Big Bullies and Local Nationalism

by

First off, Vietnam. There has been some bewilderment expressed as to why Vietnamese demonstrating–against the PRC’s provocative positioning of its HYSY 981 oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam as part of its Exclusive Economic Zone–attacked Taiwanese factories. The answer is depressingly simple. Anti-Chinese prejudice—including prejudice against all Chinese, including Taiwanese Chinese, PRC Chinese, and Vietnam’s own ethnic Chinese citizens—is baked into Vietnam’s current political and social narrative. It is not a matter that Vietnam was colonized by China in the far off imperial era or, for that matter, the fact that Chiang Kaishek’s KMT army behaved extremely poorly when it made a clumsy play to claim northern Vietnam as part of China’s political sphere immediately following World War II. Anti-Chinese sentiment grew out of the Vietnamese government’s sense of threat in the 1970s, as it pursued its alliance with the Soviet Union while spurning the People’s Republic of China. Ethnic Chinese dominated the commercial sector of the economy, especially in recently liberated/conquered Saigon, and were seen as an undesirable social element capable of disloyalty to the Communist government, divided loyalties vis a vis the PRC, and also serving as a key component in the bourgeoise economy that presented obstacles to the socialization. So the Vietnamese government adopted and implemented various policies hostile to its ethnic Chinese community.  Hostile enough, in fact, that over half a million ethnic Chinese fled.  Here’s a good, if perhaps dated, discussion of the period. Remember the “boat people” of the 1970s?  Maybe not.  But they were predominantly ethnic Chinese Vietnamese. The Vietnam government also implemented extremely harsh measures against Chinese communities in Cambodia during its invasion to topple the PRC-backed Khmer Rouge. This combination of toxic elements contributed to the PRC invasion of Vietnam in 1979 which, in a development little recognized in Vietnam today, was executed by the PRC after US president Jimmy Carter gave Deng Xiaoping the green light as part of the whole “contain Soviet influence in Asia” exercise (now, of course, succeeded by the whole “contain PRC influence in Asia” exercise). Distrust of Chinese—not just China i.e. the PRC—is still an essential social and political element in modern Vietnamese nationalism, as well as the government’s effort to maintain its a central, legitimate position in that nationalistic narrative. So, it’s not much of a stretch for angry nationalists demonstrating against a (PRC) Chinese oil rig to burn down an (ROC) Chinese plastics factory. The good news, if there is any, is that this level of anti-Chinese resentment and violence has always been bubbling near the surface in Vietnam.  It’s been managed before, and I’m sure the government in Hanoi hopes it will be able to get the lid on again. As for Ukraine, some critics of US Ukraine government and the government in Kyiv have been rather dismayed and befuddled by the appearance of a leading scholar of Soviet and Eastern European studies, Yale’s Timothy Snyder, in the ranks of the regime’s defenders.  Snyder is a vociferous supporter of the new, West-backed government and is the author of numerous seemingly ludicrous attempts to minimize the ultra-nationalist & fascist component of the Kyiv regime while striving to paint the Hitler moustache on Putin. Critique of the regime is much more comfortable if the ranks of the opposition is limited to over-the-top cold warriors, ultra-nationalists, and neo-liberal EU loving fantasists, and not authoritative Ivy League profs. It is presumptuous of me to try to put myself into Dr. Snyder’s head, however I wish to point out a perspective which to some extent may explain and justify his position to his detractors. Poland and Ukraine are two proto-nations whose aspirations and existence were denied and destroyed by Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR during the twentieth century. Germany has atoned.  Post-USSR Russia did…kinda.  Now, under Putin, Russia is pitching its moral and political debts to eastern Europe in the wastebasket.  Instead of acknowledging and atoning for the abuses to which it subjected its neighbors—including hideous crimes like the Katyn massacre, the slaughter of over 20,000 Polish military officers as part of Stalin’s effort to extinguish Poland as a meaningful force and national identity; Stalin’s brutal collectivization campaign that killed hundreds of thousands in Ukraine; and, even more recently, the Chernobyl disaster—Putin is headed in the opposite direction. Putin is concentrating on Russia’s own sense of grievance, its own nationalism, and its own regional aspirations, aspirations that center on the fate of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers in the eastern European states and inevitably conflict with aspirations in Ukraine–as Putin seeks to neuter Ukraine, and turn it into a federalized, helpless buffer against intrusion from the West. In the callous realist view—which, I might add, seems to be the view from most of Europe, including Berlin–agreeing with Putin to Finlandize Ukraine is a smart, split-the-baby solution. The baby i.e. Ukraine, at least the Ukraine of anti-Russian Ukraine nationalists, understandably doesn’t feel this way. And I think that might be where Professor Snyder stands. He sees the current situation as a recapitulation of the destruction of Poland at the hands of Stalin and Hitler.  He perhaps yearns for an alternative future, in which the West redeems itself for its abandonment of Poland by supporting Ukraine in its efforts to achieve genuine political, military, and psychological independence of Russia. In other words, for Snyder perhaps he sees the struggle in Ukraine is an attempt to regain moral agency both for Ukraine and for its Western backers, just as Putin is trying to strip it away. For most of the world, perhaps, the current crisis in Ukraine is primarily a dust-up between an inept and hopelessly compromised pro-Western government in Kyiv versus suspicious and aggrieved ethnic Russians in the east. Professor Snyder views Ukraine as a colossal moral struggle—The Battle in Ukraine Means Everything, in the title of his most recent piece for The New Republic.   His hyperbolic critique also takes the rather creepy, borderline racist clash of civilizations view of Ukraine as a Gotterdammerung between Europe and the bastard son of Genghis Khan and Fu Manchu, uhm, excuse me, “Eurasia”, an Orientalizing construct whose rather obvious problems will perhaps come back to haunt his recollection after he’s cooled off a bit:

All of this is consistent with the fundamental ideological premise of Eurasia. Whereas European integration begins from the premise that National Socialism and Stalinism were negative examples, Eurasian integration begins from the more jaded and postmodern premise that history is a grab bag of useful ideas. Whereas European integration presumes liberal democracy, Eurasian ideology explicitly rejects it. .. Ukraine has no history without Europe, but Europe also has no history without Ukraine. Ukraine has no future without Europe, but Europe also has no future without Ukraine. Throughout the centuries, the history of Ukraine has revealed the turning points in the history of Europe. This seems still to be true today. Of course, which way things will turn still depends, at least for a little while, on the Europeans.

My personal feeling, in any event, is that politics is a poor vehicle for moral redemption and Professor Snyder has taken on an insurmountable task in attempting to regenerate Ukraine as a national and moral force with the sorry situational and human capital burdening the regime in Kyiv. However, I guess I can’t fault him too much for trying. Peter Lee wrote a ground-breaking essay on the exposure of sailors on board the USS Reagan to radioactive fallout from Fukushima in the March issue of CounterPunch magazine. He edits China Matters.    

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