The new imperialism and slavery
HINDSIGHT - F. Sionil Jose (The Philippine Star) - September 9, 2019 - 12:00am

I mentioned in one of my columns recently what the Singaporean historian Wong Linken said, that Southeast Asia was better ruled by colonialists because their governments were far more efficient. Indeed, this is perhaps one legacy of the colonial powers. There was a time when Indians were very proud of their British-created bureaucracy. Yet British colonial legacy also included land mines, which remain the source of so much tension today. Kashmir, for instance, and Palestine, and for us Sabah.

One can look at colonialism from the perspective of the lowest sector of our economy. I remember Aling Nene, our laundrywoman. She overheard many discussions on colonialism between myself and our guests at home. At one time, after they had left, she told me that under the Spaniards they were poor, under the Japanese they were still poor, and under the Americans they were even poorer. And so she concluded, if the Chinese colonize us, we might have a better life.

I think that is about to happen if it has not already, with 70 percent of our economy in the hands of ethnic Chinese. China has a professed policy of using overseas Chinese to support their hegemony. Today, a flood of Chinese “workers” are now in the country. 

Colonialism is certainly not a new phenomenon. It has existed through history, when tribes became nations and once they became powerful they enslaved the weak. The laws the old imperial countries formulated were, however, not shaped by them. They were first shaped by religion, by beliefs in the supernatural, which were institutionalized in the rituals, taboos, and codes of conduct that were later codified by leaders like Cicero for the Romans, Solon for the Greeks, and much, much earlier, in the Christian tradition, God’s ten commandments were given to Moses to pass on to the Jewish people.

It is, therefore, not unusual that imperial nations in the past, like Spain, advanced their frontiers to encompass half of the world with the avowed purpose of spreading Christianity, never mind the atrocities of the conquistadores in Latin America, never mind the slave trade that the Europeans and the United States pursued. When the Moros pillaged the Christian regions of the country during the Spanish regime, they did it not to spread Islam but to make slaves of the people they kidnapped.

Modern slavery today has taken on new and different forms. No longer are the slaves today in chains or sold at will. In many instances, they even love their enslavement because they are freed from hunger and, most of all, from making those personal decisions that require thinking. In some instances, they even have the freedom to elect their leaders the way slaves in ancient Greece and ancient Rome could not. Modern imperialism continues to spread all over the world, in which slaves are mesmerized by the many pleasures of commercialism, unaware that they have lost their capacity to think independently and to be free. 

The trafficking of people across porous borders and open waters is global, and so is the legal movement of slaves otherwise known as overseas workers. But the most onerous form of colonialism today is domestic in nature, when a nation’s elite colonizes its own people and that nation ceases to be a home because it has been willfully transformed into a prison. Many Filipinos are sorry victims of both phenomena.

The compulsion to excel and to conquer is only too human, and it must be ennobled with deceptive gilding when it simply means, in its crudest terms, the search for slaves, for raw materials, for markets. Its logic through the centuries has never changed – the immoral exploitation of the weak by the strong. 

By whatever color or creed, sometimes the colonizer succeeds. Maybe, they had come to believe their own slogans or had gloved their claws with velvet. The colonizer gets the colonized to love them, to defend them even to the death. Alas, this is the abject description of some Filipinos.

China today, in its ascendancy, is utilizing the latest developments in technology to watch its millions, to condition their thinking. Those in the west who think that China’s economic development will bring liberalization and democracy to its people are engaged in wishful thinking. 

China today is very harsh with its Muslim minorities and with those intellectuals who stray from the Communist Party line. Western China scholars should not be surprised; China has never really been democratic. It has always been ruled by warlords and despots. 

For all its great advances in the arts and sciences, China’s civilization was never “Western,” for which reason Mao stands out as China’s foremost modernizer. For sure, he made many mistakes, among them the cultural revolution and the great famine of the late 1950s and early 1960s that killed millions. But Mao unified China and created a Communist Party that has become the bureaucratic bedrock of China today. The Communist Party holds China together and is also the motive power that propels China’s imperial ambition. The mandate of heaven has morphed into the mandate of Marx.

A bestselling book, When China Rules the World, recounts Chinese history, how the country grew powerful from the puny divided nation that it once was. It traces China’s imperial reach to today, when the United States, the only country that can obstruct this ascent, is in decline.

We have seen in recent times the demise of the Soviet Union primarily because of internal contradictions. Mao himself and China today are full of contradictions. But it is precisely these contradictions and their pragmatism that have enabled the Chinese to progress. As one Chinese scholar said, Mao’s Cultural Revolution was like fire that tempered steel; it had taught them so much and, instead of crippling their society, it has made them stronger, more purposeful, to be what they are today.

We may look at Chinese imperialism as a challenge. How we will face it and how we relate to China will determine our destiny.

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