'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Seize the Torch, Destroy It and Scatter the Remains 

The Olympic Torch Relay has been dogged by protest since it left Athens. Many of the protests have condemned Chinese brutality in Tibet, but they have become broader in scope as the relay has continued along its planned itinarary.

As the New York Times reported yesterday:

In Paris, at the Trocadéro, opposite the Eiffel Tower, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and press freedom groups like Reporters Without Borders protested side by side with representatives of a banned underground Chinese democracy party, Taiwan nationalists and proponents of independence for the Uighurs, a Muslim minority in western China.

We all have the same problem,” Can Asgar, a leader of the Uighur diaspora in Munich, yelled into a microphone at the Trocadéro. "Freedom for Uighurs. Freedom for Tibet. We must fight together.”

But what precisely is the problem? Yes, at one level, the problem is precisely as they understand it, a centralized, authoritarian Chinese government that increasingly relies upon xenophobic appeals to nationalism to justify the suppression of different peoples, cultures and proponents of a more tolerant, diverse society. Certainly, a change in government in Beijing, or even merely a relaxation in the political orientation of the CCP, would improve the conditions under which Uighurs, Tibetans, peasants and manufacturing workers live.

Indeed, it is this internal dynamic, the growing social unrest within China, as discussed here and here and here, that interweaves Tibet and Xinjiang into a larger pattern of discontent. China has abandoned state socialism and remorselessly implemented neoliberal economic policies since the early 1980s, creating an exploitative system that Peter Kwong, quoting a colleague, describes as high tech feudalism. As a consequence, it appears increasingly evident that the government believes that such a system cannot be preserved, even if reformed, without enforcing imperial control over peripheral regions with large numbers of non-ethnic Chinese.

Hong Kong, and possibly even Taiwan, as providers of capital for the Chinese industrial machine, can be provided with a certain measure of autonomy, because they accept the socioeconomic principles upon which the society is built. But Tibet and Xinjiang are problematic, as they emphasize ethnic and religious values that are incompatible with them. Moreover, the peoples of these regions, if granted control over their lives and resources, could set a troubling example for the laboring classes within China.

Such a perspective remains, however, too narrow. Increasingly, the global neoliberal economy is a creation of the US, Europe, Japan and China. Commodities and capital move between these economic zones, and then out to the lesser developed countries of the world, in search of the most profitable opportunities, opportunities dependent upon environmental degradation and a docile workforce that will accept the most demeaning treatment.

At the center of this economy is the relationship between the US and China. US corporations have offshored production to China, commonly through subcontractors, and the manufactured commodities return to the US, where they are purchased by consumers, often through extensive access to generous credit. Of course, the credit aspect of this equation is under stress, as discussed here, putting the future prospects of this model in question, but that does not invalidate my description of the situation.

Accordingly, the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games constitutes a coronation of this global structure, with the torch relay being the procession in advance of it. A visit to the relay's official website reveals the predictable corporate sponsors, Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lenovo. Similarly, the Games has an even wider range of corporate sponsors in addition to the relay ones, including VISA, Panasonic, Kodak, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Adidas and Volkswagon. Paralleling the control that China imposes upon its workforce, the participating athletes are not permitted to wear political badges, and innocuous ones worn by torch bearers in Paris may subject them to sanction.

The Olympic Torch has therefore become the symbol of the dominant neoliberal economic order, necessitating repressive measures similar to those required to maintain stability in production facilites around the lesser developed world. It is no accident that the police presence required to escort the torch through the cities of Europe and the US evokes memories of past anti-globalization protests.

But the angry, bleeding protesters have not cast a broad enough net of condemnation. The problem is not just China, but its incorporation into a global economically coercive system of social control. The protesters should therefore aspire not just to put out the torch because of China's atrocious human rights record, but to seize it and destroy it in a provocative public exhibition of contempt for what it perversely represents.

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