"The pen is mightier than the sword." For nearly a decade, Brahm has used newspaper articles, magazines and authored over 20 books to explain current affairs, reshape stalled negotiations, and provide a communication platform to Asian leaders and policymakers. His writings reveal underlying central challenges facing Asia over the past decades.

The Root of the Problem

Written by Laurence Brahm - Published by South China Morning Post on 08/14/2005

It is quite popular for westerners to write books bashing Mao Zedong, saying he caused China's problems; it's a simple way to explain tragedies such as the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. So, decades from now when western authors pen books on China, who will they blame for environmental desecration, the destruction of the nation's architectural heritage through demolition for property development, and the unnecessary number of mining tragedies?

Blaming any one leader is flawed. The Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution were not one man's engineering. They were caused by the short-sighted ignorance of middle and local-level officials driven not by any set of ideals, moral ideology, or even knowledge of the administrative law they should have been enforcing, but rather by pure greed.

During Mao's era, material benefit accrued to officials through power. Today, it accrues through corruption. The methods differ, but the results are the same. People are displaced from their homes and deprived of the promised basic social welfare benefits that gave the Communist Party its original mandate.

Another parallel is that when Mao came to power in the 1950s, there was a short-lived era of euphoria: enthusiasm and hope for what China would achieve by rebuilding itself.

During the 1990s, many people in Beijing looked back to the "dream of the 1950s". As then, many overseas- educated professional Chinese returned to join in the enthusiasm driven by unprecedented foreign investment and a belief in the potential success of China's (in fact, the world's) largest and most comprehensive package of reforms. The nation successfully switched to capitalism in a decade.

Are we now out of that era and falling into a period in which 1aw and authority unravel in a frenzy of greed among local officials? It could bring disaster for the party, foreign investors and the populace which have benefited from the reforms.

Former premier Zhu Rongi, the architect of China's 1990s reforms, once explained to me the importance of the party as an effective administrative force in assuring the execution of policies from Zhongnanhai to the grass-roots 1eve1. His own confidence in the ability to make reforms stick was based on an assumption that the party would be able to execute decisions from top to bottom. This framework underlies the success of China's reforms. The key question today is whether the party can effectively carry out its policies outside major cities.

This question has been brought to starkest light by the s1ew of mining disasters. Some 2,800 miners have died in the first half of the year, with more than 6,000 deaths officially recorded last year. As coal continues to account for two-thirds of China’s energy, feverish mining will continue until China exhausts its resources. Local governments flout safety despite orders from the top. Why? There is money to be made locally by not listening to the centre.

With the shift to capitalism, the structure of government has changed. Once, there was a Ministry of Coa1 in charge of mining. Today, there is a Coal Association, a chamber of commerce with no effective enforcement powers. It is the same in many other sectors.

This is the underlying reason for all of the problems and unraveling that are occurring now — from environmental desecration, land grabs and the extortion of private businessmen, to demolition of homes without compensation, collapsing mines and a health-care system where doctors ask for bribes. This breakdown in administrative enforcement is ultimately driving people to petition the government and, in turn, will become the main cause of social instability if left unchecked. The checks need to be carried out by the centre, but at the local level. If it does not happen, history may repeat itself. China does not deserve this.


Laurence Brahm is a global activist, international mediator, political columnist and author. He is the leading advocate of a fresh development paradigm - The Himalayan Consensus - an innovative approach to development.

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