Posts Tagged ‘China’

Jan Potocki: Voyages

May 15, 2022

     I bought this because I was planning to re-read his amazing novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and then watch the film; I hadn’t known much about his life or that he was widely travelled, in the years at the end of the eighteenth century when his native Poland was gradually being dismembered and removed from the map of Europe.

Potocki is a careful observer with a good eye for detail and a focus on the exotic (or what would have seemed exotic to a European traveller at the time). The book is extremely well presented with a very detailed commentary and copious annotation, rather like the current Hakluyt Society volumes in the UK. The one thing seriously lacking is maps of any sort, to allow the curious reader to track the traveller’s progress.

It’s a strange mish-mash of places: travel through Holland during a revolution, extensive travels through the then Kingdom of Morocco, travels in Astrakhan, and detailed analysis of why a Russian diplomatic mission to the court of the emperor of China was an utter fiasco. Morocco is closely described, and Potocki seems to avoid Western prejudices against Arabs and Islam. The minutiae of events at a chaotic time in Morocco now seems rather dull and dreary stuff, though.

Descriptions of peoples, places and customs in Astrakhan are rather more interesting; perhaps Potocki was one of the first Westerners to travel there and write a detailed account? He comes over as erudite and a seeker out of knowledge, balanced in his approach, eschewing the racism and bigotry often found in accounts of that time. He’s not only interested in the peoples – and lists and differentiates many of them – but also their languages, and the differences between them: a researcher in the sense we would understand the word.

The piece on the mission to China is fascinating. Potocki is far more aware of the demands of diplomacy, of understanding others and how their approach might differ from his own, of the necessary sensitivities and protocols required in such situations, than are the Russian diplomats he accompanies. They plod woodenly on, it seems, trampling on every sensitivity until the Chinese basically tell them to clear off, that the mission will not be received…

Having said all that, reading the book was something of a chore and I am not going to recommend it to you unless you have similar and quite particular interest as I do. Not a piece of light travel reading for a casual reader.

On democracy…

November 5, 2020

Warning: politics ahead.

It has been an interesting time for democracy lately…

Let’s get the old saw out of the way: it’s the least worst form of government, or the worst, bar all the others, allegedly. If you live in a democracy and you don’t like the government, in theory you can vote it out. On the other hand, “if voting made any difference, they’d have abolished it ages ago” – you would appear to be being offered a choice on election day, but does it make any real change possible? If you live in an autocracy or a dictatorship, things are rather different, as the good citizens of Belarus are currently discovering, and as the Egyptians found out to their cost a few years back.

It’s easy to see that in a democracy we enjoy more freedoms. We look back at some of the things that happened in the former Soviet Union, or what China has done in Tibet and is apparently doing to the Uighur minority in Xinjiang with shock and/or horror. Although the issue of freedom from versus freedom to is a thorny one, as Margaret Atwood and other writers have pointed out.

The Cold War, which some of my older readers will remember, allowed the West – which claims it ‘won’ said war – to sit on its high horse in defence of freedom and democracy, and because it wrote the narrative here, most of us believed it. But, as was evident at the time and still is, the West was no shining example to anywhere in the world, with the US war in Vietnam and south-east Asia, or its coup in Chile, to name just a couple of examples. Big, powerful nations use force to make other countries do what they want, whether they call themselves a democracy or not.

We may have the chance to vote in elections in a democracy, but how democratic is the electoral system in the UK? Or in the US, as recently demonstrated. The system can be, and is, rigged in many different ways. Both the US president and the UK prime minister have demonstrated a very cavalier approach to law and international treaties and agreements. Apparently we need ‘strong government’, which is guaranteed by the ‘first past the post’ system, which obtains in the UK and the US in different ways. But China has ‘strong government’, as also has Putin’s Russia.

I’ve always been amused by the fact that a very economically and politically successful nation in many ways, the Federal Republic of Germany, has a Basic Law and an electoral system that was largely designed by the victorious Western Allies after the Second World War, a system deemed good enough for the German people but not for British or US citizens. What makes for a stronger democracy? It may well be that a system which encourages co-operation between parties through the need to form coalition governments is stronger and more effective, as well as giving voters a greater feeling of being able to make a real choice and a real difference at the ballot box.

Disillusionment with the slanging match politics of Tory versus Labour, or Republican versus Democrat, leaves many people feeling utterly fed up with the system and plays into the hands of the so-called populists, whom many feel are on the slippery slope to fascism… And I am struck that this issue appears more of a problem in Anglo-Saxon (ie English-speaking) countries. What happens in the US can so easily infect us over here because we speak similar languages; other European nations are safer from the pollution, at least for a few years.

Another issue which is overlooked, I feel, is short-termism: democratically-elected governments rarely look beyond their four or five-year term, as their primary endeavour is to please electors and then be re-elected. So don’t rock any boats too much, especially towards the end of your mandate. And yet, it’s patent that most of the grievous problems facing our world at the moment need long-term vision and long-term plans to address them: pollution, climate change, limiting growth, poverty…

In an autocracy, there are no voters who need to be pleased or to be courted; a government can look ahead and make plans as far in the future as it likes. And it can make things happen very quickly, by directing people. I have no torch to carry for the Chinese government, but when it decided that the air pollution issue in Beijing was out of control, it took urgent and drastic action and made a real difference very rapidly. Then, it has recently decreed new measures to address pollution by 2050, which, unless the PRC disappears in the interim, it can make happen. And it has, after its initial cock-ups and concealment, wrestled far more effectively with the COVID-19 pandemic than any of the Western democracies. Just saying… How do you make long-term changes in a democracy?

Another problem for democracy is that it’s a very effective mask for capitalism to hide behind: we all get involved in choices, discussion, debate and elections, while behind the scenes the same old cabal of the rich and powerful pull all the strings and continue filling their pockets with money… you only have to read about the obscenity of the annual meetings of plutocrats at Davos every year. Money decides everything, and control of the mass media in the West is crucial. The overall narrative is as much under control in London and Washington as it is in Beijing or Moscow. Our media in the UK is largely owned by rich foreigners and tax-exiles, a situation unparalleled anywhere else. In the US, Facebook increasingly monopolises what passes for discussion and debate, and its clear preference for Trump, who will allow its tentacles to spread unrestricted, is pretty evident if one cares to look.

When I look at all of that, I feel the picture is pretty grim, really, and I don’t see how we get out of the mess. It may be too late to impose any meaningful controls or restrictions on social media. Monopolies in press, radio and TV could be broken up by a sufficiently determined government. Political parties in the US and the UK could set out with determination to address and rectify the current broken electoral system, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m a paid-up supporter of the Electoral Reform Society. In the end, to expect capitalism to have any real sense of social responsibility about what it’s doing to the planet is just a ridiculous contradiction in terms. And the UN is hardly in a position to start being a world government that the Chinese, Russian and American behemoths will obey.

A final question: just what, exactly, is the difference between what Trump is currently trying to do in the USA and what Lukashenka attempted recently in Belarus?

Ursula LeGuin: The Telling

October 7, 2015

51pnzOxgvHL._AA160_I think I’ve now got to the end of all Ursula LeGuin‘s Hainish stories with a re-read of this novel, which I have to say I don’t think is one of her best, as the plot is a bit thin.

She writes about a world where developments seem to echo what took place in China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and in Tibet since the Chinese occupied the country, exploring the importance of one’s cultural past to a people, as well as the consequences of trying to erase a people’s past wholesale, with the damage that ensues. The issues are complicated by enforced development (echoes of The Great Leap Forward, perhaps) so perhaps you can see that I have found it just a little too obvious and didactic in places.

Having said that, nothing LeGuin writes is trite or trivial, and The Telling is no exception: there is plenty to make one think here. The envoy from another planet this time is from Earth, but a future Earth where the consequences of religious fundamentalism that we see so much of nowadays has not really played itself out.

So here are some familiar LeGuin tropes: what is religion, and how useful is it to a people, what is one’s past and one’s history and how important is that? Along with reflections on comsumerism and planetary destruction, and what rights one has to interfere in the affairs of other places, peoples or worlds, there is plenty to dwell on. And one nugget, which is perhaps easily overlooked: her imagined world is a single continent, therefore a single nation, so there are no aliens, no-one is different, or an outsider…

Overall, it’s clear, as LeGuin has herself said previously, there is no definite plan or construct to the series of stories and novels (quite considerable, as you have seen if you’ve followed all my posts). The idea of a league of worlds, a loose-knit federation, the Ekumen as she sometimes calls it, is an appealing one, romantic in a sense when it’s created and described by a writer of her talent. It has given her the opportunity to reflect on, and present to her readers, all sorts of gender- and culture-related issues which cause any intelligent reader to consider their own world and how it might be different. This is one of the things that good science fiction does best; it’s seen most convincingly in LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness, and it was the brilliance of those two novels that led me to hunt out everything she has written in the Hainish cycle.

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