Paper Tiger, Rising Dragon

May 18 is annually celebrated as Flag Day in Haiti. It is a day for remembering the struggle that led to the creation of the “world’s first Black Republic”, and for celebrating its liberation from slavery and colonialism. This year an effort has been made by students, activists, and lawyers in the Caribbean and many other regions to observe an International Solidarity Day with Haiti, and “fly Dessalines’ liberating colors around the world.”

The context and need for such solidarity was a mystery to many people that I talked to here in Hong Kong about May 18. After all, we have always known very little about what is going on in Haiti- even during the violence of 2004, we were mostly privy to reprinted stories from international wire services and unusual editorials in the English press about Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the “dictator” who had to “step aside” because of his “failure”. Since then, there had more or less been complete silence.

What understanding there is of the gravity of the current situation on the ground has been possible largely due to the concerted efforts of independent journalists and activists both inside and outside Haiti, and their supporting networks around the world. While corporate media have largely ignored the stories and the processes behind them, independent journalists and ‘alternative’ media outlets have been outlining with no minced words and with very specific details what has been taking place in the country: that in 2004, a US-backed coup toppled the elected President Aristide, and marked the return to power of wealthy classes, figures from the country’s past dictatorships, and former death squad members.

Kevin Pina, an independent journalist and filmmaker, is one of the few people that has been consistently documenting the situation on the ground in Haiti. He has spent much time in the country both before and after the latest coup, and his reports and interviews from various cities around the country have been invaluable. Pina has documented, for example, the attacks and killings by the Haitian National Police (PNH), particularly in the poor areas of Bel Air and Cite de Soleil, as the coup government of Gerard Latortue attempts to eliminate internal resistance to its rule. Complicit in this process are the governments of several countries, in particular the US, France, and Canada, as well as those involved in the UN mission that has been dispatched to Haiti.
“[The Latortue government’s] consolidation is being legitimized and led by a United Nations coalition under the command of the Brazilian army with the participation of a plethora of other nations,” Pina told me in a recent interview. “Of course, the driving force behind all of this is US foreign policy with ample political support from France and Canada.”
The “consolidation” of the coup government has essentially meant what Pina has labeled the “liquidation” of Lavalas, the popular political movement that Aristide represented. US Congresswoman Maxine Waters, interviewed in June 2004 following a visit to Haiti, also spoke of a “campaign that is being run by this new puppet government where they are either jailing or killing Lavalas party members and people that were close to President Aristide. It is absolutely ridiculous that they have arrested the real prime minister, Neptune. They should be arresting the killers, who were part of the coup d’etat.” Two particularly stark examples of this were documented in Bel Air in late February 2005, when twelve and eight people were respectively shot by the PNH with UN troops standing by.
Thus resistance against the coup government has for many meant resistance against the UN presence that bolsters it. In an anonymous April 2005 statement released after a non-violent direct action, for example, opponents of the coup government wrote of their anger and outlined their demands:  “We want to create a traffic jam to force them to sit and reflect upon what they have done to this country. You can see them finally acknowledging the poor market place women who line the roads to their homes. Today, UN forces that are ready to kill us surround Cité Soleil and Bel Air. Maybe now they will see how vulnerable they really are. The poor who supported Jean-Bertrand Aristide live among them, in their communities. We demand the return of our constitutional president and only after that can we can have free and fair elections.”
“[In Haiti] you had a country that had only experienced its first constitutional transition of power under the Lavalas government…” Pina says. “All of this amounts to UN complicity in the consolidation and legitimization of what was the violent overthrow of a democratically elected government.”

Familiar Footsteps

Such matters might seem as distant to us as the thousands of miles that separate China and Haiti.

But in 2004, of course, we heard that around 126 members of China’s People’s Armed Police (PAP)—henceforth referred to as ‘troops’ rather than ‘police’, since the PAP is a wing of the People’s Liberation Army– would be traveling to Haiti in order to serve under the UN mission there. That number was planned in April 2005. At the time of the initial deployment last year, Meng Hongwei, Vice Minister of Public Security, remarked that China’s troops in Haiti “are contributing to world peace. They shoulder the heavy responsibility of maintaining stability in the country.” The Chinese contingent’s mandate, according to 2004 a report in the People’s Daily is to “support the international peacekeeping presence and local police to maintain law and order, deal with mass public security emergencies, serve as guards on important public occasions and organize and train local riot police.”

But as we have already established, helping to “maintain law and order” and “train local riot police” in the bloody and terrifying post-coup situation in Haiti effectively means assistance in consolidating the putsch. The Haiti Information Project writes that “[w]henever the UN moved into the poor slums of the capital to occupy it by force, the Haitian National Police (PNH) soon followed with violent incursions against the population.” (*)

Given this situation, it is strange that much of the Western corporate media analysis concerning the deployment of Chinese troops in Haiti has been written around the issue of… Taiwan!

The line from several corporate media outlets started from the premise that Haiti maintains diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and thus the presence of Chinese troops was a threat because they could hijack the UN mission for their own “political ends”. One report from the Agence France Press went so far as to question the commander in chief of the Chinese contingent on the question of Taiwan, to which he responded: “We’re not here for political reasons. We’re doing what the UN asks us to do.”

This is predictably opportunistic reporting, focusing on one of the few issues which the corporate media has ever regularly turned to in any analysis about China. (As a quick aside, one wonders why corporate media reporters chose to highlight this relationship between the two countries… what about a story that begins its analysis by noting that both countries are ‘cheap’ export platforms producing for the US market, for example?).

But more importantly, the analysis that looks at the situation as a relationship between two individual governments in and of itself has an unavoidable drawback. Crucially what is missing is the notion that the entire UN mission could have “political reasons” behind it. Or to put it simply, what is missing in this convoluted many-layered conspiracy theory putting Taiwan at the center of some vague “Chinese motivation” in Haiti is a basic analysis of what is actually happening in the country and how the US, the UN, and the concepts of empire and ‘superpower’ fit into it.

For such an understanding, there is no way to talk about the situation in Haiti today without going back to the coup of 1991, the occupations and dictatorships that ruled the country for much of the 20th century, or indeed way back to the history of Haiti’s liberation from France in the 1800s.

It is the history of a successful revolution by African former slaves against their colonial masters, creating a country despised from the start by the powerful international actors, a place that has since been constructed as the ultimate, blackest symbol of despair and hopelessness in the world. It is the story of the 1915-1934 US occupation, which was justified by “instability” in Haiti, set up guidelines for future US domination, and involved the brutal “pacification” of local resistance (General Littleton Waller’s attitude towards Haitians perhaps sums it up: “These people are niggers in spite of the thin varnish of education and refinement. Down in their hearts they are just the same happy, idle, irresponsible people we know of”). It is the horror story of the brutal dictatorships of Papa- and Baby-Doc Duvalier, and of corporations using a super-exploited labor force to turn Haiti into an impoverished export platform. It is the attempted extermination of a grassroots political movement Part One, which took place for years following the first, “exceptionally violent” overthrow of Aristide in the early 1990s, under the nose of a compliant corporate media exemplified by New York Times writer Howard French (“Despite much blood on the army’s hands,” he wrote “United States diplomats consider it a vital counterweight to Father Aristide” and his “class-struggle rhetoric”). Finally, it is the media that once again sneered at the “failed” Aristide to “step aside” last year as the latest coup forces gathered, seized power, and began a second attempt at their bloody mission.

Though there are only 200 or so Chinese troops in Haiti, the participation of China in consolidating the coup government there is not a question of numbers. About two years after the 1991 coup, after all, many grassroots groups in Haiti were opposed to the deployment of even a few hundred UN peacekeepers in total- fittingly seeing them, as Noam Chomsky writes, “as a cover for US intervention that evokes bitter memories of the 19-year Marine occupation…”

The point is that this deployment fits into a pattern that maps the tragedy of Haiti’s history, and spills the blood that has been the foundation of empires for hundreds of years.

Future History of a Superpower?

For us these are important themes and histories to consider. After all, the so-called ‘rise of China’ has for a long time now been hailed by officials and state organs around here as being a ‘peaceful rise’, and a source of prosperity and peace in the world. The economic ‘rise’ has always been hailed as being based on creating wealth and prosperity for all, and accompanying this has been the claim that a military superpower in the form of China could also be beneficial for the world. “We will neither seek hegemony nor claim hegemony,” as China Regional Forum Chairman Zhang Bijian succinctly assured us.

This might be dismissed as state propaganda, but even among some sections of the left in Asia, notably those groups who hold a state-centered analysis of human affairs, a certain optimism around the ‘rise of China’ has always existed, varying from openly celebratory to vaguely cautious.

The celebrations have for a while been plain to see in many economic analyses on the ‘rise of China’. University professor and NGO executive Walden Bello, for example, wrote in 1999 that “[r]espect is what the Chinese government gets from investors. Respect is what our governments don’t have. When it comes to pursuing national economic interests, what separates China from many of our countries is a successful revolutionary nationalist struggle that got institutionalized into a no-nonsense state.” (1)

The caution is evident from a contrapuntal reading of much of the same material, which conspicuously omits any mention of militarism and the military side of China’s ‘rise’, ceding this to right-wing ‘China-bashing’ reports in the corporate media and on the part of US elites. It ignores several enduring examples of this which exist in the region and the wider world, including the Chinese government’s determinate support for the horrific military regime in Burma, and more recently its support for unpopular and corrupt regimes in Africa in pursuit of oil. Yet, as I have already alluded to, optimism underlies the caution present in so glaring an omission- a hope perhaps that externally the Chinese state’s policies are somehow different, more benevolent than the imperialism of the US and Europe.

Beneath both of these seems to be the foundation that a second, more level-headed or ‘Asian’ military superpower could somehow prove to be a temper on US hegemony and militarism, and a source of peace and balance in the world.

If there were ever a case of not only how specious the above argument is, but of how dangerous, vicious, and bloody the consequences of supporting it can be for ordinary people and popular movements in the world, we can see it today in Haiti. That both Chinese and Brazilian troops are involved in the UN’s coup-consolidation mission in that country speaks volumes about the benevolence of ‘Southern power’.
Perhaps the superpower fetish is leftover residue from one of the biggest ideological myths of our time, that of the ‘Cold War’. Amidst that constructed ‘war’ where the people of the world had a choice between two ‘opposing’ military blocks, many perceptive writers and journalists noted that after a certain point both the US and Soviet Union were more or less content to keep to themselves, and to rule the worlds within their own sphere of control without particularly encroaching on the other. Moreover, the real wars of this time were especially hot ones, and were waged by the superpowers against ordinary people, nations and movements around the world, a lesson that we should never forget in our analysis. “No nonsense” hegemony is still hegemony that is built on blood, and cannot be explicitly or implicitly supported in pursuit of some illusory ‘balance of superpower’.

The liquidation of a grassroots political movement in an impoverished country, then, is a point of unity for both a ‘paper tiger’ and a ‘rising dragon’. With Haiti as a point of reference, we find evidence not of a second superpower and counterweight, but rather the image of another superpower, acting in tandem with existing empires, and much like its peers throughout history. In this light it is imperative that on this International Solidarity Day with Haiti, we see the links between ourselves and events in that country- and that we actively oppose the imperial violence and suppression of democracy that is taking place there.

(*) I had originally mentioned one particular incident involving Chinese troops training Haitian snipers, the account of which has since come up with inconsistencies. My original source was a quote from Kevin Pina, but this account has since been disputed by the actual witness to the incident, Reed Lindsay.

Pina’s quote, from this radio interview, which was originally included in this article is as follows:

“In our interview live from Port au Prince, he [Reed Lindsay] was telling me how he was on a rooftop with snipers who were working with the Brazilians, but they weren’t Brazilians they were Chinese, from the People’s Republic of China, who were on top of the rooftop with Haitian police, training them in sniping, and what was it they were looking at while they were on that roof? What was it that they were training them, using as an example of training? It was a peaceful demonstration in Bel Air, exactly the kinds of demonstrations that the Haitian police down in the streets [during which] have already been shooting at unarmed demonstrators, have already been killing people in the streets. And now, snipers from the police of the People’s Republic of China are going to teach the Haitian police sniping techniques from rooftops?”

Reed Lindsay’s subsequent account of the incident is different:

“I was on a rooftop in Bel Air with two Chinese snipers, along with a couple civpols from France and maybe one from the U.S., and a couple members of the CIMO special unit of the Haitian national police. There was absolutely no contact between the Chinese snipers and the Haitian police, and much less training. The CIMO were bored and listening to the radio and chatting occasionally with the French civpols. The Chinese were just sitting there staring out the barrel of their guns into Bel Air. They were waiting for a demonstration to take place, but it never did, at least it was not visible from the rooftop.”

While a reference to this event added to the piece, I don’t think any one specific incident is crucial to discussion of the general, historical, and geopolitical themes that I wanted to bring up in the article. Thus, given the disputed versions, I’ve taken this particular incident out of the article.

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