Rwanda reliant on new colonial master China

Rwanda and China's fate may become inextricably linked in the coming years.
Rwanda and China’s fate may become inextricably linked in the coming years.

I watched Hotel Rwanda on television last night for the first time since I saw it at the cinema when it came out in early 2005.  It’s a fine film, not among the greats, but it is honest, tells an important story and it played a crucial role in my personal political awakening. Hotel Rwanda tells the story of the 1994 Rwandan genocide from the point of view of Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the international Hotel des Milles Collines in the capital Kigali. The hotel became a sanctuary for hundreds of people, as all around them Hutu militia rampaged on their genocidal mass slaughter of Tutsi people.

As good as the film was, I remember being left unsatisfied as it did not answer the question as to how, in my lifetime, up to a million people could be murdered purely on the basis of a national characteristic. I thought this was something that happened in cruel times of the past, not in our enlightened era. I was 30 years old when the massacres happened, naive, and living an undisturbed life far away in Australia. I remembered the Edmund Burke phrase that all it takes for evil to thrive is for good people to do nothing. Was I somehow to blame, blissfully ignorant of the causes? How could this happen in the 1990s? What did I know about Rwanda, and Africa more generally? I decided to find out.

That Easter 2005 I was supposed to go away on a four-day long weekend, but for whatever reason the plan fell through. Instead I printed off the 900-page Human Rights Watch report “Leave none to tell the story” and stayed at home riveted to the heartbreaking conclusions on every page. When explained, Rwanda’s genocide was even more baffling than ever, the result of a bogus and arbitrary division of people, African warring, European meddling, and lack of American intervention at the most important time. Worse still, the causes remained uncured and the possibility of it happening again remains real.

Rwanda, like every country in Africa, is a tool in the great game of global influence. In the 19th century it was a pawn in colonial negotiations between the British and the Germans. In the 20th century, first Belgian and then French influence grew. Then in de-colonial times, it vacillated between the Americans and Soviets. Now like most African countries, it is coming under the gravitational pull of China. Long-time Rwandan leader Paul Kagame optimistically paints that current relationship with Beijing as one of equal partnership in “sustainable development, mutual prosperity and respect.”

Yet it is hard to imagine China being any more sympathetic to local needs than any of the previous superpowers for whom Rwanda was a client state. Kagame, a leader supreme for two decades, may be part of the problem. Paul Kagame led the Tutsi rebels that overthrew the Hutu extremists in 1994 after the genocide. An undoubted hero to his people for restoring law and order, his regime has come at the cost of political repression with internal enemies ruthlessly suppressed. This is an African tradition dating back to the end of colonial times but Rwanda’s problems go even further back.

The Hutu and Tutsi people are differentiated purely by when they first arrived in central Africa. The Kingdom of Rwanda was a Tutsi enclave but operated a sophisticated power-sharing arrangement with Hutu people on the basis of cattle patronage. At the time Rwanda was uncolonised, but unbeknown to it, the faraway Berlin Conference of 1884 assigned the territory to Germany as part of the greedy but civilised European takeover of Africa.

Because of the convenient lack of British interference, German needed to send only a small contingent of troops to take Rwanda. The German brought euro-centric notions of racism to Rwanda, handing local administration to Tutsis on the basis they originally hailed from the “more white” Ethiopia. German defeat in the First World War saw new European overseers arrive: the Belgians. The Belgians already managed next door Congo and brought their post-Leopold administrative zeal to the new province, concentrating further power in Tutsi royalty. In 1935 they took the fateful step of issuing identity cards labelling people as Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, ending the fluid movement between what were effectively castes.

The end of the Second World War saw the rise of nationalist movements across Africa including Rwanda. Because Hutus were the most numerous, they dominated the resistance movement, and a notion of Hutu nationalism emerged in 1957. Seeing which way the wind was blowing, the desperate Belgians replaced all Tutsi leaders with Hutus in 1960 but could not stave off inevitable independence.

There followed a civil war in 1963 and mass emigration of Tutsis, destabilising neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Congo (Zaire). Nevertheless there was a population explosion in Rwanda’s fertile lands rising from 1.6 million in the 1930s to 7.1 million by the end of the 1980s. Hutu leaders carefully held power, backed by American, Belgian and French forces, while disconcented Tutsis bided their time. Around 1990, a perfect storm of events ended the status quo.

When the prices of Rwanda’s chief export, coffee collapsed at the end of the 1980s, there was an economic crisis. Meanwhile across the border in Uganda, exiles backed the overthrow of anti-Tutsi president Milton Obote. The new dictator Yoweri Musavene secretly supported installing a Tutsi regime in Kigali. Finally the fall of the Soviet Union meant Africa was no longer critical in forging pro or anti-Communist regimes and American support for the Hutu regime dissipated.

The second civil war started in 1990 but hopes of a quick Tutsi victory were dashed by the entry of French and Belgian troops in support of the Hutu regime of president Juvenal Habyarimana. The conflict descended into stalemate and guerrilla warfare until a ceasefire in 1992. The Arusha Accords called for power-sharing but fighting continued. Another Tutsi offensive in 1993 was stopped again by the French.

Power in Kigali was moving slowly away from the distracted army to a hard-line paramilitary group known as the Interihamwe. Organising itself with the aid of a radio station, the Interihamwe promoted the total elimination of Tutsi people whom it called “cockroaches”. They could not act too openly while Habyarimana controlled the army. Their moment came when Habyarimana’s plane was shot down at Kigali Airport as he returned from peace negotiations in Burundi. The Burundi president also died in the attack. No one claimed responsibility for the double assassination but hard-line Hutus were the beneficiary, at least in Rwanda. Within hours the Interihamwe mobilised death squads with guns and machetes and began large scale killings across the country.

With the army still hamstrung as it dealt with the Tutsi resistance, the way was left clear for a 100 days of savage slaughter, far from western eyes. The small, mostly Pakistani, UN contingent in Kigali alerted the world to the predicament but Bill Clinton’s America, chastened by ignominious failures in Mogadishu a year earlier, refused to commit US troops to the region. An inept Europe looked on in horror, and the killing spiralled out of control.

On June 18, the French finally invaded in Operation Turquoise. While the UN sanctioned this operation, this was a cynical move by President Mitterrand to shore up French interests in the region. The massacre had ended, but it was the Tutsi rebels that ended it, not the French. Kagame’s forces had finally routed the Hutu army and taken Kigali. Operation Turquoise assisted only in helping two million people flee the country and arrested none of the Hutu massacre leaders. The mission lasted two months and on its end, the Tutsi rebels united the whole of Rwanda under their leadership.

The Interihamwe leaders that caused the carnage mostly escaped into the Congo and Uganda. They used Congolese camps for incursions into Rwanda and also attacked Tutsi refugees in the Congo. The latter formed militias to defend themselves and attacked the Hutus and also the Mobutu government that defended them, opening up the first Congo War, which ultimately overthrew the Mobutu regime. There were still 1.5 million Rwandan refugees in Congo which new president Kabila saw as a destabilising influence. He expelled all Rwandans and Ugandans from his country, an action which, in tandem with the rapacious western need for minerals used in mobile phone technology, only served to open up a new conflict, called the Second Congo War.

The Second Congo War is unknown to the rest of the world, but is the deadliest war in African history. It dragged in almost every country in the south of the continent. It lasted four years, caused thousands of deaths directly, millions of deaths indirectly. It ended with a new government in the Congo, but Uganda’s and Rwanda’s long-term pro-Tutsi governments emerged stronger than ever. Both countries sold the mineral coltan, a crucial component for mobile phone capacitors, found only in eastern Congo.

Kagame was formally elected president of Rwanda in 2003 and re-elected in 2010.  That second election was widely believed to be rigged and dozens of opposition figures murdered. Kagame was re-elected with 93% of the vote, a sure sign of intimidation. However he would probably have won anyway in an open vote. The Rwandan economy is recovering and annual growth was 8% from 2004-2010, including during the GFC. The services sector has grown strongly with good communications and technology infrastructure in a small, populous and relatively well-educated country. Kagame has also done well to improve integrity and remove corruption. Paul Rusesabagina and his family have left the country for Belgium, but Hotel des Milles Collines is still open and thriving again.

Kagame can take much of the credit for his country’s stability but dangerous times lie ahead. The next presidential elections are due in 2017 and having served two terms Kagame is constitutionally barred from running again. The question will be how he deals with that and how the country moves into a post-Kagame transition. Hutu murder groups are still at large in eastern Congo and are spoiling for the opportunity to return to their homelands. The role of China in protecting its increasingly large stake in Rwanda’s economy could be crucial. Saving democracy is not a priority.

Murdoch’s adventures in China

When Rupert Murdoch took control of The Wall Street Journal in 2008, he also collected a less prestigious Dow Jones monthly publication called The Far Eastern Economic Review. The New York Times called it an incidental addition to the global stable of Murdoch’s News Corp. Murdoch promised editorial independence to all the Dow Jones products as the price he had to pay for the Journal. However, it was no surprise to find a chilling effect whenever a story appeared that affected Murdoch.
The Review’s editor Hugo Restall hired Australian writer Eric Ellis to write a review of Bruce Dover’s book “Rupert’s Adventures in China: How Murdoch Lost a Fortune and Found a Wife.” The book is an insider’s account of Murdoch’s attempts to woo the Chinese Government in the 1990s and also discusses his relationship with third wife Wendi Deng. The book got a big reception in Asia in 2007 and Restall hired Ellis to review the book in January 2008. But by February, Restall got cold feet and told Ellis the book “looks more like the work of a disgruntled ex-employee rather than an analysis of the business.”
In his spiked review, Ellis said for a businessman who has left such a mark on the world’s media, Murdoch was under-analysed and his personal life off-limits. This why the book is of great service: Dover (now the chief executive of ABC’s Australia Network beaming content into Asia) was the Sun King’s chief courtier in the Forbidden City in a time when China meant everything to Murdoch.
Dover tells the story from the time Murdoch bought STAR TV in 1993 for $1 billion to the time 10 years later when Dover was sacked and Murdoch realised he could not replicate his success in China. The year 1993 after Murdoch had defeated the British print unions in Wapping, and was starting to make big money with BSkyB and the Premier League. He was also expanding his footprint in America and looking at Chinese opportunities. The 23-year-old Richard Li’s STAR TV was a satellite operation with a reach from the Philippines to the Middle East, potentially two-thirds of the world’s population.
Li never made money from STAR TV subscriptions as most users pirated the unencrypted service. He changed the model to advertising and charged big rates though no one was sure how much audience he was aggregating. Li’s father Li Ka-shung was Hong Kong’s wealthiest businessman and a friend of Deng Xiaoping. But Beijing was alarmed over the uncensored service being available in mainland China. Xiaoping told Ka-shung the business had to go and Li reluctantly sold to the highest bidder in 1993. Pearson PLC (owner of the Financial Times and Penguin Books) offered the same money as News Corp but wanted Ka-shung to stay on in some capacity. Murdoch had no such qualms.
Li never sought approval from Beijing on the sale. When the politburo found out who STAR TV’s new owner was, there was deep concern. The Chinese knew Murdoch intervened in the politics of every other country he had interests in and feared the same would happen to them. These fears intensified after a Murdoch speech Murdoch in London’s Whitehall Palace celebrating BSkyB’s new multi-channel offering. With the Internet still in infancy, Murdoch lauded the new forms of communications as a threat to “totalitarian regimes everywhere”. Orwell had got it wrong, Murdoch said, mass communication technologies did not subordinate individuals but liberated them. Telephony and satellite broadcasting, he enthused, made it possible to by-pass state control of information.
Murdoch claimed he was talking about the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. But infuriated politicians in Beijing knew he was talking about them. Premier Li Peng saw Murdoch’s speech as a threat to Chinese sovereignty. Within a month he banned the distribution, installation and use of satellite dishes in China, dashing STAR TV’s expansion plans.
Murdoch quickly realised the extent of his blunder. He moved to Hong Kong with wife Anna and started a long campaign of wooing the Chinese leadership. All contact with Zhongnanhai was funnelled through the State Council Information Office (SCIO) and Murdoch was allowed to meet no-one above the rank of vice minister. In 1994 he used limited transponder space on the satellite as an excuse to drop the BBC from STAR TV. He later admitted the real reason was because the Chinese leaders hated the BBC. However it changed nothing and Murdoch remained persona non grata with senior leaders.
Murdoch befriended family members of Deng Xiaoping. He got Harper Collins to publish Deng’s daughter Deng Rong’s hagiography of her father. He also feted disabled eldest son Deng Pufang in an artists’ tour of Australia. But when Deng lost power in 1994 his children were out of favour and with them patronage of Murdoch. New leader Jiang Zemin enforced the crackdown on China’s half a million satellite dishes.
Dover was in China to negotiate a joint venture with the People’s Daily. This alliance with the conservative communist organ was a peace plan tacitly approved by the politburo. The paper was under pressure to reduce reliance on state handouts and proposed a business news magazine with News Corp. But again SCIO were not across the deal and once they found out, did their utmost to ensure it would never get off the ground.
Murdoch next’s ploy was with businessman Liu Changle who bought a half share in the Phoenix TV joint venture with STAR TV. Liu cultivated key Beijing decision makers and senior leaders told Murdoch Liu was his only way into China. Phoenix proved popular and shook up the tawdry domestic TV market. But Murdoch hated Phoenix because Liu retained day-to-day control.
Murdoch looked to the new information superhighway for a solution. As Beijing wrestled with control of the internet, Murdoch started a new joint venture with People’s Daily called PDN Xinren. The first product ChinaByte was launched in January 1997 and became the most popular site in China. When the tech bubble burst Murdoch lost faith in the product and by April 2001 sold his toehold in the fastest growing internet market in the world.
Murdoch also got rid of anti-Chinese correspondent Jonathan Mirsky from the Times Hong Kong bureau. Murdoch promised The Times editorial independence but after he took editor Peter Stothard on a charm offensive of China, Southard spiked many stories from Hong Kong. Mirsky resigned citing Murdoch’s heavy hand. Murdoch also spiked the HarperCollins autobiography of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten on Chinese instructions. Murdoch competed with great rival Time boss Jerry Levin to fawn over Chinese leaders. Finally Murdoch made a speech which was a mea culpa where he conceded cultural and social values of a country trumped open communications.
With relations warming, Dover tells the amusing story of when Murdoch met Vice Premier Zhu Rongii in Australia in 1997. Zhu asked Murdoch to tell him the story of his rise to power and the pair had an animated conversation.  At one point Zhu put his hands on Murdoch’s wrists, looked him in the eye and spoke in Mandarin. “I see when you needed to expand your business interests in the US you became a US citizen,” he said. “Maybe you should think of applying for Chinese citizenship to further your business interests in China”. Murdoch blinked when he heard the translation and spluttered a reply. Zhu burst into laughter and said he was joking.
Murdoch did apply for Chinese citizenship – by marrying his young Yale-educated interpreter Wendi Deng. Deng had the language skills but not the contacts in the politburo and the Chinese kept one step ahead of the Murdochs. As they cultivated Zemin’s Shanghai clique, the leader was replaced by Hu Jintao. Dover was on the outer now, his boss frustrated by his inability to penetrate the Great Wall. Hu closed down STAR TV’s intrusion into the Chinese “grey sector” and insisted China retain control of Chinese television, banning cooperation between local stations and foreign companies.
After 12 years, Murdoch finally admitted defeat in China. In 2006 he sold his remaining interest in Phoenix and repositioned STAR TV to the Indian market. Dover said Murdoch was a major catalyst of change in China both of its media and its attitude to the Internet (which the party wanted to ban entirely). Phoenix transformed Chinese television with its brash, downmarket programming but control remained in Chinese hands. Dover said in seeking to woo China’s leaders, Murdoch overstepped the mark. “He became too impetuous, too imprudent,” he concluded.

Sport and Politics: an Olympic history

Munich 1972 was the first Olympics I remember. Aged 8 I have hazy memories of Olga Korbut in the ring, Lasse Viren and Valery Borzov on the track, Mark Spitz in the pool and hooded men in the Village. The Palestinian involvement was an early indication to me the Olympics was about more than sport. Here in the middle of the Cold War, the US and USSR were once again battling for supremacy in Germany.

For half of the 20th century, the US was best performed in the Olympic medal count but the Russians beat them in 1956 and 1960. As the space race intensified, the US regained control in the 1960s.  In Munich it was the turn of the USSR to come out ahead. Behind the Americans East Germany was running a very creditable third well ahead of their western rivals despite a population of just 16 million people. They would rub salt in fellow German wounds with another home soil victory in the World Cup two years later in the only time they would ever meet (the West lost that battle but won the war against the Dutch in the final).
With the pride of communism on the line, the 70s and 80s were the glory era of East German sport. The German College for Physical Culture produced the coaches, trainers and sports medicine personnel responsible for East Germany’s remarkable success. There was drugs and cheating but there was also genuine success. The problem was, as 1980 Olympic 110-metre hurdles gold medallist Thomas Munkelt said, “we ran our sports by the performance principle, but not our economy.”
The 1980 Olympics was East Germany’s high water mark. It was also the year any doubt the Olympics wasn’t political was wiped out with the west’s boycott over Afghanistan. Without the US, the East Germans ran second to the Russians. The Russians got revenge and boycotted Los Angeles in 1984. They cited “security concerns, chauvinistic sentiments and an anti-Soviet hysteria whipped up in the United States” but everyone knew it was tit-for-tat.
Ceausescu’s Romania was the one Communist Bloc country that ignored Chernenko’s directive and they finished second to the Americans in the medal count. 1984 was notable for another reason. Five years earlier, the IOC decided to rename the Republic of China to Chinese Taipei. With Taiwan downgraded, China would not lose face by competing for the first time since 1952. They finished a creditable fourth in their first outing.
The Seoul Olympics in 1988 was the first truly global Olympics. It was also the first since Montreal to feature the US and the Soviets. East Germany were there too and they forced the Americans into third place. Other eastern bloc countries in the top ten were Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. The Chinese dropped to 11th.  But East Germany’s second high water mark masked a rapidly changing tide.
The stunning collapse of Eastern bloc Communism meant the medal table in Barcelona 1992 looked radically different. The USSR was the last to go in 1991 so there was still a strong “Unified Team” consisting of 12 of the old 15 Soviet republics. They were unified enough to win the most medals at Barcelona. It would be the last time Moscow would finish in front. East Germany was no more and China was back up to fourth behind the united Germany. There was still an East German clone in Barcelona as one of the last of the Communist countries Cuba finished fifth.
There was further change in the New World Order at Atlanta 1996. On home soil, the Americans beat the Russians for the first time since 1968. China stayed fourth but cut the gap on Germany as they were doing in the real world. In Sydney 2000, China beat Germany and got the same amount of medals as the hosts (58) but with 28 golds to Australia’s 16. At Athens, China went clear as number two to the Americans. They got fewer medals than the Russians but as they did in Sydney, they knew how to get gold.
In Beijing they did to the Americans what they did to the Russians four years before. The US had 110 medals to China’s 100 but it was 51-36 to the hosts in golds. China’s remarkable powerhouse economic advance was on display in Beijing and the last four years have accelerated the trend. It will be no surprise, even without home advantage, they get more medals and golds than anyone else in London.
They have won the first gold of the 2012 London Olympics (though arguably that honour belongs to Specsavers). Top-ranked Yi Siling of China won the women’s 10-metre air rifle at Royal Artillery Barracks on Saturday. Another Chinese woman, Yu Dan won the bronze. If the 21st century is the Asian century, then the place to watch for proof will be the Olympic Medal tally. It won’t be too long before the likes of India and Indonesia become the new East Germany – but getting the economics right as well as the sport.

China diffident about dissident Ai Weiwei

A terse statement yesterday from Chinese news agency Xinhua revealed the news. The Beijing police department said Ai Weiwei had been released on bail because of “his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from”. Xinhua quoted police who said the decision to release Ai also took into account he had “repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded”. The same source said Ai’s Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, had “evaded a huge amount of taxes and intentionally destroyed accounting documents.”

The 54-year-old dissident artist’s release after 81 days in detention raises more questions than it answers. There is no word on whether he was formally charged or tried except Ai’s release comes with a caveat: a year-long probation that prohibits him from leaving Beijing without government permission. “I’m sorry I can’t talk,” Ai told friends and reporters outside his Beijing home and studio hours after his release. “I am on probation, please understand.”

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said Ai was still under investigation for unspecified offences. His “obtaining a guarantee pending a trial” can last up to 12 months, according to Hong. “Ai is still in the investigation period for suspected crimes,” he said. “He is not allowed to leave where he lives, cannot interfere (with) other people’s testimony, [and] cannot fabricate evidence nor collaborate with others to make false confession.”

Ai was arrested on 3 April and detained for “inciting subversion” to which later was added “economic crimes.” The real reason was retaliation for a long record of social and political activism. Ai Weiwei rose to international prominence in the mid 1990s. A graduate of the Beijing Film Academy, he lived in the US in the 1980s studying design and building his art portfolio. In 1993 he came home due to his father’s illness and established an experimental artists’ village. In 2000, he curated a Shanghai exhibition of 46 avant-garde artists called “fuck off” which allegedly featured self-mutilation, human corpses and body parts as well as cannibalism and was the subject of a Scotland Yard investigation. Shanghai police were not impressed either and closed the exhibition down before the finish date.

By 2005 the BBC called him “one of the stars of China’s art world” with work appearing in exhibitions across the world. Ai told the British broadcaster he had not held a solo show in China as the country was “not yet ready.” Ai was also experimenting at the bounds of political expression expressing negative comments about the Olympics (despite designing the Bird’s Nest stadium) and supporting an investigation into heavy casualties of the Sichuan earthquake. In 2009 he was beaten up by police when he tried to testify for dissident Tan Zuoren sentenced to five years for trumped-up state subversion charges when he tried to investigate the earthquake.

The authorities stepped up their harassment as Ai became a more vocal critic of the regime. Last year, he was stopped at Beijing’s airport from flying to South Korea because authorities feared he might go to Oslo to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for his friend Liu Xiaobo. Then they ordered a demolition of his Shanghai studio saying it was built illegally. Ai decided to hold a party to mark the demolition and issued an open invite to attend via Twitter. On the day of the party national security officers placed him under house arrest. “They came last night and tried to interview me, saying I should not do it because it was getting too big,” he said. “This is the general tragedy of this nation. Everything has to be dealt with by police. It is like you use an axe to do all the housework because this is the only tool you have.”

The party went ahead without Ai who was released two days later. The studio was demolished in January and Ai was arrested in April. Chinese authorities were paranoid the contagion of Middle Eastern revolutions might spread to their country, revolutions Ai supported. In the weeks after mid-February, China arrested 26 people, while 30 more disappeared presumed held by security forces, and 200 were placed under “soft detention.” Ai was arrested without explanation and with no communication to family or friends. Police blocked off the streets to his studio and took away laptops and the hard drive from the main computer, and detained eight staff members and his wife Lu Qing for questioning.

Initially claiming his arrest was due to issues with his travel documentation, authorities changed their tune citing “economic crimes”. Financial fraud has been convenient catch-all to shut down opponents of the regime. Ai’s 78-year-old mother, Gao Ying denounced the government line. “Economic crimes! They say one thing now and another later. It’s ridiculous,” she said. “They must tell the family why and where they are holding my son? They have no right to keep us guessing. Where is the Constitution? Where is the law?”

Art groups created the protest “1,001 Chairs for Ai Weiwei” to call for artists to bring chairs to Chinese embassies and consulates around the world on 17 April “to sit peacefully in support of the artist’s immediate release.” Other museums and cultural organisations around the world signed an online petition expressing concern for “Ai’s freedom and disappointment in China’s reluctance to live up to its promise to nurture creativity and independent thought.” As Ai’s release yesterday proved, China’s “promise” comes with strings attached.

Media miss the news in first Aussie Wikileak

Oblivious to the fact one of the dreaded new media was providing the scoop, the Australian newspaper breathlessly reported the first Wikileaks document to mention Australian officials as “Rudd’s plan to contain Beijing”. It’s hardly surprising The Australian would go data-mining for stuff to embarrass the Federal Government. But it’s hardly surprising too they got it wrong.

In the haste to follow their political agenda, they skipped over more substantive elements to the story. Not only that, they misquoted Rudd. The breathless first line of Paul Maley’s front page story said Rudd had warned the world must be prepared to deploy force” if China didn’t co-operate with the international community.

Compare this to what the cable actually said:
Rudd argued for “multilateral engagement with bilateral vigour” – integrating China effectively into the international community and allowing it to demonstrate greater responsibility, all while also preparing to deploy force if everything goes wrong.”

Suggesting the west has a Plan Z for China that involves force is a long way from advocating it or even making it “Rudd’s plan”. Unfortunately it wasn’t just The Australian that took this approach. The ABC took a similar tack saying it was Rudd’s “suggestion that the US use force against China in a worst case scenario”.

It was nothing of the sort and a poor way of using remarkable information. The ABC also turned it into an inane domestic political drama by harvesting a meaningless quote from Julie Bishop about “disturbing reading”. Don’t read it Julie, if it disturbs you.

Beyond this dross, substantial issues were discussed when Secretary Clinton met Australian PM Kevin Rudd in Washington on 24 March 2009 and Wikileaks should be praised for putting it in the public domain. The cable about the meeting 09STATE30049 was marked “confidential” which is far from the highest security level and was due to be released into the public domain in 2019.

The meeting talked about problems in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Russia, but China was the biggest topic. Some of it was just polite platitudes with Rudd buttering up a valued friend but much was useful information sharing between allies. Rudd used his in-depth knowledge of China to give Clinton and her advisors information they could validate against their own knowledge sources.

Rudd had high hopes for the little-known philosophy of Kang Youwei which he said was China’s idea of a harmonious world, and could potentially fit in well with the West’s concept of responsible stakeholders. He also said Hu Jintao did not have the same level of power as former leader Jiang Zemin: “No one person dominated Chinese leadership currently, although Hu’s likely replacement, Xi Jinping, had family ties to the military and might be able to rise above his colleagues,” Rudd told Clinton.

Rudd also noticed an important distinction between China’s attitude to Taiwan and Tibet. With the former it was purely “sub-rational and deeply emotional” (because China has no intention of disturbing the status quo on Taiwan) the more concrete hardline policies against the latter were designed to send a message to other minorities within mainland China.

Rudd also told Clinton the Standing Committee of the Politburo was the real decision-making body in China which passed decisions for implementation by the State Council. Rudd saw the Asia Pacific community initiative as a bulwark against any Chinese plans to issue an Asian Monroe Doctrine. Rudd did say the 2009 Australian Defence White Paper was a response to Chinese power, something he never admitted at the time.

Rudd wanted Washington’s intelligence on Russia so he could prepare for an upcoming meeting in Moscow. Conversation centred on the power struggle between Medvedev and Putin with both sides agreeing the President’s desire for “status and respect” could drive him closer to western thinking.

On the AfPak situation, both parties also agreed there was no point in “total success” in Afghanistan (whatever that represented) if Pakistan fell apart. Pakistan needed to drop its obsessive focus on India and attend to its western border problems.

What comes across in the cables I have read is not so much the “brutality and venality of US foreign policy” as its growing impotence. This is the reason the US is after Assange. It is the embarrassment he has caused them rather than the exposing of any international secrets that angers them.

The phrase that sums up the problem this cable reveals was uttered by Hillary Clinton to Rudd in relation to China: “how do you deal toughly with your banker?” A damn good question and given China is our banker too, one Australian media should be asking. “Rudd’s embarrassment” has nothing on our media’s for missing the real news.

Burma buys time with sham election

To nobody’s great surprise, Burmese military rulers had a sweeping victory in last week’s election. With the last democratically elected leader of the country under house arrest for eight years and her party forcibly disbanded, few outside the remote capital Naypyidaw had any faith in the election’s validity. The country has been ruled undemocratically since 1962 by military rule under several different names. It annulled the unfavourable result of the one free election it had in the last 48 years. It was little surprise to hear they picked up 80 percent of the seats this time round.
(picture: SOE THAN WIN/AFP/Getty Images)
It took a while for even this news to seep out. Silent for three days after the election, State Television finally announced on Wednesday top members of the ruling junta, including army joint chief-of-staff Thura Shwe Mann and Prime Minister Thein Sein, won seats in Parliament.

We only have State Media’s word for what happened as foreign reporters are not allowed in the country. The tightly controlled local media takes the Government’s side when it is forced to take a side at all. Word of mouth ensures everyone knows what is really happening. A brave few like Muang San strapped on a hidden camera as he went to vote. “I’m a journalist,” he said. “It’s my duty to show the world what is happening in Burma.”

The main opposition party National League for Democracy led by the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi boycotted the election thought a breakaway offshoot called the National Democratic Front contested it. With no press, no charismatic leader, no scrutiny of the polls and ten times fewer candidates, they were trounced. “The Burmese junta hosted this election in order to whitewash itself internationally,” said a banana seller at a market near Rangoon.

The election gives the regime useful bargaining chips in its key relations with other ASEAN countries and China. Due to the repeated criticism of the US and the EU, Burma has become ASEAN’s albatross. The association of south east Asian nations has survived by turning the other cheek to members’ excesses but are under enormous pressure to get Burma to conform to international norms. ASEAN countries have offered guarded support for the elections. The real benefit is to give Asean an excuse to ignore further criticisms of the Naypyidaw regime.

The regime can also afford to ignore the criticisms. Burma spends at least 40 percent of its national budget on the military compared to 0.4 percent on healthcare and 0.5 percent on education. Its standing army of 500,000 soldiers is the largest in south east Asia.

Foreign powers are queuing up to take their money. In 2009, Burma signed a contract with Russia to buy 20 MiG-29 jet fighters for US $570 million and many of Burma’s future nuclear military purchases may come from fellow rogue state North Korea. China is also a huge contributor as Burma’s third-largest trading partner and provides extensive military, economic and diplomatic support.

While Asian leaders get cosy with the tatmadaw, the biggest thorn in their side remains the frail but immensely courageous activist Suu Kyi. The 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate, democracy activist and daughter of the country’s founder is scheduled to be released Saturday from house arrest. Most observers remain sceptical this will happen as she has been in detention for 15 of the last 21 years despite repeated calls from the international community to release her. A bad sign is today’s decision to reject her appeal against house arrest by the politically motivated Burma’s Supreme Court.

Not all the regime’s enemies are in prison. In the hills, army forces still fight with ethnic groups that don’t want to be a part of Myanmar. Karen separatists are causing havoc on the border with Thailand. Thailand does not want a new Karen state, but unrest at the Mae Sot-Myawaddy crossing is causing economic losses estimated at 10 million baht (almost $400,000) this year. The Karen National Union has said it will now join up with five other ethnic rebel groups: the Kachin Independence Army, the Karenni National Progressive Party, the Mon New State Party and the Shan State Army-North.

Burma, for all its half a million strong army, is unable to crush these six ethnic revolts. Neither can the compliant media stop the grumbling on the streets of Rangoon. Like any Government that rules by fear, the Burmese junta philosophy is driven by fear it will be overthrown. The paranoid tragedy that is Burma’s politics still has a few acts to go before the curtain falls.

Zuma strengthens South African alliance with China

South African President Jacob Zuma is looking for ways to cut his country’s trade deficit with its largest partner as he begins a three day visit to China. Last year South Africa ran a $2.7 billion trade deficit with China and Zuma’s Trade Minister Rob Davies explained why in a press conference in Beijing today. “In South Africa’s export market to China there is a preponderance of primary products, and in our imports from China there is a preponderance of value-added goods,” he said. Davies and Zuma want Chinese manufacturers of power equipment, railway cars, solar water heaters and vehicles to consider setting up factories in South Africa.

The relationship is growing in importance as China continues its push for influence across Africa. In the first six months of 2010, there was $10.8 billion trade between the two countries almost half as much again as the same period last year. Zuma will hold talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing and will also meet Premier Wen Jiabao and tour the World Expo site in Shanghai. Zuma will be accompanied by an enormous delegation of 300 ministers and businesspeople as the Africans aim to emulate the Chinese growth rate.Zuma expects to sign a number of agreements and memorandums of understanding during the visit. These include a declaration on the establishment of a comprehensive strategic partnership, and MOUs on co-operation in the fields of geology and mineral resources, environment management, transport and railways. There will also be a business seminar in Beijing with over 200 South African business leaders and entrepreneurs to enhance and strengthen economic co-operation. The visit will conclude on Thursday when Zuma views the South African Pavilion at the Shanghai 2010 World Expo.

The relationship between the two countries is one of the fastest growing in the world. The countries did not re-establish relations until 1998 but within 11 years China had overtaken the US to become SA’s largest exporter and importer of goods and services. Zuma has called the trip “crucial” with China National Nuclear Corp in talks to build a nuclear power plant in South Africa. The relationship is important to China too which imports iron ore, iron and steel to fuel its growing economy. Chinese Vice Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng said his government would encourage domestic companies to invest in South Africa’s mining and resources sector.

According to Chinese State news agency Xinhua, Zuma and Jintao signed a Beijing Declaration in the Great Hall of the People today. The declaration contained 38 bilateral cooperation agreements, including political dialogues, trade, investment, mineral exploration and agriculture to joint efforts in the UN and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. The declaration also promised to strengthen cooperation between the two nations in political and regional affairs by “establishing a comprehensive strategic partnership based on equality, mutual benefit and common development”.

Zuma’s China trip is a welcome relief to his mounting problems at home. The success of the World Cup is a distant glow as a strike by more than a million public sector workers enters its second week. Strikers include teachers, healthcare workers, police, customs officials and clerks seeking pay raises double the inflation rate. The strike is paralysing the economy and police have used rubber bullets to disperse angry protesters on the streets. Unions are pressing for a settlement but Zuma said he will not negotiate until he returns home.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, the health of South Africa’s economy is tied to China whose demand for SA resources is keeping the rand high. The currency’s strength continues despite the strikes and persistently high unemployment and public-sector strikes. The public sector unions were crucial in getting Zuma the top job so it is likely he will meet their demands. This will push South Africa’s already high inflation rate to well over 5 percent by year’s end, and lead to another cycle of pay demands next year. The 68-year-old president will need all the help he can get from new Chinese alliances.