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  And pursuing outdated policies toward “national minorities” may be in need of review, but it’s OK—the PLA can deal with any unrest.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

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.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Saigon Grill strike continues

I got the following e-mail from Justice Will Be Served, a "campaign that
unites restaurant, hotel, deli, and other service workers in different communities across New York to fight against long hours, second-class wages, stolen tips and other sweatshop conditions."

On February 14, 2008 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) issued a decision ordering Saigon Grill Restaurant to 1) restore its delivery service at its two locations in the UWS and in Union Square, 2) reinstate all 28 delivery workers, and 3) pay workers their lost earnings. The delivery workers were fired in early March 2007, and have been picketing the restaurant every week for the past year to demand reinstatement. In the past year, their example has inspired countless other workers to stand with them on the picket line and organize workers at other restaurants, including Ollies' Noodle Shop and Grille, Republic Restaurant, among others. At Flor de Mayo Restaurant on the UWS, Latino delivery workers are uniting with Chinese delivery workers in this united effort to end sweatshop conditions in NYC restaurants. Workers are now calling for a boycott of Flor de Mayo's two locations. But when workers started to take their fight to the courts, bosses resorted to retaliatory tactics, including firings and blacklisting. This decision is an important step in the restaurant workers' movement, and sends a message to all bosses that we will not allow them to use firing and business closing as tactics to stamp out worker organizing.

However, Saigon Grill owners Simon and Michelle Nget act as if they are above U.S. labor laws and tax laws. They continue to snub the workers, the community, and elected officials who have given many opportunities for the restaurant to resolve this labor dispute. The owners continue to cheat the workers of their wages and their tax withholding. They continue to cheat the workers and the public. Furthermore, they undermine law-abiding businesses.

This is an incredibly inspiring campaign that brings to mind some of the most beautiful moments in labor history: when people of different backgrounds have united for basic fairness---and have grown inside themselves, too, in the process.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Corporate flight--remedies?

According to a study by Booz Allen and the notorious American Chamber of Commerce Shanghai (yes, the AmCham chapter famous for its anti-Labor Contract Law letter with the social Darwinist language):

Nearly one in five companies surveyed (17 percent) say they have concrete plans to relocate at least some of their China-based operations to other countries. Although 88 percent of these corporations say that they originally chose China for its lower labor costs, they are finding that cheaper labor and tax benefits have made alternative locations more attractive. Among these corporations, Vietnam is the top alternative to China, according to 63 percent of this group, while 37 percent say India is their first choice.

Among all respondents, when asked to compare China to alternate countries, they cited lower labor costs in those other countries as the largest differentiator, at 3.7 out of a scale of 5, indicating that China's reputation as a source of cheap manufacturing labor is diminishing.
If the surveyed companies are representative, this gives some startling numbers for the trend described in my earlier post.

The flight of sweatshops, as I and many others have said, may not be a disaster, but simply a part of positive long-term change for China's workers--China is banking on the growth of higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs filling the gap. But in the short-term, it is important to slow this drift or local officials in China may panic and dig in their feet on enforcement of ANY labor laws---not just the Labor Contract Law---and future pro-labor reforms may be delayed, including efforts to beef up the ACFTU.

The Asia Floor Wage Campaign presents one possible method for preventing investment flight (see the Campaign's still-under-construction website). Vietnam may be interested in agreeing to sharing a few basic labor conditions with China, if only in order to cool down Vietnamese workers, who have launched a wave of brave wildcat strikes. But how serious would Vietnam really be? Or Cambodia? Or India?

There may be other avenues. An argument could actually be made for companies staying from a business perspective. Besides higher labor costs, the Booz Allen / AmCham report notes, "staff retention is also a major concern" for firms in China "with 33 percent of respondents citing it as a reason for lost competitiveness."

The Fair Labor Association's Auret van Heerden notes the same problem and makes the obvious conclusion in a Newsweek interview:

Sure, you're going to have to register a lot of workers now, pay the minimum wage, give benefits. But this will lead to a much more stable and productive workplace. Before, in some places we've seen 100 percent labor turnover per year. We've never captured the costs that entails in training. Firms have been bleeding ridiculous amounts of money because they've had such an unstable workforce.
Now, I'm not one for bending over backwards to justify everything through this lens---that's a sure way of painting yourself into a corner. But it seems that companies who aren't too caught up in the whole cowboy-capitalist-in-a-new-lawless-land ethos might be interested.