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.