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Beijing bristles as Taiwan prepares to elect pro-independence opposition

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs  
July 24, 2015 

Taiwan's DPP leader Tsai_Ing-wen in 2008 Photo by MiNe via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Taiwan’s DPP leader Tsai_Ing-wen in 2008. Photo by MiNe via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

Taiwan’s voters are preparing for a rocky ride as they appear set to elect an opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) administration dedicated to preserving the independence of the island and its 23 million people.

If the voters in next year’s presidential election do what they are now telling pollsters they intend, the result will excite anger in Beijing and send a frisson of anxiety through the corridors of power in Washington. Through no fault of their own, an assertion by Taiwanese of their independence and nationality by voting for the DPP will add to the already heightened risk of conflict in Asia as the Chinese regime attempts to prop up its waning political legitimacy by pursing spurious territorial claims. There is no historic, legal, political or moral backing for China’s claim to own Taiwan. But the island’s position off the central Chinese coast and its military alliance with the United States make it a strategic barrier to Beijing’s aspirations for military predominance in the western Pacific.

Since 2008, when the Kuomintang (KMT) under the leadership of the vapid President Ma Ying-jeou returned to power after eight years of DPP rule, Beijing has attempted to neutralize Taiwan by ensnaring it in economic ties. Most recently, it has tried to push Ma into moving towards a political union under the “one country, two systems” rubric used when Hong Kong was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

Ma opened Taiwan to a multitude of economic links with China, claiming this traffic calmed tensions across the Taiwan Strait. But, as so often seems to be the outcome of economic ties with China, Taiwan has seen growing disparity between the rich and the rest. The wealth from trade has poured into a few hands, while most of the population faces stagnating wages, or unemployment.

At the same time, Beijing’s adamant refusal to allow Hong Kong to progress towards meaningful democracy has alarmed Taiwanese, who have had a fully functioning democracy since 1996. About 90 per cent of Taiwanese consistently say they want to keep their independence and want no truck with political union with China. Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong and the island’s general experience over the last eight years of closer links to China has only reinforced these sentiments. Ma has had no choice but to stall the political agenda, much to the annoyance of China’s President and Communist Party leader Xi Jinping. Xi has made the belligerent pursuit of China’s claims to Taiwan and islands in the South China and East China seas a hallmark of his administration.

The KMT got a clear picture of the way the wind of public opinion was blowing in November last year when the party was trounced in local government elections.

Now polls are predicting a clear win for DPP leader Tsai Ing-wen in next January’s presidential elections. Her popularity is consistently running 20 to 30 percentage points ahead of Hung Hsiu-chu, chosen last weekend to be candidate for the KMT.

The party seems to have embraced a death wish with the selection of Hung, who is known as “Little Hot Pepper” for her habit of explosive pronouncements, and beside whom Donald Trump seems a sage statesman. Hung appears to be totally out of touch with mainstream Taiwanese thought, especially on the issue of relations with China. In a recent interview with a newspaper owned by the propaganda department of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – not a wise invitation to accept to begin with – she spoke strongly in favour of Taiwan embarking on political negotiations with Beijing as soon as possible. She has also displayed overt anti-Americanism and advocated ending arms purchases from the U.S., a cornerstone of the island’s security policy. And Hung has dismissed the fact that China has over 1,600 missiles aimed at Taiwan – the most obvious poised muscle behind Beijing’s perpetual threat to invade the island — as a matter of no consequence and urged her fellow citizens to “stop complaining.”

So it will be a wonder if Hung can close the gap and overtake Tsai, who ran against Ma for the DPP in the 2012 presidential race, but whose political substance and composure have matured significantly in the years since.

There are, however, likely to be external forces brought to bear on the election from both Beijing and Washington, and it is as yet uncertain how the voters will react to these pressures.

The Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan, in 2014. Photo by Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

In early July China’s state-run television network, CCTV, ran an item about a PLA military exercise in which troops storming a large and ornate building that resembled the Presidential Office Building in Taipei, Taiwan, above. Photo by Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia, Creative Commons

It looks as though China’s attempts to twist the outcome of Taiwan’s January election are going to be just as brutish as in the past. Earlier this month China’s state-run television network, CCTV, ran an item about a PLA military exercise in which the troops were tasked with taking control of a major city. The video accompanying the report showed Chinese troops storming a large and ornate building. The building was very distinctive and anyone familiar with the Taiwanese capital, Taipei, would see instantly that it was a mock-up of the Presidential Office. There’s no way that this can be interpreted as anything other than a thuggish threat.

In the past, the pressures from Beijing have been equally crude and bullying. In 1996 Beijing tried to disrupt the island’s first fully democratic presidential by firing unarmed missiles into the sea-lanes approaching Taiwan’s major ports of Kaohsiung and Keelung. Beijing’s message was that it could blockade Taiwan and destroy its economy if the islanders didn’t give up on this democracy nonsense.

During the 2000 election, when there was a good chance, as happened, that the DPP led by Chen Shui-bian would win, then Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji issued a blustering warning. He predicted “no good ending for those involved in Taiwan independence,” and said Taiwan had better start acquiescing soon to unification with China, because Beijing’s patience was wearing thin.

In the early 2000s Beijing didn’t have to keep repeating its constant pledge to invade the island. It had President George W Bush to do its dirty work for it. After the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Bush was so preoccupied with the Middle East he was prepared to make almost any concessions to Beijing to keep the security climate in Asia calm. The Bush administration not only bought Beijing’s aid by declaring some groups of Muslim Uighers in the Chinese-occupied territory of Xinjiang to be terrorists, by word and deed it also undermined Taiwan’s Chen administration and kept it off balance. Washington’s fear was that Chen would precipitate a crisis in Asia by declaring legal independence in an attempt to break out of the diplomatic enclosure in which Beijing has Taiwan penned.

Taiwanese are very sensitive to the attitudes in Washington. If China does attempt to invade Taiwan, the islanders will depend for their survival on Washington’s willingness to come to their aid. Keeping the U.S. an eager friend is therefore a priority for Taiwanese voters.

These sensitivities had much to do with the victory for Ma in 2008 on pledges to lessen tensions with Beijing by taking down long-standing barriers to trade, investment and direct contact across the Taiwan Strait.

The anxieties about Washington’s support were still evident in the 2012 elections, especially as the DPP’s candidate Tsai had a history as a bureaucrat of designing policies which, while they promoted the independence aspirations of the vast majority of Taiwanese, irritated Beijing no end.

Since then Tsai has refined her position, though Beijing still believes she is a separatist bent on getting international recognition for Taiwan’s independence. She now emphasises maintaining the “status quo,” which actually means keeping Taiwan’s independence, but which sounds a lot less aggressive and threatening than her old position of insisting that there is “one country on each side of the (Taiwan) Strait.” She has also made a point during a visit to the U.S. earlier this year of reassuring Washington that under her leadership Taiwan will be “a reliable partner … in ensuring peace and stability in the region.”

The tide of attitudes towards China in U.S. corridors of power is running much more in her favour than it was for Chen Shui-bian. Suspicion about Beijing’s evident imperial ambitions is rife in Washington and much effort is being put into marshalling American allies in Asia to contain China’s efforts to become the dominant power in the region. Japan, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines and even Washington’s “new best friend” Vietnam are all being urged to do their bit to present a united front against Beijing. Tsai lining up to join the cause is not going unnoticed.

So Washington may choose in the run-up to January’s Taiwan election to refrain from delivering the not-so-subtle-comments of distaste that it did during Chen Shui-bian’s presidency.

How President Xi in Beijing will react to Tsai victory in Taiwan, if that’s what happens, will most likely depend on the state of domestic politics. Since he took over China’s two top jobs – the presidency and the far more important and powerful leadership of the Chinese Communist Party – nearly three years ago, Xi has concentrated on consolidating his personal authority. Xi has managed to gather more personal power into his hands than any Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. His anti-corruption drive has been used to purge his opponents in the party. His on-going massive crackdown on dissidents and potential political opponents is the most brutal since the 1989 nation-wide uprising. His aggressive pursuit of territorial disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines has burnished Xi’s nationalist credentials with the public. But many long-term China watchers are now saying Xi’s lunge for power has been so strong that it has taken the country back from authoritarianism to the much more severe totalitarianism. Others say simply that Xi’s China is a fascist state.

But Xi’s power is brittle because the Chinese economy can no longer grow significantly without serious political reform, and Xi refuses to contemplate that. It is now doubtful the Chinese economy will be able to meet the aspirations of the bulk of the Chinese people, so Xi is left with only repression and the fostering of intense nationalism as levers to justify his right to rule.

So the intensity of Xi’s reaction to the election of Tsai, if that’s what happens, will likely be a measure of how insecure he feels.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Jonathan Manthorpe is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” Published by Palgrave Macmillan of New York.

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O provides journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising, you will never see “branded content” pseudo-articles on our pages, and we do not solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES blog, find evidence-based dispatches in Reports; commentary, analysis and longer form writing in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS.  Thank you for your patronage, and please help sustain us by telling others about us. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page. 

 

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Beijing collides with China’s new community of human rights lawyers

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs   
July 17, 2015 

Having used his anti-corruption campaign to remove any challengers to his power atop China’s Communist Party, President Xi Jinping is now bent on crushing increasingly assertive and publicly influential human rights lawyers.

China’s top leaders have directed the party and state response to work stoppages. Xi Jinping, Chinese president and CP leader, is   intolerant of dissent and inclined to silence it with violence. Angélica Rivera Hurtado, Mexico’s first lady, photographed Xi when he visited her country in 2013. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Xi Jinping, Chinese president and CP leader. Angélica Rivera Hurtado, Mexico’s first lady, photographed Xi when he visited her country in 2013. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Last weekend, in an extraordinary demonstration of Xi’s determination to squash dissent, nearly 200 lawyers and associates involved in China’s civil rights movement were detained and interrogated for “seriously disturbing social order.”

The arrests occurred in 24 cities and provinces around the country, and while most people were released after questioning, some of those appear to have been detained again. At least six – four of them lawyers – are facing criminal charges for “incitement to subvert state power” by representing people petitioning for redress of grievances against the government. Over 30 people are still unaccounted for and seem to be victims of China’s opaque and malleable detention regulations.

What marks out this crackdown – unmatched in its severity in recent years — is the publicity given it in state media. The denunciation in official newspapers and television news reports of human rights lawyers and non-governmental advocacy groups in the last few days is clearly intended to be a very public and loud warning that under President Xi such activities will not be tolerated.

The other side of that coin, of course, is the tacit acknowledgement by the Communist Party that China’s swelling community of about 300 human rights lawyers, their associates and like-minded advocacy groups have become a serious challenge to the one-party state.

Since the student-led demonstrations in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 led to a country-wide uprising against Communist Party corruption and mismanagement, China’s leaders have been swift to destroy any movement that might grow into national organization. The Communist Party’s fear of the seething discontent with authority among China’s 1.3 billion people unifying under one opposition banner has fuelled continuing persecutions in the last 26 years. Efforts include the banning of the Falun Gong health and spiritual movement, the party’s determination to control all religious activities, massive establishments to censor and manipulate the Internet and social media, and the crushing of any movement outside the party that dares to advocate political reform.

But lawyers and non-governmental organizations have, thus far, managed to slip between the cracks. They have germinated into a significant political force on the seedbed of Chinese people’s traditional right to petition government for redress of their complaints. This right has been critical in a country where administrations throughout its 5,000-year history have never accepted or acknowledged the rule of law. And as Chinese people have become in recent years ever more enraged at the corrupt and predatory instincts of local Communist Party officials, the petition system has become overburdened with millions of people waiting outside government centres around the country seeking justice.

In May last year President Xi, who came to power in late 2012, banned the petition system and tried to make local courts the forums for redress of grievances. But on issues deemed politically sensitive or where the influence of powerful people is brought to bear, the decisions of Chinese courts are dictated by Communist Party officials. Thus an unintended consequence of the ending of the petition system was to focus public attention on the inequity of the judicial system. This has enhanced the stature of China’s small but dogged and often very courageous community of lawyers willing to take human rights cases or stick up for the under dog.

Last weekend’s assault on the community of human rights lawyers may, however, be too late to insulate the Communist Party against a storm to come. A few days ago Ge Yunsong, associate professor at the Peking University Law School in Beijing, gave a fascinating speech at the commencement ceremony for this year’s graduating class.

Ge began by talking about how in Nazi Germany ordinary and usually moral people were sucked into the totalitarian regime and committed horrendous acts they would not normally have contemplated. This was an extraordinary jumping off point for the professor’s address, coming at a time when more and more of the most knowledgeable and supportive of China’s observers are saying that President Xi heads a fascist regime.

Ge said it is very easy for ordinary people to fall into the trap of supporting an authoritarian regime that claims to be pursuing noble aims, and to obey cruel and evil commands as a result. The professor urged the graduating lawyers never to shirk the burden of moral responsibility. If they do, he warned, they may turn into someone they don’t recognize; someone cruel and indifferent to others.

“Dear students, I hope you never forget to think, never lose the ability to think,” Ge said.

He warned the graduates that after the freedom of university they are entering the adult world in China where “obedience to authority is a necessary condition for society to operate.”

“But, please, do not forget to think. Please, do not lose the ability to think. Do not simply obey.”

Ge said he hoped the new graduates would earn decent incomes, become respected by their communities, and that their families would live in peace and without fear. But he imagined that would not always be the case.

“If you feel the torment of conscience, hold on to that torture because it is the best evidence you are alive. Do not become the docile tool of any person or any organziation.”

However, as activist Chinese lawyers have found in the last few years, bucking the system, especially such a deeply entrenched authoritarian system such as in China, is never easy. The country’s human rights lawyers often adopt courtroom theatrics in order to bring attention to their clients’ petitions, and sometimes they have even used social media to rally support on the streets for the plaintiffs.

It was an incident along these lines which appears to have sparked last weekend’s crackdown and round-up of lawyers, their associates and activists. However, this was a government push-back waiting to happen and only looking for the right opportunity.

This story began on May 2 at the train station in the north-eastern town of Qing’an where Xu Chunhe, a 45-year-old man accompanied by his daughter and 81-year-old mother got into a fracas with a policeman, Li Lebin. Somehow things got out of hand and policeman Li drew his pistol and shot Xu dead.

The police story was that Xu was drunk, assaulted the policeman and attempted to take his gun. The other story, more readily believed by the general public, is that Xu had a long running dispute with local authorities and was on his way to seek redress from more senior officials in the Heilongjiang provincial government. Policeman Li, acting on behalf of local Communist Party officials, was attempting to stop him.

At any rate, Li was quickly exonerated by officials of allegations of using excessive force. But this only excited a public outcry and a couple of weeks later a high-profile human rights activist, Wu Gan, used social media to offer the equivalent of $21,000 to anyone who could provide cell phone video footage of the incident. At the same time several lawyers backed public calls for an independent inquiry into the shooting. At least one of the lawyers was beaten up by unidentified thugs, and several were detained for questioning by local security officials.

Fellow lawyers from around the country rallied around their colleagues and over 600 signed a petition calling on authorities to back off.

The authorities’ first response two weeks ago was to arrest Wu, who is also known by his online pseudonym “Super Vulgar Butcher.” He has been charged with “inciting subversion” and “provoking trouble.” Wu may be a colourful figure who sometimes uses tactics with which not everyone may be comfortable, but he is also attached to the Beijing-based human rights law firm Fengrui.

On Thursday last week one of the Fengrui lawyers, Wang Yu, took her husband and son to Beijing’s international airport. Her husband was to take their son to his school in Australia. But when Wang returned home she found the locks on her house had been changed. She managed to phone a friend with this information before she was detained. And at the airport, her husband and son were also taken away by police before they could board their flight, though the boy was released later.

The following day, Friday last week, police raided the offices of Fengrui and detained at least five of the firm’s employees, including three lawyers.

The Fengrui roundup by authorities was the opening bell for a nation-wide campaign by the authorities against human rights lawyers, their staff and fellow advocates in various civil society organizations. Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group says that by Sunday night 106 people in 15 centres had been detained and questioned and that 82 had been released after interrogation. Of those, at least three have been re-arrested.

On Sunday, the party mouthpiece “People’s Daily” newspaper trumpeted the crackdown under the headline “Uncovering the dark story of ‘rights defence’.” The story said the Ministry of Public Security operation was to “smash a major criminal gang that had used the Beijing Fengrui law firm as a platform since July 2012 to draw attention to sensitive cases, seriously disturbing social order.”

That sentence says all that needs to be known about the Communist Party’s attitude towards the rule and an independence judiciary. Eight hundred years ago Magna Carta enshrined the concept that the sovereign – whether a king, president or political party — just as much as ordinary citizens, is subject to the rule of law. But China’s Communist Party knows it cannot survive as a one-party power if it accepts that notion. So the persecution of uppity lawyers and non-governmental agencies promoting human rights will continue and, doubtless, intensify if there is significant protest.

The purge of lawyers continued through this week, with Amnesty International reporting on Thursday that it knows of 177 lawyers and human rights activists who have been detained or questioned and that 31 are still missing or known to be in police custody.

Xi’s crackdown has excited an unusually strong response from the international community. The United Nations human rights office issued a statement on Thursday criticizing Beijing for what it said was a breech of both the UN Declaration of Human Rights and China’s own constitution. The European Union also chastized China for what it called the “systemic” detentions, and called for the release of those being held.

In the United States the Congressional-Executive Commission on China issued a scathing report on Tuesday questioning whether Xi’s crackdown against lawyers makes him “deserving of a red carpet welcome in Washington” when the Chinese President visits the U.S. in September.

The commission’s report says the roundup of lawyers and other human rights activists is “just the latest example of President Xi Jinping’s intolerance for dissent and mockery of the rule of law.”

Let’s see how the new graduates from Peking University Law School adapt to and perhaps change this climate.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

Related columns by Jonathan Manthorpe:

China’s war for Asian domination going well

TOKYO, Japan — China’s war to supplant the United States as the regional super power in the Far East and western Pacific is under full steam and gobbling up its objectives. Over the last 15 years, China has not only built a large and potentially effective navy, it has by stealth and cunning either caused divisions between the United States and its Asian allies, or cast doubt among target states whether Washington can be trusted to support them, or both.

Labour unrest surges as China’s economy slows

As China’s economy slows to a crawl, the Communist Party is facing one of its worst nightmares: a militant labour movement. The Hong Kong-based China Labour Bulletin, which collects data on strikes and lockouts in China as well as promoting workers’ rights, says there has been a dramatic upturn in labour unrest across the country. As the country’s economy slowed to its lowest growth level since 1990, strikes and protests in the last three months of 2014 were three times those of the same period the year before. “The dramatic upturn can be partially explained by the increased use of cheap smartphones and social media as tools by workers to get news of their protest action to a wider audience,” says the latest report by the group. “But at the same time there is clearly an increase in labour activism in response primarily to the economic slowdown in China over the last year or so.” 

Beijing will outwait Hong Kong’s Protesters

Tens of thousands of Hongkongers took advantage of today’s Chinese national holiday to join students who have clogged the city’s streets for four days demanding Beijing deliver on its promise to give the territory democratic autonomy. But the numbers do not look large enough to prompt Beijing to rethink its decision to keep control of the process by which the head of Hong Kong’s government, the Chief Executive, is chosen. The likelihood now is that the authorities will stand back, watch the protests run out of steam and wither of their own accord.

China manufactures islands to back its sovereignty claims

Not content with stealing other people’s territory, the Beijing government is now manufacturing islands to boost its insubstantial claim to ownership of the South China Sea. The Philippines government has released aerial photographs of Chinese dredgers and construction teams pulling up millions of tonnes of sand and rock from the ocean floor to create islands on Johnson South Reef, which is claimed by the Manila government.

China’s Xi launches his own Cultural Revolution. August 13, 2014 

Xi Jinping is not content with being the most powerful leader of China since Mao Zedong. He also wants to play God. Xi’s ruling Communist Party announced last week it will write its own version of “Chinese Christian theology” to ensure adherents abide by the country’s party-imposed political culture. The attempt to take control of religion in China is part of a broad campaign by Xi to establish “cultural security.” The aim is to outlaw and control all foreign influences that might undermine the communists’ one-party rule.

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America. 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O provides journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising, you will never see “branded content” pseudo-articles on our pages, and we do not solicit donations from foundations or causes. Subscribe by email to our free FRONTLINES blog, find evidence-based dispatches in Reports; commentary, analysis and longer form writing in OPINION-FEATURES; and image galleries in PHOTO-ESSAYS.  Thank you for your patronage, and please help sustain us by telling others about us. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page. 

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Hardliners prepare to sink Iranian nuclear deal

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs   
July 10, 2015.  

Lotf Allah Mosque in Iran. Photo credit quixotic54 via Flickr, Creative Commons

Lotf Allah Mosque in Iran. Photo credit quixotic54 via Flickr, Creative Commons

With a deal on Iran’s nuclear program in the offing, hardline opponents in Washington and Tehran are sharpening their teeth and honing their claws to a razor’s edge.

In both capitals, the deal — nearly 20 years in the making — faces being derailed by intransigent political ideologues with little long-term vision.

But, as American and Iran negotiators have implicitly recognized as they have brushed through deadline after deadline in order to achieve a deal, the price of junking an agreement will be much heavier than pursuing an accord, even if it has flaws.

The potential benefits of a functional agreement between Iran and the U.S. are profound. Washington is negotiating in concert with the members of the so-called P5+1 group made up of the four other members of the United Nations Security Council — China, Russia, Britain and France – plus Germany.

Iran has been an international rogue state since the 1979 revolution that ousted the Shah and introduced a fundamentalist theocracy based on the Shia sect of Islam. The deal on regulating Tehran’s nuclear program will trigger the lifting of international financial sanctions, in place since the mid-1990s, that have crippled Iran’s economy.

Economic revival will enhance the stature and influence of President Hassan Rouhani. He has shown a desire to loosen the domination of the religious establishment on Iranian political and public life, and to give greater sway to the country’s already well-established democratic institutions.

In short, the nuclear deal could open the door to political and social transformation in Iran, a shift for which very many of Iran’s 80 million people are ready.

But unless there is a credible agreement to have Iran’s nuclear development program monitored by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and strong verification measures in place, no one will believe Tehran is not secretly manufacturing nuclear weapons.

Israel feels particularly vulnerable because of violent, anti-Israeli statements by Iranian leaders. The government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has only been dissuaded from already bombing Iran’s nuclear development sites by the pointed advice of its own generals that military action is ultimately pointless. Bombing could only delay, not stop an Iranian bomb development program. But Netanyahu might well decide to ignore his generals’ advice. It would be in character.

Saudi Arabia, which glories in its guardianship of the most holy Muslim religious sites, cherishes its leadership of the Sunni faction of Islam, and fears Iran as a potent rival for the championship of Islam, is already making what looks like frantic efforts to acquire nuclear weapons if need be. The new Saudi king, Salman, and his defence minister son, Prince Mohammad, are showing a passion for military adventurism that only adds to the usual tumult of Middle Eastern affairs.

Opposition to the deal in Washington will be loud and furious, but ultimately manageable. In May, both Republicans and Democrats voted for legislation requiring congressional review of the deal. During that review period, which could be as much as 60 days, President Barack Obama will not be able to lift sanctions against Iran. That will be a major irritant in Tehran, but not a deal-breaker. And it is highly unlikely that the Republicans will be able to muster enough votes to override a veto by President Barack Obama, if that proves necessary to save the agreement.

Much of the Republican opposition stems from the irrational detestation on the right wing of the party for anything and everything that Obama does. But some opposition in both parties comes from support for Israel. In May, Netanyahu gave a speech in Congress pleading with legislators to block the deal, and anything an Israeli Prime Minister says has influence with U.S. politicians, especially those with substantial groups of Jewish voters in their constituencies.

It is in Iran, however, that selling the deal will be more fraught and uncertain. And it is also in Iran that the deal may shift the balance of power, and have a profound effect on who runs the country and how.

Since the 1979 revolution Iranian political and public life have been dominated and overseen by senior religious leaders, the ayatollahs. At the top is the Supreme Leader, currently Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei’s authority is massive. He also controls Iran’s foreign and nuclear policies.

In practical political terms, Khamenei’s most important power is control over the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The 125,000-strong IRGC is not only Iran’s most potent military force, it has ultimate responsibility for internal security and is the sharp edge of Iran’s foreign policy. IRGC officers and units are heavily involved in the fighting in Syria and Iraq against the Islamic State group (ISG), and are also backing Shi’ite Huthy rebels, who now control most of Yemen.

While Iran has been under strict international sanctions because of its refusal to come clean about its nuclear development program or agree to international inspection and regulation, the IRGC has also acquired a vast business empire. The Revolutionary Guards may have much to lose in money and influence if the nuclear deal with the P5+1 comes to fruition.

And the IRGC’s boss, Khamenei is not a dictator or autocrat. His power is circumscribed in several ways. The Supreme Leader is appointed and, more significantly, can be removed by the 88-member Assembly of Experts, a body of theologians who are directly elected by Iranian voters for eight-year terms.

Then there is the 12-member Guardian Council of the Constitution. Six of the Council’s members are Islamic scholars selected by Supreme Leader Khamenei and the other half dozen are jurists chosen by parliament, the Majlis. The Guardian Council vets election candidates for their religious probity, and has a history of banning reformists. It also has a veto over legislation passed by the Majlis.

These institutions not only restrain Supreme Leader Khameni, but also President Rouhani and his administration. Unlike the other centres of power in Iran, however, Rouhani has political legitimacy. He was directly elected in 2013 on a platform of restoring the economy, and improving international relations by seeking a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, and addressing the country’s appalling human rights record.

Rouhani has a long history as a parliamentarian and diplomat. He is seen as a “moderate,” which is often camouflage for avoiding the difficult word “reformer.” Indeed, his first couple of years in office have seen some significant reforms, improving women’s rights and expanding access to information.

However, Rouhani is also close to Supreme Leader Khamenei, who has trod a very careful line in everything he has said while the negotiations have been going on with the P5+1. On one hand, Khamenei has given unwavering support to Rouhani and the negotiations, which the Supreme Leader sees as the only available route for the lifting of sanctions and thus ensuring domestic social stability. On the other hand, Khamenei has occasionally given loud warnings about “red lines” over which the talks will stumble and fall in his view. One such was a recent statement saying Iran cannot allow its military sites to be open to IAEA nuclear inspectors.

Most of this and other hardline statements by Khamenei appear to be aimed at placating the Republican Guard and its generals, led by Commander Ali Jafari. Quite apart from its massive financial stake in Iran’s current economy, the IRGC, like many similar military units in other countries, sees itself as the last-ditch defender of the sanctity of the state. IRGC generals fear that abandoning the country’s nuclear weapons option will make it vulnerable to not only radical reformists within Iran, but also to attack from the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia or all three. There is little doubt that if the nuclear deal with the P5+1 is seen as seriously threatening Iran’s security, the IRGC would consider it is its duty to intervene.

So far, Rouhani has played a deft game to calm the fears of both the IGRC and Khamenei. He has kept radical reformists out of his government and he has been temperate in the reforms he has undertaken. Rouhani has also supported the regional security policies being pursued by the Revolutionary Guards. These include support for the besieged Shi’ite regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. The rebels, both secularists and jihadi radicals such as the Islamic State group, are from the Sunni Islamic sect, and are supported by fellow Sunnis in Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf States. In response, the Revolutionary Guards have sent advisers to aid not only the Assad regime, but also to the Shi’ite-dominated government of Iraq. The IGRC has also mustered its proxies in Lebanon, the Hezbollah militias, to cross the border into Syria and fight alongside Assad’s forces.

An interesting, and perhaps in the long term, highly important facet of these conflicts is that the Republican Guards and the American-led air force intervention (which includes Canadian CF-18 fighter-bombers and JTF2 special forces spotters on the ground) against the Islamic State group are fighting on the same side. There is a dense cloak of official secrecy over what sort of operations communication and co-ordination is going on between the Revolutionary Guards and the U.S. forces. However, staff officers I have talked to say it is inconceivable that there is not at the very least communication through a third party about pending operations in regions where both are deployed. Without that, the risk of death by “friendly fire” or other “collateral damage” is too great. More likely, say experienced senior officers, is that there is direct contact.

Now, familiarity can breed contempt. But there is just as good a chance that what amounts to joint operations by U.S. forces and the Revolutionary Guards are a confidence-building process that will help ease Iran’s transition. 

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

 

Related on F&O:

In Iran, nuclear deal and social reform are intertwined, by Jonathan Manthorpe, April, 2014

Saudi Arabia threatens to run amok, by Jonathan Manthorpe, June, 2015

Deja glasnost all over again, by Tom Regan, April, 2015

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Thank you for your support. Please help sustain us by telling others about us. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES blog page. 

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The Greek tragedy: a drama with many villains and no heroes

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs   
July 3, 2015. 

Giorgos, a 77-year-old pensioner from Athens, sits outside a branch of the National Bank of Greece as he waits along with dozens of other pensioners, hoping to get their pensions in Athens, Greece June 29, 2015. REUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

Giorgos, a 77-year-old pensioner from Athens, sits outside a branch of the National Bank of Greece as he waits along with dozens of other pensioners, hoping to get their pensions in Athens, Greece June 29, 2015.  EUTERS/Yannis Behrakis

There is no shortage of villains in this Greek tragedy.

Indeed, what is really challenging is to point to someone in Greece or anyone who has inhabited the upper echelons of the European Union in the last 30 years whose hands are clean.

From the dangerously fanatic, Escher-inspired architects of the euro common currency in the 1980s, to the 11 million Greek people themselves – who may have invented European democracy, but who have shown little aptitude for making it work, everyone is dripping with guilt.

And because the euro was a misbegotten notion to begin with, what we have here is an equivalent of the United States’ “sub-prime” crisis on a continental scale. Except, in Europe it is not just individual householders who risk being chucked out on the streets, but whole countries. It’s Greece today, but it may be Spain, Portugal, Ireland and even Italy tomorrow.

Greeks are due to vote in a referendum on Sunday on the latest bail-out proposals by the European Union (EU), but heavily influenced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and its managing director, fiscal dominatrix Christine Legarde. Legarde and the EU chastizers are demanding all manner of austerity programs. These are designed to force Greeks to realise that they are in reality a third world – well, maybe second world – country that since the creation of the euro in 1999 has been living like a first world economy on borrowed money. But the mid-night bell has wrung, the party’s over, and it’s time to pay the piper. Greece owes about 323 billion euros ($US366 billion) and was unable to repay an instalment of 1.54 billion euros ($US1.71 billion) to its creditors this week or about 1.5 billion euros in month-end pensions and government salaries. Unless things change, there will be similar defaults this month.

The Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is calling for rejection of the EU proposal, in the expectation this will force Greece’s creditors to accept more lenient terms. Tsipras is an Hellenic Cheshire Cat – all gleaming white teeth and no substance. He and his left-wing coalition were elected in January with about 77 per cent of the vote. Greek voters had begun to comprehend the scale of incompetence and amateurism of the previous government in its months of negotiations with creditors. But Tsipras has squandered his mandate both by his own incompetence in negotiations with the EU, and his constant acquiescence to a militantly anti-EU, anti-capitalist communist faction within his coalition.

Polls suggest a majority of Greek voters fear Tsipras’ approach will get them driven out of the euro zone, to which 19 of the EU’s 28 members belong. They are thus likely to vote in favour of the EU/IMF proposals in Sunday’s referendum. Whether such a rejection would prod Tsipras to resign, and whether his departure would improve the situation, can only be matters for speculation. What is evident is that Greece is facing its greatest challenge since the end of military rule in 1974.

There is a growing number of European governments that think Athens should be thrown to the wolves, but the majority still believe it’s in their own interest that Greece is saved. Not only are there worries about the domino effect on the common currency if Greece is forced out of the euro, there’s also the prospect of serious social unrest if Greece is dumped back on an economy of pandering to tourists and flogging olive oil.

But the central imperative for the EU is to ensure the survival of the euro, which was always seen as much more than just a common currency.

The formation of what is now the EU was driven by the passionate belief after the Second World War that somehow a way had to be found to ensure that European nations never went to war against each other again. The central aim was to forge a political and economic union between France and Germany, whose mutual antipathy had spawned countless European wars for hundreds of years.

What started as the creation of a free trade zone – the Common Market – quickly assumed overt political aims, with the devolution of more and more legislative authority from national governments and parliaments to the EU centre in Brussels. But by the 1980s the project to turn Europe into a federation had got stuck. The parliaments and populations of the member states were resisting further loss of control over their own lives to the EU bureaucrats. The introduction of the euro common currency was designed, in large part, to break this logjam and re-launch the federation project.

The problem, of course, was that because creation of the euro was a political manoeuvre, it made little or no economic sense. The disparity between the European economies was – and is – huge. There was – and is – absolutely no basis for comparison between the economies of Germany – the world’s second largest exporter of manufactured goods after China – and the southern European economies slowly emerging from peasant agriculture, such as Spain, Portugal and Greece.

Yet the euro zone would tie these emergent economies to a First World currency over which they have no control. Under normal circumstances, when a country has a debt problem or its exports are overpriced and uncompetitive, the government can use interest rates and monetary policies to impose discipline and bring things back into line. But when fiscal policy has been handed to Brussels, whose preoccupation is Germany and France, the small fish are very vulnerable.

A small attempt was made to compensate for this loss of national control over fiscal policy by imposing some strict rules about borrowing. No country in the euro zone was going to be allowed to have a budget deficit of more than three per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and remain a member. Also, no country could stay in the euro zone if its rate of debt to GDP exceeded 60 per cent.

Well, those rules went by the board faster than a greased weasel down a drainpipe. Greece’s $US366 billion debt is 175 per cent of its GDP. The cowardice of EU leaders and their shying away from sticking to the rules that might have made the euro work is one of the great sins at the heart of this debacle.

It hasn’t helped matters that the advent of the euro has been a huge boon for the EU’s industrialized economies, especially Germany. Because the euro includes dud or semi-functional economies like Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland, the international market place marks the currency’s value down against other hard currencies like the U.S. dollar. The result is that German exports are 50 per cent cheaper, by some analysis, than they would be if the country still used its former currency, the deutchmark. For example, without the euro a mid-range $50,000 Mercedes Benz car would cost $75,000 in the U.S. For that money, the Mercedes would face challenges from many competitors.

When the euro was introduced in 1999, Germany exported goods worth 469 billion euros. Last year German exports were worth 1.19 trillion euros ($US1.3 trillion), three times their value a decade-and-a-half ago. And as it is small and medium-sized businesses that make up more than half Germany’s economic output, the social and political importance of these numbers is considerable.

And for those numbers, Germany has to thank the fact that it is dragging Greece and the other semi-functional economies on its coattails.

The advent of the euro in 1999 also opened the door to what became the European equivalent of America’s sub-prime mortgage fiasco. Unlike Britain or the U.S., Germany and France have a multitude of small financial institutions making very small profits. Brussels wanted Germany and France to develop banks and such comparable to the big British and American banks and their 30 per cent annual profit margins. To that end, the EU backed loans by German and French banks.

It was an invitation to disaster. The German banks looked to the poor economies of southern Europe, offering cash at interest rates as low as four per cent when local rates were at 14 per cent or higher. The flood of money from the German banks to all kinds of ill-conceived, ridiculous and unaffordable projects in southern Europe was breathtaking. According to the figures of the Bank of International Settlements, in the decade after the introduction of the euro, German banks lent the equivalent of over $US700 billion to Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain.

None of the projects – or very few of them – financed the creation of economic activity which would pay for the loans. A study by an Austrian bank has calculated that 77 per cent of the bail-out money so far provided by the IMF and the European Central Bank has gone to pay off the German and French banks who have forced their loans on Greece in the past 15 years.

At the same time, the Greeks were lulled into believing the good times would roll on forever. The wilful blindness to reality of Greek voters is extraordinary. Lavish pension schemes became the norm, with early retirement provided for people whose working lives are fraught with daily dangers. Hair dressers are among those entitled to early retirement on full pensions because their work is considered “arduous and hazardous.”

Greeks also lost the plot – if they ever understood it – on the compact between government and citizens that is essential to the functioning of a proper democracy. A basic equation of that deal is that citizens give the government the revenue necessary to provide the services and security that the voters require of it.

The Greek aversion to paying taxes goes back to the hundreds of years when the country was occupied by the Turkish Ottoman Empire. At that time, not paying taxes was an act of subversion against the occupying power. The habit has, however, continued since independence in 1830, buoyed by the belief among 90 per cent of the population, according to Transparency International, that most Greek politicians and political parties are corrupt.

The result is that an estimated $30 billion a year in what should be government tax revenue goes uncollected. Tax revenue in Greece accounts for only 29 per cent of GDP, according to the World Bank, when the EU average is 37 per cent. A 2013 study by Austria’s Johannes Kepler University estimated that Greece’s “black economy” is worth about 24 per cent of GDP. This compares with “off the books” business in Britain being worth about 10 per cent of GDP and slightly less in France.

Looking at the Greek tragedy, some conservative European commentators have recalled something Margaret Thatcher said. “The problem with socialism is that you eventually run out of other people’s money.”

That, as I’ve tried to describe, is only part of the story, but it is, sadly, a fitting epitaph for the Greek economy.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2015

Contact: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com 

Further reading on F&O: 

EU makes last ditch effort to save Greek bailout, by Renee Maltezou and Lefteris Papadimas, Reuters
Nine things to know about Greece’s IMF debt default , by  Andre Broome

The Greek crisis in photos, by Reuters:

 

Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. Manthorpe has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

 

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Thank you for your support. Please help sustain us by telling others about us. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES blog page. 

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China’s dog meat festival

A man carrying butchered dogs drives past a pet dog at a dog meat market ahead of a local dog meat festival in Yulin, Guangxi Autonomous Region, June 21, 2015. Local residents in Yulin host small gatherings to consume dog meat and lychees in celebration of the summer solstice which marks the coming of the hottest days for the festival, which this year falls on Monday. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

A man carrying butchered dogs drives past a pet dog at a dog meat market ahead of a local dog meat festival in Yulin, Guangxi Autonomous Region, June 21, 2015. Local residents in Yulin host small gatherings to consume dog meat and lychees in celebration of the summer solstice which marks the coming of the hottest days for the festival, which this year falls on Monday. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

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Butchers kill dogs by stunning them with hammers and strangling them with nimble hands. The animals hang for sale on hooks after being grilled with blowtorches.

That is a typical scene in Yulin, in China’s southern region of Guangxi, at the dog-meat eating festival held every summer. The practice has become increasingly controversial in China in the past five years or so.

 

— Reuters

 

 Further reading on F&O:

If Slaughterhouses had Glass Walls … , column, by Deborah Jones

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Facts and Opinions is an online journal of select and first-rate reporting and analysis, in words and images: a boutique for select journalism, without borders. Independent, non-partisan and employee-owned, F&O performs journalism for citizens, funded entirely by readers. We do not carry advertising or solicit donations from foundations or causes. Help sustain us with a donation (below), by telling others about us, or purchasing a $1 day pass or subscription, from $2.95/month to $19.95/year. To receive F&O’s free blog emails fill in the form on the FRONTLINES page. 

 

 

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