China: The Second World Fights Back

Thursday, 24th December 2009 at 18:04 UTC Leave a comment

I’ll get to some proper analysis, but this seems to be one of the most current debates post-Copenhagen, so I thought I’d get my response out whilst its still current. An emerging problem during the Climate talks has been the role of the BASIC countries, a relatively huge power bloc consisting of just 4 countries: “Brazil, South Africa, India and China”. They aren’t part of “the West”. But they’re also very very different from the totally-disempowered countries of “the Global South” as we used to understand them. Are they the problem, the solution, or just a headache?

Remember the good old days, when poverty was poverty and not this complex political entity known as “injustice”. When raw figures told a story, rather than a detailed analysis of, say, the route a coffee bean takes from plant to cup. When People and Planet was called “Third World First”, Oxfam was blue and yellow and not particularly interested in green and buying a pop single and singing “thank God its them and not you” seemed the right thing to do, and not something you throw snipes at?

There was this thing called the Third World, where Poor People lived. There was this thing called “The First World”, and we lived there. Even if we had problems, they were Nothing Like the problems Poor People in the Third World experienced. The annoying pest of a child that was myself at about the age of 6 demanded to know how this made any sense what so ever. First is followed by Second, not Third. What happened to the Second World? Ever wondered that?

There are the explanations I’ve heard. One says “First World has resources, extractive ability, processing ability and marketing ability, Second World has resources, extractive ability but no processing ability and therefore reduced marketing ability. Third World has resources but no independent means of extraction”. The other set of definitions (and I just rechecked these two, with Mum giving the former and Dad the latter) is that the First World is the West, those allied to America in the Cold War, the Second is the Eastern Bloc, allied to Russia, at the time of common usage, the second global superpower, and the Third World was everywhere that fell through the middle. Clearly a very Western centric model.

But what I’m trying to get at here, and why this has some kind of relevance to today, i.e. the days after the COP15 meeting of nations, is that a sort of “New Second World” has been born, a power bloc that, if unable to completely unseat the Americans, will re-establish a bi-polar state of International Relations. In some ways, this will probably be a very bad thing. Britain, for instance, was so focused on the Cold War that the Third World got totally forgotten until several years after it had ended (say, around 1997 when Jubilee 2000 began to build momentum).

I’m not trying to claim that something like the Cold War is going to erupt out of the UNFCCC process, though it does seem that China was incredibly interested in playing a different game to solving climate change. First, history rarely actually repeats itself, and this is a very different power bloc, one that essentially proposes identical Capitalism, but on its own terms. Second, it comes at a time when many other concerns face the West, still including Islamic Fundamentalism. However, the amount of resources made available to challenge Islamic politics given the new emerging reality might be curtailed – or possibly extended, as Afghanistan, for instance, is within political reaching distance of both China and India.

It removes the simplicity of Developed and Developing Countries, by which it was possible to conjure some of the simplicity of the “Proletariat vs Bourgeoisie” narrative that Marxists so love to impose on everything and everyone. It means we can no longer simply play off “one side” against “the other side”, as we face a world with too many groups to simply trade. Ignore the difference between the developing countries and the newly enriched countries, and we end up pretending they have the same interests, when China is just as worried about gaining neo-imperial business control of Africa as Britain and America are. It is not in China’s interests that Africa (beyond their ally South Africa) becomes wealthy in any meaningful way.

It will change how we denounce the massive injustices inside each of these countries; the tremendously iniquitous distribution of land in Brazil, the Economic Apartheid of South Africa, the immense labour and environmental violations of India and everything anyone of us has ever held against the Chinese, which if you’re like me, is a list too long to recall. But it cannot stop us from denouncing those injustices.

What it does require, though, is a redoubling of efforts to make sure that our condemnation of injustice, rights violations etc. in this “New Second World” is balanced with a denouncement of injustice in the Developed (“First”) World. Yes, this makes things complicated, but it should also remind us to “start at home”, even with our most Internationalist of aspirations.

One aside from this will be the need to unmask the wealth of China and India, but particularly Brazil and South Africa. I have the divisions in Brazilian society with my own eyes; I visited the country for the 2005 World Social Forum, and saw just how little those with money cared about the “have not’s” on their doorstep, how this is not a poor country if one compares it to America – its elites live “first world lives” whilst people starve begging on their doorstep.

But at the same time, we must not allow the BASIC countries to distract us from the key narrative before us: that our countries, our governments are systematically, willingly and perhaps even deliberately allowing those in the poorest of countries to die quietly as a result of the greed and excessive lifestyles of those in positions of power, both in political institutions and in corporations. And we must not allow this story to be submerged beneath the arguments and recriminations after Copenhagen, no matter what Mark Lynas seems to think: it was a bad deal, and it was designed to entrap the poorest countries in spiralling debt, and China’s muscle flexing is only a side-story to that.


Entry filed under: China, Climate Change, Development, Politics, United Nations.

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