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Disempowered Development: A Conversation on Corporate Conquests in Southwest China with author Pat Giersch

By Kelly Dudine, a staff writer at RightsViews and a graduate student in the Human Rights MA Program

Over the decades, China has implemented aggressive and tailored plans to catalyze economic development across its vast regions. Driven in part by a desire to modernize industries and join a growing global marketplace, these plans led to periods of rapid growth and prosperity, while simultaneously straining local communities and exacerbating inequalities. Today, poverty in China’s ethnically diverse West is still prevalent

During a virtual lecture held earlier this month, author Pat Giersch discussed his new book, Corporate Conquests: Business, the State, and the Origins of Ethnic Inequality in Southwest China, which examines how corporations, combined with top-down policies geared toward modernization and state-building, marginalized local and ethnic minorities in the West, creating unequal access to growth and prosperity. 

Giersch’s story begins with the emergence of early-twentieth-century corporations, which enabled business to maintain a central hub of power while also expanding throughout the Southwest, reaching into Tibet, Southeast Asia, and Eastern China. New opportunities emerged and new avenues for economic growth flowed into the entrepreneurial hometowns, bringing wealth, mobility, and cosmopolitan lifestyles to elite merchants in Yunnan Province. 

However, as corporations grew in both size and power, so did their reach into local communities, which displaced local ownership of the development process, concentrating local resources in the hands of outsiders. This process is referred to as “disempowered development,” a term first coined by Andrew Fischer, which creates an environment of systematic inequality – one that China is still dealing with today.

For example, Giersch notes that as corporations reached deeper into villages inhabited by native Tibetans, called Khampas, in the West, they took control of what were once local sources of commerce, including traditional medicine gathering, and exported that wealth to their own regional hubs, sidelining the local people and community. This process continued in mass throughout the region, marginalizing and excluding local communities from the economic growth experienced by the elite. 

In the lecture, Giersch stressed how destabilizing and traumatic the experience of disempowered development and modernization would have been for people in Southwest China. Corporations brought rapid change, which fundamentally shifted economic and political organization. As an example, the immigration of the majority Han Chinese challenged societal structures and hierarchy. Clashes between locals and migrants were not uncommon, and instances of violence in the region underscored societal resistance to modernization.

Giersch noted that beyond the loss of local commerce and economic empowerment, modernization and disempowered development also strained local families in a myriad of ways. Many men had to travel more frequently, leaving their communities for extended periods of time to seek business opportunities, which tried and tested local families. For the men, time alone and away from home came with a variety of negative temptations, including affairs and marriages with other women which could break families apart. Additionally, drug and alcohol abuse was on the rise, including newly formed addictions to opium. 

For women left at home, the stress of increased responsibilities in the wake of absent men and the strain of managing trans-regional families proved a huge burden to bear, argued Giersch. Furthermore, increased connections with the outside world further challenged local traditions and worldviews, with children from wealthier and elite families expected to leave home to study abroad.

Giersch describes the process of modernization as a fairly traumatic phenomenon for individuals and the society as a whole. The stress experienced by local people, compounded by unequal access to the economic gains reaped by non-local businessmen strained local societies. 

Using the experience of those in Southwest China, Giersch noted that any effort at economic development and poverty alleviation will not be successful without empowering local people and ensuring “local control over local resources and local futures.” If this cannot be negotiated or protected, development plans may only exacerbate existing inequalities and create larger divides between those who can access financial gains and those who are perpetually excluded from growth and prosperity.

A State’s Responsibility in an Epidemic: Human Rights and the Coronavirus Outbreak

Guest Contributors Bodhisattwa Majumder and Devashish Giri are penultimate year students at Maharashtra Law University Mumbai. Their interests include Constitutional Law, Public International law and Maritime law. Any discussion related to the paper can be made via mail at bodhisattwa@mnlumumbai.edu.in or Giridevashish15@gmail.com

The outbreak of Coronavirus or COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”) from Wuhan, China (“People’s Republic of China “) has engulfed as many as twenty four countries across the globe with a medical emergency and has claimed more than 3,800 lives as of now. 

This strain of the virus is graver than the other types of Coronaviruses as it has never been identified in humans before. Coronavirus belongs to the zoonotic group of viruses which can affect a human being with a range of health ailments ranging from the common cold to serious problems such as Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS-CoV) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS-CoV). The World Health Organization and other countries including the US have declared it as a “Global Public Health Emergency”.  In order to restrict the transmission of the virus, however, China has taken various restrictive measures which have caused serious human rights violations including but not limited to arbitrary censorships, lockdowns, quarantines, police suppression, and mass detentions.

In outbreaks of viruses with communicable properties, response time in communicating information and alerting the public and world about the dangers of the virus is of the essence. Even a delay of a month can have a huge impact; in the absence of proper information, crowded public places act as the hub for transmission. 

Early on in the outbreak of Coronavirus, citizens of China were deprived of their freedom of expression and free speech. The Wuhan province was under strict observation by the Chinese government, and any information related to the outbreak was termed as mere “rumours” and prohibited from being shared across any social media platform. There were numerous reported instances of police suppression when doctors, nurses and other associated personnel working in the frontlines faced strict penal measures by the police on grounds of spreading the information related to the virus.

 It was only due to a brave whistleblower, Chinese Dr. Li Wenliang, who risked his own safety and livelihood to spread news of the outbreak in Wuhan to his alumni peers via WeChat, that the world was able to learn about this dangerous phenomenon that China had tried to keep under wraps. He sent his message on December 30, and China alerted the World Health Organization (WHO) about its outbreak on December 31. Since January 1, researchers have learned that China has been censoring WeChat accounts for words related to the Cornonavirus, blocking certain combinations or anything negative towards President Xi Jinping.  Furthermore, China placed the entire affected province under lockdown without any prior notice, which deprived the residents any chance to ensure the availability of basic amenities of life such as food and medicine. Such a measure has affected vulnerable populations of society, including those with disabilities, illness, and the elderly and deprived them of their essential needs. These are direct violations to their right to health. There has been a mass-quarantine process of millions of people for the cause of limiting the spread from the city of Wuhan. Any offering measure by any section of society be it, Lawyers, Activists or Artists, has been prohibited, censored, threatened and harassed by the organs of the government. Despite having strict regulations against discrimination regarding communicable diseases, the machinery has apparently failed.

Coronavirus has not limited itself to Chinese province and other South-East Asian states have been affected, although not every state has adopted measures which violate human rights. Amidst the Chaos, the approach of Singapore has been a silver lining, which has won praises for its benevolence and informative approach rather than an authoritarian one. Singapore’s approach has been direct and effective to reduce panic, rumours and conspiracy theories, aligning itself correctly with the statement of the Prime Minister which was posted on social media in three languages, “Fear can do more harm than the virus itself. The speech alone was proven effective as the following weekend witnessed a reduction in crowds in the city-state. The Singaporean approach included prevention, contact tracing, quarantine and access to information. Singapore’s official website of the Ministry of Communications and Information provided useful and practical advisories on topics such as ‘When to See a Doctor’, ‘What happens to suspect cases’ and ‘How to practice good personal hygiene’. The approach of Singapore prioritized the welfare and safety of citizens over political stability and economic costs, which won praise across the world. Singapore was among the most affected regions of Asia (Orange alert). Still, it chose to inform its citizens rather than bury the situation. The constant live news coverage, transparency about developments, and inclusion of health workers in planning has proved to be effective in controlling the situation and reducing  panic among citizens. 

Public International Law dictates that regardless of a health emergency or an epidemic, the measures taken to affect human rights should be legal, necessary, reasonable and proportional. Every measure must be recorded in evidence and there should be strict adherence to the procedure prescribed. An undemocratic regime leaves no scope for a consequence to the state for failures in terms of epidemic response and as a result, there is no accountability from the state. The people residing in affected areas are shunned out without any scope for the expression of dissent or discontent or even a cry for help from the international community. Human rights cannot be allowed to be violated under the garb of a health emergency and every nation should take a lesson from the incident of the Coronavirus outbreak. The priority of taking measures to restrict the outbreak lies in equal pedestal with the significance of following due process without depriving the people of their human rights. The international community needs to take a stand, and every response from a government during the outbreak of an epidemic or a pandemic must be within the four corners of human rights.