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correspondents years—or less. After internal feuding led to the departure of Ashton’s spokesman, others are reluctant to take on what seems to be a poisoned chalice, and two well-qualified officials have turned the job down. All interview requests are being denied and, while Ashton continues to travel the globe, her profile sinks ever lower. Her only recent interaction with the press was a discussion with foreign editors in London. They were informed that the conversation was on “deepest background”—but emerged saying there would have been nothing to report even if Ashton’s every word had been on the record.
china café The official Chinese highway code has strict rules. It’s too bad that no one obeys them Mark Kitto mandy admires colbert One of Peter Mandelson’s final ministerial appearances in Paris involved an admission that the French may actually have a point about economic policy. During his time as European trade commissioner, he pursued a liberalising agenda. In general, he stood for the type of laissez-faire AngloSaxon capitalism that Sarkozy detests. To Mandelson, France represented everything that is wrong with overregulated, inflexible European economies.
o there was surprise when, on a recent visit to the French ministry of finance, Mandelson stopped to admire a statue of Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The 17th-century minister to Louis XIV, Colbert famously sought to lock private activity into national regulation and prioritised state enterprise, especially in manufacturing. It’s not an approach British governments have championed—at least not until the economic crisis exposed the country’s overreliance on financial services. Perhaps, said Mandelson, his “late phase” in government would be slightly more Colbertian. There’s a truck chassis full of oranges in the middle of the roundabout on the main road in the valley. The truck crashed, and the impact took its wheels clean off. Last week there was another crash, when a truck piled into the sign that said “Slow Down.” That one didn’t make it all the way on to the centre of the island and was obstructing the traffic, so was moved off straight away. The first one is still there. Roundabouts don’t work very well in China. Drivers already on them give way to drivers approaching. This inversion of the norm happens, I assume, because the approaching traffic is moving faster and is therefore more intimidating. Intimidation is a decisive factor in the unofficial Chinese highway code. If you are bigger and faster, you tend to have the right of way, though not always. If you can get there first then Mr Bigger and Faster has to stop—providing he has seen you. And sometimes he doesn’t see you, or the roundabout. There is an official highway code in China, too. It has strict rules, which nobody obeys. That’s why the traffic lights in town have to be supervised by two or three policemen during rush hour, and roundabouts
“It says they want to put fifteen million dollars in my bank account”
don’t work the way they should.
I read in a newspaper that, somewhere in the world, a city has replaced all its traffic lights with roundabouts and congestion has eased. I also read in many newspapers that when the new world order is in place the new world leader will follow the rules, as if self-discipline comes with the title.
I think a little more practice with roundabouts might be a good idea first. The Foreign Investor I know a foreigner who wants to lease a rundown villa on the mountain. Initially, he wanted to use it as a weekend getaway from Shanghai. Now he wants to turn it into a youth hostel, believing it can quickly earn back the cost of its restoration.
I blame myself for giving him the idea. I’m afraid it isn’t going to work. And I also know the landlord of the villa, so it’s like watching two cars on a collision course with each other (or a roundabout).
I did foolishly mention to the foreigner that the villa would make a perfect hostel, and that the resort needs accommodation for backpackers. But I also stressed that it will only work if the administration bureau gives students or backpackers a big discount on the price of the entry ticket to the village. At the moment, genuine backpackers can’t afford the £8 ticket (which buys access to a couple of empty museums and some crowded photo-op viewpoints). But the bureau is highly unlikely to make a concession without being compensated.
he landlord, who would by default be a partner in the business, told me the sales target the foreigner has set. He hasn’t got a hope of reaching it, mainly because of the bureau. So the landlord is having second thoughts. The foreigner is pushy and wants to proceed. The story has all the ingredients for a classic China business disaster: crossed purposes, face-saving, government interference, major investment, and one massive deal-breaking problem that no one admits to. I can’t bear to watch. Gone Fishing While one business opportunity goes begging, another has gone fishing. Back in the 1930s, the heyday of the Moganshan summer resort, the swimming pool was the centre of holiday life. It’s been restored at last—but not as a swimming pool. Instead, it has been converted into a fishing pond.
As is usual for local renovations, the buildings have been plastered on the outside and tiled on the inside, while white paint has been slapped over the lot and splashed across the surrounding stone walls, trees and paths. The pool has been given a new source of water through an ugly pipe. All the work was carried out in a madcap rush to meet the deadline of the May holiday, which was then missed.
he pool is fed by a spring—it does not need more water. It was a perfectly serviceable swimming pool. All it needed was a gentle renovation, a lifeguard and a ticketing system. I used to daydream about taking it over but I don’t do business in China any more, no matter how promising.
It isn’t as if there’s no demand. In the summer, visitors constantly ask us where to go for a cool swim. We can only suggest they drive to one of the nearby reservoirs. But when I asked the man in charge why the pond couldn’t be a swimming pool again, he told me “The water’s too cold.” Mark Kitto is the author of “China Cuckoo: How I Lost a Fortune and Found a Life” (Constable & Robinson)
28 · prospect · june 2010 correspondents letter from moscow Why is Vladimir Putin appearing on rap shows? More to the point, why isn’t he being laughed at? Ben Judah novost reuter s/ria
Vladimir Putin saunters onstage. His smile is insincere. Wearing a blue zip-up jumper over a beige turtleneck, he looks like he’s come straight from the gym. The tune from MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This” announces him; a crowd of teenagers clap and scream as he makes his entrance on the country’s most popular hip-hop show, The Battle for Respect. Standing in front of a giant screen, Putin extols the martial values of rap. For viewers across Russia’s 11 time zones the sight is as striking as seeing Margaret Thatcher on Top of the Pops.
here are cries of “Respect, Vladimir Vladimirovich, Respect!” The shavenheaded winner of the rap challenge bellows: “This man is a legend… he is our icon… let’s make some noise so everyone can hear!” And the viewers at home, mostly young people in factory towns far from Moscow, are left feeling that Putin is “with it.”
his is how Russia is ruled. Tele-populism is deployed in a relentless, neverending PR campaign throughout the country’s state-controlled television channels, spinning the prime minister into various guises designed to appeal to different groups across Russia’s fractured society. The image-building has gone into overdrive since the recession. Putin appears on television as the defender of the thrifty housewife: bursting into a supermarket to inspect the prices, then humiliating the chain’s owner over the price of sausages and demanding they be sold for less. For the unemployed, he is cast as the worker’s friend: helicoptering into a town to demand an oligarch reopens a factory. For those nostalgic for the USR, there are photoshoots of Putin’s holidays: dressed in camouflage and prowling the hinterland, he is the picture of Russia’s strength. Rural Russians can identify with a Putin swimming bare-chested down a river. Military men can connect with images of the leader dressed up as a fighter pilot or a sailor. A selection of calendars devoted to Putin’s judo skills are also available; those who might be tempted by extremism are
Prapaganda: Putin uses Russia’s most popular hip-hop TV show as a PR vehicle offered the sight of Putin shooting a Siberian tiger with a sedative dart. Indeed, after the Moscow metro bombings in late March, Putin sought to shore up his image by singlehandedly tagging a polar bear.
Meanwhile, the new middle classes are offered the sharp-suited and soft-spoken President Dmitri Medvedev. In jeans and a smart jacket, Medvedev looks like the perfect son-in-law and, to Russian eyes, the consummate European. He appeals to Russians who take foreign holidays, have their own businesses and see themselves as European. He is a harsh critic of the corruption, inefficiency and lawlessness that halt their ambitions and sometimes scupper their plans for enterprise. Medvedev has an approval rating of 82 per cent, almost the same as Putin’s.
Yet tele-populism, although successful, has not engineered faith in the state. The national mood is one of alienation: a recent poll found that 94 per cent of Russians feel they have no influence over politics, 68 per cent do not feel protected by the law, and just 4 per cent feel their property is secure. So why is Putin himself such a hit?
he truth is that his popularity is both manipulated and genuine. Yes, the state controls all major television news outlets. Critical journalists are hounded by proPutin youth groups and occasionally murdered. Opposition activists are repressed, elections rigged. Putin’s tele-populism uses a stripped-down version of the Stalinist toolkit to rule the airwaves like a Slavic Silvio Berlusconi. But he still enjoys the respect of ordinary Russians, in part because supermarkets opened during his reign, and capitalist reforms that brought so much hardship in the 1990s finally began to pay off—average wages have doubled. And Russians admire his command of the language. Yeltsin was a bumbling alcoholic; Gorbachev spoke with a peasant drawl, Brezhnev with a senile lisp, Khrushchev like a hick—and Stalin had such a heavy Georgian accent that he was frightened to address the nation. But Putin and the lawyerly Medvedev are shown to Russians as they would like to see themselves: athletic, healthy and proud—the antithesis of a nation plagued by a demographic crisis, heroin addiction and social rot.
he trainee diplomats at the elite academy run by the Russian foreign ministry told me that they found Putin’s appearance on the rap show a little cringeworthy, but far from risible. Masha, who hopes to work in the Russian UN delegation, explained to me: “Men here can expect to live to the age of 59 on average—below the life expectancy of Pakistanis or even Palestinians. The prime minister has to promote health and exercise at any cost. And if that means, bare-chested calendars, swimming shoots, judo or being on a rap show—so be it.” Sacha, whose ambition is to be an ambassador to India one day, said: “The US is in decline, China is rising and, in this dangerous world full of terrorism and emerging powers, I think Putin is the worst of all possible Russian leaders— apart from all the others who are on offer or have been tried from time to time.” Ben Judah is a Moscow-based journalist june 2010 · prospect · 29