The historian, Eric Hobsbawm, once wrote that: “It is hard to think of any of the great formative economists who was not deeply committed politically, for the same reason that it is hard to think of any great medical scientist who was not deeply committed to curing human sickness.”
Hobsbawm was echoing an observation earlier made by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in The German Ideology. They asserted that “(all) men (and women) say, imagine, conceive,” such things as “politics, laws, morality, religion, metaphysics, etc.”
As men and women imagine and conceive ideas, they do so from, and in promotion of a particular world outlook, a social commitment.
One of the prevalent genres of political commentary in recent times has been the rise of what US journalist, Andre Vitchek, refers to as “China bashing”, an “excellent career” and “one of the best ways to get academic or research grants or to rise up the media corporate ladder”.
Vitchek recalls that the tactics employed “to hurt China” are time-honoured – they were put to use “first (to) discredit and then destroy all Communist and Socialist, progressive and nationalist states, governments and movements including the Soviet Union, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Chile, Tanzania, and recently Venezuela – (they) are considered useful until this day”.
In a 1999 paper entitled “Psychological Warfare in the New Millennium,” India’s former head of the Counter-Terrorism Division’s External Intelligence Agency Research and Analysis Wing, Bahukutumbi Raman, wrote that: “With the onset of the Cold War, the propaganda machine of the Western world was directed towards the communist states of East Europe and Asia and Cuba as well as towards those countries in the Third World, including India, which had strong communist and socialist movements”.
Vitchek says that the tactics are now refined, “(more people and technology are involved) and are much more effective than anytime in the past. After all, the task that Western global dictatorship defined for itself is tremendous: China – the most populated nation on earth”.
He notes that as a result of the propaganda onslaught: “The Western population is increasingly hostile towards China and it is not because it knows about it or understands it, but because of the propaganda that it is being bombarded with day and night”.
He adds that: “Tens of thousands of men and women in media and academia have no other purpose in professional life than to bash China; to discredit it, to make it appear as evil.”
For their part, “Local newspapers in Africa and elsewhere are overzealously printing pieces tailored for local consumption, but designed and paid for from abroad. Journalists who join the anti-Chinese choir get rewards – frequent trips abroad for ‘training’, awards and visas to the West. The same is happening in Oceania and in Southeast Asia. Temptations are too great, punishments for stepping out of line too harsh.”
This is in keeping with the Cold War era during which, according to Raman, “journalists, authors and publishing houses (were co-opted) to help (Western) intelligence agencies”.
Raman recalls that in the UK, the government of John Major was forced to admit, in 1995 that “a number of British authors, whose anti-communist books had become best-sellers during the Cold War, had been co-operating with the External Publicity Division of the British Foreign Office. Their co-operation was, in fact, with the MI6.”
The books became best sellers because, says Raman, “MI6 encouraged publishing houses under its influence to publish their books, persuaded book reviewers to review their books favourably, bought thousands of copies of these books, had them smuggled into the communist countries and gave them free of cost to book-sellers in Third World countries co-operating with MI6.”
There is of course no justification to link each and every commentary that is critical of China to “precision-guided propaganda”, the technique of influencing the minds of the people, to use Raman’s language.
Nor is it worth our while to pretend that nothing merits critical reflection on China’s relations with the world, Africa in particular. The dictates of theory and the imperatives of practice will always impose the necessity for such reflection.
But much of the current commentary on China-Africa relations cannot simply be taken at face value.
In an article entitled: “SA needs Crabs just as much as it needs Brics” published in the Business Day edition of March 30, 2012, University of Cape Town academic, Anthony Butler, makes a case for South Africa to form an economic partnership with Canada, Russia, Australia, Brazil alongside the BRICS partnership – Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa.
A careful reading of the article reveals that Butler is in fact advocating for South Africa to abandon BRICS and, in the process, sever its ties with China and India.
BRICS, he argues, serves only to “paint South Africa as part of the big league”, to flatter government ministers and make President Jacob Zuma “look like a serious statesmen”. It “satisfies deep-seated anti-western and anti-US sentiment” and “marginalises the western idea of democracy and so comforts fat local leaders who resent political accountability”.
BRICS also “seems to take the work out of economic success” because it negates the necessity to negotiate new trading agreements to secure access to “deliberately restricted markets such as China’s or Brazil’s.”
Butler also frowns on South Africa’s embrace of the idea of a BRICS Development Bank. He infers that lack of capital is not “really the central challenge confronting SA’s infrastructure programme.”
It is difficult to understand why South Africa’s membership of BRICS is not, in Butler’s wisdom, one of the theatres to negotiate new trading agreements to secure access not only to China or Brazilian markets, but, if one might add, the European Union’s “deliberately restricted” agricultural markets – in other words, a theatre of “work in economic success.” It is equally difficult to fathom out the insult that BRICS serves to flatter our ministers and to project President Zuma as a serious statesman.
Butler’s ‘either or’ approach to policy and strategic challenges is not in the least helpful. The issue is not whether lack of capital is the ONLY challenge confronting South Africa’s infrastructure programme. It is one of the CENTRAL challenges which cannot be wished away and it is not at all apparent that forming another economic partnership would, on an of its own, answer other infrastructure constraints.
Butler also peddles tired ideological platitudes when he says that BRICS “satisfies deep-seated anti-western and anti-US sentiment” and “marginalises the western idea of democracy and so comforts fat local leaders who resent political accountability”.
He does not explain what he means by “anti-Western.” We are left to presume that he is referring to BRICS’s critical appraisal of the negative effects of Western political economy on the developing world. Why is such a critical appraisal seen as “anti-Western”?
Neither does Butler explain what it means to be “anti-Western”? We should therefore pose questions that attach to this assertion. Questions such as: does it mean that the BRICS countries are critical of Western countries because they are geographically located in the Northern Hemisphere? Does it mean that they hate Western music, culture, people, etc.?
Every region of the world is not without its fair share of unaccountable public leaders. But accountability is neither a regional nor a genetic predisposition. One is therefore at a loss why Butler reserves this trait for BRICS leaders.
And why is democracy an exclusively “Western idea”? Alternatively, why is the “Western idea of democracy” inherently superior to other, non-Western ideas of democracy? These questions are crucial because they reveal the ontological and epistemological prisms by which commentaries are made and presented as unquestionable absolutes, templates and prescriptions for practical action.
Whatever our views might be about Butler’s argument, we must commend him when he argues for “persuasive (economic) rationale”- based development. But it is when he argues, in effect, for South Africa’s parting of economic ways with China and India that he ceases to be persuasive.
There is no country, which can, on any rational and accountable basis, ignore relations with China and India on the one hand, and Canada and Australia on the other. International relations in this specific instance should not be about BRICbats and CRABtraps!
The last word goes to the US journalist, Andre Vitchek: “The public has almost no alternative sources of information. What Noam Chomsky calls ’Manufacturing of Consent’ is now close to a sad but ‘successful’ completion. Unless people are very much determined to find alternative sources of information and unless they are fluent in searching for them (a tiny minority of the population even in Europe and North America), they will be simply spoon-fed by thousand times repeated lies, manipulative half-truths and clichés about China, about non-Western and even the Western (self proclaimed ‘democratic’) world. They will not have to search for their own world-view – it will be cooked and served to them as pre-cooked meal.”
April 2, 2012