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A Category-5 Typhoon in China Again

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by Kumar David

Every decade or two something happens in China that shakes the world; Napoleon little knew that he was making the biggest understatement in modern history when he said of China:”There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes, he will shake the world.” The Chinese Revolution crafted the PRC in 1949 and woke up the sleeping giant. In 1956 Mao suffered an un-Marxist lapse into utopia and launched the Great Leap Forward envisioning the country leap over centuries of history to industrial muscle and technical eminence in two decades. Instead economic collapse and famine belied these illusions with 20 to 30 million deaths; a great leap backwards.

He retreated for a decade but came storming back in the mid-1960s, red-book, dunce caps, Red Guards and Cultural Revolution, shredding the country, destroying education and universities, driving the Party to its wits end, imprisoning and all but murdering President Liu Shao Chi – “renegade, traitor, and scab” who was rehabilitated in 1980 as a “great Marxist and proletarian revolutionary”. Deng Zhio Ping was purged twice by the Gang of Four which included Mao protégés and his wife. The Go4 attempted to bury even Chou En Lai. Then senile, Mao died. That was in September 1976. Deng had a second second-coming in 1977 (outdoing Jesus by one, whose next coming, in any case, is still eagerly awaited).

Deng set China on a path that has shaken the world; “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”; “Socialist Market Economy”, what’s in a name. It’s a state led, party-hegemonic, non-capitalist society that has made dramatic use of markets, given birth to a wealthy capitalist class, created unimaginable wealth within four decades and all but abolished poverty. Non-capitalist China is on track to become the world’s largest economy. On the darkest of nights, the monkey does not lose its grip is a Tamil saying. Likewise the grip of non-capitalism slumbered for four decades but is now storming back; the Communist Party never lost its authoritarian grip even as the market engine flew.

If by capitalism, you mean what chaps like Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Alfred Marshal described long ago, or what Keynes, Friedman et al fought about in the Twentieth Century, or the way in which American finance, investment and business function, then most certainly that model is NOT how the pieces fit together in China. I have an old friend, let’s call him Senarath who rejected my insistence that China was not capitalist. His Marxism was superficial: “If it waddles like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck” he would say. Nope dear boy, its physiology functions like a duckbilled platypus, something of a different genre.

Is there a reason why I am making a fuss about these old political-taxonomic debates? Yes, China is once again at a watershed, it is transiting from a Deng-moment to a post-Deng moment. To personalise the tectonics, we had a Mao-phase then a Deng-phase and we are now opening the Xi-phase. The current convergence of a stream of factors is not coincidental, it is the return of a society with less-capitalist characteristics; a more managed system. The new Xi slogan is “Prosperity for all”; there is a crackdown on the freedom of the wild ass that Alibaba, Tencent, Ant Group and other tech-giants enjoyed for the decades when they flourished and accumulated tens of billions. Ant Group’s planned IPO in Hong Kong and New York last year would have been the largest IPO ever had it gone ahead, but it was pulled at the last minute on the orders of the government. The impish Jack Ma, Chairman of Alibaba disappeared from view, and other Chinese corporate bosses are lying low.

Just one example of China’s runaway capitalism is the property sector. There was an enormous boom fuelled by gigantic debts and the unquenchable thirst of the prospering middle classes for better accommodation. The bust has come! Evergrande, one of the largest is on the brink of bankruptcy; thousands are demonstrating across China demanding their money back; over one million prospective buyers who paid for flats in full in advance face ruin. The company’s gross debt is $300 billion (yes b for billion). The government will have to step in and carry the can like everywhere else where capitalism and markets thrive: ‘Privatise profits and socialise loses’.

These are not superficial changes, nor to do with personal tiffs. No, the Party is making it clear who is the boss and far more important Beijing is enacting a slew of new laws. They will include laws on personal data use, controlling overseas financing, corporate supervision of firms by state-agencies, and national security. Irrespective of whether the proposals are good or detrimental to business, one ambiguity is being unequivocally laid to rest, China is not a capitalist state in any ordinary sense of the term. There are, as is to be expected, red hotheads who have been heard to say that China is “returning to its revolutionary socialist roots”. This is ballyhoo! The state is simply asserting its position and making clear the primacy of the Party over society and the bourgeoisie.

There is admittedly a strong populist streak in all this in the context of rising anger among the majority. Despite improvement for all there is a widening wealth and income gap. And yes, Xi Jinping is playing a populist game ahead of next year’s Party Conference where he will try to secure a third term. Yes, corruption in state and Party have been reduced not wiped out. But these are side shows, the big drama centre stage is restructuring relations between state, society and new-rich capitalism. Regarding society there will be no let-up in authoritarianism, if anything the new control tools allow the state to more efficiently manage what it wants the people to hear, see and think.

The new control measures and crackdown on cultural content in the media and social-media, include:

* Schools will introduce Xi Jinping Thought in the curriculum

* ‘Vulgar influences’ in material offered by tech giants will be curtailed

* ‘Incorrect content’, ‘abnormal ethics’, ’chaotic cultures’ and ‘effeminate men’ will be excluded

* ‘Idol glorification” (megastars, rave pop idols) to be curbed for promoting low moral values

* Children’s access to video games will be limited to three hours per week

Liberals may approve of some of these measures though they would have preferred to see them introduced by suasion not state regulation. Other matters such as the first point will make liberals shudder and recall the previous version of thought indoctrination in the 1960s and 70s.

The crackdown on the $120 billion (yes billion) tutoring industry is illiberal. High quality tutoring is affordable only by well to do families and the highly motivated middle class. The attraction of academic elitism is centuries old, as old as Confucius himself and competition to enter the most prestigious universities is intense. House prices in the catchment vicinity of the best schools is way beyond the reach of 90 if not 95 percent.

But China appears to be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is a movement to discourage mass English teaching after decades of emphasis on English as a second language. One hears inane comments like “Learning English promotes cultural subordination to imperialism” and “What’s the use of English to China’s teeming millions?” Remember the bogus Sinhala-Buddhist nationalists of yore who deprived the millions of exposure to the world while dispatching their own progeny to universities in the West? Well the Chinese hot-heads are different, they are intellectually primitive ultra-radicals, not rich political opportunists. Nevertheless the grouse of the majority against the tuition industry has real roots and if the Party fails to manage it properly it will do harm to cultural modernisation and the advancement of the people.

About one trillion dollars in asset value of China’s tech giants has been wiped out in global stock markets since the crackdown on giant businesses started. Beijing is not playing a superficial game of tit-for-tat with disrespectful corporate bosses, nor indulging in old-fashioned cultural prudishness, nor merely indulging populist hypocrisy to build Xi Jinping’s image and prospects of a third term at November 2022 Party Conference. No, there is a more fundamental real-world process at play. It is about resolving tensions in the Party-State authoritarian social and economic structure, correcting the capitalist portion of economic activity, ordering market freedoms and disciplining the super-rich capitalist class.

The whip has been cracked and it has been made abundantly clear who is boss. This of course comes as a great surprise to Western ‘analysts’, businessmen and scholars who never understood that Chinese state was at root non-capitalist. (Only Lakshman Gunasekara understood at the time; he may not have agreed but he saw what I was getting at, when I developed this thesis in a 50 page – with discussions – paper at the Hector Abhayavardhana Felicitation Symposium 22 years ago in December 1999).

This is the point I am making again in this essay. We have entered a third period, after the Mao-phase and the Deng-phase, in the socio-economic evolution of the People’s Republic. It may go down as a Xi-phase, or if Xi is ousted from leadership the designation may be different, but a shift in the dynamic of the PRC has commenced not because anybody willed it, but because it was necessary. Why was it necessary? I see two reasons; first a course correction in the relationship between the Party-State and ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ was overdue, and secondly the Sino-American Thucydides challenge required China to gird up its forces. I cannot touch on strategic aspects without straining my Editors patience; this piece is already longer than usual.

The whip has been cracked not only over China’s capitalists but Hong Kong’s moderately free electoral system. Independent HK trade unions which supported the so-called pan-democrats and student rioters in 2019 have also been brought to heel. The largest professional union, HK Professional Teachers Union, has been attacked as a “poisonous tumour”; it wound up. Medical staff and nurses who speak against Beijing are prosecuted on flimsy grounds and imprisoned. These changes are a reminder that authoritarianism is not what characterises Chinese polity but totalitarianism in the sense of unwillingness to share political space and power with others (Catholic Church, Fulan Gong, Uyghur Muslims, independent legislatures and trade unions). This makes the system total-litarian in the literal sense of this ugly verbal disjunction; no one will be allowed to threaten or dilute the Party’s monopoly of power. Hong Kong’s electoral laws have been amended make future legislatures appendages of Beijing. Blame for unfurling this backlash has of course to be squarely assigned to Hong Kong’s 2019 rioters whose arson and destruction of public property opened the door to intervention on this scale.

Chinese tech-giants though muscular in stock market and profit do not have the clout that establishing the global sting of outposts that the Belt and Road Initiative needs. That’s a task that is too big even for Chinese capitalist enterprises, it needs the direct leadership and muscle of the state. In the global contest with the Americans Chinese capitalism is no match for dominant American capitalism. The state entered the ring brushing aside relatively weak and unsophisticated Chinese capitalism and took control of the Belt & Road Megaproject. A rectification of state-class-Party relations was needed to underwrite this and is now in progress. Chinese courts are even asserting that disputes involving Chinese companies anywhere in the world shall be adjudicated in accordance with Chinese laws and the rulings of Chinese courts.



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Dominances, hegemonies and diversities

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by Nicola Perera

What spaces exist for students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities, within the university? Do students and staff in these groups have the liberty and security to openly identify themselves, claim their identities, be visible? Do either university structures and policies or the culture and attitudes within the university community, ensure a lack of discrimination, with the same rights, privileges and opportunities, for such persons to live, work, and study in an environment of acceptance, without hostility or marginalisation? I speak of the ethos of majoritarianism, located in a university of the south, which is predominantly the normative of education in the country.

If I were to ask students, staff, or administrators how persons of ethnic and religious minorities are treated in the university, I suspect they would immediately point to the existence of cultural groups that have long been established in university culture. Most universities and faculties will have a Tamil Society, a Hindu Students’ Society, a Muslim Majlis, various Christian groupings, and so on. Each will organise various cultural festivals, such as carols for Christmas, Ifthar, etc. At first glance, there appears to be representation and accommodation of ethnic and religious minorities, and this is institutionalised within the university.

But this accommodation is superficial and tokenistic. Against the existence of these various groups, consider the Student Union itself, which formally represents the entire student body. Who do they actually represent? The Student Union in the Faculty of Arts organises Buddhist festivals, pinkamas, and all-night piriths at the beginning of the year, as well as inviting Buddhist monks for Poyas, like Vesak and Poson. The major event of the year for the Student Union is the Sahithya Ulela, for which the Union goes all out: portraits of the greats of Sinhala literature adorn the pillars of the Faculty, together with quotations from their works. The drama festival is a huge part of the Sahithya Ulela, during which hugely popular Sinhala plays are performed.

This is the way things have always been in the university’s framework of majority default and minority tolerance. There are religious and cultural student societies to represent and take care of non-Buddhist and non-Sinhala students, representing deviations from the norm, while the Student Union itself, regardless of its political/ideological tendency, firmly represents and centres Sinhala-Buddhist religious and cultural concerns instead of the diverse student body as a whole. The majority culture is dominant to the point where it is the ubiquitous default, and all minority positions are tokenised into tolerated representations. It is a system and space that privileges my ethnic background, where my presence goes unquestioned, unremarked upon and unmarked.

On the other hand, what discriminations, aggressions, and microaggressions do students and staff of ethnic and religious minorities face in and outside class? What could they tell us, if we could only assure them of the security to openly talk about such things without fear of retaliation? What is our role as academic staff, regardless of discipline, to initiate difficult conversations about inclusion, acceptance, to challenge the biases, prejudices, absences? What microaggressions, hostilities, subtle or overt othering do we as staff and administrators perpetrate? What is the culture that we create in university?

What of the class of Muslim students who were told that they can keep their cultural identity but should wear colourful abayas and hijabs, instead of the dark colours they preferred? What of the Muslim staff member who was requested to come and speak to these students, to present herself as a role model who chose to wear colourful shalwars while covering her head? Is it in any way relevant that these requests were made by a staff member clad in Kandyan sari? Of course, it is: the representation of Sinhala Buddhist culture as the university’s default makes its aesthetics and preferences the standard, which apparently Sinhala individual staff members feel empowered to enforce.

What of the Muslim women students who were stopped at the entrance of the university after the Easter bombings? The security guards told them to wear their hijabs in such a way as to show their ears. Is the university capable of recognising this harassment as harassment? Was this an officially-sanctioned policy that required the security guards to act this way? Or were they merely empowered to perform this harassment in that moment by the long-established practice of treating Sinhala culture, dress, and presentation as normal and default, with all marked minority cultures as suspicious deviations? Would the existence of the Muslim Majlis be sufficient to let these students agree with the common perspective that the university – by policy or practice – does not discriminate on the basis of religious/ethnic grounds? Could these students have gotten away with showing impatience, even a touch of hauteur (as I did when I produced my ID card for inspection) at the guards’ power to remark on their ethnicity, police their attire – in myriad small ways to let them know that their presence in the university space was under surveillance, at the majority’s sufferance?

It is not enough for the university to complacently point at tokenistic student groups as evidence of non-discrimination. Even the simple representation of diversity, at which the university is already failing, would still not be enough: including Tamil-language plays at the Sahithya Ulela and making sure to include the portraits of Tamil and Muslim writers as well is necessary, but far from sufficient. What we need is active anti-discrimination, in both word and deed, to identify these situations and contexts in which staff and students of religious and ethnic minorities in our universities are harassed, othered, and discriminated against every day, and to figure out ways to end those practices and prevent them from recurring, through policy, through education, and through our own efforts as the people who uphold and perpetuate university culture.

Nicola Perera is attached to the Department of English Language Teaching, University of Colombo.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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Prevent growth of extremism through stronger institutions

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Priyantha Kumara, who was lynched in Pakistan

By Jehan Perera

The killing of a Sri Lankan, in Pakistan, by a frenzied mob, who accused him of committing an act of blasphemy, serves as a grim reminder of the ever-present danger of pent-up emotion exploding in society. Over the eons, religion has served to humanize the more primitive nature, lurking within human beings.  “Be kind to the stranger in your midst, because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt,” is the biblical injunction too often ignored by the very people who profess to follow its teachings. It is not only in Pakistan that such inhuman acts have occurred, especially when there has been a failure of national leadership to instill a higher ethos of morality in the people, too often for the sake of electoral gain.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan has been accused of defending Pakistan’s blasphemy law and promoting Islamic fundamentalism to come to power and now to shore up support for his government that is failing to solve the problems of the people.  A clause of the constitution mandates the death penalty for any “imputation, insinuation or innuendo” against the Holy Prophet.  Presently Pakistan faces economic sanctions by the EU, as does Sri Lanka, due to its adherence to this law and other human rights issues.   The EU has raised issues related to the protection of journalists, religious extremism, misuse of blasphemy laws, and forced conversion in some parts of the country. A compromised political environment in which there is impunity leads people to take the law into their own hands according to their notions of what is right and wrong.

Mobilising the emotions of people, whether by religion or ethnic nationalism, to gain and retain power, is like sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.  President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of the Sri Lankan government have expressed their strong condemnation of the heinous crime against its citizens and demanded justice.  Prime Minister Khan has pledged justice and referred to the “day of shame” for Pakistan.  More than a hundred alleged participants in the crime have been arrested. There have also been images of Pakistani civil society groups saying sorry for what has happened.  Likewise, Sri Lankan civil society will also recall the support that Pakistan gave to Sri Lanka during the years of war and, diplomatically, on the issues of human rights violations raised by sections of the international community.

DANGEROUS MIX

It is also necessary for Sri Lankans to be mindful about what has happened within Sri Lanka itself during the JVP insurrection, the 1983 riots, and, more recently, in Aluthgama, Digana and Kurunegala.  In all of these instances, there was a measure of state complicity, or inaction, which is worse than the savage deeds of a mob as the state represents the civilization of the country.  This state failure has been on account of the over-politicisation of the state machinery to the point where senior officers of the state, most of whom have joined the state for idealistic reasons, cannot and do not perform their duties due to political interference.  In a manner similar to Prime Minister Khan, President Rajapaksa, and the current government, won elections by catering to the nationalism and fears of the ethnic majority, with some of its allies spewing hatred towards the ethnic and religious minorities.

There are disturbing signs that the situation of state failure is growing more serious in Sri Lanka.  The release of former Governor Azath Salley after he had been in remand jail for eight months on charges that the court said were not sustainable. All charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.  The injustice done to him and his family, the loss of eight months of his life and his reputation, require reparations which may be forthcoming as he is a person of stature.  There will be countless others who are less able to fight their cases, like the former Governor did.  In addition, there have been several killings in police custody of prisoners who are alleged to have tried to escape when taken to find their store of weapons or in cross fire or by suicide.  Making matters worse is that in some of these cases the families and lawyers of the imprisoned persons have given advance warning that those held in custody are scheduled to be killed, but nothing is done and the deaths take place.

The same inability or unwillingness to ensure accountability can be seen at multiple levels, be it in relation to the manner in which the three-decade long war ended, or the Easter Sunday bombings, or the Central Bank bond scandal, or the sugar tax scandal, the Yugadanavi Power Plant issue and, most recently, the explosion of large numbers of cooking gas cylinders which have led to deaths and burning down of people’s homes.  In none of these cases has investigations led to the masterminds being found and meted out justice. With time, the cases might be forgotten and the wrongdoers get away with their crimes. Perhaps it is in apprehension of the potential crisis situation in the country that the Supreme Court has written a strong judgement in a case that is representative of the people’s sense of compassion and care for all living beings as directed by the sacred religious texts.   This was with regard to whether elephants captured from the wild and taken to homes and temples as objects of social prestige should be returned to their supposed owners or released to the wild or sent to protected sanctuaries.

GOOD GOVERNANCE

In a decision that can have far reaching ramifications for the rule of law, and for the system of checks and balances, and wisely in a case that is less politically controversial, the Court cited a famous judgement by Lord Denning in the English Courts where he said, “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest.  Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment.  He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.”  The Court said that “these observations aptly apply to the role of the Attorney General of Sri Lanka.”  Notably the respondents in this case were the Prime Minister and Minister of Wildlife.

If positions, such as the Attorney General, are to be filled with persons who will make decisions in line with the Court judgement above, it is necessary that they should be persons with integrity and competence.  They also need the space to be able to do their work without political interference.  It was to achieve this objective that two different governments, headed by two different political leaders from two different political parties took steps to ensure the passage of the 17th and 19th amendments in 2001 and 2015 respectively.  These two amendments had the common feature of reducing the President’s powers and seeking to increase the independence of state institutions from political interference.  A police force that is independent of political influencers, who act behind the scenes, is more likely to act with integrity in dealing with the impunity that is growing in the country.

The government’s pledge of a new draft constitution, before the end of the year, provides an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it that breeds impunity and resentment which is the fuel for extremism of all sorts. The political space should be kept secular, unlike in the case of Pakistan with its religious law, and kept free from religious or ethnic nationalist biases. The reintroduction of the scheme of appointment of higher officials of state, through a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, Opposition and civil society, would lead to better appointments than the President alone making the appointments.  The members of the constitutional council would together select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically-motivated interference.  This is particularly important in the case of the higher judiciary, the last bastion of freedom in a democracy that is going wrong.  The present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision-making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong system of government, based on checks and balances–real good governance.

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Action…in the coming weeks

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At the Irish Pub tomorrow night

The lead up to Christmas, and the New Year, certainly doesn’t look ‘blue,’ in any way.

Initially, I was thinking of Elvis Presley’s ‘Blue Christmas’ – what with the pandemic, and the new variant, creating chaos…everywhere.

But…yes, the showbiz scene here seems to have changed, for the better.

On December 8th (that’s tomorrow), ‘The Legends of Ceylon’ is the title of a musical evening, that will take place, from 7.00 pm onwards, at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, featuring Geoffrey Fernando, Mignonne, Noeline, Sohan, Dalrene, and Manilal, backed by the group Mirage.

Sohan & The X-Periments, a name associated with sing-along events, will be involved in two sing-alongs this month – on December 12th at The Grand Kandyan Hotel, and on December 17th at the BMICH Banquet Hall.

The Christmas Sing-Along, in Kandy, commencing at 7.00 pm, will have, in the vocal spotlight, Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, along with The X-Periments.

The 17th event, at the BMICH, from 7.30 pm onwards, will also feature Corrine, Clifford Richard, Sohan, and Trishelle, with guest stars Falan Andrea and Radika.

Sohan indicated to us that the festive scene seems to be brightening up, a bit, and that he and his band do have work coming their way,

“We are going to be pretty busy for the next few weeks.”

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