News and Features
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Is there a more contemptible poseur and windbag than Elie Wiesel? I suppose there may be. But not, surely, a poseur and windbag who receives (and takes as his due) such grotesque deference on moral questions.
Quite recently yet another of Jasper Becker's indispensable dispatches from China appeared in his newspaper, the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post. "Every year," Becker reported, "about 10,000 of China's five million coal miners meet gruesome deaths underground." He went on to explain that censorship limits news of industrial accidents, but that conditions have certainly gotten worse in the past two decades, during China's breakneck effort at economic growth.
You have to pause a bit to let the impact of this statistic set in, especially after realizing that it does not include deaths from other industrial accidents, including factory fires, explosions and collapsing buildings, only a fraction making it into the pages of the Morning Post. Chinese workingmen and -women are dying at a higher rate than their counterparts in Victorian England or turn-of-the-century America, and, until now, the world has been paying little attention. By contrast, when an explosion at a coal mine in Monongah, West Virginia, killed 361 coal miners in 1907, the single largest such accident in our history, the disaster attracted national coverage.
You won't see much of Jasper Becker's kind of reporting in the American mainstream press. Over the past decade or so, American journalists, along with their ideological elder brothers at The Economist, have focused on the booming Chinese coastal cities, glorifying young entrepreneurial yuppies with cell phones and marveling at the construction burst of shopping plazas, office towers and upscale housing.
Slightly more conscientious reporters may mention, in passing, sweatshops and pollution, but they imply that these are the unfortunate and temporary byproducts of "economic reform," a phrase normally presented without the quotation marks, suggesting a self-evident good instead of a controversial set of economic policies. This uncritical attitude, best described as "market fundamentalism," has taken over much of the US media. Even Paul Krugman, currently the economic columnist at the New York Times and someone smart enough to know better, wrote an article back in 1997 titled "In Praise of Cheap Labor."
Jasper Becker is different. He is British-born but fluent in Chinese, and he has spent the past ten years in China, most recently for the Morning Post, skeptically tramping into areas of the country and listening to people most other Western journalists disregard. His years of work (some of it is also available on the Internet, at www.scmp.com) provide two tremendous services. First, he introduces us to Chinese people we would never otherwise meet. Second, he raises profound doubts about a core belief of market fundamentalism: that Chinese suffering today will be justified by a developed nirvana in the future.
Becker is not inspired by any nostalgia for the now-departed Maoist era; his last book, Hungry Ghosts (1998), was a powerful account of how the Great Helmsman's arrogance and the undemocratic Chinese Communist system caused more than 30 million people to die in a man-made famine during the disastrous Great Leap Forward (1958-61).
In The Chinese, Becker continues to care about the impact of economic policy on the lives of ordinary people. His book's very structure proves his determination to look beyond the minority of the newly prosperous, the people the Western market fundamentalists and investors find most photogenic. He starts at the bottom, in a village in the Guangxi region with some of the poorest of the 1 billion peasants, and then slowly moves up through the increasingly stratified Chinese society. Local officials shadow and harass him on his visits to the rural poor, who he says "probably constitute the largest unenfranchised group in the world." He goes on: "Forbidden openly to organize themselves to defend their interests against either the central state or local despots, they form secret underground armies, cults and millenarian sects as they have done throughout history. The state seems involved in a continual battle to crush them, and from time to time faint reports of this repression...reach the outside world." He speculates, "Given the chance, peasants would quickly organize themselves into associations or even political parties but at present that seems a remote prospect."
Becker also writes about the several hundred million migrant workers, third-class citizens who flock into the cities for low-paid, dirty work and who have no permanent right to stay or to bring their families, a state of affairs that would be depressingly familiar to black southern Africans. He visits the collapsing old industrial cities of the northeast, with their millions of angry, sullen unemployed. Becker profiles Chinese intellectuals, demoralized by repression after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising and the consequent "depoliticization of so many aspects of life." He explains: "Censors searching for subversive messages have examined everything from slogans on T-shirts to poetry magazines. The propaganda machinery has returned to its traditions." His grim conclusion is that "intellectuals have tried but generally failed to find some independent space within the system."
Becker describes the Communist Party, with its 58 million members, as a privileged minority in a country that now has nearly 1.3 billion people, but he estimates that "the real size of the ruling elite, from county magistrates upwards, is thought to be no more than 4 million." Only toward the end of his quest does he reach what he calls "the apex of the pyramid, the tiny group of self-selecting rulers."
Becker is extraordinarily cautious and measured. He points out that many of the precise-sounding government statistics, including the glowing economic growth figures, are either exaggerated or "simply made up to suit the propaganda needs of the day." Still, his years of experience crisscrossing the giant country have earned him the right to make certain observations, some of which may surprise even experienced China watchers:
§ Inequality in China is widening dramatically. Becker reminds us that the average annual peasant income in China is still only $240, a figure that has actually fallen in the past few years. The growing gap is distorting the Chinese economy; Becker points out that "much of the considerable investment in new housing was aimed at the very top end of the market despite a pressing need for low-cost housing."
§ Health and education for most Chinese are deteriorating. This discovery is perhaps Becker's most alarming. The decline is a disheartening contrast with the Maoist era, which despite its crimes and excesses brought significant progress. Becker even speculates that the Falun Gong religious cult, which continues to suffer vicious state repression, attracts adherents partly because "its leader, Li Hongzhi, promised his followers that if they adopted his system of exercise they need never take medicines or go to [the] hospital for treatment."
§ China today is governed by a kind of lawless authoritarianism. Local party bureaucrats, most apparently drained of any revolutionary idealism, wield unchecked power, arbitrarily imposing hundreds of different kinds of taxes on the rural poor. Quite logically, corruption flourishes.
At the upper levels, "princelings," the offspring of high party officials, commandeer what was once state property for personal gain and, in league with foreign (often overseas Chinese) investors, dominate vast segments of the economy, accompanied by corruption on a grand scale. Becker reports one particularly ominous development; some of the elite--you cannot call them "new" because many are the actual biological heirs of the old rulers--seem to be stashing billions outside China, a variant of Latin American- or African-style rapacity.
Such capital flight is a dangerous break with the East Asian pattern. In places like South Korea and Taiwan, the new industrialists did prosper, but they were required to keep the gains inside their countries, to reinvest in productive growth. Also, in neither place did the expanding economy widen inequality.
§ China's success at exporting from its coastal enclaves may be exaggerated. The inhuman conditions in these sweatshops are slowly becoming known, thanks to courageous Chinese activists and to solidarity movements overseas, but it may still be a surprise to learn that for the mostly female workers "talking is usually forbidden. To go to the toilet or drink a glass of water requires a permission card. Sexual harassment is common and punishments can involve beating, confinement or cancellation of wages."
Becker once again provides a fresh look, by raising serious doubts about the purely economic benefit of all this repression. He points out that the export zones are subsidized by the rest of the economy and that some of the apparent growth is in fact a speculative bubble (the kind of feverish phenomenon that Internet investors in the West have just painfully learned about).
§ China's security apparatus is actually expanding. Becker's revelation comes as something of a surprise, because the surface of Chinese life looks more relaxed after the monochrome, bleak thought control of the Mao Zedong period. But as Columbia University scholar Andrew Nathan explains in his valuable introduction to the recently published Tiananmen Papers, "To be sure, [the regime] has diminished the range of social activities it purports to control in comparison to the totalitarian ambitions of its Maoist years. It...no longer aspires to change human nature. It has learned that many arenas of freedom are unthreatening to the monopoly of political power."
So even though people in Beijing and Shanghai now wear Western-style jeans and running shoes, Becker points out that repression continues; arrests--not just political--are arbitrary, torture is routine and the death penalty is applied more frequently. Bill Clinton's 1998 state visit and China's accession to the World Trade Organization were supposed to be liberalizing influences. The market fundamentalists who insist that increased trade somehow automatically improves human rights have some explaining to do.
§ China is--for now--not a strong military threat to Taiwan, despite Beijing's bellicose threats. Contrary to the alarms of Western conservatives, Becker contends that the Chinese Navy could not--yet--mount an invasion across the Taiwan Strait, adding that "Chinese pilots cannot even fly in bad weather because their radar screens are unreliable."
§ Environmental degradation is perhaps the worst threat to China. The water table in the north is dropping; The Chinese includes a photograph of a forlorn figure trying to pump from a shallow pool in what is left of the Yellow River. China's water and air are polluted, and deforestation and loss of topsoil continue. Much of this is no surprise, thanks in large measure to the pioneering work of the scientist Vaclav Smil. Becker stresses that the environmental catastrophe is linked to China's lack of genuine democracy: "Since almost everything the state says is untrue, and most information is kept secret, there is no real trust or co-operation between its officials and the rest of the population."
Becker points out humorously that even Chinese weathermen have lied: "In 1999 it emerged that meteorologists had for fifty years been under orders never to report that the temperature had risen above 37 degrees centigrade (98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), although why no one would explain. Perhaps such an admission was seen as discrediting the Party."
China's environmental failure illustrates one of Becker's most important conclusions: Human rights, democracy and government accountability are not luxuries, worthy ideals to be set aside until economic growth is achieved. In fact, genuine, broad-based, environmentally friendly growth will not happen until there is respect for human rights. Spasmodic government exhortations will not reduce corruption at either high or local levels, but a vigorous free press, freedom to speak out and genuine multiparty elections are the only hope. Continuing government lying will not heal the environment, but independent ecology movements can help, as they have already demonstrated in neighboring Taiwan.
Becker is cautious about the prospects for change. He does recognize that "some foreign and domestic observers have predicted that such an explosive mixture of corruption, poverty and unemployment in China must one day result in a rural revolt. Perhaps." But he also points out that the Chinese bureaucratic state can trace its ancestry continuously back to the first Emperor in the third century BC, making it "probably the oldest functioning organization in the world," one that has been "exercising a tighter grip over its subjects than any other comparable government in the last two millennia."
The market fundamentalists of course assume that change will come as the automatic consequence of economic growth. They have done little to help this evolutionary process along. The great Chinese democratic dissident Wei Jingsheng, released in 1997 after eighteen years in Chinese prison camps, sits in exile in the United States, just about ignored by the mainstream media. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was a household word at a similar stage in his career.
Market fundamentalists disregard China's terrible level of industrial accidents and the decline in health and education. They are uncomfortable about Chinese sweatshops, air and water pollution, and corruption, but they justify these ills as an inevitable part of growth, looking back with a kind of misty glow at Dickens's England and post-Civil War America for reassurance that "we" came through the hard times, and so will the Chinese. Jasper Becker's remarkable book ought to raise crushing doubts.
But let us just imagine for a moment that the market fundamentalists are right. Their point of view is still immoral. They are implicitly suggesting that some people, those who gain from the unjust international economic order, have the right to impose suffering on other people, in the name of some ultimate goal. No one asked those 10,000 Chinese coal miners who died last year, men and certainly at least some women, whether they wanted to sacrifice for a greater future. No one allowed them to vote for people who might have protected their rights; no one permitted them to form independent labor unions. Apparently, globalization does not yet mean that members of America's United Mine Workers and other overseas unions can openly visit their Chinese colleagues and share their experience in fighting for safer workplaces. But at least, thanks to Jasper Becker, we are becoming aware that the Chinese miners exist, so they are no longer dying in total silence.
Among Palestinians in the occupied territories, the prospect that Ariel Sharon will be Israel's next prime minister is met with a shrug of the shoulders. The indifference is not from ignorance. Palestinians know well Sharon's history. They have always been the victims of it.
Leading the Israeli army's "southern command," Sharon ruthlessly crushed the Palestinian resistance in what was then the newly occupied Gaza Strip in the early 1970s. And of course it was Sharon, as Israel's defense minister, who was held "indirectly responsible" (by an independent Israeli Commission of Inquiry) for the massacre of about 2,000 Palestinians at Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps during Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon. The commission recommended that Sharon "draw the appropriate personal conclusions" and resign from his post as defense minister.
Rather, the Palestinians' apathy is explained by the comparison they make between Sharon and Israel's present prime minister. "By his actions, Ehud Barak has erased any difference between the two men in the Palestinian perception," says Palestinian political leader Mustafa Barghouthi. Four months after Sharon--with Barak's approval--decided to "demonstrate Jewish sovereignty" over the Islamic holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem by making a provocative visit to the Haram al-Sharif, Palestinian losses from Israel's suppression of the "intifada al-Aksa" are beginning to reach Sabra and Shatila proportions.
According to Barghouthi's Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees, Palestinian casualties from the Israeli army and settlers now stand at nearly 360 killed and more than 13,000 injured. In addition, according to a UN economist, a military blockade isolating each Palestinian town and village from the other in the occupied territories has caused a 13 percent decline in the Palestinians' GDP and a 50 percent increase in their unemployment and poverty levels.
"The vast majority of Palestinians don't see Sharon or Barak. They see an army, with Sharon and Barak as its generals," says Barghouthi. Some Palestinians see more. They believe a Sharon victory will be a boon for their cause. "He will expose the true face of Israel," says Hussam Khader, an activist in Yasir Arafat's Fatah movement in Nablus, "and force the world, including the US, to address its real responsibilities to the peace process."
This is not a vision shared by the Palestinian negotiators. Perhaps they are aware that the "world" is never so negligent of its "responsibilities" as when Israel is the culprit, but surely they are concerned that the fall of Barak and rise of Sharon may spell the end not only of what is left of the negotiating process but also their own privileged leadership position within it. This may be why Arafat is warning that Sharon would be a "disaster" for the peace process and would increase the risk of regional war.
For most Palestinians--and a few Israelis--the recent "intensive talks" between the two sides at the Egyptian resort of Taba were thus seen not as a genuine attempt to seal an agreement, but as a charade to woo back to Barak's fold two Israeli constituencies threatening to abandon him on election day, February 6. These include some elements of the Jewish left, appalled by his excessive response to the Palestinian uprising, and the million or so Palestinian citizens of Israel who remember that it was Barak (and not Sharon) who gave the order that the police shoot dead thirteen of their kin during October protests in Galilee.
The difference in the appraisal of a Sharon victory is not the only rift between the leaders and the led in Palestinian society. Another is over whether to participate at all in negotiations when Israel is still using lethal force to put down the uprising and the West Bank and Gaza are still under siege. For the various Palestinian factions--including Fatah--the subtext of the Taba negotiations was less "peace" than a joint effort by Israel and the Palestinian Authority to, if not end the intifada, then at least keep it at an acceptable level of violence.
The suspicion was acute because all were aware that Taba was conceived at a meeting in Cairo in early January between Israeli and PA security chiefs, brokered by the CIA. Since then--aided by the quiet resumption of cooperation between the two security forces--there has been a steep decline in the popular demonstrations that marked the initial phase of the uprising and a less pronounced fall in the number of armed Palestinian attacks on soldiers and settlers that characterized the next. The danger is that as the national struggle has ebbed, a wilder, more indiscriminate violence has taken its place.
In the last two weeks of January, four Israeli civilians--as opposed to soldiers and settlers--were killed in the occupied territories, apparently for no other reason than being Israeli in the wrong place at the wrong time. There has been a revival of Palestinian "collaborator" killings similar to those that so blighted the last years of the first intifada. And, most ominous, there has been the return to Palestinian political assassination as distinct from the Israeli army's "precise" (and extrajudicial) execution of Palestinian political and military leaders.
On January 17 the head of the Palestinian Authority's Broadcasting Corporation, Hishem Mekki, was shot by masked gunmen in a Gaza hotel. He was killed for "practicing sex and stealing money," ran a statement from the Brigades of Al-Aksa, a vigilante group made up of disaffected members of Fatah and the PA's intelligence forces. The hit was popular among local Palestinians, who loathed Mekki--and others of his ilk--for his corruption, arrogance and womanizing. But wiser Palestinian heads see in his murder a sign that the struggle for liberation from Israeli rule is being replaced by a struggle for power within the regime.
Given such a scenario, the Palestinians could hardly be in worse shape to confront the "Sharon era." And eighteen years after he was forced to resign from office because of Sabra and Shatila--and 16 to 20 points ahead in the polls--Sharon could hardly be in better shape. Especially as there is no evidence at all to suggest he has changed his ways.
In an interview in early January with a Russian-language radio station in Israel, Sharon reminisced about the methods he had used in Gaza in the 1970s. He plowed vast "security roads" through the refugee camps, shot dead any Palestinian suspected of nationalist activity and conquered the Strip locale by locale. "I succeeded in bringing quiet to Gaza for ten years," he recalled. Would he use the same methods today? "Today the situation is different," he said, but "the principles are the same principles."
He had a busy finale, didn't he, primarily saving his own hide and issuing pardons: eeny meeny miny mo, Marc Rich yes, Leonard Peltier no. In Rolling Stone he called for an end to the disparity in sentencing for powder and crack cocaine that he adamantly refused to fix a few years earlier. What else? Let's see, he gave Teddy Roosevelt the Medal of Honor and boasted in the accompanying speech on January 16 that in 1993 he'd broken with the usual policy of incoming Democratic Presidents, who would pull the portrait of TR off the wall above the mantelpiece in the White House's Roosevelt Room and put up FDR instead. Then the incoming Republican Commander in Chief would reverse the process. Not our Bill. He kept TR up on the wall, triangulating right from the start. On January 16 Bill said it was high time to give TR the medal for which he had been recommended right after the charge up San Juan Hill.
Exit Bill, enter the new team, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, who now has a chance to live up to those fine words of his to the Republicans massed in Philadelphia for their convention last August. Powell told the plump delegates they should not forget the poor and the afflicted.
How might Powell distinguish himself from his predecessor Madeleine Albright? The latter's final act in office was, with the approval of Clinton, to insist that a slab of US military aid to Colombia should not be held up out of any pettifogging concerns for human rights. The Colombian military and its death squads have a documented record for bestial carnage unrivaled in the entire world, and so, in admiration for this pre-eminence, last August Clinton waived four of the five human rights criteria laid out by Congress to release the first chunk of $781.5 million. A certification or waiver was also required for the second installment, of $56.4 million. While conceding that the record of the Colombian military was not all that it could be, the Clinton Administration nonetheless decided that because the second slice of aid was not included in "regular funds" but rather in an emergency spending bill, the certification and waiver process did not apply.
On January 17, the day after Bill honored the imperialist hero of the Spanish-American War, and when Albright and the others were still chortling at their ingenuity in circumventing the human rights provisions, the BBC's correspondent in Bogotá, Jeremy McDermott, reported that "alleged right-wing paramilitaries" had attacked a village on Colombia's northwest coast, killing twenty-five people. "Fifty men in military uniform arrived in Chengue in the early hours of the morning," McDermott told his audience. "They rounded up 25 men whom they accused of being guerrilla sympathizers and hacked them to death with machetes. They then set fire to thirty houses of this village in the northern province of Sucre." McDermott added that the massacre had all the hallmarks of the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia, a right-wing paramilitary army of 8,000 fighters "deeply involved in the drug trade."
For months the inhabitants of Chengue had a pretty good idea of what might lie in store for them. On October 6 they wrote a letter to Colombian President Andrés Pastrana, detailing the threat of violence and human rights abuses that the people of the Municipal de Ovejas feel could occur at any moment on the part of paramilitary groups operating in the region. The terrified townsfolk urged Pastrana to do something "to avoid a massacre," explaining that the government's presence was minimal in the area and that the people live in "anguish and tension" because of the documented barbarism. Attached to the letter were the signatures of ninety-nine residents of the town.
While the villagers were appealing to Pastrana to save their lives, the Clinton Administration was putting spurs to "Plan Colombia," a strategy straight off the Pentagon's Vietnam and Central American drawing board. Beefed up by US training, "advisers," arms and intelligence, the Colombian military has been planning to overwhelm guerrilla bases in southern Colombia, simultaneously eradicating the coca and poppy fields, which are the peasants' only resource, the option of legal crops long since sabotaged by US economic policies. Pretenses that the Clinton Administration is strongly supportive of a peaceful solution to Colombia's troubles has become increasingly ludicrous, as dollars and kindred practical support for the Colombian military and its death squads have flooded from Washington to Bogotá.
As a man who helped cover up the My Lai massacre, Powell knows all about such campaigns of pacification. And since he's not dumb, he knows that Plan Colombia will merely augment that country's misery, which has more than half the population below poverty level, internal refugees by the million and no prospects for improvement. He knows too that "drug interdiction," partly the official US rationale for Plan Colombia, is a farce. He knows where the $1.3 billion should have gone: into the drug education and rehab programs here in the United States. The Clinton Administration and its Republican allies successfully beat back an effort by Senator Paul Wellstone to get about $225,000 of the package reserved to that end.
What's the chance of Powell pressing for a different approach in Colombia? Zero, I'd say. But at least once we should remind him of his rhetoric in Philadelphia, just as we should remind Bush at least once of his eloquent inaugural speech about helping the poor. Why collude with these folks in their degradation of language and morals?
And Bill? He's in Chappaqua glad-handing the locals and contemplating the memoirs that will doubtless be as mendacious as those of Teddy Roosevelt, like Clinton a Force Ten blowhard and self-inflater. In a couple of weeks Bill will be ogling the girls in the bank and suggesting sorties to the local hot-mattress motel, if such sanctuary is available in the purlieus of the Saw Mill River Parkway. If she's called Gennifer we'll have come back to the beginning, just as, on the larger canvas, we do year after year with San Juan Hill.
Like much of the Western involvement in the former Yugoslavia, the intense and often heated debate in NATO over the possible ill effects of depleted-uranium ammunition largely ignores the people on whom NATO used these weapons. The debate is focused on higher incidence of cancer and leukemia reported by Western troops who served six-month tours of duty in the Balkans. Six Italians, five Belgians, two Dutch, a Portuguese and a Czech have died, while four French soldiers are reported to have developed leukemia.
The former UN administrator for Kosovo, Bernard Kouchner, a doctor and former French health minister, has dismissed the fuss as "a wave of irrationality." But Dr. Zoran Stankovic, a leading Belgrade pathologist who has investigated areas where DU contamination is thought to be most severe (Bosnia, Kosovo and southern Serbia), reports that unexpectedly high cancer rates are appearing in the local population. His main study focused on about 4,000 people who had lived in the Sarajevo suburb of Hadzici, which was heavily exposed to DU shells during the NATO bombing of 1995. "That group developed a large number of malignant diseases," he says. "Four hundred of them have died so far. Our initial suspicion was that there was a link to the effect of depleted uranium."
Stankovic does not claim to have established a link between the malignant illnesses and the use of DU ammunition. But his research adds weight to demands for an international investigation into health risks associated with DU. In Sarajevo, the Bosnian government has formed a working group to investigate what the Europeans call the "Balkan War Syndrome." It has also asked NATO to provide detailed information about the use of DU ammunition.
More than 10,000 rounds were fired in Bosnia and 31,000 in Kosovo, Serbia and Montenegro. Uranium is one of the heaviest metals, which makes it effective in destroying tanks and similar targets.
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