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Book review – Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History

“… we are all, in some sense, slaves to our own versions of history. For those of us living in the West, we have found it all too easy to claim that our own good fortune will continue and that, in time, it will inevitably spread far and wide. It’s time to wake up to reality.” Stephen King.

Stephen King in his book “Grave New World” argues that globalisation has pretty much run its course. Stephen King in his book “Grave New World” argues that globalisation has pretty much run its course.

One of the great, and to date unanswered, puzzles is whether the politicians in democracies who promoted, supported and maintained what we generally call globalisation really believed it would benefit the majority of their fellow citizens. Did they imagine cheap consumer items and clothing, coupled with the often illusory promise of greater employment through export opportunities into previously closed or restricted markets would offset the loss of stable jobs and the consequent fragmentation of labour, communities and social cohesion? Finally, did they imagine they could get away with encouraging polices that were clearly going to inflict real pain on key sections of the electorate while relying on the ‘democratic’ cover required to maintain the status quo and what passes as, at least for them, prosperity and stability?

It is hard to comprehend any event or movement, outside the 20th century’s two world wars, that has created greater economic disruption and political instability at so many levels of society across the world than the impact of globalisation. Sold as a means of expanding global economic activity in the aftermath of the Cold War, globalisation’s vaunted benefits are increasingly being overwhelmed by its impact on established patterns of employment, however inequitable they may be, and the social structures they support.

The steady erosion over the past few decades of what is now seen as a ‘golden age’ by many of those dispossessed or marginalised by what they view as globalisation’s remorseless pursuit of a lower price and cheaper deal has led dormant seeds to flower, producing the bitter fruits of nationalism, division and sometimes self-destructive blind rage. During its short span globalisation has been transformed – not least for its promoters and beneficiaries – from an opportunity to a risk within many mature Western economies.

The winners of what to many has become a binary contest are those workers, mainly in East, Southeast and South Asia, who experienced a rapid introduction to steady and growing incomes. While the immediate material benefits of globalisation are clear, the consequences of either de-globalisation or the demands of Western voters for a restoration of what they view as ‘their’ lost opportunities, are now emerging. On-shoring, robotics, 3D printing and other emerging policy or technological developments further threaten the globalisation boom over the next few years, with few obvious employment alternatives able to absorb the laid-off workforce.

A recent International Labour Organisation study, for example, estimated that up to nine million workers in Southeast Asia’s garment, clothing and footwear sector would be replaced by so-called ‘sewbots’ by 2030. The reality is that millions of mainly young women, often the sole wage earner and almost certainly in debt, will lose their jobs long before this hypothetical deadline, leading to untold disruption in countries where the space between stability and volatility is often wafer thin at the best of times.

Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History by Stephen D. King Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History by Stephen D. King

Stephen King’s Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History covers all these and many other issues. The book’s dystopian premise offers the author the opportunity to demonstrate his erudition and ability to draw in multiple sources to reinforce the case that globalisation has, in all likelihood, pretty much run its course.

In making his case King, a senior economic advisor to HSBC, traces the course of globalisation through narrative rather than Quantish-friendly charts/graph dependency, demonstrating the advantages of a classical education – he has a PPE from Oxford and is an accomplished pianist – over the more technical economics/business route.

The somewhat triumphant ‘Return of History’ embedded in his book title is borne out by much of his analysis, which is often closer to anthropology than economics in the recognition that primarily and ultimately the wealth – or poverty – of nations rests mainly with human behaviour and all its attendant prejudices, preferences, fears and desires.

Animal spirits have, to borrow from Lenin, served as the locomotive of economic history and continue to do so despite the technological means to accelerate the speed of transactions to the point where the length of a computer cable can determine whether your competitors have a trading edge.

King divides his book into four sections, starting with the historical underpinnings of globalisation, moving on to the inevitable friction between capital’s priorities and the nation state’s amour propre, its impact on society – not least through the emotive and politically charged issues of immigration and offshoring employment – to conclude with what he sees as its inevitable morphing into another set of international economic arrangements needed to quell dangerous nationalist and nativist sentiments and movements.

King’s wide range of interests is evident in his use of precedent to contextualise past cycles of what may be seen as analogous to globalisation, offering insight and some comfort to those disturbed by what may appear to be unique events. For example, he references the relatively swift erosion of Islamic Spain in the 13th century and the eventual Reconquista by Christian forces and the subsequent ‘discovery’ of the Americas by Columbus as elements in the destructive/creative process that has shaped – and continues to shape – our economic, political and cultural environments and individual lives.

For the busy – or merely baffled – journalist looking for background and insights into what remains the macro-economic story of our age, or the financial services worker unsure of their industry’s past foibles and potential future challenges, King’s well-written and frequently wry book serves as an accessible and handy reference tool. In the spirit of his chosen book title, one of King’s more striking observations that doubles as a warning serves to wrap this review.

“I argue throughout this book, we are all, in some sense, slaves to our own versions of history. For those of us living in the West, we have found it all too easy to claim that our own good fortune will continue and that, in time, it will inevitably spread far and wide. It’s time to wake up to reality.”

Grave New World: The End of Globalization, the Return of History by Stephen D. King is published by Yale University Press.

Book review: Is (British) English a goner?

That’s the way it Crumbles, by Matthew Engel That’s the way it Crumbles, by Matthew Engel

Right from the start, the author of this delightful book about the eternal feud between Britons and Americans over how their common language famously divides them seems to leave little doubt about where his sympathies lie. The book is dedicated to an American friend living in the UK who, the author says, “after forty-four years in Britain nearly always remembers to say ‘to-mah-to’.”

The new book, That’s the way it Crumbles, by Matthew Engel, has as its subtitle “The American Conquest of English”. This makes it sound like a rant by a huffy Brit complaining about those upstarts from across the pond who are swamping his precious language with their vulgar Americanisms.

There is certainly no doubt that Engel is British: for 12 years he edited Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack, the bible of cricket. You can hardly get more British than that. And he does bemoan how the influence of Americanisms has grown, to the extent that British politicians now casually use baseball terms such as “stepping up to the plate” even though the sport has never caught on in the UK.

But Engel, whose wry and perceptive humour has graced a succession of books and a host of newspaper columns, insists the book is not anti-American. He has lived in the U.S., relished his time there, visited all 50 states, loves Doonesbury and the Simpsons. He adores baseball.

He also points out that many supposed Yankeeisms that make Brits grind their teeth such as “gotten” (got), “fall” (autumn) and “mad” (angry) in fact originated in Britain. Instead of shuddering, maybe Brits should be grateful that their ancient parlance (“gotten” was in use in Tudor times) has been preserved.

That said, there are certain America-only phrases that do get up Engel’s nose. For example if I had wanted to annoy Engel, I would have started this review with the words: “From the get-go…”

He abhors this particular phrase which he says is “inelegant, repetitive, etymologically ludicrous.” But – and this is one of the book’s many attractions – Engel does not simply list Americanisms but also delves into their background and history, even of those he dislikes. For example he notes that the despised “get-go” turns out to be a black American term which appeared in the 1950s, possibly in a 1958 Hank Mobley number called “Git-Go Blues”.

Misunderstandings between Brits and Americans over what they really mean have occasionally had tragic consequences. As AFP’s former Seoul bureau chief Simon Martin reminded me, a British unit under intense attack in the Korean War radioed to its American allies that things were getting “a bit sticky”, an unfortunate understatement as what was really meant was “desperate”. Quite understandably the Americans failed to grasp how critical the situation was for the British, and when they did it was far too late.

As for the continuing transatlantic language tussle, Engel predicts that, in another century’s time it is quite possible to imagine that the American version of English will have absorbed its British counterpart completely.

But the Economist for one begs to differ, saying: “This (prediction) is – to use another Americanism – horsefeathers.” British English is in rude health. “Mr Engel is right to dread a ‘linguistic monoculture’. He is wrong to think that it is likely.”

The title for Engel’s book, as film buffs will surely recognise, comes from the 1960 classic “The Apartment”.

Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine): “Why can’t I ever fall in love with somebody nice like you?”

C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon): “Yeah, well. That’s the way it crumbles. Cookie-wise.”

That’s the way it Crumbles – The American Conquest of English

By Matthew Engel

Profile Books Ltd

eISBN 978 1 78283 262 1

Reciprocal clubs: The FCC visits Northern Club, Auckland, New Zealand

After a 40-minute taxi ride through morning Auckland traffic from the airport, we reached the Northern Club that is perched on the corner of Princes Street and overlooking Albert Barracks in the heart of the city. Not unlike our former ice house, from its location this building overlooked harbour waters a century ago.

But unlike our club today, this quarry stone heritage landmark offers a small number of guest rooms to accommodate visitors. Which is why we chose it for our first holiday night in a foreign country that promised an abundance of scenic beauty, history and experiences in the weeks ahead.

Following our online introduction and booking, we were well received by the friendly reception staff that made us feel welcome in this beautiful vine-covered former colonial hotel.

Despite its history of almost 150 years, the club’s facilities are providing modern conveniences (including a lift and fast Internet access) combined with the charm of a bygone era.

Besides the small gym (similar to the one in our club) on the lower ground level, a beautiful Billiard Room can be found on the second floor and is fully equipped with two full-sized billiard tables.

It is a true club room and displays wonderful historic Officers’ Club memorabilia. As we explored the corridors lined with paintings, we came across many interesting artifacts which tell of the long and rich history of the club. But this legacy seems also a bit of a burden for a wonderful place that has to demonstrate its ongoing relevance in our time.

Further modernisation and expansion of the premises later this year will provide a contemporary mixed indoor-outdoor space to cater to the changing demographics of its membership which should serve and preserve this club well into the future.

An already completed part of this extension is “The Wintergarden” which is a generously-sized room with sweeping views of the inner metropolis. A private courtyard to the left, complete with outdoor fireplace, is a great spot for a beer in the sunshine. Something that will make some FCC members jealous for its convenience, is the members’ carpark on the premises.

Club dining in The Members’ Dining Room requires formal dress which we skipped for a long walk through the wind swept streets of the city centre that was only a stone’s throw away.

Afterwards we were very happy to settle into our warm and very comfortable Standard Double room to relax from a very long day that included the flight from Hong Kong and our first experience of the land of Hobbits and Kiwis.

The next day the hearty Continental Breakfast in the Bankside Restaurant provided everything for a good start for our trip around the North and South Island. And with a warm embrace from the reservations manager we were on our way.

Ka kite ano — Until I see you again.

Francis Moriarty: radioman of the people

It’s the green and leafy end of summer in Massachusetts. Soon the leaves will turn into the glorious autumn of New England. One of its sons, American journalist Francis Moriarty, has returned to his roots, continuing to write and report for among others The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, but also spending more time with his family and friends there. And while we wish him well, Moriarty leaves a big hole in terms of his many years of work for press freedom and the Human Rights Press Awards (HRPA), and his political analysis and news coverage on radio.

During the many elections he covered during his time in Hong Kong, both local and within Southeast Asia, Moriarty would talk as a radio journalist for the layman listener. He prided himself on ensuring that issues were well explained. And as I can attest as a presenter on RTHK Radio 3’s evening programme, Newswrap, he was a master at the on-the-spot two-way. “What’s happening at Legco, Francis?” and off he’d go, giving both colour and precise detail, so that even the novice listener understood functional constituencies and “Super Seats”. At press conferences, government ministers and legislators all knew the man who did the RTHK news beat for 19 years.

Francis Moriarty as a student, with his career before him. Photo: Francis Moriarty Francis Moriarty as a student, with his career before him. Photo: Francis Moriarty

Mike Weeks, FCC member and a senior news producer and presenter of RTHK Radio 3’s morning news programme “Hong Kong Today”, first met Francis Moriarty at Commercial Radio and then would work with him for years often outside or at Legco. “Francis is a great commentator and a great person to have on live. When you sent him along to something, he was the sort of person, when there was a major announcement — the budget, policy address — I’d have Francis down there to ask questions, but also to come on and give his views.

“He’d also come on every Monday morning as a political commentator to give his views on what had happened in Hong Kong politics that week and I know from a number of listeners that they found his views interesting and balanced and entertaining.

“I think he knows a huge amount about local politics. I remember covering an FCC event and Francis was on the Board and the then FCC president introduced him as ‘that’s Francis over there who knows more about Hong Kong politics than anyone would want to’.”

Moriarty was always generous with his time in the newsroom, says Weeks, helping young reporters and sharing his anecdotes.“He has one of those minds which recalls conversations and details. Just before he left we did a piece together on 20 years since the handover and he was recalling details like they were yesterday. He spoke very well, he was brilliant at painting a picture.”

Moriarty with former president Neil Western, Board member Florence de Changy and current president Juliana Liu, following his final meeting as a member of the Press Freedom Committee before he departed for the US. Moriarty with former president Neil Western, Board member Florence de Changy and current president Juliana Liu, following his final meeting as a member of the Press Freedom Committee before he departed for the US.

“I first met Francis in early 2012, at a small gathering of international journalists hosted by the [then] Chief Executive-elect CY Leung. It wasn’t going well,” says FCC president Juliana Liu. “CY was circumspect and not terribly quotable. But then Francis started asking about CY’s background. In his inimitable way, he cajoled CY into talking about his climb to the top, starting from the 1980s! Of course, Francis’ main legacy at the FCC is the Human Rights Press Awards. But I will always remember how he can really get people to open up, even if they don’t entirely want to.”

FCC member Joyce Lau, the director of media and communications at NGO Civic Exchange, recalls: “Francis co-founded the Human Rights Press Awards in 1996, during a period of concern about political freedoms leading up to the 1997 handover. This was before my time — but I know he was considered one of the top political commentators who bridged colonial and post-97 Hong Kong.

I will always remember how he can really get people to open up, even if they don’t entirely want to.

“I met him when I was writing a story about press freedom in Hong Kong — and everyone told me that he was the expert to interview. He became a close friend, and also introduced me to the FCC and the HRPA — two organisations that have become very important to me.

“The HRPA was far less polished then. I remember Francis carrying a big cardboard box of paper entries — newspapers, magazines, journals, photo prints — to CopyKat for Xeroxing. Then before each award ceremony, we’d sit at his kitchen table and write by hand the winners’ names on the certificates. This is a bit of trivia about Francis — he does very good calligraphy.”

Moriarty with former governor Chris Patten and his wife Lavender, and former FCC presidents Chris Slaughter and Kate Dawson. Moriarty with former governor Chris Patten and his wife Lavender, and former FCC presidents Chris Slaughter and Kate Dawson.

Moriarty’s late father served in the Second World War and the Korean War, before returning to the US and dying at the young age of 44. As the sole surviving son of a veteran, he was not conscripted to fight in Vietnam but became a very vocal opponent of the war. Before his arrival in Hong Kong in 1989, Moriarty covered stories including the assassination of San Francisco gay rights advocate Harvey Milk, a friend; in 1978, the last Israeli-occupied town, Yamit, on the Sinai Peninsula before it was handed over to the Egyptians, when Moriarty was smuggled in a blanket in a Bedouin truck. He worked in Berlin in the late 1980s, and, like something out of a John Le Carré novel, was watched by a man in a trench coat standing under a lamppost.

Moriarty arrived in Hong Kong on April 15, 1989, coincidentally the day senior mainland official Hu Yaobang died.  He was seen as non-corrupt and his death helped spark the pro-democracy demonstrations that would lead to the Tiananmen massacre.

It was the tens of thousands of people standing in silent protest in the pouring rain outside the then-offices of the Xinhua News Agency in solidarity with the demonstrators in Berlin that led to Moriarty’s decision to stay. He would join RTHK in 1995 where he covered some great stories: reporting on 9/11 after accompanying then chief executive Donald Tsang on a trip to the US; and every Philippine election in the post-Marcos era apart from that of the current president Rodrigo Duterte.

Moriarty covering post-9/11 on Wall Street. Moriarty covering post-9/11 on Wall Street.

He enjoyed the Legco meetings in its former home, the Old Supreme Court building. He describes how the current building is all about security, whereas previously legislators were much more accessible from where the reporters were sitting. “You could say: ‘Psst Jasper [Tsang Yok-sing], psst Martin [Lee], pssst Emily [Lau]’,” and they would talk to him afterwards. Or the reporters would run round to the exit to catch legislators, or the last governor Chris Patten.

Cecil Wong, a senior producer at Radio 3, worked with Moriarty for more than a decade. “He’s a singular talent in Hong Kong broadcasting. He would open his mouth and nuggets of gold would fall out seemingly completely effortlessly. He gets into Aceh in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami [December 26, 2004]. He was doing a live piece where there were lots of bodies lying on a beach. And in real time, he was walking, and he was walking as he was counting the bodies. He kept going for one, two, three minutes… for what seemed like an awkwardly long time for a radio piece, but at the end, it really worked, because just listening to it, you could see the scale of what had happened. But even on dry and mundane news in Hong Kong, he could package it up in a way that anyone could understand.”

Joyce Lau says that while she’s happy to see Moriarty settle back into New England, “Hong Kong media and politics will be missing a very strong and often rambunctious voice!”

Champion of press freedom

While Francis Moriarty is best known within the FCC as co-founder of the Human Rights Press Awards, he had always been a strong advocate for free speech and press freedom issues from the early 1990s. He became the first chairman of the FCC’s Press Freedom Committee in 1995 and remained in that post for many years.

For HRPA’s 20th anniversary in 2016, Moriarty wrote about the early days of the Press Freedom Committee and how HRPA came about.

“The atmosphere of the Club in the early 90s was not as openly supportive of taking public stands on free speech and free press issues as it is these days. Of course, there have always been individuals, including past presidents and Board members (Associates among them), who’ve bravely stood up for these issues at critical moments. But taking such stands in those pre-handover days could at times be a somewhat lonely proposition. China was already casting a long shadow and Hong Kong’s future was uncertain. Without the security blanket of the departing colonial administration, many individuals were weighing their personal and business interests vis a vis the soon-to-be-incoming order.

READ MORE: Francis Moriarty in his own words

“The Club had already been issuing occasional statements on relevant issues on a sort of ad hoc basis. It was evident that there would be increasing need to monitor press freedom issues, so I raised the idea of a press freedom committee with then president Hans Vriens, who immediately agreed and asked if I would chair it (the traditional punishment for proposing something). This by no means put an end to the often heated, sometimes bruising discussions on the Board over issuing statements, but this committee provided a place for discussion outside the Board and affirmed our commitment to defending journalists’ values and rights.”

Moriarty hosting the 17th Human Rights Press Awards which he co-founded. Moriarty hosting the 17th Human Rights Press Awards which he co-founded.

It was in this atmosphere that the idea of the first arose in mid-1994. Moriarty also explained, in part, why he was reluctant initially to carry the idea forward when Robyn Kilpatrick, then chair of Amnesty International Hong Kong, suggested it.

“When we met I did not yet know what I would quickly come to realise, that Robyn was not just someone with an idea, but a force of nature. Robyn explained the idea of creating press awards similar to the prestigious awards given by Amnesty in Britain.

“I nodded politely while mentally tabulating all the reasons why we should not go near this proposal with a bargepole. Clearly this idea had to be stopped in its tracks. But how? I was beginning to sense Robyn’s determination, which was a little scary.

“Obviously, I said such a venture… couldn’t succeed without the involvement of local journos, but would they support something with the words ‘human rights’ up front? (I was asking myself the same question about the FCC as well.)

“Robyn agreed to take it away and I — relieved — thought that was the end of that. However, a week later Robyn came back, saying she had put the idea to Daisy Li. then chair of the Hong Kong Journalists’ Association. To my amazement Daisy and the HKJA backed it. ‘Well,’ asked Robyn, ‘can we count on you?’ Sometimes you have to know when you are beaten. The Board backed the idea — also to my surprise — and a joint committee of the FCC, HKJA and Amnesty was formed.”

And 21 years later…

 

Get your motor runnin’… The highs and lows of photojournalist Richard Dobson’s Vietnam road trip

Four years ago photojournalist Richard Dobson realised a long-held ambition to drive his bike from Saigon to Hanoi the hard way, avoiding the busy coastal road and seeing as much of the interior as possible. Using his Facebook postings for reference, he recollects the highs and lows of his 52-day trip.

I’ve always liked the idea of taking a road trip on my 1995 100cc Honda Dream and since living in Saigon the urge to go up north has been growing. But I wasn’t interested in just going to Hanoi on the coast road, I wanted to plot a course that would take me into the hinterland, the mountains, the jungle, the hidden valleys.

Sapa road towards Dien Bien Phu against the Mount Fansipan ranges Sapa road towards Dien Bien Phu against the Mount Fansipan ranges

It just so happened that one of my clients was looking for fresh images of Vietnam for their website so they agreed to sponsor my crazy dream and I was on my way.

The last five hours were in the dark with buses and juggernauts coming at me head on

Bike prep was minimal. Field attire. Mao Blu fisherman pants, khaki long sleeved shirt and black rubber thongs. Reconnaissance gathering tools consisted of two Nikon D700 cameras and half a dozen lenses all wrapped up in a black plastic flight case and strapped to a rather flimsy luggage rack with more than enough bungee cords. On July 16, 2013 the adventure began. Some of the many highlights follow.

Day 1: Saigon to Dalat

Took 12 hours to ride 234 km to Dalat, the hill station founded 200 years ago by French bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. The last five hours were in the dark with buses and juggernauts coming at me head on, overtaking each other at speed with headlights at full beam, and me bumping over potholes the size of bomb craters. I can’t see a bloody thing and my only course of action to defer imminent death is to swerve off the road altogether into the even more indented and muddy soft shoulder. From now on no more night riding.

Logging truck, Ke Bang. Logging truck, Ke Bang.

Day 2: Dalat

Some serious picture taking today – this town has it all. A cooler climate, so strawberry, blackberry and flower cultivation bar none, and a legacy of fine French architecture represented by the Cremaillere railway station and myriad abandoned art deco villas. Now akin to a city,  Dalat’s former bohemian air has vaporised into scooter fumes!

Day 11: My Lai, Quang Ngai Province

The My Lai massacre is probably one of the most infamous events of the Vietnam War. It took place on March 16th 1968.

One soldier, Varnado Simpson, who was at My Lai in December 1969 said: “Everyone who went into the village had
in mind to kill. We had lost a lot of buddies and it was a VC stronghold. We considered them either VC or helping the VC.”

Each of those photographed told me how they managed to survive. A very sobering narrative indeed

Today I met four of the 10 survivors. Most of the 500 population perished. Each of those photographed told me how they managed to survive. A very sobering narrative indeed.

Day 14: Hoi An

Concentrated on portraits today and found some real gems. Mr Nguyen Minh Nguyet, 78, a highly decorated veteran of the war and his delightful wife proved to be perfect subjects. Minh joined the North Vietnamese army in 1950 and is a decorated veteran of the Dien Bien Phu. He met his wife, a transport logistics officer, on the Ho Chi Minh trail. It’s a miracle both of them are still alive.

Highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, Mr. Nguyen Minh and his wife Highly decorated Vietnam War veteran, Mr. Nguyen Minh and his wife

Day 25: Ninh Binh

Yesterday was a downer day. Crap road. Crap towns, and crap sights…so today the mood lightens and I shoot a pic I think will make a showpiece for my photo gallery back home. A young boy jumping off the wall of a partly submerged temple into the Song Van river. The crumbling stucco of the temple facade, the languid river and surrounding lush vegetation creates to my mind a scene that is almost like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Exotic, mysterious — are we in Joseph Conrad country? So now I’m here in Ninh Binh, and the dramatic limestone karst landscapes so famously depicted in the myriad pictures of Halong Bay begin to appear.

Day 39: Bac Ha

A day getting dirty with the Montagnards.

Yes, those marvellous people of the mountains are awe inspiring in their dexterity up and down muddy, rocky mountain paths. Men and women, old and young, hauling heavy sacks of corn cobs from dawn until dusk and doing it with such grace and fortitude, all the while looking so resplendent in their hill tribe regalia.

Montagnard hill tribe woman, Bac Ha Montagnard hill tribe woman, Bac Ha

Day 43: SaPa to Dien Bien Phu

The apex of my trip is Lao Cai/Sapa. Pretty much as far north as you can go in Vietnam and now after 43 days of travelling I begin the long road south, back to Saigon. I set off due northwest and then south over the Tram Ton Pass. At 1900m, it is the highest mountain pass in Vietnam and as I wound my way over the Hoang Lien mountains the views were, to say the least, breathtaking.

Dien Bien Phu is 211km west of SaPa so I knew I had to step hard on the gas to make it before sunset. I thought it was all going to be a piece of cake as the first 100km out of SaPa the road was pure heaven! Those 50km over the pass and down again were definitely a trip highlight.

However it was not all heaven. A nice stretch of hell lay ahead, but I made it to Dien Bien Phu in time for sundowners.

Fishing the Vinh Cua Dai, a tributary of the Thu Bon River Fishing the Vinh Cua Dai, a tributary of the Thu Bon River

Day 46: Ho Chi Minh road to Son Trach

The final 50km of today’s 380km run took me through Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, definitely a trip highlight. The most awesome jungle I’ve seen anywhere, and at the top of one pass I came across a view that has to rate as probably one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever, ever seen. Rolling away to the horizon was a jungle landscape that prompted me to think of that first line in the Bible… “In the Beginning, God created the earth”… I stopped and absorbed the scene until it was almost dark. The jungle sounds, the surrounding stillness, I will never forget.

Day 51: Pleiku to Gia Nghia

I’ve had enough! Fifty days has been great. But it’s now Day 51, and yes I’ve had enough. I wanted to get home today just 400km or so to Saigon but the road stopped me.

Waterpuppet Theatre, Ninh Binh Waterpuppet Theatre, Ninh Binh

What I find amazing about the roads in this country, is how they can go from the sublime to the absolute ridiculous in literally one blind bend. A wide two lane beautiful stretch of French built tarmac, with even cambers and not a blemish on its surface, suddenly disintegrates into a narrow, muddy, potholed and boulder strewn track. This has been the pattern throughout my trip — with notably more potholes than smooth tarmac. In the last couple of days I’ve dodged enough potholes, pedestrians, tractors, buses, trucks, minivans, chickens, pigs and dogs to last me a lifetime. I think the last straw was a heart stopper moment of total panic as it was starting to get dark and my nerves were already frayed….

…as I’m riding a flat but bumpy stretch of road I look over my right shoulder to where my camera bag was supposed to be, and to my absolute horror it’s not there…

I’ve had a very careful bike loading regimen since day one. That is making sure I don’t lose anything off the back of my bike, due to aforementioned potholes and other obstacles. But today as I’m riding a flat but bumpy stretch of road I look over my right shoulder to where my camera bag was supposed to be, and to my absolute horror it’s not there….OH JESUS FUCKING HELL! I felt a heart attack coming on!

Without checking oncoming traffic I immediately swing around 180 degrees thinking I have literally seconds to race off back down the road to find my fallen bag before someone lifts it. And how far back has it been since it fell off? My mouth is as dry as a bone…. my heart racing…blue bag still in place albeit shifted a little. But camera bag has gone and with it all my equipment — cameras, lenses, everything. In Vietnam misplaced things don’t stay in any one place for more than a blink of an eye.

As I tore off back down the road, I heard a shout from street side and a gesture to the back end of my bike. I leaned right out and had a good look behind…and there swinging down over the back wheel but not touching the road was the camera bag, hanging precariously on to my bike by one bungy cord. Oh bloody ‘ell it’s time to wrap this trip.

Day 52: Gia Nghia to Saigon

Another puncture, shattered nerves and a thunderstorm that almost washed away the approach road to Saigon but I’ve made it. Home at last.

Best dressed regular in the Vietnamese army, Quy Nhon city Best dressed regular in the Vietnamese army, Quy Nhon city

 

 

 

 

 

Press freedom plumbs fresh depths in Southeast Asia

China’s harsh brand of media control has served as a role model for its neighbours south of the border where bright spots are hard to find, writes Luke Hunt.

Globalisation, the digital age and promises of democratic reform once inspired hope that a fresh era of press freedom was about to dawn across Southeast Asia. But two decades after the arrival of the Internet those hopes have dwindled amid deteriorating standards.

Underscoring this is the 2017 annual World Press Freedom Index, which highlighted Thailand, where the media industry is increasingly muzzled by a military government, and Cambodia where defamation laws have been criminalised to silence dissent.

Protesters hold placards and chant during a demonstration against Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as she attends an event at the Guildhall in the City of London on May 8. Photo: AFP/Chris J Ratcliffe Protesters hold placards and chant during a demonstration against Myanmar’s de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as she attends an event at the Guildhall in the City of London on May 8. Photo: AFP/Chris J Ratcliffe

In compiling the index, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) noted: “The bad news is that media freedom is in the worst state we have ever seen,” adding that “media freedom has retreated wherever the authoritarian strongman model has triumphed.

“As we have reached the age of post-truth, propaganda, and suppression of freedoms, this 2017 World Press Freedom Index highlights the danger of a tipping point in the state of media freedom,” it said.

Analysts also said that countries like the Philippines and Indonesia, where press freedom had taken root, have also fallen foul of press watchdogs alongside Myanmar where an end to more than 50 years of military rule has not resulted in an end to the persecution of journalists.

“There are few, if any, press freedom bright spots in Southeast Asia these days,” said Shawn Crispin, Senior Southeast Asia Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).

Some analysts have also argued that China’s rise and its sometimes brutal suppression of the media had set an example that was being embraced by its southern neighbours whether democratically elected or not.

The jailing of journalists under Suu Kyi’s watch will leave an indelible stain on her legacy as a democratic reformer.

“Hopes that the democratic transition in Myanmar would lead to more press freedom have been largely dashed as the elected government and still autonomous military use outdated laws to threaten and jail journalists,” Crispin said.

“It’s not what we expected under an Aung San Suu Kyi-led government and frankly she has been immensely disappointing considering her previous credentials as a pro-democracy icon. The jailing of journalists under Suu Kyi’s watch will leave an indelible stain on her legacy as a democratic reformer.”

From left to right, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte join hands at the Asean summit in April: united in curbing the media across the region. Photo: AFP/Mark R. Cristino From left to right, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak, Myanmar’s State Counsellor and Foreign Minister Aung San Suu Kyi, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha, Vietnam’s Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte join hands at the Asean summit in April: united in curbing the media across the region. Photo: AFP/Mark R. Cristino

He said there are rising concerns that the media curbs Thailand’s ruling junta initially put in place to consolidate their coup have been fully consolidated and would be hard to remove even if the country eventually moves back towards elected governance.

“Journalists who have stuck their heads up and criticised military rule have been consistently stomped down, particularly in the broadcast media,” Crispin added. “It’s a shame considering how far press freedom had progressed in Thailand to see it so easily and quickly reversed.”

Keith Loveard, a Jakarta-based analyst with Concord Consulting, said reporters in the region too often faced life-threatening challenges in exposing wrongdoing and abuse of power, arguably the most important roles of the journalist in any country.

Indonesia had improved on the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, up six places from 2016 to 124 out of 180 countries, the best performance for a Southeast Asian country, followed by the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia and Thailand rounding out the top five, all far ahead of China ranked a lowly 176.

But it noted growing concerns about the harassment of journalists by the security forces.

Despite the honourable protections offered by the Press Law, in reality reporting on Indonesia remains a potentially dangerous business.

Additionally, Indonesia’s Alliance of Independent Journalists recorded at least 78 cases of violence against journalists in 2016, compared with 42 in 2015 and 40 in 2014.

Loveard said most of these cases had gone unpunished and, most of the time, were not even seriously investigated.

“Despite the honourable protections offered by the Press Law, in reality reporting on Indonesia remains a potentially dangerous business. These attacks are just a part of the pressure on the freedom of the media that is often far more subtle.”

The scandal-plagued Malaysian PM Najib Razak at an Umno rally in May: only muted media criticism. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan The scandal-plagued Malaysian PM Najib Razak at an Umno rally in May: only muted media criticism. Photo: AFP/Mohd Rasfan

He said much of the Indonesian media was guilty of being entrapped by patronage systems which are deeply embedded across Southeast Asian societies where “envelope” journalism is rife and too many reporters use their jobs for access to powerful figures and the opportunity to create side deals that are far more lucrative than their official roles.

“There remains a strong culture of immunity for the military and the police in particular and many other powerful figures assume that they are immune from investigation, so it requires considerable nerve to probe into the darker regions of Indonesian life.”

Elsewhere in the region, Vietnam and Laos remain journalistic backwaters governed by communists and were classified as Black Spots by the RSF, while Brunei has raised concerns with the institution of Sharia law.

Singapore is still stymied by its inability to cope with any form of criticism, highlighted by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent threat to sue his own siblings for defamation amid a family squabble.

In Malaysia, the scandal-plagued government of Prime Minister Najib Razak has faced only muted criticism, benefitting enormously from a press establishment that rarely deviates from the wishes of the long ruling United Malays National Organisation.

The election of President Rodrigo Duterte and his anti-drug policy has made the job of journalists more difficult.

Longtime correspondent and former FCC president Karl Wilson has focused on the Philippines for decades and says corruption is now endemic at all levels and more journalists have been killed in direct relation to their work there than anywhere apart from Iraq and Syria.

“The election of President Rodrigo Duterte and his anti-drug policy has made the job of journalists more difficult. The outspoken former mayor of Davao does not like journalists and has made that fact clear on a number of occasions,” he said.

Wilson said international media organisations like to say that 90% of cases in which journalists have been murdered since the fall of Marcos have been solved.

Still, that is hardly comforting and heavily mitigated by the 2009 Maguindanao Massacre when 58 people, almost half of them provincial journalists, were murdered allegedly by the Ampatuan family.

“Since then there have been three presidents who have promised swift action but in the end nothing. Witnesses have been murdered and the case against the Ampatuans has hardly moved,” Wilson said.

“It shows a judicial system that is in paralysis and the power of families over the political and judicial system. The whole episode has been virtually forgotten even by us. The whole episode is a disgrace and a blight on our profession.

Protesters carry anti-martial law banners as they gather outside the House of Representatives in Manila in July: only in Syria and Iraq have more journalists been killed. Photo: AFP/Vincent Go Protesters carry anti-martial law banners as they gather outside the House of Representatives in Manila in July: only in Syria and Iraq have more journalists been killed. Photo: AFP/Vincent Go

“It would have been a totally different story if this had happened in Australia, US or Britain. Why should our colleagues in the Philippines be any different?”

Foreign correspondents are also complaining that they are more often being subjected to the same scrutiny and pressures as local reporters.

Foreign journalists have rarely been subjected to the same restrictions as locals because correspondents had little impact on local readers and voters, thus remaining off the radar of the authorities.

However, this is changing for journalists who report in English due to the overarching influence that language has had across the Internet, which is increasingly responsible for shaping public opinion and influencing political thought.

Loveard said responsibility for this lies as much with media proprietors as it does with reporters in the field, regardless of the language and market they serve.

“There are of course many exceptions but there is still a long way to go, not least in the area of training,” Loveard added.

“What is more constraining is the domination of the media industry by powerful business interests who have zero understanding that ownership does not necessarily mean total control of editorial policies and biases.”

Outpouring of support for Hong Kong’s jailed pro-democracy activists

There has been a great outpouring of international and local support for Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow following their sentencing at the Hong Kong Appeals Court on August 17.

The following Sunday thousands marched – said to be the biggest protest since the 2014 Occupy movement – led by pro-democracy groups including the Civil Human Rights Front, League of Social Democrats and Demosisto.

Earlier, politicians from both sides of the Atlantic joined with Hong Kong-based rights groups, lawmakers, student leaders and pro-democracy groups in criticising the Hong Kong government, saying the appeals were political decisions intended to deter future protests and to keep young people out of elected politics.

Joshua Wong, centre, with fellow Umbrella Movement leaders Nathan Law, left, and Alex Chow, addresses the assembled media before their sentencing on August 17. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP Joshua Wong, centre, with fellow Umbrella Movement leaders Nathan Law, left, and Alex Chow, addresses the assembled media before their sentencing on August 17. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP

However, the Hong Kong government has denied this, saying there was “absolutely no basis” to claims of political motives.

One of the strongest critics of the government is the former Governor Chris Patten, who in a letter to the Financial Times, said: “The imprisonment of Joshua Wong and two other leaders of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is a serious error on the part of Hong Kong’s government. It will be very difficult to persuade the world that this does not represent a further deterioration in the quality of Hong Kong’s free and pluralist way of life.

“The responsibility for this deplorable decision rests clearly on the Hong Kong government’s shoulders. It decided — with the Secretary of Justice prominent in making the decision — to appeal against the non-custodial sentences passed on these young and brave democracy activists.

“It will be well nigh impossible to persuade Hong Kongers and the city’s well-wishers around the world that this was other than a vindictive move by the government to prevent these young men from being able to stand for election to Legco.”

Wong’s six-month sentence comes after having been tried and found guilty of unlawful assembly last year, and sentenced to community service. But in an unusual move the Hong Kong government, in the form of the Secretary of Justice Rimsky Yuen, appealed the sentence, arguing it was too lenient.

Law was sentenced to eight months, while Chow received a seven-month sentence. The sentences mean that they cannot stand for local elections in the next five years.

Two days before this public prosecutors also succeeded in revising the punishments for 13 activists involved in a protest at the city’s legislature against a development project in Hong Kong’s northeastern New Territories in June 2014. The 13, part of a wider group who in 2014 stormed Legco, were originally convicted of unlawful assembly and given 80 to 150 hours of community service by a lower court in 2016. Now they face jail for between eight and 13 months.

The deplorable decision will not of course curtail Hong Kong’s ambitions for greater democracy. It will surely have the opposite effect.

Amnesty International called the Hong Kong authorities’ appeal for jail terms for the three activists a “vindictive attack” on freedom of expression. “The relentless and vindictive pursuit of student leaders using vague charges smacks of political payback by the authorities,” said Mabel Au, director of the rights group’s Hong Kong branch.

The Justice Department said in a statement released before the sentencing that “there is absolutely no basis to imply any political motive” on their part, and that freedom of speech is protected in Hong Kong. It added that the activists had shown “disorderly and intimidating behaviour”, and were convicted “not because they exercised their civil liberties but because their relevant conduct in the protest broke the law”.

In an interesting twist, it was rumoured that Hong Kong’s top prosecutors had initially “not recommended pursuing” the case further after the non-jail terms were handed down. This was overruled by Rimsky Yuen, who insisted on reopening the case.

The three Court of Appeal judges wrote in their judgment that the three could not say they were jailed for exercising freedom of assembly. “In recent years, there’s been an unhealthy trend in Hong Kong society. Some people use the pursuit of ideals… as an excuse to take illegal action,” Judge Wally Yeung wrote.

“This case is a prime example of the aforementioned unhealthy trend.”

One supporter of the court’s decision was from an unlikely source, the controversial columnist Alex Lo, who said that the three broke the law and should face the consequences.

In his letter Patten said that the apologists for the government’s decision will also have their work cut out to convince anyone that this is not a further example of Beijing tightening its grip on Hong Kong’s aspirations to remain a free society.

“The deplorable decision will not of course curtail Hong Kong’s ambitions for greater democracy. It will surely have the opposite effect,” he said. Wong, Chow and Law “will be remembered long after the names of those who have persecuted them have been forgotten and swept into the ashcan of history.”

In an open letter published a day after the sentencing, a group including the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown and the former UK foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind, criticised the ruling as “an outrageous miscarriage of justice [and] a death knell for Hong Kong’s rule of law and basic human rights”. The letter said “it was a dark day for Hong Kong and should be met with international condemnation”.

This letter was also signed by current and former UK MPs, former ambassadors from Australia and the US, a US Congressman; former Canadian MPs; a Malaysian MP and a human rights lawyer; a former Australian MP; and two former UK cabinet members.

Separately, the US Senator and one-time presidential hopeful Marco Rubio, who heads the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said the “shameful” re-sentencing showed that “Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy is precipitously eroding”. He said the three and “other Umbrella Movement protestors are pro-democracy champions worthy of admiration, not criminals deserving jail time”.

So, who’s next

Occupy Central co-founder and HKU law professor Benny Tai said he was “pessimistic” about his own case. “From the directions of this ruling, I think it likely I will go to jail.”

In March, Tai and his fellow Occupy founders – Dr Chan Kin-man and the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming – were charged for their roles in the pro-democracy street protests.The trio each face three counts related to causing a public nuisance. Each charge carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.

These selfless young people paid a personal price for the sake of social justice… and others like the middle-aged should also do their part.

Asked if he felt partly responsible for the young activists’ jail terms, Tai said: “Originally, my idea was that middle-aged people like us should bear the legal ­responsibilities of civil disobedience, but some young people asked ‘what about us?’

“Middle-aged people should feel ashamed. These selfless young people paid a personal price for the sake of social justice… and others like the middle-aged should also do their part.”

Just days later, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho called for the dismissal of Tai from his teaching post, saying that he is “unfit to teach” law at HKU.

The government’s vindictive pursuit of protesters who demonstrated their rights to free expression appears likely to continue as the Basic Law which enshrines these rights may well become irrelevant.

In Steve Vines’ cover story in this issue of The Correspondent on the likelihood that the anti-subversion Article 23 legislation will be tabled soon, he reflected on its impact on the Basic Law already under threat from China’s inclination to reinterpret the law for its own purposes.

While the Basic Law’s unequivocal pledge to “freedom of expression, of the press and of publication” should be reassuring “were we not in an era where the National People’s Congress Standing Committee seems so keen to ‘reinterpret’ the Basic Law and where China’s commitment to the pledges before [the handover] have been placed in question.

Even more so given that Chinese officials this year have said that “the Sino-British treaty for the handover of Hong Kong is nothing more than a historical document of no contemporary relevance”.

“No wonder people are so worried about what the pending Article 23 legislation will contain,” he said.

Closing the net: What lies ahead for China under new cyber security laws?

New cyber security laws and threats to constrain virtual private networks (VPNs) in China are making life ever-harder for information-based businesses, particularly foreign journalists operating in China. Jane Moir takes a closer look at the impact of the new rules.

In the mid-1990s, Rupert Murdoch dubbed the Internet to be a threat to authoritarian regimes everywhere. Beijing demurred and embraced mass connectivity as a vital building block in its pursuit of a modern and “harmonious” society. Today, those differing visions about the impact of free flowing information have not been resolved.

The 19th National Congress this year is expected to further codify control of China’s social media. Photo: www.news.cn The 19th National Congress this year is expected to further codify control of China’s social media. Photo: www.news.cn

China became one of the world’s most restrictive media environments after Xi Jinping was elevated to the presidency five years ago. The posting of politically sensitive content was criminalised, thousands of domestic websites were closed and the “great firewall” blocked critical information flowing in from outside. Administrative and legal measures have ensured systematic censure of almost any online activity deemed to be subversive.

The paradox is that during this period a handful of home-grown companies consolidated use of highly innovative platforms to make China one of the world’s most sophisticated social media markets. The likes of Tencent, Alibaba and Baiedu developed mass participation networks for e-commerce, but also vigorous discussion in the public square.

There was always a tension between the Communist Party’s ambition to foster a connected nation and its desire for full control of public discourse. In the run-up to the CCP’s 19th National Congress this autumn, the pendulum has swung clearly in favour of controlling social media and anything that undermines the prestige of President Xi. This includes ostensibly gentle postings based on the British cartoon character Winnie the Pooh, who apparently resembled the great man in Zhongnanhai.

One of our fears is that the law would probably compel companies to engage in a lot of self-censorship.

A law to prevent cyber theft and hacking introduced in June criminalised a wider range of online activity and put an obligation on Internet companies to censor content. Beijing has also threatened to constrain virtual private networks (VPNs), which allow domestically-based Internet users to cheat the “great firewall” and pretend they are outside China. At the time of writing, it was not clear how such rules would be implemented, but such work-arounds are vital for information-based businesses, particularly foreign journalists operating in China.

When Chinese bloggers started using the name and image of Winnie the Pooh as a substitute for Xi Jinping to avoid censorship of their posts, Chinese authorities reacted swiftly and banned the cute cartoon character. Photo: Weibo When Chinese bloggers started using the name and image of Winnie the Pooh as a substitute for Xi Jinping to avoid censorship of their posts, Chinese authorities reacted swiftly and banned the cute cartoon character. Photo: Weibo

What will become clear once the dust settles on the CCP meeting is whether these measures in their totality were a tactical initiative to constrain information ahead of the autumn powerfest, or instead reflect a more systematic and worrisome crackdown on information dissemination. Human rights activists in particular will watch how officials utilise the new legal armoury to prosecute “netizens” for sensitive posts.

For example, the cyber security law that took effect this summer quite reasonably tackles Internet theft and hacking activity. However, it also criminalises the use of the Internet to harm national security, national interests and the even more nebulous notion of “social order”. Amnesty International has dubbed such definitions as “vague and imprecise’’ and warns that their implementation may “further restrict freedom of expression’’.

The new law widens the legal scope for prosecuting the authors of controversial content beyond a clumsily worded offence introduced in 2012 as part of a “judicial interpretation”. Anyone who incites “ethnic hatred and picking quarrels and provoking troubles’’ through online posts could face up to three years in jail if the relevant content is viewed at least 5,000 times or re-posted 500 times.

Civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, above, got a three year suspended sentence for “inciting ethnic hatred” through social media posts. Photo: Wiki Civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, above, got a three year suspended sentence for “inciting ethnic hatred” through social media posts. Photo: Wiki

Although no official data is available, anecdotal reports suggest that many individuals who have fallen foul of the new rules are civil rights defenders and other activists. High-profile examples include the 2015 prosecution of civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang for inciting ethnic hatred and disturbing public order. He received a three-year suspended prison sentence for seven posts on social media that challenged government policy.

William Nee, a China researcher at Amnesty International, is wary of the government’s tolerance for netizen postings that may appear politically insensitive, given the new legal framework.

He pointed to the popular government-funded TV drama “In the Name of the People” which aired this spring in China. It fictionalised anti-corruption efforts and included a scene where an investigator warns an official over his online content. Slanderous remarks, he is reminded, can land him in jail if re-posted 500 times.

“This showed to me they are trying to let citizens know they can face detention or prosecution for spreading rumours,’’ Nee says.

To the annoyance of foreign firms seeking to build an online presence in China, the new law requires them to keep user data within domestically controlled server farms. It quickly follows that foreign firms would face an obligation to censor both their own content and that generated by users. Moreover, social media users will no longer be able to remain anonymous as registration must now be conducted using real names.

“One of our fears is that the law would probably compel companies to engage in a lot of self-censorship. The law gives the legal basis for that,’’ says Nee.

Beijing’s apparent move against VPNs threatens netizens’ ability to connect with individuals outside of China and to access foreign generated content. In January Beijing said VPNs would be subject to a new licensing regime and many operators have been closed down. The big three telecommunication firms were told in July to block user access to VPNs by early 2018.

Such crackdowns and other technical attacks on firewall work-arounds are making it more difficult for mainstream users to get around China’s barricade, explains Jason Q. Ng, research fellow at the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto.

Amnesty China researcher William Nee, below, warns that netizens’ “spreading rumours” on social media could be prosecuted. Photo: William Nee Amnesty China researcher William Nee, below, warns that netizens’ “spreading rumours” on social media could be prosecuted. Photo: William Nee

 

Ng, who studies social media in China, is however optimistic that technology and innovation will enable the “cat and mouse” situation in the PRC to continue. “Of course there are always sophisticated users who will be able to defeat government restrictions and perhaps as new and existing tech tools are developed and improve, things may shift again.’’

Perhaps salvation can be found in technical solutions, but Amnesty’s Nee is worried that China is amping up its control and points to the term “internet sovereignty” used in the new cyber security law.

“This law did cement the whole concept of cyber sovereignty. That is one of the most troubling aspects as it helps give a degree of legitimacy to the government’s view of censorship and its right to engage in censorship.’’

China getting serious about VPN crackdown

China’s “Great Firewall” has routinely been broached by those using virtual private networks (VPNs). There have been attempts to curb their use in the past but from February 2018 new laws will make it ever more difficult.  While the crackdown is chiefly aimed at suppressing dissent it could also affect international businesses, academics and researchers who rely on unfettered access to the Internet. The new law will allow companies and other organisations access to VPNs as long as they are registered. However, it is not clear how the registration process will work — or whether it will extend to employees working from home. What is clear, is that ordinary citizens will no longer be able to use VPNs so their access to information will be severely limited.

Freedom House, a US-based democracy and human rights NGO, says Beijing has escalated efforts to “restrict individual VPN usage over the past few years”, branding it “the world’s worst abuser of Internet freedom”.

“VPNs provide a pressure valve for those who rely on open internet access to communicate and stay informed – even government supporters,” said Madeline Earp, a research analyst at the group. “Interfering with these channels to the outside world creates tremendous frustration and uncertainty.”

A Chinese physics professor at a university in Beijing said he hoped the VPN crackdown would not affect his ability to use Google. “Baidu has absolutely no use for my work,” he said, referring to the Chinese search engine. “It is a shame … without Google, academic research and study will definitely be adversely affected.”

Academics in China are reluctant to publicly comment on censorship. But both Chinese and foreign researchers in the country need to tap into global conversations for “well-informed research”, according to Dr Nicole Talmacs, lecturer in media and communications at Xian Jiaotong-Liverpool University.

However, Lotus Ruan, a researcher at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, said the government would find it hard to control or censor everything on the Internet, and “VPNs were vital tools for many businesses and researchers.” People could also get around the system by setting up their own VPNs with overseas servers, or using “information brokers” – people based overseas who translate news and information for Chinese audiences, she said. The ban may be effective for a while but “get-arounds” will surface eventually.

The Correspondent, Sep/Oct 2017

Article 23: Is Hong Kong’s anti-subversion legislation upon us under Carrie Lam?

In 2003, Article 23 of the Basic Law was withdrawn after it became clear the Legislative Council would not pass it. Fourteen years on, a new government in Hong Kong, new directives from China and a change in mood generally mean the law could be back on the table. Stephen Vines looks at the implications.

One thing is really clear – the government in Beijing is fed up with waiting for Hong Kong to enact Article 23 of the Basic Law and introduce sweeping anti-subversion legislation.

This is why, despite routine denials, the central government will be putting the heaviest of pressure on new Chief Executive Carrie Lam to ensure that her administration will make this a priority. It remains unclear how enthusiastic she is to go forward with this plan, but Ms Lam has no track record of being bold enough to say no to Beijing.

Photo: AFP/Peter Parks Photo: AFP/Peter Parks

While Ms Lam’s personal views on this matter remains unknown we do know that Tung Chee Hwa, the HKSAR’s first Chief Executive, was an enthusiast for this legislation and needed little encouragement from Beijing to bring in an anti-subversion bill during his fifth year of office.

He failed. But what has changed since 2002 when he tried to get this legislation on the statute books following massive opposition? The answer is that the atmosphere of political confrontation has deepened; tolerance of the opposition has diminished and its legitimacy has been increasingly questioned as both civil society organisations and the media have found themselves in the firing line.

China’s President Xi Jinping, centre, with outgoing Chief Executive CY Leung, left, and incoming CE Carrie Lam, right, at a variety show in Hong Kong on June 28 worry over what form the pending anti-subversion bill will take. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace China’s President Xi Jinping, centre, with outgoing Chief Executive CY Leung, left, and incoming CE Carrie Lam, right, at a variety show in Hong Kong on June 28 worry over what form the pending anti-subversion bill will take. Photo: AFP/Anthony Wallace

As journalists we are only too well aware of this, not least because of the vicious attack on one of our colleagues, Kevin Lau in 2014. More generally we have seen our industry come increasingly under the control of pro-Beijing bosses, while newsrooms have felt the heavy hand of both censorship in its brutal form and self-censorship. No wonder Hong Kong is sliding down the global press freedom list.

What all this means is that the environment for introducing a very tough version of anti-subversion legislation is more profound today than it was more than fifteen years ago.

Back then the FCC joined other opponents of the proposed anti-subversion bill. We did so because the fear then, as now, was that the law would bring the mainland’s broad notion of national security and state secrets to Hong Kong. This in turn paves the way for the prosecution of reporters undertaking normal journalistic activities. The FCC statement said that the proposed law would damage “Hong Kong’s reputation for free-flowing information and possibly spark an exodus of journalists and news organisations.” As it turned out cost pressures were primarily responsible for the exodus but there is still scope for further departures.

Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip speaks to the media about the controversial Article 23 at the Central Government offices in Hong Kong 28 January 2003. The press conference was held ahead of the government's release of an amended draft anti-subversion law after a three-month public consultation ended last month. AFP PHOTO/Peter PARKS Hong Kong Secretary for Security Regina Ip speaks to the media about the controversial Article 23 in 2003. AFP PHOTO/Peter Parks

Memories are short and people have forgotten the extent to which the proposed law was draconian. It was a direct attack on freedom of speech in as much as writing or speaking about matters that could be deemed to be subversive was put on par with physical action to undermine the local or central governments. The previous bill made it clear that (vaguely defined) interests of national security would override considerations of civil liberties and freedom of speech.

As the FCC pointed out, the law could increase “government’s power to restrict the flow of information without a corresponding statutory right to access information,” while at the same time “placing the onus on reporters to determine whether or not information they obtain has been legally disseminated.”

Moreover Hong Kong permanent residents were liable to prosecution for anything written or said outside the jurisdiction of the SAR.

Shortly before the Hong Kong government introduced its anti-subversion legislation in 2002 a new law was enacted in the Mainland dealing with the “theft of state secrets” and publishing of “unauthorised” news. The law was aimed at preventing publication of more or less any material that the state had not authorised as fit for publication. It added to the chill in the atmosphere of the time, as it was clear that this edict could affect both Hong Kong and overseas reporters.

And, just in case anyone missed the implications for the SAR Regina Ip, the Secretary for Security who was mainly responsible for the new legislation and pursued it with vigour right up to the time when she was forced to resign, made it clear that the views of Chinese officials would be taken into account when deciding whether to prosecute the media.

With the hardline came her assurances, as expressed in an Asian Wall Street Journal opinion piece, saying: that the new law would “not have any adverse impact on freedom of expression, or freedom of the press, as they are currently enjoyed.” Her assurances might have been that bit more reassuring had they not come hard on the heels of her now infamous remark that democracy was overrated, using as evidence the mendacious claim that Hitler came to power in Germany as a result of elections.

However, the government propaganda machine, backed by the usual suspects, trundled on peddling the line that opponents of the law were being unnecessarily alarmist and had failed to understand that the legislation did little more than provide a highly necessary backstop in case things got out of hand.

The hollow nature of these claims was laid bare by the behaviour of Chinese officials when, and this was unusual for them, they encountered reporters who did not belong to state run outlets. Famously at a 2000 press conference President Jiang Zemin blew up at a Hong Kong reporter asking a mildly challenging question: “I’m addressing you as an elder,” he said, “I’m not a reporter. But I have seen too much and it’s necessary to tell you: In reporting, if there are errors you must be responsible.”

The same year Wang Fengchao, a mainland official in Hong Kong, said that Hong Kong media should not be allowed to report on Taiwanese or Tibetan independence, even though Beijing has no constitutional right to interfere in matters of this kind which are supposed to be part of the SAR’s autonomous status.

Protesters carry a huge anti-Article 23 banner as they march through the streets of Hong Kong, 01 July 2003, to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE / AFP PHOTO / MIKE CLARKE Protesters carry a huge anti-Article 23 banner as they march through the streets of Hong Kong, 01 July 2003, to coincide with the sixth anniversary of the return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE

Now that Beijing is increasingly dictating how Hong Kong should proceed in all significant areas of local policy formulation, including, of course, anti-subversion laws, it is worth reminding ourselves of the Communist Party mindset that moulds thinking on issues that are seen as challenging the party’s supremacy.

In the world of smoke and mirrors that governs freedom of expression on the Mainland, Article 35 of the 1982 Constitution guarantees citizens “freedom of speech, publishing, assembly and the right to establish organisations, movement and protests”.

That sounds reassuring but it is qualified by Article 38 stating that the reputation of PRC citizens cannot be compromised by humiliating or libellous statements; Article 51 states that citizens cannot, in the exercise of their freedoms, harm the collective interests of the nation, society, or the freedoms enjoyed by other citizens; Article 53 calls for all citizens to “protect state secrets, cherish public assets…respect public order and social morals”. Then there is the killer Article 54 stating that citizens have the duty to protect the “security, honour and interests of the motherland” and that to do otherwise is prohibited.

In other words the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression is severely undermined by sweeping qualifications that render it meaningless. In practice we see that things have, if anything, become much worse as the Xi regime has been using legal means to jail journalists and place ever tighter controls on social media, now viewed by the Communist Party as the main challenge to its vice-like grip on the media as a whole.

The idea of freedom of expression is entirely alien to dictatorships who, in Mao’s famous words, expect the media ‘to serve the people’. The concept of the media as a monitor for government actions, a platform for the exchange of opinions and a reliable source of accurate information is simply nowhere in the minds of the grey men in Beijing who control everything.

More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE More than 200,000 people marched here to protest an anti-subversion law, known as Article 23, which many in this former British colony fear could erode political freedom six years after its return to Chinese rule. Photo: AFP PHOTO/MIKE CLARKE

Therefore in many ways it is a miracle that Hong Kong continues to enjoy the level of free expression that still prevails. The Communist Party worries about this on two levels, first that this freedom contains the seeds of contagion that can spread to the Mainland and second that the free exchange of information in Hong Kong undermines a clear intention to make the SAR increasingly subservient to Beijing.

It will be noted that Hong Kong’s Basic Law also contains an unequivocal pledge to ‘freedom of speech, of the press and of publication’, as stated in Article 27, mirroring the PRC constitution’s similar pledge. However the Basic Law does not contain the get-out clauses that exist in the Chinese constitution.

This should be reassuring were we not in an era where the National People’s Congress Standing Committee seems so keen to ‘reinterpret’ the Basic Law and where China’s commitment to the pledges made prior to the creation of the HKSAR have been placed in question. This year Chinese officials have gone so far as to state that the Sino-British treaty for the handover of Hong Kong is nothing more than a historical document of no contemporary relevance. In other words even an agreement lodged at the United Nations can be airily tossed to one side when it no longer serves the Communist Party’s needs.

No wonder people are so worried about what the pending Article 23 legislation will contain.

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