Wednesday. 23/3/2022

The Monocle Minute

Image: Getty Images

Opinion / James Chambers

False friends

Tim Clissold’s 2004 book Mr China is a fascinating first-person account of a group of intrepid Western investors who ventured into the country in the 1990s, signed big-money deals with Chinese businessmen and were royally swindled. Then, as now, some contracts in China aren’t worth the paper they are written on and only reflect the circumstances on the day they were signed. Vladimir Putin would have been wise to read this page-turner before he touched down in Beijing last month for the Winter Olympics and shook hands with Xi Jinping on a now-infamous “no limits” friendship.

On that fateful winter’s day in Beijing, when the two strongmen stood shoulder to shoulder vowing to reshape the international order, Xi put everything on the table. But China’s leader made no firm commitments; unlike, say, Nato’s Article 5, which requires each member to come to the defence of the others. So when Russia invaded Ukraine later that month, China duly changed its end of the bargain and opted to abstain from a UN vote denouncing the war rather than stand firmly behind Russia. Since then, Xi has kept his new best friend at arm’s length (he has spoken to Putin once since the invasion began, just as he has with Joe Biden) and Beijing has offered Moscow little more than lip service. The high point could well be its support for the Kremlin’s madcap claims about US-funded labs in Ukraine developing biological weapons; Chinese state media enjoyed airing those allegations and threw in links to bat-coronaviruses for good measure.

Xi might never denounce Putin publicly but neither will he do anything that would harm China’s best interests – an implicit limitation in any international treaty entered into by Beijing. As the conflict progresses, Putin is looking less the savvy world leader and more of a fall guy for Beijing’s goals. The latest in a long line of Mr Chinas, fleeced by a deal that always seemed too good to be true.

Image: Shutterstock

Politics / Russia

Silent treatment

Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most prominent opposition figure, was sentenced to another nine years in prison yesterday after a judge found him guilty of fraud and contempt of court. The charges are widely considered to be politically motivated and, crucially, Navalny (pictured, on left) is to be moved to a maximum-security prison. “That would give him far less access to information and opportunity to speak,” Russia analyst and broadcaster Stephen Dalziel told Monocle 24’s The Briefing. “So far he has been able to send messages. Any free media that gives alternate views from the Kremlin line is now banned. That is a real sign of dictatorship in crisis. Putin is so worried about people finding out the truth about what is really going on.” The risk is, of course, that this heavy-handed approach backfires and turns Navalny into even more of a martyr.

Image: Bakas

Politics / South Korea

Pride of place

Every South Korean president since 1948 has lived in the Blue House (pictured), which sits on a hilltop in northern Seoul. But president-elect Yook Suk-yeol has broken with tradition and revealed plans to move the presidential residence to the defence ministry compound in Seoul’s Yongsan neighbourhood. He hopes that the move will improve communication with his aides and the public; the Blue House has long been seen as detached from ordinary South Koreans.

“It does look down on the city in a way that a lot of people don’t like,” Stephen Borowiec, a Seoul-based journalist, told Monocle 24’s The Globalist. “It has this historic symbolism as being the seat of imperial power.” Ditching the Blue House has been floated by previous leaders, including outgoing president Moon Jae-in, but security and logistical concerns have previously hindered packing up. Delivering on the pledge, at an estimated cost of $40m (€36m), is one way that the political novice can show he’s a man of his word.

Transport / Canada

Flying start

Low-cost air travel has a turbulent past in Canada. The country’s vast geography, relatively small population and high airport-landing taxes have kept out many budget options. But Lynx Air, a new Calgary-based carrier, has announced affordable routes, starting next month, to cities including St Johns, Edmonton and Halifax. The airline’s inaugural 90-minute flight from Calgary to Vancouver will take off on 7 April, with prices starting at CA$39 (€28). The airline has also unveiled plans to boost its presence at Toronto Pearson International, Canada’s busiest airport, with a new fleet of Boeing 737s. Other new entrants to the country’s aviation industry include Flair Airlines, Swoop and Canada Jetlines; many will be watching closely as to whether the low-cost air-travel sector finally takes wing in a market that has grounded several carriers before it.

Image: Getty Images

Architecture / USA

Mall orders

The Smithsonian Institution is now assessing 24 sites in Washington for two new projects: the National Museum of the American Latino and the American Women’s History Museum. A spot near the National Mall would be symbolically crucial to both projects as a celebration of the central role that Latinos and women have played in the nation’s history – yet space is limited. Among the sites under consideration are the South 14 Monument site, the Arts and Industries Building and the J Edgar Hoover FBI Building (pictured) on Pennsylvania Avenue. The last of these is a wildcard; basing a museum here would require turfing out the agency’s staff. Still, there’s a satisfying progressivism in the idea of repurposing iconic but inaccessible federal properties as forums for national self-reflection – an acknowledgement, perhaps, that America is its people, not just its institutions.

Image: Alamy

M24 / Tall Stories

South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata

Sally Howard takes us on a tour of a historic cemetery in Kolkata, capital of West Bengal.

Monocle Films / Global

‘The Monocle Book of the Nordics’

Following in the footsteps of our best-selling titles The Monocle Book of Italy and The Monocle Book of Japan, this is a thrilling exploration of Europe’s northernmost reaches. Order your copy from The Monocle Shop.

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