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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: October 25, 2008 @ 3:20 am

    Ironies of China

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Was it Isaac Deutscher who wrote a book called The Ironies of History? There can be few greater ironies than the fact that two states established on avowed principles of Communism – China and Vietnam – are probably the most successful exponents of capitalism in the world today.

    These lines are being written in Beijing where your humble scribe is still covering the visit of Taoiseach Brian Cowen to lead an Irish trade mission and attend the Asia-Europe (ASEM) summit.

    Like everyone else, Cowen is pretty well awestruck at the progress and achievements of this country in the economic sphere over the past 30 years. The summit deliberations are taking place in the Great Hall of the People, which is right on the edge of Tienanmen Square, infamous as the scene of the bloody massacre of peacefully-protesting students in 1989.

    The surprise at Tienanmen is that it covers a relatively small area. One expected an agoraphobia-inducing wide space but, although it ain’t tiny, it is far from enormous. I have been to the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana which is much, much bigger – this is where Fidel Castro used to address the crowds, whether they liked it or not, for hours on end before he took ill.

    Needless to say there are no monuments to the victims of the Tienanmen Square massacre although a colleague pointed out the spot where the students had placed their imitation Statue of Liberty and a poignant memory still lingers in my mind of a young student couple who got married there, just prior to the tanks rolling in. I wonder was their honeymoon cut short by bullets – no doubt it was.

    Yet the same repressive, un-elected regime has achieved undreamt-of and unimagined economic progress in a short period of time. Capitalism in the West and the democratic countries stagnates in the meantime. When you think about it, the golden age of raw capitalism was also an age of fairly significant repression. Unions were less-powerful, there were fewer legal protections for workers, fewer health and safety regulations, and the planning laws, insofar as they existed, caused little concern to entrepreneurs intent on launching a major moneymaking project. Ironic the communism, or this version of it, apparently provides so little protection to the workers.

    In the past week I have also been in Shanghai and certain images stand out. The Maglev is a high-speed train that takes you to the Shanghai’s Pudong Airport. As I sat in the carriage with my colleagues, we noticed that the mainly-young Chinese passengers had their camera-phones focused on the speedometer over the door. They were “filming” the speed as it rose and rose – if memory serves, – to more than 400km per hour. There was much laughter and merriment as this was taking place. One fellow in particular was acting the clown and revelling in the attention of his friends. There was no sign of the “dogface” demeanour one associates with totalitarian regimes: people terrified to show emotion in case they attract attention from the authoriies. In years to come maybe our “clown” will take a serious turn and become a politician.

    In Beijing, the red flags flutter in profusion over Tienanmen Square as if somebody is making a point. Mao’s portrait still looks down on everyone. As we waited yesterday morning to be admitted to the summit, several squads of besuited young men marched in military formation up the steps of the Great Hall of the People. At first glance they appeared to be civil servants and one could not help imagining the reaction if, say, the Department of Finance back home were obliged to march to work in the morning like this: doubtless some of the public sector’s vociferous critics would enjoy the spectacle. A colleague said later that these young fellows were actually members of the military or air force who were helping on the administrative side with the summit and had donned civvies for the occasion.

    The summit itself is quite stage-managed with most of the sessions closed to the media. Yet one feels that China is loosening-up. Last time I was here in 2004, I tried to link to the Amnesty International website on my laptop but couldn’t get it on the screen. I was in the press area at a conference on poverty and, as soon as I tried to get the website, a group of helpful young men surrounded me, asking if everything was all right. Mar dhea (Irish for the ironic, ‘Yeah, right!’) This time http://www.amnesty.org came up, no bother. That was in my hotel, it might not be so easy in other locations in China: the techno-bods can perhaps advise?

    China is still a one-party state but that party is changing and many among the new layer starting to rise to the top have received liberal arts educations in western universities. Huge problems still remain and human rights is the elephant in the room at the ASEM summit. Meanwhile China is one of the few places that has – so far – remained largely exempt from the perfect storm raging in other parts of the world economic stage. To repeat one of my favourite semi-ironic Dublinisms – I hope it keeps fine for them.

    Postscript: Courtesy of a search-engine, I see that the full title of Deutscher’s book was, Ironies of History: Essays in Contemporary Communism.  I’m not sure I ever read it, although I have read Deutscher’s excellent biographies of Stalin and Trotsky – he was that unusual combination, a good scholar who wrote like an angel. A Polish dissident communist himself, Deutscher ended up in England, writing for the Observer and the Economist. 

    Ironies was published in 1966: Deutscher died the following  year and missed the Prague Spring, the Gorbachev era and of course China’s current incongruous combination of communism and capitalism. He would have been fascinated by it all, not least the way blogs have replaced samizdat, the wrinkled handbills and other literature secretly distributed by dissidents in the Soviet era.

    Deaglan de Breadun, Political Correspondent, The Irish Times

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Deaglan, in a world where the old cold war pigeon-holes have ceased to have any reliable meaning, it might be useful for your readership if you simply describe what you find and leave the naming of the means by which it is achieved to others.

      Are the Chinese people dissatisfied with their government? Are they marching in the streets to overturn their budget? Are their pensions and savings secure? Are their children being educated, their sick treated, their homeless housed?

      If so, then perhaps there is merit in their system, regardless what label you chose to apply to it from within the confines of your own historic and cultural mindset.

      Decommissioning mindsets after bloody and prolonged conflict is a necessary precursor to progress in more areas than West Belfast. All the more so where one side’s view of their own reality was false to begin with. We in the ‘West’, facing into a major and prolonged economic depression, are only at the beginning of the discovery process that will lead us to understand how false it was.

      The Better World we all desire will not be forged by those responsible for the current mess.

    • Deaglán says:

      Dear BW: Your question, “Are they [Chinese] marching in the streets …” is a curious one. Where do you suggest they hold their march, Tienanmen Square? Deaglán

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Interesting you should mention samizdat as a friend of mine holds the view that blogs and such like are really just pamphleteering from the 1700s dressed up for the modern age.

    • David White says:

      Glad to hear the Amnesty site was available on this visit. A small but important improvement. I’m heading to China for the first time this weekend coming, so I’ll check in a few other locations and see if availability is more widespread!


    • BetterWorld Now says:

      Deaglán, funny, ha ha.

      I take it you are not seriously suggesting that 1.3billion Chinese living in a country the size of the USA are too dumb to find another street to march on?

      In 1989, the year of Tiananmen Square, the world wide web didn’t exist, last year 232 million Chinese were connected to it. 1989 was also the year the British government put gates across Downing Street to keep protestors out. Did that stop the Brits?

      Can’t you permit even the slightest possibility that the Chinese might actually be less outraged by the actions of their government than the Brits, the Americans or the Irish currently are? We, after all, are floundering in a spiralling recession, our leaders queuing to curry favour in Beijing, whilst blatantly lying to us about the seriousness of our predicament. Meanwhile the Chinese enjoy 9% growth, advancing living standards and are surfing a wave of unprecedented international prestige.

      Good luck to any Chinese head-banger who would stand on a soapbox and argue for them to become more like us.

    • Deaglán says:

      Hi Betterworld:

      I am suggesting that when Chinese people protested against the regime in Tienanmen Square in 1989 the party bosses had them massacred. That’s why you don’t find political demonstrations in the streets of Beijing today.

      China is a one-party state where freedom of the press does not exist. A leading dissident, Hu Jia, is currently serving 3.5 years in jail, basically because he wouldn’t shut up.

      So your argument that, if the Chinese were unhappy with the regime, they would be agitating politically against it, just as the elderly folk and the teachers are doing here, does not stand up. They’re not agitating because they are not allowed to agitate. It’s called totalitarianism.

      There are a lot of good things about China and, after my recent visit, I have very warm feelings indeed towards its people, but a free country it is not.

      With respect, you remind me of the old Stalinists of yore who did not give a hoot about freedom so long as the people were (allegedly) being fed.

      I thought the collapse of the Berlin Wall had put paid to that kind of thinking. Man (or indeed woman) does not live on bread alone, Betterworld.

      But thank you for your responses in any case.


    • John O'Farrell says:

      Deaglán, well spoken, both in the main piece and your reply to Better World, whose road to prosperity is sticky with other people’s blood.

      Anyway, I was just going to add a description of China and Russia I heard at a debate featuring the Slovene Lacanian-Hitchcockian headcase, Slavoj Zizek. The debate was on the EU Constitutional Treaty and Zizek posited that the ‘actually existing’ alternative to the EU’s dull mix of social democracy and mild capitalism was the “Stalinism Lite” of the ex-commie superpowers.
      As a summary of the combination of hyper-nationalism, depraved corruption, hi-tech snooping and low-end bullying that characterises Russia and China. “Stalinism Lite” does it for me, even if they have 9% growth.

    • BetterWorld Now says:

      Deaglán, “freedom”, as I’m sure you know, is like motherhood and apple pie – everyone is in favour of it, but no one ever bothers to define what they mean.

      Freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom from fear, are all freedoms. For me, free people are people who enjoy universal human rights. Systems of government which guarantee those rights are good, ones which don’t are bad.

      The basic outline of inalienable rights was established after WWII in the Universal Declaration. It outlines five basic categories of rights: civil, political, economic, social and cultural. It also importantly established that human rights were universal (applied to all) and indivisible (can’t be cherrypicked). My belated realisation of the latter was what caused me to become disillusioned with Amnesty International.

      No government currently achieves full compliance with the Universal declaration, we live in a world characterised by degrees of compliance and non-compliance.

      Your declared support for “liberal democracies” and “freedom” suggest to me a belief that liberal democracies are more likely to guarantee a higher degree of compliance with the Universal Declaration than are other forms of government. Time will tell. My view is that countries which place the interests of the entire community above those of the individual are more likely to achieve – and sustain – a higher place on the list than those who do not.

      I accept that within the relatively short time-line of your lifespan (or mine), there are many countries which have improved their compliance position yet place the interests of the propertied individual above that of the collective, Ireland being a recent example. I do not, however, believe that this is sustainable or inherently part of their objective. Rather, it is a by-product of historically-transient economic advancement.

      Few can argue that China’s 1.3billion inhabitants would have achieved their current progress towards achieving increasing compliance with the Universal Declaration had they adopted Ireland’s every-man-for-himself approach. Most developing countries that did, failed to advance economically, let alone in terms of rights delivery. Ireland, after a recent period of rapid and, some would argue, accidental human rights improvement is fast sliding back down the compliance ratings, the economy dictating which rights are jettisoned by the week (or do I mean weak?).

      Where this economic decline will end, and which rights will remain at the end of the process, is anybody’s guess. Will we see a return to the spectre of homeless boys being entrusted to the care of religious orders because the state hasn’t got the funds to care for them? Quite possibly.

      In Ireland, our freedoms exist only to the extent that our economy permits. Regardless of what our politicians want, our economy dictates that a cartel of private banks get bailed out, whilst services to primary school children, pensioners and the sick are cut.

      Had we a strategically regulated market, as in China, no bank (or any other private institution) would ever be allowed to become large enough to threaten, by its collapse, the survival of any state policy underwriting a Universal Right. But to have such regulation in place would require a constitution which places the interests of the collective above the property rights of the individual. This, we currently do not have. But there are grounds for hope.

      In the wake of the last great meltdown of Wall Street it was John Charles McQuaid who saw to it that our constitution was framed to favour the individual over the collective. He, of course, feared the emerging strength of a Soviet economy based on human need that espoused atheism, much as the strength of China is apparent today in the wake of the current collapse of western capitalism.

      Irish people today are intrigued at the prosperity of China, some are even impressed. Many of their grandparents were equally impressed by Soviet advancement. Unlike former generations, Irish voters today are not so easily manipulated into the kind of frenzy of fear whipped up by the unholy alliance of church and corporate media which was used to control them back then. The Irish gatekeepers of information of those days would make modern China’s censors weep in envy. Totalitarianism ain’t what it used to be.

      And, lest we forget, those gatekeepers still exist today in our liberal democracies. They are just as interested in controlling our access to information as their predecessors, their methods are just less obvious. Fox News, that celebrated beacon of press freedom, delivered the invasion of Iraq.

      The recent explosion in internet use has, thankfully, undermined some of their power, which is partly why elections in South America, Europe (and North America?) have sprung surprise results (which Irish newspaper forecast the victory of the “No”?)

      With the Universal Declaration as our guide and the internet as our resource a new generation of activists has some chance of removing the barriers to a better world, many of which have their origins in the Cold War.

      Now that there is finally an independent international mechanism to rate human rights performance at the UN level, and with countries who do not espouse monopoly capitalism rising on the HR index, we may eventually be able to address the global economic mechanisms established and maintained by liberal democracies which currently cause one child to die of hunger or preventable disease every 6 seconds.

      Five, Four, Three, Two, One. – BWN.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks for taking the time to write that thoughtful response. There is a flaw in your reasoning. Who is to say China would not be at least as prosperous today if it were an Indian-style or even US-style democracy? Totalitarians of the left opt for a wee flutter with capitalism to alleviate their unpopularity. Lenin did it with his New Economic Policy when he told the peasants, “Enrich yourselves.” Gorbachev tried it. On the right, Hitler was praised in his day for reducing unemployment, building the autobahn, etc. But totalitarianism is not sustainable in the long term: humanity has an innate desire to be free. Deaglán

    • BetterWorld Now says:

      You are again confusing economic prosperity with progress towards compliance with Universal Rights. I didn’t. That may be understandable; you are a product of western capitalism and its uberkind – the Celtic tiger: rights are only what the economy is willing to deliver.

      The Indian example is, as you are probably aware, problematic. If Indian democracy has so much going for it, how come more are dying of hunger now than when the subcontinent was ruled from London? I guess you’d argue that that death toll is a price worth paying for your particularly ubiquitous brand of political ideology, “they may be dead but at least they died “free”".

      I don’t excuse preventable death (or ignorance, or cultural poverty, or political exclusion or torture) on ideological grounds, regardless what that ideology may be, I merely judge by degree of compliance with the Universal Declaration and chose accordingly. For me, it’s not an issue of personal conviction; it’s just basic maths.

      Five, four, three two, one more child.

    • Dear BWN: Sorry to see you getting a wee bit patronising, e.g., “you are a product of western capitalism”. What are you, my friend – an immaculate conception?
      My point about India was that it is becoming prosperous without jettisoning democracy. Ergo, China could have become prosperous without a one-party totalitarian regime (the kind you clearly prefer).
      Of course there are major problems in India but I don’t think they need the British back as you may be suggesting!
      Given the repression in China and the lack of a free media there are probably many, many things we don’t know about. Totalitarian regimes are not known for small death tolls. How many people did Mao “liquidate”? Some estimates go as high as 100 million but it probably wasn’t quite as high as that. I guess you would argue that the death-toll was a price worth paying.
      The basic question is, BWN, what have you got against people deciding their own future by democratic means? Why does it always have to be top-down, whether in Cuba or China? Or, apparently, in a British imperial framework? Come on, let the people have their say.

    • Ed Kelly says:

      An even greater irony is the nationalisation of American banks by Comrades Bush, Cheney and Paulson inaugurating what the Chinese might call “socialism with American characteristics” though in East Asia they might just call it “crony capitalism”.

    • Betterworld Now says:

      Deaglán, You really must stick to the point. I have absolutely nothing against democracy – in fact, I am all for it – it is enshrined in the Universal Declaration. I just don’t accept that liberal democracies operating under capitalism are delivering it. Exactly which electorate voted for the invasion of Iraq? Or to deny AIDs treatment to 25million black Africans? Or to rob pensioners, schoolchildren or the sick in order to bail out private banks? If you ask me, democracy would be a very good idea indeed.

      And contrary to your continual, and unworthy, slurs, I haven’t justified any deaths for anybody’s ideology. You may think that one death every 6 seconds is justifiable in the name of your ideology – I don’t. I believe it is an indictment of the ideology you espouse. Support for the status quo delivered by monopoly capitalism under the cloak of liberal democracy is not just a failure of imagination, it is an abdication of your responsibility as a sentient human being.

      We can do better, we must do better and with or without you, we will do better. But we will never do better so long as we allow economic ideological fundamentalism to decide who dies and who lives.

      In a purely rational world we would start by agreeing what the objective should be and then adopting whatever economic and political means are necessary to deliver it.

      Leave aside all ideological baggage – the starting point, for me, is delivery on the principals of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    • Deaglán says:

      Dear BWN: I have to say that this debate is getting somewhat repetitive. Your principles are terrific; your practice dispiriting. You favour democracy, as long as it’s a one-man state in the case of Cuba, or a one-party state in the case of China, with no free press and a bad scorecard from the human rights organisations. I suspect you admire the late Uncle Joe Stalin – am I right? Which electorate voted for the Soviet invasions of Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Afghanistan and for the purges and famines under Stalinist rule? Seeking to “guilt-trip” your interlocutor is no substitute for facts. Democracy was a great weapon in the hands of the poor and oppressed which they used in the overthrow of feudal kings and aristocrats. Far from being a barrier to the rational organisation of an equal society, it is an essential component. With the greatest respect, your problem is that your outlook is basically elitist: you don’t trust ordinary people to run their own lives.

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