Thu, Oct 04, 2018 - Page 9 News List

China would be smart to heed Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad

By Pankaj Mishra  /  Bloomberg Opinion

Visiting Beijing in August, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad startled his hosts by boldly warning against a “new version of colonialism.”

He was referring to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the trillion-dollar infrastructure plan that aims to put the People’s Republic of China at the heart of a global commercial web.

Mahathir’s invocation of colonialism could only have wounded leaders in Beijing, for the Chinese nation state has built its self-image on anti-colonialist rhetoric.

In its official historical narrative of its “century of humiliation,” devious Westerners imposed blatantly unequal treaties on China, cruelly curtailing its sovereignty. Japan then subjected the country to savage invasions and harsh exploitation, turning large parts of China into a Japanese colony.

Quite consciously, Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has presented the Belt and Road as the opposite — a noble attempt to create a “community with a shared future for mankind.”

However, from Malaysia to Montenegro, unsustainable debt and rising trade deficits have provoked fears that China is acquiring, in colonialist style, too much power over remote foreign treasuries and the domestic politics of many countries.

Sri Lanka, for instance, is plunging deeper into debt due to the high interest rates on Chinese loans taken by the previous regime of former Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa, in part to build a port with Chinese help and for Chinese use.

In Malaysia, China is “pouring in too much money, which we cannot afford, cannot repay,” Mahathir said in Beijing.

Those deals were signed by Mahathir’s scandal-tainted predecessor, former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak, who grew closer to China as he faced more pressure over allegations of corruption at home.

Mahathir is prone to spin conspiracy theories. At the same time, the 93-year-old did personally witness not only the subjugation of his country by the British, but its occupation by the Japanese from 1943 to 1945. On this occasion, the Malaysian leader has a historically well-grounded suspicion of how insidiously colonialism sprouts in both its Eastern and Western variants.

Mahathir himself once pointed out how during Western dominance over Asia “our economies were structured to serve the European demand for raw materials and natural resources.”

Financial manipulation was another means of structural readjustment, as in late 19th-century Egypt, where the government had undertaken massive infrastructural projects underwritten by Western bankers.

The British first leveraged Egyptian debt to reorient the country’s economic policy for the benefit of Western investors. And then, faced with local opposition, they eventually occupied the country.

The British also moved elsewhere, most famously in India, from being traders and investors to being colonialists.

However, for East Asians, it is Japan that offers the most sobering tale of how commercial interests aimed at general uplift can very quickly turn malignant.

Forced out of its isolation by Western powers in the mid-19th century, Japan did not set out to be a colonialist power.

However, it had wanted to accumulate “wealth and military power,” and Japanese politicians and thinkers convinced themselves that this required guaranteed access to the markets and resources of Asia.

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