Letting go of our Misconceptions on China

Letting go of our Misconceptions on China

“The birdcage has become an aviary,” begins Rob Gifford, China Editor of The Economist, over a mid-morning coffee. As a veteran broadcaster and journalist, Gifford has spent his career dissecting the inner workings of the People’s Republic. His first book, China Road, charts a 3,000 mile journey from Shanghai to the Kazakh border. China, through Gifford’s eyes, bears little resemblance to the homogeneous, Orwellian state of Western folklore. Our rhetoric, he argues, is at best naïve in its belief that democracy is a panacea to China’s problems, at worst dangerously simplistic. Gifford sees a people in flux, undergoing technological and industrial revolutions in tandem, destined for either greatness or implosion. “China matters,” he says, “more than it has ever mattered in modern times.” Perhaps it’s time to do away with our dated stereotypes.

Indeed, Gifford’s China sounds rather more like a Huxleyan society, amusing itself with bread and circuses, than a joyless dystopia. “This is the deal the Government struck with the people after Tiananmen,” he says. “Stay out of politics, and you can do anything you want.” And the people want fluff. Social networking sites such as Weibo and Weixin have made Chinese youths “every bit as shallow” as their Western counterparts- the danger being, of course, that this state sanctioned narcissism distracts from the underlying issues of inequality and political freedom. “It makes people less concerned about the bigger questions,” explains Gifford. “Nobody’s interested in politics. They’re annoyed by corruption, they’re annoyed by one party rule, but they have space to make money and to live.” They have, to an extent, been bought off, giving rise to a comfortable yet politically indifferent middle class.

Why, then, should we begrudge them this affluence? Of course, the Communist Party’s growth and manufacturing policies are far from ideal, as is its suppression of individual rights. But arguably, China owes much of its current stability to state capitalism. “It messes with our liberal minds,” says Gifford, “because there is some validity to the stability argument. We can’t deny that.” Nor can we deny that China has prospered where other single party states have failed. “Do you want to be Egyptian right now, or do you want to be Chinese?” he asks. “There are two reasons the Arab Spring didn’t catch on in China. One is the ability of the Chinese Communist Party to be brutal when it needs to be; let’s not mince our words. But the other reason is that there is hope in China. People have hope that tomorrow will be better than today.” And after all, he notes, political freedom won’t feed their families.

But there is still a very real need for democracy. The Chinese have little legal recourse, no independent judiciary and are vulnerable to exploitation by government officials; Gifford sums up the plight of the average citizen succinctly. “I’m being done over by this official. He’s a millionaire, I’m not. I can’t do anything. He’s using his power to make sure I go to prison for expressing my opinion, which is not his.”  For all the prosperity brought by the state, there is still a desire “for basic human justice, to not have the government interfering in your life.”

That said, Gifford believes a sudden transition to democracy would be disastrous for the nation. “If the Communist Party were overthrown tomorrow, and some multi-party state were enforced, China would fall apart. Let’s be clear about that; you don’t build democracy overnight.” Indeed, the global community might also suffer under a democratic China. “China is at a very nationalistic stage. If we had democracy now, the kind of leader who might be voted in might not be the kind of leader that we think we want. He might be a very anti-Japanese, populist leader; it’s entirely possible.” Ideally, then, China would emulate South Korea. “How? By keeping a one-party state until you have a middle class, and political change becomes natural.”

And so, China’s rise must be managed carefully. On the one hand, we cannot ignore or condone the government’s shortcomings on humanitarian issues. On the other, our rather McCarthyist stance on communism and one party rule is unhelpful and must be re-assessed; China is not the bogeyman, and our cries of “democracy NOW!” may be harmful to its people and the global community at large. Or, as Rob Gifford says, “careful what you wish for.”


Oxford professor rejects imprisonment for theft and fraud

Oxford professor rejects imprisonment for theft and fraud

Jail is not the place for thieves and fraudsters, says a professor from All Souls College.

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Instead Prof Andrew Ashworth has proposed fines and community service as alternative sentencing for ‘pure property offences’ in a pamphlet published by the Howard League for Penal Reform. A jail sentence should be imposed only for violent, threatening, or sexual crimes, he suggested.

Released on 14 August 2013, this pamphlet is part of a ‘What if?’ series that aims to challenge conventional attitudes towards penal and criminal justice. Prof Ashworth, the Vinerian Professor of English Law at Oxford University, argued that imprisonment is disproportionate censure for ‘pure property offences’. He questioned: “Should someone be sent to prison and deprived of their liberty for an offence that involves no violence, no threats and no sexual assault?”

The professor told The Oxford Student that he had considered the victim in his reasoning and added that he had first-hand experience of street robbery. He recommended prioritising compensation for victims, which would be less likely from someone behind bars with little income if any. “Community sentences are both restrictive of liberty and constructive, and this needs to be more widely known” he said, but recognised the rarity of compensation being fully paid.

The Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, Frances Cook, commented: “At a time when all areas of public finance are stretched, threatening schools, hospitals and the police, it’s time for our politicians to make some tough decisions on exactly who should be sent to prison.” BBC legal affairs correspondent Clive Colman estimated that this alternative sentencing would mean almost 6000 fewer prisoners, which in turn would lead to annual savings of £230m.

Prof Ashworth said: “saving public money might be a bi-product of the proposals, but it is not the purpose.” In his paper, he points to the abolition of imprisonment for begging and soliciting for prostitution in 1982 as Parliament accepted that the severity of the offences did not warrant a deprivation of liberty. Prof Ashworth admitted exceptions to his stance, saying that if a victim was targeted due to vulnerability, a prison sentence may be worth consideration.

Stephanie Cherrill, a third-year lawyer in Corpus Christi College, commented: “I think the best thing about what Ashworth has said is that it feels like at the moment there’s no consensus about why we send people to prison and (as only he can) he has provided a neat categorisation that could fuel further discussion.” Nevertheless, Justice Minister Damian Green has denied that the government has any intention of changing the law.

George Monbiot: National Columnist’s Man Wilder

George Monbiot: National Columnist’s Man Wilder

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Sean Scoltock interviews Guardian columnist, writer and producer George Monbiot.

“We live in a shadowland, a dim, flattened relic of what there once was, of what there could be again”, George Monbiot.

If not literally feral, George Monbiot, the figuratively rabid Guardian columnist, by trade menacingly encircles cosseted elites. A self-described “unreconstructed idealist” with the self-assigned task to “comfort the afflicted, [and] afflict the comfortable”, Monbiot is renowned for holding those in power to account, from his early path-breaking travel journalism, up to his recent accusation that the Government Chief Scientific Advisor has “disgraced himself and disgraced his office”. Few good causes have not benefited from his involvement; many disreputable ones have suffered on the same account.

Being only figuratively rabid, though, George is bored. He sometimes feels as if he’s “scratching at the walls of this life”, one in which “loading the dishwasher present[s] an interesting challenge”. He goes on to say, in his new book Feral, that “I am sure I am not alone in possessing an unmet need for a wilder life”. It might be thought this need will be more keenly felt by those who spent their youth variously exploring exotic idylls, conning corrupt bureaucrats and being shot at, but the point is well-taken nonetheless. Modernity is dull.

Dullness isn’t to be abated in Oxford’s second largest Costa Coffee – the scene, nevertheless, of our meeting on a sunny May afternoon. Carrying what looks like camping equipment, Monbiot greets me affably, setting up only a pair of sparkling waters between us. Perched on imported wood, sipping from a Polyethylene container, and speaking into a Sony voice recorder – against a background of till-ring and coffee bean Muzak – Monbiot laments that “we are in a situation of what could be described as extreme civilisation.” Among other things, “we have insulated ourselves so effectively from the vicissitudes of life, from risk, from contingency, that we have made it too easy for ourselves. We’ve gained a great deal in providing ourselves with a life that lacks much of the uncertainty that any previous generation faced, but we’ve lost something as well: that something is the excitement of a contingent life”.

What is one to do in this predicament? This is Monbiot’s current obsession: “from my point of view, what I would like to see most is a much more self-willed natural world, full of the large creatures that we’ve extirpated, and I think through that we can discover something that’s missing in our own lives.”

It is also the central message of Feral. By re-introducing past native species – as well as no longer suppressing those artificially curtailed – and then stepping back, our ecosystems will be thereby set on a path of greater diversity along which the ‘ecologically bored’ can find excitement, surprise and delight. The term is ‘rewilding’: both of ecosystems, by “resisting the urge to control nature and allowing it to find its own way”, and of, well, us – the enabling of “a life richer in adventure and surprise”.

Any self-respecting columnist knows how to write for effect; Monbiot the author intersperses deliberately edificatory passages – one, of a kayak trip into Cardigan Bay, where he “feel[s] a kind of peace he never feel[s] on land” – with arguments for the reintroduction to Britain of elk, grey whales, bison…and elephants. “It was such a shock for me to discover that we had a megafauna [large animals] so recently, and I wanted to convey that surprise and amazement and delight in that finding, and especially that our ecosystem still shows strong signs of adaptation to the presence of those large beasts”.

Still, though, elephants? Isn’t he just trying to stir up publicity? “It does wake people up, to start talking about elephants, rather than our more familiar wildlife”, he concedes. “I want people to start thinking big – you don’t get much bigger than an elephant”.

And it isn’t enough, for Monbiot, that there are twice-daily flights from Heathrow to Tanzania: “why should we have to travel halfway round the world to see the kind of wildlife that we used to have? To be able to experience astonishing wonders of the natural world on your doorstep is something which should almost be a basic human right. It’s part of our history, our evolutionary experience, and it should be, if we choose, a part of our lives today”.

The colour of his outlook is patent in the enthusiasm with which Monbiot discusses “trophic encounters”, “self-willed ecosystems”, and “the return of wolves, lynx, moose, wolverines, wild boar, and beavers of course”, as well as in his reasons specifically for letting nature go its own way. He explains: “For me, what I find most thrilling about nature is its capacity to surprise. If we manage it, it can’t surprise us anymore. We prevent those dynamic processes from happening which are constantly throwing surprises as to what successional states they might create, which species become dominant, what can suddenly arise in an ecosystem which wasn’t very visible before: all of those things which I find utterly delightful and fascinating.”

Effect is indeed what Monbiot after. Invariably expressing himself in grammatically well-formed sentences, which express points rarely unaccompanied by illustrative hand gestures, his has been a consistent and loud voice on the scientifically respectable side of the climate change debate. A few years ago, the incessantly repugnant ex-US diplomat, John Bolton, was less-than-affably greeted by Monbiot at a literary festival with an attempt at a citizen’s arrest, on account of Bolton’s role in the Iraq war. From the manufacturing history of smartphones to the ethics of nuclear power, his column issues weekly challenges to its readers, complacently sheltered by their surroundings and in their beliefs.

But strident iconoclasm only sometimes comes off. Does he feel he has changed things for the better? “On a very small scale, I think I made a contribution to reversing the government’s plan to start killing buzzards” – his remarks are best read in light of his modest disposition – “and I’ve had some impact on certain aspects of climate change policy. It’s more about generating debate in places where there wasn’t debate before, and then you don’t really know what your impact is going to be. So, on the bigger issues, I suppose what I’m trying to do is to keep open one bit of political space which would otherwise close up, and to just hold open a few little cracks of light. It’s a minor role, it only makes any sense when lots of other people are acting on the same issues and making use of those cracks that I’m trying to keep open. I suppose what I’m trying to do is to show: here is a potential way forward, don’t give up, don’t despair, because there are possibilities here”.

It’s not, however, only modesty; few of his campaigns have in fact achieved their stated ambitions. I ask him how he maintains optimism in the face of such recalcitrance. “I suppose I keep going because I’ve never quite been able to give up my innate optimism. And I know that madness is defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result, but I guess what I’ve tried to do is to do a slightly different thing every time, approach an issue from a different angle, bring in new information, challenge different interests, and hope that one of those will allow me to find a way in to it which will be effective. And, very occasionally, not very often, I can see some impact that my writing has had”. His optimism speaks: “It’s very hard to measure, but I do believe it has some impact, and that’s worth fighting for. And I don’t want to give up.”

His is the sort of optimism necessary to keep dreams alive, and it is a rare sort. If one were, for instance, told it was a “waste not to follow one’s dreams”, it would typically sound either disingenuous or naïve, depending on the age of the speaker. But Monbiot defies this tendency. With him, there is no discrepancy between authorial spirit and embodied demeanour.

Nor between words and deeds. Upon leaving Oxford with a degree in Zoology, Monbiot briefly worked in the BBC’s natural history unit – welcomed with: “you’re so fucking persistent, you can have the job” – and the World Service, before embarking on an enviably self-willed journey. With only a small advance from his publisher, he travelled to Indonesia, having spent much of his time at the BBC “cruising, while I learnt Indonesian and researched the book I was intending to write”. There, he reported on the intra-migration of urban Javanese to the comparatively undeveloped West Papua. Having gathered information first-hand from starving migrants, disaffected missionaries, and soon to be displaced tribespeople, he exposed the crimes of the Indonesian government in his first book Poisoned Arrows.

Monbiot had at that point a quite definite purpose. “I used the fact that I was free and uncluttered, without family, without a mortgage, without any necessity to pursue a particular career, to go to places where other people weren’t going, and do things that I believed were important even if no-one else in the world believed they were”. In contrast with the majority of journalism, including – he implies – his own, “I had as much time as I wanted. If I wanted to spend two years in a place until I got to grips with what was really happening there, then that’s what I did”.

From Indonesia to the Amazon, spying a similar unreported crime: this time corrupt Brazilian officials and the irrationality of their policies, which were – and are – exacerbating the already too rapid deforestation there. Not dissuaded from such endeavours by being shot at by Brazilian gangsters and beaten up by policemen, it was to Kenya next, and the delicate fate of the tribes of the Maasai and the Kikuyu (where he succumbed to an almost fatal case of cerebral malaria). The respective published accounts are at once celebrated travelogues and impassioned pleas for change.

“I’m very glad I had those experiences”, he says, as we both, in different ways, vicariously enjoy his earlier adventures. “And I’m very glad I didn’t have anything stopping me. I didn’t have any constraints on my freedom then, and that was a wonderful thing. I could be as irresponsible as I wanted to be, and that was brilliant”. It’s just as great a waste to not follow one’s dreams as it is “when young people who have got endless capacity for irresponsibility become terribly responsible. And I would always choose to make use of that level of freedom again”.

I wonder where he might go now, if he had such a choice: “Ecuador, given the conflicts over the oil industry there[…]similarly in the Arctic[…]I’m intrigued by some of the things going on in West Africa at the moment – Mali would be a place I’d be drawn to[…]I would still go back to Indonesia[…]Oh, and Malaysia”. Not that he’s thought about it much.

It’s not just with (lots of) people in (lots of) other fields with which Monbiot (intends to) find himself at odds. His website includes a full account of his personal finances – down to the nearest complimentary cup of coffee – but only a handful of other journalists have followed his example. I ask why this might be. “Some people are embarrassed about having so much, and other people are embarrassed by having so little.” I was expecting more trenchant criticism. “But that’s allied with the fact that journalism is a profoundly corrupt and corrupting industry; and that most people’s financial affairs in journalism would not withstand proper scrutiny, because people are paid by the interests they are supposed to be reporting on. Not necessarily bribed in an obvious way, but people take all sorts of perks from corporations”.

If Monbiot stands in the thematic tradition of Thoreau and Ruskin, then, in his palpable energy and determination, he might also be grouped together with Isaiah Berlin and Christopher Hitchens: both never lost the verve of youth nor the felt need to appeal to youthful hopes. And for those who don’t want to hand over their idealism with their gown and mortarboard, Monbiot illuminates one onwards route: “If [journalism] is going to be a fulfilling and satisfying and honest profession, then you have to be quite predatory in finding and grasping any opportunities to create a bit of space. Because, really, it’s about creating some independent space where you can speak for yourself rather than having to speak for other people, where you can establish yourself sufficiently not to be bullied, not to be told what to do.”

“For me”, he continues, “the sole purpose of having power within the industry is not to have to do what I’m told by anyone, and that’s a wonderful place to be. If you can get yourself into that place, journalism is wonderful. If you can’t, it’s total shit”. Not fancying the latter, I’m told a more hygienic career path requires “a great deal of persistence and bloody-mindedness”. It takes “knocking on doors and being rebuffed, and coming back again for more”, he adds, in the tenor of the sore-knuckled.

Monbiot assures me that he’s “been very lucky, very lucky indeed”, and I believe him – but I get the sense that Feral has been in gestation for some time. As a young man he envied the feckless Brazilian gold-miner and the carefree Kenyan tribesman; he stood awestruck at the forests of West Papua. This is his solution to the Problem of Dull Modernity.

Rewild nature, and we rewild ourselves, he tells me, shortly before decamping onto Queen’s Street. With that, I finish my now flat sparkling water, check the dimmed screen of my voice recorder, and set out onto the pavement divided up by early-evening shadows.

Chen Guangchen: Fighting for democracy

Chen Guangchen: Fighting for democracy

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Perhaps the greatest moment in China’s struggle for democracy so far this century happened was when Chen Guangcheng managed to escape from imprisonment in his farm house to the US embassy in Beijing hundreds of miles away. The world’s two biggest powers were forced to negotiate over one man’s fate. Chen spoke in the Union chamber two weeks ago, and I had the privilege of interviewing him on his way back to London.

On the train, I asked him how he became a human rights lawyer: “The most important reason is that there are so many unjust events in China, and the powerless and voiceless Chinese people need a lot of help in this respect. I don’t even have a law degree, and I never got to study law properly. Whenever I witnessed people in unfortunate circumstances, I taught myself relevant laws to help them out.”

The new Chinese leader Xi Jinping likes to talk about the “Chinese dream”, evoking its American equivalent. Ironically, Mr Chen is a good candidate for someone who fulfilled the dream. Blind from an early age and poorly educated until adulthood, he taught himself law and became a barefoot lawyer who advocates for women’s rights, land right, and the welfare of the poor. The local government actually praised him for years for defending the rights of disabled people. However, the state’s praise ended when Chen organised a famous class-action lawsuit against the local party over excessive enforcement of the one-child policy. After four years in jail, Chen was under house arrest for 19 months.

I asked him why he decided to escape from house arrest: “I didn’t think there was any point in passively sitting around and waiting. I had to think creatively about how to escape.” The blind human rights lawyer managed to escape through the prison-like security surrounding his home, but why did he choose the US embassy? He said “There wasn’t much time to think deeply about the issue; I didn’t even know whether the US would help me.”

Some might say going to the Americans was a bad choice for someone who needs to garner support among ordinary Chinese citizens. The moment he escaped to the US embassy, many Chinese people might have regarded him as a part of the grand US plan to destablise the Communist party. All his activism outside China could’ve been simply reduced to serving the US interest. He responded, “No one will be fooled by such propaganda by the Communist party. The Chinese people are smart enough to discern whether I am being used by America or not.”

Chen is a great idealist, which is perhaps both his greatest weakness and his greatest strength. His thoughts seemed naive at times, and yet perhaps became more powerful for that. I asked his whether he thought that a Western concept of democracy is not appropriate for East Asian Countries like China: “The Chinese Communist Party always says we cannot copy Western democracy. In some sense, they are correct. We can’t simply copy. But why can’t China pull off a similar democracy to Japan or South Korea?”

Some people argue that the overwhelming majority of Chinese people don’t want democracy yet and support the Communist party because it delivered the fastest growth in the standards of living over the last 30 years. I asked Chen whether the Chinese people actually feel this way: “It feels as if I am listening to the Communist party propaganda. People don’t resist the government because they are scared. It’s not because they are satisfied with the status quo. The Communist party obviously wants you to believe they are, but in fact they are choosing not to express their discontent.”

How should the Chinese people defeat this fear? “It all starts from realising how unjust the Chinese society is, and I am confident that they will overcome this fear once they stand up against the party a few times… If you walk in the dark for the first time, it’s scary, but if you do it again, you don’t fear the darkness any more. The Chinese Communist party won’t stop their oppression if you just watch them and do nothing. It will only getter if you start demanding your rights.”

“I didn’t believe in democracy from the beginning. I arrived at this belief through long process. As I took on cases, I realised that there is something fundamentally wrong about the system. Democracy has its weaknesses, but it is certainly the best political system out of all.”

Many commentators have pointed to the strongly collectivist Confucian culture in China and argued that Western-style democracy is not applicable to East Asia. Chen Guancheng disagress. He believes it’s necessary.

An interview with Owen Bennett-Jones

An interview with Owen Bennett-Jones
Owen Bennet-Jones, formerly of the BBC and now working as a freelance journalist, has been working as an international reporter for over 20 years. I had the chance to interview him about his work last week, and came out a little surprised by his confidence in the old-school set-up, as well as his optimistic views regarding the future of professional journalism as a whole.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Jones wouldn’t utter a bad word about the BBC – he’s worked for the corporation for 20 years. “Things are changing”, he said, when I asked whether the BBC was still respected in Central Asia; “when I was first in Pakistan the BBC was the only reliable source of news… But they’ve got their own broadcasters now… However, when something contestable happens, they’ll still turn to the BBC for what they think will be an authoritative account, so that basic credibility is still there… In other places like Afghanistan and Somalia, you don’t have any other reliable sources of news so they are almost entirely dependent on the BBC.”
I wondered out loud that the BBC might be seen as a colonial force, or at least as a remnant of a by-gone era. “I don’t think so… I think the BBC has managed to avoid that.” And so a BBC working as a BBC journalist gets you a lot of respect? “Absolutely… it opens a lot of doors.” Perhaps there’s no greater sign of the esteem it’s held in than that.
How about the internet? Twitter, especially, surely takes the onus off the professional reporter and gives it to anyone with a smart phone in their hand? “Not exactly”, say Jones. He tells me about when he first became a reporter, in Romania. “At that time there were six foreign phone lines… for 20 million people. It was impossible to find… I would literally spend 18 hours trying to get a phone line… now it’s a lot easier.”
And Twitter? Hasn’t it completely revolutionised the way reporters do things? “Not really… radio audiences are up as people demand more content. It doesn’t really undermine us, but’s it an excellent way of gathering news. Every morning I can check all the people follow in Pakistan and within half-an-hour I know everything important that’s going on. It’s a brilliant news agency almost… and I can put my work out there and it helps get it out.”
So the internet has no downsides for the foreign correspondent according to Jones? Not exactly; “You are now expected to file all day, every day, it’s constant demand, and instead of doing just the radio, which I really like doing, I have to TV and Online stuff as well.”
A reporter turning their nose up at the future and embracing the past then? “I like the radio because you can say more. TV is so complicated… and it’s so tight for time, that it’s very difficult to say anything of any significance at all. On radio you can get more in, and it’s a very intimate medium… I can do these long sequences, where I get 15 or 20 minutes together where I do try to explain what’s happening in Pakistan, for example. How it’s working. What’s going on. You could never do that on telly.”
He’s absolutely right, of course. With the acceleration of news media, on all various forms of screen, we’ve lost something. The long story, the journey; the news very rarely involves the reporter’s story. We’re never given the investigation, only its results. Some will say this is healthy. Others might not. Jones clearly doesn’t like it, but he might be just one of a dying breed.
I myself am a newspaper man; where does Jones see the future of printed journalism? “Newspapers now are a lot more analytical. Look at the front page of the New York Time’s, there will be analysis pieces, instead of simply showing the news because everyone has already got the news. Some of those newspapers would hang on to the idea that there still not giving opinions, but the distinction between analysis and opinion is so thin, that distinction is increasingly difficult for them to make. But there is a trend towards journalists becoming more analytical; many people would see that as more opinionated. Of course though, this doesn’t apply to Jones’ own haunt; “Within the BBC context, it’s very difficult to provide any comment at all.”
After I’d said ‘goodbye’, it struck me that maybe Jones would prefer the world of opinion and analysis. At the very start of the interview, he told me that loves journalism because “I like journalists. I like meeting up with my mates around the world and drink and talk politics, which is satisfactory from my point of view.”
It’s satisfactory from my perspective too. I just hope there’s still a place for the old-school journo by the time I get out of here.


Interview: Lord Adonis

Interview: Lord Adonis

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Andrew Adonis is out to fix Britain’s failing comprehensives. The former Minister for Education is Labour to the core, a champion of Teach First, and the driving force behind academy schools. He is, in short, the living embodiment of Tony Blair’s old mantra, “education, education, education.” Hardly surprising, given his own decidedly unconventional background. Adonis’ life story reads like a Dickens novel: aged eleven, Andrew was awarded a scholarship to attend boarding school in Oxfordshire. He hopped neatly from school to Keble, from Keble to Christ Church, and from Christ Church to-where else?- the corridors of power. His rise has been nothing short of meteoric.

And yet, sitting on a bench in Balliol’s Garden Quad, Andrew Adonis seems reluctant to discuss his own experiences of the state education system. To what extent did his schooling inform his policies? He sidesteps the question with such ease, it’s all I can do not to burst into spontaneous applause. “Fifteen years ago,” he explains, “one-third of comprehensive schools were pretty much no-go areas for the middle classes.” I wait for the party line, and he doesn’t disappoint. He credits Labour’s academy programme for “eradicating this long trail of seriously underperforming comprehensives, by improving their governence, leadership, teaching, and facilities.” And now, he tells me, “most schools in those in deprived areas are getting good results, and establishing strong traditions of sending students to university.”

He’s absolutely right. Ish. Whilst inner city schools like Hackney’s Mossbourne academy flourished under his watch, and GCSE results soared, Adonis’ stance on education marks him out as the exception rather than the norm within his party. In fact, for all his Labour sensibilities, the man wields some serious cross-Parliamentary clout. A decade ago, Adonis’ shiny new fleet of commercially sponsored, quasi-independent academy schools won him more than a few true blue Tory fans, with Michael Gove once declaring him to be “on the same page” as the Conservatives.

How disappointing, then, that a gutsy maverick like Adonis should fall into the same trap as every other politician under the sun: Oxbridge-bashing. The elite universities, he tells me, “need to engage in the state school system, particularly with comprehensive schools- much better than they have in the past.” Not this old chestnut again. In his recent book, ‘Education, Education, Education: Reforming England’s Schools’, Adonis continues to rip chunks out of his alma mater’s supposed lack of social engagement. He pins the blame for the chasm “between Oxford, Cambridge…and the majority of comprehensive schools,” squarely on the shoulders of the vice-chancellors, who “do a plausible job of claiming to be tackling it, while year after year little changes.” This is more than a tad unfair, given that Oxford alone holds around 1,500 outreach events each year, reaching 78% of all state schools and shelling out more than £8m on access initiatives, bursaries, and student support.

In his defence, Adonis does acknowledge that state school teachers must up their game. “You need both a stronger push factor and a stronger pull factor,” he says, urging  “the leading universities to encourage their best students to become teachers through the Teach First programme- because that will transform both results and aspirations in schools.” Indeed, he identifies Teach First as “the single most effective policy for attracting more able students from the state system. Because as we all know, it’s about who teaches you and the aspirations they give you.” Well said. Teach First has undeniably been a runaway success, attracting top graduates to inner city schools, and fast-tracking them to leadership roles. Adonis, as a trustee, has played an integral part in the scheme’s development. This much is clear: Andrew Adonis cares desperately about the state of comprehensive schools, and he is willing to transcend party politics to ensure your grandchildren will grow up in a meritocratic Britain. Long may he continue to be an honourary Tory!

Spies need to be left out in the cold…

Spies need to be left out in the cold…

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Edward Lucas certainly knows how to tell a story. He told quite a few during his address to the International Relations Society last Monday night, and not just any old stories either. They were spy stories, and, most importantly, they were new spy stories.

Take the tale of Herman Simm, “the most damaging spy in the history of NATO”, arrested in September 2008, who Lucas has interviewed extensively. A British-trained Estonian right at the top of his country’s defence ministry, he fed secrets to the Russians for over 15 years. During this time Estonia joined the NATO. “He managed to turn NATO inside out,” Lucas said. The message? “Don’t be complacent. Russia isn’t just another emerging economy.”

Lucas first started working in Russia because “it was a way to be paid to find out things I was really interested in.” He has worked for the BBC, The IndependentThe Daily Mail and after working as The Economist‘s Moscow bureau chief for a number of years he became the newspaper’s International Editor. A writer of several books, he makes a witty and engaging speaker, and a charming interviewee. Yet his message is a serious one; Russia is dangerous and corrupt.

The idea that Russia is still seriously spying on the West will sound absurd to many people in this country. We may think that such antics are a feature of the Cold War days, or of James Bond. But not according to Lucas. Not only is Russia still spying on us, but the whole Russian political system is also entirely entrenched in Cold-War style corruption and organised crime that threatens the very future of the country itself.

Sergei Magnitsky’s name might be more familiar than Simm’s, but most people in this country still won’t have heard of him. They should have done, according to Lucas, since he uncovered a “colossal fraud” that showed that “Russia is still run by a sinister organised crime syndicate.” The details of the case are complex, but it involved a web of Russian contacts that stole the best part of $250m from the Russian taxpayer. Why should it matter to us? Well, for Lucas, the real tragedy of the case – aside from Magnitsky’s death – was that the money laundered from the case was transferred through our banking system. Unlike Cold War times, the West now seeks to profit from Russian misdemeanour; that’s the real scandal.

Western silence – Lucas claims that up until now, only the USA has taken meaningful action against Russia – is met by Russian hypocrisy. “On the one hand” says Lucas “the unifying principle is anti-westernism, and that’s the paradox… because on the other hand they need the West. This is where they keep their mistresses. This is where they send their children. This is where they keep their money… It’s a weird symbiotic relationship.”

Is pure criminality or old style Sovietism dictating the government’s direction? “It’s crooks and spooks, where the spooks are crooked and crooks are rather spookish. At one end it is spookishness and the idea that Russia’s a great power. At the other end it’s organised crime just trying to steal money.” Why can’t Russia sort the corruption out itself? “Because Russian officials have their own best interests at heart… and this is true not just of the high echelons of society but it goes all the way down to the humble parts of the administration.”

I put forward to Lucas the view that other former-Soviet states have de-corrupted over the years (according to Transparency International statistics), and therefore it mightn’t be unreasonable to assume that this will eventually happen to Russia. “Well there’s more tolerance of corruption when the cake is growing, so Putin has got away to some extent with a lot of polluting… the economic crisis sharpens fiscal contradictions, but that doesn’t mean you have to be less corrupt. It just means that you need to be more ruthless.”

How about the younger Soviet generation – maybe the children of the dissolution generation can push for reform of the country’s highest systems of government? Lucas admits that there is dissatisfaction at corruption, “but it doesn’t mean that people are willing to engage in the institutional and personal behaviour that you need for corruption to stop.”

I was, to be honest, surprised by just how dark Lucas painted the Russian picture. Clasping at straws a little, I asked him about journalism; was the freedom of the internet going to do positive things for corruption? “Well the Navalny (a top Russian blogger, on trial at the moment in Russia for fraud) case is a very serious case of selective oppression… if you’d have said two years ago that they would have put Navalny in jail, then people would have said ‘They wouldn’t dare.’ Well now he will go to jail… and it shows that the tactic of selective oppression is becoming more and more rigorous.” So that would be a no then.

Again, why should we care? “Because Russia launders money in the West, and in return the West doesn’t care about human rights. It doesn’t squeeze Russia for any of the bad things it does at home.”

Instead, “The City of London rolls onto its back and says ‘please tickle my tummy some more!’”

“You see, once you let dirty money in it washes around and makes everything else dirty too. We have allowed a kind of race to the bottom.”

Lucas told another story to demonstrate his point, this one about two oil companies: Yukos and Rosneft. While the experienced Russia-watcher will know the ins-and-outs of the whole affair, it’s worth going over the details, as Lucas did for the benefit of the less clued up of his audience. Yukos was an oil company that had $8 billion of “bog-standard western investment” in it. Somehow the assets of this company ended up in the hands of “a tiny little Russian oil company called Rosneft, which then becomes enormously rich. They then sought to get listed on the stock exchange (a move that would allow them to make even more money). Both New York and Frankfurt said ‘Sorry, you don’t pass our smell test’ and then the London stock exchange takes a roadshow to Moscow and show off what they euphemistically call ‘more flexible listing requirements’. Rosneft is listed in the most lucrative IPO ever on the London Stock Exchange. Every pin-striped snout is in the trough.”

An audience member raises an objection: can we actually do anything to prevent the flow of illicit Russian money into Britain? “Well I think we’ve got to [try] because if we want to maintain the integrity of our financial system, it can’t be based on money-laundering.”

So what should Britain do about Russia today? “Introduce the Magnitsky list (of members involved in the Magnitsky murder, recently banned from entering America by the US Congress). Clean up our financial system by applying stringent money laundering laws to all those people who abuse our financial system, not just Russians. We should vigorously prosecute all cases of Russian espionage and deport all Russian officials who engage in espionage and perhaps, most of all, support our allies. So if I could do one thing, I would – instead of stepping back from the front-line states – say to them ‘we’re with you’… If you want to defend the rule of law, political freedom and civilisation generally, the place to start is on the Estonian-Russian border.”

Lucas’ message is powerful, but I can’t help feel he blows out of all proportion the role of espionage in this great Russian assault on our liberties. It’s hard to believe Anna Chapman was ever a serious threat to the security of the West, either when she was living in London or New York. If not Anna Chapman, how about Donald Heathfield? Heard of him? No? A final one of Lucas’ stories then:

Donald Heathfield arrived in Canada with the birth certificate of the real Donald Heathfield, who had died as a small child. Educated in Canada and then at Harvard, he went on to have a really stellar career as a business consultant, advising some of the biggest investment companies in the world. He made friends with all sorts of people in Washington, was a professional member of the World Future Society and even wrote a textbook. Lucas: “Everyone I spoke to about him said he was brilliant. He would turn up at the company and only talk to the Chief Executive and financial and information officers… For everyone who basically thinks that the intelligence world is like James Bond, Heathfield’s way is the best way an intelligence officer should work, for he was not only getting information about what was going on, but also very good at spotting weaknesses.” Andrey Bezrukov, as Heathfield is really known, was deported back to Russia with Chapman, but showed really how threatening espionage can still be, working right at the heart of the capitalist system which did so much to bring communism down.

Lucas recognised Russia as a threat to the West in many ways. Firstly, it pours black-money into our economic systems. Secondly, it infiltrates those systems to see exactly how they work and find out what weaknesses can be exploited. And finally, it performs its own dark manoeuvres inside its borders and steals money from the West. Lucas makes a comprehensive and convincing case that Russia is still a threat. Maybe we should all be listening more closely.


‘Deception: Spies, Lies and How Russia Dupes the West’ by Edward Lucas is available to buy now.

The International Relations Society has a termcard full of such interesting events, which can be found on their Facebook page.

Profile: John Howard

Profile: John Howard

For the real Australians and Jubilee-philes among you, you will have noticed that former Australian Prime Minister John Howard just received the Order of Merit from the Queen, which is held by only 24 living people for distinguished services to the Commonwealth.

Having managed to make some time for a packed Union in the midst of the Jubilee festivities, we managed a few minutes of his time before he held forth on everything from the euro crisis to Iraq, Japan and the ongoing issue of Australian republicanism. An unapologetic monarchist – or more accurately as someone who sees the entire Australian republicanism movement as “immature hogwash” – he managed the impressive feat of situating himself further right than even the packed Union chamber.

Not exactly the sort to have much time for beating around the bush, he took off almost immediately on his views on the China-Australia relationship. John Howard adroitly managed to walk the tightrope of US-China relations, navigating the obvious tensions raised by Australia’s close economic partnership with China and security alliance with the United States. Expressing somewhat wearied confidence that Australia can ‘have both’, the former Prime Minister condemned the ‘gratuitous damage’ done by the current Labor government in Australia, accusing them of having ‘mishandled’ the relationship with China – most likely referring to Kevin Rudd publicly raising human rights abuses in Tibet whilst speaking at Peking University in 2008. Having opened his talk on a cautionary note – one that he described as an ‘observation rather than a profound insight’ – he voiced his skepticism about making sweeping generalizations and grand narratives of history (somewhat ironic, given the setting), especially the sweeping generalizations about China’s rise. Arguing that romanticized dichotomies and predictions of conflict between China and the United States were largely illusory, he cautioned against the apparent need to be forced into one camp or another. When prodded further about the issue, he dismissed the allegations of an irreconcilable tension: “You don’t have to choose between your history and your geography. I think you can have both.”

Suggesting that China was being ‘irritated’ by the current government, he also added that although current Foreign Minister Bob Carr has spoken of the difficulties the US military alliance with Australia (ANZUS) creates in dealings with China, Howard claimed China had never raised the issue of ANZUS during his time in office: “it just never came up”. The implication seemed to be either that Australia-China relations have materially altered in the last few years, or that the current government is exaggerating geopolitical tensions for domestic political mileage. Despite claims that China is not a threat to Australian security, in true conservative fashion, Howard made no secret of the fact that he was nonetheless “appalled” by recent cuts to the defense budget. The slight incongruence between these two views went unacknowledged, however.

Howard backed up his sanguine view of China’s rise with the claim that China has “no significant expansionary territorial designs” because it is predominantly pre-occupied by domestic security issues and the transition to matching its current economic liberalization with future political liberalization – describing this issue as an “elephant in the room” in any analysis of China. However, Howard also perhaps oversimplified here for the Chamber, ignoring recent growing tensions between China and its near neighbors over competing claims to sovereignty over the South China Sea.

It wasn’t all about China, however. Howard was not only unapologetic about his staunch conservatism; he also confessed to having little patience with those political leaders who changed their views significantly upon leaving office, “I have no time for the sort”. The thinly veiled swipe was aimed at former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, who gave up his Liberal Party membership in 2009 and has been highly critical of the party which was once his ideological home, reinforced the image of Howard as someone who, though often polarizing, was certainly ideologically consistent and clear about his guiding principles whilst in office. However, equally, it could be said to speak to a dogmatism and resistance to change that, arguably, forced Howard increasingly out of kilter with mainstream Australian opinion.

Howard was entirely at ease revisiting the most controversial decisions of his tenure as Prime Minister. Identifying Iraq as “the most controversial decision” taken by his government, he was quick to denounce the “outrageous and unfair” accusations that evidence of the existence of weapons of mass destruction was circumstantial – drawing a parallel with the use of circumstantial evidence that led to the successful assassination of Osama Bin Laden. On his controversial introduction of a Goods and Sales Tax (GST) in Australia, he made no bones about his opinion that it’s sometimes important to ignore or otherwise defy public opinion.

When asked why he thought that Australia had faced particular difficulties with integrating its indigenous minorities, Howard was reluctant to concede that it was the most significant social issue that had faced his government. However, he was more sanguine about the future for Australia’s aboriginal peoples – “it’s very slow but it’s getting better. And the one thing that comes through is that people want to do it. There’s still a lot of good will in Australian community towards the indigenous population and it’s just a very slow process”. When questioned further about why Australia has had particular issues with integrating its indigenous population unlike countries such as New Zealand and Canada, he paused before answering that “part of it is that I think we had bad policy for about thirty years. You mentioned the word integration – you have to get away from the notion that it’s two separate groups of people. The history of New Zealand is different due to the treaty of Waitangi” (between the British colonizers and its indigenous Maori people). However, equally, opponents of Howard in Australia have used the positive example of the NZ treaty to justify further symbolic recognition of Australia’s indigenous population.

Regarding further issues concerning multiculturalism, Howard did not shy away from defending his much-maligned comments in the late 1980s on immigration and integration. Once the topic of integration of indigenous minorities had been broached, the question of his controversial statement in the late 1980s suggesting that Asian immigration should be “slowed down a little” to support “social cohesion” was raised. Howard responded by arguing that “There was sensitivity some in communities [to certain new groups of immigrants]… I just said well it might a good idea for it to be the right time to slow down…which is a fairly common sense point of view”. Queried on why he later recanted this statement, then, Howard stated simply, “I should have known that people would take it the wrong way.”

Certainly, if Howard was misleadingly accused of dog whistling on this issue, this was nothing compared to the furore over asylum-seekers and accusations of dog whistling against the primarily Afghani and South Asian individuals attempting to reach Australian shores by boat that constituted a major issue in the 2001 Federal election. Howard retorted that “we couldn’t be accused of running a racist policy as the level of Asian immigration rose when I was prime minister. There was no evidence of discrimination against people based on their ethnic identity and there shouldn’t be. But if you don’t control it, people get nervous. And once they get nervous, they withdraw their support for immigration. And when that happens, it’s bad for the country”.

Certainly, Australia and, for that matter, many countries within the European Union have struggled to deal with community tensions over the increasingly multicultural character of society – and political leaders such as Howard have had to balance the benefits of increased immigration levels against the fear of inciting instances of xenophobia such as the Cronulla riots in Australia in 2005 or recent anti-immigrant riots in Greece. It is hence difficult to know what to make of Howard’s tough Pacific Solution for asylum-seekers – on the one hand, it appears inhumane to deport and detain individuals (particularly children) who have done no crime except seek asylum in a foreign country, but on the other it does seem important to manage community feelings about increased immigration levels. Drawing attention to a recent poll in Australia signifying a rise in support for a reduction in immigration – only 41% were in favour of increasing immigration – he added, “whenever people think immigration policy is lax, they turn against it”.

Certainly, Australia faces significant tensions as a predominantly white, Western nation in the Asia-Pacific region and the potential for culture clash with its neighbours is acute. That international politics and international sport are occasionally found in bed together is hardly news. Howard stayed away from elaborating on the controversy over his nomination for the position of Chair of the International Cricket Council, choosing to say only that it seemed obvious that some countries were not in favor of an “activist President”. Given the not-very-well-kept secret that it was the South Asian nations that effectively torpedoed his nomination, all indications suggest that this had less to do with his commitment and enthusiasm (Howard’s passion for cricket is well known) and more to do with his strong stance against corruption. However, given the chance to elaborate, he declined to comment.

Switching topics to the Euro zone crisis, Howard’s views were unsurprising. Reiterating the mainstream economic consensus that the Euro was based on a “fundamentally flawed” view that one could have monetary without fiscal union, he further argued that fiscal union is impossible between nation states who are without the sense of community and national bonds to justify financial re-distribution. The disturbing implication for the future of the Euro was left to the listener.

John Howard is thus in many ways a breath of fresh air; he is a politician who has successfully staked out an ideologically consistent, clear and usually well-justified point of view on a wide range of domestic and geo-political issues. Certainly, in light of the domestic political turmoil that has marked Australia since 2010, Howard’s long tenure can easily be looked back upon with appreciation for the relative stability and prosperity of his 11 years in office. However, equally, for this reason the listener is left feeling something wanting – Howard’s version of ‘common sense’ conservatism fails to inspire or enthuse a particular vision of a better and greater society. Australia’s society may be more “comfortable” since Howard’s term in office, but the issues of symbolic integration of its indigenous, ethnic, gay or single-parent minorities into Australia’s national picture remains far from resolved or advanced. However, one gets the sense that Howard would be perfectly satisfied leaving this to others; Howard’s focus on the cultural symbols of the past, concrete policy initiatives and economic rigour remains both his greatest attraction as a politician and greatest limitation as a national leader.


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