Contextual Content

Naomi Klein on China and the Olympics

Naomi Klein: "I think this is an incredibly efficient, actually, a scarily efficient way of organizing society
that’s actually being celebrated here, which is a hybrid of some of the worst elements of authoritarian
communism—mass surveillance of the population, total lack of civil liberties, lack of a free press, lack of
democratic rights, authoritarian central planning, all harnessed not to advance the goals of social
justice, even in name, although there may be some lip service still paid to that, but to advance the goals
of global capitalism. So it is Stalinism meets global capitalism…. There are 100,000 security officers just
on Olympic duty. And to put that into perspective, the stadium itself, the Bird’s Nest Stadium holds
90,000. So there’s 90,000 spectators and 100,000 secret police keeping control of things in Beijing. So
this is an incredible operation. But when you hear people like Lou Dobbs and other commentators
talking about the problems in China, it’s always red China, communist China, or the Chi-coms. And it’s
really this blast from the past of—you know, it’s almost as if the Cold War never ended."

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR: Welcome to our first in a series of interviews with Naomi Klein. Welcome, Naomi.

NAOMI KLEIN: Thanks, Paul.

JAY: The fireworks have been bursting at the most expensive opening to an Olympic ceremonies in history. Just what is being celebrated? You’ve called what’s happening in China the communism. What do you mean?

KLEIN: The communism, Stalinism, market Stalinism, authoritarian capitalism, I think this is an incredibly efficient, actually, a scarily efficient way of organizing society that’s actually being celebrated here, which is a hybrid of some of the worst elements of authoritarian communism—mass surveillance of the population, total lack of civil liberties, lack of a free press, lack of democratic rights, authoritarian central planning, all harnessed not to advance the goals of social justice, even in name, although there may be some lip service still paid to that, but to advance the goals of global capitalism. So it is Stalinism meets global capitalism. And it works. China is the most successful capitalist economy in the world: 11 percent growth, year after year after year. It is the most successful economy in the world. And that efficiency, that success, is intimately tied, I would argue, to the suppression of democratic rights. It’s not successful despite the fact that it’s not a democracy, despite the fact that you don’t have independent trade unions; it is successful in large part because of that, because workers can’t organize independent unions, [coughing] because Beijing, if they want to build a new export processing zone or a new shopping mall or a new Olympic stadium, can just raise whatever they want to raise and build whatever they want to build and displace as many people as they want to displace.

JAY: Now, the counterargument would be that if you compare the development of China and India over a somewhat similar time period, especially since the reforms of Deng Xiaoping, that this methodology of this authoritarianism with market capitalism has actually alleviated poverty in a faster rate than India has, that maybe people are willing to give up free speech and various things for a better standard of living. So the argument is is that it’s been effective. The alleviation of poverty is progressing at a faster rate in China than in India. So what if people don’t have some of these rights? They’re kind of phony anyway in many of the countries that claim to have them.

KLEIN: Well, that’s true. They are phony in many of the countries where we claim to have them. But, you know, in China, people haven’t agreed to this. It’s an authoritarian system—it’s imposed on people. And there is a great deal of dissent in China; there’s an incredible level of protest, actually, in China.

JAY: So, if these rights are relatively artificial or not as meaningful in some of these other countries, then maybe people are happy with the development in China.

KLEIN: Look, there is absolutely no doubt that many people have been lifted out of poverty in China. But the biggest challenge facing the Chinese government is the incredible levels of inequality in that country. And this is really the obsession of the central government, how to deal with the gap between the winners and losers of this economic model, which is, you know, not incidental. It isn’t a question of just lifting everyone up; it is built into the model that when you raze a village, you create an army. When you raze village after village and displace community after community to build yet another export zone, yet another shopping mall, yet another highway, you create this massive population of internal migrants who are essentially—. It’s really a system of two-tiered citizenship. The people who have residency in these booming cities, and the people who are part of the army of, really, the landless, the homeless, who come to cities like Shanghai, like Shenzhen, Guangzhou, looking for work. And in a sense they’re almost like the Mexicans of China, the migrant workers, in the sense that the government has said, "We can’t afford to give you the same rights as we give to people with urban residency.

JAY: I mean, I guess one indication that perhaps things aren’t so harmonious as we’re told is the extent of surveillance and the kind of money that’s being spent on surveillance. And you make an interesting argument about this in a recent piece you wrote. Can you talk about the kind of collaboration, investment, of American intelligence apparatus companies and what’s happening in China?

JAY: So one of the arguments will be that the splendor of the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games is really a symbol that this system works, and perhaps works even better than the kinds of democracies that we have, in that what they have is a wise, benign leadership, which in some ways, they would argue, is more responsive to the population, partly because they don’t have elections to let off steam and they are worried about unrest. So what are we seeing in terms of the balance between political rights, democracy, and capitalism?

KLEIN: Well, it’s definitely a tug-of-war, and there’s definitely more freedom, more access to information, a level of access to information that would have been unheard of for an earlier generation. I mean, you’re talking about young people now who’ve grown up online, who have their own blogs, their own websites, who are texting constantly, incredibly techno savvy, and there are some websites that they simply can’t go to. So it is restricted, but they’re still swimming in a sea of information that their parents never had access to. And they push, and then they get pushed back, and it’s not clear who’s going to win this war. But if we think of—but what’s really struck me about the corporate media coverage of what’s going on in China is that all the negatives of the system—the crackdown on activists, the lack of freedom of speech, the fact that journalists can’t access the Internet in the ways that they’re used to. There’s the fact that there are 100,000 security officers just on Olympic duty. And to put that into perspective, the stadium itself, the Bird’s Nest Stadium holds 90,000. So there’s 90,000 spectators and 100,000 secret police keeping control of things in Beijing. So this is an incredible operation. But when you hear people like Lou Dobbs and other commentators talking about the problems in China, it’s always red China, communist China, or the Chi-coms. And it’s really this blast from the past of—you know, it’s almost as if the Cold War never ended. And there’s this amazing unwillingness to talk about what this is actually serving, because this isn’t North Korea. It isn’t about showing the strength of the benevolent leadership and the benefits of a communist system over a capitalist system; this whole infrastructure, this whole security, central planning, surveillance state that we’re seeing now in China is in the interests of creating the ultimate consumerist, capitalist cocoon. And you see that so clearly in the context of the apex of our consumer culture, which is the Olympics. So it’s the ultimate consumer cocoon for Coca-Cola, Mastercard, all of the Olympic sponsors.

JAY: In our next segment, let’s talk about whether in fact the Chinese people want this corporate paradise, and if so, just why is there so much security? Please join us for the next segment of our interview with Naomi Klein.