Ai Weiwei and his legal team have, since 2011, fought allegations, arrests and fines for tax evasion case widely regarded as "political retaliation" by the Chinese goverment.
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The Ai Weiwei papers

On 27 September, the Chinese courts rejected Ai’s second appeal against a £1.5m fine for tax evasion. Here, his legal team sets out the facts of a case riddled with corruption and secrecy.

An Introduction
Jerome A Cohen

The New Statesman is rendering a great public service in making available an English-language account of the Chinese government’s use of its tax laws to persecute the innovative and courageous Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei. Having been pressured by world opinion to release Ai from the harsh and blatantly illegal confinement to which its police had subjected him for almost three months, the Chinese government decided to crush him by resorting to economic measures whose illegality would presumably be less apparent both to its own citizens and to the outside world.

Fortunately, thanks to the presentation that follows this introduction, the unfairness and abuses that have marked this tax case have been unmasked. As Ai’s lawyers make clear, at both the administrative and the judicial levels the proceedings against him have been a farce. Much of the evidence apparently used against Ai was unlawfully collected and retained by the police and the tax authorities. Administrative hearings that purported to determine his alleged tax liability were truncated and plainly in violation of international standards of due process of law, and the subsequent judicial reviews were no better.

I personally am saddened at this spectacle for reasons that transcend our friendship and my admiration for Ai. It is nauseating to witness the damage that the Chinese government has chosen to inflict on its reputation through the misuse of its criminal justice and tax systems. As an international lawyer and a law professor seeking to assist in China’s economic development, I spent over 20 years co-operating with Chinese officials who were seeking to develop a legal  system that would earn the confidence of its own people and of the foreign business community. Beginning in 1979, for several years I enjoyed especially close relations with the National Taxation Bureau, which, during the early period of the Deng Xiaoping reform era, led the way for other government agencies in establishing impressive regulations and procedures for carrying out its responsibilities and for developing a legal process worthy of respect.

The handling of the Ai Weiwei case has been totally inconsistent with that earlier accomplishment. Neither the Chinese nor the foreign communities can afford to ignore the scandalous mistreatment of Ai. If he can become the victim of criminal and commercial injustice, no one in China or who deals with China can feel safe.

Jerome Cohen is a professor of law at New York University and an expert in Chinese law

The Fake Cultural Development Ltd tax case

1. Process summary

On 3 April 2011 in the morning, Ai Weiwei was taken away by police at passport control at Beijing Capital International Airport.

On 3 April 2011 at midday, Beijing Public Security searched Ai Weiwei’s residence for almost 12 hours. They confiscated 127 items, including computers and CDs. Ten people were taken to the police station for questioning until the early morning.

On 3 April 2011 at midday, Ai Weiwei’s assistant Wen Tao was kidnapped by four plainclothes police officers and went missing. He was illegally detained at a secret location and not released by public security until 24 June. Before this, his family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 6 April 2011 in the evening, Beijing Municipal Public Security went to Beijing Huxin Ltd, the bookkeepers of Fake Ltd. They searched company information, including bookkeeping records and financial statements, dating from its establishment. Xinhua News Agency then published an English bulletin: “Ai Weiwei is suspected of economic crimes and is now being investigated according to the law.”

On 7 April 2011, Beijing Public Security brought the company accountant, Hu Mingfen, who was visiting family in Lanzhou, back to Beijing. After being put in a detention centre for one month, she was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until she was “granted bail” on 13 June. Her family received no official notification.

On 8 April 2011, the Second Tax Inspection Bureau and Beijing Public Security searched and confiscated all of Fake’s financial and accounting information, contracts and seals from 2005 to 2010.

On 9 April 2011, the Fake shareholder and manager Liu Zhenggang was kidnapped by four men in plain clothes. After being put in a detention centre for one month, he was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until he was “granted bail” on 11 June. His family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 10 April 2011, the driver Zhang Jinsong was taken away. After being put in a detention centre for one month, he was transferred to a secret location and detained illegally until he was “granted bail” on 23 June. During this time, his family was unaware of his location and received no official notification.

On 12 April, Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau questioned Fake’s legal representative, Lu Qing, for the first time. On 20 May 2011, Xinhua News Agency published a bulletin stating: “Public Security has investigated the alleged Ai Weiwei economic crimes case. The preliminary finding is that Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, under the actual control of Ai Weiwei, has committed offences including evading a large tax payment and deliberately destroying accounting records.”

On 22 June 2011, after 81 days in detention, Ai Weiwei was released “on bail” and returned home. His family members received no official notification. They could not get information about his suspected crime, what forceful measures were used and where he had been detained.

On 14 July 2011, the Bejing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau held a closed hearing.

On 1 November 2011, the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau decided that Fake had committed tax evasion and was required to pay 5,263,756.61 yuan in back taxes, a 3,190,331.52 yuan late-payment penalty and a 6,766,822.37 yuan fine. The three payments totalled 15,220,910.50 yuan (£1.5m).  n 29 December 2011, Fake asked for an administrative review at the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau. On 29 March 2012, the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau turned down the request for a review.

On 13 April 2012, Fake sued the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau at Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court. The trial opened on 20 June 2012. On 20 July, the court rejected the entire Fake case.

On 3 August 2012, Fake lodged an appeal at Beijing Second Intermediate People’s Court. On 27 September 2012, in the company’s second and final appeal, the intermediate court upheld the original decision.

2. Points of controversy in the tax case

The Fake tax case contains grave problems and controversy in terms of both procedure and facts.

1. Points of controversy in the procedure

Procedure is essential in implementing justice.

Although Fake repeatedly raised serious procedural issues, the tax authorities and courts gave
no response. The main problems at each stage of the procedure are as follows:

1.1. Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau
1.1.1. Public security exceeded its authority in the Fake tax case.

According to the Criminal Law Amendment (7) and the regulations on the administrative pre-procedure related to “Provisions (II) of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Ministry of Public Security on the Standards for Establishing Criminal Cases under the Juris - diction of the Public Security Organs for In - vestigation and Prosecution”, only after the offending party has declined to implement tax administration penalties and after the tax organs have transferred the case to public security organs can public security organs establish a criminal case against the responsible parties. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau made its decision against Fake only on 1 November 2011. It is clear that in April 2011 public security detained five people in secret, including Ai Weiwei, on the grounds of “tax evasion”. They searched and confiscated Fake financial information, which was exceeding their authority and handling the case illegally.

In the Fake tax case, the tax organs were completely reliant on the Public Security Bureau for their evidence, and the police were pushed to the legislative foreground, which strengthened the contradiction and artificially produced   case of “major impact”. The police administration was brought into the government administration mechanism, which in essence weakened the function of legal and responsible adminstration.

1.1.2. “Arrest before investigation” is a violation of the law. On 3 April 2011, public security took Ai Weiwei away. They then detained four people, including a Fake shareholder and the company accountant. However, of the evidence  in the file put together by public security, none was collected before 3 April 2011. The essence of “an arrest before investigation” is assuming that a suspect is guilty.

1.1.3. The authorities confiscated all the company’s account books and refused to give them back. During the Fake case review, first hearing and final hearing, the company’s account books were confiscated by Beijing Municipal Public Security and not given back.

1.2. Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau

The Bureau was responsible for the adminis - trative handling of the case. The following problems existed in its administration and law enforcement:

1.2.1. More than 95 per cent of the evidence came from public security and was obtained illegally. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau issued the following statement on the composition and source of the “evidence list”:

“1. Account books, certificates and related tax documents were provided to the defendant after they were obtained by public security  organs from the plaintiff’s bookkeeping company;

2. Third-party account books, certificates, instructions and other materials were provided to the defendant after public security organs obtained them;  

3. Notes from public security questioning were taken by public security and then provided to the defendant;

4. Bank statements etc were provided to the defendant after they were obtained from the bank by public security;

5. Inspection process documents and notes were produced by the defendant; 6. Tax records, inspection materials and certificates from tax organs were obtained by the defendant.”

This indicates that most of the evidence that the defendant cited in the Fake tax case and for making a decision came from the Public Security Bureau.

Fake believed that: first, the evidence “transferred” from public security organs was obtained while violating legal procedures. It therefore constituted illegal evidence and should be discounted. Second, the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes has given tax organs tax inspection rights through legal means. This is the responsibility of the tax organs, and the public security organs should not be investigating on their behalf.

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau argued that the public security organisations exercise judicial authority. According to the 57th and 58th clauses of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes, tax organs have the right to obtain relevant documents from organisations including public security organs. Based on this, obtaining evidence from public security organs is legal.

Fake believed that the 57th and 58th clauses of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes gave tax organs the right to investigate “relevant organizations and individuals, regarding taxpayers, withholding agents and other parties and their situation regarding tax payments or tax withheld and remitted or collected and remitted”. This is completely different from public security investigating taxpayers and transferring evidence, so the defendant’s response was irrelevant.

1.2.2. None of the evidence had been crossexamined. This should be regarded as a lack of factual basis. During the hearing procedure, the bureau presented only part of the review document. It had not been checked. During the trial, the plaintiff’s right to cross-examine was also removed by the court.

1.2.3. In order to comply with public security, coercive methods were used to obtain evidence. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau and public security, on condition of “bail”, coerced Ai Weiwei, who was in prison, to sign a “recognition of alleged tax violations” on 22 June 2011.
This was self-incrimination, and was used as forceful evidence that Fake had evaded taxes. It would be hard to imagine that the “recognition of alleged tax violations” could be a legal document at the tax inspection trial stage. However, it appeared at the previous tax inspection stage, as if a man-made satellite had appeared in the Qin or Han Dynasty.

1.2.4. The tax inspection work had no statutory elements or contents.

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau did not have documents such as the “tax inspection working paper”, “tax inspection report” and “tax inspection trial report”. The contents of the “decision declaration” were incomplete. It did not mention how the “tax evasion” amount or the late-payment penalty amount were calculated.

1.2.5. The hearing process violated the law. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau did not conduct an open hearing on the basis that the case involved commercial secrets. This reason is not valid, and the facts later confirmed that the socalled commercial secrets did not exist.

1.3. Beijing Local Taxation Bureau

The bureau carried out the review. On 2 February 2012, Fake applied to the bureau for a review of the documents and hearing attendance. On 27 and 28 March the document inspection started. On 29 March, the bureau made a decision about the review. Not only did it refuse to conduct a hearing, it made a decision about the review in less than 12 hours after the lawyers finished inspecting the document. They deprived the attorney of his right to state his case and the right to defence.

1.4. Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court

Fake sued the Beijing Local Taxation Bureau Second Tax Inspection Bureau at Beijing Chao - yang District Court. The hearing was held on 20 June 2012.

1.4.1. It was called an open trial but in fact it was a secret trial. A trial as conspicuous as this was arranged in a small court, which could hold five spectators only. Five insiders were arranged to take up all the seats, and Fake was not allocated any spectator seats.

1.4.2. The court did not carry out its obligation in collecting evidence. Fake had previously requested the court to provide evidence of the plaintiff’s account books and certificates that were confiscated by public security, but the court had decided not to collect the evidence prior to the court session, nor had it sent a notification to the plaintiff saying that collecting this evidence was not allowed.

When Fake asked the court about this, the collegiate bench said, “We will answer this after the trial opens.”

1.4.3. The court did not carry out its obligationto call witnesses. Fake applied to summon Liu Zhenggang, Hu Mingfen and others as witnesses, but the court did not inform them. It claimed that the obligation to notify lay with the plaintiff. Fake asked for the defendant’s law- enforcement officials – ten people, including You Pengnan – to testify, but the court did not arrange for it.

On the contrary, however, after the court opened, You Pengnan appeared, representing the defendant. Fake raised an objection, but the collegiate bench replied that the company should raise it again after the trial.

1.4.4. The court removed the plaintiff’s right to present evidence. Fake requested evidence
from the collegiate bench prior to the opening of the court, but received no response. On 20
June in the morning, Fake went to the Three Shadows Cultural Exchange Centre and obtained evidence partly sufficient to overrule the decision. In the afternoon of 20 June, before the court opened and three times during the court session, the evidence was presented to the collegiate bench, but the court did not accept it, because it “overran the deadline for presenting evidence”.

1.4.5. The court refused to investigate the legitimacy of the sources of the evidence. According to law, the defendant can collect his own evidence, but it was all collected by public security authorities. More than 95 per cent of the evidence on administrative behaviour presented by the defendant was collected by public security organs.

Public security intervened in the tax case illegally, and the evidence was illegally obtained from detainees, which was not legitimate. Therefore, the plaintiff asked for the above evidence to be discounted. However, the court claimed that “the legitimacy of the public security investigations is not within the range of this court’s hearing”.

1.4.6. The court refused the plaintiff’s legitimate request to check the original evidence documents, and illegally removed the plaintiff’s right to cross-examination. During the session, the defendant failed to present any original documents for evidence. The presiding judge, Wu Nan, upon the request to see the documents, repeatedly struck his gavel and said, “As for the documents, the court has already made a decision; do not bring it up again!”

The court “summarised” when questioning the evidence and did not control the questioning time reasonably. Pieces of evidence numbering a thousand pages were given five minutes for questioning: on average, less than one second for every page of evidence. If the time exceeded five minutes, then the questioning would be regarded as abandoned.

1.4.7. The court removed the plaintiff’s right to debate. The plaintiff’s speech was repeatedly interrupted by the judges and was counted down. During the debate stage, three attorneys spoke for only ten minutes in total. The plaintiff could not fully express an opinion.

1.4.8. For these reasons, the plaintiff considered that the collegiate bench could not carry out this trial justly, and therefore requested the court to withdraw the case.

After the court was adjourned, the collegiate bench refused the request. The plaintiff appealed the decision, and the Chaoyang District Court refused orally, refusing to offer any written documentation.

1.4.9. The court refused to allow the litigants and the representatives to copy the court notes.
After the hearing, the court administrative divisional director promised the defendant that the following day at two o’clock in the afternoon they could come to the court to copy the notes, but the next day when they went to court, copying was no longer permitted, the court citing internal regulations.

1.4.10. The order of legal procedures was swapped when the court refused Fake’s request for evidence only after the trial. On 7 June 2012, Fake made its “application for collecting evidence” to the court.  The court did not respond. Yet after the court opened on 4 July, it decided not to allow any evidence to be collected. The reason given was that the defendant “did not meet the conditions for requesting evidence”. However, the decision did not contain a notification, required by law, to specify “which group and which piece of evidence violated which condition for evidence collection”.

2. Focus of controversy over the facts of the case 

Global Times, a subsidiary of the Chinese official newspaper the People’s Daily, published an editorial, entitled “The law will not bend for mavericks”, on the Ai Weiwei tax case, saying that certain western governments and “human rights organisations” had attacked China with strong commentary without understanding the true situation.

What is the truth behind the Ai tax case? Fake Ltd was established by the shareholders Lu Qing and Liu Zhenggang. Lu Qing was the legal representative and the wife of Ai Weiwei. Liu Zhenggang was business manager, responsible for company operations. The company’s income came mainly from design services. Ai Weiwei was not a staff member of Fake, but provided guidance and advice to the design services of Fake as an independent artist.

Fake went into operation in 2001. The tax organs believed that, over ten years of operation (until 2010), Fake concealed three counts of income, totalling 15,823,724.36 yuan. They pursued unpaid taxes of 5,263,756.61 yuan, a fine for overdue payment of 3,190,331.52 yuan and a penalty of 6,766,822.37 yuan, totaling 15,220,910.50 yuan.

Regarding the facts, the parties were in controversy over the following:

2.1. Who was the tax-paying entity for these three projects with alleged tax issues?

The standard for determining the tax-paying entity depends not on form, but on substance. This is the so-called principle of substance over formality in tax law. The heart of the problem is, who was the true controller of these three projects? Usually the actual controller is determined by who has the right to dispose of and the right to benefit from income. In tax law, the object of the test to determine the right to dispose of and the right to benefit from income is the sum of income. The public security organ, tax organ and the lawyers of Fake all acknowledged that Liu Zhenggang disposed of and controlled the project funding in the case. It is a shame that the conclusion drawn by each party was very different.

2.2. Was it tax evasion?

Regardless of whether the tax-paying entity was Ai Weiwei, Fake Ltd or Liu Zhenggang, the fact that tax duty had not been declared on the income for the three engineering projects is not in dispute. The key to the problem is, does the failure to declare taxable income constitute tax evasion?

According to China’s Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes, there are generally three types of failure to declare tax duty:

2.2.1. “Tax evasion”: falsely filing or deliberately failing to file taxes, causing an underpayment
of tax, following Term 63 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. This is breaking the law. If it reaches a certain ratio, it constitutes a crime.

According to Term 201 of the Criminal Law, it is the crime of evading payment of tax. The constituents must consist of the resulting elements, namely underpayment of tax and of a clear amount.

2.2.2. “Tax leakage”: not deception or concealment, but human error causing underpayment of tax, according to Term 64, Article 2 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. It counts as a normal administrative offence, not a criminal offence.

2.2.3. “Making up tax”: underpayment of tax caused by reasons not related to the actor (including incomplete factors in levying tax), as in Article 35 of the Law on the Administration of the Levy and Collection of Taxes. For example, where, although it is clearly income, the expenditure can’t be verified. The tax organ, by approving the profit rate, makes complete the factors in levying tax to realise the aim of levying tax. This type of underpayment of tax is the result of the expansion of administrative powers of the tax organs. It is not breaking the law, so the authorities cannot levy an overdue payment fine or penalty fine.

The contention of this case is focused on the dispute between “tax evasion” and “making up tax”. A simplified breakdown illustrates:

According to the law, when the cost is difficult to verify, an estimated tax should be levied. It should not be handled as a case of tax evasion. When the costs and expenses of a project cannot be checked, it cannot be asserted that the party has been evading tax.

2.3. The issue of verifying costs and expenditures for the three projects

The Second Tax Inspection Bureau said, “The defendant, upon confirming the total amount of taxes that the plaintiff should have paid, has also confirmed the costs related to the taxable income and subtracted it according to regulations.”

The plaintiff believed that the three projects that the tax bureau considered as evading taxes are defined by incomes that greatly mismatch with their costs. The Second Tax Inspection Bureau verified the income of the Boya Garden project as 1,107,716.00 yuan and its costs as nil. That goes against common sense. Income from the Three Shadows and Upper House projects was 14,716,008.36 yuan, the confirmed cost was nearly 1,047,349.39 yuan and the rate of profit was 92.88 per cent.

The costs were ridiculously low because the public security and tax organs jointly and deliberately concealed evidence of costs. For example, it has already been proved that Three Shadows, upon requests from the public security organ, presented it with receipts for expenditure of 3,738,551.06 yuan for materials used in the project. However, the total cost for all three projects that the tax organ received from the public security organ was only 1,047,349.39
yuan, less than a third of the cost for one project. Through this kind of deliberate selection of evidence, the profits of the projects were artificially enhanced to frame the company.

3. Conclusion

When one looks at the overall progress of the case, it is clearly an erroneous lawsuit. How could it have proceeded so smoothly? Because all the processes had already been arranged. The tax law-enforcement organ, the administrative review organ, the judicial court or representative lawyer were all following a set course. Administrative surveillance, independent trial and lawyer participation had no opportunity to exercise their rightful functions.

Tax cases such as that of Fake are ubiquitous in China. Unjust cases of sanctioning a party through tax means are also common. Most of the affected parties choose to remain silent in exchange for a reduction of the penalty by the tax organisation.

Fake used all means to fight its case, exposing illegality at each stage. This is unprecedented. The wish is that, through the heavy price paid by Fake, through the price for freedom paid by a person who doesn’t believe in following trends and who dares to speak the truth, we can make progress in China’s law enforcement.

The information used in this article was provided by Ai Weiwei’s lawyers

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Ai Weiwei guest-edit

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood