Monday, January 26, 2015

A few thoughts on China and the internet

The last few weeks have seen an intensification of the Chinese state's attempts to control which parts of the internet its people should be able to access.

After having blocked nearly all major foreign websites (Facebook, Youtube, Twitter, Gmail, Google...), the authorities are now cracking down on VPNs, the softwares which people use to get around the "great firewall". Over the last month some popular VPNs have been blocked. Anecdotal evidence suggests that all VPNs are becoming increasingly unstable and hard to use. Although I am still managing to use my own one (otherwise I would be unable to access this blog), I have also found that it frequently stops working and needs to be restarted.

I doubt the authorities would go so far as to completely block all VPNs even if they were able to, since that would be a real headache for multinational businesses operating in the country. I must say that a part of me almost hopes they did, since it might finally precipitate a public debate on the issue. In any case,it will now become even harder for the less determined to view censored websites.

This crackdown on VPNs would seem to be part of a more general tightening of the screws on all kinds of dissent which has taken place since the new leadership came to power in 2012. Over the last couple of years, liberal and independent thinkers of all kinds have found themselves increasingly attacked and marginalized.

I think there are some general conclusions to be drawn from all of this. It used to be a common trope that as time goes by and the economy develops, China would "naturally" progress towards being more free and democratic. In my view it is high time to put that old chestnut to rest.

The truth is that a lot of progress was made towards allowing the Chinese greater social freedoms and freedom of expression during the eighties and nineties. Then again, when the baseline was the Maoist years it would have been hard not to improve in these respects. By the start of the 21st century however, China had stabilized at a certain level of freedom (or un-freedom).

While the economy has continued growing at great speed since then, and the infrastructure has continued improving, there has been no great progress in terms of granting citizens genuine freedom of speech and other basic political rights. Further progress would probably necessitate profound reforms of the political system which would ensure a separation of powers and subject the state's actions to constraints and oversight, but the people who run the country are just not willing to undertake such reforms, as much as they may pay lip service to concepts like the "rule of law".

Another thing to realize is that the government still enjoys much support and legitimacy in the eyes of the middle and upper classes of urban China, exactly the people who would have the ability to affect change (the peasant workers who man the country's construction sites may view things differently, but they have little possibility to act upon their feelings). Free thinkers and dissidents like Ai Wei Wei do not represent the mainstream, and never have done.

This holds true for a variety of reasons: partly because of how the state is seen as ensuring economic growth and providing new infrastructure (Beijing has just opened three new subway lines), partly because there is a good degree of social freedom (like the freedom to work where you want, dress how you like and spend your free time how you like), partly because people buy into the line that stability is what matters most and democracy would make China descend into chaos, and partly because they truly believe (or have been convinced) that the current government is what defends the nation from foreign intrusion and restores its honour after the "century of humiliation".

What's more, most of the Chinese public remains only vaguely aware of things like the current crackdown on the internet and on dissent, and has little interest in finding out more. As long this situation continues, the government is on solid ground. This doesn't mean that outside observers have to ignore the obvious negative sides of China's system, or refrain from criticizing these policies. At the same time, there is no use in kidding ourselves: China's internet isn't opening up any time soon. And what's more, most Chinese couldn't really care less.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Chinese football continues to suck

Last Thursday China got kicked out of the Asian Cup by hosts Australia in the quarter finals, in the most significant match China's national football team had played in years.

China's team is generally quite awful, to the extent that it has become a national joke. It only ever qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, and then went on to give a downright embarrassing performance, losing all three of its games by 2-0, 4-0 and 3-0. And this was in spite of being managed by Bora Milutinovic, the Serbian trainer who had already worked miracles with other unfancied teams in previous world cups. 

A couple of years ago the Chinese team's awfulness came to the fore again when they lost 5-1 against Thailand in a friendly on their own turf, leading to much whining online about the state of the country's football. In this year's Asian Cup however China seemed to have bucked the trend, winning all three of its first round matches with Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. This lead to moderate excitement about China's appearance in the quarter finals against Australia. Then last week things went back to normal, with China losing the match 2-0 and heading home with little honour.

I watched the match with two Chinese colleagues in their rundown flat in the north of Beijing. China played a decent first half, then completely came apart after an amazing goal by Tim Cahill, suffering attack upon attack until the hosts inevitably doubled their lead. In the end they thoroughly deserved their defeat against an extremely average football nation. Of course Australia were the hosts, but the Brisbane stadium was so packed with local Chinese that you might have been forgiven for doubting it.

Now there will be renewed debate about why a decent football team cannot be put together out of a nation of 1.4 billion people. It's not as if they haven't tried, with loads of money being spent on importing fancy foreign coaches and players in an effort to raise the level. The sport does not lack popularity either, as you will notice if you go to the sports ground of any Chinese university.  

All the same, Japan and South Korea's teams have been in a completely different league for years. Some blame the pervasive culture of corruption and bribery in Chinese football. Match-fixing scandals are common in China's league. Being familiar with Italy, I don't find this explanation convincing: similar scandals constantly rock the Italian league, but it remains one of the world's great footballing nations. 

As with many other things, it probably comes down to China's system: while the centralized, top-down approach of an authoritarian country works for nurturing gold-medal Olympic gymnasts, it probably doesn't work well for team sports. What's more, a lot of Chinese children would be discouraged from wasting time playing football, and find few places to play it even if they had the time to do so.

Then again, Taiwan's national team (which plays as "Chinese Taipei") is dreadful as well. Perhaps the Chinese and football just don't go together well? Oh well, they still have ping pong.

The Chinese players after a defeat

Thursday, January 8, 2015

A vacation in Italy

I have just returned from a two week vacation in Italy to see my parents. While there I was struck by the decrepit state of some of the Italian infrastructure, particularly when compared to China.

After spending two weeks in the countryside near Rome, two things in particular really made an impression. First of all, mobile phone coverage in the Italian countryside is not terribly widespread. In the house where I stayed, which is located at the top of a little hill in an idyllic rural area, mobile phones simply don't pick up a signal. The same goes for many parts of the surrounding countryside and the nearby village. Driving around, I found that my mobile would only pick up a signal in certain spots. This held true for all Italian providers.

By contrast, in China mobile phone coverage seems to extend to every last hamlet. This may just be my experience, but I have traveled quite a lot in Chinese rural areas, including remote mountainous areas of a relatively poor province like Guizhou, and I have never found that my mobile phone lacked coverage (I use China Mobile). I don't know if this also holds true for the Tibetan plateau, but in most of China mobile phone coverage seems to be universal.

The second thing which struck me is the bad state of many Italian roads. In the area where I was staying, most of the roads seem to be full of bumps and small holes, making any car ride a real strain on the suspensions. Large potholes are unusual, but I did come across a couple of holes which would be big enough to puncture a tire if you drove over them fast. 

Of course in China there are areas where the roads are in an even worse state of disrepair. In fact, some villages still have no paved roads at all. Having said that, I have driven around a lot in Beijing and I can guarantee that the roads throughout Beijing municipality, including its large rural areas, are in quite an excellent state.

Another thing I noticed was how terribly difficult it is to find a parking spot in Rome, something which the locals are always complaining about. In Beijing, on the other hand, I have never had much trouble finding parking in spite of the city's dreadful congestion and traffic jams. I suppose part of the reason must be the underground parking lots which most shopping malls and apartment blocks are equipped with. To be fair, it is hard to build anything underground in Rome without bumping into some Roman remains.

All in all, I got the clear feeling that China's infrastructure has already overtaken Italy's in some respects, at least in the more developed parts of China. Of course Italy still has a much higher GDP per capita than China, and remains a pleasanter place to live for the ordinary citizen. In some ways however it is beginning to feel like more of a "developing country" than China.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

What does it take to clear up Beijing's pollution?

The APEC summit currently taking place in Beijing has provided Beijingers with a week of unusually low pollution and blue skies, due to the exceptional measures which have been taken to ensure that the city would not be blanketed by smog during the summit.

The aforementioned measures have included a five day holiday for all educational institutions and public offices in the city, a suspension of work in all factories and building sites, and only allowing cars to take the road if their number plates end with either odd or even numbers, depending on the day. 
This last measure has been extended to a huge area of Northern China, all the way down to Shandong province. More petty measures have included a ban on burning incense for the deceased in cemeteries, and on taking your own incense into Buddhist temples.

As always, the Chinese authorities will do anything to look good and keep face when they host an international event. It seems to have worked too. In the five days since these measures have been in place, Beijing's skies have been a lovely blue, and the haze which is visible to the naked eye for much of the year (with the exception of when there are strong winds) has completely dissipated. 

According to the US embassy estimates, the ones which savy Beijingers trust the most, PM 2.5 levels have consistently remained below 200, the level which the WHO defines as "very unhealthy" (although today they are over 150, defined as "unhealthy", which in any European city would still be considered unacceptably high).

This shows you what sort of extreme steps currently have to be taken just to ensure a smog-free Beijing for a few days. Unfortunately such measures are not sustainable in the long run, and structural changes will be needed to achieve a long-term improvement. 

In the meantime we can all enjoy the Beijing sky's "APEC blue", as the locals have dubbed it.

The unusually clean air over central Beijing last Thursday.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

How has China changed since 2004?

That China is undergoing "a dizzying pace of change" has become a worn-out journalistic cliche'. An old Lonely Planet guidebook once put it better: China is a country undergoing massive and rapid change, but still somehow always exactly the same.

The first time I visited China was in 2004. It's now been a decade. China has changed, and so have I. I have decided to list a few of the ways in which China has changed since that first visit of mine, as seen from my perspective.


Ten years ago, getting around China meant either spending money to fly, or taking 10, 20 or 30 hour train-rides. The options in the trains included a "soft bunk bed", a "hard bunk bed" (not really hard but cramped and with no privacy), a simple seat, and even a "standing ticket" which meant you had to spend the journey standing in the aisle.

Fast forward to 2014, and most Chinese trains are still like that. There is however a growing network of high-speed railways, which is already the most extensive in the world. High speed trains now link pretty much all of China's biggest and richest cities, crisscrossing most of the Eastern coastline. They are seriously fast too: the 1300 Km. tract from Beijing to Shanghai now takes just five hours. Journeys which used to be grueling overnight odysseys can now be done in a few hours, in comfortable new trains where people are not allowed to travel without a seat. The carriages are sometimes even equipped with wi-fi.

Of course many parts of China still aren't reachable in this way, but the high-speed network is scheduled to expand, and quite soon almost all of China's provincial capitals will be covered. Tedious 20 to 30 hour train-rides to get around the country will then become a thing of the past. I think this is one aspect of China's policies which the US should seriously consider imitating, if the car and oil lobbies don't get in the way.

The attention which foreigners gather

When I traveled through China in 2004, the only places where I did not receive too much attention as a foreigner were the centers of Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. Everywhere else I went, I would attract surprised stares and cries of "laowai". Young people would stop me on the street and try to speak to me in English, or ask me if they could take a photo with me. This happened to me a lot even when I visited Chongqing, already a huge city with skyscrapers and McDonalds in the center.

I still remember going into an internet cafe' in Suzhou to check my e-mail, and having some youngsters literally crowd round my screen to see what the foreigner was writing. When I visited some smaller towns in the vicinity of Chongqing, people would sometimes stare at me as if they had just seen a ghost, with their mouths wide open and their eyes almost popping out of their sockets (it wasn't everyone, but it happened).

Fast forward ten years, and the amount of attention you draw as a foreigner in China has decreased considerably. In the bigger and more cosmopolitan cities, from Beijing to Qingdao to Shenzhen, it is quite unusual for anyone to give you even a passing glimpse. Chinese and foreigners are treated almost with the same level of indifference. There have just been too many foreign visitors here for too long, and it is no longer a novelty. In smaller or more remote places the sudden appearance of a foreigner can still draw surprised stares and curiosity, but less so than it used to be the case a decade ago.

Then again, it might also be me: in 2004 I had long hair and a ginger beard, which must have made me look much more outlandish. 


When I visited China in 2004, I got the impression that the entire male population smoked. The majority of the men you saw on the streets were smoking. On the other hand you almost never saw ladies lighting up, since it was not considered a feminine thing to do. Smoking was permissible pretty much everywhere. I don't remember any restaurants or cafes where it wasn't possible to smoke. Since I smoked too at the time, I found this quite agreeable. I also remember that packets of cheap local cigarettes only cost 3 Yuan. 

Although smoking is still widespread in China, the proportion of men who smoke has decreased considerably. Especially among the young and educated, it is no longer the norm. In the big cities there are now numerous establishments and restaurants which don't allow smoking on the premises, or confine it to a special smoking area.

On the other hand, you see noticeably more women smoking on the streets than you did a decade ago. I suppose this is an unfortunate off-shot of the weakening of traditional gender roles.


For an English-speaker, one of the funniest aspects of travel in China is coming across the bad translations of Chinese into English which dot the country's cities and tourist sites. They can be bemusing, hilarious, meaningless and even surreal. Often the product of computerized translation, notices and menus mistranslated into English can always provide a good laugh. There are in fact entire books dedicated to collections of the funniest examples.

Unfortunately, the quality of English signage in China's bigger cities has improved considerably over the last decade. Menus can still provide a good laugh (you may order a "Spicy temptation of frog", or even a "Ding Xiang fish with investigate the benefits of chamomile"), but English signs at tourist sites and in offices tend to have much less comedy value then they used to. Whoever deals with such things has clearly zeroed in on the necessity to ask someone competent for advice before just putting up a sentence mechanically translated from Chinese. 

Don't despair though: plenty of funny Chinglish is still out there if you search for it, and restaurants all over China still have the "mind out: knock head" notice above doorways where a tall foreigner might bash their head. I just hope that the brilliant "don't walk on the grass" signs like the one below will always survive.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hong Kong and the "hostile foreign forces"

So it seems that the Hong Kong protests may be starting to peter out, without having achieved their goal. This was to be expected; there was no way the government was backing down.

Over the last couple of weeks I have heard various of my foreign friends here in Beijing wonder if the protests were going to end with a repeat of Beijing 1989. This always seemed unlikely to me, as I couldn't imagine the Chinese government sending the army into Hong Kong. Instead, it seems like they may well have chosen the sneakier method of encouraging Hong Kong's triads to attack and harass the demonstrators.

Here in the Mainland, the media has attempted to paint the demonstrators as naive students manipulated by the shadowy "外国势力" (foreign forces), which in their imagination are always waiting to pounce on any chance to destabilize China. That they would present it this way is entirely predictable for those who know anything about China. It is also not at all surprising that many Mainland Chinese are ready to be swayed by such accusations.

Allegations of foreign backing are relatively groundless (as this piece by Dave Lindorff intelligently argues). The protesters themselves are genuine Hong Kongers of all ethnic backgrounds, and most of them were not part of any organized movement, but simply turned up spontaneously. The Occupy Central and Scholarism movements are organized, lead and staffed by Hong Kongers. While it is obvious that such a movement would receive sympathy and support in the Western world, there is no real evidence that it was organized or received material support from the outside.

The real mystery is perhaps not whether there are "foreign forces" supporting the protesters, but why this should matter. When the Chinese Communist Party was struggling against the Japanese and the Guomindang in the fourties, were they not receiving the support of "foreign forces"? Or was the Soviet Union not a foreign country? Is receiving international support necessarily a bad thing?

Surely any political movement should be judged on the strength of its goals and its cause, and not on whether it is receiving foreign backing. The Hong Kong protesters demand the right to elect Hong Kong's Chief Executive freely. It is the central government's refusal to allow this that is "destabilizing" Hong Kong. Having a chief executive that doesn't just toe Beijing's line would probably not destabilize Hong Kong, but just improve the level of trust between Hong Kongers and their local leaders. There is no way it could lead to independence for Hong Kong.

Protesters in Hong Kong. The crossed out Chinese word on the placards means "silence" (沉默)

It is interesting to note that Beijing's accusation that Hong Kong's protest movement is basically a pawn of the West ties in with a certain sort of discourse which is gaining much ground internationally. This discourse, which unites the Chinese and Russian governments and their supporters with certain sectors of the Western left, holds that most of the pro-democracy protest movements and rebellions against authoritarian regimes which have erupted around the world in recent years have been initiated and funded by the United States and its allies, in order to destabilize and replace governments unfriendly to them.

According to this line of reasoning the uprisings in Syria and Libya, the Maidan protest movement in Ukraine, the electoral protests in Iran in 2009, the Venezuelan protests against Maduro's government, the unrest in Xinjiang and now the Occupy movement in Hong Kong are all tools of the US and the West in their geopolitical struggle against their enemies.

It is of course true that all of the governments targeted by these protests are not on good terms with the United States. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that the US views them with sympathy, and even aids them materially in some cases (in the case of Libya, NATO warplanes certainly finished off the protesters' job for them). But to presume that these popular movements are all simple orchestrations of the United States exaggerates the role that this country is able to play and takes away any agency from the protesters themselves, who are reduced to the role of pawns in someone else's game.

The simplistic nature of this analysis is obvious if you look at the "Arab Spring". This wave of popular protest started off targeting dictators friendly to the US and Western interests (Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt), and then moved on to countries with regimes long on the list of US enemies (Ghaddafi in Lybia and Assad in Syria), and all of these uprisings clearly took inspiration from each other. It would hardly make sense to assume that the rebellions in Syria and Libya were entirely orchestrated by the US, while the ones in Tunisia and Egypt were spontaneous popular uprisings.

Ironically, the way that Russian and Chinese nationalists are always ready to see the hand of the US behind pro-democracy movements around the world reminds me somewhat of how cold war-era conservatives in America and Europe would see the "evil hand" of the Soviet Union behind just struggles everywhere, from blacks fighting apartheid in South Africa to landless peasants fighting for their rights in Latin America. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

The five most repressive countries in the world

Few would debate that over the last few decades there has been a trend towards more representative democracy and respect of human rights around the world.. There are a few countries, however, which seem to be simply unable to free themselves from the grip of complete, unabashed tyranny.

The five countries in this list consistently come last in all global indexes for respect of human rights, freedom of the press, democracy and governmental transparency. They are all places which make China seem like a democratic, open and transparent sort of country. Two of them are located in Africa, two in Asia, and one in the Middle East (technically also in Asia). One is an absolute monarchy, and the other four are ruled by leaders who have been in power for decades (Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea) or are the sons of former leaders (Turkmenistan and North Korea). In what must be a cruel joke, four of these countries also have the word "democracy" enshrined either in the name of the country or in the name of the ruling party.

1) Eritrea

When Eritrea won its independence from Ethiopia after a 30 year war in 1991, there were high hopes for the country. The former Italian colony, located on a strategically important strip of the Red Sea and rich in mineral resources, seemed like it might become the success story of troubled East Africa. The former leader of the liberation struggle Isaias Afwerki immediately became head of state. He has remained in power ever since. 

Under his watch Eritrea has turned into possibly the most repressive state in the whole of Africa, which is really quite a feat, although not of the kind which his people were hoping for. The 1997 constitution proclaims the country to be a unicameral parliamentary democracy, but it has never been implemented. Eritrea is in actuality a one-party state. The one party in question is called the "People's Front for Democracy and Justice" (well of course it is). 

Human rights in Eritrea simply don't exist. Freedom of association and worship are severely curtailed. The only religions allowed are the four ones registered with the government, in other words Catholicism, Eritrean Orthodox Christianity, Lutheranism and Sunni Islam. All other religions, including all the various protestant denominations, are outlawed, and people get arrested and persecuted for practicing them. Not a few Eritreans have escaped the country because they are practitioners of an "unregistered" religion. 

Freedom of the press in Eritrea is absolutely dismal. The country regularly comes last in the world for press freedom according to the ranking which Reporters Without Borders releases every year. In 2013 it came 179th out of 179 countries, just behind North Korea. How it's possible to have less freedom of the press than North Korea I really don't know, but somehow Eritrea manages. It is the only African country to have no privately owned media at all. 

One of the strangest and most damaging of the country's human rights abuses is the enforced military service which can go almost indefinitely. All the country's youths (both male and female) are required to complete their final year of high school in a military training camp, and are then drafted. In theory the draft lasts for 18 months, but in practice it is often extended for years and even decades, during which soldiers get used as forced labour in government building projects. They live in terrible conditions and are paid close to nothing. 

The regime is also loathe to allow young people of the age for conscription to get a passport and leave the country. Huge numbers of Eritrean youths have thus fled abroad to avoid this form of slavery masquerading as military service, in spite of the great risks for those who are caught crossing the border illegally.

Isaias Afwerki, Eritra's president since 1991

2) Turkmenistan

Turkmenistan is one of those places which you wouldn't even end up in by accident, but it hasn't always been this way. This country about the size of Spain, perched precariously between Iran, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, used to be an important stop on the Silk Road. Incorporated into the Russian empire in 1881, it then became a Soviet Republic.

When the Soviet Union split up in 1991, the former head of the local Communist Party, Saparmurat Niyazov, immediately became the new leader of independent Turkmenistan. He did so by winning presidential "elections" in which he was the only candidate, with 99.5% of the votes in his favour. With the usual cynicism which characterizes such figures, he went about turning the country into his own personal fiefdom.

What gave Niyazov a certain international renown were the more grotesque sides of his personality cult. He had himself renamed Turkmenbashi, which means "the leader of the Turkmens". He famously renamed the months of the years in Turkmen, replacing the old names taken from Russian with new names which were often inspired by members of his own family. January was renamed after him, and April after his mother.

Niyazov also produced his own answer to Charmain Mao's Little Red Book: a book called the Ruhnama (the Book of the Soul), containing historical and personal anecdotes of dubious accuracy. Unsurprisingly, this book became required reading in all institutions of learning. More comically, questions on the Ruhnama even became a part of the exam to get a driving licence.

Some of the laws Niyazov passed make you think that Sacha Baron-Cohen's "the dictator" must have been based on him. In 2001 opera, ballet and the circus were outlawed for being "un-Turkmen". In 2004 men were forbidden from growing long hair or beards.In 2005 all libraries outside the capital were closed by decree. Niyazov argued that the only books most Turkmens need to read are the Koran and his Ruhnama. What is perhaps most bizarre is that Niyazov abolished the death penalty by decree in 1999, and this still stands today.

Niyazov died in 2006, succeeded by his deputy prime minister Berdimuhamedow. The new leader repealed some of Niyazov's more absurd decrees, for instance the banning of the opera and the changing of the names of the months. In general though, the country remains an authoritarian black hole, under the iron rule of the "Democratic Party of Turkmenistan" (no kidding).

Only very few citizens are allowed access to the internet, while everyone else has to make do with the "Turkmenet", a controlled local version of the world wide web. Foreign travel is severely restricted for most citizens. The country's press freedom ranks third worst in the world after Eritrea and North Korea. Any opposition is all but impossible. Non-Turkmen minorities including Russians are discriminated against, and many of the Russians who were there from Soviet times have left.

In the mean time the Turkmens remain poor, in spite of the huge reserves of oil and natural gas which the country is endowed with. Unsurprisingly, Xi Jinping visited Turkmenistan a few months ago, and signed a deal for China to import its natural gas. If any of the money will reach the ordinary people remains to be seen.

A monument of the Ruhnama at Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital.

3) North Korea

What is there to say about the "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" which has not already been said? The country has attracted great attention in the last few years as the last bastion of extreme totalitarianism, replete with nuclear weapons.

The personality cult which surrounds the country's dynastic leaders reaches levels which outsiders can barely fathom. Jang Jin Sung, one of the highest level North Koreans ever to defect, recounts in his autobiography how he used to believe that the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il never went to the bathroom like an ordinary human being.

The levels of social regimentation also defy belief: you have to be a member of the Korean Worker's Party to even be allowed to live in the capital Pyongyang (cripples are also excluded from living there). It is official practice to punish the whole families of those who commit a crime of any sort, which makes it easy to imagine why nobody wants to step out of line.

What is not often realized nowadays is that while North Korea was always a paragon of totalitarianism, it was not always a basket case. North Korea was not an especially poor country during the first decades of its existence. It was actually more prosperous than South Korea until the sixties (of course South Korea was still a poor country at the time).

The economy declined throughout the eighties and nineties as the collapse of the USSR and China's opening up left the country isolated. Flooding in the mid-nineties led to a widespread famine in which millions died. The North Korean media stepped in and told its people that the famine was even worse in South Korea, and that the Dear Leader was touring the country trying to remedy the situation, sustaining himself on only one rice-ball a day.

It is clear from all accounts that the famine wreaked havoc in a society which had functioned for decades like a sort of closed religious cult which most of its members had genuinely believed in. Millions of people had to re-learn how to fend for themselves and make decisions, since the state's regimented control of everyone's life mostly collapsed. Many fled over the border to China, where they saw with their own eyes what a freer and richer society looked like.

Since then North Korea has never been the same. Although access to foreign travel, the internet and foreign media is still unthinkable for most North Koreans, it is clear that information about the outside world is no longer as limited as it used to be. South Korean DVDs smuggled in from China are apparently widely bought on the black market, and it is an open secret in the country that South Koreans live far better. 

All the same, North Korea remains isolated from the outside world to an extent which no other country can approach in the 21st century. China has traditionally been its staunchest ally, but in recent years the relationship has become strained, as even the Chinese authorities have grown tired with the North Koreans' erratic and aggressive behaviour.

Last year North Korea impounded a Chinese fishing boat, and demanded 600,000 Yuan from China for the safe return of the boat and its 16 members of crew. Not a clever way for Pyongyang to deal with its only friend left in the world, one might think. But clearly making friends has never been one of North Korea's priorities.

A picture from the Arirang festival, North Korea's famous mass games in which thousands of well-drilled school children make up mosaic pictures by holding up different coloured cards. Here's a link to the BBC's interesting documentary on the children who take part, "a state of mind". 

4) Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is a bit of an odd one out in this list. In many ways, it would not appear to be your typical 21st century autocracy. Its people are relatively well off; they travel abroad quite freely (except that women need the permission of their "male guardian" to do so); the internet is available and mostly uncensored; the biggest cities are full of glittering skyscrapers and new infrastructure; and the country is full of foreign workers, who make up about a fifth of the population. 

All the same, Saudi Arabia remains one of the most repressive and stifling countries in the world. It is an absolute monarchy ruled by the house of Saud,the royal family which gives the country its name. There are no political parties or national elections allowed, and no human rights whatsoever. All male Saudis are however allowed to petition the king directly, in accordance with traditional tribal custom. The government refuses to sign the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights, claiming that it is unsuitable for an Islamic society.

Saudi Arabia is run according to the principles of Wahabism, the extreme and puritanical Islamic movement founded in the 18th century by Muhamad Ibn Abd Al Wahab, a preacher from the remote desert interior of the Arabian peninsula. Al Wahab wanted Muslims to return to what he considered the "real Islam" of the origins, and to give up on idolatrous practices like the worship of saints and shrines, instead of the direct worship of god.

As a result, Saudi society is dominated by a version of Islam far more extreme than that which is found almost anywhere else. The Quran and the Sunnah are declared to be the country's constitution. The public worship of any religion but Islam is strictly forbidden, and churches or other non-Muslim places of worship are not allowed to exist. Any public rejection of Islamic principles is completely unthinkable and very, very dangerous.

Saudi law is supposed to be based on Islamic Sharia, and it is famous for its backwardness and barbarism. Beheadings, floggings and amputations are part of the legal system and routinely carried out. Saudi Arabia is one of the countries which makes the heaviest use of capital punishment, most often in the form of public beheadings. Sometimes the beheaded bodies are then put on public display for days. Capital crimes include apostasy, adultery, homosexuality and witchcraft (!). People have actually been put to death for sorcery in recent years.

The status of women in Saudi Arabia, both legally and socially, is probably lower than it used to be in medieval Europe. Extremely few of them work, and they need the permission of their "male guardian" (usually a husband, father or brother) to do a host of things, including travelling and opening a bank account. Famously, women are also not allowed to drive cars.

Saudi Arabia's strict religious laws are often enforced by the infamous Mutaween, a kind of "religious police" employed by a government agency with the Orwellian name of "the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice". These bearded young men patrol the streets, ensuring that unrelated men and women don't mix, that women are dressed modestly, and that people observe prayer time.

In an infamous case in 2001, the Mutaween prevented a group of girl students from escaping from the premises of their school after it was engulfed by a fire, because they were immodestly dressed and thus could not be seen in public by men. 15 of them died.

Until the sixties Saudi Arabia used to be an extremely poor desert nation, but since it is blessed with the world's largest deposits of oil, it has now become a high-income country with a modern infrastructure. Attitudes however remain stuck somewhere in the deep Middle Ages. A curious facts is that most of the actual work in Saudi Arabia is done by foreigners. While foreign workers make up about 20% of the population, they hold about two thirds of the jobs. This is partly because Saudi Arabia's antiquated beliefs and educational system leaves its citizens unprepared to work in a modern economy.

Foreign workers usually mix very little with Saudis. Westerners and others who work for the oil corporations live in segregated compounds, where they are to some extent allowed to follow their own social norms and get away from the country's stifling brand of puritanism.

Although protests did shake Saudi Arabia in 2011-12 during the Arab Spring, the state managed to successfully put them down. Both liberals demanding reform and the Shia minority demanding and end to being discriminated against for not being "real Muslims" saw their demands suppressed. Meanwhile the majority of the population may well support the regime, given the extremely conservative attitudes prevalent in the country.

Deera Square in Riyadh, where public beheadings usually take place. Also known as "chop-chop square".

5) Equatorial Guinea

Rounding off this list, tiny Equatorial Guinea is an ex-Spanish colony lying off the coast of West Africa. With only 622.000 people, it should be the richest country in Africa by far. Since large oil reserves were discovered there in 1996, its government revenues have skyrocketed. With such a small population and lots of oil money, Equatorial Guinea's GDP per capita has risen to be the highest in Africa and the 29th highest in the world, standing at 33.000$ per person, higher than countries like Spain and South Korea.

Looking at other indexes of human development however, a very different picture emerges: 20% of children die before the age of 5, and less than half the people have access to clean drinking water. Life expectancy is only 61. Most of the infrastructure is old and inadequate.

The reason for this is that the distribution of wealth is extremely uneven. Basically the vast majority of the country's oil money is eaten up by president Teodoro Obiang and his cronies. Although government corruption is rife throughout Africa, this case is a particularly glaring one.

Obiang took power in 1979 by staging a coup and deposing his uncle, Macias Nguema, one of the most brutal and downright crazy rulers in Africa's history, whose actions bore a distinct resemblance to Pol Pot's (he also ordered the execution of anyone with spectacles because he hated intellectuals).

After having his uncle executed, Obiang established a rule which was slightly more humane, but still completely autocratic. Even today, bucking the trend towards at least nominal democracy in most of Africa, Equatorial Guinea is a one party state ruled by Obiang's "Democratic Party of Equatorial Guinea" (here we go again). Needless to say, opposition and a free press are non-existent.

More sickeningly, most of the country's oil revenues are siphoned off for the personal use of Obiang and his family. The president is one of the wealthiest heads of state in the world. He and his sons own numerous lavish mansions, while their collection of villas, fancy cars and expensive wines in France have now been seized by the French government. And just a fraction of that money could do so much to improve the lives of the country's not very many citizens.

There are reports that Obiang, the longest serving head of state in the world who isn't a monarch, now suffers from terminal cancer. He is of course preparing his son to succeed him .
A slum in Equatorial Guinea, a country with a per capita GDP higher than Spain and South Korea.