Last week, Hong Kong smacked Beijing twice. First, on June 9, one million people marched through central Hong Kong to protest the proposal of an extradition law that the Beijing-controlled government was pushing for. If the new law would’ve been confirmed by the Legislative Council, which has a pro-Beijing majority, all Hong Kongers would become subjects of the Chinese legal system, in which the rule of law counts less than the rule of the Communist Party. Thirsty for more freedom and autonomy after they were liberated from colonial rule, Hong Kongers challenged Beijing’s new patronage with unprecedented protest; on the eve of the debate in parliament that would’ve probably confirmed the law, an endless river of citizens flooded the streets for hours, effectively conquering the eight million-large city.
I was not at Tiananmen in 1989, when for weeks thousands of students occupied the square, demanding more room in a modernizing China. Nor was I there in those horrid hours between the third and fourth of June, when under the cover of night the People’s Liberation Army, largely outnumbering the demonstrators, first surrounded the area, then pushed toward the square shooting madly at anything that moved, crushing young lives with tanks.
And yet, during my almost ten-year sejour in China, I went to Tiananmen a lot. Firstly, just to gaze at that immense empty space, trying to make sense of its importance. I also went there as a journalist covering the gatherings of the Communist party nomenclature, like the Party Congress and sessions of the National People’s Congress in the Great Hall of the People. When studying in Beijing, someone from the Yugoslav Embassy lent me a suit so I could join the banquet Deng Xiaoping threw in honor of Josip Broz-Tito in the Great Hall. It was a strange and funny reminder of when I wore a borrowed suit at the funeral of my father when I was ten.
Two elderly men were standing a step away from Šuštarski Most (Cobbler’s Bridge) in the heart of the old part Ljubljana. They looked like longtime friends involved in deep, calm conversation. Just like a reflection of the bridge in front of them, which has connected two sides of medieval Ljubljana since the 13th century and was last redesigned in 1931 by architect Jože Plečnik, they seemed to be relics of the past.
The men stood in near complete solitude, with no intention of moving. They seemed to have all the time in the world. When I walked past them, I heard the taller one say: “He was a big painter.” They were reminiscing, or perhaps the man who was emphasizing the importance of the painter had just learned something new about him, or about Ljubljana, and was now telling it to his old friend. I did not hear the painter’s name but the image of those elder locals, involved in a conversation about the history of their city, struck me as an apt symbol of today’s Ljubljana. Judging by the tone of the conversation, the diction, the familiarity and the awareness of both men with the space around them, I had no doubt that the subject matter of the discussion must have been about a local artist, dead for a while, but living in their memories.
Few weeks have passed since my last Yonder arrived in your mailbox. I apologize. The reason for my absence is a combination of factors that have kept me away from yondering. No, I did not write a book. Not yet, at least. I needed to take care of personal matters but also wanted to take a break from the brutal political reality we inhale every day. Has my break changed anything? Not really, except that the energy to do better and more is now increasing, in hopes that this publication will continue to grow. So, welcome back.
“Scemo, scemo,” echoed the crowd of ten thousand in the Pala Eur, the sports arena in the south of Rome. It was January 31 in the year of Orwell. I was living in Paris, Brussels, Rome, and Ljubljana. Fresh from Asia and deep into my Chinese studies, I had little or no clue about European politics, nor much of the Italian language. So when I heard the wave of “scemo” calls, I looked on the stage as we anxiously waited for Sting to start the concert. It was not a chant for the famous rocker, though; the crowd was calling to dimwit Gianni De Michelis, then the Italian labor minister, who entered the VIP balcony with a couple of pretty women and was noticed by the crowd. I mused about the eccentric and passionate way the young Italians expressed their political opinion. My knowledge about contemporary Italy was nonexistent back then, and I have no recollection why De Michelis was booed by the audience. Did he do something politically wrong, or was he ridiculed because of his age (he was 43 years old then) in attending Sting’s concert? Was it in spite of his long curly hair? Or just because he was wearing one of his Hermes neckties? Who knew.
I have no idea how Luka Dončić, point guard for the Dallas Mavericks, got on this planet. I remember the image of this young 18-year-old champion when the Slovenian team won the European championship in 2017. I remember him from photos like the one above; I remember his joy and the forceful expression on his face. After the win in Ljubljana, Dončić went to play in Spain and then last year was drafted to the NBA by the Dallas Mavericks. He was 19 years old when signed a contract for $6.5 million a year. I am sure there are more statistics that could describe and explain the meteoric rise of the young basketball star. But other than some highlights of his playing–the famous back-step jump shot and numerous three-pointers–I haven’t seen Dončić play an entire game. Not even on television. On the other hand, every time I went back to Ljubljana, I noticed his growing popularity in the country that this year celebrates only 28 years of independence. Luka, as they call him in Slovenia, is a child of independence, born into the world without borders, free.
This issue of Yonder is a bit different from the form developed in the last couple of years. I needed to write something lighter and more grounded. One reason: overwhelmingly important global events, like the China-Italy agreement that will have evident consequences for the European Union and the rest of the global community and balance. In the U.S., it’s Mueller time as the special council ended its two-year Russian probe. The first indication of the report that very few people have read indicates that the consequences of this investigation for the sitting president may not be grave, but everybody is being careful to jump ahead with the conclusions since, as usual, the devil is in the details. There is a lot more to be seen.
Without noticing, Yonder has recently celebrated its fourth anniversary. This is the 289th Yonder! I had a short glance of the topics and stories written so far and I am surprised how much more variety there was before Donald Trump occupied the scene. Perhaps for this, but also because of the fourth anniversary, I decided to do a bit of a different issue this time. I was also inspired by the article that Mark Isaac wrote on the importance of the newsletters compared to the rest of social media. A prolific writer, Isaac leads a group of journalists covering technology. Have a good read and let me know what you think.
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The center right-populist Italian government has recently bowed to Chinese flattery, announcing it was ready to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that will secure Rome and Beijing in a modern Silk Road. At the end of a long, slow road of decline and political confusion, Rome is in bad need of fresh investment to boost its impoverished economy. Italy, which in 1957 helped found the European Economic Community, still counts as one of the most important EU members and is turning its back on Brussels in hopes that distant Beijing can solve its problems.
This week’s Yonder post is a quick note on some of the facts that preceded the summit in Hanoi, which most of the mainstream media called a disaster. Here are a few points trying to explain why this is not necessarily the case. It is impossible to resolve a North Korean issue in a few hours and with only two presidential meetings. We may ask ourselves whether President Trump is the right person to undertake this endeavor, but this is another issue, considering the fact that the two dictators like each other.
“Is the pragmatic gene that we saw in Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and even at the beginning of the Hu Jintao, still alive in China,” asked Susan L. Shirk, a research professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, of the latest China Task Force Report. “Is Xi Jinping motivated and able to modify its policies to reduce the cost China is bearing because of the current backlash? Or, are this kind of overreaching policies–statist, mercantilists and aggressive foreign policies–hard-baked into the Chinese Marxist-Leninist Communist Party rule? Are the Chinese leaders still able to make the changes in a practical, pragmatic manner to reduce their own cost?”
I got myself a $70 haircut across the street at Immortal Beloved, where Michelle Obama used to get hers. As it should be, the men’s barber is in the basement, and at first, I did not like the place. Then my splendid wife, who occasionally uses the upper floor of the salon, told me to try them out. I went across the street and inside, but had to come back a couple of hours later, because in every uppity hair salon there is no such a thing as a walk-in. You’ve got to make an appointment.
My hairdresser was young. He didn’t talk much but, robust as he was, with a baseball hat, long black beard, army pants, he somehow did not fit the place. He said he’d wanted to do something more peaceful after being in Fallujah. We said a few more words, about his daughter, the divorce, how he gave all his money from the army to his daughter. He is clean now, learned this new job. It was the first time in my life that I almost fall asleep while seated for a haircut. It was unusually relaxing, practically moving. What miracles humankind can produce. He went to kill when he was 17, and now, as my wife told me, he cut my hair perfectly. Washington D.C. is a thrilling city.
So the hair was done. Then I put a new shirt on, a blazer and my favorite boots. I was ready. Finally, I went to clean our car a bit more. It was a ritual, my way of saying goodbye to Uber.