22 January, 2014

Switzerland of the East


After I returned from college in the United States, I went to meet a prominent journalist of Kathmandu who gave me an enthusiastic lecture about the pros of returning to Nepal. This is about seventeen years ago, folks, so this may sound a bit clichéd, but one thing I remember from this inspirational talk was this:
“Imagine!” He said. “We could make Nepal the Switzerland of the East.”

This line came back to me and made me chuckle a few days ago. Specifically, it made me chuckle because I read in the paper that the Nepal police had caught 100 kilogrammes of gold quietly making its way across the Chinese border into Nepal. The gold is thought to belong to corrupt Chinese politicians who are panicking from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s sweep of political corruption, and who are sending their illegally made wealth across the border. Despite the Nepalese’s best attempts to keep their economy at a Bronze Age level, the Chinese, it appear, are determined to turn us into the default and involuntary Switzerland of the East.

 If the Nepal police caught 100 kilogrammes of gold, imagine how much of it must be going undetected to build ugly buildings in Lazimpat and all across our highways.  All those strange concrete buildings with glass fronts that are popping up at the speed of light, completely destroying Nepal’s architectural heritage, appear to have the same (or roughly the same) funders behind it. And of course, there’s no government in Nepal to actually say: “Hang on, maybe we should stop these overenthusiastic “investors” before they completely cover all of Nepal’s square kilometers with these giant concrete boxes with glass fronts that have no use and which are seeing no interaction from any locals whatsoever.”

It appears this gold was bound for India before it was intercepted by the stellar Nepali Police. Now that got me scratching my head. Why, pray, India? Indian capitalists, who no doubt were the intended recipients of this largesse (in the form of “joint investments”?) are well known for gaudy weddings and bad taste. Why would you want to waste the Chinese worker’s hard earned blood and sweat on another bhangra-thumping wedding where everyone is covered in too much gold? Or waste it on another extravagant sas-bahu sit-com where women with dreadful kohl-covered eyes terrorize young women into submissive female roles?

If I were the economic adviser to China, I would be calling a meeting right around now of all the 1000 richest mandarins of China, and giving them this pep talk: “Listen up, folks. In the West, people who screw the workers and get insanely rich are feted, and celebrated, as great entrepreneurs. We’ve decided to do the same –instead of scaring you into fleeing with capital flight, we will instead celebrate your great skills in ripping off workers to accumulate this vast treasure-trove of illegal wealth. Now instead of wasting all this gold on bad Bollywood sit-coms, why don’t we get together and create something useful? Like, for instance, the first Federal Reserve of Asia? We will create a treasury of gold which will act as a buffer against currency fluctuation, and provide some stability to the Asian region? You get to forever have your name engraved in stone as the 1000 Mandarins who set up the first Federal Reserve of Asia, and Asia gets to have its first bank that provides a currency stability cushion.”

Doesn’t this seem like the most utilitarian use of this gold, rather than on gold plating Buddhas (where no doubt some or much of it will make its way, much to the vexation of old Maoists who took pride in the Cultural Revolution) and on gaudy Bollywood wedding jewelry?


So says the Swiss woman of the East. But then don’t take this frugal Brahmin advice too seriously—perhaps the best way to “grow” the economy at great leaps and bounds is to stop being austere and waste it on…well, gaudy Indian weddings.

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