A spectre is haunting Southeast Asia. The spectre of – well, you know the rest.
Today, the People’s Republic of China celebrates seven decades since its founding. Seven decades since Mao Zedong stood before a people wrenched apart by decades of civil war and more than a century of subjugation at the hands of the imperial West and declared the founding of a new order: one where sovereignty would rest not merely in the hands of a reunited China, but in the hands of the men and women who would give their labour – and their lives – to rebuild it.
Now, as the people of Hong Kong rise up in protest to demand greater democracy and an end to state violence against those fighting for their political and economic freedoms, a Communist Party that once ripped power from the hands of landlords to redistribute to those who toiled in the fields finds itself in unlikely company.
As thousands of protesters flooded Hong Kong’s train stations and brought its international airport to a standstill, the propertied billionaires whose real estate empires place them among the wealthiest men and women in Asia pleaded with the people to return to their homes and restore order to the streets. Their words could have been taken from the People’s Daily itself.
Which brings us back to the spectre.
It doesn’t take an avid student of history to remember a time when Southeast Asia seemed ripe for revolution. Across Indochina, guerrilla forces drawn from the poorest of the peasantry fought bitter campaigns to drive out the colonial powers and their puppet regimes, establishing new governments in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
Now, the Vietnam that fought for decades against the imperialist forces of both East and West has laid its economy open to the world; in Hanoi, the hammer and sickle flies freely alongside the golden arches of McDonald’s. Foreign steel foundries pour poison into the waters off the nation’s coast, devastating fishing stocks and driving local communities to the streets in search of justice.
Every morning, countless garment factory workers are loaded onto trucks and shipped to the stifling factories that ring the capital.
In neighbouring Cambodia, years of famine, infighting and Vietnamese occupation have been buried beneath the veneer of liberal multiparty democracy in a nation where one party – headed by former Khmer Rouge commanders – controls every seat in the National Assembly. Like Vietnam, the nation has become a crucial link in a supply chain that keeps the wealthy West flush with cheap clothes and consumer goods.
Every morning, countless garment factory workers are loaded onto trucks and shipped to the stifling factories that ring the capital. A far cry from the black-clad peasants of Pol Pot’s agrarian utopia, these garment workers have been forged into a new urban proletariat in a nation where socialism has become synonymous with genocide and disaster.
In Laos, healthcare and education – fundamental to any conception of a socialist society – remain badly under-resourced. Nor has the dream of a society where workers practice direct democracy from the factory floor to the rice fields seemed to have materialised – though Laos’ absolute crackdown on media and civil society make it difficult for international observers to draw any clear picture of day-to-day life in the reclusive nation.
Across Southeast Asia, as in China, the gap between rich and poor is widening. Even in the region’s ostensibly socialist societies, multinational corporations are given almost unrestrained access to labour forces that remain under-skilled and underpaid. Natural resources are plundered to sate the needs of the developed world and line the pockets of those locals politically connected enough to parcel out both forests and fields.
Militaries that cut their teeth cracking down on communist supporters continue to play an active role in the region’s governments, securing senate seats and control of key economic and political institutions. Even in nations where elections have allowed for peaceful transfers of power, widespread corruption and the concentration of power into the hands of a narrow urban elite ensure few unfamiliar faces in Southeast Asia’s halls of power.
Put simply, the “most active, unlimited participation of the mass of the people” – in short, “unlimited democracy” – promised by early Marxist thinkers seems a long way off.
Laos and Vietnam remained locked in what has been widely condemned as a form of “Market-Leninism” that preserves all the injustices and inequalities of capitalist economies as well the repression and opacity of the 20th century Stalinist regimes.
Nor is authoritarianism the sole preserve of one-party states. In nations where the spread of communism and broader left-wing ideals was strangled, those same tools used to suppress the spread of Marxist thought have been turned on their own populations.
In Singapore, an authoritarian government that successfully purged the city-state of leftist leaders retains the right to indefinitely detain dissidents without trial. In Indonesia, which saw the bloody executions of more than half a million men, women and children targeted in violent anti-communist crackdowns in the 60s, any attempt to discuss or spread leftist ideals is punishable by law – a law that will only intensify if President Joko Widodo’s controversial criminal code is passed.
In the Philippines, where a Maoist insurgency has been raging for more than half a century, the nation has once again been gripped by martial law in the restive south, stripping civilians of basic civil liberties. Under President Duterte, who has given state security forces seemingly limitless license to wage a vicious war against society’s most vulnerable, the military has launched a renewed wage of killings of those poor peasants and indigenous rights activists accused of being linked to the hated New People’s Army.
Stripped of its ideals of radical emancipation and equality, the communism of 21st century China and its analogues across Southeast Asia holds little hope for those dreaming of a more just and democratic society – one where power resides not in the hands of the propertied few but the people who work to build the nations that birthed them.
For a spectre to walk the earth, something must first have died. The question remains: what will be born in its place?