Archive for April, 2011

A new post for the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter blog – a good foreign policy blog that does not originate in the US. About a trip I recently made to Seoul, during which I had to make a pilgrimage to the border with the North. Interesting experience and one day I guess I would like to try to do it going the other way. One detail I realise I did not mention, I actually was visiting a Korean friend in Seoul, but he was not allowed to come on the same trip as the other foreigners. I did not quite catch if they are ever allowed to go and would welcome anyone who can tell me this. Thanks as ever to darling Sue Anne for her great photos.

A trip to the Cold War’s last border

By Raffaello Pantucci – 29 April 2011 3:26PM

Raffaello Pantucci is a Visiting Scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Stepping into North Korean territory was not quite as dramatic as I thought it would be. The small huts straddling the demarcation line between North and South Korea in the Joint Security Area are small plots of land that are each half owned by each side.

Essentially neutral zones in which the two sides have official discussions when required, but that in true capitalist style, have been turned into part of a tourism trip by the enterprising South.

The trip to the DMZ from the South is one that starts in a hotel in Seoul where you take an hour and a half bus ride to the border.

A rather tall and camp Korean chap who referred to himself as the ‘Handsome Mr. Kim’ was our guide and spent the time regaling us with stories of North Korean activities .

Massive speaker systems that blasted propaganda to either side. Competitions between the two sides to build ever bigger buildings and flags. And stories of North Korean workers in the Kaeson industrial complex who would only get paid $5 of the $65 the companies were paying for them and would sneak out choco pie snacks that they would be given as an afternoon snack to sell on the black market.

He also warned of things we could not do: take pictures unless explicitly told to, attempt any communication with soldiers in the North or point across to the other side.

Failure to heed these warnings and we could be shot.

An older European woman who was on our trip looked horrified, wondering what on earth her gleeful looking husband had dragged her along to.

Once at Camp Boniface our passports were checked and they verified that no one had cameras of too high a resolution. Amusingly enough, the only chap whose camera was of too high a resolution was a Chinese tourist who had joined our group — them’s the rules the guides told us, but I have a feeling he felt singled out.

Then once at the border we were told in quite strict terms that no pictures could be taken of anything on the South Korean side — one American in the group transgressed and was forced to delete his pictures while a sunglassed Korean soldier loomed over him.

On the Northern side, only one soldier came out to stare at us as we watched the Hermit Kingdom from the comfort of the South.

Scanning us using binoculars, he unfortunately did not encourage his friends to come out and perform for us.

Inside the hut where I crossed the border, we were shown flags on the South side that had been placed behind glass since North Korean soldiers had come into the hut while former President Bush was in Seoul and blown their noses and shone their shoes with the US and South Korean flags that used to be there on little stands.

Having had our moment in the North, we were taken around the rather desolate area that makes up the official DMZ by bus, with a pass by the infamous spot where a tree being cut down almost led to war and to the Taesong (freedom) village that sits inside the DMZ, with a giant flagpole and cathedral and where people are encouraged to stay and be farmers with large subsidies and a tax free lifestyle.

The equivalent village in the North we were reliably told, was a Potemkin village with no one living in it, but with a giant 600kg DPRK flag flying high above it.

The final stop was the souvenir shop where we could buy seemingly unlimited supplies of mint North Korean currency and bottles of blueberry wine or an alarmingly bright green pear brandy.

I was of course tempted, though I did wonder where on earth they got this seemingly unlimited supply from and hoped that my money was not ending up in the North.

On the journey back, our guide complained about how bitter he and his countrymen were at all ‘their money’ that the previous government had been dishing our to his ‘greedy brother’ Kim Jong Il. I can only hope that my money did not also end there.

Back in Seoul we went past a square where preparations were underway for an anniversary event to commemorate the first anniversary of the sinking of the Cheonan.

While Mr. Kim told us how lots of young Korean men had streamed to join the marines after that event, a number of the other Europeans on the bus had absolutely no idea what had taken place.

Photo by Sue Anne Tay.

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A new post for Whose World Order? at ECFR focusing on meetings in China and the importance of them. Some of the ideas hinted at will be fleshed out in a larger paper that I should be coming out in a few weeks.

Shanghai View: To Meet or Not to Meet

Date: 27th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaDalai LamaTibetUsa

Many westerners who to come China often find themselves stuck in long and seemingly interminable meetings with their Chinese counterparts. The conversation is often held in impressively fluent English that can sometimes be deceptive, making it seem as though the nuance of intended meaning is getting through while the conversation nevertheless drifts with no apparent purpose. At the end of the meeting, the Chinese participants will express gratitude for a productive and useful session, seemingly enthused by an encounter that the foreigner reflects on with bemusement.

There are a number of reasons for this. First, for some Chinese academics and low level local officials, it is often simply the act of meeting that fulfills their ambitions for the appointment. The more foreigners they meet, the more important they seem to others they work with.

Secondly, ascertaining useful information from Chinese people at any level takes a certain amount of relationship building – in Mandarin it is called Guan Xi (关). This is basically networking, and as with any network you build elsewhere, it takes effort and a few meetings before you can get to the crux of the matter. This process is a bit slower in China, and it takes a few more meetings than it might elsewhere to start developing the capacity for a frank conversation. Like many other things, this process is starting to shift in a westerly direction – networking is speeding up as the Chinese interact with more foreigners and realise how they do things. Nevertheless, whoever you are dealing with, and no matter how western-experienced they are, it always pays dividends to put in some time with the guangxi.

Thirdly and more crucially, there is the underlying message that the Chinese side was trying to impart during the meeting but did not want to say explicitly. Meetings at every level are usually littered with these implicit messages. A meeting that seems to be drifting can often be, in reality, a meeting that has an underlying message that you are simply not getting. Usually, at mid-levels, they will be a bit blunter when they see the message is not getting across. At higher levels, there seems to be more resolute belief in the Chinese system; that messages can be passed in a desperately opaque manner. Either way, meetings are key.

So when China starts to cancel meetings it is clear that there is a problem. Cancelling meetings is about as clear a message as you can send, and for the typically polite and status-fixated Chinese it is a very blunt message. The EU (and France in particular) got this full in the face when the Chinese side pulled the plug on the EU-China Summit in late 2008, in retaliation for meetings with the Dalai Lama and a raft of other perceived Tibet-related slights, which were seen as being initiated by the French.

Now it seems that they are meting out a similar punishment to outgoing US Ambassador Jon Huntsman, with the FT reporting that “Beijing cancelled several bilateral academic and cultural programmes hosted by the US after Jon Huntsman was photographed in February in the capital near where anonymous internet users had called for a demonstration…several people familiar with the matter said the ruling Communist party had also ordered provincial bosses to cancel meetings with Mr Huntsman over the past two months.”

The US is looking at retaliatory measures, including the possibility of making it harder for high-ranking Chinese officials and family members to get expedited visas.

On the one hand, this seems to be part of a broader crackdown. Diplomats in Beijing have told me about bizarre complaints they are getting from Chinese officialdom about the activities of nationals and diplomats in cities outside the capital, while foreign journalists report that they are facing an increasingly difficult work environment. One journalist I know who works for a very mainstream global news organisation told me that they got stuck waiting for a work visa for about five months.

But if China feels that it can so bluntly slap someone as senior as Ambassador Huntsman – not only the US envoy to China but also a potential future President – then something is afoot. Usually, Chinese leaders relish the opportunity to have high-profile meetings, especially with high-ranking Americans. It gives them the opportunity to look like globe-trotting leaders before a domestic audience. That they are cancelling them at the moment means either that they think the US is behind the trouble they are cracking down on within their borders, or that their sense of self-importance has been elevated to the point that they see themselves as beyond needing to play nice with their biggest partner and “frenemy,” the US.

Either way, all of this is deeply negative, as it highlights how increasingly hostile the system seems to be to outsiders. The tensions we have seen with China in the last couple of years do not seem to be subsiding, and if this FT report is accurate, they seem in fact to be getting worse.

A longer post for Free Rad!cals, looking in detail at the case of the Tipton Taliban (the title I had initially gone with) in the wake of the latest Wikileaks information dump. I do not think that these chaps were very serious jihadists, but more likely your archetypal jihadi tourists. Be very interested to hear the version from the chaps themselves and they should feel free to contact me should they come across this and feel so inclined.

The Tipton Three: Things Not Quite Adding Up

I have in the past touched upon the case of the Tipton Taliban (or the Tipton Three), the three chaps from the West Midlands who were picked up in November 2001 by Northern Alliance forces and eventually transferred into US custody at Guantanamo Bay. They were amongst the first detainees to be repatriated from Gitmo in March 2004 and went on to produce, with award winning filmmaker Michael Winterbottom, a film of their experience in Afghanistan, The Road in Guantanamo.

The film painted the men’s experience in a very naïf way – as four young men who headed to Pakistan for a friend’s wedding and while there, wandered into Afghanistan out of curiosity to see what was going on. In a petition submitted to the US Supreme Court Shafiq Rasul claimed that he had travelled to Pakistan in the first place “to visit relatives, explore his culture, and continue his computer studies.” Asif Iqbal instead said that he was going with the intention of marrying “a woman from his father’s small village.”

By November 2001 they were in Afghanistan and were captured amongst the many former Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters fleeing the overwhelming US and Northern Alliance onslaught. In a long confessionalthey published with the Center for Constitutional Rights, they recounted the toughness of their detention, first at the hands of General Rashid Dostum’s forces, then in a Kandahar prison before they were handed over to U.S. forces that moved them to Guantanamo, This made them into poster-children for those angry at Guantanamo and the way the US was pursuing its war on terror until in June 2007 when they agreed to participate in a Channel 4 show in which Rhuhel Ahmed admitted to having visited an Islamist training camp and to having learned how to handle weapons like AK-47s. In January 2010they confirmed this story during an interview about a BBC show which reunited two of them with one of their Guantanamo jailers, saying that “we all went to the Taliban training camp on many occasions to find out what was happening” and later “being in Afghanistan, we were at that age where….seeing a gun….you’d never seen a gun in the UK…you want to hold it.”

Now with the latest Wikileaks information release we have the version of their tale that they told their American interrogators and that was collated into a detainee assessment in late October 2003 (just under five months prior to their release). It must of course prefaced that some parts of their stories may have been obtained under duress, but nevertheless, the background stories that the Gitmo detainee assessments provide have the ring of truth to them – the consistencies between them, some of the very specific details about their pre-departure experiences in the UK, and especially in light of the men’s subsequent admissions (admittedly, it is mostly Rhuhel Ahmed who has done the on-air admissions since).

According to the newly published reports, in late 1999-2000 the men started to get interested in jihad. In Shafiq Rasul’s account, in 1999 they started to attend the Muslim community center in Tipton where “they were encouraged from the start, as Muslim youth, to fight jihad.” He reported that “a well-respected cleric named Sheikh Faisal visited the Tipton Mosque and encouraged the detainee and his friends to commit themselves to the armed struggle against the west.” In Rhuhel Ahmed’s telling, “he started thinking about jihad during the summer of 2000, after reading books on Afghanistan and the Taliban. He also listened to tapes and watched videos on the Chechnya Jihad,” all of which he obtained from the Maktabah al-Ansaar bookstore in Birmingham, UK (that was set up by Moazzam Begg a few years earlier). Asif Iqbal merely reports that “he was a member of the Tipton mosque” and “that he became interested in Jihad in 2000.

Inspired, in September 2000, Asif Iqbal and Rhuhel Ahmed both headed (a week apart) to, in Iqbal’s report “receive military training, to help him fulfill his desire to fight Jihad.” According to Ahmed, the two met in Karachi and stayed at a mosque in the city until they left for Quetta and then onto Kandahar where they “attended a forty-day training session sponsored by the Harakat al-Islami Bangladeshi.” Having completed their training, in November 2000 they headed to the frontlines staying “a few weeks between the front and Kabul.” Apparently this was not very exciting, as according to Ahmed, “their frontline tour mainly consisted of guard duty.” By late November they had had enough and on the 26ththey returned to the UK.

Until 9/11 when all three men (and a fourth man Munir Ali, also from Tipton who is believed to have died in Afghanistan) headed off to Afghanistan once again. Asif Iqbal is the most forthcoming on reasons behind this decision with his interrogators telling them that “he left on 27 September 2003 [I believe this is a typo which is meant to be 2001] to go and fight against the ‘crusades’…Bin Laden was being blamed for the attacks and that he wanted to ‘fight for Bin Laden.” He went on say that President Bush was responsible “for the conspiracy against the Taliban” and that “the Jews had been the ones who attacked America.” Clearly fired up with zeal, he grabbed a flight “first class, one way.” The others (Rhuhel Ahmed, Munir Ali, and Shafiq Rasul) joined him just over a week later, leaving the UK on October 5th, 2001, and, according to Rhuhel, “basically took the same route from the previous trip.” Shafiq Rasul fills in more details saying that once in Karachi they met up with Abdul Rahman, “a known member of Harakat ul Jihad al Islami.” He organised their trip to Afghanistan, where the three of them met up again with Asif Iqbal.

At this point, their stories diverge a bit. According to Shafiq Rasul they were near the frontlines in Kabul for about ten days hiding in caves “with other Pakistanis, while coalition forces bombed the area.” Rhuhel Ahmed and Asif Iqbal instead say that following their meeting they went to a training camp near Kabul (an analyst speculates in Asif Iqbal’s statement that this might be the al Faruq camp), which Ahmed describes as “an old Russian military camp.” According to Iqbal, they stayed here for four weeks and were “bored.” So much so that they headed back into Pakistan for “sightseeing.” In his telling, after a couple of weeks drifting “they decided to return to Afghanistan, to rejoin the Jihad” – returning to Kabul they went to Bagram “to fight” for a couple of weeks. They then returned to Kabul and were instructed to head to the mountains where the frontline had been established. In Rhuhel Ahmed’s account, at the end of October they finished their training and went to Kandahar, then Kunduz before ending up in the mountains outside Kabul.

From this position in the mountains, the men appear to agree that they realised they were in a bad spot. According to Rhuhel Ahmed “they witnessed heavy US bombing raids” while Asif Iqbal recalls “one bomb landed approximately 50 meters away and ‘wiped out a whole mountain’.” They decided to try to get out to Pakistan, and as they were ended up getting caught with other Taliban aligned fighters by Uzbek General Rashid Dostum’s forces. Having been incarcerated and recognised as foreigners, the General’s forces sold them to the Americans for a reward and the men eventually ended up in Guantanamo.

It is highly likely that while in the custody of General Dostum’s forces, they underwent some nasty experiences, and no doubt Guantanamo was pretty harsh. But this new version of events goes a bit further in discrediting the rose-tinted version that they portrayed in their movie. Undoubtedly, US intelligence seems faulty and determined to conclude that they are more than they say. The American assessments for Ahmed and Iqbal lock onto the fact that they believe the men were at a rally in Afghanistan in winter 2000/2001 where Osama bin Laden spoke and “several of the 9/11 hijackers were present.” As it turns out, British intelligence was able to prove that all three were in the UK at the time; Rasul was in fact working at a Curry’s in the West Midlands. That he appears to have confessed to being in Afghanistan at the time is likely evidence of his mistreatment – all of which seems a bit excessive for an individual who while clearly misguided, was not an Al Qaeda kingpin.

No doubt this will not be the last that we hear from these men. They seem to enjoy the spotlight of publicity and their cause has been taken up by others as a way of shining a light on American misdeeds. Unfortunately, little digging has been done into their reasons for being in Afghanistan in the first place and it would be good to get a more candid version from them of their story at some point – especially in light of these new documents.

My contribution to the post-Inquest analysis into the July 7 bombing in London, this time for HSToday (looking back, I have been covering this lot since May 2008). This focuses on the training camps element, the group of older radicals around which the group was congregating in Northern England – detail on which has emerged during the Coroner’s Inquest. Lots of interesting information to come out during the hearings, all of which is complicating my book as it has added a whole new wealth of stuff I need to include. More on that soon!

The Missing Links In Britain’s 2005 Bombings

By: Raffaello Pantucci

04/21/2011 (12:00am)

Poring through the mountain of information that’s been published in the wake of British Coroner Lady Justice Hallett’s inquest into the July 7, 2005 bombings in London, many surprising new pieces of the plot puzzle have been revealed. One particularly interesting piece offers insights that US counterterrorism and law enforcement authorities might want to learn from.

It seems that the Islamist community out of which the July 7 team of terrorists emerged drew their inspiration from a group of older radicals who’d fought in jihadist battlefields abroad. This disclosure highlighted the risk that’s posed by older jihadists in radicalizing new generations of fighters, and serves as an important lesson for the United States with regard to leaping to conclusions that condemn entire communities of Muslims.

These plots tend to emerge from particular networks – focusing attention on them is the most productive way to counter terrorism at home.

According to newly published information from Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, and the West Yorkshire Police, July 7 bomber Mohammed Siddique Khan first appeared on counterterrorists’ radar in 2001 during an investigation codenamed Operation Warlock. This was an investigation that had been launched to try to piece together what, exactly, was going on and who was present at an outward-bound terrorist training camp under surveillance in Britain’s rural Lake District.

Khan was photographed as one of the participants, though it was only years later that authorities identified him. One of the trails of evidence that initiated investigation of the jihadist training camp was the activity of an individual named Martin “Abdullah” McDaid, who is a convert to Islam who’d claimed to be a former member of Special Forces. He was one of the organizers of the terrorist training camp, and according to newly released information, he’d been on MI5’s radar since 1998.

Based on intelligence, the West Yorkshire Police identified McDaid and fellow convert, James McClintock, a 44-year-old father of four from Dundee who’d converted to Islam in his 20s and changed his name to Yaqub Mohammed, was apprehended in Afghanistan in Dec. 2001 on suspicion of being a foreign fighter. Dubbed the “Tartan Taliban,” he was released a month later after repeatedly claiming he had no ties to terrorist organizations. He returned to the UK.

McLintock also was detained in Manchester in 2003, but was released without charge. He again was apprehended in early 2009 in Peshawar, Pakistan.

Based on recently released information, McClintock reputedly had achieved a high status among local Muslim communities in Northern England for his involvement in the Afghan war against the Soviets, and later during the conflict in Bosnia.

Fellow Muslim convert, Dr. Rasjid Skinner, a consulting psychologist at Bradford hospital,  told the Times that McClintock’s “reputation preceded him. He was a decent chap and something of a Boys’ Own hero. He was known to have fought the Russians in Afghanistan.”

According to McClintock, he was on his way to Pakistan to meet a friend when he met young Saudi’s on their way to jihad in Afghanistan who persuaded him to join them.

Less is known about McDaid, but one former radical Homeland Security Today interviewed said he recalled meeting McDaid at the Central Mosque in Leeds and found him to be a hard-line salafi-jihadist.

According to a former senior police source, both McDaid and McClintock were figures of interest based on their travel patterns and connections, but that there was never any evidence obtained that would hold up in court. Nevertheless, McDaid’s activities in helping run training camps reputedly was of such concern to one counterterrorist official that in 2002 they leaked the information about him to the Times – though nothing ever came of the tip.

A third organizer was a local Pakistani-Briton named Tafazal Mohammed, also known as “Tafs.” Additionally, there was a reference to a mysterious convert named Max Gillespie, or Abdul Rahman. Both were suspected of not only running the training camps, but having established a series of bookstores in Beeston out which they are suspected of having assisted in running study groups and carrying out respectable social work among the community and developing protest materials for dissemination.

Also part of this web of connections was Mohammed Siddique Khan and his friends, all of whom are reputed to have sought to do more with their lives than the limiting parameters they found in the world around them in an impoverished Leeds suburb. Khan and one of his fellow bombers went so far as to become trustees at one of the bookshops established by Mohammed and Gillespie, though by the time of the bombing they’d moved on.

From the springboard of the network that these men cast, the young radicals moved up the chain to connect with networks in London already in direct contact with Al Qaeda in Pakistan. They were able to go on at least three or four separate trips to Pakistan to train.

While it’s unclear whether it was McDaid, McClintock or “Tafs” who provided the men with the connections, it’s known that a key Al Qaeda facilitator in Luton, a city on London’s outskirts, had called telephone numbers connected to Khan from one of the bookstores that the men had established. This mysterious link to Al Qaeda seems to have been the person who sent Khan and a fellow aspiring jihadist on a “fact finding” mission to Afghanistan in 2003 to supposedly discover the truth of what was happening in the war.

But the real point in all of this is the fact that not only was Khan on the radar of security services as part of another Al Qaeda linked cell that was trying to plot an  attack, but he was part of a community that was motivated by a group of older radicals with field experience.

This is an all-important detail when considering how to cast a net of suspicion over communities in the manner that Rep. Peter King did during his recent hearings on radicalization in US Muslim communities. The truth is it is a very small and focused portion of Muslim communities that are involved in radical activities. Focusing on them should be the purpose of counterterrorism efforts, rather than the catch-all approach that seems to be favored by King.

After a bit of a delay a new piece over at Free Rad!cals, this time looking at the comparisons between Bosnia and Libya. An underexplored topic and not one I am being intentionally alarmist about, but more I wonder whether there is much attention being paid to this. Should anyone come across any interesting stories or anecdotes, do please pass on.

Wars Next Door

View all Raff Pantucci Blogs

Filed under: AfricaRadicalisation

Lord Ashdown may have a good point when he accuses the west of suffering from “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” allowing Bosnia to “slide back towards the status of a failed state” while attention is so focused on Libya, but I wonder if there is not another comparison that can be made between the two: that of jihadi battlefields within easy reach of Europe.

It remains unclear how many jihadists linked to al-Qaeda are fighting alongside the rebels in Libya. NATO Supreme Allied Commander Admiral James Stavridisspoke of “flickers” of Al Qaeda and Hezbollah being present in the country and rebel commanders have been quoted saying how some of the men they initially recruited to go and fight in Iraq have returned to fight Gadaffi’s forces. There have also been reports of former Guantanamo detainees showing up in leadership roles, and one report claimed that the jihadist units that were making it to the front were amongst the most effective fighters. On the more alarmist end of the scale, leader of nearby Chad has claimed that al-Qaeda linked elements have plundered the Colonel’s weapons supplies and run away with surface-to-air missiles.

Amidst this all, there have been stories of British Libyans deciding to return home to fight to overthrow the leader. According to James Brandon and Noman Benotman’s authoritative account, “some” former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) have returned to fight against Gadaffi, with at least one being killed and another captured. In the meantime, “Sam’s” story in the Telegraph seems to highlight that the fighting bug is catching amongst the younger generation. Othershave told of how they are returning to take on roles as doctors of aid workers.

All of which is very understandable. Rather than watch their nation implode on their television screens, these expatriate Libyans are going back home to do something. And they are doing this all with the support of NATO bombing campaign from the air and western intelligence agents on the ground directing fire.

But what happens when the NATO campaign eventually stops and what if Gadaffi does not fall. What if the nation descends, like Bosnia did, into a protracted and grim civil war into which jihadist elements were able to move in and offer a live fire training ground for aspirant warriors from around the world? Last time this happened in Bosnia, an unknown number of young Europeans went to fight. As the story of Sayyad al Falastini shows, the battlefield was a coach ride away for young men in London, and Libya is not really that much farther away (not sure if it is a coach ride, but it is certainly easier than getting to Somalia or Waziristan).

This may all be an exaggerated concern. One friend pointed out that of greater concern was the fact that jails in a number of north African countries had emptied, turning god knows who on the street. While intelligence headquarters had all been pillaged, destroying a wealth of knowledge on Islamists from across the region. But as the situation in Libya continues to drift into something less than a conclusive solution with Colonel Gadaffi continuing to hold on, some consideration should be given for it as a potential risk as a jihadi battlefield next door. Given the fact that until recently the West was quite firmly on the wrong side of history in Libya, and we are still uncertain as to what the plan is to support the rebels while allied bombers are accidentally killing some of them, this is by no means necessarily a revolution which will completely go the West’s way. Looking back at footage or coverage of Islamists rallying troops to go to Bosnia, it is easy to see that even in the wake of action by the West they remained angry and the end result was a group of cells some of which ended up targeting the their home nations. Extremists in the UK are already talking about how this is just another western war in a Muslim land.

There are many good reasons for the fighting in Libya to be brought to some positive resolution quickly, not allowing a war with a potentially jihadist flavor to fester on Europe’s doorstep is clearly amongst them. Unfortunately, at the moment the end strategy seems uncertain leading to a potentially dangerous period of intractable conflict that could turn into a Bosnia-style jihadist battlefield. Lets hope some resolution can be effectively brought and enforced before such a situation arises.

Another podcast for ECFR, again looking at China and recent events in North Africa. This time focused on Libya, but in a slightly less coherent way than my last one. No matter – enjoy!

A short post for Whose World Order, based on an interesting encounter I had the other day. More substantial things on China en route.

Shanghai View: the Soldier Sociologist

Date: 18th April 2011  |  Author: Raffaello Pantucci,

Categories: China,
Tags: ChinaDivorceSociology

I met a soldier today from the northern Shandong province, who had quit his 13-year army career to go and become a sociologist looking at divorce. He told me it was because the work in the army was hard and he had found it boring and repetitive. When asked what he had done as a soldier, all he could muster was “exercises.” He hadn’t had any opportunities to travel and had managed to rise a bit in the ranks, but not a huge amount – I couldn’t figure out the specifics of his rank, but he gave the impression of it being somewhat mid-range.

But what was fascinating was what he had decided to do instead. Having quit the army, he signed up to Renmin University (People’s University) in Beijing to do a PhD in sociology. His particular research was focused on divorces, and understanding how they work from the inside. His thesis project was focused on a particular couple who had divorced. He identified his subjects by hanging around a family court and watching a number of divorce proceedings. Having identified his ideal couple, he approached them separately. Of course, they initially refused to participate, but he treated them separately to dinner and was able to persuade them to become his subjects.

This was not entirely surprising as he was a charming chap, though I was impressed that he was able to persuade them to agree to undergo repeated interviews and then to also open up their network of family and friends to inquisition. From this, he was able to assemble the anatomy of their divorce and why it took place, and to learn some broader lessons about modern Chinese society. Unfortunately, he was not able to tell me much more about his findings than this, and when I pried he hemmed and hawed, leading me to suspect he had not quite finished.

Curious about divorce in China, I went online and discovered that in 2009 an official survey uncovered that one in five marriages in China ended in divorce. That figure is increasing, so research on the topic is clearly salient. There is ultimately nothing wrong with a former soldier deciding to do that research, even if it seems to be a somewhat dramatic life change. What the vignette captured, however, was how increasingly western China is becoming in many ways – different life options are still open to people at relatively advanced stages in their careers. Rather than a planned economy where everyone does the same, centrally-determined thing for life, there is now fluidity within the system. As their divorce rate catches up with the west, other features of society are also emulating western tendencies. The bigger question that remains unanswered, however, is whether this convergence is also taking place within the domestic and personal spheres.