The WTO as the latest invader
The Ho Chi Minh Museum in Vietnam’s capital, Hanoi, is a treasure chest of photos, letters, artefacts and artworks commemorating both the national independence struggle against France and the US and the life of its liberation leader, Ho Chi Minh. Amongst the excerpts from Ho Chi Minh’s socialist speeches and writings, pictures of regional summits involving today’s leaders seem incongruous.
But then again, they tell of Vietnam’s latest struggle - for economic development. Once again, the US is taking on Vietnam. But this time, the US has market capitalism and free trade in its armoury: strong weapons in its post-Cold War struggle for economic and political power in Southeast Asia.
Bizarrely, official Party documents and speeches portray neoliberal policies as consistent with - and even a realization of - Ho Chi Minh’s teachings. They present a progression along the path of socialism on the basis of Marxism-Leninism and Ho Chi Minh Thought, shaping a modern economy in a way which by-passes capitalism. Uncle Ho’s body lies in the nearby Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. I wonder what he’d make of all this?
Today a curfew is a regulation forbidding people to be out of doors, especially at night.
Curfew is from the French couvre-feu, meaning literally ‘cover-fire’. In medieval towns with wooden buildings built close together, fire was a great risk. A stray ember could easily set a house on fire. A ‘cover-fire’ (ashes or a lid) was placed over the embers at night, to stop them spitting. ‘Cover-fires’ were a legal requirement at night in much of medieval Europe. Candles, another fire risk, also had to be extinguished at night.
Outside the museum, I talk to Dong, a bright 27-year-old accountant. She tells me that Vietnamese university students study only free-market economics, and that there is little questioning of Vietnam’s economic and trade reforms among her peers. She is keenly aware of her history - of the battles her country has fought and won. But her country’s struggles for independence and against imperialism seem to have little real meaning to many young Vietnamese. In its place is often a quiet confidence that Vietnam can handle whatever competing in the global free-market economy may entail.
Vietnam is currently negotiating to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). With this comes added pressure to remove trade barriers and lock in the economic reforms. As in other transitional economies, market policies are presented as the only alternative and consistent with government commitments to work towards growth, poverty reduction and equity. There is little official acknowledgement of the human cost of neo-liberal policies.
Since 1986 Vietnam has undertaken comprehensive reforms known as doi moi (renovation). In 1989 ‘small shock therapy’ saw over a million state-sector workers laid off, wage reductions and the introduction of piece-rate wages and individual wage incentives. Between 1989 and 1995 the number of state-owned enterprises declined from 12,500 to 4,000. Annual GDP growth averaged 7.5 per cent between 1991 and 2000, but there is a widening gap between rich and poor. Some 70 per cent of Vietnam’s population still depends on farming for its survival.
Donors and foreign investors are frustrated with the state’s continuing strong role. They often point to China’s reforms, WTO commitments and lower costs as a prompt for Vietnam to ‘do better’. Yet the rapid economic development in neighbouring former ‘tiger’ economies was not attributable to privatization and liberalization policies but to strong state intervention, regulation and protection.
Many in Dong’s generation may see free trade as a win-win equation. Older people have their doubts. One man explained: ‘We might have been poor under socialism, but at least the state provided the necessities for everyone.’ They defeated the US only to be invaded by Cargill, Coca-Cola, Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys.
Last November, Vietnam’s National Assembly approved a much-hyped bilateral trade agreement with the US. But in a momentous event for a one-party state, the vote was split, with 278 in favour, 85 against and 17 abstaining. Those against fear that the deal surrenders control over Vietnam’s economy to US companies.
Days earlier, a US move restricting imports of Vietnamese catfish had signalled what is to come. When it suits US interests, double standards and protectionism will prevail in a deeply unequal relationship. In the streets of Hanoi, a song from the North invades the lunch-time buzz. As if reading my thoughts about where the US wants Vietnam to be in world trade, ABBA serenades us with ‘The winner takes it all, the loser has to fall’.
Unocal in Afghanistan
Former consultant to oil giant Unocal Corporation and pro-Taliban lobbyist, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been made the US Special Envoy to Afghanistan. The highest-ranking US diplomat in the country, he represents US government interests to the emerging Afghani Government. Khalilzad has a long history of promoting pro-military action during the presidential administrations of Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W Bush.
Khalilzad’s historic support for the Taliban does not appear to have been an obstacle to his appointment. While working on Unocal’s project beginning in 1997, Khalilzad participated in talks with the Taliban on oil and gas pipeline infrastructure through the country, attended a delegation of Taliban leaders visiting Texas, and called for US support for their regime.
In 1997 Khalilzad conducted risk assessments for Unocal on their proposed 1,500-kilometre pipeline project to transport natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan while he was a consultant with Cambridge Energy Research Associates.
In 1998, after the US retaliated for the attacks on its embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by bombing Afghanistan, Unocal suspended all public negotiations for trans-Afghanistan pipelines, stating it would only participate in a Centgas pipeline project ‘when and if’ Afghanistan achieved the ‘peace and stability necessary to obtain financing from international agencies and a government that is recognized by the US and the United Nations’.
Drillbits and Tailings, Vol 7, #1, 2002
Chinese villages where
unsung artists dwell
Two of the world’s worst things - the ‘war on terror’, and ‘reality television’ - are coming together in a new Pentagon-Hollywood collaboration. ABC - a US TV ‘news’ network owned by Disney - is getting priveleged access to US troops on the ground in Afghanistan and elsewhere in order to produce reality TV show, Profiles from the Front Line, ‘the compelling personal stories of US military men and women who bear the burden of this fighting,’ with the ‘unparalleled support and co-operation of the Defense Department,’ according to an ABC news release.
But the US military is getting flak for favouring entertainment producers such as Jerry Bruckheimer over news journalists. Bruckheimer produced both Black Hawk Down, a revisionist film about the heroic US effort in Somalia in 1993, and Pearl Harbor with US military co-operation. Bruckheimer says the reality TV ‘war on terror’ show will be ‘saluting our military’ and be ‘very patriotic’ in tone.
But to paraphrase TS Eliot, human kind may not be able to bear much of this kind of reality. One reviewer of Pearl Harbor reported that the film was so bad he emitted involuntary yelps of incredulous dismay at five minute periods throughout the showing. Another reported that audiences began siding with the Japanese midway through the film.
Meanwhile, children have been gathering useful lessons on conflict resolution from US kids TV programme Sesame Street. UN Secretary General Kofi Annan appared on the show, successfully mediating a dispute among the muppets who were fighting over whose turn it was to sing the alphabet song. His diplomatic skills to the fore, Annan urged Elmo, Grover and the other characters to sing the song together.
We cannot confirm reports from the White House alleging that George Bush vetoed the decision and insisted on singing the alphabet song all by himself.
A 350-metre-long patchwork quilt made of 1,000 cloth pieces is carrying an urgent cultural message to the Chinese. The quilt symbolizes the need to preserve the country’s folk art, which is in danger of dying out. One thousand people from farming families living along the Yellow River contributed their talents to the quilt, named Qianjiaxiu, Chinese for ‘1,000 families embroidery’.
Guo Qingfeng, a folk-arts teacher from north-west China’s Shaanxi province, spearheaded the project. ‘Folk art is like the soil of our traditional culture,’ he says.
In their mission to conserve folk art, Guo and five students set off from the origin of the Yellow River at Qinghai in north-west China, and travelled to its outlet at Shandong in the east. The idea of patching together 1,000 pieces came from an ancient ritual in the Yellow River Valley, in which local families praying for good harvest and fortune made a quilt out of 100 embroidered pieces to please the deities. The tradition has been dying out as more and more people have left their villages for towns and cities.
The pieces of this new quilt were dyed in five colours: blue, black, red, yellow and white. These represented the five natural elements in Chinese culture: wood, water, fire, earth and metal.
A particularly impressive piece of the quilt was contributed by Chang Zhenfang, a well-known folk artist from Ansai county. The 78-year-old grandmother drew a few lines on a piece of yellow cloth to contour two lovers standing side by side.
‘The lines she drew can be compared to Picasso’s paintings,’ Guo says. He learned of Chang’s heart-breaking story while watching her draw. She gave birth to 11 children, but only two survived. A local shaman told her that she must kill the elder or the younger would die. The illiterate Chang believed him and killed the child. After that, she went insane.
Art, however, has performed a miracle: Chang becomes calm once she starts paper-cutting or drawing pictures.
When Guo left, the ageing Chang seemed to hint at her impending death. ‘Next time you come, I won’t be here any more,’ she told the teacher.
Such words give Guo a further sense of urgency. ‘We cannot let folk artists like Granny Chang go without leaving their art behind,’ he said. ‘So our Qianjiaxiu is to pray for the preservation of our cultural ecology to the general public.’
Guo says his work really began in 1989 when he spent a month in villages and towns along the Wuding, a Yellow River tributary. Over the following years, he toured around the Yellow River Valley, took extensive notes, interviewed more than 20 artists and collected well over 300 paper-cuttings.
‘The fieldwork over the past 12 years deepened my feelings for the Yellow River,’ Guo says. ‘Sometimes I feel as if the river were staring at me sadly, urging me to quicken the pace of my work.’
Wen Chihua & Zheng Zhengwen / Gemini.
Tiny eye of the hurricane
The US navy call it ‘the rock’.
Diego Garcia is a beautiful 27-square-kilometre atoll of coral and sand - and the most important strategic US air-base in the Indian Ocean. It’s been used for US bombing raids on Iraq, and in October 2001 B-52 bombers began flying from their base there to bomb Afghanistan.
Once a British protectorate, Diego Garcia was leased for 50 years (in exchange for a $14-million discount on a missile programme) to the US to use as a military base in 1964, and the entire indigenous Ilois population was moved off the island between 1965 and 1973.
Ilois who had left were refused re-entry, Britain cut supplies to the island to ‘encourage’ emigration, and those that remained were forced onto ships which took them to Mauritius, 2,000 kilometres away. There was no resettlement plan: on arrival they wandered through the streets of Port Louis, lost. In 2000 the British High Court found that the Government had acted unlawfully and had misled the UN about the inhabitants’ rights of residency.
While the US built its massive military base with imported labour, the original inhabitants were forbidden the right of return. In January 2002, a class-action suit was filed in Washington by three of the original inhabitants of the island against the US Government. Defendants include several former US defence secretaries - including Donald Rumsfeld - and the Halliburton Company, an oil corporation formerly headed by Dick Cheney. The Ilois are suing for the right of return and compensation. Charges include torture, genocide and forced relocation.
Dramatic rescue bids for exploited children
Milk and moral sustenance now nourish those
saved from slavery by Free the Children.
It was the workers from Free the Children India (FTC) who rescued Gopal - from a West Bengal mechanical workshop near the Bangladeshi border. They rescue thousands of children from exploitation each year. In Gopal’s case, his employer had paid $25 to his family, living on the rural outskirts of Calcutta. In exchange, Gopal was taken to the workshop and worked 15 hours a day, six days a week for 60 rupees ($1.50). He was only nine years old.
FTC received a tip-off from a community worker who, while getting her car serviced, noticed the child’s ill-health and maltreatment: his untreated skin infections and poor eyesight from exposure to the flying sparks while he helped fix rickshaw bicycles. For the next four weeks, FTC went undercover and investigated the daily operations of the workshop - times of work, number of staff, entrances, windows, lighting and the exact layout of workshop. Together with local authorities, they executed a rescue plan, breaking into the workshop at night via a window located next to where Gopal slept. He was woken to the bright lights of torches and several people whispering: ‘You are safe. We have come to free you.’ He was then whisked to the sanctuary of the awaiting FTC van. The operation took under three minutes. The employer has since been charged.
‘At first I didn’t understand what was going on, then I realized someone had answered my prayers. I cried all that night. I just kept thinking “I am free”,’ recalls Gopal.
Gopal now lives in the Destitute Children’s Home. Run by FTC, it is home to 25 boys aged between two and nine who have also been rescued from begging, prostitution, drug trafficking - and camel jockeying. Camel jockeying is a form of entertainment for wealthy sheikhs in Saudi Arabia where the child is strapped onto the neck of camels, whipped and beaten by another jockey. The child (who has been trafficked from neighbouring countries) either receives multiple lacerations or dies from the ordeal.
Swapan Mukherjee is the director of FTC India. He wants to create a society where children are aware of their rights and are fearless enough to rise up against the exploitation of children. Those few children who are fortunate enough to recover at the Destitute Children’s Home, receive shelter, nutritious food and clean running water. The healing process takes time and includes one-to-one psychological rehabilitation sessions, regular medical check-ups, in-house ‘mothers’ who give the children round-the-clock attention, and perpetual nurturing by all members of staff (including office workers, visitors, cooks and guards. The children are also taught Hindi, English, Geography and Morals - an educational base from which they can build a future.
‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I ask nine-year-old Gopal.
‘A Doctor, so I can repair all the children who have been hurt by adults’ he replies.