The Lessons of History – why confabulation may be worse than amnesia

It is normal for any society to look back to their past for paradigms of “greatness”. In Will and Ariel Durant’s masterful work The Lessons of History, they wrote that:

To break sharply with the past is to court the madness that may follow the shock of sudden blows or mutilations. As the sanity of the individual lies in the continuity of his memories, so the sanity of a group lies in the continuity of its traditions; in either case a break in the chain invites a neurotic reaction.

In other words, a grasp of history is important and as a historian myself, I am quite skeptical of those in public life who clearly do not have or act on such a grasp – Tony Blair in the build-up to the Iraq War being a case in point.

But what is the right history to look to? What of the rich tapestry of our past really tells us about the tenets of our national character? History will always be twisted to aid politics; but the current ahistoricism amongst the governing classes has I believe reached something of a new low – and it matters for policy. Reaching for the correct memory is as important as having memories at all.

Britain, for instance, has an imperial history which as a nation it has yet to move on from despite the best efforts of the PC brigades. The signs of it – from the remnants of actual empire (now reduced to the Falklands and Gibraltar) to the permanent seat on the UNSC – still pervade much establishment and tabloid newspaper thinking. But whereas many British subconsciously see the height of empire as the regal majesty of the Delhi Durbar, the real Britain was something altogether less dignified. The British character, I would submit, is one of unruly mobbishness at heart which can be seen throughout society from football hooligans through to the Bullingdon Club – perhaps the best representations of contemporary life being the social diversity of rioters in 2011, and the undignified rush to loot cargo from a sinking ship in 2007.


British hooliganism – two sides of the same historical coin

Rather than harking back to formal empire therefore, the British memory should look more to the Gordon Riots, to Clive of India and James Cook, than to parades at Spithead. Because in this riotous assembly, were also the seeds of Britain’s real greatness: as privateers and traders, entrepreneurs and innovators rather than organisers. In the 18th century Britain stumbled across empires in India and America, and created the Industrial Revolution; arguably, as soon as Britain’s organization skills were brought to bear in the 19th century, the Empire started its decline.

America, too, has the Anglospheric trait of tending towards natural lawlessness as shown by moments such as Hurricane Katrina (in contrast to an example like Fukushima). But there is a deeper romance to the American story as told in elementary schools across the land, of idealism, diversity and tolerance. This too, though, is misremembered. America became great not because of its tolerance, but because of its moments of judicious intolerance and plain ruthlessness – against indigenous people, against Britain, and later against Japan and the Soviet Union (the fraught relationship with Britain was the theme of a 2005 paper of mine). Yes, there were waves of immigration which fed into the so-called “melting pot”, but America would be much less of a country today had it been run with the kinder, gentler governance associated with neighbouring Canada for instance (even if this may also be exaggerated).

Some Americans will not like to see this as the basis of their history, but the reality is that the country’s “manifest destiny” – to rule the continent and then the world – was not built on being nice to people. The American Revolution was not mainly a principled stand of Enlightenment values, but an opportunistic socio-economic power grab by one set of elites from another*. There is a reason why Andrew Jackson, until recent events, was held high in the pantheon of bank notes. And this memory, tinged with a harsh edge and violence, is every bit as important for the country as self-congratulatory myths about the Founding Fathers or Abraham Lincoln. Just as Britain is more Clive than Hardinge, so America is more Jackson than Lewis and Clark.

Jackson Lewis Clark

Andrew Jackson,  Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

As an example of how these falsified memories impact policy, let us take the rhetoric surrounding immigration, an issue applicable to both the US and Britain. The common liberal mantra is the fallacy that “this country was built on immigration!”, a cry heard around hipster cafes from Primrose Hill to the West Village. Factually true, but rather irrelevant. Yes, there has been plenty of immigration in the past, although few have come close in scale to what has occurred in recent years. Yes, immigrants by and large contribute enormously to skills, ambition and demographics in both these countries. But it is not immigration itself which has been good; it is appropriate amounts of immigration when building on a platform of strong host culture. It is an “and”, not an “or” – the tired, poor, yearning huddled masses in the US would be nothing had not the violent ruthlessness of mostly white, protestant Anglophone Americans established a country of enormous land and resources. In other words, there are two pillars to this story of progress, not one:

  1. preserve a coherent indigenous identity;
  2. then add immigration as needed.

But the one-dimensional appreciation of history from those that dominate the media and education misses all this. Immigration is put on a pedestal in and of itself, as though it somehow generates positive impacts on a standalone basis. National identity is practically a dirty word – or has been captured by cynics who believe it can be watered down to nothing by adding foreign elements into the mix via the “we were all immigrants once” fallacy. To do this is the sow the seeds of destruction for any nation-state. Just as Blair had no regard for the longer sweep of history in the Middle East, so also the likes of Corbyn or Pelosi for their own country (although strangely Bernie Sanders actually did – and consequently struggled with certain corners of Liberaldom).

But the point is this: whether we are talking about British lack of self-discipline or American violence, these are not actually bad characteristics. People should not be judging these with opprobrium – they can be positives which lead to other strengths. Anglo-American consumerism and short-term thinking helps the whole world in terms of innovation and just plain growth. If Americans did not love spending money so much, the rest of us would not have iPhones. A planet of Germany’s and Japan’s would achieve nothing. Finding a place in the world is partly about adapting – but only on the basis of recognizing what one’s inherent strengths are. Politicians should not be complaining about these characteristics or still less, try to change them. They should be trying to harness them in productive ways – opportunism becomes enterprise, violence becomes robustness. The world certain needs all of these.

I will finish on a macro view. A former boss of mine once asserted that there are three types of competitiveness in the corporate world: price, quality and innovation. Capture one, and you will survive; capture two, and you will succeed; capture all three and you will rule the marketplace. Countries are not dissimilar, and it is no surprise that the one nation which comes closest to an adequate level of all three is also the only hyperpower – America. Historically, even during the Industrial Revolution, Britain was not known for quality, but rather for inventiveness in products and processes. Since emerging, Germany always had a superior record on pure quality, but they have rarely created anything completely new. Nations have their place; national identity will be a determinant of it.

Britain, post-Brexit, needs to thoroughly reflect on which of these features it possesses and how it pursues them (in my opinion, clearly led by innovation not quality)**. It may seem obvious to say that she needs to see herself as an underdog, yet shockingly few statesmen have really digested this fact. America, in this period of potential decline, also needs to rediscover which qualities it still has. Problems like the rise of China and the new “community of empires” will not solve themselves. But for either country to successfully confront their dilemmas, a closer examination of the collective, subconscious social memory is needed; for without it, we face the insanity Durant outlined so long ago.



* Perhaps this will be a major point of debate, but as something of a historian in the era (see eg my 2005 paper on the Anglican Bishop Controversy) the American Revolution was by and large a moment when local elites, separately in Boston and Virginia, found Britain a convenient scapegoat for directing local discontent against. By the 1740s, ports such as Boston and the southern backcountry were facing, for the very first time in colonial history, economic stagnation and the rise of an underclass. A war (The French & Indian) put this on hold, but by 1763 the Boston families and the Tidewater oligarchies needed to stir a conflict for their legitimacy. They got one with Britain, and this, much more than tiresome debates about Lockean Liberalism vs Republicanism (rf Bailyn, Pocock et al), or “taxation without representation”, lies at the heart of the rebellion – and partly explains the surprisingly strong loyalist sentiment throughout the war.

** I will also add that one of the only intelligible and plausible post-Brexit British identities I have heard comes from a potential future guest blogger here, namely that Britain could become an Israel – in other words, a medium-sized maverick which punches above its weight simply through unpredictability. Better not decommission those nuclear weapons, in which case.

The End of Entrepôts – why the future is big, not small


Photo: Lord Lugard with the Legco in 1909

It is one of the most oft-repeated fallacies in modern politics that the future is destined to be ever smaller and fragmented. One only has observe the fetishization of breakaway movements such as Scotland or Catalonia and hear the accompanying, knowing murmurs telling us that in political terms at least, atomization is the way of the future – small is beautiful. Some still reach further back, summoning up the collapse of the Soviet Union as proof that all large entities must collapse.

This is completely at odds with reality, on a number of levels. First, recent history has, far from being driven by a narrative of devolution, instead been dominated by the rise of “big countries” which in turn are resurrecting their own brand of Great Power relations. The corresponding decline in relevance of smaller entities is pronounced – most noticeably in the shape of individual European nations which have seen their weight fall off considerably. The 2010 Copenhagen agreement, where Obama sidelined the Europeans to reach straight for emerging giants, was an early sign of this; the gradual extinction of the Quadrilateral in determining trade policy was another.

Indeed in my 2013 paper on China and multilateralism, I noted that the world is if anything heading towards a new “community of empires”, with both the foreign and domestic policies of China, Brazil and India joining the US and Russia in pursuing an unrelentingly imperial logic. In response, those outside of their orbit are banding together to form what are prima facie trade blocs, but which are in reality the beginnings of something much more. Whether the European Union, ASEAN or Mercosur, nation-states are ceding sovereignty slowly but surely for the express purpose of aggregating their power in the world beyond. Even in unexpected corners of functioning humanity such as East Africa, union is the name of the game. Status and size do not have a linear correlation; as one reaches critical mass, the relationship becomes exponential. A power ten times as large as its neighbours is far more than ten times as important.

At the heart of this is a simple thesis: in the long run, the power of any country will be determined by the size of its population (with a shared identity – more of that another time), somewhat adjusted for a country’s natural resource base. In the long run, all else is mere noise. Yes, certain countries or civilisations may exercise disproportionate power for a period of time, even centuries. This can have any number of causes but often it is because of temporary technological disparities – temporary because in the long run, all technology will permeate meaning that we arrive back at where we started: population. Any vision of a world where the largest population blocks are not the most important countries must be premised on a smaller, more nimble country actively and exploitatively keeping larger population blocks subject. This was a kernel of much of European colonialism of the 19th century (which should not be conflated with a general model of imperialism exercised in human history).

Now in the long run, as Keynes says, we are all dead. So does it matter? I would say yes it does, particularly for those living in and around the rising powers of Asia such as China, Indonesia and to a lesser extent, India. Because some of these changes are no longer concerns for the long term, but coming to maturity now.

One lesson is this: the age of entrepôts such as Hong Kong and Singapore is fast coming to an end. In the future, there will be no space for such outposts any longer, at least in their current form. This is because the very existence of such centres is a lingering post-colonial legacy, based on an economic system that is now no longer extant. City-states like Singapore thrive because they are a form of offshoring, and the offshoring they offer is reaching the end of its useful life.

We should be crystal clear that offshoring has two forms: there is offshoring for work a country does not want to do, and offshoring for work it cannot do. On the one hand, there is what we classically understand as “offshoring” where one jurisdiction offers a cheaper way of producing goods and services for a richer one – offshoring from below. Textiles in Bangladesh fall into this, as does the core of China’s economic rise during the 1990s and 2000s. The second form is what hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and even London offer to an extent – offshoring  from above. They provide capabilities that other poorer, less developed countries cannot do themselves.

The problem is that much of the world is catching up. There is precious little that can be done in Hong Kong today that cannot be done in China; yet Hong Kong really only exists to serve the Chinese economy, much as some lament its progress to becoming “just another” Chinese port. Singapore is safer for the moment, but it is still implausible to imagine that Malaysia, much less Indonesia, will allow the island to remain an offshoring hub for high value-added industries such as finance. As with China, they will end up doing everything themselves. The post-colonial legacy of substantially inadequate skills and infrastructure will be bridged, if not today, then tomorrow. At that point, the city-states will have precious little left. This is a problem not faced by Bangladesh – but then no-one wants to be Bangladesh. There is a reason why entrepôts barely exist in the OECD and if they do, they service a tiny, marginal sliver of their neighbours’ economic life as Jersey or the British Virgin Islands do. It is because there is no room at the top.

Britain suffers from many of the same issues. Plenty have lauded the supposed rebirth of the British automotive industry, and in a few instances, this is well justified. But for every Aston Martin or Morgan, where real value-add and R&D is achieved in the UK, there is a far bigger presence of Nissan or Toyota. The latter however, are essentially a little Bangladesh model – investment into the UK occurs not because of any inherent capabilities, but because we are marginally cheaper and have fewer regulatory restrictions (unionization etc) than regional neighbours. This is not much of a national dream.

The other side of the UK is that of the entrepôt. Here I am referring to her services exports – but not the headline-grabbing financial services sector, which will be pretty easily replicable elsewhere, but rather industries such as advertising, publishing, design and architecture which are more genuinely unique. And one can tell that they are unique, since whereas the UK can barely export any financial services to the big empire economies of the US or China, it sells large quantities of stylish design. The problem is, this is nowhere near enough to support an independent UK – the idea of the UK becoming a “Singapore of Europe” is beyond fanciful, as I have noted before.

Singapore has been conspicuous in how strongly it clings to and pushes for ASEAN. And the reason is clear: if ASEAN does not succeed in binding the region together, Singapore will soon have nothing to offer its larger neighbours. Only a union of sorts will allow it to continue holding a position of import. Hong Kong’s commercial residents have long acquiesced to the fact that it will have to be another Chinese city, albeit one offering some special rules and playing a specific role. Hong Kong’s flagship airline’s troubles reflect the decline of hub-and-spoke trade in favour of point-to-point, and are a microcosm of how the whole economy is developing. Dubai will play off the inability of regional giants to pull their weight (Iran, Egypt and Turkey) but if and when they do, it too will face the same problems of reinvention.

But the old model of “Singapore” is a complacent and condescending anachronism – and those pushing the model for countries like Britain are living a sheer fantasy.

Explaining the Umbrella and Sunflower protests

As a brief follow-on from my previous piece on Taiwan, I have done a quick and dirty analysis on what is driving youth discontent in Greater China, and specifically what has arisen in Hong Kong and Taiwan in recent years.

In this single chart, I believe I capture what I would call the “aspiration deficit” in being a young person in these two jurisdictions today. Here I have calculated the house pricing and rental in key cities as a multiple of graduate starting salaries.

Graduate salaries


  1. Graduate salaries for PRC cities from Baidu News, as per 2017
  2. Graduate salary for Hong Kong from SCMP, as per 2016
  3. Graduate salary for Taiwan from Taipei Times, as per 2016
  4. House price and rental data from Knight Frank Greater China Property Market Report Q3 2017, based on Luxury Residential

The caveats: this is not designed to give any sort of rule of thumb about how long it takes to save for a flat, or how much is used up of income to pay for rent. I may even come up with a better methodology going forward – if the data allows. Instead, this exercise is simply a measure of what pressure there is on the dreams of those who newly come onto the job market, having been promised that their four years at university would lead them to a better life. This is why the luxury Residential market is I think an adequate metric on which to judge.

What is shows is quite how desperate prospects are for many of those in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Their earnings are stagnant, yet house pricing is going up. Welfare is better than in China, but the infrastructure is beginning to creak. The idea of looking after themselves – let alone looking after their parents – seems distant; and of course having children in this environment is ever less appetising. This is perhaps the single largest contributor to the upheavals experienced from students and other youth in the Umbrella and Sunflower movements – and it explains why so many young people see their future in China or elsewhere abroad.

To bring this back to politics, I wrote some time ago on the problems Beijing has had in relying on local tycoons to press their case in Hong Kong:

… less obvious has been how housing prices are preventing young local Hong Kong residents from starting lives properly, and in this as with much else the fault lies in a government that has existed to serve the tycoons – let us call them the Oligarchs – instead of the people. Beijing has been complicit in this since it decided to use the Oligarchs as a shortcut towards legitimacy after the handover. In colonial times, many tycoons were respected by locals as examples of being able to escape the unspoken racial glass ceiling, but since 1997 these Oligarchs have gone on to really take local people for a ride. Beijing is now paying the price for siding with the rich against the poor for so long. There is a limited amount of time that this can continue before Beijing must begin to change sides.

The same, in a sense, is true of Taiwan, where the big business lobby has been allowed to get rich off mainland China, repatriate their earnings and create asset bubbles in Taiwan that put home ownership increasingly beyond the reach of locally based graduates. It is a death spiral for aspiration – and it is this, much more than any real impact on living standards – which diminishes the legitimacy of any regime.

American poverty is neither urban nor rural – it’s small, mostly white towns

A vacant, boarded up house is seen in the once thriving Brush Park neighborhood with the downtown Detroit skyline behind it in Detroit,

It has been a year since Trump entered the White House, and eighteen months since the Brexit vote. Yet the media still display an astonishing lack of understanding about several aspects both of US wage stagnation, as well as how it interacted with voting.

The Brookings Institute came out with an important piece recently which has not received the attention it deserved. They produced five maps, showing the winners and losers in median wage change across the US between 1999 and 2016. Some of the results are obvious: the first map, of “winners”, shows that wages in the tech hubs and in government subsidised DC have done rather well; the last map, showing where wages have done the worst – step forward Detroit amongst others – is also a well-worn narrative.

But it is the penultimate map which should be most concerning. I have long argued that American liberals take far too narrow a view of poverty, and see the role of government as essentially providing urban answers to urban problems, which are the most visually obvious to those inside the Beltway. This ends up focusing on helping ethnic and other minorities, albeit usually in a less-than-constructive method. Altogether ignored is where much of the real poverty lies – as this map shows:


It repays some close study. The problem areas are not Detroit or Flint or Cleveland. The problems are that 10 urban areas of over 1 million inhabitants – and another 59 towns of between 100,000 and 1 million – have experienced median wage declines of 10% – 15% over the period. On the basis of this study, that’s 50 million people constituting the single largest group, and are not all names you would expect:

While the group contains a handful of large Sunbelt metro areas still laboring to rebound from the late 2000s housing crash (e.g., Miami, Orlando, Phoenix, Tucson) and a few major industrial centers in the Midwest (e.g., Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee), small- to mid-sized urban areas predominate in this category. Most are manufacturing centers that lost significant numbers of middle-income jobs in the 2000s that have not been replaced, including 10 urban areas in Wisconsin, six each in Michigan and Ohio, and five each in Georgia and Indiana. A few have shown some green shoots in the 2010s after a rough decade, including Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo in Michigan, and Oshkosh in Wisconsin. Others, however, have slipped considerably since 2009, such as Charleston, W.Va., Davenport, Iowa, and Springfield, Ill.

This reinforces two lessons. The first is that the often quoted cliché about urban vs rural voters is a false one; neither America (nor Britain) are about large urban centres. By my last count, well fewer than half (43%) of Americans lived in conurbations of over a million people. Fewer again (33%) lived in cities of over two million. The genuinely rural population is also small (15%). Instead, real American life is about small market and post-industrial towns.

Politics focused on what happens in New York or LA, and contrasted perniciously against what happens “out on the ranch”, is not helpful to anyone. Reporters and politicians know all about the urban indigent, even if they do not do much about it; but they seem to know nothing of the small-town working poor. That is what Trump and Sanders were all about. It is also the case with Britain, as was identified in an excellent piece in 2007 by Blair Freebairn.

The obsession with reporting on urban areas is one I have discussed before in relation to media misinformation about street protests in the developing world.

Neatly compact urban street protests are highly photogenic and easily captured on camera. Crowds sell news … It is difficult for outside observers to empathize with anyone other than those who are so passionately occupying the capital. It also involves much greater effort and investment in time – time which is not afforded by the twenty-four hour news cycle.

The great tragedy is that the same misguided focus is applicable at home, where we discovered last year that journalists who should know better, did not.

The second lesson is the danger of economists and economic commentators continue to fall victim to the intellectual Tyranny of the Mean, whereby average numbers still form the focus at the expense of median data. What I should hope is by now a very commonly seen chart shows the disparity which still leads to the incredulous question: “who are all these poor white people?”


There is little sense in technocrats informing voters that their economy has been growing, or that living standards have been rising, when no-one recognizes it as such. The disparity shown here is not only obvious as a chart, but more importantly in how voters feel about the economy. Median calculations are not perfect, but a good starting point would be for all economists to rethink along median lines each and every time they put out a statistic or indicator.

All said and done, it seems to me most liberals have still not grasped the underlying lessons of the last few years. Obama, of course, had precisely zero to say on the issues that would come to dominate 2016 – he barely seemed curious about such trends, for someone so supposedly intellectual. Fighting the urban-rural battle is to continue the last war. Small white towns are where it’s at right now, and telling them they’ve been doing okay is not going to win any votes.

Taiwan’s spiral of economic and political decline


My attention was drawn to this piece, detailing a new book – Unfinished Miracle: Taiwan’s Economy and Society in Transition – which feels like it could be quite important. Whilst I await the final version, I nonetheless would offer a few thoughts on Taiwan, and not least its asymmetric relationship with China.

Few states are as substantially bound to and distorted by a single other large, connected country as Taiwan is by China (for the record, I do not acknowledge Taiwan as a sovereign nation but will for the purposes of this blog post refer to it in the short hand). The only other examples which spring immediately to mind are the relationships between the US and Britain, and between Brazil and Portugal – and both of those are largely historical cases. In each instance, the existence of the larger and younger frontier came to capture the economic imagination of the wealthier, older land – such that in many cases there was a disproportionate focus on these opportunities at the expense of other potentially more profitable ones.

Taiwan’s love-hate relationship with the Mainland along these same lines appears to be the heart of the thesis offered in the new book. In particular, the writers detail the “three-way trade” in which Taiwanese companies operate an export model using Chinese assets rather than domestic Taiwanese ones, creating employment and generating returns in China rather than at “home”:

One can see from employment figures that Taiwanese enterprises have created far more jobs overseas than in Taiwan. The top 500 companies employ about 2.5 million people abroad (mostly in China) but only 1.5 million people at home. According to estimates, for every 29 people these companies employ in China, they employ one less person in Taiwan.

Not every point makes sense to me. For instance the authors start off with the matter of SMEs accounting for a declining proportion of direct exports – which may well be true but I will have to wait for the book to see why it is relevant. After all any economy, as it develops and consolidates along the value chain, should see local export champions aggregate value so that a few higher end entities become the point of export, rather than SMEs serving as offshore suppliers to a foreign aggregator.


But the issue of how and where Taiwanese companies are making money is of great consequence. If the article is correct, Taiwanese companies are struggling to improve their gross margins despite moving their workforce into the PRC. This is clearly an issue about where they sit on the value chain. But there is another, even more gigantic elephant looming in the room: Taiwan is becoming nothing more than a remittance economy barely differing from the Philippines.


Consider that an estimated two million Taiwanese live abroad – one million in China alone (and half a million just in the Shanghai area). And these are not the old and invalid – they are the young, the brightest, the entrepreneurial two million out of a total workforce of only 11.8m people. Those that can, leave; those that can’t, remain. The social and cultural disjuncture between the diaspora and those staying at home, where graduate salaries are now lower than comparable roles in Shanghai or Beijing, is increasingly stark.

Furthermore, whilst domestic salaries are stagnating, business engaged in the offshore model discussed in this paper (“SMEs that become big companies in China”) are making huge returns, and often repatriating large amounts as a consequence. The earnings made from Chinese exports is leading to a huge asset bubble, particularly in property prices. Those same left-behind graduates are therefore experiencing not only depressed wages, but increasingly unaffordable housing. Even Chinese tourism is driving up the cost of living. The ongoing polarization of Taiwanese politics has its roots in this dichotomy. It is a perfect storm into which the DPP and the Sunflower Movement have emerged, but without any noticeable plan and only trite promises.

Political unrest is an outcome of the country’s inevitable economic model – inevitable because of China’s clever strategy of stymying Taiwanese attempts to trade elsewhere; but giving privileged access to China itself. This integration by stealth has paid huge dividends in terms of making the Taiwanese understand which side their bread is buttered. And it has led to two tangential outcomes – but only one is positive.

First, Taiwan has become a major centre for RMB internationalization. Much of the corporate earnings on the Mainland end up flooding back into Taiwan in its original currency. The island province therefore already constitutes the world’s second largest offshore RMB pool after Hong Kong (which occupies its leadership position for other reasons). Ordinary people are already getting used to RMB banking and wealth products on a day-to-day level, whilst corporates are beginning to issue RMB Formosa bonds. Mainland China is a fact of life for many people, accounting for the relative prima facie ambivalence towards independence.

Secondly and more worryingly, left-behind Taiwan has become increasingly parochial, with a poverty of means being matched by a poverty of ambition. Indeed the Taiwanese even have a term for this, the monstrous concept of 小確幸 which tells them that “good enough is good enough”, the ultimate expression of a “small country” mentality. Fewer and fewer overseas voters – “those that can” – bother to return for elections, especially in midterms, leading to legislative gridlock. And the media, who are left to focus on “those that can’t”, enter a downward spiral of navel-gazing such that news is more akin to a parish newsletter than real journalism.*

All this makes it far more problematic either for the KMT or any “One China” platform to succeed; and easier for peddlers of cheap myths for independence. In this sense, the Chinese strategy of binding Taiwan close may have the unexpected effect of creating a more troublesome rump population who have so little that they also have nothing to lose.

Taiwan’s economic decline is something of a tragedy. Of the four Tigers, its comparative decline is the most visual: Taipei looks like a city that simply stopped developing in c. 1990. Yet for many of us, it is a hugely romantic – and romanticized – version of much that is good about China. Unless someone can come up with a plan of action that captures the essence of all this, the island will continue slipping into a sea of irrelevance, regardless of any formal takeover by the PRC. That will be a situation where everyone is a loser.


* My own speculative thesis is that Taiwan, despite being very educated, has a lower per capita consumption of international quality media such as the Financial Times, the Economist or the Wall Street Journal than other equally non Anglophone societies such as Japan or Korea, or China.