Images of the Year, 2015

Last year’s winners were relatively frivolous, reflecting a new, more casual, more boisterous way of doing politics that accompanied the rise of the BRICS. Top of the list was the Natalia Poklonskaya fanart, symbolising the changing ways in which citizens interact with politicians and political events (and also because mmmmmm Natalia Poklonskaya). Second came Angela Merkel’s Caxton Street selfie, representing the same phenomenon but also the new breed of populist personality politics. Third was the razzmatazz surrounding the APPEC Summit in Beijing, in there to show how the rising states tend to lack the Western modesty and or embarrassment about openly taking pleasure in wealth and power.

This year’s winners?

Well most people would probably go for that photo of Aylan Kurdi.

Aylan Kurdi

However, it really says a great deal more about Western social media trends than about Asian politics, which rules it out for the purposes of this blog. On the other hand, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon satirising the Western attitude to refugees that was immediately seized upon as being anti-Muslim did make the short list:

Charlie Hebdo Aylan Kurdi

However, this blog deliberately focuses on high-level power politics and the way that this is expressed and understood. This year has seen a certain amount of settling, familiarisation and concretisation of the phenomena that first hit the limelight last year. The rise and rise of Donald Trump has gone a certain way towards confirming that populist personality politics is here to stay, even in the West. With this, however, audiences have also grown more cynical and calculating regarding its manifestations. Last year we were – to a large extent – blown away by all the showbiz glitz and renewed joie de vivre on the part of our leaders. Now we’ve had time to think about it, we’ve also begun to look beneath the surface. While we’re still impressed (cynically impressed, for the most part, but still impressed) by all the swag, we’re also aware that beneath it all decisions are being made and strategies played out that will change all of our futures, whether for better or worse.

That’s why this year’s winner is a group of pictures, namely every image tweeted under the #ModiFindsCamera hashtag, which began after video footage came out showing Modi literally dragging Mark Zuckerberg out of the way of the photographers.

The #ModiFindsCamera phenomenon wins because it shows that while people are still impressed by this new-style politics, they’re impressed because they can see the skill and calculation that goes into it, not because they’re deceived by the show.

And while we’re on the Modi theme, another honourable mention has to go to the brilliantly telling (not to mention sinister) pictures of Modi standing by while David Cameron serves as his warm-up act at Wembley:

Modi at Wembley

Which leads us on to second prize…

While last year’s political swag had a certain amount of because-we-can exuberance to it, this year the displays have tended to be more purposeful (though this hasn’t always been the case). The message has generally been more focused and clearer, even brutal in many cases. This is why second prize goes to the picture of Xi Jinping’s jet being escorted by JF-17s during a visit to Pakistan:

Xi Jinping visits Pakistan

Also, because it’s just fucken awesome

There is nothing I can add here that will better explain the message intended by this gesture than the image itself. It’s almost feudal: Pakistan is deliberately casting itself in the role of vassal, but accompanying this with such an immediately impressive display of military capacity (yes, I know it’s just eight JF-17s, but that’s not your first thought when you see it, and it’s the instinctive reaction that counts) that it nevertheless retains its dignity. The impression is more of a samurai retainer or a mob boss’ enforcer than of cringing neo-colonialism. Everything about the display works and is deeply satisfying.

So…

Third place goes to another incredibly well-done piece of military image-crafting, this time from Russia. It’s gritty, brutal and immediate, but it’s also a media product, created with an aesthetic underpinning and an intention to use skill and artistry to produce a specific response.

Russiaworks Syria video

As we said at the time “Who knew reality could be this beautiful?”

Frustratingly, since the video was first published the team that made it seems to have signed some sort of rights deal to restrict the availability of their footage online. For the time being, you can watch it here, though the link may go down at any time. There are also some other videos available on their website.

It’s in there not just as a tribute to the success with which the Russian leadership has been able to sell its own Syrian narrative via the media, but also as a stand-in for all the other brilliant, witty, perceptive and creative Russian media experiments that have kept us amused and impressed throughout the year.

Finally, an honourable mention has to go to the coverage of Lee Kuan Yew’s funeral.

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY funeral

LKY was genuinely one of a kind, so the reactions to his death cannot be said to be symptomatic of wider global trends (though they did include weather modification, which is one of the big political stage-management trends in Asia at the moment). Nevertheless, we predict that with greater insecurity and a return to personality politics, we will be seeing more of this sort of thing in coming years.

So that’s that. Think we missed anything? Please comment!

 

Entourage Swag, Continued

Narendra modi entourage

More politicians should openly refer to their peons as such

Here at HardMoshi, we’re particularly interested in the return of the retinue.The idea of a coterie of hangers-on as a symbol of political power has waxed and waned across time and space. In recent years something that used to be seen as both unnecessary and a strong indicator of vanity and corruption has been making a quiet comeback. And we’ve been here to chart it every step of the way, from Vladimir Putin’s gangsta rap style entourage to the F-17 escort that accompanied Xi Jinping to Pakistan to the Beijing APEC dancers.

We haven’t yet done a focus on India, however, which is a pity because in India the entourage concept has a historical foundation that is possibly unequalled elsewhere in the world. Thanks to the classical Indian passion for classifying and systematising, Sanskrit actually has a selection of distinct official terms for jobs that are basically the ancient equivalent of holding Snoop Dogg’s umbrella.

Snoop Dogg fo drizzle

They have key roles in many classical dramas, where often their name and role are one and the same: pithmarda, ganika, bhikshuki, bandhula, vita, vidushaka, cheta, satri, vagjivana, paricharaka… It’s a mark of how distant we are from the era when this was commonplace that even modern scholars often have trouble telling what any given one of them actually did. While we are aware that, for example, a ganika was a sort of equivalent of a hetaira, a vidushaka was more or less a court jester but with more dignity, a bhikshuki was a (religious?) medicant of some variety etc., it’s neverthless difficult to say with any great precision what any of these people’s nine-to-five would have ressembled. Quite often the roles are miscellaneously rendered into English as “parasites”, which would appear to be as good a translation as any. Indeed, the plays in which they feature can seem something like a debauched Marxist utopia, in which no one does any actual work but abundance prevails.

They’re not just present in dramas, however. They wend their indsidious way through the chapters of the Arthashastra, seldom centre stage, but always on hand when an unsavoury job needs doing – something which seems to suggest that the plays were, indeed, an accurate representation of real life.

Even in the Kama Sutra – a text directed more towards upper middle class dudebros than heads of state – these people are considered a sufficiently important part of life that one is expected to just generally hang out with them (and – presumably – feed and fund them) on a daily basis apparently as a matter of duty:

Meals should be taken in the forenoon, in the afternoon, and again at night, according to Charayana. After breakfast, parrots and other birds should be taught to speak, and the fighting of cocks, quails, and rams should follow. A limited time should be devoted to diversions with Pithamardas, Vitas, and Vidushakas, and then should be taken the midday sleep.

Link.

To modern individuals the idea of being obliged to spend any amount of time with a bunch of scroungers who are constantly trying to foist some unwantable service like juggling or sitar solos upon you sounds, frankly, like a preview of Hell. To a citizen of a violent and unpredictable pre-modern world, however, personal connections – even with as sketchy a bunch of characters as these evidently were – could be the difference between life and death.

And, of course, as the old Cold War order breaks down and life grows more unstable, this sort of relationship is bound to make a come-back. We might call the people involved public relations officers and personal assistants, but the dynamic will be much the same.

Aviation Swag, Part II

Hello Kitty Jet

I just got back to Singapore, and we pulled up right next to the Eva Air Hello Kitty jet.

And we were all thrilled beyond belief, despite being at the wrong end of an early morning flight from Sri Lanka.

So while we’re on the subject of aviation-related cool, Is Taiwan’s use of planes in its PR more or less effective than Pakistan’s gangsta-esque JF-17 escort?

Pakistan JF-17 escort

Can the two even be compared, given the difference in the messages being sent out?

The question is very much in the air here in Singapore, which will shortly be celebrating its 50th birthday. Not having an abundant hinterland in which to practice, the aerial display teams have been rehearsing above the city every Saturday evening.

The aim, of course, is to combine both the JF-17 and the Hello Kitty approaches to airborne PR in one neat package, effectively telling the neighbours: ‘Check out our amazing hardware. Aren’t you glad we’re such lovely people and wouldn’t dream of demolishing you with it?’

Though I still kind of wish it involved more Hello Kitty.

Swag

Xi Jinping

He haz it

It’s Xi Jinping visiting Pakistan and being escorted by an honour guard of JF-17s, in case you missed it.

For comparison, try this:

Gozzoli Magi

Or this:

Persepolis

Or this:

Bonampak

With the return of personality politics (a term that I prefer to ‘clientelism’, which is pejorative and Eurocentric – plenty of good, stable, efficient clientelist systems exist, but they don’t conform to the bureaucratic-democratic European model, and so get dismissed as bugs rather than features) we’re seeing the return of another phenomenon: the entourage.

Of course, it’s been making its return in different ways and at different rates in different places.

In much of the Middle East, the majlis never stopped being a central instrument of government, with oil execs and dusty Bedouin flying in from Dubai or trundling out of the desert every now and then in their 4x4s to attend this or that royal majlis. And while the majlis is a way to consult citizens, build consensus, and mediate disputes, it also a message to the world: ‘look at the homies I’ve got; do you really want to mess with this?’ (It’s also excruciatingly dull for the guy at the top, by all accounts.)

In Russia on the other hand, the tradition has made a come-back after the long years of communist atomisation of society. Plenty of people would say that it began at the top – Vladimir Putin is well-known for his gangsta rap-style entourage (i.e. it’s very big, not full of black guys) – but personally I suspect that he just realised which way the wind was blowing and was an early adopter.

What is interesting here isn’t so much the fact that this is happening, but the chain of cause and effect. People tend to believe that the development of liberal democracy in Europe and all that it entails led to the breakdown of clientelism. In fact, it seems more likely that it was the other way round: the breakdown of clientelism led to the development of liberal democracy.

The key thing about a clientelist system is that the guy at the top is expected to keep an open house. The degree depends on the culture, but it’s always there. In China you’re expected to bring a gift when you go visiting, for example, but once that’s out of the way you can hang around drinking tea for hours and hours. In much of Africa you can pretty much just show up, help yourself to anything that looks tasty in the fridge, play Dance Dance Revolution with the kids, sign for his post, take a nap in one of the spare rooms… all over the course of several days, if that’s what takes your fancy (I’m a parasite of many years’ standing).

We used to do this in Europe, back in the days of yore. You can see it in the construction of medieval houses. You’ve got a grand hall where vassals could hang out, and then the solar upstairs where the Lord and his family can get some fucking peace and quiet. And therein lies the problem: solitude is a luxury, and as soon as people are rich enough, they buy some for themselves (I know one girl – the daughter of a Chinese official – who told me that it was her secret dream to one day have a bathroom of her own).

In Europe, as people got wealthier, and the middle classes grew, the concept of privacy – and more importantly, the private home – developed. Clients no longer spent their days kicking their heels in their protectors’ kitchens, and without the physical proximity the system declined.

Of course, this doesn’t tell us anything about why it’s making a comeback now, of all times. My guess is that it’s to do with increasing levels of uncertainty. The development of privacy in Europe also coincided with a time of relative peace and stability, meaning that people no longer had to cling together to have a chance of surviving whatever the competition was intending to throw at them next.

So as China, Russia and the others get richer and more middle class, will the entourage system survive or decline? My guess is that uncertainty will win out over the desire for privacy, at least in the medium term. But I’m not advising you to bet the farm on it or anything.