In his friendly review of Bill Gates’s How to Avoid a Climate Disaster, former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown argues that the 2010 Copenhagen summit failed to lead to the breakthrough we needed because of both “the reluctance of the US to make legally binding commitments, and the deep suspicion of China, India and the emerging economies of any obligations that they believed might threaten their development”. (1) He then anecdotally glosses over the former and emphasises the latter by recounting the rather startling image of “Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd” having to be “physically restrained from punching the Chinese negotiator.” What an unreconstructed colonial incident that would have been. (2)
It might seem odd that the man who, as Chancellor in 2005, campaigned to “Make Poverty History” should put an equals sign between the refusal of the US – the worlds heaviest emitter per capita and the country with the biggest global legacy of carbon emissions – to see world leadership as anything other than getting away with the most it could, at the expense of those less powerful than itself – and the desire of the developing world not to stay poor; let alone foreground the latter. The way that he does this – possibly unconsciously – could stand as a warning that this attitude – that seeks a global division of labour in which the worse off and worst hit parts of the world do the heavy lifting, and restrain their development in the common interest, while the wealthiest countries try to make only those moves that maintain existing patterns of wealth, power and ways of life – is likely to find expression again and again in the run up to, at, and beyond the COP in November. There is already a significant effort going in to paint the more industrialised parts of the developing world in general – and China in particular – as the flies in the global ointment.
It should be noted that at the time of the almost punched in the face incident, both China and Australia were 80% dependent on coal for energy. Today, China has cut this to between 50 and 60%. Australia is still at 80%. So, who should have been punching whom?
A recent report from US Researchers shows how much more work every country has to do if we are to hit the Paris target of keeping the global temperature rise within 1.5C – beyond which we are likely to be in danger of feedback loops that will make it incredibly difficult for us to control. (1) The additional effort needed for a selection of key countries looks like this.
So, China has to do 41% more, just under half as much again as its already doing, while the UK has to almost double its efforts (97%) and the USA, India and Japan roughly quadruple theirs (203%, 190%, 229% respectively) and South Korea almost nine times as much. So, while John Kerry’s argument that China “isn’t doing enough” is true, nobody is, and the Washington has far more to do than Beijing; so a little humility might be in order. Closer to home, the frequent trope from UK Ministers that we “lead the world” on this are neither true – we are well behind the Chinese – nor relevant. It doesn’t matter if you are leading a pack of slower runners, if you are not going to get to the finish line before nature calls time on the race.
This blog is the first in a short series.
1. https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-021-00097-8#Tab1 The worrying thing about this Report is that it puts a lot of emphasis that only an 80% increase in global effort would be needed to stay within 2C, as if it would not be extremely damaging and dangerous for us to end up there and it is just too much to expect that we could do what we need to if it was remotely inconvenient in the short term.
The Guardian reports a new “surge” in cases in Hebei Province in China. This amounted to 33 people on 10 January and led to an immediate city wide lockdown and quarantine to eliminate further domestic infections. Because China has the virus under control, this can be done.
The comparable figures for new cases in the UK and USA were 59,937 and 313,516 respectively, because our governments have not got the virus under control. That looks like this.
The use of the term “surge” is clearly designed to reinforced the UK government’s defeatist narrative that the virus cannot be defeated, even in places where it has been.
The importance of consciously examining the language we are reading to see how our responses are being manipulated is made clear by this example.
“I tremble for my country, when I reflect that God is just.” Thomas Jefferson.
In Monday’s Commons debate on scrapping the Hong Kong extradition treaty, Conservative MP and former Foreign Office Minister Tobias Ellwood said the following, ” For decades now, we have turned a blind eye to China’s democratic deficit and human rights violations, in the hope that it would mature into a global responsible citizen. That clearly hasn’t happened. Is this now the turning point where we drop the pretence that China shares our values?”
The accusations made against China are grim ones which they strongly deny, but coming from the countries that brought you – just in recent years – waterboarding and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, Special Rendition, the Fallujah Free Fire Zone and extra judicial drone assassinations (with 601 casualties in Yemen alone between 2011 and 2017) (1) you have to wonder what human rights values “we” have been modelling; and how China has supposedly diverged from them, by allegedly doing what we have done in plain sight for so many years.
It has to be said that it is a strange sort of “genocide” in which the ethnic group supposedly being targeted is rapidly growing in numbers and proportion of the population, and an odd kind of “cultural/religious suppression” in which the number of Mosques has increased by a factor of ten in the last thirty years. Just over 2000 Mosques in Xinjiang in 1989, over 24 000 now.
Does Mr Ellwood mean that a tough line with street protests to “dominate the streets or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks”, is way out of line with anything a Western power would contemplate or carry out? (2) If so, he hasn’t been paying much attention lately or, indeed, ever.
Does he mean that mass incarceration is unacceptable? This would be odd, because the USA currently locks up 2.1 million people, 25% of the total global prison population; way above any other country and far more per head than China does; while England and Wales, with 145 prisoners per hundred thousand people, have the highest per capita prison population in Western Europe and Scotland is not far below; all well above China’s 118 per hundred thousand (3).
Can he mean the exploitation of free, or ludicrously cheap, prison labour to produce goods for well known companies? Again, this would be odd because that’s what US prisons do. McDonalds, Wendys, Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Verizon, Sprint, Victoria’s Secret, JC Penney, KMart, American Airlines and Avis are documented beneficiaries. (4)
He can’t mean interning people without trial who are in rebellion against the state, because that’s what the UK did in Kenya, Malaya, Cyprus and the North of Ireland and the US did with its “strategic hamlets” programme in Vietnam. So, that would be completely in line with “our values”, wouldn’t it?
Nor can he mean that sterilising ethnic minorities is out of line with “our values” , because that’s what the US did throughout the twentieth century at home- 25-50% of native American women in the 1970s, a third of the female population of Puerto Rico between 1938 and 1970, countless Black women given unnecessary and involuntary hysterectomies (Mississippi appendectomies), 150 prisoners in California as recently as 2010 – and to many more abroad throughout Latin America and beyond, including up to 200 000 indigenous women in Peru in the 1990s. (5)
He can’t mean disregarding local democratic rights and imposing an unwanted regime from the outside, because that’s what the United States has done 20 times by invasion and another 56 times by interventions short of that since 1949. Some of these have been very bloody. Two million Vietnamese killed, half a million Indonesian Leftists massacred in 1965, thousands and thousands throughout Latin America for decades. Whatever you think of China, it would take them a long time to catch up with a record like that.
Nor can he mean communities feeling unsafe at the hands of the police force that is meant to “protect and serve” them. The chance of being shot dead in the streets by the police was approximately 2000 times greater in the US than in China in 2019. (6)
Perhaps he means having a threatening military posture to intimidate other countries? But here again the US posture is far more threatening, both in terms of military expenditure, on which the US spends $4 for every $1 spent by China…
…and even more starkly in terms of overseas military bases, of which the USA has 800 and China has 3.
Who is “A Global Responsible citizen”…?
A responsible global citizen faces up to the fundamental challenges facing humanity and seeks co-operation to solve them. The gravest threat to all of us is climate breakdown. China is committed to the Paris Agreement, has met its targets early and raised them. The United States under Trump is walking out of the Agreement on the grounds that “we believe that no country should have to sacrifice economic prosperity or energy security in pursuit of environmental sustainability,”Wells Griffith, Trump’s envoy to the Katowice COP 2018. (7) If every country adopted the US approach, we’d have no hope of avoiding the melt down of our civilisation. Its not mature and its not responsible. The unilateral, selfish action they are taking threatens all of us with catastrophe. Mr Ellwood does not appear to have noticed, or, if he has, does not think this to be of any significance.
In the immediate global crisis caused by COVID19, the records of China, the UK and US certainly show a divergence in values. China put public safety first and, despite an initial fumble by local officials, managed to crush the virus and keep domestic deaths down to just over 4600. In the UK and US, by contrast, commercial considerations and half baked libertarianism has led so far to almost twice as many deaths in the US as there were cases in China with the virus well out of control and infections rising exponentially again. The most conservative figure for UK deaths is ten times the Chinese total (and therefore 200 times the rate per capita). A little humility about this on the part of the people responsible for it might not go amiss.
The political effect of this in China has been to boost the standing and legitimacy and standing of Xi Jinping and the Communist Party. (8) This was always far stronger than Western opinion has ever been able to comprehend, but looking out from a society that has been kept largely safe – as well as having risen from extreme poverty in living memory – the mounting casualties and sheer chaos of the “West” shocks and horrifies popular opinion. The first duty of government, after all, is to keep its people safe. Job done there. Not here.
Economically, the Chinese economy is now recovering. It was already larger in purchasing parity terms than that of the United States before COVID hit. The seeming insanity of the efforts by the Trump administration to reopen their economy while cases are rising is explained by their fear of falling further behind. The IMF projects that 51% of world growth in the next two years will be in China. The US, by contrast, will account for just 3.3%.
As the virus spreads exponentially again, pushing the US proportion of global deaths back up to 15%, from a low of 9% last month, employment and economic activity have gone through the fastest collapse in history. This stokes the US political crisis and fuels the Black Lives Matter uprising. This titanic crisis of health, survival and livelihoods – and the Trump adminstration’s callous indifference, bluster, denial and authoritarian incompetence- has revealed to a popular majority that the enemy is at home and in high places.
The controlled response to the virus in China has saved the world many infections and deaths. That of the USA continues to threaten any other country that trades or deals with it.
China has put a moratorium on debt repayments from 66 struggling developing countries. The USA has imposed sanctions on Iran and Venezuela. (9)
China has pledged that any vaccine developed in the country will be a common good for the whole world. President Trump has applied “America First” even to this, cornering the market in available treatments, gazumping other countries supplies, while, with the UK, insisting on patent rights (which puts pharma profits above cheapness and availability). Clearly a divergence in “values” there.
The increasingly delirious accusations being made against China – which in the media are presented as a labyrinth of mirrors, with each story of each allegation being reported as though they were evidence of it – reflect the desperation of a US ruling class who can feel the earth falling away under their feet. The majority of the world, as reflected in UN votes, do not believe this US narrative. Twice as many countries voted with China on both Xinjiang and Hong Kong as voted for “Western” resolutions; which were supported only by wealthy close US allies, the imperial bubble that likes to think of itself as “the global community.”
And the Left?
The dominant current in the UK Labour Movement, the Labour Right, historically gives the US complete credence. Even devotees of an “ethical foreign policy” are usually highly selective about where they look to demonstrate their ethics. I hope that what is written above is enough to convince that this position doesn’t have a leg to stand on – morally or in any other respect. For the right, this is a matter of realpolitik, so whats true doesn’t really come into it. But there are also currents that identify themselves as “far left” and take a militant line on domestic politics, but never saw a US intervention they didn’t like, nor a State Department attack line they are unwilling to shout through a social media megaphone. For all the reasons above, a pro Washington line is the most reactionary position that can be taken and, in current circumstances, will lead those that espouse it down a road towards giving the USA the social support it needs to threaten a war that could kill us all.
Others, more on the left, will have no illusions about the messenger, but will accept part or all of the message; and will consider articles like this too uncritical. The bottom line here is, that whatever critical view is held about China, or actions it is alleged to have taken, these currents do not line up with Washington and are not willing to allow themselves to be used in giving support to the war drive that is already taking place in economic sanctions and aircraft carrier deployments.
It is stopping these that is the imperative. Arguments about other matters will only be able to continue if the gathering momentum towards war and environmental collapse are stopped and the precarious structures of global co-operation are strengthened.
The UK government’s explanation of why it has decided to stop comparing the UK’s Coronavirus infection and death rates with China’s is deeply ironic. They say that Chinese stats can’t be trusted.*
There is a more obvious explanation; that China has been very successful in keeping its death rates down while the UK has not, that this is deeply embarrassing, and becoming more so as time goes on.
This is what that looks like in deaths per million as of April 26 (1).
This is significantly worse than the previous week. The Chinese figure is unchanged (on 3.3 per million) – because the virus is under control – while the US and UK figures deteriorate (from 101 to 168 per million for the US and from 206 to 305 per million for the UK) (1). This figure means that the Chinese can now start to safely reopen their economy. It is quite clear that the UK and US cannot do so safely at this level. Denial is essential to even contemplate doing so. ** Whitewashing out the discrepancy with China, is a further aspect of playing down or ignoring their experience and any lessons that could be learned from it – could be preparing the ground to do so at an unsafe level.
The trustworthiness of UK official figures is also questionable. While the daily death rate is confined to those who have died in hospital after being tested and serves a purpose in tracking trajectory, it does not include anyone who has died anywhere else; and no one in government is keen to point out that the headline figure is not the total of people who have actually died: which is considerably larger. This may be considered a sin of omission, but it nevertheless serves a purpose in downplaying how bad things actually are; another form of denial.
A Financial Times analysis (2) incorporating the Office for National Statistics figures on all deaths concluded that the official UK figure of 17 337 deaths up to Tuesday 21 April is less than half the actual figure. That looks like this.
*This is odd, because the WHO does trust them (as does the Financial Times; whose job it is to provide accurate information for the business class). A logical next step in this trajectory will be to downgrade relations with the WHO – which also serves a purpose in that it stubbornly insists on tighter conditions for easing lockdown’s than the UK government is prepared to contemplate. See previous blog.
**It is clear that the ground is being prepared to do this. Train operating companies are preparing to open up 80% of services by May 18th. Statements by Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford on behalf of the Scottish and Welsh governments on Friday on easing the lockdown to “live with” or “live alongside” the virus indicate that a reopening is being planned that is a response to commercial, not health, pressures. When Keir Starmer says that the UK risks being “left behind” in its consideration of “exit strategy” in the context of other countries beginning to ease restrictions, this applies pressure in precisely the wrong direction. The UK has the second highest daily death rate in the world right now. As of April 25, that looks like this.
The points he – and the rest of the Labour and trade union movement should to be making are:
1. That the only safe exit is one in which the WHO ‘s 6 conditions are met in full and
2. That the current lockdown should be tightened to include ALL non essential work; as the quickest route to an exit is through cutting off all possible routes to infection.
3. We can no more “live with” the virus than we can live with climate breakdown.
The Chinese figure has been uprated from 3 to 4.5 to reflect the backdated increase in deaths in Wuhan announced yesterday. In case the figures for the USA and UK are not clear on the graph, these are; USA 101. UK 206.
While the US response is widely and rightly seen as a mess, there is a tendency in the UK to give the government far more of a benefit of the doubt than it deserves.
It should be clear from this that China’s experience should be studied and learned from, while the UK and US are not models to be followed.
The bottom line right now is that China did not end its lockdown until deaths were in single figures. The relaxation of social distancing now being contemplated in parts of Europe and being discussed in the UK will let the genie back out of the bottle. Disaster will follow if this course is pursued. The only safe path to an exit is through a tightened lockdown.
Understatement is not a charming national characteristic in this case. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) – which does a weekly update to take into account the deaths that have taken place outside hospital – has just published the following.
Our data shows that of all deaths in England and Wales that occurred up to 3 April (registered up to 11 April), 6,235 involved COVID-19 compared with the 4,093 deaths reported on 4 April 2020 by @DHSCgovukhttp://ow.ly/4kHD50zdo9L
So for the week ending 3 April the total Coronavirus deaths in the UK were half as high again as those being announced by the government. 6,235. Not 4,093. That looks like this. the daily totals announced in the press briefings are just the blue part of the circle. Bear the in mind every time a new figure is announced.
While including these on a daily basis would be very difficult – and attempts to do so in France have led to wild fluctuations in daily totals that make trends harder to discern – these additional deaths should be factored in; and the provisional nature of the daily figures made clear at the daily press briefings.
With many of the most vulnerable elderly people in particular pre-triaged not to take up hospital beds and reports of significant spread of infections within Care Homes – where staff are even less likely to have proper PPE than front line medics – this gap could well grow in the next week.
The rate at which the UK and US are taking an increasing share of the daily deaths can be seen here in the FT. https://www.ft.com/coronavirus-latest.
My next post will look at these death rates per capita.
This graph shows the totals of reported global deaths for April 10th. With the usual caveats that many places in the developing world may be under reporting – the figures for the USA and UK stand out starkly. One in three of all reported deaths in the USA. One in six in the UK.
UK daily figures only include deaths in hospital, not those at home or in Care Homes; so the actual figures will be worse; probably significantly so. The Office for National Statistics will be updating these on Tuesday, so I will do another graph to take that into account then.
Three things to note.
The number of deaths in China on 10 April was zero.
With the UK death rate projected by the IHME (1) to hit a peak on April 17th with 1 674 deaths on that day, this is not a time to be prioritising talk of “exit strategies”.
Those concerened with these should be studying the Chinese experience of cranking society back into life – as the only country that has began to do so an a large scale.
The measures taken in China have eliminated domestic infections and kept the total number of deaths to just over 3 000. This is a staggering achievement. The potential number of people who could have died can be worked out using the standard figures Health Experts are using throughout the world as a rule of thumb. 80% of the population infected with a 1% fatality rate. With a population of 1, 439, 000, 000 people this means that the number of people who could have died in China in a matter of months is 11,500,000 (1% of 80% of 1.439 million). Compare this with other disasters and you get a better sense of the scale of this. The Y axis is in millions.
The UK picture
The projection made by Imperial College for deaths in the UK the attempt to ride the tiger implied by the “herd immunity” approach – is half a million in a matter of months. This is more than total UK casualties (military and civilian) through the whole of World War 2.
The prospect for the United States
A similar projection of 80% infections and a 1% fatality rate would produce 2, 800,000 deaths in the United States. This would be the single most catastrophic loss of life in any one event in US history, more than twice as many dead as during the four years of the Civil War. The most recent domestic trauma, 9/11 with 3,000 dead, barely registers on this graph.
These figures speak for themselves.
China is to be applauded for clamping down hard on this virus. Those in the “West” arguing to “take it on the chin” like Trump, Bolsonaro and their acolytes on the Alt right are careless of mass deaths among their own people.
The real divisions in a society in crisis are often obscured by the form of the apparent political rift. When Polly Toynbee (Guardian 26/3/19) argues from opinion poll results that the divide between leavers and remainers is now more strongly felt than prior allegiance to political party she underlines a disjunct between a passing sense of identity and a longer term set of alliances based on material interests that are more fundamental.
These interests cross borders. A paradox of globalisation is that the ethno-nationalist reaction against it is being encouraged, assisted and funded by the policy of the Trump administration in the United States, and some of the right wing media outfits associated with him. Some US businesses are doing this directly – looking forward to serious pickings as big polities are broken up into weaker fragments. They are working on the EU. They would like to do it to China.
The most fundamental division in Britain is between those who have wealth and power and those who do not – however they voted in June 2016. It is in the interests of the former to coral as many of the latter as possible behind them and the most potent way to do so has always been “patriotism” – the assumption that being born in a place should put you at the front of the queue for whatever is going and – that your particular “identity” somehow makes you both better than other people and gives you a wider significance- as a compensation for your very real subordination and obscurity in everyday life. In countries that are no longer as powerful and influential as they were, this often becomes toxic.
A division within the wealthy – in which one faction breaks with the established way of doing things- leads to all sorts of weird developments in which all that is solid turns into air – old Etonians claim to be anti-elitist, a leadership contender for the Conservative Party says “Fuck business”, the Daily Express, Sun and Mail denounce the House of Lords and the judiciary; and hedge fund managers short sell UK stocks and bonds to cash in on the economic consequences of their “patriotic” campaign – in which the lower orders are urged to “believe in the country” – taking as their motto an inversion of JFK – “ask not what you can do for your country” – ask only what your country can do for you.” and go laughing all the way to the tax haven. Because the country is set up for their benefit and only functions in order to do so, they wrap themselves in the Union flag while deftly stashing their assets in Dublin or Belize or Singapore, and preparing to burn “traitors” on bonfires made of red tape, as a distraction from the grand opening of
Free Trade Ports and Enterprise zones (in which they and their friends will be bribed and subsidised to invest, while paying no tax back)
the take over of the Health Service by US insurance firms (and probably Virgin) -so check the wallet before the pulse
and the spread of chlorinated fried chicken stands- finger lickin cheap and nasty.
disguising their venality in the name of “The People.”
So, who are “The People”?
When Michael Howard went on the radio on Sunday (24 March) to argue for the hardest available Brexit, he talked about honouring the wishes of the 17.4 million people who vote to leave in the referendum, without troubling himself to question whether his own preference was indeed what they were voting for. He had a point as far as it went. 17.4 million is a lot of people and their views have to be taken into account. But, beyond the 17.4 million, what about the rest of us?
In a country with over 66 million people, that’s just under 50 million who’s views – in Howard’s world – are simply to be excluded from having any say or influence in the future direction of the country.
One of his Conservative colleagues commented today that “the British people” had “voted overwhelmingly” to leave the EU. Thinking that a ratio of 52:48 of those voting is “overwhelming”is sufficiently odd to require some investigation as to who he thinks “the British people” are.
Of a population of 65.5 million in 2016:
17.4 million voted leave.
16 million voted remain.
13 million were under 18 and ineligible to vote.
3 million were EU citizens not entitled to vote despite working and contributing.
16 million didn’t vote at all.
As a graph, this looks like this.
For this Conservative MP, the bloc represented in dark blue is an “overwhelming majority.” For Michael Howard these are “the people”, or at least the people that count – in whose image the nation must be recast. This is also about the control of the 17.4 million. Their views were and are far more diverse than they have been presented, but for people like Howard they are a useful statistic forever frozen in 2016 – the time of The One True Vote.
This sets us up for continuing crisis and polarisation. A political project that seeks to slash and burn regulations and protections for workers rights and the environment, that favours the replacement of the civil service with ad hoc committees of businessmen, that is prepared to see social security, farming and manufacturing go to the wall by slashing tariffs, and the re-ignition of the Irish troubles over a reimposed border, cannot afford to have a consensual approach. The sheep must be separated from the goats and the goats must be slaughtered. The cultural revolution style shrillness of the headlines – CRUSH THE SABOTEURS – ENEMIES OF THE PEOPLE – matches the disruptive scale of the project and also the impossibility of it being carried through without a breakdown in an agreed political framework in which differences can be resolved without violence. It is in this context that a reviving UKIP is seeking to build an effective street fighting movement led by Tommy Robinson, pulling firms of football hooligans into some very large and aggressive mobilisations which have attacked trade unionists and the police.
If Brexit is averted the crisis will continue because everything that then goes wrong will be attributed to “the great betrayal” – in the same way that Germany was only defeated in World War 1 because the army was “stabbed in the back.” Untrue myths are often the most potent – because they cannot be tested. The scale of this remains to be seen, but anyone who thinks that just remaining in the EU as it currently is will solve all our problems has not noticed the economic stagnation of the euro zone, the impasse of Macron, the backsliding of Germany on its climate change commitments and the continent wide spread of US backed ethno-nationalist currents likely to make the next European parliament the most right wing in its history.
If Brexit is not averted – especially if we get a hard version – the grim realities are likely to turbo charge a hunt for further “saboteurs” and “enemies if the people”.
Although the weariness at all this is often expressed in the infantile injunction to “just get on with it” – as if “it” was something that you could “just get on with” – most people want to be able to get on with their lives without massive upheaval and disruption. Remaining, or the softest possible Brexit, like Labour’s deal or Norway plus, offers the best chance of relative stability in which “The People” can realign around more fundamental questions.