Monday, September 15, 2014

Scotland's Choice

There has been a lot of criticism of the Better Together campaign. Some suggest it has failed to engage the emotions, some that it was too negative (it is quite hard to campaign positively for a No vote, which is why the SNP chose the question that they did). Some, who expect No to win, have said that such a victory would be "winning ugly".

There has been little criticism on the Yes campaign- they are believed to have "won the campaign".

I, for my part, beg to disagree. Yes Scotland have comprehensively lost the intellectual argument. They have been totally destroyed. From currency, to healthcare, to pensions every argument that they have put forward has been eviscerated. It is not that Yes Scotland has more emotion that bothers me- it is that they only have emotion. All rational considerations have been ditched and those who raise the perfectly valid questions of how- practically- Scotland can avoid serious problems, are dismissed without any attempt to answer the questions. 

The Yes Scotland prospectus for independence is the ultimate dodgy dossier- it is complete bullshit. A valid proposal for government can not simply rest on blind assertion and bluster. Salmond appeals constantly to the emotions, but this schtick is an insult to the intelligence.

Then there is the way that the Yes campaign has conducted itself. Vandalism of posters often happens in elections, sometimes speakers are heckled, it is part of the democratic process. What is not democratic is the wholesale use of intimidation, and threats. At times, especially in the West of Scotland there has been an atmosphere of mob rule. The hectoring of Nick Robinson of the BBC is frankly disgraceful- and he is not the only one who has received threats. The way Jim Murphy and many other politicians have been drowned out by chants, been attacked with eggs and been denounced as traitors has made me wonder what kind of Scotland is being created here. The problem is that it is pretty difficult to have a reasoned debate when one side has lost its reason. The rage of Yes supporters is brutal and scary to watch- and some of things that are being said would not be out of place in a fascist rally.

The referendum is not likely to give Yes the kind of support that would enable them to claim national unity- and their attempts to suggest that if Yes wins then No voters should celebrate is an insulting and casual dismissal of strongly felt opinions. Likewise their outrageous comments that those who oppose the massive economic and political dislocation that a Yes vote would bring are not part of "Team Scotland". It is not patriotic to propose huge and wrenching political and economic change and then attempt to dismiss those who oppose this as "traitors". To my mind the "traitors" are those who are seeking to mislead the Scottish people about just how long and difficult a process the creation of a separate Scottish state would be.  This referendum has been divisive and dangerous, and no matter who wins, it will be difficult to heal the wounds that have been created. Now, the process of healing must begin, but the Yes campaign should understand there has been emotion- and increasingly that emotion is abiding anger at the way that they have dismissed so lightly all the serious concerns that any rational observer would have at making such a big step. There are many who are no longer sure that they would have a place in a separate Scotland, those who feel genuine fear at the hatred that the Yes campaign has unleashed. 

In the end I believe that my concerns are held by the majority of the Scottish people and that the case for separatism has not been made. Once I might have said that Nationalists and Liberals shared many of the same values, but now I reject the SNP utterly and would actively campaign to defeat them above all else. I reject their irrational and dangerous politics. I reject their divisive tactics and their threatening and intemperate language. I now not only hope for the defeat of their attempt to break Britain, but for their removal from power at Holyrood. I would even welcome the return of more Conservative MPs and MSPs if it means the defeat of the SNP.

A narrow and nasty sect has offered nothing but bluster and bullshit. I hope and pray that they are comprehensively defeated this Thursday, and that then we can get on with the wholesale reform of the UK that has been delayed and distracted by this referendum campaign.   

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Price of Scottish Independence

With three weeks to go, the Scottish referendum debate has been worse than disappointing: it has been dishonest. The fact is that neither side has got to the crux of the argument. Although some have suggested that the Better Together campaign has looked to the head, while the Yes Scotland looked to the heart, in fact both have ignored the fundamental question of identity and the depth of the crisis that Scotland faces.

The Better Together crew have failed to provide an effective emotional defence of the common state. The have mostly focused on the issue of what currency a separate Scotland would use. because they are a more heterogeneous group, they have failed to articulate a vision for the future, and to be honest just talking about the economy, while unquestionably winning the intellectual argument, does not inspire passion.

By contrast Yes Scotland has all the passion, but their positions, from currency to Europe, from pensions to health care have been more or less complete bullshit. Salmond's bluster is provably false, and his shtick that Scotland would repudiate its debts if a currency deal is not reached, is way beyond irresponsible- it is economic suicide.

Yet at this point, the battle is still not yet lost and won, and the reality is that the politicians on both sides have not levelled with the Scottish people. The crisis of Scotland is not- or at least not merely- a crisis of governance. Scotland has horrendous problems: an unhealthy, ageing population with epidemics of heart disease, diabetes, cancer and all the other problems of bad diet and no exercise. Hundreds of thousands do not make any economic contribution, but rely on a variety of welfare payments- the state sector is the majority of economic activity and the result is a requirement to maintain constant deficits and increased debt. All of this comes on top of an over reliance on the financial sector for both jobs and tax revenues. Scotland needs not merely investment, but a whole change of attitude. Yes Scotland thinks they have a moral argument, that self reliance will come from political separatism, but this kind of social masochism shows a pretty dubious sense of human nature.

An independent Scotland- particularly if it intends to be a member of the European Union- must cut its deficits and reduce its debt burden. This must take place at a time when the banking sector, and its tax payments will be moving South. The entire shape of the Scottish economy will have to change, and- as when such wrenching changes took place in Eastern Europe- it will be whole generations that will get hurt. The pensions system is unsustainable, for example, as is the NHS without significant overhaul. 

The long term might show that these sacrifices would be worth it, but no one has had the courage to tell Scotland that the price of independence will cost a whole generation.

Of course continuing in the UK has a price too- there will need to be similar changes no matter which constitutional future is chosen. Yet, as part of a bigger state there would be more resources to deal with the crisis, which is why I have supported the Better Together campaign from the get-go. 

However it is not just about the money, it is not just about the need for radical change, it is about who we are. The break up of the UK ends my country. My loyalty is with a multi-national, European state with a rich culture, a proud history and the best flag in the world. If the break up happens, I will be stateless.

Worse, the debate until now has been civilized- if shallow, dishonest and misguided. Divorces usually only get nasty when the lawyers are called in. If we call in the lawyers on September 19th, you can bet that there will be a backlash- much that we have taken for granted will be lost and bitterness and rancour will inevitably emerge- even in the most civilized divorces much is regretted.

So I plead with my fellow countrymen and countrywomen- for the sake of the children, of whom I am one, keep the common state and work to solve our problems within it. Independence carries a huge cost, which Salmond has refused to talk about- he offers roses all the way, without saying that it is a road of blood, sweat, tears and toil to build a new state: that dishonesty alone is appalling, but the economic, political, social and emotional cost of the end of the UK is a price that will take a century to recover.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Russia as a failed state

I make no apology for maintaining a string of posts on the subject of Russia. The fact is that Putin's mafia state, nuclear armed as it is, poses an existential threat to the freedom and prosperity of the West and to the peace of the whole world. Russian-sponsored brutality in Ukraine, now thrown into sharp relief by the appalling mass killing of flight MH17, should disgust all civilised human beings.

The initial shock of that act of barbarism may be wearing off somewhat, but its place is emerging a whole variety of questions. From "how could they do this?" has emerged another question: "What does Russia want?", yet as it becomes clear how disconnected and incompetent the Putin regime has become, and even bigger question is emerging: "Can Russia survive?"

At first glance, such a question may seem to be simply absurd, or to play into the hands of the most paranoid Putinista. Yet, the scale of the human rights breakdown under Putin is now so complete, it is legitimate to ask, in the twenty-first century, "if Russia has such a warped structure that it simply can not be a free society, should the country even continue to exist?"

For there is little doubt, that even without the 14 other Soviet Republics, Post Soviet Russia remains an Empire both in fact and in spirit. For example, there are over 185 different national groups, speaking over 100 native languages in the Russian Federation, of which 27 have some official status, although only Russian is designated as the state language. Although Russification, official and unofficial, has continued, the percentage of the population that is ethnically Russian is in steady decline- Russia is growing more diverse and not less. 

That goes for the economy too. Many people, used to the glitz and obvious wealth of Moscow and St. Petersburg can be totally shocked by the contrast, not merely with the seedy and run down state of most other cities, but the dire poverty that exists even in the rural areas close to the capital. Russia has one of the largest wealth gaps ever seen in human history, with brutal poverty literally within sight of the richest individuals on the planet. But such astonishing inequality is the result, not of entrepreneurial graft, but of the capture of the natural resources of the country by a self-selected criminal class. Rent seeking and exploitation are the watch words of this mafia, and it has crushed the vast bulk of the population. The creative and intelligent class are driven to the margin or seek better lives outside the stultifying control of the Kremlin propaganda machine.

The last imperial state, stretching over huge tracts of land, Russia has not been able to deliver its people the prosperity that possession of more land, more gold, more energy, more agricultural land would seem to imply. In fact, it is the reverse, Russian leaders have found it impossible to create a coherent political entity without recourse to a brutal level of violence.

The result of such oppression is a nation of slaves. 

In short, as Max Skibinsky- himself a leading light in one of the most creative places on the planet, Silicon Valley- says in a somber and thoughtful blog, it may well be that Russia as a meaningful social concept has going beyond the event horizon. That in the world that is opening up through technological exchange, Russia in its current form simply has no place. Even if states survive the impact of anarcho-technology, then Russian political primitivism means it can not be one of those states.

I am slightly less pessimistic than that: after all in 1946, German militarism was deemed to be so ingrained into the character of the German state that the Morgenthau plan proposed not merely the dismantling of the political state, but the dismantling of all industrial capacity, so that Germans could only be ostensibly peaceful Yeoman farmers. In fact Germany has emerged as a powerful industrial economy and an admirable democracy.

Yet Germany, of course, has had little choice but to address the horrors of the Hitler years directly. The second defeat gave Germany no option but to change, and change radically. In a way, one might argue that Russia, has been defeated in the Cold War, but not defeated enough. Putin, as Hitler, has been able to claim that Russia was not defeated in the Cold War, but was betrayed. This "Stab in the back" thesis has allowed Russia to evade the moral responsibility for the hideous crimes of Stalin- and it is surely a moral crisis that has allowed the pillage of Russia by the mafia around Putin to continue unchecked. The logic of this argument would be that the West should restore the Cold War policies of containment and slowly strangle the Russian state until they too have no choice but to come to terms.

The problem with this argument is that fighting the previous war may not allow us to recognise the still greater challenges in Asia until it is too late. Although Putin crows about his relationship with China, it is a huge blunder for him to imagine that a resurgent China is anything but a powerful threat to Russia in northern Asia. Yet he is a mediocre mind, and as the disaster in Ukraine now shows, a deeply irresponsible one too.

Living in Estonia, I am surrounded by many of what Max Skibinsky, in a happy phrase, calls Euro-Slavs. These Evro-Russky with their acculturation to democratic and free market norms may yet prove to be a vital resource in the resurrection of the democratic and open minded Russian traditions that have stayed dormant since the burning of Novgorod in 1570

Maybe, one day, it is not too fanciful to think of a new Russia, perhaps with its capital in Ancient Novgorod, rather than Czarist St Petersburg or Stalinist Moscow, emerging, like the Bonn Republic of Germany and finally seeking to heal the moral wounds that beset Russia like a cloud of mosquitoes.  


Sunday, July 20, 2014

Dishonourable, Disgraceful and Despicable: Putin the Blunderer must pay the price for his brutal incompetance

For the last few months the government of the Russian Federation has been on the offensive on multiple fronts. In cyberspace, in Syria and Iraq, Russian government agents have been active against Western interests. Internationally, through RT and other mouthpieces, official or not, Moscow has created a slick propaganda machine to set out a case against Western policies. Domestically in Russia, of course the free media has finally ceased to exist. Increasingly, Human Rights have been crushed and what passes for Russian political culture is wrapped in a brutal authoritarianism whose strident nationalism strongly resembles those of the Fascist dictatorships of the 1930s.

As this blog has warned repeatedly, Russia has become an enemy power. 

The image of Vladimir Putin has hitherto been one of an ice cold, intelligent, strategist seeking to probe and develop weaknesses in the Western system- a system that he has maintained an unrelenting hatred for. 

Yet as the Ukrainian crisis has unfolded, many individuals, including- most famously- Angela Merkel, have remarked that Putin seems to believe in a vision of reality that is increasingly disconnected from the truth. His increasingly rambling statements might still be said to show a calculating chess-playing mind, for how else could we explain the simple, bare faced lies that he casually drops into his comments on the world scene, especially concerning the Ukrainian crisis?

Yet if we step back a little, what shocks us now is not the intelligence or calculation that Putin demonstrates, but his banal mediocrity. His vision of the world is still rooted in a backward looking nostalgia for the failed Soviet state. He offers only an updated version of the old brutality. A chess player might adopt a strategy that could create feints, offer sacrifices for bigger gains, but Putin does not do that- he simply uses the old uncompromising Soviet steam roller. As a result, even in countries such as Ukraine, where the image of Russia, even post the overthrow of Yanukovych, was still positive, Russia's image has collapsed. Indeed, across the planet, Russian influence is in meltdown.

All that was before, of course, the horrific events concerning the downing of flight MH17.

Now Russia stands accused of complicity in a truly vile crime. The immediate evidence is quite clear- the attack was recorded by a variety of different sources, and all of those sources point unrelentingly to one weapons system, one launch point, one crew. A crew ostensibly fighting to separate the Donbass from the rest of Ukraine, but in fact comprising Russian army and special forces working to the command of the Kremlin. The phone calls from the local commanders to their Russian commanders inside Russia itself, and the boastful tweets-subsequently deleted- that they put out, show without question who fired the missile that killed nearly three hundred innocent people.

I have little doubt that those who launched the missile probably did not intend to down a civilian airliner, but that is not really the point. Moscow gave these weapons to the frankly low grade forces they have created in the Donbas without thought for the consequences. That those consequences have proven to be so dreadful simply underlines the brutal and arrogant stupidity that has become the hallmark of Putin's policy. This is not merely a crime, it is a blunder.

Meanwhile on the ground these same Russian forces have disrupted the gathering of evidence and restricted access to the crash site, while all the time attempting to steal or destroy evidence. This botched cover-up can achieve very little, except increase the agony of those left bereaved. However it also multiplies the global anger at the initial crime. If it is true that such theft has included the looting of the bodies, as has been alleged, then revulsion will turn to something much, much harder. As it is the conversations between Putin and the Dutch Prime Minister, for example, far from calming the situation, have left the West even more furious. Dumb insolence is a pretty stupid tactic in the playground, but on the global stage and in such crisis, it is close to political and economic suicide.

Vladimir Putin is a disastrous leader. He is leading Russia straight off a cliff. Unless he can make an intelligent play in the course of the next week or so, then the scale of punishment that will be exacted Russia will include total isolation and drastic sanctions which will be designed to remove Russian influence as quickly and completely as possible. David Cameron has already indicated that the MH17 catastrophe will lead to a discontinuity in Russian relations with the wider world- and as the EU considers its next moves, even those countries with most to lose- France- or who are most penetrated by Russia- Italy, some parts of Germany- are being dragged along by the determination that unless Russia changes course, then a second cold war is already upon us.

That new cold war is already being fought in cyberspace and by proxy in Iraq and Syria as well as, of course, in Ukraine. The West should recognize this and offer sufficient military assistance to allow Ukraine to first to defeat the so-called separatists and then aid the rebuilding of an open and prosperous Ukraine. 

We will not get back the lives of the passengers and crew of MH17, or indeed those killed in Ukraine as the result of Vladimir Putin's brutality, but we can make sure that justice is done. The leaders of the so-called separatists must receive indictments and face trial, either in Ukraine or in the Hague.  As for Russia, Putin has chosen a brutal and incompetent path. His personal image is trashed beyond repair. Putin is a tyrant, and such men eventually receive judgement too. His despicable lies and brutality have brought dishonour and shame to his nation. Although in such an oppressed environment it is difficult to truly know if he is popular or not, but the West should spare no effort on relaying the truth to the Russian people and encouraging a new civil society to grow, even while the neo-fascist Putinist chrysalis still encases the country. 

One day Russia might be free. but Russian freedom is a subject for another, different blog.
  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Doing what you know

The advent of a significant Ukrainian advance in the Donbas has opened up scads of poorly informed speculation in the Western press. The fact remains that Russia has increased its direct involvement in the conflict, not reduced it. The so-called "rebels" are Russian led, Russian equipped and indeed much of the military personnel is Russian too. The Ukrainian-Russian border is being held open on the Russian side in order to permit the transit of large amounts of heavy weapons to the puppet army that Putin claims to deny all knowledge of.

This is a flagrant violation of international law- it is an act of war against a sovereign nation in the same way that Iraq's war against Kuwait was in 1990. Permitting this outrage to continue is extremely dangerous. 

Russia is a mafia state led by murderous criminals and their contempt for law, both domestic and international is a threat to global peace and security, not merely the health and prosperity of Ukraine. Russia is an extremely hostile power and has aggressive designs in other places, apart from Ukraine. How that aggression is channeled and contained will be the critical question over the next couple of years.

Yet the fact is that Putin's aggression is being driven by simple panic. The domestic economy, already weak has taken a substantial turn for the worse as the folly of Putin's decision to build Russia as a Petro-state is exposed by the shale gas revolution. For all the bombast of "Gazprom to be worth a Trillion Dollars" hype of a few years ago, we can now see that Gazprom is in fact in increasing financial difficulty, while small entrepreneurs that might have been the seed corn for the future have been destroyed and as many as three million Russians have fled the cranky authoritarianism of Putin.

The fact is, as many Russians now say privately, Putin is now trapped by his own system. He only trusts a small circle of informants- and they simply tell him what he wants to hear. Poll after poll shows Russia is now increasingly disliked across the planet, but in the Putinist bubble, it has, apparently, never been more respected. The economy is being mauled by the breakdown in confidence caused by Russian aggression, but in the gilded Kremlin of late stage Putinism, the crisis has yet to break.

"When you don't know what to do, you do what you know"- and Putin's crushing of civil liberties and total subversion of the economy for the greed of his cronies is pushing Russia to the brink of crack-up. The voices of Russian dissent, cowed and stilled in public, are growing more angry in private. The talk around the Russian kitchen tables is sullen and bitter.

The death of Valeriya Novodvorskaya one of the bravest and most uncompromising dissidents both of the Soviet and the Putinist system reminds us that there are many who do not share the Fascist contempt for the individual that lies at the dark heart of Vladimir Putin's system of cronyism. A moral renewal is still awaited- even nearly a century after the criminal Lenin seized power, his legacy remains as abject and as poisonous as ever.

The attack on Ukraine is a turning point, but it is not likely to lead on to fortune. Rather the crushing of dissent is more likely to increase social pressure to the point where Moscow too, could be facing its own Maidan. Whether that happens this year or next or in two years time, is an open question, but 61 year old Putin is only two years off the Russian male life expectancy now, and even if he lacks the vices that cause such a low life expectancy, he is already a distant and solitary figure to many younger Russians. The national conversation is already moving on, and the frustration of the young urbanites is already moving towards contempt. Yes, it is true that the large mass of provincial and rural Russia still looks towards the "Little Father", the Republican Czar, but ultimate power and control rests in Moscow and St. Petersburg- and here, there are many who are already very unhappy indeed.   

 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The closing of borders and of minds

The latest repressive measures instituted by Vladimir Putin includes wholesale travel bans on millions of Russian citizens. As in the Soviet times, foreign travel is to be made difficult and expensive. Anyone with any contacts overseas is suspect, and the smell of treachery is a miasma over anyone foolish enough to speak out against the mafia regime. Those who believe in a different, more open way for Russia are now themselves seeking to leave, before it is too late.

The lie machine of Russian State propaganda has stepped up its twisting of the truth and indeed there is now significant evidence that the KGB apparatus of bugs, wiretaps and snooping- which dwarfs anything in the West- is being used to discredit those who oppose Russian aggression in Ukraine. The open season unleashed on the leaders of Poland is being openly spoken of as an act of Russian political aggression against the fiercely anti-Putin government in Warsaw.

So far, so unsurprising. Russia is using unconventional means, but its aggressive goals are all too conventional and familiar to those who have studied the KGB. Yet the fact is that the mental health of the Putin regime has now all but collapsed in the face of its own incompetence, violence and paranoia. Brutal, cynical and useless, the Russian state apparatus can no longer bear to look at itself in the mirror of Western scorn. Instead of opening up, Russia is closing, withdrawing and weakening still further. They now regard the Internet as a point of weakness and many senior Russian leaders are forbidden from using email. It may be more secure, but it is also far less efficient. Yet close minded paranoia dictates that security is everything.

As the Russian education system drifts and the country falls into the second division in the international rankings, the closing of Russia's borders is being matched by a closing of Russian minds. It is a fatal process that ultimately can only lead to collapse. I have often wondered that if Russia is structurally incapable of becoming free, then perhaps it would be better for the country to break up, at least giving the component parts of the Empire the chance to create open, creative and wealthy societies. The three million people of Mongolia are clearly in a happier and increasingly more prosperous place than those nations like Buryatia or Tuva that have remained a part of the Russian Imperium. Of course it directly feeds Russian fears to say so, but as Putin repeats the failures of his Czarist predecessors, it seems clear to me that the process of collapse identified one hundred years ago in What is to be Done? is still on-going, and was merely delayed by the modern dress Imperialism of Soviet Socialism.

What a sharp contrast there now is between outward looking and increasingly open China (albeit also increasingly assertive) and the darkening closure of Russia. The Chinese government, for all its faults, has an open and modernizing agenda which makes sense, the Russian government relies on greater theft, greater criminality and greater paranoia. 

As the West shakes itself free of Russian energy dependency, and as they seek to counter the unconventional war that Putin has launched against western democratic values, the international influence of the Kremlin will decline. Isolated and internationally hated, Putin has set a course that will lead to failure.

Thirty years ago I was told that support for the "Captive Nations" was a "lost cause". Now I am being told that Putin is- like the USSR- an unassailable fact of life. In fact I am more convinced that ever that in time the path Putin has followed will utterly destroy his Empire. Unless Russia can provide freedom and opportunity to its myriad national citizens, then it serves no purpose, save to be the "prison of nations". History shows that this is not a position that can be sustained in the long term. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

China and the Meaning of Freedom

I have recently visited China. It was not, strictly speaking, my first trip to the Middle Kingdom, since I visited Shenzhen last year and have visited Hong Kong twice before. However, it was certainly the first time to visit the heartland of China- Ningbo in the Yangtze delta and Beijing. I had always felt somewhat reluctant to visit an officially still Communist state, since Soviet Socialism remains in my mind the moral equal of National Socialism. Both systems embody a contempt for the individual, whether that contempt is manifest as race hatred or class hatred is rather beside the point. Of course I was aware that Deng Xiaoping had ended the most egregious repression, and have written on this blog that the arrest of the Gang of Four was an act of liberation in its way as powerful as the fall of the Berlin wall. Nevertheless I had rather ambivalent feelings as I boarded the flight to Beijing.

The first thing to say about China is that it is now in many ways a highly advanced country. The images of thousands of bicycles and party cadres in Mao suits is as hopelessly out of date as Capitalists in stovepipe hats. Beijing now looks like Los Angeles, only cleaner, better planned and more modern. It is a city of cars, and of new highways. The statistics speak of hundreds of millions of people being lifted out of poverty, and the reality is, if anything, even more impressive. Modern China is as advanced as anywhere in the world. Of course the economic numbers still speak of uneven and incomplete progress, but in the vast and burgeoning cities at least, the impact of huge and well educated populations speaks of a genuinely emerging powerhouse. Of course such power carries with it growing pains: once the price advantage of cheaper Chinese labour carried all before it; now the more complicated geometry of competitive advantage is leading to some industries leaving China, while others are refocusing their investments. Yet far from speaking of Chinese decline, these changes speak of emerging opportunities as the economy matures and develops. Higher value added and new technology, together with an immense investment in physical and human infrastructure, through education, is permanently strengthening the economic and social structure of the country.

The rise of the Chinese educated elite is, perhaps the most impressive thing about the country today. Unlike the cynical anti-intellectualism that is the stock-in-trade of the UK, and to a degree the USA, China genuinely believes in the power of knowledge. Education is the imperative for success and in a way the social disruption of the bloodbath of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution has reset Chinese society- purging society of the bureaucratic obscurantism that was the cause of national weakness for centuries. Nevertheless, the process of political change is on a different time scale compared to the rapid economic and social change and it is clear that there are now significant friction points. 

China's leaders, however, still deeply fear the instability that tore apart the country after the fall of the Manchu dynasty. No matter what their vision for the future, the contending forces inside the Chinese Communist Party value order and stability above all. And of course there ARE contending forces in the Party. The late Zhao Ziyang, a former Prime Minister, deposed after the Tian-an-men protests of 1989, in his memoirs, smuggled out of the country after his death, was convinced that the future for his country should include Parliamentary democracy, while others speak for a neo-Maoist centralised state. In fact the high organs of the Party navigate a kind of centre ground, neither abandoning repression nor utterly crushing freedom of expression. The atmosphere, however, that I found was one where great changes are in the offing. The private frustration over corruption has a limited official sanction for discussions in the media, but this public forum is inadequate to the task. The fact is that, privately, much of the public conventional wisdom is openly derided. There is a real sense that the Party is now becoming a brake on Chinese progress, and not- as before- its agent. More pluralist ideas are the common place of individual discussion and the public discussion about corruption, environmental degradation, poisons in the food chain and so on telegraphs much greater questions about the legitimacy of the Party.

Yet the Party cadres clearly know this, and indeed many of them indeed support more democratic openness. In a sense the central bodies are reluctant to impose too great restrictions, partly because they fear a backlash, but also because many do them simply do not believe in repression. This was what I did not expect: the political establishment of China is itself already far more diverse and pluralist than its public face would make you believe. The discussion is not about whether political changes are coming, but rather how far reaching these changes should be.

One evening our delegation was taken to a karaoke bar, and in a private room, we relaxed and got to know our hosts for the evening. Drinking contests were had, and hopefully we did not lose too much face, even as we sang different songs. One of our hosts selected a song: George Michael's catchy "Freedom". We came to the chorus, but only the backing words were shown, nevertheless we sang the magic words "Freedom, Freedom, you've got to give for what you take". At the end our host looked me in the eye and in the old Soviet way that I remember so well, he knew I knew. We said nothing, but I gained a very large bear hug in return.

China is not free. Yet the power of Freedom is strong and I think there is a deep and powerful wish in the country to open up society and the political life of the country to match the unquestioned economic development. If Taiwan or (South) Korea can emerge from authoritarianism I think China can too. After all the great achievements since 1976 rest upon the end of the evils of Maoist totalitarianism and the emergence of a system that was merely authoritarian. 

What could China not achieve if it could make a peaceful leap from authoritarianism towards a democratic system?