Category Archives: Topics

The Chinese Way – Our Model?

Western perceptions of China were recently quite ambivalent. On the one hand, Chinese leaders were quick to exploit President Trump’s contempt for liberal organizations and institutions, and to offer Chinese leadership in defending liberal values, especially open trade (see President Xi’s speech in Davos last spring). At the same time, there are more and more indications that China is moving with breathtaking speed toward a more illiberal, authoritarian form of governance.

A new state agency against corruption will double the existing intra-party body addressing the same task, with competencies contradicting existing laws and the constitution. Apparently there are provisions allowing for arbitrary arrest (NYT, China anti-graft plan criticized, NYT, December 2, 2017). This has triggered an unprecedented wave of protests by Chinese lawyers – so far to no avail.  In an unrelated development, a harsh campaign against migrant laborers living and working in the Beijing suburbs is disrupting their living conditions, compelling them to leave on very short notice. This campaign is allegedly directed at preventing new fires in communities with hazardous fire protection, but its manner of execution is being criticized even by established Chinese citizens.

The conditions for external actors being active in China are worsening as well. The law on foreign NGOs is well known. And it gave headaches to many foreign organizations looking for one of the few available Chinese partners, and the new rules for their work. In addition, the Chinese government is now trying to stipulate that Communist party cells must be established in all mostly foreign owned private enterprises. The rights of these cells are impressive, up to co-deciding or overruling investment and other issues, thereby infringing on property rights. The normally quite hesitant chambers of commerce (like the German ones) sent out clear official warnings that German companies may have to withdraw from China if this policy is enforced. Along similar lines, academic cooperation also is becoming more difficult. President Xi gave at least two speeches stating that there are too many foreign professors and foreign textbooks in China, apparently ignoring the fact that Karl Marx also was (and remains) a foreigner, with lots of ‘textbooks’ still in use in China that carry an official imprimatur.

A very worrisome trend is the Chinese strategy of making international companies bow to special Chinese rules. Big U.S. IT companies are all under pressure to allow Chinese state authorities access to their customers’ data, a debate also common in Western countries. The big five are open to accommodating these ‘wishes’ to different degrees; if they do not comply they are blocked (like Facebook). What is more specific is that publishers, especially academic ones, are also under a lot of pressure to make certain journals inaccessible for Chinese customers. Last summer, Cambridge University Press agreed to remove 300 articles from its Chinese website. The same goes for Springer Nature publishers. Later this year, Cambridge UP reconsidered. Even more surprising, in Australia the publisher Allen & Unwin withdrew a book (Silent Invasion: How China is Turning Australia Into a Puppet State) from the Australian (!) market, after China ranted against the publication.

In the international arena, China is continuing to broaden its ‘One Road One Belt’ initiative. This ‘New Silk Road’ has implications far beyond economics, and is often tied to political interests. Recently, there was another meeting of the ’16+1′ format, where eleven EU members and five Balkan states, plus China, came together in Budapest. It is not stretching the imagination too much to claim that some of the Eastern and Central European participants enjoy the presence of China in this format – not only as an investor, but also as a partner who does not issue reprimands about their human rights practices and worsening separation of powers.

The most frightening trend is the introduction of an all-Chinese ‘social credit point system’, where not only social, health and work-place relevant data and parameters are collected and combined for each Chinese citizen, but also assessments of peoples’ social and political activities, opinions, and social network activities. When people move beyond a threshold of negative points, they are punished by, for example, being unable to buy train or plain tickets, or to send their kids to school. This is a combination of (in Western parlance) ‘big government’ and ‘big business’ data parameters and algorithms, leading to immediate consequences for the person’s well-being and mobility options. This resembles a super-Matrix, where hardly anybody can escape from total control. Orwell 3.0.

While properly assessing all these trends, we should not overlook that in some instances there are responses and criticism inside China. I do think one only can admire the risk-taking of these individuals.

But the question this week is: Are these trends now unstoppable, and is this what we have to anticipate for other parts of the world as well? Is this our future? I know that this post may be not so well suited for advent time; or maybe, it is?

– Klaus Segbers

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What Implications might the Threatening German Government Gamble have for Europe?

The German coalition talks collapsed recently. Achieving a ‘Jamaica’ coalition between the moderate conservatives, the Bavarian ‘real’ conservatives, the liberal party (just returned by the voters to the Bundestag) and the Greens, was apparently way beyond the capabilities of the four parties and over 70 people involved in four weeks of talks.

So as of now, the most influential country in Europe and the world’s third biggest economy is run by an acting government with limited rights. A government with a chancellor ranked as the ‘most influential woman of the world’—a prime example of soft power, a gifted mediator from the Iran to the Minsk negotiations,  a core player in the Euro and migration crises—is currently looking weak, insecure, and shaken. While never quite willing to take on a global role beyond Europe, and being impressed by but unwilling to accept the notion of the ‘last standing liberal power in the world’, German elites are now puzzled by the inability to bring together the only viable combination of parties in the parliament after the September elections.

While recently there were prolonged periods of government-building in both Belgium and the Netherlands, neither country was as relevant for the cohesion and renovation of the EU. A couple of new French initiatives are still waiting for answers from Berlin. And those who are skeptical about liberal orders and societies may cheer: Now even in Germany there seems to be a crisis of liberalism, partly triggered by the populist AfD on the right, and the left party on the, well, left, both of whom accumulated about a quarter of the votes for populist, partly ant-systemic parties.

Which leads to this week´s question: Is all this a risk for Europe?

– Klaus Segbers

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100 Years After the October Revolution – What Did We Learn?

100 years ago, the October (or, using the current calendar, November) revolution created at first a lot of chaos, and later on, a new regime, allegedly in an attempt to create some form of socialism or communism.  While this new socio-economic formation never materialized, the international repercussions were significant. While soviet Russia and, after 1922, the Soviet Union were relatively weak and isolated, a brutally enforced strategy of selective modernization and development proved sufficient to withstand the attack by Nazi Germany. After 1945, the USSR was one of the two cores of the bipolar cold war system. Two nuclear powers opposed each other, but they actually never engaged in a hot war. After the end of the east-west conflict, global politics became more unruly, uncertain, and dangerous.

Some people claim that the USSR, while never really resembling socialism, worked as some kind of corrective for capitalism, and with its (the SU’s) demise, global capitalism accelerated and became more unchecked. Others believe that the real history of ‘real socialism’ ruined the alternative potential of socialism forever.

This week’s question is: 100 years on, is there anything we may learn from the experience of the grand Soviet experiment?

– Klaus Segbers

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The Rohingya in Myanmar – Refugee Crises or Ethnic Cleansing – How to Solve the Problem?

The current conflict in Myanmar has broad-ranging effects and side-effects. The core issue is the fate of the Rohingya group, a Muslim minority which in some respects is a leftover of British colonial times and the partition of this empire in 1947.  Many Rohingyas are not entitled to elementary citizens’ rights, even today.

Although the immediate cause of Rohingyas fleeing and being expelled is actions by the Myanmar armed forces (or parts thereof), these actions rest on an apparently solid support by the Buddhist majority population in other parts of Burma. Violence is applied from all sides involved – there are armed Rohingya/ Muslim militias, and there is the (much more powerful) Myanmar army. Some aspects of the events in the last two months resemble features of ethnic cleansing. To chase out all of them – so far about 750,000 people – would ‘solve’ the problem from the perspective of the power circles in Yangon and Naypyidaw. It´s not quite clear what the role of the ‘Lady’ is exactly: Aung San Suu Kyi has wasted a lot of her considerable accumulated social capital by making no statements, or only ambivalent once, about this crisis. Obviously, she wants to avoid a situation where she would find herself estranged from the domestic Buddhist majority and from the military, even when, alternatively, she may be appreciated by some Rohingyas and the Western media. China is another factor, watching from the sidelines. More relevant, and often overlooked from our perspective, is the effect of all of this on Bangladesh. This poor country is clearly overwhelmed by the magnitude of the crisis, and the financial and political costs of the incoming hundreds of thousands Rohingyas. There are credible reports that the current government, not in a strong position anyway, is increasingly coming under pressure from domestic groups who are calling for stronger action against Myanmar’s policies. This issue also may work to strengthen radical Islamist groups in Bangladesh. All this looks, especially from Europe, like a major tragic disaster, and quite messy.

This week’s question is: Is there anything you may come up with that could be done from the outside, by Europeans or others, except handwringing?

 – Klaus Segbers

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The Stateless as Start-Ups – Is There a ‘Right’ Way of Becoming Independent?

The world is full of small political units aspiring to become full-fledged nation-states, with a government, sovereignty, their own currency, anthem, flag, a seat in the U.N. and in other international organizations, new license plates, inherent country extensions, etc.

In Europe alone it is not only proud Catalonia. Scotland is considering a new referendum, and Kosovo is still striving for full sovereignty, as is Macedonia. Northern Italy and southern Tyrol, the components of Belgium, two eastern provinces of Ukraine, three separatist units in Georgia – all of them are exercising Sinatra’s motto of doing it ‘my way’. Beyond Europe, there is the Rakhine state in Myanmar from which the Rohingyas are currently being expelled, as well as Tibet and Xingiang, there is also the issue of Kashmir, of Aceh in Indonesia, of Quebec in Canada, the recent referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan, and so on.

With rare exceptions (the dissolution of old Czechoslovakia), these calls for more autonomy or even secession provoke violent reactions from the host state. One reason is that we do not really have clear guidelines as to, if, and under what conditions, such processes can and should be implemented. The right of self-determination – guaranteed by the U.N. – does not provide criteria and procedural recommendations. The respective host state rarely is cooperative. The international community often looks the other way.

What would be good principles to act in cases where culturally defined minorities (mostly inspired by their elites) want to leave their host states?

 Klaus Segbers

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Merkel Clings to Power amid AfD surge – What Does That Mean for Europe and the World?

The German elections to the Bundestag did not create much attention (so far). The campaign was a quiet one (some say it was boring), and there were not many emotions invested. Also, most topics raised were not extensively debated. Even the potential outcomes looked predictable: probably, for the first time, seven parties (in six factions) would be represented (and so it came to pass); very likely, Ms. Merkel would earn her fourth term (looks likely); there either would be another big coalition between conservatives and social democrats (now off the table), or a ‘Jamaica’ coalition (black/ conservative – green – liberal). So, limited entertainment value and limited options?

We still do not know if the partially significant arithmetic results (a loss of 13% for the parties of the big coalition; the AfD in the Bundestag with almost 13%, and around 20 plus% in Eastern Germany) will translate into policy changes.

The question this week is: Does the outcome of the German elections have any impact on neighboring countries, the EU, international conflicts and the world in general? Is there an external dimension that matters? Will there be more domestic pressure on the future ruling coalition?

– Klaus Segbers

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Nuclear Capable North Korea – Are the Risks Becoming Uncontrollable?

Most experts have converged on the belief that North Korea (DPRK) now has (a) the ability to produce nuclear warheads, (b) the ability to produce carrier systems (medium and long-range rockets), and, (c) the willingness – under certain circumstances, to use these weapons. No one is delighted by this, not even also China, which always carefully weighs the options of a DPRK collapsing- due to serious sanctions or a military strike against having the nukes available. In Asia, there are conflicting assessments, as there are in Western capitals.

The options include:

— accepting the DPRK as a member of the nuclear club, even without the safeguards of formal restraint;

— sending a clear signal, such as crippling sanctions and/or a nuclear strike;

— muddling through, in the manner of the last 15 years of policy, with the result we described above.

What’s your take?

-Klaus Segbers

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Red Lines and Blurred Lines – When Do We Go to War?

Rhetoric and deeds are escalating, both in Washington, D.C. and in Pyongyang. It is clear that the regime of Kim Jong-un is trying to achieve nuclear status by all available means. And it is equally clear that the different voices from the Trump administration do not add up to a clear strategy.

Red lines are mentioned, but vaguely, and bombastic declarations (‘fire and fury’) are alternating with diplomatic invitations to negotiate.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world is repeating the mantra that ‘there is only a diplomatic solution’. Similar words are used when it comes to China’s artificial reefs and new debates on sovereignty, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the continuing meddling in Ukraine’s affairs, which is a rather boring continuation of ordinary robbery.

The invitation to this week’s debate is to take positions on this mantra: That ‘there is no other solution’. Empirically, this is obviously wrong. There were and are military solutions to conflicts, and sometimes economic sanctions work as well. In addition, it is often not a good idea to take certain moves off the table, even when they are not preferred, because then an adversary can calculate how far the opponent will go in resisting him.

But to make things easier, let’s focus on the main problem: aside from matters regarding the DRPK, are there values or interests in the early 21st century for which it is legitimate (or even required) to go to war? Despite our sophisticated knowledge about escalatory risks and the disastrous effects of WMDs? If not, for what do we maintain armies, then?

– Klaus Segbers

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Think Tanks & Co. — Do we need more analytical advice?

The magnitude of problems, challenges, threats and concerns for our global world may indicate that decision makers are more in need of sound advice than ever. And yes, there seems to be a blossoming of think tanks, NGO expertise and consultancies, news alerts and breaking news, let alone myriads of podcasts and listservers.

EU-Turkey relations, the domestic autocratization in Hungary and Poland, Russiagate and the US health system, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and concerns over human rights in China, ethnic issues in Myanmar, Basel 3 and the Paris Accord, Euro stability and the growing threats of terrorism and populism — are we in need of more sound assessments?

Two aspects may be considered here. Firstly, it seems that politicians, journalists and others are already drowning in studies, executive summaries and working papers. The problem is one of selection, rather than supply. So is there really even more demand for sound analysis?

Secondly, we want to be confirmed in our established mind sets and belief systems, not irritated. To be irritated is considered an impediement to making quick decisions and finding viable solutions. But blocking diverging voices also blocks learning.

So do we need more analytical advice from think tanks, advisory bodies and policy papers – or perhaps not?

– Klaus Segbers

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Hamburg, Violence, G20 – Is This a Viable Format?

The G 20 summit came to Hamburg, overwhelming the city, and has now moved on. As for high politics, it was partly 20 – 0 (everyone allegedly against terrorism), 19 – 1 (climate change), and an unclear constellation in trade matters (with some issues having not been clearly framed).

Along with 10,000 politicians, sherpas, journalists, and 20,000 police officers, there also were hundreds of thousands of demonstrators (at one point on Sunday), and some 1,000 or so hard-core violent fighters who enjoyed the opportunity to endulge their machismo and seed chaos and fright. Even judging the whole theatre with benevolence from a distant viewer’s seat, one can hardly can avoid having the impression that there was a gross mismatch between the enormous efforts, and cost, to prepare and implement and defend all this, on the one hand, and the outcome, on the other.

The absent veto players and electorates from the domestic scenery are always around. There are too many topics and way too many participants/ guests. If we assume that the 40 leading individuals (19 plus one participants, plus 20 high-level reps from international organizations and the like) only talk for five minutes each, then three and a half hours are gone.

So this week’s question is: Are these monster-meetings any good?

– Klaus Segbers

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