Asia Stands Poised to Join 2011′s Global Revolution

Residents of Haimen, China demonstrate against a coal-fired plant.

Residents of Haimen, China demonstrate against a coal-fired plant.

As 2011 started, Tunisians and then Egyptians revolted, demanding that the power in their countries belong to the people who live and work there, rather than the corrupt, undemocratic interests of wealth that had sucked the nations dry. The “Arab Spring,” western commentators called it, seeking to cast the unrest as Other, exotic, unlike anything that could happen here. As I wrote this summer, “The American power structure is afraid that, once Americans realize general strikes and constant protests are not an “Arab” phenomenon only… they might conclude it is time to join, to counter plutocracy with solidarity.”

Then Europe joined the movement, Spaniards, Britons, Greeks, and Italians fighting austerity cuts demanded by the very financial elites who had demolished their economies. The unrest spread to the streets of Santiago and San Juan and Tel Aviv and Delhi and Sanaa and, eventually, to Wall Street, the very intestine of the global corporate class that was revealed everywhere to be an enemy of democracy. 2011 was a year of global democratic revolution against global plutocratic corruption.

At the tail end of the year, we have begun to see rumblings in Asia, and no one should be surprised if that is the next region to rise up, or, as the international plutocracy sees it, fall. The death of Kim Jong-il in North Korea has eyes trained to the East, expecting the instability hinted at by the state’s proclamation that “We must hold high the flag of songun (military-first) policy, strengthen military power a hundred times and firmly defend our socialist system and achievement of revolution.”

In an age when tyrants are right to feel nervous about the solidity of their regimes, many in the West are skeptical of Kim Jong-un’s ability to consolidate power. North Korea is, after all, a state whose decades of increasingly totalitarian cultural policing suggest an awareness of the tenuousness of the ownership class’s control over the functions of the state.

The North Korean situation must be particularly troubling to the powers that be because China, the nation’s gigantic authoritarian neighbor, has also recently been confronted by a series of protests in the streets by civilians who are fighting as though they really mean it. The village of Wukan was thrust into turmoil when Xue Jinbo, a human rights campaigner there, died in police custody. A sense that police misdeeds undermine human dignity have sparked rebellion the world over, from the cruel seizure of Muhammed Bouazizi’s vegetable cart in Tunisia to London’s Metropolitan Police’s murder of Mark Duggan to the unjust Georgia execution of Troy Davis.

In Wukan, as in Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park, the people have responded to a perfidious and callous government by creating one of their own, The Telegraph reporting that “A commune has effectively taken root with everyone mucking in to man barricades and fetch supplies down the maze of dirt tracks because police are blockading the main routes.” And, as around the world, authoritarian violence seems in the cards for the protesters, according to the same report – “Despite the unity and defiance, rumours that armed security forces are mustering outside of the town and are poised to launch a crackdown, has nerves on edge.”

Elsewhere in China, tens of thousands of dissidents flooded the streets of Haimen in order to oppose a planned coal-fired power plant and were met by Chinese riot police wielding tear gas, the scenes reminiscent of events from Oakland to Cairo. The protesters there are standing up to the degrading effect profit-seekers have on the quality of life for working people, according to The Huffington Post:

The protesters think that an existing coal-fired power plant has contributed to what they say is a spike in cancer cases and heavy pollution in the seas, a serious problem for a town where fishing is a source of livelihood.

In September, similarly motivated protests had broken out near Shanghai.

Resistance to Chinese uber-industrialization is noteworthy in part for the connection it bears to resistance to American uber-financialization. The American consumer economy is, after all, the tail-side of the coin whose head is Chinese mass production. The two factors depend on one another for their upkeep, and when large-scale efforts are waged to wrest control from the corporate elites and transfer power to average citizens, neither is threatened unless both are. Now, both are.

Less geopolitically significant, but still insinuative of an Asian Winter, so to speak, Kazakhstan finds itself amid days of intense labor struggles, oil workers sustaining police fire that has killed at least 15 people. According to Reuters, “Violence have not spread beyond the region but political analysts say the protests suggest that broader public pressure is mounting for President Nursultan Nazarbayev to relax the authoritarian system he has built up since Soviet times.”

The report necessarily evokes Russia’s recent turbulence, tens of thousands of protesters taking to the streets of major Russian cities in the dead of winter to defy a self-evidently gamed political system, designed to increase the command of the already empowered Vladimir Putin. The demonstrations there are having an effect on Russia’s oil economy, as Bloomberg Business Week’s reporting indicates:

Almost 40,000 people have signed-up to protest on Dec. 24 in Central Moscow against alleged ballot-box stuffing in Dec. 4 elections. Urals crude, Russia’s chief export blend, dropped 0.1 percent yesterday to $104.73. Crude for January delivery climbed 30 cents to 94.58 a barrel in New York, paring this month’s decline to 5.5 percent. Stocks have plunged 8.2 percent this month following the nationwide protests.

Japan too has been in a state of unrest following, among other things, the still-unfolding Fukushima disaster. Massive rallies, a mainstream media blackout and even a prominent Occupy Tokyo movement have thrown that ostensibly democratic capitalist country into a battle for the national soul, the factions mirroring those elsewhere: on one side a powerful politico-corporate class and on the other side a population subjected to undignified treatment and hungry for true democracy.

Globalization has connected the world’s powerful as never before, markets everywhere affecting markets everywhere else, international banks and corporations holding ever-more power over the sovereign economies and polities of countries all over. But the working class too are now more connected than in the past by the internet which enables people everywhere to see their situations as similar to their international brothers’ and sisters’. With Asia looking as though it is ready to jump into the fray, we might be facing a very haunting specter indeed: working people of all countries uniting.

J.A. Myerson is an independent journalist whose work has appeared at the Nation, AlterNet, Truthout and elsewhere, including his blog, jamyerson.com. Follow him on Twitter.