The patriot games

Neighbourhoods have been razed, protesters silenced and human rights activists jailed. China will al

Gasping and grimacing, Sun Yining struggled to lift the iron bar above her head. At 12, she is a head and a half taller and twice as sturdy as most Chinese girls her age. A star pupil at the Fushan Sports School in the coastal town of Yantai, she has set herself a goal: to win a gold medal in weightlifting at the next Olympics.

Sun's coach, Zhang Jianmei, proudly showed photographs of an illustrious former student, Tang Gong Hong, who won gold for China in the women's weightlifting at the Athens Games.

"The spirit of sports is all about being higher, faster, better," she said. "We made it."

"I want the same," said Sun. "I want to be a champion."

The Chinese government hopes that hosting the Olympics will enable the whole nation to share such glory. At Athens, the US won 36 gold medals, China 32. In the new sporting Cold War, the Chinese are determined to triumph on their home territory. Seven years ago, the State General Administration of Sport started "Project 119", which identified 119 golds - now 122 - going begging in athletics and swimming and other water sports. The strategy involved concentrating on disciplines with many categories, therefore many medals.

Canoeing, with 16 gold medals in Beijing, was one. The Chinese recruited a German coach, Joseph Capousek, under whose tuition Germany had won 18 Olympic golds for canoeing and kayaking in four Olympics.

In June, Capousek was sacked as Chinese team coach, allegedly because he was not getting good enough results. He believes he fell out with the sports officials partly because he criticised their obsession with winning, saying it was counterproductive, as it put too much pressure on athletes.

"For China, to win gold is political, it's very important," he said. "Everybody talks about gold in China. If you win bronze or silver, you are a loser." After he lost his job, he discovered that while the German version of his contract said he should aim to win gold, the Chinese-language version said he was obliged to do so.

If China beats the US in the medals table, Chinese officials will feel that history has finally vindicated them. "We know people will use the Olympics as an opportunity to humiliate China," said a senior diplomat. "Previously, the western media could humiliate China without Chinese people knowing, but now, because of the internet and TV, they know."

To outsiders, the idea that reporters will be running around Olympic venues seeking out opportunities to humiliate the hosts may seem absurd. But many Chinese share the government view that China was humiliated for centuries, from the Opium Wars when Britain seized Hong Kong, to the Japanese occupation in the 1930s and 1940s, and on through decades of poverty and isolation. The Olympics marks the moment to prove that those days are over.

"We have to have a good Olympics," said Wang Qishan, then mayor of Beijing, last year. "Otherwise not only will our generation lose face but also our ancestors." Such hyperbole has become normal. In this atheist nation, the Olympic flame is now routinely described as "sacred". Criticising the Olympics is therefore a form of sacrilege.

Yang Chunlin, a land rights activist who posted on the internet a letter entitled "We want human rights, not the Olympics", was jailed earlier this year, along with others who might let foreigners see that China is a land of diverse ideals and competing interests, not a homogeneous society of 1.3 billion automatons, all blindly agreeing with the Communist Party leadership.

Sacred flame

Fang Zheng would love to attend the Olympics, but he knows he would be unwise to try to come to Beijing. In the mid-1980s he dreamed of a career in sport. But on 4 June 1989 in Tiananmen Square, as he dived to save a female student, he was run over by a tank. Both his legs had to be amputated, one above the knee.

Still determined to be active, he learned to throw the discus and won two medals in the 1992 All-China Disabled Athletic Games. When he tried to compete internationally two years later, however, a sports ministry official told him he would not be allowed. The government was afraid that if he won, foreign journalists would ask how he lost his legs, and China would lose face. Now Fang keeps quiet, for fear of bringing more misfortune upon himself and his family.

"Of course, as a sports lover, I always wished that Beijing would host the Olympics," he said, speaking from his wheelchair in Hefei, a charmless town in eastern China. "But now it seems that the Olympics is a question of nationalism. The Chinese government always objects to the politicisation of sport, but they are the ones who politicise it most."

While critics say the government's attitude proves that it should never have been awarded the Games, in practical ways the Chinese system is ideally suited. With no public debate, no budget constraints, no transparent tendering, no citizens' groups challenging government decisions, and a large pool of migrant labour, the authorities have completed, on time, not only the 31 Olympic venues, but also three new subway lines and the largest airport terminal in the world.

"The readiness of the venues and the attention to operational detail for these Games have set a gold standard for the future," said Hein Verbruggen, head of a visiting International Olympic Committee delegation. "What our hosts have achieved is exceptional."

Architecture correspondents write breathlessly about the grandeur of the huge new buildings that dominate the concrete and glass skyline, yet these tell us little about how China has changed. Rather, they represent the latest manifestation of its ability to realise extraordinary infrastructure projects, from the Great Wall to the Three Gorges Dam, and now the Bird's Nest stadium. Most notable is the impact of globalisation: these new buildings are mainly designed by foreigners.

None of which negates the Olympics as an opportunity to celebrate China's undeniable economic success. In 30 years of "reform and opening up", hundreds of millions have been lifted out of poverty. Most Chinese are hopeful, because they see their children will have a better life than theirs.

With 80 heads of state expected to attend the opening ceremony, the Olympics also symbolise the country's new diplomatic reach and ability to influence events. China is criticised for vetoing sanctions against Zimbabwe and enabling the leadership of Sudan as it persecutes people in Darfur. According to the World Bank, however, it is also a major force for development, financing desperately needed infrastructure projects in Africa. Western unease is irrelevant - China must now be taken into account as the balance of world power alters.

Many Chinese, especially in Beijing, are excited and proud as they await the great day. The hurdler Liu Xiang and the basketball player Yao Ming are celebrities in the mould of David Beckham - great sportsmen now sought after for product endorsements as much as for their physical prowess. For their fans, the Olympics will be an occasion to celebrate their idols not just as representatives of China, but also as individuals.

However, as businesses are forced to close for two months because of Olympic anti-pollution traffic measures, and police comb the city checking people's hukou, their residency permits, others are asking if the Olympics are worth it.

A few weeks back, a small crowd gathered outside the home and nut stall of Yu Jinping. Her rickety old courtyard house at the edge of the hutongs, or alleyways, had been condemned as an "eyesore" along the torch relay route and was to be demolished. As a protest, she had festooned it with Communist Party flags and posters of great Communist leaders, past and present. "The district officials cheat and harm the people," she said. "They encourage the people to be against the party and against the central government. Their illegal evictions are destroying the flag of the great party."

Others were less patriotic in their objections.

"Is China the only country that's ever hosted the Olympics?" grumbled a middle-aged man in a grubby white vest. "Other countries have hosted the Olympics, too. Did they all rob their own people?"

"This is all wrong," agreed another.

These are ordinary people who - like "Mrs Brave", about whom Yiyun Li writes on page 28 - are not willing to be used as props in a piece of theatre staged by the government. But propaganda is an integral part of the Chinese system. South of Yu Jinping's house, the historic neighbourhood of Qianmen has been razed, the hutongs to be replaced by shopping malls and expensive residences, newly built to look as if they were old. A wall with an artist's impression of hutongs and flowers blocks the view of rubble. Genuine history is being replaced by a sanitised, safe facade.

As Ma Jian explains (page 24), a similar wall has been erected to shield modern Chinese from the more painful events in their recent past. The opening ceremony for the Olympics, details of which remain secret, will undoubtedly show something of China's epic history, in which dragons and heroic leaders are more likely to figure than tanks and students. The technocrats in charge of the Games stand in an unbroken line of Communist apparatchiks who believe that remembering the party's mistakes will lead to instability, not healing.

Other gaps loom even larger. The Cultural Revolution, during which millions were imprisoned and tortured, is still a taboo subject. In his new book, Tombstone, the 67-year-old journalist Yang Jisheng chronicles in painful detail the Great Famine of 1959-61, which was caused by Mao's agricultural policies during the Great Leap Forward. Using previously unpublished records, he establishes that 35 million people died, considerably more than in the First World War. The book, needless to say, is banned in China.

Afraid that foreigners may raise such sensitive topics, neighbourhood committees and work unit leaders have given Beijing residents "talking points". A taxi driver recently explained that he had been told that if the fare in the back of his cab got chatty, he should stick to "the five goods": Olympics are good, Communist Party is good, government is good, Beijing is good, taxi company is good.

The Czech writer Milan Kundera famously wrote: "The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting." As long as the Chinese central government dictates what people may remember and discuss, it is hard to see these Olympics as a real break with the past.

Lindsey Hilsum is the China correspondent for Channel 4 News

Lindsey Hilsum is China Correspondent for Channel 4 News. She has previously reported extensively from Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans and Latin America.

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games

Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: Getty
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Lexit: the EU is a neoliberal project, so let's do something different when we leave it

Brexit affords the British left a historic opportunity for a decisive break with EU market liberalism.

The Brexit vote to leave the European Union has many parents, but "Lexit" – the argument for exiting the EU from the left – remains an orphan. A third of Labour voters backed Leave, but they did so without any significant leadership from the Labour Party. Left-of-centre votes proved decisive in determining the outcome of a referendum that was otherwise framed, shaped, and presented almost exclusively by the right. A proper left discussion of the issues has been, if not entirely absent, then decidedly marginal – part of a more general malaise when it comes to developing left alternatives that has begun to be corrected only recently, under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell.

Ceding Brexit to the right was very nearly the most serious strategic mistake by the British left since the ‘70s. Under successive leaders Labour became so incorporated into the ideology of Europeanism as to preclude any clear-eyed critical analysis of the actually existing EU as a regulatory and trade regime pursuing deep economic integration. The same political journey that carried Labour into its technocratic embrace of the EU also resulted in the abandonment of any form of distinctive economics separate from the orthodoxies of market liberalism.

It’s been astounding to witness so many left-wingers, in meltdown over Brexit, resort to parroting liberal economics. Thus we hear that factor mobility isn’t about labour arbitrage, that public services aren’t under pressure, that we must prioritise foreign direct investment and trade. It’s little wonder Labour became so detached from its base. Such claims do not match the lived experience of ordinary people in regions of the country devastated by deindustrialisation and disinvestment.

Nor should concerns about wage stagnation and bargaining power be met with finger-wagging accusations of racism, as if the manner in which capitalism pits workers against each other hasn’t long been understood. Instead, we should be offering real solutions – including a willingness to rethink capital mobility and trade. This places us in direct conflict with the constitutionalised neoliberalism of the EU.

Only the political savvy of the leadership has enabled Labour to recover from its disastrous positioning post-referendum. Incredibly, what seemed an unbeatable electoral bloc around Theresa May has been deftly prized apart in the course of an extraordinary General Election campaign. To consolidate the political project they have initiated, Corbyn and McDonnell must now follow through with a truly radical economic programme. The place to look for inspiration is precisely the range of instruments and policy options discouraged or outright forbidden by the EU.

A neoliberal project

The fact that right-wing arguments for Leave predominated during the referendum says far more about today’s left than it does about the European Union. There has been a great deal of myth-making concerning the latter –much of it funded, directly or indirectly, by the EU itself.

From its inception, the EU has been a top-down project driven by political and administrative elites, "a protected sphere", in the judgment of the late Peter Mair, "in which policy-making can evade the constraints imposed by representative democracy". To complain about the EU’s "democratic deficit" is to have misunderstood its purpose. The main thrust of European economic policy has been to extend and deepen the market through liberalisation, privatisation, and flexiblisation, subordinating employment and social protection to goals of low inflation, debt reduction, and increased competitiveness.

Prospects for Keynesian reflationary policies, or even for pan-European economic planning – never great – soon gave way to more Hayekian conceptions. Hayek’s original insight, in The Economic Conditions of Interstate Federalism, was that free movement of capital, goods, and labour – a "single market" – among a federation of nations would severely and necessarily restrict the economic policy space available to individual members. Pro-European socialists, whose aim had been to acquire new supranational options for the regulation of capital, found themselves surrendering the tools they already possessed at home. The national road to socialism, or even to social democracy, was closed.

The direction of travel has been singular and unrelenting. To take one example, workers’ rights – a supposed EU strength – are steadily being eroded, as can be seen in landmark judgments by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the Viking and Laval cases, among others. In both instances, workers attempting to strike in protest at plans to replace workers from one EU country with lower-wage workers from another, were told their right to strike could not infringe upon the "four freedoms" – free movement of capital, labour, goods, and services – established by the treaties.

More broadly, on trade, financial regulation, state aid, government purchasing, public service delivery, and more, any attempt to create a different kind of economy from inside the EU has largely been forestalled by competition policy or single market regulation.

A new political economy

Given that the UK will soon be escaping the EU, what opportunities might this afford? Three policy directions immediately stand out: public ownership, industrial strategy, and procurement. In each case, EU regulation previously stood in the way of promising left strategies. In each case, the political and economic returns from bold departures from neoliberal orthodoxy after Brexit could be substantial.

While not banned outright by EU law, public ownership is severely discouraged and disadvantaged by it. ECJ interpretation of Article 106 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) has steadily eroded public ownership options. "The ECJ", argues law professor Danny Nicol, "appears to have constructed a one-way street in favour of private-sector provision: nationalised services are prima facie suspect and must be analysed for their necessity". Sure enough, the EU has been a significant driver of privatisation, functioning like a ratchet. It’s much easier for a member state to pursue the liberalisation of sectors than to secure their (re)nationalisation. Article 59 (TFEU) specifically allows the European Council and Parliament to liberalise services. Since the ‘80s, there have been single market programmes in energy, transport, postal services, telecommunications, education, and health.

Britain has long been an extreme outlier on privatisation, responsible for 40 per cent of the total assets privatised across the OECD between 1980 and 1996. Today, however, increasing inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and the general sense of an impoverished public sphere are leading to growing calls for renewed public ownership (albeit in new, more democratic forms). Soon to be free of EU constraints, it’s time to explore an expanded and fundamentally reimagined UK public sector.

Next, Britain’s industrial production has been virtually flat since the late 1990s, with a yawning trade deficit in industrial goods. Any serious industrial strategy to address the structural weaknesses of UK manufacturing will rely on "state aid" – the nurturing of a next generation of companies through grants, interest and tax relief, guarantees, government holdings, and the provision of goods and services on a preferential basis.

Article 107 TFEU allows for state aid only if it is compatible with the internal market and does not distort competition, laying out the specific circumstances in which it could be lawful. Whether or not state aid meets these criteria is at the sole discretion of the Commission – and courts in member states are obligated to enforce the commission’s decisions. The Commission has adopted an approach that considers, among other things, the existence of market failure, the effectiveness of other options, and the impact on the market and competition, thereby allowing state aid only in exceptional circumstances.

For many parts of the UK, the challenges of industrial decline remain starkly present – entire communities are thrown on the scrap heap, with all the associated capital and carbon costs and wasted lives. It’s high time the left returned to the possibilities inherent in a proactive industrial strategy. A true community-sustaining industrial strategy would consist of the deliberate direction of capital to sectors, localities, and regions, so as to balance out market trends and prevent communities from falling into decay, while also ensuring the investment in research and development necessary to maintain a highly productive economy. Policy, in this vision, would function to re-deploy infrastructure, production facilities, and workers left unemployed because of a shutdown or increased automation.

In some cases, this might mean assistance to workers or localities to buy up facilities and keep them running under worker or community ownership. In other cases it might involve re-training workers for new skills and re-fitting facilities. A regional approach might help launch new enterprises that would eventually be spun off as worker or local community-owned firms, supporting the development of strong and vibrant network economies, perhaps on the basis of a Green New Deal. All of this will be possible post-Brexit, under a Corbyn government.

Lastly, there is procurement. Under EU law, explicitly linking public procurement to local entities or social needs is difficult. The ECJ has ruled that, even if there is no specific legislation, procurement activity must "comply with the fundamental rules of the Treaty, in particular the principle of non-discrimination on grounds of nationality". This means that all procurement contracts must be open to all bidders across the EU, and public authorities must advertise contracts widely in other EU countries. In 2004, the European Parliament and Council issued two directives establishing the criteria governing such contracts: "lowest price only" and "most economically advantageous tender".

Unleashed from EU constraints, there are major opportunities for targeting large-scale public procurement to rebuild and transform communities, cities, and regions. The vision behind the celebrated Preston Model of community wealth building – inspired by the work of our own organisation, The Democracy Collaborative, in Cleveland, Ohio – leverages public procurement and the stabilising power of place-based anchor institutions (governments, hospitals, universities) to support rooted, participatory, democratic local economies built around multipliers. In this way, public funds can be made to do "double duty"; anchoring jobs and building community wealth, reversing long-term economic decline. This suggests the viability of a very different economic approach and potential for a winning political coalition, building support for a new socialist economics from the ground up.

With the prospect of a Corbyn government now tantalisingly close, it’s imperative that Labour reconciles its policy objectives in the Brexit negotiations with its plans for a radical economic transformation and redistribution of power and wealth. Only by pursuing strategies capable of re-establishing broad control over the national economy can Labour hope to manage the coming period of pain and dislocation following Brexit. Based on new institutions and approaches and the centrality of ownership and control, democracy, and participation, we should be busy assembling the tools and strategies that will allow departure from the EU to open up new political-economic horizons in Britain and bring about the profound transformation the country so desperately wants and needs.

Joe Guinan is executive director of the Next System Project at The Democracy Collaborative. Thomas M. Hanna is research director at The Democracy Collaborative.

This is an extract from a longer essay which appears in the inaugural edition of the IPPR Progressive Review.

 

 

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games