Asia: Feeling the coming storm

Whole continent on the verge of major social convulsions and political shocks

The International Executive Committee (IEC) of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) met from 17 to 22 January 2012, in Belgium. This document on Asia was voted on and agreed unanimously.

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The deepening crisis of capitalism and the revolutions in North Africa have not left Asia untouched. While at a different stage of the crisis, this whole area of the world, where the overwhelming majority live in poverty, is on the verge of major social convulsions and political shocks.

GDP growth has now slowed, in the two largest countries – China and India – as a direct result of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and a slowing of demand in the US. This, in turn, will have increasingly dire effects on most other economies in the continent and on Australia, depending for positive balance of payments figures on exporting raw materials, semi-manufactured goods and, in some cases, machinery. Hopes of economic recovery in Japan from over twenty years of stagnation were destroyed by the devastating tsunami in February. It was thought that reconstruction after the disaster might even stimulate growth, but that does not seem to have materialised. By December the “sense of crisis” amongst the country’s largest manufacturers was said to be “extremely negative”, given the failure of the yen to fall in value.

Japan was a prototype for the situation now facing most capitalist countries. The difference is that Japan has experienced its ‘two lost decades’ against the background of a still growing world economy. It also had the benefit of a particular social cohesion and less glaring inequalities. This allowed the Japanese ruling class to mitigate the worst effects of their economic problems – a situation which other industrialised countries now engulfed in a world-wide crisis do not have. Japan is now facing a worsening situation and a DPJ government which changes its prime minister on average once a year and cannot find a remedy for its ills.

Just as the survival of the eurozone and progress with international control over climate change are pushed into reverse by the worst world recession in 60 years, so too are efforts by Asian countries to lower restrictions on trade with each other. 10 years since the accession of China to the WTO, this body’s losing battle with protectionism has become severely exacerbated.

Governments throughout the region are vying for economic or political influence with both the USA and China. Military spending is far from declining, with many countries increasing their arms procurements for both internal and external use. (India and China are the largest importers of weapons in the world.)

Potential and actual border clashes are manifold (India/Pakistan, India/China, China/Taiwan, China/South Korea, South Korea/North Korea). Nervousness over possible repercussions from the death of Kim Jong-il was reflected in the fall in share prices across Asia the same day. Many Asian and central Asian governments are involved in new versions of the ’Great Game’ as China and the US compete for new sources of raw materials and new markets. They compete too for hegemony in the continent, creating an ever-shifting pattern of alliances. Oil and gas exploration by Indian companies in the South China Sea have upset China, as has the news of an Indian plan to raise tens of thousands of extra soldiers to send to the frontier near Tibet. As the US’s relations with Pakistan deteriorate, those with the dictatorship in Uzbekistan are strengthened to maintain supplies to the military in Afghanistan.

Dictatorial regimes have reacted differently to the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak. Some like Burma and, in a more duplicitous form, Kazakhstan, have feinted in the direction of democratisation. Others, like the Rajapakse ’nepotocracy’ in Sri Lanka, have tightened the screws. The attempt in China last Spring to emulate the ’jasmine’ revolution was not successful, but the real threat to the regime comes from the millions of workers toiling in vast factory complexes. As has been seen in the last months – at Zhanaozen in Kazakhstan and the valiant town of Wukan in China – a heavy clamp-down on resistance can fuel an even bigger explosion.

In the countries where the CWI has a presence in Asia, opportunities are developing which will put our forces to the test, as the pace and scope of struggle increase. Our sections in Europe, the US and elsewhere, and the CWI leadership, have an obligation to keep the members informed of developments and also to come to the aid of comrades when they face heavy state repression or, alternatively, when revolutionary possibilities erupt.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan’s economy has ’enjoyed’ a considerable growth rate, mainly due to its vast oil and gas industry. The masses have not felt any benefits; in fact shared his autocratic kleptocracy, openly and covertly supported by western imperialism, is now in jeopardy. Important oilfields in the West of the country have been engulfed in massive strike struggles, most notably the heroic months-long struggle at Zhanaozen this year. The armed clashes in mid-December were predictable and predicted by CWI comrades; these led to a movement of insurrectionary proportions. Such situations will arise far more frequently in this epoch of crisis with upsurges followed by repression and further, broader movements across the country. This poses sharply the urgency of developing revolutionary parties to move into the vacuums that exist in the major struggles between the classes.

Police dictatorships like that of Nazarbayev are fragile. In a direct response to the toppling of Ben Ali and Mubarak, (and apparently on the advice of good friend, Tony Blair), Nazarbayev brought forward presidential elections in Kazakhstan instead of postponing them until 2020, and fraudulently won! In spite of a certain rapping of the knuckles by imperialism over the massacre and clamp-down in Mangistau, he is going ahead with a general election in January with no genuine opposition forces able to participate. The growing anger of the masses can lead to general strike protest action, even a revolutionary outburst, spreading across the country. There could be a series of explosions and repressions but the comrades of the CWI could find themselves very rapidly projected into leading a revolutionary upsurge of the kind that broke out in Kyrgizstan a year and a half ago. They would be faced with the task of trying throughout the country to build a revolutionary party adequate to the tasks posed.

These comrades are at present enemy No.1 for the ruling clique. Those who call themselves a democratic opposition, though fostered by imperialism, are up until now, feeble and ineffective. As the CWI has seen first hand, Nazarbayev has no social reserves between him and the representatives of the deprived, the oppressed and the angry – most notable among them, the comrades of the Socialist Movement Kazakhstan. The urgency of building the cadres of a revolutionary party in Kazakhstan and elsewhere in the region is dramatically underlined in the present situation.

Pakistan

The nightmare of daily life for the masses in Pakistan has been aggravated almost beyond endurance. The weak government of the PPP under Zardari, has again shown itself incapable of stepping in to alleviate the dire effects of floods this Summer. Once again, the very rich land-owners looked after themselves and the government allowed hundreds to die and to starve. It has also proved incapable of putting a stop to the daily occurrence of sectarian atrocities.

The army in Pakistan, never far in the background of the country’s politics, is not keen at present to get directly involved in government and risk of then becoming a target of mass discontent. But it may now be forced to do so. It has also been humiliated, especially the intelligence wing, the ISI, by air attacks carried out by US forces. Zardari in the US has angered them by apparently agreeing to clip the wings of the military in return for US support.

US forces raided the residence near Islamabad of Al Q’aida leader Osama Bin Laden and killed him without the official notification (let alone permission) of the Pakistan government. They have killed hundreds of Pakistani civilians as well as military personnel in the areas which border Afghanistan in their (failing) efforts to disable the supply lines for Taliban fighters. A break-down in relations with the Pakistani government could complicate US President Barack Obama’s plans to bring the war in Afghanistan to an end. However the Pakistani regime is still heavily dependent on US financing.

As the CWI reports: “The public mood in Pakistan is overwhelmingly in favour of breaking with the US and breaking from the so-called ’war on terror’. Anti-American sentiments are running very high. No political party will even attempt to openly give the impression that it is siding with US imperialism. Even well known pro-American parties can not now come out openly before the masses in support of the US.” But the powerful neighbour of China has also had some set-backs, forced, for example, to abandon its building of a new port facility

In the lawless tribal lands near the Afghan border, atrocities of the kind once carried out by British, American and Spanish conquistadors, are multiplying. Some of the most brutal are carried out by the Haqqani network, said to be linked with the Pakistani intelligence service – the ISI. The descent into barbarism is indicated by the displays on roadsides in the area of beheaded bodies with the heads alongside!

As the economic and political situation in Pakistan spirals downwards. Former cricket champion, Imran Khan, has gained a certain following amongst the middle layers of society and youth. He has a populist approach to the need to clean up government and the economy. Neither he nor any army or bourgeois representative will succeed in this task. The army may once again take on the mantle of the protector of the people, tackling the worst examples of corruption and injustice and trying to counter the centrifugal tendencies of Baluchi and Sindhi nationalism. However, the military themselves, as big owners of land and industry, will not be able to pull Pakistani society out of the mire.

Only the working class and the poor peasants, with a clear leadership, will be able to bring Pakistan back from the brink of the abyss. The trade union movement, though small, holds the key. It deserves great credit for continuing to organise action to defend workers. In the context of the struggle of workers and poor peasants to maintain even a subsistence level of survival, fighting slogans against the IMF and World Bank who dictate harsh terms for extending their loans, slogans such as ‘Cancel the debts!’ can gather popularity along with those for nationalisation of industry and of the big estates under democratic workers’ and poor people’s control. Standing out against religious sectarianism and for socialist policies is a hard, but vital, task for the CWI in Pakistan.

India

India now presents important opportunities for building the forces of the CWI. The government of the aged Manmahon Singh is in the doldrums. Mired in corruption and in indecision it is barely capable of exerting influence, let alone control, in the 28 diverse state governments across the country. Each state government is also racked by corruption and internecine conflicts. India’s growth is slowing, partly due to internal weaknesses with infrastructure and lack of internal demand. But it is also as a result of falling opportunities in service and export industries connected with the decline of capitalism in Europe and the US. This also brings forward the conflict of interests between local, national, forces and those of the centre.

Sonja Ghandi, still leader of the Congress party is ailing. Hopes are being pinned on her son, Rahul, and now his sister Priyanka, to maintain the party’s rule at the next election in 2014. The main opposition party, the BJP has had a certain fillip from the success of an anti-corruption campaign, mainly due to the lack of any real opposition to the Congress-led government, personified in the figure of Anna Hazare who has conducted a number of hunger strikes. However the BJP’s internal wrangling and the lack of any alternative policies for reviving the Indian growth rates leave it lagging behind in the polls.

The anti-corruption movement headed by Anna Hazare is an indication of the enormous anger that exists amongst the masses about the colossal level of corruption from which none of the political parties is exempt. But this movement is not largely trusted by the ordinary working and poor people as it is supported by the big corporate business and headed by individuals who represent the capitalist and right wing interests. The movement’s lack of a political alternative, its readiness to accept half measures and even allegations of corruption on the part of the leaders themselves have all further undermined the campaign. But anti-corruption feeling is running high amongst workers and poor people and this issue has the potential of becoming a key national rallying point against the whole ruling establishment.  

To try and tackle a crippling inflation rate, the RBI increased interest rates 13 times in the past 18 months. The government boasts some success, but recent figures for prices of basic necessities for the majority of the population have shown some cases of prices more than doubling. The layer of middle class consumers in society who have helped maintain recent growth, has now been hit by the invading recession. As for the hundreds of millions of poor farmers and their families, life has become unbearable. A recent report estimates that on average 15 people in India kill themselves every hour!

India under Congress rule has created more billionaires and more poor than any other country in the world. Two thirds of the population live below subsistence levels with 300 million living on less than 50 pence a day. The government has announced a new plan of food subsidies for the very poor. Its drive on investment to create demand at home is less likely to succeed even than China.

India’s GDP growth has slipped under 7%, way below the hoped for 10% needed to absorb the 12 million coming into the labour market annually. Industrial production actually slumped 5% year on year in October 2011 – the first negative reading since the post Lehman global slump. A Singapore based economist has said that in 2011, “Whatever could go wrong, did go wrong”. India is deemed to have much less room for manoeuvre to support growth than other ’emerging’ economies like China and Brazil.

The defeat for the Singh government over opening up the country to the giant US supermarket chain, Walmart, was rooted in the fact that so many millions of families depend on running small shops. In fact the structure of the Indian economy, in contrast to that of China, is of predominantly small, family-run business. The Financial Times shows that 89% of India’s firms have ten or below employees while just 4% China’s enterprises are that small.

Workers drawn into the new factories in new industrial boom-towns like Manesar, near Delhi, have begun to show considerable militancy. A young worker at the Maruti Suzuki plant, involved in important strike struggles this year, likened working on the production line to the mind-numbing operations mimicked by Charlie Chaplin in ’Modern Times’. More than a third of India’s workers are on temporary sub-contracts and consequent low wages. This and attempts to change the country’s labour laws are aimed at undermining job protection and incomes.

Half of India’s population is 25 years old or below. In work, or out of work, a layer of young, often educated, men and women cannot fulfil their aspirations. They can move rapidly towards the ideas of revolutionary Marxism but also can be attracted by the erroneous ideas of terrorism. In the country areas, poor people and youth can be attracted by the idea of taking revenge on the big landlords and multinational companies which are ruining their livelihoods.

The Naxalite (Maoist) rebellions affect two-thirds of India’s states. Often local populations, especially indigenous peoples (or Adivasis), give material support. But their activities give the government the excuse to use methods such as ’Operation Green Hunt’ which ends up killing many innocent tribal people and farmers, as well as activists not directly connected with the Naxalites.

Numerous struggles and occupations break out against Indian and multinational conglomerates moving in to rape the mineral and other resources of traditional lands. The long-running campaign against the South Korean steel-maker, Posco, has been successful this year in preventing it from raping a vast area of natural forest in Orissa. Environmental protests and those against widespread human rights abuses are growing in number and intensity.

Comrades of the CWI have been involved in these struggles, and in targeting young workers for recruitment. In the past, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) (CPI(M)) stifled the development of independent forces, but with their heavy set back in last June’s state elections, opportunities have opened up. The CPI(M) almost lost Kerala state and in West Bengal, was ousted from control of its ‘strong-hold’ after 34 years. This was a major defeat for them brought about by their collusion with multinationals in violent attacks on poor farmers and workers in the state. The Trinamul Congress of the maverick politician, Mamata Banerjee came to power, but this party offers no way forward to workers and farmers who have previously supported the CPI(M). The CP is not finished, but a new workers’ political organisation with genuine anti-capitalist policies is urgently needed.

While 2010 saw a massive, 100 million strong general strike in which our comrades intervened, this year the trade union leaders did not even begin to mobilise against an even worse level of inflation, unemployment, corruption and poverty. The potential for revolutionary forces to develop is great; the task of building them vital.

The CWI needs to follow developments in both in Kashmir, which remains a major regional flashpouint, and in Bangla Desh, 40 years on from its bloody secession from Pakistan. Indian-occupied Kashmir, as Arundhati Roy comments, is being cut off from the outside world. “Within its borders it’s open season for the government and the army. Controlling people with bribes, threats, blackmail and unutterable cruelty has evolved into a twisted art form”. The slow-burning fuse of revolt continues to burn. Bangla Desh, has again this year seen militant strikes of workers in the clothing industry and intense struggles against multinational companies trying to establish their destructive activities in the country.

China – Hong Kong – Taiwan

China, dealt with in the first document for the International Executive Committee, is seeing a dangerous slowdown in growth. It is experiencing a two-sided process of growing revolt from below accompanied by a new wave of repression from above. The fuses will blow in this explosive situation. Elements in the bureaucracy could be pushed towards the introduction of some kind of democratic measures. In some way reforming from the top to avoid revolution from below. What has been an extremely difficult period for the CWI in relation to China could soon turn into its opposite, and the hard work of the comrades based in the area will show dividends.

Hong Kong is a ‘controlled’ capitalist democracy – a ‘dictocracy’– over which the Chinese dictatorship rules, using control mechanisms inherited from the British colonial administration. Atrocious working and living conditions exist for the majority of its inhabitants, with one in five families living below the poverty line. Partly because of these factors, Hong Kong sees some of the biggest levels of protest per head of population of almost any country world-wide.

The fielding of a CWI candidate in the district council elections in Hong Kong in November was a first for the CWI. The campaign was conducted with enormous energy and enthusiasm. The main aim was to build the forces of the CWI but the result itself, in an election which most people feel will change nothing, was a considerable success.

Taiwan’s economy is closely tied to that of China, and has continued to grow. It is reported to be experiencing the friendliest of cooperation with China at the present time, while the military stand-off remains. At the elections in 2008, the DPP was ousted to bring back the KMT. (In January 2012, they won again.) It has been difficult for our young comrades to maintain a presence on the island but the CWI got publicity during the ‘OccupyTaipei’ demonstration of October 15 and is active in many campaigns..

Malaysia

The economy in Malaysia has begun to be affected by a slowdown in growth. Palm oil is still in demand but certain of Malaysia’s manufactured and semi-manufactured goods and IT products are getting into difficulties. The Najib government is keen to hold the next general election as soon as possible, before the economy is severely affected by the slowdown in Europe and the US and now in China in particular. One of the signs that the government could be moving to an early election is that a decision in the long-running second trial of the liberal Islamic opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, for sodomy was being made on 9 January.

The past year saw a mass movement for ‘clean’ government in the form of Bersih 2. On July 9 20,000 people on a demonstration were attacked by police with tear gas and water cannon. The lamp-down, included the holding in remand of a number of leading members of the PSM. It has also seen some cosmetic measures in response to the revolutions of North Africa. The hated ISA emergency legislation has been annulled, but other laws which allow the state to round up and imprison opposition activists remains in place.

As soon as the election is over and the crisis deepens, no doubt the use of such repressive measures will be back on the agenda. Bye-elections have provided the ruling BN government with one or two successes in the least industrialised provinces, but its maintenance of the NEP, or positive discrimination for Malays, has exacerbated racial tensions. A repeat of the Indian-based Hindraf mass demonstrations and clashes can be expected, as economic problems increase. The People’s Front (PR) has not developed any coherent alternative political or economic policy. There are moves to exclude the PSM representatives from being candidates on the Front’s lists, except in Ipoh.

The CWI in Malaysia has been consolidated through visits to and from the country and by regular theoretical and historical discussions in both the areas in which work is now consistently carried out. It will conduct general agitation during the election campaign and still has an important role to play in developing the CWI’s understanding and presence in the region.

The new government of Thaksin Shinawat’s sister in Thailand is floundering, hit by major bottle-necks in the economy as well as devastating floods. Indonesia has seen major industrial battles developing. As a New York Times headline reads: “As Indonesia grows, so does worker unrest”. The political ‘opening up’ in Burma is limited; there are still 1,800 political prisoners in prison. But a law allowing trade unions to function for the first time since 1962 could see a burgeoning of a workers’ movement – industrially and politically.

Sri Lanka

After more than 30 years of war, the Rajapakse dictatorship has consolidated its power. Its total military victory was only possible through the support of India, China and Pakistan. It has imposed a military occupation and total humiliation of the Tamil people in the North. Sinhala settlements and Army camps have been established across the area and road signs in the Tamil language replaced by Sinhala only ones.

The regime is heavily dependent on state terror. Fonseka, the general who led the final assault against the Tigers and the Tamil refugees during the ‘war against terrorism’, after being arrested at the time of the rigged presidential election in 2010, has finally been sentenced to many years in prison. All this is an indication not of the strength but of the fundamental political weakness of the Rajapakse regime. Opposition politicians and journalists are still hounded by the military and armed thugs in the police.

Spending on the armed forces (and arms) constituted a higher proportion of the recent ’post-war’ budget than at the height of the conflict. Without it, the regime cannot maintain its rule. Support and investment from India and China have shored up the economy and enabled the regime to ignore the polite sniping of western imperialist governments over its human rights record. Rajapakse has not declined financial aid and advice from professional lobbyists in league with British governments.

Since the end of the war, the JVP has gone through a period of crisis. It has done badly in elections and suffered a three way split. In spite of claiming in the past to be Marxist, the JVP has its origins in Sinhala chauvinism which has proved to be a dead-end. One small part of the leadership remained with the government of the Sinhala Bonapartist dictator and his family. Another came out of the government but adopted no political alternative. The third, made up mostly of younger members, has carried out a reassessment of the past, ultra chauvinist positions of the JVP has the intention of recruiting at least some support Tamil-speakers in the Hill Country as well as in the North and East and to work towards building trade unions in the North. This split reflects a growing dissatisfaction with the government which is failing to bring any ‘peace dividend’ in terms of improved living standards.

In Colombo and the South one of the main tasks of Marxists is to rebuild the fighting capacity of the Sinhala workers and youth. A successful strike in the FTZ near Colombo’s Katanaika airport was an indication of battles to come – both in its militancy and in the ferocity of the state’s use of force to suppress it, killing one of the strikers. The pension reform has been shelved. Growing opposition can feed a movement to bring down the government; on the other hand, the regime could resort to still further atrocities to hold on to power.

This gives urgency to the task of building support for the USP amongst workers and poor people for a clear socialist alternative. Even a small force rooting itself in the working class and amongst the youth – in the universities and elsewhere – can play a key role.

The USP has maintained a proud record on the national question in Sri Lanka and continues to support the rebuilding of trade unions and independent political forces of the workers and poor in the country. Following on from its recent congress, the USP, while maintaining caution on the security issue, now needs to gear up for the opening of a new period in Sri Lankan politics.

Possibilities in the Region

Indonesia’s still fairly successful economy is facing major infrastructure problems which can slow it down. Half or more of the country’s workers are in the black economy and, in a country with a young and growing population, youth unemployment is becoming chronic. New mass struggles, like the long-running strike in a Papuan gold-mine, could put the building of a revolutionary force squarely on the agenda. A new generation will be returning towards the ideas of socialism and democratic planning, half a century after the mass slaughter of millions of members of the Indonesian Communist Party.

A new period has opened up which will see the shattering of illusions that, in contrast to Europe and the US, Asia can avoid another major down-turn and the mass social political upheavals that will entail. The timing and manner in which revolution will develop in China are difficult to foresee, but it is rooted in the situation that now exists in the country.

Cadres urgently need to be formed before major revolutionary upheavals take place. They can then rapidly grow into a mass force capable of significantly influencing the course events take towards the victory of international socialist revolution.

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