Daily Archives: August 1, 2008

Dominic Lawson: The clash of civilisations at Beijing

For a country which is frequently described as “immune to criticism”, the People’s Republic of China – or rather, its governing elite – is remarkably sensitive. This week, for example, it emerged that the head of the BBC’s Cantonese- and Mandarin-language service has suddenly had her invitation to next week’s Beijing Olympics opening ceremony withdrawn.

A small thing, perhaps, but it is indicative of the truth of Amnesty International’s observation that the nearer the Games approach the more the Chinese government appears to be flouting various undertakings it had made to the International Olympic Committee when the Games were awarded to Beijing seven years ago.

Yesterday, even the head of the IOC’s press commission seemed to be embarrassed by developments: Kevin Gosper said that he was “startled” to be told that the organisers had reneged on their commitment to allow visiting journalists full internet access – for example to sites which might be critical of the government of the PRC. Mr Gosper admitted to reporters that, “the ground rules on censorship have been changed… this certainly isn’t what we guaranteed”. So, do you think that the president of the IOC, Jacques Rogge, might complain? Well, no: it appears that Mr Rogge had agreed to China’s demand that it be released from its agreement not to censor – only without telling, let alone consulting, his own press chief.

This, we should remember, is the same Jacques Rogge who declared only two years ago that: “It is clear that the staging of the Olympic Games will do a lot for the improvement of human rights in China.” As Amnesty International’s document People’s Republic of China: The Olympic Countdown – Broken Promises pointed out earlier this week: “In fact the crackdown on human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers has intensified because Beijing is hosting the Olympics. The authorities have stepped up repression of dissident voices in their efforts to present an image of ‘stability’ and ‘harmony’ to the outside world.”

Actually, buried in its dismal catalogue of the way in which the PRC is extending its use of punitive administrative detention – officially described as “Re-education through Labour” – Amnesty International does manage to find one example of a recent move towards a less harsh system of justice. Its report observes that: “In January 2008 the authorities declared an intention to promote and extend the use of lethal injection as a more ‘humane’ method of execution across China.” Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Jacques Rogge would have had in mind when he declared that the Chinese would act to improve its human rights as a result of being declared Olympic hosts.

It was, of course, inevitable, that the more the Games drew near, the more difficult it would be for the IOC to make any kind of fuss about China’s actions – even supposing that its delegates really cared very much about the Communist regime’s human rights record in the first place. The IOC’s chiefs are completely trapped: all they want now is to make it seem as if their decision to award Beijing the Games was the right one, so the last thing they will do is engage in a public slanging match with the Chinese authorities.

In a way this is a great shame. For all its apparent retreat from old-style communism, the Chinese government still uses the language of Stalinism when engaging in political dispute, to almost comic effect. Thus this week its Foreign Ministry spokesman responded to the news that President Bush had a pre-Olympiad meeting with a handful of former Chinese dissidents, by declaring: “These people have long since been engaged in anti-China splittism activities and hostile sabotage activities under the banner of so-called ‘human rights and religion’… By arranging such a meeting, the US side has rudely interfered in China’s internal affairs and sent a seriously wrong message to the anti-China hostile forces.”

As I say, this seems to demonstrate that the Chinese government is far from impervious to criticism. If they were as confident and self-assured as they are widely imagined to be, then they could simply ignore such a meeting, which is mere window-dressing – and certainly won’t stop the USA sending its athletes to take part in the usual way, with gold medals the sole object of the exercise.

Perhaps, however, such statements by Chinese official spokesmen are not really intended for our consumption, but designed to whip up their own people into an ever more frenzied nationalism. Like the governments of the Soviet Union in its later years, crude nationalism and the violent stigmatisation of real or imaginary enemies are among the only remaining ways for an undemocratic regime to continue to assert its necessity and its proximity to the popular will.

In this sense, the Olympic Games actually do sit very well in Beijing. While the slogan of the 2008 event is “One World, One Dream” – and the Opening Ceremony will be a gigantic paean to what the regime doubtless describes as One-Worldism and One-Dreamism – the truth is that there is no greater global demonstration of the power of nationalism than the Olympic Games.

That is why the athletes compete in their national colours, and that is why about as much time is devoted to the playing of national anthems in ceremonial prize-giving ceremonies as is spent running around the track. Expect the atmosphere in the stadiums to become distinctly intimidating – if not actually martial – when Americans are up against Chinese athletes in the final stages of the events.

Grotesque as this spectacle of clashing nationalisms is bound to be, I have to admit that it will also be absolutely unmissable: World War Three, but with hurtling athletes in place of thermonuclear missiles.


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Johann Hari: Do you want free trade – or fair trade that helps the poor?

Whenever the world trade talks begin to seem like a coma-inducing bore-a-thon, I am jolted back to consciousness by the throat-stripping smell of rubbish; miles of rotting rubbish. A few years ago I found Adelina – a skinny little scrap of an eight-year-old – living in a rubbish dump, where this stench made her eyes water all the time. It is this smell – and her sore, salty eyes – that hung over the corpse of the Doha trade talks this week.

Just outside the Peruvian capital of Lima, there is a groaning valley of trash, and, inside it, hordes of children try to stay alive. Adelina spends her days picking through the refuse looking for something – anything – she can sell on for a few pennies. Then she returns to the few steel sheets she calls home to sleep on a crunchy carpet of cans. She has never left the rubbish dump; its walls are the walls of her consciousness. She told me three of her friends had recently died by falling into the rubbish, or being pricked by fetid needles, or slipping on to broken glass. I asked her how often she eats, and she shrugged: “I don’t like to eat much anyway.” She will be 10 now, if she has survived.

When we juggle the dry, dull statistics of world trade, we are really asking if Adelina will remain in her rubbish dump – and if her children, and grandchildren, will live and die there.

The way we – the rich world – organise the world trading system today traps Adelina. But it just broke. This week, in Switzerland, the poor countries of the world refused to play along with the Doha trade negotiations. The mass movement of ordinary people demanding our governments Make Poverty History that rose up in 2005 needs urgently to reconvene.

To help Adelina, we need to start with a basic question: how do poor countries turn into rich countries? The institutions that dominate world trade – especially the World Trade Organisation (WTO) – have a simple answer: all markets, all the time. They tell poor countries to abolish all subsidies, protections and tariffs that protect their own goods. If you fling yourself naked at the global market, you will rise. If the poor countries disagree, they are cajoled to do as we say.

There’s just one problem: every rich country got rich by ignoring the advice we now so aggressively offer. If we had listened to it, Britain would still be an agrarian economy manufacturing raw wool, and the US would be primarily farming cotton.

Look at the most startling eradication of poverty in the 20th century: South Korea. In 1963, the average South Korean earned just $179 a year, less than half the income of a Ghanaian. Its main export was wigs made of human hair, and Samsung was a fishmonger’s. Today, it is one of the richest countries on earth. The country has been transformed from Senegal to Spain in one human lifetime. How?

South Korea did everything we were pressing the poor at Doha not to do. Dr Ha-Joon Chang, a South Korean economist at Cambridge University, explains in his book Bad Samaritans: “The Korean state nurtured certain new industries selected by the government through tariff protection, subsidies and other forms of government support, until they ‘grew up’ enough to withstand international competition.” They owned all the banks; they controlled foreign investment tightly. The state controlled and guided the economy to the international marketplace.

But we are so pickled in market fundamentalist ideology that we have blotted out this history – and even our own. Until the Tudors, Britain was a backward rural country dependent on exporting raw wool. Turning that wool profitably into clothes happened elsewhere. Henry VII wanted Britain to catch up – so he set up manufacturing bases, and banned the export of wool, so clothes were manufactured here. It’s called protectionism. His successors kept it up: by 1820, our average tariff rate was 50 per cent. Within a century, protected British industries had spurted ahead of their European competitors – so the walls could finally be dismantled. Dr Chang explains: “Trade liberalisation has been the outcome of economic development – not its cause.”

The US did the same. By 1820, the average tariff was 40 per cent; Abraham Lincoln then pushed them higher, and they stayed there until the First World War. Yet if Lincoln had been at the Doha trade talks, the United States of 2008 would have described him as a “fool” who was “harming his own people” with “despicable policies”.

Before you make your child work, you give him an education and skills and abilities. Before a country pushes its infant industries on to the world market, it needs to do just that. Nokia, Samsung and Toyota all had to be cushioned with subsidies and tariffs for decades before they made a cent. Every one of these companies would have been stampeded to death on the open market as a toddler otherwise.

Yet the reaction to the poor world’s rejection of Doha in our media has been mostly bemusement. Why have these simple-minded povvos declined our medicine? Are they mad? Amy Barry of Oxfam provides a quiet counter-balance, pointing out that if the agreement on the table at Doha had gone through, Brazil alone would have lost 1.2 million jobs, and “most poor countries would have deindustrialised, or never industrialised at all”.

From the rubble of Doha, a new world trade system needs to be built – on the principle of fair trade, not free trade. If we really want to end extreme poverty, then we need to open up the markets of rich countries, while allowing poor countries to protect and subsidise theirs. It is the recipe that ensured you, today, are not hungry and tilling the fields.

But the WTO can only ever achieve half of that goal, at best. It is built on the market vision that there should be no trade barriers or “distortions” anywhere. That means opening up rich markets, which is great. But for each step in that direction, they demand a symmetrical concession from the poor. It is like telling Bill Gates and Adelina they both have to make sacrifices – and Gates won’t shift until she does.

Here in the EU and US, there are hefty forces determined to smother fair trade in its cot. The current system works well for corporations, who get to wrench open poor economies without any risk of local competitors rising up. It works well for some slivers of workers here too, who thrive on rich-world subsidies. These forces are regrouping, but their system is lying in a crunched-up heap by the side of the road.

Our governments will always find a way to put these powerful sectional interests first – unless we, the people, make them do otherwise. Today, Adelina needs Make Poverty History to rise again to demand fair trade, not on a few fancy supermarket shelves, but as the principle governing world trade. Let the poor do what we did. Let them rise. Otherwise, those rivers of rubbish will be home to generation after generation of Adelinas the world over, and the stench will never clear.


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