China, we are told by US government officials and the parroting establishment media, has been aggressively attempting to expand its territory by taking over islands in the South China Sea. China, we are told, is a threat to peace.
It’s true, veteran journalist John Pilger concedes in the opening of his latest documentary film, The Coming War on China, that China has been trying to claim disputed territories in the South China Sea. But if this makes China a threat to peace, what does it make the US but the most aggressive and warmongering threat—not only to peace but to life on Earth itself—that has ever existed?
Pilger helps put things into proper perspective by presenting a map showing the locations of all the military bases the US has surrounding China, which of course raises the question: Who is really threatening whom?
A considerable portion of the film is dedicated to reminding us how the US engaged in its own territorial conquest in the Pacific during World War II. Having taken control of the Marshall Islands, for over a decade following the end of that war and through the initial years of the so-called “Cold War” with the Soviet Union, the US used this tropical paradise as a testing ground for its nuclear weapons.
Pilger shows us a US propaganda film in which military officials explain to the natives the benevolent American overlordship of the islands. The islanders are told that they are fortunate enough to have been chosen to participate in “experiments” that will help create a better future for mankind.
The inhabitants of the Bikini Atoll were persuaded to leave their homes temporarily for these experiments to be carried out. They were told they could soon return, but that was a lie. Sixty-seven nuclear weapons were detonated by the US between 1946 and 1958 at Bikini Atoll and nearby Rongelap Atoll, rendering the islanders’ tropical paradise an uninhabitable wasteland.
But the US’s experiments didn’t stop at just blowing ships out of the water and vaporizing atoll islands. In the early 1970s, the Bikini islanders were told by the US government that it was safe for them to move back home. That was a lie, too. Government scientists knew the atoll was still a radioactive wasteland (it remains unsafe for habitation even today), but they were curious about the effects on human life, and the islanders made useful guinea pigs for their continued experiment. After eight years of ingesting high levels of radiation from food grown on the island, they were once again evacuated.
The people of nearby Rongelap weren’t quite so lucky. The US didn’t bother to evacuate them prior to the initiation of nuclear testing. On March 1, 1954, the US detonated the 15-megaton Castle Bravo device, raining radioactive fallout onto Rongelap. Only then were they evacuated, but, being told the same lie that it was safe, they were returned just three years later. It soon became evident that they were being killed by radiation poisoning, but they were abandoned by the US government; it was Greenpeace that in 1985 helped them to evacuate the radioactive atoll.
Surviving islanders—those who haven’t yet died from cancer—remember how the atoll once provided for all their needs. Exiled from their paradise, they now reside in slums and live on imported processed foods. The lucky ones have jobs serving US military personnel based on Kwajalein Island, like cutting the grass at one of Kwajalein Atoll’s two golf courses. We are shown the smiling faces of Americans relaxing poolside, talking about how wonderful island life is. At the end of the day, native workers shipped over to Kwajalein to serve the occupiers are shipped back again to nearby Ebeye, “the slum of the Pacific”.
Having tested its weaponry at the Marshall Islands, where missile testing continues today, the US began pointing its nuclear arms at China, such as from its base on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Residents there aren’t exactly thrilled about this arrangement. China isn’t the threat to peace, as far as they are concerned—the US is. It’s the American presence on their island that is the problem. But, of course, the government of Japan is beholden to Washington and so ignores the pleas from Okinawans to expel the US military presence from their soil.
The film next turns to China’s economy, and here, unfortunately, its message gets terribly muddied. Mao Zedong is characterized essentially as a hero who led the resistance against foreign influence and expelled the US-backed regime of Chiang Kai-Shek, who fled with his government and army to Taiwan. There is no mention of the mass murder of tens of millions of Chinese under the Communist leadership between 1958 and 1962, the years of Mao’s so-called “Great Leap Forward”.
The film conveys the message that capitalism is bad and central planning is good. This results in some perplexing inconsistencies. China, we are told, has advanced economically, pulling millions out of poverty and allowing record numbers of Chinese to become millionaires, thanks to the wise overlordship of the Chinese government. But the disparity of wealth is increasing and millions are still kept in poverty due to the evils of capitalism!
The converse hypothesis—that it’s the market that has pulled millions out of poverty and the government’s bungling effort to centrally plan the economy and its inequitable redistribution of wealth that has impeded this progress—is evidently inconceivable.
At one point, the viewer is told by one interviewee, Eric Li, that China today has a “market economy”, but that it’s not capitalism because in capitalism, capital controls the government, whereas in China, the government controls capital (the government is “above” rather than “below” capital, as he puts it). How are viewers supposed to wrap their minds around this gibberish? A market economy is one in which economic decisions and prices are determined by the aggregate decisions of business and consumers in the marketplace. It is the opposite of a centrally planned economy, where the state dictates how resources ought to be used and what prices should be. If the Chinese government is “above” capital, by which Li presumably means it makes decisions about how capital out to be directed, then it is not a market economy; and if it was a market economy, then it would not be centrally planned out of Beijing!
Of course, it’s not entirely one or the other; there are semblances of a market economy in China (incomparably more so today than under Mao’s dictatorship), just as there are semblances of a market economy in the US. Indeed, market forces can never be entirely eliminated by the state, despite its best efforts; it’s more a question of how freely individuals in the marketplace are able to engage in voluntary exchanges for mutual benefit and how perverse incentives become due to bureaucrats’ efforts to dictate to individuals what their preferences ought to be and to otherwise control their behavior.
In China, individual liberty is not exactly respected. For instance, freedom of speech, as Pilger points out, is not something Chinese citizens enjoy in particularly great abundance, and saying the wrong things about the political leadership could potentially land one in prison. But the distinction Eric Li is presumably attempting to make is that in China, central planners do not make themselves available to serve the highest bidders, as politicians do in America. They are, in other words, we are evidently supposed to believe, uncorrupt.
The unspoken corollary is that China’s supposedly uncorrupt leaders make decisions about how scarce resources ought to be directed completely arbitrarily. That is, we are supposed to believe that the same politicians who prohibit media from questioning the legitimacy of the Communist Party and have imprisoned citizens for criticizing their rule are so enlightened that they know better than the market with its pricing system how to efficiently direct resources toward productive ends. Rather than communicating the preposterousness of this suggestion to viewers (as he rightly does with the statements of interviewed apologists for the American Empire), Pilger presents it as serious commentary.
Of course, Americans are taught to believe much the same thing about their own government legislators, their wise overlords who must “regulate” the market in order to protect them from its evils.
Eric Li is certainly correct to point out that financial interests in the US employ the use of government force to achieve their aims (that is, that capital is “above” the government, in his terminology). What neither he nor Pilger communicate to viewers, however, is that this is the antithesis of free market competition. The term “crony capitalism” is a fairly popular and more appropriate description for this system, although this, too, is problematic in that it remains oxymoronic; but whatever one chooses to call it, it is not free market capitalism. (“Crapitalism” is another perhaps more fitting label.)
There is certainly also plenty of central planning in the American system, including a government-legislated monopoly over the supply of currency—in which US dollars are created out of thin air by the Federal Reserve through its purchases of US debt (upon which debt the American taxpayers owe interest to the bondholders).
It is, of course, in the state’s interest to indoctrinate its citizens into the belief that the “free market” is to blame for the harmful consequences of its own market interventions. Mainstream economists usefully perform this technocratic function for the state. An entire school of economic thought known as Keynesianism, after the ideas of economist John Maynard Keynes, exists essentially to manufacture the public’s consent for the existence of central banking. As a useful example, in the wake of the dot-com bubble, liberal economist Paul Krugman advocated that the Federal Reserve intervene to artificially push down interest rates specifically to fuel a boom in the housing sector; then, when that worked and the resulting housing bubble turned inevitably to bust, he blamed the market!
And the solution to the problem of corporate influence over government policy, of course, isn’t to allow the government to assume even greater powers to be sold to the highest bidder, but for those powers to be taken back by the people. Less government, not more, in other words, is the solution. If the government had none of the powers by which the financial and political elites are able to benefit themselves at the expense of the rest of society, then its cronies would be forced to participate in the market and to compete with others by producing better goods or services at a lower price—as opposed to circumventing the marketplace by instead employing government force to achieve their aims.
There was a real opportunity here to educate viewers about economic issues relevant to the film’s thesis that the US is provoking China to war, but unfortunately it was missed. There is no discussion of US dollar hegemony, China’s holding of over $1 trillion in US debt, the trade balance between the two countries, China’s gold holdings and moves to develop independence from the global dollar system, etc. The viewer could have greatly benefited from understanding how economic issues factor into the equation, and especially understanding that the primary reason China is viewed as a menace by US policymakers is due to its threat to US dollar hegemony, but the discussion is unfortunately kept to the superficial characterizations of the free market as somehow inherently evil.
The Coming War on China falls short in this important respect, but should still be watched by anyone concerned about growing tensions between the US and China. While it fails to educate about relevant economic matters, it does do an excellent job of putting the American denunciations of China’s aggression in the South China Sea into perspective by exposing the extraordinary and seemingly limitless hypocrisy of the US government, the greatest threat to peace the world has ever known.
“The Coming War on China” is written, directed, and produced by John Pilger and distributed by BullFrog Films.
This article was originally published at Foreign Policy Journal.