Two socialists treading very different paths: one is the unelected president of 1.3 billion people: the other, the democratically elected president of 23 million people. One has the world’s largest labour pool; the other, one of the world’s largest oil reserves. One makes the White House guest list, whilst the other is rumoured to be on a top-secret White House assassination list. So what is it that makes China’s unelected communist leader Hu Jintao more appealing to Washington than Venezuela’s democratically elected Hugo Chavez?
Hu Jintao inherited control of the world’s most populous country from Jiang Zemin in 2003 and immediately set to work attempting to cultivate his image on the world stage as a reformer. Many of his critics, however, particularly those shackled to the left, would argue that he has failed miserably, as the country has witnessed a significant rise in poverty and a widening gulf between rich and poor.
But looking beyond its supposed domestic failings, China’s economic growth and international image has never been better. Western companies are clambering over each other to do business with China, and everything from cars and computers to McDonald’s Happy Meal toys are manufactured by the country’s growing 750 million (cheap) labour pool.
Low wages, muted unions and strict governmental policies ensuring cheap labour now make the new China capitalism’s most coveted concubine. And all this has been achieved without the threat of invasion, a sponsored coup, or a single bomb.
Any talk or criticism of China’s human rights abuses, especially those by the ‘protester type’ public, are now muted and roundly condemned by the very politicians and media outlets which raised the publics awareness to such abuses in the first place. On Hu Jintao’s recent visit to Washington, he was heckled by a female protester who shouted, “President Hu, your days are numbered! President Bush, make him stop persecuting Falun Gong!” As the protester, Dr. Wang Wenyi, was bundled away and arrested by a fleet of burly secret service men, a red-faced President Bush was left to kowtow and apologise to the Chinese leader for the unscheduled outburst. Such is the changing tide in the Sino-US relationship.
Hugo Chavez first came to prominence in a failed coup in 1992. A coup attempt, which Chavez said sowed the seeds of a popular revolution against “a false democracy.” He spent two years in jail, but later stunned the world by winning Venezuela’s 1998 presidential elections. His victory was a shock, to say the least, especially considering that he was opposed by Washington, the oil companies, multinational corporations, and almost every media organisation in the country.
He later went on to declare a “socialist revolution,” which sent shudders down the spines of the country’s ruling elite and middle classes. His redistribution of wealth, land reform, and poverty eradication programmes have pleased the poor, however, they have angered powerful forces in the West; in 2002, key players in Washington supported a coup by the right wing ruling elite, which saw Chavez temporarily unseated. He was quickly ushered back into power when thousands of his supporters took to the streets, surrounded the presidential palace which had been commandeered by the coup plotters, and demanded his return to office.
He subsequently held a referendum on his presidency and reclaimed his seat by a large majority of 58 to 42 percent, effectively silencing his critics and once and for all consolidating the defeat of the predominantly white ruling elite.
His popularity amongst his people is not surprising, he has used his country’s oil wealth to establish hundreds of feeding centres throughout the country, where the penniless poor can receive free meals. He has imported thousands of Cuban Doctors and Dentists in an “Oil for Doctors” exchange programme and dispersed them throughout the countryside, providing free health and dental care.
Chavez and his policies have realigned the power axis of Latin America, he has forged a close relationship with Fidel Castro in Cuba and united forces with other left-wing governments on the continent to weaken what he calls “the Imperialists’ grip on Latin America.”
His relationship with Cuba has brought much criticism and international condemnation. The British Prime Minister, addressing the House of Commons a few months after hosting the Chinese president’s visit to Britain, said without a glint of irony: “I say with the greatest respect to the president of Venezuela, that when he forms an alliance with Cuba, I would prefer to see Cuba a proper functioning democracy.”
Presently, President Hu Jintao cannot put a foot wrong in the eyes of the West. In contrast to Hugo Chavez’s expropriation of land from big land-owners and returning it to the peasants, Hu Jintao has overseen the displacement of millions of peasants, as his government seizes land to make way for western style sky scrapers. All to the admiration of Western governments, who foresaw China’s industrialisation and looming economic domination of the international markets. It is this rapid growth by which both China and India have put additional stress on the already stressed-out reserves of the international oil market; some even suggest pre-empting the United States invasion to secure Iraqi oil.
As China tours the world attempting to secure its future oil needs for its current industrial ambitions, the US contemplates yet another invasion. Venezuela, which sits on one of the world’s largest known reserves, is the world’s fifth largest exporter of oil, supplying the United States with 15% of its oil needs; President Chavez has good reason to be nervous. He has accused the Bush Administration of plotting his assassination; his accusations may not be so far from the truth. In a US television broadcast, the US Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson called for his assassination, stating: “If he thinks we’re trying to assassinate him, I think we really ought to go ahead and do it… It’s a whole lot cheaper than starting a war…. And I don’t think any oil shipments will stop.”
The sour relationship between Venezuela and the US has led to a bitter exchange of words, with Donald Rumsfeld comparing the Venezuelan president to Hitler. US Secretary of State Condolesa Rice added her voice to the criticism, stating: “ I think we have to view, at this point, the government of Venezuela as a negative force in the region.” But President Chavez refuses to be intimidated; he has said of George W. Bush: “You’re a donkey, a coward, an assassin, genocidist, alcoholic, a drunk. The very worst of this planet is called George W. Bush… God save the world from this menace!”
In a move designed to forestall the US seizing its assets in the event of war, Venezuela sold $20 billion of US Treasury bonds and transferred the money to Europe. With the growing tide of left-wing governments spreading through the hemisphere, Hugo Chavez’s list of friends and allies are continually growing.
China's fading socialist credentials now make them the darling of the West; however, there may come a time, in the not too distant future when Hu Jintao will have to choose sides between his bickering ideological friends.