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March 22, 2008

Victor Bout and the military-typographical complex

Mother Jones' account of the Victor Bout arrest is good, but it's more fun reaing the DEA's charges against him. Not for the facts - Mother Jones summarises most of the interesting bits - but for the sheer semiotics of the thing.

Just look at the document: Monospaced Courier 12 in numbered paragraphs. Badly reproduced text, lines sloping up the page. Government stamps and signatures. It fits so perfectly into nostalgic stereotypes: typewriter keys clattering in a nondescript government building, as a sweating government agent writes up his report.

And the text plays up to every cliche. The boilerplate allegation that Bout "affected interstate and foreign commerce". The long, oft-repeated list of aliases (VIKTOR BOUT, a/k/a "Boris," a/k/a "Victor Anatoliyevich Bout," a/k/a "Victor But," a/k/a "Viktor Budd," a/k/a "Viktor Butt," a/k/a "Viktor Bulakin," a/k/a "Vadim Markovich Aminov"). The whole document is begging to be stuffed into a brown paper envelope and sent to Bob Woodward or Fox Mulder.

Since I don't spend much time reading US legal documents (maybe I should?), I have no idea how standard all of this is. Apparently a lot of US court documents really do still have to be produced in this format. Intentional or not, though, the layout makes it all seem like part of a great cloak-and-dagger Cold War adventure. I'd like to believe that somebody in the US goverment has figured this out, reasoned that it gives people the impression they have mountains of secret information, and decided to stick to Courier.

Oh, and the content? Still reasonably entertaining. Bout's henchman Andrew Smulian comes off as a complete muppet, calling Bout on a phone the DEA had given him. It looks like the main problem with arranging the sting was that they couldn't do it in Moscow, but had to entice Bout out to more US-friendly Thailand. Mostly, though, I'm just reading for the typography.

March 21, 2008

So here’s a trick: A first step toward understanding Russia would be to read the press and academic accounts on China — and then substitute the word “Russia” for “China.” (This works in reverse as well.) [New York Times]

March 17, 2008

Russia's independent media

Something I should have noticed years ago: 'Moscow Echo', commonly described as Russia's only (or only significant) independent radio station, is majority owned by Gazprom Media. Gazprom Media is a subdivision of Gazprom. The chairman of Gazprom is Dmitri Medvedev, the President-elect.

Next time I stop being cynical about the entire world, somebody please punch me. Hard.

March 13, 2008

Public intellectuals in China

Public intellectuals in China are the subject of a fascinating article by Mark Leonard in this month's Prospect. He namechecks several of them, but has no room to do any more than briefly sketch their ideas and outlooks. So in the interests of hearing from the horses' mouths, here are links to what I've been able to find of their work in English...

Wang Hui is easily the most interesting figure mentioned. Wang has a few good articles in Le Monde Diplomatique European views of China and on political dissatisfaction in the 80s. But he is a literary critic by training, and what really caught my eye was 'Borderless Writing'. Framed as a celebration of the essayist Yu Hua, this piece is mainly concerned with the role of the author: must she be a tortured soul, or is technical virtuosity enough? And how can literature be political without turning into punditry or social science. On the way he pulls in Bulgakov, Dostoyevsky, Borges and Isiah Berlin, and weaves in his own romantic rhapsody on writing:

Writing is merely the power with which the writer is shaping himself. What is more important, however, is that writing is a way in which the writers open themselves up and entrust themselves to time and to fate. Writing is a struggle in which a writer is fighting against himself and where happiness and gloominess coexist together. Writing unites a writer with the world of fiction, brings oneness with reality.

This main source of Wang Hui's reputation, though, is his 11-year stint (he was removed last summer) as co-editor of Dushu, one of China's main literary journals. Dushu was founded in 1979, and initially focused on biographies of Chinese intellectualls. Over the 80s it developed more interest in European philosophy and critical theory, printing works by and about Heidegger, Foucault, Buber and Camus. When Wang and his co-editor Huang Ping took over in 1996, they gave it another push: towards the theoretical, the international and the political. It became a pillar of the so-called "New Left", a movement which Wang (although he dislikes the term), describes:

Political democracy will not come from a legally impartial market, secured by constitutional amendments, but from the strength of social movements against the existing order. This point is central to the genealogy of the critical intellectual work that is now identified as a New Left

If you can't get enough of Wang (I can't), there's a long profile of him in the IHT, and he has at least one book in English (reviews: one, two), and there are one or two) interesting and (apparently) well-informed blog posts on him.

Many of the other intellectuals mentioned are economists, so I find it a little harder to figure out where they're coming from. There's Zhang Weiying, a member of the 'new right' who 'thinks China will not be free until the public sector is dismantled and the state has shrivelled into a residual body designed mainly to protect property rights.' His own page lists many of his English-language publications. Another economist is Hu Angang, author of several English-language books (google has an extensive extract from one). Has several economics papers; his interests apparently center on economic history, measuring the extent and distribution of growth, and tax and development policy.

Foreign policy I find more comprehensible that economics, but I didn't come across anything mind-blowing here. Zheng Bijian is a 'liberal internationalist', he introduced the concept of China's Peaceful Rise - that is, emphasizing economic and cultural power over military power, and taking a relaxed attitude to border disputes. All of that sounds eminently sensible - and US-friendly enough for Zheng to develop ties to RAND and Brookings. But what I've found of his writing seems worthy rather than exciting. Possibly he's just too powerful to be interesting (He advises Hu Jintao, supervises the training of new officials, and runs the China Reform Forum). Being inside the Chinese establishment must make it hard for him to express views far beyond the mainstream.

Yan Xuetong is more conservative (Leonard calls him a 'neo-comm'). He writes on China's foreign policy towards major powers, The rise of China and its power status, Missile defense and soft power.

As for civil society and democracy, Leonard brings us Yu Keping. His views would be (or rather, are) unsurprising coming from a European or American think-tank. He believes 'democracy is a good thing', but that it can only be introduced slowly. This looks (from skimming) to be one of his more interesting pieces: a survey of Chinese views of globalization.

I couldn't track down work by everybody Leonard mentions. Either Fang Ning, Pan Wei and Chi Zhiyuan don't write much in English, or their names are too common for easy googling. Not that I mind much; the rest of the names amount to days of reading.

March 2, 2008

You thought nobody would read your PhD?

Getting your PhD into the national press is pretty impressive. But getting two articles devoted to it (one on the front page) before you even submit, must mean you're on to something. Alternatively, perhaps you have a journalist friend who doesn't mind writing the same article twice.

Today's Observer devotes much of its front page to a report by Anushka Asthana, beginning:

Damning new evidence that faith schools are siphoning off middle-class pupils can be revealed today, as research shows they are failing to take children from the poorest backgrounds nationwide.

This 'new evidence' is, of course, a complete revolution compared to the last time Asthana wrote this article, back in September. That one only made page 2:

Faith schools are 'cherry picking' too many children from affluent families and contributing to racial and religious segregation, according to the most extensive research of its kind...

[OK, there are some differences. For a start first article only covers London, the second is nationwide. But the articles don't take much trouble to explain what's actually new. Besides, how can I concentrate on the technicalities while distracted by visions of the Heath Robinson contraption which will 'cherry-pick' the affluent, and 'siphon off' the merely middle-class?]

What about the research papers on which the articles are based? Neither has been published or peer-reviewed. Neither is the work of a notably eminent scholar. Neither has sent shock-waves through the social science community. And - they're both the work the same PhD student, Rebecca Allen, who is currently finishing her PhD at the University of London's Institute of Education. The first was an conference paper (the online version is marked 'draft paper - please do not cite'; blasting it at 450,000 Observer readers clearly doesn't count as citing). The second I can only guess is Allen's PhD thesis.

So, how did Anushka Asthana spot this academic rising star, assess her work, and decide that it was a matter of national importance? I'd like to think she spends her days poring over conference proceedings and hustling preprints out of postdocs. But I'll go with circumstantial evidence - and the way everything in the British media works, and put it down to Oxbridge cliqueyness. In this case, Anushka Asthana (the journalist) and Rebecca Allen (the PhD student) were contemporaries at Cambridge, on the same Economics course in 1999. Slanderous as the accusation may be, I think I'll chalk this one up to the old girl's network.

[FWIW, I do think that class segregation of schools is a Bad Thing, and probably should make the news. I'd prefer that news reports are based on academic research rather than think-tank lobbying. But I don't trust 'evidence' that isn't publicly available, I don't trust journalists who sensationalize everything and put nothing in context, and I wish journalism - and politics - didn't always come down to looking after your friends]