By Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Outside a doll, inside the plague”. – Greek Proverb
Mega is a classic despotic-obsession. The largest, the tallest and the longest are absolutely irresistible to the nastiest, the meanest and the deadliest.
Neither economic logic nor common or garden reason has any say in these pageants of megalomania.
What the Rulers want they must have and damn the consequences.
The fascination with the mega is an obsession the Rajapaksas share.
They want to build, build and build – irrespective of whether the projects are economically viable or developmentally necessary and irrespective of Sri Lanka’s precarious financial conditions.
In this size-and-numbers game, even the quality of the projects is of no moment.
This obsession has a bearing on the current Lankan foreign policy, on par with other Rajapaksa characteristics such as limitless power-hunger and antipathy towards devolution.
The Rajapaksas need a strategic ally who will enable them to fulfil their manic-aspirations, be it dotting the country with ports and airports or sending a First Son to space.
They need an international Godfather who pays as little heed to public welfare and economic rules as the Rajapaksas themselves, empathises with the Siblings’ mega-obsession and has the money to fund it.
They need a patron who is blasé about their project of Familial rule and Dynastic succession and is immune to pressure from any human rights lobby or the Tamil Diaspora.
They need a powerful protector-nation which wants to bankroll them for its own geo-strategic reasons. There is only one country in the world which fulfils all these criteria. And that country is China.
Like other emerging superpowers in their time, China wants to create a rampart of client-states which will act as political and economic shock-absorbers in times of need. Once upon a time and even not so long ago, this secondary frontier was created with the use of naked force; in today’s world a far more nuanced approach is necessary.
The Chinese method is an improvement on the American method of the Cold War period: cultivate and bankroll venal rulers and use their countries as proxies in power-contestations.
Beijing looks for autocratic rulers willing to sell their countries for a lifetime in power. The Rajapaksas need a wealthy, powerful international ‘Sugar Daddy’ immune to any sort of pressure and with less scruples than even the classic ‘Ugly Americans’. The two make a snug fit.
In an ultimate irony, the World Bank in a new report (China 2030: Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High Income Society) has urged China to increase its social spending by 7%-8% of the GDP over the next 20 years and to tackle the problem of rampant inequality.
Unlike democratic nations which must pay heed to popular demands at least in election times, China can afford to have a regressive tax system and spend most of the resulting funds not on public welfare but on defence, including maintaining client states.
It thus has a natural financial advantage in dealing with the Rajapaksas, unavailable, for example, to India.
Plus as an imperfect and devolved democracy, India also needs to pay attention to the concerns of Indian Tamils and Tamil Nadu.
The ongoing row over the training of Lankan military personnel in India is emblematic of this reality.
Delhi wants to continue with the training programme while Chennai is dead set against it. Eventually Delhi may prevail, but the programme will remain a contentious issue.
While India struggles with such embarrassing conundrums, China is free to form any form of alliance with the Rajapaksas and to offer them any kind of assistance.
The Rajapaksas have embarked on a project of transforming North-Eastern demographics by creating new facts on the ground via organised and state-driven colonisation schemes (this is the total opposite of individual Sinhalese buying/leasing land in the North-East, as individual Tamils do in the South).
Since a sufficient number of ordinary Sinhalese will not agree to become pawns in this dangerous game, the Siblings have come up with the idea of permeating traditional Tamil habitats with military cantonments.
This state-driven project requires massive funds. The Chinese are to step into the financial-breach with a loan of US$ 100 million to “set up accommodation and infrastructure facilities to army camps in the north and east” (The Sunday Times – 26.8.2912). Military cantonments constitute Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s solution for the ethnic problem.
These cantonments will be as damaging to a lasting peace as the Israeli settlements are – but such concerns are immaterial to the Netanyahus, Avigdor Liebermans and the Rajapaksas of this world.
Toys made in China are plentiful, attractive and above all cheap; they are also of abysmally low quality and have a very short lifespan.
The quality issue is not limited to Chinese toys. Last month a US$ 300 million new bridge in Harbin collapsed – the sixth Chinese bridge to collapse since June 2011.
“Questions about materials used during the construction and whether the projects were properly engineered have been the subject of national debate ever since a high speed train plowed into the back of a stopped train on the same track on July 23rd last year… a subsequent investigation blamed in particular flaws in the design of the signalling equipment” (New York Times – 24.8.2012).
If this is the way the Chinese build in China, one can just imagine the quality of their constructs in other peoples’ countries. They ignore natural obstacles – a la the Hambantota-rock. They are not particularly concerned about the quality of the materials used – as the CEB Chairman has admitted vis-à-vis Norochcholai.
Plus they use convict-labour; men who are compelled to slave for unbelievably long hours, under abysmal working conditions, will not care whether their work lasts a century or a day.
Che Guevara once said that ‘Quality is respect for the people’. The obverse is also true; the absence of quality denotes a lack of respect, a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude towards the people. It happens when people are choiceless, as consumers and as citizens.
Those who are old enough would remember the soggy-match boxes and the kerosene-smelling cloth which symbolised local production in the 1970-77 Era. As we now know, Lankan manufacturers can make high quality products. But why should politically-mandated businessmen with a captive market make the necessary effort?
Being seen as a Chinese pawn can damage Sri Lanka at multiple levels.
For instance Lanka can become a proxy-battleground for the politico-economic contestations between China and India and perhaps even China and the US.
The US is set to station 60% of its naval fleet in the Asia-Pacific region and is reportedly considering deploying sea-borne anti-missile systems in East Asia. If – unfortunately for the world – Mitt Romney wins the US Presidency, the situation is likely to become even more fraught. Only suicidal-fools become embroiled in other countries’ wars.
The Rajapaksas cannot survive without the Chinese connection; but it is unlikely to prove beneficial to Sri Lanka, even from a developmental point-of-view. Chinese experts have reportedly informed the CEB that they do not know when the repairs to Norochcholai will be completed.
Power-stations which malfunction and bridges which collapse on a regular basis do not herald a development Shangri- la.