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A Short History of the Twentieth Century [Dec. 1999]

In June, 1900, troops of the Western powers broke the Boxer siege of the embassies in Peking, looted the Empress Dowager’s summer palace and thus destroyed for a time the valiant nationalist effort to halt colonial exploitation of China. By the year 2000 we were at the other end of the century, listening to leading lights of progressive American politics from Ralph Nader’s fair trade campaign, from the AFL-CIO and assorted NGOs, plus leading lights of right-wing American politics, all calling for China to be denied admission to the World Trade Organization.

What happened in between? Oh, it’s an old story now. China had a revolution, a series of revolutions in fact. Other poor countries did too. They tried to redistribute land and wealth, build an industrial base, foster internal demand, get a fair price for the commodities they needed to sell abroad. The western powers didn’t care for that any more than they liked the Boxers. They mustered armies to crush these revolutions, hired mercenaries, saboteurs and spies. They never relented, never forgave.

Some revolutions struggled on for several decades, in varying states of siege, boycotts, embargoes, economic sabotage. One survives. Whole continents drowned in blood.

As the world neared its rendezvous with the third Christian millennium a refined system of exploitation had been put into almost universally successful execution. The poor countries are to be held in helotry just as they were in the colonial world of the nineteenth century, their assigned task still the provision of raw materials or cheap goods manufactured under imperial license. There’s nothing new about “globalization,” just refinement of the process. To ensure that these poor countries continue to depend on exports for survival, the western powers have made sure that all possibility of robust internal markets is undercut. Austerity programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have laid waste to the domestic sectors of these economies, creating small elites servile to the imperial powers, amid vast oceans of poverty and desperation.

So awful have been the cycles of repression and rapine that some countries are in advanced stages of physical disintegration. In the temperate zone of the Americas, hurricanes derived their devastation in large part to the crushing, with the CIA as impresario of last resort, of all bids for land reform 30 and 40 years earlier, thus forcing peasants off good land onto marginal terrain which they necessarily overexploit, thus rendering it vulnerable to flooding and consequent landslides and erosion.

So, should we not regard with at least preliminarily mixed emotions the launching of a campaign by progressive liberals to deny China entry to WTO? Should we not reflect at least for a moment on the fact that the WTO talks in Seattle in 1999 broke down in part because African and Caribbean nations regarded those proposals for labor and environmental standards as nothing more than a protectionist ruse by the western powers?

“China, we're coming atcha,” yelled Mike Dolan, the Nader group’s organizer in Seattle, as he discussed the next item of business. “There’s no question about it. The next item of business is China.” Jeff Faux, director of the AFL-CIO-backed Economic Policy Institute told reporters that with China in the WTO it will be “impossible too get labor and environmental standards” installed, because “China’s too big for the sort of coercion that could be brought to bear on, say, Indonesia.” “The China vote is going to become proxy for all our concerns about globalization,” said Denise Mitchell, of the AFL-CIO.

So who exactly is the enemy here? China? The WTO? Or capitalism? After all, the WTO has been merely an expression of what the capitalist corporate chieftains of the western world want to lock in. The corporations probably could accept in some form those famous labor and environmental standards. It doesn’t take much by way of a pledge or a few more cents a month or an itinerant bunch of inspectors to bring most of the NGO watchdogs to heel.

Do I feel comfortable at the sight of western progressives execrating China? Not particularly, even though I know there are Chinese elites oppressing Chinese masses, inflicting dreadful working conditions and pay scales. The progressive intellectuals from the Economic Policy Institute who denounce China’s “state-controlled economic system” as “market distorting” (thus people like Robert E. Scott in “Working USA” aren’t so far removed from those who have administered the siege of Cuba all these years. The liberal NGOs are interventionist by disposition. The Somalian debacle, and to some extent the Kossovan nightmare were their shows. There’s no win-win situation for workers of the world, in the current era at least. American steelworkers here do better, ergo Russian and South Korean steelworkers overseas do worse. A garment worker here loses a job, a Central American makes a dime. Capitalism dictates the choices.

What can we do here? I don’t think we should be trying to fix up the WTO or keep China out. That’s not the sort of currency we, as radicals, should have truck with. Our currency is solidarity. We should be should be helping these poor countries develop internal markets, hence better paid workers, stronger agriculture by making war on the IMF and World Bank. The Jubilee campaign against World Bank bonds is a great thing. The campaign against the World Bank was terrific, at least until World Bank president John Wolfenson was smart enough to co-opt some of the relevant NGOs by hiring many of their technocrats. We have two million in prison. We have Pelican Bay prison and hundreds more hellish dungeons. We’re the world’s leading arms peddler, the world’s leading polluter. We don’t need, on the edge of 2000, at the end of this imperial century, to be signing on to a Yellow Peril campaign.

My grandfather Henry, a diplomat, was in the British Legation in Peking..Peter Fleming writes in his Siege at Peking: “The well-stocked library of Mr. [Henry] Cockburn, the First Secretary, provided some with solace. It included several reference books dealing with the Indian Mutiny, and accounts of the relief of Lucknow were in keen demand; the fate of Cawnpore was less closely studied.”

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