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?