Jimmy Lai vs. Julian Assange: Prophets without Honor (A July 4th Sunday Reflection)

Readings for the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ezekiel 2: 2-5; Psalm 123: 1-4; 2nd Corinthians 12: 7-10; Luke 4: 18; Mark 6: 1-6

I can’t believe that we’re still expected to believe that the United States and Great Britain are concerned about human rights or press freedom or that either has any leg to stand on in such posturing.

I mean, how can any of us still believe after the lies about Iraq, Abu Ghraib, the refusal to punish Saudi Arabia for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the imprisonment of Julian Assange, the demonization of Wikileaks, and the cooperation of the mainstream media (MSM) with all of it.

You’re telling me that either London or Washington has the right to pronounce on press freedom? On human rights? Please!

Demonization of China

Nonetheless, they’re at it again in relation to China and the desperate campaign of both Great Britain and America to demonize Beijing and its implied invocation of an Asian version of The Monroe Doctrine in relation to Hong Kong [which, by the way, (unlike the U.S. relationship to Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, or Venezuela) is actually part of China.]

More specifically, we’re supposed to join the MSM and “our” government as well as England’s in worrying about the recent shutdown of the Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong – a publication that sounds a lot like The National Inquirer.

Judge for yourself. A recent cover story in The Guardian describes the paper as a tabloid-style publication that has “a chequered history including cheque-book journalism, muckraking and sometimes unethical reporting alongside fearless investigation into government corruption and police brutality.”

What? Chequered history? Paying sources for information (probably with money from the CIA or the National Endowment for Democracy) and unethical reporting?

Oh, and the paper is owned by billionaire Jimmy Lai who has been imprisoned (according to The Guardian) “on protest-related convictions and national security charges.”

So, now it’s “Hands across the Planet” for poor Jimmy and his yellow journalism.

Meanwhile Julian Assange wastes away precisely in a British prison for publishing government secrets exactly about U.S. war crimes in Wikileaks – a source that publishes the Washington’s own unquestionably true confessions of the criminal acts it desperately wants kept secret from the rest of us.

So let me get this straight: Jimmy Lai’s a hero. And we’re all supposed to get misty-eyed about the Hong Inquirer’s brave reporters. But Julian Assange is a criminal. And Wikileaks doesn’t even qualify as journalism.

And, by the way, we’re supposed to forget that there was absolutely no press freedom all those years the Brits controlled Hong Kong.

Does anyone else sense the irony?

Today’s Readings

Such considerations are especially relevant this July 4th as we celebrate our supposed “freedoms” and the tarnished ideals of the United States. Significantly, this month marks as well the 100th anniversary of the founding of China’s Communist Party (CCP) whose good example (in drastically reducing world poverty and extending foreign aid) our country so fears.  

Besides being July 4th, today also happens to be Sunday, time for a weekly “Homily for Progressives” where the theme of the day is prophecy in the sense of social criticism in the name of all that’s holy.

The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel implicitly reminds us that there were two kinds of prophets among the ancient Hebrews. Both are still with us today.

One type was a “court prophet” telling the king and power structure what they wanted to hear – justifying their oppression of the poor. (On this Independence Day you’ll hear a lot of their drivel as they praise “America” as though it were not – as Martin King put it – “the world’s greatest purveyor of violence.”) Think about The Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai and our MSM as court prophets.

The other type of prophet spoke for the Truth that was commonly referred to as “God.” The words of such men and women were routinely dismissed by the powers that happened to be. Some prophets (as is the case with Jesus in today’s final reading) were even rejected by the very oppressed people they were trying to champion. Their words were thought too dangerous and, in some cases, too good to be true. Think about Julian Assange as a prophet in the mold of Ezekiel or the Nazareth construction worker many of us claim to follow.

In any case, here are my “translations” of today’s selections. You should really check them out here to see if I got them right. As you read, think of Julian Assange.

Ezekiel 2: 2-5

I was startled
When God’s Spirit
Demanded that
I criticize my own people
As ungodly and stubborn
Telling me 
To make them uncomfortably
Aware
That a fearless prophet
Was at work
Among them.

Psalm 123: 1-4

Great and holy Parent
We invoke your compassion
On your prophetic
Servants and handmaids
So eager to serve you
Despite contemptuous mistreatment
At the hands 
Of our so-called “leaders”
With their pride and arrogance
Directed 
Against your beloved poor.

2 Corinthians 12: 7-10

Neither do prophets 
Have to be perfect.
Even Paul of Tarsus
Despite his many gifts
Suffered under
“An angel of Satan”
And “a thorn in the flesh"
To keep him humble
Lest he take credit
For the work
Of the Holy Spirit
Within him.

Mark 6: 1-6

But like Ezekiel
Jesus was rejected 
By his own townsfolk
Who complained that
He had gotten “above his raisin’s”
They didn’t even
Call him by  
His father’s name
(Implying he was a bastard)
While dismissing
His brothers and sisters
As quite unremarkable.
There’d be
No mighty deeds
For such whiners.
Only cures for
A few ailing beggars.

Conclusion

In a recent New York Times editorial, another court prophet, Yi-Zheng Lian, the former chief editor of The Hong Kong Economic Journal, joined the chorus of warnings about China’s grave threat to the West.

To an audience acquainted with the revelations of Edward Snowden Lian decried China’s surveillance system. To those whose country has bombed and killed Muslims by the scores and thousands every day over the last 20 years, he complained about treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang. To Americans who have lived through a Trump presidency, he criticized Chinese governance by lies. (His example? President Xi Jinping actually claimed that China seeks an international image that is “trustworthy,” “respectable” and “lovable.”) The horror of it all!   

Nonetheless, Lian also pointed out the fact that the Chinese Communist Party retains high popularity among a vast majority of its people. In fact, the party has grown by 20% annually since its foundation 100 years ago. There are no refugees from China. Travelers and students come and go at will and usually return home.

For Lian, the bottom line is that China is showing no evident signs of decline. This means that it will remain a formidable force continuing to threaten the United States and Western allies for years to come. This will be true, he said, not just militarily and ideologically, but also technologically and economically.

So, the West, Lian concludes, had better get used to the CCP’s threatening presence “at its front door.”

Of course, all this talk of threat and menace from a country that (unlike the United States and Great Britain) has bombed no one in the last 40 years – all this imperial identification of a country more than 7000 miles away as at “our front door” is nonsense.

So is any continued posturing about “our” championing of human rights and press freedom. July 4th in the context of faith reflection is a good time for reminders of such home truths.  

Pentecost Sunday Homily: Don’t Support the Hong Kong Protesters

Readings for Pentecost Sunday: ACTS 2: 1-11; PSALMS 104: 1, 24, 29-34; I CORINTHIANS 12: 3-7, 12-13; JOHN 20: 19-23

Today is Pentecost Sunday – the originally Jewish harvest festival that comes 50 days after Passover. The day’s readings remind us that from the beginning Jesus’ Jewish followers were working-class internationalists. Despite their lack of what the world calls “sophistication,” they recognized a unified divine order where barriers of language, nationality, and differentiating wealth were erased.

Before I get to that, let me connect that central fact with perhaps the prominent international and class-based concern in our contemporary context. I’m referring to the demonstrations in Hong Kong and an emerging new cold war between the United States and China. Our Pentecostal readings suggest we should be standing with the Chinese government and not with our own.

China and Hong Kong

Last week I shared a summary of an important debate about China between Matt Stoller and Kishore Madhubani. The debate’s question was: Is China merely a competitor of the United States or is it an adversary or even an enemy? Doesn’t China’s suppression of free speech and free press, of religion and of democracy make it an enemy?

My article held that, all things considered, China is a more genuine defender of human rights than the United States. I won’t repeat my argument here, but it turned on the distinction between bourgeois human rights (private property, contract observance, free speech, free press, and freedom of religion) and socialist rights to work, food, shelter, clothing, health care, and education.

Since the publication of my column, its relevance was highlighted by renewed demonstrations in Hong Kong. There despite a COVID-19 lockdown with its social distancing requirements, demonstrators came out in force last Sunday. They were protesting against new legislation in the territory that would allow officers of the law to arrest protestors for speaking out against the local government or authorities in Beijing.

Whom to Support?

So, the question became how should progressives respond? Even granted the distinctions between bourgeois and working-class rights, shouldn’t leftists seeking consistency and coherence, be on the side of the Hong Kong protestors? After all, they’re described as “pro-democracy.”

Despite such description, my answer would be a resounding “No.”

The main reason for my saying that is related to the class concerns reflected in the above distinctions between bourgeois and working-class rights. The fact is, all demonstrations are not the same. Some are organized against oppressive systems such as capitalism and its prioritization of wealth accumulation and contract obligations on the one hand and its marginalization of workers’ needs to eat, be decently clothed and housed, and to have dignified work and a healthy environment on the other. The Yellow Vest Movement in France and the Water Protectors’ demonstrations against the Keystone XL Pipeline in North Dakota offer examples of protests against capitalist exploitation.

In contrast, other demonstrations are reactionary and directed against specifically working-class reforms. Participants typically support colonialism and imperialism. The thousands in the streets of Hong Kong and Venezuela offer prime examples of such protests.  Hong Kong protestors’ waving of Union Jacks signals their preference of the status quo ante of British colonialism. Their appeals for U.S. intervention (with U.S. flags unfurled) express support for imperialism.

(Of course, especially under the guidance of foreign interventionist forces such as the CIA and its sister National Endowment for Democracy (NED), other lower-class social forces such as unemployed and underpaid workers (Marx’s lumpen proletariat) can also be organized by their betters to direct their anger at the class enemy of their bourgeois organizers — in this case, the Chinese government in Beijing.)  

The bottom line here, however, is that to be consistent, progressives must oppose not only prioritization of wealth accumulation by financiers, but also anything connected with colonialism and imperialism.    

To repeat: not all demonstrations, not all clamoring for “human rights” are created equal.  Class-consciousness provides an indispensable tool for distinguishing the causes and demonstrations that progressives should support from those we should oppose.

Pentecost Readings

With all of that in mind, let’s turn our attention to the readings for this Pentecost Sunday. Let’s read them with the same class consciousness I’ve just referenced. Here are my “translations.” You can examine them here to see if I got them right.

ACTS 2: 1-11: Fifty days after Jesus’ New Manifestation as one with all the poor, executed and other victims of imperialism, his fearful working-class followers suddenly found themselves filled with the same consciousness Jesus had. They internalized the Master’s conviction that poor people like themselves could embody his vanguard consciousness heralding the completely new world order Jesus called God’s “Kingdom.” Suddenly on fire and filled with courage, these poor, illiterate fishermen electrified huge crowds from “every nation under heaven.” Despite language barriers their impoverished and oppressed audience understood that God was on their side.

PSALMS 104: 1, 24, 29-34: Jesus shared his Spirit with the poor in order to renew the face of the earth – this earth (not heaven above) filled with magnificent creatures of all types. They’ve all been put here to make everyone (not just the wealthy) happy and joyful. We who identify with the poor are entirely grateful.

I CORINTHIANS 12: 3-7, 12-13: It is the Holy Spirit of Jesus that makes us recognize that he, not any oppressive Caesar, is in charge here on earth. The Spirit’s gifts have been given for the Common Good not for private gratification or foreign control. In fact, all of us are one – as if we comprised a single body. Nationalities are irrelevant. Slavery of any kind is completely passé.

SEQUENCE: So, may we too receive Jesus’ Spirit this very day. May we recognize it in the poor, in our hearts, in the light of our new understanding, in the gifts we’ve received, and in just rewards for our labor. Yes, we’ve been wounded, desiccated and made to feel guilty. We rejoice to know that poverty and misery are not the will of some God “up there.” The Holy Spirit’s will is abundance for all. Thank you!

JOHN 20: 19-23: Following his execution, in his New (resurrected) Manifestation, the meaning of Jesus’ execution by empire became apparent. Having internalized his Spirit, his friends recognized his wounds as badges of solidarity with the poor, tortured victims of imperial powers. They threw off guilt and embraced world peace instead.

Conclusions

Think of today’s readings as they relate to Hong Kong. . . Though recorded two generations after the fact, the Jerusalem events portrayed were extraordinarily revealing. They had people of the lowest classes (no doubt, under the watchful eye of Rome’s occupying forces) – probably illiterates – claiming to be spokespersons for God. And this, not even two months after the execution of Jesus the Christ, who had been executed as a terrorist by Roman authorities. What courage on their part!

The readings, then, remind us of whose side the biblical All Parent is on. In contemporary terms, it’s not the side of financiers, bankers, imperialists or colonialists. Rather, it’s the side of those the world’s powerful consider their sworn enemies – the poor, illiterate, unemployed, underpaid, tortured and executed victims of colonialism and empire.

However, those latter categories represent the very classes that socialism (even “with Chinese characteristics”) rescued from their landlord oppressors in 1949 and that have been under western siege there ever since. Under socialism, the impoverished in China are the ones who have seen their wages and standard of living massively improve over the last thirty years.

Improvements of this type under communist leadership are totally unacceptable to the United States and the “allies” it has absorbed into what it proudly describes as its empire. That empire always opposes socialism and will stop at nothing to make it fail.

Such realizations lead to the following observations about Hong Kong in particular:

  • As shown by the display of Union Jack and American flags and by signs invoking the intervention of President Trump, the demonstrations in Hong Kong are neo-colonialist, neo-imperialist and neoliberal in their understandings of human rights.
  • They are seeking the bourgeois “democratic rights” that overridingly prioritize private property and the integrity of commercial rights over the socialist rights championed by the Chinese Communist Party—food, shelter, clothing, jobs, health care, and education.
  • The fact that ex-CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, is leading the charge in Hong Kong should give everyone pause. (This, especially in the light of Pompeo’s boast and endorsement of “lying, cheating, and stealing” as CIA standard operating procedure.)
  • In fact, and on principle, any Trump administration defense of human rights should probably drive those with social justice concerns to defend the other side.   
  • Or at the very least, Pompeo’s and the Trump administration’s diverse response to demonstrations in Hong Kong on the one hand and to the (working class) Yellow Vests in France and to indigenous Water Protectors in North Dakota on the other, should raise serious questions.

Closing Note

The bottom line here, however, is that all demonstrations and protests are not created equal. The Pentecost gathering in Jerusalem was a poor people’s international meeting of “every nation on the face of the earth.” It celebrated the Spirit of a poor worker who was a victim of torture and capital punishment by imperial Rome. Its claim was that the Divine World Spirit is on the side of the imperialized, colonized, tortured and executed. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is far more in line with that tradition than is neoliberal capitalism.

Progressive followers and/or admirers of Jesus the Christ should keep that in mind as they watch events in Hong Kong unfold.

A Debate on China: Competitor, Adversary or Enemy?

As noted frequently in these pages, China has gradually become the most prominent bete noire of American empire. As such it has displaced Russia which had successfully reprised that role for at least the previous four years.

China’s new status has raised the question for many: Is it truly an adversary of the U.S. — or even an enemy? Or is China simply America’s latest very challenging competitor?

Recently, Pulitzer Prize- winning journalist, Glen Greenwald attempted to answer those questions. He moderated a highly informative 90-minute debate on China between Matt Stoller and Kishore Madhubani.

Stoller presented a bill of particulars against China. He is a fellow at the Open Markets Institute and the author of Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy.

Madhubani, on the other hand, described China in more sanguine terms. Madhubani is a Singaporean academic and former President of UN Security Council (2001-2004). He also served as Singapore’s Permanent Representative to the U.N. (1984-’89, 1998-2004). He’s the author of Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy.

What follows is a quick-and-easy outline of the arguments presented first by Stoller and secondly by Madhubani.  I conclude briefly with my own perspective that takes issue with both debaters. Each of them along with Glen Greenwald, erroneously accept without question the categorization of China as a violator of human rights. In reality, I argue, China is more a human rights champion than the United States itself.

I

Matt Stoller: China is Not Merely A Competitor

A.    Though not exactly an enemy or adversary, China is a threatening bad actorB.    Witness China’s Growing Economic Power Globally:
         1.     In a very short time has transitioned from a severely   underdeveloped country to the 2nd most powerful economy in the world.
         2.     It’s now the #1 trading partner of more than 100 countries.
         3.     It is a firm ally of the world’s economic elite from Wall Street to Brussels.
         4.     Its low wages and lack of worker protection have led U.S. and other international corporations to relocate American jobs to China. 
 
C.     Witness China’s Repression:
         1.     It does not share West’s values of free speech, free press,    freedom of religion, and democratic voting.
         2.     Since the 1980s China has been “hiding its power and biding its time,” but is now openly demonstrating its intention to export its oppression as shown in China’s:
            a)     Increased military spending
            b)     Building of a new centrally controlled internet architecture
            c)     Export of sophisticated surveillance systems
            d)     Undermining of international institutions such as the WHO
            e)     Retribution against those who even mention its oppression of Muslim minorities or its coverup of the Coronavirus outbreak 
            f)     Treatment of Uyghurs in concentration camps
            g)     Police violence vs. those seeking greater freedom in Hong Kong
            h)     Long-standing military threats against Taiwan
            i)     Building of artificial islands in the South China Sea beyond internationally recognized maritime borders
            j)     Installation of military weapons there
            k)     Bullying of Philippine fishing vessels
            l)     Naval forays into the Indian Ocean ostensibly to combat piracy, but really to expand its capacity for military operations
            m)     Buying up of newspapers serving the Chinese diaspora in order to eventually coerce and control its members too
 
D.    Witness the statements of Xi Jinping who has stated that:
        1.     Socialism with Chinese characteristics is “blazing a new trail” for other countries seeking to modernize, while preserving their own sovereignty.
        2.     China is seeking a future where it will “win the initiative and have the dominant position.”
 
E.     What to Do about the China Threat?
        1.     Re-appropriate the values we say we honor, viz. freedom of press, religion, speech, assembly
        2.     Break up the alliance between China and the international economic elite
        3.     Punish U.S. companies that offshore jobs
        4.     Diversify U.S. supply chains
        5.     Bring production back to the U.S. and to democratic countries
        6.      Work with China on collective problems such as climate change
        7.     Show by these reforms that our system is better than the Chinese alternative

II

Kishore Madhubani: China Is Neither Hostile nor A Bad Actor

A.    In General
      1.     Competitors are not enemies.
      2.     One should not insult competitors or even adversaries.
      3.     There is no reason to regard China as a hostile country or as a   threat to the United States.
      4.     China has 0% chance of conquering the United States which has 6000 nuclear weapons, while China has 300. The U.S. spends five times more on its military than China does.
      5.     The U.S. has 300 military bases throughout the world (some very close to China’s borders); China has no foreign bases and (unlike America) fights no wars outside its boundaries.
      6.      The post-WWII world order characterized by U.S. hegemony was highly artificial given the location and comparative size of the U.S. population.
      7.     China and India with their huge populations and ancient cultures are now assuming their normal, rightful places in the world.
      8.     Before WWII, both China and India had been prevented from adopting those positions chiefly by colonialism.
      9.      The Chinese government enjoys the support of the majority of its people. (Without that approval it would be impossible to control 1.4 billion people.)
      10.      In fact, 130 million Chinese leave China each year and then return home. There are no Chinese refugees.
 
B.    Chinese Ambitions:
      1.     Unlike the USSR under Khrushchev, China never boasts that its system will replace that of the U.S. or other countries.
      2.     Its leaders believe their system is good for China without claiming its aptitude for other contexts.
      3.     They just want China to be strong with its own population prospering in an external environment conducive to that end.
 
C.     What about Repression in Hong Kong?
      1.     It’s true that Chinese citizens do not have the same rights to free speech as Americans.
      2.     But they have more such freedom than previously.
      3.     Remember, that during 150 years of British colonialism, there was no democracy or freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
      4.     Chinese authorities are especially sensitive about Hong Kong because it’s a symbol of British oppression and of its having forced China to accept opium commerce centered there in 1842.
 
D.    What about Oppression of the Uyghurs?
      1.     Remember that the Muslim world is going through a major transformation – struggling to modernize and reinterpret relations between religion and politics.
      2.     Remember too that when the western countries came together in the UN to condemn the treatment of Muslims in China, not a single Muslim country supported the resolution, while a large number of those countries supported China.
      3.     Instead, Muslim countries agreed that the U.S. should:
          a)     Stop bombing Islamic countries (President Obama dropped 26,000 bombs on seven Muslim countries in one year).
          b)     Try to help the Chinese deradicalize and modernize the Uyghurs in China.
 
E.     What about Chinese threats to American labor?
      1.It’s true that China’s low wages, lack of labor protections, and absence of labor rights is attractive to American producers.
      2.However, it is a mistake to blame China for the loss of jobs.
      3.After all, China did not force U.S. manufacturers to move.
      4.China joined the WTO at the invitation of the United States.
      5.We must also remember that the relatively recent and sudden introduction of 200 million new workers into the system of globalized capitalism is only the latest expression of the “creative destruction” endemic to and celebrated by that system.
      6.Sweden and Germany saw the creative destruction coming. To prepare for it, they invested heavily in the retraining of their workforces to equip them for participation in the new economy. The U.S. did not.
 
F.     What the U.S. should do:
      1.Distinguish between defending America’s primacy and defending the American people; the two are quite different.
      2.Stop fighting wars in the Middle East and focus on the welfare of its own people.
      3.Remember that it is no paragon of respect for human rights. For instance, it is the 1st modern country to reintroduce torture.
      4.Keep in mind the figure “Six billion” – i.e. of the number of people who live outside both the United States & China. They’re much more sophisticated, well-informed, and nuanced in their understandings than previously. They don’t buy the American good guys/bad guys dichotomy.

III

Evaluation

My overall response to the Greenwald interview is one of deep appreciation. It brought together two very articulate, well-prepared, and authoritative proponents of comprehensive arguments most often advanced about the nature of China’s participation in the global community.

At the same time, I found myself disappointed that both Greenwald and Madhubani accepted right-wing framing of the position that China is a violator of human rights in contrast to westerners’ valuing free speech along with freedom of religion, press, assembly and the right to vote.

Certainly, there is no question about China’s repression in the areas of speech, religion, and press. But that does not deprive it of any possibility of claiming to be a champion of human rights.

The fact is that the UN Declaration of Human Rights as well as its other official statements present the world with a long list of such entitlements ranging from the ones just mentioned to the rights to jobs, food, shelter, clothing, health care, to children’s rights. 

Another fact is that no country in the world honors all human rights. Instead, all of them (according to whether they fancy themselves “capitalist” or “socialist”) prioritize human rights.

Capitalists accord first place to having commercial and legal contracts honored. They then list freedoms of speech, religion, press and the right to vote as their other preferences. However, if trade contracts are under threat, capitalists quickly dispense with all those other rights – as is demonstrated by their support of repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Brazil and the Philippines.

As for the rights to food, shelter, and clothing (as enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights) the United States has never recognized any of them as such (having refused to sign the enacting protocols). According to all U.S. administrations such “rights” are merely “aspirations.”

Priorities in socialist countries such as China and Cuba are different. For them the rights to food, shelter, clothing, education, health care, and jobs hold primacy of place.  Freedom of press, speech, and religion, as well as voting rights are dispensable as long as those preferred rights remain under siege.

I only wish Greenwald and Madhubani had made those distinctions. It would have helped the audience understand that indeed China does not respect human rights, while the United States does.

But (even more importantly for purposes of critical thinking in this country) listeners would also have understood that China indeed respects human rights while the United States does not. 

It is therefore unseemly for westerners to beat China with the human rights club. Too bad that Greenwald and Madhubani didn’t recognize that impropriety.