New Year, Old School Cool

Winning the Politicians’ New Year Messages Stakes by a country mile this year is Shinzo Abe, with this impeccable display of old school cool:

This year’s effort from Vladimir Putin was also pretty good – he gets kudos for actually going out into the snow to film it this year, rather than doing it in a studio in which everyone present looks as though they’d rather be removing their own gall bladder with a hammer drill rather than ploughing their way through this dismal charade again (see also under: all Russian tv ever).

Putin New Year address

The end result is definitely up there with Shinzo Abe’s message as the best of the bunch under review here. Sure, the only thing colder than the weather is his delivery, but we weren’t expecting rainbows and unicorns.

Nice coat too.

Park Geun-hye, for her part, did a pretty standard speech hoping for growth through innovation in the year of the red monkey, which only sounds batshit insane if you’re unfamiliar with the Chinese calendar.

Park Geun-hye new year speech

On the other hand, pretty much every South Korean national event involves a military component, and the film of Park honouring the RoK’s fallen soldiers is actually rather evocative, and certainly a classy look for her:

Park Geun-hye incense

There she is putting out her cigarette at the National Cemetery.

Just kidding. She’s burning incense.

Kim Jong Un’s new year message was a pretty standard performance, notable mainly for the fact that no two media outlets were capable of agreeing on whether it was conciliatory or belligerent (see under: choose your own adventure):

Reactions to Kim Jong Un new year speech.

Similarly, the aesthetics of Xi Jinping’s speech were much the same as last year (which we covered in great detail here).

Xi Jinping New Year speech

In fact, if you pay close attention, you will notice that all of the books and photos are in exactly the same positions as last year, arguing strongly in favour of this being a stage set.

Oh, and he also promised that China will be kicking ass and taking namesnot be absent” internationally in 2016, which is pretty ominous however you look at it.

Pranab Mukherjee was also broadcasting from a fake office, and an unsettlingly non-euclidean one at that:

Pranab Mukherjee new year speech

Is that green thing wall or carpet? Are those bookcases resting on the floor or some sort of trompe-l’oeil effect painted onto the plaster? Look at that thing for too long and you’ll find yourself feeling oddly sea-sick. It’s clearly got to Gandhi already.

He also dropped some pretty heavy hints on the subject of tolerance, seemingly directed at Narendra Modi and his followers.

By contrast, Lee Hsien Loong gave his message not only from within the four mundane dimensions of time and space, but inside a real room. He’s been on holiday in Korea for the past two or three weeks, which explains the rather relaxed look (even if the deskless chair makes him look like he’s applying for a job):

Lee Hsien Loong New Year Spech

On the whole, it’s a well-judged and nicely reassuring speech, and worth watching here.

 

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!

 

It’s what you do with it that counts

Forbes’ annual power list is out:

Forbes power list

Link.

There’s nothing wildly shocking in there compared to previous years, but what is interesting are the criteria that Forbes uses to define someone as “powerful”.

Notably, three out of the top five spots – specifically 1, 2 and 4 – are occupied by people who took on roles that were not hugely promising at the beginning, but which they have since made their own in various interesting ways.

In no way is it evident that the President of Russia, the German Chancellor or the Pope should be so highly ranked. Sure, they should have a pretty high score ex officio, but not necessarily that high. Germany is a small European country hamstrung by its neighbours’ problems, Russia is a lumbering giant held together by belligerence and gaffer tape and the Catholic church is a scandal-wracked ruin of its former self. In other words, it’s less the positions themselves that Forbes is complimenting, than what their tenants have managed to do with them.

In fact, Forbes‘ ranking system is something like the opposite of the parable of the talents: starting with many advantages and doing a reasonable-if-uninspiring job with them is rewarded less than making something remarkable out of less auspicious beginnings.

Well ok, but so what?

The fact that Forbes chose to take such an approach reflects on their own editorial department’s modes of thought, but the fact that they had a reasonable amount of latittude in defining “power” isn’t a given. In fact, it’s a matter of language. One presumes that this list was compiled as well as published in English. If they’d been writing in French or Italian or Chinese, however, they would have faced a different set of questions to asnwer.

English has far more words than many languages, partly due to the waves of conquerors that swept across England during the dark ages, and partly due to its rapacious attitude towards useful-looking foreign vocabulary and its willingness to accomodate creoles. (According to Bill Bryson in Mother Tongue, English has twice as much vocabulary in common use as French, for example.) Consequently, it’s a rare word in English that doesn’t come with two or three commonly-used synonyms – usually there’ll be at least one with Germanic roots and one with Latin roots.

“Power” is an interesting exception. We only have one commonly-used word to cover the whole phenomenon. Most Latin languages, for example, have at least two, splitting it into two distinct concepts. So it is that in French “power” can be rendered either as “pouvoir” or “puissance” and these two cannot be used interchangeably to refer to the English-language concept.

I was educated in part at Sciences Po, and thus spent a possibly unhealthy amount of time bent over a creaky old exam desk attempting to define the two. So it is that I feel moderately qualified to speak on the subject (my marks weren’t particularly good, but I never actually got kicked out).

In brief, pouvoir deals with the more administrative and governmental side of things, while puissance has more to do with raw force, whether physical or psychological. In fact, it is easier to explain using examples: high-ranking civil servant (in the Weberian sense) relies more on pouvoir, while a warlord favours puissance.

In fact, in a slightly smug in-joke, Sciences Po still uses a fox and a lion on its crest in reference to the famous passage by Machiavelli (link).

Sciences Po logo

In such a schema, the fox could be said to represent pouvoir – using human ideas and institutions to control events – and the lion would stand for puissance – using brute force or charisma. (If I recall correctly, renaissance Italian also used two separate terms, much like modern French – podestà and potenza – though common usage has changed slightly since, and now privileges potere over podestà)

So from a French point of view, we could interpret the Forbes compilers’ criteria as favouring people who have used puissance as a way to extend pouvoir.

If you move away from European languages things can get even more complicated. Chinese, for example, has several individual characters that describe various aspects of power, and which can all be combined in various ways to provide even more nuance:

or  generally means physical force, though it can sometimes have to do with will power (努力), intention () or ability (视力).

or quán is to do with legally-endorsed authority as well as rights and privileges, though legally-endorsed does not necessarily mean good or benevolent or even law abiding. It is used to refer to human rights (人权) just as happily as hegemony-by-conquest () and intellectual property (知识产权).

The two combine to produce 权力, the term most often used in refering to political power, though, interestingly, it isn’t the word used by the Chinese edition of Forbes in reporting on the 2015 power rankings. Instead, the writers have gone for , which brings us to the third option and the least intuitively easy-to-grasp for a non-Chinese speaker.

 or shì is an odd and complex creature. It does mean power, but it also has connotations of momentum and inertia – of trends within society.  could just as happily be translated as “influential” as “powerful”. If you look at a selection of the various words that use 势 you can get a better idea of its various meanings.

There are various other relevant concepts ( etc.), but 力, 权 and 势 are the main ones. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the Chinese translation of the article may actually express the intentions of the original compilers better than their own English-language title did. 权势 gives a sense of using the ability to mobilise the assets of one’s position in order to improve and extend it, something that is conveyed by the example sentences MDBG gives for the word:

mdbg example sentences

Which is all well and good, but once again: so what?

Well, with China rising it’s worth everyone’s time to take a few minutes and think about how Chinese-speakers think about politics, which is what this blog is all about.

Don’t mention the war

The Japanese internet has been amusing itself lately with these photos of Prince Andrew, the Lord Mayor of London’s wife and some Arab guy apparently bored witless by Xi Jinping’s speech at the London Guildhall*.

Xi Jinping, Prince Andrew

Xi Jinping, Prince Andrew

To be fair, the speech was nearly half an hour long, which is a good strong dose, even for the most consenting of adults. It’s not surprising that at some point both Gillian Yarrow and Air Miles Andy would have let the facade slip a little.

What’s interesting is the spin put on it by the Japanese viral content aggregators at Buzz Media. Translated:

Visiting England, China’s President Xi Jinping addressed both Houses of Parliament for the first time on the 20th. [T.N. This is obviously incorrect, but we’re not looking at Pulitzer-class journalism here.]

He pointed out that both countries had fought against the “Japanese aggression” in World War Two.

Xi’s unrelenting criticism of Japan was not limited to that remark, coming as it did after the formal opening of the banquet during which he once against stressed “Japanese brutality” during the War.

The effect of China’s constantly harping on its anti-Japanese historical viewpoint can be seen in the following photographs…

For those of you who persist in caring about such trifles as facts, Buzz Media has, in fact, confused its speeches. Xi brought up Japan at the Buckingham Palace dinner, which did indeed take place on the 20th. The Guildhall event was on the 22nd. I have no idea whether he also brought it up at the latter dinner. (You surely don’t expect me to actually listen to the thing?)

The Buzz Media piece goes on to tease Xi about his apparent ignorance of the convention that one does not air one’s grievances at mealtimes. It also speculates that the fact that Prince Charles was not present was a subtle snub on the part of the British establishment (unkind wits may well suggest that a far greater snub would have been to oblige Xi to sit next to him, but there…), and quotes a twitter post listing other real or imagined slights towards Xi on the part of the British. Namely: the Queen kept her gloves on to shake hands (she always does this), and that they had him give an interview in front of a poorly screened toilet door (which, admittedly, is pretty funny).

It also compares pictures of the Pope addressing a packed house at the UN and of Xi addressing a large proportion of empty chairs.

*Yes. Guildhalls are a thing that we really have. No dragons, warlocks or dire wolves though, sadly.

An Everyday Story of Country Folk…

David Cameron finally got round to taking Xi Jinping to a pub. A typical British pub with a cheery coterie of regulars who are in no way, shape or form secret service goons poorly disguised as The Archers.

David Cameron, Xi Jinping, pub

Evening all. Jolene, Kenton, 007…

David Cameron and Xi Jinping in a pub

That’s the quality of pint you get when your barman spends his days destabilising small African countries.

David Cameron and Xi Jinping goe to a pub

Xi unimpressed by a friendly local’s description of precisely how one hides a tracking beacon about one’s person when sneaking behind enemy lines.

Feel free to compare this with Angela Merkel’s famous Caxton Street selfie.

The Plough, incidentally, is the pub where Cameron famously forgot his daughter after an afternoon on the sauce.

Xi Jinping’s epic moves

No really. I know it’s not a phrase you hear often.

We’ve mentioned the importance of who goes through a door first in politics here before. The implication is that whoever is last through is in charge.

If you’re playing this game, you have a double disadvantage if you are a) the guest and b) on the non-handle side of the door. Not that this bothers old smoothie Xi, however. Check out the way he effortlessly outmanoeuvres David Cameron in this video.

Get in there you beauty

More on Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK

Xi Jinping, Charles, Camilla

The Chinese media continue the build-up to Xi Jinping’s visit to the UK. For a selection of video reports, click here.

The third video, which I would embed if I could, is particularly interesting, listing as it does the schedule for the visit and a proportion of the official protocol involved. Of particular interest is the pageantry-to-serious business ratio, which seems to be a good bit higher than for many official visits.

There’s a very good reason for this. Namely, that Britain only has two sources of income left: its accomodating financial laws and its Gross National Quaintness. Clearly they intend to push both of them as far as they can during this visit. Note Cameron’s comment about Britain having an “open” economy in the second video; we won’t ask you where your money came from, huddled tuhao masses.

Moreover, contrary to what you might expect from a (theoretically) communist country, the Chinese have no principled objection to monarchy. From a Western point of view, wherein there is a tendency to rank foreign countries based on how closely they stick to values that we approve of (democracy, human rights), this may appear unexpected. However, the Beijing consensus is not merely a matter of international posturing: they genuinely could not care less how other countries run themselves. If the British want a monarchy and it looks cool on tv, then sure, why not? Let’s have lots of pictures of gold carriages and Kate Middleton on the evening news. It’s more fun than Li Keqiang visiting a fertilizer plant in Anhui.

Moreover, the British diplomatic corps has had ample chance to make note of this. A few years back David Cameron did a live chat on Weibo, and rather than asking about trade relationships, studying in the UK or the future of NATO, netizens by and large just wanted to know when the next series of Sherlock would be out in Chinese, and whether Cameron could do anything to speed up the process.

So in other words, the protocol here is directed not so much at Xi himself, although obviously it would be embarrasing if Britain was not able to give him as grand a welcome as other countries have taken to providing, as for the millions of Chinese citizens sitting at home watching on the evening news. It is effectively a display of Britain’s soft power superpower status.

What’s more, we’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, everyone was blown away by the overwhelming Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, but it was also a moment of reckoning for the British. They were scheduled to host the Games in 2012, and knew full well that they would never be able to match the spectacle produced by the Chinese. (It’s not just a matter of cash either; if you tell 15,000 British students that they have to spend their whole summer researsing cultural dances, their reply will begin and end with an F.)

So they decided to take another route. Not having a hope in hell of matching Zhang Yimou’s show, instead they had Daniel Craig push the Queen out of a helicopter while Mr. Bean played the piano. It was arguably just as effective as the Chinese production, and even – in an understated, British sort of way – managed to subvert it: “You used 15,000 dancers to create a media sensation? Well we can’t do that, but we can achieve much the same thing by means of Daniel Craig and a hairy stuntman wearing a dress and a tiara.”

Of course, none of this actually means anything until it translates into concrete economic and political gains…