If you think lockdown has been a strain, you should try it in a state that has been battened down for decades. Bingeing on television in Kim Jong-un’s hermit kingdom has just become more dangerous, food is disappearing fast and the spread of coronavirus is a state secret. And lest his put-upon subjects get the crazy idea that life could be better elsewhere, the North Korean leader has declared a culture war on South Korea.
A new law provides for between five and 15 years in a labour camp for watching or owning bootlegged South Korean films and K-pop videos, which are smuggled into the country via China.… Seguir leyendo »
This column falls neatly between two important anniversaries, neither of which will have been celebrated by many Britons. The first, on June 22, Windrush Day, commemorates the arrival of 492 West Indians to the mother country in 1948. The other, which takes place on Thursday, will mark the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s all-powerful Communist Party. On present trends, we can look forward to celebrating the CCP’s 200th anniversary with parades in cities all over the world.
In 1948, people all over the world wanted to get to the West, which had everything going for it. The US and Britain in particular offered up a glamorous vision of freedom for young people, complete with flashy cars and silk stockings.… Seguir leyendo »
Among the memorabilia of my time as foreign secretary are several chess sets, each of which brings back some aspect of the country it came from. One was a gift from the Russian government that I was advised not to use until checks had been made to ensure it wasn’t transmitting my conversations back to Moscow. Those little chess figures were innocent, but they always remind me that Russia has more dangerous pawns elsewhere.
My favourite, however, is the set I bought in Afghanistan, its meticulously carved pieces recalling the rich culture, history and diversity of a misunderstood land. And if you clattered across its skies in military helicopters, as I did many times, you could see at once how geography had dictated that diversity — vast deserts and mountain ranges with hill villages perched beyond the reach of conquerors or centralised authority.… Seguir leyendo »
Is any sane Times reader under any illusion about the People’s Republic of China? Assuming not, I shall not labour the point that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the greatest threat the free world faces in the century ahead.
You know that. You know the CCP is treating China’s Uighur minority with hideous inhumanity, brutalising Hong Kong and breaking its word to Britain, and trying to seize control of the South China Sea; that at home China is becoming a surveillance state of Orwellian proportions, and abroad stealing our intellectual property and tilting the playing field against our exports; that the CCP tries to infiltrate our universities and intimidates great western commercial institutions such as HSBC into ashamed compliance.… Seguir leyendo »
Events at Batley Grammar School, where there have been angry demonstrations against the showing of a cartoon image of the Prophet Muhammad, take me back to the late 20th century. I sat for five years on a government quango called the Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC). Viewers or listeners sent in their complaints about TV or radio and we adjudicated.
Sex and violence featured heavily but the BSC’s diet was eclectic: whether any actual budgie had been upset during the filming of a home-insurance ad depicting the ceiling falling in around the bird’s cage; or whether a drama depicting (without recommending) satanic rituals outraged decent Christians.… Seguir leyendo »
n Berkeley Square in Mayfair is a private members’ club called Annabel’s. The entrance is reached by a green felt carpet, the doorman is dressed in a cashmere wool uniform and inside it feels like how Versailles might have been before the Terror. A £20 million Picasso hangs in the entrance, the terrace boasts a 5ft golden unicorn and the wallpaper looks like silk. A recent refurbishment cost £100 million.
It may sound wonderful, or ghastly, depending on your perspective. But I wonder if it may also serve as a metaphor for these strange times.
For there are two big economic trends.… Seguir leyendo »
There is a new great game afoot. It is called vaccine diplomacy. This, at any rate, is what various experts on international power politics tell us. And we are being told how worrying it is that Russia and China are using distribution and even donation of their coronavirus vaccines as a means of boosting their influence and reputation across the world.
As usual, images express the idea better than words ever could — most powerfully Morten Morland’s cartoon on the front of The Spectator, which shows their presidents, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, carving up the globe, not with knives but syringes.… Seguir leyendo »
A fortnight before President Biden took office, Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that “mother”, “father”, “daughter”, “brother” and other gendered words to describe familial relationships would be removed from House rules. Henceforth in official documents they would be replaced by the gender-neutral terms “parent”, “child” or “sibling”. The purpose of this was to “honour all gender identities”.
Then, within hours of his inauguration, the president’s first executive order decreed that his administration would fully apply the Supreme Court’s Bostock ruling that denying rights “‘because of ... sex’ covers discrimination on the basis of gender identity” too. That this finally gives American trans people the same protections long enjoyed in Britain, for example from workplace discrimination, reversing President Trump’s disgraceful ban on trans military personnel, should be celebrated.… Seguir leyendo »
Finally. After two million dead, 188 countries infected, $28 trillion in lost output and incalculable suffering, a team from the WHO is on the ground in Wuhan to investigate the origins of coronavirus. Police detectives refer to a “golden hour” in an investigation, when evidence is fresh. Here we are in the not-so-golden 9,487th hour and — weak “hurrah” — they’re in.
All but the most optimistic know how this will go. It’s a year since Wuhan’s wet market was closed, floors scrubbed and samples burned. Since the start of the outbreak the WHO has seemed under the Chinese thumb, reciting the Communist Party line and hailing Xi Jinping’s “rare leadership”.… Seguir leyendo »
My first trip to India, the land of my father’s birth, was in 1986. I was 15 and wide-eyed, marvelling at its treasures, buildings and buzz. On the fourth day, I travelled from Delhi to the Taj Mahal, a shining tribute to the Mogul empire, built under Shah Jahan. “Let the splendour of diamond, pearl and ruby vanish,” wrote the poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Only let this one teardrop, this Taj Mahal, glisten spotlessly bright on the cheek of time, for ever and ever.”
Two things struck me about this trip, in addition to the wonderful architecture and people. The first was the economic might of India in its imperial heyday.… Seguir leyendo »
It would have been wiser to wait. That was the unmistakable message from Washington to Brussels last month as the EU neared agreement on its new investment agreement with China. Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden’s national security adviser, dryly said that “early consultations” would be welcome. Matt Pottinger, an able Mandarin-speaking official in the present administration, was blunter, saying that the US was “perplexed and stunned” by the deal, signed in principle on December 30.
But in Brussels people are fed up with years of hasty, unilateral American decision-making. Their deal, they note, is similar to the “phase one” market access agreement struck by the Trump administration with China last January.… Seguir leyendo »
According to the neurologists who first recognised the condition, “Americanitis” described a fraying of the nerves caused by the relentless speeding-up of modern life. Time and distance-shrinking inventions, such as the telegraph and the steam train, put a go-getting nation under psychological strain that its nervous systems had not evolved to handle. Silas Weir Mitchell, a Philadelphia doctor, reckoned that two categories of American were at high risk from the condition: competitive businessmen and social-climbing women. The only cure was rest, plus a diet that included four pints of milk a day.
America has always been synonymous with restlessness. Most of the tribes that inhabited north America before 1492 were semi-nomadic hunters, moving around with the seasons.… Seguir leyendo »
Berlin is not a city of tall buildings. From the rooftop of the newest presence in its skyline you can still see the old patchwork apparatus of Prussian power laid out beneath you: the Altes Museum, the imposing Protestant cathedral, the red-brick Rotes Rathaus town hall.
If you twist your neck and look upwards, you will see, crowning the ensemble, a 4.7m-high gilded cross fixed to the top of a baroque cupola, the pompous ghost of a history long buried beneath the moral grime of the Third Reich.
In the dome beneath the cross, golden letters the size of an adult’s forearm proclaim the words of Philippians 2:10, the slogan that underpinned the supposedly divine authority of the Prussian monarchy: “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.”… Seguir leyendo »
Phew. Even the most ardent European feels tempted to quote Maurice Chevalier on old age, “which isn’t so bad when you consider the alternative”. The alternatives before us were no longer In or Out but instead between a Sellotaped post-new year order and chaos. The government has displayed the pragmatism to reach a belated agreement with Brussels.
Downing Street’s triumphalism was inevitable: the deal bolsters a tottering premiership. The risk of public disorder, had the food supply chain with the Continent broken down, has been averted. Boris Johnson trumpets perhaps the first promise of his life that he has half-kept, saying that “we have taken back control”.… Seguir leyendo »
The European Union’s claim to potential greatness rests, according to its supporters, on it being a giant bloc that can wield power globally by dint of its scale and sheer sophistication. In the face of this regulatory and diplomatic behemoth, silly little Brexit Britain, marooned, doomed, deluded, supposedly stands no chance.
How delicious then that the EU itself has provided a timely corrective to this narrative by revealing, once again, its true clodhopping character when it plays geopolitics.
This week, EU officials are rushing to conclude an investment pact with the Chinese Communist Party before the year ends. Chinese state media reported that the talks are in the “final stretch”.… Seguir leyendo »
‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story,” John le Carré told The New York Times back in 1977. ‘“The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.” Which is brilliant.
More than a mere storyteller, though, le Carré, who died this weekend, was one of those rare writers whose writerly vision immerses itself in the reader’s imagination. It is thanks to him that most of us feel it was usually raining behind the Iron Curtain. He also, perhaps more importantly, gave us a framework for understanding our own country. It was one in which you could see Britain in the context of all other countries, and despair of its flaws, and perhaps even dislike quite a lot of it, and yet still absolutely root for it over everywhere else.… Seguir leyendo »
What’s in it for them? This is the question. Last week, Google’s Deepmind announced a scientific breakthrough. As you’ll know, it had used artificial intelligence to . . . do something. Perhaps you understand more. I do, a bit, but if you want a truly reliable guide to what “protein folding” is, then for God’s sake ask somebody else. This is not to be a column about what they did. This is to be a column about why they did it.
“They” in this context is Google, which bought Deepmind in 2014, reportedly for about half a billion dollars. According to the open resource that is Companies House (because, of course, Deepmind is British) the AI firm went on to lose tens of millions every year, right up to a really quite exciting £470 million in 2018, which is the most recent year you can see.… Seguir leyendo »
For a US State Department employee in Guangzhou, China, it started one evening in 2018 with a sound like a glass marble hitting the floor overhead with a loud crack, followed by headaches, insomnia and memory loss. Fifteen other American officials in China reported similarly inexplicable symptoms.
A few months earlier, in a Moscow hotel room, visiting CIA officer Marc Polymeropoulos experienced what felt like vertigo. His health steadily deteriorated over the following months and years, with migraines, dizziness and exhaustion, to the point where he was forced to retire.
Two senior US intelligence officers suffered the same abrupt and baffling medical problems on a visit to Australia earlier this year.… Seguir leyendo »
The problem with freezing conflicts in a defective fridge is that after a while they start to stink. That’s what happened to the nasty ancestral feud between the Armenians and Azeris in the rugged mountain terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh. Vladimir Putin slammed them into the freezer drawer marked “Eastern Ukraine, South Ossetia, Transnistria and miscellaneous other territories — to be consumed at leisure” and forgot. Now he is faced with a full-scale war on the southern borders of Russia that could soon turn into a geopolitical flashpoint.
That’s how imperial power unravels: the centre neglects the periphery, blood is spilt and strength ebbs away from the leader.… Seguir leyendo »
Covid-19 should not have struck us so unawares. Why did the warnings of Bill Gates and others go unheeded? Why were even rich countries so unprepared? The answer is clear. Governments recognise a duty to prepare for floods, terrorist acts and other risks that are likely to occur in the short term and be restricted to their own countries. But they have little incentive to tackle longer-term threats that are likely to occur long after they’ve left office and which are global rather than local.
Such threats are many and varied — and looming ever larger. As we’ve discovered to our cost, pandemics can strike at any time; so can worldwide failures of infrastructure.… Seguir leyendo »