owned by the Politbureau) and Dahua at some of our nation’s most sensitive installations.  Some worry that their feeds are going straight back to Chinese military intelligence, or might one day be diverted there.  The US has banned the technology.

One hopes India, which unbeknown to most people I speak with, has rolled out a biometric database of all its citizens – as in the State has conducted over a billion iris scans and succeeded in putting them into an operational database which now governs citizens’ lives – doesn’t get any ideas.  Its Supreme Court upheld the legality of this Aadhaar system this year, in which Narendra Modhi announced that every one of India’s villages had achieved access to electricity.  (Though India still accounts for a third of the global population of people without access to electricity: 300 million.  A further 100 million have access to fewer than four hours a day.)

India’s relations with China were thawing this year (surprisingly at first glance, since they were at war last year), and Tibetans worry about the sustainability of their home in exile should the giants get too cosy.  The Chinese certainly did not let up in their grotesque repression of the Tibetans.  For example, they threw into jail for five years a bloke, Tashi Wangchuk, whose only crime, adjudicated in a closed ‘trial’, was to suggest that Tibetan should be taught to Tibetans a bit more.  When Tibetans get together to study Tibetan, they get arrested for holding ‘illegal associations’. All this outraged America’s State Department and Human Rights Watch. 

Tibetans continued quietly to self-immolate in Tibet, a practice discouraged by the Dalai Lama, though ‘only’ two are known to have done so this year, bringing the total of self-immolations to 154.  Think very hard before viewing the images in this article about Tsekho, one of the deceased.  (Unusually, an American lawyer also self-immolated as a protest against inaction against environmental degradation.)

America passed a law, the Reciprocal Access to Tibet Act of 2018, requiring travel sanctions against Chinese officials responsible for limiting access by diplomats, journalists, and independent tourists to the quarter of what China considers to be its territory which are the Tibetan regions.  America started arresting Chinese notables, notably Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of China’s largest private company, Huawei.  That company says that it operates in more than 170 countries, has 180,000 employees and serves more than a third of the world’s population.  Australia and New Zealand banned it from participating in future roll outs of technology infrastructure because our intelligence community was worried it’s a front for the Communist Party’s spying, or may become one.  American began untangling itself.  Hardly surprising given that China’s 2017 national intelligence law requires that ‘any organization or citizen shall support, assist and cooperate with state intelligence work’. Australia passed the  Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Legislation Amendment Bill 2018 to tackle the corruption of the Australian polity and education system by Politbureau agents.

In further evidence of a kickback, the Australian government, which has shunned the Dalai Lama and representatives of the Tibetan parliament for 7 years, met rather publicly with the Tibetan Prime Minister, Lobsang Sangay, through a cabinet minister at Parliament House in the company of 23 parliamentarians including Labor’s Lisa Sing, the Nationals’ George Christensen (qeh?), Richard Di Natale, and Derryn Hinch, along with former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans, now Chancellor of ANU.

Whilst on the subject of the intersection of China and Tibet, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute reminded us in 2018 of the appalling environmental degradation the Politbureau is imposing on the Himalayas, bad news for Asia, many of whose rivers are sourced there, and indeed for the rest of the world.

But the repression of Tibet is old news, and the Tibetans’ message had become stale because no one thought there was any chance that anything would change, and only international lawyers and Hollywood starts continued to bang on about the illegal conquest of peaceful Tibet by the Godless Communists after the post WWII prohibition on territorial acquisition by conquest. 

What really pricked up ears in 2018 was the filtering out of the true extent of thought control being exercised by the Politbureau in Xinjiang, where a variety of mainly Muslim minority people (mainly Uighers) live, and the outrage at China’s outrageousness translated into the beginnings of traction for Tibetans. 

Urumqi, a fabled ancient silk road city like Ashgabat, Samarkand, Kashgar and Tashkent, is a city where a hell of a lot of people need serious repression if the ‘We’re all happy little Han Chinese’ path to happiness is to be accepted sustainably.  The serious repression is being effected by millions of CCTV cameras and the incarceration in gulags of a million Uighers.

Given the ubiquity of CCTV cameras in Lhasa when I visited in my 20s, I reckon this programme has been under development for a long time.  Indeed, the party chief appointed to Xinjiang in 2016 was previously head repressor of the Tibetans.  You can read (for US$1) about the horror of Urumqi in an excellent analysis by the Wall Street Journal who actually went there.  Suffice it to say that if you buy a knife, the Politbureau requires the vendor to laser engrave a QR code into the blade which when scanned by the unsecret police brings up your secret police file, and entering the city is like going through airport security.  Australia’s Strategic Policy Institute did important work, reported internationally, on this issue in 2018.  It was well reported, again by the ABC, in this long piece.

The gulags are, in the tradition of Nazi propaganda, given absurd names and have dreadful inscriptions above the gates. Luopu County No 1 Vocational Skills Training Centre, for example, sports a jaunty banner declaiming ‘Safeguard ethnic unity’.

A kind of Apartheid is practised: ‘While Han Chinese are waved through security checkpoints, Uighur commuters register their ID cards, do full body scans, have their vehicles searched and their faces scanned.’

Some households whose inhabitants are sufficiently supine are given red stars: ‘In a village in Luopu county, almost every home has a plaque on the door marking it a “model red star family”. These are families who have met requirements, including demonstrating “anti-extremism thought” and a “sense of modern civilisation”.’

Get a bucket by you before you watch this video which features a Uigher recounting the confiscation by the Chinese State of her baby triplets, and, at 3’47”, footage of Uighers singing with broad grins a Chinese version of ‘If You’re Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands’ during a stage-managed tour of these free self-improvement facilities for foreign journalists.

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