Sunday, 19 December 2010

Julian Assange & Wikileaks: Why the Fuss?

Like many others I had never heard either Wikileaks or Julian Assange until a few months ago.

Wikileaks, apparently, has been operative for three years. Anyone can anonymously submit documents to Wikileaks; however that does not mean it will be published. The site, according to one BBC report, accepts classified, restricted, and censored material of political, diplomatic or ethical significance, but does not accept rumours or any other material that is already publically available.

In other words, Wikileaks, to use a jargon term, has created a niche in the cyber world. If you feel that the tapestry of your life is missing several threads because you are in the dark about what goes on in the corridors of power, then don’t fear: Wikileaks is here.

You have got to admit that whoever thought of this (Assange perhaps, as he, depending on who is writing the article, is either credited as or accused of being the founder of Wikileaks) was entrepreneurial.  The cyber space is teeming with ultra niche websites giving information on busty Mocha drinking scientists who fellate pandas, or websites which specialize in selling highly stylized images of women’s shoes on wonky coffee-tables, photographed from different angles. So, what is wrong with Website unilaterally drip-feeding confidential and sensitive diplomatic information? If you are the type who gets your kicks by reading titbits of information about, say, Karzai, the Afghan President, who, according to leaked cables, is thought by the USA foreign officials  to be a ‘paranoid and weak individual unfamiliar with the basics of nation building’, or by the antics of the Duke of York who railed against the British anti-corruption investigators in a formal function, Wikileaks is a godsend. And there are obviously people out there who want to read this kind of information. Otherwise why would Wikileaks be so popular? If the Website did not satisfy the market needs, it would be like this bloody blog which no one reads. Assange has obviously done his market research well.

You would have thought that America, the mother of innovations, the country that gave the world Facebook and Google, would be appreciative of Julian Assange’s daring enterprise. I do not know what the great American public is making of Wikileaks; however, judging from their responses, at least some politicians are going bat-shit mental. Sarah Palin, that towering presence in the American politics, has described Assange as an anti-American individual with blood on his hands. She wants Assange hunted down like al-Qaeda. (This from a woman who said on a live programme that North Korea was America’s ally.) Don’t you think that is a tad over the top? Also, given the fact that Americans have not been able to locate even an hair of Bin-Laden’s beard in the past ten years despite (or perhaps because of) the assistance of their trusted ally, Pakistan, you’d have to be brave to put your money on  ‘Operation Assange’ being successful. Another Republican senator has apparently gone on television saying any punishment short of a death penalty would be too kind for Assange. I doubt whether Americans, despite the proclamations of Sarah Palin who governs over several thousand square feet of ice and has, at best, a shaky grasp of international affairs, consider Julian Assange to be quite the same level of threat as Bin-Laden, but it would be fair to assume that he has managed to piss off the American administration effectively. I think President Obama has refrained from making any statement, and very wise of him—Assange, all said and done, is small beer, and it does not behoove the leader of the largest democracy in the world to get embroiled in a controversy that, at the end of the day, probably does not pose real threat to the American Empire. (I know, Sir Malcolm Rifkind is worried that the revelations of diplomatic cables can cause real harm, but he probably thinks putting curry in your mouth is dangerous.) You can well imagine how Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush would have reacted. (Oh, yes! He would have reacted: swiftly and reflexively, butchering the English language in the process).

The reason why some American politicians are frothing at the mouth (and what an entertaining spectacle it is) is of course that all the diplomatic cables to which Wikileaks have had access are American diplomatic cables.

Maybe I am missing something, but almost all the leaked cables reveal absolutely nothing that most people of above average intelligence and a modicum of interest in the world affairs did not already suspect.

Take the Duke of York’s ill-tempered (and ill-advised) outburst against the anticorruption investigators. That is what Prince Andrew does; that is what you’d expect him to do: to act and behave like a t**t. I guess when you come from a family of inbreds you end up with the intellect of an ox. So, no one is really surprised that Prince Andrew spoke like a t**t. Because, like his elder brother, Prince Charles a.k.a. the Jughead—who does not let trifles such as lack of knowledge and understanding come in the way of shooting his mouth off and advising intellectuals and highly trained professionals, who, even if nine tenths of their brains were removed, would still be cleverer than him—Prince Andrew is a moron of the first water; and it is in a moron’s nature to say stupid things. The only surprise is that Prince Andrew does not do it more often.

Or consider the description of Muammar Gaddafi of Libya in the American diplomatic cables. Gaddafi is described as ‘mercurial and eccentric’. Well, that is one way of describing old Muammar. I can think of some other adjectives. Indeed, the Americans, you can’t help feeling, were a bit charitable in their description of the thuggish (that is one adjective for you) Libyan dictator.

Here are two more ‘surprises’. Russia is described as being a ‘corrupt, autocratic kleptocracy centred on the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’. President Medvedev is described as ‘Robin’ to ‘Batman’ Putin. My only thought when I read about this cable in the Guardian was that the Americans have got their metaphors mixed. Batman is supposed to be a do-gooder, right? And Robin is his side-kick. There is no doubt that the figurehead Russian President Medvedev is Putin’s yes-man; however, I don’t think that Americans meant to praise either of the pair—both of whom, if you believe the other part of the cable, are autocracts or kleptocracts or both—when they were described as Batman and Robin.

Talking of corrupt politicians, here is a cable about the Italian prime-minister, Silvio Berlusconi. The Americans think that Berlusconi is ‘feckless and vain’. Does anybody doubt that? What the cables fail to mention is that he is also an old lecher, forever on lookout for young women with chests worth pressing.

The former Australian prime-minister, Kevin Rudd, is described as a ‘mistake-prone control freak’ who made ‘snap announcements without consulting other countries and others within the government’. Well, he is Australian, so what do you expect? They are not renowned exactly for being thoughtful and considerate, are they? Kevin Rudd’s father was probably like him; and his father before him; all the way back to the first convict ship.

Continuing with the theme of weird and bizarre, how about the ‘Secret Bible’ of Scientology, which, depending on your views is either a religion or a collection of individuals who ought to have their heads examined? The Bible, as per the instructions of Scientology’s founder, Ron Hubbard himself, gives its followers tasks, which, the cables comment, are ‘difficult to understand’. Here is one instruction: ‘Find a tight packed crowd of people. Write it as a crowd and then as individuals until you have a cognition. Note it down.’ All that this revealed cable suggests is that the American Psychiatry failed Ron Hubbard. With early detection and aggressive treatment his psychosis might have responded. (I am also sure that if the man Muhammad referred to as Isa were to appear on earth today preaching his gospel, he too would get a hefty dose of Thorazine.)

Enough of buffoons.  Let’s see what the Americans have to say about the nasties of the world. The US secretary of State Hilary Clinton is reported in one of the cables as warning that the Saudis are the biggest sponsors of Sunni Islamic terrorism. Now I do not have access to the thousands of confidential documents available to Secretary Clinton, but I could have told you that over a pint in my local pub. Like Secretary Clinton I am concerned that the Saudis remain the financial base for al-Qaeda. And if I in Kidderminster can figure this out, then I shall put it to you respectfully that it is not a secret.

Here is another Wikileaks revelation. China is apparently frustrated with North Korea and has come to view its Communist dictator Kim jong-Il about as appetizing as a cockroach in chicken schezuan. By the way he is also a very nasty man. Well, slap my fanny and call me Amanda, but does this surprise anyone? North Korea’s economy is bankrupt, the population is starving, and the mad dictator, when he is not writing his treatise on Hollywood films, is going around selling cheap ballistic missiles, cobbled up from obsolete Soviet era technology, to fellow nutters like that guy from Iran. No one in his right mind would have this guy as a friend. So it is not surprising that the Chinese, renowned for their wisdom, are unhappy with the lunatic. That however does not mean that they will ditch North Korea straightaway, and the leaked cables do not suggest that either. So why the hoo-ha?

A number of Arab leaders in the Middle East, according to one leaked cable, called upon the US to attack Iran in order to halt its nuclear programme. The UAE Defence minister apparently described Mahmoud  Ahmedinejad as Hitler. Which, come to think of it, is very appropriate, not least because Mahmoud thinks the Holocaust is a Jewish conspiracy.

According to one leaked cable, the UK has ‘deep concerns’ about the nuclear arms in Pakistan falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists. Now, let me clarify one thing. The British get ‘deeply concerned’ about many things. Not a day goes by when the British newspapers and the media are not ‘deeply concerned’ or 'scandalized' about something or the other. Anything will do. If it is not Pakistan’s nuclear arms, then it will be the dreadful sewage system in Cumbria causing the flooding following brief summer showers, or old grannies being left in pools of vomit and piss for two hours while the nurses were filling forms, or the British children becoming lard-buckets (especially those who have thick parents who can’t or won’t cook), or dreadful state of some or the other Northern town’s pavements causing dogs to lose balance, or whatever. What I am saying is that the British are in a permanent state of concern, and their concern is not necessarily indicative of how things necessarily are. However, in this instance the British concerns about Pakistan’s nuclear arms may be justified. At least once a month I read articles in the newspapers about how Pakistan is a hotbed of Islamic terrorism. Also, given the fact that the average life expectancy of a Pakistani politician is less than fifty years, in turn linked to the higher than average risk of being bumped off by the Allah-brigade, it is not beyond the limits of credulity that there is a risk that these weapons will fall into the wrong hands. Pakistan’s giant neighbour and arch-enemy India has been bleating about it for years (neglecting to mention that it was India that started the nuclear arm race in the region).

The President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajpaksa, according to a cable sent by the US ambassador to his country, is responsible for the war crimes. There is little doubt that this indeed was the case. What Sri Lankan army did, while sorting out LTTE, amounted to genocide. There were several articles in the Guardian about Mahinda Rajpaksa’s war crimes soon after he declared victory against LTTE.

What really brought a smile to my face was the leaked cable about the failing health of Fidel Castro of Cuba. The cable mentions: ‘He won’t die immediately, but he will progressively lose his faculties and become even more debilitated until he dies.’ You can almost taste the relish with which this cable was composed.

What do the American think of European countries? Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany is described as ‘risk averse and rarely creative’. Well, they could simply have said she is German. Indeed you do not want the Germans to be too creative. Their creativity can get out of hand and become a spot of bother for the surrounding European nations.

Finally we come to the US diplomat’s assessment of the former Labour prime minister Gordon Brown who, they thought, in 2008, was finished. They are totally off the mark in this instance, I am afraid.  Brown was toast long before that.

While the leaked cables are indubitably genuine they are nothing more than conjectures and views of the diplomats who sent them, and, as such just about rise above the level of the gossip in the breadline. In many instances, such as the Arab leaders’ plea to the US to attack Iran, they had little to no influence on the ultimate decision taken by that country. So what the Wikileaks has revealed is not sensational by a long chalk. It might come as a surprise to Americans who are generally incapable of noticing anything that is beyond the perimeters of their arses, which, while admittedly humongous in about 60% of the population, are still not wide enough to form an informed view about the world we live in. But for those of us who can read and have a smidgen of curiosity about what is going on in the world, none of the leaked cables has revealed anything that is really new. That said, what is leaked is amusing and entertaining, if only because the politicians lie all the time. The leaked cables have thrown into sharp relief the difference between what they preach and what they actually think (especially true of the British, who are hypocrites of a very high order). They are all poseurs, every last jack of them. But then we knew that anyway.

So I am far from persuaded that Julian Assange is some sort of torch-bearer for freedom of information.  He is probably a geek, a computer nerd, and a hackster who (judging from the newspaper reports of the sex scandal he is embroiled in) does not like to wear a condom while having sex. Assange and his team of lawyers are seeing political conspiracies behind the sexual allegations levelled at him. His solicitor, Mark Stephens, theatrically declared that ‘dark forces’ were at work, honey-trap was set etcetera. That’s codswallop. If you read the account of what happened in Sweden in August 2010, admittedly from the point of view of the two women, in the Guardian, a newspaper that is by and large supportive of Assange, you cannot escape the conclusion that the US had nothing to do with the allegations. The accusations of rape, molestations etc. are linked not to the leaked US diplomatic cables on Wikileaks (which has probably annoyed the American administration) but to what Assange and the two women got up to in bedrooms. I shall resist the temptation, difficult though it is, to go into the salacious details (including the identities, complete with photographs, of the women) which are all over the net.) Maybe there is some truth in the women's allegations; maybe there isn’t, and Assange, as he is protesting, is innocent of any wrongdoing. Maybe the women have some hidden agenda. All these are conjectures and, at this stage remain unproven. (Isn’t it curious how public revelations of these types turn everyone into an amateur detective?). What also remains unproven, despite the less than subtle hints of Assange’s solicitor, is that the women are American agent provocateurs, and that the sexual allegations are part of some sort of big political conspiracy. If there ever was a honey-trap, it was not set by the Americans. Reading the Guardian article, you can’t help thinking that if only Assange had worn a condom when he had sex with the two Swedish women, or, afterwards, had agreed for a clap test instead of going into a paranoid mode, he would have saved himself a lot of bother.

Assange has announced that he is worried that he would be extradited to America (therein lies another irony; Assange is worried, with good reasons, that in America, the supposed leader of the free world, he would not get justice). And worry he might. If you stick your head inside a beehive and irritate the bees, be prepared to be stung.

Friday, 3 December 2010

Book of the Month: Nothing to Envy (Barbara Demick)

North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is an anachronism from the Cold War era of the twentieth century, which has survived, against all odds, into the twenty-first. The North Korea watchers were predicting the demise of Kim-Il-Sung’s totalitarian regime at the beginning of the 1990s, when the Stalinist dictatorships in the satellite Eastern Bloc countries began collapsing like packs of cards. However, twenty-one years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the vice-like grip of the Korean Worker’s Party on this tiny country in the Korean peninsula—flanked on either side by the Yellow Sea and the East Sea—and its twenty-three million benighted citizens, shows no signs of weakening. Included by George W Bush in his axis of Evil, North Korean regime seems to thrive in its isolation even as the population starves to death.

The North Korean dictatorship, with its state-controlled, ineffectual and stagnating economy, was propped up by the Soviet Union for decades by offers of almost all the essential commodities at heavily subsidized rates. From 1980s onwards, with its non-functioning industrial and agricultural sectors North Korea came to depend almost entirely on the largess of the Soviets. Soviet Union was also a guaranteed market for what little North Korea produced. All that changed in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed: North Korea descended literally into darkness when the Soviet supply of cheap fuel oil ceased. The millions of tons of staple grain that North Korea was purchasing at very friendly prices from the Russians became unavailable. However, Kim-Il-Sung and, after his death in 1994, his son, Kim-Jong-il (North Korea is a unique example of Communist dictatorship combined with dynastic rule), saw no reason to jettison the inefficient and unworkable quasi-autoarkic approach to economy. At a time when China and Russia were embracing Free Market with the zeal of a nymphomaniac who has spotted a man after having been marooned on an uninhabited island for months, North Korea remained (and still remains) an entirely state-run economy. The floods and famine that hit the country in the mid-1990s compounded the misery of North Korean people. In three years, between 1995 and 1998, 3 million people (12% of the country’s population) died of starvation. It is this period, the lost decade of the 1990s, the devastation and the unspeakable misery it inflicted on the people of North Korea, that is the focus of Barbara Demick’s excellent book, Nothing to Envy, winner of the 2010 Samuel Johnson prize.

Demick is a respected American journalist, whose previous work about the daily life in Sarajevo in the middle of the Bosnian war (she was a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer and lived in Sarajevo for a year) was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She was posted in Seoul in 2001 as a foreign correspondent for ‘Los Angeles Times’. Over the next eight years Demick interviewed men and women who had managed to escape from North Korea. Nothing to Envy is the fruition of years of painstaking work. And the portrait that emerges out of the narratives of Demick’s interviewees is not pretty. While nothing that is revealed comes as a surprise, it is not the less shocking for it. What unfolds through the pages of Nothing to Envy is a tragedy of epic proportion.

What is remarkable about the six individuals—all of them came from the city of Chongjin in North Korea—whose stories Demick tells us, is that none of them was a political activist. They were all ordinary citizens; some had no political views, while some others were staunch believers in the purported socialist ideal of the dictatorship, as also in the improbable stories of mythical proportion systematically spread by the party about the ‘Dear Leader’ (as Kim-Jong-il is referred to in North Korea) and his father, Kim-Il-sung, the ‘Great Marshal’, who, sixteen years after his death, still remains the official leader of his country—the kind of grotesque oddity that is possible only in totalitarian regimes. All of defectors, except perhaps one, defected for one simple reason: there was nothing to eat, and they were starving.

In unostentatious language, unadorned by hyperbole, Demick describes the disintegration of a country and its descent into chaos. The factories stopped production; the power plants collected rust; the hospitals ran out of medicines; the trains stopped running, and the regime simply stopped paying salaries to its people. The regime’s response to emerging food shortage and ensuing disaster was—depressingly and unsurprisingly— propaganda and more propaganda. The official party newspaper –the only one that is available in North Korea—began extolling the virtue of having only two meals a day as the food shortage began to bite. In the next couple of years, even that became an extravagance only a few could afford, as the food disappeared from the market. The stories of famine and hunger reported by the defectors beggar belief. Rice became a luxury; meat and vegetables became scarce; the only grain that was available (in miniscule quantities) was corn; and the once proud people of this country were reduced to eating grass, and crushing barks of pine trees and conkers to add to the soup to thicken it. That led invariably to health problems and, not surprisingly, the young and the old suffered the most. One of the defectors Demick interviewed worked as a teacher in a nursery. She described how the once bubbly and energetic toddlers became progressively listless and lethargic; the families simply could not afford to give them food, and the school had long since stopped giving lunches. The toddlers had no energy left to participate in the activities and instead just sat, with eyes closed, in the class. During the recess, instead of going out into the playground, they lay down on the floor in a corner of the classroom. In the year prior to the teacher’s defection, the number of toddlers in her class dwindled down to fifteen from fifty. The statistics Demick provides are staggering. Apparently 42% of North Korea’s children show ‘stunted growth’—too large heads compared to torsos, and short limbs—the result of chronic malnutrition. The damage might be permanent. The food shortage, like the Communist regime of North Korea, showed no class distinction. One of the defectors Demick interviewed was a doctor, working in the Paediatric department of the Chongjing’s increasingly dysfunctional hospital, as the common antibiotics became unaffordable. The hospital stopped paying salaries to all its employees, but the authorities still forced the doctors to work (towards what end, you wonder, as there was little that the doctors could do). As time went by, the doctor became increasingly enfeebled and had neither the energy nor money to travel to her hospital. She spent long hours during the day, starving, in her bed. Interestingly, the doctor’s father, an ethnic Korean, had escaped China in the 1950s (when millions in China died of starvation as a result of Chairman Mao’s disastrous ‘great leap forward’) to North Korea, which, at that time, was more prosperous (indeed the North Korean economy was doing better than that of South Korea until the 1970s). The father remained a staunch supporter of the North Korean regime until his dying day (he starved himself to death because he could see no point in carrying on after Kil Il-Sung, the ‘Great Marshal’, died). And now, as the twentieth century neared its end, his daughter was starving in North Korea while China was frolicking in its newfangled affluence. This doctor eventually escaped to China, crossing the Tumen river—a common escape route for North Korean defectors. As the doctor entered the nearest village on the Chinese side of the border in freezing cold, and pushed open the door of the first house she came across, she noticed a big bowl of rice and chicken—neither of which she had tasted for years—in the verandah. Just then a dog from the house entered the verandah and began eating from the bowl. Then the realisation hit her: the dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea. 

All totalitarian regimes exert some or the other form of thought control over the population in order to cling to power.  Towards that end an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion is deliberately engendered, paranoia is systematically stoked. People are actively encouraged to denounce and report others for misconducts and infractions which cover a wide range of activities. Stalin in Soviet Union, Mao in China, and Stasi in East Germany excelled in this. The North Korean dictatorship appears to be no exception. Throughout the 1990s, as the famine raged all over North Korea, the regime was still whisking off people in the middle of the night to labour camps, styled on the Soviet gulags, for antinational activities such as doubting the capability of the ‘great marshal’ (Kim Il-Sung) in their personal diaries or for passing sarcastic comments after listening to one of the many clichéd, tub-thumping speeches of the party demagogues.  In many instances, members of the same family were encouraged to spy on one another. Two of the defectors Demick interviewed had known each other since their adolescence, and were each other’s first love. Their romance continued despite the many obstacles, not least the different social status of their respective families, for many years. For the best part of their six-year love affair both were thinking about —and in later stages actively plotting—escaping. Neither however dared to breathe a word of their seditious intentions to the other for the fear that the other might denounce them. As it happened the girl took the plunge first and, together with her mother and one of the sisters, escaped to South Korea via China. The boy followed a few years later; it was, however, too late, and by that time the girl had married a South Korean man and was a mother of two children.

If there is one thing a dictatorship is petrified of, it is the spread of knowledge. Stalin knew this, as did Chairman Mao, who, during the twenty-seven years of his demonic rule over China, went to great lengths to keep the population illiterate and ignorant. The more isolated the population is the more likely it will believe the lies and distortions of the regime. The North Korean people have been drip-fed for decades the standard Communist propaganda of America being the great Satan and South Korea being a willing slave of the Imperialist Western powers. During the decades of relative prosperity, the 1960s and the 1970s, the people must have found it easier to believe in the ‘Great Marshal’, who had the good fortune of dying in the beginning of the economic meltdown, and thus being associated forever in the memories of North Korean ‘hoi poli’ with the good times. When he died suddenly of a heart attack there were hysterical public outpourings of grief. His son, the ‘Dear Leader’, who became the country’s leader during very difficult economic times (made worse by his refusal to countenance any changes to the economic policy of the country), would appear to have had little difficulty in feeding the starving population with lies and exhorting them for further sacrifices. He could do that (and is still doing it) because a whole generation of North Koreans knows no different; they simply cannot imagine that life can be different, isolated as they are from the rest of the world. North Korea remains an Internet blackhole, one of the very few countries in the world that has chosen to stay offline. One of the defectors Demick interviewed was handpicked by the regime to enrol into University in Pyongyang. He had been on the North Korean “internet”, a closed system available only to academics to browse through various academic papers and a censored encyclopaedia the country had purchased. This man had heard of the Internet, and, when he crossed the border into China, he was curious to get on the Net. The problem was this man, who had belonged to the educational elites of North Korea, a graduate of one of the best universities in North Korea, had no idea how to do that. He was shown the ropes by a South Korean exchange student and with every click the world opened up to him. What he had begun to suspect about his country and the regime was confirmed; he also discovered what the rest of the world really thought about his country, and the contempt in which the ‘Dear Leader’ and his despicable regime was held.  

The title of Barbara Demick’s book is taken from doggerel the North Korean regime spread to propagate the personality cult of Kim-Il-Sung and later his son, Kim-Jong-il. All the children had to learn by heart and sing in their schools this song. One of the defectors narrated an incidence to Demick. Sometime in the late 1990s, when the North Korean economy was at its worst, this man was on a railway station. By that time, in all parts of the country were swarms of homeless children—in many cases the result of the decision by the parents to leave the food for the children, which meant that the parents perished, leaving the children orphans.  As this man waited on the railway platform, a group of homeless children arrived and began begging. A seven or eight year old boy from the group began singing. This little boy, soaking wet, hungry and filthy, his tiny, malnourished body almost completely lost in the adult-size clothes he was wearing, squeezed his eyes tight shut and mustering all his strength belted out the song which, in his surprisingly resonant voice, filled the platform:

Uri Abogi, our father, we have nothing to envy in the world.
Our house is within the embrace of the Worker’s Party.
We are all brothers and sisters.
Even if a sea of fire comes towards us, sweet children do not
                need to be afraid.
Our father is here.
We have nothing to envy.

‘Our father’, in Godless North Korea, is of course Kim-Il-Sung and (after his death)  Kim-Jong-il.

Years later the defector would recollect that it was this little orphan boy that pushed him over the edge. He found it unconscionable that the boy would be singing a paean to a man who had brought nothing but misery and ruination upon him.

Nothing to Envy is a work of great merit. Through the oral histories of North Korean defectors Barbara Demick has shone a searchlight on a country, which, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is a riddle wrapped in mystery inside an enigma. In the process she has shown that which lies beyond the Potemkin Village of Pyongyang and which the secretive dictatorship has been desperately trying to cover: the silent misery of North Korea’s long-suffering people.

Trouble with North Korea

The news of North Korean bombing of a South Korean island and recent escalation of tension between the two countries, each of which claims to be the legitimate ruler of the Korean peninsula, is not surprising. It is not surprising because the two countries are technically at war with each other for the past six decades, as they never signed a peace treaty following the armistice in 1953, following three years of what most of us refer to as the Korean war. Equally unsurprising is American involvement in the conflict. For the past six decades, since the Second World War ended, American presence in the region, via her South Korean ally, is constant.

To borrow from a famous Winston Churchill’s quote, North Korea appears to many in the West as a riddle, wrapped in mystery, inside an enigma. Churchill was speaking in 1939, when the world, or at any rate Europe, stood on the cusp of a war that would see millions slaughtered and countries destroyed. He was predicting, rather he was indicating that he could not predict, what steps Stalin’s Russia would take. ‘But,’ Churchill went on to say, ‘perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.’ What might be the key to the riddle that is North Korea, the world’s most secretive state?

Perhaps, to understand the tragedy of the peoples of North Korea, we need to look at the history of the Korean peninsula in the twentieth century.

With the surrender of Japan, in 1945, which brought an end to more than five decades of Japanese rapacity, the peninsula was ripe for picking by the two emerging superpowers, Soviet Union and the United States.

When Japan made Korea its colony in the first decade of the twentieth century, it embarked on one of the most audacious experiments in the twentieth century:  erasing cultural identity of 24 million Koreans. Korean language and literature were banned from public life and the use and study of Japanese language was made mandatory. During the Second World War Japan ruthlessly exploited Korean resources towards war efforts. Several million Korean men were forcibly conscripted in Japanese labour camps; millions more were sent to work in other parts of Japanese empire and in Japan itself. As the war progressed, Korean men were conscripted into the Imperial Japanese army. When America dropped atomic bombs on the two Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, more than fifth of the millions who died were Koreans labourers.

As the Second World War neared its end, Soviet Union, as per the agreement with the USA, declared war against Japan, and, within days, occupied what is now North Korea. In the next two weeks the Soviet army reached the 38th parallel and awaited the arrival of the Americans in the South. Once again the fate of the Koreans was in the hands of those who had no connection—geographical or cultural—to the peninsula, although it would be fair to say that Communists had presence in the undivided Korea under Japanese rule and had provided resistance to the Japanese occupation. By this time, though, seeds of suspicions had been sowed between the two Second World War allies, and the Americans seriously doubted that the Russians would honour their part of the Joint Commission, the US-sponsored agreement of occupation of Korea. In the Postdam conference, the Allies unilaterally divided Korea without so much as by your leave of the Koreans. The decision had become a foregone conclusion when colonel Rusk and colonel Bonesteel III demarcated the two ‘occupied zones’ at the 38th parallel, a decision, as Rusk would later clarify, that was taken in thirty minutes, even though the 38th parallel was further North than what he, at that time, felt the US forces could realistically reach. The Russians agreed to this demarcation line, even though it meant that the zone under their control would be smaller than that under American control, as Stalin wanted to be in a stronger negotiating position in the Eastern Europe. It was agreed that the two divided parts of Korea would remain under the ‘trusteeship’ of the Soviets and Americans for five years, until 1950. (It is tempting to compare the partition of the Indian subcontinent, which happened around the same time (in 1947). The British, who had been in charge of undivided India for more than 150 years, left behind a bloody mess (which resulted in the largest forced migration of peoples in the history of twentieth century); but they at least made some efforts to take into consideration the will of the people. Almost all of what is now Pakistan chose to secede from India in a plebiscite.)

Both the Soviets and Americans set about establishing what were for all practical purposes puppet governments in the parts of the peninsula under their control. Let’s look first at what happened in South Korea. Lieutenant General Hodge of the United States directly controlled South Korea via the United States Army Military Government in Korea (USAMGIK). He forcibly dissolved the People’s Republic of Korea (PRK) to which the Japanese had handed power. PRK was headed by a Korean politician named Yuh Woon Hyung. Hyung was a re-unification activist who agitated for the independent reunification of Korea (in which neither of the superpowers had any interest). Hyung was left wing in his political beliefs. In 1920 he became a member of the Korean Communist party. Four years later he joined Sun Yat-Sen’s Chinese Nationalist party (Kuomintang). In 1929 he was arrested by the British for daring to criticise Britain’s colonial policy and was handed over to the Japanese in Korea. He was imprisoned for three years. Upon his release he kept himself busy by participating in a variety of underground anti-Japanese activities in Korea. In August 1945, when Japan surrendered, General Abe transferred the power to Hyung in return for safeguard of the Japanese in Korea. However, Hyung’s obvious leaning towards the left made him a suspect in the eyes of the Americans. Lt. General Hodge wasted little time in summarily abolishing Hyung’s government. In the next two years Hyung maintained a centre-left position, which won him few fans in the extreme right or left wing groups. In 1947 Hyung was assassinated, in South Korea, by a right wing extremist.

In the North, PRK’s local structure was maintained under the Soviet occupation and went on to form the basis of the Worker’s Party of Korea, the party that has controlled North Korea for the past six decades. In the South, the Americans wanted nothing to do with Hyung’s crypto-Communist policies.

Americans now desperately wanted a ‘democratically elected’ Korean leader who would head South Korea. The chosen man was Syngman Rhee, a rabidly anti-Communist, Right wing Christian, who came with the personal recommendation of the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek, the Nationalist leader of the neighbouring China, who was fighting an internecine civil war with Mao Zedong’s Communists, a war he would lose. Rhee was ‘democratically’ elected after elections were held in South Korea. The Soviets first opposed and then boycotted the elections, arguing that the Americans honour the agreement in the Moscow conference and the two parts remain under the trusteeships of the two superpowers. In reality the Soviets knew that their chances of gaining power in American controlled Korea were slimmer than none. The Americans had achieved their goal: there was now a nominally independent, indigenous, and democratically elected Korean government in place in the South, which would serve as America’s bulwark against the Soviet led (Mao Zedong had not yet usurped power in China) Communist advancement in North Asia. The Republic of Korea (South Korea) was established. At least in the initial years, the puppet government, filled with politicians loathed by the Korean populace (many of them had served under the hated Japanese occupiers), remained intensely unpopular. This resulted, from time to time, in rebellions in the American controlled Korea (for example in the Jeolla region, where some local active units of PRK, together with Communist units, rebelled), which the Rhee’s South Korean army snuffed out with Forensic precision. This was the beginning of the Cold War, and the American anti-Communist paranoia had set in. The Americans had decided that communists everywhere in the world were under direct payroll of Stalin; and many members serving in the government of Syngman Rhee had no qualification other than that they were anti-Communists. Syngman Rhee was a dictator and he knew what he had to do keep his masters happy. He set about clearing South Korean politics of communists with commendable efficiency. He ruthlessly suppressed several rebellions against his regime and oversaw more than one massacre of his own people. In the post-war (that is the Second World War) South Korea, politicians who had any public stature were on the left. Many of them left for Pyongyang when the repression of the leftist activities began under Syngman Rhee.

What was going on in the Soviet controlled North Korea while the ‘democratically’ elected dictator ran amok in South Korea? As it happened, a Soviet approved dictator rose to power in the Northern part of the peninsula, a dictator who would rule the country for more than four decades, until his death in 1994. He was Kim Il-Sung.

Let’s step back in time and have a brief look at the Korean independent movement, and the rise of Communism in Korea. Korea became vulnerable to Japanese expansionism in the late nineteenth century. In the first decade of the twentieth century, after Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905, there were no limits to Japan’s imperial ambitions. Other Imperial powers of the time, such as Great Britain, turned a conniving eye when Japan invaded Korea in 1910. The resistance to Japanese occupation, which started immediately, was provided by disparate religious, military, and Royalist groups. The Communist party of Korea was formed in secrecy in Seoul, in 1925 (Japan had banned communism in the colony). The communists played their role in the resistance movement, although right from the beginning the party was afflicted by sectional feuds, forcing the Comintern (Communist International—an international organization funded by the Soviets) to disband it. Some of the members of the Korean Communist party escaped to China and became members of the Chinese Communist Party.

Kim Il-Sung, or the ‘Great Marshal’ as everyone in North Korea is forced to refer to him as, had an interesting background. Born as Kim Song-ju, in 1912, into a deeply religious family, Kim’s maternal grandfather was a Protestant minister, while his father was an elder in the Presbyterian Church. The family was not poor although it was not very rich either. According to official North Korean publication and extensive accounts left by Kim Il-Sung himself in his later life, his family was involved in anti-Japanese activities and fled Japanese persecution in 1920, to Manchuria. Some have suggested that the family, like thousands of Korean families, was fleeing famine and not Japanese persecution. It is possible, though, that the family played some minor role in anti-Japanese resistance. Kim would have been eight when the family settled in Manchuria. Kim’s father died in 1926. It was around this time that Kim became interested in Communist ideology. He became a member of an underground Marxist Youth Organization and participated in subversive activities. He was arrested and jailed for several months in 1929. In 1931, the year Japan invaded Manchuria, Kim joined the Chinese Communist Party and participated in guerrilla warfare against the Japanese occupiers in Manchuria. Kim rose steeply within the ranks of Chinese Communist Party. In his later life Kim would make much of the guerrilla warfare and the North Korean Communist party systematically build his personality cult as some sort of young Communist Robin Hood. There was probably a kernel of truth in these exaggerated claims. Kim continued with his guerrilla activities throughout the 1930s, but, as the decade neared its end, relentlessly pursued by Japanese troops, he escaped into Soviet Union. It is not known what Kim did in Russia: either he sat out the Second World War in Siberia along with other Korean leaders in exile(more likely, as Stalin was hesitant to anger the Japanese by letting the Koreans use the USSR as a base for their anti-Japanese activities) or he joined the Soviet Red army and fought in the Second World War (less likely). Sometime during this period, either before or after he escaped into Soviet Union, Kim assumed the name Kim Il-Sung, which meant ‘becoming the Sun’. The same name was assumed earlier by a prominent early leader of the Korean resistance movement. (For a long time rumours circulated that the young Kim was somehow switched with the ‘original’ Kim.)

When Soviet declared war on Japan, in 1945, and the Soviet army, much to Stalin’s surprise, rolled into Pyongyong without any resistance from the Japanese, Stalin wanted a puppet regime in North Korea (just in the same way the Americans wanted a puppet regime in South Korea). Kim Il-Sung was Stalin’s man. Laverenti Beria, who was tasked with the job of selecting the candidate, suggested Kim Il-Sung’s name. Kim, who was only in his thirties at the time, was widely believed to have been chosen by Stalin because, having spent most of his life outside Korea, he was not viewed by Stalin as someone with any links with the Korean Communist party, which Stalin had disbanded years earlier for being too nationalistic. Stalin wanted someone in place in North Korea who would forever look towards Moscow for support and guidance.

When Kim Il-Sung arrived in North Korea, he could not even speak Korean; his education, such as it was, was in Chinese. The headquarters of the Korean Communist Party were still in Seoul, which was under American occupation. In the years leading to the Korean War, Kim Il-Sung, with generous help from Stalin, built up a formidable army and air-force. When the Americans carried the elections in South Korea and instated Syngman Rhee, Stalin followed suit and the Democratic Republic of Korea came into existence (with Kim Il-Sung as leader) days after the Republic of Korea was created. True, there were no elections in North Korea that elected Kim Il-Sung, but difficult as it may seem to believe now, Kim Il-Sung was far more popular at this time in North Korea than his counterpart in South Korea. The Korean populace respected Kim for his years of anti-Japanese activities (albeit in the neighbouring China), which Rhee had sat out in Hawaii. Within two years North Korea had become a proper Communist dictatorship. All walks of life were dominated by the Communists.

Both the North and the South Koreans, backed by their respective masters, declared themselves to be the only lawful governments of the peninsula. It is beyond the scope of this post to go into the details of Korean war (that is for another day); however, contrary to what many probably believe, the war did not start suddenly one June morning in 1950 when the North Korean army crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The North Korean invasion was preceded by a long and sustained period of aggression by both sides involving incursions into each other’s territory. What added immeasurably to American paranoia (probably with good reason) was the news that the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb, and, in the neighbouring China, Communists, under Mao Zedong, gained control of the country, forcing the US-backed Kuomintang Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek to leg it to Taiwan, taking with him millions of American dollars from the Chinese treasury.

The Korean war finally ended in a stalemate—with both sides taking each other’s capitals only to lose it to the other side, and the control of the territories going back and forth—during which US air raids devastated North Korea, selecting Pyongyang for special punishment; most cities in North Korea suffered almost total annihilation. When the UN—mostly American troupes— captured Pyongyang, Kim Il-Sung, the brave guerrilla fighter against the Japanese, fled to China. He was reinstated by the Soviets when the war ended.

Kim Il-Sung’s regime was no different from other Soviet imposed Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe. They were all, on the face of it, multi-party ‘people’s democracies’ in which Communists were part of the coalition. In reality the Communists were firmly in control and the coalition partners were allowed little autonomy and less influence. Within the Korean Communist Party (which later became Korean Workers Party) Kim Il-Sung soon assumed complete control.

What is almost difficult to believe, given the dire financial state of North Korea, is that from the 1950s to 1970s, North Korean economy was actually doing better than the South Korean one, even though North Korea received (relatively) less help from the Soviets and the Chinese than the South Koreans did from their American masters.

North Korea’s position became tricky with the Sino-Russian rift following death of Stalin. The Soviets became annoyed with Kim Il-Sung as they felt that he was leaning towards Mao’s China. In fact Kim-Il-Sung tried to be clever, and propagated his famous ‘Juche’ theory, which preached self reliance. The result was a gradual decline in Soviet aid to North Korea over the years. In due course Kim Il-Sung removed all reference to Marxism and Leninism (which he rejected as European notions) and ‘Juche’ became, for all practical purposes, an ultra-Nationalistic form of Stalinism.

Almost six decades after the Korean War ended, the winds of war are once again flowing through the Korean Peninsula, after the North Koreans shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpeyong, which sent the Americans rushing to the aid of their South Korean ally, and a depressing rhetoric consisting, in equal parts, of paranoia and deranged grandiosity, has started from the North Korean regime. It is not surprising. Kim Jong-Il, the son of Kim Il-Sung, ‘a flabby chap who likes to drink and enjoys public adulation’, according Wikileaks documents, inherited a completely ruined economy when his father dropped dead in 1994. His response to the economic crisis facing his country was to rely almost entirely on military. In the 1990s, North Koreans began producing very crude but cheap ballistic missiles, produced from obsolete Chinese and Soviet designs. These missiles became available to any regime that was willing to pay for them. Many of these missiles were sold to countries like Iran and Syria which the US considers as enemy. The North Korean nuclear programme, which began on a small scale in 1980 via a Soviet donated reactor, gained momentum during Kim Jong-Il’s regime, even as his people starved to death through the terrible famines of the 1990s. Americans have gone, unsurprisingly, apeshit. Rumours have circulated for years that the Americans have kept nuclear missiles in South Korea. They certainly have a naval base and military presence in that country. But they don’t like it when third world countries dare to arm themselves with weapons that will actually prove to be a deterrent against what they think is imperialist bullying. (I am prepared to bet my left ear that the Americans will not dare to invade North Korea if the North Koreans indeed have nuclear capability. Iraq was invaded precisely because Saddam Hussain’s chemical cupboard contained nothing more dangerous than a packet of paracetamol.)  The other factor in the North Korean ‘problem’ which America cannot ignore is, of course, China. More than two decades after the first attempts to normalise relations between China and US, the relations between the two giants are still plagued by the two unresolved problems: Taiwan and the (technically) unfinished Korean War. Wikileaks documents reveal that China might finally be running out patience with their North Korean allies, described  by the Chinese vice Foreign Minister as a ‘spoiled child’ (there is Chinese euphemism for you) after North Korea carried out nuclear tests in April 2009. It seems that at least some high ranking officials in the Chinese Communist party have begun viewing North Korea as a burden, and not a useful ally. However, to assume that China will allow unification of Korea under South Korean control would be a step too far at this stage. Similar rumours floated when Kim Il-Sung died. China did not abandon Pyongyang then, and it is unlikely that it would do so any time soon.

In 1950, when Kim Il-Sung’s North Korea invaded South Korea, the ostensible aim was to unify the peninsula. Under Communist ideology. It was exactly the aim of Syngman Rhee, the American backed strongman in South Korea; he too was for unification of Korea, but under Capitalist ideology. The Communists enjoyed grass-root support even in South Korea at the time of invasion and the only reason, at that time, why the peninsula did not unify was the intervention of the Americans. That was a long time ago. A lot has changed since then. Communism has collapsed everywhere. China, North Korea’s last hope, is Communist only in name. North Korea remains virtually the only Stalinist regime in the world, and, unlike the situation at the time of the Korean War, the Communist dictatorial regime has probably lost its legitimacy with the people of North Korea. But any hopes of it imploding, East German style, are premature.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Nobel Peace Prize 2010

The Nobel Peace prize for 2010 has been awarded to a Chinese dissident activist. What a surprise! China has reacted with anger at the decision of the Nobel committee to award the prize to this man whom the regime jailed in December 2009 for ‘inciting subversion of state power’, and has accused the committee of attempting to destabilise the country by fomenting internal strife. I am shocked!

The reaction of the Chinese regime is as depressingly predictable as the decision of the Nobel committee to award the peace prize to the dissident. Indeed as Liu Xiaobo was convicted by what passes in China for judicial system he might have consoled himself with the thought that the Nobel Peace Prize was now surely his (not enough, or nearly enough, compensation for spending eleven years in Chinese gaol if you ask me).

If you (like me) do not have a position, so to speak, on this issue, you would be puzzled. On one side is China, the de facto superpower, a nation that is the inheritor of one of the ancient civilizations of the world, a nation that represents a significant chunk of humanity (I haven’t done the math, which, in any case, is not my strong point, but I would have thought that India and China, the two Asian giants, between them, represent at least one third of the humanity), and a nation that has, for the past six decades, a political system that is, not to put too fine a point on it, a police state; on the other side is a tiny Scandinavian nation that is mostly known for giving the world the pop group ‘Abba’ and a few blonde (and bland) tennis players in the 1980s, and which doles out yearly largesse in the memory of a man who invented dynamite. The Nobel peace prize is awarded by another (tinier) Scandinavian country whose most famous gift to the world is Jarlsberg cheese.

However, this is not just about the respective sizes of the countries. These Scandinavian countries have money to give, and it is a lot of money. They can of course give the money to whomever they wish; it is their money. And it is an award that is associated with a lot of prestige. Its earlier recipients include such heavyweights as Al Gore (for making a documentary) and Barak Obama (for doing what?). So, coming back to the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, we have two diametrically opposite views about the man Xiaobo. The Chinese say he is a criminal who has been convicted by the system that exists in that country, and the regime believes that he is part of the plot to destabilise China. The Nobel Committee would have us believe that Xiaobo has made so much contribution to peace (where?) that it could think of no better or more deserving person than him to shower their millions on. The Chinese are hopping mad. They are seeing all kinds of conspiracies. The Chinese Foreign minister has declared that awarding the peace prize to the criminal Xiaobo runs completely counter to the principle of the prize and is also a blasphemy to the peace prize (he should know). The Chinese has cancelled with immediate effect the visit of a Norwegian fisheries committee (that should teach them a lesson). If this was predictable, the Nobel committee’s response to Chinese histrionics was equally predictable. The committee couldn’t be more smug. The Chinese response, it declared, was as misguided as their accusation of interference. The committee regretted the actions taken by the regime (the dissident’s wife has been put under house arrest, and I’d imagine that she has less chances of making it to Sweden to accept the prize on behalf of her jailed husband than, as they say, a one-legged man winning an ass-kicking competition), but it was not surprised. The Nobel committee (in case it has escaped your notice) stands for a set of principles. The committee takes instructions from nobody. The Nobel committees over the years, of course, have a great tradition of standing for their principles and taking instructions from nobody. Such as not awarding the prize to Gandhi even though he was nominated twice, because the British colonialists indicated that they would be very displeased if Gandhi was given the award (and, no doubt, further indicated that the Scandinavian monarch—if such an institution exists— would not be welcome for tea at Buckingham palace; which, if you think of it, should be regarded as a blessing in disguise—if you value your life do not go to a British house for their dreadful tea). The pompous hectoring of Geir Lundestead about principles and being independent minded is what the Spanish call gilipollez, Italians call cazzata, French call connerie and the English call bullshit (don’t know what the Norwegian or Swedish call it). Or, if this is too rude, you might say the argument is rich; it couldn’t be richer than if it were weighed down with kilos of Jarlsberg cheese.

The question, here, is: what exactly has Liu Xiaobo done to promote peace in China? WikiPedia informs us that he is a political activist who is unhappy with the current political system in that country, and is agitating to change it. He was jailed in 1989, for example, for his part in the Tiananmen Square protests. In 1996 he was ordered to serve three years of re-education through labour for disturbing public order. He obviously did not learn the lesson the regime was hoping to teach him, and last year he was jailed for spreading messages to subvert the country and authority. This does not sound to me like behaviour of someone who is spreading peace.

And what is more, I don’t think the regime is exaggerating or lying when it says that Xiaobo is attempting to subvert the authority. Because that is precisely what he is doing; that is his stated aim. What is not clear (to me anyway) is whether the regime is really afraid of Xiaobo or it is merely irked at what it sees as an attempt by the uppity Scandinavians to embarrass the regime on an international stage. Whatever the case, it would be fair to assume that the Chinese Communist party can do without the likes of Xiaobo going around putting ideas into people’s head that democracy is the answer to their problems. Because it isn’t— in any case, the lies and intrigues of the rulers are the same no matter what system is in place—and also there may not be any problem—especially if you support the party—in the first place. What is impossible to know is whether the pro-democracy movement is gaining ground in China. There is no reason to suppose that—not taking into account the hard-core Communists—hoi polli of China are pining for democracy. Difficult as it is for democracy-mongers in the West, who are prepared to (illegally) invade sovereign countries and murder millions to spread the message of democracy, to believe this, the Chinese might actually be happy with how things are in their country, thank you very much. The decision of the Nobel committee to award Liu Xiaobo the Nobel Peace Prize is a political decision. It is as much a political decision as George W Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was. There is also, I feel, an element of mischief-making. Now that China is reasserting herself on the world stage and the balance of power is shifting slowly but surely Asiawards, we should expect more of this from European countries in which industrial revolution took place with little to no regard to democracy and human rights. Expect more of hand-wringing and tut-tutting about the human right violations in China and the starving millions in India.

If I were the Chinese premier (and still in full control of all the factions in the party and my faculties) I would seriously consider starting a Chinese award. That would be the apt thing to do rather than whingeing every time the Western pranksters get up to their old tricks. The Chinese regime can award that nutter who tried to set off car-bombs the Time Square. He is fearlessly fighting a valiant battle to subvert the authority of the regime in, as a character in a Peter Carey novel I recently finished reading says, the you-Knighted States of America, and the regime gave him a life-sentence without a parole. The Chinese could honour the unsung heroes of the ultra-leftist terrorists in the neighbouring India who periodically blow up railways, kidnap and kill civilians in order to unleash an egalitarian dictatorship (and they are doing this in the name of Chairman Mao). How about conferring posthumous honours on Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein? The former tried to wipe out Muslims in the erstwhile Yugoslavia, perhaps not with as much success and efficiency as the Chinese in the Xingjiang province, but you have got to admit that the man had a bloody good go at it. And Saddam, of course, had modelled himself, his regime and his party on Stalin whose puppet chairman Mao was in the early years of his dictatorship. Nick Griffin (he, like Xiaobo, is not afraid to make his point, and, again, like him, is, so far, in minority in his country) would be happy to travel to Beijing to receive his millions. It is about time. 

Book of the Month: Chinese Whispers (Jane Wong)

In 1972 Jan Wong, a third generation Chinese woman from Canada, enrolled into the historical Beijing University to study Mandarin. China was in the midst of Cultural Revolution, and its relation with the West was below freezing point. Jan Wong was one of the only two foreign students allowed to study in Beijing; the other, like her, was an ethnic Chinese from America. Their studies had been approved at the highest level of the Chinese government. As the first foreign student, Wong had her own teacher, cook and dormitory. Everyone who befriended Wong during her year long stay in Beijing, although she did not know it at the time, was carefully vetted by the Communist party—the Beijing University even selected hand-picked students to fill the dormitory in which Wong was staying. All of this was entirely in keeping with the monumental paranoia of the West reigning in Mao’s China, counterpoised by a desire to present a picture of harmonious, happy society to impressionable Westerners. The regime, like all totalitarian regimes, was petrified of knowledge and new ideas that would threaten the hegemony of the Communist Party. It encouraged ordinary citizens, even members of the same families in several instances, to spy on and denounce each other. In what would surely go down in the history of the twentieth century as an extreme example of thought control—much worse than what the Stasi did in the German Democratic Republic—steenth careers and lives were ruined for harbouring heretic and unpatriotic thoughts. Someone could be imprisoned or beaten to death for accidently ripping up a newspaper that happened to contain a photograph of Mao.

As a starry eyed socialist Wong was completely unaware of this (she was not alone; very few at the time were aware of what was going on in China; China’s human violations were not common knowledge then). China, for her, was a socialist paradise. She willingly worked in factories, volunteered to rub shoulders with the peasants in the paddy fields, and mixed cement when one of the buildings on the university campus was being built. She believed totally, unhesitatingly, unquestioningly in the lies spread by Mao and the Communist Party. China, she convinced herself, was a socialist heaven on earth where people lived in harmony, happiness, and cleanliness. She was therefore aghast when one of the Chinese students in the university, studying History (which in Mao’s time meant Modern Communist History), whom she barely knew, approached her and her American friend with a request to help her get out of China; the young woman wanted to go to America. To Wong and her Chinese-American friend, who was even more left-wing than Wong, this was a betrayal—of the workers and peasants who had paid for the young woman’s university education—on a mammoth scale. Anyone who accepted such help was duty-bound to stay in China. Helping the young woman was out of the question. However, Wong and her friend went a step further: they reported the woman to their respective teachers. The discomfort she felt at tattling on the woman, Wong convinced herself, was just a manifestation of the bourgeois Western sentimentality she was trying to overcome. Chairman Mao had exhorted to ‘let politics take command’; any other considerations were supererogatory. Wong made an entry into a diary she kept at that time, with the woman’s name, and forgot about the incident. A year later, Wong went back to her Capitalist country of birth. She graduated with a degree in journalism, and, over the next two decades spent considerable time in China as a correspondent of various newspapers. Then, in the 1990s, while moving her house, Wong came across the diaries of her youth. She read them for the first time in twenty years, and the enormity of what she had done to this young woman in 1972 sank in.

It took Wong another decade to take the decision that she was going to find this woman, if she could, and apologise for what she (Wong) had done to her. So, in 2007, when China and Beijing were gearing up for what the Communist Party had decided would be the greatest show on earth—the 2008 Olympics—Wong arrived in Beijing with her family—her Canadian husband who spoke Mandarin like a native, and two sons, who couldn’t. Chinese Whisper: A Journey Into Betrayal is the story of Wong’s quest to trace the woman she had so casually betrayed, in a country of 1.3 billion. However, it is not just that. It is a part travelogue, and gives a fascinating insight into how far China—at least Beijing— has come since the days of Chairman Mao, who lies embalmed in his mausoleum in the Tiananmen Square.

In Beijing Wong finds herself in the midst of a construction mania—wherever she goes, the roads are being expanded, old houses bulldozed in order to make way to giant skyscrapers—that would change the face of this city, which first emerged on the world podium almost 3000 years ago. Hutong, Beijing’s famed residential laneways, are disappearing fast, and are being replaced by wide roads, and for the expansion to happen, thousands of trees are being cut. China is no longer the ‘Sick Man of Asia’. After having invented the gunpowder (and a few other essentials) China is now gunning for economic engines. It is the world’s biggest consumer of steel and cement; it is the world’s largest market for computer, cameras, and cell phones; and the world’s second largest market (after the USA) for cars. Any day now, China will start exporting cars to America. Malls the size of several football stadiums are being erected, and the high earners live in condos that cost up to a million dollars (the State has long since given up its monopoly on the real estate, and the people are allowed to own their properties); and, if there is one thing that is emblematic of the Jettisoning of Maoist doctrine, it is the craze among the ‘nouveau riche’ to have dogs as pets—Mao hated dogs, and had decreed that having pet dogs was a bourgeois indulgence—which, in the time-honoured Chinese habit of weighing the worth of everything in monetary terms, are also regarded as commodities the value of which increase with time: more than one dog-owner proudly informs Wong that his pet dog which he bought for 5000 yuans, was worth 15,000 yuans. More than 40% of Chinese do more than 10 hours of overtime every week, and almost 10% work in excess of 60 hours every week.

So much for the material wealth and progress. Has anything changed culturally? Wong finds that China is communist only in name. The party which still presides over what is effectively a police state does not make its presence conspicuous in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people. Many amongst the young Chinese are not overtly concerned about the (relative) lack of free speech and media control by the party. Upwardly mobile and ambitious young men join the party in order to go up the career ladder quickly, not because they believe in the dogma. There are certain ‘advantages’ of a Police State. For example, when Westerners began yapping about the high levels of pollution in Beijing, the dictatorship simply shifted—lock stock and barrels—several factories and a couple of industries out of Beijing, into the interiors. When large motorways are to be developed—as the party’s plans to improve the infrastructure—or dams are to be built, the houses and the villages that come in the way, are simply bulldozed. Someone higher up in the hierarchy of the dictatorship takes a decision, and it happens; the trifles such as public consultations, adequate compensations for those who have lost their homes and livelihoods are dispensed with. This is the paradox of the country, which may well be the next (and the first socialist) superpower: human lives come with different price-tags attached to them. The party still gives away official residential permits for each district and cities within the districts. You can buy properties, access health care etc. in a given city only if you have the official permit. Millions of rural Chinese, displaced by the government projects and the unequal developments, head for the cities and become second class citizens in their own country, living in shanties cheek by jowl with the opulent housing estates. The party still clings on to the one Maoist tactic, though: to limit and control the spread of knowledge. Because it knows that that is the ultimate threat to its existence. The media is state controlled, and subjects such as Tiananmen Square Massacre of the 1989 are not discussed. Indeed, Wong comes across many young Chinese who have not heard of—or say they have not heard of—the massacre; a number of them associate the historical square with the giant rally the party organized to celebrate Beijing’s selection as a venue for the 2008 Olympics. Those who are old enough to remember what happened, are reluctant to discuss it; and Wong gets the feeling that the reluctance is only partly down to their fear of reprisal by the Communist dictatorship; they do not want to talk about it because in their minds they—and the country with them—have moved on. This collective amnesia for the event in which, according to which Western Newspaper report you read, between 1000 to 3000 people died, might puzzle the Western minds, which, have the need for public soul searching—the only way to come to terms with a catastrophe; but for the Chinese this is par for the course. After all, this is a country which has not autopsied the ten years of Cultural Revolution in which reportedly 1 million Chinese died; and the man who unleashed this terror (and with it unspeakable miseries on his people) is still hailed as the Father of the Communist China. This is the Chinese way of doing things; they do things differently. Thus, when Deng Xiaoping became the Chinese Premiere after Mao’s death, he went about quietly burying Mao’s unworkable ideas, but stopped short of denouncing him, unlike Khrushchev who denounced Stalin. This is all the more interesting, as, during the Cultural Revolution—which Mao unleashed essentially to purge to Communist Party of his opposers, who, he was convinced, were plotting against him—, Deng was officially declared as Mao’s number two enemy and was subjected to extreme humiliation. His eldest son was thrown out of fourth floor window by the fanatical Maoist cadres, and became paraplegic. When interviewed in 2004, full 38 years after the accident, the son said that he did not feel the need to discuss it; it was all in the past.   

Does this story have a personal happy ending? Does Wong manage to trace the woman she betrayed all those years ago and to whom she now wants to apologise? With no clue other than the woman’s name—which turns out to be incorrect—Wong begins her search. She manages to contact some of her former fellow socialist students—all of whom are living in humongous condos equipped to keep the Beijing pollution at bay; own Porsches which they cannot drive faster than 15 mph because of gridlock; dine in restaurants and spending money in an evening many in the West don’t earn in a month; and—the supreme irony of a socialist state, this—have a bevy of maids, poor peasant girls from the interiors, to do the housework—and some of the former teachers. They either can’t remember or have only the vaguest idea of what might have happened to this woman, which, Wong reasons, is understandable seeing as the woman was one of the millions who were denounced and ruined during the Cultural Revolution. Wong traces several leads which, to her dismay, run cold. Just when she has all but given hope of finding the woman—she is eager to atone, but only if she can trace the woman within a month, which is the maximum time she can set aside from her busy schedule to expiate an old guilt—the woman phones her out of the blue. It turns out that the woman has a house on the Beijing University Campus. Wong meets with her and learns what happened to her after she was betrayed. As she listens to the story, Wong realises that all those former fellow students and friends who could not remember the woman or what had happened to her had not told her the truth.

Chinese Whispers: A Journey Into Betrayal is a gripping tale which hooks you within the first few pages. It gives you an insight into how China, the next superpower, is dealing with her past. It also makes you re-examine the world that we inhabit.

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Jacobson Wins the Booker

Earlier this week I was at a friend’s house with another friend—the friend’s friend, that is. So there were three of us: my friend with her two friends—that is me and the third person, a woman with pie-eater’s jowls—, both of us—that is I and the pie-eater—having my friend—although she was not just my friend, she was her—the third person’s—friend too—as the common link. We were, the three of us, having a light lunch, which I was disappointed to note consisted of red grapes (sour), strawberries (watery and soft), slices of cantaloupe melon (tasteless), salted pea nuts (couldn’t she have been less tight-fisted and served cashew nuts?), sourdough bread and brie (not brie de meaux which I prefer) and canned orange juice. (What’s wrong with a glass of wine; you can have a glass or two at lunch, can’t you? Drinking in the afternoon does not make you an alcoholic, does it? Alcohol for me, at whatever time of the day I drink it, is just fuel to be chucked on the conversational pyre; once I have bathed my tongue in it, I feel more relaxed, and the words flow more smoothly out of my mouth.) We were sitting in my friend’s rectangular dining room. On the opposite window-sill were three potted chilli plants. The conversation was not flowing smoothly, and I was wondering why the other woman was invited (perhaps she was wondering the same). Perhaps, I wondered, my friend was attempting for the two of us to get to know each other. If that was the case, she had not gone about it cleverly. Firstly, she knows I do not like surprises, so she should have told me about this. Secondly, she ought to have known that wobbly inner thighs do not light my fire. The other woman did not seem in a mood to talk much, and not only because her mouth was crammed with salted pea nuts.  I wondered whether her sex life was an unending eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet. I tried to imagine her in her underwear but stopped as I found the image incompatible with mental well-being. The woman might just be the ticket for some desperate bloke, but not me. (I am desperate, but not that desperate.) Maybe, I concluded, my friend had no hidden motive behind inviting me and the fat woman for lunch.

Trying to wrestle my thoughts away from sex, I looked around the dining room. Behind me, on a shelf were stacked piles and piles of CDs. In one corner was a wooden table on which were arranged porcelain figurines and dishes, the kind of tat you see in low income houses. (You can take a girl out of council estate, but you can’t take council estate out of a girl.) I looked to my left where on another wooden table, amongst all sort of things—from a jar of quality chocolates and hairclips— were stacked five books—all hard-bound—one on top of another. That surprised me. My friend is a bit common (she comes from some Northern town and speaks in this incredible accent, as if she has had a stroke or something) and while I know that she likes to read, I have always assumed that she is not equipped to read anything more intellectually demanding than the Waitrose weekend guide on Food & Drink (she might be a butcher’s daughter, but now runs a successful Interior Decoration business and discusses the relative merits of Gigonda—which she pronounces ji-gonda—and Chateauneuf du pape—I won’t even attempt to type how she pronounces—but it is noteworthy that she has even heard of these wines; and I ‘d have described the fact that I who know how the wine names are pronounced can’t afford them as ironic if I were not pissed off by it), or, in the fiction territory—Jill Cooper or Norah Roberts. The books stacked up on the table—five of them—were the Booker short-listed ones.

‘I see,’ I said, ‘that you are planning to read all the Booker short-listed novels.’

My friends looked pleased. ‘But,’ I continued, ‘one book is missing. Why is that?’

‘Which one?’ my friend asked.

‘Damon Galgut,’ this was the fat friend. I looked at her, impressed, and overlooked the fact that she spoke with pea nuts in her mouth. Perhaps there was more to her than met the eyes (and there was a lot of her that met the eyes).

‘Oh! That! I gave it as a present to my sister,’ my friend said.

‘Have actually read any of the books, yet?’ I asked.

My friend responded by asking me a question of her own: ‘Have you read Room?’

‘No I haven’t. Isn’t it the book inspired by that Austrian pervert who imprisoned his daughter for years in the basement of his house and shagged her?’

‘I wouldn’t quite put it like that, but yes.’

‘I can see why you liked the book,’ I said.

‘I didn’t even tell you I read the book,’ my friend said.

‘Well, have you? You have, haven’t you? Or haven’t you?’

‘As it happens I have. Why did you say you could see I’d like the book?’

‘Well,’ I said, retreating, ‘I thought that was the sort of book you’d like.’

‘You mean, books on perverts?’ my friend looked threateningly at me.

‘Well, you have liked the book, obviously,’ I said.

‘I don’t recall telling you,’ my friend replied with exaggerated slowness, as though speaking to a well meaning but not overtly bright child, ‘that I liked the book. I recall asking you whether you had read the book.’

‘From which I cleverly inferred that you must have read the book. Why else would you ask me about that book? You could have asked me, “Did you read Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America?” But you didn’t. You asked me, “Have you read Room?” There!’

‘’OK Sherlock, I have read the book and as it happens I liked it. Now tell me, have you read any of the books yourself?’

‘Yes I have.’

‘Which ones?’

‘Only one so far. Parrot and Oliver in America. If you had more than ten brain cells, you’d have figured that out,’ I said, watching from the corner of my eyes the fat friend lathering a slice of sourdough with butter, on which she balanced a large chunk of brie.

‘How did you find it?’

‘Dull beyond belief,’ I said.

This was true. Parrot and Olivier in America is a drag. This is the fourth novel of Carey I have read and the second I have not liked. The novel tells the story of a French noble and his English servant travelling in America in the first half the nineteenth century and observing the dawn of democracy. In the 'Acknowledgement' Carey says that he was inspired to write the novel after he read Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. I haven’t read Tocqueville’s book, but I doubt it will be as dreary as Carey’s novel. The language is incredibly stilted—it judders and clanks like a rusted train on the Australian outback. There is no real plot to speak of; the two protagonists—Olivier and Parrot— are about as lively as mannequins in a clothes shop; and the novel has more stereotypes than fleas in a mongrel’s ears. I lost the will to live after about two hundred pages; the novel sucked out—as one of the characters in the novel might say—the life-juice out of me. And it was only my stubbornness that kept me going until the end.

‘Do you think he will win the Booker?’ The fat friend asked.

‘I hope not,’ I said. ‘But I won’t be surprised he wins.’

‘Who do you think will win?’ She asked.

‘I’d like Howard Jacobson to win.’

‘Have you read any of his books?’ My friend asked.

‘No I haven’t. I want him to win because I think he is stunningly handsome. Of course I have,’ I said.

‘Have you read ‘The Finkler Question’?’

‘No I haven’t,’ I said. ‘But I plan to read it. But before that I will read ‘The Long Song’’.

‘Oh! Isn't she gorgeous?’ my friend said, exhaling noisily through her mouth on ‘s’. ‘Small Island! Have you read it?’

‘Small Island!' I said, mimicking the way my friend said it. 'I have read her earlier novels too, which I liked even more.’

‘I haven’t read those,’ my friend said.

‘No I didn’t think you would have,’ I said. In response my friend picked up a slice of bread and threw it at my face.

The above conversation took place on the day the Booker winner was announced. I was very pleased that Howard Jacobson won the prize for his comic novel, The Finkler Question. This is the first time in years that the writer I’d have liked to win the prize actually won. I should have betted on Jacobson. That would have made me richer too. In the days leading to the announcement, Tom McCarthy’s C was put by the bookies in the prime position to win the prize, with Emma Donghue’s Room in the second position. C apparently received an inexplicable flurry of betting in the last few days prior to the announcement, which triggered rumours of a leak and prompted Ladbrokes to close betting early. Usually, being bookies’ favourite is a guarantee that the novel won’t win the prize, although Last year Hilary Mantel broke the taboo when her historical novel, Wolf Hall won the prize despite the bookies putting it odds on to win. Room, wholeheartedly recommended by my friend, had until then sold the most copies (no doubt because of the prurient subject matter), followed by Andrea Levy’s Long Song. And there were almost 9,000 fools (like me) who had wasted their money on Peter Carey’s dreadful Parrot and Olivier in America, putting it in the third place amongst the Booker short-listed novels.  I don’t know how many copies The Finkler Question has sold, but I should very much hope that the Booker win would give its sales a fillip. It is the first out and out comic novel since Kingsley Amis’s Old Devils that has won the Booker, which is great; it is not often that this genre gets the recognition it deserves.

The Finkler Question, Jacobson’s eleventh novel, an exploration of being Jewish, apparently starts with the sentence, ‘He should have seen it coming’. Did Jacobson see the prize coming his way? He claimed not, in an interview after the award. ‘Often I thought I was not going to win it,’ he said, ‘never thought I’ll eventually win it this time.’ Well, he has. And I hope the Booker prize will introduce this seriously funny (as the cliché goes) and underrated (another epithet Jacobson said after his Booker triumph he was very glad to jettison) writer, who has, at times, been described, much, apparently, to his annoyance, as the 'Jewish Jane Austin’ (I can fully understand his annoyance—Jacobson’s writing is nothing like that of Jane Austen, the most overrated and overhyped writer in English, or any, language, and whose Pride and Prejudice is almost as boring as Parrot and Olivier in America: if you want to have the experience of a minute seeming like a day and an hour seeming like a year, read a few pages of Pride and Prejudice), to more newer and wider readership.