Monday, June 18, 2012

France's war in Algeria explored in Paris exhibitionBy Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

16 Jun 2012

On the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence, it might seem an odd choice to mount an exhibition marking 130 years of French colonial rule over the country.

But at the Army Museum at the Invalides in Paris, that is exactly what they have done.

Algeria 1830-1962 is a look back over France's long military presence there.

It starts with the arrival of an invading force at Sidi-Farruch in June 1830, and ends with the ignominious post-independence pull-out.

Visitors are treated to historic relics such as the ceremonial keys to the city of Algiers and the spurs of rebel leader AbdelKader.

But by far the greatest interest lies in the second part of the exhibition, which deals exclusively with the eight-year war of independence.

'Very sensitive questions'

Fortunately, this is no tub-thumping homage to "our-men-in-khaki" of the kind normally associated with military museums.

On the contrary, it is an honest attempt to understand a traumatic period of history which affected millions of people in sharply different ways.

"Our conception was to place the Algeria war in its long-term context," said Colonel Christophe Bertrand, the exhibition's curator.

"Obviously the emphasis is on the last eight years of France's presence, but a lot of what went on in the war can only be explained by what happened before.

"The story we tell is not one of brave paratroopers fighting nasty fellagha [bandits]. It is a story punctuated by phases of terrible violence, in which it is impossible to avoid some very sensitive questions."

The Algeria war began with a series of bomb attacks carried out by the National Liberation Front (FLN) in November 1954.

Since 1881 the country had been administered (unlike Morocco and Tunisia) as an integral part of France, with departments, communes and French place-names like Philippeville and Oran.

There were also around one million European settlers - not just French but also Italians, Spanish and Maltese - and a large indigenous community of Jews.

The war passed through various stages

a) helicopter-borne raids on the rural maquis [insurgents] of FLN's armed wing, the National Liberation Army (ALN)

b) sealing off the borders with Tunisia and Morocco

c) the so-called battle of Algiers against urban bomb-planters

Then came the Challe offensive of 1959 which effectively finished the ALN as a fighting force, and the hearts-and-minds campaign of the Constantine Plan which took army doctors and teachers out into the remote countryside.

For many historians, the irony is that, from a purely military point of view, the French army won.

But by the end of the 1950s, military victory had ceased to count.

Thousands dead

To Gen Charles de Gaulle - who took power in 1958 - it was obvious that the vast majority of Algerians supported national independence, while mainland French simply wanted the sorry story to end.

Talks with the FLN began as early as June 1960, prompting an angry backlash by the European settlers. There were riots in Algiers, and in 1961 part of the army there staged an unsuccessful military coup.

Peace was signed at Evian in March 1962. Independence officially arrived on 5 July, though it is hard to pinpoint one day in what was in fact a long and often violent process.

One million settlers - the pieds-noirs - were uprooted and transported to France.

And a far worse fate lay in store for the tens of thousands of Algerians who had fought on the side of France. Some 30,000 harkis - and possibly many more - were massacred by the new Algerian authorities.

Lucky Algerian loyalists made it to France, though once there the indifference towards them shown by de Gaulle's government was a bewildering humiliation.

Today arguments rage over casualty figures for the war, but here are the numbers offered in a recent book by British historian Martin Evans, Algeria - France's Undeclared War

- Algerian fighters killed by French army: 140,000
- Algerian civilians killed in French military operations: 60,000
- Algerians killed by FLN: 37,000
- Harkis killed at end of war: 30,000 (though some say 150,000)
- French troops killed in action: 15,500
- Settlers killed in FLN terrorism: 2,800
- Victims (mainly Algerian) of settler terrorism in 1962: 1,700
- All this is told in the exhibition, which draws on the army's own extensive film archives as well as photographs, uniforms, weapons and captured FLN documents.

A Disaster

There is no hiding the FLN's use of terrorism and murder to force Algerians to drop their allegiance to the French.

But nor does the museum avoid the vexed issue of France's own use of torture, which is now known to have been routine.

Previously unpublished photographs show a man trussed up and slung beneath a wooden bar being beaten on the soles of his feet. In another, French officers grip a prisoner by the throat

"If we had, we would have completely lost our credibility."

Testament to the exhibition's success is that it is drawing in visitors of all backgrounds. Not all are happy, but they are certainly fascinated.

One pied-noir, now in his 80s, was angry at the portrayal of the war: "Why rake it all up again? It was a disaster, and now look at the mess the Algerian government has made of the country."

There are also many young Algerians, keen to see a version of their history outside their official textbooks, and French army veterans, from among 1.4 million conscripts who saw service in the war.

"There is no one truth about the Algeria war," said the museum's director Gen Christian Baptiste.

"There are many truths, and we have done our best to reflect all of them.

"The difficulty is that even after 50 years the suffering is still very raw. In many cases, the pain has been handed down from one generation to the next."

'Condemned to co-exist'

The past does indeed still cast a shadow over France's relationship with Algeria. Though the two countries are bound together by a web of human and economic ties, somehow the suspicion never disappears.

In recent years an attempt to draw up a Treaty of Friendship has come to nothing, largely because of Algeria's insistence that France first commit some act of official contrition.

But such an act is most unlikely to emerge.

"Acts of repentance for specific events are one thing but a general statement of repentance is meaningless," said historian Maurice Vaisse.

"Algeria was part of the global historical phenomenon of colonialism. Of course France profited greatly from it and there were great injustices, but by the time France left, Algeria was a developed country with elements of a modern economy.

"Many terrible things happened, but they were also committed on the Algerian side."

For historian Benjamin Stora, France and Algeria are "condemned to co-exist".

"But it is true that the question of memory is a problem," he adds.

"They say that memory divides. Only history heals. That is why it is the task of historians and politicians to tell the full story - from all sides."

The Army Museum's exhibition is part of that process.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tiananmen revisited - interview with Ezra Vogel (5 Jun 2012, ST)

THE day was June 4, 1989. American Sinologist Ezra Vogel was, as he puts it, 'furious' as he watched on television Chinese soldiers firing on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square.

Beijing's crackdown on the student-led protesters was a 'terrible tragedy', says Professor Vogel, an emeritus don in social sciences at Harvard University.

The man many blamed for the bloodbath was paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who had ordered the crackdown.

Yet when Prof Vogel sat down in 2000 to begin writing a dispassionate biography of Deng, he found 'a logic' in how and why Deng did what he did.

He says Deng, already 84 years old in 1989, had to quell a 'perfect storm' of factors that threatened to derail his 10-year effort to modernise China. The storm had started two months earlier with the sudden death of widely respected former Communist Party of China (CPC) chief Hu Yaobang.

Deng sanctioned no public unrest and reviled anyone he felt was disloyal to China and the CPC. He had fallen out with Hu, whom he considered too liberal on political and economic reforms.

The paramount leader's stance angered Hu's many admirers, who were mostly students and poorly paid workers. They were buckling under soaring inflation, which Deng felt then Premier and CPC general secretary Zhao Ziyang had failed to manage. Deng's differing views with Zhao on reforms hastened their split in May 1989.

Prof Vogel, 81, shared these views with The Straits Times last week, on the eve of the 23rd anniversary of the June 4 incident. Chinese officials say about 200 people, including many soldiers, were killed. Prof Vogel, was here for two weeks as the Singapore Management University's Ho Bee Professor in Chinese Economy and Business.

After more than a decade of research, Prof Vogel published his 745-page book in September last year. Titled simply Deng Xiaoping And The Transformation Of China, it received mixed reviews.

Many praised his even-handed approach to the steely, taciturn pragmatist who set China on the path to economic supremacy. But critics found him too sympathetic to Deng. They were riled most by Prof Vogel's conclusion on the June 4 events: 'What we do know is that in the two decades after Tiananmen, China enjoyed relative stability and rapid - even spectacular - economic growth... than at any time in Chinese history.'

Of his critics, Prof Vogel says: 'Many... were reporters in Tiananmen Square on June 4 and Deng did such a horrible thing that they see anyone who explains why he did it, and how China has grown rapidly since, as soft and dumb.'

Deng, a thrice-married Sichuanese and father of five, went in 70 years from leading a small county to steering south-west China and then the entire country. Along the way, he was purged twice from the CPC, first for supposedly being a capitalist and then for being a counter-revolutionary. But Deng, who Mao Zedong once likened to a needle in a ball of cotton, rolled with the many political punches.

Ironically, Prof Vogel learnt none of this from Deng himself.

The closest he got to the leader was seeing him from across a crowded room. Also, Deng wrote almost none of his thoughts down, having learnt from his days in the underground not to leave paper trails that might damn him.

Does all this not leave his book wanting? Prof Vogel responds: 'I don't think I missed that much. Even if I had met him, he wouldn't have told me all the answers to the key questions, such as 'What were you thinking on June 4?', 'What did you really think of Mao?' and 'How did you take power?''

Still, he allows, he is 'not 100 per cent sure' about his interpretation of Deng, even after having interviewed Deng's youngest daughter Deng Rong, China's former president Jiang Zemin and Singapore's former prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, among others.

Prof Vogel says Mr Lee, in particular, helped shape his reading of Deng's controversial 1979 invasion of Vietnam. Many had charged that Deng did that just to gain control of China's army; at that time, many of the country's high military officials were still in thrall of the late Mao and were resisting Deng, who they believed would betray China by making it embrace capitalism.

But Mr Lee, who discussed Deng only once with Prof Vogel some time in 2002, gave a clear-eyed account of Deng's 'intense worries' that the Soviet Union, with Vietnam's help, would encircle China - with a view to conquering South-east Asia.

Deng not only told Mr Lee all this when he visited Singapore for the first time in November 1978, but also asked the Singapore leader to stress to the United States how imminent that threat was. Mr Lee did so. A year later, China invaded Vietnam, staunching the Soviet tide in Asia.

Prof Vogel first met Mr Lee in the early 1970s, when he hosted the then Prime Minister at Harvard's East Asia Centre on the latter's official trip to the US. The Harvard don found Mr Lee 'extremely bright, vigorous and a real intellectual as well as a confident leader'.

And, he adds, although Mr Lee was 19 years younger than Deng, the latter respected Mr Lee for what he had done with Singapore. 'Deng was learning more from Mr Lee than vice versa,' says Prof Vogel, 'because by then, Singapore's leaders had a more settled political structure and learnt how to keep their city attractive'.

With such lessons in hand, Deng steered China to economic success. Who might be its next Deng, then?

Prof Vogel says: 'Nobody - and it's not just a question of talent; it's structural.

'Deng was a revolutionary and war hero who came to power in an unstructured time, so he had a special authority. But people in office in peacetime are not war heroes. It's a natural development.'

Is China's often corrupt nouveau riche a natural development of Deng's reforms too?

'Well, you could say that,' he allows, 'but just before he stepped down in 1992, somebody asked him about a corruption case and Deng said, 'We must move with two fists - one for pushing reform and the other for improper behaviour'.

The most notorious example of that today is the CPC's former top official in Chongqing, Bo Xilai and his lawyer wife, Gu Kailai. Prof Vogel says that with the hard-to-handle Bo gone, China's top and emerging leaders will now work together more closely to weed out corruption in their ranks and speed up political reform.

Prof Vogel is now in talks with China publisher San Lian to release a Chinese language version of his book in China.

He says: 'Many intellectuals in China would like to talk about the background to Tiananmen, but they would have more trouble than a foreigner would in doing so. So my book would hopefully increase the range of freedom they have to write about it

What happened to Mao's Revolution?

No-one in China is lower in the pecking order than farmers and villagers. When they migrate to cities to work in factories, they often live in squalor. So what happened to Mao Zedong's communist revolution which was supposed to improve the lot of the rural poor?

The rolling hills and rivers of Jiangxi province's Xunwu county in south-west China are picturesque, but this has long been one of the poorest places in the country.

That's why Mao Zedong came here for a month in 1930 - almost two decades before taking power. He visited the county seat, Changning, which was then a dusty little village of about 1,500 people, to see how the class system worked here.

The house where Mao stayed is now a museum. Visitors can gaze at the iron-frame bed where Mao slept, the desk where he worked, and the long table where he sat and talked with locals.

Mao met farmers, merchants, local officials, an imperial scholar, even disaffected youth. He noted, in colourful detail, who felt oppressed by whom, how the classes interacted, and how control of property was key to wealth and power.

Assisting Mao was a 24-year-old local named Gu Bo, the grandson of landowners. His family was renowned for sending many scholars over the centuries to serve the emperor. But Gu Bo wanted change.

"He thought the old system was unfair," says his grand-nephew, Gu Anjian, who lives in a village near Changning. "So once he joined the Communist revolution, he burned down his grandfather's house."

Gu Anjian chuckles affectionately. He's now a wizened 74-year-old, retired after serving 40 years as chief of his village. He sits at a round table in his kitchen with his brother, son and nephew, while the women in the family prepare lunch

He says Gu Bo and his brothers were all committed to revolutionary change in China. Four brothers went on the Long March with Mao. Three died. Gu Bo was killed in 1935 in an ambush, just a few years after working with Mao, believing that Communism was the best way forward to modernise China

China's Communist Party came to power promising to end the country's traditional class structure. As it turned out, it turned the class structure on its head. Scholars, landowners and merchants, the former privileged classes, were stripped of their rights, and sometimes of their lives. Villagers and workers were, for a time, elevated, in status and opportunity.

More than 60 years on, farmers and workers are again at the bottom of the heap, and while there's a growing middle class, China has one of the world's biggest and fastest-growing rates of income disparity.

The fortunes of the Gu family illustrate what's changed in China's class structure since Mao Zedong came here more than 80 years ago.

The family used to have more than its share of imperial scholars. Today, none of the Gu men at the kitchen table stayed in school beyond the age of 15.

Mao tried to abolish capitalism, but Gu Anjian's younger brother, Gu Anjia, is a keen capitalist: he traded steel abroad. I ask him what he thinks Gu Bo would have thought of him forging a career in capitalism.

"How would I know what he'd think?," he says, a little defensively. "Anyway, it was a state-run trading company I worked for - at least at first."

But in China, being connected to the state, or the Communist Party, doesn't mean you're not capitalist. More than 90% of China's richest people are Party members, according to the Hurun Report, which tracks the country's wealthy.

China's national anthem may exhort the downtrodden, "arise, those who refuse to be slaves," but these days, those who want to get rich join the Party, and the Party wants the rich to join it. That way, wealth stays concentrated in the hands of its members, who have little incentive to change the system.

The richest 75 members of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, have an average net worth of $1.2bn.

The Gu family is not in those ranks. It may have sacrificed its sons for the Revolution, but the family now lives a simple village life. Gu Anjian's 36-year-old son, Gu Zisong, scoffs when I ask if the family is proud that their relative worked with Mao to try to make China more egalitarian.

"Pride? What pride? If there were any glory in it, we wouldn't live here," he says.

Gu Zisong makes his living growing oranges - a line of work that has helped pull many farmers in this area out of poverty, since it caught on seven or eight years ago. You can see their profits in the new concrete and brick houses rising up in the village.

Gu Zisong admits life here is better than when he was a child. Back then, he says, the village consisted of mudbrick houses with no electricity or indoor plumbing, and dirt roads that turned to muck in the rain. Now, the roads are good, and most homes have refrigerators, TVs, even the occasional computer - which allows them to see that their lives might have got better - but the elite in China are doing far better still.

Another member of the family, Gu Yuesheng, 34, runs a kindergarten down the street. He started out as a migrant worker, in a sweater factory in the city of Dongguan, 250 miles away.

"I didn't really like the city," he says. "People looked down on migrant workers." He says workers were so underpaid and overworked that strikes and protests were common, even though independent trade unions in China are illegal.

"My own boss was ok," Gu says. "But even in my factory, if you were a migrant worker, you could only move up so far. The good jobs went to local people."

So, when Gu Yuesheng had made a bit of money, he came back here, and started his own sweater factory. At its peak, he says, it employed more than 120 fellow villagers, and produced four million sweaters a year. The factory had to close last year, when too many foreign customers went too long without paying.

"It felt like falling off a cliff," he says, shaking his head ruefully.

Still, Gu Yuesheng is proud of having helped his fellow villagers get a leg up, without having to go through the hardship and humiliation he experienced as a migrant worker. His efforts have also pushed him nicely into China's middle class. It's a mobility villagers here didn't have at the time Mao visited.

But with wages and expectations rising, Gu Yuesheng doubts the next generation will find it as easy as it was for him, if they're not educated. That's what the kindergarten is about, he says - to help children from this village get a head start.

Listen to more on this story at PRI's The World , a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH in Boston.

Friday, June 8, 2012

China's Great Wall is 'longer than previously thought'

China's Great Wall is 'longer than previously thought' (6 June 2012, BBC News)

The Great Wall of China has been officially declared even longer than previously thought, state-run media report.

The wall measures 21,196.18km (13,170.6956 miles) long based on the latest state survey results, state-run news agency Xinhua reported on Tuesday.

A preliminary study released in 2009 estimated the wall to be 8,850km long.

The world's largest man-made structure was built to protect China's northern border.

This is the first time such a definitive figure has been released, Xinhua reports.

The State Administration of Cultural Heritage released the results based on an archaeological survey done since 2007.

Previous estimates of the wall's length were mainly based on historical records.

Tong Mingkang, deputy chief, said that the survey revealed a total of 43,721 heritage sites that included stretches of the Great Wall, reports Xinhua.

Known to the Chinese as the "Long Wall of 10,000 Li", the Great Wall is a series of walls and earthen works begun in 500BC and first linked up under Qin Shi Huang in about 220BC.

Only 8.2% of the original wall remains intact, with the rest in poor condition, according to the report.

It was listed as a Unesco world heritage site in 1987.

Great Wall of China 'even longer' 20 April 2009

The Great Wall of China is even greater than previously thought, according to the first detailed survey to establish the length of the ancient barricade.

A two-year government mapping study found that the wall spans 8,850km (5,500 miles) - until now, the length was commonly put at about 5,000km.

Previous estimates of its length were mainly based on historical records.

Infra-red and GPS technologies helped locate some areas concealed over time by sandstorms, state media said.

The project found that there were wall sections of 6,259km, 359km of trenches, and 2,232km of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers.

The study was carried out by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage and the State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping.


Experts said the newly-discovered sections of the wall were built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and stretch from Hu Mountain in northern Liaoning province to Jiayu Pass in western Gansu province.

The project will continue for another 18 months in order to map sections of the wall built during the Qin (221-206BC) and Han (206BC-9AD) Dynasties, the report said.

The wall, the world's largest man-made structure, was built to protect the northern border of the Chinese Empire.

Archaeologists had lobbied for the survey to be done to provide scholars with an accurate understanding of the construction.

Known to the Chinese as the "long Wall of 10,000 Li", the Great Wall is in fact a series of walls and earthen works begun in the 5th Century BC and first linked up under Qin Shi Huang in about 220BC.

It was listed as a Unesco world heritage site in 1987.