Our liberals, neoliberals, and left-liberals are worried about sovereignty. Will they heed the call to do what should be done to keep us truly sovereign? Or will they keep conjuring Chinese yakas?
Port City, Xpress Pearl, vaccine rollout fiascos, and “Chinese colonialism” are making the rounds these days, and the Opposition’s milking mileage from them, taking the government to task and grilling MPs and officials over every little policy detour.
Thus the SJB wonders whether Port City will be manned and managed by foreign officials; when President Rajapaksa appoints seven Sri Lankans drawn from the private sector and legal profession, it complains that they just aren’t good enough. Don’t expect these guys to tell us who they think are good enough: if they do, they would probably have to eat their words when they come to power and fail to appoint them to these posts. As for colonialism, every time China crops up, opposition liberals take to Twitter, Facebook, even Instagram, asking “Why?” Well, why not?
Sinophobia is a dish best served with left-liberals. Hence the JVP has joined the battle; four years after it sent a congratulatory missive to “Comrade Xi Jinping” for having transformed Chinese society “in an all-round way”, Anura Kumara Dissanayake wonders whether this same Comrade will turn Sri Lanka into a “centralised single party administration”, while Vijitha Herath alleges that a certain businessman will bring in garbage (he uses the more sanitary term “urban waste”) from China under the guise of importing organic fertiliser.
Herath, of course, doesn’t utter a word about the ill-effects of chemical fertilisers, or why businessmen would want to capitalise on and import organic varieties. Nor does he question the neoliberal base governing Port City superstructures the world over. Far from it: for these left-liberals, Port City is undesirable only because it involves Chinese largesse.
China-Sri Lanka relations go back centuries, preceding even the Zheng He episode of the 15th century. Yet when our Embassy in Beijing summons a 19th generation descendant of a Sinhala prince involved in that episode, our ex-Foreign Minister asks the country to clear off, explaining that Sri Lanka is a thriving democracy. Followers of this Minister and of the regime he served, who allege that democracy here is dying because of its present leaders, would be intrigued as to how our democratic credentials start to shine the minute a descendant of a Lankan prince attends an innocuous Vesak festival some 5,000 miles away.
Then there’s that hullabaloo over certain brands packaging their products in Chinese. Here it’s Colombo’s Twitterati who are up in arms, wondering why their favourite consumer brands are not in Sinhala and Tamil. Do they ask the State to rap these corporations? Do they ask us to switch to local varieties, which do not package in such dreaded languages? No: they excoriate the companies, and allege those companies are in cahoots with the government. But of course they are; collusion between corporations and government has been ongoing, and thriving, since at least 1977. Why the sudden uproar and concern now?
Facebook is flooded with Chinese posts, courtesy of Sri Lanka’s thriving, discontented middle-classes. Google Translate does the job for them: type in nonsense in one language and you’ll get nonsense in another. Well, it’s always good to learn a language other than one’s own, be it Chinese or Swahili. The question isn’t what language, however; it’s why now. Why think China requires every country it gets involved with to learn Mandarin? Because the Brits did the same with English, apparently.
But then the Brits didn’t do the same: by 1948, less than five percent of this country could operate in their language here. It took “independence” to raise that figure; more than seven decades on, it has come up to a not-so-unhealthy 15%, owing to policies set in motion, not by the colonising English, but by the Sri Lankan State.
We also have experts telling us that the Chinese path is not the way to go; thus one writer waxes eloquent on China’s “failed model of socio-economic development.” This, in a country that eradicated extreme poverty a decade ahead of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals for 2030; a country that lifted more than 770 million people out of poverty over the last half-century, contributing to 70% of global poverty alleviation.
In a two-part article on the subject, Shiran Illanperuma and Vagisha Gunasekara (“Sinophobia and China’s development model”) quote relevant statistics and much more to arrive at the obvious conclusion: that those who speak of China’s “failed development model” don’t talk about how the IMF experimented with economic shock therapy in the developing world, heightening inequality and destroying its social infrastructure while doing little to give the bulk of its people a better deal.
In a separate piece (“Swapping out the IMF”), Illanperuma explains why countries like Sri Lanka find currency swaps with China more tenable than they do IMF arrangements: since Third World countries saw their credit ratings downgraded last year, they have found it difficult to access dollars in the market. China offers not so much a lifeline to them as it does their only option – not least because, despite calls for a debt moratorium, the US (which wields disproportionate power in the IMF) blocked a proposal to allocate 500 million SDRs for member states last April.
Academics tout the imperialist/colonialist bogey when it comes to China. But what is imperialism and what is colonialism? More pertinently, what is not imperialism and what is not colonialism? Like fascism, another word thrown around by scholars and academics, these have connotations, very specific ones, outside which they lose relevance.
Colonialism includes not just annexation, but also transfers of resources, destruction of home industries, subjugation of entire sectors to the colonial centre or metropole, and the incorporation of an imaginary “modern” economy into a world market dominated by the centre to the exclusion of an imaginary “traditional” economy. In the world market today, this process, through which raw material extraction from the periphery and industrial production in the centre dovetail with one another, continues to impoverish the Third World (which Samir Amin once called the “Fourth World”, as opposed to the “Third World” of East Asia). We no longer call it colonialism; we call it neo-colonialism.
To call China colonial, even neo-colonial, is to assume that it monopolises the world market and can summon resources whenever it wants – from wherever. As facts and realities stand, that is not so.
As Isabella Weber, Hao Qi, and Zhongjin Li in a timely essay to Jacobin (“China Is Not the Enemy – Neoliberalism Is”) point out, the fact that China was able to combat the COVID-19 pandemic on home soil faster than most other countries, and could lock up its workshop for months on end without suffering much economically, did not mean it could cut itself off from dependence on the rest of the world: indeed, its reliance on German and Japanese imports of key machine parts for the manufacture of meltblown cloth, a crucial material for filters, and its unprecedented mobilisation of poor migrant workers, indicated the integration into world neoliberalism of a society that still hasn’t been able to eradicate inequalities.
Why is this point important? Surveying the history of underdevelopment, the sociologist Christopher Chase-Dunn noted as the definitive characteristic of modern imperialism the existence of inequality in the periphery and of relative equality in the centre. Given such a distinction, can China seriously be considered “imperialist” or “neo-colonialist”?
Columnists, politicians, academics, and activists tell the world Sri Lanka is turning into an Oriental satrapy. Businessmen do not, for obvious reasons: they know who the rising power is in the world order today. Yet none of these experts tell us why we are turning into a colony, and what we can do to stop falling into those awful debt traps and strings of pearl. Needlessly echoing Western agitprop, they don’t seem able to go beyond yellow-baiting China and accusing the government of selling everything to it.
History has taught us that the way forward, the only way forward for an independent country, is to engage in production and manufacture, reducing our dependence on the rest of the world. This does not mean removing ourselves from that world; it just means rethinking our priorities, shifting to factories and “machinofacture”, and constructing an industrial ecosystem. The late S. B. D. de Silva wrote extensively on this theme; we should read him more. It’s time we stop wondering whether we’ll turn into a satellite, and set in motion reforms that can set us free.
Our liberals, neoliberals, and left-liberals are worried about sovereignty, as they should be. Will they heed the call to do what should be done to keep us truly sovereign, then? Or will they keep conjuring Chinese yakas?
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org