Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Artist Who Dares the Bourgeoisie

Ai Weiwei
On April 3 while on his way to Hong Kong Ai Weiwei was arrested by Chinese police at the Beijing airport. His arrest was acknowledged by the authorities three days later and it was reported in the Global Times, the Communist Party-run newspaper. It was stated that Ai was held for ‘economic crimes’ and the authorities were investigating into it. His studio was raided, his wife was questioned and many of his assistants were also detained.
This information in itself should not be alarming, unfortunately, as this has become routine in the People’s Republic of China where the Communist Party-government has been on a protest/dissent crackdown overdrive from December 19, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself ablaze after police highhandedness in Tunisia and tension gripped the Middle East and North Africa.

The Muffled Voices
The list of people who have been detained, arrested or ‘missing’ is endless: Liu Zhenggang, a designer who suffered a cardiac arrest while in detention; Xu Zhiyong, a lawyer charged with tax evasion; Wu Liliong, an environmentalist who was exposing industrial pollution at Lake Tai in eastern China; Guo Feixiong, a legal rights activist; Liu Xianbin, for inciting subversion; Ran Yunfei, Chen Wei and Ding Mao, all three for inciting subversion; Yang Hengjun, a novelist; and many others like Jiang Tianyong, Li Tiantian, Liu Shihui, Tang Jingling, Tang Jitain, Teng Biao…Of course how can one forget Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Liu is a political prisoner who is serving an 11-year sentence for pro-democracy appeals, especially through his Charter 08. The list goes on… Some of these people have been released while some continue to be under detention.
The vagueness in the details regarding the arrests is partially also because of the secretive nature in which the police work. Also most of the people who are released are warned not to go public about the time they spent under arrest. All this should not be surprising for a country that is run by a government that deems it fit to lock up its only Nobel Laureate.
If one were to profile all the people who are arrested or just ‘disappear’ there are a few common traits — they are either artists, or social activists or human right lawyers; all of them are either vocal about the injustices prevalent within the system or are seen as a threat by Beijing.

Protester Artist
Ai’s case is different mainly because of the political influence he has, or rather had at one point, and the international status he enjoys. Ai’s father Ai Qing was a revolutionary poet who was with Mao Zedong during the proclamation of the People’s Republic in 1949. But within a decade he was accused of advocating free-speech and revolution and was sentenced to 16 years community service. Ai Weiwei grew up seeing this dichotomy and in 1981 Ai Weiwei left for the US. As an artist Ai had a different approach and perspective to what many saw as everyday mundane things. In 1988 he got his first solo exhibition.
One of the architects of the famous Bird’s Nest (stadium) which was the cynosure of all eyes during the Beijing Olympics, Ai Weiwei has always been vocal of his discomfort the way the Communist Party was taking the Chinese people. Ai was rattled by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, which killed around 80,000 and left close to 40 lakh homeless. More than 5,000 schoolchildren were buried alive as school buildings collapsed. Through his blogs he attacked the corrupt local administration that built the “tofu buildings”. He campaigned for the family of Chen Xiaofeng who was run over by the son of an influential official in Baoding. The campaign came to be as ‘My father is Li Gang’ — these were the words of the son as he drove away. Ai was also vocal in his support for Liu Xiaobo.

‘Fat Guy’ Difference
Ai Weiwei was released after 81 days on June 22 under the quobao houshen. The quobao houshen, which has been loosely but incorrectly compared to a bail, is an agreement in which the accused is released but investigations continue for up to a year. The accused will have the freedom to move within a restricted area (town, city) but access to the media is restricted. Ai, after lying low for a month or two, sprung back in August in a highly critical article of the government’s proposed law to detain a person for up to six months without informing the family. Later he was slapped with a $2 million fine for the tax evasion done by the company that promotes his art. Ai, known in twitter and sina weibo as Uncle Ai or ‘fat guy’, made an appeal to netizens who collected close to $1.3 mn (Ai said this was the ‘beginning of civil society in China’). The latest charge against Ai is that he is spreading pornography. Nude art is common among Chinese artists and with the emergence of a photograph titled ‘One Tiger and Eight Breasts’ the authorities are hounding Ai and the people behind the shoot. Expressing support to Ai, his fans are posting their nude pictures on the Internet.
The Chinese government arrested Ai for ‘economic crimes’ thereby making the issue an internal matter. This prevents any foreign country from interfering in their ‘internal affairs’. That this is a ‘Trojan’ used by Beijing is a well-known fact. However, his background, international support and pressure from the artistic community made it hard for the government to detain him further.
The predicament or opportunity Ai Weiwei is in — depending on which side you stand — has been very succinctly put by journalist Kelly Crow: “What happens when you become the modern-day, artistic equivalent of that young man who once stood before the tanks in Tiananmen Square?”

Ai Weiwei with his Sunflower Seeds at Tate Modern, London

Heart-Patient Sprinter
Ai Weiwei in one of his blogs describes China has a sprinter with a heart condition. China is zooming ahead with a resurgent zeal of be ‘the’ world superpower. This is aided with its economy doing well and Beijing is expanding its defence forces and forging ties with countries around the world. However, while these positives are there, it is a nation that is crumbling from within. Corruption is increasing and inequality is widening. There are no forums to address ones grievances and the government, especially the provincial ones, do not entertain complains against corruption. Add to this the fact that freedom for a Chinese citizen is the ration what the state doles out.
The uprising in the Middle East and North Africa has got Beijing worked up. While initially the unrest in Tunisia and Egypt was censored, the authorities soon understood that it could not keep its people away from the Arab Spring that was spreading like wildfire. So it got cracking on the people who were voicing their dissent or people likely to gather support for the causes they were voicing.

Different Chinas
China has changed a lot from the ideals of what it claims to be ever since it started economic reforms in 1978. Though it claims to be a socialist in outlook, a socialistic approach is today more or less on paper. The way the government has gone about with its policies of development has resulted in disparities of two kinds — income and regional. China has some of the world’s most rich people and a large pool of poor people. In the cities migrant labourers, along with their families, form this pool and are treated as second-class citizens with almost no rights. Region-wise the development can be seen as a trickle-down model. While coastal areas and cities have got the lion’s share of development, central provinces come next and the western provinces and interior regions come the last, usually getting the leftovers from the central provinces. This has led to massive migration to cities in search of labour/food. Developmental migration, due to power projects or urbanisation, should also been seen as a reason for spurring poverty and inequality.
China, today, is one of the world’s most capitalistic country in which the Communist Party is the biggest bourgeoisie. And anyone who questions the ways of this bourgeoisie is silenced.
(This appeared in The New Indian Express on November 28)

Thursday, 10 November 2011

As Uncle Sam Beats the Retreat from Iraq

In the euphoria of Libyan dictator-president Muammar Gaddafi being captured and killed by Libyan rebel forces on October 20, media houses around the world overlooked or underplayed a development in the Middle East. At a relatively toned down press briefing from the White House, the following day, US President Barack Obama announced that by December 31 all US troops would leave Iraq. Thus, by bringing to an end the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which was strongly opposed by many of US’ allies including France and Germany, Obama has kept one of his poll promises. This is a decision that future analyst will observe as an important move that changed the way the world does politics because a pullout by US from Iraq has more than one implication and impact. So why did such a monumental announcement by Obama go under the radar of sorts? While the move was discussed widely in the United States, internationally the response it received was lukewarm. Perhaps it was intended to be so.

Politics of pullout

Obama’s announcement was criticised by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney as a sign of weakness and an open invitation to Iraq’s neighbour Iran to fill in the vacuum. Romney while making these allegations is either exposing his political naivety for it was President Bush who signed the withdrawal in 2008, or it is political opportunism, a craft which needs a lot of honing.

For Obama it is a win-win deal in many ways. Firstly, as the 2012 presidential race heats up, the announcement is a brownie point for Obama. As of November 4, 49 per cent of Americans approve of the way he is handling his job; that’s a two per cent rise from the previous month. The spree of assassinations -- Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki and Muammar Gaddafi --- has assuaged the US public that the billions they have been spending has seen some fruition.

Secondly, the war on terror, waged in Iraq and Afghanistan, has bled the US in many ways – financially, perception-wise and human casualty. Financially, the wars have cost the US close to $2.5 trillion and this sum is entirely --- yes entirely --- on money borrowed. With no tax reforms and the war spending increasing US’ debt has shot through the roof. Perception-wise the US has lost footing within and outside the country. The number of people in the US who think that the wars are of a “choice” and not a “necessity”, to use Obama’s phrase to describe the Iraq and Afghanistan operations respectively, are on the rise. Americans also feel that these operations in the Middle East and other countries have only earned them the hatred of others. A good example would be Pakistan, which is a war ally. Despite Washington pouring in billions into the country, US is detested by the people and government of Pakistan. Recent reports from Iraq indicate that even groups that initially welcomed the US forces are happy to see the pullout. The human casualty, in the form of wounded --- physically and mentally – war veterans, is an expenditure that is going to grow on the US economy as years pass by. Economists fear that this will have a telling effect on the economy in the years ahead.

Thirdly, the US, while in theory actually pulls out, actually does not. While on the surface there is a pullout the US has worked out mechanisms through which it will have a sizable presence in the Iraq. Through the various embassies in Iraq US will be employing close to 20,000 personnel. This soldier pullout paves the way for the comeback of the ‘notorious’ contractors. Ted Wright, president of Blackwater (responsible for the Nisour Square Massacre in 2007) has expressed interest to do business in Iraq again. The US has signed arms deal with Iraq worth more than $10 billion. In the lieu of training and maintenance US personnel will be stationed in Iraq soil. Given all this, it is clear that the US has made sure that it maintains its presence in the country. After all Iraq is a major oil producing country and the revenue trade with Iraq can generate through development work is too lucrative for any country to forgo.

Middle East equation

To understand the political fluctuations and future developments in the Middle East it is essential to first understand the two predominant sects in Islam --- Sunni and Shia. Sunnis form roughly 85 per cent of the Muslims world over. The Middle East is predominantly Sunni but Iraq and Iran have Shias as the majority with a presence in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Saddam Hussein was heading a Sunni minority government in a Shia majority Iraq. He suppressed Shia and Kurd movements and Tehran was his bete noire. Other countries in the region thought of him as a good counterweight to an Iran that was getting assertive and threatening after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The United States, by invading Iraq, ousting and hanging Saddam did in a year what Iran was trying to achieve for decades. Thus Washington was levelling Iraq as a playing field for Tehran.

‘Good’ neighbour

For all the tall talk done by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that “Iran should not miscalculate about our (US) commitment to Iraqis” analyst agree that Iran’s influence over Iraq cannot be stopped, and definitely not by any of the tactics the US has used till date.

While invading Iraq former President George Bush had planned to reform the country and turn it into the first true democratic country in the region with the hope that it would serve as a beacon to other countries to move towards democracy. However, the steps taken by the US to usher in this change went wrong from the beginning. America’s hand-picked Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government could get the required numbers last year only because it got the backing of Muqtada al-Sadr, who is a Shia with active backing from Tehran. Thus the democracy that the Washington propped up in Baghdad was on the stilts lent by Tehran.

However, there is a silver-lining as Iraqis, who have longed for democracy and have witnessed the developments in the neighbouring countries, have protested against the stand Maliki has taken on the uprising in Syria. Maliki has not criticised the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of Iran.

Pullout Panic

Of late there has been a call for attacking Iran for the threat it poses because of the nuclear weapons it has in its possession. A rattled Israel, which has not had good relations with Iran, is in the forefront with this call for attack. While it is a matter of concern that Tehran has a clandestine nuclear programme going on in the stealth, it is also a known fact, something akin to a public secret known to all. Russia has advised caution in approaching Iran.

It is understandable that Israel is worried that with US pulling out of Iraq, Iran will have a free run over there. Add to this the Arab Spring which is bringing traditional US favourites down and giving groups that are close to Tehran a chance to run these countries; not to mention the Gilad Shalit deal which has given the Hamas a boost. Thus a US pullout from Iraq can be said to be the trigger for this panic attack.
(This appeared as an Opinion in The New Indian Express on November 10)

Friday, 4 November 2011

The Lama, the Dragon and the Red Rainbow

On October 7 South African anti-apartheid crusader and Anglican bishop Desmond Tutu turned 80 years old. While the whole of South Africa rejoiced, one could not overlook the pall of gloom hanging heavy over the occasion. And Desmond Tutu himself made a reference to it, Fellow Nobel Laureate the Dalai Lama, who was expected to attend the celebration and give talks in the country, was not present at the function because the South African government did not process his visa. Tutu might be an octogenarian and retired from active duty as archbishop, but his vigour and zeal to fight injustice is as strong as it was in the eighties when he fought the minority White apartheid regime in South Africa. Tutu was critical of the ruling African National Congress for bowing to diplomatic pressure from China (China is one of the biggest investors in the country). And all it took for Beijing to stop South Africa from issuing the Dalai Lama a visa was a pledge to invest $2.5 billion in South Africa. The South African government played it safe by not antagonising China and inviting the Middle Kingdom’s displeasure (see The Dalai Lama Effect). But the reaction of the people of South Africa, as of many around the world, was best summarised on a banner outside the cathedral: ‘Sold out for a few yuan’.

Hounding the Lama

This is not the first time China has had its way in sidelining the Dalai Lama on various stages around the world. From 1959, when he fled Tibet after an uprising against the Communist Party of China failed, China has been after the Dalai Lama, who currently lives in India. Though there was unrest prior to it, it was the Lhasa uprising in March 1959 that got wide global attention.
The present Dalai Lama, His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, is the 14th reincarnation of the Buddha Avalokiteshvara.  Though a leader for the people of Tibet, he is seen as a separatist by Beijing. While he has been going around the world speaking about the cause and garnering support for the Tibetan movement, China has been stonewalling the efforts of the Lama.
In 1989 when the Dalai Lama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, China warned Norway of the cutting of trade relations. China took objection to Canada’s decision to award the Dalai Lama honorary citizenship in 2006 and to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting him in September 2007. In December 2008 Belgium’s Prime Minister Yves Leterme’s meeting Dalai Lama irked China. Beijing once again raised objections to Mexican President Felipe Calderón meeting the Lama this month.
In 2009 the Dalai Lama was prevented from attending a Nobel laureate’s conference in South Africa. The same year in October, while the Dalai Lama was in Washington, United States President Barack Obama cancelled a meeting with the spiritual leader after what was recognised as pressure from China. In refusing to meet the Lama, Obama became the first US President to do so. The round went to China. This was the same Obama who, along with Hillary Clinton, in April 2008 urged then President George W Bush to boycott the Beijing Olympics because of the bloody repression of the uprising in Tibet. However, the following February Obama met the Dalai Lama at the White House. Again in July 2011 they met at the White House. As expected China voiced its displeasure but with the two Nobel Peace Laureates meeting, that round went to the Tibetan spiritual leader.

Protests and India

Since 1959 Beijing has taken full control over Tibet. From 1959 to 1989 (Tiananmen Square) it went about its social and political reforms and after 1989 it has concentrated on suppressing the uprisings in Tibet, including the bloody suppression of the 2008 uprising which coincided with the Beijing Olympics. Currently there is a cycle of protests under way with the tenth monk setting himself ablaze in China. On October 25 a monk in the Sichuan province took the extreme step in a wave of anti-China protests hitting the country. China, as usual, dismissed the incidents as conspiracies by ‘splittist’ agitators, who China claims are influenced and instigated by the Dalai Lama.
Tibet has a very great bearing on Sino-India relations. The two countries at the best of times are suspicious of each other and at worst have fought a war – 1962 – in which India was badly scarred. Though over the years bilateral relations have looked up, there are whispers in the dark about unresolved issues like the border conflict. In Sino-India relations Arunachal Pradesh is a contentious issue because it is generally believed that if the next Dalai Lama has to come from outside Tibet, it is likely to be from Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh where the Sixth Dalai Lama came from.

 The Dalai Lama Effect

In 2010, Andreas Fuchs and Neils Hendrik Klann from the University of Gottingen, Germany, undertook a study to find out whether China's trade with countries was affected if the leaders of that country met the Tibetan spiritual leader. The inference was that there was a decrease in exports from 8 to 16 per cent from a particular country to China if its political leader met the Dalai Lama. Fuchs and Klann called this the 'Dalai Lama Effect'.

Red Rainbow and Hope

It’s not just the ‘Rainbow Nation’ that is exhibiting more hues of red. Almost every country around the world that wants to be part of the benefits of the economic juggernaut that China is today is turning a blind eye to many of its transgressions. Apart from issuing standard statements of remorse and regret at China’s human rights abuse, no country including India and the United States is willing to back its words with actions. China’s permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council gives it more power to act according to its discretion.
The present generation Tibetans living outside the country have not been to their homeland and China is betting that as Tibetan youth get assimilated into the culture of the country they are in, the movement will lose its zest. The movement also faces a number of crucial questions: Who after the current Dalai Lama? Will there be another Lama? What about China’s efforts to project a Lama? What is the future of the Tibetan political movement under Kalon Tripa (prime minister) Lobsang Sangay?
For now the advantage seems to be on Beijing’s side but the power of a peaceful resistance can never be undermined. There is hope for Tibet and its people in exile and they, scattered around the world, seem to have taken this Chinese adage to heart: You must persevere to accomplish seemingly impossible tasks.

(This article appeared in The New Indian Express on November 3, 2011)