ENVIRONMENTAL WARS: THE CORPORATE AND POLITICAL WAR ON NATURE

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by Gunnar Eigener

The Republican Party’s war on the environment has begun in earnest.

The US Army Corps of Engineers have approved the final easement to complete the Dakota Pipe Line (DAPL). The Keystone XL Pipeline has also been approved. Republican senators have introduced a bill to disband the Environmental Protection Agency. The Stream Protection Rule has been repealed using the Congressional Review Act. The Securities & Exchange Commissions (SEC) transparency rule has been repealed. The Interior Department methane rule is currently going through the repeal process. Trump has promised to disband the Clean Power Act and the EPA website has removed all pages relating to climate change. Trump’s America First Energy Plan neglected to mention solar energy jobs and, although the initial plan to sell of 3.3 million acres of national land has been withdrawn, proposals have been put forward to transfer federal land to state control. In the UK, the government is pushing forward with the intention to sell the Green Investment Bank and renewable energy ventures look set to slashed even more. A report by the Energy and Climate Committee has predicted that the UK will fail to meet its renewable energy targets. The closing of the Department of Energy and Climate Change led to its operations being transferred to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, casting doubt of the ability to prioritise the environment over business. Continue Reading

THE TRUMP CARD AND ‘MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN’ — IS IT ONE OF DECLINE OR RENEWAL?

epa05194068 Griffin Wasik wears a hat with Republican 2016 US presidential candidate Donald Trump's motto while waiting for him to speak at Macomb Community College Sports & Expo Center Field house  in Warrren, Michigan, USA, 04 March 2016. Michigan will hold their Presidential primary on 08 March.  EPA/JEFF KOWALSKY

by Oliver Steward

The United States is experiencing relative decline vis-a-vis in relation to other so-called ‘Great Powers’, notably China. The election of President-elect Donald  Trump may navigate this transition or accelerate this relative decline in the second decade of the 21st century.

US GDP has only grown nominally at 1.5%.  Some important elements can be taken to show the growing disparity and changes to the world’s two most important economic powers. As discussed in The Globalist, ‘US GDP stood at $16.8 trillion in 2013 —just about 4% larger than China’s economy…. [While]The IMF estimates that China’s GDP at purchasing power parity was $17.6 trillion at the end of 2014.’  Furthermore the US is spending $1 trillion on domestic and national security under the auspices of counter terrorism. It has spent blood and treasure in two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Continue Reading

DICTATORSHIPS & DEMOCRACY

Hong Kong Democracy Protest

by Gunnar Eigener

‘Democracy is government of the people, by the people and for the people.’
– Abraham Lincoln

Democracy has long been the banner to which Western leaders rally their troops to fight under. The Brexit referendum is a prime example of extreme democracy, progress for some at the expense of others. The desired outcome for the Leave campaign is for the UK to become a self-governing democracy. Just how much more democratic will the country become?

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THE COLD WAR, REHEATED

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by Gunnar Eigener

The Cold War peaked with the Cuban Missile Crisis and ended with the falling of the Berlin Wall. It left scars across the globe, many of which are still felt today. It tore societies apart. It created a feeling of angst and paranoia in those who lived through it. The lack of trust the West and East held for each other hasn’t really gone nor have the players changed that much. For younger generations, it used to be hard to imagine what a time like that must have been like but as this century progresses, but it’s becoming easier.

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CASUAL RACISM: WHY IS IT STILL A PROBLEM IN ASIA?

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by Faizal Nor Izham

Disclaimer: mentions violence against women, casual racism

Last week, the Internet was sent into its usual frenzy over the latest political correctness issue. Amidst the now sadly all-too-common Western-centric controversies, such as actress Rose McGowan raising the issue of the use of casual violence against women in movie posters to market ‘X-Men: The Apocalypse’, the Internet also reacted strongly to a television advert from China that was making its rounds on social media. The ad, featuring national detergent brand Qiaobi, contained levels of racism considered disturbingly casual by most standards.

In the commercial, a pouch of Qiaobi cleaning liquid is forced into a black actor’s mouth by a Chinese woman, who goes on to bundle him head-first into a washing machine. After a few cycles, she opens the lid and in his place, a Chinese man emerges instead. He proceeds to wink at the camera before the tagline appears onscreen: “Change begins with Qiaobi”.Continue Reading

STATE MEDIA AND THE DETERIORATION OF FREE SPEECH

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by Gunnar Eigener

Out of the May 5th elections the biggest story was the criticism of the coverage by the BBC and other mainstream media outlets. Particular focus of this was on BBC Question Time and the BBC Political Editor, Laura Kuenssberg. This isn’t the first time that Kuenssberg has come under fire and it probably won’t be the last. A petition was doing the rounds demanding an independent review of how biased her actions may have been but has now been taken down. Additionally, the lack of coverage over the alleged Tory fraud in the last General Election has generated a sense of distrust in the BBC, an organisation that states: ‘impartiality lies at the heart of the public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences’.

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SESAME CREDIT AND THE FUTURE OF THE INTERNET

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By Rob Harding

We live in the future. It’s easy to forget that.

Just look at the internet. A set of technologies that jumped from military geek-toy to utter ubiquity in just two decades. While only 3/8ths of the world’s population have regular access to the internet -the vast majority of them in North America, Europe and the CIS (the former Soviet Union countries) – other nations are rapidly expanding into the chaos of the digital frontier.

Interestingly, the largest nation on the internet in terms of raw population is the People’s Republic of China. From a single email in 1987 (‘across the Great Wall, we can reach every corner of the world’), China’s online presence has expanded to nearly 689 million regular internet users on 3.24 million domestic web sites by the end of 2015.These are not ancient dial-up PCs labouring in greasy internet cafes either- 83% are using smartphones and China’s broadband network is extensive and widely-used. The Chinese online gaming markets are huge, their domestic online shopping and social media sites are economic giants in their own right. Chinese netizens have been an unholy headache for their government too; while the government owns all internet access points through state-owned telecoms companies, and attempts to enforce various rules through the so-called ‘Great Firewall of China’, as with all online systems hackers have been easily able to penetrate their security and discontent is expressed regularly online.

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Photo: json.tv

The Chinese government has done its best to prevent this.The BBC reported in 2013 that nearly two million people were employed to monitor web activity online, and profanity filters, overt censorship and more covert measures like bandwidth throttling are widely used to shut down people expressing unapproved opinions.

The latest attempt to bring China’s restless netizens under control is a new credit-rating system being developed by the Chinese government, China’s Amazon-rivalling e-commerce giant Alibaba, and the media/internet/gaming/ISP company Tencent. Now, credit-rating systems are pretty much ubiquitous in the western world, and while they undoubtedly cause a fair amount of misery, it’s no more by design than the rest of the economy, right? In most countries, a credit-rating system is designed to rate an individual based on how able they are to fulfil financial commitments based on previous dealings. Just another economic widget, albeit one that can, and does screw people over on a regular basis.

Sesame Credit and its ilk are something else. Sesame Credit is a social engineering tool specifically designed to control and quantify social behaviour on a massive scale.

Scary stuff, huh? And while a good start, that video doesn’t begin to do the system justice. Sesame Credit is currently one of six corporate pilot schemes being run with the blessing and involvement of the Chinese government, with a full mandatory rollout planned in 2020. They aren’t trying to hide the system or its purpose, either. As laid out in the vast and repetitive design document the Chinese government released in 2014, the system is designed to ‘establish the idea of an [sic] sincerity culture, and carry forward sincerity and traditional virtues.’ It’s also supposed to be used to fight corruption and financial crime, but the main focus appears to be on finding a way to control and keep track of China’s vast and growing population.

The system already pulls down vast amounts of data, and has already had a profound impact, even in its early beta phases. Your Sesame Credit score already has access to all the data generated by Alibaba, which provides a vast array of online shopping, auction, payment and financial services, as well as dating sites, taxi companies and utility companies. The higher your score, the more ‘trustworthy’ you are considered to be, and the more perks and bonuses you unlock, like deposit-free car rentals or money off hotel rooms. There’s currently no set downside to having a negative score beyond losing said bonuses, but as the score is available for anyone to check users are incentivised to keep it high. The developers have refused to explain exactly how this score is generated, but they have confirmed that it includes elements based not only on how much you buy but also what you buy. The company tracks time spent in-game and purchases to attempt to build an image of the individual. Buy lots of nappies, you’re probably a parent and ‘more likely to have a sense of responsibility’, giving you a higher score. Play video games all day and your score goes down. In addition, it tracks financial credit scores, qualifications, even whether users bothered to settle taxi bills and bills with small retailers.

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Photo: Zheping Huang

While the current systems are still largely financial entities, a number of disturbing trends are already apparent. For one, Sesame tracks ‘somewhat unusual types of information, such as a person’s hobbies and whether he or she has a financially irresponsible friend.’ The latter component is particularly disturbing; it incentivises social division and provides tangible benefits to ostracising the less financially stable or fortunate. Imagine having to stop talking to a friend because they missed a rent payment, and facing financial loss or ostracism yourself if you don’t. Worse, imagine having to cut yourself off from a friend because their ‘hobbies’ fell onto the negative list. China’s LGBTQ+ record isn’t the worst in the world and it’s improving year by year, but the country only removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 2001 and then there’s shit like this. Social credit systems provide a way for this sort of institutionalised prejudice against subcultures and minorities to become omnipresent in the name of social harmony.

…if this system works, and makes dissent in China slightly more difficult, imagine how long it’s going to be before other governments start looking at similar ideas?

The reaction in the West to this story has of course been tinged with the standard Far East response, a mix of cultural othering and ‘It can’t happen here’, but let’s examine that. Of course, China’s closed internet and more overtly restrictive government provides a better environment for systems like this to be widely implemented, but Sesame Credit is much more than just top-down government and corporate rule-sets. The combination of bonuses and arbitrary scores essentially functions as operant conditioning, in a manner already seen in hundreds of absurdly popular free-to-play games. It’s the same mechanics that compel people to keep playing Clash of Clans or Eve Online- social pressure combined with compulsive design.

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Image: Peter Nicholson

Scarier still, it’s working. Early adopters are enthusiastically using the system, some lured by financial gains and others by patriotism. Scores pop up on dating sites and social networks. Currently if friends join Sesame Credit, your score goes up regardless of theirs. As this slightly less hysterical article says, the current system is purely financial, and serves more to enforce customer loyalty. The potential, however, is entirely real. Even if the government-mandated system is abandoned, the existing systems make life significantly easier for the Chinese government to snoop if it wants to. Worse, if this system works, and makes dissent in China slightly more difficult, imagine how long it’s going to be before other governments start looking at similar ideas? Given the British government’s complete disregard for the privacy of its own citizens, a self-reinforcing system for stifling dissent that leans heavily towards the carrot end of the spectrum rather than the stick has to have caught their interest.

Featured Image: http://blogs.globalasia.com/madeinprc/tag/infografias/