Fragile China

Chaos is the fear lurking in every Chinese ruler’s heart, shaping every policy. Every half a century or so, the world’s greatest, oldest united civilisation falls into revolution and dissolution. In Peking they eye the calendar nervously.

China astounds us: an empire and civilisation which have stood since the days of Alexander’s successors. Even before the First Emperor drew the warring states together, China had unity of concept and a desire to bring together all-under-heaven, and to end the constant bloodshed. which remains a theme of Chinese stories.

Rome rose and fell just in the space of the Chinese Empire’s adolescence. The West cannot conceive of the space of time: Alexander’s civilisation fell, Rome fell, and Byzantium; and the empires of the Arabs and Turks; feudal Europe grew to magnificence then passed away; kingdoms and caliphates came and went in Europe and Asia, and in the modern era two British Empires  took western civilisation to an unequalled peak spreading across the world, but it passed away. In all this time China stood and still stands.

Even when all China was overwhelmed by the Mongols, the civilisation remained undimmed and Kubilai Khan ruled as a Chinese Emperor, crowned as Son of Heaven, of the Yuan Dynasty.

The millennia have not passed quietly.  The First Emperor created order by ruthlessness. The moment his hand was lifted, there was civil war, and this lesson has been lost on none of his successors. Emperors lost their thrones, whole dynasties collapsed is succession, and with a history so long, it is a long succession. It should be no surprise: China is practically a continent of itself, impossible to rule well and a prize for any ambitious adventurer.

In between, there is chaos whenever warlords from the provinces grow strong and bridle against their subjection to a distant throne.

The shadow over the Chinese Communist Party is the Warlord Era which consumed the first half of the twentieth century after the enfeebled Empire had been overthrown. The land was swallowed in chaos and blood for decades, and allowed the Japanese to occupy much of the country.  It only truly ended with the victory of the last, most brutal warlord: Mao. Mao then drenched the country in blood again, but he is not condemned, for his was orderly massacre, and disorder is the enemy.

In this context the behaviour of Peking is comprehensible – brutal, but comprehensible. Dissent in the provinces must never arise, because the result is civil war. The unity of Chinese civilisation has been an unwavering principle since the First Emperor, so that the idea of independence for Taiwan or Hong Kong is not just unwelcome but impossible.

If there is any memory of communism left in the Chinese Communist Party, they may think of Marx’s idea of ‘historical inevitability’, and Chinese history leads in cycles of chaos. The next one is overdue by past standards, and rebellion against the current tyranny may burst forth at any moment, if it is not suppressed. In this context it is possible to see why the Chinese government does not hesitate to unleash genocide against a race of its own people, the Turks of Sinkiang – the Uighurs as outsiders have labelled them- and genocide it certainly is. Do not expect Xi to be apologetic about it. He might even think it a minor matter compared with the Cultural Revolution. The need to hold back the dark will justify in his eyes all acts.

The calendar pages turn. The wisest in the West know there is no such thing as historical inevitability, but the superstition remains, and the Chinese are very superstitious.

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How to fix the Ulster Protocol

The Ulster Protocol (the “Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland”) has come to haunt us earlier than expected. It was trouble waiting to erupt, but might have been handled far better, and could still be.

The current problems might arise through idiocy, malice or as part of a political game. I tend to the first explanation, but gaming comes into it.

The scheme of the Protocol has been discussed on this site before in the wider context. It needs revisiting for itself.

In context, some seven times more trade passes between Northern Ireland and Great Britain than between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but that border across the island has more psychological impact as traffic passes back and forth without hindrance, without the need for ships. The Protocol expresses its aim as avoiding any trade border between Ulster and the rest, but still so as to allow the EU to control its own external trade border, which seems like a contradiction, hence the odd provisions to square the circle.

The Protocol is one-way: it looks at goods passing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, not goods passing the other way, which are not the European Union’s concern.

Northern Ireland therefore remains, and is explicitly stated to be, part of the United Kingdom’s single market and customs area, but people and businesses in Ulster are given privileged access to the European Single Market. The block is that goods travelling from Great Britain must be processed as exports before they reach Northern Ireland if they are “at risk of” entering the Irish Republic and thus the European Union. Therein lies the rub: anything could be deemed to be “at risk of” entering Eire.

Guilty until proven innocent: Article 5 states that no customs duties are payable on goods entering Northern Ireland unless they are at risk of entering the European Union, but that ‘unless’ is turned on its head:

2. For the purposes of the first and second subparagraphs of paragraph 1, a good brought into Northern Ireland from outside the Union shall be considered to be at risk of subsequently being moved into the Union unless it is established that that good:
(a) will not be subject to commercial processing in Northern Ireland; and
(b) fulfils the criteria established by the Joint Committee…

Therefore there is a presumption of the risk.

A moment though: Article 5 refers to customs duties, and there are no customs duties between the United Kingdom and the European Union, so the whole Article is redundant. There is nothing else referring to those goods allegedly at risk of entering the European Union.

The further provisions of the Protocol apply some parts of European Union rules within Northern Ireland. This is a particular bugbear: it is intended to make things easier for goods and services to flow south to north, but imposes foreign law, the escape from which was one of the major benefits of Brexit.

The immediate interference with trade within the United Kingdom is a system of checks being imposed at Stranraer and Cairnryan. It is doubtful whether these are necessary at all under the Protocol. There are no customs duties being demanded nor should customs declarations be demanded as no duty can become payable: the only customs duties payable for goods entering Eire from Great Britain are on goods originating outside the United Kingdom, and that is a tiny proportion of all goods shipped. The applicability of the Protocol in this case is questionable in any case.

Were it just about customs duties, the Protocol would be wholly redundant. There is though the ‘hidden’ clause, Clause 5:

Articles 30 and 110 TFEU shall apply to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland…

This innocuously technical phrase imposes the EU’s customs code upon Ulster, and this is the whole cause of the hold-ups at the ports.

The Protocol was for a limited purpose, the vast bulk of which is inapplicable with the EU-UK Trade and Co-operation Agreement in place. However leave it to an officious clerk and he will not just make a meal of it but a nine-course feast.

The customs officials in Rotterdam, one of the most important commercial ports in the world, check a small fraction of the consignments passing under their eyes: main shippers have to be trusted. Could it be that those posted to Stranraer are making work for themselves? If there is no strict need for checks, then they can be withdrawn completely. It is only for goods travelling on into the Irish Republic, and that is not the concern of the British government. To be more concerned for the interests of the EU than the EU itself is would be a familiar trait in the Civil Service, and one we could well do without.

A question then:  why are these checks so frequent?  Is it not British officials running them, in which case it is not the EU’s fault but our government’s, for not telling them to go easy.  Nelson, coatless on deck said “Zeal in my country’s service keeps me warm”: for the customs men, is it zeal in a foreign country’s service?

The immediate answer then is just to withdraw all checks and paperwork.

If lawyers descend upon the fine detail of the Protocol and its annexes and read around other implied legislation and demand that border checks be re-imposed, then the Protocol becomes intolerable, going beyond the plain words agreed to. In that case a small amendment to reverse the presumption of risk would serve, which could be a change to the Protocol itself or by a decision of the Joint Committee. It seems excessive though for Articles which are in essence redundant.

The EU should be subdued after their recent misbehaviour, but they might in time cut up rough when they can see that the British government is not going to persecute its on people.

If they demand that there be bureaucracy imposed on trade and it is not being imposed in the ports of the North Channel nor of course on the border, then they have an obvious course open to them: reverse the Protocol. Instead of Ulster being given special access in return for a semi-detachment from the rest of the country, give the Republic of Ireland that access to the British internal market with check at the continental ports. It would make more sense given that vastly more trade passes from Eire to the United Kingdom than between Eire and the continent.


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The logic has defied the best of philosophers, but the reality is plain before us. Upon it depends much of the entertainment industry. Bloodlust is in the heart of man as surely as the more fashionable emotions.

Caliban dwells within each of us; man, woman and child and cannot be driven out. Our civilisation being but the thin crust humanity has built each for his own protection, the greater part of us is in the seething lava beneath

In an uncharacteristically grim passage in his comic novel Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K Jerome describes the sight and the feeling of watching the blood flowing and flesh ripped on the duelling floor in Heidelberg:

Whether anything can properly be said in favour of the German Mensur I am doubtful; but if so it concerns only the two combatants.  Upon the spectators it can and does, I am convinced, exercise nothing but evil.  I know myself sufficiently well to be sure I am not of an unusually bloodthirsty disposition. 

The effect it had upon me can only be the usual effect.  At first, before the actual work commenced, my sensation was curiosity mingled with anxiety as to how the sight would trouble me, though some slight acquaintance with dissecting-rooms and operating tables left me less doubt on that point than I might otherwise have felt. As the blood began to flow, and nerves and muscles to be laid bare, I experienced a mingling of disgust and pity.  But with the second duel, I must confess, my finer feelings began to disappear; and by the time the third was well upon its way, and the room heavy with the curious hot odour of blood, I began, as the American expression is, to see things red.

I wanted more.  I looked from face to face surrounding me, and in most of them I found reflected undoubtedly my own sensations.  If it be a good thing to excite this blood thirst in the modern man, then the Mensur is a useful institution.  But is it a good thing?  We prate about our civilisation and humanity, but those of us who do not carry hypocrisy to the length of self-deception know that underneath our starched shirts there lurks the savage, with all his savage instincts untouched. Occasionally he may be wanted, but we never need fear his dying out.  On the other hand, it seems unwise to over-nourish him.

This is not just about Germans. True that their murderous cruelty a generation later still shocks us to the core of our humanity, but no one should think it is exclusive to one nation – we are all Adam’s sons. It is about mankind, thirsting for blood like the wolves we resemble in character.

Why we should thrill to see a boxer crush his opponent’s nose, or two thugs beating each other to pulp, or why crowds used to press tight in the streets to watch a hanging, that is the question. No one can feel superior to this: in the cinema the action thriller is exactly the same.

When we see an action film, the peril is the thrill, or we might rationalise it that way. We know there is no real peril, even in the willing suspension of disbelief, because the hero gets out at the end. The film does not pall on the second viewing when we know the outcome, and we might even look keenly for particular details of the carnage.

The crowds at a boxing match are actually present at actual peril, and the reactions of the crowd are telling: yelling, bellowing, cheering not just at the skill but at the bloodiest blows. This is not a surrogate fear as one might feel towards another’s danger, but a bloodlust, a heating of the temper. The biggest cheers are not at the greatest peril but at the most crushing bodily punishment. The idea that the fight, or an action sequence, inspire through the peril presented just does not fit what we see. It is deeper, more primal.

The boxing match takes place in a settled society of rules and norms. The car chase in the film is in a city of ordered lines. The hanging is within the strict procedures of the law. The college duel, the Mensur, is within the epitome of civilisation, the university, in a streich in Ordnung student society.

What they have in common is an outbreak of raw violence, ripping aside the peaceful veil of society and releasing the feral man. Social rules suppress the animal that we are inside, and the greatest lust is for freedom. As the blade spews blood, it is a glimpse of that ancient freedom for which we all yearn. There is nothing like it.

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