Thursday. 28/1/2021

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / James Chambers

Stranger than fiction

China can seem like a scary place, particularly for those of us who spend our time poring over the latest headlines. Some imagine an army of one billion bloodthirsty dragons plotting how to devour our way of life, hack our data, pollute our rivers, infect our children, steal our lunch money... and perhaps buy a luxury bag or two. But amid all the noise it is easy to forget that the country is full of wonderful (as well as wonderfully annoying) people. The Chinese are some of the kindest, most hospitable people I’ve ever met. The daily news might be factual but it only presents a part of the story – one perspective – and it shouldn’t be relied upon as our sole source of information on China (or any other country for that matter). During these shouty times, might I suggest a little more Chinese fiction?

What’s that you say? More made-up stories from China? Although it might sound like a strange antidote, fiction can also get to the truth. Consuming novels and films about other cultures has always helped us to understand that, wherever we live in the world, we are all going through the same ups and downs in life. Just try watching Better Days, a Chinese-Hong Kong co-production (pictured) that’s a hopeful for this year’s Oscars. It is a brilliant film about school bullying and exam stress set on the mainland. Or pick up the new issue of Monocle, which features a piece by the US journalist Te-Ping Chen about the rewards of writing fiction. She penned her upcoming book of short stories on life in modern China, Land of Big Numbers, while working as a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal in Beijing. “It’s a country of such rich human detail and surprises, many of which can be hard to capture in a news story,” she says. Fiction offered Chen respite as a writer covering China. Perhaps it can offer us overwrought readers something similar.

Politics / Tunisia

Winds of change

Amid ongoing social unrest, Tunisia’s parliament this week approved a cabinet reshuffle that was requested by prime minister Hichem Mechichi but has only deepened a rift between him and the country’s president, Kais Saied. The feud between Saied and Mechichi over their alliances and powers has paralysed political action ever since the last elections were held in October 2019. Now Tunisia finds itself once again faced with angry protesters on the streets, a decade on from the 2011 Arab Spring revolution that brought democracy to the country. “The wrangling between the prime minister and president seems very disconnected from the larger political crisis and continuing protests across the country,” Fadil Aliriza, founder and editor in chief of Tunisia-focused news website Meshkal, tells the Monocle Minute. “Whether Mechichi succeeds in carving out more power for himself or not is a bit tangential to what is essentially the protesters’ rejection of the entire formal political system in place.” Concrete reforms, not cabinet reshuffles, are needed for this still-young democracy to flourish.

Health / EU

Preventative medicine

In the midst of an ongoing spat with AstraZeneca over vaccine procurement and delivery, the president of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen (pictured), has revealed bloc-wide plans that might prevent such problems from occurring in the future. In a speech at the (digital-only) World Economic Forum this week, Von der Leyen, who was formerly a doctor, proposed a “bio-defence preparedness programme”, a public-private partnership that would be dedicated to the discovery of emerging pathogens as well as treatments and vaccinations.

The rationale for this shake-up is that the EU must be better prepared to deal with future viruses; compare the continent’s coronavirus response with that of many countries in Asia and it’s clear to see why. Details remain sketchy and such a proactive plan is not going to distract from the current vaccination-distribution failings that are dominating headlines. Still, starting work on a unified system of prevention for future outbreaks can only be considered a positive step.

Media / Australia

Search terms

Google is making moves to launch News Showcase, its own news platform, within a matter of weeks. This is in response to Australia’s world-first proposition to make Google pay media companies for the news that’s displayed within its search engine. If the bill passes, Google will have to cough up licence fees not just for extensive previews of news stories but even for displaying links. The company’s rebuttals range from the philosophical (hosting paid-for content goes against the very purpose of a search engine) to the financial (the potential millions of dollars in fines for rule breaches are excessive). Managing director of Google Australia, Mel Silva, said that if the bill is passed, the company will have no choice but to entirely revoke access to its services in Australia. “We don’t respond to threats,” countered prime minister Scott Morrison. The search engine has long made its billions by featuring media content, while publishers earn relatively little for creating it. Has it finally reached a paywall?

Fashion / Paris

Bids and pieces

Fashion aficionados will be hovering excitedly over their keyboards at noon Paris time today when a dream slate of one-of-a-kind auction items goes on sale, hosted by the Drouot Digital website. The event, which runs until 20.00 Sunday evening, is organised by the French HIV/Aids charity Sidaction and is timed to celebrate the end of Haute Couture Week in place of the usual grand benefit dinner, which will be postponed until July. Lots include an atelier tour hosted by Chloé’s new creative director Gabriela Hearst and an overnight stay at Boucheron’s historic Place Vendôme headquarters with butlers from the Paris Ritz. Unique items for sale include the prototype of Rick Owens’s Alchemy chair and a never-sold handcrafted coat by AMI’s Alexandre Mattiussi. Bidders will also compete for a lunch with Jean Paul Gaultier, who stars in a lively short film (pictured) guiding viewers through the auction lots. It’s well worth a watch in itself.

M24 / Monocle on Design

What can we learn from unbuilt architecture?

We look at the winning design of the AA Prize for Unbuilt Work and author Christopher Beanland shares some unrealised visions for expressways. Plus: Sou Fujimoto explains how fragments of imagined ideas have been used in other projects.

Monocle Films / USA

Dallas street style

Texas is about big money, big cars and big characters; we meet the new generation adding some welcome cool to the cowboy chic.

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