UK cannot prove nerve agent has Russian origin, despite earlier claims

Porton Down has been forced to admit that they have been ‘unable to verify’ if the nerve agent that was used to poison ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter was of Russian origin. Experts at Porton Down, the MoD’s centre for science and technology, were unable to confirm the source of the weapon.  This follows after Porton Down were also unable to determine if nerve agent used was indeed Novichok, stating it may be a similar agent.

Boris Johnson however stated “there’s no doubt” that this agent came from Russia, heavily damaging his own credibility, and the government’s.

The government remains convinced the attack was ordered and conducted by the Russian state. Porton Down this afternoon stated, “We have not identified the precise source, but we have provided the scientific information to the Government, who have then used a number of other sources to piece together the conclusions they have come to”.

Analysis from Iwan Doherty, Founder and Editor in Chief

Boris Johnson continues to show he’s not fit for the role of Foreign Secretary with his claims about this attack. If lying about an attack that has put us on the brink of another Cold War is not enough to get you fired then I truly wonder what will be.

The government will see its credibility hit by the release of this evidence and many still dismiss the blaming of Russia as scapegoating an old enemy. This will only bring more strength to the voice of the sceptics, who have seen their case get stronger with every release of new information.

However, it is worth noting that anyone outside the government is working off rumours and fragments of information to build their conclusions. Only the security services, secret intelligence services, and the Russians know what really happened, and neither will release their files.

15 Palestinians killed by Israeli army in protest along border

The Palestinian health ministry in Gaza has stated 15 people have been killed and hundreds injured in a protest demanding the right of return for refugees.

Thousands of Palestinians marched to the border on Friday at the start of weeks of planned protests to demand that refugees be allowed to return to their homes that are now in Israel. The Israelis say 17,000 Palestinians are protesting along the border.

The ‘Great March of Return’ demonstration is intended to be peaceful, and would comprise of families of men, women, and children camping. Other cultural events are also planned.

The Israeli military has dismissed the demonstration as a Hamas ploy to ‘carry out terror attacks’, despite no protesters being armed, and women and children being involved.

Israeli forces enforce a no-go zone for Palestinians on land in Gaza close to the fence and often fire on young Palestinian men.

The Israeli military used live rounds and tear gas to disperse protesters.

Commentary from Editor-in-Chief, Iwan Doherty:

The deaths of yet more Palestinians in a never ending conflict with Israel are both tragic and avoidable. Israel’s simply terrible record of treatment of Palestinians continues to go unpunished by the international community. I do not expect to see sanctions imposed by any Western nation as a result of these actions either. A final peace deal only looks further from sight, especially after Donald Trump’s decision for the USA to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. 12 died in violence following that announcement.

If there is to be an end to this crisis, the West must apply external pressure to Israel. I would call on our government to sanction the Israeli government for their actions. I would also call on media outlets like the BBC to stop describing protesters being shot at, as ‘clashes’. In an overwhelming one sided conflict, the international community must do more to help Palestinians. For every 15 people killed in the conflict, 13 are Palestinians.  It must end.

I hope both Jeremy Corbyn and the Prime Minister can come together and work to help stop the violence in Palestine and Israel. With the USA rejected as a mediator for peace, it is time for a European power to attempt to play that difficult role.

#Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince- The Manipulation of Social Media by Illiberal States

It would not be an understatement to call the rise of social media a paradigm shift within the narrative of modern history. The information revolution has so rapidly and profoundly reshaped discourse, perception, and ideology that appreciating its full impact on society is nearly impossible without the benefit of retrospection. The reformation of the way in which information is generated and openly exchanged across the globe has given rise to a reconceptualisation of information itself. For instance, fake news, alternative facts, and the emergence of post-truth politics indicate that information no longer derives its value primarily from its accuracy or authority, but rather from its virality. From the growth of ideological ‘echo-chambers’, such as The Donald and Gab, to the Twitter Presidency of Donald Trump, the intersection of social media and politics has produced revolutionary changes to the way information, society and governments interact.

While the impact of social media on liberal societies has been radical, for nations that roughly adhere to democratic processes, protect the freedom of expression, and operate within a market economy, the course has been somewhat organic. As social media represents a global free market of information rooted in liberal values such as free-speech, whose offerings are commoditised according to consumerist logic, the character of global social media can be situated within the broader extension of socio-political liberalism writ universal. However, for illiberal societies, the rise of global information sharing has presented a considerable challenge to the maintenance of traditional power structures.

The uneasy relationship between illiberal states and global social media has evolved in an observably segmented manner, as authoritarian governments initially responded to the information revolution in a predictably reactionary fashion. However, the recent Saudi state-funded ad-space blanketing of major social media platforms within the British region represents a new stage within the evolving relationship between illiberal governments and social media. The campaign to ‘Welcome Saudi Crown Prince’ Mohammed Bin Salman (aka MBS) to London by purchasing ad-space across Twitter, Reddit, and Google is demonstrative of a shift in the way that illiberal nations are using global social media, and its liberal nature, to benefit their national interests abroad.

In leveraging social media’s free-market character, including its offering of ad-space to whoever is willing to pay for it, Saudi Arabia has signalled a willingness within illiberal states to use the liberal essence of social media to overtly promote their national agendas abroad. The Saudis’ consumer behaviour-based marketing campaign displays a rudimentary, yet innovative, attempt to explicitly manipulate public opinion within liberal societies. By adopting the accepted discourse of social media advertising, a language that liberal societies implicitly understand, the Saudis have ushered in a new era in the relationship between illiberal nations and social media.

The initial response of illiberal states to the rise of global social media was, predictably, extreme censorship or blanket banning. It makes perfect sense that illiberal governments would view the global liberalisation of information and opinion sharing as inherently dangerous to the tight control over information that authoritarian states endeavour to maintain. Many of the most popular global social media sites are either outright banned, or heavily censored and monitored, within countries such as China, North Korea, Russia, and Saudi Arabia. The bluntness of the early response to social media by illiberal states suggests that many did not immediately grasp the significance of the medium concerning its influence within the international sphere.

While the initial reaction of illiberal states to the rise of social media implied a level of ignorance concerning its significance, the second stage represents the growth of nuance and a strategic understanding concerning the power and influence of social media. Nations such as China and Russia, both technological powerhouses with sophisticated cyber capacities, rapidly came to realise that outmoded notions of state censorship were impractical in the face of the information revolution. These nations responded with a two-pronged strategy to harness social media for their national interest and transform social media from a threat into an asset within both the domestic and international spheres.

Internally, technologically savvy illiberal nations created their own state-run or state-sanctioned versions of popular global social media sites such as Vkontakte and Renren. These sites imitate the liberal nature of global social media in that they appear to extend to users the freedom to share opinion, information, and ideas. This mimicry allows citizens of illiberal countries to feel as though they are a part of the global information revolution while being effectively denied substantive access to the free interchange of information going on outside of their borders. Such tactics numb the sensation of being censored and allow for the population of illiberal nations to become digitally literate. State-run social media is also advantageous in creating state-controlled propagandist echo-chambers and for feeding curated information quickly and efficiently to large populations, while also allowing the state to easily monitor the opinions and ideas of its citizenry; all of which are essential elements within the maintenance of illiberal authority.

Up until recently, the way in which illiberal nations have used global social media to support their national interests abroad has largely been to exploit its open forum nature to spread disinformation and inflame ideological divides within rival nations. The operative strategy has been covert and surreptitious, with troll armies masquerading as citizens of other nations to legitimise the carefully crafted antisocial opinions and information they are spreading. The use of bot boiler rooms and troll factories to target controversial domestic issues and factionalise the liberal world has, so far, been both extensive and effective. It’s estimated that around 10% of Twitter accounts are bots and that there are hundreds of thousands of fake Facebook and Reddit accounts that take advantage of the free speech ethos of social media to clandestinely fracture liberal social cohesion.

From Brexit to the election of Donald Trump, the abuse of the liberal values inherent within global social media by illiberal states seeking to destabilise the liberal bloc has proven to be a tremendously effective strategy in the game of realpolitik. However, with the explicit and conspicuous marketing campaign initiated by Saudi Arabia in the run-up to the visit of their crown prince to the UK, a new chapter has been opened regarding the utilisation of global social media and its liberal norms by illiberal states to strengthen their interests abroad.

In the days and weeks before the Crown Prince’s arrival, #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince –  underscores and all – was plastered across social media sites within the British region. As the majority of Facebook, Reddit, and Twitter comments on the Crown Prince’s visit were unfavourable, an interesting contrast between public sentiment and the cheery Saudi advertisement hovering off to one-side took place on screens across the UK. While it can be said with some certainty that the welcoming campaign was not an outright success in generating a groundswell of support for the visit, it is still important to look at what it represents regarding illiberal states interacting with social media.

Within Saudi Arabia, commercial advertising, like access to information, is highly regulated. Just as it is nearly impossible for Western brands to advertise within Saudi Arabia, it is highly unlikely that the Saudis would allow a foreign state-sponsored publicity campaign to go ahead inside their borders.  However, within the free market and liberal rights-oriented West, the ability of a state to advertise across major social media sites is possible so long as the funding is in place. The dichotomy in social and economic values between illiberal and liberal states puts illiberal states at an advantage concerning drumming up support for their national interest abroad via social media.

The Saudi marketing campaign characterises a novel and explicit use of social media and its underlying liberal norms to further the interests of an illiberal state. Unlike Russian covert operations aimed at creating a cyber fifth-column of fraudulent in-group members to manipulate the beliefs of liberal society from within, the marketing tactics used by the Saudis exemplify an overt strategy influenced by consumer psychology. As ad-space on social media is governed by the profit-seeking impetus of economic liberalism, cyber advertising campaigns often rely on the principles of psychological marketing to influence consumer behaviour. That the Saudis chose to promote their future head of state in the same medium and messaging style as large consumer brands is significant as it implies some level of awareness as to the effectiveness of such marketing in influencing behaviour within liberal democratic culture.

The #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince campaign shrewdly leveraged both the omnipresence of ad-space on social media sites, as well as the consumer psychology-based advertising style that Westerners are accustomed to, in order to promote their country akin to how a company promotes its brand. It is impossible to know with certainty whether or not the Saudi campaign deliberately sought to employ psychological marketing techniques. However, it is possible to see how these techniques were nonetheless present in their advertisements.

Within advertising, effective frequency is a formula for exposing individuals to a message sufficiently to effectively communicate its meaning and have it internalised, even if subconsciously. Repetitive exposure seeks to create familiarity and manufacture the foundations of affinity and brand loyalty. While it is a stretch to think that the Saudis believed they could generate genuine affinity for the Crown Prince and loyalty to him within Britain, the hallmarks of neuro-marketing were observable within their campaign. The drip-effect within media theory proposes that mass media and advertising contribute to gradual changes in beliefs and attitudes over the long term, while the illusory truth effect is a tendency to believe the information to be correct or ‘right’ after repeated exposure. As such, the Saudis’ upbeat welcome promotion has, intentionally or not, set out the initial foundations of a brand marketing campaign that is engineered to slowly induce fondness for the subject within viewers.

It is more than likely that the goal of the cyber campaign, which was supplemented by a billboard rollout in London, was an overly-optimistic attempt to create a viral campaign online in the hopes of making it appear as though there is a base of support within the UK for close relations with the future Saudi leader. However, the Saudis’ use of social media ad-space to coordinate a marketing campaign in a fashion informed by the tenets of consumer psychology is an essential update in the way that illiberal states are able to use the liberal nature of social media to support their national interests.

In the end, the Saudis’ tone-deaf marketing campaign, featuring a clunky and obtuse hashtag paired with a picture of the Crown Prince looking slightly bog-eyed, did not accomplish much regarding a short-term manufacturing of support within the UK for this particular visit. The Crown Prince was faced with protests and even had his motorcade pelted with eggs, while online, within the mostly uncensored sphere of global social media, the Crown Prince’s warm official reception was thoroughly admonished. However, the Saudis’ social media publicity operation is still of consequence in that it represents a new stage in the way in which illiberal states exploit the liberal nature of global social media to benefit their interests. What is worth noting concerning the #Welcome_Saudi_Crown_Prince campaign is that it has opened a new frontier in which illiberal states are using social media ad-space to mount marketing campaigns aimed at endearing Western ‘consumers’ to their national brand.

The Salisbury incident benefits Putin, whether he did it or not

 

The recent attack on Russian defector Sergei Skripal has thrown up significant debate over the true perpetrators of the act. Many see it as a direct Kremlin attack, many as an attack by Skirpal’s personal enemies, and a significant minority cry false flag. Were it ordered by Putin, it is seemingly illogical, a blatant act of aggression that will gather nothing but hostility for little real gains. But those that see this as a reason to absolve Putin of the act fundamentally misunderstand the peculiar style with which he rules.

Putin’s rule is in ways paradoxical, he is often lauded for the stability and security he brings to Russia, and indeed this is the main argument of his supporters. But for him to be such a stabilizing pillar of state, there must be threats, external and internal, to the stability he provides. Were there no threats to Russia’s stability, it’s unlikely his oppressive rule would be tolerated.

The relatively recent annexation of Crimea for example, incurred harsh economic reprisal from the EU and NATO, being felt most severely by the common Russian, yet it only strengthened Putin’s support. Most Russians saw the sanctions as nothing but a naked act of western hostility on the state, no doubt a view encouraged by the Kremlin. Therefore, Putin can commit these controversial acts with impunity as in the end, any retaliation likely benefits him; it is not a stretch of the imagination to suppose he commits such actions with the controversy as an intentional goal. A line from 1984 springs to mind. For Putin War is peace, and peace is war. These foreign threats help him suppress his opposition.

Does this categorically mean the Kremlin was responsible for the Salisbury attack? Essentially, the question is irrelevant.

If he did do it, he certainly knew the possible outcomes, and was possibly even banking on the international retaliation to push fearful Russians into his camp during his recent landslide election. If he is innocent of the order, it’s in his interest to act as if he had committed the act anyhow. London’s Russian embassy certainly wants us to think he did it, with provocative tweets followed by half-hearted alibies.

A defector is dead, his people vote him back into power amid international sabre rattling, and the UK parliament is in turmoil over the incident; all in all, its been a productive few weeks for the Putin.

As it stands, the game is rigged in Putin’s favour, his geopolitical agenda necessitates chaos and international hostility, and with these sideffects he props up his domestic regime. Unless the British leadership wises up to these realities, he will continue to run rings around them and continue to be able carry out acts like the Salisbury attack with impunity.

Connecting the Dots: Cyber-Meddling and Russia’s Grand Strategy

To understand the motivation behind the seemingly indiscriminate nature of Russia’s cyber-meddling operations, it is essential to contextualise them within the evolution of Russia’s grand strategy.

 

In 1989, Vladimir Putin, a young KGB officer stationed in East Germany, witnessed first-hand the power of popular uprising and the infectious nature of chaos as a destabilising agent against established authority. Putin’s lesson in the destructive power of general disarray and the communicability of popular dissent represents the genesis of Russia’s contemporary grand strategy. However, to fully understand the rise of Putin’s Russia, discussion of a man by the name of Aleksandr Dugin is essential.

 

At first glance, Aleksandr Dugin, an occult fascist, seems an unlikely ally of a former KGB operative such as Putin. However, Dugin’s philosophical influence on Putin would further crystallise Russia’s contemporary approach to foreign policy.

 

In 1997, Dugin published Foundations of Geopolitics. The book draws heavily on the work of Halford Mackinder’s who recognised the strategic advantages of occupying the Heartland of Russia and that whoever controlled it would control the world. However, Dugin revises Mackinder’s work and reframes it into a strategy of perpetual conflict as an enduring foreign policy strategy.

 

Dugin’s influence on Putin’s strategy also comes from their shared belief that popular chaos and instability are as potent as military force in the game of power. For Dugin, maintaining a permanent condition of conflict with the West is essential to Russian political power, and the key to this play is the ceaseless subversion of its heartland by sewing internal chaos.

 

In George Orwell’s 1984, the world exists in a state of perpetual and unwinnable conflict within a tripolar global divide. In Dugin’s theory, Eurasia, a name that Orwell borrowed from Mackinder, is at war not with Oceania, but the Atlanticist alliance led by the United States. According to Dugin: “The Eurasian Empire will be constructed on the fundamental principle of the common enemy: the rejection of Atlanticism, the strategic control of the USA.”

 

Understanding that Putin’s Russia is not pursuing the unlikely goal of singular world domination, rather the maintenance of a constant condition of Cold War-style tension, so that Russia can hold on to its relative power is key to understanding contemporary its foreign policy. So too is the practical operative strategy to foment domestic imbalance within the Atlanticist heartland in order to realise and maintain a global equilibrium.

 

Echoing 1984, Russia seeks an enduring conflict to divide and contain, rather than one to divide and conquer. This Machiavellian strategy is grounded in the subversion of their enemy’s core through infecting them with domestic disorder. By introducing a virus that attacks the social and political values of its foe, Russia hopes to unleash an epidemic of internal suspicion and agitation that will weaken interior power structures and, in turn, deteriorate their external strength. According to Dugin, for Russia to maintain its power globally, it must continuously erode America’s role as a superpower from within. In doing so, Russia is enacting Dugin’s argument that, “it is important to provoke all forms of instability and separatism within the borders of the United States.”

 

Considering the power held by America and its Atlanticist allies, and the rising might of China, which anchors the globe’s third tripolar sphere, it makes sense Russia has developed its grand strategy around relatively inexpensive arms-length cyber destabilisation campaigns. By focusing on remote subversion, Russia can punch far above its military and economic weight to maintain its position as a global power. Cyberwarfare, hacking, leaks, trolling, and bot-spread disinformation operations represent Moscow’s frontline tactics in its drive to weaken Atlanticist democratic society by influencing its citizens’ thought and warping perspectives.

 

Russia’s most infamous cyberattack to influence the result of the 2016 presidential election was a mission designed to infect the United States with the disease of internal division, suspicion, and chaotic paranoia. To Russia, President Trump is a useful idiot, an unwitting dupe in fulfilling Dugin’s plan to energise “extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilising internal political processes in the U.S.” Even Trump’s America First policy affirms Dugin’s desire “to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”

 

Contextualising Russia’s wide range of targets within the narrative of its grand strategy connects the dots between the seemingly unrelated actions being directed by Moscow. Each headline issue that includes Russian cyber-meddling demonstrates the relatively inexpensive yet massively effective techniques Moscow is employing to destabilise its enemies and maintain global influence. Unlike the costly version of permanent military warfare in Orwell’s 1984, Russia’s cynical approach to ensuring a perpetual global stalemate is being waged by contaminating the hearts and minds of its enemy’s population. And so far, the plan to sustain an enduring condition of septic chaos within the West appears to be meeting little meaningful resistance.

Journalists in Hong Kong threatened over reporting on Chinese government

Hong Kong (HK), being a special administrative region (SAR) of China due to its former colonial status within the British Empire, is governed by different laws and regulations from mainland China (MC), since although it is technically part of China and is dependent on it for military and political protection, HK is an autonomous region with its own media and administration. Most notably, HK has a significantly higher level of political freedom and expression, as it has private press where journalists are able to conduct free reporting on a free choice of topics of inquiry free from censorship.

These discrepancies have led to some political tension between Hong Kong and mainland China, since there have been incidents which were covered up in mainland China but leaked in HK in scandalous fashion e.g. the SARS outbreak in 2003. This tension has seen new heights in recent years, namely the Umbrella Movement where protesters took to the streets to occupy important landmarks of HK and effectively halted civic operation in aims of expressing their call for democracy and transparency in the elections of their government officials. Needless to say that the central government in Beijing is not happy about this, as seen in the incarceration of the leaders of the movement, though on a much lower level of repression than that imposed on political dissent in MC (e.g. Gui Minhai), since HK has its own (western-style) criminal and justice system which has seen the recent release of Joshua Wong et al. who have re-entered civic life in heroic fashion and are now nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. As HK is still technically an autonomous region, it is impossible for the Chinese authorities to directly impose its jurisdiction on its citizens, which is not to say that they cannot suppress the voices of the people in Hong Kong but only that they have to do so rather subtly and indirectly to avoid violating the political agreement between HK, China and Britain.

In past year or so, however, there has been some disturbing news which seems to indicate a waning in the level of political expression in HK. As mentioned above, the people of HK have reacted strongly to the legislative procedures behind the elections of the HK government officials. This has led to popular movement, as described above, as well as the establishment of grassroot organisations that have taken the issue of political independence seriously and have sought to provide as much coverage and exposure of these issues as possible. One such organization is the Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) founded by Tom Grundy and co..

Tom Grundy is a UK citizen who travelled to HK and worked steadily to establish and expand the HKFP. Although it is still relatively small as it relies on a small team of administrators who work on a non-profit basis, HKFP is growing exponentially and is fast becoming an international journalist platform for HK news for people both local and abroad. It has hence established itself as one of the main e-platforms for grassroot opinion in HK, which is a remarkable achievement.

Last year, however, it was reported that Tom Grundy received letters of threat from unknown sources coercing him to stop what he had been doing by insinuating possible dangers to Tom and his associates. More dishearteningly, his family in the UK have also received similar letters of abuse which not only indicates a common source of threat but also show rather frighteningly the extent and power of the aggressor who has been able to track the whereabouts of Grundy’s family abroad and intimidate them in a similar fashion. Reports have been made to the proper authorities who have promised to offer safety and protection, though the aggressor has not yet been discovered which means that Grundy and his team are still working in fear of the safety of themselves and their loved ones.

As mentioned before, it is one thing to police your own citizens within your legal territory but quite another to extend the same courtesy to foreign nationals who have affiliations abroad. HK lies in a grey area in that it is an autonomous region which marginally exempts its citizens from central influence. The people of HK have reacted admirably to the pressures from above by making a collective effort to mobilise and directly engage in this long and hard battle for freedom and democracy, yet this magnificent spectacle of popular movement and grassroot determination has been dampened by threats against certain prominent members (Joshua Wong, Tom Grundy etc) who have been intimidated not by law and force but by behind-the-scenes manipulation and terror. There may be barriers between different political regions and countries, but in the modern age of globalization and international amnesty the world has gone far past its feudal territorial past, which has seen the fight against repression extend way beyond the territory in question, not only for the freedom fighters but also for the suppressors. The fight continues and the people of HK beckons.

Is Donald Trump a ‘weak dictator’?

The words ‘weak’ and ‘dictator’ are hardly presidential. Donald Trump as President of the United States commands America’s unrivalled military, diplomatic and fiscal resources. Furthermore, he is widely recognised as the leader of the free world.

Yet lately the word ‘weak’ has been used to describe someone other than the President’s ineffectual son in law Jared Kushner. Trump was largely absent from congressional negotiations during both of the recent government shutdowns, leaving Republican lawmakers to thrash out the budget on their own. Some periodicals took this as evidence for the extent to which the President’s own control over the House of Representatives is increasingly constrained.

The President’s recent political absence has also coincided with his increasing seclusion for the media. Gone are the incautious days of the early administration when the doors of the Oval office were thrown open for TIME journalists, with press briefings now sidelined and all audio recordings suppressed.

In fact much of Trump’s first year in office was spent in exile from the city which voted 91% in favour of the Democrats in the 2016 election and whose media remains almost universally hostile to him. Instead the President retreats to his Floridan residence at Mar-a-Lago where, at ease within the setting of what is effectively a royal court, pleasure rather than politics can govern the tedium of a presidential term. NBC has gone so far as to create a tracker measuring the number of days Trump has spent on golf resorts since his inauguration. At the time of writing it was 96, suggesting a president more comfortable on the golf course than the floors of congress.

Donald Trump is evidently not an absentee autocrat nor is America an authoritarian state, despite historical analogues to the contrary. The American press is free to criticise the President thanks to generous libel laws. Civic institutions also remain strong, as demonstrated by judicial blocks on the proposed Muslim travel ban or the ongoing Russia inquiry conducted by various intelligence agencies.

Nonetheless, comparisons between Trump and Hitler continue to flourish because the Nazi regime constitutes one of the few historical arenas for which there remains a sustained interest among the general public and because the Third Reich’s abhorrence is almost universally agreed upon across the political spectrum.

It is surprising then that amidst the recent plethora of crude comparisons between Trump and the Nazi regime no one has yet mentioned the late Hans Mommsen’s description of Hitler as a ‘weak dictator’.

Hans Mommsen is famous for having challenged the popular perception of the Third Reich as a totalitarian police state. He highlighted the fact that the Fuhrer’s day tended to begin at about noon, included a lengthy stroll (downhill), before a film was screened in the evening. It follows that all this ambling left barely any time for personal governance.

This revelation led Mommsen to instead theorise a dictatorship where power was balkanized and authority divided between a series of competing government institutions. Amidst this organisational chaos Hitler appeared an almost peripheral figure who Mommsen described as “unwilling to take decisions, frequently uncertain, exclusively concerned with upholding his prestige and personal authority, influenced in the strongest fashion by his current entourage, in some aspects a weak dictator”.

That quotation could easily have come from an opinion editorial in the American press. In essence Hans Mommsen’s description of a ‘weak dictator’ conforms entirely to the current perception of Trump as an ineffective autocrat, whose grand ambitions are left largely unrealised owing to his lack of either political aptitude or ability. Twitter tirades, afterall, are no surrogate for actual political engagement. Through this prism of thought all of the recent jockeying between the Republican establishment, presidential advisers and intelligence agencies can be interpreted as the direct results of a power vacuum at the top of goverment.

Yet the image of Trump as a ‘weak dictator’, whose fickle policies are shaped by whoever was last to whisper in his ear, fails to appreciate the true dynamic of power within the administration. It seems that the American press have made the same mistake about Trump that Mommsen did concerning Hitler, with neither realising that malleability can exist alongside dominance.

By contrast the Apprentice offers a more nuanced perspective on Donald Trump’s nascent presidential leadership. The programme’s format saw the magnate give an identical task to two rival teams of contestants, who must then rely upon their own initiative to achieve a specific solution. Trump would only return at the show’s end once the assorted teams of sycophants had fought it out for his favour. Boardroom scenes then became little more than a corporate Jurassic Park with strength, rather than reasoning, serving as the main means by which Trump measured success. Consequently the most aggressive or convincing contestants tended to triumph in a Darwinian fashion which Trump himself would actively encourage.

Washington today is the brainchild of Trump’s understanding of television as a form of politics and therefore the logic that politics can be reduced to little more than a television show. Like the Apprentice Trump focuses upon broad political tasks, whose nature is sufficiently unclear that the wider administration can interpret the president’s general objectives as it sees fit.

In an administration where political favour is tied to results it is no surprise that individual initiative is encouraged and that competition flourishes. Staffers struggle for influence while careers rise and fall in accordance with their ability to fulfil Trump’s legislative agendas. Hence the departures of; Michael Flynn, Reince Preibus, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci whose presence was as fleeting as their attainments.

Amidst all of this boardroom infighting the White House’s primary resident enjoys the luxury of relative inactivity. Trump can afford to sit in the Oval office or at Mar-a-Lago and wait until a clear winner emerges. Remember that if the president only ever fires losers then he can only ever be on the winning side. Chaos should not be confused with weakness. Afterall, the House always wins.

Chinese authorities arrest Swedish national

Levels of national security are on high alert in China. As is well-known, the Chinese government is an authoritarian regime that permits no letting-up when it comes to arresting political dissidents ‘for the sake of national stability’, as mentioned in my last post. The level of freedom of political expression in China is worryingly low as compared to that of liberal democratic countries in the West, and this restriction on people’s political freedom has been reinforced by the current administration.

This aspect of China’s regime has drawn a lot of criticisms from the international community, some of whom are determined to defend and promote human rights in mainland China. China may be growing fast economically, but politically it is still quite conservative, and it is this aspect of China’s regime that is creating political tension between her and the West. It is interesting, therefore, to see recent decisions to award the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize to political prisoners in China who have been detained for their fight for democracy and human rights e.g. the late Liu Xiaobo. There is now also talk of awarding the Peace Prize to the democratic activists in Hong Kong (Joshua Wong etc) who have recently been bailed out of jail. These decisions clearly do not sit well with China as they would not want to be seen as sitting on the wrong side of international peace, which is what the Nobel Peace Prize symbolises. Recently, however, there is an incident which seems to have pushed this tension just a bit further and may prove significant in the long run. It is the arrest of a Chinese named Gui Minhai on board a train to Beijing. In contrast to the cases mentioned above where the detainees are Chinese citizens and are hence bound by Chinese law (Hong Kong included into the picture, though Hong Kong citizenship is a special case), Gui Minhai renounced his Chinese citizenship many years ago and is a Swedish national due to his education in Sweden (PhD Gothenburg). His arrest in China, not to mention in the presence and company of two Swedish diplomats, has drawn reaction not only from activists abroad (led by his daughter Angela Gui who is now studying at Cambridge) but also from the Swedish government as well as the German embassy and the US government who have condemned China’s arrest of Gui as a violation of international law and have announced that they will fight for his release and safety.

This is a risky step that China has taken in arresting someone who is technically a foreign national, albeit a former citizen and an ethnic Chinese, and it would be interesting to see how things work out in this case. On paper, it is unlikely that even if Sweden were to secure the release and safety of Gui, which is by no means straightforward and will be an uphill battle, China would change its way in courtesy of the West, since it is far too big and important to be bullied and coerced by foreign intervention (the way that North Korea, a small hermit half-nation, has been sanctioned by the international community and are (finally) showing some signs of co-operation).

Nonetheless, this does seem to be a dangerous step taken by China which may draw more hostility from the West than it would like. As mentioned in my last post, policing your citizens with an iron fist in your own territory may be legally permissible (though not morally justifiable), but arresting foreign nationals whose governments are willing to react is potentially an act of hostility. Let’s pray for the safety of Gui and his relatives in China and abroad. For more information, please visit this website.

The tale of Two Koreas

The Winter Olympics this year (2018) has given rise to some magnificent spectacles, not only for sports fans but also for an event that is of enormous political significance: the visit of Kim Jong-Un’s sister, Kim Yo-Jong, as the North Korean (NK) representative to South Korea (SK). The historical tensions between the two Koreas are well-known and ongoing, and this has been particularly prominent in 2017 due to the continual pressure exerted by the US to curb NK’s nuclear development and military preparations. While these figureheads continue their war of words and provocative actions, one wonders just what the common people think of all this, especially the North Koreans who are secluded in the most repressive and isolated state in the modern world. It is common to find negative connotations of NK, both its government and its people, in the West, since they are sworn enemies of the US and have publicly declared pre-emptive military action in the form of nuclear warfare. It would be natural to extend this impression to the people of NK who are widely portrayed as ignorant and uneducated due to their economic deprivation and hence the biggest obstacle towards the long overdue Korean reunification. It is therefore unsurprising to find people in the West believing that South Koreans are civilised and peaceful whereas North Koreans are hostile and, in essence, evil, like their current and past leaders. There are many logical fallacies in all this stereotyping, which lies at the core of today’s media whose truthfulness is always in question. Furthermore, there is actually evidence to suggest that North Koreans may actually want reunification equally as much as, if not more than, South Koreans do.

It is perfectly reasonable to expect North Koreans to desire reunification, since their living conditions are so dire that staying in the same place should be the last thing they would want, and this would explain the very high number of defections (successful and unsuccessful) from NK to SK and beyond (e.g. China). Also, recent polls have shown that the majority of South Koreans, especially the younger generations, actually refuse reunification, which is a dramatic turnaround from the first ever polls back in the early days before the Korean War. The reasons for refusal are manifold and reasonable, as many South Koreans are cited as fearful of the economic and social consequences of reunification, given that NK is dramatically poorer in every aspect of life than SK, and so even if reunification is a romantic idea from a patriotic point of view, the practical and realist complications somewhat outweigh such sentiments in many South Koreans’ minds. Furthermore, societal prejudice against North Koreans in SK is well-documented, since although the SK government provides rehabilitation to all (surviving) North Korean defectors, it is not at all the case that defectors reach paradise in SK by crossing the boundaries at the risk of death. In fact, many North Koreans lead a very harsh and lean existence in SK (and probably much worse elsewhere where they do not even speak the language), since they are demoted to low and poorly paid jobs and their northern origins, which are very discernible from their distinctive accent, immediately dash all hopes of respect and acceptance in South Korean society. The sociopolitical situation in Korea, therefore, could be quite different and much more complicated than most people think.

There is one fairly recent episode which is particularly revealing in this regard. When the previous ruler of NK, Kim Jong-Il, passed away in December 2011, there was a high level of political tension in SK, since while NK went into national mourning, SK went into military alert for fear of unexpected actions from the North. However, there is an incident which is widely known in SK (and probably in NK) but poorly broadcast in the West, and that is the No Su-Hui incident in 2012. No is one of the leading figures in the South Korean reunification pan-alliance, and it so happened that he crossed the boundary and sneaked into NK in order to pay his respects to his North Korean counterparts for their recent loss of their dear Leader. This was badly received by the SK government who immediately issued No’s arrest as it was illegal for South Koreans to visit NK without governmental approval for reasons of ‘national security’ (see my last post on this). No’s return to SK has been captured by the Associated Press, and in it we see No exchanging warm gestures of farewell with his North Korean comrades as he re-entered SK just before he was about to fall into the hands of SK police force. No even shouted chants of national reunification which was widely reverberated among the North Koreans. As they were waving their flags of a unified Korea (as seen in the Winter Olympics), No was forcefully arrested and carried away by the SK police, to which the North Koreans shouted abuse in fury. After the incident, several members of the North Korean brigade were interviewed on the spot and they all expressed gratitude to No for his kind visit and were critical of the South Korean government whom they labelled as the main obstacle to their much-desired reunification. From this perspective, it seems that North Koreans are much more hospitable (and much closer) to visitors from the South than people think, whereas the South Korean government, who are renown for being vigilant, suspicious and hostile to the North, come across as the ‘bad guys’ in the thorny issue of Korean reunification.

There may be many reasons for why this interesting episode is not widely covered by mainstream Western media, since it reverses political allegiances by making NK come across as friendly and SK as hostile. Nonetheless, there is good evidence in addition to this that the common people of NK welcome reunification much more than their southern compatriots, since the latter, given their economic, technological and cultural superiority, seem to look down on the former, which is indeed a major social issue in contemporary South Korean society (see Park Yeonmi’s publications for more first-hand evidence). On the official level, the NK government certainly comes across as hostile and obstinate in inter-Korean affairs (or that is how they are portrayed by Western media), but the people’s desire for reunification should be beyond doubt, even if there are those in the South who may not want it. All eyes are now on the Korean peninsula as the world prepares for the dismantlement of the last political and military border of the Cold War. It is cultural tragedy that a common race of people should have been divided arbitrarily by western powers, which has led to so many needless conflicts, assassinations and tensions, but practical complications aside, I think the whole world would welcome the reunification of Korea, not only because many Koreans (especially those from the North) need it very badly, most (if not all) of them seem to want it equally badly too.

Modern purges: Tyranny in the (re-)making

North Korea made headlines last March with the high-profile assassination of Kim Jong-Nam, the current leader Kim Jong-Il’s half-brother, not only for how significant this could be for the future of the Korean peninsula and beyond, but also for how spectacularly it was executed, since it was carried out in foreign soil (Malaysia international airport) by two hitherto unknown women with a highly mysterious weapon. This was a blatant violation of international law, since it is murder and those held responsible should be trialed for life penalty or capital punishment. In fact, this is one of the most spectacular assassination attempts since Stalin’s assassination of his arch-enemy, Leon Trotsky, who was murdered by a Mexican agent with an ice-pick at his home in Mexico at the peak of Stalin’s purges. One now wonders just what modern-day purges are like.

I mentioned last time that while repression within one’s territory is understandable, exerting tactics of intimidation and fear abroad is extremely dangerous. One feels immense sympathy for the recent death of the American student in North Korea, but by entering their territory he indirectly put himself at risk. Assassination abroad, however, is on a different level of criminal offence, since on this basis no one is safe and governments cannot offer guarantees of protection to their citizens and foreign nationals. This is indeed at the heart of the debate on modern terrorism ever since 9/11/2001.

Nearly all governments nowadays are taking terrorism very seriously, and levels of national surveillance are almost always high. In this sense, it is striking just how similar most if not all governments are in terms of policing their citizens, since pre-emption of terrorism, namely attack the terror suspects and potential terrorists before they even have a chance to carry it out, is the widely accepted way of preventing terrorism but highly controversial. Ever since the Patriot Act of 2001 was implemented to increase surveillance on citizens at home and abroad, there have been numerous actions that have been deemed as violation of human rights all around the world. China is infamous for its authoritarian regime, and last time I mentioned that house arrests of political activists, civil servants and intellectuals are getting increasingly frequent in mainland China.

Indeed, just last month there was the high-profile arrest of Gui Minhai who was taken away on a train bound for Beijing in the presence of two Swedish diplomats, and since he is an ethnically Chinese Swedish national, there is now a lot of uproar coming from Sweden and international organisations to protect and free Gui as best as they can (though it is not clear what the extent of their ability is in this case, since he was in China’s territory and hence bound by Chinese law). For the Chinese government, there is full justification for conducting such arrests which are stated to be in the interest of national security and the detainees are, in their book, ‘inciting subversion against the government’. Exactly the same rhetoric for self-justification has been used by George W. Bush and his successors who have also claimed to be acting ‘in national interests’ by arresting terror suspects and subjugating them to systematic torture and extortion (e.g. Guantanamo Bay). US and China may have polar opposite ideologies (western liberal democracy vs Asian authoritarianism), but when it comes to ‘national interests’, both feel justified to arrest normal citizens and patrol their daily lives ‘for the sake of national security’.

It is fine line between playing the hero card and repressing civic liberties, since ‘in the interest of national security’ can be, and has been, used for just about anything. The boundaries for terrorist suspicion are also highly arbitrary, since there is no scientific or objective definition for what constitutes ‘imminent terrorist act(s)’ or ‘subversion against the government’. These are the forms of modern purges, which are no less evil than Stalin’s textbook examples despite being seemingly morally and self-justified. In face of global terrorism, anyone could be a suspect and as soon as one steps out of line (arbitrarily towed by the officials in charge), one is immediately susceptible to arrest (and torture etc). This is tyranny in the (re-)making.