Friday, April 11, 2008


Beijing Olympics: democracy is still the issue

Leaving the hotel, and passing the slogans that adorn this central area of Beijing, I engage a patrolman by the road. The man is friendly, speaks briefly in Mandarin to my companion and fetches a small booklet from his garment. He appears ready to show me its contents, but then his superior walks by, gives me a disapproving glance and the patrolman a sterner one still. The booklet quickly disappears and the patrolman stares steadily ahead. My companion, who first visited Beijing in 1994, says Beijing officials are much friendlier today. Perhaps my police interlocutor had taken the new policies rather too much to heart for his commander’s liking.
We reach Tiananmen Square. Expanded in the early 1950s to its current giant size, it’s like a vast, grey parking space. Whilst the high culture of Paris, Tokyo’s technological innovation or Chicago’s muscular Americana are in some sense celebratory and inclusive, Tiananmen Square is antiseptic, cold, purely and exclusively a testament to power. The excess of national flags, arranged on the Great Hall of the People, can only denote the Party’s deep feelings of insecurity in a changing world. The vast space is broken only by the Mao Zedong Mausoleum and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, which became a focal point for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. On this bright day or on any other, there is no sign of the killing; the significance can only be carried in memory. The square is monitored by numerous video cameras. Plain-clothes police circulate while uniformed personnel stand guard, all overlooked by Mao’s giant portrait. Tim Clissold in Mr. China aptly describes the dictator as appearing ‘serene and expressionless’. The square is a clinical, forbidding place.

Yet, elsewhere, in places like Zhongshan, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Foshan, there is a vibrant industrial revolution. Everywhere seems alive, vital: the energy lifting millions from poverty. In every town and city are ugly Party headquarters, and passing propaganda, but the presence seems less pronounced. In 2004, a few days after landing in Hong Kong, I found myself sitting on the floor one evening in a traditional Japanese restaurant in Zhongshan, barraged by culture shock. Later, after adventures in the darkness, I returned - somewhat dazed - to my hotel room and turned the radio dial for some familiarity, but the BBC is still banned in most places. I awoke the next morning to a rendition of the national anthem - a local school was opening.

Democracy for all
Arguments about Tibet often get bogged down in a discussion about independence and China’s sovereignty. The key issue is freedom and democracy in China, including for Tibetans, Han and everyone the CCP routinely oppresses. Tibet’s struggle is part of that wider battle.

Britain’s Labour government fully and openly backs Communist China. China's human rights record is appalling, despite some improvements. The British government's record on China is actually worse than some other European governments. Genuflection has become an art form. In the last decade alone, two state visits have been organised for Chinese dictators under Labour auspices. One took place in 1999, when Jiang Zemin was honoured. On that occasion transit vans were used to screen protestors from the communist leader, and there were allegations of police heavy-handedness. In 2005, it was Hu Jintao’s turn for British flummery. Hu was party chief in Tibet when martial law was declared in a crackdown on protestors.

In the run up to the Olympics, the British Olympics Association inserted a clause into athletes’ contracts forbidding them from commenting on “any politically sensitive issues”. After protests from Jonathan Edwards and Matthew Pinsent, this gagging clause – which went further than IOC restrictions – was withdrawn. In February, Olympics minister Tessa Jowell condemned a boycott of the games, but said it was “reasonable” to use the Olympics “to encourage China to act as a responsible global citizen.” However, her naive remarks that the freedoms granted to journalists by the Chinese authorities during the Olympics "should not and cannot be taken back” are now hopelessly dated: the CCP blocked journalists from vast swathes of China, as a military crackdown ensued. As part of its bid for the Olympics, China promised to improve human rights, including granting freedom to journalists to report without restrictions. The Chinese authorities confirmed to the IOC "that there will be no restrictions on media reporting and movement of journalists up to and including the Olympic Games." This commitment has already been broken.
The Olympics mean a great deal to the CCP. It's an all consuming obsession. As such, it’s a golden opportunity to hit the CCP hard where it hurts, without actually damaging the people (from my and other observations in Beijing, the people seem quite divorced from the process anyway. Celebrations and functions leading up the games are tightly controlled, with the people kept well back). The Olympics will continue, but they shouldn't be allowed to succeed purely on the CCP's terms - a ‘Communist Success’, more fodder for slogans in Beijing. They shouldn't be entirely co-opted as an element of communist propaganda. Let’s take every opportunity to make it known that the CCP's shoddy standards are not acceptable to those that regard human rights and freedom as important.

However, the British government won't even make the smallest of stands - like not attending the opening ceremony. Francis Bayrou, of France’s Democratic Movement, called for France to boycott the Games. Donald Tusk, Poland’s Prime Minister, and Václav Klaus, President of the Czech Republic, have decided not to attend the opening ceremony, as has Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. The Japanese royal family has refused to attend. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, will not attend. French president Nicholas Sarkozy and his foreign minister Bernard Kouchner have suggested that a French boycott of the opening ceremony is a possibility. However, the British government has always ruled out a boycott of the opening ceremony. Gordon Brown will happily lap up the propaganda on his arrival in Beijing. He won't tour the prisons, the re-education and forced labour schemes, witness those under house arrest and surveillance, listen to those forcibly evicted and treated shoddily, or learn about those slaughtered by China’s liberal use of the death penalty. His Foreign Secretary David Miliband talked grandly about the ‘Democratic Imperative’ at a recent lecture, but is publicly muted about the CCP, despite it being deeply implicated in the suffering of Burma and Darfur. There’s less of an imperative to fully support democrats in Hong Kong and China, or put real pressure on the CCP.

This is not the time to relent – it’s time to apply pressure vigourously. There has been some progress in the human rights situation in China, such as some improvements in prison conditions and the death penalty process, limited experiments in democracy, and the 2004 recognition of property rights and very brief mention of human rights in the constitution. Whilst there is no full and real democracy as such, critical views – with boundaries set by the party – are tolerated to a greater extent than they were before: the situation is indeed greatly improved since Mao’s time. Whilst opposing the monopoly power of the CCP, and campaigning for democracy and human rights, it does a disservice to China to simply portray it as purely a brutal regime with leaders as “new emperors who ride roughshod over their own people” who have “almost total power” and that they “abuse to oppress and exploit the Chinese nation”, as Peter Tatchell says. Whilst true in many ways, especially regarding Mao, that is an over-simplistic statement to describe the current situation, because it ignores the real and positive changes.

The key is to keep the pressure up to continue the process of reform. There is much still to be done. There is endemic corruption. “The Chinese Communist party has become one of the most corrupt organisations the world has ever witnessed” says Will Hutton. There is a lack of workers rights; strikes are banned, and there are no free trade unions. Moreover, with a deeply flawed and highly politicised legal system, China regularly imprisons people unjustly. There is constant battle with hardliners and engrained police attitudes, and recent developments are not encouraging. Here are just two cases of many:

On 3 April 2008, democracy activist Hu Jia - whose family suffered under Mao - was sent to jail for 3½ years for “inciting subversion of state power”. Hu, who also worked in the environmental and AIDS awareness campaigns in China, told a European hearing in November 2007: “It is ironic that one of the people in charge of organising the Olympic Games is the head of the Bureau of Public Security, which is responsible for so many human rights violations. It is very serious that the official promises are not being kept before the games.”

Shi Tao was sent to prison for ten years in 2005 for emailing a summary of a government order to a US based pro-democracy website. Yahoo Hong Kong Ltd, a subsidiary of Yahoo Inc, divulged details of his email account without asking questions. Amid lawsuits against the company from dissidents, the US Congress condemned Yahoo which later paid damages to the family suffering because of its policy of easy collaboration. Tom Lantos, then chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said: "It took a tongue-lashing from Congress before these high-tech titans did the right thing and coughed up some concrete assistance for the family of a journalist whom Yahoo had helped send to jail. What a disgrace."

Useful links:
Reporters without Borders
Amnesty International
Human Rights Watch
Internet censorship in China
Power, Corruption and Lies
Free Tibet

Tuesday, May 22, 2007


Labour Party leadership: no democracy

The Labour Party moved away from only the parliamentary party electing the leader many years ago.

It's only right, after 13 years without an election, the party should nominate competing candidates for election before the the whole party.

The notion that (because its deemed an easy victory for Brown) there is no point in having the election violates a first principle of any democracy: the right to vote (be it taxpayers and citizens in General Elections, or party members and trade unionists in the Labour Party.) That is the first principle, not party bureacracy.

Democrats don't violate such a principle. It's not violated in Bolsover or Buckingham, where election results are foregone conclusions. People still vote: it's a part of democracy.

What the PLP did in nominating Brown in such large numbers was to forestall democracy in the Labour Party. Their task was not to vote for Brown. Their task of nominating candidates was the initial step in a wider democratic process.

By nominating Brown as the only candidate they have behaved liked nomenklatura in a Communist state. Communist countries sometimes have limited formal democratic structures. But these structures are either sidelined or entirely dominated by the governing party, therefore making a mockery of any putative democratic function. The PLP was involved in a similar process: the sidelining of democracy.

The result: Gordon Brown was nominated as the only candidate to go through to hustings devoid of democratic debate. Members and trade unionists are now prevented from voting for the next leader.

Note how the nominations process was staged over a period of time, with updates provided via the Labour Party website which was not unbiased: 308 was the target in a gameshow.

The nominations process was not secret (a secret ballot is essential in a democracy) and the whole process was designed to "ramp up" nominations for one candidate.

Brown, of course, was easily on the ballot paper: there was clearly no need to persuade any MP to nominate him. But it's now clear that Brown was telling fibs when he said he would welcome a contest.

Brownites continued to persuade extra MPs to back him, and according to one report, Brown personally succeeded in persuading a wavering Gavin Strang to nominate him. Why? The reason is clear: not to ensure Brown's nomination (probably in the bag within minutes of nominations opening) but instead to prevent party members and trade unionists having a vote in a contested election.

A democratic party should not deny its members a vote through these cynical procedural means. It's not expedient to deny people the vote. It is fundamentally undemocratic.

Sunday, January 28, 2007


The Guardian: do as we say, not as we do

Last year, Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, a leading left liberal UK national newspaper, received a 14.7% increase in his annual salary from £272,000 to £312,000 plus a £175,000 bonus. This bonus was apparently related to the relaunch of the Guardian using the compact Berliner format.

Guardian Media Group chief executive Carolyn McCall got a 9% salary increase to £280,000 plus a £215,000 bonus.

Bob Phillis, retiring from the GMG board, received a 7% pay rise to £407,000 and a £280,000 bonus.

At the same time Guardian sales are flat, despite the relaunch, and the Guardian and Observer lost £49.9m. Many Guardian staff got only a 3% pay rise.

The Guardian also had this to say about excessive boardroom pay:

The problem is getting worse. Every year top executives vote themselves rewards totally out of kilter both with what their employees earn and the success they achieve.

Will Alan Rusbridger hand back his bonus or distribute it to staff? Is it right that Alan Rusbridger gets a 14.7% pay rise based on losses, and Guardian staff get around 3%, when one considers that London is now one of the most expensive places on earth to live?

It's time for Alan Rusbridger and the GMG board to live up to the progressive values they espouse every day in Guardian. Its time for Alan to provide a public explanation of his pay rise and bonus as it relates to the Guardian's own public statements on boardroom pay, and I challenge him to return his bonus or distribute it amongst staff.

Thanks to Private Eye for the information above.

The latest Guardian circulation figures are here. The ABC Primary Figure is 365,635 which is roughly the same circulation the Guardian achieved before the relaunch.

Thursday, December 09, 2004


Bhopal twenty years on

Just after midnight on December 3, 1984, forty tons of methyl isocyanate leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant at Bhopal, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

The disaster killed between 7,000 and 10,000 people in three days.
15,000 have died since. 100,000 have been or are suffering chronic diseases.
A generation suffers infertility and birth defects.

Although Union Carbide paid the Indian government $470 million to settle all claims related to Bhopal, that figure was based on the now discredited estimate of 3,000 deaths due to the disaster. Much have the money has not yet reached the victims. No one has faced charges in court for the disaster. Instead those responsible abscond from the law.

In September 2004, three years after 9/11, the US State Dept refused, without explanation, an extradition request from India.

This was for top Union Carbide officials, including Warren Anderson, the chief executive at the time of the disaster.

The Bhopal disaster is several times the maginitude of 9/11, in terms of suffering and death.

Bhopal was not deliberate. But unlike September 11th, those responsible are fully identified and within the grasp of the authorities. However, the US govt refuses to co-operate with the Indian authorities to get justice for the victims.

Mark Hertsgaard says:

"There are many shades of gray in life, but sometimes the truth is black and white: it is shameful for Dow/Union Carbide to keep ducking its obligations in Bhopal and shameful for the U.S. State Department to help it do so."

The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal

Read about Yes Men and their original treatment of this issue, wrong doers and media duplicity in general here.

Monday, September 13, 2004


Clive Stafford Smith

A brilliant, must see talk by Clive Stafford Smith, a British American human rights lawyer. Much on the death penalty, Guantanamo Bay, George Bush, the war on terror, the American legal system and many other issues.

He defends many people on death row in the USA, and founded Reprieve. He is now working on Guantanamo Bay cases.

Watch, listen and learn here.

Friday, September 10, 2004


The Death Penalty worldwide

Amnesty International's most up to date information shows that:

"80 countries have abolished the death penalty for all crimes
15 countries have abolished the death penalty for all but exceptional crimes such as wartime crimes
23 countries can be considered abolitionist in practice: they retain the death penalty in law but have not carried out any executions for the past 10 years or more and are believed to have a policy or established practice of not carrying out executions

making a total of 118 countries which have abolished the death penalty in law or practice.

78 other countries and territories retain and use the death penalty, but the number of countries which actually execute prisoners in any one year is much smaller.

During 2003, at least 1,146 prisoners were executed in 28 countries and at least 2,756 people were sentenced to death in 63 countries. These figures include only cases known to Amnesty International; the true figures are certainly higher.

In 2003, 84 per cent of all known executions took place in China, Iran, the USA and Viet Nam. In China, limited and incomplete records available to Amnesty International at the end of the year indicated that at least 726 people were executed, but the true figure was believed to be much higher: a senior Chinese legislator suggested in March 2004 that China executes "nearly 10,000" people each year. At least 108 executions were carried out in Iran. Sixty-five people were executed in the USA. At least 64 people were executed in Viet Nam.

Eight countries since 1990 are known to have executed prisoners who were under 18 years old at the time of the crime - China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the USA and Yemen. China, Pakistan and Yemen have raised the minimum age to 18in law, and Iran is reportedly in the process of doing so. The USA has executed more child offenders than any other country (19 since 1990).

Amnesty International recorded three executions of child offenders in 2003, two in China and one in the USA. Three executions have been recorded in Iran in 2004."

Amnesty International

Thursday, July 29, 2004


A Convenient Myth

All intelligence services thought that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and was a threat, prior to the war.

1. Do you believe that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction; for instance, chemical or biological weapons?

President Chirac: Well, I don’t know. I have no evidence to support that… It seems that there are no nuclear weapons - no nuclear weapons program. That is something that the inspectors seem to be sure of. As for weapons of mass destruction, bacteriological, biological, chemical, we don’t know. And that is precisely what the inspectors’ mandate is all about. But rushing into war, rushing into battle today is clearly a disproportionate response.
Interview with CBS, 16th March, 2003

2. A British intelligence source said the best intelligence on Saddam was held by the French who had agents in Iraq. 'French intelligence was telling us that there was effectively no real evidence of a WMD program. That's why France wanted a longer extension on the weapons inspections. The French, the Germans and the Russians all knew there were no weapons there -- and so did Blair and Bush as that's what the French told them directly. Blair ignored what the French told us and instead listened to the Americans.'
The Sunday Herald, June 1, 2003

3. French intelligence services did not come up with the same alarming assessment of Iraq and WMD as did the Britain and the United States. "According to secret agents at the DGSE, Saddam's Iraq does not represent any kind of nuclear threat at this time…It [the French assessment] contradicts the CIA's analysis…" French spies said that the Iraqi nuclear threat claimed by the United States was a "phony threat."
Institute for Science and International Security

4. Russia was not convinced by either the September 24, 2002 British dossier or the October 4, 2002 CIA report. Lacking sufficient evidence, Russia dismissed the claims as a part of a "propaganda furor."Specifically targeting the CIA report, Putin said, "Fears are one thing, hard facts are another." He goes on to say, "Russia does not have in its possession any trustworthy data that supports the existence of nuclear weapons or any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and we have not received any such information from our partners yet. This fact has also been supported by the information sent by the CIA to the US Congress." However, Putin was apprehensive about the possibility that Iraq may have WMDs and he therefore supported inspections. The Russian ambassador to London thought that the dossier was a document of concern. "It is impressive, but not always…convincing."
Institute for Science and International Security