Longform's Picks of the Week

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Forms of Delirium: The Night Wolves, by Peter Pomerantsev, London Review of Books

A Kremlin-backed Orthodox biker gang may be just what the Russian government needs to rally popular support.

The Kremlin needs the bikers, and movements like them. The things Russia's dictatorship once depended on to give it an air of legitimacy - its cheerleaders and its fake opposition, the pro-Putin youth groups and tame political parties - no longer hold sway the way they did. Only 5 per cent of Russians think the government ‘very effective'. Putin's popularity is at an all-time low: an approval rating of 60 per cent is high for a democracy but in a system built around one man it raises eyebrows. Apathy rules: only 30 per cent bothered to vote in the Moscow mayoral elections. The system needs new stars and the Night Wolves are just the type that's wanted. Where until recently political players talked about ‘modernisation' and ‘innovation' the buzzwords are now ‘religion', ‘traditionalism', ‘Eurasia', ‘God'. Among the new religious nationalists are the black-clad Union of Orthodox Banner-Bearers, who have burned Harry Potter books on the embankment by the Kremlin to protest against J.K. Rowling's Satanism, and Dmitry Enteo, a wan-faced youth with a goatee, who has made speeches on TV about his plan to throw bricks at the windows of Western department stores. Even the Night Wolves think Enteo and the Banner Bearers clinically unwell.


Once Upon a Time in the Middle East, by Nathan Deuel, the Morning News

Driving around the Middle East -- from Lebanon toward Syria, across the Saudi Arabian desert to Dammam -- quickly becomes the Wild West.

I never wanted to drive in Lebanon, scarred as I was by my experience in Saudi Arabia, where we'd lived for a few years, and where the only rule of the road seemed to be gravity. There, women were forbidden from driving, and would instead deputize 14-year-old sons or cousins to pilot the family car, often a massive SUV, and it was because of this, and the Wild West feel that gripped the edge of a desert, that passenger fatalities were higher in Saudi Arabia than in any other country in the world. Additionally, if you struck and killed someone, a family could demand blood money. The first time we drove to the eastern town of Dammam, where all the oil was, we spent four terrifying hours gritting our teeth on the desert highway, astonished to see everyone blasting by us at 120 mph. It seemed like a death wish. There were wrecks every few miles; nearly half the cars seemed to have burst into flames. We drove through an ocean of sand and after a while I pushed the pedal all the way down.


Myanmar old guard clings to $8 billion jade empire, by Andrew R.C. Marshall and Min Zayar Oo, Reuters

Tin Tun hopes the lump of jade he now holds in his hand will make him a fortune. It's happened before.

Official Chinese statistics only deepen the mystery. China doesn't publicly report how much jade it imports from Myanmar. But jade is included in official imports of precious stones and metals, which in 2012 were worth $293 million - a figure still too small to explain where billions of dollars of Myanmar jade has gone.

Such squandered wealth symbolizes a wider challenge in Myanmar, an impoverished country whose natural resources - including oil, timber and precious metals - have long fueled armed conflicts while enriching only powerful individuals or groups. In a rare visit to the heart of Myanmar's secretive jade-mining industry in Hpakant, Reuters found an anarchic region where soldiers and ethnic rebels clash, and where mainland Chinese traders rub shoulders with heroin-fueled "handpickers" who are routinely buried alive while scavenging for stones.

Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images

The Snowden files: why the British public should be worried about GCHQ, by John Lanchester, the Guardian

John Lanchester was skeptical at first, but the GCHQ files convinced him: Britain is sliding towards a new kind of surveillance society.

Looking at the GCHQ papers, it is clear that there is an ambition to get access to everything digital. That's what engineers do: they seek new capabilities. When it applies to the people who wish us harm, that's fair enough. Take a hypothetical, but maybe not unthinkable, ability to eavesdrop on any room via an electrical socket. From the GCHQ engineers' point of view, they would do that if they could. And there are a few people out there on whom it would be useful to be able to eavesdrop via an electrical socket. But the price of doing so would be a society that really did have total surveillance. Would it be worth it? Is the risk worth the intrusion?

That example might sound far-fetched, but trust me, it isn't quite as far fetched as all that, and the basic intention on the part of the GCHQ engineers - to get everything - is there.


The Coiffeur of Cairo, by Ned Parker and Yassin Gaber, Foreign Policy

For 50 years, Mahmoud Labib has cut the hair of Egypt's rulers, from Sadat to Mubarak.What secrets can he tell?

The 75-year-old hairdresser headed to the military hospital in the Cairo suburb of Maadi. It was late August, and Egypt was in turmoil; the former president had just been freed from prison after two years. And the man needed a haircut. Mahmoud says he considers Mubarak a customer just like any other, but the aged former leader stands at the heart of Mahmoud's magic -- the mystique that drew people and presidents to his hair salon's iron latticed door, with a golden "M" at the center.

Mahmoud has cut Mubarak's hair since he was vice president, and Mahmoud knew his sons when they were little boys running around in T-shirts and shorts. And the hairdresser's time with the man who ruled Egypt for three decades provided him with a privileged view of a leader who often proved awkward and secretive toward the public.



Attention No Shoppers

The rise and fall of Tesco in China.

Tesco's experience in China is an exception to the quote, attributed to Woody Allen, that "80 percent of success is showing up." On Oct. 3, the British supermarket chain Tesco confirmed it will join with the state-owned behemoth China Resources Enterprise (CRE) to merge their supermarkets in China. By combining Tesco's 131 outlets with CRE's 2,986 far smaller Vanguard stores across mainland China and Hong Kong, the venture would create China's biggest multiformat food retailer, with sales of roughly $15 billion. While this represents a victory for CRE, it's hard to see it as anything but a defeat for Tesco, which gets just 20 percent of the joint venture.

Measured in profits, Tesco is the world's second-largest retailer, after Wal-Mart, though unlike its competitor Tesco also specializes in food retail and community supermarkets. Tesco has been trying to crack the Middle Kingdom's grocery market for a decade now -- this looks like the end of the story, "a humiliating retreat for the British retail giant," said an op-ed in the usually optimistic state-run newspaper China Daily. "[R]ather than representing part of any coherent strategy, [the sale] appears to be an attempt to limit losses." It's an ignominious end for a company whose involvement with China stretches back almost a century.

The House of Tesco was built on British demand for a once-exotic Chinese product: tea. Jack Cohen, a trader in London's East End, founded the company just after World War I. In 1924, buying a chest of Chinese tea from the supplier T.E. Stockwell, Cohen decided that the first three letters would do just fine (the next two letters come from his last name). Since the Cohen days, Tesco's strategy has been to buy in bulk in order to sell at a discount -- or in British parlance, to "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap." From that small beginning, Tesco grew to be Britain's largest supermarket chain, with stores in 12 countries across North America, Europe, and Asia, visited 75 million times a week. By the early years of the 21st century, Tesco had roughly 3,000 stores in Britain -- so ubiquitous that British commentators who feared its market dominance called it the Tescopoly.

With the company a king of the grocery world, a nation of just over 60 million customers could not contain Tesco. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Tesco moved into Eastern Europe, building over 1,000 stores across the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia. As Southeast Asia boomed in the early 1990s, Tesco opened approximately 1,500 stores in Malaysia and Thailand. In the early years of the 21st century, Tesco looked to China, where an emerging consumer market craved Western products and novelties, like barcoding, shopping carts, and loyalty cards. The market seemed ripe: GDP was growing at double-digit rates, urbanization was accelerating, and for the first time in communist China's history, a segment of white-collar workers started finding themselves cash rich and time poor.

China's nascent middle class had begun flocking to glittering new produce emporiums, perusing shelves of tantalizing goods and sampling new kinds of cheese, yogurt, and pastries. They marveled at the never-seen-before fantastical inventions: microwavable spaghetti Bolognese and Triple Double Neapolitan Oreos; freezer cabinets stuffed with yakitori chicken dumplings and Häagen-Dazs green tea hibiscus ice cream; aisles neatly bursting with boxed cabernet sauvignon and resealable packs of Swiss Alpine muesli. These shared space with the displays of everyday essentials such as cooking oil and instant noodles, piled high and selling cheap.

Tesco opted for the traditional British strategy, as old as the Empire itself, of "divide and conquer": penetrating with stealth and using foreign forces to launch their opening salvos in this new battlefront. In 2004, Tesco purchased a 50 percent stake in Hymall, a Taiwanese supermarket chain; the company upped it to 90 percent in 2006. By testing the waters through Hymall, Tesco could preserve its core brand image. If the business was less than expected, then Tesco could retreat, with no direct loss of brand prestige, and try again.

At least, that was the idea. But by waiting on the sidelines in the early 2000s, Tesco missed the golden age for supermarket expansion in China. Chinese shoppers were coming to prefer the vast new food palaces, while the government encouraged the chains to expand so they could create jobs and pay taxes. The explosion of car ownership -- more than doubling from 2002 and 2006 in China to 28 vehicles per 1,000 people -- meant that Chinese consumers could more easily visit 10,000-square-foot emporiums sprouting up on the outskirts of cities. Chain retail began dominating, forcing the consolidation of Chinese mom-and-pops and small regional brands. In the late 1990s, Shanghai alone granted nearly 200 permits for supermarkets and hypermarkets, when the city's own five-year plan had called for an optimistic maximum of 120. By mid-decade, the potential customer base got spread thinner, and supermarket operators' margins suffered. According to a report by McKinsey, a consultancy, annual revenue growth for supermarkets in China between 1997 and 2003 averaged around 70 percent -- from 2004 onward, it dropped to roughly 20 percent.

By the time Tesco decided to send in the boys from London in 2007, competition was far more intense. The French hypermarket chain Carrefour, slightly smaller than Tesco globally in terms of profits but slightly larger in terms of revenue, had planted its flag in nearly all of China's 22 provinces, with over 100 outlets; by 2007, Wal-Mart had more than 70 stores across China.

At this stage Tesco began, as breathless China coverage invariably says about foreign brands, to expand "very aggressively." In 2007, when it unveiled its Chinese name -- Le Gou, or Happy Shopper -- it had 32 stores. That grew to 56 stores in 2008 and to over 130 stores today.

They introduced the Tesco Clubcard, a popular loyalty card that, unlike the ones provided by Chinese retailers, actually let customers accrue points convertible to cash discounts on every purchase. They localized their product offerings -- kimchi instant noodles, seaweed crackers, ginseng sodas -- and introduced their own brands of frozen and organic foods, successful in other markets. They tried e-tailing, in-store bakeries, even their own clothing brand. But profits have been hard to come by. Tesco China's first-quarter 2013 same-store sales declined 4.9 percent, even worse than its fourth-quarter 2012 drop of 2 percent. In November 2012 Tesco began closing stores; by May it had shut five. In August Tesco confirmed it was in talks with CRE and looking for a way out.

What does this mean for Tesco? It's not all grim globally: In Thailand, Turkey, and Malaysia, Tesco has largely been succeeding. And Eastern Europeans appear to have decided they love Tesco almost as much as the Brits do: In Hungary Tesco is now the country's third-largest employer, while Poland Tesco's 446 stores serve more than 5 million customers per week.

Perhaps they'll write China off as a small blip on the long road to building an empire. Of late, it's been a rocky one: Tesco pulled out of operations in France in 2010, closed its business in Japan in 2011, and in September 2013, sold the U.S. chain Fresh & Easy -- at a loss of nearly $1.9 billion.

But Tesco is not fully withdrawing from China. Although CRE's brand name will be on the storefronts, Tesco's label, via its food products, will at least still be on Chinese shelves. In the end, the problem wasn't the Chinese -- they loved shopping in Tesco. When every supermarket chain in the world has the same idea, 1.4 billion people just isn't enough.

GUANG NIU/Getty Images