I just came back from a very rewarding and adventurous trip to Myanmar. While my main focus was on the more remote and “offbeat” places, it was still necessary to pass by some of the places on the main tourist trail. And once you’re on the main tourist trail, you’re bound to meet a certain kind of tourist.
Fortunately, I didn’t encounter a single one of them at Sittwe, Mrauk U, Hsipaw and the mountain trails. Whenever I see (and hear) them around, I know it’s time to move on. Whether it’s the beauty or the tranquility, these folks never fail to disrupt and deconstruct it by treating the place as their own living room, bedroom, kitchen or even bathroom.
Especially annoying, is the sight of them besieging monks on their daily rounds for photos as if they were exotic animals or part of a “cast” employed at one of the numerous highly contrived attractions in their own country. Sadly, in spite of their utter lack of style or decorum, they remain welcome in any place that is hungry for tourist dollars. Yes, they are rich, they are powerful, the world is theirs and everyone must pander to their wishes and tolerate their insolence.
A Singaporean politician was once accused of “Chinese chauvinism” during the General Elections in 1997. He was labelled a dangerous man and a threat to our multiracial society. I’m not sure how many people believed in those accusations but fast forward to the present, this problem and danger, have become not only real but quite prevalent in our society. At first, I thought it only afflicted my parents’ generation, but make no mistake, there are many Singaporeans far younger than me who believe that a certain “Asian totalitarian way” is superior to that of the free and liberal West.
As recently as 1987, being accused of being “Communist” or “Marxist” was still something that could get you imprisoned without trial in Singapore. People were scared of Marxists. The horrific failure of the Great Leap Forward, the absolute disaster of the Cultural Revolution and the guerilla warfare tactics of the MCP were etched on the minds of many Singaporeans.
For better or for worse, all that has changed or possibly even forgotten. In recent years, there is growing group of well-educated fellow Singaporeans showering the current CCP with praise and giving them credit for uplifting the Chinese people from poverty. Some wax lyrical about how proud they are to be “Chinese”, denouncing the US trade war as something born out of pure envy that China will replace them as world leader. Some even seem to have joined the ranks of the 50-cent gang, trolling and summarily dismissing any reasonable criticism of the regime. I find this kind of “loyalty” worrying for multiracial Singapore.
But is the CCP as worthy of praise as some of our own folks insist that it is? Let’s go back a little and see what they actually did or didn’t do. Reforms in China started even as Mao Zedong was lying on his deathbed. Under Deng Xiaoping and Hu Yaobang, China began making plans to open its doors around 1979. It was a real great leap forward and it should be noted that what these reformers did made the hardliners extremely uncomfortable. Why? Because it’s not Communism. We must be very clear about what Communism does and what it doesn’t do. Imagine you have a potted plant that has not been growing well because a dark piece of cloth has been covering it. Somebody removed the cloth and the plant started growing, living up to its full potential. Who should we thank? The sunlight or the cloth?
Next, things don’t happen just because you have opened your doors. Who were the first to help start China’s economic engine? Yes, the overseas Chinese, especially those from Hong Kong. Next, Taiwanese and ethnic Chinese people from Southeast Asia began to chip in. At a time when many Chinese people were still living in poverty, an undocumented number of schools, bridges and medical facilities have been built with the patronage of overseas Chinese in search of their roots or reconnecting with long lost relatives. They brought gifts and sent money. They were warmly welcomed in the “motherland”.
The death of Hu Yaobang made many young and idealist Chinese people anxious about whether the hardliners were going to outnumber and overwhelm the reformers. When criticised, they hit the streets, occupying Tiananmen Square from the spring of 1989. After the massacre in summer, China’s relations with many Western countries soured. Trade had stalled. Investors got very nervous – not about the atrocities per se, but whether China would revert to the closed system.
Who came to China’s rescue? It was Taiwan. The first to forgive China for the atrocities were again the overseas Chinese. With all this external help, China’s economic engine went humming along again. But all this was still not enough to bring on a seemingly miraculous exponential growth which only happened within the last 18 years.
This coincides with China’s membership in the WTO (again, nothing to do with the CCP). With one stroke of the pen, US president Bill Clinton had unshackled a beast. Or as the Chinese saying goes, adding wings to a tiger. The WTO treaty turned out to be a bit like our CECA. With this membership, Chinese products would face lower trade barriers in other countries. WTO membership would thus boost Chinese exports. China became the world’s factory.
Since entering the WTO in 2001, China has benefited from the organisation’s rules (which all members are supposed to observe) that dictate lower tariff and non-tariff barriers to trade for all WTO members. Basic WTO rules that require non-discriminatory “national treatment” and “most-favoured-nation treatment” for the traded products of WTO members greatly benefited and continued to benefit China worldwide. Without the legal protection from WTO, China’s products would have faced so much competition that its export market would have gone bust. China would never have become the world’s factory.
However, while enjoying the benefits of WTO membership, the PRC government has not fulfilled many of its obligations. For example, the government has refused to permit foreign companies to provide electronic payment services for credit card and other consumer transactions in China. This is despite China’s clear obligation to permit free competition in such services under the WTO treaty. In numerous aspects of commerce, especially in areas of openness, transparency and fundamental fairness, China has also not been following rules mandated by the WTO.
In summary, it’s pretty fair to say that other WTO members, especially the US is annoyed that China has cheated to get where it is. All this cheating was tolerated until Donald Trump came into office and decided to take punitive measures. Many people merely saw a demagogue trying to gain support from the self-centered, myopic masses in the USA. They’ve either conveniently ignored or have been completely ignorant about the fact that China’s has not been playing by the rules of the WTO.
Of course, other main contributing factors to Chinese prosperity include the diligence, ambition and perseverance of the Chinese population. They were more willing to do overtime and in many instances, had in fact gone into overdrive. These characteristics are also found in other cultures, but perhaps more so in the Chinese. Again, it has nothing to do with the government. If China had not been so Marxist in its approach from 1949, these achievements would have been made a long time ago. Why only in 70 years?
Yes, China has achieved greatness over the last 70 years, but why 70 years? Why not say that China started its baby steps on the path of progress since the cousins overseas started visiting in 1979? Why not say that economic miracle only began when China joined the WTO in 2001? Why not thank Bill Clinton and his team? Why not praise the tireless workers? Why thank the CCP instead?
Sadly, the contributions from the pioneering group of investors who were instrumental in starting China’s economic engines have mostly been forgotten by the arrogant beneficiaries. Those who have made it no longer welcome their poorer Southeast Asian cousins so warmly to the “motherland”. In fact, nowadays, any opinion from the overseas Chinese that does not flatter the mainland is often regarded with disdain. At a talk by a Singaporean Chinese writer who highlighted the contribution of Singaporean Chinese to China’s success, all the mainland Chinese in the audience stood up and walked out. If you get on their turf and make similar comments, responses can range from the rude to the threatening.
America is not treated with respect either. Instead of seeing the US as a benefactor, China now sees the US as an envious loser; sore and afraid of being dethroned by the “superior” Chinese. So who are people thanking for China’s prosperity and miraculous success in uplifting the poor? The CCP of course. Using the same “logic”, Mao is revered a lot more than Sun Yat Sen. Nowadays, even those who have access to uncensored information have chosen Chinese propaganda. A bunch of old folks from Singapore, after they have been so impressed with China’s high speed rail, declared that it’s impossible that China is run by a mafia as everything there seemed so advanced and “civilised”. What do they think a mafia boss ought to look like? Puffing a cigar and with scar across his face? Others go one step further. Democracy is bad. Just look at India. Communism is good. Just look at China. How would the folks who were arrested during Operation Spectrum look at all this? It must be some sick joke.
Finally, would the one who accused his opponent of being a dangerous Chinese chauvinist in 1997 be turning in his grave now? Would he be in panic mode if he sees so many of our seemingly well-educated people behave like the 50-cent gang?
And to think that we were so paranoid that we got rid of all our Chinese schools on suspicion that they were hotbeds for communist ideologies. We’ve welcome an even stronger and more potent influence on our shores these days.