We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Riding the Covid tiger

“He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount” – Chinese proverb.

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China’s decision-makers face a quandary after maintaining an open-ended “zero Covid” policy with doomsday predictions of the alternative, said Huang. “What if they eased controls and nothing significant happened? Then people would question why Beijing imposed such harsh measures for so long.”

– Philip Sherwell, in a (paywalled) piece for the Sunday Times called “Millions under lockdown to stop Covid spoiling Xi Jinping’s party congress”.

Meanwhile, in an interview broadcast on Sunday, President Biden declared that the pandemic was over. Then someone noticed that would mean that the “Covid emergency” justification for his student loan payoff was also over, along with the justification for mask mandates. So the White House undeclared the president’s declaration:

A day later, an administration official told CNN that the President’s comments do not mark a change in policy toward the administration’s handling of the virus, and there are no plans to lift the Public Health Emergency, which has been in place since January 2020 and is currently extended through October 13.

I am not sure why “the administration” trumps “the president”, unless it is to give him practice in getting Trumped.

Blue remembered hills, 2022 version

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

– Blue Remembered Hills by A.E. Housman, from the collection A Shropshire Lad, published in 1896.

We do blue hills so much better in 2022:

HSBC’s hypocrisy over China and “woke” culture

This is savage and just from the Spectator:

There’s a rich irony in HSBC now refusing to collect data on its customers, given its involvement in abetting the Chinese government’s crackdown on Hong Kong. HSBC not only publicly backed the draconian National Security Law but also froze the bank accounts of prominent pro-democracy activists in exile at the behest of Beijing, something that obviously involved keeping tabs on the troublemakers. Its chief executive, Noel Quinn bleated that ‘I can’t cherry-pick which laws to follow’; given the law claimed universal jurisdiction, it doesn’t exactly suggest pro Hong Kong democrats in London are safe with the bank, non-binary or not.

Read the whole thing, as they say at Instapundit. I noticed, for example, that every time I fly into or out of a major airport such as Heathrow, Geneva or Gatwick, the jetway bridge has a big fat HSBC logo on it. And on the inside, there are lots of HSBC messages about “sustainability”, about how we are all in “one world”, and all the other bland cant of modern corporate messaging.(None of that vulgar stuff about creating wealth and making a profit. Goodness me, no.) It is rather like the kind of “lounge” or “Muzak” music one gets in elevators and hotel lounges. After a while one tunes it out.

I wonder how long this situation can persist. HSBC now has Chinese Communist Party folk sitting on its China subsidiary. (HSBC denies these folk have any influence. If so, what are they doing? Drinking tea?)

Given the various frictions and problems between the West and China, I don’t see this as sustainable in a sense rather different from how the Greens use that word. Anyone doing business with HSBC must start to wonder if it really is an autonomous commercial enterprise. Rather, a large part of it would appear to be little more than a Beijing front organisation. HSBC is listed on the London Stock Exchange and its HQ is in London. At some point, if there was, for example, a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, and sanctions and all the rest had to be imposed, that would put HSBC in an invidious position. The UK may even insist that HSBC spins off its mainland China business if it wanted to retain its UK banking licence.

1989.06.04

BBC Archive: Chinese troops fire on protesters in Tiananmen Square

First broadcast 4 June 1989.

Chinese troops opened fire on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Saturday evening. The collection of students and labourers had been occupying the site for several weeks. Despite the outbreak of “unremitting gunfire”, the protesters refused to leave. The BBC’s Kate Adie reports from the scene.

Also watch this interview with a soldier of the People’s Liberation Army from ABC News (Australia). That interview is from 2019. I doubt if it could be made in 2022.

2019 was also the last time that the massacre was commemorated by a public ceremony in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park. This year, as it was in 2020 and 2021, the park has been blocked off by police and anyone lingering there threatened with prosecution. The reason given for forbidding the demonstration was coronavirus. I have a premonition that in Hong Kong the Covid-19 pandemic will go on forever.

Sci-Fi dystopia or real world?

A drone appears when people start singing from balconies in protest at the lack of supplies after being forcibly locked in their homes.

“Please comply with covid restrictions. Control your soul’s desire for freedom. Do not open the window or sing.”

And for extra added dystopian flavour…

What is it with Chicoms and killing people’s pets?

“Heartbreak as Hong Kong pet owners give up hamsters for Covid cull”, reports France-24:

Time was running out for Pudding.

The hamster, a new addition to the Hau family, was to be given up to Hong Kong authorities for culling after rodents in a pet shop tested positive for coronavirus — leaving Pudding’s 10-year-old owner wailing in grief.

“I don’t want to, I don’t want to,” the boy cried, his head buried in his hands as he crouched next to Pudding’s pink cage, according to a video shown to AFP by his father.

But the older Hau, who would only provide his last name, said he was worried about his elderly family members who live in the same household.

“I have no choice — the government made it sound so serious,” he told AFP, shortly before entering a government-run animal management centre to submit Pudding.

I am not certain, but I think the video of the little boy crying next to his hamster’s pink cage might be this one, which is being widely shared online.

Given that I am not a vegetarian, I suppose I cannot make too much of a fuss about animals being killed, but I had a hamster once of which I was fond. That little boy will remember his pet being taken away for the rest of his life. I could understand if there were any serious evidence that the cull would achieve anything for humans. None has been provided. Evidence is not really the point here: The People’s Republic of China has a Zero Covid policy. Nothing is to be allowed to stand in the way of progress towards this perfect state. In fact, now that the PRC has dropped the pretence of “One country, two systems” with regard to Hong Kong, it might even be desirable from China’s point of view that the people of Hong Kong should be made aware of what their new masters think of such Western-influenced bourgeois sentimentality. Let the children weep and know themselves powerless.

Of course Communist China has form on this. During the Cultural Revolution,

Even China’s feline population suffered as Red Guards tried to eliminate what they claimed was a symbol of “bourgeois decadence”. “Walking through the streets of the capital at the end of August [1966], people saw dead cats lying by the roadside with their front paws tied together,” writes Dikötter.

Nor was that the first of Mao’s grand animal-killing schemes. In the disastrous Four Pests campaign of 1958-62 he sought to kill all the sparrows in China.

Sparrows were suspected of consuming approximately four pounds of grain per sparrow per year. Sparrow nests were destroyed, eggs were broken, and chicks were killed. Millions of people organized into groups, and hit noisy pots and pans to prevent sparrows from resting in their nests, with the goal of causing them to drop dead from exhaustion.In addition to these tactics, citizens also simply shot the birds down from the sky. The campaign depleted the sparrow population, pushing it to near extinction.

The result was predictable: with the sparrows who ate the insects gone, the numbers of insects exploded. It was a contributing factor to the Great Chinese Famine. Warnings from ornithologists (or anyone else) that this might happen counted for little against a government that had mobilised the people to march towards a public health goal that could be defined in one sentence.

Samizdata quote of the day

“Emails exchanged between them after a conference call on 1 February 2020, and only now forced into the public domain by Republicans in the US Congress, show that they not only thought the virus might have leaked from a lab, but they also went much further in private. They thought the genome sequence of the new virus showed a strong likelihood of having been deliberately manipulated or accidentally mutated in the lab. Yet later they drafted an article for a scientific journal arguing that the suggestion not just of a manipulated virus, but even of an accidental spill, could be confidently dismissed and was a crackpot conspiracy theory.”

Matt Ridley

Cracks in the Chinese wall

In recent years much of the narrative is that China is rising, the US and the West as a whole are declining, and that there is not a lot we can do to arrest that switch, even if it would be desirable to do so, blah-blah-blah. Liberal democracy is on the retreat, authortarianism is the new hotness, so get ready for Social Credit, compulsory school Mandarin lessons and the rest of it. Now it is true that we seem to be well capable of gutting defences of liberty on our own without Chinese influence anyway, but it does nevertheless matter, in my view, if China’s rise continues in the way it has. Well, it is possible that things aren’t going to be quite so straightforward:

Check out this article from US think tanker Thomas J. Duesterberg, in the Wall Street Journal. As it is paywalled, I am going to publish a few paragraphs:

In December real-estate developers China Evergrande and Kaisa joined several other overleveraged firms in bankruptcy, exposing hundreds of billions in yuan- and dollar-denominated debt to default. Real estate represents around 30% of the Chinese economy, nearly twice the levels that led to the financial crisis of 2008-09 in the U.S., Spain and England.

I have been covering the Evergrande saga in my day job. Let’s just say that anyone who remembers the Japanese real estate meltdown will recognise the danger signs.

The real-estate industry has been key to keeping annual growth above 6%. Yet a debt bubble has inflated by 20% annually between 2014 and 2018. Originally intended to accommodate rapid urbanization for the industrial economy, the urban property market is now overbuilt. Some 90% of urban households own their own properties and enough vacant units are available to accommodate 10 years of urban immigrants. Sales and prices have tumbled this year, and overleveraged builders and creditors are suffering the consequences.

It seems the Dr Evil bloke at the helm is not as smart as he’s made out.

Mr. Xi is privileging the less productive and less innovative components of the Chinese economy while enhancing control, limiting financing and punishing entrepreneurial leaders in many leading industries. This isn’t a recipe for maintaining strong economic growth. Despite the frequent assertions that China is catching up or moving ahead of the West in technology industries, it has a long way to go to achieve the self-sufficiency and global leadership it seeks. U.S. sanctions on advanced semiconductors, for instance, have gutted Huawei’s ability to make its own 5G phones. China’s semiconductor industry is 10 years behind world leaders, according to a recent German study.

In short, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that China’s economy is systematically weakening and that Mr. Xi’s new priorities offer little hope for a quick turnaround. The U.S. and its allies could further compound Mr. Xi’s challenges by vigorous enforcement of trade laws, limiting Chinese access to technology and financing from the West, and imposing sanctions against China’s brutal human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and in countries in the developing world that it is trying to exploit through its Belt and Road Initiative. A good example of such exploitation is the atrocious mining conditions for key battery components cobalt and lithium in Africa and South America.

A major slowdown or acute financial crisis in China would certainly have a negative impact on the global economy. But U.S. and allied policy makers do have tools that could both influence the direction of the Chinese economy and help repair some of the accumulated damage to their economies from Chinese mercantilism. A first step is to undermine the narrative of a relentless, unstoppable economic advance under Mr. Xi’s leadership.

That of course would mean efforts to counter China’s thefts of Western IP, and for Western governments to limit Chinese access to Western finance and tech. That isn’t easy. Of course, a big slowdown/recession in China will hit the West, given the web of capital and trade relations. And for what it is worth, I still think the world is far better off with a prosperous China than the horrors of Mao in the 50s and 60s. But it is plain that China’s current behaviour (Hong Kong, South China Sea incursions, treatment of various groups, IP thefts, clashes with India, etc) mean that the regime in Beijing needs a very big kick. Maybe we will see this happen in the next year or so.

ξ Who Must Not Be Named

As explained by the Wikipedia article on the official nomenclature for variants of SARS-CoV-2, the use of letters of the Greek alphabet to refer to the different variants of Covid-19 was chosen by the World Health Organization specifically to avoid referring to variants by their country of origin, as practised by certain naughty former US presidents. We have had the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, Zeta, Eta, Theta, Iota, Kappa, Lambda, Mu and Nu variants.

I guess the WHO didn’t anticipate the list would go past thirteen.

“Omicron variant reaches Britain”, reports today’s Sunday Times.

Only the fourteenth letter of the Greek alphabet is not Omicron. It’s Xi.

Edit: In the comments TomJ says that actually two letters have been skipped. The variant all the papers were calling “Nu” the day before yesterday was hastily renamed “Omicron”. Allegedly they jumped over “Nu” because it sounds like “new” and they jumped over have “Xi” because it is a common surname, a story to which I might give an iota of credence if it came from someone other than the World Health Organisation. The excellent investigation by the Sunday Times Insight Team, China, the WHO and the power grab that fuelled a pandemic, is unfortunately behind a paywall, but here is an excerpt:

Our investigation reveals today how a concerted campaign over many years by Beijing to grab power inside the WHO appears to have fatally compromised its ability to respond to the crisis. It raises serious concerns about the extent of Beijing’s influence over the WHO and its director-general, and how this undermined the organisation’s capacity — and willingness — to take the steps necessary to avert a global pandemic. Its leadership put China’s economic interests before public health concerns. The results have been nothing short of catastrophic.

The Xi variant, indeed. Pity there isn’t a Greek letter called Pu.

One of those reviews that makes you buy the book then and there

Mark Honigsbaum reviews Viral by Alina Chan and Matt Ridley in the Guardian:

The tragedy is that in their desire to make a plausible case for a lab accident, Chan and Ridley neglect the far more urgent and compelling story of how the trade in wild animals, coupled with global heating and the destruction of natural habitats, makes the emergence of pandemic viruses increasingly likely. That is the more probable origin story and the scenario that should really concern us.

Edit: The Guardian is not allowing comments to Mr Honigsbaum’s review. But his tweet about it is open to comments and is receiving them.

—————————

Ian Birrell in the Mail on Sunday asks,

What are they hiding? At the start of Covid many scientists believed it likely leaked from Wuhan lab – until a conference call with Patrick Vallance changed their minds. We asked for his emails about the call. This is what we got . . .

Redacted letters

China’s crackdown on profit-making education

China appears to be doing its level best to harm itself in the long term. This story hasn’t so far stirred a lot of international commentary, but it matters, I think. It shows that the rising nationalism (and arguably, a degree of paranoia) in China is reaching the point where it is damaging the domestic economy.

According to one report in Forbes:

Chinese authorities have ramped up their crackdown on after-school tutoring companies by unveiling a new set of sweeping regulations that bans the firms from making profits and raising capital from overseas markets.

Tutoring companies that teach school subjects are now required to register as non-profits. They are also banned from raising capital from overseas investors or through public listings.

What’s more, authorities will stop approving new tutoring companies seeking to teach China’s school syllabus, and require existing ones to undergo regulatory reviews and apply for licenses. The companies found to be in violation will be rectified or eradicated, according to the rules, without further elaboration.

The moves by Chinese authorities have hammered shares of firms operating in the space.

One story I read in the Wall Street Journal said that China, while hitting private sector education, is at the same time trying to make it easier for young couples to have more kids, reversing decades of its odious “one child” policy.

Why does this matter? Because the ever-shifting moves of Chinese authorities on certain sectors must make it hard for entrepreneurs in that country to plan ahead. One moment a chap like Alibaba’s Jack Ma is a sort of business “rock star”, and the next, he’s “disappeared”. In my job in the financial services industry, I have heard a lot of comments over the years on how vibrant, dynamic and coherent Chinese policymaking is, so much better than all that messy Western “neoliberalism”.

Well, it turns out that things in China aren’t quite what they are cracked up to be.