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Contestations of Memory: Comfort Women and East Asian Politics

“To ignore violative conduct is to invite its repetition and sustain a culture of impunity.”[1]

If survivors from a tragic event do not step forward to share their experiences, how will historians and the public know the truth about what happened? A lack of personal testimonials may invite suppression of memory or rewriting of history. It took nearly fifty years for women who survived the Pacific War ‘comfort stations’ of the Japanese military to reveal their maltreatment and forced experiences as ‘comfort women.’ As opposed to redress initiated by the state, a shift in academia from the 1980s led by several female academic researchers helped open a space for survivors to bring grievances against the Japanese state for crimes against humanity (including rape and sexual slavery) and South Korean state for support. Japan and Korea’s sanitization of their official histories of the Pacific War, denial of evidence of Japan’s state coordination of enslaving comfort women and stigmatization of former comfort women amounted to a re-interpretation of history and denial of the women’s memory; with the atomic bombing of Japan and the desire for the US to have a strong non-communist ally in the region after the war, Japan was able to shed its image as an aggressor relatively quickly and in its textbooks told the story of the Pacific War through its prism as a victim. The history of comfort women, and particularly the responsibility of the Japanese state, is still disputed; this debate has led to a damaging divide between experiencers and mythologizers of history.

In discussing the history of ‘comfort women,’ there are multiple angles from which to approach their experiences as well as the constructed memory in the ‘official histories’ of Japan and South Korea. Christine Chinkin (2001) in “Women’s International Tribunal of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery” addresses the importance of tribunals–official and unofficial–and community involvement so that states cannot “ignore or forgive crimes against humanity.”[2] Chunghee Sarah Soh (1996) in “The Korean ‘Comfort Women’: Movement for Redress” focuses on the inability of former comfort women to reconcile their past due in part to cultural legacies and the institutionalization of sexual slavery based on class, gender, ethnicity, and nationality; although, changes in national and international structures since the Cold War have helped translate the problem into a universal women’s issue. Shuko Ogawa’s (2000) “The Difficulty of Apology: Japan’s Struggle with Memory and Guilt” and Bonnie B.C. Oh’s (2001) chapter “The Japanese Imperial System and the Korean Comfort Women of WWII” attempt to explain the Japanese state’s perspective. Oh accepts the uniqueness of Japan’s situation while finding underlying cultural issues that impacted the role of the government; Ogawa advocates the importance of Japan coming clean on its history of comfort women in order to save face. In “History & Memory: Comfort Women Controversy” Hyun Sook Kim (1997) compares official Japanese and South Korean textbooks with testimonials of survivors and similarly identifies cultural reasons for both states to selectively ignore, repress and sanitize experiences of comfort women. This contestation of memory entails mythmaking and a division between official narrative of ‘lack of evidence’ and narratives of testimonials from those that experienced history.

By reiterating tales of female exploitation, historical roles of Japanese and Korean governments, and the states’ claim of a ‘lack of evidence’ these texts elucidate the difficulties that former comfort women, as those that ‘experienced the history’ have faced in reconciling their past and attempting to educate future generations. Because of the official treatment of their history the women feel as if the mythologizers of the past (i.e. Japanese government) are “uninterested in knowing the past as its makers have experienced it.”[3] Women have been unable or unwilling to tell their experienced history because of the stigmatization within the families, communities and society, particularly in Korea, from the time of their return. A government study in 1993 led to the Kono statement where Japan officially recognized its role in establishing comfort stations, coercing women into sex with the military; however, controversy still ensued as the government claimed reparations should be made through private rather than public funds meaning the state would not pay for–and so would remain separate from–the harm it caused. Moreover, the states’ alternative histories are positioned from different historical data; survivor testimonials have become “reified as ‘information’ and ‘data,’ and they are treated as hard facts and the truth about the past – ‘facts’ that must be verified.”[4] According to Kim, for decades personal narratives have been withheld or ignored due to “patriarchal and national cultural arrangements.”[5] Oh meanwhile explains that comfort women were seen as “gifts from the Emperor,” pointing to the underlying issue of “contempt with which women have been held in Japanese society and exploitation of their sexuality.”[6] Decades on, financial compensation has been sought (and some achieved), but more than that is the desire for Japan to accede full responsibility for their terrible experiences; from this full apology the women seek acceptance from communities and the state to prevent this situation from occurring again.

At different points the governments of Japan and South Korea modified their positions on comfort women yet internal and external cultural and political factors led them to maintain control on history. But what did the states have to gain from their (mis)treatment of these women? Initially the Korean government ignored issues of the ‘Chongsindae’ women; there was a “lack of documentary evidence” because Japan destroyed records, and the 1965 Normalization Treaty “foreclosed the Korean government from making any further claims for reparations for damages incurred during the colonial period.”[7] Soh indicates that the state’s treatment of the plight of comfort women fits with South Korea’s tradition of sexual and physical exploitation of women for tourism and labor industries. Both cultures maintain a reverence for ancestors which enables construction of memory; in Japan specifically, “ideological wars have been fought over the wording of history textbooks, commemoration of the war dead, and personal compensation demands from foreigners” victimized by the Japanese.[8] Conservatives in Japan then do not want to teach a history which they believe will prevent students from retaining pride in their country.

While Japan eventually admitted that comfort women were coerced and recognized that “it had violated international humanitarian laws by persecuting Korean women,”[9] this contestation of memory is far from reconciled. Disputes over compensation to victims have put pressure on Japan-Korea relations, while “ethno-nationalistic sentiments have given rise to a renewed sense of historically rooted mutual hostility and contempt.”[10] Korean and Japanese heads of state have prioritized and publicized the dispute over memory of the comfort women at different levels. Current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently stated he would accept the 1993 Kono Statement while still enabling a review on how the apology was constructed.[11] Critics such as Ogawa claim that Japan will not be able to gain full acceptance in international institutions until it recognizes its past injustices with comfort women, who have been unable to receive closure with their past.

Contemporary politics reinforces Japan’s mythologization of its Pacific War experiences as a victim rather than the aggressor.  Recent high-level, bilateral summits between South Korea and Japan discussing security, development and now potentially the comfort women issue are a positive sign and represent a significant diplomatic concession by Japan. Events such as the fallout from Trans-Pacific Partnership discussions and the North Korea program have added to US concern over the behavior of its allies and its inability to control actors in the Asia-Pacific. Japan’s historical hesitation to confront nationalist tendencies has negatively impacted relationships with its neighbors and more importantly, has marginalized memories that can instill humility and prevent the event’s repetition.

[1] Chinkin, Christine. “Women’s International Tribunal of Japanese Military Sexual Slavery.” The American Journal of International Law. 95.2. April (2001).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Cohen, Paul A. History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), xiv.

[4] Kim, Hyun Sook. “History & Memory: Comfort Women Controversy.” Positions. 5:1. Spring (1997): 95.

[5] Ibid, 101.

[6] Oh, Bonnie B.C. “The Japanese Imperial System and the Korean Comfort Women of WW2” In Legacies of the Comfort Women. Edited by Margaret Stetz and Bonnie B.C. Oh. (New York: M. E. Sharpe Inc., 2001), 5, 9.

[7] Soh, Chunghee Sarah. “The Korean ‘Comfort Women’: Movement for Redress.” Asian Survey. Vol. 36, No. 12, Dec. (1996): 1230. 

[8] Ogawa, Shuko. “The Difficulty of Apology: Japan’s Struggle with Memory and Guilt.” Harvard International Review. Fall (2000).

[9] Soh, “The Korean ‘Comfort Women,’” 1236.

[10] Ibid, 1239.

[11] Akihiko Kaise. “Abe Administration Maintains Delicate Balancing Act over Kono Statement.” The Asahi Shimbun. (3/15/14) [http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/politics/AJ201403150044]

Political Risk Analysis of the 2008 Sanlu Melamine Scandal and 2013 Fonterra Botulism Scandal

This post is part of a longer research paper.  It was adapted for the Australia and New Zealand Studies Association Conference at the University of Texas in Austin on February 8, 2014.

New Zealand’s agricultural sector not only makes up the majority of its exports but also constitutes an important part of the country’s cultural identity. Risk events related to Fonterra can have significant impacts and spillover effects as the world’s largest dairy exporter. An initially localized quality problem can lead to the perception of risk on a global scale. Fonterra’s experience with two major health risk events exemplifies the imperative of risk communication and management strategies for businesses and governments to cope with risk and show accountability to stakeholders.[1] Tools of political risk analysis can help organizations to evaluate multi-layered risk situations, create risk communication strategies and mitigate spillover effects caused by social amplification. This essay compares the 2008 Sanlu melamine scandal and 2013 Fonterra botulism scandal through a risk analysis approach from the behavioral sciences. The latter provides political risk analysts a valuable tool to understand how society responds to new and unfamiliar technologies and risks, and how to manage them. In 2008, Sanlu’s information vacuum led to health problems and widespread social reactions, damaging firms and individuals. In 2013, early risk communication benefited public health but was detrimental to reputations of Fonterra and the New Zealand dairy industry; long-term effects of Fonterra’s risk communication are still unknown but are likely to be positive, displaying a desire for transparency and risk avoidance.

Risk Terms

The field lacks a unified definition of political risk, but the term implies a change in circumstances, usually a loss, for a defined actor or set of actors. Charlotte Brink’s definition of political risk analysis is aimed toward foreign investors, encompassing

the probability that factors caused or influenced by the (in)action or reactions of stakeholders within a political system to events outside or within a country, will affect investment and business climates in such a way that investors will lose money or not make as much money as they expected. [2]

Importantly, Brink shows that risks can be caused by lack of action, such as withholding information.

For public and experts, risk perceptions are built primarily using three factors: 1) degree to which the risk is understood; 2) level of dread; 3) number of people exposed.[3] People use ‘affect heuristics,’ or mental shortcuts, to process judgments about the “positive or negative quality of a stimulus.”[4] The affect heuristic is important in changing perceptions of a hazard, as access to more information can sway perception.[5] Whether risk communication seeks to inform or advocate, it is important to inform early, regularly and with accurate information to gain maintain trust, and encourage desired behaviors from the target audience.[6] The social amplification of risk framework exemplifies how risk events interact with various psychological and cultural factors in ways that affect public perceptions of risk; the portrayal of an event through different channels including, for example, media, and corporate and government releases can lead to ripple effects which can be more damaging to firms and individuals than the original impact.

Adapted from Kasperson & Kasperson (1996).
Adapted from Kasperson & Kasperson (1996).

Background on Sanlu and Fonterra

In 2008 and 2013, public health risk events rocked two of the world’s largest dairy companies. Fonterra is the world’s largest dairy exporter, a multinational cooperative owned by more than 10,000 farmers. To expand its networks in China, in 2005 Fonterra signed a joint venture with Sanlu, acquiring a 43% stake.[7] As a state-owned entity with close ties to government officials and China’s former largest seller of milk powder, Sanlu was expected to self-regulate quality control and was not subject to the same regulations as other firms. Moreover, Sanlu was critical to the economy of Hebei Province, employing 10,000 workers. As two of the world’s largest dairy producers combined forces, the reputations of their brands became intertwined while they retained separate operations.

2008 Sanlu Melamine Scandal

The 2008 Sanlu melamine scandal was China’s worst food contamination disaster; until the central government intervened, risk communication efforts were non-existent. The company, which had built up its reputation over five decades, became bankrupt as a result of the scandal. At least 6 infants were killed and 300,000 developed kidney stones due to melamine contamination of infant milk powder. As early as March 2008, Sanlu and the media received complaints about ill children, suspected contamination and performed its own testing. The media was unable to warn the public or probe complaints by parents due to government restrictions on reporting before and during the Olympics. Fonterra was not informed of the contamination by its local partner until a board meeting in August. Shortly thereafter, Fonterra notified local authorities in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province about suspected contamination but were constrained by other Sanlu board members. When Sanlu refused to recall the products or inform the public, Fonterra contacted the New Zealand government on September 5 to pressure Beijing which then recalled all Sanlu milk powder and embarked on a campaign. [8] The scandal impacted the entire dairy industry, hundreds of thousands of individuals and two national governments.[9] Earlier risk communication efforts and a product recall by the Chinese government and dairy industry actors may have lessened the damage caused by contamination.

Risk Perception: Threat to Children Breeds Panic?

In both cases, characteristics of the hazard combined with the public’s heuristic thinking, leading to social amplification. In the Sanlu scandal, risk perception factors of understanding, level of dread and number of people affected contributed to a high public perception of risk. The Chinese public was familiar with melamine; in 2007 there was a similar contamination scandal in the pet food sector and in children’s toys.[10] Specifically, the risk to children, close proximity and that it was man-made were important dread factors.

Risk Communication and Amplification: Multiple Interests Impair Efforts

Sanlu withheld communication and responsibility as long as possible and influenced media outlets to conceal the risk. In return for suppressing negative publicity, Sanlu purchased NZ$640,000 of advertising on Chinese search website Baidu. Additionally, Sanlu used a public relations executive to act as a reporter; using propaganda techniques, they promoted positive stories of Sanlu.[11]

The increasingly decentralized political system in China and Sanlu’s unwillingness to inform the public contributed to poor risk communication. Local officials hid the problem and lacked proper standards and supervision to regulate the industry; officials were informed on August 2 but took no action until September. Beijing announced the contamination after the Olympics ended by apologizing, ensuring communication was transparent, clear and individuals were held accountable.

Beijing’s response was to “curb the risks, punish the perpetrators and help victims.”[12] Government agencies enacted a full product recall and punished many of those responsible. But, scores of children were already affected. After the government issued a warning on September 15, and Premier Wen Jiabo embarked on a media campaign in late September visiting sick infants in hospitals, journalists felt safe reporting about the scandal.[13]

Impacts and Ripple Effects of Social Amplification

Impacts of the Sanlu melamine scandal were widespread. Due to compensation claims, Sanlu went bankrupt only a few months later in December 2008; a previously little-known company unconnected to the scandal, Sanyuan, eventually purchased Sanlu. Overall, Fonterra lost NZ$139 million. More than 22 companies were implicated in the melamine scandal, which included other dairy products and eggs. Among other arrests and firings, high-profile punishments included life imprisonment for Sanlu chairman Tian Wenhua and death sentences for three men.[14]

In addition to the immediate impacts, consumers lost confidence in the domestic dairy industry, requiring government action. Consumers took weekend trips to Hong Kong to purchase large quantities of infant formula, believing it was safer than those on the mainland.[15] Beijing enacted emergency subsidies to combat further bankruptcies. To repair the industry’s damaged reputation, “local authorities were urged to reinforce technical guidelines on cow feeding and epidemic control.”[16] China’s relatively managed economy with strong state-owned enterprises enabled Beijing to exert influence and rescue smaller dairy farmers. The government also rescued a failed risk communication effort and saved its reputation by prosecuting individuals, being clear about the risk and helping victims.

Impacts of the scandal were less immediate and acute for Fonterra because the contamination did not originate from Fonterra’s farms in NZ and the company held a minority stake in Sanlu. Yet spillover effects continue to emerge. NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark publicly criticized Fonterra for mishandling the crisis. Fonterra followed a protocol which put the responsibility on their partners. Delayed notification, number of people affected and desire to expand profits in Asia led to a corporate social responsibility effort. To combat brand damage, the company donated NZ$8.4 million to a Chinese charity establishing rural clinics for mothers and infants.[17] Association with the 2008 scandal has become part of Fonterra’s record, impacting public perception and framing of the 2013 botulism scandal.

2013 Fonterra Botulism Scandal

As early as March and confirmed late July 2013, thirty-eight tons of whey protein were thought to be contaminated with clostridium botulinum, bacteria that can lead to botulism. On August 3, 2013, Fonterra issued a precautionary recall, and countries including China subsequently banned the sale of a range of Fonterra’s products; by the end of August secondary tests showed that the products contained no clostridium botulinum, but instead had clostridium sporogenes from a dirty pipe, which presents no food risk. Fonterra “blamed systematic glitches and the use of non-standard equipment for the botulism contamination scare.”[18] The immediately affected product was an ingredient sold to third parties rather than a finished product, impacting big-name infant formula and beverage. While Fonterra’s August 2013 botulism scandal turned out to be a false alarm, the risk event significantly impacted its international image as well as that of NZ dairy products, leading to a decline in sales and legal suits from customers.

Risk Perception: Affect Justifies Product Bans

The affective association of Fonterra products with harm was readily available in memories due to Fonterra’s connection with the 2008 Sanlu scandal. Botulism was a less familiar hazard for consumers than melamine but because it was new and had the potential to impact infants and children, the risk was perceived as high. Decisions to ban imports of Fonterra products added to the proximity of the risk. The comprehensiveness of Fonterra’s risk communication efforts contributed to conflicting public perceptions of its products.

Risk Communication and Amplification: Early Efforts to Prevent Worse Fallout

Fonterra amplified the risk by alerting consumers to a problem which did not exist, and the company’s early, forward efforts had mixed reviews. The public felt they were receiving incomplete information from an unorganized source, using inaccessible language; moreover, Fonterra did not apologize until days later. It was unclear how much of the public knew the event was a false alarm. A survey quoted one respondent “That this happened at all was unbelievable. Everyone was taken by surprise and they couldn’t reassure consumers.”[19] Farmers, shareholders and market analysts meanwhile were comforted by Fonterra’s communication efforts and agreed: “They did the right thing going public and the media whipped it into a frenzy.”[20] Overall, stakeholders agreed that communications improved after the first 72 hours of the recall.

Despite the launch of four independent inquiries into the botulism scare, public perception of Fonterra products has been altered. The media in both NZ and China maintained significant coverage of the product recall and announcements of potential contamination; however, after the risk was found to be a false alarm, the story only received minor coverage. In China in particular, an unknown portion of the public may still believe the products were contaminated due to lack of closure.[21]  However, there is a segment of microbloggers in China that maintain confidence in NZ products and are cynical about their own national media.

Impacts and Ripple Effects of Social Amplification

Because no consumers became ill or died of botulism, the event’s impacts centered on financial and reputational losses for Fonterra and its partners: the NZ dollar declined, the head of Fonterra’s New Zealand milk products business, Gary Romano, resigned,[22] and total damages in the case are still to be determined. In September 2013, NZ exporters claimed they were losing up to NZ$2 million in Chinese sales per week.[23] As a result of the precautionary recall, Fonterra’s supplier Danone, the world’s largest yogurt manufacturer, is suing Fonterra “after an estimated loss of 300 million euros (NZ$407 million) of free cashflow.”[24] Before the Danone suit, Fonterra estimated a loss of NZ$14 million from the event and claimed its legal liability to Danone was minimal.[25] Additionally, Fonterra reduced payouts to shareholders by about 20 NZ cents per share. Widespread publicity of the recall and import bans across Asia due to social amplification impacted companies further along the supply chain and cast doubt on standards in NZ’s largely self-regulatory dairy industry. Among other ideas, Fonterra’s review recommends strengthening crisis communications as well as processes, culture, and governance.

Concern for falling Asian consumer confidence in the New Zealand dairy industry led to government action. Unlike the Sanlu case, the NZ government did not have to step in to ensure a recall, but officials were called upon to save Fonterra and NZ’s face due to its premature communication. The initial government report claims the risk event was not due to a failure in the regulatory system but rather a failure in managing the situation. Yet a key recommendation is “establishing a food safety and assurance advisory council to provide high-level independent advice and risk analysis.”[26] Despite currently acceptable standards, the NZ government allocated $NZ8 to 12 million per annum to follow the report’s recommendations to tighten food safety and improve standards and regulations.[27]

Conclusion

Decision makers in private and public sectors employ multi-disciplinary political risk analysis to understand probabilities of losses or gains in specific scenarios. Increasingly analysts use the tools within political risk analysis that include risk perception, risk communication and social amplification of risk to build risk mitigation and communication strategies to a more advanced and connected audience. The 2008 Sanlu melamine scandal and 2013 Fonterra botulism scandal exemplify how different organizations approach a risk event, who they identify as their stakeholders and what they consider as responsibilities. A more thorough analysis of this case may examine additional factors including cultural and organizational dynamics.

In both cases, perceived risks were amplified by manufacturers and media. In 2008, amplification occurred out of the initial information vacuum created by local officials and Sanlu, a domestic history of melamine poisoning and because children were the primary targets. For Sanlu, risk communication should have occurred at the time of known contamination or confirmed cases; pressure from Beijing, producers and local government meant the public was uninformed. In 2013, Fonterra’s risk communication efforts were early, with multilevel communications reaching shareholders, customers and governments. After the fact, Fonterra sought to understand customers’ risk perception and opinion of communication efforts. The importance of Fonterra to the NZ economy meant the government was interested in a swift, transparent reaction. Undoubtedly Fonterra did not want a repeat of 2008. Fonterra in the short term must deal with economic losses and potential brand damage; however the global recall and communication efforts may be perceived as beneficial for public health concerns especially when compared to Sanlu’s experiences.


[1] Ragnar Lofstedt and Asa Boholm, “The Study of Risk in the 21st Century,” in The Earthscan Reader on Risk, ed. Rangar Lofstedt and Asa Boholm (London: Earthscan, 2009), 11.

[2] Charlotte Brink, Measuring Political Risk: Risks to Foreign Investment (UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), 1.

[3] Paul Slovic, “Perceptions of Risk,” in The Perception of Risk, ed.  Paul Slovic (London: Earthscan, 2000).

[4] Slovic, Paul, Melissa L. Finucane, Ellen Peters and Donald G. MacGregor. “Risk as Analysis and Risk as Feelings: Some Thoughts about Affect, Reason, Risk, and Rationality.” Risk Analysis, Vol. 24, 2 (2004). 312.

[5] Slovic, “Perceptions of Risk,” 222.

[6] Regina Lundgren and Andrea McMakin, Risk Communication: A Handbook for Communicating Environmental, Safety, and Health Risks (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2009).

[7] Duoqi Xu, “Tax Planning and Tax Policy in China: Case Study of the Tainted Milk Scandal.” Frontiers of Law in China. June, Vol. 6, 2 (2011): 192-218.

[8] Castellino and Green, “Media freedom in China.”

[9] Danielle Castellino and Lelia Green, “Media freedom in China as reflected in the development of the Sanlu milk scandal, 2008,” Australian Journal of Communication, Vol. 37, 3 (2010): 88-102.

[10] Castellino and Green, “Media freedom in China.”

[11] Castellino and Green, “Media freedom in China,” 96.

[12] E.Y.Y. Chan, S.M. Griffiths and C.W. Chan, “Public-health risks of melamine in milk products.” The Lancet; October 25, 372 (2008): 1444.

[13] Castellino and Green, “Media freedom in China,” 92.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Xu, “Tax Planning and Tax Policy in China,” 194.

[16] Xu,“Tax Planning and Tax Policy in China,” 194.

[17] Elizabeth Wishnick, “Of Milk and Spacemen: The Paradox of Chinese Power in an Era of Risk.” The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Spring, 15, 2 (2009): 213-214.

[18] Maggie Zhang, “New Zealand Minister to Rebuild Trust in Kiwi Quality.” Shanghai Daily. (11/12/13)

[19] “Report of WPC80 Independent Inquiry for Fonterra Board.” (10/23/13), 147-149.

[20] “Report of WPC80 Independent Inquiry,” 147.

[21] Christopher Marquis, “China State Broadcaster’s Attack on Foreign Brands Fuels Citizens’ Skepticism of Government.” Forbes. (12/17/13) [http://www.forbes.com/sites/christophermarquis/2013/12/17/how-much-do-the-chinese-people-believe-their-government/]

[22]  Reuters. “Fonterra’s milk products chief resigns after botulism scare.” (8/14/13)[http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/14/ us-fonterra-romano-idUSBRE97D04C20130814?feedType=RSS&feedName=topNews&dlvrit=992637]

[23] Christopher Adams. “China milk scare ‘needs – big PR drive’” (9/23/13) New Zealand Herald. [http://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=11128539]

[24]Adam Brockett and Lapeyre, Morgane. “Danone Seeks Compensation from Fonterra Over Botulism.” (1/9/14) Bloomberg News. [http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-01-09/danone-seeks-compensation-from-fonterra-over-recall.html]

[25] Ibid.

[26] Adam Bennett. “Botulism scare report calls for better tracking of products.” (12/12/2013) New Zealand Herald.  [http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11171048]

[27] Xinhua News Agency Economic News. “Interview: Minister assures Chinese consumers of New Zealand food safety.” (12/11/2013) Xinhua Economic News.

Revitalization of Te Reo Māori Inspires Washington

Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

On the evenings of July 1 and 2, Māori language and culture was showcased at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. The International Centre for Language Revitalization at AUT University hosted a symposium entitled: “Māori Language Revitalization in Aotearoa / New Zealand.” On evening two, the event focused on demonstrations of the bond between Te Reo Māori and actions such as tāniko (finger weaving) and tā moko (tattooing). In addition, Valance Smith from AUT University presented on the topic of Mana Waiata – Māori language potentiality within contemporary Māori music. Presentations were supported by the Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group.

The symposium was a side event of the One World, Many Voices: Endangered Languages and Cultural Heritage program at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, and fell during New Zealand’s Māori Language Week – Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori.

Kahu Te Kanawa demonstrating tāniko (finger weaving). Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Kahu Te Kanawa demonstrating tāniko (finger weaving). Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

 

Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Ngarongoa Lentfer demonstrating tā moko (tattooing). Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Ngarongoa Lentfer demonstrating tā moko (tattooing). Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Ngarongoa Lentfer demonstrating tā moko (tattooing). Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Ngarongoa Lentfer demonstrating tā moko (tattooing). Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Valance Smith presenting Mana Waiata. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Valance Smith presenting Mana Waiata. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutamu Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Poutama Māori Performing Arts Group. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

‘No Advantage’ Policy Creates Nightmares on Manus Island and Nauru

Manus Island Detention Center. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr
Manus Island regional processing center. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

The Australian Government’s asylum-seeker policy has gone from harsh to incomprehensible. If the center left Labor Party adopted the center right Liberal policy of offshore detention, where will policy turn if the Liberal Party wins the upcoming election? Last month on this blog I questioned Australia’s regional processing and detention center on the small island republic of Nauru; the center has caused political upheaval in a historically tumultuous political environment. This post examines the ‘no advantage’ policy and Australia’s scare tactics to avoid dealing with genuine asylum seekers.

The current asylum-seeker policy of the Gillard Labor Government is composed of recommendations from an expert panel initiated last year. The main recommendation instituted was a ‘no advantage’ policy to deter immigration. The policy provides no advantage for asylum-seekers attempting irregular entry into the country versus those who file an application for asylum in advance. Along with the reinstatement of the Pacific Solution this has led to arbitrary detentions in offshore processing sites with little impact on the number of migrants risking their lives since last August. As a result, the Australian government embarked on an audacious advertising campaign targeting potential refugees, most recently in Afghanistan. However, stemming people-smuggling and preventing irregular migration will not be solved by unilateral actions; Australia’s policies are worsening the plight of asylum-seekers, causing problems for its Pacific Island neighbors, and prohibiting meaningful discussion about why people are moving.

 The ‘no advantage’ policy has led tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to be detained with no way to provide for their families and no hope of their claim for asylum to be met. According to the policy, “There is no advantage or benefit and, indeed, there is no guarantee people who arrive by boat will ever come to Australia.” If caught in and around Australia’s territorial waters, asylum-seekers will be sent to Manus Island, Nauru or Australia’s Christmas Island.

 Just in time for World Refugee Day on June 20, there were signs that Australia would no longer send women and children to Manus Island for processing. Seventy asylum-seekers originally sent to Manus Island will be sent to Christmas Island, along with 40 family members. However, rather than promote a new, more humane policy shift, a spokesman for the immigration minister’s office said “There is no shift in government policy; families remain liable for transfer for regional processing.” This particular action of moving families is likely due to the recent international criticisms of Australia’s tactics and reports that the number of children in detention camps is at its highest level.

 The conditions within detention centers, including the slow pace of (and at times nonexistent) processing, are unfair, unnecessary and exactly what the Australian government wants. In May, the Australian television program SBS Dateline aired an investigation into the center at Manus Island. Journalist Mark Davis confirmed the rumor that because asylum-seekers fear they will be detained forever without the ability to pay debts, provide for their families, or escape the mental torture within the center, they have no hope. Asylum-seekers soon become detainees, and many are continuing to harm themselves and in some cases attempt to commit suicide.

No Advantage Policy Advertisement. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr
No Advantage Policy Advertisement. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

 To further strengthen the crude policy, the Australian government maintains targeted advertising in the countries that asylum-seekers are desperately fleeing. Recently, the government spent over $555,000 on more television and radio advertisements in Afghanistan. The advertisements focus on the financial and psychological pain of Afghanis whose relatives were caught during their journey and sent to Manus Island. As part of the International Security Assistance Force, Australia has 1,039 of its own troops in Afghanistan. It seems incomprehensible for Australia to be part of a coalition occupying a country and simultaneously advertising warnings to its people that if they attempt to flee to Australia they will likely die or be imprisoned. This discrimination against Afghan refugees is not new, however. In 2010, Australia implemented a processing freeze on asylum-seekers from Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, claiming that conditions were adequate in their own countries. The advertisements aimed at individuals and families in developing, war-torn countries accurately reflects the dire situation that refugees will face if they try to seek asylum in Australia via boat; reinforcing an image of the unjust process, though, is not only failing to achieve results but should be a source of embarrassment for Australia.

 The government of Afghanistan meanwhile claimed it was not consulted about the content of Australia’s anti-asylum-seeker advertisements. An Afghan official stated that “People will look at this ad and say this man failed, but won’t necessarily think it will happen to them.” The advertisements show a lack of engagement with Afghan communities and a lack of regard for issues faced at home by potential asylum-seekers (including those Australia’s role in the occupation of Afghanistan). If both governments were involved, the deterrence advertising could have greater legitimacy, showing the issues of asylum-seekers are serious for both governments. Instead, Australia is working almost unilaterally to deter what government officials and media have repeatedly called ‘illegals’ and ‘boat people’.

 Dr. Khalid Koser predicts that the security situation in Afghanistan will deteriorate in the next two years, leading to inevitably more asylum-seekers heading to Australia by boat. Thus the ‘no advantage’ policy and even opposition leader Tony Abbott’s idea of towing boats back toward Indonesia will be unlikely to stem the flow of asylum-seekers fleeing Afghanistan. Rather, the goals should be to secure Afghanistan, support internal processes such as elections, and encourage international mechanisms for processing and taking care of asylum-seekers before they reach perilous boats.

 The severe problems in Afghanistan are, however, not the only issues leading to an increase in people seeking asylum in Australia. Over the last few years, there has been a spike in asylum-seekers traveling via boat to Australia. Already this year from January to mid-May, almost 9,000 asylum seekers arrived by boat.  Different world events including the global financial crisis, civil wars and other ‘push factors’ led to this increase. In June 2013 alone, at least 55 asylum seekers have drowned with dozens of additional people lost at sea while headed to Australia. The lack of media access to the detention centers in Nauru and Manus Island prohibits discussions about why people are traveling to Australia as well as the conditions they face upon arrival. As the statistics and harrowing stories show, people continue to flee violence and discrimination in Afghanistan, Pakistan and remain undeterred from either the hazardous journey or arbitrary detention.

 Stats

Source: Refugee Council. Phillips, J. & Spinks, H. (2013). Boat arrivals in Australia since 1976. Parliamentary Library, http://www.aph.gov.au/About_Parliament/Parliamentary_Departments/Parliamentary_Library/pubs/BN/2012-2013/BoatArrivals

 The Labor government did not anticipate the record number of arrivals this year and underestimated the cost of maintaining detention centers. This lack of planning led to a budget increase for asylum-seekers but at the expense of other programs within the overseas development aid budget. Arbitrary detention places a financial burden on the Australian taxpayer in addition to the financial and psychological pressure on asylum-seekers (including women and children).

 Unfortunately the current policy has found support among the Australian public. Prior to the Labor Governments’ reinstitution of the Pacific Plan, in July 2012 Essential Research asked “Do you think the Federal Labor Government is too tough or too soft on asylum-seekers or is it taking the right approach?” Respondents indicated the following: 12% answered ‘too tough’, 11% ‘right approach’, while 60% indicated ‘too soft’. Also prior to the policy change, a United Nations Refugee Agency survey asked Australians if boat arrivals make them “more or less sympathetic” towards asylum-seekers; “32% responded ‘much less sympathetic’, only 8% ‘much more sympathetic.’” Finally, an Essential Research poll asked Australians in August 2012 if they supported the reinstitution of offshore asylum-seeker processing in PNG and Nauru; 67% supported, and 18% opposed. While much of the world is facing a prolonged recession, Australia’s economic boom has not made Australians more amenable to asylum-seekers and new immigrants. Rather, Australians have become more guarded.

 

Nauru regional processing facility. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr.
Nauru regional processing facility. Photo Credit: DIAC Images Flickr

On Manus Island in Papua New Guinea and on Nauru, the national governments are trying to honor commitments they made to Australia in their management of offshore processing and detention centers. At the same time, in facilitating the ‘no advantage’ policy, the states are conflicted in their desire to ensure asylum-seekers are protected and treated adequately. Prime Minister O’Neill of PNG has stated that he wants the asylum-seekers on Manus Island to be able to help the community, work, have a normal sense of life” and be able to move around the country. On several occasions Prime Minister O’Neill claims he has promoted this idea to Australia; ultimately, it is up to Australia how asylum-seekers are managed and cared for on the offshore centers, despite how often the Australian officials claim it is up to the local governments.  

Rather than deterring irregular maritime migration to Australia, the ‘no advantage’ policy has put unfair pressure on Nauru and Papua New Guinea and promotes unreasonable treatment of asylum-seekers. As an international process and with scrutiny from the United Nations, Australia’s offshore processing and detention centers should be accessible to journalists who have already helped identify areas where bilateral and international dialogue is lacking. Since the global financial crisis in 2008 and due to increasing violence in the Middle East and parts of Southeast Asia, a record number of asylum-seekers continue to travel via boat toward Australia. Too many continue to drown along the way. For domestic political reasons, there is an overemphasis on the seizure and detention of people in the Asia-Pacific, with not enough regional discussion on push factors or truly regional solutions. Instead of removing protections and supporting arbitrary detention to punish them, Australia should focus on helping to protect vulnerable groups before they are forced to make the journey.

Pacific Partnership Forum Shows Necessity of Broad Dialogues for US – NZ Relations

Hon. Minister Murray McCully from New Zealand spoke about bilateral relations at the US-NZ Council Pacific Partnership Forum in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson
Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully from New Zealand spoke about bilateral relations at the US-NZ Council Pacific Partnership Forum in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

In several speeches in Washington last year, Former Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell emphasized that a demonstration of US commitment to the Asia-Pacific was to “physically show up” for bilateral and multilateral dialogues. Hillary Clinton embodied that policy when she became the most widely traveled Secretary of State in US history. Similarly, the New Zealand government – and industry – has continued to show its commitment to US strategic, cultural and political ties particularly since the signing of the Wellington Declaration in 2010. As a Future Partner, I attended the US-NZ Council Pacific Partnership Forum held in Washington, DC, May 19 to 21, an example of an event that builds understanding between the two nations. Because the US and NZ have a multi-faceted relationship, direct and open dialogues such as the latest Partnership Forum that involve multiple sectors and actors continue to be the best way to move the relationship forward in the interests of both states and peoples. To exercise ‘smart power,’ states should take advantage of grassroots innovation and incorporate open forums to inform foreign policy. 

In supporting the bilateral United States-New Zealand relationship, ministers, secretaries and other government officials have made no stranger of each others’ countries over the last several years. Former US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano were a few high profile visitors to NZ. In return, Prime Minister John Key, Minister of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully, and Minister of Defence Jonathan Coleman have visited the US. Those visits culminated in the signing of the Wellington and Washington Declarations strengthening strategic and political relations, and the signing of joint statements related to immigration, human trafficking and border security.  While in Washington last week for the Forum, Minister McCully met with US Secretary of State John Kerry in a productive discussion that included the Middle East peace process, and the New Zealand Treasury team met with their American counterparts at the Department of Treasury.

A recurring message throughout the Partnership Forum was that while New Zealand and the United States once had strong differences in security policy, now the relationship is “excellent” and seemingly better than ever. While the contents of this statement were not disputed, the desire to reminisce about the bad times in the relationship engendered negative reactions from US Ambassador David Huebner and several New Zealand officials.

In a speech to Future Partners, Ambassador Huebner called on the new generation of leaders to be innovative and to move past old rhetoric. Former and current bureaucrats such as Stephen Jacobi and John Allen however were quick to remind Huebner that the ‘old guard’ has played a pivotal role in reshaping the bilateral relationship and remains a critical part of stable relations. Without understanding at least parts of the shared history of the US and NZ, one would not be able to appreciate the ostensibly open dialogue as well as playful banter that currently occurs. Future Partners from both NZ and the US were strong participants of the Forum, with at least one delegate causing a stir with her challenge of mainstream views of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.   

For the bilateral relationship, perhaps more valuable than the policy talk at the Forum was the people-to-people exchange. About half of the forty Future Partners delegates selected were former Fulbright Scholars. The Fulbright Program, university study abroad programs, People to People, and a multitude of other education and sports-related exchanges continue to have a major impact. Between the US and NZ, soft power is a much more valuable tool for both sides to build mutual understanding from the bottom up.

International relations can be about more than states as actors if  individuals and businesses are given an equitable platform to exchange ideas and opinions alongside government. As an exercise that includes all sectors, the US-NZ Pacific Partnership Forum enables government officials, industry and even young professionals to meet with their international colleagues. While the issues of sustainability and resilience were discussed, missing from this year’s Forum agenda were topics of collaboration on mitigating Climate Change and additional development topics related to renewable energy in the Pacific. With the next Forum to take place in New Zealand, one hopes that the event continues the trend of being an open dialogue that enables participants to shape ‘what’s next’ for US-NZ relations.

Is the Pacific Solution Australia’s Guantanamo?

With a population of less than 10,000 people and an unemployment rate near 90%, one can assume that Australia’s immigration nightmare of ‘boat people’ and revival of the Pacific Solution has come to Nauru’s rescue, giving the small island nation new life with an economic stimulus. On the contrary, Australia’s attention to Nauru and the re-installment of offshore asylum-seeker processing and detention centers is exploiting the country’s political and economic instability. Once a policy of the right-wing Howard Government, the Pacific Solution has become nonpartisan among the major parties in Australia, with opposition only remaining among a handful in Labor and minor parties such as the Green Party. Deaths of asylum-seekers by sinking ships, the ever-persistent people-smuggling business with war-torn clients and anti-immigrant sentiments among the Australian public have driven the government to an extreme policy measure that was intended to be temporary.

The Pacific Solution creates a legal gray zone in which asylum-seekers are currently deprived of recourse to Australian law and can be detained for upwards of five years. Rather than following recommendations from the United Nations to only utilize offshore facilities as a temporary measure, the Labor Government is establishing new, dangerous precedents by setting its policy of exploitation literally in concrete by building housing to hold upwards of 1,500 asylum-seekers on Nauru alone. The Supreme Court of Nauru has perhaps been the country’s saving grace, with the President and asylum-seekers both turning to the court to solve their problems.

Offshore-processing centers for asylum-seekers were part of the Pacific Solution instituted by the Liberal-National Coalition Government led by Prime Minister John Howard beginning in 2001. This policy was once strongly opposed by Australian Labor Party leaders who rejected the idea that offshore centers, and Nauru in particular, could “stop the people-smugglers’ business model.” In February 2008, the last refugees detained in Nauru under Howard’s plan were sent to Australia and the center closed; at the time, the Labor Government under Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called the Pacific Solution  “a cynical, costly and ultimately unsuccessful exercise introduced on the eve of a Federal election by the Howard Government.” What has changed the situation so that Labor now is unafraid of using Nauru as an offshore-processing and detention center?

One concern voiced by Labor was that Nauru had not acceded to the 1951 UN convention related to refugees and its 1967 protocols. Once Nauru took steps to become party to the convention, the opposition told current Prime Minister Julia Gillard to “swallow her pride” and “pick up the phone to Nauru” instead of making a deal with Malaysia (a state that had also not acceded to the convention).  The ‘Malaysia Solution’ and ‘East Timor Vacation’ are additional stories in themselves – and unlike Nauru those governments were more difficult to sway. 

While trying to craft Labor’s version of the Pacific Solution in 2010, Gillard advocated for using East Timor as an offshore-processing center for asylum-seekers. However, the government of East Timor eventually opposed the plan and passed a unanimous resolution rejecting the proposal. East Timor Member of Parliament Jose Teixeira illustrated the difficulties with using Pacific Island nations as Australia’s own penal colonies. Teixeira said “it’s an unfair burden to put on us as an emerging society, post-conflict, as a society that has a number of social and economic pressures on it. It’s unfair to put that additional pressure” on East Timor.

The same can be said for Nauru, a small island country that has experienced political turmoil over the last two decades. Political power struggles have not been overly violent or utilized a coup d’état, in part because Australia is responsible for Nauru’s defense (meaning Nauru does not maintain defense forces).  Nauru’s political troubles have continued this year. Parliament has not held a regular meeting since early February due to the resignation of two cabinet ministers that caused the government to lose its majority.  President Sprent Dabwido attempted for weeks to dissolve Parliament, but Speaker Godfrey Thoma and the lack of quorum in Parliament stood in his way.

In addition to defense protection, Australia provides development aid to Nauru budgeted at AUD$31.8 million for 2012/13. Opponents of the offshore center argue that at a time of shrinking government budgets, Australia cannot afford to dump funds into these new ‘development projects’ where taxpayer return will be minimal. Over the past four years, “Effective Governance” has been a top goal of development funding and currently around 60% of the total budget . While I do not doubt the overall transparency of AusAID and the commitment of development practitioners, the historically higher level of funding to governance compared to “Sustainable Economic Development” and “Promoting Opportunities for All” are a pathway for the Australian government to have demonstrable influence over Nauru’s political process; this influence allowed for the reopening of offshore-processing center and creation of a permanent mass detention center complex that has impacted the country’s political and economic outlook.

Other changes on the horizon may soon be driven by the Supreme Court in Nauru. The Supreme Court will decide both the political fate of Nauru’s government as well as the fate of asylum-seekers. With many resignations, votes of no confidence and changes of administration over the last two decades, Nauru is lucky to have a functioning Supreme Court that can help facilitate the country’s constitution. To be able to dissolve Parliament and have fresh elections, President Dabwido is considering taking legal action through the Supreme Court; this application to the Supreme Court is likely to take place over the next week. As recently as May 3, Parliament failed to reach a quorum for the fourth consecutive time, continuing to give the president reason to utilize the Supreme Court.

A landmark Supreme Court case involving asylum-seekers set for June includes an application of habeas corpus. Australian barrister Jay Williams and retired US Marine Corps lawyer Michael Mori are part of a “legal dream team formed to challenge the legality of the Nauru detention center.” Mori formerly represented Australian Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks. The team of lawyers are representing the ten detained asylum-seekers facing charges of rioting and willful damage. Williams has been facing a challenge of his own – lack of access to the defendants to prepare an adequate case – which is an infringement of the defendants’ constitutional rights. As a constitutional challenge this ruling could have strong repercussions for Australia’s offshore-processing and detention center.

While Nauru’s government shows signs that they are unable to maintain stability, Nauru additionally lacks significant infrastructure to adequately handle the additional burden of providing for a future thousand-plus residents. The construction efforts for the detention center on Nauru attest to the longevity of the Pacific Solution and the creation of an island full of detainees similar to the US facilities at Guantanamo Bay. Underground cables have been installed for electricity, and water and sewage hook-ups have been difficult among the phosphate field. Additionally, Nauru lacks a modern port; to ship prefabricated accommodation blocks into Nauru, a “causeway of rock and gravel was constructed…and had to be repaired daily.”

While considering the damage that these events are doing to Australia’s regional and international image, the Labor government is pressing onward with development of the offshore-processing and detention center in Nauru. Currently there are more than four hundred asylum-seekers on Nauru, who have now been moved into part of the permanent detention center facilities. One journalist describes the new facilities in Nauru: “unlike the flimsy weatherboard huts used in the first iteration of the Pacific Solution under the Howard government, the new buildings are built to last.” To accommodate 1,500 detainees in a detention camp, there will be a total of ten accommodation blocks costing the Australian government more than AUD$70 million to construct. According to a report, the “initial stage of the project is a twin-storey accommodation centre of about 1000sq m, containing 44 rooms grouped in three pods, connected by covered breezeways. For now, asylum-seekers will sleep two to a room of 4m x 3.5m.”  These new facilities were likely built in response to criticism from the international community and nongovernmental organizations about poor conditions being faced by refugees as well as the impact on local communities.

In December 2012, observers from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) released a scathing report on the facilities and processing operations at Nauru. UNHCR representatives expressed the “need for more information and clarity for asylum-seekers about their situation, and counseling on the procedures and time frames of various steps in line with international standards.” The report also stressed that asylum-seekers should be supplied with “adequate conditions of accommodation, and the legal framework, rules and procedures for processing of transferred asylum-seekers in Nauru should be completed as a matter of urgency.” Having risked their lives on a treacherous journey by boat, asylum-seekers being sent to Nauru and Manus Island detention centers are particularly vulnerable. While they are not being placed in a war zone in Nauru, Australia should not send asylum-seekers, especially when they may have mental, physical and economic problems, into a detention center for an undetermined period without adequate legal and medical provisions.

Despite Australia’s move to improve facilities on Nauru, the most glaring problem remains; asylum seekers will be held in a legal gray zone outside of Australia’s borders and outside of the protections of Australian law. Further, off-shoring asylum-seeker processing serves to restrict journalistic access and the flow of public information to the public. These issues are the crux of the UNHCR insistence that “all asylum-seekers arriving by boat into Australian territory [should] be processed in Australia, consistent with general practice.”Add to this Australia’s dubious political and economic pressures and incentives that the government is applying liberally in order to secure the island as their national penal colony. Australia has the option to use its economic and strategic clout in the Pacific in order to benefit the region and promote humanitarian aims. Taking advantage of the economic woes and political instability in Nauru through the perpetuation and expansion of the Pacific Solution is undermining Australia’s standing among its Pacific island neighbors and in the international community.

Labor Activism and Democracy in China

Han Dongfeng: collective bargaining a “Win-win-win solution”

Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo credit: Genevieve Neilson

Factory-level collective bargaining can serve as a pathway toward democracy in China, according to prominent Chinese labor rights activist Han Dongfeng. On Monday April 1, George Mason University hosted Mr. Han Dongfeng for a discussion about labor movements starting from the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 to the contemporary situation in China. Since economic reforms by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s liberalized trade and focused on obtaining foreign investment, workers have increasingly relied on industrial action to advocate for higher pay and better working conditions, disrupting production. Because strike organizers have generally been imprisoned or blacklisted and the labor system lacks organization due to a government monopoly on unions, workers have hesitated to take what Han calls “personal responsibility” to lead movements locally or regionally. In free market capitalism as well as China’s state capitalism, the relationship between workers, employers and the state has much room for improvement; instituting widespread collective bargaining is a “win-win-win” solution for China according to Han. The process of democracy has begun in China, and the labor movement provides a model lesson for how democracy can be institutionalized in workers’ lives.

Worker identity as essential to collective action

A leader of industrial labor movements, Han spoke with emotion and conviction about historical and current labor tensions and the slow progress toward democracy in China. As a railway worker, Han founded the Beijing Autonomous Workers’ Federation (China’s first independent, non-state trade union) during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Because of his role in the protests, Han was arrested and held for nearly two years without trial. In 1993 after leaving China for medical attention, he was not allowed to return. Han moved to Hong Kong, and in 1994 founded the China Labor Bulletin, a nongovernmental organization that protects and promotes the rights of workers in China.

Chinese workers are proud to keep their identity as working class. Their ability to successfully act collectively, however, has been hampered by the stripping of protective measures in the 1980s and strong state control over economic and political spheres. The removal of protections has led to a chaotic system of sporadic industrial action. Workers in China do not legally have the right to strike – that right was removed from the Constitution in 1982. What Han calls “wild cat” strikes continue to occur when workers demand higher wages or better working conditions from their employers, but have no option other than stopping work.

Workers in a factory outside of Guangzhou. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Workers in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China.  Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

 While workers become more willing to strike as a group, they still often lack representation through independent unions. Workers’ right to collective bargaining should be legislated to enable unions to adequately represent workers in negotiations with employers. According to the International Labour Organization, “Collective bargaining allows both sides to negotiate a fair employment relationship and prevents costly labour disputes…Countries with highly coordinated collective bargaining tend to have less inequality in wages, lower and less persistent unemployment, and fewer and shorter strikes than countries where collective bargaining is less established.” Organizations such as the China Labour Bulletin and nonprofit organizations take up cases and help improve conditions and individual factories, but competition for workers in central versus coastal areas (city versus rural), improved work-life balance and consistent and rising wages could benefit from adequate public policy measures by the central government. To effect change, workers must continue their fight to force the CPC to make these reforms.

Furthermore, workers can still face retaliation from their employers if they participate in or discuss strikes in the media. The China Labour Bulletin provides an example: “five workers who had taken part in a strike at Guangdong International Paper on 19 February said they were fired simply because they had given interviews to the media. They were neither the organizers of the strike nor even active participants in it.” It is then up to the workers to keep their elected representatives accountable. Earlier this year workers at the Ohms Electronics factory in Shenzhen petitioned for a recall and reelection of their union chairman after he failed to protect their interests with management in two disputes over contracts. As workers and representatives gain more confidence in negotiations with employers they continue to face difficulties that require legislative protections.

Finding a path forward for reforms

Compared to 5 or 6 years ago, the government leadership in China has moved in a new direction regarding labor activism. Protestors and strike organizers now rarely go to prison for industrial action. According to Han, labor is one of the “least sensitive issues” for the Communist Party of China, even less so than environmental issues; by backing away from restrictions on labor rights and media freedoms, the CPC is strengthening civil society and allowing for more voices to be heard. These developments are encouraging for improved labor rights and standards.

In contrast to Han, the new generation of workers does not remember the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 and so are living without fear, particularly without the “fear of government.” Instead of fighting for freedom of assembly and political rights of the previous generation, new workers – who some say “lost their spirit” – seek improved economic status and the ability to purchase the goods that they produce.

Han says with collective bargaining, he “can see some light at the end of the tunnel.” In Guangdong province, which includes major manufacturing and exporting cities Shenzhen and Guangzhou, the local government is starting to support collective bargaining initiatives. Official unions in China are another form of control, so enabling independent unions and programs to flourish in Guangdong will, Han believes, make the case for widespread collective bargaining within the next 2 to 3 years.

Democracy as a process

As the market economy develops in China, workers will continue to demand more economic, political and social opportunities. Han believes that there should be more emphasis on labor rights at the start of democratic movements. By enabling workers to elect their own union representatives to negotiate on their behalf, they will be given a taste of the election process, creating a positive political habit.

Others, in contrast, believe that organized workers will be the biggest force against the market economy by demanding more economic protections; but China can follow its own democratic path without instituting a classical market economy that mirrors the US. Local politics in China remains a product of local representatives’ personal interests; therefore workers must pursue their own interests to gain progress.

When people ask Han “when will China be a democracy?” He answers, “What is the reference for a democracy?” In the United States and Europe, democracy is “still processing” as states battle with election fraud and strained political rights. China is at the early stages of developing a democracy; rather than answer the question of when China will reach democracy, Han prefers to answer when China will begin the democratic process, which he believes is starting now. “We cannot afford to advance our dream in one step. It is a long process and may not be achieved to the level that we want in our lifetime.” In comparison the Tiananmen Square protests and other large movements in other countries, the labor movement requires grassroots efforts that obtain small victories to build momentum. Historically these individual efforts have had more success and are proving more effective than a fast-sweeping movement.

International implications of Chinese labor movement

In their efforts, the China Labor Bulletin focuses primarily on internationally-owned factories to help create a model for future reforms. Some internationally-owned factories may already have higher standards than Chinese-owned factories, but they are also more profitable and garner more media coverage; the increasing media spotlight on particular factories such as Foxconn that serve international companies, combined with support for industrial action can help to improve domestic standards for working conditions.  

Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Worker in a factory outside of Guangzhou, China. Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

While labor movements in the United States and Europe are on the decline thanks to government reforms with pressure from business, the labor movement in China is on the rise and has significant international implications. As the world’s factory, “China made the race to the bottom possible,” but “that chain is about to break” according to Han. When asked about the future prospects for labor movements in the United States given right-to-work laws, Han agreed that workers in the US and Europe were in trouble. However, Han displayed optimism that the US will have a chance to restore its domestic production process; once an ever-increasing number of China’s 500 million workers raise their own working conditions and pay through labor activism, the price of goods will rise and, internationally, production will become more competitive. Chinese consumers will be hungry for American-produced goods and a more equal balance will be restored. Financial analysts agree that this “tipping point” will bring jobs back to American shores or other destinations closer to consumers.

 “Everything is ready”

In the clash between workers, employers and the economy, Han believes that “everything is ready.” The current economic and political system cannot sustain itself; as international consumer demand has dropped, China needs internal growth from wider working and middle classes to boost consumer spending. Han is positive about the prospects for economic and political reform in China, seeing the new party leadership as “sincere in dealing with these issues.” Han and China Labor Bulletin are placed to help collective bargaining turn many of the 500 million Chinese working class producers into consumers. By continuing to highlight workers rights in China through high profile cases using international companies (like recent engagements with Wal-Mart and Apple) improved working conditions and pay increases can be fought for with collective bargaining and perhaps in the future freedom of association and other democratic practices.

Collective bargaining is the sharp edge in a push toward increasing democratic practices in China. If Chinese labor activists can stake out a legal space for collective bargaining then this will establish democratic practices in Chinese workplaces and provide a safe space for workers to assert their allegiances and interests. Further, workers, employers and the Chinese government stand to gain from the stability that comes from having satisfied workers who have reasonable means for negotiations. The pursuit of improved material conditions for laborers and their families is a necessary motivation toward democracy. Employers will benefit from more stable labor relations, and “Economically [collective bargaining] is the gold mine for the government;” higher wages and benefits come from employers, but the government will get the credit for improving labor standards. While increased labor costs will likely raise the price of goods in the West, the global community and workers around the world could benefit from a more democratic and egalitarian China.

Pacific Energy Summit Showcases ‘The New Development Norm’

An aerial view of Marovo Lagoon in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Photo Credit: United Nations via Flickr Creative Commons
An aerial view of Marovo Lagoon in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. Photo Credit: United Nations via Flickr Creative Commons

Pacific Island Countries are simultaneously at the frontlines of feeling the effects of climate change and creating solutions. Development projects and political commitments in the South Pacific are setting precedents and shifting the global perspective of sustainable energy. The 2013 Pacific Energy Summit in Auckland, New Zealand March 24-26 closed with strong results that will continue to drive investment in sustainable development projects.  New funding of $635 million was secured for projects throughout the Pacific. Similar to Pacific Island Forum meetings, the Summit was preceded by a Pacific Leaders Energy Summit in Nuku’alofa, Tonga that also served as a launching pad for new ideas and to assess existing projects.

 Organized by the Government of New Zealand and the European Union – major funders of development projects and tied to the region economically – the Pacific Energy Summit is another positive example of multilateral cooperation in the Asia-Pacific.  Close to 80 projects were presented at the Summit, enabling donors and the private sector to partner on projects of mutual benefit. Additional sponsors included the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Asia Development Bank and The World Bank. More than half of the $635 million secured will be “in concessional loans to support over 40 of the proposed projects”($380 million), and only $255 million committed will be grant funding.

 UNDP Administrator Helen Clark recently stated that the potential for renewable energy – harnessing wind, sun and tidal opportunities – was the most promising area for development in the Pacific; a significant challenge Clark pointed out, however, is the “tyranny of distance.” Therefore it is critical that Pacific Island Countries remain united in their mutual economic, political and energy goals for the Pacific as the Pacific Island Forum continues to garner additional international observers and the Pacific Plan is reviewed this year.

 The recent Summit’s new funding will enable most Pacific Island Countries to reach a target of obtaining 50% of their energy from renewables within five years; several states are already leading the way. The Tonga Energy Road Map (TERM) was a highlight of the Leaders Summit as a model for a “well-designed and integrated country action” plan. The TERM drew an additional $6.5 million in funding from the European Union over the next three months. Last October, Tokelau became the first nation relying totally on renewable energy, in their case solar energy.

 In a statement on March 22 in Tonga, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Christiana Figueres emphasized the overwhelmingly constructive impacts of pursuing renewable energy in the Pacific nationally, regionally and internationally. For example, the Cook Islands, and Tonga spend 30% and 15%, respectively, of their GDPs on importing fossil fuels; those funds could instead be spent on adaptation, education and public health. Additionally, Pacific Island Countries making the switch to renewable energy provides necessary models of successful plans for other states. Figueres calls the plans and actions of the Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Tokelau, Tonga and Tuvalu to transition to renewable energy for electricity generation as “a courageous example of what the rest of the world needs to do.”

 Figueres and others have called for Pacific nations to be the catalyst that the international community needs to act on real, workable climate change rules and frameworks. Countries in the Pacific will not be able to “reverse global emission trends,” but they can signal to governments and markets alike that the path toward a green, low carbon economy is irreversible and “the new development norm.” Other small island country leaders such as President of Kiribati Anote Tong and former president Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives have played significant advocacy roles within the international community to promote the plight of small states among Climate Change difficulties. Steadily the tide is turning in favor of Pacific development projects, but it may take a continued, concerted effort by a resolute Pacific Island Forum and group of small island leaders to maintain this momentum and convince larger states to change their habits and transition to green economies.

 Was Figueres too bold in her call to action? Are Pacific Island Countries making national plans and setting energy targets that are too ambitious? As Matthew Dornan writes for East Asia Forum, small island nations in the Pacific cannot raise funds necessary for these projects internally; therefore, they must turn to international development grants and soft loans as obtained at the Summit. Ambitious targets indicate to potential funders that a country is more serious about the long-term implications of projects and so the probability is higher that the country will receive more investment. Realistic or not, these targets are a step in the right direction if they are produced from cohesive national and regional plans that seek to consider individual stakeholders.

 The Pacific has been a place for inspiration for internationally acclaimed authors and artists such as Paul Gaguin to Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson since the 1800s. While states work to keep their beaches pristine, oceans full of fish and water supplies sufficient, the sustainable energy projects and forums continue to inspire enthusiasts of renewables and international collaboration alike. Renewable energy benefits the environment, local residents and businesses; however, a one-size-fits-all approach to mitigating climate change, like energy projects in other parts of the world, will not work for the Pacific. To help maintain momentum for the new ‘development norm’ in the Pacific and elsewhere, there is a distinct need to improve media coverage of the challenges and opportunities brought on by Climate Change in the Pacific. The new Carnegie program Ocean Matters is one initiative that helps to bring environmental journalism to the forefront.

The Change Women Need: Australia and New Zealand Celebrate International Women’s Day in DC

Hon Julie Collins MP from Australia at the Embassy of Australia in Washington, DC.Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Hon Julie Collins MP of Australia at the Embassy of Australia in Washington, DC.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

On International Women’s Day and at the start of Women’s History Month, many national governments, companies and civil society organizations reaffirmed their commitment to women’s issues such as equal pay for equal work, ending violence against women and children, and enabling women in leadership positions. On March 7, the Embassy of Australia hosted a reception with Hon Jo Goodhew MP , Women’s Affairs Minister of New Zealand and Hon Julie Collins MP, Minister for the Status of Women of Australia. Both Goodhew and Collins praised the progress that has been made for economic and political rights of women in their respective countries and suggested that more can still be done, particularly to end violence against women.

Can the rest of the world learn from Australia and New Zealand regarding the role of women in society and politics? The US discourse has, particularly recently, focused on the work and home life balance of women executives in government and high profile companies. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer supply their own versions of how women can ‘have it all’ in pressurized workplaces; however, their situations are not necessarily applicable to most women whether they are in North America or the Asia-Pacific. In Australia and New Zealand women are strongly encouraged to pursue tertiary education in a more egalitarian setting. The gender gap is shrinking for all ethnicities (but at different rates), programs to reduce violence against women are nonpartisan and promoted cohesively nationwide; furthermore, women’s suffrage movements and women in politics have helped to shape national identities.

Recent research by the NZIER found that particularly for younger women and compared to those in other countries, “women in New Zealand are more able, and more likely, to be economically independent today than at any time over the last 30 years.” Women are now more likely than men to obtain tertiary education. While the average earning capacity of women is much less than that of men, according to the report the gap between average pay “is likely to close.”  Rather than focusing on closing the pay gap, then, policy is moving in the direction of examining factors of women’s economic independence such as attitudes toward if and when to have children, preferred approaches to taking care of children, and “drivers of some women’s decisions to end their education without achieving qualifications and in some cases to have children.” Women are making greater strides toward economic equality, and framing progress for women is becoming more complex.

Hon Jo Goodhew MP of New Zealand at the Embassy of Australia in Washington, DC.Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson
Hon Jo Goodhew MP of New Zealand at the Embassy of Australia in Washington, DC.
Photo Credit: Genevieve Neilson

While on Thursday evening both Goodhew and Collins agreed that economic equality remains a significant issue, the continued prevalence of violence against women and children and high profile cases of violence spurred government policy in this area. Too many women experience violence at the hands of governments, military and at home from partners and family members.  Led by Julia Gillard’s Labor government, the 12-year National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Their Children establishes a way for all service systems in Australia to come together for “common goals of preventing violence, delivering justice for victims and improving services.”

In New Zealand the Families Commission and Ministry of Social Development (along with local nongovernmental organizations and individuals) support the global initiative White Ribbon Campaign. The Campaign remains the most widespread program promoting involvement by men to end violence towards women. According to the Campaign, in New Zealand one in three women experience “violence from a partner in their lifetime, while on average, fourteen women are killed each year by a member of their own family.” A response to the case of the murdered Kahui twins, turning a blind eye to domestic violence is now unacceptable with the passage of the Crimes Amendment Act (No3). Individuals and nongovernment organizations can take steps to mitigate violence against women and children; ultimately in a democracy elected officials and bureaucrats are empowered by citizens to facilitate progress through legislation and public programs.

New Zealand was the first independent country to allow women the right to vote in 1893, but achieving political and economic equality in the face of stereotyping and other constraints has still been difficult. New Zealand History Online provides a remarkable glimpse of how women were viewed for the first time as voters:

Suffrage opponents had warned that delicate ‘lady voters’ would be jostled and harassed in polling booths by ‘boorish and half-drunken men’, but in fact the 1893 election was described as the ‘best-conducted and most orderly’ ever held. According to a Christchurch newspaper, the streets ‘resembled a gay garden party’ – ‘the pretty dresses of the ladies and their smiling faces lighted up the polling booths most wonderfully’.

Fast forwarding to contemporary times, Australia and New Zealand have both broken gender barriers in national politics. Australia’s current Prime Minister, Hon Julia Gillard is the first female Prime Minister and head of the Labor Party of Australia; as an atheist, childless woman that has never been married (she has a long-term male partner), it is difficult to imagine a woman with such personal characteristics as an elected public leader in the US.  New Zealand’s first female Prime Minister and only female head of the National Party was Jenny Shipley who served from 1997 to 1999; Helen Clark was the first and only woman elected as Prime Minister in the national election and served from 1999 to 2008. As the first woman to be Administrator for the United Nations Development Program, Clark supports women’s interests globally through UNDP programs. Simply having females in political leadership roles helps to shape national opinion and create a more reflective environment as successive generations pursue such positions.

 Initiatives such as the White Ribbon Campaign that try to put men in women’s shoes and gain understanding help facilitate public policymaking and public awareness to end violence against women. Feminist movements and women leaders in Australia and New Zealand have helped correct tendencies of domestic and international political and economic environments “to see only men and masculinities.” If more government programs are instituted with the long-term thinking of Australia’s National Plan and reactive laws such as New Zealand’s Crimes Amendment Act (No3) can institute new social norms against violence, women will have a strong chance at closing more than the economic gap.