The tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents, prominent among them high-school and university students, whom the world saw on the streets of the territory for two months since September were reasonable and peaceful, even in the face of sometimes terrible provocation.
Last week saw the police clearing away the barricades and the few hundred protestors who remained. One of the business groups that took out an injunction to clear the protest sites is a joint-venture controlled by Chinese state-owned Citic Group.
On 2 December, three of the co-founders of the Occupy Central movement called for protesters to retreat. The three turned themselves in to a police station the next day, though the authorities have not charged them with any offence.
Talks between student leaders and city officials proved fruitless. An attempt to travel to Beijing was blocked by Hong Kong authorities, and two leaders – Joshua Wong and Lester Shum – were arrested for obstructing police and are now out on bail.
The silence of the British government over the events in Hong Kong has been utterly shameful. Britain has yet again betrayed one of its former colonies by failing to honour its treaties and promises. In 1984 Margaret Thatcher’s government signed a treaty with the Chinese that guaranteed Hong Kong’s core values and way of life, including freedom of speech and assembly, until 2047. Thatcher’s successor John Major made a pledge before the handover in 1997 that Britain would ensure that the terms of the joint declaration were adhered to. At the time of the handover, the then foreign secretary, Robin Cook, reiterated that Britain would do everything in its power to defend Hong Kong and its freedoms.
Beijing also promised to grant Hong Kong a genuine one person-one vote for the elections of their chief executive in 2017. Instead, a sham consultation resulted in Beijing presenting to the people of Hong Kong the following proposal: you can have one person, one vote, provided we pre-screen all the candidates so that we are 100% in control of the final outcome.
At root, then, the protests on the streets of Hong Kong were not about democracy. They were about keeping promises, honouring treaties. That is a fundamental moral issue. Both the Chinese and British governments have broken their promises to the people of Hong Kong and have so betrayed them.
The truth is that morality, and even democracy, has been undermined by corporate greed. Business-as-usual with China trumps all moral considerations. The young people of Hong Kong are expendable. The super-rich in Hong Kong and Shanghai, just like their counterparts in London or New York, find talk of freedom and human rights irksome. The only freedom they care about is the freedom to make more money; and for that they will, paradoxically, sell their souls to the worst regimes in the world.
Capitalism was once believed to be the hand-maiden of democracy. Open up trade and markets, and political freedoms will follow. That was the myth behind which European and American capitalists and their governments hid in the early 1990s when relocating all their manufacturing industries in China. They chose to ignore fact that capitalism is morally promiscuous and can flourish under both the best and the worst of political regimes. But the more Europe, the US and Australia are economically “owned” by China, the more muted is their condemnation of that regime’s worsening repression.
Anson Chan was the chief secretary in both the British colonial government of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government under Chinese rule. In a column in the British newspaper, The Observer, in October 2014 she wrote:
“I genuinely did not think at the time of the joint declaration that it would turn out this way. I thought that the co-signatories, Britain and China, would honour all the promises laid down in the treaty and guarantee Hong Kong ‘one country, two systems’. They included guaranteeing: independence of the judiciary, the rule of law and our rights and freedoms and, in particular, that we would move steadily towards genuine universal suffrage.”
She went on to note that, where students in Hong Kong were concerned, “For them the big change since I was their age is perhaps the decline in social mobility. Now within the territory there is a sense of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Those who make money are tempted to stay quiet, to maintain their links, their status. The rest, they want what many people want across the world- a good education and an open society.”
(With apologies to Aldous Huxley)
“Activism, scholarship, dissemination of information, persuasion, protest, and solidarity are the most powerful weapons that powerless people have. Let us use them wisely.”
These words- which provide bloggers with a worthwhile goal other than mere narcissism- come from the pen of Ilan Pappé, one of Israel’s most courageous and controversial scholar-activists. Pappé is one of a band of revisionist historians who, since the release of pertinent British and Israeli government documents in the early 1980s, have been re-writing the story of Israel’s creation in 1948 and confronting the dominant master-narrative of Israeli society.
According to the latter, Israel is the innocent victim engaged in a continuous struggle for survival against dark, irrational forces pitted against it on all sides. This myth is swallowed wholesale by many in Israel as well its supporters worldwide. Pappé has argued that in understanding the current plight of Palestinians we should go back to 1948, even 1882, not 1967. The Israeli state has from its inception been expansionist and colonialist. The expulsion of Palestinians from their towns and villages at the very outset of Israel’s creation constituted the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestine, in accordance with Plan Dalet, drawn up in 1947 by Israel’s future leaders. Moreover, the Zionist ideology that produced the 1948 ethnic cleansing is the one that keeps refugees in their camps today, discriminates against Palestinians inside Israel, and oppresses those under occupation in the West Bank and imprisonment in the Gaza Strip.
We can argue, as scholars regularly do, about the historical roots to the conflict and whether “ethnic cleansing of Palestinians” is the appropriate description; but what we cannot do is deny the present unacceptable reality. What we see in “Greater Israel” is a sovereign state ruling directly its own citizens and, at the same time, ruling indirectly (through its proxies) an occupied and imprisoned community in Gaza and the West Bank. This is the status quo that the government in Israel wants to maintain. Every act of violence by Hamas or unrepresentative Palestinians (as in the recent horrific attack by two axe-wielding men on a Jewish synagogue) is exploited by government propaganda to stereotype and caricature all Palestinians and to tighten its stranglehold on Gaza and the West Bank, crushing Palestinian aspirations for an end to the 66-year dispossession and conquest.
Mainstream Western media are not only highly selective but fickle when it comes to reporting on the Middle East. The 50 day war in Gaza this summer has been quickly forgotten, a war in which Israel killed 2,200 Palestinians, including more than 500 children. Courageous human rights and peace groups within Israel (B’Tselem and Break the Silence) are investigating independently what happened in Gaza, as the official army investigation will be a cover-up.
While the attack on the Jewish synagogue was front-page news in many Western TV and print media, the routine killing and maiming of Palestinians civilians by Israeli forces and settlers is ignored in mainstream coverage. Since 2000, about 9 times as many Palestinians have been killed as Israelis. About 20 times more Palestinian children have been killed than Israeli children, and about 7 times more Palestinians injured. To learn these facts, I have to trawl independent media sites, such as al-Jazeera, Counterpunch and Znet. Or consult my colleagues in Palestine.
A report by the International Crisis Group, issued in July, advocates that the PA-Hamas unity government formed in April 2014 be reinstated and actively supported by the West as well as the major Arab states. (Middle East Briefing No. 39, available at http://www.crisisgroup.org) Note that in signing this agreement last spring, Hamas explicitly agreed to renounce violence and implicitly accepted the moderates’ strategy of negotiations for peace. Netanyahu saw the unity agreement as a threat and hence launched his all-out attack on Hamas activists in the West Bank that quickly led to war.
Monoethnic, despotic regimes in many countries (such as my own) look to Israel’s example in how to deal with their own intransigent ethnic and religious minorities. Seize land, re-settle it with members of the majority community, protect the latter by sending in an occupation army, label all attacks on the new settlers as “terrorist” or “extremist” acts and use them to justify further acts of repression.
The recent decisions by the Swedish government and the British parliament to recognize a Palestinian state (the UN General Assembly has already recognized Palestine) are largely symbolic gestures. They are welcome as expressions of solidarity with suffering Palestinians. But in practice they amount to little. While insisting that everybody recognizes Israel’s “right to exist”, Israel will never recognize the Palestinians’ “right of return”, let alone their right to liberation and self-determination. Israel’s settlement and development programs in the occupied territories- all illegal, as Israel was informed in 1967 by its highest legal authorities and affirmed recently by the World Court- are designed to undermine the possibility of a viable Palestinian state.
As long as it is protected by its rich, benevolent Uncle Sam, Israel can continue to thumb its nose at international law and the international community. (See Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel, and the Palestinians)
This is why, despite the international consensus on a “two-state solution”, several Arab and Jewish intellectuals and activists have advocated (over several decades) an alternative path to follow: namely, exerting pressure on Israel to become a full-fledged pluralist (or binational) democracy- one that respects the human rights and civil liberties of all its citizens and subjects, and enabling the mutual recognition of collective cultural and religious identities. There are civil society groups within Israel, as well as NGOs working among Palestinians, who continue to promote this vision. They need our blessings and our prayers.
[See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lsmFS75ed4 for a BBC HardTalk interview with Ilan Pappe]
If the US-led global “war on terror” since 9/11 has taught us anything, it’s that mass bombing campaigns and sweeping punitive measures don’t work to counter violent extremism. In fact, they are not very effective in conventional wars either. The ability of determined armed groups to stand up to air assaults is well attested. They move at night, engage in combat at close quarters and learn how to hide behind civilian populations.
The limited effectiveness of the Coalition’s air attacks on the amorphous terrorist caliphate called Islamic State (ISIL) must eventually compel the deployment of well-trained ground troops. But it should also lead to a more pragmatic approach by Western nations towards Iran, an acknowledgement of the military and political blunders made in Iraq and Libya, and a comprehensive arms embargo in the region (including Israel). Arming supposed “moderates” in Syria is bound to backfire, as it did in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The biggest challenge, however, is how to stem the shocking radicalization of young Muslim men and women in some Western nations, especially Britain and France. Islamic State, like its forebear al-Qa’ida, uses killing- particularly beheadings- as mass spectacle. The filmed atrocities are also intended to goad Western populations, which is why the knee-jerk populist proposals by politicians and right-wing media pundits (“strip them of citizenship”) plays into the hands of these killing cults.
For young men and women who, for various reasons, feel alienated from the homeland adopted by their parents or grandparents, images of violence can be seductive- especially when it gives them a sense of personal significance and purpose in life (being part of a higher cause than self-gratifying consumption or collecting celebrity gossip) and is based on romantic images of Muslim heroes and poor information.
There are some signs that the beheadings of journalists and humanitarian aid workers may be rebounding adversely on ISIL. There is widespread revulsion among the Muslim communities, young and old, in Western nations. Tapping this revulsion is the need of the hour. Instead of further alienating such Muslims, governments and the media should be seeking to engage with them and Muslim grassroots organizations which have the experience and ability to influence those youngsters deemed to be vulnerable to mobilisation by Internet jihadists.
According to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR), based at King’s College London, several of those foreigners going to fight in Syria end up disillusioned and in need of a way out. They have found the reality to be far different from what they were led to believe. The only authoritative study of the issue, based on nearly one thousand Islamist returnees from previous conflicts, showed that one in nine former fighters subsequently became involved in terrorist activity. This does leave a majority who do not wish to become further involved with terrorist causes, for whatever reason. In many cases they are disillusioned, psychologically disturbed, or just tired.
The researchers argue that treating all foreign fighters as terrorists, therefore, risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arrests and prosecutions will be needed in some cases, but they are just one aspect of a government’s responsibility. It must also offer people a way out.
It is also pointed out that, following the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, Arab-Afghan fighters could not return to their home countries. They were stripped of their citizenship and threatened with long prison sentences. Instead, they regrouped in Sudan and formed a Jihadist Internationale, from which al-Qa’ida emerged.
A programme of rehabilitation for returnees would combine “de-radicalisation” with continued assessment and monitoring. In prison, by contrast, they are likely to be further radicalised while potentially exposing others to a hardened ideology and worldview.
For an innovative approach in Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, towards the rehabilitation of disillusioned Danish nationals who went to fight in Syria, see:
There is something deeply Christian about this multi-pronged approach to combating extremist violence. It combines upholding the role of governments in protecting innocent people from assault (and bringing the perpetrators to justice) with the equally biblical injunction to “overcome evil with good” (Rom.12: 21) and thus halting the cycle of revenge and counter-revenge. We need such an expanded moral imagination if we are to sow seeds of shalom even in the most unpromising human wastelands.
The Italian chemist Primo Levi survived Auschwitz and wrote several reflective accounts of that experience. His book If This is a Man is an extraordinary account of his life as a slave on rations that were not sufficient to sustain life. He was saved from death by Lorenzo, a non-Jewish Italian who was working for the Germans as a civilian on an industrial project using prisoners as labourers. Levi tells us what Lorenzo meant to him:
“In concrete terms it amounts to little: an Italian civilian worker brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months; he gave me a vest of his, full of patches; he wrote a postcard on my behalf and brought me the reply. For all this he neither asked nor accepted any reward, because he was good and simple and did not think that one did good for a reward… I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.”
“Thanks to Lorenzo”, Levi concludes, “I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.”
I am sure there are men and women like Lorenzo among the refugees and prisoners in Syria, Gaza, Iraq and elsewhere, who have not lost their essential humanity. We shall, no doubt, read their stories one day. But, in the meantime, it is hard not to feel sickened at the unending savagery paraded before our eyes on TV screens, newspapers and Internet websites.
But is apathy, the deadening of emotion, the cynical attitude of “let them all kill themselves out there” not also obnoxious? It is understandable when the indifference is born of fear for one’s life; but usually it stems from the fear of having to change our views if we do start asking questions about what lies behind these stories of violent conflict and recognize the complicity of our own nations.
Equally obnoxious is the way some Third World politicians jump on the “Islamic terrorism” bandwagon to court support from the US and Israel. The Sri Lankan Defence Secretary has been talking recently of the “threat of Islamic terrorism” when not a shred of evidence has been offered for the existence of any jihadist group in the country. In fact, it is Muslims who have suffered loss of life and property at the hands of militant Buddhist mobs. The background to this “threat” talk is, of course, the UNHRC’s current investigation of war crimes and other human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.
I received the usual brickbats over my last Blog post. One writer accused me of not being “balanced” by mentioning the businesses that support Hamas. I replied that I would like to know who is selling arms to Hamas so that I can boycott them; but that if I were to be truly “balanced” I would have to write a thousand words condemning Israel’s terrorism to every word condemning Hamas’s terrorism- for that, as I pointed out, is how the human proportions actually stack up.
For those who are open to questioning the received “wisdom” concerning Israel and its recent wars, I encourage you to read two brief articles by Professor Richard Falk of Princeton University:
In an Afterword to If This is a Man, Primo Levi wrote: “It is certainly true that state terrorism is a very strong weapon, very difficult to resist. But it is also true that the German people, as a whole, did not even try to resist. In Hitler’s Germany a particular code was widespread: those who knew did not talk; those who did not know did not ask questions; those who did ask questions received no answers. In this way the typical German citizen won and defended his ignorance, which seemed to him sufficient justification of his adherence to Nazism. Shutting his mouth, his eyes and his ears, he built for himself the illusion of not knowing, hence not being an accomplice to the things taking place in front of his very door.”
The chilling pictures of Israeli civilians watching and cheering from a hilltop the heart-rending massacre of people in Gaza by tanks and aircraft invite comparison with the worst Nazi horrors. Gaza is neither a state nor a country. It has no army. Sandwiched between Egypt on one side and the Israeli army on the other, the mostly defenceless Palestinians have been slaughtered in more than two weeks of relentless bombing by one of the most powerful militaries on earth, armed to its teeth by the United States and its European allies.
Disgracefully, the U.S was the only state that voted against a recent UN Human Rights Commission resolution calling for an international investigation into war crimes committed by Israeli forces in Gaza. Several EU states abstained. The typical Orwellian Newspeak of “Israel has the right to defend itself” flounders in the face of the horrendous statistics: more than a thousand Palestinians killed while the number of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas rockets is counted as less than a dozen!
This is the way Israel has fought its wars in recent decades- showing contempt for international laws and the rules of military engagement. (For the disproportionate figures in recent conflicts in Gaza, see http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-28439404) I have often enough commented on this Blog of the hypocrisy and double standards of U.S administrations when it comes to human rights, a hypocrisy that undermines the efforts of all of us who seek to hold our own governments accountable for crimes against humanity.
If the U.S government and its timid European allies cannot be pressured into defending human persons in Palestine, to whom should we turn?
The Israeli military machine is dependent on Western business corporations. This raises the question of corporate responsibility regarding international law and human rights.
Israel procures a significant amount of its military hardware from US-based defence companies, a fact that solidifies the connection between US foreign policy and business agendas.
I am glad, therefore, to learn that the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted in June to divest from three companies (Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett-Packard) that sold equipment to Israel that facilitated illegal activities such as the bulldozing of Palestinian homes, building an apartheid-like wall of separation, and the use of military drones in heavily civilian areas.
“Hewlett-Packard provides bio-scanners that are used to racially profile Palestinians and to track and control their movement,” explained Anna Baltzer, national organizer for the “US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation”, a national coalition that has mobilized support for boycott and divestment efforts. “It is no overstatement to say that many of these campaigns have dramatically shifted the discourse around Israel/Palestine – in the mainstream media, on university campuses, in the church pews, and beyond – in an unprecedented way,” she added.
In 2012, the United Methodist Church passed resolutions supporting the boycott of products made in Israeli settlements; and the Quaker Friends Fiduciary Corporation divested its stockholdings in Caterpillar, HP, and Veolia Environnement, a French water, waste and transport management company involved in the construction of a tram system being built by French engineering companies on occupied Palestinian land. A year later, several Methodist regional conferences also voted to divest, and the Mennonite Central Committee board of directors unanimously decided that MCC (U.S) will not “knowingly invest in companies that benefit from products or services used to perpetrate acts of violence against Palestinians, Israelis and other people groups.”
These are, admittedly, small steps. But several small steps can precipitate a social avalanche.
Corporations with internationally renowned brand names (such as the three above) are quick to respond to criticism with pious pronouncements about their ethical policies and commitments to respecting rights. However, reading Motorola’s human rights policy shows that the company only addresses internal employee issues such as safety in the workplace and fair working hours.
Of course it is not fair to blame business corporations for the use to which their products may be put by their buyers. But shouldn’t they be more discerning in their sales? Wouldn’t we be right to blame somebody who knowingly sold alcohol to an alcoholic or cigarettes to a schoolboy?
The 2011 United Nation’s “Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” calls on business enterprise to “seek to prevent or mitigate adverse human rights impacts that are directly linked to their operations, products or services by their business relationships, even if they have not contributed to those impacts.” The document also calls on them to understand the “concerns of potentially affected stakeholders by consulting them directly… In situations where such consultation is not possible, business enterprises should consider reasonable alternatives such as consulting credible, independent expert resources, including human rights defenders and others from civil society.”
Ignorance of the Bible (especially the Old Testament) was largely the reason for the shocking complicity of many European Christians in Europe’s centuries-long maltreatment of the Jews. Today it is still ignorance of the Bible (especially the New Testament), coupled with ignorance of the 20th-century history of Palestine, which has led to the shocking betrayal by many American Christians of their brothers and sisters in Gaza and the West Bank.
“God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
These words of Thomas Jefferson, extracted from a letter to George Washington in 1786, are carved in the interior wall of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. Jefferson himself was no orthodox Christian, but he was heir to a Christian heritage, and deeply influenced by the English philosopher John Locke who was a committed member of the Church of England.
I recalled these words when a friend drew my attention to various controversies in the U.S which revolve around the decision of some public universities to exclude those religious groups who have strict conditions of membership. Sometimes the exclusion is couched in the language of “non-discrimination” against people who identify themselves as “gay” or “lesbian”, at other times it targets any kind of “discrimination” that is based on specifically religious arguments, and (in the most bizarre cases) it is directed against any membership requirements at all.
This is the stuff of high farce. And we need a Swift or a Chesterton to do it justice. In a nation that proclaims “In God we trust” on its banknotes and “one nation under God” in its Pledge of Allegiance, some universities and law courts are declaring that religious opinions and arguments have no place in public life. It seems that those who make these declarations are unfamiliar with the Preamble to the American Declaration of Independence; the specifically theological origins of notions such as “equality”, “inherent human dignity”, “human rights”; and even the founding charters of the most famous universities in the U.S.
For those who do not subscribe to the “political correctness” ideology that has overtaken large swathes of American cultural life, the comparison with totalitarian regimes is pretty clear. It seems that while Americans are free to believe whatever they want, their freedom to manifest that belief in individual and collective practices is severely restricted.
The late Czech President Vaclav Havel shrewdly observed that under communist repression individuals were not required to have certain beliefs, but just behave publicly as though they did, keeping silent about what they themselves thought. He wrote: “For this reason they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfil the system, make the system, are the system.”
Respecting people is not the same as respecting their beliefs. A blanket respect for all beliefs is meaningless. Moreover, when all beliefs are said to be equally respected, all are equally ignored. What remains are the social and political practices of the dominant majority to which others must now conform. That spells the end of a free society.
It also spells the death of the university. Universities are institutions which should be giving the lead to the rest of society in how to engage in civil argument on controversial issues (e.g. whether sexual orientation is given and unchanging; whether “equality” should always trump “freedom”; whether “faith” and “reason” are necessarily opposed; whether “sexual identity” is a cultural construct, and so on). Rather than excluding groups who hold contrary views to the majority, universities committed to truth-seeking should be encouraging students and professors to debate the taken-for-granted assumptions of a society, even to the extent of critiquing the laws of the country. If this is what we expect in, say, Africa, why not in the USA?
It would also be interesting to hear what PC advocates understand by a “religious argument” and how it differs structurally from a “secular argument”. Postmodern philosophy in recent decades has excavated the hidden (and, therefore, all the more powerful) biases built in to the public discourse of “neutrality” and even “equality”. Secularist thinkers may not have sacred texts. But they do have their creedal Statements of Faith: “the autonomy of the individual”, the “sovereign will of the People”, “evolution is atheistic”, “no judgment beyond death”, and so on.
If a Republican student society were to refuse to let socialists sit on its committee, would it be considered “sociophobic”? Would Christians and Muslims be welcome in Atheist/Humanist societies? (If so, what would be the point of such a society?) Are college authorities banning all Sororities and Fraternities, and any ethnic-based student societies? Are the authorities planning to open the college doors to all who desire an education and not just those who have the money and the academic ability? These are some questions on which I seek enlightenment.
No institution or organization that eschewed clear standards of belief and practice would last very long. Without criteria of membership, and distinctive activities, they would soon cease to exist. They would have no character worth preserving. Sociological studies indicate that those institutions that make no demands on their members soon wither and die. It is what has happened to many mainstream churches in North America. It is probably what the militant secularists on American college campuses are hoping for- but the sword cuts both ways.
However, the exclusion of Christian groups may be a blessing in disguise. It can force Christians to stop “playing church” on campus (which is what the majority simply do); and instead to permeate all societies and academic conversations, bringing to these (humbly, yet boldly) a well-thought-through Christian mind and voice. No one can suppress that right.
[See, too, my Blog post of 16 July 2010: The Death of Argument?]
The French economist Thomas Piketty’s monumental Capital in the Twenty-First Century is being widely acclaimed as a classic on par with Marx’s Capital and Keynes’ General Theory. Paul Krugman summarizes Piketty’s thesis thus: “The big idea of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality [in the USA], we’re also on a path back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.”
In a sense this is hardly new; indeed, it is what some of us lowly amateurs have been saying for years- that economic inequality is cumulative and “hereditary”, that the highest incomes are not earned but “fixed”, that democracy is being hijacked by the rich and super-rich (the famous “one per cent” highlighted by the Occupying movement in the USA), etc. What Piketty brings to the argument is the kind of sophisticated statistical analysis and detailed data-gathering (based largely on tax records) beloved of technical economists. Whether Piketty’s work will lead to any major shift in mainstream economists’ neglect of distribution in favour of “growth” remains to be seen.
Inequality kills. Adam Smith himself pointed out that the ability to appear in public without shame requires more in a wealthy society than an overall poor one: at a certain point, he suggested, a man needs a linen shirt to be respectably dressed. The whole idea of a standard of poverty unrelated to the incomes of others is false. Becoming relatively worse off can actually make a person absolutely worse off, in terms of opportunities and social standing.
Two of the most unequal societies in the world are Brazil and China. I had the privilege of spending almost three weeks in Brazil last month. Brazilians are a warm, hospitable and friendly people on the whole, but the contrasts in wealth can be quite overpowering. Much of this inequality goes back to the colonial annexation of vast areas of land and the steady influx of European settlers for most of the past four hundred years. But government policies have also contributed.
There is relatively little investment in primary and secondary education. Educated elites exert pressure to skew the educational budget in favour of universities. There are some excellent public universities where enrolment is free. But the exams are so competitive that only rich students from the best-equipped private schools and who have the advantage of the right social contacts are able to pass. This is what makes access to prestigious public universities difficult for Brazil’s poor and lower middle classes. The latter are the favourite clientele of private institutions of higher education. Instruction at these private institutions, to which the vast majority of university students now belong, is generally poor.
Brazil’s media is technically “free”, but in practice the major media companies are owned by well-heeled supporters of the establishment. So only one side of the news gets reported. It is left to the new social media to highlight discrepancies between the official version of events and the ground realities. In this soccer-crazy nation, there is widespread opposition to the hosting of the World Cup in Brazil next month. The government is spending over US $15 billion of public money in new soccer stadia and hotels for the World Cup, while public spending on education and healthcare withers. To forestall demonstrations on the streets, the government is considering bringing back anti-terrorist legislation from the days of military rule. If, however, these protests attract 5,000-10,000 people every time, then they will become too difficult to police.
I was told that while drinking alcohol is forbidden in Brazilian soccer stadiums, an exception will be made during the World Cup since Budweiser is one of the principal sponsors.
These major international sporting events are more about national propaganda and the corruption of corporate and political elites than it is about sport.
China’s 100 richest men are collectively worth over $300 billion, while an estimated 300m people in the country still live on less than $2 a day. In January 2014, Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and prominent human rights activist was jailed for four years by a Beijing court (in a closed-door trial) simply for calling on Chinese officials to declare their assets. This is the same Chinese government that is courted by Western multinationals and to which Britain’s David Cameron offered last November “a dialogue of respect” as well as long-term British visas to its business elites!
A two-year reporting effort led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) has revealed that more than a dozen family members of China’s top political and military leaders are making use of offshore companies based in the British Virgin Islands. The documents also reveal the central role of major Western banks and accountancy firms, including PricewaterhouseCoopers, Credit Suisse and UBS in the offshore world, acting as middlemen in the establishing of such companies. Between $1 trillion and $4 trillion in untraced assets have left China since 2000, according to estimates.
The Chinese government has cracked down on citizens’ movements aimed at promoting transparency and accountability among the country’s elite. Foreign news sites that revealed details of offshore holdings by the relatives of China’s political leaders were blocked and internet service providers were ordered to target and report any users posting on the subject.
The connection between Picketty and Xu Zhiyong has not, to my knowledge, been drawn in the Western media. One is hailed as a rock-star economist, the other totally ignored.