Tag Archives: China

Cardiff City Jersey Debacle: A Taste of the Future Far Beyond Football

Yesterday, after several weeks of absurd yes-we-will, no-we-won’t drama, Cardiff City FC’s owners announced that they will in fact be changing the team’s shirt next season from blue (the colour the team has worn since 1908) to red (a colour the team has never worn before).

The good old days vs. The brave new world

Moreover, the team’s crest will change too, relegating the Bluebird (Cardiff’s mascot) from its former place of prominence to the very bottom, in favour of the red Welsh dragon.

Now, I think this whole episode portends a lot for the future of human civilisation, but before explaining why, I realise that many of my readers are American, and don’t understand why this re-branding is such a big deal.  I’ll humour you for a moment. For my British readers, skip ahead to the awful picture below.

Why it’s a big deal

The changes to Cardiff City are not analogous to, say, the San Diego Padres changing their colours from brown and yellow to brown and orange to navy blue and orange to just navy blue to camouflage. It’s really not even analogous to the Washington Bullets changing their mascot to become the Washington Wizards. Tradition has a role in baseball and basketball but it’s not nearly as dominant as in European football, and very few teams’ identities and traditions are bound up in their team logo or colours (Exceptions would be very old teams like the Yankees and Reds in baseball or the Celtics and Bulls in basketball).

A better, though still imperfect analogy would be if the Green Bay Packers were to change their uniform to a colour that wasn’t green and changed their logo to something other than the iconic “G.” Again though, this would still not be quite as dramatic, given that the Packers haven’t been around as long as the Bluebirds, and they didn’t always wear green.

[ADDENDUM: For my Canadian readers, it would be like the Maple Leafs changing their sweater to red]

It used to be like this EVERY GAME

What it means

The two conflicting sides in this debacle were the team’s (Malaysian) owners –who claimed that switching to red and dragons would help woo potential supporters in Asia — and the team’s fans who felt that such an abrupt switch ignored the club’s history and traditions.

(Incidentally, if the only thing Asian fans look for in a team is a red uniform and a dragon on the crest, wouldn’t they all already support Liverpool?)

Reverse Imperialism, suckaz!

Now, I count myself a Cardiff supporter, and I  was opposed to the kit switch, but I couldn’t help but find the irony a bit amusing. Here was an episode involving Asians and Europeans, where culture and traditions were being disrespected, or at least disregarded, BUT!!! this time it was the Europeans whose traditions were being disregarded and it was the Asians who had the power, money and final say in the matter.

This, I believe, is the first portent from the shirt saga.

The most obvious lesson for the future of course is that, in our globalised world, commercial considerations will usually trump cultural traditions, but this truism is, by now, so banal, that it hardly warrants further analysis.

Rather, what I find more interesting is the battleground on which these struggles take place. Note that, with his immense wealth (around $1.25 billion), owner Vincent Tan thought the best investment he could make to raise the profile of Malaysian sports was in a football club in Wales.

Indeed, wealthy tycoons from all over the emerging world have also decided that English football clubs are the best use of their gargantuan finances.

Interestingly, Air Asia doesn’t even fly to the UK

Just in the top two divisons of English football you have: Blackburn Rovers, owned by an Indian; Chelsea, owned by a Russian; Leicester City, owned by Thais; Hull City, owned by an Egyptian; Manchester City, owned by an Emirati oil sheikh;  and Queens Park Rangers, owned by an Indian and a Malysian.

As far as I know (and I am willing to be corrected), none of these owners have invested any money in domestic leagues in their own country. They certainly have the means to pump a lot of money into football in Thailand. Malaysia, etc. and thus greatly improve the quality of entire leagues in their home countries.

But instead, they see English football as the best arena for their personal ambitions and expressions of national pride.

Now, here is what I find interesting: Despite the incredible national diversity of club owners in the English Premier League and Championship, there are NO mainland Chinese* owners. Why? It’s certainly not due to a paucity of Chinese millionaires or a lack of interest in football. Rather, it seems that football-loving Chinese tycoons would rather bring world-class football players to China (the most high-profile example being Nicolas Anelka) than buy up a team in England and re-brand it to look more Chinese.

And so, here for me is the most telling sign of things to come: As China’s wealth and influence has grown, so has its confidence. But for other Asian countries, enjoying similar economic growth, there is still an insecurity which leads them to seek prestige in Europe and the West, rather than on their own terms.

What exactly does that mean for the future? I don’t know, but I’m sure there will be more colossal misunderstandings, and next time maybe outside the realm of football.

And for those of you taking any schadenfreude in Cardiff City’s plight, be careful. If the Bluebird is an endangered species in this brave new world, the Swan could become one too!

*Although Birmingham City are owned by a businessman who is from Hong Kong

Luxury Bikes for the BRICS!

New format: Idea up front, explanation later.

Idea: Luxury bicycles marketed specifically to emerging economies

Explanation: Anyone who knows me, or who reads my other blog, knows that I will go to great lengths to ride my bike, even if only for short lengths. Because of my appreciation for these machines, I now posit the Maus Hypothesis of Bicycle Appreciation. 

My hypothesis is thus: that the appreciation for bicycles in a given country or society correlates to income along a U-curve. That is, in the poorest of countries, where bicycles are ubiquitous, they are appreciated for their many functions. Here in Uganda, bicycles serve as taxis, pushcarts, and even, as bicycles.

As incomes increase, appreciation of bicycles lowers. Because bicycles are associated with the days of poverty, they are shunned by the new rich who see cars as a status symbol.  But at the highest income levels, bicycle appreciation recovers. Here, people now have time for recreation, and thus view bicycles as fun. Also, in some places, cars have become so passe that they no longer carry value as a status symbol, and in densely populated urban areas, have diminished value as a mode of transport.

Here is how I would visually depict this hypothesis:

Obviously, there would be some outliers on this graph. The US has higher incomes, but lower appreciation for bicycles, due mostly to America’s deeply entrenched car culture, and low levels of physical fitness (although this is perhaps both cause and effect). Additionally, in some poor countries, say Mongolia, cycling has never gained widespread acceptance due to geography or culture. Also, keep in mind that the y-axis plots appreciation not usage of bikes.

It’s mostly in the emerging markets that bicycles face the biggest challenge. I’m thinking specifically of the BRICS – Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, and even more specifically of India and China. The BRICS account for over 40% of the world’s population, a quarter of its landmass and most of its current economic growth. Thus, the transport and lifestyle habits of people in these countries will have a massive impact on the future of the planet.

As I’ve suggested, bicycles are by no means scarce in these countries. But as soon as people have enough money, they usually trade them in for automobiles. There might be any number of reasons someone decides to purchase a car, but I would guess that the main one is status. After all, if you live in China or India, and you’ve ridden a bike your whole life, it’s probably because that was all you could afford. If you continue to ride a bike, people will assume your situation hasn’t changed. But driving a car will make it clear that you’ve done well for yourself.

If 1.4 billion Chinese people and 1.2 billion Indians start driving cars at the same rate as Americans, it’s curtains for those countries’ infrastructure and air quality. As in the US, the individual desire for status will probably trump any feeling of societal obligation.

If I’m correct that people buy cars to display their wealth and status (it’s hard to explain any functional benefit to having a car instead of a bike in Beijing or Delhi), the disadvantage of bikes is that they are associated with poverty, rather than wealth.

But not so for the luxury bike!

How is a luxury bike different from any other bike? In the same way that an Acura is different from a Honda: different branding and nicer accessories. A solid bike with a plush leather saddle, brake and shift levers made of chrome or some other unnecessary metal, and the right brand name on the frame could quite effectively convey one’s status.

Coming soon to a bike near you?

The production and manufacture of these bicycles would be the easy part. The branding and marketing would be more difficult. We could either try to develop a brand from scratch, equating our bikes with power and sophistication and recruiting a celebrity or two to endorse the brand. Or we could licence the name of an existing luxury brand, e.g. build our bikes and then paint the name ‘Gucci’ on then (and then perhaps encrust the name with diamonds).

These bicycles would be marketed to the fast-growing middle classes in emerging economies. This segment has shown a high degree of brand consciousness and is at highest risk of buying a car.

Who wants to go in on this venture???

2014 Sochi Olympics will out-controversy 2008 Beijing Olympics

You heard it here first (probably): the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia will generate more controversy, put heads-of-state around the world in more diplomatically tense situations, and provoke more outrage among human rights activists before the games even start than the 2008 summer games did by the time they were over.  This would be no mean feat; in case you’ve forgotten, there’s an entire wikipedia entry devoted to the controversies surrounding Beijing’s Olympiad.  Before embarking on my reasoning for such a claim, some background information on the region is in order.  If you don’t like background information, skip down to the funny picture of Vladimir Putin.

Background information

Much like the 2010 Olympics which were split between Vancouver, a city, and Whistler, a mountain resort town two hours away, the 2014 games will be split between the Black Sea port of Sochi and the ski resort town of Krasnaya Polyana.  Both are in Krasnodarkrai, which is on the edge of the mountainous North Caucasus region.  The North Caucasus is extraordinarily diverse, inhabited by over 50 different ethnicities, many of whom practiced mystical Sufi Islam.  The region was conquered by the Russian Empire in the mid-19th century and has unwillingly been part of Russia in one fashion or other ever since.  The North Caucasus contains several republics that are in theory autonomous, but whose leaders are all appointed by the Kremlin.  The most well-known in the West of these republics is Chechnya, probably because the Russian Federation fought two wars there in the 1990s, and its complex, often violent history provides good fodder for Hollywood and Tom Clancy.

Technically Russia

The North Caucasus has a highly advanced, but opaque rebel infrastructure. Rebels under the command of Shamil Basayev fought Russian troops in a guerilla war that ravaged Chechnya from 1994-96.  In 1999, Basayev led an incursion into neighbouring Dagestan, and this, combined with bombings of apartment buildings in several European Russian cities that were blamed on Chechens, prompted the second Chechen war. Basayev was killed in the summer of 2006, and the current leader of the rebel movement is Doku Umarov.  In 2007, Umarov declared the creation of the Caucasus Emirate, a nominally Islamist group that was no longer fighting for just Chechnya, but all the oppressed North Caucasus peoples.  Although Umarov is often depicted as the mastermind, the emirate is actually quite decentralised, with individual jamaats in each republic, whose leaders and fighters seem to have more nationalistic than religious motivations.  Whether you classify their activity as insurgency or terrorism is of course a matter of perspective; but either way, they are a deadly force — In February of this year alone, they were responsible for 22 bombings and 31 shootouts, which killed over 50 people and wounded more.

Foreground Information?

One of the issues underlying all the potential hazards I will outline below is the ham-handedness of Vladimir Putin, who will almost surely return to the Presidency next term, after a brief spell as Prime Minister.  Whereas the Chinese government has constructed a well-oiled machine to manage dissent, Putin and his operatives tend to deal with opponents in a rather more primitive fashion. Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Alexander Litvinenko are two high-profile victims of Putin’s distaste for dissent.  So when challenges to the smooth running of the Sochi Olympics inevitably arise, Putin’s response is almost guaranteed to generate maximum outrage.

Even if the site of the Olympics weren’t so very, very close to the simmering cauldron of the North Caucasus republics, it would be vulnerable.  Although the militants in the North Caucasus regularly wreak havoc on the local authorities, they are by no means confined to local attacks.  Indeed in the last decade, they have carried out several very high-profile attacks in Russia.  These have included seizing the Dubrovka theatre with 900 people inside and holding it hostage  for three days; bombing a popular high-speed train that connects Moscow and St. Petersburg; and just this January, bombing Moscow’s Domodedovo airport.  In perhaps the most ominous sign for the officials in charge of security at the Sochi Olympics, terrorists have carried out several attacks in the ski area of Mt. Elbrus. Suffice to say, the Sochi Olympics will be an irresistible target for North Caucasus militants, all the more so because it’s so close.

Russian authorities still have three years to try to quiet down the restive North Caucasus, but there is almost no reason to believe they will be successful; Russian rulers  have been trying for 150 years with little success (Stalin deported entire ethnic groups  to Central Asia, for example).  There have been counterterrorist regimes in place somewhere or other in the North Caucasus for virtually all of Putin’s presidency, but attacks have only increased in recent years.  Recently, Moscow’s envoy to the region, Aleksandr Khloponin, had the bright idea to address one of the major underlying causes of terrorism –unemployment — through a grand economic development scheme.  But the patronage networks of local elites, as well as the plan’s reliance on foreign investors to put money in  a region that is still epically unstable, have doomed that strategy thus far.

SO, since the Kremlin will still have an armed insurgency simmering in Sochi’s neighbourhood, it is probably going to have to use brute force to contain the violence.  A supposed citizens’ self-defense unit calling themselves the “Black Hawks” has suddenly gained lots of attention in the Moscow press, by saying they would kill suspected militants and their children.  The Black Hawks are almost certainly a creation of the Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow, as the article linked above argues.  This sort of gruesome collective punishment might grow more common as the need to maintain stability becomes more urgent with the approach of 2014.

Right now, Moscow’s tactics in dealing with the North Caucasus insurgency don’t attract much international attention.  For this reason, murders of the likes of Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on Russian forces’ brutality in Chechnya, and Magomed Yevloev, who owned a site that provided independent (i.e. not Kremlin-sanctioned) news in Ingushetia, are usually denounced by human rights organizations and certain watchdog groups, but fail to generate much international outrage.  As the world’s spotlight turns to the region in 2014, though, there will be much more scrutiny of the Kremlin’s doings.  This will leave Putin with three choices:

1. Restrict journalists’ access to the North Caucasus.

2. Allow journalists to report from the North Caucasus on all the unsavoury things happening there to an international audience.

3. Allow journalists to report from the North Caucasus, but assassinate the first one who writes about something unsavoury that the FSB is doing, as an example to others.

None of these would be very well-received by the international community, but nor are any of them implausible.  Again, you heard them all here first.

Another issue that will bedevil Russia’s attempt to host a problem-free Olympiad is the grievances of the Circassians.  The Circassians were one of the many ethnic groups with whom the Russian Empire warred in its imperial conquest of the Caucasus in the 18th and 19th centuries.  The Circassians inhabited the area where Sochi now sits, and many consider their removal from this area in 1864 by Russia to be genocide.  The fact that 2014 marks the 150th anniversary of this alleged genocide only adds to the Circassians’ sense of injustice.  Previously Russia’s atrocities during the Caucasian conquest have not been well-known outside the former Soviet Union or European History departments (if even there).  But many Circassian activists see the Sochi Olympics as an opportunity to draw international attention to their historical grievances.  As China has learned all to well with Tibet, and Turkey with Armenia, the plight of a historically-oppressed people group can generate sympathy around the world, and complicate diplomatic relations.

All of this will invite unwelcome comparisons with the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Whereas the Vancouver organizers celebrated First Nations people groups and saw the Games as an opportunity to highlight the cultures of historically oppressed peoples, Russia will be seen as suppressing them.


Why China should be more concerned about Bahrain than Egypt.

If you were like me two weeks ago, you might have been listening and/or watching Al-Jazeera English at work as disgruntled Facebook users thronged the streets of Egypt demanding the resignation of Hosni Mubarak who, until his ouster, challenged Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi for title of Most Goonish-looking World Leader.

Anyway, as I watched the events unfold, I kept hearing the commentators and expert guests say that Egypt is a pivot point in the region and that “As Egypt goes, so goes the Middle East.”  Although the wave of protests that swept Egypt (and which, lest we forget, began in Tunisia) has indeed spread across the Arab world, in some ways the tale of Mubarak’s fall is just a classic tale of a poor, oppressed citizenry rising up and overthrowing their rich, oppressive ruler.  It’s a Marxist class struggle for the social networking age!  And while the ability of the youth in Egypt to topple a decades-old regime should put entrenched autocrats everywhere on notice, I think the more revolutionary event that presages the world ahead is the uprising in Bahrain.

In case you tuned back out of this part of the world as soon as the drama in Egypt ended, here’s a synopsis: Bahrain is an island nation in the Persian Gulf that has been ruled by the last 200 years by the Khalifa family.  The Khalifa dynasty is Sunni, while the majority of the country is Shi’ite.  Protestors in Bahrain, no doubt inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have taken to the streets, demanding among other things, more democracy and an end to government discrimation against the Shia majority.  Although Bahrain is a kingdom, it does have a parliament, and something resembling a free press. The government has said it will open talks with all elements of society to address their grievances.

Another thing Bahrain has is oil, and perhaps more importantly, lots of oil refineries.  This means that, much like in the UAE and Qatar, Bahrain’s economic figures look more like something you might see in Eastern or Central Europe than the Middle East.  Indeed, while Tunisia’s GDP per capita at Purchasing Power Parity was only $8,600 and Egypt’s all of $5,900, Bahrain’s is $24,000.  The Human Development Index, a measure of well-being that takes into account standards of living, life expectancy and a host of other indicators, puts Bahrain in the highest category (Developed countries), at 39th, just ahead of Portugal.  The arrangement in Bahrain is similar to that in other gulf statelets like Kuwait, Qatar, etc: the government spends some of its massive oil wealth on social welfare programs and direct cash payments to keep the people generally quiescent.  In some ways, Bahrain might be a preview of the UAE and Qatar in a few decades; Bahrain is likely to be the first Gulf state to exhaust its oil reserves.

SO, what does any of this have to do with China? We know the Chinese government was concerned enough about the example the Egyptian masses were setting that historic events got very little coverage in state media, and in fact, the search term “Egypt” was blocked on Sina, China’s equivalent of Twitter. But really, Egypt isn’t much like China: while Egypt stagnated under Mubarak, China’s economy has taken off, surpassing Japan to become the 2nd largest in the world, and in all likelihood, it will pass the US in a decade or so.  Moreover, Egypt has a much younger and more restless population than China.  In Egypt the median age is 24; in China it’s 33.  So China doesn’t really have the same ingredients that led to revolution in Egypt.  And while China probably isn’t that much like Bahrain either, the Chinese Communist Party has made essentially the same bargain with its citizens that the Gulf sheikdoms have: Prosperity in exchange for freedoms.  Of course, massive oil wealth has made it easier for the Gulf states to maintain their end of this bargain, just doling out the revenues; while China has had to work significantly harder, constructing the a large and incredibly efficient industrial export machine.  But the example of Bahrain shows that people won’t accept this trade off forever.

Of course, there are unique factors in Bahrain that don’t necessarily apply to China: sectarian grievances; reliance on a larger neighbor (Saudi Arabia) for money and defence; and perhaps most uniquely, smallness: Bahrain is an island with a population 1/1000th the size of China’s.  But nevertheless, Bahrain might be the wealthiest country to have people take to the streets to overthrow a government (unless one counts Tea Partiers in the US).  All the more reason for China to question its model of social and political development.  And perhaps in the meantime to block searches of “Bahrain” on Baidu.