I visited the above house in Kaunas, Lithuania last month. In 1940, this house was the Japanese consulate. Kaunas functioned as the capital city of Lithuania prior to the Second World War. The Lithuanians considered Vilnius to be their rightful capital, but it was masquerading as the Polish city of Wilno at the time. Upon the German occupation of Western Poland and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Poland in late 1939, many (both Polish and Lithuanian) Jews were trapped in Lithuania and clearly in great danger, but were unable to gain exit visas to leave the Soviet Union (or travel across it by the Trans-Siberian railway) unless they had visas to go somewhere else. There were Japanese government rules stating that transit visas could be issued to Japan, but only if the applicant had plans to go somewhere else after Japan, and also that he had adequate financial resources.
Seeing the desperation of the situation, and against orders, Japanese consul Chiune Sugihara issued Japanese transit visas to anyone who asked. (In the book Bloodlands historian Timothy Snyder – who clearly finds Sugihara as fascinating a figure as I do – makes it clear that Sugihara was a Japanese spy as well as a Japanese consul, and his job was to keep track of Soviet troop movements for the Japanese government). During September 1940 he spent something like 20 hours a day writing out visas. When the consulate was closed and he had to leave, he was followed by a crowd to the railway station. As his train left, he was still throwing blank visas with his seal and signature on them to a crowd of desperate people. In total, he wrote something like 3000 visas, and as dependent family members could travel on the same visa as the principal person it was written for, those visas covered several times that number of people.
Kaunas railway station today.
Upon receiving these visas, Jews were able to travel on the Trans-Siberian railway to Vladivostok and then go by ship to Japan. They then dispersed to various places, but many were deported to Shanghai when the tripartite pact with Germany was signed shortly afterwards. Shanghai was also under Japanese occupation, and there these people spent time in the Shanghai ghetto – Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees – where they stayed until Shanghai was liberated by the Americans in 1945. I visited the remnants of the Shanghai ghetto in 2006, and wrote about it at the time. Although this was crowded and at times squalid, it was a place of relative safety. The Japanese behaved monstrously towards certain other groups, but they had nothing against Jews, and did not turn the Jews in Shanghai over to the Germans despite German requests. Rather cleverly, Jewish leaders in Shanghai played upon Japanese mistrust of their German allies. Upon being asked by a Japanese governor why the Germans hated the Jews so much, rabbi Shimon Sholom Kalish replied “They hate us because we are short and dark haired”.
Most Jews who got to Shanghai survived, and then emigrated to Israel, Australia, the US and other places after 1945. Estimates of the number of lives saved by Sugihara go as high as 10,000, although estimates of about 6,000 seem more common.
Half of the building in Kaunas is now a museum to Sugihara. I wanted to see this – it was why I went to Kaunas. The other people in the museum when I went there were a busload of Japanese tourists. Almost everyone who had signed the guest book had done so in Japanese, too. I didn’t see any Lithuanians or many other Europeans, which is a shame given this extraordinary story.
It’s an exceptionally good thing that the museum is there, but I did find the tone of the museum to be slightly curious. The museum did seem to be going out of its way to present the Japanese in general in the best possible light overall, rather than simply telling the story of Sugihara. That Sugihara was acting against orders was mentioned but not emphasised, and much was made of Jews who reached Japan being treated well, but not much was said about where they went after the Japanese alliance with Germany intensified and they were deported from Japan. The truth – the Shanghai ghetto mentioned above – doesn’t actually reflect too badly on the Japanese, but it is rather unfortunately connected to other things that do reflect badly on the Japanese. It is impossible to praise Sugihara himself too much – the man saved the lives of 6,000 or more people just out of basic human decency – but does this reflect well on Japan as a whole? That is harder to say. As is the case with other various people who did similar things, his story remained obscure for many years. His career with the Japanese foreign service ended after the war for reasons that may or may not have had to do with disobeying orders in Lithuania.
Eventually, Sugihara’s story became widely known, and he was later honoured by Yad Vashem, the state of Israel, the state of Japan and the state of Lithuania, but this took a long time. As it did with Paul Grüninger, Oskar Schindler, and others.
Most of the commenters to this fascinating Guardian article on the many copies of famous Western buildings and bridges being built in the Chinese city of Suzhou dismiss the replicas as vulgar.
Vulgar they are. They are what you get when the some of the vulgus get rich and build what they like.
It [the explosion of urban mimicry] is also a result of housing becoming a free-market commodity. After Mao’s death, the introduction of a new economic policy, starting in 1979, opened the nation to foreign investment and restored private control over land use. Real estate investors supported by Hong Kong, Taiwanese and overseas Chinese financiers were quick to exploit the new opportunities in the booming housing market. With a rapid increase in the number of cities, a growing middle class and a desire to invest capital in property, there has been a boom in residential construction, investment and sales, coupled with a desire to demonstrate personal prestige.
Tyrannical regimes don’t collapse because the peasantry are suffering. They collapse when the hitherto supportive inner circle of peasant-minders starts to suffer.
Thus it is that the most politically portentous line in this (thankyou Mick Hartley) about two new buildings in North Korea, one collapsing, the other already collapsed …:
Another apartment building in Pyongyang is reportedly in danger of collapse as fear spreads after a 23-story apartment building collapsed in the North Korean capital early this month, killing hundreds of people.
Both high-risers were built as upmarket homes for the elite.
A government source here on Tuesday cited rumors that an apartment building in Mansudae in downtown Pyongyang has subsided around 10 cm and dozens of cracks have appeared in the walls. “Fearing a collapse, residents are racing to sell their apartments and move out,” the source added.
… is the bit in the middle, about how these collapsing apartments are “homes for the elite”. By the sound of it, no North Korean home that is more than a tiny few stories up in the sky any longer feels safe.
Not so elite now, are they? If peasant houses collapse, screw ’em. But who is going to screw these people? They are screwers.
Not so long ago there was a somewhat similar report concerning badly built towers in China.
One of these weeks, months, years, decades, a really really big skyscraper is going to come crashing down to the ground. Not because someone flew a plane into it. No, of its own accord. Through its own “internal contradictions”, you might say.
When that happens – and I really do think it’s only a matter of when – what’s the betting that the media coverage will imitate art.
Japan is currently in the process of monetising its vast debt (in plain English, printing money). To get some scale of the issue, check out this following news report from the Japan Times.
Japan’s national debt hit a record-high ¥1.025 quadrillion at the end of March, up ¥33 trillion from a year earlier, the Finance Ministry said on Friday. The central government debt, which increased ¥7 trillion from the end of December last year, kept rising mainly due to ballooning social security costs in line with the aging population. The balance of government bonds, financing bills and other borrowings crossed the ¥1 quadrillion mark for the first time ever at the end of June 2013.
Here is a definition of what is a Quadrillion. Even at the dollar-yen exchange rate of one dollar buying 101 yen, this is a scary, but also barely comprehensible, sum of money. That leads me to the view that the public no longer can really get to grips with how massive debt, both in funded and unfunded, forms is, and indeed with the very notion that a lot of this debt is not even “on the balance sheet”.
Some of these claims are false. Some reveal more truth than the writers intended:
Lowest labour cost in Asia.
Highly qualified, loyal and motivated personnel. Education, housing and health service is provided free to all citizens. As opposed to other Asian countries, worker’s will not abandon their positions for higher salaries once they are trained.
Lowest taxes scheme in Asia. Especially for high-tech factories. Typical tax exemption for the first two years.
No middle agents. All business made directly with the government, state-owned companies.
Stable. A government with solid security and very stable political system, without corruption.
Full diplomatic relations with most EU members and rest of countries.
New market. Many areas of business and exclusive distribution of products (sole-distribution).
Transparant legal work. Legal procedures, intellectual rights, patents and warranties for investors settled.
Shortly after the Twitter ban came into effect around midnight, the micro-blogging company tweeted instructions to users in Turkey on how to circumvent it using text messaging services in Turkish and English. Turkish tweeters were quick to share other methods of tiptoeing around the ban, using “virtual private networks” (VPN) – which allow internet users to connect to the web undetected – or changing the domain name settings on computers and mobile devices to conceal their geographic whereabouts.
Some large Turkish news websites also published step-by-step instructions on how to change DNS settings.
On Friday morning, Turkey woke up to lively birdsong: according to the alternative online news site Zete.com, almost 2.5m tweets – or 17,000 tweets a minute – have been posted from Turkey since the Twitter ban went into effect, thus setting new records for Twitter use in the country.
May it continue thus.
People in Shaoshan in China, the birthplace of Chairman Mao, are making good money selling keepsakes of history’s most prolific mass murderer. I find it odd that the BBC reporter doing a little video on that somehow neglected to ask “why are you selling souvenirs of a man responsible for murdering tens of millions of your fellow Chinese people?”
Actually I think we all know why that question never got asked.
Clearly Braunau am Inn in Austria is missing a trick.
If you are lucky enough to be permitted to cross the border from Sinuiju in (totalitarian) North Korea to Dandong in (horribly repressive, but at least they have food) China, one of the first things you will see is this.
God bless Tesco.
The execution of the once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has rekindled fears of instability in the secretive nuclear-armed state.
Huh? Fears of instability? What. The. Fuck.
Here, oh most vile and dismal of BBC copywriters, let me fix that for you…
The execution of the once-powerful uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has rekindled hopes of instability in the secretive nuclear-armed state.
This report (spotted by the ever alert Mick Hartley), describes a remarkable speech made by the President of Mongolia, at the end of a visit he made in October to North Korea.
A speech given at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang by the president of Mongolia late last month has caused raised eyebrows for its starkly critical portrayal of the follies of tyrannical rule and the repression of human rights.
President Tsakhiagiin Elbegdorj delivered the speech on the final day of his visit to North Korea. Mongolia has traditionally maintained friendly relations with the North, but the tenor of the speech is bound to have caused surprise even though it was delivered before an audience of relative loyalists.
Relative loyalists. Now there’s a choice phrase. I’m guessing it does not mean people who are literally blood relatives of the ruling dynasty.
Under this report, Daily NK reproduces the full text of the President’s speech, and it is well worth a read.
Quote (and it is very quotable):
I believe in the power of freedom. Freedom is an asset bestowed upon every single man and woman. Freedom enables every human to discover and realize his or her opportunities and chances for development. This leads a human society to progress and prosperity. Free people look for solutions in themselves. And those without freedom search for the sources of their miseries from outside. Mongols say, “better to live by your own choice however bitter it is, than to live by other’s choice, however sweet”.
See what I mean about quotable?
No tyranny lasts forever. It is the desire of the people to live free that is the eternal power.
You surely do now.
In 1990 Mongolia made a dual political and economic transition, concurrently, without shattering a single window and shedding a single drop of blood. Let me draw just one example. Over twenty years ago, the sheer share of the private sector in Mongolia’s GDP was less than 10%, whereas today it accounts for over 80%. So, a free society is a path to go, a way to live, rather than a goal to accomplish.
As I say, remarkable. Pessimists may say: it’s just words. But words matter. Why would any of us bother with reading and writing the stuff here at Samizdata if words did not matter?
I never used to like those Mongols much. Now, I find myself warming to them.
There is some controversy at present about the moves by the UK government (and not just the UK, the government of little Malta is at it) to let Chinese-owned (ie, state-owned) businesses invest in the UK, buy shares of local firms, and the like. Iain Martin more or less says we should only let the Chinese do so if they accord equal freedoms to UK firms. At present, any non-domestic organisation wishing to do business in Mainland China (it is different in Hong Kong) is required to set up a joint venture with a local Chinese partner. In practice, it means making nice to the local, often corrupt, representatives of the Chinese communist party. The comment thread on Martin’s article contains its usual share of foreigner-hating buffoons but there are some intelligent observations as well.
A difficulty presents itself. First, the UK is already one in which the state owns a fairly large share of the economy, not just through the overtly public sector bit, but by national controls and regulations over all kinds of sectors, such as transport and energy. True, the UK is a democratic polity, but given the imperfections of democracy, and Britain’s membership of the EU, the accountability of politicians for what happens in the UK is, to say the least, limited. And so does it really make sense for Britons to get in a rage about sinister foreigners buying bits of the UK? It is not as if we are operating in a world of unfettered capitalism. (Those who remember the late 80s when Japanese firms were buying Western assets will feel a sense of deja vu coming on when reading about another supposed menace from overseas.)
Then there are the exploits of what are called Sovereign Wealth Funds. Such funds, mostly run by energy-rich jurisdictions in the Middle East and Asia, are politically and legally opaque. We have seen how the heads of these large gobs of wealth have bought such “trophy assets” as football teams (Manchester City) and so on. State-owned EDF, the French energy conglomerate, is a big player in the UK energy market. (I note that one Samizdata commenter on a previous post about energy policy seems rather upset about this. The accursed French!.)
In fact, if we are going to ban investment into a jurisdiction such as the UK from entities deemed to be opaque, or the arms of oppressive regimes of various kinds, that is going to create quite a headache. These folks have a lot of the money. They may not, of course, have it forever. China’s property market is, shall we say, an unknown quantity. If the US fracking revolution continues, and the price of energy falls a bit, some of the prowess of the SWFs might decline. It might also be a smart idea if Western governments learned to live within their means rather than go begging for such sources of money to make up the deficit gaps, which is what is really going on here.
But then again, these issues might not be all that new. In the past, politicians of various hues have tried to reinstate protectionist controls on foreign trade by objecting to things such as “dumping”, for instance (evil foreigners selling us subsidised cheap stuff). If China wants to sell us cheap things, and we can save money by paying less for such things than we would otherwise, and invest/spend what we have saved on something else, I don’t really see the problem in that.
We should remember that China needs the West to grow to sustain the value of what it wants to buy abroad. Ironically, one of the best ways to keep pushing China down the path to real capitalism rather than the odd hybrid it has now is to expose its people to doing as much business abroad as possible. So long as Western leaders play their hands intelligently and push for more penetration of China’s markets as part of that process, that surely is in everyone’s long term interests.
Which is better? A technically superb photo of something you’ve seen many times before, like a wonderful still life oil painting? Or, a technically very average photo of something remarkable, that you never thought you’d live to see?
If you are in the mood for the second sort of photo, and you are someone who likes the kind of ideas that Samizdata seeks to spread, you should definitely take a look at this:
This is a group of Chinese people to whom Tim Evans of the Cobden Centre, seated proudly in their midst, was speaking, on Friday September 20th, about … Austrian Economics. And yes that is people from China China, not from some already strongly capitalistic outlying fragment of China.
My thanks to Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home for telling me about this. Gibbs writes:
Tim Evans of the Austrianist Cobden Centre shared this image on Facebook. It is unclear who is visiting who but he is depicted front and centre with a delegation of Chinese officials as if he was an honoured guest or leader. Tim has been training the group in the details of Austrianism. The group worked with the Chinese State Council and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.
Of this exercise, Tim Evans writes:
Spent a great day on Friday lecturing key academic and economic advisers to the Chinese State Council and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. I regularly work with senior Chinese officials and find many of them to be increasingly well versed in the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics.
Austrian Economics is very persuasive to a certain sort of economically curious person, because it is basically a statement of how things are. It describes a world of realities which are true whether you care about or accept their truth or not. This stuff is true no matter what else you choose merely to believe. You can, in principle, understand that Austrian Economics describes how the world is, yet still believe that the world ought to be a centralised despotism or a socialist nirvana, or maybe even some combination of the two.
But, it is rather difficult to stick with such beliefs on a permanent basis. Once you accept the truths that Austrian Economics tells you, it is difficult not to find yourself believing that the world ought to be different from the tyrannical way that a lot of it still is.