Strong-arming China's success
The Globe [Tuesday, November 23, 2004 12:58]
The dark side of the boom recalls fascist states of the '20s and '30s, says Tibetan writer JAMYANG NORBU
China's stunning economic boom has more than vindicated the hopes and predictions of investors and experts. Yet one small postscript, almost an afterthought, that often accompanied these prognostications has signally failed to materialize.
Capitalism and free trade have not brought democracy to China, and show no sign of doing so. Two months ago, in a speech to the nation, president Hu Jintao categorically rejected democracy for China. In December of 1998, then president Jiang Zemin did exactly the same.
Behind the glittering coastal skylines of state-of the-art modern buildings and futuristic infrastructure projects, China is one of the last countries in the world without a functioning parliament. A National People's Congress does convene for 10 days a year, but it has no building of its own, no permanent staff or offices. More significantly, as a New York Times report on the 16th Congress of 2002 noted, there is no debate and "the 2,114 . . . members sat in places assigned to them based on rank, and read from reports that expressed fealty to senior party leaders."
According to Jasper Becker, the Beijing bureau chief of the South China Morning Post, Chinese leaders are quietly remaking China into a fascist state bearing a striking resemblance to its 1920s and '30s predecessors, "the kind of highly nationalistic right-wing dictatorship that emerged . . . in Germany, Spain, Japan, Romania and, most notably, Italy. Since at least the late '80s, CCP [Chinese Communist Party] leaders have instituted economic programs recalling fascist ideas of 'planned capitalism.' To complement its economic policies, the CCP has developed a neo-fascist political program of mass rallies, nationalist indoctrination, and party control over private lives."
In the 1930s, Germany managed -- behind the glitter of economic success, grandiose public buildings, infrastructural wonders (such as the autobahn) and the spectacular Berlin Olympiad -- to conceal from foreign visitors and admirers the concentration camps full of socialists, homosexuals, labour leaders, Jehovah's Witnesses, Gypsies and Jews.
China still has the Laogai, that vast network of slave labour camps, and the human-rights abuses that disturbed the world in the '80s and '90s -- forced abortions, commercial harvesting of transplant organs of executed prisoners, and repression of all major religions -- still go on. A revered Tibetan lama awaits execution. Persecution of Catholics has so intensified that the Vatican, in a break with its previous conciliatory policy, denounced China in June over the arrests of three Roman Catholic bishops. Besides Falun Gong, other indigenous religious groups face persecution in China. In Falun Gong: The End of Days, Maria Hsia Chang, of the University of Nevada, tells us that "185 different qigong groups were 'wiped out' in Shaanxi province alone in 2000."
The most recent category of restrictions on individual freedom in China is Internet censorship -- the world's tightest, according to a 2002 Harvard Law School study -- enforced by a 30,000-strong Internet police force. Just this year, regulations were issued to Chinese cellphone companies to police and filter text messages. Some experts feel this may have to do with the widespread text messaging in the winter of 2003 that exposed the government's cover-up of the SARS outbreak.
In the past few years, disturbing reports of China's psychiatric persecution of political prisoners have appeared. A publication of Human Rights Watch, Dangerous Minds by Robin Munro, describes police-run psychiatric custodial institutions known as the Ankang (Peace and Health), where dissidents, Falun Gong members, and labour activists, among others, are medicated and possibly even subjected to psycho-surgery.
Perhaps nowhere in the world are the rights of labour more trammelled than in China. Last December, The New York Times published a lengthy report on China's "captive unions." It described how "police crush efforts to set up independent unions as threats to the Communist Party," and how "the sole legal state-run union is a charade, a feckless bureaucracy that has only the pretense of representing the proletariat."
China's export industries draw on a vast work force of 150 million migrant workers who typically do not possess registration papers. China's household registration, or hukou, system gives workers few rights or recourse to protection once they leave their designated place of residence. In a country where labour has no rights to begin with, unregistered migrant labour is the easiest of prey to greedy employers, brutal policemen and corrupt officials.
The proliferation of non-registered migrant labour has given rise in numerous parts of China to the revival of actual slavery. Operators typically lure unsuspecting peasants with promises of high pay, good food and housing. Once there, they confiscate their identity papers and lay down strict rules of movement. Through threats of violence or death, victims are forced to work for starvation wages. "Once people have lost their personal freedom and are being threatened with violence, their calculations change," says economist Hu Shudong, of the China Economic Research Centre at Beijing University. "They are happy to get just one extra piece of bread or to avoid a beating."
There is a dark side to China's economic boom. The human-rights violations are obvious. Less evident, perhaps, but more disturbing is the new road map that China's success is offering to other nations: industry without free labour, capitalism without democracy, and uncritical acceptance by the world as long as profits are satisfied.