Expatriate haunts

From this week’s Private Eye (no. 1317)

School Report from Astana

A feature article mildly critical of the British education companies queuing up to accept work from the oil-rich authoritarian regime in Kazakhstan sparked almost a full page of letters in the Times Education Supplement this month, complaining about the “tone” of the piece.

Those grumbling about any suggestion that Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev might be a teeny bit of a despot included Andrew Wigford, MD of Teachers International Consultancy, and Diane Jacoutot, general manager of Teachanywhere, both companies involved in recruiting staff for the Nazarbayev Intellectual Schools scheme to set up 20 new elite grammar-style schools in the country, teaching in Kazakh, Russian, and English.

“We should applaud Kazakhstan for its desire to improve its education system,” wrote Jacoutot. “I, for one, am honoured to be part of it.”

But then, in April 2010 teachanywhere advertised for adventurous teachers to work in “one of the most exciting and unique expatriate haunts of the Muslim world” – yes: that was in Gaddafi’s Libya.

If anything, the TES was being kind to Kazakhstan, describing its democracy as “fledgling at best” despite elections being condemned by international monitors in February after opposition parties and candidates were banned from standing. And human rights organisations have called for allegations of torture to be investigated after 34 oil workers and others were jailed this month in relation to the Zhanaozen protests last year in which more than a dozen people died after police opened fire on unarmed strikers (Eye 1310).


The TES article and its associated comments are here. From that article is a striking image of English teaching existing in the gap between use-value and exchange-value (or perhaps even being created from it, fuelled by petrol):

British teachers are already heading to the landlocked country to work in the first seven of a new network of 20 elite government grammars, set up using wealth generated by large gas and oil reserves. Experienced teachers are being targeted to teach their subjects while mentoring Kazakh teachers and helping to develop the curriculum. About 20 British teachers started work there last September, but the figure is expected to rise to 80 a year from August.

The authorities hope that they will be lured by attractive packages including free accommodation, two free flights a year and wages of between $4,000 and $5,000 a month.

The commentors seem to have taken umbrage at the idea that the schools were not pleasant to work or study in (which is precisely nowhere in the article). Guys, we understand. It’s nice to work in an international school, and to live in an expatriate haunt. Going to one of these schools does get you better results, does make you into a rounded, confident, ambitious person (you’ll fit in well in a large company or governmental body). But that’s not really the problem now, is it?

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More on Chai-Na

Seeing as how China is written in Chinese as 中国, (zhongguo, IPA something like /tʂʊ̜ŋ gwɔ/), this means there is the potential for different transcriptions of the Western sounds /ʧaɪnə/ and /ʧi:nɑ/. The ‘proper’ Chinese characters mean ‘middle kingdom’. But there is plenty of scope to pick other characters to make the sound ‘Chai Na’ (or something similar), and give the name a more humorous or satirical connotation.

I posted about the use of 拆 before.

Now Language Log has provided a more expanded account of the wordplay (and the opportunity for cultural commentary within this) associated with transliteration, in the guise of a joke supposedly doing the rounds, based on how different people would render the sounds:

The playboy reads it as qiènǎ 妾哪 = where is my mistress?
The lover reads it as qīnnǎ 亲哪 = where is my darling?
The poor person reads it as qiánnǎ 钱哪 = where is my money?
The doctor reads it as qiènǎ 切哪 = where to cut?
The official reads it as quánnǎ 权哪 = where is my power?
The real estate developer reads it as quānnǎ 圈哪 = where can I encircle?
The dispossessed reads it as qiānnǎ 迁哪 = where should I move to?
The government reads it as chāinǎ 拆哪 = where should we demolish?

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Olympics Graffiti

Edit: here’s a nice one from four years back

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Reasons to hate the Olympics, 4: Beijing 2008

Throughout the last decade people have been being evicted from housing in Beijing to make way for construction projects with little compensation, often accompanied by threats of violence.

The Olympics was no exception to this, with UNESCO estimating that 580,000 people were displaced in the years before the Games as part of wider ‘urban renewal’ schemes.

However, it was also an opportunity for protestors (of house clearances and of other issues) to get wider exposure, and therefore a threat. Faced with this, the Beijing authorities set up dedicated protest ‘zones’ which required registration and approval. Predictably, this process was then used for further crackdown, not limited to the collection of information: the Washington Post detailed disappearances of activists and other repressive measures:

Liu Zhenlu, whose daughter died when her school collapsed in the Sichuan earthquake in May, […] was prevented by local officials from travelling to Beijing for a protest permit to draw attention to shoddy construction practices. After The Washington Post reported on the confrontation, Liu disappeared. His wife said he was gone from about 5 p.m. on Aug. 11 until the following day at 3 p.m., when a few friends were allowed to pick him up at the police station.

“He just sat at home and wouldn’t say a word. We gave up trying to ask him what happened,” one friend said before quickly hanging up the phone, which he said was monitored. “We’re worried the government will take us, too.”

The activist Hu Jia was jailed in the run-up to the Olympics after incendiary comments to the European Parliament about reprisals against dissidents in China. His wife and daughter later ‘disappeared’ the day before the opening ceremony, and all three were only released much later. His comments were:

Any human rights activists that talk too loudly are silenced. Millions of innocent people are persecuted in China. They are beaten, imprisoned and sometimes even sent to psychiatric hospitals. Every day the public security minister causes a catastrophe in human rights! As for the Olympic Games, we all hoped they would bring democracy. But the CCP just uses the games as a way to enhance itself, as was the case in 1936. Right now, persecution rates in China are at their highest. To give you an idea: the top boss in charge of the Olympics is also the chief of the Ministry of Public Security in Beijing! That’s really ironic. It’s as if the mafia was in charge of the Olympics.

The impression I had through 2008 was that these controversies were at the forefront of people’s mind leading up to the Games, through the disastrous torch relay in London which was only able to happen thanks to a huge police effort (see picture), to the recurring  stories about air quality and fears for athlete’s lungs.

But then the British team started to do well, the negative stories gave way to tales of plucky archers and cyclists, and the media gave up treating it as anything other than a sporting event. When in fact I’d argue the sport is more or less a sideshow for development and allocation of money into infrastructure.

A year later I was living there, and the city was smooth, the trauma invisible.

Continue reading

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Reasons to hate the Olympics 3: the destruction of East London

A huge amount of common land (football pitches, allotments, public paths) has been appropriated for the Olympic Games, especially around Hackney and Tower Hamlets. In keeping with the spirit of the whole project, this has been accompanied by an increased security presence and a needless heavy-handedness with people looking around the site, as described in the above video.

There has also been a good deal of environmental damage (such as in this article, an issue raised two years ago but I have heard little about it since), to match the quick and profitable erection of shoddy new structures designed to be driven through and parked in.

The financing of this, apart from that which has been stripped from charities and community organisations through the National Lottery, comes from super-rich private investors and large construction groups. Of course, above all since most the money is coming in from abroad, the government has welcomed this.

This is referred to in Iain Sinclair’s wonderful essay The Olympics Scam, now almost four years old, in which he also details the shady practices and official obfuscation that have surrounded the process, the underbelly of the orgy of branding and the heartwarming sport:

In boroughs affected by this 2012 game-show rabies – long-established businesses closed down, travellers expelled from edgeland settlements, allotment holders turned out – there were meetings, protests, consultations. As soon as the Olympic Park was enclosed, and therefore defined, loss quantified, the fence around the site became a symbol for opposition and the focus for discussion groups, such as the seminar convened by PNUK (Planners Network UK) and held at the boxing club in the old Limehouse Town Hall. I attended this public debate and heard the Hackney solicitor Bill Parry-Davies describe, quietly, remorselessly, how, after a series of mysterious fires, Dalston Lane had lost its Victorian theatre and sections of Georgian terrace, facilitating the new transport hub that would service the vital axes, south to the City, east to the Olympic Park. ‘In two houses on Dalston Lane,’ Parry-Davies told us, ‘there were squatters. A couple of guys came to the back door and said, “You’d better get out. Now.” Two days later the houses burned down.’

Nothing slows the momentum, the Olympic imperative. ‘The authorities want a big new station on the theatre site, a huge concrete slab over the railway cutting. That slab cost £39 million. How is it going to be paid for? By planning permission to build a 20-storey tower block right there. Hackney will give the developers half the value of the site, along with planning permission. You build high to achieve a small footprint. Most of the development will be buy-to-let investments, offshore finance. Huge amounts of Russian money. Tenants will move in and out constantly. There will be no community at all.’

Increased house prices and spikes in rent have already started to force people out. New clauses are being written into contracts which oblige tenants to be away during the Games. Flats are being let for as much as £7,500 a week (here). This will presumably die down in the autumn, having only inconvenienced a fraction of the number of those who will watch the spectacle unfold on TV.

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Reasons to hate the Olympics 2: weapons

A so-called Rapier missile launcher on Blackheath, London.

A photo of the “Starstreak” missiles installed on residential flats in Bow, from Brian Whelan’s website.

It seems to have perversely become part of the Olympics branding to insist that the Games are an irresistable terrorist target. Conveniently this also justifies the installation of expensive, UK-manufactured weapons systems in the heart of East London. The cost of security for the event as a whole will be more than £500 million.

There will also be some kind of sonic cannon employed, fresh from its use in Iraq. The banally named Long Range Acoustic Device can transmit hails or simply pain over a distance, and up close can register a deafening 150db.

Here is a video of Brian Whelan confronting an MoD official outside a Bow tower block.

According to his Twitter status he has been told that his tenancy is being terminated, though whether this investigation has anything to do with it or whether it’s simply in order to rent the property out at tourist prices I don’t know.

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Reasons to hate the Olympics, 1: the media

First in what could be a conceivably endless series of posts on the smell of bullshit floating around the Olympic Games.

Exhibit A is this shockingly inept piece of journalism from the Guardian, who a few months ago decided it would be a good idea to give space to the CEO’s pop psychological plugs. Funnily enough, comments weren’t allowed on this article:

Games chief tells Britain to wake up to ‘extraordinary opportunity’ of Olympics

Paul Deighton, chief executive of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (Locog), said he was concerned that many businesses and members of the public would not recognise its scale until shortly before it started.

“When the world starts arriving here, the light will begin to go on and people will start to say ‘Wow, I had no idea. This will be the experience of a lifetime.’ This is my real concern,” he said.

“The thing that keeps me up at night is whether we will take full advantage of the extraordinary opportunity coming our way this summer. I know that by the time we get to the end of this most people will say that they had no idea of the scale and opportunity of this, if only. I don’t want too many if onlys.”

Breaking news – The Olympics is going to be great!

The BBC is sending more than seven hundred journalists to cover the event, and already has people like Gabby Logan doing the rounds on panel shows (Room 101, 8 Out of 10 Cats) suggesting that anyone who moans about the Olympics is an idiot.

The Beeb has such an enormous investment in providing News and Sport that it is in a complete bind over sports-related news stories (FIFA, Beijing Olympics, Bahrain Grand Prix) which it cannot report without shooting itself in the foot when it comes to negotiating rights deals, cheerleading and generally building up hype and doing the marketeers work for them.

So, that’s one reason to hate the Olympics, the fact that no news organisation seems capable of reporting it properly, as they all want the kudos of reporting on it and are happy to take stories from its PR companies (within which probably most of the text is provided by these companies).

Lots more to follow.

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