Sunday, 4 October 2009

A new look at our Chinese connection

On Thursday, China marked six decades of Communist rule with an enormous, highly-choreographed parade displaying its military might and seeming to celebrate - with its strict formations and careful selection of local spectators - rigid conformity among its people. At least that's how it struck me when I turned my TV on to our one local channel and saw the parade, which was being televised here. In Barbados. On the one local channel.

Granted I was a bit woozy with sleep when I turned on the television. Still languishing in my cable-free existence, I don't watch much TV these days. But every now and then, Channel 8 will broadcast some show offering information that I probably wouldn't otherwise have accessed. A few weeks ago, there was one explaining and seeking solutions for our problems with coastal erosion and the coral reefs that we've managed to destroy, and more recently, a great series of interviews with experts and activists working to reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS in Barbados. So I tuned in on Thursday night in the hopes that I might see something illuminating, and I suppose that's what I got, in so far as the broadcast of the celebrations caused me to realize just how much our 'diplomatic involvement' with China seems to be growing, and to simultaneously ponder what in sky-blue tarnation Prime Minister Thompson and his Cabinet are brewing over there in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Now, Barbados has engaged in diplomatic relations with China since the 1970s, and the two countries have a well established history of bilateral economic cooperation as well as cultural exchanges. Chinese economic funding of capital projects here has been accompanied by the country's provision of its own workforce on such projects, and over time, the appearance of Chinese temporary migrant workers has increased. The population of more permanent migrants has also seemed to grow steadily, but still represents a miniscule proportion of our population. In recent months, the Thompson administration has placed huge emphasis on its efforts to increase the proportion of economic assistance that comes from China. In fact, it appears to be government's key economic strategy for containing the deficit while continuing to grow the economy through the funding of capital projects. Less transparent, however, has been the other part of the equation: what are the conditionalities, if any, upon which this economic assistance is contingent? Is this aid tied to any development indicators? To the reciprocity of economic goodwill via, for example, absorption of an increased Chinese labour force? In short, what does China stand to gain from giving us all this money?

We're not sure, but in the meantime, the current administration has embarked upon some kind of "Embrace China" campaign, in which Thursday's parade was prefaced by the exhortations of the PM to watch the proceedings, proceedings which were clearly meant to convince anyone watching of China's greatness as a socialist nation that has avoided the economic ruin plaguing other countries, and also of the fact that they have large guns, and know how to use them. The spectacle was, frankly, disturbing. And as we saw the odd proximity of flag-bearing children to tanks and rocket launchers and the giant portrait of Chairman Mao floating imperiously across Tiananmen Square, one wondered why the Barbados government was so invested in having us observe, invested enough to send us a special message to watch on television, just as China's President Hu Jintao had sent a message to its citizens. Why China would want its own citizens to watch is not difficult to fathom: as China's economic power and prospecting grow abroad, so too does the backlash against its presence and policies, and with it, the relative insecurity of its people living in the countries on whom it has set its mercantilist sights. Over 3000 Chinese tourists were hurriedly evacuated from Thailand during civil unrest in November last year. And from the coast of Somalia to Papua New Guinea and even nearer home in Xinjiang and Tibet, China has been actively engaged in using military force to suppress uprisings in order, ostensibly, to protect its assets and people. So Thursday's parade was meant to convince not so much its Western competitors as its own people both at home abroad of the government's capacity to protect and its general wonderfulness concerning the country's development. I'd imagine that if a government is really successful, it wouldn't take hours of marching and weapons displays for its citizens to be convinced, but we know that China has never been one for the soft touch when it comes to influencing what its people 'believe'.

But I'm still not sure why even they would care about how 270 000 people on a little rock in the Caribbean Sea perceive them. As it stands, the handful of Chinese living here are not under threat from much of anything, except perhaps idiotic calypso songs, (which when you consider how idiotic might actually be something of an incentive to increase cultural awareness). But apart from that, why insist on broadcasting such an intimidating show of Chinese strength in li'l ole Barbados? Especially without any context or introduction? I have to confess that even as a non-alarmist who has some understanding of Chinese economic and foreign policy, even I was starting to get nervous about possible appropriation of our entire country by the Chinese government. I found myself thinking for a brief, silly moment, "Holy crap...David Thompson done gone and sold the whole of Barbados to the Chinese in exchange for a couple schools and some gymnastics lessons." One imagines (and dearly hopes) that nothing quite so sinister is afoot here, and that this broadcast was nothing more than a type of popularity campaign on which the Barbados government has promised to embark in exchange for oodles of Chinese cash. But this doesn't make the whole thing any less irritating. In fact, it probably makes it more so. And here's why:

The following night, as I looked at the little Channel 8 programming list they air before the 7:00 news, I noticed that slotted in at around 8:30 was some show vaguely called "Chinese Culture". So I tuned in to find a programme featuring a very small-voiced, female narrator describing the virtues of Chinese farming practices, healing techniques, gastronomy and who knows what else. It was a naive little crash course in the tourist's China, looked like it was recorded in the 80s, and didn't say much of anything. By the next night, when an identical show appeared in the lineup, I was starting to get simultaneously confused and annoyed. The series struck me as a silly little propaganda campaign (ack! there's that word) meant to convince us that there's nothing wrong with having China foot our capital projects bill (someone doth protest too much) because they're really cool people who know how to shoot guns and do acupuncture. And once I had again convinced myself that the Prime Minister had not in fact sold us off as a new Chinese colony, I began to feel insulted by this ridiculously superficial and misleading 'education campaign'.

First of all: don't try to handle me. (I've always wanted to say that, preferably while sitting across a boardroom table from Bill Gates or Condoleeza Rice, but this will do.) Don't handpick little soundbytes about horticulture and food preparation and sell them to me as a representation of modern-day China. Not only does it obscure far more important aspects of the historical making of the People's Republic of China as a nation and the way its society functions today, but honestly, it's just a weak, lazy attempt at cultural integration. If I were China, I would ask for my money back.

Second, if people truly have concerns about our dependence on development aid from China, they are more likely to do with the country's human rights record: the Chinese government's restrictions on free speech and the media, independent organizing and religious freedom continue apace. Lack of due judicial process operates alongside the torture and ill-treatment of prisoners, and the country's one-child, family planning policy represents more violations of human dignity and reproductive rights than can be discussed here. After Iran and Saudi Arabia, China executes the most people per capita in the word, including for crimes like tax evasion. (Although if you kill your girlfriend, you're straight; especially if you promise to pay for her. You break it, you buy it, dude.)

This is not to say that diplomatic relations have to be severed in order to take an ideological stand against the undesirable parts of a country's system of governance. In fact, it's often more effective to engage than to dissociate. That is, when you're the U.S or UK or any country larger than an area rug. When you're Barbados, you don't roll up into China and say "you know what, we'd love to take your millions but we're concerned about the status of the Uighurs in Tibet, so let's start that dialogue." No. You say "Ooh millions! Thankees!" Because no one cares. You have nothing to offer and no one cares what you have to say. Your two possible courses of action are: take the money/don't take the money. And while there might be room for negotiation on less important points, China is not taking advice from David Thompson on its human rights record.

So the PM takes the money: there are arguments for and against that. This we acknowledge. But don't insult us by launching a media campaign pretending that China is all economic success and beautiful (-ly controlled) weather, and engaging in your own brand of revisionist/selective education. It's maddening. And stupid. Clearly the PM is not going to grab China's money and then run home to engage in long, televised debates about the death penalty or the war in Tibet. But neither should he gloss it all over with mindless little 'culture shows' as if we can't read, or have no international social conscience. It only makes me angry, and want to further question not only the content of any new bilateral agreements with China, but the general foreign policy skill of Barbados's current administration. Which suggests to me that whatever the PM's goal may have been, the whole thing backfired a little.

1 comment:

  1. I did not watch the programme by choice, but I am taken aback to learn that our PM actually did an introduction. How come we did not celebrate with the 40 anniversay of the Cuban Revolucion? I have to say when my husband saw the ad, he took one look at me and said "Can you say who is your daddy?" I guess that is one we would have to ask our administration! I would like someone to compare the costs of broadcasting this versus bringing H.E Ryan Brathwaite's preiminaries and victory at the IAAF in Thessaloniki Greece!


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