Vinoth Ramachandra

Defying Despots

Posted on: August 4, 2022

I admire Nancy Pelosi’s guts in standing up to China ever since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, even as I deplore Biden’s pusillanimity towards Israel and Saudi Arabia.

President Xi Jinping is following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin. He has promised to “unify” his “motherland” and is seeking an unprecedented third term as leader of the Chinese Communist party in order to be remembered in history as the one who achieved it. This also recalls Hitler’s dream of “unifying” the German people who lived in Czechoslovakia and Austria.

Global capitalism was once believed to be the handmaid of liberal democracy. Open up trade and markets, and political freedoms will follow. That was the myth behind which European and American companies and their governments hid in the early 1990s when relocating all their manufacturing industries to China. They chose to ignore the fact that capitalism is morally promiscuous and can climb into bed with both the best and the worst of political regimes. But, even in the history of Western nations, it was the spread of adult suffrage and the maturing of parliamentary democracy that curbed the excesses of capitalism and protected men, women, and children from the worst forms of exploitation.

It can, of course, be argued –as the Slovenian communist philosopher Slavoj Zizek has- that today’s China is the ideal capitalist country in which the main task of the ruling Communist Party is to control the workers and prevent their self-organization and mobilization. The Party’s power is legitimized by its undercover deal with the new capitalists, which takes the form: “You stay out of politics, and we will keep the workers under control.” (Zizek, Living in the End Times, 2011).

I shall return to China. But, first, a brief update on the latest turn in the self-destructive politics of Sri Lanka that I have been chronicling in recent weeks.

The new President, about whom I wrote two weeks ago on this Blog, has decided to govern under repressive Emergency Laws (a legacy of British colonialism!) which suspend constitutional safeguards of civil liberties and due process. He is aided and abetted by a dysfunctional, servile parliament. The leaders of the peaceful protest movement (which ousted the previous President and was admired the world over) are being hunted down and arbitrarily detained by the security forces. The activities of human rights groups are being curtailed. This stupidity is hardly likely to win friends among foreign governments willing to help Sri Lanka emerge from its economic nightmare- unless, of course, it is China.

However, I don’t agree with critics who want to blame China for the economic problems faced by countries such as Sri Lanka. Apart from Taiwan, China has limited military ambitions and is not driven by any political or religious ideology. Its goals are commercial. If poor nations have been borrowing heavily from China in unsustainable ways, it is because their politicians and bureaucrats have lacked economic competence, diplomatic skills and any sense of public accountability.

China has also exposed the hypocrisy and double standards of Western nations when it comes to the practice of human rights, contra the public rhetoric. Economic greed has always trumped human rights when it comes to American, French and British foreign policies. Even as Western banks and corporations enabled China to become a global economic powerhouse, their own nations’ economies were ensnared by China and their criticism of China’s human rights record was muted. Western universities, desperate for cash, have been wooing rich Chinese students and even lowering academic requirements in some cases in order to accommodate them. Moreover, Chinese political and military elites stash their wealth, just as do the Russian oligarchs, in Western cities and offshore tax havens such as Switzerland, Dubai and the British Virgin Islands. (See James Ball, “China’s Princelings Storing Riches in Caribbean Haven’, Guardian Weekly, 31 January 2014). The global financial system is complicit in much political evil.

Last month, in an unprecedented joint public appearance, the heads of both the FBI and Britain’s MI5 warned the West of China’s threat to their economic and military security. They claimed that China deployed cyber espionage to cheat and steal technologies “on a massive scale”, and with a computer “hacking programme larger than that of every other major country combined”.

Scrolling my old Blog posts, I came across this from 10 December 2011. It raises different security issues than those mentioned by the FBI and MI5, but much of it is still relevant:

“Is China the biggest threat to global security? It would seem so… for China’s domestic addictions and environmental problems have spilled over into the rest of the world. As its own forests, fields and mines struggle to satisfy an expanding national appetite, China is depleting Siberia’s forests and Mongolia’s ore deposits. To feed its growing livestock, China imports huge quantities of soya, much of it from Brazil, which has accelerated deforestation in the Amazon region. The high-protein, high-octane, junk-food lifestyle has consequences for global food security, climate change and South East Asia’s wildlife. Toxic dust from factories and deserts in Shanxi and Inner Mongolia drift across the Pacific to the West Coast of California. Dams and river diversion projects in Tibet and Yunnan are affecting millions of people living downstream in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Burma. Chinese cash and political support is accelerating the filthy extraction of oil from Canada’s tar sands and propping up evil regimes in resource-rich nations like Sudan, Zimbabwe and Burma.”

As I have also written elsewhere, in the context of my own country as well as others, despotic regimes deliver neither bread nor security in the long-term. They not only inflict fear on others, they live in constant fear themselves. They are desperate to cling to political office and the fortunes they have plundered. They know that losing power will expose them to imprisonment. So, in their paranoia, they lash out at everybody, even their own supporters. Thus every tyranny, for all its apparent invincibility, is unstable. It is only a matter of time before it splinters and disintegrates. But the tragedy is that so many innocent lives are blighted on the long road to freedom.

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August 2022
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