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7th Jan

published in the Independent, Friday 10 October 2014

World View Hong Kong


Peter Popham


 Some of my colleagues are jumping the gun. David Pilling wrote in the Financial Times on Wednesday, “As the high-stakes poker game between students and the Hong Kong government draws to a thankfully blood-free close…”

It ain’t over, David. And while it has to date been largely blood-free, give or take a few cracked skulls in Mong Kok, the conclusion of this extraordinary political event has yet to be written. It was inconceivable, Pilling wrote in the same piece, that Beijing “would bend to the students’ demands.” Probably so. But the protest goes on, the anger is unassuaged, and the end is not yet in sight.

Yesterday protest leaders called for a big attendance in Harcourt Road, the area they have re-named Umbrella Square, in front of government headquarters, for Friday afternoon, to put pressure on the negotiations with Carrie Lam, the top civil servant, that were due to start then. Ms Lam responded by cancelling the talks. It is highly unlikely, given their bullish mood, that this will prompt the protesters to cancel their planned assembly. The struggle has only just started.

Since Monday attendance at all three of the protest venues has been down on last week. But that’s because these protesters are not dole-bound or for other reasons economically independent. Last week, ‘Golden Week’, was a holiday for students and many workers. This week is a normal week, and few can afford to skip work or classes.

But their passion has not waned. Many of them continue to show up at the protest sites as and when they can. They have not given up, or changed their ideas.

Hong Kong’s protests are focused on Beijing’s decision to pre-select candidates for the chief executive elections of 2017, thus vitiating the promise of universal suffrage. But the reason they have drawn such enormous support is because, with that decision, Hong Kong’s likely future as the vassal of Beijing became starkly clear.

At the handover in 1997, Hong Kong was granted a 50-year special relationship with the mainland in the expectation that the differences between the two would steadily narrow: the mainland would become more like Hong Kong, the lingering rigidities of the Maoist years would soften, the society would steadily open up, and the eventual merger would be painless.

Nothing of the sort is happening. Or rather, it would be happening if the authorities allowed it to, but they don’t; on the contrary, they are digging in their heels to prevent it.

Growing affluence and education among the mainland’s middle class is producing a powerful urge for change along Hong Kong’s lines – but it is an urge which terrifies the ruling Communist Party because it inevitably brings into question the Party’s legitimacy, its right to rule China for ever, and that is one shibboleth that can never be questioned.

Last summer an internal directive was circulated to Party members with a list of ‘do not mention’ topics. They included democracy, universal values, civil society, market liberalism and media independence. But those unmentionables  are Hong Kong’s precious jewels, the things that make life there bearable and starkly different from anywhere else in the People’s Republic. As the years before integration slip by, they are slowly being eroded, and the deeply unpopular rule of C Y Leung is a harbinger of worse to come.

Hongkongers are protesting while they can and because they can, and now they have started I suspect they will continue for as long as they can. Young Hongkongers reject the idea that their freedoms can simply be shredded by the mainland. This one will run and run.


The Independent received the following letter from Brett Free of the Hong Kong Government in response to this piece:


From: []
Sent: 10 October 2014 14:10
To: INDY Foreign
Subject: The Independent – “These student protests in Hong Kong will continue to run on and on”


Dear Sir/Madam:

I’m trying to get in touch with Peter Popham in relation to his article below – part highlighted in bold text. I’ve only managed to get hold of this email.
Apologies in advance if your desk is not dealing with it, but I thought it would be a good place to start.

As an ex-hack myself, I understand that a complicated idea often needs to be condensed into a pithy par.

But I’d still like to provide some background in the hope that those  writing for the Independent about the current HK situation can do so with a complete picture of what Beijing has actually decided.

The protests we are seeing have their root in Hong Kong’s constitutional reform process which proposes a Chief Executive (CE) elected by universal suffrage in 2017 in accordance with our constitutional document the Basic Law and the August 31 decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC). Many protesters are discontent with this NPCSC decision because they feel it is too restrictive. In Hong Kong’s constitutional framework this decision is legally binding on the Hong Kong SAR. As a city that cherishes the rule of law we must work within this constitutional and legal framework. There is no escaping this fact.  
The Nominating Committee that will nominate two to three candidates to run-off for an election in 2017 has been in the Basic Law since it was promulgated in 1990. It is nothing new. Discussions about how this Nominating Committee will be formed, how candidates can be considered for nomination, voting procedures etc have not even started yet.

According to both the Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984) and the Basic Law (1990), the winner of a Chief Executive election, whether through the current electoral college method or via universal suffrage in 2017, still has to be appointed by the Central People’s Government. There is a good reason for this. Hong Kong is not an ordinary local democracy. The CE enjoys much a far higher level of institutional power than the mayors of Western democracies, including London. These powers come from Beijing and are stipulated in the Basic Law, which states that the CE is accountable to Beijing and the people of Hong Kong.

If you want any more info, or are unclear about anything, I’d be happy to oblige.

Thanks and best,

Brett Free

Your Comments
7th Jan

published in World News, the Independent, Tuesday 7 October



by Peter Popham in Hong Kong



Is it all over in Hong Kong? Kwok Yung, a 20-year-old college student says not.


Last night she and a handful of fellow-protesters were manning the very first barricade across the main road that has been the main focus of the occupation for more than a week. Hundreds of yards of empty road separated this barricade from the much shrunken heart of the protest. She was still in uniform – pleated navy skirt, white blouse, tie – because it was her first day back at school after the ‘Golden Week’ holiday.


Soon she will go home for dinner with her parents, then come back to the barricade. Then return home to sleep. And homework? “I did it at school,” she said. Won’t you get tired, following such a schedule? “Yes, I’m very tired,” she admitted, “but when I think I am fighting for Hong Kong I get power again.”


Numbers at the protest yesterday were down steeply on the weekend, one reason being that tens of thousands like Kwok were back at school or work. But by late evening thousands again filled the main road.


So how long will they stay? Preliminary talks with top civil servant Carrie Lam, are under way. If she demands the roads be opened for negotiations to proceed, would you go home?


 “No, we don’t trust her,” Kwok said, “she and the government are the same.”


 And what about the dire warnings by people like former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang, urging protesters to clear the streets and go home for their own safety?


“That was his kindness, reminding us that we are in a dangerous situation,” said Chris Chen, 29, a digital journalist, manning the barricade with Kwok. “But we wouldn’t be here if we were not prepared to be arrested.”


The focus of the protests from the start has been on demanding open nominations for chief executive of Hong Kong – effectively governor – in 2017, instead of the pre-selected, Beijing-approved nominations announced by present CEO C Y Leung on 31 August. Chris Chen explained why this dry demand has elicited such vast and sustained support.


“Rich tourists from the mainland are making the prices in Hong Kong’s shops rise. Hong Kong people’s wages are going down, fares on public transport are going up, our standard of living is going down. In Causeway Bay” – Hong Kong’s Oxford Street – “you only find luxury shops for the tourists selling jewellery and Chanel. We are just normal people, we can’t afford these things. You see old ladies who should enjoy their lives still working, collecting old newspapers and drink cans. The government should take care of the people. They are not fair. They don’t even do the basic things well.”


This experience of unaccountable government connects with their parent’s bad memories of communism. “My parents fled from the mainland to escape from the Cultural Revolution,” said Chen. And now communism is coming to get them. Not surprisingly, his family is right behind him.


At another outpost of the uprising the mood was equally angry and defiant. Mong Kok, a gritty, densely populated area of shops and tight-packed high-rise apartment blocks, has been much the most violent flashpoint of the revolt, with Triad gangsters launching attacks on the protesters on several days last week. Protesters were injured and at least 19 of the Triad attackers arrested, though most were quickly released.     


One of the student groups yesterday announced that the Mong Kok occupation was ending. He was promptly contradicted by other protesters, and last night the occupation of the area was a surreal circus, a knot of protesters under tents surrounded by a few dozen sympathisers and with the local and international media waiting in the background.


In Mong Kok too the main grievance – the electoral stitch-up – is fuelled by a welter of down-to-earth resentments. “Young people can’t afford to buy or even rent a flat,” said John Law, a 20-year-old solicitor drinking donated Oolong tea under the central tent. “And the small shops of my father’s generation have been replaced by a few monopolies and franchises. Wealth is concentrated in ever fewer hands, and the gap between rich and poor is getting wider and wider. The government does not protect the ordinary people but only their rich clients. That’s why we have to stand up. We have to protect the younger generation. We have to create a place fit for them to live.”


Faye Lai, 22, who graduated in economics from an Australian university and now works as a clerk, said, “Here in Mong Kok we lead ourselves. I’m upset about the talks [with the government]. I don’t want those groups to represent me. All protests in Hong Kong end with negotiations and a nonsense solution. We don’t trust our so-called leaders. We are being betrayed right now. That’s why we are still sitting here.”




Your Comments
7th Jan

published in World News, the Independent, Monday 6 October 2014 


Peter Popham in Hong Kong


Whatever happens in the coming days – and the predictions are dire –Hong Kong will never be the same after this amazing week.

Exactly one week ago, a barrage of tear gas exploding around a modest student demonstration catapulted Hong Kong into a new place, and the Hongkongers are still inhabiting it.

It’s an ideal world that has no business existing in the heart of a place as hard-headed and money-minded as this. A multi-lane city centre highway become a people’s park, a flyover ramp becomes the site of gentle family strolls. Teenagers line this impromptu park manning shops that offer cold drinks, hot soup, towels, umbrellas and much more. They are like the million shopkeepers in the real Hong Kong outside, with the difference that no money is offered or taken.

Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers, the majority very young, have found the courage to imagine and put into practice a way of living and sharing that has nothing in common either with Hong Kong’s cut-throat capitalism nor with the crony communism rampant on the mainland.

There are no police in this world. Instead there are first aid stations manned by volunteers. More volunteers circulate with signs printed with the number to call if you need legal advice. There are mobile democracy classrooms. The advertising installations for fashion magazines and perfume are plastered with satirical depictions of chief executive C Y Leung. The walls of the flyover ramp bear messages of support in 61 languages, including Welsh, Scots Gaelic, Quebecois French and Pashto. Five days ago theses occupied streets were kept immaculately clean by volunteers. They are still immaculately clean today.

Near the back of the crowd of 5,000 listening to speeches last night was an elegant middle-aged couple, Makim, 44, and Fafa, his wife, 36. They held up pieces of paper which said simply, “Thank you.” Fafa said, “We’ve come here every day. I own a make-up shop in Causeway Bay” – site of one of the occupation camps – “and of course it’s hurt my business. But we hope they will change Hong Kong. Our bodies are weak but our faith is strong.”

Anger brought this place into being, but there is no anger on display, let alone violence or looting. You sense people falling in love. At dawn on Saturday a young couple in Causeway Bay got engaged in the occupied street. Of course the pictures were all over Facebook in no time.

But this world with its clear rules – no booze, no graffiti, no mess – with its signs that say “PLEASE DON’T WASTE PRODUCE AND LEAVE WITH YOUR GARBAGE” – could be living through its last hours. Yesterday powerful, realistic men were telling the inhabitants of this world, time’s up. Go home, right away.

Former chief justice Andrew Li Kwok-nang said, “The students’ ideals and aspirations for democracy have been fully understood and are respected…. it is now time for them to leave the protest venue. No-one would like to see the students getting hurt. I sincerely urge the students to leave immediately. Otherwise there is a danger to their safety.”

Before flying to Washington for meetings with the International Monetary Fund, Financial secretary John Tsang Chun-wah said, “The high speed of development over the past week was completely out of everybody’s expectation. It’s hard not to be concerned that more serious chaos could happen… This event is a grave test for all Hong Kong people. Its handling shall require everyone’s wisdom and patience.”

These warnings reinforced that of chief executive C Y Leung, who said overnight on Saturday that, today  being a regular working day, the roads around the government offices must be cleared  so civil servants can get to their desks. Yesterday the air was thick with rumours that drastic action could be taken at any time.

Professor Michael DeGolyer, a close observer of changing Hong Kong, told The Independent, “People are beginning to sense we are approaching an inflection point.  Leung’s statement that, if the streets and particularly around government offices are not cleared by tomorrow morning, the ‘Hong Kong Government may probably lose control’ of HK is very ominous: that is the condition under which Central Government forces may be called for assistance…It is a clear warning that he may already have the backing of Central Government authorities to…legalise the entry of People’s Liberation Army troops or Security Police in large numbers.”

The picture is complicated by increasing signs of dissent from ordinary members of the public. The occupation of the working class commercial district of Mong Kok has seen continual tension between occupiers and those opposed to them, some criminals but others merely local shopkeepers infuriated by the damage to their businesses. Yesterday the hostility showed signs of spilling into the Admirality area with the arrival of a small but noisy demonstration demanding that police clear the roads.

Both government and occupation sides were yesterday holding out hopes of dialogue, the olive branch extended by Mr Leung last Thursday, but spurned by the students after the outbreak of Triad-inspired violence in Mong Kok. But many of the occupiers are sceptical.

Allan Yu, 22, a student at Hong Kong polytechnic, said, “The future of Hong Kong is not owned by the people at the top who are issuing threats. Hong Kong’s future belongs to the people here, the teenagers. The people are staying here because the government refuses to give us real democracy. We are very angry.”


Your Comments
7th Jan

published in World News, the Independent on Sunday, 5 October 2014

Peter Popham in Hong Kong

Tens of thousands of protesters continued their occupation of large swathes of Hong Kong yesterday, but the embattled chief executive of the former colony, Leung Chun-ying, warned that the protest’s days were numbered.

With a return to normal government working due tomorrow, he warned that all blocked roads must be cleared and access to all government offices opened. Achieving that would effectively end the occupation.

But Leung and his colleagues understand that Hong Kong is now a tinderbox. It was the brutal attempt to disperse a small demonstration one week ago that brought the masses onto the streets in the first place. Heavy-handed efforts to clear the roads could provoke a second surge.

Yet many observers agree that the protests have reached an impasse. Leung has refused the protesters’ demand to resign. The Hong Kong Federation of Students in turn rejected the offer of talks with his top civil servant, the key concession that offered hope of a dialogue, accusing police of allowing violence against protesters to break out in the bar district of Mong Kok on Friday.

With no progress on either side, many believe that something has to give. A prominent pro-democrat legislator, Law Chi-kwong, warned last night that government action could be imminent.

And now…enter the Triads. Police confirmed that 19 of those arrested in Mong Kok had Triad backgrounds.

Why should Triads be involved? Mafia-like gangs have been a part of life in Hong Kong for generations, living off extortion, prostitution and illegal gambling. Others are established in legitimate businesses, concentrated in dense commercial areas like Mong Kok. The gangsters, though theoretically secret, are easily recognized: they tend to chain smoke, wear sunglasses at night, use foul language and have a distinctive swaggering walk. At Mong Kok they attacked in formation.

We may never know for sure who paid the gangsters in Mong Kok. But whoever it was would have been confident of the approval of Beijing.

With sensitivity to police violence now so acute in Hong Kong, the mind of mainland officialdom is undoubtedly going over the strategic options for closing down the protests as quickly as possible, with minimum blowback.

Professor  Michael DeGolyer, director of the Hong Kong Transition Project – “Tracking the Transition of Hong Kong People from Subjects to Citizens” – this week proposed five scenarios available to Beijing for ending the protests, from the most emollient (Leung resigns) to the most draconian (the mainland shuts off the water supply – an abiding fear while the British ruled).

The scenario that has drawn most attention is the most cunning.

Professor DeGolyer calls it ‘the anaconda strategy’. A large, non-venomous snake, the anaconda kills its prey by hugging them to death, then crushing and eating them. This strategy, as he explained on Hong Kong television yesterday, involves “the slow strangulation of the umbrella revolution using a divide-and-conquer strategy”.

In practice it means slowly turning off the economic tap from the mainland, “inflicting painful but easily reversible economic damage in incremental doses as a means to pressure Hong Kong people to turn against the student movement.” An example he gave was the barring of tour groups from the mainland visiting Hong Kongs. Tourists from the mainland account for 9 per cent of employment in Hong Kong, so the economic pain of visits stopping is considerable.

This prediction came true within hours of him airing it, when Beijing announced the banning of visas for group tours to Hong Kong by mainlanders.

The Triads come into play in the second stage of DeGolyer’s strategy, what he calls the Crushing phase. “As economic damage escalates,” he wrote, “more and more of the public begins to demand government action to bring the demonstrations to an end, or at least, to clear the streets and prevent loss of business. Triads…try to intimidate protesters, to move them out of areas crucial to their operations (Mong Kong, Wanchai bar area).”

And that, in his vision, is only the start of it. “As tourism drops, and as local travel in and out of lower Kowloon becomes more restricted, triad violence escalates.  Unemployment soars over 5% from 3% before the protests, with trend moving upward.  Shops start closing, posting signs ‘thank you students and democrats for putting us out of business and taking away our livelihood.’ If protesters do not clear the streets in these areas and perhaps all areas, ‘flying squads’ of triads armed with bats and choppers begin running attacks, flying in, seriously injuring or killing protesters…”

This reads like the description of an apocalypse. But two of his predictions have already come true.

And if the subsequent ones seem implausibly dark, it’s worth bearing in mind that, for the authorities, the present state of affairs around the Hong Kong government’s offices already has the complexion of an apocalypse.

For the students strolling or lolling around yesterday, Hong Kong in these days may feel like Woodstock without the music. But last night a veteran democratic politician warned that the hour of reckoning could be at hand.

In an email published by the South China Morning Post, Dr Law Chi-kwong wrote, “When the students say no to talk, they have removed their last line of protection. Things can turn very drastic within the next couple of hours. I am begging everyone I know to leave…I believe no-one in Hong Kong can stop what may happen in the next couple of hours. I beg with tears.”


Your Comments
7th Jan
published in World News, the Independent, Saturday 4 October 2014
By Peter Popham and James Legge in Hong Kong
An uprising needs energy. It needs a kick start. Hong Kong’s initial burst of energy came not from within but from outside, when police last Sunday used tear gas to try to break up a demonstration.  That spark of brutality ignited the anger which produced the biggest revolt in the ex-colony’s history.
Then yesterday, when the whole thing was starting to flag badly from exhaustion and indirection, came a new burst of negative energy from outside.
An organized gang of hundreds of outsiders, most of them much older than the student-age demonstrators, descended on the remaining occupiers of a protest site in the busy and congested shopping district of Mong Kok. They chanted at them to “clear the roads” and “go away”, closing in until the protesters were hemmed in around a tent and surrounded on all sides.
Police, some joining hands with the occupiers, were forced to form a protective cordon around the 100 or so remaining at the pro-democracy camp, which earlier in the week took over a long swathe of Nathan Road, one of the city’s busiest roads.
Occasionally individuals broke through the dividing line from the outside, grappling with protesters. Bottles were lobbed at those inside. One protester was led away by police, blood dripping down his face.
Protesters alleged that the newcomers had been paid by the government to provoke violence and delegitimise the campaign. There is a track record for this: Triad-associated thugs have in the past been paid by the government to disrupt demonstrations. Mong Kok’s protesters said they would refuse to rise to the provocations. They were visibly determined to remain calm and avoid a fight.
Aaron Lee, a 31-year-old hair stylist among the protesters, said: “If you check that side, they are not speaking Cantonese, they are speaking Mandarin. Guess who is paying them. “We are just trying to make a change here. All we want is freedom.”
News of the violence flew across Hong Kong harbour at the speed of Twitter to the remnants of the protesters, visibly tired and fewer in number but still in possession of much of the main road that links east and west sides of the island.
It gave them a new shot of what they had been lacking. Several thousand came together at Admiralty, where they have been laying siege to the main government buildings of Hong Kong, and sat on the tarmac as leaders of the protest told them what was happening across the water. Enough of them took the cue, rushing over to Mong Kok, barely 20 minutes by subway, to change the dynamic and put the hostile newcomers into a minority. The tense standoff continued into the night.
Will the new menace galvanize the movement sufficiently to give it a new lease of life?
Because life is what it was palpably beginning to lose yesterday.
There were several reasons for that. Friday was a working day, in contrast to the public holidays on Wednesday and Thursday. Many thousands of the protesters are working people and went back to work.
Those that remained were tired. They have built this movement from nothing, day and night, effectively creating an alternative municipal structure with food and water distribution, first aid provision and rubbish collection. There have been endless public discussion meetings, wall newspapers and art work; people have made and freely distributed delicate umbrella-shaped brooches as well as millions of yellow ribbons and thousands of umbrellas. All this in debilitatingly hot and humid conditions, punctuated by mighty thunderstorms. Understandably the strain was beginning to tell. To their great credit it emerged not as arguing or indiscipline, let alone looting or random violence, but as a loss of focus. A haziness about what they are all doing out there anyway.
The scene yesterday outside the offices of chief executive Leung Chun-ying, near the parliament and other government buildings, was a case in point.
This has been a major flashpoint of the protests for days now, as the protesters reinforced their demand that Mr Leung quit by blocking the road to his complex. Police and demonstrators have been eyeballing each other here since the beginning of the week.
On Thursday night, minutes before the midnight deadline, Mr Leung announced that he was instructing his chief civil servant, Ms Carrie Lam, to start negotiations with the protesters, as early as this weekend. However neither Mr Leung nor Ms Lam gave a clear time frame for the talks, let alone any clue as to their substance. It was a unilateral bid to puncture the tension, and as such it temporarily succeeded. In the same statement
Leung refused to do the protesters’ bidding and resign. But his vague, tactical concession threw them off balance.
Yesterday morning the crowd outside his offices was raucous but smaller, arguing with the police when they attempted to have an ambulance brought into the premises – it was grudgingly allowed in – and arguing again when the driver of a suspicious van attempting to enter – maybe full of tear gas canisters? – refused to divulge its contents and was turned away.
In the evening the crowd here had further shrunk in size to fewer than 100 people, many of them onlookers or journalists rather than participants. “We are so few, we’re afraid the police could easily clear the road if they decided to,” said Lau Chun-hong, 23, a male student of nursing who had manned a first aid tent during last Sunday’s demonstration.
“What can we do?” Albert Yang, 55, working in property management, asked rhetorically. “There are 80 million people in the Chinese Communist Party. The total population of Hong Kong is only seven million. They are too strong. And we are alone. Who is supporting us? Nobody. If the police attack us, I will leave. I will not sacrifice myself.”
Anger and indignation provide a kick of energy. But they don’t substitute for direction and co-ordination. Hong Kong’s protests have massively outgrown the modest plans of Occupy Central drawn up by its professorial leadership. They have set a new high not only in sheer numbers but by
creating a living demonstration of Mutual Aid, the theory devised by the 19th century Russian anarchist, Peter Kropotkin. But like other anarchist manifestations, they flounder when it comes to strategy and leadership.
Late last night Martin Lee, 76, the veteran activist known as the father of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, told the crowd at Admiralty “It was very ugly in Mong Kok. Because of the presence of the international press, the police won’t use tear gas again…[instead] they use these Triad society members to create a scene and threaten the people. We are peace loving and we are getting injured.”
A little earlier, the Federation of Students, one of the main organisations behind the protests, announced it was calling off its meeting with Carrie Lam in protest at the Mong Kok attacks.
So Hong Kong’s mighty movement moves ahead: fuelled by anger, direction unclear.

Your Comments
7th Jan

published in World News, the Independent, Friday 3 October 2014 


Peter Popham in Hong Kong


So at the twelfth hour, as protesters massed to invade key government buildings, it was the ex-colony’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who blinked first, saying his chief secretary, Carrie Lam, would start a dialogue with the protesters “as soon as possible”.

But the man they call ‘689’ – that’s how many votes he received to win the ex-colony’s top job – refused to bow to the student’s demands and resign. Whether his last-minute concession will buy off the protests is unclear.

It was the culmination of a long, tense day. In most of the Planet Occupy which Hong Kong has become, all was mellow and calm. But outside the Mr Leung’s large concrete box of an office at Admiralty, by the harbour’s edge, the mood was grim. A thousand demonstrators sat cross-legged in the forecourt, eyeballing 50 policemen in pale blue shirts who faced them across the high gates for hours and hours, as rigid as Emperor Qin’s terracotta army.

Among them was a tall young man wearing goggles, a moisturising band on his brow and a mask over his mouth, who gave his name as Bryan Kwok. “We need to be prepared in case they start using tear gas,” he explained. But the get-up was also a disguise: a trainee lawyer who is serious about keeping his job, he is taking every precaution to avoid being identified. He had been coming to the protests all week: “The more I come,” he explained, “the more I get involved.”

Nearby another youth who identified himself as Steve – “I still look like a student but I’m working” – said he too had been coming regularly, though he did not stay overnight. “Many people come and go, it’s like a relay, it’s important that people come in to relieve those who are getting tired. The first demonstration I attended was in 2010, the annual vigil on June 4 commemorating Tiananmen Square” – the only place in Chinese territory where the protest and its bloody finale are officially recalled. “But this is far bigger, this is the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen. Why come? I guess I want to be a witness to history. Just to be sure I’m a part of history. We follow what’s happening and where with FireChat and What’sApp, but there are always lots of unfounded stories flying around. Like on Sunday there was the rumour that the police were firing real bullets to disperse the crowd…”

John Yip (38) and his wife Florence Cheng (34), both teachers of Chinese language and literature in local schools, didn’t need to listen to the rumours – they were present at the demonstration on Sunday when police fired 78 rounds of Hampshire-made tear gas in an ill-advised attempt to close down the protest in this area, which is also home to Hong Kong’s parliament, police headquarters and the People’s Liberation Army barracks.

“When the gas was fired of we ran away,” Mr Yip said. “We had been told to be very cautious, and to run back if tear gas was fired so the people at the front would not be crushed. I was quite sure (chief executive) Leung would use gas – before he was elected he said as much at a Legislative Council meeting, though he later denied it.

“We ran to the Arts Centre in Harbour Road where we met some friends, then like many others we returned to where the tear gas had been fired and we saw a very moving scene.”

It was the firing of tear gas, brutally reminding the demonstrators how shows of dissent are handled on the mainland, which catapulted Hong Kong into the new place where it finds itself today. John Yip and Florence Cheng keep coming back, like tens of thousands of others. What do they think will happen? “I’m not optimistic,” said Yip. “But nothing will change if we go home and go back to our ordinary lives.”

The proximity of protesters and police outside Leung’s office makes this a hotbed of rumour. “In the morning one policeman told a demonstrator that they needed to open the barricades because an officer had suffered a heart attack,” a young man called Alex told me, “so they could bring in an ambulance.” The demonstrators smelled a rat and refused. “Later it was rumoured that the police were seen handling lots of boxes – perhaps containing tear gas…

“I don’t know how this is going to end. The (mainland) Chinese fear that if this can happen in Hong Kong, the same thing can happen in other cities inside China. That’s the reason they will not agree to anything.”

For Julie Li, 50, secretary to a British lawyer at an American law firm, this tumultuous week is the climax to years of political groundwork. A founding member of a new party, the League of Social Democrats, she was one of 2500 Hongkongers who signed a document declaring that she was prepared to be arrested while demonstrating.

“We’ve had political debates and discussions and lectures, and practical exercises on how to face water cannon, things like that,” she said Her party – led by a radical activist called Leung Kwok-hung known to all as ‘Long Hair’ – was committed to the original plan by Occupy Central to take over the business district on 1 October, the plan hijacked by the students. “The spirit is different,” she says, “but the activity is the same, the goal is the same.” she says, “People have been waiting for this moment for a long time. Our leader said, this is the green light – let’s start now.”

The reason for the urgency is that time is running out for Hong Kong and for its unique hybrid way of life. The agreement Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiao-ping reached in 1997 guaranteed the existence of ‘one country, two systems’, but only for 50 years. That means that by 2047, when many of these protesters will be barely into middle age, Hong Kong faces full integration into the mainland.

I asked the masked-up law student ‘Bryan Kwok’, what’s the problem with that? After all, you are as much Chinese as they are. Why shouldn’t the two sides come together?

“The deadline is one reason I wanted to become a lawyer,” he explained. “We cannot accept fusion of our legal system with China’s. There could only be fusion when there is rule of law in China – when the law is separate from the executive. Their system encourages economic growth and stability, but those who get advantage are only the richest one per cent. In Hong Kong, due to the influence of the mainland, the gap between the wealthy and the rest is getting wider and wider.”

Hyper-capitalist Hong Kong protesting at the inequalities exported by communist China – you couldn’t make it up. But the Hong Kong protesters are not downhearted. “We hope that they (mainland Chinese) will one day get what we have,” said Peter Yip. “And that one day we will have what we want – true universal suffrage.”


Your Comments
7th Jan


published in World News, the Independent, Thursday 2 October 2014


Peter Popham in Hong Kong


When and how did Hong Kong gain a reputation for good manners? When I came here a generation ago – when thousands took to the streets in sympathy with their mainland cousins protesting in Tiananmen Square – the crown colony’s Cantonese population was rough, abrupt and coarse: hawking and spitting, screeching and cursing. You could get a good suit in double quick time and an excellent meal, but the last thing you expected was manners.

But yesterday, as tens of thousands of Hongkongers reinforced and widened their extraordinary grip on the Special Administrative Region’s central areas, this demonstration was probably the politest place to be on the whole planet.

Along the eight-lane highway that links the ex-colony’s business heart with the high-end shops and restaurants of Causeway Bay, volunteers dispensed free water, towels, umbrellas, face masks and yellow ribbons to the protesters sauntering or squeezing past. Despite more than four days of continuous occupation by tens of thousands, you could just about eat your chow mein off the tarmac: volunteer rubbish collectors with black sacks patrolled constantly.  A group of young men with scrubbing brushes and hot water got on their hands and knees to clean chalk graffiti off the road. Ladders were set in place to allow people to clamber over the central reservation; more volunteers handed us up and over. Students with atomisers sprayed hot heads with cool water. Once in a while the tannoy coughed into life to announce a lost train ticket.

“Somebody from the BBC asked if there had been any looting,” said one protester. “Looting! What’s happening is the opposite of looting! They are giving stuff away!”

This is ostensibly a protest about political bullying and betrayal. But when on Sunday the police tried to close it down by dousing protesters in pepper and tear gas it became something else, less clearly focused but more passionate: a roar of indignation from a population who feel that their special identity, fashioned in direct contrast to the mainland’s and including very un-mainland qualities like cleanliness and consideration, was being raped.

“When they use tear gas in the US,” said one Hongkonger who lived in America for many years, “it’s because they know people in the crowd are armed or there is looting going on. Here the police had no excuse.”

“The Sunday protest was completely peaceful and gentle, like the one today,” said another, a resident of 11 years originally from Malaysia. “But police blocked more people from joining it then sprayed them with pepper gas and tear gas. And when people saw that, they said, this is really turning into China, this is very heavy-handed in a mainland way. Political pressure is present here all the time as a simmering issue in the background, but when the police used tear gas it was like – damn it!” Tens of thousands more, most of student age, poured into the streets and have been there ever since.  

Since the first, impromptu demonstrations on Friday the protests have steadily built in size. Now they have swallowed the whole harbourside drag from the Bank of China headquarters and Norman Foster’s famous HSBC building along to the government, police and army headquarters, including the seat of the Legislative Council and the office of the hated chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, and on past Reunification Monument and Golden Bauhinia Square, scene of yesterday’s official pantomime marking the Chinese Communist Party’s first 65 years.

This thoroughfare is usually choked with traffic; yesterday it was car-free and protesters walked along its entire length, enjoying air quality that was measurably better than usual. “It’s like walking down the middle of the M4!” one expat remarked in wonder.

But in the latest proof that the movement, fuelled by social networks, has completely outpaced and outgrown the Occupy Centralmovement that provided its initial impetus, new occupations yesterday blossomed on the far side of Hong Kong harbour, in the bustling shopping districts of Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok.

As darkness fell in Mong Kok, the streets beneath the glitzy banking towers were carpeted by young protesters, at least 20,000 of them, sitting in quiet rows on striped plastic sheeting as people from the crowd stood up and gave two-minute speeches.

“My mother and my head mistress at school told me not to come here,” said one young woman, “but I had to come because I love Hong Kong.” That theme – of pressure from the prudent older generation to stay at home – was repeated more than once. “I never thought the police would tear gas students!” a man in his 30s shouted indignantly down the mic. “Hong Kong people ho ye!” “Hong Kong people are great!” The crowd took up the cheer.

Mong Kok showed the same features as the other nodes of protest: detailed, painstaking, thoughtful preparation and organisation, within what appeared to be a strategic vacuum – and yesterday within a strange vacuum of policing, as well. No police officers were visible at all in Mong Kok. Over on the island a few stood in shirt sleeves and apparently unarmed outside police and government headquarters, but otherwise there were none to be seen anywhere. In one sense the task – ending this vast, wholly illegal protest – was far beyond their capabilities. In another sense, it was all so civil and orderly that no policing was required.  

But where do the protests go from here?

When it laid its plans for 1 October, the Occupy Central movement knew what it was trying to do: to bring the financial life of the city to a temporary halt by flooding the Central business district with protesters, thus putting pressure on the chief executive to listen to the people and stand up to Beijing’s bullying.

This plan, drawn up by the middle-aged professors who head the movement, was in any event a flawed one: 1 October is a bank holiday so the protests planned for that day would have been ineffectual. The mass impromptu protests earlier this week, falling on ordinary business days, have forced a few bank branches to close, but otherwise have done negligible damage to business activity, and relatively little damage to the stock market, with prices down only a couple of percentage points.

The damage that has been done is to the prestige of CEO Leung Chun-ying, and to the authority of Beijing. Protesters in Hong Kong have a track record of success, having forced the withdrawal of odious, mainland-insipired reforms in 2003 and 2012. But the new deal on elections for the next CEO, widening the suffrage but limiting the candidates to three hand-picked in Beijing, comes not from Hong Kong’s government but straight from His Master’s Voice, the Master being President Xi Jinping, widely described as the toughest and most powerful leader China has had since Mao himself.

Nobody imagines that Xi Jinping will back down in the face of the Hongkongers’ rage: the message such ‘weakness’ would send to other recalcitrant outposts of empire, from Taiwan to Tibet to Guandong to Xinjiang, would unfailingly damage his prestige. But like other protests that social media have generated in recent years, from Athens to Cairo to Ferguson, Missouri, these events are easily brought into being, but tend to be inchoate and extremely difficult to control – however polite the participants.

Back in 1989, Tiananmen Square was also a very well-mannered affair, and it went on for more than six weeks, with minimal policing – until suddenly it was brought to a very ugly end. That couldn’t possibly happen here, Hongkongers were telling each other yesterday, more in hope than confidence.


Your Comments
5th Jan

published in the Independent 27 September 2014


Peter Popham


The greatest of our gallery spaces are a challenge to fill, but the canvases of Anselm Kiefer, in the exhibition that opens at the Royal Academy today, make light work of it.

Created with colossal labour over a period of many years in his successive huge studios, one a former silk factory in the south of France, the next an abandoned supermarket warehouse on the outskirts of Paris, these are paintings and multi-media works to dwarf the greatest that Titian or Michelangelo could manage, and that throb with the same mythological passions that produced Wagner’s great operas.

Yet a great chasm separates Kiefer from Wagner, not to mention the greats of the Renaissance: the chasm of Germany’s tragic modern history. The philosopher Theodor Adorno famously stated that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is…impossible,” because the horror of the Holocaust had rendered art redundant and impotent. Most artists, especially perhaps German ones, would prefer to ignore such a discouraging statement – to soldier on as if it had never been uttered. For Kiefer, by contrast, who exploded onto Germany’s art scene in the starkest sort of controversy, photographed at sensitive sites around formerly occupied Europe wearing his father’s Nazi uniform and giving the Heil Hitler salute, it is the challenge that defines his career.

What on earth can an artist do, padding about among the shameful ruins of the civilisation that produced him? Here, in one gigantic, tormented, volcanic work after another, is Anselm Kiefer’s answer.


He was born from the womb of war, emerging in March 1945 in the town of Donaueschingen, set in rolling hills behind the Black Forest, as the Allies’ bombs rained down. Far to the north in Berlin, Adolf Hitler had already retired to the bunker in which he was soon to die; Kiefer emerged in similar circumstances, born in the cellar of his parents’ home, their improvised bomb shelter. And although, as a baby they stopped his ears with wax to dull the terrifying thunder, they could do nothing about the noise he must have heard in the womb. As he says, “Even in the womb you experience it all.”

The war ended, the bombing stopped, but the ruins the war had made, both material and human, were the landscape of childhood.  His parents moved away: his father, a soldier in the Wehrmacht, was recuperating from a wound received on the Russian front, and little Anselm was raised by his grandmother. The family had moved into the house next door when their home was destroyed, and now those ruins became his playground. “I made houses in the ruins,” he says. “My biggest desire was for cement, because if you put one brick on another it’s not very solid. I wanted cement to glue them together, but I never got it.” The urge to construct something new out of the rubble of the old was present from his earliest years.

Born in the ancient borderlands where the Latin and Teutonic worlds meet, he was raised a devout Catholic. He served as an altar boy – he says he still knows all the Latin texts by heart – and his first ambition was to be Jesus. When the difficulty of this was pointed out, he instead set his sights on becoming an archbishop.  Disillusionment set in around the age of 10. Till then he believed strongly in heaven and hell and even had an apparition of the Virgin Mary – “a very common thing,” he points out. “But very soon I was disappointed. When you are 10 you go to your first communion and you eat Jesus Christ – but nothing happens…”

Despite the close proximity of the war, both temporal and geographical, in his youth everyone tiptoed around the subject. “They said the SS was one thing but the soldiers of the Wehrmacht were pure. And this is not true, in a war you can never stay pure, it’s impossible. And at home they didn’t talk about the Holocaust. At school we spent just two weeks studying the war – that’s not enough.” Kiefer’s epiphany came when he heard recordings distributed by the Americans, to bring home to the Germans what they had done during the war. For the first time he heard recordings of the speeches of Hitler, Goebbels and Goering – the voices that were now taboo. “I was really shocked and intrigued and fascinated,” he says. “That was the beginning of my work.”

He left law school without graduating and enrolled in art school. “I already knew I wanted to be an artist,” he says, “but I had a genius complex, I thought I don’t need [to go to art school].” Finally, however, he decided he wanted people to show his work to, and was fortunate to find a teacher who told him simply, ‘do what you want.’ He took him at his word, and set off around Europe with his father’s Wehrmacht uniform, a camera and a fair amount of nerve, set on shattering post-war Germany’s most cherished taboos.  He says it was an experiment. “Something had accumulated in me that I wanted to bring out. I discovered that without knowing it I was impregnated by the times. My parents were not Nazis but they, too, were impregnated by these times.” Nobody passes through such a national trauma without suffering some taint, some stain. “I wanted to know what I would have done if I had been 20 years younger, so I put myself directly within the situation of those times.”

The reaction, needless to say, was violently hostile; he narrowly escaped being beaten up by one enraged fellow-student.  ‘Occupations’, as he called the photographs that resulted, was a conceptual piece very different from the works on show at the Royal Academy. But intellectually all his work since then has been of a piece with it.

“For Kiefer,” writes the exhibition’s curator, Kathleen Soriano, “art is an attempt to get at the centre of truth. Describing this process, he says, ‘It begins in the dark, after an intense experience, a shock. At first it is an urge, a pounding. You don’t know what it is, but it compels you to act. At first it is very vague.’”

Married twice, Kiefer is protective about his private life. His first solo show was in 1969, the year of his scandalous ‘Occupations’ project. Serious international recognition followed his selection to represent Germany at the Venice Biennale of 1980. In his work he has followed a dozen different paths, painting on a huge scale the ruins of the Nazis’ monumental neo-classical buildings, re-fashioning the Funeral Hall for the Great German Soldiers in Berlin as a Holocaust memorial, exploring lead and its properties as the basis of alchemy, invoking the high, flower-filled meadows of his childhood  filled horribly with boils or bullet holes, exploring the Jewish Kabbala, the power of the forest, the purifying effects of fire, the symbolism of the artists’ palette.

Adolf Hitler, as Kiefer reminds us, was himself a failed artist, three times rejected by art schools. “His was a story of misery and power,” he says. In the recordings of Hitler’s speeches which the Americans disseminated to show the Germans the error of their ways, “You could hear the injury of rejection,” he says. “And then this enormous will. I was really – I can’t say in a trance – but I was really affected by this.” Instead of suppressing that emotion, he set about exploring it, with all the tools he could contrive – then exorcising it.  


Your Comments
5th Jan
by Peter Popham
Posted in: Articles

World View column

published in the Independent 26 September 2014


Peter Popham


As Britain enters yet another war against a Muslim enemy, the ongoing culture wars between the Ummah – the world Islamic community – and the rest heated up a notch yesterday with the refusal of the Qatar women’s basketball team to doff their hijabs at the Asian Games – official slogan “Diversity Shines Here” – in Korea.

By insisting on playing in hijabs, team members were in breach of rules that ban players from wearing headgear. Neither side refused to budge, and the team headed home.

Meanwhile the decision by the proudly liberal Camden School for Girls in London to bar a niqab-wearing girl from studying in the Sixth form prompted more than a thousand people to sign a petition in protest.

Call them the Burqa Wars. They are raging all over the world, and all of us find ourselves on one side or the other.

For a long time the progressive assumption in the west was that the obligation on women to cover their flesh was a stark assertion of patriarchal values which treated women as chattels.  These, we were sure, were the customs of benighted folk deprived of the European Englightenment and everything it brought in train, feminism included.  Under Afghanistan’s puritanical Taliban rulers women were severely punished for not wearing burkas out of doors. The liberation supposedly brought by the US with its Afghan invasion of 2001 was symbolised by women tearing off those wretched powder blue tents and stepping out freely.

My first intimation that things were not simple as that came ten years earlier, in Yemen, where burkas were almost as common as in Kabul. Western women friends of mine took to wearing them to avoid being leered at, and loved the sense of freedom that the asexual anonymity of the garment provided.

Of course that was in a society where the sight of women with any flesh at all on show was so unusual as to be provocative. After a couple of weeks in the place I began to find my attention riveted by women’s ankles – the only part of their body that was visible. And the spectacle of burka-clad women checking out the stock in a shop that sold nothing but burkas had a fascination all its own.

But the cultural significance of flesh-covering is quite different in countries like Britain or South Korea where leering by sensorily-deprived men is far less widespread.  When you take away the patriarchal, hyper-religious context of the Muslim world,  flesh and hair covering become a symbol of Muslim cultural solidarity.  And the greater the level of anti-Muslim paranoia and hostility, the greater its potency as an expression of pride and defiance – regardless of the wearer’s views about terrorists such as Isis, whom many Muslims in Britain have loudly condemned.

It is not surprising that many British people have hostile reactions to the niqab and the burka. These garments cut across centuries of what we regard as progress. The idea that they have anything to do with feminism seems grotesque. We need to recognise them, not as assertions of profound alienness and estrangement but as badges of cultural pride. But that doesn’t mean blanket acceptance.

There are no rational grounds for barring the hijab from sporting events such as basketball:  that is just sluggish, probably bigoted, bureaucracies refusing to change with the times. There are, on the other hand, excellent grounds for keeping the niqab out of classrooms and courts of law. Bare faces are basic to the way these places need to work. Teachers and students and judges and plaintiffs cannot do their jobs in the dark.


Your Comments
18th Sep

World View published in The Independent 19 September 2014


Peter Popham


Medecins Sans Frontieres, the French-founded aid agency, is back in west Africa where it started its work 43 years ago, when its pioneering doctors and nurses flew out to bring medical assistance to victims of the Biafran war.

Today the emergency is the Ebola plague, and according to Joanne Liu, the organisation’s president, the international response so far has been “lethally inadequate”. With more than 2,600 fatalities, 5,300-plus infected, the mortality rate for those untreated of 90 per cent and the numbers doubling every 24 days, the epidemic is exploding like a bomb “beyond anything we’ve ever seen,” as a spokesman described it to me,  MSF finds itself almost single-handedly tackling the largest epidemic of its kind in history.

I say “almost single-handedly” because the Red Cross is also involved and, as we have seen, President Obama is sending 3,000 US soldiers to the worst-affected areas with their logistical and engineering capabilities. But with the entire health system of Liberia, the worst-affected country, in a state of collapse, this tightly-focused, single-minded agency remains at the sharp end of the response to the crisis, and it is dramatically over-stretched. As things stand, it simply cannot cope.

That’s why it is urgently seeking to recruit medical professionals to bolster its teams in the field. The work is obviously not for everyone. The pay is poor compared to working for the NHS, and after a one-month tour fieldworkers are obliged to take an unpaid 21-day layoff – because the work in the field, as the organisation does nothing to disguise, is testing in the extreme. Doctors and nurses are bottled up in their protective suits and obliged to work in conditions of strict military-style discipline inside the treatment centres, discipline which continues outside working hours with an absolute ban on physical contact of every sort and fanatical attention to cleanliness. “It’s really exhausting to live in conditions like that,” the spokesman said, “which is why we have short rosters so people don’t lose their vigilance. We want people to be sharp and fresh, and we don’t even allow them to volunteer for a second tour until they have been off for at least three weeks.”

MSF’s role in containing the epidemic is vital because the capacity and readiness of other aid agencies to tackle emergencies of this sort has fallen away over the last few years, as they concentrated instead on working with and empowering local organisations rather than being the shock troops of response. That’s why MSF has found itself in the unprecedented position of appealing to the US and other countries to send in military teams trained to deal with nuclear, chemical and biological emergencies, the appeal which Mr Obama has now heeded.

The other reason MSF finds itself so exposed is because the authorities in these states barely functioned, even before the outbreak. “It is difficult for people in the West to imagine the extent of disorganisation in these countries,” Adam Nossiter wrote in the New York Times this week. “There is a near-total absence of effectively functioning institutions of any sort, let alone those devoted to health care.” When Ebola broke out in in Uganda in 2000, the government immediately imposed tough measures to stop it exploding. In Liberia there is no-one to play that role. MSF, the only game in town, is fighting to get ahead of the epidemic curve instead of behind it, where they have been until now. For any nurse or doctor tempted to put their life on the line in the best possible cause, opportunity knocks.


Your Comments
18th Sep

World View published in The Independent, 11 September 2014

Peter Popham


We have been reduced to a dreadful silence by the doings of Islamic State, so it is a matter of amazement and something approaching joy that young musicians only a few hundred kilometres from the IS heartland have the guts to mercilessly lampoon them.

A group called Al-Rahel Al-Kabir which translates the Great Departed, perhaps a nod to the Grateful Dead, are playing to packed houses in Beirut with their songs in satirical fake praise of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – IS’s  ‘caliph’ – and his movement’s works.

“Because there is no duress in religion, we will wipe out apostates,” they sing in devout tones. “Oh master Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, you who rule by God’s rules, you will lead God’s servants to an abyss like no other…Because Islam is merciful we will butcher…I swear to God if I was a cow I would be wearing a bra…”

This week has seen a cascade of condemnations of IS and their works from within the Islamic world, with most recently the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia adding his voice to that of the ambassador to the US of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi academics and many others.

This is all very welcome and not before time, but it’s always hard to know how to evaluate such declarations. Are they having their cojones squeezed by the White House? Are they merely saying what they hope the west wants to hear? Why did they not pipe up before? Few of us have a proper education in Islam, let alone a working knowledge of Arabic, and ignorance abets our suspicions. After all, don’t these muftis and the rest wear the same heavy beards and dingy robes as the executioners of Mosul?  

So the hilarious songs of the Great Departed – much better and more punning in the original, I understand – help to clear the air. Especially because, as one of the band explained to Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, “Those who consider that Baghdadi represents Islam could be offended, but the song doesn’t criticise Islam, it actually criticises the conception of Islam that Baghdadi and his group has.”

And in fact it is that false conception of Islam, whose roots go back to the 7th century, which is now coming under attack from within the religion.

The word for IS used by its Arab opponents is Daesh, a pejorative acronym which can be translated “medieval barbarism.” And IS was identified by two Saudis writing in the New York Times this week as the latest manifestation of the Kharijites, Islam’s first splinter group, who burst onto the scene when they assassinated the Fourth Caliph.

‘Kharijite’ literally means “those who went out,” and from the beginning they have had very clear characteristics. They looked and spoke in the most pious way imaginable but they were always addicted to killing – not in self-defence, but because they saw the world in black and white. Their religiosity was unrivalled: “you shall consider your own prayers trivial compared to theirs,” one authority explained. “What they say is true – but what they want to do is evil.” And above all, they bring disaster in their wake because of their murderous ways. “Never has a group emerged from our religion causing wanton violence and brought peace,” he said.

The pious-looking butcher who leads IS showed his identity with these people at the group’s foundation in 2011 when he declared, “The Shiites are evil. First we have to kill them. We must cleanse the religion.”

Educated Muslims know all about this ancient rogue phenomenon and the mortal dangers it brings. It’s high time they broadcast it from the rooftops.


Your Comments
18th Sep

World View published in The Independent 5 September 2014

Peter Popham


There is much that is murky about the serial baby-fathering career of 24-year-old Mitsutoki Shigata. But if his so-far unexplained compulsion helps to shine a light into the world of international surrogate parenting, it will be a good thing.

The son of a Japanese mobile phone tycoon, the lanky young man has been identified as the father of at least 16 children between the ages of six months and one year, including four sets of twins. When the flat he rented in Bangkok was raided by police after a tip-off, Shigeta himself had fled, but nine of his babies were in residence, along with their nine nannies, plus one pregnant surrogate mother. DNA tests subsequently proved him to be the father of all the babies.

What was his game? The original and perhaps obvious conclusion was that he was an aspiring human trafficker, on an industrial scale. But as the police gazed around them, the young man’s Thai lawyer, Ratpratan Tulatorn, turned up to deny any wrong doing. “These are legal babies,” he said later. “There are assets purchased under these babies’ names. There are savings accounts for these babies, and investments. If he were to sell these babies, why would he give them these benefits?”

Mr Tulatorn has said that his client merely wanted a big family. Shigeta’s own explanation to one of the Bangkok fertility clinics he used was weird: the clinic’s founder reported him telling her, “He wanted to win elections, and could use his big family for voting. He said he wanted 10 to 15 babies a year, and that he wanted to continue the baby-making process until he’s dead.”

Whatever the truth about his motivation, his exploits draw attention to the stubborn and ugly fact about surrogate parenting which its advocates and the companies which trade in it prefer to play down or ignore altogether: the commodification of the human child at the heart of the industry. The customers are planning on completing their family by the addition of a little one. But from the industry’s point of view the baby is simply the product, the hired womb that produces it the factory.

That’s why David Farnell and his wife, the Australians at the heart of the earlier Thai surrogate baby scandal, felt entitled to leave behind baby Gammy, the surrogate baby with Down’s Syndrome, and depart with his healthy sister, Pippah. “We were very confused and we said that this is your fault, you must now take some responsibility for this,” he told Australian TV. “No parent wants a son with a disability.” In the same spirit we return damaged goods to the retailer, expecting a full refund.

The industry’s advocates paint a sunny picture of a win-win situation, in which the wealthy western couple, straight or gay, obtain their “right” to a child with their own DNA, the poor Asian surrogate receives a stonking sum of money by local standards, and everyone is satisfied. Forgotten in the calculation is the commodified child, whose questions about his or her origins, if answered honestly, are very likely to lead to severe confusion.

We don’t have to believe that a child is a gift from God to appreciate that the woman who carries him or her for nine months cannot be regarded merely as a suitcase. As Renate Klein, an Australian academic, wrote after the baby Gammy affair broke, “It is accepted without discussion that a ‘gestational surrogate’…will not have a relationship with the developing baby as it is ‘not her child.’ An absurd notion for any woman who has ever been pregnant.”

And if the human suitcases feel reduced to mere utility, what about the babies they nurture and bear? At least 16 small Shigetas in Bangkok can be expected to feel pretty baffled by the brave new world that has called them forth.




Your Comments
18th Sep



World View, published in The Independent,  21st August 2014




Peter Popham



There have been several Indian pretenders to the Mahatma Gandhi legacy in the 66 years since his assassination, but only one of them truly deserves the title.


She looks nothing like the bony old wizard, but Vandana Shiva, a plump, Brahmin matron of 61, has a lot of Gandhi’s charisma, and approaching his level of global fame. And in one key respect the similarities are acute: against enormous odds, by the power of her oratory, leadership and tireless campaigning, she has for years put a large spoke in the wheel of some of the most powerful organisations in the world.


What Gandhi was to the British Empire, Dr Shiva is to Monsanto, the multinational agribusiness corporation, and its allies, including the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the US government, and Bill and Melinda Gates. She has put all these extremely powerful actors on the back foot for a very long time, which is not where they are accustomed to be. As Michael Specter puts it in a hefty profile of her in the current issue of the New Yorker, ( “Owing almost wholly to the efforts of Shiva and other activists, India has not approved a single genetically modified food crop for human consumption.”


The only question that really matters regarding Vandana Shiva and her campaign is whether or not that is a good thing.


The debate over GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms - in the West tends to revolve around two issues: whether foods engineered in the laboratory are bad for us; and whether they might dangerously contaminate the environment. On the first question, Specter claims that “there has not been a single documented case of any person becoming ill” from eating GM food. Contamination, on the other hand, is a danger that requires careful management.


But from the Indian perspective the most glaring risk is quite different. India’s farmers are among the poorest in the world, and most of the thousands who have committed suicide have done so because they got hopelessly into debt – because of the costs of keeping up with the fertiliser-based Green Revolution that transformed Indian agriculture in the 1960s.


Among the costs that peasant farmers are spared are seeds –they use the ones naturally produced in the plant’s life cycle. But the so-called ‘terminator seeds’ sold by Monsanto have no progeny, by design. Every year the farmer must buy new seeds. In this way he is strapped to the vast locomotive of globalisation. Shiva’s phrase ‘seed slavery’ means nothing to the large-scale farmers of the west for whom such crops were developed. But in India it is a very real fear.


Shiva has brilliantly articulated this fear. But in the process she has got carried away with her own rhetoric, wowing her western audiences with visions of innocent, bio-diverse village India falling prey to evil western capital. In the process she has made herself look ridiculous, claiming that the expense of GM cotton – which unlike GM food crops is widely grown in India – has caused hundreds of thousands of farmer suicides, and that Monsanto is guilty of ‘genocide’.


Like Gandhi, Shiva is in thrall to a romantic vision of village India which bears little relation to the real thing. By stripping down to the dhoti and spinning cotton, Gandhi hoped to banish the modern world and lead India back into a state of innocence which never existed outside his imagination. By demonising technologies which, if adopted with sensitivity and common sense could potentially improve the lives of millions, Shiva is doing her impoverished compatriots no favours. This debate demands less heat and more light.




Your Comments
19th Aug

published in The Independent, 16 August 2014


by Peter Popham


It was the coming again of Harry Potter fever. Charing Cross bookshop Foyles stayed open all night to celebrate with jazz, the Royal Opera House and the Tate Modern were bathed in images of the cover, bookshops across the country happily anticipated a Rowling-like rush for the tills as the new Haruki Marukami novel, snappily entitled Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, became the book to beat in the pre-Christmas rush, having sold a million in Japan within a week of release.

But the comparisons are misleading: Murakami is nothing like J K Rowling. He may sell like Tom Clancy, yet remains a cult. He is as big as Dan Brown, but fans share their love of him like a happy secret.

At the heart of the new book we find a Murakami hero who is very much like all the ones that came before.

“It was as if he were sleepwalking through life,” he writes in the first chapter, “as if he had already died but not yet noticed it. When the sun rose, so would Tsukuru – he’d brush his teeth, throw on whatever clothes were at hand…He only spoke to people when necessary, and after school he would return to his solitary apartment, sit on the floor, lean back against the wall, and ponder death and the failures of his life…”

The prose is as flat and colourless as the protagonist. Then things happen: terrible things, beautiful things. He is attacked by birds with razor-sharp beaks and his flesh somehow becomes something else. “Tsukuru couldn’t fathom what this substance was. He couldn’t accept or reject it. It merely settled on his body as a shadowy swarm, laying an ample amount of shadowy eggs.” A vivacious, flirtatious woman takes him in hand. A challenge is presented which he forces himself to meet. Yet there is no transformation, no epiphany. Through everything he remains the same, his flat, pedestrian voice and tone of melancholy mystification as distinctive as Kafka’s.


Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949. His father was the son of a Buddhist priest, his mother the daughter of a merchant from Osaka. Both parents taught Japanese literature. He moved to Tokyo to study drama at Waseda, one of Japan’s top universities. But he is on record as saying that he only reads western novels. He rejected his own literary heritage, and Japan’s academic literary establishment, in the form of the veteran novelist Kenzabruo Oe, has repaid the compliment.

As a young man, Murakami’s immersion in popular youth culture was reminiscent of Nick Hornby’s. After university his first job was working in a record shop. With his wife Yoko, whom he had met at Waseda – they are still together but have no children – he  then opened a jazz-cum-coffee bar which they ran together for several years. Then he started writing, eventually doing it full time. “One night,” he explained to an interviewer, “looking down the bar of [my] club, I saw some black American soldiers crying because they missed America so much…I realised that, no matter how much I loved this western culture, it meant more to these soldiers than it ever could for me. That was really why I began to write.”

His novels were successful from the start but it was with the third one, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), that he found the tone for which he is beloved and familiar: sad, disconnected young mass man, living in a contemporary urban Japan which has nothing Japanese about it, meets bizarre circumstances which suggest weighty, symbolic significance or fanciful absurdity or both. Belying the mournful, pedestrian narrative voice, the results were beguiling and quickly captured readers in their snares.  

The influences were overwhelmingly American: Kurt Vonnegut’s cocktail of science fiction fantasy and drily rendered, prosy reality; the capricious, feather light whimsy of Richard Brautigan; touches of Raymond Carver and the J D Salinger of The Catcher in the Rye, which Murakami has translated.   His breakout book was Norwegian Wood, published in 1987, which sold millions to young Japanese and made him a household name. Averse to most of the paraphernalia of fame, he beat a retreat to the US, writing several more novels while a fellow at American universities including Harvard.  

His absence from Japan reflected the absence of Japan – in any outwardly recognisable form – from his work. This changed abruptly after the twin traumas of the Kobe earthquake and the deadly sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground by the Aum Shinrikyo cult. He returned home, and for the first time wrote books concretely related to real events – a non-fiction work consisting of interviews with survivors of the gas attacks, and a book of stories tapping into the collective emotion generated by the earthquake.

But if these works suggested that Murakami was moving into more mainstream ‘social’ fiction, he has since returned to the enigmatic and surreal domains which are his favoured territory. And his fame has continued to multiply, with his three-volume doorstopper 1Q84 (2011) selling out its first Japanese edition in a single day and selling a million within a month.

Murakami’s prodigious productivity, can be at least partly traced to his intensely disciplined and methodical approach: he works every morning, aims to sleep by 9pm every night, and allows few of the fripperies of fame to get in the way of his work. This recalls the equally disciplined approach of the otherwise wildly different Yukio Mishima, who set aside specific days each year to write specific works. He is also a committed runner, having run more than 30 marathons, and has written a book about that passion.

But what is the secret of his worldwide success? His first translator, Alfred Birnbaum, responsible for the English version of A Wild Sheep Chase, says, “Part of his popularity is that his novels are dislocated from Japan in a globalised nowhere. I tend to think of him as an American writer who happens to write in Japanese – sort of a reverse Kazuo Ishiguro. He is a poor man’s Vonnegut, whose dry offhand style and admixture of absurd SF and routine everyday reality he copied so many years ago – albeit without the political depth.”

But others find something hauntingly Japanese in the very absence of any overt Japanese culture in his work – reflecting the fact that in urban Japan, Western culture’s triumph is now complete: the last gasp of resistance to it from the literary world was Yukio Mishima’s grotesque act of seppuku [hara-kiri] in 1970.

Murakami knows Japanese culture is now beyond rescue – but he also knows that something’s gone missing. “Something has vanished in these 25 years,” he said in 1990, “some kind of idealism. It has vanished, and we became rich.” The result is the aching emptiness shared by all his protagonists. As the critic Celeste Loughman puts it, “Neither materialism itself nor the preference for western popular culture is the problem. The problem is that’s all there is.”

Or is that really a problem, or an insight disguised as a problem? The Buddhist tradition to which Murakami is connected via his father describes emptiness, ‘shunyata’ in Sanskrit, as indistinguishable from form. And that is not a source of woe, because the self, too, is an illusion. These are the insights glimmering through Murakami’s texts which explain why they are not terminally depressing but on the contrary exhilarating – and intensely Japanese.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


Amidst the general disarray of a hideous August, here is one more reason to hang your head: Navi Pillay is retiring.

Name not mean much? Well it should. South Africa’s first non-white female judge, after becoming the first South African woman of colour to open her own law office, Pillay has been the world’s most powerful and effective champion of human rights for the past six years.

The phrase ‘human rights’ has no meaning for the pseudo-religious mob crucifying and decapitating their way across northern Syria and Iraq. But the fact that elsewhere even tyrants still feel the need to keep torture, unlawful detention and extra-legal killing under wraps is a measure of the extent to which Pillay and her colleagues have kept up the pressure.  

On her watch the UN’s Human Rights Council has found a new sense of purpose. When the civil war in Sri Lanka was brought to a bloody end in May 2009, Amnesty International and others were quick to highlight the dreadful price Tamil civilians had paid for the peace. But the UNHRC merely saw the upside of the war’s end, “welcoming the conclusion of hostilities” and “the liberation…of  tens of thousands of… citizens… as well as the efforts by the Government to ensure the safety and security of all Sri Lankans and to bring permanent peace to the country.” It merely parroted the Colombo government’s line and gave it a pat on the head.

Enter Navi Pillay. Five years on, after bitter, extended and often personal abuse by the Sri Lankan authorities, usually splashed across the front pages of Colombo’s government-controlled dailies, an exceptionally strong UN investigation into alleged abuses during the conflict is getting under way, in defiance of sustained efforts to derail it.

Up to 40,000 Tamil civilians are believed to have been killed as the army set about exterminating the Tigers’ brutal insurgency. And although the rebels’ two political chiefs tried to surrender, diplomats say that Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, brother of the president, ordered them to be killed – as they duly were. The source for that claim was General Sarath Fonseka, the army chief who was himself vindictively court-martialed and jailed after the war’s end.

Close scrutiny of how the war ended is therefore the last thing that Sri Lanka’s ruling Rajapaksa clan wish. One of the ways they tried to discredit Navi Pillay was by trumpeting her own ethnic origins, as the daughter of a South African Tamil bus driver. She responded by calling claims that she was biased and a tool of the rebels “deeply offensive.” She is on record as calling the Tigers “a murderous organisation”, which it surely was, and the government’s repatriation of 300,000 people displaced by war as “impressive”, which is also true.

Sri Lanka has been only one of Navi Pillay’s many battlefields during her six years in office, during which she has briefed the UN Security Council more times than all her predecessors combined.  But it is perhaps the one that has evoked most strongly her courage and determination.  She has also incurred volcanic fury from both sides in the Gaza wars and been described by the Syrian ambassador to the UN as “a lunatic”. The US has never agreed to her requests to look into what she calls “the many issues that trouble us” in that country, in particular drone strikes and targeted killings, while somehow the Chinese could never find a suitable date for her to pay a visit.

She has, in other words, been a world-class troublemaker. Prince Zeid of Jordan, her successor, will find he has very large boots to fill.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham 

It was a scoop any western journalist would have been proud of: one can easily imagine it running in the New Yorker under Seymour Hersh’s illustrious byline. Four journalists working for Burma’s Unity Journal claimed to have uncovered a secret chemical weapons factory run by former generals, Chinese technicians and government officials.

But instead of winning an award, the four journalists and their boss are now serving ten years in jail with hard labour.

The law under which they were charged, the Burma State Secrets Act, was a colonial measure, enacted by the British in 1923. Their arrest was ordered directly by President Thein Sein – a man eulogised by the outside world as a courageous reformer, the leader who ushered in a new era of freedom and development.

Was the report a sensational discovery, a bold and brilliant job of reporting, or a mere fabrication? We will probably never know: the government said it was ‘baseless’, but failed to follow up by opening the military facility up to other reporters. Instead, in the time-honoured manner of Burmese generals, the hedgehog rolled into a ball. “If media freedom threatens national security,” the President told the Mirror, a state-run daily, “…we will take effective action under existing laws.”

This is all very dispiriting. And it must be especially so for US Secretary of State John Kerry, heading to Naypyidaw, the Burmese capital, for a regional summit this weekend.

Burma was supposed to have changed beyond recognition since Thein Sein, himself a former general, became president in 2011. But in this process of legalised repression and draconian imprisonment, one recognises precisely the regressive, paranoid hand of the generals who held Burma in thrall for 50 years. 

The ASEAN Regional Forum, as the summit is called, is a feather in President Thein Sein’s cap. It was in order to be considered worthy of the honour of hosting such events, and the kudos of welcoming the likes of Mr Kerry, that he went out on a limb, rolling back press censorship, freeing most political prisoners and enacting other important reforms. They had the desired effect: first the EU then the US lifted the sanctions that had frozen trade relations with the West for decades. Mr Obama welcomed his Burmese counterpart to the Oval Office, and for the first overseas outing of his second term headed straight for the one foreign destination that he could claim as an unblemished success story of his first four years.

Unblemished it is no more. The legalised assault on Unity Journal’s brave journalists was just like the bad old days. Courageous journalism suddenly became very much harder to do.

The west’s sanctions were criticised for harming the Burmese poor and crippling development. But there is no doubt that without that lever, the West would have had a much harder job persuading Burma to change.

Now the sanctions are all gone but the job of reform is only half done. And while the Unity Journal’s staff are paying an outrageous price for doing their jobs, the government is digging in its heels and refusing even to consider further, much-needed reforms.

In the past three months, a coalition of opposition forces has been holding rallies to demand radical reform of the constitution, designed to cut back the dominating role of the military – they hold 25 per cent of parliamentary seats, for example – and remove the arbitrary rule that prevents Aung San Suu Kyi from running for president.

A petition demanding these changes has gathered five million signatures. But Thein Sein and his colleagues have shown no interest whatsoever in even discussing them.

President Obama is said to be considering a second visit later in the year to this lonely outpost of presidential achievement. John Kerry should make it amply clear that the visit is not going to happen unless to President Thein Sein pays serious attention to reforming the constitution.



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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


The epitaph, splashed across the front page of a newspaper consisting (as a protest) of only three printed pages, was appropriately self-pitying: “End of the line. After three months of battles, they’ve managed it. They have killed l’Unita.”

So bit the dust a paper which had served for decades as the loyal house organ of the Italian Communist Party, standing by it stolidly through the inconveniences of Hungary and Czechoslavakia, celebrating the false dawn of Euro-communism, till finally orphaned when the party changed its name.  It survived, like other little-read daily titles, because the Italian state has long been in the habit of subsidising loss-making daily papers, and even Berlusconi’s governments were too squeamish to cut them off completely. L’Unita received more than £5 million per year from the state from 2003 to 2009. Even in 2012 it received more than £2 million in public money. It now has debts of more than £20 million.

If L’Unita is really dead – and last-minute rescues are not unknown even for apparently hopeless Italian dailies – its passing will be seen as the end of an era.

The paper was founded by the towering communist intellectual Antonio Gramsci, whose Prison Notebooks became one of the most inspirational of 20th century texts for the left far beyond Italy. Born at a most unpromising juncture, one year after Mussolini came to power, l’Unita survived throughout the Fascist years as an underground paper, then came into its own with the rebirth of Italy after the war as a republic.

The Italian Communist Party became the biggest, most cultured and most robust in western Europe. For decades pressure from the United States ensured that it was penned on the margins of national politics, barred from playing any role in coalition governments, but given the appalling corruption that took hold within both Christian Democrat and Socialist parties, this was arguably a blessing in disguise.

The heirs of Gramsci used their decades in the political wilderness to conquer other citadels of public life, including much of the mass media, the universities and the judiciary. Where they managed to get voted into power, notably in Tuscany, they offered a textbook demonstration of how polite communists can provide socialist government of a high standard without resorting to anything so rough as a revolution.

This strategy of quietly commandeering the heights of the national culture fitted in with Gramsci’s famous theory of hegemony. As he wrote, “The supremacy of a social group manifests itself in two ways: as ‘dominion’ and as ‘intellectual and moral direction.’ Hegemony is achieved by direction, that is by the capacity to develop efficacious solutions to society’s problems and the political capacity to do so.”

This formula was interpreted by Italian communists to mean that they could transform society softly softly, by stealthily blanketing the country and its conversation with their ideas, practices and people – regardless of the harsh realities of capital and ‘dominion’.

And this is where they fell under the fatal delusion of grandeur that brought them to this sad pass, in which the house organ of communist hegemony is on the point of expiring with a Democratic Party government – direct heirs to the Communist Party – in power.   

Italy’s communists and post-communists were so grand, so self-regarding, so immured in their private citadels of status, that they failed to engage in the fierce battles taking place all around them – in particular the battle that brought Berlusconi to power, but also the surge of subversive anger that led to the populist triumph of Beppe Grillo.  They became merely irrelevant. L’Unita, which never forged an independent identity, went the same way.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


I imagine mine was just about the last generation of non-Jews to regard a sojourn on an Israeli kibbutz as a cool way to spend some months of what was not yet termed the gap year.

My kibbutz experience fell in 1971, between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. The beleaguered condition of Israel was brought home to us very soon after arriving when we saw tracer fire rising into the night sky above the Dead Sea, and thousands of Israeli army conscripts hitch-hiking on the roads. The tiny size of the country was another fact quickly digested, one that brought home its extreme vulnerability to attack. The rights and wrongs of the Israel-Palestine conflict were already hotly debated. Gaza was already a hell hole. The West Bank was already occupied. But the Israeli point of view was more compelling back then.

On my kibbutz, Kibbutz  Malkiyya, which sat right on the border fence with Lebanon in northern Galilee, many of the kibbutzniks were central European refugees, several were Holocaust survivors. This was kibbutz communism neat and strong, with no private property, no wages, children brought up in common, clothes issued from a common store. There was righteousness and courage and the pioneering spirit. One evening Fatah guerrillas came over the fence – luckily for us we were all in the air raid shelter that once a week did service as a cinema, happily watching Barbarella – and a number were killed in the ensuing firefight. That brought the vulnerability of the place home to us. The desperation of those whom the kibbutz guards had killed, who had been crazy enough to come over the fence, was very much a secondary matter. Likewise the plight of the impoverished Palestinian farmers down the road was barely mentioned.  The principal fact was that the Jews had finally got their homeland and they were battling to hang on to it, and they deserved the outside world’s support in that.

I reminisced about these kibbutz experiences with Jewish friends in London the other day. The kibbutzim are not what they once were, most having ‘sold out’, as we would have put it in those days. But then nothing is as it was. And seeing both points of view about the Israel-Palestine conflict is no longer sustainable. Too much innocent blood has been spilled in Gaza, this time around like last time. Benjamin Netanyahu makes it all very much worse with his grotesque language about ‘telegenic Palestinian dead’. The disparity of wealth and strength and resources between the two sides, which has always been extreme, is more appalling than ever. The discussion with Jewish friends begins and ends with pleasant memories of Mt Hermon glimpsed above the clouds and the grapefruit groves in the early morning 40 years ago. Try bringing the conversation into the present and it quickly becomes advisable to talk about something else.

But for our children silence is not an option. They haven’t been to Israel, haven’t seen for themselves how tiny and vulnerable it is, that you can travel from north to south in a few hours. Nor have they listened receptively, as we did once upon a time, to the Zionist foundation story. All they see is an extremely prosperous, nuclear-armed settler state, practicing a form of apartheid as bad as or worse than South Africa’s was, enjoying the unstinting support, financial, diplomatic and otherwise, of the west, and wreaking unbelievable misery on its impoverished aborigines. There is nothing more starkly black and white in the world than the way the Gaza conflict has played out in the media during these hellish weeks.

So now Europe is aflame with protests. Dan Bilefsky of the New York Times reports anti-Israel protests erupting in ‘dozens of cities in Europe, as thousands of pro-Palestine protesters have depicted Israel as the aggressor and sought to isolate it internationally’. And increasingly the taboo we were once keenly aware of – that of confusing ‘Israeli’ with ‘Jewish’ and of letting anti-Israel protests leach into attacks, verbal or otherwise, on Jewish targets – is being trampled on.

Part of this is plain ignorance. A great deal of it is down to the rise of neo-Fascism and neo-Nazism across the continent in recent years. Some, I have no doubt, is down to militant Islamists of the ISIS variety for whom Jews are just as legitimate a target – of extermination, if possible – as Shias, Christians, Sufis…And this time around, social media have done their usual catalysing work. On Twitter, the hashtags #Hitlerwasright and #Hitlerdidnothingwrong have been trending. And as a result there are also the warm-hearted young leftists, climbing aboard this terrible bandwagon. Some of their leaders are bright enough to be embarrassed by it. A leader of Germany’s Left Party, describing a protest by the party’s youth group in Essen, reported, “The Essen Synagogue was a proclaimed target of anti-Israeli participants at this demonstration. Bottles and stones were thrown at pro-Israeli demonstrators. I am deeply ashamed.”

As a result of all this, as well as of the heart-rending images of death in Gaza, the virus of anti-Semitism has burst the bounds of the different ghettoes, religious and political, where it has been deliberately cultivated for years, and risks becoming widely received and casually retailed as it has not been since the discovery of the Nazi death camps. How on earth can this return to the evil past be halted?


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham

Nearly three weeks have passed since Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe used his parliamentary majority to force through a ‘reinterpretation’ of the constitution, giving Japan the right to collective self-defence. The furore he provoked continues to rage.

Japan’s post-war constitution, drafted by western lawyers, imposed radical pacifism on the defeated and abject nation. Article 9 reads, “The Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as a means of settling international disputes.” Japanese nationalists have bridled against those ‘humiliating’ terms ever since, but pacifism became intrinsic to the way the nation recovered. And most Japanese have been comfortable with these arrangements, not only because the American umbrella removed the necessity of worrying about self-defence but also because they proved an effective antidote to the war-mongering horrors of Imperial Japan.

These horrors were as extreme for ordinary Japanese as they were for the countries Japan invaded. The Great East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere was one of the great imperial scams, a pretence of pan-Asian comradeship masking a conviction of racial superiority and a fanatical belief in the divine prerogatives of the Emperor. To ordinary Japanese they brought the imposition of ferocious conformism, commitment to mass suicide in the event of invasion, and the destruction in allied bombing raids of nearly all the nation’s cities. To south-east Asia they brought subjection to an imperial power that made the departed western ones seem benign by comparison. After the brief joy of liberation, Asian countries quickly learned the ugly truth about Japanese domination and never forgot it.

General MacArthur’s pacifist constitution set Japan’s extraordinary energy free. The consequent industrial miracle not only hauled the Japanese economy out of the dirt but was a key factor in the transformation of living standards throughout the region. The Japanese are not great at blowing their own trumpet but that is the simple truth. The ‘co-prosperity’ idea vaunted in the 1930s brought only war, mass death and misery. Returning to the theme in pacifist vein in the 1950s and ‘60s – as the ‘transistor salesman’ so snobbishly scorned by General de Gaulle (referring to then Japanese prime minister Hayato Ikeda) – they came good second time around. The Japanese are no longer loathed in South-East Asia. In fact their often sensitive and scrupulous way of investment contrasts starkly with the heavy-handed and cynical Chinese approach.

The quickest way to destroy all that good work and upturn the collaborative, non-arrogant persona Japan has cultivated in Asia for the past half century would be for the nationalistic instincts of Mr Abe and his supporters to begin to define the way Japan behaves. That is the danger of the present situation, and that is why Abe has encountered such a broad swathe of hostility inside Japan to the way in which he proposes to transform the nation’s character and behaviour.

It’s the way he has done it that causes the greatest indignation. It looks like sleight of hand. Abe, who had a brief, unremarkable spell as premier some years back, came roaring into power in 2012 with bold and novel ideas about curing the Japanese economy of the stagnation that has beset it ever since the late 1980s. It was a complicated recipe but had the merit of never having been tried before, and it has yet to be pronounced a dead loss. But what it did not involve was turning Japan inside out and re-inventing it as a military power ready and able to challenge China for regional hegemony.

Japanese democracy is far from perfect, but the idea of consensus – either within companies or politics – is deeply ingrained. This is why Japan often seems a slow moving sort of place, despite its once-upon-a-time economic dynamism: everybody has to be fully on board with a strategy before a company, or the country at large, is willing to move, whereupon it does so with impressive dispatch.

This is what Mr Abe has trampled on with his ‘reinterpretation’ of the pacifist constitution. As Japanese commentators point out, it’s the wrong way to go about it. Back in 2007, during his first term as premier, Mr Abe proposed a radical revision of the constitution involving a referendum, to be followed, if successful, by parliamentary approval. Finding that too much of a fag, this time he has opted for a quick and dirty approach, achieving similar goals without building the necessary public support.

In the process he has bitten off more than he can chew. As Peter Tasker wrote in the Financial Times this week, Abe’s attempt to galvanise the economy is still under way. It’s a work in progress. It needs solid political capital to make it happen. The hostility to what is seen as his war-mongering could scupper it and send Japan back into its box.

Why should the world’s third largest economy continue to shelter under an American umbrella? Pacifism is not a new theme in Japan: after expelling the Christian missionaries in the 16th century, Japan closed its doors to the world and also gave up the gun, regarded as a barbarous weapon, restoring the samurai sword to its place of honour.

Sakoku, ‘closed-country’, Japan prospered without guns and modern warfare; open, pacifistic post-war Japan has enjoyed a long golden age, despite its economic problems.  The mass of Japanese have no desire to ring down the curtain on that age without a proper debate.


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19th Aug

by Peter Popham


Let no-one accuse Chris Patten of opting for an easy retirement. Fresh from a peculiarly bruising spell with the BBC, “10 times more difficult than I expected” as he confessed, and from which he was only liberated by the need for a heart bypass operation, he has now been recruited to head an 11-person commission – with experts from France, Germany, Mexico, Singapore and the US – to modernise the Vatican’s handling of the media.

Your lordship, good luck with that.

It has long been the custom among the Vaticanisti, the reporters who cover Catholic Central, to describe it as analogous to the work of Kremlinologists before Glasnost, or Pekingologists today. That’s because you can’t get close to the Vatican, and nothing that happens within it is clear.

As the Vatican correspondent of this newspaper 10 years ago, an ex-Anglican employed by an atheistical rag from beyond the Roman pale, it quickly became clear that my chances of getting on first name terms with the Vatican hierarchy were going to be poor. This was confirmed during my first (and only) meeting with the head of the Vatican press office, when it emerged from our chat that while I rode a scooter, he drove a car. “So we’re natural enemies,” he remarked with a chilly smile.

But even Catholic reporters from Catholic media struggled to unearth anything about the Church which you could dignify as a fact. Why was it so difficult? It’s a vast, opaque, multinational, multilingual bureaucracy, dedicated to the propagation of sweetness and light and brotherly love, and where no voice may be raised against another. But they are also human beings, each with his own more or less secret loyalties and ambitions, loves and hatreds, and with a collective horror of bad publicity. The church’s customary way of dealing with priestly paedophilia was to transfer the offender and keep the whole affair secret. That was symptomatic of the culture of the institution as a whole.

This approach, doing everything humanly possible to avoid bad publicity, is why such a terrible stink arises from the Vatican, and why the general public, especially the Italian public, believes it capable of venality of every description, from mass orgies to money laundering for the Mob. In this way the Church has become locked into a vicious cycle whereby it can only emit the most anaemic and unbelievable sort of happy stories about its doings, while the outside world chooses to believe the exact opposite. The only reporters able to break through the omerta of the Vatican are Catholics from specialist publications (often failed priests) who stuck to the beat year after year after year, slowly gaining the friendship and trust of certain relatively outgoing cardinals and the like. But the unwritten precondition for the friendship was that nothing really hostile ever got out. The organisation remained hermetic.

After the death of Pope John Paul II, accredited Vaticanisti like me received formal invitations to view the late pontiff’s laid-out body and attend the funeral. We were referred to on the invitations as ‘dipendenti’ of the Vatican – dependents; not objective observers but forelock-tugging serfs, expected to show our respects and toe the line, or else. There was no compunction about expelling hacks who broke the unwritten rules.

That was my worm’s eye view of reporting the Vatican: the only people one could hope to interview and quote, outside of the usually anodyne press conferences, were Vaticanisti marginally better-connected than oneself. No wonder we paid more attention to the dissidents, the outsiders, the fallen angels with an axe to grind.

But in addition to the dysfunctional, counter-productive, Kremlin-esque approach to news dissemination within the Vatican, Chris Patten and his colleagues will also have to address the Babel of official voices that issues from the place, each with its own clan loyalties, histories and opaque agendas: the Pope’s daily paper, L’Osservatore Romano, “The Roman Observer”, surely the most dignified broadsheet in the world, printed on very large and luxuriously thick paper; Avvenire, “The Future”, the daily of the Italian Bishops; Vatican Radio, the multilingual radio station based on the fringe of Vatican City which was for a long time a lonely liberal beacon (run by Jesuits, from the same order as Pope Francis) within the church; and the Vatican Information Service, the media arm of the Press Office whose boss it was announced himself as my ‘natural enemy’, and which is responsible for the Vatican’s website ( In addition there are the people responsible for the pope’s tweets, his Facebook page (690,442 likes and counting) and much else besides.

As a glance at any of these media will confirm, the Vatican’s media operation is dedicated to churning out propaganda, like the Pravda of old; yet at the core of the propaganda is a claim of commitment to telling the truth – about the universe and everything else, too.

Telling the truth means facing unpleasant facts. By his determined efforts to reform toxic church institutions like the Vatican Bank, Pope Francis has convinced many that he is more serious than any pope for a long time about obliging the church to face the often ugly truth about itself, and to deal with it.

The next challenge is to persuade the Vatican’s vast media operation that their job requires telling the truth, too, even when it makes people squirm. That’s Chris Patten’s latest task. It should keep him busy for a while.


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