A Democratic China?

One of the largest topics of debate in international relations these days seems to be ‘The Rise of China’.  It’s a theme mentioned practically in every news channel you watch, or rooted somewhere in any newspaper you might pick up.  That China is a rising star in the world is undeniable; its GDP has risen to be the 2nd largest in the world and it’s taking an increasingly important role in world affairs.  Thankfully, China’s leadership appears to have chosen to express this position of power through economic means, including investing in many developing countries around the world, rather than following the US route of attaining military hegemony.  China’s growth needn’t be a threat to the West simply because it’s a shock to the status quo – while worries about the effect corrupt deals could have in places such as in Africa, my only real concern would be if China decided to use its position to advocate Communism and authoritarianism outside its borders.  Instead, China seems committed to the principles of peace and stability and, after economic reforms of the 80s and 90s, has completely abandoned a Communist economic system while currently maintaining a Communist government (which completely defeats the purpose).

The question on many lips is this: will China, having adopted Western neoliberal ideas of the free market and private enterprise, also follow through and liberalise its political system?  The government has proven very successful thus far at warding off domestic unrest, largely I expect because of the country’s incredible economy (we have much to thank China for; its economic success has been praised for keeping the world from complete disaster during the financial meltdowns since 2008).  Since the brutal suppression of protests at Tienanmen Square in 1989 there has been no large pro-democracy movements, despite the cases high-profile dissidents such as Ai Weiwei and Chen Guangcheng.  Indeed, China’s unprecedented economic success has caused many in the West to consider whether economic growth and democracy must necessarily go hand in hand, as surely China is proof that an authoritarian country can be successful, right?

Yes and no, is my largely unprofessional opinion.  History has shown time and time again that economic development in the country – greater infrastructure, a growing middle class, rapid urbanisation – results in unrest within authoritarian countries.  An affluent middle class grouped together in urban areas with access to information will soon realise that they have no say in the political process; this is unavoidable.  China may effectively sensor the internet but bits and pieces will trickle through.  Meanwhile the number of Chinese people taking holidays abroad is skyrocketing, and there’s nothing the government can do to stop them realising how much more political freedom people have elsewhere.  Combine these factors with a gradual slowdown of economic growth and I would argue that the government is on a direct collision course with its citizens.  There are claims of ‘Chinese exceptionalism’ which, like all claims of national exceptionalism, is merely a vain justification of certain policies.  China has a vastly unique and wonderful culture, yes*, but human nature remains the same.

So working on the assumption that a democratic transition is likely, we must now speculate the course this will take.  Will we see cautious policies to open up the political system, perhaps similar to what’s happening in neighbouring Burma, or will there be an Arab-Spring style uprising?  I’m inclined to predict the first option.  In fact, BBC world affairs editor John Simpson recently said that “Leading Chinese dissidents now believe the stage is set for multi-party democracy in maybe 5, 7, 10 years”, describing these dissidents as “surprisingly optimistic“.  He is of the view that China’s new leadership is aware that political liberalisation is necessary for continued development and that the real question is how this would be achieved.  Don’t confuse this with the idea that its leadership are Liberals – I believe them to be very Conservative – but this is in many ways an issue of pragmatism, not ideology.

Another curious question is, if this remarkable feat is ever achieved, what implications would a democratic China have?  While its possible a nationalistic government could be elected that would make the world a much less peaceful place, which would not be unusual  for a new democracy, chances are any elected government would be more moderate.  I can’t imagine even a democratic China being best buddies with the West – it has too many of its own interests to consider – but there would certainly be the opportunity to improve relations which wouldn’t exist under authoritarianism.  A democratic China would possibly be the best thing that could happen for the cause of spreading democracy worldwide; while I don’t expect it would join the West’s desperate fervour to impose democracy upon various countries, it would at least recognise that such a spread would be desirable.  For this reason, a democratic China would probably use its considerable influence over North Korea to force reform and openness.  Without Chinese support I find it unlikely to think that the Kim regime could survive for long.  There would probably also be much good news for human rights in Tibet, even if full independence might initially be off the agenda.

Also, what would a democratic China look like?  Would it keep elements of its Communist system or adopt a multi-party system as in Japan, India and South Korea?  A close example is the Soviet Union which completely dismantled its Communist style of governance in 1991 and adopted a Western model of governance, though China’s transition would probably not be quite so dramatic and therefore not so extreme.  And what would become of the flag?  Would it return to the flags of 1912-1949 republic?

Much of this is wild conjecture at best, though I think the odds are in favour of there being some political opening occuring.  It would be very nice if this happened as soon as 7 years time, while other commentators have suggested it’s more likely to occur during the 2022-2032 sixth generation of leadership.  It’s impossible to tell, though I suspect something has to change during my lifetime.  I’m excited to watch and see!

*One I would absolutely love to experience to a greater extent, incidentally.

 

Demographics: The Future in Graphs!

About a week ago I came across this fascinating article on the Washington Post website which shows the United Nations’ predictions of how demographic changes shall develop in the future.  I’d best roughly explain a basic theory of demographics first – current models identify five stages in a country’s development:

  1. Before development there are high, fluctuating birth and death rates (influenced by factors like war, disease and famine) with the population remaining stable.
  2. Advanced to medical procedures, number of hospitals, more food, better diets, more access to vaccinations and many other factors cause a country to enter the second stage.  There are too many existing theories to discuss here as to why this happens – a liberalised economy, intellectual freedom and industrialisation being some of them – but this causes a distinct fall in the death rate.  Consequently, the population experiences a sudden, unprecedented rise (as Europe did in the 19th century, as much of the developing world is now).
  3. The birth rate falls about a generation later, perhaps due to a shift in culture (couples marrying later, there being less necessity to have lots of children) and a wider availability of family planning.  This causes the population growth to decrease, though it still occurs – this is where India is now, for instance.
  4. The birth and death rates largely level out, where few people die young, infant mortality is down and less babies are born.
  5. The country experiences an ageing population which causes an increase to the death rate and decrease to birth rate (older people tend to die more and have less children).
  6. Who knows?

Each of these stages have various implications for the countries experiencing them, as the article explains.  I find the graphs it includes to be incredible.  Never does a day pass without some article getting published about the West’s decline, the rise of China and Asia, etc.  This is true, to an extent – we are experiencing ageing populations which will decrease our economic output (though this is being counteracted to an extent by immigration), while the likes of China are continuing to shoot upwards and achieve their full potential.  But what we’re never told is that Asia’s rise on the world stage might be equally as temporary.  If the 18th, 19th centuries belonged to Europe, the 20th belonged to America and the 21st moving to Asia, could the 22nd century be the dawn of an African golden era?  None of us will be around to see it, of course, but it’s a fascinating theory.

What could the implications of these changes be?  Asian languages are expected to become ever more significant this century, but how would that be affected by the rise of Africa?  Many African countries still have English and French as their national languages; when Africa contains almost half the world’s population, will these languages see a resurgence?  Or by this point will Africa have cast off its colonial legacy and promote traditional languages around the world?  That would be rather nice.  And I enjoy very much this irony of colonialism: Europe colonised Africa to subjugate it and steal its resources, but we inadvertently introduced systems which promoted population growth and could result in Africa becoming a leader in world affairs.

One major flaw in my idea is that the size of population is not necessarily equal to power and influence, particularly if a country lacks the resources to support such a population.  But it certainly helps.  And regardless of economics, in this globalised, connected age, the size of a population really has an impact upon its status around the world.

To conclude, these graphs are terrifying.  Not because of what they tell us – there’s no reason to fear the growth of either Asia or Africa, or even the decline of our own Western countries – but because of what do not.  Right now we know nothing except that the world will change dramatically in the next 100 years.  There’s a strong argument for saying that major events in human history, including the world wars, the rise of democracy, most revolutions and our entire economic system, is a result of demographic changes in Europe and the Americas.  What sort of world will similarly dramatic changes in Asia and Africa usher in?  I haven’t even mentioned the obvious issue of producing food for all these people, nor the massive strain it will put upon water management and energy production.  The ‘Western model’ gives us a vague insight but, really, the future is impossible to predict.  That said, I’m sure excited to find out!

Pariah States Stick Together

Today, Panama has announced that it stopped a North Korean cargo ship passing through the Panama canal from Cuba which contained materials used in the construction of missiles under the guise of trading sugar.  The ship was suspected to have been carrying drugs when the much more sinister reality was discovered.  The need for secrecy was so imperative that apparently the crew resisted the search and the captain even attempted suicide.  Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli has said that this violates United Nations resolutions on arms trafficking.

This kind of lucrative cooperation between pariah states, hostile to many of their neighbours, is not unusual – particularly not between Communist countries (at least, the few countries which remain Communist in name; in reality all have abandoned the essential principles of Socialism and North Korea no longer even refers to Communism as its official doctrine).  To see similarities between the countries, simply look at their flags!  Both exist in a world which increasingly rejects their economic and political models and face threats from the USA.   I’ve read similar stories in the past regarding Iran and North Korea.  Of course, once you start looking at the Middle East these kinds of secret deals are everywhere: Iran and Russia to Syria; Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Libya to the Syrian opposition; Iran to Hezbollah; probably most of the countries mentioned to Hamas; etc.

Secret agreements between countries has always been a feature of international relations.  In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars there were various understandings that some great powers, most commonly Austria, would step in to prevent revolutionary uprisings and prop up Monarchies in any way possible.  Before the First World War a complex web of alliances spanned the globe.  During the Cold War the tap really opened and weapons flowed to Africa, Asia, South America – everywhere, really – in the many proxy wars between Capitalism and Communism.

However, since the collapse of Communism this business really has begun to dry up.  The fact that an Arms Trade Treaty can pass through the UN is proof of this.  The last 20 or so years has seen this business occur largely between the small number of authoritarian, isolated countries that still remain opposed to the international consensus – usually countries particularly opposed to the USA.  Even during this period the number of such ‘rogue states’ has dwindled – 2003 saw the collapse of Hussein’s Iraq and 2011 saw Gaddafi’s Libya fall, for instance.

I’m sure the vision of many – a vision that I share – is that one day we’ll see a world of democratic, friendly countries working in harmony with one another.  This is unlikely to happen for many reasons – tensions between the mostly democratic South America and the USA is proof of this – but I do believe we can get to a stage where the more ‘rogue’ states are integrated enough with the international consensus that the need for such illicit arms transfers might become a thing of the past.  At the moment, all we can do is work towards preventing these illegal transfers of weapons (and continue cracking down upon those which are are still legal, though that’s a different issue) and edge slowly closer to this dream.

The Hunger Games vs Battle Royale

Contains spoilers.

After reading the entire Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins  over a weekend roughly a year ago, I became aware of the Battle Royale franchise, created over a decade ago by Japanese writer Koushun Takami.  Both deal with the same grisly topic: a group of teenagers thrown into an arena forced to battle one another to the death (actually, this is a horrific concept; how did it ever become so popular?!).  Collins has been accused of stealing the idea from Takami though she claims to have never heard of the franchise.  I was able to compare them myself when I found the manga at my local library and dove through them.  My clear favourite is The Hunger Games, though that’s mostly because I struggled with the sickeningly graphic content of Battle Royale, often skimming entire chapters to avoid it.  But this aside, there are various interesting points of comparison.

The stories differed in their treatment of characters.  The Hunger Games spent a large amount of time developing the central characters of the trilogy, forcing the audience to really invest in their struggle.  Battle Royale, in contrast, would develop each character to the same extent and then, in most cases, kill them off shortly afterwards.  This created a ‘shock factor’ but became tiring after a while, making me reluctant to care about any of the characters.  The Hunger Games did this too, most prominently with Rue, but I feel Collins handled it better.  However once the characters had been established it’s up for debate which franchise dealt with them better.  I think they’re generally equal in this respect; The Hunger Games’ Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Prim are all very rounded characters, while a significant number of supporting characters also seem to have depth.  I would argue that Battle Royale does well in establishing Shuya, Noriko, Shogo, Mimura, Sugimura, Kiriyama and Mitsuko, but the rest come across as a little two-dimensional, having just one defining characteristic such as ‘frosty’ or ‘elitist’.

In Battle Royale there’s a clearer divide between the students who are ‘playing’ the game and those who refuse to go along with it.  This idea is briefly present in The Hunger Games where you have ‘Careers’, who volunteer in order to win, then just those who are scared and run, but I do like Battle Royale’s focus on battling the government.  Mimura makes a bomb to target the base of operations and the story ultimately ends with the slaughter of the game planners.  Katniss’ desire to simply keep her family alive fits with her character and I’m not criticising it, but as a reader the rebellion in Battle Royale was more fulfilling.  That said, the subtle approach of The Hunger Games is also commendable.  Katniss causes riots in District 11 through her televised honouring of Rue in death, and the country is brought to the brink of a full-scale uprising after she and Peeta attempt suicide to deprive the government of a winner.  This develops in the subsequent novels, with a large group of tributes in Catching Fire refusing to ‘play’ and planning an escape.  So it’s difficult to say which approach I preferred.

One issue I had with the characters of Battle Royale was the attitude towards female characters.  With a couple of exceptions they were generally treated either as weak characters dependent on the boys or sexual objects.  This particularly bothered me every time Shogo told Shuya to “protect Noriko.”  It was Noriko who ultimately shot Kiriyama, fatally wounding him, but this is the exception.  Katniss, in contrast, must be among the most resilient and able characters in the entire trilogy.  Characters in general felt more realistic in The Hunger Games – girls were neither simply ‘weak’ nor ‘strong’ and the male characters ranged from fierce bullies like Cato to the softer personality of Peeta.  A contrast might be made between Peeta and Shuya, both being idealistic and loving characters.  I can’t pick a preference between them.

Both stories present fascinating dystopian worlds.  The Hunger Games is set far in the future in a society built from the ashes of the USA, while Battle Royale is set in Japan in roughly the present day that developed along an alternative timeline.  Both use their respective games to instill terror in the population and keep them in their place.  Though I couldn’t help noticing the dangers of both systems in provoking the population into an uprising.  This concept is eventually explored in The Hunger Games, where Katniss’ actions do provide ‘the spark’ for civil war.  This indicates that Panem is near the verge of collapse by the beginning of the story, which I believe is partly a consequence of The Hunger Games providing a *major* grievance for the non-Capitol majority.  The Capitol’s strategy to rule solely through fear is what ultimately destroys it – though that’s a discussion for another day.

Interestingly, I believe the original Japanese version of Battle Royale does not include The Program being a TV show.  This solves many inconsistencies I found in the (somewhat sloppy, I have to say) English version.  This could be one reason why the government is more stable; The Program is less prominent and more of a myth.  Like how the Nazis deliberately released prisoners from concentration camps to spread stories and fear throughout the population, The Program serves as a stick to batter fear into the population, preventing them from speaking out in case their children are targeted.  Indeed, there are no signs that the government is under any threat throughout the story.   The Hunger Games explores the political and social situation of Panem more thoroughly than in Battle Royale, but both provide fairly realistic societies.  However it’s worth noting that schemes like The Hunger Games or The Program have never to my knowledge actually been tried in history; the closest example I can think of is forcing slaves to fight to the death in Ancient Rome.

In terms of the world outside of the totalitarian state, Battle Royale is a clear winner.  I was always frustrated by The Hunger Games’ lack of any detail regarding other countries in the world.  Despite being set in a semi-post apocalyptic world, they live in a mostly functioning society which would suggest that the planet is capable of supporting life elsewhere.  I don’t see why they shouldn’t have the capabilities to contact these other nations.  It makes the story simpler and perhaps more coherent when Panem is the only country, but it’s less convincing.  On the other hand I enjoyed the discussion in Battle Royale about escaping to the USA, and the idea that Japan was viewed by the rest of the world as a crazy, rogue state.  It’s also hinted that the world doesn’t know about The Program, suggesting the depth of Japan’s hermit status – rather like North Korea in our world today.  Battle Royale ends with Shuya and Noriko successfully escaping to the USA, though I’d like to have seen more of the international reaction to their testimonies.  So neither is perfect in this field.

Overall, both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale provide great portrayals of the same concept.  I can’t comment on the way they developed the ideas due to one being a trilogy of novels and the other, in the form I read it, being a manga.  As I said my overall preference is for The Hunger Games, but Battle Royale certainly takes a different perspective on many themes.  Both are worth reading, though Battle Royale isn’t for the faint of heart.

Final ratings:

  • The Hunger Games: 9.5/10
  • Battle Royale: 7.5/10

Related article:

  • See this essay for a a similar comparison which comes to a contrary conclusion.

The Thief of Time (Review)

Contains spoilers.

 

I randomly picked this up a shelf from the local library, impressed with the concept and what I believed were author John Boyne’s writing credentials for having written the well-performing The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.  The book is written as a fictional journal for Matthieu Zéla (finally, a character who shares my name!) and explores his life – all 250 years of it.  Since the late 18th century Matthieu has never aged.  This is a concept which has been explored heavily before, although this is my first personal encounter with the idea, and I was curious to see how Boyne tackled it.

Unfortunately, the novel never lived up its potential with this grand idea.  It’s structured around several different periods of his life, ranging from revolutionary France, the glamour of 1920s America, postwar Communist witch-hunts and 19th century Britain.  Each of these separate stories begin and end without a clear pattern, but the narrative returns to two stories: Matthieu’s arrival in the UK as a teenager focusing on his life with Dominique, and the present day.  I found this haphazard way of plotting irritating, I think generally because there was no progression throughout the novel.  I have no problem with fragmented storytelling, as my love of Cloud Atlas testifies, but there has to be a reason for it which The Thief of Time lacks.

My other major issue with the novel is that, all things considered, the individual stories told of Matthieu’s life are just so dull.  “Yes, back in the 19th century I was a businessman with wife X…” “1920s I moved into this industry and married wife Y…”  We get the impression that Matthieu spent his whole life either courting women and investing money, shying away from anything more dramatic.  Ocasionally he gets into fights but his chivalrous and charitable nature keeps him out of most scraps, resulting in him frequently playing the role of a concerned figure of wisdom.  Most of the time the only tension was provided by one of Matthieu’s succession of nephews, all names a variation of Thomas – referred to as ‘The Thomases’.  Each Thomas tends to be impulsive and dies an early death after impregnating a woman, thus ensuring the line continues.  Despite appearing silly at first, by the resolution this plot thread had been adequately explained and given a sensible explanation.  Oh, and often these stories included the name dropping of famous historical figures: “I happened to meet Charlie Chaplin”, “No other than Pope Pius IX himself!” etc.  This was occasionally done to great effect, as with his brief involvement with the Rosenbergs during McCarthy’s Red Scare in the 1950s, but mostly came across as unconvincing and needless.

This problem is made worse by the fact that Matthieu comes across as such a dull character.  He’s likeable enough, patient and wise, but I found him utterly boring and unrealistic as a character – particularly one with his experiences.  Nowhere in the journal does he go into detail of what it’s like to live to such a grand age.  There are passing references, such as commenting on the transience of all political movements and how he sees contemporary trivial pursuits as pointless, but this barely scratches the surface.  What of loneliness?  What of his ego?  Does he really never question it?  Sure, his life (and the book) has been too boring to give him a great deal of angst, but even so.  I can’t help comparing him to Jack Harkness from the BBC’s Torchwood, around whom the concept of immortality is far more successfully explored.  Also, passing references along the lines of: “I’d taken a couple of decades off to relax,” just seem very simplistic, even childish.  Likeable, yes, but Matthieu is a very badly crafted character.

As I mentioned, I found the story of Dominique and his modern day existence more engaging.  Both still felt unconvincing in places, particularly in regard to his relationship with Dominique (who is very inconsistently written), but they at least had been turning the pages and reeling with shock at the plot twists.  The character of Jack, Matthieu’s friend, seemed surprisingly developed and real.  I found this often, in fact – with the exception of the various dull businessmen, the secondary characters often seemed the most multi-dimensioned.  Still, I must have invested enough because I had a silent gasp at Dominique’s horrific fate.  The tale of Matthieu’s ownership of an independent satellite TV channel in 1999 and of his son’s life as a soap star was hardly thrilling, but progressed well.  The conclusion of this story – and, indeed, the novel – was one of its best moments.  I really like Matthieu’s realisation that his added years are those that the Thomases never lived, and the moment he ‘saved’ Tommy from his self-destructive nature he begins to age (in a wonderfully abrupt ending scene).  The fantasy elements are fully described but never quite explained in a way which shouldn’t work but does – the same result Wilde achieved with The Picture of Dorian Gray.

I was both impressed and disappointed with the novel’s portrayal of historical events.  Sometimes it covered them well, as with the 1848 revolutions in Italy and the 1950s Red Scare in the USA.  Matthieu’s opinion of these events was also fascinated; he came across as a reactionary with a not entirely closed mind, normally willing to ‘go with the flow’.  I enjoyed reading the brief note of his enthusiasm for the space program in the 1960s, for instance.  But often, I felt Boyne just didn’t get how to write historical fiction.  I admit it’s a very hard style to write and you can argue he did a good job, being aged only 29 at the time, but there are some glaring problems.  One of which is the fact none of the characters speak as you’d expect from the period.  Dominique and young Matthieu, almost street urchins, talk like well-educated young adults from today.  There’s no register between the characters, nothing in their speech to indicate rank or role in society.  This can be somewhat forgiven when you remember that it’s written as a modern journal – but then, this begs the question, why is Matthieu’s writing style so modern?  Also, take this exchange, set in 1793:

We decided on a whim to take a trip.

“Perhaps Australia?”
“I think not.”
“Africa then.  There’s a whole continent there waiting to be explored.”
“Too hot.  And too underdeveloped.”

Who in 1793 took a trip “on a whim”?  People traveled, yes, but the concept of tourism was far from what it is today.  Then the examples: Australia has a population of only a few thousand at this point and scarcely existed as a united entity.  Travel to Australia took several months there and back, often in diseased and dangerous conditions and, even considering Matthieu’s longevity, would be an almost guaranteed one-way journey.  Even if they made careful plans to return, one would hardly go to Australia on a jaunt.  Africa’s not such a problem but it’s still naive to suggest people would consider traveling there in such an off-hand way; this is many decades before the widespread colonisation of the continent. They ultimately decide to go to France despite, you know, the ‘Reign of Terror’ and the fact France and Britain were at war.  How did they even get there?  It’s just little issues like that which ruined the novel for me, which is a shame because it does come across as very well researched at times.

In conclusion, The Thief of Time was a disappointment.  Not a total failure – there is still much to like – but I found it, overall, extremely boring to read and the largest challenge to finish a book I’ve had for a while.  It’s too long, I think.  If everything which doesn’t work could be culled, changed, reduced or developed then the novel might work but, as it is now, I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Final rating: 5/10

Good News From the States

I’m very pleased with recent political news I’ve been hearing from the USA (that’s not a sentence I get to write every day!).  There have been two major stories which have left a positive impact:

  1. President Obama reveals plan for action on climate change.
    As anyone following American politics will know, the importance of this announcement cannot be understated.  Climate change is an incredibly contentious issue in the USA, with something like a third or more of Americans denying it is an issue or sometimes that it’s even occurring.  The issue was scarcely mentioned during the 2012 presidential election.  Even if you do deny the human influence upon the climate, it just makes sense to gear an economy in preparation for the point of ‘peak fossil fuels’, where the amount of oil, coal and gas extracted will no longer be enough to meet demand.  That the world one day needs to develop a post-carbon economy is undeniable; the earlier we plan this, the better.
    Obama’s plans are admittedly basic, pledging to cut emissions by only 4% of what they they were in 1990 – five times less than the EU is planning – but the fact this process has begun at all is incredible.  Apparently this reduction would be relative to 33% of the UK’s emissions. It’s a start.  I just hope the Republican-dominated Congress won’t give him too much grief over it.  Despite his dubious record on many issues from drones to state surveillance, Obama is proving himself to be a progressive in many ways – being the first sitting President to endorse the right to same-sex marriage, for instance.  Which brings me to…
  2. Supreme Court Gives Positive Ruling for Same-Sex Marriage
    The Supreme Court has ruled that gay couples should receive the same legal rights as any other married couple.  This has invalidated a section of the ridiculous ‘Defence of Marriage Act’ which denied gay married couples the same benefits to tax, healthcare and retirement, among others.  The Supreme Court also ruled that the decision to remove a ban on gay marriage in California cannot be challenged.  This is positive news not only for gay couples but for the nation as a whole.  I’d like to think the country is that bit more tolerant now.

Two bits of great news.  Please don’t let it stop here!  Next I would like to see the nationwide abolition of the death penalty (though it’s gradually creeping in state by state anyway), the closure of Quantanamo Bay and a complete reform of the political system to make it more representative and less of a corporatocracy.  Well… I can dream, can’t I?  An end to slavery would have seemed ridiculous 200 years ago, civil rights laughable 100 years ago and same-sex marriage a joke just 20 years ago.  Anything is possible.

Edward Snowden: Around The World in 80 Headlines

Life must be rather dramatic right now for the former CIA contractor Edward Snowden.  Accused of breaking one of the biggest intelligent breaches in history after making public the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA)’s methods of surveillance, he’s spent the last few weeks hiding in Hong Kong.  Through some complex legal matter which I don’t fully understand – it seems China might have wanted to avoid a drawn-out legal battle – he yesterday boarded a plane to Moscow.  My first thought was “Oh no, you’re not running to Putin too?” but it seems he’s merely using Russia as a stepping stone for his next destination.  Which could be Iceland but is more probably a South American state like Venezuela or Ecuador.  It’s speculated he would go through Cuba to get to these countries.  Few of these places have a particularly decent reputation for press freedom but, you know…

This is an immensely complicated issue and I find it really hard to decide where I stand on it all.  I do find the concept of governments having the capability to monitor almost all communications we make as being completely abhorrent, yet this revelation didn’t really shock or surprise me.  Part of me wants to say, “No, nothing to do with me – not my place to pass judgement,” but, when you realise the central issue of this drama is the relationship between the state and its citizens, it is absolutely our place to pass judgement.  Our leaders rule with our consent and by our invitation; we have a right to judge their actions.  Therefore, we have a right to know their actions.  Of course, there’s the counter argument which states we have the right to security as well.  The government would claim that we should willingly accept monitoring in such a way to guarantee our security, but I’m not convinced.  It’s endlessly quoted these days, but I think Benjamin Franklin had it precisely correct when he wrote:

“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

It’s probably the wrong priority, but what I’m finding much more interesting (and easy to follow) is the resultant spy thriller headlines we’re seeing.  “Is he on this plane?” “Is the ambassador here to meet him?” “No, it’s a ruse!” “He’s off to Ecuador!” “No, it’s Venezuela!”  Imagine having a life like that.  I don’t envy the fear he must be living under bit its certainly more drama than most of us could expect to see in our entire lives.  And he’s doing a better job of creating headlines than Julian Assange; “Still holed up in embassy” doesn’t quite sell papers.  Also, it’s quite revealing just how many countries are willing to take in and protect this man the US government is hunting.  It’s times like this the USA must realise just how many countries and governments they’ve alienated over the years.

To clarify, while I most definitely oppose the almost worldwide spying that the NSA has been conducting, I don’t really know enough to say I either support or oppose Snowden’s actions.  I almost feel that if I were to publicly or privately support Snowden, or Assange, or Wikileaks (all of whom I’m glad exist to challenge authority even if I might disapprove of their actions) I may find police knocking down my door at 3am.  No, that’s ridiculous.  But that’s the thing – after these revelations, I’m beginning to wonder how ridiculous that idea actually is.