Archive for the ‘China’ category


Twenty years on, the Hong Kong handover reminds us how impotent Britain proved to be

01.07.2017


Hong Kong’s skyline in 2008, photographed by Scrolllock.

Has it been 20 years since Dad and I sat in front of the telly to watch both Britannia sail out of the harbour and China set off a magnificent fireworks’ display to celebrate getting Hong Kong becoming one of her possessions again?
   Following some of the 20th anniversary commemorations through the media, notably the BBC World Service which followed them keenly, I had very mixed feelings.
   Having been born British in the then-colony (whilst cheering the All Blacks today, natch) I have some nostalgia for the Hong Kong of old. If it weren’t for some aspects of colonialism, my mother wouldn’t have secured a decent job at Wellington Hospital (viz. an English and Welsh qualification) and I probably would never have learned English before the age of three. It all helped.
   It was the spectre of 1997, specifically the fear of what the Communists would do after July 1, 1997, that prompted my parents to make plans to emigrate as early as the 1970s.
   Of course, history as shown that largely those fears have not come to pass, although the Umbrella Revolution highlights that universal suffrage is not a reality in the city.
   In a post-Brexit (or at least a post-Brexit vote) era, these past two decades also highlight that British nationalism is meaningless and little more than a tool for politicians to yield for propaganda.
   You can fairly argue that that is what nationalism always has been. It could also equally be argued that nationalism is founded on some rose-coloured-glasses past, painting a picture that actually never existed.
   American nostalgia looks back at a 1950s’ economic boom while ignoring segregation while British nostalgia shows a child pushing his bike up a hill to Dvořák’s New World Symphony.
   Brexiters, rightly or wrongly, want to reassert a British self-determination founded on a British national character.
   Most Britons I talked to, regardless of their politics, agree that if you are Hong Kong British, then you are British. That should be some solace to the families of those HKers who lost their lives fighting under the Crown in both World War II and the Falklands.
   Yet there is no reality to this claim when it comes to government. Fearful of an influx of Hong Kong British emigrating to the UK, the British National (Overseas) category was invented in 1985, to replace our previous status as Citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies. It didn’t do the wealthy any harm, mind: a lot went to Canada and Australia and took their money there. Others stayed and invested in China, and helped fuel the growth of Shenzhen as a technological powerhouse. The Hong Kong Chinese person is generally industrious, many having descended from refugees from China in 1949 who decided to make the most of the freedoms in the colony. That work ethic was certainly nothing any Briton in the UK needed to fear, yet somehow we were classed as Johnny Foreigner.
   When I went to the UK in 2001 with that BN(O) passport, I had terrible trouble at immigration, denied entry when queued up with other British subjects. I wound up at the back of the queue with some white South Africans, who were less than impressed and said, ‘But that’s apartheid.’ Correspondence to the High Commission, Foreign Secretary, and Shadow Foreign Secretary went unanswered, though I did get a response from the PM.
   In other words, the fears within Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech held more sway in Blair’s Britain than any sacrifice in the Falklands (even if, I should point out, Powell was not addressing immigration per se). Today, I wonder if they still do.
   The Tiber was greater than the Atlantic.
   Labour were quick to point out how wrong the Tories were with BN(O) back in the 1980s, but in 2001, Labour wasn’t working.
   Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said at the time of the handover in 1997 that Britain would ‘walk with you’, that Britain had won assurances that elections in Hong Kong would be free and fair, and that if China ever failed to live up to this pledge, Britain would take the matter to the United Nations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
   In 20 years, Britain has not lifted a finger.
   We might get lucky like the Gurkhas one of these days if Joanna Lumley wants to come to our aid. But we certainly can’t rely on any politician.
   Being British (I retained my nationality and applied before the deadline to be a BN(O)), you can see how the pro-Brexit position was hard to stomach to me. The likes of Nigel Farage and the “other” New York-born politician with funny hair, Boris Johnson, seemed to revel in some idea of British unity, but anyone from Hong Kong will tell you that in politics, that is an empty concept.
   Only one of my friends who was pro-Brexit voted based on the idea of an independent Britain being more efficient when freed from the whims of Brussels, and I respect him for it; most of what I saw was aimed against immigration. The current PM’s belief in safeguarding the interests of British subjects should be cold comfort to those affected: if they couldn’t defend our interests, will others fare any better, especially with a minority government in a Conservative Party that actually remains as divided as ever?
   Not that I am championing the People’s Republic of China for its handling of relations between mainlanders and Hong Kongers; it has equally been exclusive of us and our unique culture. I have already gone into the Umbrella Revolution elsewhere (even if the TV One website omitted my televised comments about Wikileaks’ reporting of US State Department interference as this goes against the western narrative), and this doesn’t need exploring again. The disappearance of publishers critical of Beijing should sound alarm bells—I note that one of them was a British subject, but the best the UK could muster was an expression of concern. I cannot help but wonder if this is the fate that awaits Britons on the Continent should something happen to them.
   Some negatives aside, I am happy that when I visited a “Chinese” Hong Kong in 2006, I found a city whose character was intact, and I remarked at how unchanged that was. In subsequent visits in 2008, 2010 and 2012, that core remained. Given all the paranoia before 1997, ‘One country, two systems’ has certainly not been as bad as many of us—including those of us who moved our entire lives abroad because of those fears—predicted. I wish all HKers well on this 20th anniversary.

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Selling Opel: what’s good for China is good for General Motors

15.02.2017


Above: The Opel Astra K: on the roster.

I’m not so sure that GM going into talks to sell Opel and Vauxhall to PSA (Peugeot–Citroën) is that big a surprise.
   We obviously hold a lot of nostalgia for these brands, and it’s only right that we perceive GM as selling its family jewels. Opel has made some great cars over the years, and Buick in China and the US, Vauxhall in the UK, and Holden in Australia rely on this division to provide it with product.
   But it wasn’t long ago that I said I foresaw the next Holden Commodore being a four-door booted model based on a Chinese Buick Regal that’s on the same platform. While I’ve been proved wrong with scoop photos and inside information from journalists in the immediate term, longer-term this doesn’t look so far-fetched, in a future where Peugeot owns Opel–Vauxhall and GM has no choice but to consider Chinese sourcing seriously.
   Therefore, GM isn’t thinking that it’s selling off the family jewels, at least the GM where Chinese partner SAIC is overwhelmingly calling the shots.
   What they are thinking is this: ‘We should be able to develop the whole lot in China.’ They weren’t nostalgic over Holden, and they won’t be thrilled with the losses at Opel. It’s willing to sacrifice it to make its own position stronger. We’ve already seen that SAIC has called it quits when it comes to British assembly at Longbridge—that’s now all done back in China.
   There’s been such a massive technology transfer from the US to China over the last few years that Europe is seen as surplus by the folks in Shanghai. They have all the platforms on which they can make products globally. They may even, rightly or wrongly, think that the remaining brands can get them into Europe, even if GM had pulled its Korean-made Chevrolets out of there.
   Holden can be used to westernize the product and the Australians have shown they can do it well.
   I’m not saying I agree with this, as a long-time Opel fan. I was looking forward to the new Commodores coming out of Rüsselsheim. The car looks the business, it’s roughly the size of the recently deleted Ford Falcon (therefore, I’m not sure why people are so upset about its size), and the majority of buyers don’t even know which set of wheels the power’s going to. I’ve got an Astra K coming in a few months at Lucire.
   What you’re going to see is GM basically being a Shanghai-run firm with China supplying global markets and the US operations kept going for their brand cachet.
   In the meantime, a hypothetical PSA-run Opel will continue with the existing plans till the end of these models’ life cycles, then China will become the manufacturing hub for numerous markets.
   SAIC already makes a load of Cadillacs, Buicks and Chevrolets for the domestic market, and they’ll want to pump them out more widely.
   They’ve also shown that they can take new GM platforms and turn them into Roewes—or old GM platforms and turn them into Baojuns.
   PSA, meanwhile, with 14 per cent controlled by Chinese firm Dongfeng, will pursue a strategy of streamlining platforms and be focused more on Europe. It could pay off as cross-town rival Renault has done well with Nissan, Mitsubishi, Samsung, Dacia and AvtoVAZ, but it won’t nearly be as secure. The two French groups have been obsessed with one another for as long as I can remember, for years spending more time rivalling each other than actually coming up with what customers wanted.
   Dongfeng may have to cough up more lolly and it could become a larger shareholder than the Peugeot family or the French government. But will it have the sort of geographical coverage that Renault has?
   That’ll be what PSA will be asking itself, knowing that it’s reasonably strong in China—but also realizing that it hasn’t been clever at creating models that can be sold globally (the current Citroën C6, DS 5LS and the DS 6 among them, sold exclusively in China). Nevertheless, there are savings to be had, though the most obvious fear is that Opel and Vauxhall will go the way of Panhard and Talbot, brands that fell into either Peugeot or Citroën’s hands over the years and become defunct at the expense of the parent companies’. Is there a desire to extend the group’s brand portfolio beyond Peugeot, Citroën, DS, the various Dongfeng lines, and the ex-Hindustan Ambassador?
   The official statement is non-committal enough and gives nothing away: ‘PSA Group and General Motors confirm they are exploring numerous strategic initiatives aiming at improving profitability and operational efficiency, including a potential acquisition of Opel Vauxhall by PSA.
   ‘There can be no assurance that an agreement will be reached.’
   In any case, we always said that SAIC was playing a long game. MG was a toe in the water. GM is the real deal.
   Controlling GM means they can do as they please, and what’s good for China is good for General Motors.

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Why the next Holden Commodore will have a traditional boot

01.12.2016


Above: The Holden Commodore SS-V, facing its last year of manufacture.

The current wisdom appears to be that when the Holden Commodore VF leaves production in 2017, it’ll be replaced by the liftback version of the Opel Insignia B. After all, the only big sedan Ford Australia’s offering in place of the now-defunct Falcon is the liftback version of the Mondeo, a car that’s wider, taller, and with a longer wheelbase than the supposedly larger Falcon. I think the crystal ball-gazers are wrong.
   I could say that the Australian and New Zealand big car buyer is very traditional and would balk at the idea of the big Holden being a hatch. But that’s not the only reason. There’s a bigger one: China.


Above: GM currently makes the Opel Insignia A-based Buick Regal in China, after initially beginning with German production.

   At the moment, China makes a version of the Opel Insignia A locally, and it’s a four-door sedan with a traditional boot. They badge it as a Buick Regal, a nameplate that’s arguably got stronger goodwill in the Middle Kingdom than in the US, even if it’s been running Stateside since Kojak drove it on the streets of Manhattan. And the Chinese like their traditional sedans: it’s a market where liftbacks aren’t kosher.
   While Holden says the next Commodore will be sourced from Germany, and the media speculate that the Germans won’t get a four-door sedan, it’s not to say that one hasn’t been developed. And we’re not exactly missing precedent for a country to tool up for a body style that isn’t offered domestically. We need look no further than GM itself, which was selling the Opel Antara into Europe, exporting it from Korea, years before the same model was available domestically as a Daewoo.
   While Australia and New Zealand will account for quite tiny numbers, you have to think about where else a Stufenheck Opel Insignia B might sell. How about the Middle East, where it could complement the Chevrolet Malibu and Impala as a sportier counterpart? Or South Africa, which would also welcome right-hand drive? Could China take some as Regals in advance of SAIC–GM tooling up for its own version? It’s all conceivable.
   There’s also a possibility that Holden will start off sourcing the next Commodore from Germany, and switch to Chinese production when the Buick Regal is ready. SAIC owns the majority of its venture with GM these days, and calls the shots. What’s good for General Motors is good for China, as the saying goes. And it could well determine that one of its plants, either in China or in Thailand, where plenty of Australasian-market cars are sourced from, could be the production site of the 2019 or 2020 model. (Korea has been ruled out already, according to The Wall Street Journal.)
   GM has switched sources mid-run before, and happily used the goodwill of German engineering when introducing a vehicle made with cheaper labour. Forty years ago, after selling German Opels for years, it began selling the Opel Isuzu from Japan: it was the Isuzu Gemini, the Japanese counterpart to the Opel Kadett C world car. The following year, 1977, the Opel Isuzu became the Buick/Opel. The Japanese origins were eventually hidden. The 2008 Regal, meanwhile, was originally sourced from Germany until SAIC was ready with its locally made version.
   In this day and age, when global-market Renaults and Fords come from Turkey, Nissans and Suzukis from India, and Fiats and Volkswagens from México, no such name changes will be needed. If the quality is good enough, ‘made in China’ won’t be that strange a concept. No one seems to have much of an opinion, or a stereotype, over ‘made in Thailand’—yet we buy plenty of product from them.
   GM isn’t likely to sleepwalk into this transition as it did pre-GFC. Then, the company was ill-prepared, prepared to splash money around on different platforms. The leaner 2010s GM will want to grab every sale it can, and I don’t think Aussie or Kiwi buyers are going to flock to the showrooms for a Commodore hatch, even if it looks like a Porsche Panamera.
   They won’t necessarily care that the new model is a better handler, with powerful engines, better economy, a lighter weight, and a decent interior. They could notice that shoulder room has gone down a fraction. There’s a certain conservatism to this market, and the idea of a hatchback just might be too foreign for this group.
   And if they can supply it, with the Chinese Buick Regal waiting in the wings, then why not maximize sales?
   When the four-door Commodore débuts in Australia next year, after its début in Genève as the Opel Insignia, the General will again have one over arch-rival Ford when it comes to big cars.

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How my Dad called the primary and the election for Donald Trump ages ago

11.11.2016


FJM88NL, licensed under Creative Commons

I’ve had a phone call and a lot of comments on this in the last couple of days: my Dad, who is 81 with early-stage Alzheimer’s, called the US presidential election for Donald Trump months ago. I posted it on my social networks the day he made his definitive call, and friends remembered it. Thank you for all your compliments.
   Go back to 2015, he had called the Republican primary for Trump.
   I wasn’t as confident but I had Tweeted the week before the election that polls were understating Trump’s actual support by at least 6 per cent.
   In 2008, when everyone had dismissed Gov. Sarah Palin, he said that she wasn’t going to go away, and that she’d command an even greater influence in the first Obama term. While he predicted an Obama win, again quite early on, he wasn’t optimistic and didn’t think there would be great change in the US. You may or may not agree with that.
   Going right back to the 1980s, when I was at college, and before China showed any signs of opening up, he made the call about its economic rise, and that I would be assured, by the time I was in my 30s and 40s, that many would want to deal with the country. It would be, I remember him telling me, a career advantage to being Chinese—in contrast to the racism we encountered far more frequently back then.
   During the height of the Muldoon era, Dad, who counted himself as part of Rob’s Mob, made the call that Sir Robert Muldoon would not be able to hold on to his power or reputation in his old age. When a documentary aired condemning Sir Robert after his death, so that he wouldn’t be around to file a defamation suit, he said, ‘I told you so.’
   Even in the elections I contested (and he encouraged me to run), while he refused to be drawn on what he thought my chances were, he was unequivocally clear that my rival, John Morrison, wouldn’t win, in 2013. Dad certainly did better than some so-called political experts I can name.
   And if you want to get really spooky, during the Martin Bashir interview of Princess Diana, he said that by the time she was 37, she’d have a ‘really bad year’. He didn’t say she’d die.
   No, he’s not a Mystic Meg of any sort. He’s a guy who’s been around for a while and kept his eyes open.
   If you want to know his secret, I can tell you that his political projections are based in part around reading. Not mainstream media, but websites that he’s discovered over the years himself. He’s a keen web surfer and loves his news. He doesn’t put that much stock in political “experts”, and after having run myself, I can fully understand why.
   He’d even take in the viewpoints on Russia Today, which gives you an idea of how varied his reading was. Just today I caught him watching an address from Edward Snowden.
   With Palin, it was probably the sudden rise of her fan sites set up by US conservatives. He hadn’t seen such a rapid rise of sites that soon galvanized their support around the former Alaskan governor before. While mainstream media dismissed her and gave the impression that post-2008, she wouldn’t matter, Dad had entirely the opposite reading. Politically centrist, and, like me, a swing voter, he kept following the sites out of interest, and saw how they morphed into the Tea Party movement. He also knew they wouldn’t go away any time soon, and observed that there was a Palin effect, as the likes of Ted Cruz soon found out when contesting their Senate seats.
   And, despite my own criticisms of this practice, Dad would read the comments. Sometimes he would wade through hundreds of them, to get a sense of what people were thinking.
   It was his reading of media from left and right during the latest US presidential election that saw him made his calls very assertively.
   Rather than dismiss certain conservatives as ill-educated, as some media might, Dad treated them as human beings. He knew they would galvanize and get behind Trump.
   When you’ve lived through a world war (including an occupation) and then a civil war, and saw your family start from the bottom again after 1949, you get to be good at knowing what people go through.
   He’s always been politically switched on, and had a keen interest in history and economics, the latter of which he studied at a tertiary level. But he’d always explain to me that it came down to people and their behaviour, and never rational decision-making. I might have only lived just over half his lifetime so far, but I find little fault in that statement. All new movements have plenty of power, till they become the establishment.
   His thoughts on China in the 1980s could well have stemmed from that: I never asked him, and aphasia means he’d now find difficulty telling me anyway.
   Sadly for the US, he finds appeal in the theory that the nation will break up, though he hasn’t quite yet made the call in the same way he made the one for the Trump presidency. But as with his Trump prediction, I’m publishing this one online.
   He’s never stated it as succinctly but he has, in passing in the 1980s and 1990s, said that the British Empire wouldn’t last much longer beyond our current monarch’s reign.
   You never know, we might be coming back to this post in a few years’ time. These are gloomy scenarios but I’d rather put Dad’s ideas out there now, as I did with the Trump presidency, rather than tell you ex post facto how clever he was. The lesson: treat people as people, and it’s amazing how much that will reveal.

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What a great opportunity for New Zealand that lies before us

09.11.2016


Above: When I refer to Hillary in the below blog post, I mean the self-professed ‘ordinary chap’ on our $5 note.

As the results of the US presidential election came in, I didn’t sense a panic. I actually sensed a great opportunity for New Zealand.
   I’ve been critical of the obsession many of our politicians have had with the US, when they were in an excellent position to carve our own, unique path as a country. Aotearoa, with its bicultural roots and multicultural awareness, has the advantage, in theory at least, of appreciating traditional notions of Māori and what had been imported via pākehā; and on an international scale, our country has sought trading partners outside the Anglosphere, having been pushed into it by factors outside our control. The loss of the UK as an export market and the damage to New Zealand–US relations in the 1980s might have seemed anathema at the time, but they pushed this country into new relationships, which now looks prudential.
   New Zealanders are welcomed wherever we go, our passports aren’t looked down upon, and we still largely enjoy a freedom of movement and safe passage without much hindrance. And it’s a reality that the centre of the global economy has been shifting eastward over the last decade.
   We don’t need something like TPPA in order to form trading relationships with China, and when I went to India on two occasions, there was a great acceptance of the potential of a trade deal with another cricketing country. In fact, my audiences, whenever I gave a speech, were rather miffed that we hadn’t gone to them first. But we only make good negotiators when we deal with our own cultural issues successfully, for how else can we claim to understand others and then do a deal? Deal-making, regardless of what certain American politicians might tell you, comes from understanding the other side, and at our best New Zealanders are good at this. It’s why we need to confront our own racism head-on and to say: this shit needs to stop. In fact, this shit needn’t even be an issue. We’re too small a country not to be working together, and we need knowledge of all the cultures that make up Aotearoa now more than ever.
   We are frequently confronted with the need to look at our national character. Perhaps an early sign of it was in the 1970s with the Commonwealth Games in 1974; certainly I’ve noticed New Zealanders begin to find our own identity as a Pacific nation, not a post-colonial Anglosphere satellite. We’re beginning to discover our national brand. And wherever you were on the flag debate, at least that, too, forced us to consider who we are. The sense I got was that we want change, but we didn’t like the design—but certainly there’s no real fondness to be tied to Empah. Anti-Americanism over the years suggests that there’s no real desire, either, to keep importing economic ideas, corrupt governmental practices, and failed health care policies, even if certain political and economic élites seem drawn to them.
   We know where they will lead: greater divisions between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, urban and rural. Those tendencies exist but here is an ideal opportunity to nip them in the bud. History has taught us sensible solutions, more humane solutions, that at least recognize human actors, social responsibility, and kaitiaki. The younger generations have accepted these as they have grown up in a globalized world, and we can see that in their own consumer choices, where they favour responsible companies, those that have a cause. They believe in a form of global citizenship, and want to be treated as such—and those ideas are present in their politics, too. It is right for people like my friend Simon Anholt to run global polls on matters that influence us all, including the US elections, and realistically it will be our technology and the free sharing of ideas that will help with our progress as a planet. If we seek our own destiny, we at least will be able to show some leadership again—and then we’ll really have something to talk about.
   When I was in Reefton last month, the first place in New Zealand to get electricity, I noted that it was up to a bunch of mavericks who brought this newfangled technology in. New Zealand suffragettes won their battle first to secure women the vote. And another person called Hillary succeeded where no other had done so before when ‘We knocked the bastard off.’ Kiwi leadership isn’t new to us, but in recent years I held a great fear that we had lost our mettle. That did indeed spur me to run for office, among other factors, to say to people: stop listening to foreign companies and foreign-owned media who don’t have New Zealand interests at heart. New Zealand has been filled with people who call themselves ordinary but it’s always been those—like Sir Ed—who have shown real leadership, not some political lobbying group in another hemisphere. But you can only be great without following, and it’s high time we stopped following divided nations and recognized that we already have the right stuff—and by that I mean our smarts, our innovation, and our independently minded way of thinking.

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Flyme to the moon

12.08.2016

I’m really impressed with Meizu’s latest Flyme OS upgrades. I didn’t know that they were there, but then I have a lot of my notifications turned off. After discovering there was one, I went from my existing 4.5 (I had already upgraded once since I bought the phone) to 5.1, and everything worked fine. There was another sub-version upgrade the same night. US software vendors could learn a lot from this Chinese company.
   It wasn’t perfect (I made some notes on my Tumblr) but it was a darn sight better than some of the upgrades I’ve had on Mac and Windows. I accept there is less to go wrong with cellphones, but I’ve heard many a complaint from IOS users about their upgrades. The phone feels faster, and after a bit of exploring through the menus, I’ve turned off resource-hogging notifications and data-sucking settings. I stand by my earlier review of my Meizu M2 Note—if they keep up this level of reliability, and can remain Google-free, I’d happily buy from them again.

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Brexit reminds us that we need to take a lead in making globalization fairer

28.07.2016

Brexit was an interesting campaign to watch, and there’s not too much I can add that hasn’t been stated already. I saw some incredibly fake arguments from Brexit supporters, including one graphic drawing a parallel between the assassinations of Anna Lindh in 2003 and Jo Cox MP, saying how the murder of the former led Sweden to remain in the EU.

   The trouble with the graphic is that the only thing it got right was that two women were killed. Sweden wasn’t having a referendum on whether to leave the EU, it was about whether it should adopt the euro. The closest British parallel would have been when then-PM John Major negotiated the Maastricht opt-out in 1991. It also claimed that the polls were for leaving; notwithstanding that that wasn’t what the Swedes were voting for, the polls for and against adopting the euro were roughly neck in neck, though the wisdom was that the pro-euro camp would win. By the weekend, the result was that Sweden would keep the krona.
   When I argued with some pro-Brexiters about this, they, like most pecksniffians, demanded I check my facts. I didn’t have to: I have a memory that goes back further than one month, and unlike them, I know what went on in their own backyard because, in 2003, I kept my eyes open.
   I should point out that I am not summarizing all Brexiters as dimwitted Britons who wanted Johnny Foreigner to go home. I count among my closest friends someone who voted leave, and for very substantial, well thought-out reasons. He felt that the European Union had become an unwieldy bureaucracy which benefited Britain little, and while I felt the benefits outweighed the detriments, I respect his opinion and his vote. At least it was considered, and at least it wasn’t one that was based on the ramblings and rants of Farage, Johnson, Gove et al.
   Appealing to nationalism, as the likes of Farage did, is a cheap trick in politics: it stirs a wave of nostalgia, and people might love chanting at how great their nation is, but it doesn’t address the core issues that put them into the poo to begin with. Of course the UK has a great deal to be proud of; but like many countries (including ours) the globalist technocratic agenda are what have made things untenable for a growing part of the population. It’s why real wages haven’t risen yet certain corporations profit aplenty; it’s why we work more hours today than we ever did, despite futurists of a generation ago predicting all this leisure time that we would all have thanks to automation.
   But is retreat the right thing to do? The remain camp believes that it wasn’t: to influence Europe you must be in Europe. It wasn’t that long ago that not being in Europe was fatal to British exports—the failure of the British motor industry, for instance, was in part due to its late recognition that the UK needed to be part of the EEC or, at least, produce vehicles there. Globalization’s positives should be the free movement of people and of capital; and economic union to permit that greater freedom seems a sensible thing to pursue, not to run away from. The trick is how to make this work for everyday people, the growing number who are impacted by globalist forces; once there were few, now few escape them. It is, then, the role of government to either protect those who are most vulnerable, to champion (either through private enterprise or on its own accord) real innovation and industry that can create jobs, and to cut through the BS where both public and private enterprise simply reinvent the wheel from time to time, putting lipstick on the bulldog.
   I am ambivalent about it because I’ve seen our own governments, National and Labour, be particularly weak when it comes to dealing with globalization, succumbing to foreign takeovers and allowing the little guy to be run over. The deals haven’t been good for New Zealand in many respects, a small country that believes in its place in the first world but which can be deluded about this very fact. Our economy just isn’t that solid to take it on the chin. Look at our banks, mostly foreign-owned and more unreliable than ever: remember how 40 years ago cheques would take 24 hours to clear? Yet now our computerized systems take three to five working days? Insiders tell me this is the consequence of less reliable Australian systems being foisted upon us; so much so that we have a wire transfer that has been taking weeks, and no one knows where the money has gone. Just how do you misplace tens of thousands of dollars? Why do we assume Australian bankers are smart enough to answer? And those who question such agenda don’t get much truck in a media landscape also dominated by foreigners: I’m looking at one newspaper publishing group at the least. The ways of the big countries are not always the best—yet somehow the powers-that-be in this country have been hoodwinked by this consistently since 1984. I can’t understand it, and my initial reaction when there is such a lack of logic is to follow the money.
   Brexit has made me refine my thinking: I might not like a system where New Zealand’s the little player that doesn’t benefit from a level playing field, but at the same time I believe we need to find ways to influence the globalist game for the better. We love looking at Scandinavian countries because of their comparable size. They may have higher taxes but at the same time they don’t seem to balk at innovation for the greater good; they believe in the freedom of movement of capital and of people, and, despite their general humility, they actually aren’t afraid of creating global companies that take on the rest of the world. Look at Vattenfall or Statoil. We might not like Statoil for what it wants to do to our own environment, but we do have to ask what our equivalent is. We lost our lead in hybrid cars, which we held for most of the 1980s, but it’s an example of what we can do when government and private enterprise cooperate on something that is future-oriented. What’s the next big thing? Is it renewable energy tech that we can export? There are companies here already doing frictionless exports, and more need to be encouraged. Government shouldn’t try to create groups of them or force mergers upon them; that can be left to the market. But there needs to be a vision or a direction that we take to create a new brand for our country where people naturally think: innovation for the greater good = New Zealand. And, maybe, to go with that, a fairer version of globalization can emerge, certainly one that is not coloured by the next quarterly result demanded by Wall Street.
   Yes, there is some national fervour involved here, too, but applied correctly, it won’t be false flag-waving that’s dependent on the past. I’m all for being proud of your country when the victories are real and measurable—like on the sporting field. There it’s real, and it’s often about the next game or the next season: it’s future-oriented, too. With Brexit, I can’t see the vision; and the most visible foreigner among this, the Turkish-American politician, Boris Johnson, hasn’t communicated one that I can discern.
   And maybe this confusion is the opportunity we need for New Zealand.
   After the UK abandoned the Commonwealth markets in favour of one right next door, our country found new export markets, so much so that the UK accounts for 3 per cent today. Even in 1973, when it was 40 per cent, it had been falling consistently for half a decade, if I recall correctly, and the notion that Britain would reach back out toward the Empah for trade is fanciful at best.
   Being someone who has enjoyed looking at world history play out through maps, ever since I discovered a book on the subject as a third former at Rongotai College, it hasn’t escaped my thoughts that this is a further retreat for the UK in terms of its global influence.
   So who’s on the rise? It might be us. The centre of the global economy has been shifting eastward in recent times and we’re well placed to take advantage of it. We’re part of the Anglosphere so we bridge the past, where it was the dominant global culture, with those trading partners who might be on the horizon. But it has to be real. We’re nimble enough, and I can’t see why we’ve been so fascinated with apeing the US and the UK for so long. Once again we need to set our own direction: we have a culture that’s ready for it with a greater sense of identity than we’ve ever had. I just wonder if we have a government, local or national, courageous enough to embark on this.

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Posted in branding, business, China, culture, globalization, marketing, New Zealand, politics, social responsibility, Sweden, UK | No Comments »


How will things play out at Fiat?

02.04.2016


Above: The current Fiat 500. A year shy of its 10th anniversary, is it still cool in 2016?

The Detroit News reports that Fiat has been having trouble Stateside, with dealers now permitted to sell the cars alongside Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram instead of at stand-alone showrooms.
   It’s been worrying seeing Fiat’s plans unfold since it decided to take control of Chrysler, a firm that was once the darling of the US car industry, with its industry-leading R&D times, to one that was starved of investment in the 2000s.
   Those initial plans, sold as a long-term strategy, turned out to be a short-term Band-Aid. With hindsight, maybe it wasn’t too much of a surprise, since Fiat was still grappling with understanding just what it was taking on.
   Fiat needed to do something given that things at home weren’t looking too good, with a model range that wasn’t very cohesive, and with its entries into the Chinese market having faltered a few times. To the casual observer, Fiat saved Chrysler, but there’s some truth in saying that having the company that controls the Jeep brand was a lifeline to Fiat itself.
   What we’ve seen since those days was the failure of the strategy of twinning Chrysler and Lancia. While this was a marriage of convenience, I could see this having some long-term gains with Lancia focusing on smaller cars and Chrysler on larger ones, but the result in 2016 is that Lancia has been reduced to an Italy-only marque, the equivalent of what Autobianchi was a few decades ago. Once the Ypsilon is deleted, then Lancia is consigned to the history books.
   The winner has been Alfa Romeo. It has only just returned to the junior executive segment with the new Giulia, after an absence of several years, and its 4C is a cracking sports car. Things are looking up, and rumours that Alfa and Dodge would be paired up in the same way Lancia and Chrysler were mercifully haven’t come true. The Giulia platform could be used for future models. Jeep has benefited from Fiat platforms, and Ram has gained some Fiat vans.
   But the parent brand, Fiat, has looked very uncertain for a while.
   For a start, there’s little uniformity globally. Fiat has the opportunity to offer the Viaggio and Ottimo in more places than China, slotting above the Ægea, for example. While having unique models for South America makes some sense, because of Fiat’s strength there, there’s an opportunity to globalize, with the Toro pick-up truck looking very appealing.
   Without having more of its self-developed products, the Fiat range in Europe doesn’t inspire too much confidence. While most manufacturers have one or two joint-venture models, Fiat’s range is almost exclusively made up of vehicles that have shared tech. The famous 500 and Panda are on a Fiat platform which has Chrysler input (before the takeover), and is shared with Ford for its B420 Ka. The Punto, 500X and 500L are on another platform shared with GM. The Doblò is also offered to GM. The Qubo is the product of a joint venture with Peugeot. The Freemont is a rebadged Dodge Journey from México, which Fiat gained after the takeover. The 124 Spider is based on the Mazda MX-5, and built in Japan by that firm. The Fullback pick-up is a Mitsubishi Triton twin and made in Thailand by that Japanese firm.
   Fiat, in other words, is holding down more relationships than Casanova.
   As a casual observer, there’s an opportunity for a massive streamlining of platforms, and offer more in-house models. That may well be happening, and let’s hope its current strategy is more long-term than its last.
   Secondly, as mentioned earlier, Fiat hasn’t had a great reputation of being able to carry out long-term sales’ strategies in many of its markets. Take New Zealand, for example, where Fiat was offering its (Grande) Punto and Bravo models, before it decided to pull everything and offer only the 500.
   The Punto has returned after a hiatus, this time as a budget model, along with the Tipo 139 Panda, but those who bought Puntos in the 2000s might think twice about returning to a company that abandoned them and offered no direct replacement for their car when it came to trading up.
   That lack of continuity could have some buyers worried, and Fiat needs to regain their trust in a big way.
   Being the Five Hundred Car Company, which Fiat certainly was in the US, cannot help, if buyers expect Fiat to offer more. We’ve seen it fail here, and Fiat’s had to back-track. Even in Hong Kong, where Fiat had also been reduced to flogging only the 500, it has had to add the Freemont.
   Fiat will argue that as it had been absent from North America for so long, it could re-enter the market-place with a single, fashionable model: after all, Mini and Smart have done.
   The trouble is that Fiat isn’t known as a niche brand: there was enough in the US media to indicate that this was an Italian giant, and the perception of such a large company didn’t gel with it offering a niche range anywhere. It lacked the cachet of a brand that was created to be fashionable and funky from the outset. You just can’t do it when that’s the name of the owner (think: can you sell “cool” cars with GM as the brand—that had been tried in New Zealand and failed dismally; or, going back a generation, Leyland? Volkswagen surely is the sole exception with its Beetle), and FCA, which the parent company is called, isn’t a consumer-facing brand. It’s just a company name with no brand equity.
   In the same vein, average punters might not know of BMW’s connection with Mini, or Daimler AG’s connection with Smart. They stand alone with plenty of brand equity, helped by identifiable products, and, in Mini’s case, even helped by its image outside North America.
   I also question whether the 500X and 500L are cute cars in the same vein as the original 500. Getting Ben Stiller’s Derek Zoolander character to advertise the 500X seemed good in theory—till it dawned on the public that the new Zoolander film was a bit naff, cashing in on last-decade nostalgia. I’m not a fan of retro design, either, and I would have hoped that Fiat would have renewed its 500 by now, since we’re on to newer versions of the Beetle, Mini, and Smart. It’s no surprise that Fiat sales are down 14·6 per cent so far this year.
   If Toyota could not sustain Scion with all its muscle, then Fiat retail really should be integrated into dealerships selling Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram Stateside. And I’d argue that Scion couldn’t remain because the brand had lost its coolness among the college kids who bought the XB in the first place. Buyers in this consumerist game, and at the fashion end it is more a game than in any other, are notoriously fickle.
   I don’t know how it’s going to play out. Fiat’s a brand I’ve grown up with, and I’ve been visiting their dealerships since I was two years old. Back in the 1970s the showroom in Homantin, Kowloon had everything from 127s to 130s. Fiat was doing a brisk trade on 124s. I came close to buying various Fiat Group cars over the years, including a Tipo and a Lancia Delta, and more recently I had considered Alfa Romeo Mitos and Giuliettas. I briefly toyed with importing a Tipo 844 Lancia Delta from the UK badged as a Chrysler, but decided having a $75 1:43-scale one was enough.
   To see Lancia decimated and now on life support as Fiat concentrated on making Chrysler and Dodge work, to see the home brand filled with other people’s products in the interim, and to receive news that US buyers weren’t flocking to its showrooms in the same numbers any more, all make me concerned. Go to Italy and the taxi ranks no longer are dominated by Fiat Group cars: the cabbies have gone French and German. It’s all very well Maserati and Ferrari doing well but the former’s volumes won’t have a huge impact, while the latter has been separated and now has a different parent. The only continent where I think Fiat is making a decent bash of things is South America. I don’t want to paint a doom-and-gloom picture, not least because I have fondness for all the brands that now fall under the Fiat umbrella. But the weaknesses, at least to an outsider looking in, outnumber the strengths. My gut says Fiat will work through it all, but will it do it in a fast enough fashion, or is there more pain to come?

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Posted in branding, business, cars, China, globalization, marketing, USA | 1 Comment »


Autocade reaches 8,000,000 page views; viewing rate up slightly since last million

05.03.2016

I had expected our car encyclopædia Autocade would reach 8,000,000 page views this month, just before its eighth anniversary. The difference was that this time, I was there last Monday GMT (the small hours of Tuesday in New Zealand) to witness the numbers tick over—almost.
   Usually, I find out about the milestones ex post facto, but happened to pop by the website’s stats’ page when it was within the last hundred before hitting 8,000,000—and took the below screen shot where the viewing numbers had reached 8,000,001 (I also saw 7,999,999; and no, these special admin pages are not counted, so my refreshing didn’t contribute to the rise).

   The site is on 3,344 individual entries (there’s one image for each entry, if you’re going by the image excerpt), which is only 86 more than Autocade had when it reached 7,000,000 last October. The rate of viewing is a little greater than it was for the last million: while I’m recording it as five months below, it had only been March for just under two hours in New Zealand. Had Autocade been a venture from anywhere west of Aotearoa, we actually made the milestone on leap day, February 29.
   Not bad for a website that has had very little promotion and relies largely on search-engine results. I only set up a Facebook page for it in 2014. It’s been a labour of love more than anything else.

March 2008: launch
April 2011: 1,000,000 page views (three years for first million)
March 2012: 2,000,000 page views (11 months for second million)
May 2013: 3,000,000 page views (14 months for third million)
January 2014: 4,000,000 page views (eight months for fourth million)
September 2014: 5,000,000 page views (eight months for fifth million)
May 2015: 6,000,000 page views (eight months for sixth million)
October 2015: 7,000,000 page views (five months for seventh million)
March 2016: 8,000,000 page views (five months for eighth million)

   I started the site because I was fed up with Wikipedia and its endless errors on its car pages—I’ve written elsewhere about the sheer fictions there. Autocade would not have Wikiality, and everything is checked, where possible, with period sources, and not exclusively online ones. The concept itself came from a car guide written by the late Michael Sedgwick, though our content is all original, and subject to copyright; and there’s a separate story to tell there, too.
   I acknowledge there are still gaps on the site, but as we grow it, we’ll plug them. At the same time, some very obscure models are there, and Autocade sometimes proves to be the only online source about them. A good part of the South African motor industry is covered with material not found elsewhere, and Autocade is sometimes one of the better-ranked English-language resources on Chinese cars.
   I’d love to see the viewing rate increase even further: it’d be great to reach 10,000,000 before the end of 2016. It might just happen if the viewing rate increases at present levels, and we get more pages up. Fellow motorheads, please keep popping by.

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Posted in business, cars, China, interests, marketing, New Zealand, publishing | 2 Comments »


Bye to the US news app that ranks the Steven Joyce dildo incident above Martin Crowe’s passing

04.03.2016

I’ve just switched from Inside, the much vaunted news app from entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, to Wildcard as my principal news app on my phone. I never got to use Circa (which I understand Jason was also behind), which sounded excellent: by the time I downloaded it, they had given up.
   But we all need news, and I don’t like the idea of apps that are from a single media organization.
   Inside seemed like a good idea, and I even got round to submitting news items myself. The idea is that the items there are curated by users, shared via the app. There was a bit of spam, but the legit stuff outnumbered it.
   However, I can’t understand the choices these days. A few items I put in from Radio New Zealand, Māori Television and The New Zealand Herald were fine—stories about the flag and the passing of Dr Ranginui Walker, for instance—but none of the ones about the passing of Martin Crowe, possibly of more international interest, remained.
   There were other curious things: anything from Autocar is summarily rejected (they don’t even appear) while I notice Jalopnik is fine. When it comes to cars, this is the only place where the publication with the longest history in the sector is outranked by a web-only start-up, whose pieces are enjoyable but not always accurate. The only car piece it accepted from me was about Tesla selling in Indiana, but Renault, Volkswagen, Lamborghini, Porsche, Aston Martin and other manufacturers’ news didn’t make it. This I don’t get. And I like to think I know a little bit about cars, in the week when Autocade hit 8,000,000 page views.
   Now, if this is meant to be an international app, downloadable by everyone, then it should permit those of us in our own countries to have greater say in what is relevant to our compatriots.
   Visit the New Zealand category, and you see a few items from yours truly, but then after that, they are few and far between: the Steven Joyce dildo incident, for example, and you don’t have to scroll much to see the Otago car chase being stopped by sheep last January. A bit more has happened than these events, thank you. No wonder Americans think nothing happens here.



According to Inside, these news items—separated only by one about Apple issuing a recall in our part of the world—are far more important to users following the New Zealand category than Martin Crowe’s death.

   The UK is only slightly better off, but not by much. I notice my submission about Facebook not getting away with avoiding taxes in the UK vanished overnight, too.
   News of the royal baby in Sweden wasn’t welcome just now. Nor was the news about the return of one of the Hong Kong booksellers, but news from Bloomberg of a luxury home on the Peak, which I submitted last month, was OK. Lula’s questioning by police has also disappeared (admittedly my one was breaking news, and very short), though Inside does have a later one about his brief arrest.
   Yet to locals, the rejected ones are important, more important than Gladys Knight singing to a cop or a knife on O. J. Simpson’s estate (which have made it).
   This is a very American app, and that’s fine: it’s made by a US company, and I’m willing to bet most of its users are American. However, the “all” feed, in my view, should be global; those who want news tailored to them already have the choice of selecting their own topics. (It’s the first thing the app gets you to do after signing in.) And if some fellow in New Zealand wants to submit, then he should have the same capacity as someone in the US. After all, there are more of them than there are of us, and I hardly think my contributions (which now keep vanishing!) will upset the status quo.
   Or does it?
   I mean, I have posted the odd thing from The Intercept about their country’s elections.
   Whatever the case, I think it’s very odd for an app in the second decade of the century to be so wedded to being geocentric. I can understand getting stuff weeded out for quality concerns—I admit I’ve posted the odd item that is an op-ed rather than hard news—but this obsession to be local, not global, reinforces some false and outdated stereotypes about the US.
   It’s like Facebook not knowing that time zones outside US Pacific Time exist and believing its 750 million (as it then was) users all lived there.
   My advice to app developers is: if you don’t intend your work to be global, then don’t offer it to the global market. Don’t let me find your app on a Chinese app centre. Say that it’s for your country only and let it be.
   Or, at least be transparent about how your apps work, because I can’t find anything from Inside about its curation processes other than the utopian, idealistic PR that says we’re all welcome, and we all have a chance to share. (We do. Just our articles don’t stay on the feed for very long.)


Wildcard has an attractive user interface, and its mixture of news is more appealing, especially if you want more depth.

   Admittedly, I’ve only been on Wildcard for less than a day but I’ve already found it more international in scope. It also has more interesting editorial items. It is still US-developed—east coast this time, instead of west coast—but it supplements its own news with what’s in your Twitter feed. It’s not as Twitter-heavy as Nuzzel, which I found too limited, but seems to give me a mixture of its own curation with those of my contacts. The user interface is nice, too.
   I’m not writing off Inside altogether—if you’re after a US-based, US-centric news app, then it’s probably excellent, although I will leave that decision to its target market. I can hardly judge when dildos matter more to its users than the greatest cricket batsman in our country.
   For me, Wildcard seems to be better balanced, it doesn’t make promises about public curation that it can’t keep, and I’ve already found myself spending far more time browsing its pieces than the relatively small amount that seem to remain on Inside. It is still a bit US-biased in these first 24 hours, probably because it hasn’t taken that much from my Twitter contacts yet. There seems to be more news on it and I’m getting a far better read, even of the US-relevant items. I’m looking forward to using it more: it just seems that much more 21st-century.

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Posted in business, China, culture, globalization, Hong Kong, interests, internet, media, New Zealand, politics, publishing, Sweden, technology, UK, USA | 1 Comment »