By Charitha Ratwatte –
Readers will recall the novel ‘The Ugly American,’ published in 1958 by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. In 1963, a hit movie was made starring Marlon Brando. The novel became a bestseller and greatly influenced American and worldwide thinking.
The novel presents in a fictionalised guise the experience of American expatriates in South East Asia and allegedly represents, by pseudonyms, several real people, living and working in Viet Nam at that time. The novel describes a fictional country called Sarkhan (meant to allude to Viet Nam) and details how the Americans lost the struggle against communism in Viet Nam. Much later, this aspect was referred to as the ‘Battle for Hearts and Minds’.
The need for enhanced capability in this area has been reinforced by the recent debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, faced by foreign armies. General Petraeus, the famed overall commander in both those wars, who later headed the Central Intelligence Agency, before having to resign, rewrote the Counter Insurgency Strategy and Manual of the United States Army, building around the hearts and minds aspects of security, community and social development.
The novel ‘The Ugly American’ details the failure of the Americans in Viet Nam, allegedly due to innate arrogance and the failure to appreciate and respect the local culture. This has been the bane of armies of occupation, throughout history.
Even the British Raj, which was one example of how a few expatriates used local native troops under the command of British officers from other parts of the Indian Empire to control local people, e.g. Gorkhas from Nepal and Gorkhaland in the Madras Presidency and Punjab Sikhs in Kerala, and British expatriate administrators integrating themselves with the local community, learning and respecting their language and customs, etc., had to fall on their collective bayonets when they sent an
Expeditionary Force to Kabul – only one officer returned alive.
The arrogance of the British Indian Army, which had dominated the whole of the India, combined with the intuitive guerrilla tactics of the Afghan Irregulars and the inhospitable terrain, caused the defeat of the Expeditionary Force.
A double entendre
Analysts have commented that the title ‘The Ugly American’ is actually a double entendre, referring both to the physically unattractive hero and also to the obnoxious and ‘in your face’ behaviour of Americans abroad.
The novel quotes a Burmese journalist saying: “For some reason, the American people I meet in country are not the same ones I meet in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.”
In the book, the average American abroad is compared with the plain looking hero, engineer Homer Atkins, who lives with the local people, comes to understand their needs and who offers genuinely useful assistance with small-scale projects such as the development of a simple bicycle-powered water pump. The book argues that the communists were successful because they followed similar tactics.
In 1959 Newsweek claimed that the prototype for the ‘Ugly American’ was a technician of the then US International Cooperation Agency Otto Hunderwadel and his wife Helena, who served in Burma from 1949 until his death in 1952. The couple lived with the villagers, taught farming techniques and helped start home canning industries.
It is said that John Kennedy, later President of the USA, was so taken up with the book that he and five other opinion leaders brought a full page advertisement in the New York Times saying that that they had sent copies to every US Senator, because the book’s message was so important. Maybe this was the seed for Kennedy’s Peace Corps, which he introduced as President?
Another factor which promoted the ‘Ugly American’ concept was the boorish and obnoxious, heavy spending behaviour of American tourists in Europe and the rest of the world in the 1960s, on package tours (the ‘if it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium’ types) outnumbering all other travellers.
A uni-polar world
We are today living in a uni-polar world, with the USA being the only real super power. The USSR is history. British politicians have shown their true colours by ducking the Syrian poison gas issue and seem to be on an isolationist track – reneging on Rudyard Kipling’s 1899 urging to ‘Take up the White Man’s Burden, the savage wars of peace, fill full the mouths of famine, and bid the sickness cease,’ and to expect ‘The blame of those ye better, the hate of those ye guard.’
But analysts point out that even the power of the USA is limited mainly by economic factors and the negative effects of long and expensive wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, expensive both in human and financial costs. Americans are becoming more and more averse to undertaking military or other interventions abroad, they are becoming more insular. This is seen from the reluctance of President Obama to take a decisive step in Syria, although the self-proclaimed ‘red line’ of poison gas attack has, for all purposes, been crossed by the Assad regime.
One is reminded of that famous line from Sergio Leonie’s spaghetti western ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’: “When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk!” So with the ‘Ugly American’ going out of the scene, who will be the successor?
A bipolar world
Analysts predict a bipolar world emerging with the People’s Republic of China sharing influence with a much-diminished USA. China is the trading and manufacturing centre of the world. No one can match the China price. China is sucking in natural resources for all parts of the world, especially Africa, the Gulf States and Central Asia. Chinese are travelling abroad in increasing numbers and aggressively engaging in export trade. History is repeating itself.
The sea going Sampan fleets of Admiral Cheng Ho, which traversed the world in around 1410, long before the European explorers passed the Cape of Good Hope, is one example; so also the land-bound caravans which traversed Central Asia, one terminus being Xian in South East China.
Today China is developing a road and rail network to move goods and people to European markets across Central Asia. Already manufacturers from outside China, having factories in China, are using the rail road to move goods to Europe over land, in dedicated goods trains.
‘Ugly Chinaman’ the successor?
So will the ‘Ugly Chinaman’ be the successor to the ‘Ugly American’? The issue can be debated; there are many factors in China’s current behaviour worldwide which puts them in bad light. But China in its 5,000-year history has been isolated from the rest of the world for a comparatively shorter time that the 200-year-old USA.
For thousands of year Chinese have traversed the world and foreign visitors have travelled in China. China has a huge capacity to absorb foreign cultures, to assimilate and to adjust to them. But what are the current sign posts for a future ‘Ugly Chinaman’ emerging?
Consider China’s relations with Myanmar. As long as Myanmar was under military dictatorship, the dominant neighbour was the People’s Republic of China. The day-to-day management of relations with Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new capital city, was delegated by Beijing to the provincial government, in the neighbouring province of Yunan and the military command located there.
China has insisted that all flights between Myanmar and China are required to transit Kunming, the capital of Yunan Province, notwithstanding the fact that there are direct flights from Myanmar’s Yangon (formerly Rangoon, the earlier capital) to other international airports in Seoul, Singapore, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Ho Chi Mihn City.
China claimed the first call on exploitation of Myanmar’s natural resources, which also created resentment. Villages where the natural resources were located opposed the presence of Chinese managers and workers. The People’s Liberation Army was highly influential in Chinese investment in Myanmar and deeply involved in business ventures and enterprises.
However, when Myanmar’s military dictators began to open and liberalise their governance and the economy, by negotiating with oppositionist Aung San Suu Kyi, whom they had earlier placed under house arrest and refused to recognise an earlier election which was won resoundingly by her party, a freed people found the overwhelming influence of China stifling.
Over time, Myanmar, which was a virtual isolated client state of the People’s Republic of China, has opened up its doors and is the target of investors from all over the world today. Myanmar is today the aid donors’ and investors’ darling. China has lost its domineering position.
China’s rise as an economic power house was preordained from the day Deng Hsiao Ping unshackled the economy in 1979. Indigenous Chinese capitalism re-manifested itself, last seen in the pre-revolutionary days in Shanghai and Hong Kong, private businesses, affluent consumers, humming export factories, stock markets which are the darling of investors and Chinese bureaucrats and officials in business suits, female consumers in the latest Western fashions, a change from Mao’s tunic.
As China’s foreign reserves and terms of trade improved, China went further afield to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and even West Asia, Africa, which was a key source of raw materials for China’s industry.
China’s behaviour in Africa
There are examples to be drawn from China’s current behaviour in Africa too, which indicate the emergence of an ‘Ugly Chinaman’. Nigeria’s Central Bank Governor, recently commented: “Africa must shake off its romantic view of China and accept Beijing as a competitor as much as a partner capable of the same exploitative practices as the old European colonial powers.”
Governor Lamido Sanusi reflects the view of a growing number of senior African bureaucrats who fear that Africa’s emerging industries are being drowned in a sea of cheap industrial products from China. He further said: “Africa is opening itself up to a new form of imperialism, China takes from us primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism.” An estimated one million Chinese are today resident in Africa, up from a few thousand a decade ago.
Sanusi goes on: “China is no longer ‘a fellow underdeveloped economy’; China is the second largest economy in the world, an economic giant capable of the same forms of exploitation as the West. China is a major contributor to the deindustrialisation of Africa and thus African underdevelopment.”
Sanusi says that Africa must respond to Chinese predatory trade practices such as currency manipulation and subsidies, which gives Chinese exports an advantage. He comments: “The days of the Non Aligned Movement that united emerging nations after colonialism are long gone. Africa must realise that China – like the US, Russia, Britain and Brazil and the rest – is in Africa not for African interests but its own.”
Between Africa’s Sahara desert (in the North) and the Kalahari Desert (in the South) lie many of the raw materials desired by China-based industries. 90% of Chinese imports from Africa are minerals. 30% of Africa’s imports from China are machinery and electrical goods, textiles, chemicals and plastics and rubber. China is Africa’s top business partner, with trade exceeding US$ 166 billion. In Ghana, a crackdown on Chinese gold miners by Ghanaian authorities and local villages’ hostility has led to arrest and deportations of Chinese citizens.
The rapid increase in Chinese outbound tourism is also fuelling the ‘Ugly Chinaman’ syndrome. It is estimated that in 2015, 100 million Chinese will travel abroad. Sri Lanka is also trying to attract this traffic. However there is a backlash now developing against the alleged obnoxious behaviour of Chinese tourists; particularly the new rich Chinese tourist who seems to think, “If I am paying money, them I am God!” This is happening especially in Europe, where the attitude seems to be ‘you toss some coins and Western people dance for you!’
Since Chinese credit cards are not accepted in most foreign countries or significant fees are involved in their use, Chinese tourists carry large amounts of cash. In Paris’ Champs Elysees, pickpockets target Chinese tourist for this reason. French luxury goods outlets like Hermes, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Dior and Louis Vuitton, etc. complain that “Paris is acquiring a reputation for absolute insecurity” for tourists, especially for those from China. These luxury companies give their clients distinctive gift bags for their purchases, which are targeted by criminal elements.
Pick-pocketing of tourists, especially those from China, became such a problem at Paris’s the Louvre Museum this year that staff went on strike to raise the alarm. Chinese tourists do not mix well; it is reported that the Maldives is planning separate atolls for the Chinese, where there will be no European tourists. This negative thinking on Chinese tourists will also drive the ‘Ugly Chinaman’ syndrome, as it did in the case of the Americans.
We in Sri Lanka too have long been exposed to Chinese influences. The earliest recorded mission from China to Sri Lanka took place during the time of the Han dynasty’s Emperor Ping (1-6 CE). Between the first and 10th centuries, Sri Lanka’s kings, it is recorded, sent at least 10 missions to the Middle Kingdom.
In the fifth century the Buddhist scholar Fa Hsien visited the Maha Vihara in Anuradhapura. Archaeological evidence at Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa and especially Yapahuwa has turned up Chinese artefacts such as ceramic ware and coins belonging to the Sung dynasty.
Chinese seagoing sampans would have berthed at Gokanna, the modern Trincomalee, and traders would have gone cross country to Anuradhapura to trade with traders from the West, Jews, Moors and Europeans, who also came to Anuradhapura overland after their vessels docked at Manthai, the modern Mannar. The South West and North East monsoon winds would have propelled these vessels. Dependence on monsoon wind power meant that the traders would have been compelled to stay in Sri Lanka during the inter-monsoon period; their prolonged presence would have had a substantial impact.
Anuradhapura had a separate area for traders, designated by royal edict and special taxes were levied on foreign traders, at the ports of Manthai, Gokanna and Magampura and in the capital city Anuradhapura. The pair of guardian lions at the bottom of the ascent of the stairs to Yapahuwa bears a striking resemblance to ancient Chinese sculptured lions.
Whatever the ancient history, how can one discount the presence of the descendants of the Hong Kong Chinese laundrymen who live in Trincomalee, brought there by the British Navy in colonial times due to the reluctance of the locals to undertake mass-scale laundry work of sailors due to caste and other social stigma issues, or the Chinese dental mechanics who operated in nearly all cities, the Chinese traders in their ‘Lucky Stores’ and house-to-house traders on their bicycles and the ubiquitous Chinese restaurants, today some not having any real connection to China at all, except the concoctions emerging from the kitchen of the restaurant, probably a Ceylonised Chinese diet?
Also the Rubber Rice Pact, the initiative to settle the border war between India and China, the BMICH, the assistance provided in the war against the LTTE, ships, aircraft, weapons and armaments, NORINCO’s store at Boosa in Galle of T56s and ammunition which were supplied on a payable-when-able basis, the Nelum Pokuna Centre for the Performing Arts at the former CMC Grounds in Colombo, Hambantota Magampura Harbour, Mattala Airport, the Hambantota International Conference Centre, Norochcholai, loans, equipment and grants for Maga Naguma?
Today China has a huge footprint in Sri Lanka. Large numbers of Chinese construction workers, estimated by some at 26,000, have been issued work visas to undertake China-financed construction projects in Sri Lanka.
Financing, in the nature of grants, concessionary and commercial loans from Chinese State banks, are flooding the country. Some of these are at Libor +2.9 %, with a 15 to 20 year repayment period.
The Chinese construction workers are generally getting bad press in Sri Lanka. Reports of protected animals like pangolins, tortoises and monkeys, considered delicacies in China, being killed for consumption, lack of adequate safety standards, Chinese workers being killed in construction site accidents, etc., turn public opinion to negative.
Maybe the overwhelming Chinese economic, trade, tourism and financial presence the world over, in the emerging bipolar world, dominated by the USA and China, has the seeds of an incipient emergence of an ‘Ugly Chinaman’ to succeed the ‘Ugly American’? Who is rejecting the ‘The White Man’s Burden’?