In his new book, The Anti-Globalisation Breakfast Club: Manifesto for a Peaceful Revolution, Laurence Brahm, an ex-lawyer who worked closely with many East Asian governments during their economic reform programmes in the 1990s, lays out his vision for a new world order based on sustainable economic growth that embodies mutual cooperation, grassroots action, and cultural preservation.
Brahm took some time out to talk to Oliver Pearce for GlobalComment about his book, China’s lopsided development, and how it can change its ways.
Oliver Pearce: What was the inspiration to write this book?
Laurence Brahm: The book idea had been formulating for many years. On one hand I observed the anti-Globalisation protests which occurred at the WTO, IMF and World Bank meetings and I did not feel that the media was giving fair coverage to the issues that were being expressed by the protestors. Often those protestors became very violent. Why were people their own self to risk unless the issues were so important? But those issues were not understood because the media simply dismissed the movement as radical.
I wanted to find out what was behind the movement and I found that it was not all that radical; actually there are very meaningful issues raised by many people, but they are marginalised. Over the past few decades we have seen tremendous economic growth over the world but actually the number of those living in poverty is increasing. 40 percent of our planet is at the poverty level; one sixth is living at the extreme level. This is something we don’t see being in Starbucks, in five star hotels or simply watching CNN and BBC. It’s not being expressed and it disturbed me.
OP: Who is this book aimed at?
LB: This book will speak out to a range of people, from aid workers and activists to university worker, and business in between. All these people need to be part of the dialogue process. I applaud the activist in the street; their voice needs to be heard. At the same time we cannot ignore the institutions. If we ignore the institutions then we can’t have meaningful change because ultimately when the corporations stop getting involved you don’t have power and money then you can’t accomplish anything on a meaningful scale. What we need to do is take very clear voices that are marginalised. We need to widen the goalposts and to bring those voices and ideas into the mainstream, turning them into policy, effective governance and corporate initiative.
OP: You came to China in the 1981 and have stayed in the region ever since. What were your reasons for coming and how has the country changed?
LB: I was very much interested in Mao’s experiment and to see what had happened with socialism and a lot of curiosity. What I found was a shattered economy of no commodities – even if you had money, which people didn’t there was nothing to buy anything because there was nothing to buy. From this I realised there would be tremendous reform, or opportunity for reform, and an opportunity to get it right.
OP: Your book discusses the importance of the philosophies of the major religions from the Himalayan region, such Islam and Buddhism. Do you see the growing trend towards Confucism in China as a positive step?
LB: I don’t see it as a growing trend. I think that actually there is very little being done to bring out the values of loyalty, piety and respect. I think there has been lip service to it briefly, but I don’t see anything being done in a meaningful way. The problem is that China has aped what it thinks are Western values. A lot of these ‘Western’ values are actually discredited in the West. To a great extent the rush to be Western in China has been one which has been misguided. As a result there has been a certain loss of self-identity and aspects of Chinese culture which are of enormous value, and you can’t find these aspects here anymore. Mahinda Rajapaksa, President of Sri Lanka, once said you can have all the economic development you want, but if you lose your identity you have nothing.
OP: Your last point is interesting because a lot of the affluent, urban middle class Chinese students whom I have encountered in China and abroad believe that they are entitled to follow Western consumer and social habits. What are your views on this?
LB: I think it is very sad. To be a good person, a kind person, to care about others and to live one’s life meaningfully is glorious and is what I think is important. The necessary steps were taken to take China out of the mistakes of the Cultural Revolution and what has happened is that it has gone from one extreme to another: during the Cultural Revolution China was a society of spirituality and no materialism; today it is all materialism and no core values. I think this will have to redress itself over time. It can happen. It took the Asian Financial crisis and SARS for Hong Kong people to go from what had been an extreme case of brand fundamentalism and suddenly shift to social concerns. Now you have a great deal of social outreach and care there; people are looking do to things for the environment, to do things at a social level who are readjusting their own framework of living in a more sustainable way. Sometimes it requires a situation or external conditions to wake up.
OP: So you would say that Hong Kong is a kind of model for the mainland?
LB: Hong Kong is very interesting because many things in China have keyed off of Hong Kong, from KTV to real estate. The original land laws of China were based on legislation in Hong Kong. The British have Crown Land – land that belongs to the state – and you have the same in China: the land belongs to all the people. Shenzhen was always the crossroads, the fertilisation ground for taking ideas which had worked in Hong Kong and testing them in China.
OP: China’s economic stimulus plan includes provisions to boost the development of the green energy sector. In your view, what are the opportunities to be had for Chinese companies working in this area?
LB: I think there is a tremendous opportunity for China to develop green technology because China’s needs for energy are going to expand. Demand will increase as people do wish to have a higher quality of living, which they deserve, but we have to find ways of making that affordable, both in terms of costs of to the pocket and cost to the environment. Here China has the opportunity to shift from the coal grid into other renewable technologies. There are tremendous resources available and it’s a question of commercialising those resources, and that needs government funding to bridge between what’s an idea and what’s a commercially pragmatic enterprise. With the stimulus package China has an opportunity of the funding to be used well to develop the technology and to develop the systems to commercialise these technologies.
OP: Corporate Social Responsibility is replacing shareholder value as the major corporate trend in the Western world. Has this trend been picked up in China?
LB: It hasn’t, but it will. It needs to start from the multinational corporations working here because they set the trend. It will start on the outside, in places like Singapore and Hong Kong and then Chinese will begin to wonder [about its value]. The value system in China has to change; it’s not one where people respect or care for someone else, and so this is what the Himalayan values: let’s get back to the values that are inherent in Himalayan religions. But it’s not a question of religion, it’s a question of ideas and philosophies; it’s a question of how to lead your life. Let’s bring these changes into the commercial field and change the way corporations think. This will require a change in the media and in consumer behaviour.
OP: You argue that the community projects mentioned in your book, for example the Tibetan yak-milk farmers and clothes makers, have to be self-sustaining, as opposed to relying on handouts from charities. Is it possible for small, private sector enterprises to make money from such projects?
LB: The role of the small enterprise is very important. I mean many of the projects being done for social outreach and community care carried out by small enterprises. Often the small enterprises don’t just see the value of what they are doing but also the opportunity in doing it. Community work and environmental protection doesn’t have to be loss making: it can be profitable. It’s a question of seeing it as an opportunity rather than seeing it as a burden and many of the small enterprises, because they don’t have the bureaucratic structures and old thinking of the multinationals, are able to respond to change – including consumer value change – quickly and more responsibly. In many ways it is the small to medium enterprises that are actually leading the value revolution and the commercial revolution.
OP: Do you think government intervention is necessary to regulate this sector?
LB: Government regulation is usually a response to corporate interests. It’s usually a response to sectors, and once you see have corporations realise that they are losing an opportunity but not being part of the value change then they will call on the government for regulatory measures, and they will influence government.
Look at the Sichuan earthquake, who got on the plane and went there to help out in the reconstruction? Many of them were very small groups and small entrepreneurs; they were people who cared, and they often used very finite resources to rebuild villages and give assistance. It was a tremendous outreach of many people who stood up and said “I want to help”. This is very rare in any country, but it happened here in China, in a country that’s driven by materialist values. So this group does exist, and it is very large. Their voice needs to be heard and given an economic opportunity to turn goodwill into action, and government policy to support that.
The earthquake was definitely a magnet to bring together people who wanted to help and it suddenly made me aware that these people were there – not just in small numbers, but in large groups.
To find out more about Laurence Brahm and his work, check out his personal website.