British Party Politics Destined for Shake-Up?

I lay no claim to a crystal ball, but a number of scenarios are possible in the wake of the Brexit referendum which may lead to a shake-up of the political parties.

First, the Conservatives. The ‘eating one’s cake and having it’ option promised by the likes of Johnson in the campaign for Brexit is not an option. The Conservative party seems likely to divide over whether the European free-trade area is to be sacrificed for the sake of immigration control, or immigration is to be the price of remaining in the area. The clear divide here is between Brexit and Brin, but it seems likely that the Brexit camp within the Tory party will itself divide as some go for the less hardcore option and move away from “Stop Immigration Uber Alles.” With the leadership likely to be contended between May and Leadsom when the choice is given to the Tory party membership, May seems more likely to edge it. Leadsom, though more popular with Tory party grass roots members than with the Parliamentary Conservative Party, has already shot herself in the foot twice when it comes to honesty, first in supporting Brexit which appears to go against previous assertions, and now with a dodgy CV. Though May has come out as the most hardcore yet on immigration – no guarantees for EU immigrants already in the country, something even Johnson has said should be guaranteed – that may be no more than her keeping her cards close to her chest. She was, after all, a quiet Brin supporter. Whoever takes the leadership, however, a divide is certain.

Labour is in still greater disarray. Some of the Parliamentary Labour Party are already talking about jumping ship and joining the Conservative party if Corbyn remains as leader. The Labour party office is so concerned it is currently looking at who has effective copyright on the ‘Labour’ brand, only to find no one appears to do so. The very fact they are looking suggests they anticipate a schism the party may not survive intact, though I believe it will… the only question being what it will look like. And if Corbyn goes? That takes us to a much-neglected sector of the British political system in all the punditry.


The electorate is clearly dissatisfied in large numbers. The British people have more to be concerned about than many nations, across Europe and all the way out to the USA, which have had new parties springing up on the tide of populism with people seeking systemic overhaul. Dissatisfaction with establishment politics in the UK has been underlined by the Brexit vote and the number of people who went for ‘out’ as a purely anti-establishment vote. 2015 likewise played host to a general election that may be characterised as the election of the protest vote. With Corbyn as leader of the Labour party, those who feel disenfranchised have a home. The trouble is that has in turn alienated a generation of individuals who quite like a Tory Light party, in particular those members of the PLP selected in the first place precisely on the basis. In other words, there is an increasingly large percentage of the electorate feeling increasingly alienated from any Tory brand, lite or otherwise, who may have been the basis for a new populist movement mirroring those elsewhere, but who got sucked back into Labour as a viable alternative to establishment politics only now to be told by the PLP that they’re not welcome.

I say that the electorate is ignored with good reason. Take one issue alone. Trident. Corbyn has been portrayed as downright eccentric for being the only major party leader to come out against it (if we take ‘major parties’ to mean the Tories, Labour, the LibDems, and perhaps UKIP). An Indie-commissioned poll had 49% of people wanting rid of Trident one way or another, well within the margin of error for an even split across the country. The Independent blew what was a bombshell article on the back of that in analysing its political potential, instead electing for a sub-headline which proclaimed Corbyn’s abandonment of Trident was rejected by a majority of the electorate. No surprise that it is no longer only radicals who reject the mainstream media as a tool of the establishment.

I believe – but am open to correction – that no one vying for the Tory leadership has the stomach to call a general election for a mandate for their leadership, probably wise given the turmoil the nation is already in. Though not a supporter of the Tory party, and though I believe that an election before the year ends could see them out of office, I think the wisdom in not going for an election goes beyond party- and self-interest. With the state of the nation as it is right now no one would know what on earth they’re voting for anyway and we could do without the upheaval. It’s best to let things simmer down. The question is, what’s to come out of the simmering?

My guess is the Tory party will remain intact, but fractured. In the wake of Brexit it will have to move somewhat harder right in some regards, while in others things may soften by way of compensation. (May, for example, is for remaining in the European Convention of Human Rights Cameron was so determined to rid us of). However, the Tory party in a post-European Britain must inevitably play host to irreconcilable factions. It’s one thing to be in Europe and grumble about it but on any number of issues, outside Europe the reformulation necessary is going to lead to confrontation. (China is a good example. Osborne has already announced he wants to bring us ever closer to Xi Jinping, but how many would have the stomach for that? Out of Europe, less close with the USA, and we want China as our new bestest fwend? Really??? But perhaps Osborne would argue out of Europe, less close with the USA, where else? That may be resolved by China making it fairly clear that outside Europe we’ve lost much of the interest they had in us anyway, though close ties with a democratic nation happily sanctioning their behaviour could prove useful in terms of soft power and for propaganda purposes).

More likely to split is Labour. They are the most exposed to the political vacuum at the left of British politics. They will either fill the void under Corbyn and there will be defections from the PLP, or Corbyn will be ousted, the vacuum will still need filling, and it will be many of the membership and those Labour believe to be their natural voters who bail out and head for the first populist movement that arises in Corbyn’s wake. If that happens, it all comes down to whether that movement has a viable and pragmatic leader. If not, though it will have an impact, I don’t think the nation is quite ready for politics by Facebook. If a worthy leader emerges, however, then it becomes debatable whether the continued presence of Labour would do more damage in splitting the vote of the left, or in splitting the vote of the right. It seems likely their core supporters will come from a dying breed of “I’ve voted Labour all me life” and dissatisfied Tories who are increasingly alarmed by some of the less pleasant rhetoric likely to come out of the Conservative party in Brexit’s wake.

If we thought the 2015 election was interesting for the divisions it exposed, 2020 in the wake of the Brexit referendum will prove still more fascinating whatever happens. The irony being that, IM(H)O, we aren’t going to leave the EU in any case.

*About Moi*

Born in London, England, in 1959, I had the kind of middle-class upbringing in the stockbroker belt of Britain’s capital that seemed likely to set my course for life. For a while, all went according to plan. Admiring of an uncle who had been an engineer on the Apollo space program, I dutifully enrolled at Sheffield University to study sciences.

Up to this time, art and I had had a love-hate relationship. A pragmatic child, I’d never much seen the point of it, though that didn’t stop me hiding away in my bedroom for long hours writing stories and experimenting with drawing parabolas and other geometric designs. Now, at University, one too many equations drove me out of academe. I dropped out, and became a born-again artist.

The arts being notoriously difficult as a path in life unless one has a liking for stale bread and cold attics, I decided to be ambitious. I was going to fail at everything. In the years that followed, I was an actor in a small touring theatre company; experimented with electronic music; wrote for the British national music press and other outlets; wrote novels and short stories; took up photography; managed the band Hula, including the UK Black Celebration support tour with Depeche Mode; became a political activist on behalf of the arts; messed around for a while as a hypnotist; and discovered that, thanks to computers, the designs I used to produce as a child could be taken to a whole new level.

As if that wasn’t enough, I travelled a great deal visiting some twenty to thirty countries, before – fifteen years ago – I finally got stuck in the People’s Republic of China.

For now, at least, Guilin in the province of Guangxi with its magnificent karst scenery is my home, where I continue with my artwork and subsist on a diet of cheap rice noodles.

Review: Barry Hughart – Eight Skilled Gentlemen

Eight Skilled GentlemenEight Skilled Gentlemen by Barry Hughart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I gather Hughart had intended his three works focused upon Number Ten Ox and Master Li to extend out to seven novels in total. However, fate intervened in his falling out with his publishers. The works were then not written given that, as Hughart remarked, he was afraid of becoming repetitive.

I think that was a wise choice.

All three works – Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone, and now this can be summarised in much the same way. Hughart draws upon Chinese myth and legend to construct stories of improbable characters and matter-of-fact magic throwing his two heroes into the midst of it all to solve a mystery and to attempt to stop the bad guys wreaking havoc. The story lines are complex, but our heroes are fun and fun is to the fore.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

It was, perhaps, unwise of me to read all three novels back-to-back, but I think it’s probably right to three-star this one for quality rather than as a reflection of my feeling I’d probably had about enough by the end of it. The trilogy started off well, Number Ten Ox and Master Li amusingly eccentric in their relationship, their rhetoric, and their actions, though the plot was a little skittish and difficult to follow. With the second work, our heroes were somewhat less fun, but the plot less skittish, (though still more difficult to follow).

With Eight Skilled Gentlemen, though, it’s clear that the amusing eccentricities of Li and Ox are insufficient to span a triology of novels, and the complexity of the storyline is to the fore. In this plot, as previously, everything pivots on ancient Chinese stories which we see played out in their repercussions as the novel progresses. The trouble is it’s difficult to know which elements of the fable need to be remembered in order to make best sense of what follows, and by the end any reference to information we were given a hundred and fifty pages earlier is lost. Well, for me it was lost.

Moreover, the twists become somewhat repetitive across the three novels. I could see what would happen at the end from the beginning, if not in detail then at least in outline, with one of the characters in particular. Moreover, Hughart doesn’t expand such supplementary characters sufficiently to make up for the deficit brought about by the over familiarity with Ox and Li that sees them mined out here.

This is not a terrible work, far from it, and doubtless – as already suggested – the fact I was glazed over by the end of it had as much to do with my mistake in reading all three novels back-to-back instead of spacing them out as any fault with the work itself, this approach to the three novels thus something not to recommend. Nonetheless, with this third novel, Ox and Li have outlived their potential, and though it would be too much to characterise it as a novel too far, it certainly verges upon being so.

Review: Barry Hughart – The Story of the Stone

The Story of the StoneThe Story of the Stone by Barry Hughart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Having already reviewed Bridge of Birds, the first of Hughart’s novels featuring Master Li and his then client, now assistant Number Ten Ox, I fear repetition. Set in an ancient China that never was, our heroes are in a land which satirically conforms with Chinese culture in a believable way, not least because Hughart is someone who has clearly done his research.

Where the humour of the first novel was to the fore, here it seems a tad muted as Hughart gets into his writerly stride. If the story of the first novel wound its way through a series of vignettes across multiple locations, here the plot is more coherent with the characters less inclined towards the Grand Tour in their quest. Magic makes its matter-of-fact appearance throughout, and the gods play no small part in the narrative yet this is somehow not fantasy. Not quite. The hyperbole isn’t there, though it’s not particularly missed in its absence. Instead mischief prevails as previously as the sage and the strong man double-act their way through the twists and turns of the work.

And my, how it twists and turns.

Number Ten Ox is our storyteller, and he says at the outset that the story is so confusing he’s not sure he can make head nor tail of it. This may be modesty on the part of the narrator. He never seems to lose his way in telling the story, nor does he express any confusion. Alternatively, it may be a late edit on the part of the author who, told that the plot was going to lose most readers, decided to make that a feature instead of a glitch. Well ha! You don’t fool me, Mr. Hughart. Glitch it was, and glitch it remains. I managed to keep most of what was happening in focus, but found myself rather dazed by the end of it all.

Perhaps not so much of a glitch, though. The work is fun and, though it would be pushing it to say the plot is immaterial, the pleasure taken in getting lost in it and never quite finding my way out again outweighed any irritation.

I’m already on the third and final book of the series. Master Li and Number Ten Ox continue to be pleasant company.

Review: Barry Hughart – Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was

Bridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never WasBridge of Birds: A Novel of an Ancient China That Never Was by Barry Hughart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bridge of Birds is based upon the legend that lurks behind China’s “Lovers’ Day” in which a couple is separated, but permitted to meet once a year in the heavens. Hughart takes this as its theme, and presents an unlikely duo – the flawed sage Li Kao and his assistant, Number Ten Ox – as his main characters, traversing a China that never was in the hope of helping the children of Number Ten Ox’s village suffering from an illness and, along the way, aiding the legendary couple to meet again after a thousand years of separation.

Never having lived in ancient China, I can’t speak for the veracity of Hughart’s portrayal. However, in satirical form his China is believable enough and in its customs and behaviour lie much of the humour that characterises the work. As humour goes it tends towards affectionate mischief, but Bridge of Birds disqualifies itself as a humorous novel as such with lyrical and poignant passages, (or at least one towards the end), and a twisting plot within which we’re never quite sure where we are, never quite sure where we’re going. Hughart’s not just writing for laughs.

The tale unfurls through vignettes, any one of which would – with only a little editing – serve as a short story in its own right, and so we are swept from scene to scene on the back of Li Kao’s and Number Ten Ox’s boundless enthusiasm for their quest. The landscape is littered with matter-of-fact fantasy in ghosts, strange artefacts, giant spiders, impossible castles and larger-than-life characters, but I felt at times that some of the description was a little lacking. The ideas jaw-dropping at times, my jaw never quite dropped.

Though a great believer in writing for pleasure and, if successful, you will please your audience, I would make one small exception for Hughart in his scene transitions, occasionally so abrupt as to seem impertinent. I found myself reading up a few paras to see how we’d got to here from there only to find that we hadn’t. From one paragraph to the next we just leapt from one location to the other. The odd bridging paragraph here and there wouldn’t have gone amiss, however eager Hughart may have been to rush off to the next scene.

Hughart is excellent with dialogue and characterisation. Repetition plays a key role in his writing as when, about to undertake some action almost certain to lead to their deaths, the characters trade their ideals of reincarnation and then bid one another farewell in the names of those future guises. Dialogue cuts from the relevant to the irrelevant background keeping us in the scene to great humorous effect. Hughart’s timing is superb. He’s not after belly-laughs, but he’s skilled at raising an affectionate smile.

The first of three novels featuring Master Li and Number Ten Ox, I have moved happily onto the second, The Story of the Stone. Whether they will sustain my affection for all three novels has yet to be seen but so far, so good.

China and Chips: Sulking instead of getting it right

[The following was written in response to a discussion on the Chinese educational establishment, hence the focus. However, as the analysis makes clear, it has a wider application in terms of China’s attitude to itself and the rest of the world – the western world in particular]

China and rote-learning

As with many another ‘Chinese tradition’, China’s rote-learning methodology is no tradition at all. It’s an obvious approach to education that’s outdated, and is typical of what would have been standard in western education a hundred years ago without all the research into outcomes. As you say, it doesn’t promote the innovation and adaptability required by a modern economy, nor were there so many disciplines in former times. Another factor I’d throw in there was that the grammar-translation method of language teaching – which is what this approach embraces – was fine in the west, and in China, when it was highly unlikely you’d ever need a language for direct communication, (especially if learning Latin given there weren’t that many ancient Romans around and few people ever met the Pope), but it is rendered dysfunctional as a means of teaching for such things as answering a telephone to a potential customer in a modern business environment.

When it comes to Chinese tests, having seen a few of them myself, there’s a tendency for the examiner to want to show how clever he – almost certainly ‘he’ – is in the ‘Let’s see if I can trip you up here’ formulation of the questions, which is fine for parlour games but less-than helpful when it comes to finding out what a student has learned. “Ah, I misdirected you there and you fell for it. Aren’t I clever?” is not the right approach to exam composition in any method of teaching.

I agree with you insofar as some procedural thinking is best taught with accuracy in mind, and the ‘New Maths’ that was all the rage in my own schooldays in the UK whereby getting the answer right not mattering much at all was fine for English literature, but perhaps a bit sloppy in the sciences.


China is indeed fast-developing, but consider the figures. The latest boast is it leads the world in the number of new patents. The problem is that many of those patents are reformulated western ideas – rip-offs, basically – and having spoken with a few people who are in the business of monetising patents, there’s precious little uptake for what they have to offer. We only have to consider how many innovations China has actually come up with in recent years. Stumped? Me too.

The other figure they touted for a while was the number of academic papers the nation produces, but again, the same applies. Some international organisations that collect such papers don’t bother with all the bumph China makes available to them given a lot of it is just that, and the measure of the quality of academic papers is citations, something for which China scores very poorly.

As for its success economically, being the second-largest economy in the world is indeed something to boast about. However, the figures I’ve seen from four organisations for GDP per capita ranked China – in 2013 – (I guess the most recent figures available), between 82nd and 89th in the world. Somehow, though, the west is falling for it, and I’ve seen a business magazine that prides itself on being informative with a ‘Five ways to emulate the successful Chinese manager’ article which, when you consider it, is rather odd. (Point number one was ‘punctuality’, so that’ll give you some idea of what the Chinese consider to be advanced managerial techniques. Moreover, it was definitely one of those items where the obvious was stated in the very areas where China fails. Whenever the obvious is stated in China as a national quality, it usually means it is something obvious that’s lacking. I could never understand China’s proud boast that it is ‘A Nation of Four Seasons’ until I’d been here a while and realised it only has two).

Students heading west

As for the contention that pumping students through western universities is smart, I’m not sure it is so smart when those students return home to find they can’t access their email, can’t keep up with their favourite soap operas, and are told they ought to be studying Mao Thought instead of partying at Christmas. And again, it’s about quality. Western educational establishments have themselves become corrupted now, and are following the money. They have Mickey-Mouse courses filled with Chinese students. They know the students’ parents aren’t paying for education, they’re paying for a degree, and a degree is what they’re going to give them so long as the cash rolls in. Many a western university now is working, quite blatantly, on a two-tier system of genuine courses, and money-spinners, with most of the Chinese students not getting the real deal for all the money they’re paying. It’s also not very smart when the motive Chinese students have for going abroad is the homegrown system being so dismal. If American or British students were going in such vast numbers to Chinese universities for a better education, I’m not sure how we’d consider that to be ‘smart’ on our side.

The latest innovation – to try and cut anything western out of the education system and to plug in more propaganda – is hardly going to help raise standards.

The chip on China’s shoulder

A seeming digression, but with purpose. The recent political meeting [the 2015 congress] has been most imposing. We watch as these people make their points with serious intensity, behind them the the announcement in bold letters that this is the third plenum of the twelfth triumvirate of the forty-third great Chinese wotsit and er… okay, hang on a minute, I can read that and I can’t read Chinese. What’s it doing there in English? I don’t remember David Cameron or Barack Obama making grandiose statements to their citizenry about the forward path for their nations under a whacking-great sign in Chinese. Or, to bring it back on topic, the recently much-vaunted scores in the international PISA test for maths came as a result of horse-trading whereby the rest of the world had entire nations represented, good and bad, while China only the better educational establishments in Shanghai, a city which China uses to experiment with westernised educational methodologies.

So to the point of the digression. China has a huge chip on its shoulder, and that is more evident under the leadership of Xi than I’ve previously seen it be. It’s not enough to say China is like the child at the back of the class sulking. That’s too simple an analysis, too simple a psychology. China is the child who wants to get it right, who even could get it right, who wants praise, but who lacks in self-confidence. It says the lessons are stupid, but then cheats at the exams in order to try and impress the teacher. Moreover, it’s a child who responds to that self-imposed deficiency with bullish boasting and a boorish attitude towards the other children.

China should be itself

It is, quite frankly, pathetic, because China has a great deal to offer if it would just be itself and join in instead of sulking.

It doesn’t want its citizenry to celebrate Valentine’s Day, but it doesn’t push its own far-more colourful and interesting Lovers’ Day. It doesn’t want its citizenry to watch western soap operas, but imposes restrictions on its own output such that equally good programmes are not made. It doesn’t want its youth listening to western pop music, but its own vibrant music scene goes unacknowledged and remains underground while it tries to impress with another grand extravaganza backing another tired, dull, middle-of-the-road ballad for grandma backed with a westernised arrangement given it’s much more important in China these days to be expert with the violin than with the erhu.

China needs to be itself, to stop wanting to be like everyone else while believing it can’t be, and insisting it is being itself when it’s not.

That is the underlying malaise in China, and it applies to the education system as it seems to apply to just about everything else. You’re talking about an ideal situation here in the comparison of the strengths of competing methodologies. The point being missed is that China doesn’t just get it wrong by having a methodology unsuited to the times. It gets it wrong by not even doing a good job with that anachronism.

China should lose the chip on its shoulder, stop trying to impress with flimflam, and realise it can get it right. It can’t fulfil its potential until it does.

Xi Jinping – The Plot Lost or a Ploy?

China has a great deal to juggle at the moment as it tries to steer its open-yet-belligerent, free-market-yet-autocratic, closed-with-permeable-borders course in this, the New Millennium.

Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao proved themselves adept as jugglers. Though the reactionaries within the party prevented them pushing through reforms as they would have liked, they – as the leaders – managed to survive their period in office with their personal reputations, their personal popularity, relatively intact. Most people seemed to trust them. It was the officials beneath them who were blamed for the uglier initiatives, and probably with good reason.

Unfortunately, this gaining of power on the part of the reactionaries controlling everything from beneath seems, with the Presidency of Xi, to have put power very publicly into the hands of the reactionaries who, previously, remained faceless mandarins. Power consolidated, the juggler now has to contend not only with all those balls already in play, but burning torches he’s decided to throw up in the air along with them.

No one could be that adept.

More particularly, Xi most assuredly isn’t.

Or, perhaps, no one could be that foolish?

Let us consider surface appearances. Ignoring the lack of wisdom that sees him add flames to the juggling at all, consider Xi’s tenure so far. He came in a palimpsest. No one knew what to make of him. Some even thought him likely to be a reformer, or at least a compromise candidate agreed upon by the reformist and reactionary factions within the CCP. In their heralding of his premiership, many were willing to give him the benefit of any doubt, expressing their hopes that Xi would institute rational reforms. Most, perhaps, would have expected no real change either way. Few could have expected that Xi would prove proactive as a reactionary, but that appears to be what he is as the months roll on into his leadership and he unveils new initiatives which seem extraordinarily counterproductive.

Consider just two examples as indicative, one on the international stage, one internal; the South China Sea issue, and the internet.

Claims made on the South China Sea by disputant countries.  [Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

Claims made on the South China Sea by disputant countries. [Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

To understand the issue with the South China Sea, it is necessary to consider the claim China makes upon it. As the map shows, it is extensive. Under previous administrations, the claim has been carefully played as an absolute in terms of public consumption, but negotiable behind the scenes. Presumably, by making a claim so ridiculously extensive, the hope was to maximise territorial concessions in terms of mineral resources thought to lie below the sea floor when negotiations were concluded.

If that was the intention, it was poorly handled. Through making the claim too public, in particular by tying it in very much with the nationalistic anti-Japanese rhetoric the Chinese have maintained since their invasion in the 1930s in order to rally the citizenry behind the government and making the Japanese claim the focus of attention, successive leaderships have been unable to enter into satisfactory negotiations with other claimants given that any concession, particularly towards the Japanese, would be seen as a national betrayal to the hated enemy.

Nonetheless, under Hu, there were occasional more public rumblings as to the claim not being absolute and, quietly, discussions were entered into with the Japanese in particular in considering how mineral rights in disputed territory may have been exploited and shared.

Xi Jinping has reversed all that. The new administration seems to have lost the plot altogether on this one and has, once again, returned to talking up the claim as absolute, making it a matter of public concern and doing all those other things through which successive administrations have had their hands tied in order, it seems, to serve no other purpose than to make those bonds still tighter.

To make matters still worse, the Chinese decided to set up a ‘no-fly’ zone in a disputed area with the Japanese. All traffic through the airspace was to inform Beijing of its flight plans or face the possibility of military action. This act was so extreme that first the Americans, then the Japanese, then others in turn made a very public point of defying the restrictions and China, unwilling to bring about a major confrontation with enforcement, shuffled from foot to foot then backed off.

However, they continue to be aggressive in their military manoeuvres in the South China Sea and, moreover, have instituted two new ‘national’ days to be marked as an act of patriotism; according to the Xinhua news agency, China’s effective government propaganda machine, “September 3 is ratified as Victory Day of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and December 13 the National Memorial Day for Nanjing Massacre Victims.” While no one wants to lessen in any way the suffering of the Chinese people at the hands of the Japanese, the Pacific War ended in 1945; the Nanjing Massacre took place in 1937. It is now 2014.

There can be no better illustration of how China loses control of its own people, even its own administrators by such tactics than the stronger stance out of Beijing leading one official in Hainan Island to try and enforce China’s claim on the South China Sea by attempting to stop Vietnamese fishing boats plying their trade in ‘Chinese’ waters. In this delicate game of cat-and-mouse, one suspects Beijing was less than pleased with this, and yet they can do nothing with it except ignore it, hope it goes away and pull the official to one side for a dressing-down. They can’t deny him publicly without undermining their own claim. Thus the cat is out of the bag, and we can probably expect confrontations between rival fishing boats and fleets out of each nation and Beijing will have no choice but to give such actions on the part of Chinese fishermen their tacit support.

The results have been painful in terms of egg-on-the-face with the no-fly zone, the question of fishing disputes now arising, and they are now set to get worse. The Americans have now been very public – given the degree to which the CCP has forced the Chinese claim onto the national stage – in insisting that the claim be clarified for once and for all. The Philippines, a major target of recent campaigns and rhetoric, is now to take the dispute to the UN and it seems likely that other countries will join in. The Vietnamese have already been warned off doing so. This is all, most assuredly, not what China would have wanted, and yet – as with the two new national days – they seem intent on making things ever worse for themselves.

So much for the mess made of international diplomacy. What of unrest at home?

Once again, at a time when the administration might have been expected to be more conciliatory as a pragmatic ploy, they have instead tightened things up with an increased arrest rate of individuals seen to be politically opposed and warnings sent out to those on the internet to be careful what they say. Users of Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter, are unable to post anonymously, and those who make too loud a noise on issues that affect officials now face the possibility of arrest. This would seem counterproductive for an administration that claims to want to crack down on corruption. This seems, quite blatantly, to be a good way to cover it up. Most of the embarrassing tweets so far that have forced the government into action have indeed been in the exposure, directly or peripherally, of corrupt or other bad practice.

And yet, when we turn to the internet, it is here things become a little strange. Restrictions under Hu Jintao were severe, though not as severe as now. However, the leadership – again – was able to distance itself from it. Whether they supported it or not was at least open to question and again, much of the blame fell on faceless Mandarins lower down the chain with their own power bases in areas such as the propaganda department. Indeed, in one surreal incident, Hu Jintao used Twitter to start posting. One of the first people he fell into conversation with was the dissident artist Ai Weiwei who welcomed him. The obvious question was, of course, posed; if Hu was there, why not other Chinese citizens? Hu’s response was that it was his sincere hope that the net would indeed, in time, be so opened up to the citizenry. This seems strange from a man opposed to such an idea; he would have been better off sitting back, keeping quiet and staying out of it.

What is the difference now, under Xi, that is so strange?

Quite simply, Xi Jinping has just, very publicly, taken charge of the Chinese internet personally, which means any restrictions enacted point back, very directly, to the leadership. He has also pulled in Premier Li Keqiang as one of his two deputies, the other being Liu Yunshan, in charge of propaganda.

For young people in particular, there can be few issues more highly charged than the internet. Two of the few instances of the CCP backing down in the face of public opposition were when they tried to block all Google services, (an initiative which lasted barely a day given the outcry), and in an attempt to have all computers sold in China fitted with ‘nanny’ software that would monitor users’ site accesses, (an idea which was increasingly watered down until it was entirely abandoned).

On the surface, then, this looks like the most abominably foolish thing Xi could possibly have done in terms of taking direct credit as the national leader for a highly charged issue. All these flaming torches Xi is throwing up in the air that he must juggle on the national and international stage, dropping any one of which would precipitate disaster, as if he didn’t have enough to keep up in the air as it was. Indeed, it is so foolish, it raises a question.

Can he really be that foolish, or is this something else entirely?

I am one of those commentators who, in reading the runes, saw in Hu a reformer who was thwarted from below. In particular, the net seemed to play a large part in undermining his leadership as reactionaries put their lackeys in play to ramp up dissent, particularly – one suspects – a rising tide of anti-Japanese protests that were fulminated through the internet, protests that gave the leadership considerable concern, protests that seemed to coincide with a loosening-up of state media and the net and which miraculously ceased when those reforms were withdrawn and, indeed, when restrictions became harsher still, thus playing into the hands of the reactionaries in charge of, of all things, controlling information on the net.

So here’s the question. Is Xi paving the way for reforms? Is he indeed a reformer who doesn’t want to suffer the same fate as Hu in implementing such reforms? Has all the nonsense so far been to allow the reactionaries, in effect, to undermine themselves by permitting them to implement a series of successive and troublesome failures before wresting control from them? Is he, then, a reformer who has taken charge of the internet in order to be able to institute a purge?

It may seem to be a dramatic – even a melodramatic – suggestion, but let’s face it; the alternative, that this is for real, that the leader of China really could be so foolish as to put his own name to ugly and contentious legislation that must inevitably focus opposition upon the leadership itself, is equally wild, equally melodramatic.

Thus we have two theories, both highly unlikely, and no third theory by way of a candidate.

Time will tell.