Posts Tagged ‘political reform’

Loud thunder, little rain: China’s new leaders target corruption

by Kenneth Chern

China’s new leaders are aware of the danger that corruption poses to the nation’s social stability and economic development.

But entrenched corruption at the local and national levels, including among the families and friends of those very leaders, will make it difficult for them to break the link between money and power that frustrates the masses but sustains the power of a Communist Party that long ago abandoned political belief for economic gain.

A 2007 report of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace by Minxin Pei called the level of Chinese corruption “astonishing,” noting that it cost $US86 billion a year, more than China’s annual education budget. Things have not gotten any better. The Bo Xilai affair – Bo’s wiretapping of other top Chinese leaders, his son’s privileged lifestyle abroad, and his wife’s murder conviction — was but the most lurid case of rampant corruption that has shaken the trust of the Chinese people in their government.

Other high-profile cases have left the public seething: the melamine-laced milk that poisoned hundreds of infants; the Wenchuan earthquake that toppled “tofu schoolhouses” onto pupils while government buildings stood firm; the bullet train crash in Wenzhou that disgraced railway czar Liu Zhijun; and the sale by Wukan officials of prized farmland to real estate developers that triggered villager demonstrations and violence.

In his speech to the 18th Party Congress last week, outgoing President Hu Jintao stressed the need to fight corruption, warning that if the issue is not addressed, “it could prove fatal to the party, and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.” Significantly, he warned leading officials to “strengthen education and discipline over their family and staff.” Along the same lines, incoming Party general secretary Xi Jinping in 2004 instructed, “Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.”

But Chinese leaders have made similar warnings for years without making serious headway. That’s because of what Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution terms the “marriage of wealth and political power” which supports an economic strategy based on rewards to local officials for “producing rapid GDP growth while keeping a lid on social unrest.” Put another way, the breakneck speed of Chinese economic development provides wealth that is distributed as patronage and provides support for the Party’s continued political monopoly. And campaigns against corruption evoke the Chinese proverb, “Loud thunder, little rain.”

More specifically, Minxin Pei cites two characteristics of corruption — the corruption of local state institutions through the purchase and sale of government appointments, and “collusion among local ruling elites” or “groups of local officials who cooperate and protect each other.” These practices drain the economy and feed public cynicism but they nurture the political and economic ambitions of entrepreneurs and government officials who thrive in a poorly defined regulatory and policy environment.

This is the social context in which Chinese leaders and their families operate, which is why the calls of Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping for discipline of families and staff is so interesting. Politicians, their relatives, staff, and friends use their political clout to build businesses and line their pockets. The average wealth of the richest 70 members of the National People’s Congress in 2011 was over US$1 billion. China’s central bank reportedly has evidence that up to 18,000 officials and employees of state-owned firms have fled China since the mid-1990s, taking $127 billion with them.

And recent reports have shown how relatives of top Chinese officials have grown wealthy. Xi himself reportedly has sisters and brothers-in-law with “huge interests in China’s real estate, minerals and telecommunications sectors.” And the family of Premier Wen Jiabao, perhaps the strongest reform advocate of all China’s top leaders, has been reported by the New York Times to have US$2.7 billion in wealth.

The reality is that Chinese leaders, even those who call for (and may sincerely believe in) reform and a crackdown on corruption, find themselves in a social web of political influence and enrichment that sustains the status quo. That reality will make it just as hard for the new leaders as it was for their predecessors to make a serious tilt at corruption.

Corruption and influence peddling are as old as the Chinese nation, and as old as human history. What is new is the demand of poor farmers, workers, and China’s growing middle class for a level playing field and a fairer chance for opportunity. Growing social tensions and environmental stresses make the current system unsustainable for the long term.

How Ji Xinping and the new Politburo meet that test will determine history’s verdict on whether they are authentic leaders with the courage to take the needed steps for the common good of the Chinese people and the welfare of the Chinese nation.

Kenneth Chern is Professor of Asian Policy at the Swinburne University of Technology and Executive Director of the Swinburne Leadership Institute.

This article was first published at www.theconversation.edu.au

 

The Far Right Takes Root in Europe

by Mariano Aguirre
 
Anders Behring Breivik’s attacks are part of a worrying trend in Europe: the far right’s rise within mainstream politics.

 
The bloodthirsty attacks perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik in Norway on July 22 last year (leaving 77 dead) provided a brutal awakening for all those in Europe who had been passively observing the rise of the Islamophobic far right. As the trial opens, around thirty political parties that openly call for a “pure European identity” are effectively in the process of consolidating their parliamentary positions (occasionally even signing agreements with mainstream right wing parties, as is the case in the Netherlands), and are claiming an ever greater media presence.

 These parties, following the example of the Nordic Forum, are adept at using new technology and social networks, which gives them an even greater platform to spread their messages of hate and bolster their national and international alliances. 

Those responsible for this noxious propaganda always hide behind the principle of freedom of expression, and, when they are criticised for the speeches they deliver encouraging the Breiviks of the future, they assert that the carnage perpetrated by this “lone wolf” has nothing to do with the climate that they have helped to create. Indeed, they present themselves as victims that are being suppressed. They make out that Europe will ultimately lose its “Christian identity”. These demagogues are active both inside and outside the electoral system: just as they have an elected presence in the parliaments, on the other hand they endlessly criticise democracies, accusing them of being far too liberal on the issue of immigration.

The European far right is seduced by the fantasy of a “pure” Europe as opposed to a real Europe, which is in fact successfully diversified. Like Anders Behring Breivik, thousands of individuals that haunt websites and blogs (Gates of Vienna, Brussels Journal), organisations such as the English Defence League, Platform per Catalunya, or Militia Christi, as well as religious leaders are all actively preparing fertile ground for the growth of extremism. 

A study at the University of Nottingham undertaken for Chatham House by Matthew Goodwin demonstrates that extremist parties are primarily characterised by their visceral opposition to immigration (particularly Muslim immigration), to ethnic diversity, and finally to multiculturalism, alongside social behaviours that they consider to be a great danger to Europe. 

Further, they think that mainstream political parties are far too “soft” in their responses to the issues surrounding immigration. Another study, by Elisabeth Ivarsflaten , shows that populist parties have always had their greatest electoral successes after integrating a strong anti-immigration strand into their speeches and manifestos. 

These “new” populists carefully avoid the usual racist and anti-Semitic discourse, and prefer to position their stance more subtly, around questions of culture and identity. Paradoxically, they claim two conflicting identities: Christian through their recognition of a mythological European past, and secular in their fight against Islam. 

They fight “Marxist” politicians, or those that are too liberal. It’s with this in mind that Anders Behring Breivik attacked the government buildings in Oslo and subsequently the summer camp of young labour party activists on Utøya island. They are generally pro-American, have close working relationships with the far right in the United States, and consider Israel to be a defensive western bulwark against Islam. During times of crisis they also use the argument of the welfare state to justify themselves: they contend that immigrants are stealing jobs and scamming the welfare state, in particular social security, as they have many more children than the European average, and so on. 

In his manifesto – a vast copy and paste job of the greatest hits of extremist ideas – Anders Behring Breivik opposed the welfare state and a pluralistic hegemonic identity. “European societies” he wrote “must be able to rely on a solid social cohesion, which can only really exist in a monocultural system where everyone has complete confidence in one another.”

Goodwin’s study reveals that the majority of those who vote for populist parties come from a modest background or the middle classes. They are also often small business owners or farmers afraid of drastic economic and social change. “Market globalisation and economic deregulation have hurled the planet into an era of uncertainty which is inevitably provoking fear” reminds Javier de Lucas, professor at the University of Valencia. To this, the extreme right counters with a riposte made up of simplistic formulas, and lays responsibility for the all the economic and social woes on “the politicians”, “leftists” and immigrants. 

As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek concludes: “The only way to introduce passion into this kind of politics, the only way to actively mobilise people, is through fear: the fear of immigrants, the fear of crime…”

Timid counter-offensives 

Moderate politicians remain relatively impotent in the face of attacks from the far right, and when they attempt a riposte, they do so in a contradictory fashion: centre-left parties – to avoid losing a public that is sensitive to these issues – willingly revisit the pet subjects of the far right, in particular immigration. In fact, Europe is imposing ever more restrictive policies to limit the right to asylum and inward migratory flow, while at the same time political parties are lauding “greater tolerance” towards foreigners. The reality is that xenophobic sentiments are on the rise, and immigrant Muslim populations and their culture are being increasingly rejected. 

If Europe wants to sustain growth, then it will need to open the door wide to immigration. However, this argument does not succeed in halting the advance of Islamophobia. “There is something that worries me far more than the growth of the far right at the 2010 ballot, explains Thomas Hammarberg , Commissioner for Human Rights at the European Council:

“and that is the profound inertia and above all confusion that seems to reign amongst moderate democratic parties of both the left and right. One even has the impression that these parties have come to accept the narrative of hatred and that this unencumbered xenophobia has been integrated into the political discourse as though it were something quite ordinary: their leaders have totally failed to check this rise in Islamophobia.”

Leading media outlets have opened the debate, keeping centrally in their sights the fact that a major segment of their audience is sliding steadily, at least electorally speaking, towards the populist right. Meanwhile new ultra-nationalist media outlets are appearing on the media landscape, just as they have in the UnitedStates , along with thousands of websites and books, which for the most part, have been able to find a place in the unfolding discussions as though they were serious political institutions. 

It is thus that the British essayist Bat Yeor, using her real name Gisele Littman-Orebi, invented the famous Euro-Arabian axis (or Eurabia), abundantly referenced by Breivik in his manifesto, and in which Europe will sooner or later be conquered by Muslims. The author explains that Jews and Christians will be subjected to Islamic law. 

“Today, freedom of speech is complete and the essence of what is published is neither edited nor censored,” comments Sindre Bangstad, a teacher at the University of Oslo.

“Islamophobic discourse can spread much more easily than before. In this context, outlandish opinions like those held by Breivik are barely discernible from those found on some social networks, and sometimes even in the mainstream media in Norway…” 

Nevertheless, dangerous agitators are by no means all paranoid and bloodthirsty madmen. The highly respectable German social-democrat economist Thilo Sarrazin published a book in 2010 in which he very seriously explained that his country will become more and more impoverished and lose its identity as well as its potential, because Turkish and Arab immigrants possess a lower IQ. He maintains that his ideas are supported by a third of Germans who believe that the state should limit immigration and the practice of Islam. In October 2010 Angela Merkel declared, “Multiculturalism has failed”. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, said exactly the same thing a few days later. In September 2011, the German National Democratic Party (NDP) gained 6% of the vote in the Mecklenburg-West Pomeranian parliament, an unprecedented result in that country. 

On the question of immigration, centre-left parties have two options: ‘integration’ or ‘assimilation’. The concept of assimilation has suffused political discourse since the 1980s: it suggests that immigrants must adapt to ‘our’ society and renounce all or part of their religion, culture or traditions. ‘Integration’, for its part, allows ‘new citizens’ to keep their idiosyncrasies, as have all prior immigrant groups for that matter. In its modern sense, integration expects a mutual attempt to adapt and notably, the acceptance of the welcoming country of the religion of those that it is seeking to welcome. 

Attempts to make religious symbols disappear from public spaces (minarets, burkhas, veils, mosques…) are more and more vocal, Olivier Roy noted in 2009 in ‘L’Islam en Europe, une religion qui doit être traitée comme les autres’, pointing out that Europe wanted to have immigrants working here, but wanted them to be invisible. 

In a general sense, both strategies have failed. Immigrant communities have more of a tendency to isolate themselves to avoid being assimilated. They often feel discriminated against, and the societies that are hosting them don’t feel the need to change anything at all to accommodate them since they consider the immigrants to be an undifferentiated and fragmented external group. In Germany, after forty years of communal living, Turkish and German populations still only know very little about each other. It’s a paradox.

Goodwin’s study has also dug up worrying results regarding the political response to the extreme right in general. Since political parties became ‘electoral machines’, populist parties have been fully exploiting their ability to directly address the electorate and respond to their concerns about immigration, which the other parties do not do. 

Are we ready to abandon our community-based approaches in order to adopt a multi-strand citizenry founded on fundamental shared norms and values? 

“European society in its plurality is collectively responsible,” explains Javier De Lucas. “We need to teach our societies to accept an evolution towards a multicultural world and to negotiate this change successfully. Unfortunately however, society is not moving. It is not very motivated, and very restrictive migratory politics are sending contrary signals: without negotiation, a desire to change, to evolve, the unilateral integration project of immigrant populations is doomed to fail.”

Mariano Aguirre is the director of the Norwegian Peacebuilding Centre (Noref) in Oslo

Translated by Tristan Summerscale. This article was originally published in French in Le Monde Diplomatique on March 10, 2012. 

 

News From George Soros’ Berlin Conference – Economists Discover Human Beings!

by Lynn Parramore
 
Could economists be leaving behind their mechanistic paradise for the messy, unpredictable human world?

  
Economists are peculiar creatures. Last week a large posse of them descended on Berlin for the third annual conference of the Institute for New Economic Thinking (INET), a think-tank co-founded by investor and philanthropist George Soros in 2009 in the wake of the global financial crisis.

As I roamed through the various sessions and gatherings, pointy-headed folk squinted at me and rattled off facts and figures that gave them the sort of thrill I get from seeing spring flowers in bloom. The field of economics is known for attracting Asperger’s-spectrum wonks better at formulating financial models than the flow of human interaction. But if the Berlin forum is any indication, the field is now fitfully reorienting itself: it wants to understand those fascinating and often irrational beings known as “people.”

Tellingly, the title of the conference was inspired by Milton. Not Milton Friedman, but John Milton: “Paradigm Lost: Rethinking Economics and Politics.” Intriguingly, the brochure opened with a passage from Book XII of Paradise Lost describing Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden — the moment when they look back wistfully on their former paradise, but then, teary-eyed, forge ahead, knowing that “the world was all before them.”

Early on in the program, economist Rob Johnson, INET’s executive director, pointed out that the old economic paradigm, so beautiful in its mathematical modeling, was destructively narrow and dogmatic. Its journals were like so many temples — if you didn’t follow the prescribed religion, you were out on your ear. The new economics would have to be broad, interdisciplinary and open to disagreement. And it would no longer be having a conversation solely with itself. Johnson announced his conviction that the new economics must be firmly grounded in the humanities.

Wow. At a time when undergraduates increasingly choose business majors and obtaining an English or history degree is widely considered a cultural affront, that was exciting news. Such a refocusing could certainly help economists become better able to describe reality, and just as importantly, consider the needs of human beings in their prescriptions.

Back in the late ’90s, when I was studying for a doctorate in English at NYU, my friend at the Wharton School of Business used to tell me about his lessons in rational behavior, perfect information and the pure motivation of self-interest. When I noted that a single exposure to Shakespeare or a page out of Freud’s oeuvre could relieve him of such fantasies, he got defensive and complained that all we did in the English department was sit around and read fiction. “Well,” I shot back, “That’s what you seem to be doing. Only you don’t call it that.”

I worried a lot that he and his colleagues, ignorant of human psychology and alarmingly shallow in their understanding of traditional Western values and ethics, would leave business school and go on to run large companies. 

I had reason to fear: They went on to help blow up the global economy.

In the humanities, we had our postmodern excesses, but they didn’t tend to wreak havoc on the word’s most vulnerable people. But free-market economics, in the words of INET panelist Paul Davidson, was a “weapon of math destruction.”

In his address to the conference, George Soros made it clear that economic obtuseness had helped produce the euro crisis, and that the failure was more profound then generally realized. Economics, he noted, had tried hard to imitate Newtonian physics and set itself on establishing timeless laws for reality. But, Soros insisted, it’s really a social science, and it was high time practitioners stopped pretending otherwise. (I would urge scientists to realize the same thing, but that’s a matter for another piece.) The famous financier emphasized that economic activity is based on the behavior of human beings who act on imperfect information and are driven by a wide variety of motives. They think. They are, by turns, rational, silly and euphoric. They have a will of their own. And they are definitely not inanimate objects whose movements can be neatly summed up in an equation.

If you consider economics this way, then you have to realize that markets, as Soros pointed out, are just as likely to produce horrifically damaging bubbles as they are to create equilibrium. So you’d better damn well understand that when you’re thinking about regulation and political frameworks like the eurozone. If the Europeans can’t wake up to this, Soros warned, they can pretty much kiss Europe goodbye.

I was struck by the idea that just as religious elites had once created an elaborate system based on “Divine Will” to justify their power and oppression, the obstinate free-market economists had created their own supernatural entities, referred to as “The Market” and “The Invisible Hand” in order to pretend that their policies were inevitable and natural. Was a Reformation now in the works?

Throughout the week, I heard economists (certainly not all, but many) talking as if human beings mattered. Chinese economist Jiahua Pan mentioned the need for an ethical foundation and ecological principles. James K. Galbraith discussed the human costs of inequality. Arjun Jayadev of the University of Massachusetts, Boston, talked about why people needed debt forgiveness. Speeches centered as often on what humans think and feel as they did on what financial models could predict. There were lectures on neuroscience and social values.

Some will say this is all just talk. You don’t get an insurrectionary adrenaline rush at an economic conference the way you do at an Occupy Wall Street protest. But such talk, particularly among those who teach tomorrow’s leaders and act as policy advisers at high levels of government, is critical to any chance of changing the paradigm. Do we want a society that is people-driven, rather than profit-driven? Then Johnson is right: economics must reacquaint itself with the humanities. Do we want an economy that serves society rather than a society that serves the economy? Then we have to keep insisting on the social nature of economics.

There’s reason to think that the effort coming from INET will be long-term and influential. During the week, the announcement came of a $25 million gift from William Janeway, senior advisor at Warburg Pincus and INET governing board member, and his wife, Weslie Janeway. Along with that donation, the governing board of INET has launched a $75 million fundraising campaign, and Soros, in response, has pledged $50 million. Conference attendees also learned of a joint project (INET@Oxford) with the Martin School at Oxford University focused on visionary interdisciplinary approaches to economics, equity and curriculum reform.

After half a century of free-market orthodoxy, the field of economics is not going to produce a new paradigm overnight. As a woman and an English major, I can be forgiven for hoping that more women and more English majors will be joining the conversation. The need for diversity is strong, and the call for a vigorous examination of values urgent. But there’s a whiff of change in the air, and you could feel its electricity in Berlin. The economists were beginning the painful and exciting process of leaving the old fantasies behind.

And the world was all before them.

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet contributing editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of ‘Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.’ Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

Moving beyond political soap opera

by David Hetherington

A debate over fair distribution of Australia’s mining income gives Labor a platform to reconnect with ordinary voters on national values

Australia’s Gillard government resembles a half-written political drama, but the most creative scriptwriter would struggle to pack in the twists and turns that have marked its first 18 months in office.

Undoubtedly, there have been policy successes – a carbon price, a national broadband network and a streamlined income tax system. Yet there have also been serious misjudgements on the part of the government and the prime minister herself, which have surprised many since she was so sure-footed as education minister.

These self-inflicted wounds include a botched deal to repatriate asylum seekers to Malaysia, an ugly internal ‘stoush’ over same-sex marriage, and the reversal of proposed reforms to address chronic gambling. Excuses can be mounted for each in isolation, but together they’ve betrayed a worrying pattern.

The most recent twists have centred on a high-profile dramatis persona with former prime minister Kevin Rudd. After months of speculation and a sudden late-night resignation as foreign minister, Rudd formally challenged Gillard for the Labor leadership on 27 February. Despite his dramatic intervention, Rudd was roundly beaten, a loss that puts his ambitions on ice for the foreseeable future. Ultimately this was a contest of personalities rather than policies, with Rudd arguing his popularity with voters gave him the better chance of winning the 2013 election. Evidently, his parliamentary colleagues did not agree.

Barely hours after this challenge, another powerful player, senator Mark Arbib, announced his sudden resignation from the government. This in turn opened the door for Gillard to draft in Bob Carr, a wise elder statesman of the party, as the new foreign minister.

This process was far from smooth, and had all the elements of a play-within-a-play. Gillard, fresh from her resounding leadership victory, jumped at the suggestion of Carr’s appointment, with media reports hailing it a done deal. Then, in a sudden about-turn, the government poured water on the idea: it appeared the prime minister had been outmanoeveured by ambitious members of her team.

Three days later, against all expectations, Gillard called a press conference to unveil Carr as her new foreign minister, and in doing so, asserted her control of the government in no uncertain terms. This belated show of strength was certainly a win for the PM, but the stop-start process dulled much of the afterglow of her leadership ballot victory.

This may have proved compulsive viewing for political watchers, but it has left the ordinary voter with an impression of Labor more absorbed in its internal machinations than in running the country.

In need of a new, positive twist, the government found an unlikely hero, treasurer Wayne Swan. A credible if unflashy finance minister, Swan used a major essay to consider the challenges Australia faces in the fair distribution of its mining income. In particular, he highlighted the role of a handful of mining billionaires in resisting attempts to price carbon emissions and to tax mining super-profits.

These magnates have paid for mass media campaigns against the government. In response, Swan placed the debate in the context of the shared national values of egalitarianism and fairness. His intervention was successful in part because it was so unexpected. It surprised a lot of people who’d forgotten that Australian politicians could talk meaningfully about values as part of the wider public debate.

Labor has found it difficult to articulate its raison d’etre in recent times, struggling to explain how its policy achievements connect into a vision for the country. If Swan is able to drive a mature debate about inequality, wealth distribution and the role of media campaigns in policymaking, he will remind voters that Labor is addressing issues of real importance to Australia’s future – a worthy next chapter in Labor’s story.

A contribution to State of the Left, a monthly insight report from Policy Network’s Social Democracy Observatory

David Hetherington is executive director at Per Capita, a progressive thinktank based in Sydney

Top 10 actions showing the O’Farrell Government cannot be trusted

This month will be 12 months since the election of the O’Farrell government.

These are the top 10 actions that have demonstrated to me why the O’Farrell government cares little for the most vulnerable and cannot be trusted:

  1. Cuts to allowances for foster carers who adopt kids in their care and the ridiculous and uncaring proposal to make foster kids pay rent to their foster carers once they turn 16;
  2. Cuts to vision care so that 26,000 pensioners will not be able to access free glasses;
  3. Clawing back $618 per year from pensioners in public housing by taking the income from the federal Labor government’s pension rise;
  4. An ongoing attack on workers via changes to industrial relations laws, capping wage increases below inflation, changes to police death and disability cover, watering down of OH&S legislation, changing electoral laws to shut down the voice of workers and other not for profit organisations and signs that there is more to come;
  5. The negligence shown by the Education Minister that left hundred of kids with disabilities and their families stranded at the side of the road when the Department of Education failed to organise transport for them;
  6. Opening up NSW to uranium exploration;
  7. Breaking their election promise to replace unflued gas heaters in schools around the state – even though the government knows these are dangerous for students;
  8. Joining forces with Fred Nile to have an inquiry into school ethics classes after promising that they would be retained;
  9. Raising public transport fares above inflation at the same time lying about the impact of carbon pricing on public transport; and
  10. Introducing fees for public preschools.

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