Thursday, August 13, 2015

China, Book 4

China, Book 4

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China

“Owing to the extensive use of machinery and to division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.”
-The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels 

I leave for China in less than two short weeks to begin the next adventure of my life: a Masters of Law in International Relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. While my life is consumed with last-minute paperwork and packing, it is also consumed with a lot of last-minute reading. I came to the realization that, in several ways, I had been coasting in my understanding of China, particularly in many of its foundational pillars. The People’s Republic of China, which was founded in 1949 after a long guerilla struggle beginning in 1927 led by General Mao Zedong, is the world’s largest communist country. However, what exactly is communism? And does China’s system truly mirror communism as its founders Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels intended it? How did Mao put his own mark on the entire communist movement? Why did China reach over ideological ties to the Soviet Union and open its arms to the West. And perhaps, more importantly, how did China emerge from the Cold War era as such a winner? These questions, which have been the topic of countless books and studies, are too difficult to answer in a single blog post. I just mention them to warrant my carrying around and reading books like “The Communist Manifesto” and “The Quotations of Mao” these days. (I got quite a few disconcerted stares in the airplane yesterday, as I was reading these books and diligently making notes in the margins.)

As I began to write this blog post about “Factory Girls:From Village to City in a Changing China” by Leslie T. Chang, I decided to watch her TED Talk, which has been translated into 26 languages and viewed over 1.1 million times across the world. In this video, she discusses what she learned as she investigated the working and living conditions of Dongguan, in the Guangdong Province. A part of the Pearl River Delta on China’s southern coast and near capitalist Hong Kong (which was then controlled by Britain), this city was a part of the first special economic zone that was created in 1979 under President Deng Xiaoping, which eased up economic restrictions and enacted measures to boost Foreign Direct Investment. While the surrounding areas are known for different expertise, Dongguan manufactures 40% of all the magnetic heads used in computers and 30% of all computer disk drives. Moreover, the city has averaged a growth of 15% per year for the last two decades. While many reporters and journalists focus on what is made and in what conditions it is made, Leslie Chang sought to change the focus on who made these products.

In her TED talk and her book, she discusses an incident in which after asking a woman about her work, she discovers that this woman has no idea what she is doing on the factory floor or even how it fits into the production system. In her TED Talk, she shared how this experience led her to eventually recognize that Marx’s ideas about labor were incorrect:

“Karl Marx saw this as the tragedy of capitalism, the alienation of the worker from the product of his labor. Unlike, say, a traditional maker of shoes or cabinets, the worker in an industrial factory has no control, no pleasure, and no true satisfaction or understanding in her own work. But like so many theories that Marx arrived at sitting in the reading room of the British Museum, he got this one wrong. Just because a person spends her time making a piece of something does not mean that she becomes that, a piece of something. What she does with the money she earns, what she learns in that place, and how it changes her, these are the things that matter. What a factory makes is never the point, and the workers could not care less who buys their products.”

By focusing on the aggregate and not looking into the experiences of individual workers, Chang suggests that Marx did not paint a true picture of manufacturers or of workers, in general. There are an estimated 130 million migrant workers in China and their work in these manufacturing facilities have helped transform their rural villages, as “money sent home by migrants is already the biggest source of wealth accumulation in rural China.” (page 13) Perhaps even more interesting to readers is the fact that a vast number of these migrant workers were women. Not only were they considered easier to control on the factory floor by industrialists, there were many other factors which contributed to women going out into the world to make a living for themselves. One of the biggest factors was the gender and family politics within their traditional, rural areas (where the one-child policy has never been strictly enforced.) Sons were always prized higher than daughters. As women were less treasured and less coddled at home, they were freer to become independent and do what they wanted.

By asserting their independence and making money to help sustain their families, women have been able to transform their statuses in rural societies. Chang notes wryly during Chinese New Year, when children are traditionally given red envelopes with money by their elders, the money began to flow in the opposite direction: “The young migrants dominated the holiday life of the village, enjoying the authority their money gave them.” (page 292) Even within Dongguan itself, Chang found herself always amazed by the tenacity of the women, who were viciously climbing up the hierarchy of their jobs and trying to improve and educate themselves in their free time from work. Instead of the women losing their individuality to production and manufacturing, she believed that she was seeing the opposite effect, noting that the women began to see for the first time that “now there was an opportunity to leave your village and change your fate, to imagine a different life and make it real.” (page 383)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Africa, Book 4

Africa, Book 4

Africa’s World War

“I’d like to tell you about a country where 5.4 million people are estimated to have died since 1998 – a number of almost “Holocaustic” proportions.  The bloody conflict responsible for so many causalities may surprise some.  It is not Iraq, which has seen 500,000 deaths, nor is it the civil war in Syria, which has thus far produced 210,000 causalities. Likewise, an estimated 300,000 people have died in Darfur – while the well-publicized Boko Haram insurgency has taken the lives of around 11,000 Nigerians. The nearly inconceivable number of 5.4 million deaths occurred in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire.”

My fingers flew across the laptop as I wrote this introduction to my recent Op-Ed about the local political resistance to a church-sponsored refugee resettlement in Spartanburg County (which would later be published by FITS News under the title “The Politicization of Refugees Needs to Stop.”) I had never intended to join the fray. When politicians started to raise concerns (unnecessary concerns, with political undertones – in my opinion), I began to write them letters as a concerned constituent. Spartanburg, one of the most prosperous communities in South Carolina, had a history of accepting refugees. My own grandmother had taught English as Second Language courses to Vietnamese, Laotian, and Cambodian refugees in the 1980s. These people had come to South Carolina knowing little English, often practicing Buddhism, and with a limited understanding of democracy. They adapted to their new surroundings and their children excelled. I even attended Wofford College with the child of one of my grandmother’s pupils!

Not surprisingly, my letters had no effect. And the elected officials continued with their highly politicized anti-refugee rhetoric, claiming that soon ISIS would be infiltrating Spartanburg. Something inside of me broke when after discovering that the first two refugees from the DR Congo had arrived, I heard a local school teacher exclaim in fear about how terrorism and anarchy were at our doorstep. I will never claim to be an expert in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, but I had read enough to know that Islamic radicalization wasn’t really the problem there, as 80% of the population claims to be Christian. In preparation for writing, I pulled out my trusty sources on the DR Congo and the Great Lakes Region (encompassing Burundi, the DR Congo, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda) to read through my notes in the margins. It was in this process that I became reacquainted with the book I read over a year ago by Gerard Punier (a top scholar on Africa, who also wrote the book that I reviewed about Sudan), “Africa’s World War: Congo, The Rwandan Genocide,and the Making of a Continental Catastrophe” (Oxford University Press, 2009.)

I will make a confession: I had actually purchased this book on my Kindle some years before, but couldn’t even make it through the first chapter. Although the book is incredibly insightful, it is not exactly for the novice on African affairs. (For example, just as “Moscow” and “Washington” are used interchangeably with “the Russian government” and “the United States government”, the reader of this book will need to have the prior knowledge to be able to match Luanda, Kampala, and Kinshasa with their respective countries.) However, after having developed a fairly strong understanding of this region, I devoured this book. The way in which the author describes history is thorough and objective, while still communicating the different interests of the groups involved in the recent conflict in the Great Lakes Region of Africa.   

What has been happening in this region is extremely complicated with many different actors – both nations and guerilla groups. Therefore, instead of piecing together this complex narrative, the author blames the West by confronting the conflicts as separate interests, as well as coming up with Western pre-conceived narratives to simplify what was really going on. Even today, while most of the world hails the peace that the country of Rwanda has achieved as extraordinary, when scholars approach the conflicts of the region as interconnected, it is clear that this domestic peace has come at a high cost. Even today, there is continued prolonged conflict in the eastern Kivu region of the DR Congo (even following two wars in which Rwanda invaded the exponentially larger country.) As Prunier describes, “The Rwandese genocide has been both a product and a further cause of an enormous African crisis; its very occurrence was a symptom, its nontreatment spread the disease.” (page xxxi)

The author argues that the first conflict in the series of Africa’s World War was the Rwandan genocide of 1994, in which up to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by extremist Hutu groups. This conflict spurred the mobilization of up to 2 million refugees, many of whom landed in the DR Congo on the eastern Kivu region, where extremist Hutu militia groups intent on re-entering Rwanda and topple the new government began to mobilize in the same refugee camps of everyday Rwandese civilians. Needless to say, the Rwandan government was thinking about the security of their new nation when they attacked the DR Congo: “The basic cause that led the Rwandese leadership to attack Zaire in September 1996 was the presence of the large, partially militarized refugee camps on its borders. But there was also a broader view, which was a systematic trans-African plan to overthrow the Mobutu regime in Zaire.” (page 67) The trans-African plan incorporated most of the countries of southern Africa, all of which had very negative views of the DR Congo’s dictator Mobutu, who took control of the country in 1965 through a CIA-sponsored coup. This dictator, who renamed himself “Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga” translating to “the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake,” built a cult of personality around himself. More importantly, sponsored by the United States in the Cold War, he let his country fall behind in development and created enemies out of many of the 1990s African regimes (such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Namibia, and Angola) because of his sponsorship of CIA-supported maneuvers against their political movements.

When Mobutu was ousted, he was replaced by Laurent Désiré Kabila, a socialist revolutionary who “was neutral between Museveni [Uganda] and Kagame [Rwanda] and because he was under practically complete control of the Tanzanian secret services, which considered him harmless and easy to manipulate.” (page 116) However, soon Kabila began to disobey the Ugandans and the Rwandans, leading the two countries to engage in another conflict in the vast DR Congo. This time, however, was much more complicated – as many African countries had different opinions on Kabila. In fact, Gerard Prunier describes this conflict as having four different tiers, as described on page 201:

  • Core conflict: Rwanda, with Uganda’s assistance, tried to overthrow rebellious puppet Kabila.
  • Second layer: Angola, Zimbabwe, and Namibia did not care about the Hutu-Tutsi conflict, but wanted Kabila to stay in power for their own reasons.
  • Third layer: Libya, Chad, and the Sudan decided to involve themselves in the conflict not because of the issues at hand, but rather because of who else was already engaged in the conflict. 
  •  Fourth layer: Burundi and the Central African Republic were brought into the conflict, while engaged in other conflicts as peripheral players.

Gerard Prunier described “Africa’s World War” and the following conflicts (some of which even continue to this day) as similar to the Thirty Years War in Europe which took place from 1618-1648. Noting the similarities of these conflicts, he wrote that they occurred “…purely because of the princes’ ambitions, prejudices, and security fears. And the Congo, like Germany in the seventeenth century, was their battlefield. The violence and the meaninglessness were the same.” (page 286) Moreover, he blames the West, their non-governmental organizations (who are only sustainable through prolonged conflict and suffering), and the diplomatic community for not studying this conflict intensely and for forcing it into a western narrative, which really had very little to do with the situation at hand.  According to Prunier,  “Thus in the Western world and in the diplomatic view, the war against Mobutu appeared as a kind of holy crusade of the new against the old, of virtue against vice, an epic of reformed communists who had seen the light of capitalism and were going to bring free trade and the computer revolution to Africa.” (page 332) Essentially, by not working to understand the conflict, we have enabled the conflict and violence in the DR Congo to perpetuate and eventually lead to the 5.4 million deaths I mentioned at the beginning of this post.

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Sunday, May 3, 2015



My First Coup D’état

“You are from South Carolina?” the taxi driver asked me excitedly.

Somewhat shocked to receive this level of enthusiasm about my home state, I gave him an affirmative answer and immediately asked him why his interest in South Carolina.

“The people from my country, Sierra Leone, were brought there as slaves. And whenever I see a black person from South Carolina, they look like they are from my homeland,” he began to explain to me. “My friend he married a Geechee woman. You know what a Geechee is, right?”

I proceeded telling him all I knew about the Geechee/Gullah people, communities of descendants of African slaves in South Carolina who never fully assimilated to western culture and kept a great deal of their native African cultural influences. I didn’t have a lot of information at my disposal, just tidbits that I remembered from Gullah guests during their visits to my primary school. It was enough information to make him incredibly animated, though. “When my friend’s wife talks, she uses words that we use in Sierra Leone! Can you imagine?” he looked back at me and smiled broadly.

This exchange made a strong impact on me. I had just been to the Statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina. Publicized extensively in the mire of controversy, the South Carolina Statehouse became the site of a nationwide debate around the 2000 presidential elections in the United States, due to the refusal to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds (albeit, it was finally moved from the dome to a monument.) The year following, there was enough momentum to commission, fund, and build a monument dedicated to African American history on the Statehouse grounds. When I went there, I found the monument very powerful. While the sculpture was breathtaking in and of itself, what really made an impact on me was the depiction of a crowded slave ship, as well as rocks from the original ballasts of the slave ships from Sierra Leone, Ghana, Senegal, and the Congo. I began thinking about how unfair our education system is here in the United States – the histories  of our European ancestors are so excellently memorialized in our historical education books, while I doubt most students could even find Sierra Leone or Ghana on a world map.

It was with these experiences in mind that I embarked on reading about Ghana, a country whose coast is still lined with slave forts and castles. I chose “My First Coup D’état and Other True Stories from the Lost Decades of Africa” by John Dramani Mahama. Much to my embarrassment, after reading the entire book and looking the author up on Wikipedia, I discovered that he is the current President of Ghana. (It is proof that I still have a heck of a lot to learn about Africa, y’all.) Mahama first assumed the presidency in 2012 following the death of President John Atta Mills after having served as the Vice-President since 2009. (Mahama was previously a member of Ghana’s Parliament from 1997 to 2009 and he also served as the Minister of Communications from 1998 to 2001.)

Ghana is about the size of the state of Oregon and is located in West Africa, in between the countries of Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Togo. Ghana was the first Sub-Saharan African country to gain independence from its European colonizer: “On March 6, 1957, the British colony called Gold Coast became Ghana, an independent self-ruled nation. As a result, Ghana was and still is the country heralded as the trailblazer of the African liberation movement.” (page 8)  

This book is a beautiful read, from beginning to end. The book delves into Mahama’s childhood and his education, with the backdrop of the chaos of Ghana (and to an extent, all of West Africa) during the 1960s and 1970s. Born into a privileged existence with a father who was first a government minister and then later a successful businessman (before losing his enterprise and going into political exile), Mahama’s story is a unique one. The beginning of his life was spent inside such settings as fancy cars with chauffeurs, his father’s many houses throughout the country, and nice boarding schools. His existence is doubtlessly privileged, but his objective view to his own life makes the book read less like a self-congratulatory ode (that is often characteristic of politicians, regardless of culture) and more of a skilled writer’s eloquent coming-of-age memoir.

The first story begins in 1966, with Ghana’s first coup d’état against Kwame Nkrumah, one of the leading intellectuals against British colonialism. The coup occurred as Nkrumah was in North Vietnam on a state visit by Lt. General Emmanuel Kwasi Kotoka (who was killed the following year in another coup.) Although the coup was swift and more or less “bloodless,” it had a profound impact on the young Mahama, who was less than ten years old. His father was imprisoned and detained for his role in the previous government, greatly changing the dynamics, as well as the economic situation of his family. 

As Mahama described, “Ghana’s leadership had been something of a revolving door of names since that first coup d’état in 1966.” (page 129) Indeed, his entire childhood was influenced by the rise and fall of governments. After his father was released from prison, he was banned from serving the public, after which he moved to the Northern area of Ghana and started a rice farm, which became very successful through commercial farming. This was in part due to the new military government of Colonel Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, who led a coup d’état in 1972. Although the constitution was suspended, his initial goal “was to redeem the country, to see it gain self-sufficiency and achieve national unity.” (page 161) He enacted a Feed Yourself campaign, which provided support for Ghanaian large-scale farms. However, as time went on, Acheampong became more and more paranoid. In this process, he began to see Mahama’s father as an enemy, prompting him to lose his commercial rice enterprise. His paranoia to maintain power did not just affect Mahama’s family personally, but affected all the socio-economic groups of Ghana, as shortages and rations became the norm. “The military moved into all facets of Ghanaian life, especially the country’s economic life…. Since Ghanaians were not living under constitutional rule, soldiers acted with impunity, even bringing summary discipline to civil life.” (page 184)

Mahama constantly experienced the government’s encroaching power into his life. One example was during fraudulent elections nationwide, in which he and his classmates tried to protect the ballot boxes located at their local high school in the name of socialism, only to have a truck load of government-sponsored thugs physically beat them. Another example was when he had to help smuggle his father out of the country when his father was requested to return to police for questioning, due to a new political post during Ghana’s so-called “Third Republic.” In the meantime, he studied history and communications, worked as a teacher, lived in Nigeria for a time, and then studied in the Soviet Union at the time of Gorbachev’s glasnost (a time in which he discovered that socialism indeed had its own challenges.) It is a beautiful and full narrative and ends with an encouraging view about Africa: “In 1992, Ghana adopted a new constitution and entered into an era of democracy and constitutional governance.” (page 312) Indeed, nowadays, Ghana is viewed with admiration for its growing economy and free press.

Albeit, this is a story about one’s coming of age in a political context, there are several passages from the book that shed light on growing up in West Africa during this particular time in history. Some of my favorites include:

  • “Interestingly, there is no word in any of the native Ghanaian languages for ‘chief.’ The proper translation is ‘king.’ This is the weight of power that the so-called chiefs and sub-chiefs had with the populace in their villages and subkingdoms.” (page 24)
  • “If you were a kid in the village, you were everybody’s child. You were welcomed inside anybody’s house, and the grown-ups fed, spoiled, and disciplined you as though you were one of their own. (page 68) 
  • “Ghana’s ‘land tenure’ is a specific administration of land occupation and ownership. To ensure that the lands remain in the hands of the daughters and sons of the soil, there is no such thing as true ownership. From region to region, the rights of the land are ancestral and within the control of the various tribal hierarchies.” (page 112)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions!