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Monday, May 30, 2005

"Hanin" newspapers, Korean Chinese food and George Galloway

Now and then I like to peruse the pages of one of our local free Korean-language rags (yes, London has quite a few of these already, perhaps three, maybe even four). To be absolutely honest, the thing I like about them most, and probably the reason I pick one up at all from the Korean supermarket, is the pages and pages of colourful and rather mouthwatering adverts for Korean restaurants (in amongst all the ones for English schools, hairdressers and travel agents). As an aside, I was quite surprised to find an advert in the latest issue for a Korean-style Chinese restaurant called Chinggisû K'an ("런던 최고의 한국식 중국식당"), complete with rather unappetising looking picture of plates of Tangsuyuk and Map'a tubu and a wonderfully stereotyped cartoon Chinese man.

Where was I? Ah, the even more surprising find in this latest edition of Hanin News (linguistic question: why are Koreans always saram / 사람 in Korea but reduced to in / 인 when they live abroad?) was an article on George Galloway. I have to admit I have a close personal interest here as I campaigned for George's recent election to the seat of Bethnal Green & Bow in London's East End on an anti-war platform. Since his election victory against the Labour Party machine on May 5th, Galloway has become even more famous internationally by taking on the US Senate committee that had accused him of taking oil from Saddam Hussein, and by all accounts (even those written by his enemies) winning hands down. I'm always interested in how British politics is seen abroad and particularly the view of my homeland in Korea (well what there is of a view, beyond believing everyone here is a 'gentleman'). But try as I might, I couldn't find any reaction in the Korean press to Galloway's victory or his performance at the US senate (I think there must have been something, but I'm not picking it up on my web radar - aka Google).

Anyway, the anonymous author of the piece in Hanin News (not online unfortunately) paints a very sympathetic picture of Galloway, focusing on the way in which he has been hounded and witchhunted by the British press for daring to stand up to the British state at a time of (illegal) war. The article is in a section called "Reading British Culture" (영국문화읽기) and it interests me that the author has chosen to use the example of Galloway and the treatment he has received as a way of understanding the conservative mainstream press in Britain. Very sensibly he (she?) reserves most fire for the Sun newspaper - possibly Murdoch's most vicious, foul, disgusting, vitriolic, filthy far-right rag. And also, funnily enough, generally supportive of Tony Blair's Labour government.

Some brief roughly-translated extracts:
In April 2003 the Sun newspaper attacked Galloway day after day calling him a traitor and printing a headline story "We're proud to hate you George!" Observing the attitude of reports in the British press at the time, I couldn't help but have my doubts about the democratic press.
The attitude of the Sun cannot be compared to any of the domestic [Korean] media, and even under the Yusin Constitution [Park Chung-hee's dictatorial regime of the 1970s] media opinion did not take this sort of extreme and highly emotional attitude toward those who broke the [emergency] laws.
There is one other Korean I know of who has taken an interest in the story of George Galloway - Pak Noja, who wrote a Hankyoreh column a couple of years ago on him, during the height of the anti-war movement. If I manage to find a link to that piece, I'll post it, but right now I'm too infuriated with the Hankyoreh website to keep looking for it.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

The First Chinese Materialist, part three

It was only after the introduction of Buddhism to China that men became concerned with the problem of the immortality of the soul. When that happened, complicated theories requiring a high degree of training in speculative thought were simplified into religious doctrines of salvation, the metaphysical idea of a chain of being was popularised into the moral doctrines of reincarnation, and the void of Buddhist epistemology was solidified into a concrete heaven. The “Pure Land” school founded by Hui-yuan was the chief example of the trend toward religious beliefs that would harmonize both with existing popular beliefs and with the religious needs of the great mass of the common people, while at the same time answering to the pessimistic escapist mood of the ruling classes. This trend reduced the abstruse theories of the Mahayana to their lowest common denominator: salvation. It was against this popular form of Buddhism encouraged by the court that Fan Chen set out to do battle.

His short tract is written in dialogue form – a form that had already been adopted by Mou Tzu, the first apologist for Buddhism in China, and that had been in favour since the fourth century. Fan Chen asks himself the kind of questions that any average Buddhist of the time might have asked, and replies in the capacity of “host” to the questions put by the “guest” (these being the descriptions of the debating partners given in the Chinese text). The thirty-one questions fall into five sections.

The first section (questions 1-13) contains metaphors concerning the problem of the relations between the body and the soul, for which a materialistic, monist solution is found. The materialist view, strongly reminiscent of Lucretius, is summed up in the thesis: “The body is the soul’s material basis; the soul is the functioning of the body.” Fan Chen meets his imaginary opponent’s arid, mechanistic way of thinking with dialectical arguments stressing developmental factors. In the second section (questions 14-24), the problem of the soul as function is viewed from another angle. The opponent asks about the location of the soul, and Fan Chen replies according to the deep-rooted convictions of his time. The heart had always been regarded by the Chinese as the seat of thought, in just the same way as Aristotle held that the central psycho-physical organ was not the brain, but the heart. The argument here, however, depends upon a differentiation between thought on the one hand, and feeling and perception on the other. Like the ancient philosophers, Fan Chen did not distinguish between perceptio and sensatio. This results in his arriving at a solution with a very modern ring to it: thought is differentiated from feeling only by degree of intensity.

Source: Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, (Yale university Press, 1964) pp261-2.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Message from Anwar

For those of you who are interested in this and can read Korean to some extent, the latest issue of Ta Hamkke newspaper (#56) has an article on union leader Anwar Hossein's detention by the Korean immigration authorities (아노아르 이주노동자노조 위원장을 석방하라!) and a message from the man himself.
[My arrest] was meant wholly as a warning sign. The government is not trying to clamp down on me personally but to repress the migrant workers' union [...]

Thursday, May 26, 2005

The First Chinese Materialist, part two

The Shen-mieh lun was a tract written by Fan Chen during the time when he was engaged in the debates at the court of Prince Hsiao Tzu-liang, in answer to the pressing need for an effective theoretical weapon against Buddhism. The intention behind the tract is made quite clear by Fan Chen himself in the last paragraph, in which he discusses the application of the theory he has been expounding. The very title contained an unmistakable attack. Two surviving essays of the time are entitled “On the Immortality of the Soul” (Shen pu-mieh lun) – one by the celebrated founder of the lotus school, Hui-yuan (333-416), the other by a certain Cheng Tao-tzu.[1] So the Shen-mieh lun, “Essay on the Extinction of the Soul,” maintaining that the spirit did not survive and the human soul was not immortal, was to some extent an answer to them.

Until the spread of Buddhist thought in the Middle Ages, the problem of immortality had never played as great a role in Chinese philosophy as it did in the West. The practical Chinese mind, concerned with the things of the world, was inclined to dismiss the question as unimportant. Confucius had given the agnostic position its classic formulation in the often quoted passage in the Analects: “While you do not know life, how can you know about death?”[2] This attitude went very well with ostentatious funeral ceremonies, with ritualistic display as an end in itself. Mo Ti was the only person to preach survival after death, and he did so precisely because of his opposition to the wasteful extravagance of Confucian funeral customs, which would be rendered entirely unnecessary by the existence of a life beyond the grave. To the Taoists, life and death were merely transitional states of being. Chuang Tzu’s metaphor of the firewood coming to an end while the fire mysteriously goes on burning was susceptible to several interpretations. The Buddhists saw in it (at a much later date it is true) a belief in immortality, but probably Chuang Tzu himself would have repudiated this with an ironic and forgiving smile. Prior to Fan Chen, the only person to argue consistently against a belief in immortality was the skeptic Wang Ch’ung (27-97).

Source: Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, (Yale university Press, 1964) pp260-1.

[1] Hung-ming chi 5.

[2] Lun-yu XI, 11.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Victory for Kodae students

I see that Alex Callinicos (of York University, SWP and Anticapitalist Manifesto fame) last week expressed his support for the Korea University students facing punishment for their involvement in the demo that humiliated Samsung chairman Lee Kun-hee. He was speaking at a meeting during his recent visit to Korea and opened his speech by saying:
I want to express my warmest solidarity to the students of Korea University. Because it is extremely important today to actively confront and resist big corporations like Samsung who want to control the whole world.*
The latest issue of the Ta Hamkke newspaper celebrates what they claim is a 'David and Goliath' victory for the students, reporting that the University authorities decided yesterday to completely drop their plans to punish the students involved.

*God knows what he actually said, but that is my loose back-translation from Korean at least.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

The First Chinese Materialist, part one

I've decided to follow the lead of one or two blogs that I like, such as Far Outliers, and post a series of extracts from a book that interests me.

The piece in question is an essay by Etienne Balazs, the brilliant Hungarian historian of China who was born a century ago this year. It is entitled 'The First Chinese Materialist' and was originally written in 1932, not long after he had completed his doctorate. It forms one chapter in the collection of his articles entitled Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, published in 1964, the year after his death. The subject of this essay is one where a number of my personal interests intersect: East Asian history, materialist philosophy, Buddhism and, to an extent, twentieth century historiography of the 'East'. One interesting fact to bear in mind is that Balazs was clearly a great materialist historian himself, having written the first Western work on Chinese economic history and drawing much inspiration from Marx and Weber.

The First Chinese Materialist

The history of Buddhist thought has made remarkable advances during the last two centuries. There has been a fundamental change of view on the importance of the Mahāyāna, and the outlines of Chinese Buddhism are gradually becoming clearer. But the interconnections are lost because the total picture still exists in a vacuum. Buddhism is still regarded as an isolated phenomenon, a thing in itself detached from the historical circumstances in which it arose and unrelated to outside events. At the most, cursory treatment is given to its inner development, to questions such as the proliferation of sects and the increasing sophistication of basic tenets. Yet if historical circumstances are not taken into account, the beginnings of Indian Buddhism are as incomprehensible as are its spread and further development on Chinese soil. And when I urge that “history” should be taken into account, I do not mean a mere listing of names, bibliographies, translations, and commentaries. Unless it is recognised that a struggle was taking place between the upholders of two opposing world views, the ideas of the protagonists will remain colourless and devoid of significance.

The fifth century was decisively important for the spread of Buddhism in China: China was at that time not only partitioned, but also torn by social contradictions and innumerable and unbridgeable differences of opinion, and full of a desperate longing for salvation. There were two centres of Buddhism, which were at the same time the two political centres of the country, divided as it was between the Northern and the Southern dynasties, and they had an ever-widening circle of influence, like two stones dropped into the waters of the Chinese sea of thought. This was a period of adaptation. The foreign words were feverishly transcribed, and the unfamiliar thoughts busily assimilated to Chinese traditional ways of thinking. When Buddhist ideas were expressed, they were larded with thousands of quotations from the classics and steeped in analogies, in order to make them more palatable to minds brought up on a mixture of Confucianism and Taoism. But it was also a period of ideological battles and terminological disputes, of endless discussions and debates. The propaganda activities of Indian missionaries and Chinese monks brought a breath of fresh air into Chinese ways of thinking, and in the fight against this new world view, Chinese minds became more agile, more flexible, more elastic.

Behind these lively intellectual battles can be discerned the emerging campaign conducted by the Chinese bureaucracy – mainly Confucianist – against monasticism and the growing temporal power of the church. Ever louder became the accusations made against Buddhism: that it was antisocial, unproductive and parasitical, and prevented the people from carrying out their economic tasks. The condition of the peasantry and the political power of the state were the issues at stake.[1]

It was this hostile attitude toward Buddhism that gave rise to one of the most interesting works produced by medieval Chinese philosophy: the materialist tract Shen-mieh lun, the complete text of which is preserved in the biography of Fan Chen in the annals of the Liang dynasty.

[1] To cite one example among many, in Wei, in 506, the Censor Yang Ku wrote a memorial saying that vague and fruitless theoretical discussions about agriculture must cease, and unprofitable expenditure on Buddhist monks must be curtailed; see Tzu-chih t’ung-chien 146.7b.

Source: Etienne Balazs, Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy, (Yale university Press, 1964) pp255-6.

Monday, May 23, 2005

The deadly Japanese 'work ethic'

A story about the aftermath of the recent train disaster in Japan that claimed 106 lives caught my eye recently. It seems that it is Japan Rail employees who are taking the brunt of public anger over the disaster and are now having to be provided with counselling to help them cope with the harassment:

Last week a female member of staff was knocked to the ground on a station platform.

In another incident, a driver was attacked in his cab by two men, and death threats have been left on drivers' windows.

The number of physical and verbal assaults has risen to a point where the railway unions have set up telephone help lines to counsel frightened staff.

When asked about this, few people said they supported the attacks, but few seemed surprised by them either.

One young man told the BBC that the attackers were simply looking for someone to blame for the crash.

He said it was normal for the entire workforce to be tainted by company mistakes.

This is particularly unfortunate for the JR drivers, who, according to a recent story on the TUC's health and safety website 'Hazards,' are subject to humiliating 're-education' sessions if their trains run late. This sort of pressure from management is thought to be a likely cause of the recent deadly crash. Here's the whole article:
Japan: Union blames rail firm 'humiliation' for tragedy
Union members in Japan have placed the blame for last week’s massive train crash that claimed 106 lives squarely on the railway company, saying under pressure workers face humiliating penalties for slight delays. 'The accident is a result of JR West's corporate stance of prioritising operations and high-pressure management that uses terror to force employees to follow orders,' said Osamu Yomono, vice-president of the Japan Confederation of Railway Workers' Unions. Japanese trains are renowned for their punctuality, with JR West and other operators running timetables down to every 15 seconds. But it takes its toll in terms of stress on drivers, with punishment including 'nikkin kyoiku' - dayshift education. That means re-training sessions for those responsible for delays or overrunning stops. The sessions often include making drivers write reports all day long on topics such as how to improve themselves or chores such as weeding, which the union says is humiliating. A 44-year-old train driver of JR West hanged himself in September 2001 after he spent three days in retraining for being 50 seconds late when departing from a station. There have been allegations that the 23-year-old crash driver Ryujiro Takami, who had only 11 months' experience and who had gone through re-education, was speeding after falling 1½ minutes late due to overrunning a station.
While it appears that the failures behind the disaster may be traceable back to company management, the ideology of 'company responsibility' (kigyo sekinin 企業責任, Kr. kiôp ch'aegim) means that all employees have to share in the responsibility, no matter how distant their connection might be to the tragic events. In fact, the reality seems to be that it is only the people who are least responsible for this disaster who are being harassed as they are the recognisable people on the frontline. Management may have done the public bowing bit, but they do not have to confront the public every working day.

All this reminded me of an article I read last year on ZNet by a Shin Sugok, a Korean living in Japan (Kr. Chaeil kyop'o 在日僑胞, J. Zainichi). He talked about the tendency of Japanese society to bully the weak, citing the cases of the families of people abducted by North Korea, the Japanese taken hostage in Iraq last year and more generally minorities living in Japan like the Zainichi Koreans:
Recently, there seems to be a growing trend for the public to direct its anger and hatred at the socially weak rather than at the powerful such as government leaders and major corporations.
I think this trend clearly shows a fundamental dimension of "the masses" in Japanese society. As long as wretched people in weak positions put up with their misery, society tends to show sympathy and compassion. But once such people become vocal and raise objections against the government or businesses that caused them harm, the masses make an about-face and criticize them for making excessive demands and showing insufficient gratitude.
I'm not sure I agree with all of Shin's reasoning, but there does seem to be quite a bit of truth in this characterisation of the Japanese 'masses'. Clearly the rightwing stranglehold on politics and the media is one factor - something that allows people in Japan little outlet for their frustrations apart from toward basically powerless individuals (see my previous post on Japanese media critic Asano Kenichi). Behind this though, the deeper roots of this problem are the lack of collective struggle in Japan. The unions were destroyed in the 80s and have not recovered since. Add to this the lack of the sort of civil society movements that have been the hallmark of South Korean society over the last 20 years and the inexorable shift to the centre right of the supposedly 'left' opposition parties of the Socialists and Communists and you have a recipe for disaster.

Of course I'm sure those who actually participate in such acts of bullying, racism and harassment are only a small minority of the Japanese people, but until the rest of the Japanese people begin to oppose such actions collectively they are going to be a very powerful minority and the best allies Koizumi and the Japanese corporate elite could wish for.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Update on Anwar Hossein

The Korea Times today has a long and quite fair piece on the detention of the leader of the newly-formed migrant workers' union in Korea, Anwar Hossein. The union is planning to file a complaint with the International Labour Organisation (not sure how much help this will be as Korean unions must do this all the time to no avail). They are also getting support it seems from local NGOs and human rights organisations like Sarangbang. It is good to see that such organisations as well as the KCTU are getting involved and understanding the nature of the problem. As Park Seok-jin of Sarangbang puts it:
"For so many foreign workers here, they have no choice but to be illegal aliens because of the shortsighted employment policy for migrant workers in Korea, which just focused on meeting short-term employment needs. Hossin is one of those victims and we demand the government release him as soon as possible.’’
It was pointed out by Kevin Gray of Newcastle University in a paper presented at our recent SOAS Korean Studies Conference that in the past the groups providing support to migrant workers had generally been of a religious (mostly Protestant) colouration. They have generally been supportive of the government's new system of registration and basically seem only to want to ameliorate the conditions of migrant workers in South Korea rather than assert the fundamental human rights of the workers or accept their long-term right to live and work in Korea, let alone struggle collectively for better pay and conditions.

Update, Monday 23 May:
Jamie of Two Koreas informs me of a link to a petition for the release of Anwar Hossein.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Okinotori uri ddang!

This is really a public service announcement for all those people who bang on about the Koreans and their irrational obsession over some rocks in the Stroke Sea* and how the much more 'civilised' Japanese have moved beyond trifling nationalistic matters and into the post-modern sunset of peace and universal love.

Japan's favourite rightwing loon Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara has decided to stir things up by making a visit to some coral reefs claimed by Japan and China. OK, so you say, that's remarkably similar to what some Korean nationalists get up. But, hang on a minute, because this makes the whole Tokto thing look strangely sane:

It will take Governor Ishihara two days to get there across the Pacific Ocean and when he arrives, he and his entourage will not have much to see, because only a patch of rock the size of a tennis court remains above water at high tide.


Japan has spent hundreds of millions of dollars fortifying the islands with concrete, to prevent them being completely washed away.

In addition, 122 Japanese citizens have also registered Okinotori as their place of origin, although there is no evidence anyone has ever managed to live there.

Now a wealthy Japanese foundation is funding research into making the coral grow a lot faster, in the hope that a few decades from now Okinotori may look more convincingly like islands and not just rocks - as China describes them now.

"Hundreds of millions of dollars..." the mind boggles. Why don't they just take a leaf out of Dubai's book and build themselves some completely new islands. I mean, they could put them anywhere they like. Personally I'd go for somewhere in the Caribbean.

*The sea formerly known as the East Sea stroke Sea of Japan.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Kwangju 25: International press

The 25th anniversary of the Kwangju Uprising won't get that much coverage in the international press, but a few places have remembered to mark it.

The BBC has a probing piece entitled Lingering Legacy of Korean Massacre.

Meanwhile Reuters has this rather perfunctory article, which will no doubt be reproduced just about everywhere.

And there's also a column strongly critical of US involvement by Juan Gonzalez in the (famously leftwing) New York Daily Post.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Kwangju anniversary

Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the Kwangju Uprising, or at least of the day in May 1980 when demonstrations against the military dictatorship began in the city in Korea's Chôlla Province. By May 21 the demonstrators had liberated the city and driven out the paratroopers sent to crush them. The free city of Kwangju only lasted a few days, until the early hours of May 27 when it was retaken by government troops. The number of dead is still unknown, but is certainly in the hundreds.

To mark the anniversary Far Outliers is posting a series of fascinating extracts from Linda Lewis's Laying Claim to the Memory of May:

1. Linda Lewis on Contested Memories of the Kwangju Uprising
2. Kwangju: "Tienanmen before CNN and the fax"
3. Escape from Kwangju
4. Confucian Sanctification of Rebellion in Kwangju

Meanwhile, over at Dogstew they already have a post up about Kwangju and a speaking tour of North America to mark the occasion (not much use to me unfortunately...), plus some discussion underneath.

Tim Shorrock, the journalist who helped to reveal the US government's role in the Kwangju tragedy, also has some stuff on his blog about the anniversary, hopefully he'll post more soon. If you want to read his original scoop from the mid-nineties, you can here, with follow-up here.

Monday, May 16, 2005

'Two Koreas' on migrant workers

I've just discovered an excellent new collective blog on social movements in Korea: Two Koreas.

And whaddyaknow, they have a great in-depth piece up about migrant workers in Korea which puts my post below in the shade somewhat. Check it out for yourself.

It is quite clear that the Korean government (of former human rights lawyer Roh Moo-hyun) is attempting to smash the migrant workers' union. I'm sure they'd appreciate some solidarity. You can post messages of support at their bulletin board.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Seoul's migrant worker crackdown and human rights

Back again...

I was inspired to post something about the situation of migrant workers in Korea a few weeks ago, but events have conspired to prevent me from posting very much at all. Anyway, it may be a bit old, but I'll draw your attention now to this Korea Times piece about violations of human rights by the Immigration Bureau. I'm sure this news won't surprise many of Korea's migrant workers, who have been suffering under the government's crackdown on 'illegals' for over a year now:
The National Human Rights Commission advised the Immigration Bureau correct its enforcement activities after reviewing complaints from migrant workers who complained of poor treatment by immigration officials.

A migrant worker from Uzbekistan had said in the complaint filed in January that an official at the Pusan Immigration Bureau beat him, breaking his ribs, while taking him in handcuffs to the office.

This is particularly interesting in light of the fact that Hankyoreh columnist Pak No-ja recently found himself threatened with a lawsuit by the Immigration Bureau for writing a column entitled "'Anti-Korean Group'? That must be the Immigration Bureau." The reference in the title is to the Korean government's recent attempts to whip up some anti-migrant worker feelings by stoking up fears of terrorism and calling migrant workers who fight back against the crackdown 'anti-Korean'. Obviously the Immigration Bureau is a little bit too touchy to take a jibe like this, and now we know the reason why. Pak No-ja and Hankyoreh have since settled the matter by printing an apology for the 'inappropriate expressions', but quite rightly they have not apologised for the content of the allegations against the Bureau, which have turned out to be true.

Migrant workers in the Seoul-Inch'on area now have their own union, the Equality Trade Union - Migrant Branch, affiliated with the KCTU (I think). Of course, they are receiving some special attention from the government and have had numerous leading members deported. Last week their leader Anwar Hossein was arrested in Seoul.

In some connected news, Marmot reports a recent round-up of illegal workers in Korea, although this time the targets were not the usual Bangladeshis or Nepalis working in the unskilled sector, but rather foreigners of the pink-skinned variety working in jobs such as advertising!

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Korea University Ruckus

Apologies for prolonged absence. Been busy helping to win an election. For more commentary on the British general election I'll direct you elsewhere.

Meanwhile a few things I wanted to blog have passed me by, so I'll try to catch up on some of them, starting with this:

All hell broke loose last week when head of Samsung, Korea's most powerful corporation, went to Korea University (one of the country's top three universities) to receive an honorary philosophy degree. The Kodae students, known since time immemorial for their fiery reaction to anything smelling too strongly of capital, held a rather successful demonstration that was able to strip the Lee Kun-hee of some of his dignity by forcing a change of venue (from the intended 'Samsung Hall' which he had partially paid for no less) and making him scuttle out of the backdoor of the building. Oh My News, as always, was on the scene to provide some excellent pictures. There's something on the debacle in English at Korea Times and they have the usual finger-wagging conservative editorial too, which makes good use of that favourite word 'irrational'. (It's quite irrational just how much this word gets used in newspaper editorials.)

Of course, this led to something of a conservative backlash against the students at Kodae, but strangely enough it also seems to have caused quite a few commentators to point fingers of blame at the big corporations themselves (chaebol) for being so corrupt and useless at PR. Another interesting outcome is that because the demo seems to have been organised by socialist group Ta Hamkke, this has focused some attention on them and they even get a mention in this Korea Times article. In response, Ta Hamkke have produced a special edition of their paper, defending the actions of the students, which you can find here. They even have a couple of translated articles in English on their newly revamped English website.

It seems that the student protestors have a hit a deep vein of well-deserved dislike and distrust toward Korea's glorious business leaders, but of course this is not something unique to Korea by any means.

Protestors hold up a mock degree certificate reading "Doctor of Labour Repression"

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Of cars and arms

What's the connection between the British General Election, the closure of a car plant in the Midlands and East Asian geopolitics? Well, the answer's not that hard really... arms sales to China.

This month's issue of Socialist Review has a quality analysis of the collapse of Rover cars - with the loss of at least 5000 jobs - by the excellent Walrus. It seems that the strategic considerations of the Bush administration played an important role in bringing an end to over a hundred years of carmaking at Longbridge when the Chinese government got upset at Britain's US-inspired stance against lifting the EU arms embargo.

Last and by no means least is the geopolitical background to the whole Rover debacle. According to former Labour members of the European Parliament, Ken Coates and Henry McCubbin, New Labour's 'blind allegiance to Washington' is one of the prime reasons for the collapse of the Rover deal. Why? Because, on the say-so of George W Bush, the British government is preventing the European Union from lifting its embargo on arms sales to China. Condoleezza Rice has made it clear to all and sundry that the US regards the Pacific as its backyard and the EU should keep its nose out. As a result, the Chinese are none too happy with this interference. And Labour's moves at EU level appear to have more or less coincided with the Chinese authorities writing to the British government to say that a deal on Rover was now unlikely.

According to the two Labour stalwarts Coates and McCubbin, Blair's role in all of this has enraged the Chinese government, and in a letter to the Financial Times they explained that 'it is no coincidence that by 22 March, the UK Department of Trade and Industry had received the letter from SAIC calling the whole deal into question'. All the rest, they say, 'is an attempt at cover-up and distortion, to hide where the true problem lies'. And where would that be? 'It lies with the relationship between the venal leadership of the Labour Party and the right wing administration in Washington. This disaster is entirely of the making of Mr Blair and Mr Straw and the workers are what they would otherwise call collateral damage.'

This is something I've posted on before- but it appears that previous commentary to the effect that the UK was prepared to go against Washington on this one was wrong. Or just possibly this reflects one major point of difference between Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown (among many I'm sure). Of course Blair was always going to go with his Texan buddy, whatever the cost to the UK economy. The complexity and interconnectedness of the political and economic in the capitalist system are certainly mind-boggling at times. But I'm sure this thought is not the one that's keeping the ex-Rover workers awake at night.