Friday, 23 March 2012

Random Thoughts

Beware: Niall Ferguson is Invading the Small Screen (again)

Niall Ferguson is a Glasgow born British historian who is professor of History at Harvard University as well as Harvard Business School.

In recent years Ferguson has popped up on British television to present series which are notable for his (by now customary) shtick of adopting a predetermined position on an issue (which usually flies in the face of what almost everyone else thinks) and doggedly going about looking for any scrap of evidence that might support it.

Last year Ferguson presented a four-part series entitled the decline of the Western Civilization (Civilization: is West A History?) and how the Eastern Civilizations, in particular Chinese, were going to take over the world. He spent all the four episodes hectoring (in a voice that is perpetually addressed to the back of the auditorium) about the superiority of the Western Civilization and how in the last 400 years the West, by dint of (what he described as) ‘killer aps’ overtook the Chinese and the Ottomans. So if you watched the series, fooled by its title, wanting to know whether the days of Western Civilization were indeed numbered, you would have been (depending on your disposition) disappointed (I thought Western Civilization was f**ked, but this guy is saying we still have all these ‘killer aps’) or relieved (I thought Western Civilization was f**ked, but this guy is saying we still have all these ‘killer aps’).

A word about Ferguson’s style of presentation. Irritating doesn’t even come close to describe it. He seems perpetually in the midst of desperately (but ineffectually) trying to control his excitement. Anything and everything he says is said in a manner of adolescent who is describing to his mates how he nailed the girl with the biggest t*ts in the class. Here is a man who fell head over heels in love with the sound of his own voice years ago, and the love affair shows no signs of fading. (Like most right wing historians the man is thick of skin, merciless of purpose, does not suffer from namby-pamby liberal sentiments, and certainly does not shy away from self-aggrandizing.)

Last week Channel 4 aired the first of yet another series on China by Ferguson, entitled China: Triumph and Turmoil. Ferguson spent the whole of the one hour of the episode wailing about how Mao Tse Tung is still revered in China even though the man was a monster and responsible for the deaths of more than 35 million people. (At least he killed his own people and didn’t go around invading other countries and killing civilians of those countries.) Mao, Ferguson informed, his lips quivering with excitement, killed far more people than Hitler and—a couple of seconds pause, here, with Ferguson’s eyes the size of a Frisbee—even Stalin. (My God! The man must be a real monster! One can just about stomach that he killed more people than Hitler, who was all said and done, responsible for the deaths of a mere 5-6 millions: Jews, travellers, mentally ill and mentally handicapped. But killing more people than Stalin? No!) However hard he tried Ferguson simply could not come to terms with this apparent paradox in  the Chinese society, which remains a Communist dictatorship yet has embraced free-market economy with the zeal of Lib Dems joining hands with the Tories to destroy what is left of the NHS.  He could not understand why, above all, the cult of Mao-worship continues in China when Mao heaped unspeakable misery on his people in the 1950s with his ‘Great Leap Forward’, which essentially resulted in a man-made famine; and the ‘Cultural Revolution’ (in the 1960s). Ferguson went round the country speaking to Chinese people—a bunch of old ladies gathering in a public garden and banging benches as they sang songs praising Mao; an entrepreneur (who seemed to have taken the tubercular look to its natural conclusion) who spent 9 months in jail during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ for his treasonous capitalist views (he got away lightly, if you ask me); a farmer—smiling broadly, his teeth arranged neatly like stacks of shelf inside his mouth—who, along with some other farmers, came out openly against the collective ownership of the farms (after Mao’s death, it should be noted)—asking them this question again and again.  And the Chinese, with beatific smiles, answered at length which threw absolutely no light on the matter. No wonder Ferguson looked madder than a hatter at the end of it all. I don’t think people like Ferguson will ever understand the Chinese mindset. This, after all, is a nation whose leader (Deng Xiaoping—yes the same one who dumped all of Mao’s Communist policies after his death and led his country towards a market economy, and who, in 1989, sent the army to the Tiananmen Square), when asked to comment on the French Revolution said that it was too early to tell.  

After a while it just got boring and repetitive; and even the inadvertent comic relief Ferguson provided, by attempting Chinese greetings when he met his interviewees, making a noise that sounded like the braying of a fatally injured donkey, was not enough to relieve the monotony.

The programme had no depth; nothing interesting or insightful was provided by way of information about the most populous nation on earth. Admittedly it is not easy to impart great wisdom and knowledge in the form of bite-size information for the consumption of the attentionally challenged; but Ferguson did not even try. Disappointing? Not really, you don’t really expect anything else from him.

Will China Save the World’s Economic Woes?

I don’t know about you, but from my cubby hole I am closely following the global markets and how they are ‘behaving’.

There are many experts (none of whom saw the 2008 crash coming) who seem to have pinned their hopes on China. They have convinced themselves with the fervour of a zealot that Chinese economy is going to grow and grow.

These experts go on and on about the miracle of Chinese economy in the last 30 years. That is as may be, but the fact remains that the Chinese institutions haven’t kept pace with the economic reforms and haven’t positioned themselves accordingly. It might not have made much difference in the 1980s when China was recovering from Mao’s disastrous policies and taking tiny steps towards market economy, but as China is getting richer (but still not as rich as America, based on which indices you follow) these things will bite. Let’s not also forget that this is still a country with one party Communist dictatorship. The state holds almost all of China’s industry.

An inevitable consequence of totalitarian dictatorship is that the regime cooks up figures to avoid any unrest within its population, and one way to keep everyone in line is to tell them again and again that things are rosy when they aren’t.

Therefore, when the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao cut the growth forecast to 7.5%, one wondered how low it actually was. It is also clear that Chinese exports will suffer as the demand for low-cost Chinese trinkets in Europe and America will reduce.

The reduction in China’s growth will have a direct impact on the commodity market. In the last few years China alone was responsible for 40% of the consumption of raw metals like copper and aluminium. The demand for the raw metals (and other metals such as iron ore) will go down. (The mining giant BHP Bilton has announced a fall in its profits due to the anticipated reduction in the demand for copper from China). Which means (and I admit to a feeling of schadenfreude as I type this) that the Australians, who have so far avoided the economic downturn by piggy-backing China, will face the heat. (Their problems will most probably be compounded  by the housing bubble the country still seems to be in the midst of, and which is sure to burst in the next 2-3 years.)

The more worrying is that China’s politics has not really moved at all, which means that with the economic slowdown there is a risk that China’s politics will become repressive at home and aggressive away from it. Already China has massively upscaled its defence budget and I can’t imagine China’s giant neighbour India being too chuffed about it. China continues to invest in Iran, which is calculated to make the Western sanctions ineffectual. There is a risk that Israel (with her semi-deranged prime-minister) will increasingly turn to military means with (outwardly) reluctant backing of America. China’s disruptive meddling in the Middle East is (at least partially) to be blamed for the high oil prices.

What China (and the world) really needs is political reform that would enable changes in its banking system, removal of unproductive state investments, and, eventually, a smooth transition to consumer-influenced economy.

But that is not going to happen any time soon. China, as the cliché goes, is heading for a hard landing.

India’s Sachin Tendulkar Creates History

An American friend of mine does not get cricket. He thinks it is too long and too complicated. No game, he says to me, should be this complicated and long.

A few years ago, I gave my friend a novel entitled Netherlands by the American author Joseph O’Neill, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (and was described as a masterpiece in some American reviews). The novel tells the story of a Caribbean man of Asian descent wanting to revive cricket in America. The novel informed that baseball really took off in America in the first two decades of the 20th century. Before that, apparently, cricket was played widely. (I don’t know whether this is true; I am not a baseball fan.) My American friend read the book and his comment was he was glad that he did not live in the 19th century being forced to watch cricket. His theory is Americans being the clever entrepreneurs removed all the boring aspects of cricket and invented a game that was more entertaining and finished quickly (but not so quickly that they didn’t have time to eat popcorns from packets the size of single storey houses and drink coke in quantities that would flood Wales) . ‘Who has the time,’ he asks me, ‘to watch a game that goes on for days?’ Obviously not the Americans.

In one of his travel books (I forget which) American writer Bill Bryson (who is very popular in the UK) remarked that if he were to develop serious physical illness and the doctors advised rest and strictly no excitement, he would immediately take up cricket. 

I used to be interested in cricket many moons ago; then, as I grew older, I lost my interest in the game (and decided to focus my dwindling powers of concentration on women's tennis). Last year, thanks to an Indian friend, I started watching cricket again. I watched the Cricket World Cup, which, much to the delight of my friend, India won. Since then my liking for the game is rekindled, and I have been following the game with a modicum of interest.

This brings me to Sachin Tendulkar. Tendulkar is a diminutive Indian batsman with a baby face and a mop of curly hair who has broken every possible batting record in cricket’s history. This guy is quite a phenomenon. He was picked up to play for his country when he was still in his nappies and has been playing international cricket for more than two decades. I think that is really remarkable: it is not easy to keep your fitness and motivation, and above all, perform consistently for such a long period of time.

And now Tendulkar has broken yet another record. Rather he has created it, as no one before him has managed to reach this milestone. He has scored a century of international hundreds. In cricketing terms that is absolutely stupendous. It is the tennis equivalent of a player winning grandslams 20 times. (The player who has scored the highest number of international hundreds for England is Graham Gooch—an ugly player to watch; he had no grace— and he has scored 28 international hundreds. This gives some idea of the sheer scale of Sachin Tendulkar’s achievement.

Tendulkar may even be the most popular sportsman in the history of sports. Apparently he is number one sportsman in India for several years (that is almost a billion people). Add to this his fans in other cricket playing countries (save England, of course; if the articles in the British broadsheets, full of vinegary prose, poisonous asides and mischievous innuendoes about Tendulkar’s feat, are anything to go by, he does not have many fans in England other than those amongst the Indian Diaspora, although I don't see Tendulkar losing much sleep over it; also we are a football-mad nation, not that we have done anything of note for decades), and he can easily boast of a fan-following of more than a billion. I can’t imagine any other sportsman having this huge a fan-following.

Tendulkar’s feat of hundred international hundred is an astounding feat, and don’t think it will ever be matched. He seems to be one of those players who come along once in several generations. Three cheers for Sachin Tendulkar.