The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

China – Paper Tiger or Hidden Dragon?

In the lead up to the Crimean war, historian and novelist George MacDonald Fraser noted that a sudden and inexplicable obsession with Russia, as feverish as it was hysterical, gripped the British public. Given that Russian and British mercantile and security interests had been colliding in Central Asia for decades, and that Russia had just made one of its more successful periodic lurches in the direction of The Black Sea, threatening a sudden shift in the global balance of power, the casus belli underlying the French and British intervention on behalf of the Ottomans was eminently rational in that an analysis of the situation reveals clear and clearly understandable reasoning. What MacDonald Fraser is pointing out is that the conflict was undertaken for reasons of high statecraft and geopolitics, but that the public, enthusiastically backing their government, simply did not understand it in those terms. Many analysts are pointing to strong parallels between nineteenth century Russia’s collision with Britain, and China’s resurgence today, and I agree. But what I see as the strongest parallel is that gulf of incomprehension which sits between the actions and decisions of government, and the sentiments of the people.

THE LANDSCAPE OF THE DISCOURSE

Trump Doomsday Scenario

Image Courtesy DeviantArt via SiberanBearOk

The fact is that there are a great many people who have a direct interest in overstating both the soft and hard power of China. This interest is not always and often not purely mercenary. The security services are a case in point. In the marketplace of access to public funding, hyperbole and fashion have as much to do with resource allocation as actual threat, and China watchers see it as their duty to beat the war drums in order to secure the funding and personnel they know are necessary to cope with China’s changing status. They have many helpers in this process. Without going into too much detail, there is a close and long standing relationship between sections of the security community and the popular mass media, and the calculated sharing of analysis and other intelligence for broadcast is an old and familiar method of influencing the political mood to help secure allocations. This kind of marketing, however well-intentioned, does have a tendency to produce less than ideal second and third order effects. The first and most obvious is polarisation of the discussion. Academics and other analysts, upon seeing this overstatement, will immediately respond by understating or dismissing the threat. This is all well within the bounds of the rules of argument, and within the upper circles of the discourse, does not tend to have the effect of creating blind spots or false beliefs. But the way that discussions like these are simplified for mass broadcast leads to the inevitable formation of polarised opinion – one set of outlets and their adherents will scream a narrative of Chinese apocalypse, while the other will swear blind that China is a peaceful nation of public benefactors and perfect institutions. Obviously, neither of these narratives can be entirely true.

I think that on some level, people are well aware of this dissonance. When viewed as either an invincible superpower or benign plucky underdog, China’s status and actions simply don’t make sense, which is why those who wish to cast it in either of those lights need to shout and obfuscate in order to do so. The attenuation of meaning and complexity of an idea travelling from specialist to non-specialist circles is to be expected, but when it comes to issues like this, I personally believe that the discourse itself is the most dangerous part of the whole picture. To that end, I feel it becomes important for everyone who is capable of so doing to push as much balanced, untainted information out into the public domain as possible. A quick search of Google analytics tells me that the most prominent topics for Australians in the China discussion are Chinese foreign investment and Chinese influence/interference.

FOREIGN INVESTMENT

There is not a little hint of the ‘yellow peril’ mentality when it comes to discussions of Chinese foreign investment. Foreign investment needs to be encouraged and should generally be seen as a positive, and the extent of Chinese investment in Australia is relatively small, and largely driven, it would seem, by individuals buying homes and other properties. Given this, however, the proportion, small as it might be, is in fact exceptional. People whose job it is to know these things wish to understand why so many Chinese are buying so much property, and this question is often asked publicly, giving rise to the public’s vague notion that ‘The Chinese’ are buying our country out from under us, when the truth is that China’s slice of the foreign investment pie is somewhere around five percent. But that’s not to say that we can simply ignore Chinese investment. Where there is real concern is in the lack of transparency in China’s state systems. Careful work needs to be done to ensure that Chinese state and corporate interests are not able to hide their investment using Trojan Horse style tactics. So far, there’s not a lot of evidence for this happening, but for those whose job it is to watch these things, this is a possibility which deserves serious attention. The issue here isn’t so much private homes or farms – Chinese ownership of these assets doesn’t really matter one way or another, from a security point of view. The Commonwealth has a duty to protect the property rights of citizens and foreign investors, certainly, but the rights of that second group can easily and very rapidly be suspended. What’s worthy of close attention is the acquisition of intellectual property as a consequence of investment in other kinds of property. As a favoured member of the US military tech circle of love, we have firewalls up around sensitive and critical industries when it comes to foreign investment, and quite a lot of the noise we’re hearing about this is focussed on reminding those in power that these walls need to be assiduously maintained in the interest not only of national security, but the status and trust in which we are held by our closest ally.

INFLUENCE PEDDLING

Much of the current concern around Chinese influence seems to centre around a book with a highly sensationalist title and blurb, but which consists, in fact, of a reasonably comprehensive shopping list of ‘facts’ sewn together with a mixture of valid analysis and typical misunderstandings of Chinese culture and practice. Academia, as always, has been less than helpful, demonstrating their usual weird inability to express anything to the public in a manner likely to correspond with their intended message. The current debate surrounding Chinese ‘suppression of free speech’, and influence in academia is, in essence, a family dispute which is being aired in public. Some academics, many of whom are in fact Chinese, are deeply concerned about the readiness with which universities and schools are snatching up funds in exchange for the establishment of CCP friendly or even affiliated friendship groups, think tanks, or other influence vectors. They also point out, with justifiable concern, that Chinese and Chinese Australian students are vulnerable to these vectors as, to the same degree which they offer support and companionship, they generally demand loyalty and advocacy. This kind of organisation has parallels with every national power’s presence in and relationship with other countries, but in the case of China, the concern is that theirs are blatant, and more than likely effective, recruitment centres for Chinese foreign intelligence assets. While this needs to be watched and controlled, it is certainly not worth panicking about. In a counter-intuitive sort of way, we sort of want our allies and trading partners, as well as our enemies, to have agents here. To a certain extent, the more they know about us, the less likely they are to act in an insane manner, and any reasonably competent security service will know enough about their presence to occasionally use them as a useful diplomatic back channel. I’m not saying we should throw open the gates and let the nosy and indiscriminately ravenous CCP intelligence arms into our house, but a reasonable and reasonably well monitored foreign presence is basically just a sign of normal relations. But I wander from the point. The point is that the current spat we are seeing played out in the media is basically a pamphlet war between academic factions which, in typical academic style, is wrangling over funding sources couched in high concept multisyllables around morality, democratic principles, and national interest, with typical academic blindness when it comes to how their messaging will be received by a public not in the habit of knowing or understanding anything in complex ways. This is not to say that China’s influence is confined to obscure Chinese student associations – the recent furore over Labor funding sources proves this isn’t the case. But I think there is a tendency to see Chinese influence as monolithic and centralised. In some cases it certainly is, but in most instances the hand of the CCP is enmeshed in subtle and complex ways, and there are also a great many ethnically Chinese influence peddlers who are not in any way aligned to the current Chinese government or its interests. As with most great power presence, the dogfighting factions of the home state are more or less reflected in the makeup of the interest groups present on foreign soil.

SUMMING UP

So is China a credible threat worthy of our attention? Yes, of course they are, but we need to remember context. Responsible strategists need to weigh the threat potential of every major player, and it’s vital that we remember that these calculations do not necessarily imply the existence of a live and current threat. What we’re most often talking about is threat in the abstract – a complicated function of potential, current capability, and intent. Does China represent the kind of threat presented by the USSR at the height of The Cold War? On all three of those metrics the answer is ‘no’. Where China is most a threat to the world is in its rapid development, expansion of influence, and frankly toxic attitude to the rule of law both domestically and internationally. The ‘rise of China’ has strategists and historians worried because the lesson of history is that rapid shifts in the balance of power cause war. But strategists and historians are generally incapable of thinking in units of time smaller than a decade, and are generally far more concerned with what can be done than with what will actually happen. This arises from a duty to inform government of potential contingency as part of the process of ensuring readiness for the maximum number of possible futures. What this does not translate to is any valid reason for thinking of China as a current urgent existential threat. As dangerous and morally repugnant as the CCP’s regime is, their interface with the international community is complex, and driven at least as much by a desire for inclusion as by the aspiration, universal amongst large nations, to dominate their region and be a major player on the world stage. This means that we need to tread a fine line. It’s very important that a player as volatile and rapidly accelerating as China be watched and managed very carefully indeed, but a frame of thinking which casts China as an immediate and implacable threat is as dangerous as it is foolish.

Why Isn’t the World More Disney?

Children make us see the world differently, largely by ruthlessly hijacking our televisions and replacing our normal cultural input with talking animals and plucky, courageous teens doing unlikely things in garish colour and at great volume.

Despite this, watching children’s television is usually a fairly uplifting experience. The world is presented as an ultimately just place, with powerful people who stand up for ‘the little guy’, bullies getting their comeuppance and true love springing improbably up out of every corner. The values that we see displayed are unequivocal and absolute:

Justice

Fairness

Compassion

Generosity

Love

While all this can get a little sickly, there are good reasons to be in favour of it. The idea that these are the values that will inform the lives and moral attitudes of our children is a heartening one, and, within reasonable limits, it behoves us all to encourage this kind of ethical propaganda. It does, however, raise a few questions.

Why, if generations of children have been brought up with such excellent moral tutors, is the world such a greedy, unjust, selfish and violent place?

Does the moral education provided by entertainment have any effect at all?

If these lessons are being taught to children literally from the cradle, why do so many of us grow up to be such unconscionable pricks?

I’m afraid that there is only one possible answer, and it isn’t a comfortable one. The only logical explanation for the distance between ‘Disney’ and reality is that children learn far more about morality and the world from actual adults than they do from the television. We can expose them to as much media and entertainment as we like, but the real conditioning of their behaviour is achieved by imitation. It is to be expected, therefore, that when it comes to imitation, children are going to choose real people for their subjects, as much as their fantasy lives might indicate that they are, deep down, destined to become Dora the Explorer.

So, why is the world such a greedy, unjust, selfish and violent place?

It’s because we generally behave as if this is perfectly acceptable.

I’m sure that the vast majority of people, on an individual level, are wonderful. Okay – nice, then. Tolerable? Let’s go with tolerable. In any case, very few parents that I have observed directly teach their children to be selfish little bastards – for one thing, most children need no instruction whatsoever in that regard. So what is it that perpetuates the disgusting state of affairs that we now live in? It is the example of acceptance that we set. Whatever we may say, do, or consent to watch, children are freakishly good at picking up on certain truths, and the one that they seem to be picking up most from us is that we’re okay with things as they are.

Sure, we have our daily two-minutes’ hate whenever we read the Telegraph or watch current affairs programs. Sure, we complain and rail against the state of just about everything and everyone that hoves into view. But, most importantly, we most of us don’t appear to do a damn thing about any of it. It is this that informs our children, more reliably than anything else, that no matter how bad things are in the world at large, there is neither a duty nor a need to try in any way to fix them.

So long as we have the mortgage paid, food on the table and inexhaustible reserves of inane conversation, our responsibility to civilisation and the planet has been more or less fulfilled. I can guarantee that this attitude is keenly perceived and absorbed by the forming minds around us, our example overriding any more didactic attempts at ethical instruction.

I hear you say: “That’s all very well, but how do you propose we fix it? And, more importantly, do you seriously think the average parent has time for activism? What kind of feckless idiot are you?” Which would be fair enough. What I would suggest, though, is that we just try to maintain an awareness of the following two questions:

Am I living my values?

Are those values such that I would like to pass them on to my (or anyone else’s) children?

If we can all remain conscious of these two things as we go about our daily lives, we may actually be able to achieve an incremental gain in the direction of a better world.

 

 

 

The enemy of my enemy can’t write media releases

The world has many religions, and despite all of them being completely true, they somehow seem to find a lot to disagree about. Whether it’s the primacy of the Pope, the divinity of Baby Jebus (or the virginity of his mother), who gets to interpret the bible, whose revelation was last, or whether a thin, tasteless wafer is actually human meat – starting a fight with another religion is as easy as yelling “TRANSUBSTANTIATION”. Which, once you learn how to say it, is actually pretty easy.

Thankfully, however, there are a few things they can all agree on. Masturbation, for example, appears to be universally considered a bad thing. Although I suspect this may just mean they’re not doing it right (and by “it” I mean themselves). And nipples. Nipples seem to be naughty, as long as they’re attached to a woman (and they usually are). But the one thing that really intrigues me is that, even though they can’t agree on who god actually is, somehow they all know that he hates queers, and wants them to be miserable.

Which of course is why an imam, two pastors, a rabbi, a bishop, a monsignor and some kind of Mormom get together to write a media release condemning the ACT’s Marriage Equality Bill. And boy, is it good. And when I say it’s good, I mean it’s a specious, lazy, disingenuous, self-serving, dishonest pile of crap.

Specious because it appeals to the fact that 70% of people identify as religious, while ignoring the fact that an equal number support marriage equality.

Lazy because it talks of marriage equality’s long term risks, without mentioning any of them.

Disingenuous because it says they recognise the “inherent dignity of all human beings”, even while they seek to deny some people the very thing that makes them human.

Self-serving because it admits that their view of marriage is a “faith tradition”, which by definition means the rest of us are free to ignore it.

And dishonest because all it asks is for the bill “to be subject to community consultation”, implying they will cease their objections if the community approves.

All of which goes to show, whenever a diverse group of people get together to compose a religious document, the result is illogical, contradictory, inconsistent and, I have to say, a little boring.

I can’t imagine where they get that from.

Etiquette shmetiquette

Apparently Julia Gillard gave a small bow when she met the Queen, rather than a curtsey.

A curtsey? Are you serious? Why the hell should she curtsey? Why the hell should she even bow? If I was Julia I would have put up my paw for a big-ass high five (probably soon followed with “Don’t leave me hangin’, Liz”).

Honestly… being Australia, and the year 2011, this is neither the time nor place for arbitrarily defined limb movements required to appease the vanity of undeservedly rich old ladies. This is nothing against the Queen, mind you. I have no idea whether or not she expects a curtsey. But the apparent media furore is just ridiculous.

William Hanson, a “British etiquette and protocol expert”, had this to say:

The Queen tops her, the Queen is the top of the tree, so as a sign of respect, whatever her opinion on the monarchy is, she should have curtsied.

He went on to say that Julia was being a bit “churlish”, and “she should have worn a hat”.

Bullshit.

Firstly, the very fact that we need “etiquette and protocol experts” is a sure sign that etiquette and protocol is, quite simply, a load of crap. There has to be a good reason for doing something, apart from someone saying you should.

Secondly, if people are just allowed to invent arbitrary greeting standards, all because they happened to be born into a position of privilege, what’s to stop me from inventing my own? Yes… I think I will. From now on, if anyone wishes to speak to me, they must take a large breath of helium, shout “I am inferior!” as loudly as they can, and then slap themselves on the arse three times.

When you think about it, that’s just as ridiculous as a hat and a curtsey. But at least mine would make for good TV.

Idjit Jones is fiery

Who knew that the humble, mild-mannered voice of the people, Alan Jones, could be such a fiery little wanker? Well, let’s be honest, most of us did. And if she didn’t know it before, now Jacqueline Maley does, too.

Alan was in Canberra yesterday to fill the “Convoy of No Confidence” with the confidence of his bountiful wisdom. Or at least he might have done, if he hadn’t morphed into a splenetic bully at the first sign of a reasonable question. You see, Jacqueline, a journalist from the Sydney Morning Herald, had the audacity to ask the Great One if he had been paid to speak at the rally.

Judging by Alan’s reaction, she may have been better off asking him if he rims on the first date. Not only would the answer have been more predictable, she probably would have been spared the verbal onslaught that followed:

Oh, go away! How can you look at yourself in the mirror? Oh, look at these people… the Sydney Morning Herald, for god’s sake. Am I getting a fee… It’s a stupid question… You just stand there so I can let [the crowd] see who you are.

Once up on stage in front of his adoring fans, he really went to town:

Where is she? She’s gone! Can’t stand and front can’t stand and front can’t stand and front. And when I said the question was insulting… Far from accepting a fee, I’ve actually emptied my pockets for a lot of people in the bush, and will continue to do so…

Too bad the bush needs rain, and not the lint from a $3,000 suit. But why all the rage, Alan? Jacqueline must have really offended you, since you’re usually so nice to people:

    It is absolutely laughable. [Julia Gillard is] off her tree and quite frankly they should shove her and Bob Brown in a chaff bag and take them as far out to sea as they can and tell them to swim home.
    — 2GB, The Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 6th July, 2011 (via Media Watch)
    .
    What do you make of this galoot Garnaut, the Federal Government’s climate change head-kicker? ‘The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence is telling us climate change is happening’ [says Garnaut] – well of course it’s happening, ha ha, [of] course climate change is happening ya dunce, but is it being created by man-made carbon dioxide emissions?
    — 2GB Sydney, The Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 18th March, 2011 (via Media Watch)
    .
    What about this brain-dead Sarah Hanson-Young, from the Greens?
    — 2GB, The Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 6th July, 2011 (via Media Watch)
    .
    You dope, Clover Moore. You dyed-in-the-wool dope.
    — 2GB, The Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 30th June, 2011 (via Media Watch)

Alan’s quite obviously a lovely young man, so his reaction couldn’t have just been due to plain old wankery. Perhap the question is just inherently offensive?

    Alan Jones:
    Are you being paid for being on the Government’s Climate Commission Science Advisory Panel?…

    David Karoly:
    No, my salary is not being paid by that.

    Alan Jones:
    Are you in any, and in receipt of any, benefits or funds or anything at all from the…

    David Karoly:
    I am receiving a travel allowance to cover the costs of going to meetings of the Science Advisory Panel and I am receiving a small retainer which is substantially less than your daily salary.

    Alan Jones:
    So you’re paid by the Government and then you give an opinion on the science of climate change. Have you ever heard about he who pays the piper calls the tune?

    — 2GB, The Alan Jones Breakfast Show, 25th May, 2011 (via Media Watch)

Hmm… David Karoly didn’t seem to mind the question. What else could have made Alan so angry?

    My suggestion is to invite one of the biker gangs to be present in numbers at Cronulla railway station when these Lebanese thugs arrive, it would be worth the price of admission to watch these cowards scurry back onto the train for the return trip to their lairs…Australians old and new shouldn’t have to put up with this scum. Peter’s of Kensington’s range of gift hampers are designed to hold useful goodies –oh there’s a stack of them aren’t there?
    — 2GB, Alan Jones, 7th December 2005 (via Media Watch)

Hang on… that last one’s a bit odd, isn’t it? Oh well, I’m sure it’s nothing.

Thank Crap for Media Watch

Honestly, it’s the best show on TV. In the twelve minutes it would take one of the real housewives of New York or Tittybong (or wherever they are these days) to force their botox-crippled face into a smile, Media Watch will have opened your eyes to all the self-serving, opportunistic, deceptive idiocy that the Australian media has to offer.

It… is… awesome.

Take this episode from June 27. It starts off fairly innocuously, with a story from the SMH website about a female tennis player undergoing a breast reduction, “much to the disappointment of her male fans”. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “OMFSM, that’s unbelievable!”. I couldn’t believe it either. A perfect opportunity to say that male tennis fans had lost “a set to love”… wasted.

We then move on to more important matters. Namely, the poker machine reforms proposed by independent Tasmanian MP Andrew Wilkie to mitigate the enormous social costs of problem gambling. “What problem gambling?”, you ask. The problem gambling that results in nearly 300,000 Australians losing an average of $12,000 per year. That’s $3.5bn, before you’ve even allowed for the flow-on impacts on divorce rates, mental health and domestic violence. It’s an enormous problem.

So is basic comprehension, apparently.

This is what Andrew Wilkie had to say in support of his proposed reforms:

The Productivity Commission … found that 40 per cent of the money through the poker machines comes from problem gamblers.

These are the actual words in the report he is referring to:

The share of total spending … by problem gamblers … was 41 per cent (with the range from the minimum to maximum being 22 to 60 per cent, and with 80 per cent of the estimates being between 27 and 54 per cent)
Gambling, volume 1, page 5.33

Seems like Mr Wilkie’s comprehension is just fine. Let’s see how the good people who run our clubs manage:

  • The proponent of this deal has said himself that revenue impact would be up to 40 per cent.
    – Peter Newell, President of Clubs Australia (Source)
  • [Andrew Wilkie admitted] this morning that his deal with the Prime Minister for a mandatory pre-commitment system will reduce club revenue by up to 40%…
    – Clubs Australia Press Release, 24th November, 2010
  • …if the new laws were introduced it could reduce the club’s revenue by 40 per cent.
    – Joe Kelly, Cowboys Leagues Club
  • We stand to lose 40 per cent of our revenue, and no business is sustainable with that degree of financial loss.
    – Larry Collins, City Bowling Club
  • Our revenue will drop 40 per cent and no business can take that.
    – Geoff Knight, South Sydney Juniors

No, no, no.

As pointed out by Media Watch, most people seem to have lost the two rather crucial words preceeding the 40 per cent figure – “up to”. And if that’s not bad enough, how’s this for a punchline?

Clubs Australia’s CEO Anthony Ball told the ABC’s Lateline that the revenue loss will come from “…casual gamblers like me”. If he’s right, then the Productivity Commission’s 40% figure is completely irrelevant.

BAM!

It’s also worth mentioning that:

  • The 40 per cent figure relates to gaming revenue, not total revenue. Unless, FSM-forbid, clubs have recently stopped selling poorly-assembled parmagiana and carafes of shitty reisling, the impact on total revenue will be much less than 40%.
  • Revenue aint profit. Yeah, sure… if all the problem gamblers stopped playing the pokies, your poker machine revenue would go down 40%. But so would your poker machine payouts.

Idiots.

And speaking of idiots, the final items come from Today Tonight, and can be summarised as follows:

    Miracle cure!

    Oi, government! Pay for my miracle cure!

    Haha, kidding… It might cause cancer.

    Umm… how about… welfare cheats!

    Look at all the mansions owned by welfare cheats!

    Haha, kidding… they’re all owned by rich Channel 7 employees.

Not a bad way to spend 12 minutes, eh?