Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Gaza (updated)

Israel has crossed the line again.  Yes, every nation has a right to defend itself.  But the IDF's raining down of death upon an occupied people, besides being a blatant violation of the Geneva conventions and plenty of other international laws, is about as  effective a form of self-defense as the death rained on Sderot by Hamas on a much smaller scale.  There is a precedent for this brutal foolishness:  the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, which only strengthened Hezbollah, by most accounts.  

Yet, there seem to be few options for reversing events in any permanent way.  The Palestinians have a right to resist, including by force, of course.   However, while miring down an Israeli ground invasion (should it come) with street fighting might end this particular assault, it won't stop future bombing raids.   If anything, it will just lock in a new pattern. Hamas will be practically bound to go on the offensive, as will, in turn, Israel and so on.

Appealing to Israel can only go so far, too---the country tuned out world public opinion long ago.  And now, in particular, it has turned inward, into its own politics, with an extraordinary degree of self-reflection and courage in some instances, but inward nonetheless.  Indeed, one explanation for the carnage of the last few days is the need of Olmert-Livni-Barak triumvirate to look tough before the upcoming Israeli elections (see Jonathan Cook's detailed analysis at Electronic Intifada).  

At the risk of sounding American-centric, peace with justice has to start in the United States. As Israel's main ally, America has the most leverage over Israel and, equally importantly, as the country furthest out of sync with the rest of the world on the Middle East conflict, it has the most room to grow---grow in its understanding of the situation, grow in its engagement, and grow in its generosity of heart.

Citing polls showing that an overwhelming majority of Americans already "favor taking neither side," Salon's Glenn Greenwald bemoans the fact that "no mainstream politician would dare express the view that 70 percent of Americans support."  Greenwald goes on:
Americans shouldn't be in the position of endlessly debating Israel's security situation and its endless religious and territorial conflicts with its neighbors.  That should be for Israeli citizens to do, not for Americans.  But that distinction -- between the U.S. and Israel -- barely exists because our political leaders have all but eliminated it, and have thus imposed on U.S. citizens responsibility for the acts of Israel.
But this is simplifying things.  There's a massive wellspring of support for Israel in the States at a popular level, whether it is reflected in a given poll or not.  Tracing images of Israel in American political discourse back to the early, post-revolutionary period (when, of course, Israel did not even exist as a state), Walter Russell Meade recently wrote in Foreign Affairs:
Both religious and nonreligious Americans have looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for an example of a people set apart by their mission and called to a world-changing destiny.... 
This mythic understanding of the United States' nature and destiny is one of the most powerful and enduring elements in American culture and thought. As the ancient Hebrews did, many Americans today believe that they bear a revelation that is ultimately not just for them but also for the whole world; they have often considered themselves God's new Israel. One of the many consequences of this presumed kinship is that many Americans think it is both right and proper for one chosen people to support another....
The United States and Israel also have in common their status as "settler states" -- countries formed by peoples who came to control their current lands after displacing the original populations.....
In the United States, a pro-Israel foreign policy does not represent the triumph of a small lobby over the public will. It represents the power of public opinion to shape foreign policy in the face of concerns by foreign policy professionals.
If we are to force Israel back from abusing its outsized military power and, ultimately, from its own self-destruction, we have to start among American citizens, not fighting AIPAC or persuading Harry Reid... or even Barack Obama.  

UPDATE: Haaretz has a good piece on rivalries within the Israeli leadership in regards to the atrocities of the past few days.

UPDATE II: Check out the Wikipedia entry for the Fourth Geneva Convention, which concerns treatment of occupied civilians.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

What's wrong with rewarding physical labor?

There's something I've been trying to put my finger on in regards to the current outcry against the United Auto Workers.

I felt it back in 2005 during the transportation workers' strike in New York City. It has popped up again around discussions of labor market reforms in places like India and South Africa and France. It even hovers in some Chinese reactions to this fall's exodus of unemployed migrant workers from the Pearl River Delta and Yangtze River Delta to the country's rural interior---as it did around discussions of laid off state-owned enterprise employees in Liaoning and Heilongjiang a decade ago. I think I'm starting to get an idea of what it is...

There's a sense among an alarmingly large number of people---in the U.S., China, Europe and elsewhere---that it is not only impractical for an economy to allow people to make a great living (not just a decent living) through physical labor, but that it is in some way conniving, even disgusting when workers do so or, worse yet, that it is downright morally wrong. Call it Max Weber's "protestant ethic" in reverse. To NOT work hard, by the emerging logic, should be amply rewarded (see the quoted section of Krugman's column in my previous entry) and if you're poor, it's your own fault because you have been working too hard!

Obviously, this thinking is not entirely new. But at a time when a global financial crisis is in full swing, it is strange not to see more of a push back against this meme from more sectors of society.

The courageous factory occupation of Chicago UE workers (who have been supported by president-elect Obama) and the drawn-out but successful UFCW organizing drive at the Smithfield meat packing plant in North Carolina are encouraging for America.  So, too, in the Chinese context, are the innumerable strikes, protests and riots by Chinese taxi drivers, toy factory workers, suitcase manufacturers, teachers, cops and even small factory owners.  But I don't see a middle class cohort standing with these people in either country.

Do workers need a vanguard of intellectuals, of hipsters and company men?  No, of course not. But it seems like it would be healthy if there was a greater appreciation for work among these people, as they dominate popular culture and the levers of government.   And that appreciation should come in the form of support for high-sky high-salaries.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Good call

To quote someone at ridiculous length:

At the crudest level, Wall Street’s ill-gotten gains corrupted and continue to corrupt politics, in a nicely bipartisan way. From Bush administration officials like Christopher Cox, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who looked the other way as evidence of financial fraud mounted, to Democrats who still haven’t closed the outrageous tax loophole that benefits executives at hedge funds and private equity firms (hello, Senator Schumer), politicians have walked when money talked.

Meanwhile, how much has our nation’s future been damaged by the magnetic pull of quick personal wealth, which for years has drawn many of our best and brightest young people into investment banking, at the expense of science, public service and just about everything else?

Most of all, the vast riches being earned — or maybe that should be “earned” — in our bloated financial industry undermined our sense of reality and degraded our judgment.

Think of the way almost everyone important missed the warning signs of an impending crisis. How was that possible? How, for example, could Alan Greenspan have declared, just a few years ago, that “the financial system as a whole has become more resilient” — thanks to derivatives, no less? The answer, I believe, is that there’s an innate tendency on the part of even the elite to idolize men who are making a lot of money, and assume that they know what they’re doing.

After all, that’s why so many people trusted Mr. Madoff.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


Governor Richardson would have made a better Secretary of State than Senator Clinton, at least in terms of his foreign policy experience (I'm fine with Clinton taking the job for other reasons). Richardson personally negotiated with North Korea, Iran and Sudan and was once ambassador to the United Nations. But Chinese-Americans are right to criticize his handling of the Wen Ho Lee case as energy secretary---and to still hold that ugly episode over his head.

Yes, Richardson and Bill Clinton were under intense pressure from conservatives back then, as they were for the whole of Clinton's presidency. And, yes, spying from China was and is a serious issue for America (just as, I imagine, spying from the U.S. is a serious issue for the Chinese). But Wen Ho Lee was the victim of a witch hunt that didn't need to happen if the people in charge, and Richardson in particular, had had a bit more of a spine.

Now that he's got a post at Commerce, Richardson may think this is all behind him. I hope he instead takes the opportunity to make a full apology.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Anti-racist action

I'm never sure of the best way of confronting the far right.  In Europe, marches against immigrants are typically met by large numbers of anti-racist counter-demonstrators, sometimes with violent results.  In Lund, Sweden, violence broke out yesterday when over a thousand anti-racists attempted to stop a protest by only 50 "högerextremister."  

In a way, violence seems appropriate.   Fascism has at its root a heavy dose of machismo and meeting it on its own macho grounds can take the wind out of its sails.  Right wingers become no longer the tough protectors of the fatherland / motherland, knightly or viking-ly looking out for their white sisters and mothers, but a cowed minority in need of protection from the police.  

But, of course,  aggressive marches and equally aggressive counter-marches have created a self-sustaining dynamic, with everyone playing out pre-ordained roles.  A peaceful, quiet but resolute response to racism could break the pattern in a positive way.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Lessons from the Pearl River Delta

I was in the Pearl River Delta (PRD) recently and the sky there was the bluest I've ever seen it. Maybe it was luck or maybe it was the fact that thousands of factories have shut down over the past months.  I'm inclined to believe the latter.  People have told me that the scenes at PRD train stations are now sometimes reminiscent of Spring Festival, with crowds of workers waiting to return home.  Laid off employees have rioted at a toy factory in Dongguan and elsewhere.  Taxi drivers in Guangzhou, like their colleagues in cities around the country, are on strike. 

As I've said before, my worry is that the government will take this as a sign that it should hold back on strengthening labor protections.  There are signs that this is exactly how authorities have read the situation.  Already, provincial and municipal minimum wage raises have been frozen. The recently released implementation guidelines for the Labor Contract Law are watering down the law's impact, as are local regulations.  

Beijing should realize that far from being a solution to economic difficulties, bad working conditions have made an already bad situation worse.  For example, because it did not ensure that wages were paid on time, the government is now forced to pick up the tab for Taiwanese companies that disappear in the night, leaving their workers months behind in wages.  Non-payment of social security fees (and the non-transferability of those payments to workers' home provinces) make the crowds returning to Hunan and Sichuan dangerously insecure---and threaten stability in the interior.  

This crisis should be seen as an opportunity for China to reaffirm its commitment to fairness and to creating higher value-added industries, rather than an excuse to retreat.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Obama wins

The victory really does change everything.  It'll require a more open heart and less distance.  This probably comes close to feeling the way a revolution does.   What gets me is how efforts by so many people really added up to something.  

Right now, people are passing my window on the way to the White House.  U Street is filled with crowds and singing and sign waving and taxis honking horns.  

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Thoughts on a few topics

I haven't posted in ages.  So much has happened.  

I've been horrified, like everyone else, by the global financial crisis---but also delighted by headlines in major business journals about capitalism being at a turning point. This is crazy stuff! I remember how radical socialists in college would hand out papers with editorials demanding that the government nationalize the banking sector...  done, sort of.

How China rides this storm out will be interesting. I am worried that the country's belated efforts to strengthen implementation of its environmental and labor regulations and to reform its tattered social safety net will be pushed aside by short-term thinkers who advocate getting the worst parts of the export sector back online as a solution to slowing growth.   

In other words, rather than continue to lay the basis for more domestic consumption---and, ideally, lower Gini coefficients---southern manufacturers may get a boost in the form of tax benefits and lax labor law enforcement (the new implementation guidelines for the Labor Contract Law have been somewhat of a disappointment, watering down the original legislation).  Efforts at creating an integrated social security network, where migrant workers can bring their benefits back to their home provinces, will go on the back burner.  And the whole thing will have to start over.

China was a level-headed player during the previous East Asian financial crisis. But I think more than level-headed-ness is needed now.  These times require a comprehensive vision of what a fair, prosperous future will look like.  And, unfortunately, neither the U.S. nor China nor even the EU seem at the right place politically to conceive such a vision.

Tangentially---I'm trying to get caught up on topics, so I'm throwing them all together in one post---I've been going back and forth with myself about China's recent announcement of a semi-land-reform for farmers.  Perhaps readers can give me their opinions?  

On the one hand, as I have stated before, I am nervous about land being bought and sold before there's a strong rural (and, importantly, periurban) court system in place.   It just seems like a recipe for dispossesion and proletarianization possibly worse than the government land seizures of today.  

Yu Jianrong makes a typically nuanced but forceful argument for a balanced approach that is focused on farmers' agency in an interview translated by Danwei.  I'd like to hear more of what he has to say.

Finally, on an entirely unrelated topic, I'm glad to see that Americans have not been thrown off course by the McCain campaigns increasingly desperate attempts to make the election about race.  It shows that people can be serious when they want to.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

On the mark

Obama on September 16:

"So let's be clear: what we've seen the last few days is nothing less than the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thailand and Bolivia

Like many people, I am naturally sympathetic to protest movements.  I like the speeches, the camaraderie, and, especially, the feeling of politics out in the open, not behind closed doors---the closed doors of power, but also the closed doors of our own homes, where we stew over newspapers and computers, not knowing who else shares our thoughts. 

However, in the past month I've been profoundly at odds with two protest movements in particular: the opposition movement in Thailand and the secessionist movement in Bolivia. 

The New York Times summed up the campaign of the Thai People's Alliance for Democracy (P.A.D.) against Prime Minister Samak Sundarajev well with the headline "Power of the People Fights Democracy in Thai Protests" (note the absence of the word "for").  The political camps in this latest flash point are contradictory to say the least, but one thing is clear: a powerful contingent of the opposition does not believe in one person, one vote, because such a system gives the rural majority "too much" of a voice.  

Why shouldn't Thailand's rural majority have a voice?  Why, indeed, shouldn't they have the biggest voice?  Their votes, it is said by P.A.D. supporters, can be bought.  What does that mean?  In at least one conversation I've had with an opposition supporter, at a discussion in New York organized around the last coup, "buying votes" was taken to include providing the rural masses with healthcare, as the deposed PM Thaksin Shinawatra did.  In other words, responding to the needs of the poor and then receiving the votes of the poor is sketchy, outside the natural order of things, inherently corrupt.

That's not to say that Thaksin couldn't be a thug when he wanted or that he wasn't, in fact, corrupt.  His anti-drug crackdown was unnecessarily brutal.  And anyone turned off by Berlusconi's marriage of media tycoon-ery and politics in Italy will see striking parallels with the Thaksin TV empire's fuzzy borders with his administration.  But the picture of, as the Times says, "haves and have-nots, with the haves rising up against the poorer classes" is disgusting.  

It reminds me of a nineteenth century book called Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants or Civilization and Barbarism By D.F. Sarmiento that I had to read for a Latin American history class in college.  In the book, the civilized capital of Argentina is contrasted by Sarmiento with the "barbaric" interior, from which "tyrants" and cowboys and Indians spring.  As in Thailand's case, the rural-based "tyrants" of the Argentine book are indeed less than admirable, trampling on the law with abandon. But the bankruptcy of Argentina's Europeanized elite, with whom Sarmiento proudly identifies, is even more apparent.

Which brings me to Bolivia.  There, in Santa Cruz but also elsewhere, we see a bourgeoisie remarkably similar to that of Chile before 1973: disdainful, fearful of change---and ready for the U.S. to intervene, practically begging for the Yankees to sweep in.  And it seems that America has done just that, if Evo Morales' recent expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg for meddling is any sign.    

Thankfully, Latin America seems to have rallied around Morales, a leader worthy not only of support but also real admiration.  Brazil in particular has shown courage in speaking up, shelving for now the benefits that have come with being Bush's "good" left-leaning government on the continent.  In fact, this is not the first time that Lula has stepped up for Bolivia when it has been in need.  In a February interview in Monthly Review, Bolivian VP Garcia said that support from Brazil, along with the support of other countries like Chile and Argentina, held back the tide of "extremists."

It is this sort of solidarity, but also sense of purpose, that Southeast Asia needs in order to preserve its democratic gains, put elites in their place (which by rights should be toward the back of the line), move beyond a superficial populism---like that epitomized by Thaksin---and begin to achieve real fairness.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Lying @!$*!

Please forgive me if my language is offensive or if you aren't particularly caught up in American politics right now.  But I was walking home today and the whole way I kept thinking of various talking points I could rail off should a reporter suddenly accost me and ask me for a "man on the street" perspective of the presidential race.  I thought of million snappy, snide, cutting things I could say, but all I really wanted to respond with was: "John McCain is a lying bastard and I hope this contest marks his exit from public life."  And even that was nicer than what I really, really wanted to say.  For more eloquent responses, see here and here and here and  here and here.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Asia Times article on reform

Following up on the previous post, Asia Times has an interesting article wondering if modest but still significant systemic (tizhi) reforms are around the corner for China. The piece puts a lot of weight on a speech by the current head of Hunan Province:
A pointer to the shape of future changes came recently in the form of explicit remarks about "political reforms" by Zhang Chunxian, the CCP head of Hunan province.

At a televised conference of Hunan officials on August 31 held to mobilize a province-wide campaign for further "emancipation of minds", Zhang said reforms in the past 30 years had focused on how "to return li [economic interests] to the people". The focus now would be on how "to return quan to the people" , with efforts devoted to "developing socialist democratic politics". The Chinese word quan has a double meaning and could refer to rights or (political) power or both.
Asia Times then rattles off various ways that the comments could be interpreted---land reform, "public opinion" surveys as effective votes on cadre promotion, as well as more ambitious stuff---and notes that Zhang appears to be in the process of being groomed for higher posts, so it is unlikely that he "made a slip of the tongue."


I for one am extremely nervous about the prospect of premature land reform. The free market crowd loves the idea for all the usual reasons: farmers being given incentives to invest in the land, land being used as collateral for loans, bigger and more efficient farms, etc. But without courts that will actually protect farmers' rights, it seems likely that land reform would just yield more, not less heartless land grabs by officials and developers with no more push back than today.

Land grabs are serious. Any more of them and a critical social safety net, the ONLY social safety net in many areas, will be lost to hundreds of millions of rural people who would no longer have any "right" to a patch of (leased) property for their families. It is not hard imagining landlords returning. Worse yet, there is the possibility of a phenomenon that China has largely avoided but that other countries at its income level in Latin America and Southeast Asia endure: shantytowns.

Therefore, on top of all the reasons for political reform on its own merits, I hope elections and press freedoms and freedom of association (such as for farmers associations) will move ahead so that rural people can gain a stronger check on local authorities---before literally the ground beneath them is torn up.

Let's hope this is what Mr. Zhang has in mind. More importantly, let's hope this is what his superiors have in mind.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Up ahead

There are two views of what the end of the Olympics will bring for China. One is that a newly confident Chinese people will finally turn their attention to long-standing problems---and the government, no longer able to rally its citizens around preserving the national "image" for the Games, will have to begin to relent or face trouble. The other view is that the state will have no reason not to continue to rely on the tools that got it more-or-less-smoothly through August: high-tech surveillance of potential demonstrators and terrorists (to the extent that the two are distinguished in the government's mind), skillful handling of popular opinion through the media and internet, and selective use of the law (especially RTL) to lock up troublemakers---and that this will work just fine.

I really don't know what will happen (duh), but there have been some interesting developments since the closing ceremonies. Protests focusing on local issues, like the protest in Weng-an before the Games but for now largely non-violent, have erupted in Jishou City in Hunan and even in the Chaoyang District of Beijing. Journalists, meanwhile, have pushed new boundaries. Caijing Magazine reporters have revived taboo questions about collapsed school buildings during the Sichuan earthquake and Window on the South reporters penned a cover story on limiting government power. And the state seems to have responded mildly, if at all.

Beijing apologized for the pollution that drove Chaoyang residents to the streets. Xinhua ran a fairly low-key account of the Jishou incident, without the usual hyperbole about bad elements. And those newspaper articles were allowed to be published in the first place, no small feat.

Meanwhile, Secretary Wang Yang in Guangdong continues his push for "liberation of thinking" and the Shenzhen trade union appears to be stepping up to the plate with proposals for an active role in bargaining and dispute resolution---even dancing fairly close to acknowledging a right to strike---while Guangzhou's trade union is pushing for sharply separating unions from management.

It is far too early too tell. These examples may be too selective---countless counter-examples can doubtless be dug up. But I am not pessimistic that some meaningful political reforms are around the corner.

Correction: The Window on the South piece came out in the midst of the Olympics---maybe the loosening started early? Maybe I'm completely off?

Sunday, August 24, 2008


Grrrr.  There's a banner that sits, glowering on a few websites (see the photo above) that has a sort of online poll function on it.  In case the resolution on my screen capture is bad, I'll give a run-down: the text reads "Is it OK to Unconditionally Meet with Anti-American Foreign Leaders?" and has two buttons, "Yes" and "No."  The photos of Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sit side by side next to the text.

Though I've always noticed the little "Paid For by John McCain 2008" imprint in the lower right hand corner, I've repeatedly, naively, pressed "Yes" (as in, "yes, it is OK to meet with such leaders")--and have then been led to the McCain website, which asks me to donate to McCain, presumably on the assumption that I pressed "No."  There's no acknowledgment even that I voted!

What is really frustrating (beyond that the banner fails to define what an "Anti-American Foreign Leader" might be--does this description include Putin? Chirac?) is that it puts the question so plainly.  McCain is so serenely confident that I would be angered by the very idea of meeting with someone without preconditions that he doesn't even bother to embellish the question with swipes about "appeasement" or "inexperience."  

It's exactly because of this kind of stuff, this arrogant, bull-headed idiocy and meanness, that it'll good to have Biden around this fall.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

CAP report

As someone who cares about China and counts himself a "progressive" (for lack of a better label in the context of American politics) I was excited to hear about the release of the Center for American Progress' (CAP) report, "A Global Imperative: A Progressive Approach to U.S.-China Relations in the 21st Century." 

CAP is one of the many liberal (or should that be "progressive"?) institutions that sprang up following the disastrous 2000 U.S. presidential election with an eye toward building a new, Democratic-leaning Washington brain trust to counter the think tanks patiently built by the Right over the 1980s and 1990s.  

So what do these new, trail-blazing non-Rightists have to offer U.S.-China relations?

The authors of "A Global Imperative", who consulted an impressive list of academics, activists and former officials in preparing the report, rightly note at the start that American presidents tend to have a schizophrenic relationship with the PRC.  Bush, Clinton and Bush again have all swung awkwardly from confrontation with China at the beginning of their presidencies and back to accommodation at the end of their terms.  In the place of this waffling, the report reasonably proposes a consistent strategy from the start of the new president's time in office--be he Obama or McCain--one that focuses on both areas of cooperation and areas of respectful push and pull.  

CAP's key suggestions are hard to argue with: "embed China" in international institutions (though this has been happening for some time, largely on the PRC's initiative--not because of some grand U.S. plan, Zoellick's speeches notwithstanding); "manage potential downside and upside risk" (I'd hope so); "better understand China" (obviously a good thing); "collaborate with China" on certain issues, such as WMDs, diseases, and the environment; "cooperate with other nations to influence China:" "reestablish U.S. moral authority" on human rights issues; and "prepare to compete globally."

The devil is in the details. And the report is, unfortunately, sparse on specifics, except when it discusses two areas of potential collaboration between the U.S. and China. These two areas are combating global warming and achieving "win-win" economic relations.  I will focus on the latter.

CAP recommends making the establishment of a larger Chinese middle class (and thereby boosting Chinese consumption and lowering the trade deficit) a shared goal of U.S. and Chinese policymakers. This could be done, says CAP, through cooperation in the International Labour Organization (ILO) on the Decent Work Agenda for China, supporting Chinese labor law reforms that have been opposed by U.S. businesses in the past, and talking about China's social safety net as a part of the two countries' strategic economic dialog.   The U.S., meanwhile, should get its own house in order economically by fixing its finances, retraining workers, etc.

In principle, these are good suggestions.  But while the U.S. should engage the ILO more in general (starting with signing more of the organization's conventions), influencing China through a tripartite body isn't simple--you have to rally U.S. businesses and labor, along with the bureaucracy. I doubt that American companies would heed a mere moral exhortation to stop getting in the way of China's labor reforms, as CAP implies, without some legislation at home holding them to the fire, such as an International Right to Know law. And Chinese officials, moreover, like the leaders of any country, are unlikely to be crazy about talking about their internal social security and health care policies as a part of high-level economic meetings with foreigners... and so this item will likely be quietly dropped, if it is pushed by the new president at all.

The truth of the matter is that though measures such as those recommended in the report can help, there is a glaring hole.  It is civil and political rights.  

CAP deals with this issue by essentially saying that the U.S. should scrap Guantanamo and end torture--"reestablish U.S. moral authority"--before it lectures anyone.  But freedom of speech and freedom of association are integral to the improved labor conditions sought by the report's writers in the PRC. And even reining in Chinese pollution is related to jobs, which are related to potential protests by the unemployed, which are related to rights... just as reining in pollution is related to jobs and angry voters and rights in the U.S.

I usually feel a bit uneasy whenever human rights, especially civil and political rights, are brought up in the context of country-to-country relations.  No country, least of all the U.S., seems qualified to throw the first stone.  Equally importantly, the involvement of nation states in rights discussions can undermine the work of unions, NGOs and private individuals by allowing them to be painted as the tools of foreign powers.  

There is a danger, too, as Balakrishnan Rajagopal suggests, of bringing rights into development discussions in particular.  The rhetoric of development tends to colonize rights, elevating some rights and downplaying others (Rajagopal's example is how evictions for infrastructure projects are viewed as more understandable than evictions for purely political reasons).  

But when rights are nearly entirely ignored in elite policy--what Tibet protests?  what jailed petitioners?--it is hard not to worry that rights have dropped in importance and will begin a slow decline into obscurity.  

How should rights be addressed, then?  

Perhaps enhanced exchange is the solution.  China and the U.S. have an ongoing human rights dialog now, of course, but it is unproductive, at least judging from Assistant Secretary Kramer's recent trip to Beijing. He had talks and talks, while dissidents who might mar his visit were rounded up (America's human rights were also conspicuously not on the table--it was solely a discussion of China and its problems).  

A better model might be a public, joint run-down of mutual complaints, perhaps based on each country's human rights reports on the other (China periodically puts out a report on U.S. human rights, just as the U.S. State Department does on other countries). 

But I really don't know what would work.  This, along with cold-blooded interest, is at the core of any debate about the U.S. and China and it has no easy solutions.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Opening ceremony

Man, the opening ceremonies were incredible.  

I've had all these mixed feelings built up.  There'll be more back and forth about the mass choreography of Zhang Yimou, but at first viewing it was pretty cool---and open in spirit.  Seeing Jacques Rogge toward the end sorta put a damper on things, but I felt surprisingly affectionate toward Hu Jintao throughout.  All in all, it just made me incredibly proud of China.  Of all its been through and all it can be.

Thursday, August 07, 2008


Jim Yardley's article in the New York Times yesterday strives to be a definitive account of what the Chinese Communist Party adds up to on the eve of the Olympics. He does a pretty good job on the whole---actually, a very good job---though I think his treatment of the issue of popular nationalism could do with a tad more nuance and he curiously omits the (slight) leftward turn of the Chinese leadership in recent years.

One thing that stands out is Yardley's assertion that "the party has absorbed entrepreneurs, urban professionals and university students into an elite class that is invested in the political status quo, if not necessarily enthralled with it." Bruce Dickson, quoted in the article, has done an especially good job of documenting this phenomenon, starting with his book Red Capitalists in China. David Brooks made a similar observation to Yardley's a while back in a column titled "The Dictatorship of Talent" and I, unusually, found myself roughly in agreement with him.

This party-as-technocratic-elite thing is hardly new, of course. Mao criticized Kruschev's U.S.S.R. for creating just that. And, on the right-wing side, Taiwan, Singapore and plenty of other places tried the same set-up, with the KMT or PAP subbing in for the CCP. But it is interesting as a place on a party's arc of development.

Now, to make a jump---I hope not too big of a jump---I am worried about the Democratic Party of the United States making the same transition. Don't get me wrong, in an election year I am happy for every Northern Virginia tech worker and anxious Wall Street type the Democrats can get. But I don't want those kids to come near to dominating the atmosphere of the party.

For now, the Democrats have a better advantage in the working class than you'd know from the news. Obama holds a 2-1 advantage over McCain among low-wage workers and leads McCain by 10 percent among working class white voters. I just hope they don't forget that after November.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pew results on social justice

Considerable attention has been paid to the Pew Research Center's recent findings on a disconnect between how the world views China and how Chinese believe the world views their country, as well as the extraordinary optimism of Chinese concerning the PRC's future (86 percent were satisfied with the direction of their country).

There has been less talk about the report's numbers on Chinese attitudes toward various social problems. For me, the most interesting number in this regard is the percentage of those surveyed who saw China's rich / poor gap as a "very big" problem or "moderately big" problem: 89 percent. This is second only to the percentage concerned about rising prices (96 percent) and far outstrips concerns about, say, crime (61 percent see crime as a problem, but only 17 percent say the problem is "very big").

That convictions about economic justice have survived the tumult of these past two-almost-three decades---and have survived a general optimism about the economy, too (82 percent optimism)--- is immensely encouraging. It means there is a base that can keep a rein on liberal economics under any future Beijing governments (but hopefully allow for more liberal politics).

There are precedents for this. Look what Brazil has done since Lula came to power, according to the NYT:
Long famous for its unequal distribution of wealth, Brazil has shrunk its income gap by six percentage points since 2001, more than any other country in South America this decade, said Francisco Ferreira, a lead economist at the World Bank.
While the top 10 percent of Brazil’s earners saw their cumulative income rise by 7 percent from 2001 to 2006, the bottom 10 percent shot up by 58 percent, according to Marcelo CĂ´rtes Neri, the director of the Center for Social Policies at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.
Has this leveling been a great blow to Brazil's economy? No, in fact the country is riding "its biggest economic expansion in three decades." Fairness and prosperity are actually related, or can be:
...while exports of commodities like oil and agricultural goods have driven much of its recent growth, Brazil is less and less dependent on them, economists say, having the advantage of a huge domestic market — 185 million people — that has grown wealthier with the success of people like Ms. Sousa [a small businesswoman profiled at the outset of the NYT article].
Now, if China were to really take "scientific development" and "people first" and a "harmonious society" seriously...

Thursday, July 24, 2008

In fairness...

I have been fuming more and more over Chinese nationalist screeds at the bottom of news articles and blog posts--you know, the long diatribes about how Tibetans are ungrateful for the civilization brought to them by their masters, about how people should stop criticizing China about Darfur or Zimbabwe because, well, China had it rough once, too, just like Africa, about how because other countries share certain of China's problems those problems aren't actually problems,  etc, etc.  

But then I turned on MSNBC today and watched the talking heads on "Race for the White House" debate whether or not Obama's admitting in Berlin, every so gently and briefly, that the U.S. has faults might hurt him politically.  

Why might saying something so patently obvious hurt him?  Well, as the panelists rightly noted, many Americans don't like politicians or celebrities currying favor abroad--or appearing to curry favor abroad--by saying bad things about the U.S. of A:
David Gregory:  "Eugene Robinson, is this the message that Americans want to hear Obama delivering overseas, not in this country, but going to a foreign capital ...
There's not the same wounded pride here that you sometimes hear in China, but there is the same sense of not talking to stuffy foreigners about something that's our business.  If there's not the same wounded-ness it's because there's a tad more bluster.

It reminds me of a friend who said that in some ways China and America are more alike than America and Europe.  Now, I don't mean to let Europeans off the hook (their attitude to the U.S. tends to be similar to Northeastern Americans' attitude toward Southerners: "Well, since we're clearly not as bad as them, we have no problems--not on race, not on religion, not on nothing").  But it's true, I think, that what frustrates Americans and Chinese about each other is not some vast cultural gulf but that we're so remarkably similar.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Perceptions of the CR

Frog in a Well has a great response to Jed Perl's attempt at Chinese art criticism---and to casual interpreters of Chinese history from the West generally.  

Several sections are worth quoting (excuse me for quoting so much!):
The nostalgia for communist-period idealism you sometimes hear I always find hard to figure out.

For Perl, however, the only possible reason to think about China is to denounce Mao and the Cultural Revolution (which are of course the same thing.) Thus it becomes impossible for Chinese to be anything other than toadies unless they are in jail. 

In particular, Frog in a Well takes exception with Perl's image of the CR:
The theme of “Revolution” comes up a lot in the art Perl is talking about, in part I think because he is talking about western collectors, who probably don’t know much about China but do know there was a revolution and in part because lots of Chinese artists do use Communist iconography and themes from the past. Some of them are probably toeing the official line, some are subverting the official line, some are doing both, some think they are doing both but actually are not. For Perl though it is pretty easy. If you see anything that looks “China-y” it’s crap.
I have studied the catalogue of this collection, The Revolution Continues: New Art from China, and I am pretty confident that it is the most hateful art book published in my lifetime. For the revolution that is continuing is none other than the Cultural Revolution.
Really? The modern smiley-face authoritarianism of China is the same as the Cultural Revolution? One begins to suspect he does not know much about the CR, which is pretty rapidly confirmed as he scoffs as a curator for suggesting that
“reprising the Red Guards’ antiauthoritarian stance to art, sought to bring down the institution of art itself through Dadaist strategies”?

In what sense, pray tell, was the Red Guard anti-authoritarian?
“Pray tell” suggests that he has no clue what the Red Guards were. The first thing a youth was supposed to do after strapping on the red armband was to “bombard the headquarters” and attack the authorities that actually controlled their lives, teachers, party bosses, etc. Everyone in China over a certain age knows this, which is why it is always so hard to figure out what Chinese artists might be doing with Mao images or CR images or whatever. Not everybody in the world needs to know (or can know) all the things Maoist references can mean in China, but if you are going to write about Chinese art it helps to have some idea what you are talking about. One can imagine touring the Louvre with Perl and having him be stumped by why there were all those pictures of a lady holding a baby. 
Perl, to his credit, does have some interesting things to say about the draw of propaganda, such as when he paraphrases Susan Sontag: "...there is a difference between appreciating the peculiar power of a certain kind of totalitarian imagery and going right ahead and succumbing to its power."

But I would go further than Frog in a Well to say that Perl's confusion about the Cultural Revolution is not just a sign of how little he knows about China but the crux of a lot of people's misunderstandings about current Chinese politics.  The CR is at the heart of the fears of today's leadership and people---fears of chaos, fears of public protest, fears of democracy---as well as an important source of moral support for dissent.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Two incidents

What a difference ethnicity makes.  Or the protective wall of the nation. Or whatever you want to call it. 

The images out of Weng'an County, Guizhou Province---a burning Public Security Bureau building, young people brandishing sharp pieces of metal, overturned vehicles---remind me of nothing in the past year more than the uprising in Lhasa.  

Yet while large numbers of Chinese netizens responded to the Weng'an incident (which erupted after it was believed that official connections let a pair of young men off the hook for the rape and murder of a girl) with creative runs around the censors, scorn for local authorities, and (sometimes) outright support for the protesters / rioters, they responded to the Lhasa incident by calling for censorship (of CNN, for example), by backing the government and by showing absolute fury at the protesters / rioters.

Obviously, this is an oversimplification.  There HAS been reflection in China on Tibet and some brave gestures of solidarity by Han Chinese for Tibetans.   

And the overtones of the two incidents are quite different: one brought with it associations of national dignity and the Olympic Games and China's place in the world; the other was fully "internal" and may have stood in for other examples of corruption in the recent past (such as corruption surrounding the quake) that people swallowed in the name of unity but couldn't keep down much longer.

But the distance / closeness felt by netizens for different people, their immediate sympathies, couldn't be sharper.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

The earthquake II

My previous post on the earthquake was essentially about avoiding writing about it, or rather avoiding an overly politicized narrative.  

Now, a couple weeks on, I think it's fair to try to sum up my thoughts.

The earthquake in Sichuan was absolutely horrible.  But the response to it from within China has given me more hope---for China and for China as a part of the world---than just about anything else in recent memory.   

Middle class young people, who have been written off by many, including myself at times,  as money-centered and narrowly nationalistic, have traveled to the earthquake region by the thousands. More than 150,000 volunteers have made the trip so far.   Some may, like their parents who were "sent down" to the countryside a generation before, return home to Beijing and Shanghai with a greater appreciation for the struggles of their poorer comrades and the community that is born from public service.

Anger at Japan, which has become something of a mainstay of today's Chinese popular politics---particularly the politics of young people---has been set aside for the moment, as the PRC accepts quake aid delivered by none other than the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.   The long-term implications of this move could be small or tremendous.  The tremendous would be a return to real issues and away from the silly complaints drummed away at by both countries, complaints that had brought down the discussion of any politics, whether foreign policy-related or not, with their bitterness.

And, while some Chinese netizens have been quick to condemn any criticism of the government at a time like this as treason, most people have not blindly closed ranks around each and every domestic institution in the name of "national unity."  The Chinese Red Cross, for one, has found itself under intense public scrutiny for its suspicious financial records, as have several local officials who were alleged to have treated aid workers arrogantly or responded to the tragedy with clumsy PR jaunts.   This skepticism is healthy in any nation and bodes well for the future.

In sum, the People's Republic has met a devastating tragedy in the way that such a tragedy should be met: with compassion, with openness, and with questioning.  

This is no small feat.   At a Brookings forum today, one participant spoke of the earthquake as "China's September 11."  While the two tragedies were quite different, one being the work of nature and the other an act of human aggression, the Chinese and American governments' responses are worth comparing.   

Zhongnanhai allowed the Sichuan earthquake to be appreciated for what it was, a real tragedy, and created space for national spiritual growth ("spiritual" in the secular sense sometimes employed by the Chinese government).  Whether the leadership on its own accord reacted with a flexibility and quick-thinking not seen since Deng Xiaoping or it was pushed along by the force of history, it made the right decisions.  Holding a moment of national silence, scaling down the torch relay, relaxing controls on the media and welcoming support from abroad all seem completely natural in retrospect but were anything but natural at the time.

In contrast, the Bush White House created little space for real mourning in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 2007 and bullied the press and attacked the world (the White House would later rebuff offers of aid from Cuba and others during Hurricane Katrina).   Any growth that has happened in the U.S. has been away from those years, not out of them.

Ultimately, though, this tragedy has shown not so much the strength of the government but the determination of the people to do good.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The earthquake

There might be some political discussions relating to the earthquake in Sichuan that are appropriate right now, such as questions regarding freedom of information and press restrictions.  However, I think---and I say this with some trepidation---we should take our cues from the people in Sichuan and from China's general discussion of the tragedy.  And just watch how events unfold.  

Unless we (I use the word "we" to mean people discussing China but not in China, knowing this does not apply to all readers) have something absolutely vitally important to say, some fact about the earthquake that we have uncovered and no one else knows, or an interview with someone in regards to the tragedy that must be heard... we should keep our thoughts respectfully focused on the victims and their families.  

And by all means save the political predictions and comparisons with the Tangshan earthquake and re-warmed Chinese philosophy stuff about the Mandate of Heaven for later.

Right now, everyone---here I mean "we" in its most inclusive sense---should just try to understand, as much as is possible for us human beings with a limited ability to absorb loss beyond our own lives, what it means for over 20,000 people to be extinguished just like that.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The protests

For someone who cares an awful lot about China, the country's recent anti-Carrefour, anti-Tibetan-freedom-activists, pro-nationalism, ultimately-pro-government protests have been hard to watch.  But I do think this moment in history will, in the end, have been for the best.

For one thing, the experience will be good for international human rights campaigners.  It will no longer be possible to deal with China in the abstract, as some symbol of Communist authoritarianism or of tradition versus modernity or of capitalism minus democracy.  China will no longer be a stage for noble dissidents and beleaguered masses and heartless authorities, but a more confusing place altogether.

Activists will, I think, come to realize that they have to get into the mess of a complex society if they want to accomplish anything.  They will have to choose fights and make compromises---and prudently refuse to make compromises, too, and know the consequences and take them anyway. It will no longer seem natural to address all petitions to Party Secretaries and heads of foreign corporations.   But it will be tough as hell to find out who to address a petition to at all---like it is in any other country.

This experience will matter the most, probably, for the Chinese people---though it will take a while for it to really matter.   At present--to generalize grossly--young people, particularly those of the middle class, who have largely put aside their politics (or hidden their politics in private conversations) for "concrete" things like jobs and a new-found pride in a rising nation, are feeling hurt.   Fine.  Maybe they've been criticized unfairly too often over the years.  But sometime, when things have settled down, they will have to mull over what exactly it is that the world is so upset over.

Most pressing in the list of things to be mulled: 

I.  While it may be fine to criticize the Western media for its biases,  why are Chinese people still served by a media that took ages to even acknowledge protests abroad, which acted as if the protests / riots of March 14 were the beginning and end of the Tibetan uprising (and that Han and Hui were the only victims), and which has shown about as much reflection---with some important exceptions (such as Chang Ping's and He Yanguang's posts, though neither of these are directly connected to the journalists' respective papers)---as the announcements on the web page of the Chinese Embassy in Washington?

II.  And what does it mean to occupy a people?  Historical arguments and developmentalist rhetoric aside, do Tibetans seem thrilled to be ruled by the People's Armed Police and tour buses and railroads and policies for settling nomads?  And if not, what does that mean for a young person with morals living in Beijing?  

III.  Finally, who really represents China?  For a couple decades, the country's focus has been on its cities, which have rushed ahead at an earth-shaking pace.   But far off, portions of Tibet and Xinjiang are run like military garrisons.  And people there don't want to be a part of China, at least many of them don't.  And closer in, farmers are fighting pitched battles with land grabbing officials, while the prices of feed and oil are undercutting the benefits (for farmers) of rising food prices. Where are these people in the country's national self-image?

Sometimes, China, the massive country, seems a lot like Washington, DC, the powerful mini-city: sharp class divides, a polished exterior, and a defensiveness about taking the "insider" path. But in both places there are unpredictable currents that can change what is "normal" and upset the "status quo" while no one is looking.  For good and for bad.

Right now, China might be most similar to America right after 9/11---proud and hurt and ordering "freedom fries" (the French, interestingly, being the targets in both cases).  But I think---or hope---that things will change.  

And I hope that the world will be engaged with China in a way that will allow it to be a part of those changes, not just cheering or booing from the sidelines.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Zhang Qingli and stupidity and violence

In my last post I mentioned Tibet's Party Secretary, Zhang Qingli.  I quoted his silly talk about Tibetans being children and the Central Party Committee being their Buddha (via Shanghaiist). And I called him essentially a caricature of the colonialists of old--the British, the Dutch, the Belgians, the French and the Americans.

China Vitae shows that Zhang previously held posts in Gansu (where there are large numbers of Tibetans and Hui Muslims) and "is currently a member of the standing committee of the CPC Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Regional Committee, deputy secretary of the CPC Xinjiang Production and Construction Crops Committee and commander of the Xinjiang Production and Construction Crops." Xinjiang? I didn't know you could hold two such scattered posts like that, but is this man supposed to be a sort of go-to person for "national minorities"?

Willy Lam furthermore reports in Asia Sentinel that Mr. Zhang is part of a larger "Tibet Faction" of Hu Jintao cronies from the General Secretary's own days in Lhasa in the 1980s.

Now, it may be that the ongoing Tibetan uprising will push Hu Jintao to fire some members of his "Tibet Faction."  It may even be that the Central Committee will lose its faith in Hu's understanding of areas like Tibet and force a broader change in policy.  But the fact that bone-headed policies like those pursued in Tibet---forced relocations, grossly uneven economic development, interference in religious traditions, violence toward dissenters, hysterical scapegoating of the Dalai Lama---have been allowed to go on for so long speaks to a bigger problem.  

That problem is the belief that stupid decisions are OK because the state can always use violence to deal with any consequences of the decisions.  Building a massive dam and moving people from their homes and then discovering that the dam isn’t as great as it was cracked up to be is a bummer, but ultimately OK—the PAP can deal with any unrest.  Allowing multinational corporations to brutally exploit workers is not the best way of doing things (maybe things should be more "scientific" and "harmonious"), but it is, again, ultimately OK—the police and mafia can deal with any unrest.  And pursuing outdated policies toward “national minorities” may be in need of review, but it’s OK—the PLA can deal with any unrest. 

No End in Sight, a recent documentary on a different occupation, the American occupation of Iraq, shows that the need for violence multiplies with each stupid decision.  Until, in the end, no amount of violence is enough. 

On the uprising

After the uprising in Lhasa, protests have spread to what China calls the provinces of Qinghai, Gansu and Sichuan and Tibetans view as greater Tibet. Horsemen have galloped, waiving the banned Tibetan flag at lines of riot police.  Forty protesting middle-schoolers have been arrested. Students at the National Minorities University in Beijing held a silent vigil with candles.  Tibetan blogger Woeser, under house arrest in Beijing, is posting information on a still-expanding circle of unrest.

And images have surfaced of bodies wrapped in white against a wall in Sichuan Province with a crowd gathered around them dumbfounded.  Eight bodies have been brought to a Sichuan monastery.  A middle-schooler was reported shot dead in Ngaba.  Reports by Tibetan exile groups put the Lhasa death count at 80-100 Tibetans.  The Chinese government has highlighted the deaths of over a dozen Han Chinese at the hands of mobs early in the protests, though it has now also conceded that four people were “wounded” by gunfire from police in Sichuan (after first saying that they were “killed” and then hastily changing the story). Footage by foreign journalists shows endless military convoys climbing mountain roads onto the Tibetan plateau.

What is the best way to understand all this? 

Western political leaders have implied that the Tibetan uprising springs from a lack of respect for the Tibetan religion on the Chinese government’s part and from Beijing’s lack of dialogue with the Tibetan government in exile. Both of these assertions—I wrote they were “implied” because they can only be read backward from leaders’ tepid calls for “respect” and “dialogue”—are, of course true.  But if Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao and the Party Secretary of Tibet, Zhang Qingli, just showed more “respect” for Buddhism (by, say, building a slew of temples, like those built recently around China) and continued their on-again off-again talks with Dharamsala… well, we’d be where we are right now.  It doesn’t touch the fundamentals.

Blogger Chunzhu uses Amy Chua’s concept of “market dominant minorities” to explain the anger and violence exhibited by Lhasa protesters toward Han and Hui residents.  “Market dominant minorities,” according to Amy Chua, are groups—she uses Indians in Africa, Jews in Russia and Chinese in Southeast Asia as examples—that enjoy a privileged place in a given society, benefiting from market reforms, receiving political protection, and arousing the anger of the ethnic majority, especially as the majority transitions to democracy.  Minus the democracy part, the analogy works well for the Tibetan situation.  But, as Chunzhu acknowledges, it only really applies to one aspect of the uprising—the violence against Han Chinese, the "market dominant minority" of Tibet.

In an excellent op-ed in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Andrew Fischer gives a more expansive economic explanation. He writes, "Beijing has been trying to convince us that the marginally improved material conditions of the average Tibetan somehow absolve all previous sins.  Yet superficial incantations of statistical indicators tell us little about people's ability to control their lives within the context of the dramatic social and economic changes that lie behind such statistics."  Fischer then lists several mistakes of Beijing’s “western development” strategy. They are worth quoting at length:

The first and most fundamental [mistake] has been Beijing's fast track strategy to "develop" Tibet through the force of massive amounts of subsidies and subsidized investments, the newly constructed railway being one such example. These strategies have resulted in rapidly rising inequalities, to a level much higher than that observed anywhere else in China, where rising inequality is already a source of great concern.

The second oft-noted trend is a corollary of the first; the in-migration of non-Tibetans (most Han Chinese) from elsewhere in China. The railway has increased the number of these migrants, although this is primarily due to subsidies, not the existence of the railway infrastructure itself.

The third trend has been the abandonment of most previously-existing mechanisms to protect local labor in the context of such out-of-province migrant inflows. This trend is particularly important because it affects the upward aspirations of many relatively well educated urban Tibetan youths. For instance, the government recently ended its policy of guaranteeing employment for local high school and university graduates. As elsewhere in China, the old system has been replaced with competitive exams for the coveted posts of state-sector employment, although the exams, as elsewhere in China, are in the Chinese language. As a result, even relatively well educated Tibetans are easily out-competed by Han Chinese migrants, even Han Chinese migrants from Chinese rural area.

The fourth trend has been the tightening of political control by the government in response to rising tensions.

All that Fischer says rings true.  But the deeper, more cutting and---I think---the best explanation of what is happening is a rather old-fashioned explanation: colonialism.  No, not, perhaps, colonialism like that seen in the first wave of imperial expansion, the one led by Britain, France, the Netherlands and the U.S.  But like the second wave, if you want to call it that, the one China shared with Indonesia, India, Pakistan and plenty of others, all post-colonial states themselves.  

These nations came away from humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism (and a particularly brutal Japanese imperialism, too, in China’s case) with a desire to reconstitute their past, to reconstitute not just their culture but the full swath of land that they could conceivably have ever claimed as their own culturally or politically (East Timor and West Papua for Indonesia; Kashmir and the princely states for India; Balochistan and what is now the Northwest Frontier Province for Pakistan; Xinjiang, Mongolia and Tibet for China)—whether the residents of those lands shared the same dreams or not.

Tibet is ruled by the military, PAP and police.  The central government decides to relocate Tibetan nomads into cement towns and it just does it---with even less openness to dissent or even discussion than in the Han countryside, where violent, forced relocations are also common. It has never had a Tibetan Party Secretary (to my knowledge).   Zhang Qingli, the current Secretary is quoted as saying, "The Communist Party is like the parent to the Tibetan people, and it is always considerate about what the children need.  The Central Party Committee is the real Buddha for Tibetans."  A British colonialist couldn't have said something nastier.

A violent response by Tibetans---and, to be clear, the response so far has not been as violent as it might have been in just about anywhere else in the world---is natural.

Frantz Fanon, the Algerian freedom fighter and psychiatrist wrote, “The colonized man liberates himself in and through violence." More specifically, "By its very nature, colonialism is separatist and regionalist.... Violence is in action all-inclusive and rational."  And, "At the level of individuals, violence is a cleansing force.  It frees the native from his inferiority complex and from his despair and inaction; it makes him fearless and restores his self-respect."

Mahmood Mamdani writes in Good Muslim, Bad Muslim:

Fanon has come to be regarded as a prophet of violence.... [but Fanon's writing] was a description of the violence of the colonial system, of the fact that violence was central to producing and sustaining the relationship between settler and the native.  It was a claim that anticolonial violence is not an irrational manifestation but belongs to the script of modernity and progress, that it is indeed the midwife of history.  And last and most important, it was a warning…”

Friday, March 14, 2008

Defending Wright

The spectacle of right wing preachers predicting the destruction of all Jews who don't convert to Christianity (after, of course, Israel is safely secured from the dastardly Palestinians for the end times)... and an epic war to the death with Islam... and rambling on about Hurricane Katrina and the 9/11 attacks being the result of homosexuality... and calling the Catholic Church some rather nasty names... and getting just a passing tsk tsk from the media... or, less dramatically, offering themselves as cheerleaders for a war of aggression against the Iraqi people and against international law... or slapping down any of their newer, younger converts who happen to care about frivolous things like climate change or poverty... is pretty lame. 

Still, hey, it's their opinion.  And we've had their opinion explained to us ad nauseum on TV and radio and in paperback books in grocery stores and by a few people we know.  It's an idiotic opinion on the face of it and it's a dangerous one, enabling power and violence on an awesome scale despite--or because of--its patent silliness. Still, fair enough. 

But how is it is beyond the pale to in turn explain to America a Pastor who has been active combating HIV/AIDS, active in the anti-apartheid struggle, active in, yes,  supporting the Palestinian people and active in building a close-knit church?  And who---horrors!---feels some real bitterness toward this country?  

Or, a tad more controversially, why can't we explain someone who was involved in the Weather Underground and doesn't feel like it was a total mistake?  Someone who saw a brutal conflict, the Vietnam War, and racial inequality at home as justifying a militant response?  And who has worked tirelessly in local politics ever since to right the same wrongs he saw then as they recur today?

It may not be the best time now, in the midst of a political campaign, but sometime, when the dust settles, we should speak up clearly for radical veterans of the 1960s, who have become the backbones of communities across this country.  We shouldn't conveniently dismiss them as an equal (and equally regrettable) Left aberration, symmetrical with the fascists of the Far Right. We shouldn't just explain them, as Obama eloquently did in the Huffington Post, as relics of the past.  We should actually defend them.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

NPC, CPPCC and the Right

Of the annual "two meetings" held in March, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC) always feels like the neglected younger brother of the National People's Congress (NPC). The CPPCC is described best by China.gov:

It is composed of the CPC, other political parties, mass organizations, different ethnic groups and representative public personages from all walks of life, representatives of compatriots of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao as well as of returned overseas Chinese and other specially invited people.

Ever since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, many major issues concerning economic construction, political life, social life and the united front have gone through consultation in the CPPCC. Such consultation may take the form of full discussion and repeated exchanges of opinions so that the policies, regulations and laws taken by the state are adequate and well-prepared, in conformity with the demands and wishes of the great majority of the people and in due respect to the rational ideas of the minority.
So, basically, the CPPCC doesn't enact legislation (as the NPC does). It just gathers together the legal smaller parties--- The Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomingtang (the wing of the KMT that stayed behind on the mainland), The Chinese Peasants and Workers Democratic Party, The China Democratic National Construction Association (the party of businesspeople), etc.---and random others and"consults" with them, provided, of course, that their ideas are "rational."

Recently, the buzz coming out the CPPCC has been one of a rather nasty "rationalism." Pro-business groups have used the forum to push back against tax laws and the Labor Contract Law. As the Telegraph reports:

Miss Zhang [a tycoon and CPPCC delegate], whose paper recycling firm grew from nothing a decade ago to see her valued at £1.7 billion in the latest China rich lists, said those earning more than £84,000 a year - a huge sum in China - should have their top tax rate cut from 45 per cent to 30 per cent.

She also attacked the country's new labour law, which, in theory, provides workers with similar protections - apart from free trade unions - to counterparts in Europe.

She said it should be amended to exempt labour-intensive industries from a clause which provides almost unbreakable contracts to employees with more than 10 years' service.

Xinhua sees this kind of activism as an encouraging development in terms of deepening democracy--and it is. Real debate is always, of course, refreshing. The more the better.

However, there is something of a pattern at work here. We heard similar crowing in regards to the space provided to the public to criticize the Labor Contract Law when it was still a draft, a space that was quickly dominated by Western business groups and Chinese liberal (i.e. pro-market) intellectuals.

While the NPC and CPPCC have often heard complaints about labor rights (and Wen Jiabao highlighted employment standards in his work report to the NPC this year), outbursts like Miss Zhang's have been largely absent from the Left. Where are the farmers and workers? Why don't we hear about them pounding the table and demanding this and that? And wouldn't it, Xinhua, be encouraging if they did?

Looks like the shadow of Jiang Zemin still hangs over these chambers.