I used to run an email mailing list called Bol! in 1998. We had 600 members who were interested in issues of reproductive health and development from all over the subcontinent. I used to moderate daily discussions. One day, I got into trouble. Someone forwarded me an email about South Africa’s health minister, and how he believed that AIDS was a Western conspiracy. He thought the virus had been developed in a lab in the West, and set loose on Africa to cause depopulation.
I’m trained as an anthropologist. So for me, this was an interesting belief that for better or worse we had to deal with, because it came from a power broker in Africa, right in the heart of the AIDS epidemic. A medical doctor on the list, however, denounced me for posting it, and immediately announced he was leaving the list, because I was spreading appalling misinformation.
These things happen. If you want to have discussions, you can’t avoid controversy. Medical doctors, in my opinion, often turn out to be professionals very set in their opinions and their ways. But more on that in another blog post.
In another recent episode, people in Pakistan started to kill polio workers. Immediately people got into operation, denouncing the terrorists and the appalling state of backward Pakistan. Although I didn’t know at that time the CIA had used the polio program as a front to conduct its activities, something told me that there must be more to the story than people shooting polio workers because it didn’t fit their religious beliefs. “Ask them why they are shooting,” I tweeted, at a time when this was clearly a very unpopular thing to Tweet, since everyone was convinced that the Pakistani tribals were irrational, trigger-happy beings who shot at polio workers just for the sake of it. It took a while before the story of the CIA using the polio program for a front for their activities came out—but eventually it did come out.
This makes me wonder about many other events in world affairs where we actually don’t have enough information to judge what’s going on. Or else the information is being suppressed, because people feel it can’t possibly be considered seriously in rational discourse. Many conflicts around the world, which appear irrational and on the surface to have religious reasons, may have their roots in economic exploitation (and military entanglements) which are hidden from clear view. Its clear that much of the violence around the world, ascribed to religion and religious groups, may actually get their financial and economic incentives from higher powers whose final goal is the control of resources. Conflicts are advantageous in that they keep countries destabilized and in deep poverty. This makes it easy to rule, especially if your intention is to extract every single scrap of raw material, diamonds, oil, timber and uranium out of a country.
China seems to be throwing a spanner in the Western countries’ wheels by taking the opposite tack—instead of war, it offers peace. It offers roads, hospitals and household items of daily use at a rational price, in exchange for raw materials. It offers technical and scientific education. And it steers very far from religion. China’s presence in Africa, for instance, seems to offer a different model of the future than the one the Western powers offer—one where the region will always be divided on linguistic and cultural lines, and where atavist divides of religion will always hold sway. China offers roads that links countries together. And it offers the vision of a future where Africa can one day be prosperous and developed.
(As to whether China is totalitarian: I just read in Counterpunch an article about an American who returns from China, only to realize his own country has become more totalitarian than China. )
At some point, people are going to notice this. And at some point, this relationship of give and take is going to overtake the “take and take” of Western countries. At some point, the old colonial powers will have to realize the 21st century demands a different relationship of power between different stakeholders.