Why Newhaven should go ahead and put up a statue of Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh was not a monster like Stalin, Mao or Pol Pot. It’s quite reasonable for Newhaven council to accept the Vietnamese Embassy’s gift.

Coming soon to an obscure English port town?

Coming soon to an obscure English port town?

I generally do not follow the local politics of East Sussex and people generally do not feel the need to educate me about it. Nonetheless, a number of people have sent me links to stories about a particular decision made by Newhaven Town Council. So here, for what it’s worth is my take on it.

The Vietnamese Embassy in London has offered to have an eight foot statue of Ho Chi Minh built and erected in the port town of Newhaven (population: 12,250). For a time, Ho was a pastry chef working aboard the ferry that ran between Dieppe and Newhaven. The embassy wants this to be recognised and to that end has already supplied a plaque, which this statue is supposed to supplement.

This has drawn criticism from the local Conservative MP, Maria Caulfield, who said that:

“A statue when the town is in such need of regeneration is not the best use of money wherever it’s coming from… The other issue is, is Ho Chi Minh a man we should be commemorating?”

She described described Ho as:

a deceased communist dictator who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths.

None of which is terribly convincing. The statue is not a poor use of money set aside for regenerating Newhaven but a reasonable way of spending the money allocated to the Vietnamese Embassy for promoting Vietnam-UK relations.*

Nor is it correct to characterise Ho as a monster. That’s an unusual stance for me to be taking: I find it odd how far it remains politically correct to play with communist iconography, especially given our (justified) intolerance of fascist symbols. People wear t-shirts with, for example, hammer and sickles or Che Guevara on it without giving it much thought. The Cuban regime is praised for its healthcare in a manner reminiscent of the way Mussolini used to be praised for making the trains run on time. And a shockingly large number of westerners are unaware of the enormity of the crimes committed by Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.

However, I don’t feel that Ho belongs in that rogues gallery. Which is not to say I would count myself as a fan. He picked the wrong side in the Cold War, advocated an economic model that has proven itself to retard growth and inaugurated a political system that to this day fails to provide democracy, human rights or the rule of law.

But that he’s a far more humane figure than say Mao. In a biography of Ho, the French historian Pierre Brocheux describes a meeting between the two men during which:

Mao applauded the brutality of counterrevolutionaries inasmuch as the Chinese revolution had benefited from the massacres carried out by Chiang Kai-Shek. Ho reacted by saying that killing was not moral and so justifying it was equally immoral. Mao responded, “He kills, I kill, it’s not a matter of morality.”

At which point Mao’s protégé Liu Shaqoi apparently began lecturing the Vietnamese leader on why morality itself was an “anti-Marxist” concept.

Despite having this desire to avoid bloodshed, it is true that bloodshed certainly occurred during Ho’s time as leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Nonetheless, it seems a stretch to hold him personally responsible for it or worse still to imply that he was its architect.

I am assuming that Caulfield’s claim that he was responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths refers to the land reform campaign that took place in the aftermath of the French defeat. They were certainly violent – though whether there were hundreds of thousands is debatable – but whereas Mao would probably have intensified them, Ho attempted to rein them in. On February 8th, he issued a decree likening the brutality of the methods used to root out landlords to those deployed by the French and Japanese during their occupations of Vietnam. It’s hard not to conclude he should have done more, earlier to prevent this violence but that’s a different kind of culpability from the one Caulfield seems to be implying.

This point applies with even more force to the later stages of his presidency. It has generally been assumed that he continued to direct policy until his death in 1969. A rather different view has rapidly gained credence thanks to the work of Dr Lien-Hang T. Nguyen. In a sharp break from previous American-centric histories of the war, she used archives in Vietnam to show how decisions were made in Hanoi. Among other things, she discovered that those decisions were emphatically not being taken by Ho. Instead, over the course of the 1960s his eventual successor Le Duan had seized control of the party apparatus and confined Ho to the role of figurehead. She has written that:

The quiet, stern Mr. Duan shunned the spotlight but he possessed the iron will, focus and administrative skill necessary to dominate the Communist Party.

[He] constructed a sturdy militarist empire that still looms over Hanoi today. [His] hawkish policies led North Vietnam to war against Saigon and then Washington, and ensured that a negotiated peace would never take the place of total victory.

Mr. Duan ruled the party with an iron fist and saw Ho and Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, renowned for defeating the French at Dien Bien Phu, as the greatest threats to his authority. He sidelined Ho, General Giap and their supporters when making nearly all key decisions.

In 1963-4, Mr. Duan blackmailed Ho into silence when the aging leader opposed the controversial decision to escalate the war and seek all-out victory before American forces could intervene. And in 1967-8, there was a large-scale purge in Hanoi when Ho, General Giap and their allies opposed Mr. Duan’s plans for the Tet Offensive. Although the southern war initially rallied North Vietnamese to support the party, it soon became a quagmire. Mr. Duan and Mr. Tho reacted by creating a garrison state that labeled any resistance to their war policies as treason. By increasing the powers of internal security forces and ideological police and subjugating the southern insurgency to Hanoi, they were able to wage total war at their discretion until 1975.

So can Ho can largely be acquitted of responsibility for the most brutal aspects of communist rule.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the he was not operating in an environment that was exactly favourable to benign and gentle government. The Democratic Republic of Vietnam was not obviously more oppressive than the American backed government in Saigon or the neutral monarchy of Norodom Sihanouk that ruled neighbouring Cambodia.

And Newhaven Council should not forget some the commendable aspects of life:

  1. He led the movement that ended nearly a century of pernicious French Colonialism.
  2. He was a British ally in the fight against Japanese militarism.
  3. His abhorrence of violence appears to have gone beyond the theoretical and to have guided his decision making. We’ve already seen that he had misgivings about the bloodshed that would result from an all out war with the Americans and he repeatedly risked his popularity and position to try to achieve independence without going to war with the French. That he failed says more about French intransigence than it does about him.

So if anyone from Newhaven is reading, my advice would be to go ahead and put up the statue. Ho is certainly not beyond reproach but he’s not the villain your MP thinks he is. He is definitely an important and interesting figure, and his link with your town is part of its history. There’s nothing in his record that requires you to snub a nation of ninety million people.

*Though I might suggest that using the money to put in a place a system that allows people to pay for their visas by card as well as cash do more to achieve that objective!


Why Vietnam’s Declaration of Independence begins with a quote from America’s

Or how America missed a chance to prevent its war with Vietnam, 20 years before it began.

September 2nd 1945

Seventy years ago today Ho Chi Minh stood in a large square in central Hanoi and delivered a statement proclaiming that Vietnam was now independent of its French rulers. It began:

All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This immortal statement was made in the Declaration of Independence of the United States of America in 1776. In a broader sense, this means: All the peoples on the earth are equal from birth, all the peoples have a right to live, to be happy and free.

The Declaration of the French Revolution made in 1791 on the Rights of Man and the Citizen also states: “All men are born free and with equal rights, and must always remain free and have equal rights.”

Those are undeniable truths.

Nevertheless, for more than eighty years, the French imperialists, abusing the standard of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity, have violated our Fatherland and oppressed our fellow-citizens. They have acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice.

Ho Chi Minh read the proclamation of Vietnamese independence

Ho Chi Minh read the proclamation of Vietnamese independence

That initial sentence is striking. The United States and the movement Ho Chi Minh led would shortly come to view each other as enemies, a situation that would last for half a century. The conflict between them would leave millions dead. Yet Ho began telling the world about his new nation not with a quote from Mao or Marx but Thomas Jefferson.

The immediate reason why he did so is clear: he was highlighting a mismatch between how the Great Powers had treated Vietnam and the values they supposedly espoused. Yet while he was straightforwardly condemning the French as hypocrites ‘who had acted contrary to the ideals of humanity and justice’, he doesn’t direct that kind of anger at the US. The implicit message to the French is a statement ‘these are your values, you have not lived up to them.’ The message to America seems more like a statement ‘these are your values. Will you live up to them?’ Note, for example, his statement later on in the proclamation that:

We are convinced that the Allied nations which at Tehran and San Francisco have acknowledged the principles of self-determination and equality of nations, will not refuse to acknowledge the independence of Vietnam.

The hopes America represented

Ho’s hope that the Americans would help Vietnam gain its independence was not without foundation. The Vietminh resistance fighters he led had co-operated with the Americans to fight the Japanese and Vichy French forces occupying ‘Indochina’ (modern day Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos). Indeed, Ho had actually spent time in a Chinese prison after being captured trying to make contact with American officers stationed there.

Furthermore, the US was not a friend of European Imperialism. It owed its own existence to a war of colonial independence. It had done all it could to push the Europeans out of Latin America. Ho had been in Versailles when Woodrow Wilson had advanced his view that there must be:

a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.”

Recently deceased US President Franklin Roosevelt seems to have been emphatically opposed to the reimposition of French rule in Indochina to which he partially attributed the decadence that allowed the Germans to so easily defeat France. He had repeatedly floated the idea that Indochina should be placed under international trusteeship as a step towards its eventual independence.

And pragmatically, at this stage American diplomatic support was the only kind of meaningful international support the Vietminh could hope for. While in later years they would receive masses of military aid from the USSR and China, that was emphatically not available in 1945. China was still under the control of the nationalist regime of Chiang Kai-Shek. Thus neither the Chinese nor Soviet communists had a way to get arms into Vietnam. So it must have seemed reasonable for Ho to look to the US as Vietnam’s most likely ally.

The road to hell

But it was not to be. Roosevelt’s plan for a trusteeship was rather half-baked and easily brushed aside. The lead in South Eastern Asian military operations was taken by the British rather than the Americans. With an Empire of their own they were trying to maintain, they were much more sympathetic to French aspirations to retain control of Indochina. When they entered southern Vietnam to disarm the Japanese forces based there, they brought the French forces with them and predictably they began attempting to reassert colonial control.

There was also to a shift in Washington. Roosevelt’s successor Harry Truman was much less viscerally anti-colonial. And with the Soviet Union establishing its own empire in Eastern Europe, American policy makers felt much less able to be sanguine about Vietnam potentially turning red. So when in 1950 fighting broke out between the French and the Vietminh, the Americans backed the French, providing them with arms, supplies and money to prosecute the war. This seemed like a smart move in the battle against communism: it both would help the French prevent a Vietminh victory in Vietnam and so make them grateful to the US and more likely to co-operate with it against the Soviet Union. It was thus seen as a way of shoring up the anti-communist fight in both Europe and Asia.

In fact, it would fail on both accounts. By 1954, the French had been defeated and the Americans would increasingly be pulled into fighting themselves. Even that would not be enough to prevent a communist victory but it would create spillovers that destabilised neighbouring countries. That allowed the genocidal Khmer Rouge to seize power in Cambodia and murder millions. And in 1966 President De Gaulle, who as leader of the WWII era Free French had been more adamant than anyone that the French should reclaim its colonies withdrew France from NATO. And TV pictures of napalmed children and reports of American soldiers massacring civilians wrecked the US’s reputation in Europe as it did around the world.

The alternative

This was a disaster that could have been pre-empted all the way back in 1945. Europe (and especially the UK) was in sufficiently desperate need of US economic and military support that it would have been in a position to bargain for Vietnam’s freedom. It’s true that this probably would have resulted in a communist takeover of the country but it would have been far better for US foreign policy that this happened in 1945 with their acquiescence than in 1975 with their bloody opposition. It is even possible that the US might have been able to forge an alliance with the newly free nation. That might sound fanciful but it was actually a common pattern during the Cold War. Communist regimes that had gained power through their own efforts rather than those of the Red Army often turned on Moscow: Yugoslavia did so in 1948 and China did in so in 1972. Certainly, reaching an understanding with the ideologically flexible Ho would have been easier than doing so with his more doctrinaire communist successors. And whatever else had turned out differently, it is likely that Cambodia would have been spared the nightmare of Khmer Rouge rule. While communism might well still have spread to the country, the chances of it doing in such a uniquely genocidal form without an equally unique set of circumstances preceding it.

September 2nd is a day of celebration in Vietnam, where it is the national day commemorating its independence.  It is also the day when Britain and America celebrate ‘Victory in Japan day’ commemorating the end of the brutal war in the Pacific. That most certainly is an event worth celebrating. But perhaps, we should also use this day to contemplate how our two nations wasted an opportunity for peace for the sake of a French colonial project whose time had clearly passed.

The global economy graphed


The map above divides up global GDP between countries and how those national economies break down by sector.

My main observation are that:

  1. Wow, the American segment of that graph is big!
  2. While Asia may be rising but it has not yet risen. A similar observation can be made about Europe’s decline. Medium sized European countries like France, Britain and Italy still make up a sizeable share of the World Economy. Germany’s economy is almost twice the size of India’s. Indonesia has a population fifteen times larger than the Netherlands but their economies are about the same size. Hence, while things like the Eurozone crisis might seem like purely regional affairs they matter for the World as whole.
  3. There are 54 countries in Africa. Not one of them has an economy larger than Austria. Indeed, the entirety of Africa’s economy can be found in the small South African section and in the modest ‘rest of the world’ one.

Hat tip: Vox

Voters know full well that Labour and the Tories have very different policies

At the last General Election, the IFS calculated that the difference in public spending implied by Labour and Conservative economic plans was £40 billion. That’s about the size of the entire economy of Croatia.

Despite this it’s not unusual to hear the view expressed that there just aren’t that many differences between Labour and the Tories anymore. In an interesting article by Adam Ludlow, a pollster for ComRes, a Corbyn supporter is quoted saying:

“When I go out canvassing, people don’t say “you’re too left wing in the Labour Party”, they say “you’re all the same as each other!”’

The problem as Ludlow details is that more systematic evidence just doesn’t bear out such anecdotes:

…when it comes to the last election, the public was well-aware of the differences on offer – and chose to reject Labour.

The chart below shows that prior to the election, the vast majority of voters thought that Labour and the Conservatives were different in their visions for the future of the country, their attitude to the economy and their attitude towards government spending. Contrary to what some might say, the public did not think that the choice on offer was just different shades of austerity. Labour did not lose because they didn’t offer a big enough alternative to the Conservatives on the big issues.

If anything, this graph shows some of the reasons why the Tories won: the NHS was meant to be Labour’s core area of strength, but fewer voters thought the two parties were different in this area than in others.

Indeed, the key to marketing strategy is to be similar to your competitors on their areas of strength and different to them on your own areas of strength. Lower-end brands emphasise their similarities to their better-known counterparts in terms of quality while simultaneously highlighting their differences when it comes to price. Better-known brands try to turn this on its head, using the existence of replicas to draw attention to differences in quality (being “the real McCoy” or “Just like a Golf”).

The story of the 2015 election can, in part, be told by the way the Conservatives reduced the difference to Labour on the NHS while maximising the difference between the parties on the economy.

I suspect that the fact that Corbyn supporters so often return to this trope is an indicator that they are rather politically cossetted. It is quite possible if you live in the right (or should that be left) part of the country, do the right kind of job and have the right kind of friends to only really meet people who wish Labour was more left-wing. But people who live such lives should not mistake their social circle for the country as a whole.


Spy games

Two films based on classic sixties TV spy shows are in cinemas at the moment. I loved both of them but for very different reasons.

The latest instalment of the Mission Impossible franchise has been out for a while now. Both its box office takings and reviews have been impressive. I’m certainly not going to dissent from this chorus of approval: I had a riot watching it. All of these points have featured in pretty much every review and I agree with all of them:

  • It’s fun;
  • The action sequences look cool;
  • Rebecca Ferguson steals the show; and
  • The stunts are impressive. All the more so because Cruise does them himself.

In addition to that there were a fair number of smaller detail that made me smile:

  • It understands that villains and people who are potentially villainous have English accents;
  • Simon McBurney and Tom Hollander reprise their partnership from Rev only this time Hollander is PM, so it’s McBurney who has to grovel and scrape;
  • The trailers largely avoided showing anything from the film’s final act. That’s a nice change from promotional campaigns like the ones for Terminator: Genysis and Age of Ultron that revealed way too much; and
  • That the opening credits cleverly pastiched the iconic title sequence of the TV series.

Indeed, such is the dependability of the franchise that it shows that a frequently criticised aspect of blockbuster films can in the right hands become one of their strengths. The Mission: Impossible films are undoubtedly filmmaking as a business but done by businessmen whose approach to making money is to find something people want, advertise that that’s what they are offering and then deliver it in great quantity and at high quantity. In this case that’s watching Tom Cruise doing steadily more ridiculous things in order to save the world whilst Simon Pegg, Ving Rhaimes and Jeremy Renner provide comedic commentary. If those businessmen could go on delivering it for a while longer I would appreciate it.

Similarly, one can without great difficult understand the commercial reasoning that lead to the Man from UNCLE. Warner Bros presumably looked at the $2Bn and counting Paramount have taken from the Mission: Impossible films and thought ‘are there any other 60s TV shows about spies we can remake’. Indeed, it even appears that at one point Tom Cruise had been cast as Napoleon Solo.*

The “we want something <insert name of currently profitable property>” school of commissioning generally does not produce great results. It’s generally cynical and allows films that have no business being made to get greenlit because they feature vampires, teens in a dystopian future or whatever is considered to be ‘in’ at that moment. It also results in a fair amount of herding.

Fortunately, the Man from Uncle isn’t like this. Far from being a clone of Mission: Impossible it strikes out in a quite distinctive direction. Techno mumbo jumbo is replaced by masses of retro charm. It positively luxuriates in its sixties setting making full use of the style, music and historical context that allows. And while the M:I films are now essentially big action set pieces held together a thin cartilage of plot, the Man from Uncle is all about the characters. Indeed at one point rather than watching one of the leads engage in a death defying speed boat chase, we watch the other lead watch the action. The scene that follows lasts only about a minute and has no dialogue yet we get to see a central character (amusingly) realise that he doesn’t see the world the way he thought he did. It’s a fitting microcosm for the film as a whole. It has a genuine sweetness and elicits real warmth for its characters. It does action well but uses it for a purpose rather as an end in itself. And it generally avoids doing what you expect. Nothing in the way Guy Ritchie directs the film is revolutionary but he nonetheless avoids it ever feeling derivative; he always appears to be doing his own thing rather than copying anyone else.

Summary: both films are solid 8/10s. Despite their similar conceits they take very different approaches to delivering popcorn entertainment yet both succeed admirably.

*That was probably a bullet dodged.

India is about to replace China as the world’s largest country

The UN has revised its estimates and now thinks will India will have a larger population than China within a decade. That changes more or less everything.

It’s a commonplace observation that we are moving into an Asian century. Indeed it’s rather trite. But that’s not the same as a Chinese century.

The Middle Kingdom will in the not too distant future become the world’s largest economy but before it does it will cease to have the world’s largest population. That demographic crown will pass to India. In the absence of a one child policy it’s birthrate is significantly higher than China’s: the average Indian women has one more child than her Chinese counterpart.

The UN has recently updated its projections and now believes the two countries will switch position as soon as 2022. And what’s more the gap is likely to continue widening. Indeed, it seems likely that for much of the century there will be 3 Indians for every 2 Chinese.

Anyone assuming that we are heading into an era of Chinese hegemony or of China and America carving up the world between them may be in for a surprise. We might soon be looking at a world where India has the largest population, China the largest economy and America the most powerful military. That potentially makes for messy geopolitics reminiscent of the run up to World War I. As that comparison suggests such complexity is dangerous with a rapidly shifting balance of power allowing nations to kid themselves that conflict is in their interests.

India’s rise may also require us to change how we think about democracy. Not for nothing is the American president unofficially known as ‘the leader of the free world’; since at least 1945 the success of America politically, economically and culturally has been the barometer of democracy’s success. But as Asia becomes more central to our perceptions of the world as a whole and India rises demographically and economically it rather than US may become the paradigm example of democracy. It is (somewhat simplistically) argued that America one the Cold War because people behind the Iron Curtain wanted Levi’s rather than Ladas. Soon people in autocracies may judge whether they want to change their political system by comparing what Indians have with what the Chinese do.

Source: the Economist