Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Accidental Emigrant

Emigration is a major issue as Irish voters go to the polls next week. Thousands of young people are fleeing, others who planned to return are stranded overseas. This is my story.

Lehman Brothers collapsed the week we landed in Brussels.

Two weeks later the Irish government signed a blank cheque guaranteeing the debts of Irish banks. It seemed interesting but incidental to our plans. Bad news for bankers, we thought. Tough times for politicians too.

Good job we’re neither wealthy nor important. “Two coffees, a scone and a brownie please.”

We sat sharing a British broadsheet in a Belgian café staffed by mustachioed middle-aged waiters. The papers spoke of an economic earthquake but we observed it like an audience watching a grand drama unfold in high definition without realizing we were part of the play.

We were Irish expats. We were abroad by choice, having left a booming Dublin in 2007. Lap up a bit of foreign culture and head home when we’d had our fill. That was the plan. Little did we realise that the door leading back to Ireland was closing behind us.

Much has changed in the 30 months that have passed since then. A temporary spell abroad which could be wound up at a time of our choosing has morphed into an enforced economic exile, open-ended if not permanent.

We have emigrated. Accidentally.

Click here to read the rest

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

EU needs single voice on China

EU member states are undermining Europe’s power by pursuing their own interests - and China sees it this way too

The EU’s last-minute decision to scrap plans for an SME Centre in Beijing. The office would have helped European firms to do business in China.

The reasons for the collapse of the initiative are not yet entirely clear, but one thing struck me when talking to sources in Brussels and Beijing: EU member states are uneasy about the prospect of a European enterprise centre which would work with companies trying to crack the Chinese market.

Several member states have set up national business-liaison offices in Beijing’s Chao Yang district which aim to get the biggest slice of the pie possible for their own firms. Looking at the bigger picture, one would be forgiven for wondering whether EU governments are really willing to work as one when it comes to the serious business of making money in emerging markets.

China sees EU as a bloc of three or four big players

Ask a Chinese diplomat how they deal with Europe when a political crisis breaks and you’ll find Beijing calls the embassies of France, Germany and the UK when they want something done. The EU, as an entity, is seen as a sluggish, many-headed beast. The real power is still in London, Berlin and Paris. (We could perhaps add Warsaw and Prague to that list.)

China understandably deals with those it identifies as the real power brokers on issues that matter. And the big European powers are happy enough with this. (It’s a wonder that some in the east would quite like to see an 'Asian EU'.)

Maybe the Lisbon Treaty will change this situation, given that there will be a new European External Action Service (EEAS) but we’ll have to wait and see.

Name recognition

I spent some time in China (here’s the proof) and was (naively) surprised to find that plenty of people had never heard of Ireland (’ai er lan’? Anybody?). But then again I hadn’t heard of Dongguan and its population is bigger than that of my home country.

For smaller European nations, the recognition that goes with the EU brand could be a major help to doing business in China. But that takes committment from all member states - including the big ones.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Will westerners take Chinese swine flu jab?

A Chinese company has become the first to complete trials of a vaccine against the H1N1 virus.
The question is whether the rest of the world will happily inject themselves with a new Chinese-made drug. After years of safety scandals over everything from tainted blood products to lead paint and contaminate milk, Chinese standards have not enjoyed a great reputation.
However, the company in question (predictably called 'Sinovac') stands to make billions of dollars if it can steal a march on its western rivals in a bid to mass produce a swine flu vaccine this autumn.
Meanwhile, China is apparently taking the swine flu pandemic more seriously than European and the US as children prepare to return to school.
While most countries are reluctant to disrupt normal life, Beijing is taking no chances and will delay reopening of schools in some areas. Class sizes will also be cut and any student who has been in contact with someone with swine flu is being told to stay home.
After its shambolic handling of the SARS outbreak, this is clearly seen as a chance for redemption.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The following people are not dead: Rick Astley,...

Rick Astley is dead. Or so said CNN's iReport earlier today.
They were followed by a herd of news websites who fell for yet another fake-celebrity-death story. Twitter was briefly offline, such was the strain of traffic and message boards filled up with sympathetic messages.
The rumour went that Astley - who has been the subject of more internet hoaxes than any other human being (1)(2)- was found dead in a Berlin hotel. CNN and its vloggers should have known better.
The episode raises questions over the current fad for news-by-tweet. Now that major news organisations are so desperate to be on top of the rumour mill, it paves the way for media anarchy.
Even the Iranian election has been covered on CNN et al. via unverifiable messages posted on Twitter and Facebook, leaving the gullable networks wide open to manipulation.
Why should we trust CNN and the rest if they are looking to us for their cues? We're totally unreliable!
The media need to pull back from this style of reporting before all credibility is lost.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Western media are abusing Tiananmen legacy

First off, I should say that China's state of denial about the events that took place in June 1989 in Tiananmen Square is equally frightening and hilarious. Check out this ever-so-polite BBC reporter attempting to report from the Square today.

CNN had the same experience, with plain-clothed police using umbrellas to block the camera.

But it has also to be accepted that elements of the media and political aparatus in the West have consistently distorted the Tiananmen incident for their own purposes.

I read a shockingly biased feature in the Sunday Times magazine a few weeks ago in which Tiananmen was weaved into a narrative about how communist nations fell in 1989 and how China would have been next if it hadn't been for the crack down.

It was a neat story but not really true. The story of Tiananmen is much more complex than simply being an uprising against communism.

First of all, the protesters were an assortment of groups - students, unions, farmers - with range of grievences. Some complained of corruption, lack of transparency, inflation, inequality.

There was no single alternative political vision. And if there had been, it probably wouldn't have been "We'd like China to look like the U.S. or Europe."

Indeed, some protesters were concerned that China's policy of 'Opening up' its economy to the global market was not communist enough.

That Sunday Times piece appeared to be wistfully reminiscing about the glorious 1980s when Thatcher and Reagan sowed the seeds for the unregulated financial markets which have brought us to where we stand today. Having read plenty of China newspapers, I've come to recognise blatant propaganda when I see it - and this was blatant propaganda.

It's simplistic and untrue to say China would now be a Western-style democratic state if the students had been given what they wanted.

It's also a bit rich to hear the U.S. saying today that China has to face up to its own history. That's true, China does need to do that. But seriously, the U.S. doesn't exactly have a great record in...South America, Africa, the Middle East, S.E. Asia, slavery...and so on.

China is on a slow road to improved transparency and ending corruption by local officials. Indeed, it seems to take a step backwards ever June 4th when it overreacts by censoring the media and arresting trouble makers.

But, having spoken recently to somebody who was in Tiananmen Square in 1989, and is now part of the Party aparatus, it's clear there is a growing willingness to discuss this subject amongst the political elite.

The bottom line is that China is less likely to face up to what happened in 1989 if we in the West are dishonest about the meaning of those events.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Won't somebody please think of the...pandas?

Pandas are cute. No doubt about it. But kids are surely also worth a story.

Why then are there so many stories about how pandas are faring since the devastating earquake that tore China's Sichuan province apart this time last year?

Even at the time of the quake there were articles about how pandas in Chengdu had to be rescued, along with tourists who were airlifted out of national parks in the wake of the disaster. Thousands of people were buried under collapsed schools and we were reading about bears.

Pandas, a species apparently determined to drive themselves to extinction by refusing to copulate, still seem to attract greater attention than the Chinese children killed in the massive earthquake.

Something like 90,000 people perished on May 12 last year - although the exact figure is impossible to guess at - and the story lasted about a week. Similarly, the tens of thousands of people who died in Mayanmar (Burma) last year are entirely forgotten.

China and (to an even greater extent) Mayanmar have not helped by curtailing media freedom in the area, but if you compare the coverage of the Tiananmen Square anniversary next month to the way the Sichuan earthquake is marked this week, I'm sure the coverage will be wildly disproportionate.

Not to mention the obsession with 9/11 and other atrocities which affected a fraction of the numbers killed and maimed in China on "5/12".

Obvioulsy, it's not a competition and news media are right to attach greater significance to man-made tragedies, but the way the Sichuan earthquake fell out of the news in the Western media is quite shocking.

But whatever about comparing human tragedies, worrying about cuddly-looking bears is simply disrespectful to human life.

Friday, December 12, 2008

How to pass the Lisbon referendum in Ireland

Now this might seem like a risky strategy but...
It's time to go for broke if the Irish political class really wants to pass the Lisbon Treaty.
There is understandable discomfort with being asked to vote on the same thing twice (even though we did it for Nice and divorce and abortion).
So let's put two separate questions on the ballot next October.

Question 1: Ireland should ratify the Lisbon Treaty [Yes] [No]
Question 2: Ireland should withdraw from the European Union [Yes] [No]

This will focus minds on whether we really want to be in the EU and steer the debate towards the value of Europe to Ireland.
Even the anti-Lisbon groups who say they are pro-Europe (Sinn Fein, Libertas and some Green-tinged independents) will have to acknowledge that Europe has been great for Ireland. They will spend the debate trying to explain the apparent inconsistency in asking for a No vote on Q1 and a Yes vote on Q2.
The Yes side will have an easier ride because they'll be able to spend time pointing out what happened to Iceland over the past 12 months (it could have been us) and note that Sweden and Denmark are considering Euro membership in the interest of stabilizing their currency.

The number of genuinely anti-Europe people in Ireland is small. Farmers, trade unions, and probably the Church, will rally around Ireland committing to the EU and Q1 would pass by 70% while Q2 gets around 90%.

There are risks, of course. The first being that people will say the Government is trying to be too cute and that it's insulting to try to marry rejecting Lisbon to all-out withdrawal. But given how disingenuous some of the No campaigners were last time ("It'll legalize cocaine, prostitution and abortion") it's clear you can't expect every citizen to read and digest the whole document.

Oh and the other risk...well, we could find ourselves having to ask Brussels to leave the European Union at the end of October 2009.

But fear not - there is currently no legal provision for member states exiting the EU! The Reform Treaty (or 'Lisbon Treaty' to give it its common name) does contain such a clause. So if the only way we could actually have to walk away would be if we passed Lisbon but voted to withdraw...