Tag Archives: China

Bull in a china shop

Democracy is on the rise. Arabs are finally, painfully getting rid of their Western-supported or Western-opposed -and really, what’s the difference at the end of the day- dictators that have secured a steady and cheap flow of oil over the past decades. The democratic West looks on, emitting a feeble “Hurrah!”

“Come on. Can’t you guys at least pretend to be happy for us?” an Arab observer might say. “Sure, we’re a bit late to the party, but can we at least get a drink up in this bitch?”

Here’s the thing though, and for this we need to rewind the tape a good 25 years, the end of communism didn’t spell the end of history. The interesting times were only beginning, to paraphrase a famous Chinese proverb. Liberal markets and their inseparable political analogue democracy had won. Yeay! China, fast opening its economy to the forces of supply and demand, would soon learn that for that system to work, politicians too needed to receive feedback on their performance. A healthy market can’t survive without a steadily improving regulatory framework, i.e. a democratic-ish state.

Then came Tienanmen, followed by two decades of casual +10% growth lifting hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty. The U.S. and your average old European social-market economies managed 3% to 4%, in a handful of good years. In relative terms, and due to the end of cheap oil also in absolute terms, the latter have been getting poorer. As Marsellus Wallace tells Butch in Pulp Fiction: “That’s a hard motherfucking fact of life.” Now you can hide said fact by means of budgetary wizardry, selling state property, cutting welfare expenditure, education budgets, or simply allowing banks to blow bubbles until everbody’s high with dollar signs in their eyes, but sooner or later your boxer is going to refuse to go down in the 5th.

With China on a high streak, happily yodeling down the mountain with no seat belts and more importantly, no political feedback system to efficiently steer a fair and sustainable distribution of wealth, the question is this: Were generations of political thinkers, starting with the Greeks over Montesquieu to err, Ronald Reagan, and basically everyone involved in inventing post world-war II Western-style democracy, high on crack? American and European leaders are surely, quietly asking themselves this question: Has democracy as we know it become a liability to the quest for economic growth? Can we possibly beat China, or simply not be eaten by it, without emulating its totalitarian political system? Even tree-huggers are jealous by now at China’s relentless push toward renewable energy.

Like so many enchanted cat owners, one hesitates to imagine what politicians get up to at night. I’m sure some actually do go home to their wives or quietly read Proust. Until, that is, they are rudely interrupted by panicky business leaders who can’t compete against these Chinese juggernauts. Not with these workers’ wages. “Is there anything you can do?” Well, one way to ease a voter’s mind into voting against his or her interest is to scare them half to death. “Islam!” I mean, “Booh!” You can have the Rupert Murdochs of the free world constrict the free flow of information to fickle electorates or just go old-school, like South-Africa yesterday, by shooting dead 30 striking miners. Lots of subtle signs indicate that something is going on, something is changing, and it doesn’t sound/taste/smell like bold new steps to deepen  citizens’ participation in society.

While your cat -I mean, representative is having a great night out in the aviary, on the premise that China is doing fine without that rare bird called democracy, said up and coming superpower is secretly discovering the contrary. Local mayors, governors and assorted appointed apparatchicks cannot be trusted to operate complex economies without up to the minute feedback on just how bad they are doing. Capital punishment does not scare the corrupt into becoming holy men. Formerly jailed from the get go, bloggers are now issued punch-card licenses: yes, you’re allowed to finger-point failing hospitals or a crumbling bridge, but only about five times. It’s not democracy, but a far cry from the Cultural Revolution, and a giant leap for an institution attempting to feed and house a billion and a half people, otherwise known as the entire world population at the beginning of the 20th century. As the Chinese economy becomes more complex and grows, so will the need to quickly rotate the folks in charge. Crowd-sourcing the decisions underpinning these rotations is simply more efficient. Cheaper, if you will. Economically sound. Get it? I.e. free markets need political oversight, but political oversight needs oversight by free people. In other words, China did not magically break the bond between economic growth and popular emancipation. It’s simply not happening at a fast-food pace.

Are our politicians catching up to the fact that the Middle Kingdom is catching up, or are they still talking bull about the china shop?

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Filed under Arab Spring, democracy, Islam, Middle East

The Bosnia equation

To intervene or not to intervene. Among Syria’s neighbors, the question looms ever larger. Turkish talk of humanitarian corridors and the Red Cross’s pleas for access to Homs and other flashpoint cities is reminiscent of timid Western attempts at stemming the Bosnian civil war. In addition, the example of military intervention in Libya, which I opposed exactly a year ago and still do, as well as the Iraq war, although a different animal entirely, towers over the debate.

No one wants to stick their head into a hornet’s nest, as Western media more or less rightly portray Syria. You don’t mess with a patchwork of ethno-religious groups and not expect unexpected, i.e. unpleasant results. We have learned this the hard way. There is never a clear-cut case for intervention. But sometimes there are clear-cut reasons not to intervene, as the 2003-2011 US war in Iraq shows. To this day, the long black shadow of that disaster skews the debate in the sense that we forget the human imperative of stopping the slaughter of thousands, as is currently happening in Syria. The question is, how to go about this?

Again, Libya looms large as a how-not-to. One of the problems with the West, and certain Arab regimes’ intervention in Libya was that it was emphatically not a humanitarian action that happened to topple a dictator. Rather it was a regime change sold to skeptical western audiences as a humanitarian necessity. Let’s not forget that at the end of the day Libyan rebels, aided by NATO air power, received critical training and direct logistical and tactical support from Qatari boots on the ground. Not to mention arms. Lots of arms, which are currently causing havoc among local groups vying for influence and power as well as elsewhere in the region flooded with cheap hardware. In short, we fucked up. Kinda.

What’s the alternative then to letting thousands die at the hands of a brutal regime? Is there a middle-ground between respect for state sovereignty and intervention for humanitarian reasons? Is there a way, in other words, that sovereignty-spastics like Russia and China might be swayed in favor of protecting the lives of countless innocents? To a humanist, anything is better than doing absolutely squat all against slaughtering unarmed men, women, and children. To Russia and China anything -absolutely anything- is preferable to the mere idea of a well-armed bully rolling into their respective backyards or worse, and laying claim by military means to natural resources or the countries sitting on top. Hence their recent veto in the Security Council against sanctioning the Syrian regime. Again, the US adventure in Iraq has destroyed a lot more than that country’s infrastructure. Its diplomatic fall-out will likely hobble the cause of not-killing-folks for years to come.

Again, what then? How do we stop the butchering? The answer perhaps lies in the question itself. The main goal as well as the extent of any action or mediation should be to stop the killing. Nothing short of it and nothing more. Bearing in mind Western duplicity in its handling of Libya, talking protection but gunning for the regime, it might be difficult to convince opponents of intervention of the veracity of such a mandate. Yet it is a course that must be pursued nonetheless. In essence, the international community should devise a way to grind the war down to a non-combative stalemate. For example one would prohibit Assad’s regime from continuing to commit wide scale atrocities, but also inhibit a hurriedly armed disparate group of non-professional opposition fighters to become a security threat themselves as we are currently witnessing in Libya.

Needless to say bringing about and enforcing such a stalemate is easier said than done. The Arab League’s observer mission was a good albeit timid start. Diplomacy should work to identify and propose a quid-pro-quo to the Russians who might be able to induce the Syrian regime into accepting a new, expanded observer mission. Trucking in food and medical supplies, hardly a threat to the government’s hold on power, nonetheless increases a perceived outsider presence, a psychological factor that should not be underestimated. Bearing in mind the atrocities that occurred in UN-patrolled Bosnia, one shivers to imagine what might have happened had we turned the other way entirely. In short, quixotic as it might seem, an unarmed outsider presence, in any shape or form, and the diplomatic pressure to maintain it, should be the lodestar of interventionist thinking as the court of global public opinion is increasingly complemented by actual international court rooms.

Of course, unarmed observers, truck drivers, journalists, and medical personnel are a vulnerable asset. Pressuring a regime into protecting them, or at least not outright shooting at them, is alas, a lot more easily achieved, given all permanent UN Security Council members are on board, than having them not shoot its own civilians. It follows that the mere presence of said observers, truckers, journos and medics becomes an impediment to all-out war. With Syria’s death toll creeping up to 10.000, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing. But until there are people trapped still in Homs and elsewhere any opportunity, however tenuous, is worth considering.

Whether a regime is able to provide for its people and if not, how it might be changed, is really not in the purview of other regimes, be they democratic or otherwise.  Full stop. The international community however has a duty to prevent the deaths of thousands of civilians, be they a victim of a natural disaster or the wrath of authority.

In Sinai, a fictional story, trapped tourists elicit a widening international chorus to ‘go in there and sort out the the mess’. The region teeters on the brink of war...

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Filed under Arab Spring, democracy, Gadhafi, Libya, Middle East, minorities, Revolution, seismic changes, Sinai, Uncategorized