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The backlash against colonialism holds lessons in guilt and gratitude

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In the tsunami of words on the poisonous legacy of slavery and empire generated by the death of George Floyd, an African-American who was killed in Minneapolis in May by a white police officer, two stand out: “gratitude” and “guilt”.

Should descendants of those who built empires on the back of exploitation feel guilty for what their ancestors did? Or should the descendants of the colonised feel gratitude that their ancestors were conquered?

My wife is a descendant of the conquerors, having been born into the British Cecil family which has produced prime ministers and great political leaders. I am one of “midnight’s children”, born a few months before India won its freedom from British colonial rule in 1947. While I joke that she is a child of the conquerors and I of the conquered, I do not expect my wife to feel guilty for what her ancestors did. But I do reject the idea that I should be thankful that my ancestors were conquered.

That the conquered should feel gratitude was a view often expressed during the days of the British empire. It was not uncommon for the British to say that the Indians needed to be “civilised”. As Winston Churchill, who was then out of government and campaigning against self-rule for India, put it very bluntly in a speech in 1931, the vast majority of Indians “are primitive people”.

Today, some historians imply I should be grateful for colonial legacies. Niall Ferguson, in his book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World makes the argument that the empire “enhanced global welfare — in other words was a good thing”. He adds that it brought free markets and the rule of law. Other individuals are still as blunt as Churchill.

While I do not think my ancestors needed to be civilised by Europeans, they had many faults. My family are high-caste Hindus and there is no denying the abominable way these upper echelons of society treated the so-called untouchable castes, now known as Dalits. My abiding childhood memory is of my mother giving the sweeper woman tea and sweets, thinking she was being generous, while telling us that nobody should ever use her cup and plate.

Years ago, I visited Bangladesh, where my family is from. While very hospitable, the Muslims there made it clear they had not forgotten the dreadful way my rich Hindu ancestors had treated theirs. I know I need to acknowledge such historical truths, but I do not see why I should feel personally guilty.

The same applies to my wife. For example, on a family trip (including nephews and nieces) to the National Portrait Gallery before the Covid-19 pandemic, we stopped before a portrait of Arthur Balfour, nephew of three-times prime minister Lord Salisbury and himself a prime minister. The potted history mentioned that, as foreign secretary, he was the author of the 1917 Balfour Declaration in support of “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people”.

I pointed out that, a few months before, he had warned the British cabinet in a memo, that Indians would not be able to manage parliamentary democracy because they were not of the same race as Europeans. Even education would not bridge the racial divide. Balfour and his fellow cabinet ministers, presided over by Lloyd George, did not dispute Lord Curzon’s estimate that it would take Indians 500 years to learn to rule themselves. I said this not to make my wife’s family feel guilty, but to highlight that the history we have been taught is far from the complete picture.

This is what we need to tackle: call it the “Machiavelli problem”. More than 1,500 years before the Renaissance diplomat and philosopher wrote his book on statecraft, The Prince, an Indian called Chanakya wrote a treatise on the same subject called Arthashastra, as a handbook for a great king.

Niccolò Machiavelli may or may not have known about its existence but it cannot be disputed that, while Machiavelli was merely a theoretician, Chanakya helped build one of India’s greatest empires. Indian schoolboys know of both men and the diplomatic enclave in New Delhi is called Chanakyapuri. Yet Chanakya is often described as the Indian Machiavelli and he is hardly known outside India.

The result of imbalances like these is that descendants of the conquered, like me, always carry two bags: one containing the conqueror’s history, the other that of the conquered. Descendants of the conquerors, like my wife, only have to worry about the first bag.

Unless we can equalise these historical weights and start to move towards a truly universal history, the past will continue to divide us and we shall always be wrestling with the problems of guilt and gratitude.

The writer, a British journalist, was the first sports editor of the BBC



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China lands spacecraft on Mars

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China has landed a spacecraft containing a rover on Mars, according to state media, in a further sign of its bold ambitions in the sphere.

The rover was part of the Tianwen-1 unmanned mission launched in July last year. Tianwen means “questions to heaven” and was named after a poem by Chinese poet Qu Yuan.

The mission, which was described by Chinese media as a “new major milestone” and the “first step in China’s planetary exploration of the solar system”, was intended to match the US by successfully landing on the red planet.

The Global Times reported that the lander and the rover from the Tianwen-1 probe reached a plain on Mars called Utopia Planitia on early Saturday morning local time, citing information from the China National Space Administration.

The Tianwen-1 probe’s lander and rover separated with the orbiter at about 4am, after which it had a three hour flight before entering Mars’ atmosphere, according to the newspaper.

The spacecraft then “spent around nine minutes decelerating, hovering for obstacle avoidance and cushioning, before its soft landing”. The rover is named Zhurong after a Chinese god of fire, and is 1.85m and weighs 240kg. It is expected to transverse the planet for about 92 days.

The probe was launched into space on July 23 by the Long March 5 rocket from the Wenchang launch pad in Hainan province, in the south of the country.

The achievement of the Mars landing is part of a wider expansion of China’s space programme. The country’s engineers launched the first part of its permanent space station into the Earth’s orbit late last month.

In 2018, China for the first time launched more vessels into orbit than any other nation.

The US views China’s efforts in space in strategic terms. “Beijing is working to match or exceed US capabilities in space to gain the military, economic and prestige benefits that Washington has accrued from space leadership,” according to the annual threat assessment published by the office of the US director of national intelligence.



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Iron ore sinks from record high on concerns over China crackdown

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The scorching rally that propelled the price of steel-making commodity iron ore to a record high came to a shuddering halt on Friday on concerns China will crack down on speculative activity.

The main iron ore futures contract in Singapore fell as much as 14 per cent to $190 a tonne before recovering to $209, while there were also big drops in China where the most active contract on the Dalian Commodity Exchange slumped almost 8 per cent.

The sell-off came as the local government in Tangshan, China’s main steel-making city, said it would examine illegal behaviour and suspend production at mills found to be manipulating market prices by spreading rumours and hoarding material, according to reports from Reuters and Bloomberg.

“China’s central government seems to be very concerned about this major input for its steel-intensive economy,” said Tom Price, head of commodities strategy at Liberum. “I think what the pullback reflects is the government trying to rein in prices.”

Line chart of $ per tonne showing Iron ore prices have fallen after a strong rally

Authorities in China have sought to cool hot commodity markets, with Premier Li Keqiang calling this week for stable prices. Iron was trading at $90 a tonne a year ago and hit a record high of $230 this week. Tangshan, which accounts for 14 per cent of China’s steel output, has introduced production curbs as part of a crackdown on pollution.

However, these measures have been slow to take effect as mills in the rest of the country have rushed to crank up output to take advantage of reduced capacity in Tangshan and cash in on record domestic steel prices. A decision to remove the export tax rebate for some steel products on June 1 has also led to other mills increasing production.

As a result, China’s steel production hit a record level in March, with output up 19 per cent year on year to 94m tonnes, according to financial group ANZ. The firm said production was even higher in April, with exports up 20 per cent year on year. That in turn boosted iron ore, which climbed 35 per cent over the past month.

“What the Chinese government is trying to do is incrementally contain the steel market, mindful of the fact they have spent a fortune resurrecting their economy over the past 12 months and they don’t want to kill the recovery,” said Price. “The measures are quite clever.”

Iron ore has led a broad advance in commodity markets over the past year, fanning talk that another “supercycle” — a long period of high prices — has arrived.

That has been a boon for big iron producers such as Anglo-Australian company BHP and its Brazilian rival Vale, which require a price of just $50 a tonne to break even.

However, most analysts think the iron ore market will remain tight and prices elevated for the rest of the year. That view is based on rising steel demand outside China as big economies accelerate and while important producers in Australia are operating at full capacity.

“While the price has been thumped in the past couple of days, demand remains robust, helped by the fantastic margins the steel industry is enjoying,” said Andrew Glass, Singapore-based founder of Avatar Commodities.

Elsewhere, copper was set for its first weekly loss in more than a month amid worries that a tightening of credit in China could hit demand for the metal, used in everything from household goods to electric vehicles. Copper, which started the week at $10,412 a tonne, was trading at $10,245 on Friday.



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Biden says ‘strong reason’ to believe pipeline hackers are in Russia

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Joe Biden said the US government has “strong reason” to believe the hackers behind a massive cyber attack that shut the Colonial petroleum pipeline were based in Russia, as he urged Americans to not panic over temporary fuel shortages.

“We do not believe the Russian government was involved in this attack. But we do have strong reason to believe that the criminals who did the attack are living in Russia. That is where it came from,” the US president said in a speech on Thursday afternoon at the White House.

“We have been in direct communication with Moscow about the imperative for responsible countries to take decisive action against these ransomware networks,” he added, noting he hoped to discuss the issue with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin.

The 5,500-mile pipeline system has capacity for 2.5m barrels a day of liquid fuels such as petrol diesel and jet fuel, which it carries from Gulf Coast refineries to major hubs in the north-east. The FBI has indicated that the shutdown was caused by a ransomware attack by hacking group DarkSide.

Cyber experts claim Russia tacitly allows ransomware gangs to operate in the country and will not prosecute them. In return, those criminals do not attack Russian companies and can be called upon to share their access to victims’ systems, experts say.

Last month, the US Treasury accused one of Russia’s intelligence services, the FSB, of “cultivating and co-opting” the notorious ransomware group Evil Corp, which has been sanctioned.

The Colonial pipeline — responsible for carrying almost half of the motor fuel used on the US east coast — began the process of fully reopening on Wednesday evening, five days after it was hit by a cyber attack that triggered a spate of panic-buying by motorists across the US south-east.

Biden said the US government expected a “region by region return to normalcy beginning this weekend and continuing into next week”. He urged Americans to avoid panic-buying petrol, and said he had called on state governors and local authorities to keep a lookout for any illegal price gouging by businesses.

“Don’t panic, number one. I know seeing lines at the pumps or gas stations with no gas can be extremely stressful, but this is a temporary situation,” Biden said. “Do not get more gas than you need in the next few days.”

Shortages at filling stations triggered by panic-buying continued on Thursday, with 70 per cent of stations in North Carolina running dry and about half in Virginia, Georgia and South Carolina, according to GasBuddy, a data provider.

The situation in some major urban hubs was beginning to improve, however. The amount of stations without fuel in Atlanta fell from a peak of 73 per cent overnight to 68 per cent by Thursday afternoon.

Colonial on Thursday morning said it had made “substantial progress” in bringing its operations back online and that all of its markets would begin receiving product by the afternoon.

Prices at the pump have continued to rise. National average petrol prices rose to $3.03 on Thursday, according to the AAA, an automobile association. They crossed the $3 a gallon threshold on Wednesday for the first time since 2014.

Gasoline futures retreated on the news of Colonial’s reopening, as traders anticipated supplies returning to normal. Contracts for June delivery slipped 7 cents to $2.08, their lowest level since April in Thursday afternoon trading.



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