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Communist Party

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Agony Aunt Passes Judgement

1 January 2012

Agony Aunt Passes Judgement

By Gwynne Dyer

It’s getting harder for freelance journalists to make a decent living, so recently I’ve had to branch out into the advice column business. The people who write in seem pretty flakey, on the whole, but sometimes their letters cast a useful light on larger issues. For example:

Dear Aunt Gwynne:

People say I am beautiful and my men friends tell me that I am very accomplished, but I have a problem. I married my high-school sweetheart, but he was in the construction business and he went bankrupt in the crash. We are now divorced and I have lots of new boyfriends, but I really want security this time and it’s so hard to choose.

My Chinese boyfriend comes from a rich family who are also in the construction industry. That means they have to give a lot of bribes, but I’m used to that. The problem is that he is not a Communist Party member, and nobody in his family is a senior regime official. What if they execute him for bribery?

I don’t really know what my Russian boyfriend does for a living, but I think it’s not exactly legal. He has tons of money, but his bodyguards never leave his side, so the bed is quite crowded. He bribes all the right people, he says, but sometimes he talks about politics and that scares me. What if the government decides he is an enemy?

The other guy is an Indian, and his family is in the construction business too. He’s really sweet and I like him best, but nothing works in India. Also, I just read that they’ve passed a law in India that would make it dangerous to bribe people, and then the whole family would go out of business. I don’t know what to do. Please help.

Perplexed of Beverly Hills

Dear Perplexed:

You have my sympathy: anguish can strike at every socio-economic level. Let’s take this one piece at a time. I agree that the Russian boyfriend is problematic. Criminality is no obstacle in itself, but if your boyfriend is thinking of dabbling in Russian politics, he will soon be neither free nor rich. You should move on.

Your Chinese boyfriend sounds better, but his lack of connections really is a potential problem. Bribery is as common as spitting in the street in China, but the regime does jail or execute somebody once in a while to show it cares. The chances are no more than one in fifty, but to be really safe one should be a Communist Party member. Only one in a thousand of them ever get punished. Can your boyfriend get a Party card?

If not, you really should consider the Indian boyfriend. Poor infrastructure is not a problem that affects the rich in India, and bribery is a perfectly normal part of life for everybody. I wouldn’t worry about the new law that the Indian parliament passed.

The lower house did vote in favour of a tough anti-corruption law, but they made sure that the new anti-bribery ombudsman would have no control over the Central Bureau of Investigation, which actually carries out the corruption investigations (when it feels like it). Besides, the upper house of parliament failed to vote on the new law last week, so it’s probably not going to happen at all.

Eight similar anti-corruption bills have failed to make it onto the books in India in the past 43 years, so why should this one be different? And why do you feel that you have to outsource your husband anyway?

You seem to be American, from your address, and there are plenty of rich Americans. In the United States bribery is called “political contributions” and it’s perfectly legal. And if Americans are rich enough, they don’t pay any taxes at all. So head up, chest out, stomach in, and get on with it. Corruption is only a problem for the little people.

Aunt Gwynne

Putting my journalist’s hat back on, I must admit that I was cutting a few corners in that answer. In Transparency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index”, Russia is actually ranked as much more corrupt than China or India. It ranks at 143 (higher numbers means worse corruption) out of 183 countries, tied with Nigeria, East Timor and Togo.

India and China do much better, coming in at 95 and 75 respectively. And the United States, with a rank of 25, is only a little more corrupt than Chile, Qatar and the Bahamas.

Indeed, corruption in the United States is mainly a political problem. The petty corruption that make daily life so wearing in most developing countries barely exists there. Why don’t most Americans take bribes? Because they earn enough that they do not feel compelled to demand bribes to do their jobs.

Anti-corruption commissions and the like can make dents in the problem, but the only long-term solution is to pay people a living wage, which generally happens only when you give them a democratic voice. There is no moral gulf between New Zealand (ranked number one on the scale) and Uzbekistan (ranked 177); just a huge difference in politics and in living standards.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 14. (“The lower…at all”; and (“Indeed…jobs”)

NB: You may want to italicise the letter and response, as layout could be a problem with this one.

Vietnam: What Was It All About?

14 January 2011
                                        
Vietnam: What Was It All About?
                                                         
By Gwynne Dyer

    Communist Party congresses are generally tedious events, and the eleventh congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party (12-17 January) is no exception. The changes in personnel at the top are decided by the elite inner circle of the Party long before the congress opens, and the rhetoric is in the same wooden language that Communists always use.

    The nation must “renew the growth model and restructure the economy to speed up industrialisation and modernisation with fast and sustainable development,” outgoing Party leader Nong Duc Manh told the congress on its opening day. “The strategy is to strive towards 2020 so that our country will basically become an industrialised nation.” Well, that’s a novel approach, isn’t it?

    The talk is all about fighting inflation and corruption (there’s quite a lot of both those things in Vietnam), while maintaining a high economic growth rate (6.8 percent last year). Ordinary people are struggling to maintain their standard of living (although they are far better off than they were twenty or forty years ago), and resent being bossed around by the Communist elite – but they feel helpless to do anything about it.

    In other words, it’s not all that different from the situation in, say, Thailand, just a little to the west, apart from the fact that  the economic elite in Vietnam are Communist Party members and their businessman cronies.

    Thailand is technically a democracy, but if you are a rural “red shirt” in Thailand your views on those in power will be little different from those that many Vietnamese peasants privately hold about the Communist Party. It’s a more traditional elite in Thailand, but it clings to power just as tightly, and rewards itself even more lavishly.

    So what was it all about, then? Why was there a 15-year war in Vietnam (1960-75) that killed 58,000 American soldiers, and between one and three million Vietnamese? The US government insisted at the time that it was about stopping Communist expansionism in Vietnam before it swept through all of South-East Asia. The Communists, who controlled North Vietnam, said it was only about reuniting the country. Who was right?

    In retrospect, it’s clear that the Communists were telling the truth. They won the war in Vietnam despite all the efforts of the United States, but the “domino effect” in the rest of South-East Asia never happened. In fact, the Vietnamese Communists never even tried to knock the dominoes over.

    Apart from invading Cambodia in 1978 to drive the Khmer Rouge, a much nastier group of Communists, from power, Communist-ruled Vietnam has never sent troops abroad or interfered in the internal affairs of other countries in the region. After a decade all the Vietnamese troops were withdrawn from Cambodia, and even there Hanoi has virtually no influence today.

     As for some vast Communist plot to overrun South-East Asia, it was never more than a fantasy. Indeed, within four years of uniting Vietnam, the Communist regime in Hanoi was at war with Communist China over a border dispute. In a perfect world, most people would probably prefer to spare their country the burden of a generation of Communist rule, but Vietnam is not a disaster, and it is no threat to anyone else.

    So, once again, what was the war about? How did three American presidents allow themselves to be misled into fighting such a pointless, unwinnable war? Dwight Eisenhower, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson were all intelligent men, and Eisenhower also had much experience at the highest level of military and diplomatic decision-making.

    To varying degrees, they all fell for a strategic vision of the world that was mere fantasy, driven by ideology. Or rather, in Eisenhower’s case and to some extent also in Kennedy’s, they found it politically impossible to resist the demands of those who did live fully within that fantasy. So American foreign policy had little connection with reality for several decades, and a lot of people died.

    The point is that this sort of thing happens all the time. The “war on terror” now is functionally almost indistinguishable from the anti-Communist crusade of the 1950s and 1960s, although the actual wars involve much lower levels of casualties. For Vietnam in 1960, read Iraq in 2003 – or, perhaps, Iran the day after tomorrow.

    It doesn’t only happen to Americans, of course. The various British invasions of Afghanistan in the 19th century were driven by the conviction that the rapacious Russians wanted to seize Britain’s Indian empire, although the thought hadn’t even occurred to the Russians. Germans spent the decade before the First World War worried that they were being “encircled” by the other great powers.

    But these delusions mainly afflict the great powers, because weaker countries cannot afford such expensive follies. They have to deal with reality as it is – which is why the Vietnamese Communists, for example, never dreamed of trying to spread their faith across the rest of the region. They were and are pragmatic people with purely local ambitions, so the resolutions of the 11th Party Congress are of little interest to anybody else.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“The nation..it”; and “As for…else”)

If using after 17 January, change the verbs in the first paragraph to the past tense.

China: Haunted by Tienanmen

31 May 2009

China: Haunted by Tienanmen

By Gwynne Dyer

It would be child’s play to take out North Korea’s nuclear facilities in a single coordinated strike. The North Korean air force is not modern enough to stop US or Russian or even Chinese strike aircraft.

The country’s few nuclear weapons are not deliverable by missile yet, so even if one or more of them did survive the first strike, Pyongyang could not hit back with nukes.

So why don’t the countries that worry about North Korea nuclear weapons skip the endless haggling with a regime that does not bargain in good faith, and just use their superior weapons to strike the nuclear card from North Korea’s hand? Surely they aren’t afraid of a conventional land invasion of the South by the North.

The North Korean army is large, but without air cover it would be torn to shreds in a matter of days, or even hours. This is the 21st century, and an army that cannot protect itself from air attack is just a bunch of dead men walking. There must be some further consideration that keeps the option of a preventive attack on North Korea off the table.

There is. It is called China.

It is a very long time since Mao Tse-tung declared that China and North Korea were “as close as lips and teeth.” Today’s Beijing has little sympathy for a fellow Communist regime in Pyongyang that is not only brutally repressive but also an abject economic failure. North Korea has even reverted to dynastic rule, and other medieval phenomena like famine have become chronic there.

North Korea is an embarrassment to the Communist system that the Chinese regime uses to justify its own monopoly of power. Nevertheless, the Beijing regime cannot run the risk of letting Kim Jong-il’s moth-eaten regime simply collapse, which would be the probable result of a successful disarming strike against Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons.

Regime collapse in Pyongyang would send a flood of destitute North Korean refugees across the frontier into China, and they might carry the infection with them. What China worries about is regime collapse in Beijing.

It is twenty years this week since the pro-democracy movement in China was crushed when troops and tanks swept onto Tienanmen Square on 4 June, 1988 and massacred hundreds or even thousands of students. The regime officially dismisses the protesters who camped peacefully on the square for weeks as “hooligans”, but it is still haunted by the fear that the Chinese people might some day demand their country back.

On the surface, it seems unlikely that they will demand it soon, for the Communist Party’s strategy of buying the population’s loyalty with high-speed economic growth has been a runaway success. Even during the worst global recession in half a century, China is officially forecasting 10 percent economic growth in 2009.

But what if the goose stops laying the golden eggs? It’s one thing to be facing economic hard times in Berlin or Washington or Cape Town, where the government’s legitimacy comes from democratic consent. It’s another thing to be a government facing economic hard times when your only legitimacy comes from economic good times.

Even in good times, the Chinese government is acutely aware that it is among the last surviving Communist regimes in the world, and that the ideology on which it bases its right to rule is essentially dead in the eyes of the people it rules. It could face a potentially fatal challenge very fast if things went wrong, and it knows it. That was what happened in 1989.

Right-thinking liberals insist that the regime over-reacted in 1989: if it had agreed to talk to the students instead of killing them, everything would have been all right. Zhao Ziyang, then general secretary of the Communist Party, who was dismissed and put under house arrest for the rest of his life, believed that to the day he died: “Most people were only asking us to correct our flaws, not attempting to overthrow our political system.”

Maybe that is what most people wanted in Tienanmen Square in June of 1989, but if the regime had started to make concessions it would have been gone by the end of the year. That was what happened in Poland, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, eventually even in the Soviet Union itself. It would have happened in China, too.

 The lesson that the Chinese Communist Party has learned from 1989 is that there must be no more examples of collapsing Communist regimes, especially on China’s borders. The danger of infection, however remote, is too great to be tolerated, so North Korea’s regime must survive.

Beijing has said that it is “resolutely opposed” to North Korea’s nuclear test, but it will not allow the Pyongyang regime to be overthrown. So no disarming strike against North Korea is possible, and the next stage in the crisis is likely to happen at sea when some North Korean ship suspected of carrying nuclear contraband is stopped.

Or you could just have a nasty incident between the fishing fleets jostling for the best positions near the disputed sea border between North and South Korea.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“On the surface…times”)

The Man Who Failed Russia

24 April 2007

The Man Who Failed Russia

By Gwynne Dyer

He was always a heavy drinker, but until his health problems got bad in the mid-1990s he could usually hold his liquor. The real problem was that he was a man of action who didn’t have an idea in his head. A lot of people kept trying to put ideas in there, but they just fell out the other side. So he freed Russia (and a lot of other countries) from Communism, but he didn’t give it much else to work with instead.

Boris Yeltsin, who died at 76 on Monday, was brought to Moscow in 1985 to clean up the corruption in the capital by the man he eventually removed from power, the Communist reformer Mikhail Gorbachev. But the times were right for ambitious men to aim a lot higher, and Yeltsin was nothing if not ambitious, so by 1988 he had quit his position on the Communist Party’s ruling body, the Politburo. He ran for the all-Moscow seat against the official Communist candidate in the first free election in Soviet history, and won in a landslide.

I first met Yeltsin soon after that in the basement cafeteria of the Supreme Soviet, just inside the Kremlin walls, which was the easiest place for foreign journalists to find and interview deputies to this new-fangled beast, the Congress of People’s Deputies. It was one of the stars of the nascent Russian democratic movement, Galina Strarovoitova, who introduced us, and the contrast between the two of them was quite stunning.

Starovoitova (who was murdered some years ago in a contract killing) was a genuine democratic hero, an intellectual who dedicated her life to the ideal of a free society. Yeltsin was a charming bruiser who ran mostly on instinct and was all too aware of his considerable charisma. Yet he was in practice the leader of her little band of democrats, the Inter-Regional Deputies Group.

The IRDG flourished for less than a year, and it had less than a tenth of the deputies to the Congress, most of whom were still Communist Party hacks. Its leaders, including famous dissident figures like scientist Andrei Sakharov and historian Yuri Afanasiev, were using their unprecedented access to the media to spread democratic ideas to the furthest corners of a country where such notions had been condemned and suppressed for seventy years, but they knew those ideas alone would not produce a democratic majority in any Soviet election in the near future.

Yeltsin, on the other hand, could win the election, but he had no ideas at all. So they made him their leader, and during that year you rarely saw him without some leading light of the IRDG at his side, earnestly trying to fill this empty vessel with democratic ideals. Everybody meant well, I think, but the transplant didn’t take, and by 1990 Yeltsin had moved on.

In the following two years he did two things that should have earned him the gratitude of both Russia and the whole world. Standing on a tank outside the White House in Moscow in August, 1991, he turned back the hardline Communist coup attempt that almost reversed the flow of history. And he did it practically single-handedly, by the force of his own personality.

The coup was amazingly incompetent, but it could have succeeded nevertheless, in which case we would still be dealing with a ramshackle Communist-ruled Soviet Union, sinking ever deeper into poverty and corruption and fighting insurgencies all around its perimeter: Upper Volta with rockets, indeed. What we have is much better than that.

Yeltsin’s other great accomplishment, at the end of 1991, was to wind up the Soviet Union and set all of its constituent “republics” free. He did it for purely tactical reasons, but it was the last great act of decolonisation, and it spared us a generation of bloody struggles as the old Russian empire gradually fell apart. Despite tyranny in the ‘Stans and war in Chechnya, what we have is much better than that, too. But then Yeltsin should have died or at least retired, because he was a disaster and an embarrassment as the president of Russia.

There was the “shock therapy” prescribed by Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs that ended all subsidies overnight, drove inflation to 2,000 percent, and wiped out the life savings of tens of millions of families. There were the corrupt privatisation deals that created the “oligarchs” and the gangster culture. There was the armed assault on parliament in 1993 and the needless, futile, bloody attempt to subjugate Chechnya by force. Russia in the 1990s could have done a lot better than that.

Yeltsin’s retirement on New Year’s Eve, 1999 was of a piece with all that: a cynical deal handing power to the former KGB chief, Vladimir Putin, in return for a guarantee that no legal inquiries would be made after he left office into the wealth accumulated by his family and his political associates during their time in power. There is not much genuine mourning in Russia for Yeltsin today, and you can see why.

But he did get the two big things right, and that counts for a lot. History may take a kinder view of him than Russians do today.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“There was…seewhy”)