Sunday, March 28, 2021


Warning: controversial ideas to make one think.

All sorts of people are up in arms (metaphorically, at least for now) about the treatment of the Uyghurs by the Chinese government.

Of course there is a lot of history, several thousand years’ worth, and if you want an introduction Wikipedia is as good place to start at as any. It’s complicated. But what is clear today is that the Peoples Republic of China regards the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region as very much part of China and anybody who calls for independence, such as The Turkistan Islamic Party, is regarded as a ‘terrorist’ and ‘separatist’. (The UN Security Council has also listed them as a terrorist organisation.)

A great deal has been written, by Western commentators and politicians, about the wrongs that the Chinese government has been doing to the Uyghurs. Some have used the word ‘genocide’ to describe the actions. We should be cautious in that respect. It would be unfortunate if the G-word were to become devalued. Genocide is what some German Christians did to many German Jews and events in Cambodia and Ruanda may also fit the bill. The current situation is not so clear and certainly nobody is alleging that thousands of people have been killed. The UN definition does include some features that might, arguably, apply.

But let’s look from another viewpoint. The Chinese government like to stress their desire for a harmonious society, with everybody working for the common good. This, of course, is an attitude deeply embedded in Chinese culture going back millennia to Confucius and before, not an invention of the communists. Troublesome Islamists exploding bombs to further their cause of setting up an Islamic state does not fit easily with the notion of harmony in the Peoples Republic.

Importantly, and this is really my main point, the Chinese have seen how Islamists have been dealt with in other places. The Chechen Wars of the 1990s and early 2000s were disastrous for all concerned, Russians and indigenous people alike, and the resulting Islamic state must be an outcome the Chinese government are keen to avoid. The Western approach in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere must make any admonition by European and American politicians ring hollow. The tragedy of sub-Saharan Africa, from Somalia to Nigeria and now south to Mozambique, is a series of object lessons in how not to deal with the rise of Islamism. The seemingly never ending conflict between Jews and Muslims, with sporadic interventions of Christians down the centuries, is another reminder that allowing religion to get involved with governance does not always make for a harmonious society. 

Is it any wonder then, that the Chinese are attempting a different approach, which while it may involve dealing harshly with the more recalcitrant people, stops a long way short of dropping bombs from great heights, a tactic that has been used all too often by the UK and the USA?





Monday, March 08, 2021

Coronavirus 51 Optimism or Pessimism?

In January 2016, at Oxgangs Primary School, Edinburgh, several tons of masonry collapsed from a wall onto an area where children sometimes walked. Nobody was there at the time, nobody was hurt, but the failure caused quite a fuss and 17 other schools were closed until their safety was assured. We have a zero tolerance approach to children being killed or injured by school roofs and walls falling down.

Today, all English school children must return to their classrooms. Many will be kept in crowded rooms with limited ventilation. It is generally accepted that transmission of the virus will increase. That will inevitably lead to more deaths and many more cases of long covid, the long term consequences of which we are yet to learn. But we seem to have got used to that. I just heard someone on the radio saying the upward spike in cases will be 'tolerable'. We are doing what our prime minister, Mr Johnson, told us: we may have to "take it on the chin".

A year ago the New Zealand prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced a zero tolerance approach to deaths from SARS-CoV-2. Several other countries, particularly in the eastern hemisphere, with different political systems and geographical and social settings, adopted similar positions. The results have been clear.

Today, as children go back to school, our government embarks on a deadly experiment. In weeks and months to come we will be able to see who amongst us succumbed. Today we balance optimism with pessimism. And that thought is the theme of this important thread of tweets from Professor Christina Pagel, 

Christina Pagel is Director of Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, "applying operational research and mathematics to problems in health care". For much of the last year she has been presenting the pandemic data at the weekly briefings of Independent SAGE.