Doctors, journals, drug companies - teamwork!

As if it wasn't already clear enough, here's some more evidence that the pharameutical system is massively messed up. The Wall Street Journal had an article last week on medical journals publishing drug company-commissioned articles under the names of ostensibly independent researchers:

Many of the articles that appear in scientific journals under the bylines of prominent academics are actually written by ghostwriters in the pay of drug companies. These seemingly objective articles, which doctors around the world use to guide their care of patients, are often part of a marketing campaign by companies to promote a product or play up the condition it treats.....

The practice of letting ghostwriters hired by communications firms draft journal articles -- sometimes with acknowledgment, often without -- has served many parties well. Academic scientists can more easily pile up high-profile publications, the main currency of advancement. Journal editors get clearly written articles that look authoritative because of their well-credentialed authors.

And drug companies get propaganda that looks objective. Well I guess everyone wins, then.

I think it's fairly obvious that producing pharmaceuticals for profit leads to prioritizing research for the treatment of problems that afflict those with money. It provides a strong incentive for rich countries to strong-arm poor countries into respecting their "intellectual property" and thus go without drugs that could be produced cheaply. And as this article once again makes clear, it corrupts everyone involved. There's nothing magical about profit that leads to better R&D - drug companies should be nationalized and run in the public interest.


Aw, India's growing up

The USA is trying to browbeat India into signing on to its anti-Iran policies. American leaders see this as acceptable because over the last 10 years India has moved to ally itself with the USA, and everyone knows that American allies better do exactly what they're told.

In this context, an unnamed senior US official says, "The Indians are emerging from their nonaligned status and becoming a global power, and they have to begin to think about their responsibilities." This rhetoric is fascinating! So once you agree to subordinate yourself to American power, then you're a global power (seems somewhat counterintuitive). And global powers (American lackeys) have a "responsibility" to fall into line behind US diktats. Isn't it amazing how almost any formulation can seem correct and natural once you use the right language?


American ambassadors in Latin America say the damndest things

"Nobody is going to support a situation in which a democratically elected president is removed in a very dubious manner."

-- US Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli

I guess that depends on which day of the week it is.


Why do we celebrate Labor Day?

"Labor Day was started in September of 1882, and quickly became an official holiday at the same time May Day spread throughout the world. Labor Day is a time to celebrate the contributions American workers had given their country, unlike May Day events, which focused on the international class struggle. It remains a patriotic holiday, and compared to the first May Day demonstrations, Labor Day is recognized by relatively staid parades and speeches."

May Day: what happened to the radical workers' holiday?


Send forth the respectable protesters!

Todd Gitlin is once again calling for the domestication of the antiwar movement. He wants "the 'Giant Puppet,' 'Bongo circles for peace,' and 'Street Theatre' crowd" to stop running protests so as to avoid alienating mainstream support and allow the "adult" protesters to "increase their leverage and avoid getting painted into a corner."

He's making two substantive points: 1) "weird"/"immature" Americans participating in protests gives war apologists a chance to appeal to mainstream Americans - who might otherwise be skeptical of the war - on grounds of shared cultural identity; 2) the movement's attempt to link the war in Iraq to other issues, such as "the World Bank, Israel, and [a] demand [for] unilateral Nuclear Disarmament", is, well, it isn't good. He doesn't explain why, but we can assume it's because it distracts from the goal of getting American troops out of Iraq, which is easy to unify people behind, and brings in a lot of unrelated issues that might alienate mainstream supporters.

The first point is well-taken, but what's the point in blaming the left for it? Right-wing smear artists (and the media) will always play up elements in the protests that seem strange to mainstream Americans. And really, is street theater that alienating to average people? It's just puppets for godsakes. What Gitlin seems to want is to have serious men in business suits - the antiwar "adults" - negotiating with the serious men in business suits who are killing Iraqis. Those protesters who don't conform to the rules - both political and cultural - laid down by the people who run our society are to be excluded.

The second point? It's true that making connections between the war in Iraq and other aspects of American foreign policy, or global capitalism, or cultural imperialism will to some extent diffuse the power of the movement. But we have to ask ourselves, what is the point of the movement? Is it merely to get the troops out of Iraq? What would that accomplish, other than saving the lives of a small number of Americans? (Iraq is headed for civil war, as it was from the moment Saddam Hussein fell, so the USA leaving probably won't save any Iraqi lives.)

No, the most important goal of the movement is to use an unusually high-profile political issue to educate people on the fundamental source of the Iraq disaster - the global American system of political and economic domination. Drawing connections between that system and its consequences in Iraq and every other country in the world is our task. Pulling the troops out of Iraq will not prevent the next war, and will certainly do nothing to address the countless other human catastrophes currently under way because American global hegemony.

So the first thing the movement must do is radicalize people, ie show them the structural sources of problems that are usually attributed to the individual ineptitude or immorality of particular political leaders. Then it must bring them into the movement, because the only way that such deep-seated structures can be rooted out is thru an overwhelming popular mobilization. If the movement merely sends forth its respectable-looking representatives to negotiate an end to American involvement in Iraq, as Gitlin would have it, the whole thing will have been in vain.


The Times blames the victim, again

Kyle has a good analysis of the shockingly bad New York Times article on the UN killings in the Haitian slum of Cité Soleil. (Shocking? Okay, it's not that shocking.)

The original article is here.


The last time the USA considered nuking China

It's interesting how deeply hypocritical public culture is. Two poor countries constantly threatened by the most powerful country in the world try to develop nuclear weapons in self-defense, and are branded immoral and insane. American leaders talk about actually using nuclear weapons offensively, and it barely registers.

The Bush administration, of course, has talked publicly about using low-yield nukes, but what are they talking about behind closed doors, in records that the public won't have access to for 40 years? We don't know, but we do know what everyone's favorite liberal, JFK, was talking about in 1963:

'63 Tapes Reveal Kennedy and Aides Discussed Using Nuclear Arms in a China-India Clash

That's right, the Kennedy administration was seriously considering nuking China if it got into another war with India.

Defense Secretary Robert McNamara told Kennedy, "Any large Chinese Communist attack on any part of that area would require the use of nuclear weapons by the U.S., and this is to be preferred over the introduction of large numbers of U.S. soldiers." Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Maxwell Taylor says, "I would hate to think that we would fight this on the ground in a non-nuclear way." Kennedy goes along with them.

Jesus Christ! Using nuclear weapons so you don't have to send troops? It's surreal how matter-of-factly they talk about it. Yet another case of the banality of evil.

Yet it really shouldn't be that surprising: American leaders seriously considered using nuclear weapons in the wars in both Korea and Vietnam, and that would have killed far more people than presumably isolated nuclear bombing in the Himalayas - unless the hpyothetical war escalated. Yet it is surprising, because as Americans we're taught to see our leaders sympathetically, not as the demons foreign leaders are frequently made out to be. Yet the cold evidence is there: leaders both American and foreign act, and often think, in exactly the same ruthless ways and with the same blood-drenched results.

The icing on the cake is the quote from über-liberal George Ball (the only high administration official who opposed the Vietnam war): "If there is a general appearance of a shift in strategy to the dependence on a nuclear defense against the Chinese in the Far East, we are going to inject into this whole world opinion the old bugaboo of being willing to use nuclear weapons against Asians."

A classic liberal argument: don't massacre people, because it might make us look bad. It certainly tells you how debased the discourse - or possibly the person - is, when you have to appeal to the national interests in order to argue against that old bugaboo, mass murder.

The Times article, btw, misrepresents the border war between China and India as "an invasion of India by China, which sought to acquire disputed border territories". While border disputes left over from colonialism pretty much never allow for clear apportioning of blame, it's generally acknowledged that Indian provocations started the war, even tho China decisively won.


The delicate task of criticizing Tolerance

When I was in LA a couple weeks ago I went to the Museum of Tolerance. What is the Museum of Tolerance you ask? Well it turns out that it's mainly about learning to tolerate Jews and not kill 6 million of them. But it also comes out against all kinds of intolerance, from ethnic strife to homophobia to class hatred.

Hold on! Class hatred? A significant fraction of the time I spend talking with people is spent subtly encouraging class hatred, thru the insinuated disparagings of "rich people", "fancy shit", "bourgeois taste", "fatcat semi-fascist bastards, blood-suckers of the working class", and the like.

Sure it's nice to have little slogans telling the kids that "hatred is bad". But it's one thing to accept cultural diversity, quite another to tolerate Nazis and slaveowners and bosses - and I'm not uncomfortable grouping the last one in with the other two.

There was a sense of vacuity about the whole the place, of empty moralizing against "hatred" with little to no explanation of what causes hatred or how we can end it. Might intolerance have to do with struggles over control of resources or the state, or with politicians looking for a mass base to support their rise? Might all the different supremacies - based in race, gender, class, culture, or species - be fundamental parts of individuals' identities, structuring how people see the world and allowing them to accept all the many other ways it crushes them underfoot? If so, what structural social changes should we make, what strategies should we pursue, who are our allies and who our enemies?

Who knows? But I did learn this: Hatred is bad.


Isn't that cute? Bollywood wants to be like grown-ups

Bollywood's Leading Actor Goes Mainstream

This isn't a bad article on Bollywood movie star Aamir Khan, but what drew my attention was the headline.

Khan is making a high profile English-language movie in the hopes of breaking into international markets. Therefore he's going "mainstream".

The presumption here is that the American (British, Australian) market is central or normal, everything else is merely appealing to some niche audience. In this case a niche of 1 billion people.

The cultural arrogance is overwhelming, and it's exactly this sort of thinking that props up American and Western hegemony by casting the West as the lodestone around which the rest of the world rotates. The West works its will upon the rest of the world while everyone else waits with bated breath to see whether it will accept their importuning. Unfortunately, this is sometimes true - but the history and current practice of global inequality which lie at its root are rarely explored. And more often than not the people of other parts of the world are perfectly happy with their own cultural resources and don't see themselves as part of some marginal culture outside the "mainstream" of those (actually a rather small global minority) living in the rich countries.


The rotating door between government and corporations

Remember Michael Powell, Colin Powell's son who - definitely thru his own qualifications and not at all because of nepotism - became chairman of the FCC and did his utmost to end any sort of regulations on the rapidly consolidating media industry? (Is there even more than 1 company left now?)

Well, again exclusively thru his own qualifications and not at all because his political connections will enable him to manipulate the government, he's won a job as senior adviser to Providence Equity Partners, an equity firm whose main job is making deals and buying stakes in media corporations.

This illustrates one of the key processes in American elite formation and reproduction: the rotating door between government agencies that regulate corporations and high-paying consultancies with those same corporations. Someone holding a high position in a regulatory agency or working on regulations in Congress, as soon as he (occasionally she) leaves government, can expect to receive sweet job offers from all the companies he was just overseeing. Unless, of course, he did a good job regulating them, in which case the sweet jobs will not be forthcoming.

Having become "senior consultant" or whatever, he then goes on to use his connections in the bureaucracy or Congress to convince the people who succeeded him (themselves looking forward to sweet corporate jobs), of how closely the interests of his company line up with the public interest. Frequently the corporate consultant cycles right back into a regulatory position a few years down the road. This is a longstanding pattern, certainly not an innovation of the Bush administration.

Might this practice have some influence on the quality of the regulating process?

Adding insult to injury, this important and nearly universal phenomenon goes almost unremarked upon in the media. The Michael Powell story should count as one of the more egregious and high-profile examples of its kind given his crass pursuit of the media companies' interests during his tenure as regulator and his rapid move to working for the same companies. Yet it received only capsule treatment on page 14 in the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times didn't report it at all, and the Reuters article is literally a press release from Providence Equity Partners.

But surely TV news, freed by Michael Powell from the suffocating effect of all those rules and now able to properly do its job as watchdog for our great democracy, will come to our rescue.


I also have a less strident side

I've started a new blog to humor my less political impulses.

But fear not! I haven't given up on this one. Expect a fascinating new post soon.


Why would China want to control oil when we'll just sell it?

The New York Times has a good article today looking at CNOOC's attempt to buy Unocal from the strategic perspective of China: "China's Costly Quest for Energy Control". Unlike most of the other stuff written on this, reporter Joseph Kahn takes seriously the idea that the Chinese might have their own desires and interests, and that we might want to think about those instead of just the threat China poses to our clearly entirely-deserved global hegemony.

While making a big point of the fact that China is paying a lot of extra money to secure control over oil reserves rather than just buying on the open market, Kahn balances this by explaining exactly how threatened China feels by the USA's tight and expanding grip on world energy supplies. And he doesn't just dismiss these fears as paranoia. A great quote from a Chinese energy consultant explains it all: "A popular saying abroad is that oil is just a commodity that anyone who has money can buy. But this saying is most popular in the countries that already control the supplies."


Uzbekistan teaches how the world works

Sometimes journalists don't cover something that seems obvious because it "has a low news value". Now, I don't agree with this policy but if they wanted to be consistent, an article titled "Uzbek Ministries in Crackdown Received U.S. Aid" would never have been printed in The New York Times.

Because anyone who knows anything about the USA's history of training other countries' militaries and the nature of Uzbekistan's government would simply assume that people who have studied under US direction would participate in atrocities. The very substance of that training, which generally runs under the euphemisms "counterinsurgency" or "counterterrorism", involves disproportionate use of violence and targetting of civilians.

Uzbekistan's "counterterrorism" unit Bars is the latest in a long line of US-trained special forces that have committed atrocities. From the brutal Atlacatl brigade in El Salvador, responsible for massacring whole villages, to Indonesia's elite Kopassus, which has abducted and murdered dissidents for 40 years, to countless others, American training has been put directly to use in committing terrible crimes. And this is in addition to the more general military, diplomatic, and economic aid the USA habitually provides to repressive governments.

The article is useful in documenting the deep ties America has forged with Uzbekistan over the past 15 years and the probable direct involvement of recipients of American training in the massacre of protesters in Andijon on 2005 May 13. But the journalists simply repeat the formulaic explanation for why the USA is working so closely with such a repressive government - Uzbekistan is a key ally in the war on terror. Yet as the article itself goes on to say, the USA-Uzbekistan relationship long predates 9/11 and the American attack on Afghanistan. And it remains unclear why the USA has established permanent military bases in the country even tho their original need - to base warplanes attacking neighboring Afghanistan - is long gone.

In fact, the American alliance with Uzbekistan has little to do with terrorism and much to do with the struggle for big-power control in the key region of Central Asia. By taking the Afghanistan war as an excuse to establish military positions thruout the region, the USA not only pushed back Russia's traditional sphere of influence and made a step toward preventing the possible expansion of China's, it also moved to gain control of the major energy resources of Central Asia. Uzbekistan, tho its energy resources are much smaller than those of its neighbors, has the largest economy, the largest population, and the greatest military potential of any of them. It is an important prize, and the post-9/11 outright alliance with Uzbekistan represents a huge step forward for the American strategy of surrounding both Russia and China with client states and military bases.

It's important to go beyond the easy partisan points to be had from criticizing Bush's hypocrisy in aiding Uzbek autocrat Islam Karimov while earnestly condemning human rights violations committed by less docile rulers. Only by understanding the structural roots of military aid to despots - something that every American president, Democrat and Republican alike, has provided since World War II - can we hope to eliminate it.

The issue is not communism or terrorism, it's not immorality or myopia. The source of these policies is the defense of an international system that places power and wealth in the hands of a few countries, generally the same ones that colonized the world 100 years ago. Those who might challenge this order, whether petty tyrants in تهران/Tehran or 평양/Pyoengyang, or major players in 北京/Beijing or Москва/Moscow, must be contained or destroyed. Any means to that end is justified, including teaching our friends how to kill their innocent enemies.


Getting paranoid

China has always tried to keep control of the internet and regulate the kinds of things Chinese people say online. The New York Times reports that this monitoring has reached a new height, with the government requiring bloggers and owners of websites to register with the Information Ministry. The article also reports that users at Internet bars have to provide identification and are given user numbers, but I've never run into that.

There's definitely a fair number of dissidents active online, and what they're doing is certainly admirable. Unfortunately, I don't think their activities are going to have any more effect than mine are in changing the unjust policies of our respective governments.

I wish my Chinese was good enough to read what they're writing and report on how class-bound it is. Since any internet dissident would be an intellectual or student, I suspect most of the internet writing is about elections, freedom of speech, attacking corruption, &c - it's probably not about liberating workers and peasants. But that's just an assumption, someday maybe I can say for sure.

In any case, I've started getting more worried about the government running across my own blogging and deporting me or denying me a visa or something. So I finally took my name off the site. Lame. Probably they don't care, since Blogger is always blocked (tho you can sometimes get around it with a proxy like anonymouse), and it's not in Chinese, but i guess better safe than sorry.


Internet-brought democracy yet again imminent in China

Nicholas Kristof today writes about how the internet is bringing democracy to China.

This is the latest, and one of the most explicit, in a long line of American fantasies about how "the Internet is hastening China along the same path that South Korea, Chile and especially Taiwan pioneered. In each place, a booming economy nurtured a middle class, rising education, increased international contact and a growing squeamishness about torturing dissidents."

I'm sitting right now in one of those Chinese internet bars that Kristof seems to think are bestowing American-style liberalism directly upon the Chinese. But as I look around and see all the kids playing first-person shooter games and reading about new movies, I have my doubts. And as for chatting - I don't know about Kristof, but every political discussion I've tried to have over AIM or MSN Messenger has died in seconds.

As the rest of Kristof's formulation indicates, the internet is only a part of the dominant understanding in the USA of how "democracy" is won, viz. market reforms create a middle class which then demands elections and freedom of speech, assembly, &c.

This might be very flattering to the middle class, pro-market writers who propogate it, but it doesn't have much relation to the historical reality of the supposed models or to current trends in the supposedly democratizing countries. South Korea's democratization (such as it is) owes a lot to student and worker protest, very little to the commercial and professional classes that mostly disapproved of such disorder until reforms that served their interests were actually won. In China, the middle class is even less interested in major changes since they're intimately linked to the ruling class thru education and personal connections, and share a deep fear of workers and peasants.

If something is going to happen in China, it won't come from the complacent gamers in internet bars, and it won't follow the smug certainties of privileged Americans.


China's reserve army of labor

There's been a call from my loyal readers for some outrages from China, so here's the best one I can think of offhand.

Chinese cities are overrun with private guards. Guards in parking lots, guards at movie theaters, guards at the post office, guards in front of every housing community (unlike in the USA, a lot of Chinese cities' residential areas are all set up sort of like gated communities, so they're gated off and their access roads aren't thru streets). Most of these guards don't really do much of anything, since you can freely walk into most of these areas without them stopping you. Not that you'd be that intimidated in the first place - most of the guards look like they're 16 or 17. China is one of the safest places in the world (as long as you play by the rules), so I'm also not entirely sure why people feel the need for guards.

But the outrage isn't that there are guards, but the work conditions of the guards themselves. My school and the associated dorm/hotel has its own set of guards. All the guards are migrants from the countryside. They work 12 hours every day, 7 days a week (2 days off a month). They get paid 400 yuan a month, roughly $50, ie about 10 cents/hour. For comparison, a foreigner with no teaching skills (eg, me) can make the same amount of money teaching English for 4 hours that they make working 350 hours.

To be fair, the guards are given housing and food by the hotel. It's almost insultingly inadequate food and housing, but still an important benefit since they can save most of their income. But even this is compromised since the hotel uses it to regulate their personal lives. They have to sign out and sign in when they want to go anywhere, and apparently aren't allowed to consort with students off the premises (weird).

They've been promised a lighter workload (8 hours/day, same pay) as soon as more guards can be hired. But last month after a couple new guards were hired, a couple other ones were promptly fired, restoring the old 12 hour days.

So there you go. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, since migrant laborers work in similar conditions in every shit job in the cities, from construction to waiting tables to retail. Migrant workers aren't entitled to any of the social programs that city residents get, like health care or education. And city residents generally look down on them as uncultured and possibly dangerous, just as every migrant group in every other country is treated.

All this is the completely predictable outcome of market reforms, which not only encourage the commodification and exploitation of people but have also supplied them by dismantling the countryside's social insurance and forcing China's extraordinary number of surplus laborers off the land and into the cities.

Yet it's important to acknowledge the positive side of these changes too. Before market reforms it was impossible for people from the countryside to move to the cities because the party decreed that migration wasn't allowed. Because it controlled the entire economy, the party could enforce this by simply cutting off the food supply of anyone who had a different idea. Thus peasants were essentially held in serfdom and exploited for surplus grain that could be invested in industrialization. In important ways, the advent of markets have made China's people much more free. Whether or not trading the party's epic totalitarianism for the petty totalitarianism of one's boss represents a big step in the right direction is more debatable.


A liberal says it straight for once

It's rare that the basics behind ideologies of power are stated explicitly. Generally debates are carried on thru rhetorical strategies that emphasize "the common good", "democracy", "freedom", "prosperity for the nation", &c. A good number of people who have never been exposed to the internal records of governments or corporations - where the rhetorical overlay is more frequently dispensed with - even take these appeals to selfless principles seriously. The media are especially culpable in this, casting George Bush as a fighter for democracy, or Bill Clinton as deeply concerned with the disadvantaged of the world, or closer to my home, the Chinese media casting Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao as doing their utmost to help China's peasants.

So it's worthwhile to note when a writer or politician skips the ritual obeisances and comes right out and says it, as Thomas Friedman recently did:
at its best, the U.N. has been, and still can be, a useful amplifier of American power, helping us to accomplish important global tasks that we deem to be in our own interest.

The U.N. still represents the closest thing we have to a global Good Housekeeping seal of approval for any international action. Whenever the U.S. is able to enlist that U.N. seal on its side, America's actions abroad have more legitimacy, more supporters and more paying partners....

I don't much care how the U.N. works as a bureaucracy; I care about how often it can be enlisted to support, endorse and amplify U.S. power. That is what serves our national interest.

Thomas Friedman is one of the most popular writers on foreign policy in the USA, and he consistently voices the liberal perspective. This is the liberal approach to the UN - use it whenever possible to gain legitimacy for American policy, otherwise dispense with it.

The neoconservative perspective is that the UN is more a hindrance to America's overwhelming power than an amplifier, and it should thus be destroyed at the earliest possible date.

It's an important tactical difference with clear policy implications. But it should not confuse us into thinking that the two sides have different ultimate goals. Rather, they share a single aim, namely to advance US "national interests", ie to expand the power of the American state and businesses.

The radical alternative is to take seriously the idea that humans are equal and that the interests of one nation (or one ruling class) are not the same as the interests of the world. That means acting to restrict the power of the USA, to build institutions that decentralize global power, and to fight for an equal distribution of wealth in the world.


Indonesia's steady return to the US embrace

In the USA's unique style of imperialism-by-proxy, military assistance programs play a major role. The US government creates tacit alliances with the ruling elites of other countries in order to maintain hegemony over the key sources of world power - resources and industry. For the last 60 years, the two social groups that the USA has targeted as potential clients in nearly every country are the economic elites (businessmen and large landowners) and the military.

Thru military assistance programs, the USA channels funds, weapons, and training to the militaries of countries that agree to follow the American foreign policy agenda and to suppress anti-American internal dissidents. Both sides benefit: the client military gets resources and the United States gets a semi-mercenary national armed forces that is both more capable because of American help and more loyal to American priorities because of the indoctrination it receives thru training programs.

The public explanation for these programs, made by officials and conveyed by the press, is that it will strengthen democratic elements in the military. The explanation is rarely questioned in the mainstream, but it's hard to even consider taking it seriously since the graduates of training programs have repeatedly gone on to long careers of massacre, torture, and authoritarianism, and since American weapons have endlessly been used to crush popular social movements thruout Latin America, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere.

Today the USA announced that it would resume International Military Education and Training to Indonesia. IMET is one of the main conduits of patronage to American client militaries. The Bush administration, and before that the Clinton administration, had long pushed to resume IMET funding to the Indonesia military, or TNI.

Various presidents have rarely had trouble sending aid even to death-squad militaries, so the wonder is more that Congress ever managed to cut off IMET funding than that it is now being restored. Indonesia's rather embarrassing tendency to massacre large groups of people thruout the 1990s, when anticommunist pretexts had lost most of their persuasive power, accounts for the temporary (and only partial) restrictions on aid. The murder of several Americans by individuals likely conspiring with the TNI is the only thing that kept 9/11 from overcoming Congress's remaining scruples. (Comprehensive background on this incident and the situation in West Papua, where it happened, is available here. For the incredibly flimsy grounds on which the administration has exculpated the TNI, see here.)

The main ammunition of critics of the TNI is that it has served as the shock-troops of Javanese colonialism since independence. Java, the island at the center of Indonesia political and economic power, has been extending its control over the resource-rich outlying islands of Aceh, West Papua, East Timor, and others since independence. With massive amounts of American aid and after several times over receiving explicit green lights from the USA for particularly heinous crimes (rigging West Papua's self-determination plebiscite in 1969, invading and conquering East Timor in 1975), the TNI committed atrocity after atrocity from the time it took over the country in a 1965 bloodbath. By the 1990s Indonesia had made itself a key American ally in Asia and welcomed Western corporations to exploit its mineral wealth.

But the '90s were rocky for both the military and the patron-client relationship with the USA, as popular uprisings forced the TNI to relinquish control and Congress imposed limits on aid and training. But the TNI still wields extraordinary power in Indonesia and both Clinton and Bush were eager to reestablish close ties in order to contain China and preserve American hegemony over Southeast Asia. Under cover of the war on "terrorism", the USA has now clawed back much of the ground it lost in 1990s in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region.

Indonesia is an extremely important country geostrategically, as well as one of the world's worst human rights abusers. If China's power continues to rise, it will be a key battleground in the Sino-American contest for Southeast Asia. While nationalism is strong and deeply skeptical of the United States, the organized left is nonexistent, having been exterminated in the worst political pogrom history has ever seen when the military took over in 1965. Internal politics, still dominated by the dictatorship-era elite, are extremely complex. Indonesia deserves close watching.


The privations of the upper classes

Chunjie (Spring Festival/Chinese New Year, this year February 9) is the biggest holiday in China, when everyone heads back to their home village to be with their family. Which explains this recent catastrophe:

"Shanghai families hit by exodus of maids"
(The Straits Times)

It seems the rich people of Shanghai faced the terrible situation of having to do their own housework. Sure, everyone sends help when a tsunami hits, but where's that feeling of brotherhood for these victims?

And the crisis isn't limited to Shanghai - the English-language China Daily reports that Beijing rich people, too, had to face the holiday without servants.

Says one victim, "Last year I failed to find a housemaid during the holidays and my husband and I had to do the cleaning for a whole day, which made us really tired." (This is an actual quote from the second article, I did not make it up, click on the link and see for yourself.)

Actually, the Straits Times article has some interesting stuff later in the article, when the deep exploitation of migrant laborers in China's cities is highlighted by the fact that some are forced to give up the all-important chunjie family reunion and stay in the city in order to keep jobs that pay only $2/day.


The long-forgotten US occupation of Korea

For 60 years the USA has held significant power over Korea; most Americans have no idea. They don't know about the American occupation of the South after World War II, they have only vague images of the Korean war, they don't know about the South Korean dictators the USA supported thruout the cold war, they don't know about the democracy movements that were repressed or massacred with US complicity, they don't know how those movements eventually triumphed.

They don't know how American cold war economic policies reluctantly gave South Korea's dictators room to industrialize and grow rich, they don't know about the sweatshops that followed, they don't know about the post-cold war market opening measures pushed by the US that culminated in economic disaster for South Korea in 1997.

All they "know" is that Kim Jongil, dictator of the North, is crazy.

But they should know more, starting with how American policies right after WWII returned the Japanese colonial elite to power and allowed them to dominate the government and economy for the next 50 years.

The New York Times recently ran an article on the South Korean movement to recognize that the postwar leadership was composed of the same people who had helped the Japanese to brutally dominate their countrymen. Yet curiously missing from the article was any mention of the American role.

Explaining how a discredited and widely-hated group of collaborators and landowners was able to cling to power without their Japanese patrons, the article says, "After the end of Japan's 35-year occupation in 1945, high-ranking Korean military officials and bureaucrats serving in the Japanese Imperial Army and administration were purged or imprisoned. But by 1949 they had been freed and rehabilitated by South Korea's first president, Syngman Rhee [Yi Seungman]."

This is a major revision of history. In fact, the United States occupied South Korea immediately after the war, looked with horror at the countless popular local governing councils that sprang up to fill the power vacuum, and determined that only by bringing the colonial elites and security apparatus back to power could the "communist" scourge be suppressed. Widespread repression was necessary tho, since the group that the USA chose to govern South Korea was universally despised, and the hunger for land redistribution, unification with the North, and an end to foreign domination were great. It was not Yi Seungman who brought the collaborators back to power, but the USA who made a government of them and set Yi at the top of it.

Once it had crushed the popular nationalist forces and established a tiny elite within a police state, the USA prepared to leave. The civil war that followed, as the government of the North invaded the South and nearly overran it, taught the USA that only its continuing presence could maintain American power over Korea.

That presence continues to this day, as 37,000 American troops remain stationed in South Korea. In the intervening years the USA supported a succession of military dictators, who suppressed renewed calls for democracy with bloodshed. Eventually the efforts of students and workers forced democratic reforms, but parts of the governing elite and most of the economic elite are still descendants of those same Koreans who once helped Japan control and exploit the country.

After years of state indoctrination, propaganda, and anti-communist fearmongering, the South Korean people are finally starting to face the deep ambiguities of their history. When will Americans follow?


The liberal views inequality in China

I have no end of praise for The New York Times in its recent series of articles on social inequality in China, the first such sustained attempt by mainstream Western media at covering the most pressing issues in China. But the coverage has not escaped the media's characteristic concentration on individuals to the exclusion of attention to the structures that produce their plight. Thus we come away with only a vague understanding of why China's political economy is so relentlessly marginalizing and exploiting the vast majority of its citizens.

When we ignore how power is actually organized, we can offer nothing but moralizing about the problems and sloganeering about the need for democracy. Which is exactly what The Times editorial page does when looking back at these articles:
Instead of beginning to institute a workable rule of law, a freer press and a better system for allowing the underdog to be heard, Mr. Hu has busied himself consolidating his own power and trying to restore order and discipline within an unreformed Communist Party. ... Chinese farmers and factory workers routinely talk about corrupt local officials who siphon off relief money from Beijing or steal funds allocated to farmers who give up their land for other uses. ... A leadership that treats this unrest as a threat to its authority instead of a desperate cry for help threatens to negate much of the good that has come from China's economic upheaval - the opening to tourism, student exchanges and scientific cooperation; the ability for people to migrate; the creation of some independent farming; and a growing middle class whose cellphones can dial abroad.
This is the typically liberal approach to the problem of inequality. First is the appeal to authority: the attempt to use moral suasion to convince those in power to reform their ways so as serve the common good.

Any understanding of how power actually works makes such a strategy seem naive in the United States, much less in China. Hu Jintao hasn't struck at the authoritarian foundation of the state, it's true - but not because he is immoral (as implied by the "consolidating his own power" crack) or because he is confused about the meaning of protests in China. The reason he leaves the party-state unaccountable is that his own position rests on the continued existence of that state, and on the monopoly of power by bureaucrats and rising commercial interests that is given form in that state.

Let's remember Frederick Douglass's insight, "Power concedes nothing without a demand." Those who hold power only yield it when competing social groups are able to mobilize and force a change. The fact is that peasants and workers are too unconnected to each other - both organizationally and ideologically - to form an adequate social base for any but minor changes on the periphery of China's systematic corruption and inequality. Even if Hu Jintao overcame years of party indoctrination and suddenly converted to belief in a genuinely participatory society, the changes he might put in motion would be immediately diluted to nothingness by the dominant groups in society.

In this context, The Times's call for "a workable rule of law, a freer press and a better system for allowing the underdog to be heard", seems rather empty. In the USA, where all three steps were taken long ago, bureaucratic and commercial elites still dominate the society, and the majority is still highly exploited if not impoverished (that the relative wealth of the American majority has little to do with rule of law &c is an entirely different post).

The same refusal to see things structurally blinds The New York Times to more than just the nature of power in China. The writers say that if their arguments are ignored, China will lose "much of the good that has come from China's economic upheaval - the opening to tourism, student exchanges and scientific cooperation; the ability for people to migrate; the creation of some independent farming; and a growing middle class whose cellphones can dial abroad."

The first problem is that these developments are far more complicated than the obvious good The Times seems to see. As only a brief example, while the opening of links to the rest of the world has greatly expanded the vision of the Chinese, it has also often produced a national inferiority complex tending to support uncritical imitation of Western modes of industrial production, social organization, and ideology. Only one instance of this is the atrocious traffic I face every day in Beijing, the popular ignorance of what this is doing to the environment and people's health, and the dream of owning a car that Chinese are increasingly growing up with.

But an even bigger problem is the failure to understand that the "good" brought by China's economic reforms is necessarily accompanied by rising inequality, corruption, and exploitation. Over the last 25 years, China's rulers have slowly given up rigid social control, decentralized bureaucratic power, privatized much of the state, and switched to a market economy. These reforms produced greater freedom of movement and expression, but at the same time created many more opportunities for the well-connected to personally profit from liberalization, whether taking a cut from the sell-off of state properties, catering to the needs of the new rich while slashing the public services of everyone else, welcoming the labor of migrants from the countryside but providing nothing in return but the bare essentials. That liberalization increased inequality was not a misguided policy approach but the very reason for these policies. Those in power supported liberalizing policies because those policies bolstered their own position.

Mainstream Americans tend to view economic liberalization as inherently good, and cast the negatives that accompany it - unemployment, corruption, fewer social services, rising concentration of wealth, increasing poverty - as the result of flawed public policies. Seeing the process structurally allows us to understand that the social groups driving liberalization, especially the upper rungs of the bureaucracy and commercial elites, benefit from both sides of the coin, and will block policies that might dilute these effects. Moralizing about the bad results while ignoring their actual source won't get us any closer to a solution.


Seething but aimless discontent in China

Lately The New York Times has been running an unusual series of very good articles on social tensions in China. Long and detailed, they present case studies in rising tensions between the increasingly rich and the increasingly marginalized, poor, and exploited. It's unusual because the Western media typically focus on the persecution of a handful of highly educated intellectuals while ignoring the much more important problems of official corruption and abuse, unemployment and labor repression, and exploitation of migrant workers.

China's 'Haves' Stir the 'Have Nots' to Violence, 2004 December 31
This article captures exactly how much resentment against officials is felt by people, and how easily it can explode into riots (in the city featured here, for a few hours "the police were nobody and the people were in charge."). But it also shows how isolated the discontent is, with no national connections being made between the countless local protests, and no understanding of the systemic causes of official abuse and widening inequality, viz. government authoritarianism and market reforms. People all over the country hate the local officials that suck them dry with taxes, fees, and fines, but they don't question the legitimacy of the state itself.

Rural Exodus for Work Fractures Chinese Family, 2004 December 21
The story of a family from the rural interior, one among tens of millions of others, broken apart by the need of the parents to become migrant workers in rich eastern cities. The rural system of social services has been dismantled by market reforms, leaving families on their own in paying for their children's schooling and medical bills. In the cities they work in sweatshops, denied even the chance to return home for China's most important holiday, Spring Festival (Chinese New Year). Or they come to build the luxurious new apartment buildings and corporate headquarters, sleeping in unheated warehouses on plywood beds. These migrants are the cheap labor welcomed by city officials and prospering Chinese companies, building the rich new China but denied any share of its wealth except what will keep them alive.

Farmers being moved aside by China's real estate boom, 2004 December 8
A village in remote Shaanxi province's crop lands are taken by local officials and leased to developers for 50 times as much as the farmers are given. The village fights back, petitioning Beijing, but the central government merely refers the matter back to the local officials who were at fault in the first place. Their options exhausted, the villagers occupy the local government offices, until their occupation is brutally suppressed. The same story is recurring all over China as powerless rural farmers have their lands confiscated by officials seeking to cash in on the opportunities that economic liberalization has opened for those with good connections.

China Crushes Peasant Protest, Turning 3 Friends Into Enemies, 2004 October 13
Yet another tale of regular people fighting a highly localized battle against official corruption and ending up with nothing. One small section highlights a couple key points:

The government uses China's 800 million farmers to provide grain, labor and capital for urban development. State banks take deposits in rural areas but make loans almost exclusively to richer ones. The authorities pour resources into prestigious urban projects, like the $1.24 billion Shanghai spent to build a state-of-the-art Formula One racetrack and play host to the European event through 2010.

Villages rarely get such help. All farm families, regardless of income, pay land and agriculture taxes as well as fees for social services, often exceeding what wealthier urban residents pay.
This is suggestive of several important issues that even good news articles don't examine: the lasting historical patterns structuring developments in China, and the key role of the state in China's economic "miracle".

To take the latter first, we are reminded that - contrary to market dogmatists - China's extraordinary economic expansion is anything but a triumph of laissez faire doctrines. Today's economic growth would not have been possible without the decades of a state-controlled economy that built an industrial and infrastructure base. Nor can we ignore the key role the state continues to play even after giving up overall control of the economy to markets. It is the state that has chosen which areas to favor for investment and construction (urban areas, mostly on the east coast), and it is the state that has consciously dismantled social protections for all but privileged urban residents. The poverty and exploitation of those highlighted in these articles is not a "natural but regrettable" side effect of a developing economy, as many comfortable commentators believe, but a deliberate result of state policies.

And second, China's rulers have always viewed the peasantry as a resource to be exploited (the radical left faction of Communists during the years of Maoism has been the only exception, tho they often advanced catastrophically bad policies). Under the command economy, the produce of the peasants was extracted to industrialize the country; today the same kind of exploitation continues, only thru market mechanisms.

The subordination of the rural majority is likely to continue unless and until a new vision of a radically democratic and egalitarian China takes hold. The absolute lack of any such ideology amongst the billion or so people who fill the ranks of China's "losers" does not bode well.