“Better that right counsels be known to enemies than that the evil secrets of tyrants should be concealed from the citizens. They who can treat secretly of the affairs of a nationMore
by Tisaranee Gunasekara
“Homo Sapiens is prone to orgies of stupidity, brutality, and destruction.”
Martin Wolf (The crisis of democratic capitalism)
So back in the Chalk Circle, but this time play ends in Act 2. Grusha never gets across the rotten bridge. She is near the end when the Ironshirts, gathered on the other side, manage to inflame her with their insults. She turns around to give her own back. A battle of words ensues. The Corporal steps on to the bridge. Grusha stamps her foot. The soldiers join their leader. The rotten bridge breaks at both ends, plunging all on it into the abyss below. The play ends not in renewed life but in avoidable death.
Sri Lanka is still on the rotten bridge, precariously balanced between sensible economics and insensible politics. The freefall of the economy has been halted. But it can resume, and spiral into societal anarchy, if the political war of attrition between the President and the Opposition doesn’t end soon in a mutually-agreed ceasefire.
Sri Lanka has avoided collapse, for now. Hyperinflation has been reined in. A run on the banks has been averted. The rupee has stopped plummeting. Prices of essentials remain high, but the crippling shortages and killer queues are over. Tourism is booming, foreign remittances are increasing, and foreign reserves no longer look like Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard. These gains are not opinions, but facts. And most of the credit for those small but meaningful advances belongs to Ranil Wickremesinghe.
On May 9th, SLPP thugs attacked Gota-go-gama protestors. Angry Lankans responded with mob violence. For two days, the country burned. On May 11th, tanks rolled down deserted streets, occupying urban centres and rural towns with no public opposition. People, having exhausted themselves with an orgy of arson, had retreated into sullen silence and resentful inaction. Gota-go-gama remained but its power of intervention was limited to issuing not quite realistic statements. Mahinda Rajapaksa had resigned. There was no prime minister, no government; only a weak president, a strong military, a wearied public, and a deadly political vacuum.
Opposition leaders declined the premiership, using virtue as an excuse. Ranil Wickremesinghe accepted. Some kind of political normalcy was restored. The alternative was not a pure government of the people, but a Gotabaya-military regime or just military rule.
Ranil Wickremesinghe is no Saviour. But he saved much. Those achievements, while real remain fragile, easily reversible. As with Grusha on the rotten bridge, utter disaster is still one misstep away.
The President has claimed economic health to be his priority. But economic health and political health are interdependent states. One cannot be sustained without the other. The political health of a nation cannot be achieved through tear gas, repressive laws, and baton charges, but through understanding and consensus. As Karu Jayasuriya pointed out, a political ceasefire is the need of the hour, first in parliament, then beyond.
The deftness and the patience the President displayed in inching the IMF deal to the finishing line is absent in his political dealings. His ham-fisted reaction to any protest is indicative of how his political attitudes continue to be shaped and coloured by his acrimony against those who burnt his books. The anger is understandable. But translated into political attitudes and policies, it could create a socio-political inferno which consumes the economic good he has achieved.
Not intelligent self-interest but blinding rage has become the determining factor in oppositional politics. So they align with the anti-direct tax crowd, forgetting that progressive taxation is a sine-qua-non of any progressive economic strategy. Had the IMF refused to sign a deal with Ranil Wickremesinghe, the opposition would have been singing the praises of this Bretton Woods twin.
Meanwhile, the bottommost one third of people struggle to live, dependent for survival on inadequate charity. Their suffering is glossed over by the government and ignored by the opposition. Their anger, if it explodes, will be a flood that takes everyone and everything in its path.
The myth of authoritarian stability
According to media reports, the police are to get 500 SUVs under an Indian credit line. The first 125 fuel-guzzlers have already been delivered.
SUVs for the police are not a priority by any sane economic standards. That economically irrational loan is symbolic of how political insensibility can undermine economic sanity.
The government’s zero-tolerance response to peaceful protests is turning non-issues into issues. The over-the-top reaction to March 7th IUSF protest is a case in point. If the government did nothing, the protest would have come and gone. But the government opted for a course of action which was the mirror-image of protestors’ heedless extremism. Police tear-gassed Colombo University students and staff who were not part of the protest and followed it up by tear-gassing students from nearby schools. A puny protest was met with massive violence. This is the path not to social peace but to endless disharmony.
Authoritarian stability is a myth. By pursuing that myth, the president, knowingly or unknowingly, is placing Sri Lanka on the slippery slope of unending unrest. This unrest will not be limited to the streets but will creep into the very heart of the state, as the attempt to use the legislature to cow the judiciary indicate. If pursued any further, this attempt to neutralise the courts will open another front, with the legislature engaged in a no-holds barred war with the judiciary on the orders of the executive. The necessary balance between the executive, the legislature and the judiciary, on which the health of the state rests, will be undermined to common peril.
The attempt by some state-sector trade unions to cripple the country through a continuous strike failed primarily due to the total absence of public support. The strike-leaders shelved their disruptive plans not because of government threats but because of public ire. If the government wants to avoid a repeat performance by state-sector unions, they should focus on propaganda; no hype would be needed; truth will suffice. Instead, according to media reports, the government in its PTA replacement has created a false equation between strikes and terrorism. Such dangerous dipping into tyranny are the inevitable fruits of pursuing the myth of authoritarian stability.
As the World Bank reminded us recently, poverty in Sri Lanka doubled from 13% to 25% between 2021 and 2022 and will increase by 2% in 2023. This was Rajapaksa doing. And in that doing, the Rajapaksas had the uncritical backing of the likes of GL Peiris, Dulles Alahapperuma, and Wimal Weerawansa, not to mention the Viyath Maga cohort. Thanks to their collective economic insanity, people are eating less, both in terms of quality and quantity. The IMF seems to far more concerned about providing these poorest of the poor with a strong-enough lifeline than the government or the Opposition. The government, instead of focusing on an adequate poverty alleviation programme along the lines of Janasaviya (targeted and time-bound with consumption and investment components and add-ons like skills training), is picking political fights with all and sundry. The Opposition is more concerned with the taxes of the few than the hunger of the many.
The political war of attrition is not just consuming time, energy, and resources of both sides. It can also undermine President Wickremesinghe’s hard-won achievement, the IMF deal. Sri Lanka will not get the second tranche, if the targets of the first phase are not met adequately. Those targets can be best achieved not through repressive laws, riot police or club-wielding soldiers, but dialogue and consensus with stakeholders, starting with the Opposition. Economic moderation on the part of the Opposition in return for political moderation on the part of the government: that is a possible and necessary goal. Sri Lanka, still on the rotting bridge, need the unity of all moderates, a rational politico-economic understanding, to deprive political extremists of political oxygen.
Commenting on the uproar surrounding French president Emmanuel Macron’s plan to increase pension age by two years, The Economist warned “This could be a moment when social rebellion emerges.” If it does, the ultimate beneficiary, if there’s one, is likely to be Marine Le Pen rather than Jean-Luc Mélenchon.
In Sri Lanka too the political war of attrition will deliver neither economic recovery nor greater democracy. The resultant turmoil will open the floodgates of either anarchy or tyranny or both.
The poverty of alternatives
The world’s first recorded labour strike was in ancient Egypt during the reign of Ramesses III when necropolis workers, tomb-builders and artisans, downed their tools and protested demanding their pay. Since that day in 1170BCE, strikes have often been the only recourse available to the powerless with no other means of making their voices heard.
In Sri Lanka, even that weapon is denied to millions of casual workers providing vitally necessary (even risky) labour in the industrial sector. Like the 2 million Manpower workers who labour in the FTZ garment factories. They are right-less and unprotected since they are not registered under the Labour Commissioner. According to media reports, about one quarter of their salaries go to agents and they are not entitled to bonuses or other facilities. Most of these Manpower workers are women and many suffer sexual harassment in workplace with no recourse to relief or justice (https://theleader.lk/news/16114-2023-03-17-08-20-48). And yet, about the suffering of these millions of Lankan workers, the injustices visited on them, the Opposition is silent.
Of the grade 3 students in government schools, only 34% are literate and 7% are numerate, according to a research by the Education Ministry covering the entire island, done between December 2021 and January 2022. This disastrous inability cannot be blamed on the pandemic alone since only 26% of students lacked online facilities. The fault also lies in the quality of the education and of the educators. If this trend continues, we will have a population that cannot read, write, or do a basic sum, and therefore unemployable except as soldiers, monks or Manpower workers. This too seems not to be a priority for the Opposition.
The SJB and the JVP who agree on very little are agreed on reducing taxes for highest income earners from the current 36% to 24%. This is their economic progressivism. In what sense is Ranil Wickremesinghe more neo-liberal than these opposition leaders who want to tread the same path as Gotabaya Rajapaksa and give tax breaks to those in the topmost bracket?
If the SJB sounds clueless on economic issues, it is because the party is trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hound on contentious issues. The JVP’s cluelessness seems genuine, its ignorance of economic basics as total as Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s. The best evidence is a recent statement by Sunil Handunnetti, who will be the finance minister if the JVP/NPP forms a government. Questioned about the recent appreciation of the rupee against the dollar, his response was: “Do you think if the rupee becomes stronger than America, America will let us be? Eh? If so America will bomb us. That rupee is becoming stronger than the American dollar.” His NPP counterpart, an economics lecturer in a university, did not dare to correct him, proving once again that the NPP is a mere cover for the JVP.
Utopia is not an alternative to reality. It is a form of escapism and must be understood as such. There are no painless paths out of this crisis. The Opposition should be focused on minimising the burden on the poorest one-third of the population, the 3.4million people identified by the World Food Programme as suffering from hunger. Instead, opposition parties are vying with each other to curry favour with disgruntled doctors and relatively high earning state sector workers. They criticise President Wickremesinghe, but are yet to provide a rational alternative to the path he is charting.
The JVP might be too like the frog-in-the-well to know it, but the SJB and some SLPP break-offs would know that we are not in a position to impose conditions on anyone, starting with the IMF. They would also know that the IMF today is not quite the IMF of yesteryear and that most of the conditions in the agreement with us are helpful, necessary or both. There is no austerity for the poor in the agreement, only some belt-tightening for the rich and the middle class.
If direct taxes are lowered, indirect taxes will have to be increased, hurting the poor more. If the rich and the middle class do not share the burden of recovery, the poor will have to shoulder an even greater load. If we keep on pumping money into loss-making state enterprises like Sri Lankans, there will be less money for education and health. Those are the real choices any future government will have to make. All the rest, like making good the income-expenditure gap through less corruption or bringing back the stolen money, is rhetoric. Both are worthy and necessary goals. But neither can be realised fast enough to make a difference in the here and now, given how endemic corruption has become and how much legal and paper work will be involved in getting stolen money back.
When Gotabaya Rajapaksa failed, the country paid the price. It will be no different if Ranil Wickremesinghe’s gains are reversed and he too fails. When the healthy difference between opposing political parties descends into an endless war, there can be no winners; only losers.
Sri Lankan crisis cannot be separated from the international crisis both in economic and political terms. This is a warning for the political leaders to resolve their differences and conflictsin an amicable manner. Holding (or not holding) of Local Government elections and the newly introduced Advance Personal Income Tax (APIT) regime are the main fighting issues between the main political parties and their trade unions at present.
While there are only nine recognized parliamentary political parties in the Australian federal system, sixty-two political parties are recognized in the Sri Lankagiving rise to both superficial and unwarranted conflicts and competitions between them. As a result, there is no stability in the political party system. Where are the UNP, the SLFP, the Federal Party or the Ceylon Workers Congress today? All these main parties from the early years of independence have now splintered badly.
Conflicts and Conflicts
Intense political rivalries at the political party level are undoubtedly a reflection of the psychological mood and orientation of the public and the people. These rivalries are not uncommon to many other political systems including the developed democratic countries. France at present is one example while many parts of America have been inundated in this situation for a long time.
However, to my experience and observation, extreme politicization and rivalries are much higher in the case of Sri Lanka. There has been a tendency among the people (both young and old) to look almost everything from a prism of politics. Even at social events or even family parties, mainly men, get involved in political debates. The drinking of liquor (excessively) at these occasions might be a contributing factor. Perhaps young people learn these fights from the parliamentary leaders.
The world undoubtedly is going through a civilizational crisis. The war in Ukraine has become a mess and a human disaster. The invasion by Russia was unwarranted even in terms security or prestige of its country. However, instead of resolving the conflict through peace and negotiations, the NATO countries and America have intensified the war through supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine to continue a fight. The major failure has been on the part of the UN which has become hopeless in terms of conflict resolution and peace. There is a possibility of the war becoming a nuclear disaster.
This is not an isolated case. Humanity, civilization, the so-called developed nations, and the UN have continuously failed to prevent war between Israel and Palestinians and many other wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. These conflicts have given bad examples to many other developing countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan etc. Similar conflicts have continued in the Latin American nations. This is the civilizational crisis today. Although humans have developed in terms of science and technology, they have terribly failed in terms of human relations, justice, peace, and conflict resolution. This is also one reason for the natural disasters and environmental problems.
Facets of Economic Crisis
Sri Lanka should not be callous in addressing the present economic problems. The IMF does not have a magicwand while those who oppose the IMF are misled through old leftist arguments. Sri Lanka has been a member of the IMF since 1950. If there are disagreeable conditions from the IMF, those should be discussed and negotiated. I was surprised to observe that many international media reported that the last general strike in Sri Lanka was held in opposition to the IMF! While the trade unions undoubtedly have many grievances, they should sober their positions and slogans to suit an amicable resolution to the present crisis.
The emerging international signals are continuously worrisome. Two major banks in America, Silicon Valley Bank, and the Signature Bank, have completely melted down. The signal clearly is for a world recession sooner than later. The repercussions are now shaking the Credit Suisse bank (the second largest) in Switzerland. If the government leaders in the country are trying to give a rosy picture after obtaining a small amount of IMF loan,and restructuring the debt repayments, it is a complete distortion of the situation.
The loan taking during the last ten fifteen years have been completely irresponsible. There was no transparency. There were no discussions to reveal the plans and objectives and to take inputs from independent specialists and/orthe people. The political leaders and the top bureaucrats were not even keeping the accounts or information properly. When it became revealed that Sri Lanka is not able to fulfill the debt obligations, it was a shock to everyone. That was the result of the irresponsibility of the political leaders.
Stillthey go in the same direction of duplicity. The so-called debt restructuringis often pictured as debt cancellation. These restructured debtsmust be paid later while the government is still taking loans from countries and multilateral institutions. Apart from debt restructuring, the country needs to restructure the economy. Although some measures have been taken, no clear planor program is put forwardbefore the people. The people’s support is imperative for any economic recovery. This is where the conflict resolution is necessary.
Relevance of Conflict Resolution
The last year 2022 was a mess both in political and economic sense. According to reliable figures the economy had contracted by 8 percent. This will not significantly change this year. A global recession will adversely affect the Sri Lankan efforts to resuscitate the economy and develop the country. These are the matters on which the political parties, trade unions and civil society organizations should come to a common understanding. That is one aspect of conflict resolution. However, there are so many other aspects.
Although the open war is over, the Sinhala-Tamil conflict is still a major obstacle for the country’s development and peace. The failure to understand each other, and respect other people’s values and culture is common even among religious, language, cast, gender, professional, regional (up-country vs. low country) and other groups. Under such a situation, peace and conflict resolution should be taught to children from the beginning of school years. There can be a mass movement and a massive effort to fulfill this task transcending political parties, divisions, and groups.
Let us take few examples. On the advice of the IMF, the present administration has declared that over 40 loss-making state institutions would be closed. To my view,this is a necessary measure to manage the economy better, and the support of all groups should be sought.Although not overtly expressed, there can be conflict of views on this and other matters. What are these institutions? What kind of an economic position that they are engaged in? These facts and information should be revealedto the public to open a healthy conflict resolution discussion.
This does not mean that the situation in the country is completely hopeless. The younger generations are quite skillful with modern ideas and views as revealed through social media and new social engagements. Although they are highly frustrated about the present situation, they could be mobilized and motivated for new ventures and paths. It is unfortunate that the present university students are disoriented and discouraged. While curricula should be changed to modern directions, the medium of instructions should be English for future prospects. Sri Lanka should be a modern country and old views,values and practices should be discarded.
During the last two decades,the development trajectory had taken a distorted form. While large infrastructure (ports, airports, major roadways) is a must to the country, they should have been the second priority, giving much prominence to industrial, entrepreneurial, and export-orientedenterprises. What are the main pillars of the economy? Traditional exports (tea, rubber, coconut) have not improved enough with value additions. New exports (textile, garments, gems, and labor) are also a fragile pillar without long term agreementsor understandings with importing countries.
Of course, tourism is a promising area although affected by the Covid and political instability in the country. Unless the two major current issues of local government elections and APIT tax are remedied amicably through conflict resolution, the tourism sector also would be badly affected.
On the question of elections, the government is now playing with the idea of a presidential election at the end of this year. Although a presidential election could resolve the de-legitimacy of the present President, the logical step is to have the local government elections first to safeguard and preserve democracy. There can be negotiations, but soon. Even in resolving the tax issue, there should be negotiations and the government can easily reduce some percentage of the tax while trying toresurrect the abandoned files of the people who were excluded from the tax net under the last government.
It is not good for the country to have continuous strikes, protests, and demonstrations that could lead to violence and destroy not only the reputation but also the economic recovery of the country. It is my wish particularly for the universities to commence their sessions/teaching soon and for the students to study well and contribute innovatively to the economy, country,society, and democracy. There should be amicable conflict resolution in this sphere.
Death is the handmaiden of the pilot. Sometimes it comes by accident, sometimes by an act of God. ~ Albert Scott Crossfield ~ Medical Aspects
On 11 March 2023 an article in the U.S. Sun reported that “a British Airways pilot collapsed and died shortly before he was due to captain a packed jet. He had been preparing to fly from Cairo in Egypt to Heathrow Airport but had a heart attack in the crew’s hotel”.
Infrequently, one hears news of such a sad event: of sudden pilot incapacitation and death, both while flying an aircraft and otherwise. The World Health Organization reported in 2020 that “in 2019, the top 10 causes of death accounted for 55% of the 55.4 million deaths worldwide. The top global causes of death, in order of total number of lives lost, are associated with three broad topics: cardiovascular (ischaemic heart disease, stroke), respiratory (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lower respiratory infections) and neonatal conditions – which include birth asphyxia and birth trauma, neonatal sepsis and infections, and preterm birth complications”. Of this, cardiovascular disease is one of the most prominent in occurrence.
Reports of pilot deaths, particularly while piloting aircraft, sometimes appear in media reports. Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine in 2012 recorded that “In 2004 there were 16,145 UK/JAR professional pilot license holders. Of the notified medical events, 36 presented as incapacitations; half were cardiac or cerebrovascular… There were four sudden deaths. The type of incapacitation varied with age. A male pilot in his 60s had 5 times the risk of incapacitation of a male pilot in his 40s. The annual incapacitation rate was 40/16,145 = 0.25%”.
BBC on 6 October 2015 reported that “Capt Michael Johnston, 57, was flying the plane with 147 passengers and five crew on board when he “passed away while at work”, as per the announcement of the airline. It was also revealed that he had double bypass surgery in 2006. Live Science of 27 September 2013 reported “ A pilot’s heart attack turned a United Airlines flight to Seattle into a dramatic scene where passengers attempted to save the pilot’s life, and one helped the co-pilot make an emergency landing in Boise, Idaho. The pilot died at the hospital, according to news reports. A midair heart attack is a scary scenario for sure, but the incident last night (Sept. 26) was unusual — heart attacks on flights are rare, and deaths are even rarer. A study of medical emergencies on five major airlines over a nearly three-year period showed that, of the 12,000 passengers who experienced some form of medical emergency during a flight, 0.3 percent (38 people) suffered cardiac arrest, in which the heart stops. The number who died over the study period was 31, according to the study, which was published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine”.
Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine in March 2004 went on to say “The Chicago Convention in 1944 to standardize practices where uniformity would improve air navigation. In subsequent annexes to the original convention, the regulations that standardize personnel licensing and rules of the air were established that guide the medical requirements for pilots and aircrew today. After evaluation of available data and the potential risks at different times during a flight, ICAO set a goal of less than 1% risk of pilot incapacitation per year to guide the standards for medical examinations. Gastrointestinal issues, earaches, faintness, headache, and vertigo are the most common causes of incapacitation. Less common but more dangerous debilitations such as alcohol intoxication and sudden cardiac death have been implicated in mishaps, so screening for these risks carries high importance”.
Medical assessments carried out periodically on pilots are generally indicative of a pilot’s health but are not a guarantee against unforeseen health conditions.
The Aeromedical Office of the Airline Pilots Association reports that approximately 42 persons with rhythm disturbances contact the office annually. “Over one half of these persons have experienced syncopal episodes, with 5 to 10 in-cockpit syncopes per year. In a review of 102 syncopes over 5 years, less than half were attributed to ventricular arrhythmias. The majority of individuals with ventricular arrhythmias were permanently disqualified from flying, while most individuals with syncope believed to be bradyarrhythmic returned to flight after evaluation.
In Western Europe cardiovascular causes are the most common cause of loss of flying license, and the main cause for disqualification of pilots on medical grounds is cardiac arrhythmia – frequent ventricular premature beats, nonsustained VT, and paroxysmal atrial fibrillation were the most common problem arrhythmias
The evidence suggests that the incapacitation risk limits used by some states, particularly for cardiovascular disease, may be too restrictive when compared with other aircraft systems, and may adversely affect flight safety if experienced pilots are retired on overly stringent medical grounds. States using the 1% rule should consider relaxing the maximum acceptable sudden incapacitation risk to 2% per year”.
Legal and Regulatory Aspects
Legally, a pilot is in a special category: the same as a surgeon who is in charge of a person’s health and a can driver or bus driver in charge of a passenger’s security. Only, a pilot has to ensure the safety of hundreds of passengers all at once. Inasmuch as an airline would be guilty of negligent entrustment in handing over a plane full of passengers to an improperly licensed pilot, a pilot would be guilty of gross negligence – the highest form of negligence – if she jeopardizes the security and safety of the passenger in her charge.
The International Civil Aviation Organization addresses the issue of pilot’s health requirements under Annex 1 (Personnel Licensing) to the Chicago Convention of 1944 and provides further guidance in Procedures and requirements for the assessment of medical fitness which are contained in the Manual of Civil Aviation Medicine (Doc 8984). The International Air Transport Association (IATA) – the trade association of airlines – in its guidelines for flight crew requires the following: the absence of any medical condition or any suspected medical condition that may lead to any form of acute functional incapacity; the absence of any existing or former medical condition – acute, intermittent or chronic – that leads or may lead to any form of functional incapacity; the absence of any use of medication or substances which may impair functional capacity; minimal requirements to the necessary functions such as vision and hearing.
ICAO’s Annex 1 provides that, to satisfy the licensing requirements of medical fitness for the issue of various types of licenses, the applicant must meet certain appropriate medical requirements which are specified as three classes of Medical Assessment: Third Class: This is the most basic of the medical exams. It is required for those attempting to earn a student pilot license, recreational pilot license, and private pilot license.; Second Class: This one is required for anyone attempting to earn their commercial pilot license; First Class: A first class medical certificate is required in order to earn a airline transport pilot certificate.
The United States Federal Aviation Administration states that the main differences between these is how in depth the exam gets and how often you have to have it done. Much of the 3 tests are very similar although the first class medical exam is required to be done annually and includes an Electrocardiogram test if the applicant over the age of 40.
.Recommendation 126.96.36.199 of Annex 1 suggests that from 18 November 2010 States should apply, as part of their State safety programme, basic safety management principles to the medical assessment process of licence holders, that as a minimum include: routine analysis of in-flight incapacitation events and medical findings during medical assessments to identify areas of increased medical risk; and continuous re-evaluation of the medical assessment process to concentrate on identified areas of increased medical risk. This is followed by the recommendation that the period of validity of a Medical Assessment must begin on the day the medical examination is performed.
Here, validity means acceptance as truth or fact which would go towards recognizing a pilot’s suitability to fly an aircraft. An air carrier which wet leases an aircraft to another carrier would be guilty of negligent entrustment. So would any air carrier who employs pilots without checking if the pilot has a valid license.
Although we tend to glamourize those in aviation, from the confident captain to the glamourous cabin attendant even down to the humble chap in overalls who helps put he aircraft in the sky, they are all human, like the rest of us, subject to the vulnerabilities of humanity. When the I was working at ICAO I once had a meeting with an airline pilot who had been commanding a flight from Europe to Asia. His young first officer, just 38 years old, had been complaining about a pain in his back on the onward flight to Europe. He had informed the captain that it was “just a backache” and that he would get it checked by his brother who was practicing medicine in the city they were bound for. On the return flight the next day, over Zurich, the first officer had mentioned to the captain that his back ache had returned and that he would leave the flight deck for a few minutes to rest. A few minutes later a visibly upset cabin crew member had rushed into the flight deck and told the captain that the first officer had died.
The captain had been grief-stricken as the first officer was a good friend as well as a trusted colleague He had to fly alone the rest of the flight, with mental acuity and equanimity, and when I asked him how he managed the flight he said the worst feeling was the feeling of loneliness in the flight deck, which was overwhelming. The flight deck is a lonely place, even if there are two persons in it. Dr. Vivek Murthy, one time Surgeon General of the United States writing in the Harvard Business Review said: “Loneliness is a growing health epidemic. We live in the most technologically connected age in the history of civilization, yet rates of loneliness have doubled since the 1980s. Today, over 40% of adults in America report feeling lonely, and research suggests that the real number may well be higher”.
Heart attacks often come from nowhere, with no prior warning. However, what must be borne in mind, in the case of pilots is that pilots have negative factors that affect them that other professionals may not have, such as crew fatigue due to overscheduling, disturbance of sleep cycles caused by night flying and missing family events and celebrations, not to mention being away from home constantly. The overbearing loneliness factor may add to this.
THE LONG READ
About five months after his election as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Xi Jinping won his third term as Chinese president at the annual session of the national legislature, which concluded on Monday.
At the first session of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC), Xi was also elected chairman of the country’s Central Military Commission. Assuming the top posts in the Party, the state, and the armed forces, Xi is leading the country with 1.4 billion people on a new journey to modernization.
Wrapping up the session, Xi delivered a closely-watched speech to a gathering of nearly 3,000 lawmakers. “The people’s trust is my biggest motivation moving forward and is also a weighty responsibility on my shoulders,” Xi said.
Xi announced that the central task of the entire Party and all Chinese people, from this day forward to the middle of the century, is to build China into a great modern socialist country in all respects and advance national rejuvenation on all fronts.
“The relay baton has been passed on to our generation,” he said.
A decade ago, when Xi was first elected Chinese president, he expounded on the “Chinese Dream,” saying the dream is about making the country prosperous and strong, rejuvenating the nation and delivering a happy life to its people.
Modernizing China has been a persistent pursuit of the Chinese since the Opium Wars. Over the course of a century, generations of the Chinese, led by the CPC, have charted a distinctively Chinese path toward that goal.
Born in 1953, Xi started his political career as the Party chief in a small village in northwest China. From there, over the past half century, Xi worked his way up through almost every level of the Party’s hierarchy. He has amassed extensive experience and made noteworthy accomplishments throughout his career.
Xi was first elected to the Party’s top post in late 2012. For the first time, the position was held by a person born after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
Since then, he has taken the nation on an ambitious path of revival, according to international media reports. Xi has a clear vision for China, to see it as a powerful country in the world, the reports said.
In 1969, Xi left Beijing for a small village on the Loess Plateau to live as a farmer, sharing the same fate as millions of youths who came of age during the Cultural Revolution.
For someone like Xi who grew up in Beijing, life in the countryside was extremely difficult at the beginning. Villagers often went without meat for several months. Despite the hardships, Xi looked back on this experience as the time when he truly understood the struggles of the common people and society.
This unique experience fueled Xi’s determination to always do something for the betterment of the people.
While many of his college peers opted to go abroad, Xi applied to work in a poor county called Zhengding in Hebei Province in the early 1980s.
In 2012, soon after taking office as the general secretary, Xi visited poor rural families in Hebei. In Gu Chenghu’s home, Xi sat on a heated brick bed and chatted with him.
“I have come here to check your living conditions and see what the Party’s leadership can do more for you and people like you,” Xi said.
He held up Gu’s sleeve and showed it to the officials around him, saying, “Look, his coat is worn out.”
At the time, there were around 100 million rural Chinese living under the poverty line of earning an annual income of 2,300 yuan (about 366 U.S. dollars).
In less than a year, Xi put forward the “targeted poverty alleviation” strategy, and over the span of about eight years sent 255,000 work teams and 3 million cadres to villages, providing one-on-one assistance to impoverished farmers.
Xi himself conducted over 50 inspections and research studies on poverty alleviation, which included visits to all 14 regions with high concentrations of extreme poverty.
On Feb. 25, 2021, Xi announced that absolute poverty had been eliminated in China.
China’s poverty reduction rate has been notably faster than the global average, making it the country with the largest number of people lifted out of poverty worldwide.
“If not for Xi’s personal push, poverty reduction would have been even more difficult and taken longer,” said Zeng Shoufu, who once worked as a village poverty alleviation cadre in Fujian Province.
Another challenge was corruption. Upon taking the Party’s top office in late 2012, Xi cautioned that “if corruption is allowed to spread, it will eventually lead to the collapse of the Party and the fall of the state.”
Less than a month into the job, he fired the first shot in his war against corruption. Over the course of ten years, high-ranking “tigers,” including a former member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, were taken down.
Over 500 centrally-administered officials, most of whom were at or above the ministerial level, were investigated. Crooked officials who fled overseas were brought back through anti-corruption operations initiated by Xi.
In 2018, he announced that an “overwhelming victory” against corruption had been achieved. But the campaign did not end there. After the 20th CPC National Congress, another nearly 20 senior officials were investigated or punished for corruption.
Early this year, at the plenary session of the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the top graft-busting agency, Xi urged a crackdown on corruption that involves both political and economic issues. He emphasized the need to prevent leading cadres from becoming spokespersons or agents of interest groups and power cliques.
The success of poverty alleviation and anti-corruption has won Xi popular support, but this is not the only reason he was unanimously elected into the top office of the Party and the state. In the past decade, many long-standing problems in the country were solved under his leadership.
China has steadily developed and become stronger overall, with an average annual economic growth of 6.2 percent over the past decade. It was more than twice the global average. Per capita GDP has doubled to over 12,000 U.S. dollars.
China’s share of the world economy has increased from 11.3 percent in 2012 to 18.5 percent at present. The output of grain has consistently been abundant.
In the past, China’s manufacturing industry was often referred to as “big but not strong.” It took a billion pairs of socks to buy a Boeing plane, some said. Today, China has developed its own large passenger aircraft, and technological advancement contributes over 60 percent to the country’s economic growth.
China’s digital economy is the second-largest in the world, and its new energy vehicle production and sales have ranked first for eight consecutive years.
Shan Zenghai, a technician at the construction machinery manufacturer XCMG, recalled how in 2017, Xi toured the company’s workshop and mounted an all-terrain crane.
“He gave us great encouragement, saying that the real economy should never be sidelined,” Shan said. “He also said the Chinese economy must transition from high-speed growth to high-quality development.”
During a deliberation meeting at this year’s NPC session, Shan sat down with Xi again and informed him that all the components of the crane that Xi once mounted are now manufactured in China.
“Are the chips in your company’s cranes domestically made?” Xi asked.
“Yes. All are made in China,” Shan replied.
In the past ten years, while eliminating absolute poverty, China has built the world’s largest education, social security, and medical and health care systems. China is adopting measures to provide more accessible and continuous medical and healthcare services to farmers. The life expectancy of the average Chinese increased to 78.2 years in 2021, nearly 2 years higher than that of the average American in that year.
Without Xi, China’s ecological environment protection would not have attained historic improvements, observers said. The average concentration of small particles, PM2.5, in the air has decreased for nine consecutive years in major cities, with a cumulative reduction of 57 percent. The once-common occurrence of smog enveloping the skies of northern China has now become rare.
Xi pushed for green development as he tackled pollution across the board. He announced that China aims to peak carbon emissions by 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. He also pushed for the ratification of the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Also thanks to his efforts, China was among the first to sign the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership — the world’s largest free trade agreement — and has expanded its free trade pilot zones from one to 21. The entire island of Hainan was turned into a free trade port.
Xi is a strong advocate of the spirit of self-reliance and self-improvement. He emphasized the need to enhance the confidence and pride of being Chinese, and the importance of promoting China’s excellent traditional culture, stating that blindly following others is not the way forward.
“Are not Hollywood’s films like ‘Kung Fu Panda’ and ‘Mulan’ based on our cultural resources?” he said.
Xi’s reform measures have achieved “historical changes, systematic reshaping, and overall reconstruction” in many fields, ranging from the economic, political, cultural, social, and ecological protection systems, to national defense and the Party’s own institutions.
He made the decision to enshrine the statement of “allowing the market to play a decisive role in resource allocation and letting the government play a better role” into the Party’s documents, and led the establishment of the National Commission of Supervision, a powerful anti-corruption agency to oversee every single person in public office.
In late 2012, Xi initiated the eight-point decision on improving conduct. This is regarded as a lasting institutional solution to malaise such as squandering, indulging in pleasure, and extravagance. Through this move, Xi succeeded in curbing practices previously deemed uncontrollable.
In other aspects of institutional development, Xi oversaw the reform of the talent system to enable researchers at the forefront of science to benefit from their intellectual property rights.
A milestone CPC resolution adopted in 2021 states that the Party has affirmed Xi’s core position on the Party Central Committee and in the Party as a whole, and affirmed the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.
This, according to the resolution, reflects the common will of the Party, the armed forces, and Chinese people of all ethnic groups, and is of decisive significance for advancing the cause of the Party and the country in the new era and for driving forward the historical process of national rejuvenation.
Xi considers the affirmation of his core status to be a weighty responsibility. In his words: “To honor the trust of the Party and the people, I will dedicate myself to the utmost and be willing to endure any hardship without hesitation.”
Party theorists say Xi’s sustained leadership in the Party and state apparatus provides direction, stability, and continuity for China’s development. They said this is conducive to strengthening the Party’s overall leadership and is an important manifestation of the political and institutional advantages of socialism with Chinese characteristics.
Lu Man, who is an NPC deputy and head of an agricultural cooperative in Jiangsu Province, said the unanimous vote electing Xi as the Chinese president is a major outcome of this year’s “two sessions.” Lu added that the result is what people have been hoping for and is required to advance the Party and the state’s causes.
From the 20th CPC National Congress to this year’s “two sessions,” a new cohort of officials have assumed positions of governance, including members and alternate members of the Party Central Committee, ministers and provincial-level Party chiefs. Xi urged them to strive diligently and avoid letting down the expectations of the people.
According to Party insiders familiar with the matter, these new leading officials “share some common traits,” including their strong abilities in terms of political judgment, comprehension, and execution.
In the meantime, the military has also completed its leadership transition, with a new Central Military Commission team and a new defense minister.
In early November, Xi visited the military’s joint operations command center and called for “comprehensively strengthening military training and preparedness.” He emphasized multiple times “the absolute leadership of the Party over the people’s military.”
According to Xi, the Party’s leadership defines the fundamental nature of Chinese modernization.
Given the immense size of the Party and the country, it is impossible to achieve anything without the authority of the CPC Central Committee and its centralized and unified leadership, as well as the conformity of the nation, Xi said.
“General Secretary Xi has the charisma to unify the whole Party. He is our backbone as the nation charges ahead on the new journey toward modernization,” said Cai Hongxing, president of Yanbian University, who is also an NPC deputy.
A NEW START
The NPC is considered a major platform to turn the Party’s propositions into the will of the nation. This means that grand strategies for Chinese modernization, laid out at the 20th Party congress, are being translated into concrete plans at the “two sessions.”
In 1979, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the term “Chinese modernization” at the beginning of the reform and opening-up as a reference to Xiaokang, or a well-off society. After achieving this goal, the CPC proposed the goal of a moderately prosperous society in all respects.
Based on media reports, Xi first used the term “Chinese modernization” in a public speech in December 2015 while leading efforts to formulate a development blueprint aimed at propelling the nation toward a moderately prosperous society in all respects.
Six years later, during the centennial celebration of the CPC, Xi declared that this objective had been achieved.
Xi has continued to refine the strategic deployment of Chinese modernization, moving from building a moderately prosperous society in all respects to embarking on a new modernization journey.
At the 19th CPC National Congress, he established a “timetable” for achieving modernization, and at the 20th Party congress, five years later, he presented a “roadmap” to realize this goal.
Xi summarized five major features of Chinese modernization: a huge population, common prosperity for all, coordination of material and cultural-ethical advancement, harmony between humanity and nature, and peaceful development. This sketch of Chinese modernization is now even more precise, well-conceived, and feasible.
“He has given a lot of thought to modernization and put it into action. Throughout his career, he has worked from inland to coastal regions and from local to central levels. No matter where he worked, Xi was an active reformer and broke new ground in advancing modernization,” said David Ferguson, who edited four volumes of the English version of “Xi Jinping: The Governance of China.”
The objectives for 2023 are to do solid groundwork for building a modern socialist country. The five years starting from 2023 is deemed a crucial phase.
The national legislature has approved the government’s growth target of around 5 percent for 2023, which is two percentage points higher than the actual growth last year. This means China’s economic growth in a single year is equivalent to the GDP of a mid-sized developed European country.
But China has 1.4 billion people, lowering the country’s development ranking in terms of per capita figures. Explaining the 5-percent growth target, Xi said if China will lift per capita GDP to that of a mid-level developed country by 2035, it is imperative to maintain reasonable growth on the basis of improving quality and efficiency. And China has the capacity to do so.
“High-quality development is the primary task of building a modern socialist country,” he said.
Almost all 31 provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities on the Chinese mainland had set higher growth targets. Shanghai has set its target at 5.5 percent, while Xinjiang and Tibet have set their targets at around 7 percent and over 8 percent, respectively.
Wang Xiangming, a researcher at the Renmin University of China, said a notable change in Chinese society after the 20th Party congress is that people have a stronger sense of developing the economy. “Without a solid material foundation, it is impossible to achieve socialist modernization.”
A major change is a shift in COVID-19 response. Over the past three years, China’s rigorous response measures have effectively protected the lives and health of the people. Last November, Xi presided over a Party leadership meeting to adjust COVID-19 response measures. Three months later, it was declared that China had emerged victorious from the pandemic.
Kristalina Georgieva, head of the International Monetary Fund, said China’s optimization of its COVID-19 policy will likely be the single most important factor for global growth in 2023.
Xi made his first out-of-town trip after the 20th Party congress to the countryside. He visited a fruit orchard in Nangou, Shaanxi Province and candidly asked fruit farmers how much they could earn in a day, what their incomes were like, and how their families were doing.
“What are the techniques for picking apples?” he asked, and picked a big red apple himself as farmer Zhao Yongdong demonstrated.
Outside an apple sorting workshop in the village, people gathered around Xi. “His top concern is the livelihoods of the people,” said Zhang Guanghong, a village cadre.
Before the Spring Festival, Xi spoke with cadres and people from across the country via video calls. He asked a cadre from a Qiang ethnic minority village in Sichuan Province about the number of tourists and their income. After Xi learned that the per capita income of the whole village exceeded 40,000 yuan last year, he exclaimed “Not bad!”
Wei Zhuo, a tourist, told Xi about her experience in the village. In particular, she said, the local Sichuan-style cured pork was delicious. “The general secretary asked me to eat more,” Wei said. “I feel that he cares a lot about rural development and boosting the income of the common people.”
Xi told the accompanying cadres that “the most arduous and demanding task of building a modern socialist country still lies in the countryside.” At the Central Rural Work Conference in late 2022, he said to strengthen the country, agriculture must be strong first, emphasizing that ensuring a stable and safe supply of grain and important agricultural products is always the top priority.
Seeking truth from facts is a tenet much cherished by Chinese Communists. Xi himself has set a good example. Over the past decade, he has made over 100 inspection trips to the grassroots level to obtain first-hand experience on the ground.
One time, he left Beijing early in the morning and arrived in a mountainous region in southwest China’s Chongqing in the evening. Sitting in the courtyard with the locals, he said, “I took a plane, a train, and a car, switching between three modes of transportation just to get here to meet you and hear what you have to say to us.”
Another time, at a group discussion of the “two sessions,” Xi said, “You officials cannot fool me. I come from a poverty-stricken area, and I know what it’s like.”
The “new development philosophy,” introduced by Xi in 2015, prioritizes innovation, coordination, green development, openness, and sharing. It is expected to guide China’s modernization drive.
Sci-tech innovation is a priority. Xi has urged the acceleration of the pace of self-reliance and self-strengthening in this regard.
Zhang Jin, an NPC deputy and president of robotic company Xinsong, recalled Xi’s visit to the company a few months ago.
“In the workshop, he almost stopped at every step and asked questions all the way, showing a strong interest, especially in the company’s self-developed products such as mobile robots used in automobile assembly production lines and robotic arms in the chip-manufacturing industry,” Zhang said.
During a conversation with young engineers, Xi stressed that independent innovation is crucial for a country’s transition to a manufacturing powerhouse. He raised the question of whether there are still lots of technical challenges that need to be addressed urgently, and stated that it is imperative to promote scientific and technological self-strengthening to resolve “bottleneck issues,” some of which are caused by Western technological blockade.
Xi repeatedly emphasized that reform must adhere to the direction of the socialist market economy. In January, he sent a vice premier to the Davos World Economic Forum annual meeting where the official announced that China will never go back to pursuing a planned economy.
In February, a major reform involving the entire capital market was introduced, promoting a registration-based system for the entire market and various public issuance of stocks, which is beneficial for better allocation of resources according to market mechanisms.
At the same time, Xi deployed measures to prevent systemic risks in finance, real estate, and local government debt.
He emphasized on different occasions that, on one hand, China must deepen the reform of state-owned assets and enterprises, and on the other hand, it should continue to improve the business environment for the private sector.
At this year’s “two sessions,” Xi told private entrepreneurs that the Party “has always regarded private enterprises and private entrepreneurs as its own people” and encouraged them to let go of their concerns and burdens, and boldly pursue their development.
“I have always supported private enterprises,” said Xi, who has worked for more than 20 years in the provinces of Fujian and Zhejiang, both known for the vibrant private sector.
Chinese private enterprises have continued to grow. According to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, in 2012, non-public enterprises accounted for only about 10 percent of the total market value of China’s top 100 listed companies. However, by the end of 2022, this proportion had risen to over 40 percent.
Xi said he plans to roll out a new round of overall reform measures this year. High-level opening-up will also be accelerated, including actively promoting the accession to high-standard economic and trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Digital Economic Partnership Agreement.
In 2021, China’s overall tariff level was reduced to 7.4 percent, lower than the WTO commitment of 9.8 percent. The country plans to further drop tariff rates for 62 information technology products, and the overall tariff level will be lowered by another 0.1 percentage point.
There are visible signs that the economic recovery is gaining momentum. In February, China’s manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) reached 52.6 percent, a new high in nearly 11 years. The economy is expected to stabilize and rebound in the first quarter, and foreign investment expectations remain positive.
The Canton Fair plans to increase its exhibition booths to nearly 70,000 this year. The China International Import Expo, the China International Fair for Trade in Services, and the China International Consumer Products Expo, all of which are strongly backed by Xi, are expected to see an expansion in their scales.
From building a socialist new countryside to building a beautiful China, from artistic creation to cultural-ethical advancement, Xi has made new arrangements covering all important areas.
Xi emphasized that achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation requires the complete reunification of the motherland, which is both necessary and achievable, and he has formulated a general strategy to resolve the Taiwan question.
In his speech delivered before the conclusion of this year’s “two sessions,” Xi said external interference and separatist activities seeking “Taiwan independence” must be resolutely opposed, stressing firmly advancing the national reunification process.
“Xi is an idealist and a pragmatic person. He is sober, practical, decisive, has a broad vision and a systemic view,” said a cadre who had worked with him in Zhejiang Province in the early 2000s. “He is good at turning crises into opportunities, and can see a blueprint through to the end.”
Xi is not just for the people but of them.
When he labored alongside rural farmers, he learned to grit his teeth while hauling manure and ignored the constant hunger pangs as he worked the land. These formative years taught him the true value of these often overlooked members of society, leaving him with a natural ability to connect and listen to ordinary people to help resolve their problems.
He may have left the fields decades ago, but even as general secretary, he has not forgotten those that toil there nor those that man the country’s backbone industries, from workshops to markets. He has remained committed to maintaining a public-facing presence through personal visits or correspondence.
During one visit to a Beijing hutong, the capital’s distinctive residential lanes, Xi rolled up his sleeves to make dumplings with one family, and the conversation flowed. Before he left, Xi confided that he draws strength from such interactions.
In spite of his busy schedule, Xi has consistently prioritized people’s happiness as essential. On more than one occasion, he said, “Development should benefit all individuals more equitably and comprehensively, and continually promote the all-round development of people.”
At the start of the year, Xi was unanimously voted in as a deputy to the 14th NPC through a competitive election in Jiangsu. He was just one of over 2,900 deputies elected nationwide, representing the country’s dynamic socio-economic diversity, from workers to farmers, technical professionals to migrant workers.
On March 5, Xi joined his fellow deputies from the Jiangsu Province delegation at the NPC session to deliberate the government work report and discuss state affairs.
The Jiangsu deliberation was not the only meeting Xi attended at this year’s “two sessions,” nor was it the only time he has interacted with lawmakers and political advisors.
From 2013 to 2022, Xi attended 53 deliberations and discussion sessions, speaking directly to about 400 lawmakers and political advisors. From asking about the marriage rate of an underprivileged central Chinese village to pressing for details of the winter tourism industry in the northeastern province of Jilin, his questions are always poignant and relevant.
People familiar with Chinese politics view such interactions as a manifestation of Chinese democracy. Accordingly, it is no surprise that Xi has gained a reputation for supporting public empowerment in their own affairs and encouraging their participation in political affairs.
“China is a big country. It is only natural for different people to have different concerns or views on the same issue. What matters is that we reach consensus through communication and consultation,” Xi said in his New Year Address 2023.
In June 2022, China completed the election for the county and township-level people’s congresses. The election involved 1.064 billion voters. It was one of the world’s largest grassroots democratic elections.
The people’s congress is the backbone of China’s political system, and NPC deputies are responsible for a wide range of duties, including formulating laws, supervising the government and judicial organs, and electing national leaders.
Each of the country’s 55 ethnic minorities is represented in the national legislature. Dong Caiyun is a member of the Bao’an ethnic group, which has a population of only about 20,000.
At the “two sessions” in 2019, she proposed a new expressway that would boost the development of her county in Gansu Province, northwest China. Other deputies lauded her proposal, and Xi, who was present at the meeting, responded by asking the relevant departments to study the proposal.
After rounds of research and feasibility studies, construction began. It is due for completion this year.
“This road represents the aspirations of the people in my hometown for a modern life,” said Dong.
Quan Taiqi, who works at a bus station in Lianyungang, Jiangsu, has just completed her second term as a deputy to the national legislature. She voted for Xi to be the Chinese president five years ago.
“I endorsed him [as president] because I believe he is a trustworthy leader who truly cares for the people,” she said.
She recalled that Xi was present during a deliberation years ago when she raised an issue about ticket-free child passengers on buses, who might cause over-sale of tickets. Xi immediately spoke up, taking Quan by surprise, as she thought the topic was too specific and menial for a state leader. Xi not only spoke up, but also asked about the practice on trains for reference. After the meeting, a review of the issue quickly began, culminating in a practical plan.
“When Xi spoke to us grassroots deputies, he was not condescending. He quizzed us, ‘Is it like this?’ ‘Is this good or not?'” Quan recalled.
During the “two sessions” in 2021, Quan met Xi again. She went up to him and brought up their previous interaction. However, the corridor was crowded, but as he left, Xi said, “Let’s talk about it later.” Quan thought that would be the end of their conversation, but around 11 p.m. that night, she received a call from Xi’s team, asking if she had any suggestions or problems to raise.
Xi believes that democracy is a requirement for modern countries, but it must be in line with national conditions, and Chinese democracy should by no means be the same as Western-style democracy. He describes Chinese democracy as a “whole-process people’s democracy,” which covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society.
“The purpose of democracy is to address the issues that require resolution by the people,” he said.
Challenges to the system are not tolerated.
According to one witness, during a plenary session of the anti-corruption agency in 2014, Xi discussed at length a vote-buying case in the election of local lawmakers in Hunan. Visibly angered, Xi fired a barrage of questions: Where have the Party members gone? Where are their notions of Party discipline and law? Where is their conscience?
Afterward, Xi referred to this case on at least two other occasions. Eventually, 467 people were held accountable.
The Chinese practice of modernization has often been viewed by observers as difficult, especially given China’s massive scale — unprecedented since the Industrial Revolution in Europe. Xi has stated that even feeding over 1.4 billion people is a significant challenge. Issues such as employment, distribution, education, healthcare, housing, elderly care, and childcare should not be underestimated, especially given the size of the population.
According to Xi, advancing Chinese modernization requires a new journey of law-based governance. The issue of the rule of law versus the rule of man is a fundamental question and major issue that all countries must address in the process of modernization, Xi said.
In a signed article commemorating the 40th anniversary of the current Constitution’s promulgation and implementation, Xi emphasized the Constitution’s role in constructing a modern socialist country and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
On Monday, Xi and other NPC deputies voted to amend the Legislation Law, adding content to promote the implementation of the Constitution. In 2018, Xi was the first Chinese president to pledge allegiance to the Constitution. Last week, after being elected, Xi took the oath again, followed by members of his governance team.
CHAMPIONING PEACE, DEVELOPMENT
In the second half of last year, Xi returned to “offline” diplomatic activities after the “cloud diplomacy” that characterized the two and a half years of the pandemic.
Over the past four months alone, Xi attended the G20 Summit in Bali, the APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting in Bangkok, and the first China-Arab States Summit and the China-Gulf Cooperation Council Summit in Riyadh.
On the sidelines of the multilateral events, Xi also held bilateral meetings with leaders from dozens of countries, including France, the Netherlands, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iraq.
At home, Xi hosted many foreign leaders and dignitaries in Beijing after the Party congress. The guests included leaders from Vietnam, Pakistan, Tanzania, Germany, Cuba, Mongolia, Laos, Russia, the Philippines, Iran, and Belarus. For some, this marked their first visit to China, while others were “old friends.”
Over the past decade, Xi has clearly conveyed that China will create new opportunities through development and add more stability and certainty to such a volatile world.
“As it develops, China will make greater contributions to the common prosperity of the world,” Xi said.
During his meeting with Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Riyadh in December, Xi mentioned the FIFA World Cup hosted by Qatar, saying that the event injected fresh and positive energy into today’s uncertain world. Tamim thanked China for its contributions to the World Cup, noting that Chinese companies built the main stadium, and the arrival of two pandas added to the festive atmosphere of the tournament.
The stadium Tamim mentioned is Qatar’s Lusail Stadium, which hosted the final game of the World Cup between Argentina and France. It is regarded by many as an iconic achievement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The BRI, proposed by Xi in 2013, also helped Indonesia build its first high-speed railway. After the G20 Summit in Bali, Xi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo watched the operational trial of the Jakarta-Bandung High-speed Railway through a video link. The railway, jointly built by the two countries, is expected to facilitate the move of goods and people and boost local incomes.
To date, 151 countries and 32 international organizations have signed documents under the Belt and Road framework, benefiting participating countries.
The Port of Piraeus of Greece has developed into one of the fastest-growing container ports in the world since a Chinese company joined its operation.
Another important proposal Xi raised in 2013 was the community with a shared future for humanity. It has been enshrined in both the Party and the country’s constitutions and incorporated into important documents of the United Nations and other international organizations or multilateral mechanisms.
Xi told the G20 summit that all countries must embrace the vision of a community with a shared future for humanity and advocate peace, development, and win-win cooperation.
“All countries should replace division with unity, confrontation with cooperation, and exclusion with inclusiveness,” Xi said in the speech.
He also solemnly promised the world, “No matter what stage of development it reaches, China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansionism.”
He believes that as long as major countries maintain communication and treat each other sincerely, the “Thucydides trap” can be avoided.
China has shown the world that a country can develop and progress without engaging in expansionism, and can help other countries develop simultaneously, said Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in a signed article published before he visited China in February.
In response to Xi’s initiative, Saudi Arabia and Iran delegations held talks earlier this month in Beijing. The two countries have reached an agreement to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions within two months.
One of Xi’s most high-profile diplomatic meetings in the past months was his first face-to-face meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden since the latter assumed the presidency. During the over-three-hour talk in Bali on Nov. 14, Xi told Biden that China-U.S. relations should not be a zero-sum game where one side out-competes or thrives at the expense of the other, and the successes of China and the United States are opportunities, not challenges, for each other.
“China does not seek to change the existing international order or interfere in the internal affairs of the United States and has no intention to challenge or displace the United States,” Xi said.
Biden said the United States respects China’s system and does not seek to change it. The United States does not seek a new Cold War and does not seek to revitalize alliances against China, he said. Biden also said that the United States does not support “Taiwan independence,” does not support “two Chinas” or “one China, one Taiwan,” and has no intention to engage in conflict with China.
In his meetings with European leaders, Xi stressed that regarding the Ukraine crisis, China supports ceasefire, cessation of the conflict, and peace talks.
In February, China issued a 12-point peace plan on the Ukraine crisis, stating that all countries’ sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity must be effectively upheld, and universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, must be strictly observed. “Nuclear weapons must not be used, and nuclear wars must not be fought,” said the policy paper.
Xi is a leader who provides vision and plans for promoting the solution of major problems facing humanity, said Keith Bennett, a long-term China specialist and vice chair of Britain’s 48 Group Club.
PIONEERING HUMAN ADVANCEMENT
When Xi delivered his 2023 New Year Address, people noticed the tomes on the bookshelf behind him in his office, among them, A General History of China, Complete Poems of the Tang Dynasty, Global History, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Having called reading his favorite hobby, Xi is known to draw wisdom from the written word to govern the country.
After the Party congress, Xi headed to Henan Province, central China, and visited the Yinxu Ruins. The 3,300-year-old site was the capital of the late Shang (Yin) Dynasty, the first ruins confirmed from this period. Walking slowly into the Yinxu Museum, Xi thoughtfully took in the exhibits, spanning bronze ware, jade ware, oracle bone inscriptions, and other relics.
“I have wanted to visit here for so long,” Xi said. “I come here thirsty for a deeper understanding of Chinese civilization so that we can make the past serve the present and draw inspirations for better building modern Chinese civilization.”
With a long and continuous history, Chinese civilization shaped our great nation, and this nation will continue to be great, Xi added, urging efforts to promote traditional culture, which according to the leader, is the “root” of the Party’s new theories.
Xi proposed combining the basic principles of Marxism with traditional culture, believing that only when a country’s modernization is rooted in the fertile soil of its history and culture can it flourish and endure.
In 2014, Xi said he was reluctant to see Chinese classic poems and essays removed from the textbooks when visiting Beijing Normal University. In November 2013, he visited Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, and the following year, he addressed an international commemoration of the ancient Chinese philosopher. In 2021, when he visited a park dedicated to Zhu Xi in east China’s Fujian Province, Xi stopped for a long time in front of the words of the renowned Chinese Confucian philosopher in the 12th century. Zhu famously said that a nation is based on its people, and society is also established for the benefit of its people. Xi, in an earlier group study session of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, had quoted Zhu’s words, stressing that no political consideration is more important than the people.
Xi has repeatedly lamented the humiliation and defeat suffered by the Chinese nation, despite its place at the forefront of the world over the past 5,000 years.
In particular, he felt that China’s modernization had achieved significant results “at great cost and with great hardships.” He stressed China, therefore, should blaze its own trail toward modernization. Experts believe that Chinese modernization, which offers a new form of human advancement, dispels the myth that “modernization is equal to Westernization.” Xi said efforts must be made to achieve higher efficiency than capitalism while maintaining fairness in society more effectively.
According to Zheng Yongnian, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen), Chinese modernization is a way to deal with the problems all countries face. Above all, the source of its vitality is mainly sustainable economic development, he said.
British scholar Martin Jacques believes that if China can successfully address inequality in the way it has conquered absolute poverty, such fairer and more inclusive modernity will have an enormous global impact.
Xi is proud and confident of the achievements and prospects of the modernization drive. He once said, “China has been able to look the world in the eye,” referring to the country’s rise in strength. This, however, does not mean the pursuit of unilateral dominance, still less a clash of civilizations. He cited the famous “sleeping lion” metaphor for China and noted, “Today, the lion has woken up. But it is peaceful, pleasant, and civilized.”
He has underscored that China will not follow in the footsteps of certain countries that achieved modernization through war, colonization and plunder, and that China upholds peace, development, cooperation, and mutual benefit, which is determined by the Chinese system and culture.
A phrase containing “promote humanity’s shared values of peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom” was written into the Party Constitution last year.
Xi also modestly proposed that socialism in the primary stage must conscientiously study and draw on the beneficial achievements of civilization created by capitalism. “The cause of promoting Chinese modernization, which is an unprecedented and pioneering venture, will inevitably encounter all kinds of risks, challenges, difficulties, and even dangerous storms, some of which we can foresee and others we cannot,” Xi said. “Let us harness our indomitable fighting spirit to open new horizons for our cause.”
“Those who work will succeed, and those who walk will arrive at their destination. A person of action will leave a good name in history,” he said.
(by Xinhua writers Wang Jinye, Meng Na, Li Zhihui, Xu Lingui, Gui Tao, Zhang Bowen, Yao Yulin)
THE LONG READ
by Our Cultural Affairs Editor
“Tell me a fact and I’ll learn. Tell me a truth and I’ll believe. But tell me a story and it will live in my heart forever.” – Native American Proverb
A residential workshop held in Colombo, Sri Lanka, brought together participants to explore the significance of real-life story writing in the local context, where the goals of reconciliation and economic growth are intertwined. Organized by the Sri Lanka College of Journalism and supported by civil society organizations, the workshop emphasized the power of storytelling in building social identity and empowering communities. Overall, the event served as a platform to highlight the importance of this creative medium for promoting positive change in Sri Lanka.
According to Chitra Jayathilake, a professor at Department of English and Linguistics, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, storytelling is a natural human activity and a primary form of expression. “Storytelling is in our blood,” says Robert Atkinson. People live surrounded by their stories and the stories of others. They see everything that happens to them through these stories and try to live their lives as if they were recounting them. The essential understanding laying on every human action, be it internal or external, is dialogue.
In storytelling, the convincing power of a story is not from its verifiability but from its verisimilitude. Stories will be true enough if they ring true, as Amsterdam and Bruner noted in their work. Storytelling has become more popular and useful than quantitative academic researches because it allows people to engage and empower themselves in building social identity through narrative turns.
During the workshop, participants engaged with Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s influential essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Using deconstructionist approaches, Spivak’s work examines how global capitalism and the international division of labour shape our understanding of the world. In her essay, she aims to disrupt binary distinctions between subject and object, self and other, and center and margin, particularly as they relate to the divisions between the West and the non-West. By illuminating the intersection of factors like class, caste, religion, and nationality, Spivak highlights the deep-seated polarization that characterizes many parts of the world today.
M J R David, a noted journalist, who is the director of the Sri Lanka College of Journalism, emphasized the value of storytelling as a means of gaining deeper insight into ourselves and the world around us. As he explained, our lives are a collection of stories that reveal hidden truths and complexities beneath the surface. By neglecting these narratives, we risk overlooking important social, cultural, and personal realities. Only by acknowledging and engaging with these stories can we hope to create a more just and equitable future for ourselves and others.
Storytelling is a powerful tool that has been used for centuries to communicate ideas, beliefs, and values. It allows people to connect with each other on a deeper level and share their experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Through storytelling, people can learn from each other, empathize with others, and gain a better understanding of different perspectives.
From the Ancient Greeks to Contemporary Society
Storytelling has played a pivotal role in shaping historical narratives and interpreting events. From the ancient Greeks to contemporary society, stories have been used to pass on knowledge, create a sense of identity, and provide a platform for debate and discussion. In the United States, the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement was told through the stories of people like Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and others who fought for justice and equality. Their stories continue to inspire and educate people today.
Similarly, in South Africa, storytelling was an essential tool in overcoming apartheid and promoting reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1995, used storytelling as a means of healing and rebuilding a fractured society. Victims and perpetrators alike were given the opportunity to share their stories in a public forum, allowing the truth to be exposed and the wounds of the past to begin to heal.
Ubuntu is a Zulu word that refers to the interconnectedness of all things and the idea that an individual’s well-being is tied to the well-being of the community. It emphasizes the importance of empathy, compassion, and forgiveness, and it was a guiding principle for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
During the Commission’s hearings, victims and perpetrators were given the opportunity to share their stories in a public forum. The process was designed not only to uncover the truth about past injustices but also to promote healing and reconciliation. By telling their stories, both victims and perpetrators were able to humanize each other and begin to understand the complexities of the conflict.
The power of storytelling and the principles of Ubuntu were evident in the case of former South African President Nelson Mandela. After serving 27 years in prison for his anti-apartheid activities, Mandela emerged as a symbol of hope and reconciliation. He was able to forgive his oppressors and work towards a peaceful and democratic South Africa, all while maintaining his dignity and integrity.
Mandela’s story is an example of the power of storytelling to inspire and create change. His life and legacy continue to be celebrated around the world, and his story serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy, forgiveness, and unity in the face of adversity.
In India, the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent struggle for independence has become a symbol of resistance and peaceful resistance around the world. His story has been told and retold in countless ways, inspiring generations of activists and leaders.
The power of storytelling in shaping historical narratives is not limited to the West. In China, for example, storytelling has played a central role in shaping the country’s cultural identity. Traditional stories and legends have been passed down through generations, helping to create a shared sense of history and values.
The importance of storytelling cannot be overstated. From the earliest human societies to the present day, stories have been a fundamental part of our lives. They have the power to inspire, educate, and heal, and they can be used to shape our understanding of the world and ourselves. Whether we are sharing personal experiences or interpreting historical events, storytelling has the power to connect us and help us make sense of the world around us.
Storytelling in Sri Lankan Context
In the Sri Lankan context, where the country has experienced decades of ethnic conflict, storytelling can play a crucial role in promoting reconciliation and building social cohesion. By sharing stories, people can learn about the experiences of others and gain a better understanding of the root causes of conflict. It can also help to break down stereotypes and biases that may exist between different communities.
Storytelling can also promote a more positive attitude towards diversity and multiculturalism. By sharing stories that celebrate diversity, people can develop a greater appreciation for the unique cultural traditions, customs, and practices of different communities. This, in turn, can lead to a more inclusive and tolerant society that is better equipped to address the challenges of social and economic development.
Storytelling has the potential to reconstruct the deteriorated social structure by providing a platform for underrepresented communities to express themselves. Vaclav Havel’s words, “The rescue of this world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility,” highlight the significance of storytelling. By enabling individuals and communities to share their experiences and shape their own stories, storytelling has the power to instill confidence and influence positive change. Through the medium of storytelling, marginalized groups can establish their identity and demand acknowledgement and reverence from the broader society.
Storytelling can play a vital role in overhauling the attitude of society and re-engineering the deteriorated social structure in Sri Lanka. By promoting reconciliation, building social cohesion, celebrating diversity, and giving voice to marginalized groups, storytelling can help to create a more inclusive, tolerant, and just society. The residential workshop organized by the Sri Lanka College of Journalism on the importance of real-life story writing is a significant step towards achieving this goal.
In her session at the residential workshop, Hansamala Ritigahapola, a Senior Lecturer at the Department of Sinhala and Mass Communication at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, delved deeper into the classifications of storytelling. She explained the various types of stories, including myths, legends, fables, and fairy tales, and how they are used to convey moral and ethical values. Dr. Ritigahapola also emphasized the importance of storytelling in preserving cultural heritage and passing down traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.
During the workshop, a new publication on female biographies in Sri Lankan history was also launched. The book highlighted the importance of storytelling with references to the many notable stories in the cultural history of Sri Lanka. It showcased the remarkable achievements of Sri Lankan women who have made significant contributions to society, but whose stories may have been overlooked or forgotten. The publication served as a reminder of the power of storytelling to elevate marginalized voices and empower underrepresented groups.
Power of Counseling
The day concluded with an inspiring session by H.M.C.J. Herath, the Head of the Department of Physiology and Counseling, the Open University of Sri Lanka. She described the basic principles and behavioural attitudes of counselling and victim narrations. Dr. Herath emphasized the importance of empathy, active listening, and trust-building in the counselling process. She also highlighted the critical role that storytelling can play in the healing process of victims of trauma and violence. Through the power of narrative, victims can reclaim their agency and gain a sense of empowerment over their own lives.
Counselling is a vibrant process that aims to help people overcome their emotional and psychological challenges. It involves a one-on-one conversation between the counsellor and the client, where the client can share their feelings, thoughts, and concerns in a safe and non-judgmental environment. Through active listening, empathy, and trust-building, the counsellor can help the client gain insights into their problems, develop coping strategies, and explore new ways of thinking and behaving.
However, counselling is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Each client is unique, and their needs and challenges must be approached with sensitivity, respect, and cultural awareness. Counsellors must adhere to certain ethical guidelines to ensure that they provide effective and ethical counselling services. These guidelines are established by professional associations such as the American Counselling Association (ACA) and the International Association of Counselling (IAC).
One of the fundamental ethical principles in counselling is confidentiality. Clients must feel safe and secure in sharing their thoughts and feelings, knowing that their information will be kept confidential. Counsellors must maintain strict confidentiality unless there is a risk of harm to the client or others. In such cases, the counsellor must inform the client of their intention to break confidentiality and seek their consent before doing so.
Another essential principle in counselling is informed consent. Counsellors must obtain the client’s consent before starting the counselling process, explaining the goals, procedures, and risks involved. The client must also be informed of their right to terminate the counselling process at any time and for any reason.
Counsellors must also be aware of cultural and diversity issues when working with clients from different backgrounds. They must respect the client’s cultural values, beliefs, and practices and avoid imposing their own cultural biases. Counsellors must also be aware of the potential power dynamics that can exist between the client and themselves and strive to create an equal and collaborative relationship. Counselling is an inseparable part of the process where the true stories of marginalized communities shall play a crucial role in social justice.
Lessons to be Learnt
Sri Lanka can learn a lot from other countries in terms of storytelling and its potential for promoting reconciliation, empathy, and understanding. For example, in Canada, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided a forum for survivors of the residential school system to share their stories and promote healing. The Commission’s final report emphasized the importance of storytelling in advancing reconciliation and recommended that the education system include indigenous history, culture, and perspectives.
Similarly, in Rwanda, the Gacaca courts provided a space for victims and perpetrators of the 1994 genocide to share their stories and promote reconciliation. The courts were designed to be community-led and focused on restorative justice rather than punishment. Through the process of storytelling and dialogue, many individuals were able to reconcile and move forward.
The aforementioned instances provide empirical evidence on the potency of storytelling to foster comprehension and reconciliation, hence serving as a paradigm for Sri Lanka’s own efforts towards reconciliation. Sri Lanka could implement storytelling and dialogue programs in schools and communities, emphasizing the promotion of empathy, comprehension, and reconciliation amongst diverse ethnic and religious groups. Such an initiative could dismantle prejudiced beliefs and encourage better comprehension among different communities.
Moreover, Sri Lanka can exploit its rich cultural heritage of storytelling and assimilate it into its reconciliation endeavours. The country has a longstanding oral storytelling tradition, which could be leveraged to cultivate understanding and dialogue between different groups. By accentuating shared values and common themes, such as community, empathy, and compassion, Sri Lanka could work towards fostering a more cohesive and comprehensive society.
Quoting the insightful words of Steve Jobs, we are reminded that the storyteller wields tremendous power. “The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come.” As Jobs observed, the storyteller has the ability to shape the vision, values, and agenda of entire generations to come. This underscores the importance of storytelling as a means of creating positive change and promoting shared understanding.
Undoubtedly, storytelling is of paramount significance in advancing reconciliation and comprehension. Sri Lanka can capitalize on both international and domestic examples, including its own cultural traditions, to harness the potential of storytelling in promoting healing, empathy, and a peaceful future.
On February 8, Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. journalist Seymour Hersh published an article detailing the role of the U.S. and Norway in the September 26, 2022, Nord Stream gas pipeline explosions. U.S. officials denied the findings, while Russia, which previously blamed the UK for the attack, hailed the article as proof of Western involvement.
There remains “no conclusive evidence” indicating Russia was behind the Nord Stream attack, according to a December 2022 article by the Washington Post. At the same time, apart from Hersh’s report, there is little evidence currently indicating the U.S. was responsible for the explosions. Nonetheless, the ongoing dispute has underlined the increasing role of sabotage in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Around two weeks after the Nord Stream explosion on October 8, another explosion took out much of a key bridge, which connects the Russian mainland to Crimea. While no one has taken responsibility for the attack, Russia blamed Ukraine for it. Weeks before in September, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy encouraged Ukrainians in Russian-occupied territory to “sabotage any enemy activity” and “interfere with any Russian operations.”
Throughout the war, dozens of mystery fires in Russia have damaged or destroyed transportation routes, commercial and industrial centers, military and government facilities, and other infrastructure. Believed to be the work of both Ukrainian commandos and Russian dissidents, some U.S. experts also believe the U.S. and NATO states may be responsible for these “covert sabotage operations.” The Ukrainian government has typically neither confirmed nor denied its involvement in most attacks.
The Russian government often blames Ukraine for these fires but has downplayed their effects. While acts of sabotage can be used by governments to garner support for their cause, they may be wary of admitting successive instances of sabotage for fear of encouraging more, as well as showing their inability to protect the population and country. Furthermore, relentless acts of sabotage demonstrate that the effects of war have come home to populations thought to be removed from the conflict.
The attacks on the Nord Stream pipeline and the bridge in Crimea likely escalated the Kremlin’s resolve to respond to Western and Ukrainian sabotage efforts. While Russia’s most pressing concern is undermining Ukraine and damaging its capacity to sustain its war effort, conducting sabotage operations across the West has also become a major Kremlin policy.
Even before the war, Russia had indicated its ability to disrupt global underwater communications networks through its Main Directorate of Deep-Water Research (GUGI). In recent years, Russia has taken steps to develop submarines specifically to sever undersea cables that transport the world’s internet traffic. In early February 2022, Russia held military exercises in the Atlantic Ocean at a critical juncture where several submarine cables between the U.S., the UK, and France are located as a show of force.
The same month, France declared it would develop a fleet of underwater drones to protect undersea cables, while the European Defence Agency is expected to release a proposal soon for “a dedicated program for critical seabed infrastructure protection.” These developments show how seriously Western governments are preparing for Russian sabotage, particularly as recent cuts to Taiwan’s internet cables are believed to be the work of Chinese vessels and serve as an example of “a dry run for further aggression.”
Several incidents in Europe and North America in recent months have raised suspicions over the Kremlin’s involvement in these attacks, even if government agencies do not always label Russia as being responsible for them. On January 13, 2023, for example, an explosion at a gas pipeline in Lithuania near the Latvian border led to the nearby town of Valakelie being evacuated. While the pipeline’s operator dismissed suggestions of sabotage, Latvia’s Defense Ministry said it could not be ruled out. “Western leaders stopped short of publicly blaming Russia for the attack, but privately briefed their suspicions that Moscow was behind it,” stated a Daily Mail article about the explosion.
On February 7, 2023, a fire broke out at a U.S. company drone production facility in Latvia that supplies Ukrainian forces and NATO allies, with the local police stating that there was “no indication” of it being an act of sabotage. Moldovan President Maia Sandu, meanwhile, declared on February 13, 2023, that Russia was planning a coup, including the use of sabotage, to destabilize the country.
In January 2023, Polish authorities questioned and later released three divers who claimed to be Spanish citizens off the coast of northern Poland. The divers were rescued after their boat broke down while they were apparently looking for amber deposits. But amber farming is difficult to carry out in the dark and the divers also lacked the proper “amber-hunting equipment,” according to a CBS News article, raising suspicion about the explanation offered by them. Despite being caught near vital Polish energy infrastructure, the trio were let go and left Poland altogether shortly after. Speaking after the incident, Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that “amid the war in Ukraine, when the risk of sabotage by Russia increased immeasurably, it was necessary to strengthen the supervision of critical infrastructure. We are also reviewing this supervision.”
Western Europe has also emerged as a major target of apparent Russian sabotage efforts. On October 8, the same day as the Crimean bridge explosion, German officials stated that sabotage caused a three-hour halt in rail traffic in the north of the country after “cables vital for the country’s rail network were intentionally cut in two places.” On October 10, undersea cables providing electricity to the Danish island of Bornholm were cut. And barely a week later, internet cables in southern France were also cut, impacting connectivity “to Asia, Europe, U.S. and potentially other parts of the world.”
Suspicion over these attacks and others in Europe has fallen on Unit 29155, part of Russia’s military intelligence agency General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces (GRU). As mentioned in an article in the New York Times in 2020, the unit is believed to operate small groups across Europe and was responsible for a 2014 ammunition depot explosion in the Czech Republic, the 2018 poisoning of Russian dissident Sergei Skripal in the UK, and other attacks on the continent.
From 2012 to 2015, Russian-backed patriotic youth camps also emerged in California, Washington, and Oregon. Often targeting Russian and Slavic communities for recruitment, they mirrored attempts to develop militia groups in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. While it is difficult to say whether these groups are active, these initiatives demonstrate the Kremlin’s intention to make them viable actors in the U.S.
A series of train derailments in the U.S., fires at food processing plants, attacks on energy facilities, and other incidents across the country since 2022 have caught the attention of international news outlets and fueled conspiracy theories over who is responsible. Considering Russia’s reach in Europe, the possibility of Russian assets being responsible for some of these incidents in the U.S. cannot be ruled out entirely. On March 3, 2023, Peter Karasev, a Russian immigrant, was charged for two separate attacks on Pacific Gas and Electric transformers in San Jose, which took place on December 8, 2022, and January 5, 2023.
Russia, of course, is not the only country capable or willing to target the U.S. through sabotage. Several Iranian/Hezbollah sleeper agents in the U.S. have been caught in recent years surveilling vulnerable targets within the country to attack should they be given the greenlight. The downturn in U.S.-Iranian relations in recent years suggests that Iran too may be actively seeking to covertly harm the U.S. as payback.
Officially, the Russia-Ukraine war remains a conflict between the two states. Nonetheless, Russian and Ukrainian allies have supplied Moscow and Kyiv with significant aid. But sabotage is increasingly seen by both sides as a viable option to undermine their opponent. We should expect more sabotage incidents, not only in Ukraine and Russia but also across the Western world and beyond, as the conflict rages on.
This article was produced by Globetrotter.
Reading news from Sri Lanka is depressing. Suffering of the people due to cost of living, loss of employment or small businesses, breakdown of welfare assistance from the government are some of the reasons. News from daily life of the people is also disheartening with full of crime, family violence, cheating, drug use, and stealing. All these are symptoms of a deeper crisis in society and a breakdown of a value system.
The day-to-daylanguage (yako, uba, thopi, thow) that people use, as evident from some teledramas,and social media is also clear of a social degeneration. Under these circumstances no one can blame the young people and the educated who try to migrate to other countries for living or for work.
The behavior, the actions and the explanations of the politicians are a deeper reflection of the above situation who are also mainly responsible for the country’s deepening crisis. Take the example of the President. It is the duty and the responsibility of a country’s leader to reveal and explain his or her positions to the country, and even to the international community, about important policy matters.
Elections and Jokes
In a democracy, there is nothing more important than elections. It was well known that local government elections were due in March. First, the President was obliquely silent. Then he started joking about it saying, ‘there is no elections to be postponed!’
There is no problem to the people that this President is a jovial man. But there should be a limit. He should not repeat his Royal Collage jokes especially when the country is in dire straits. It is good that he often appears in Parliamentary debates. But his behavior, arguments and jokes in those debates are reprehensible.
When he was appointed as the Prime Minister by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he even joked about the economy. He said ‘We invite tourists. They even can join the Protests!’ The above photo is by the BCC on this matter showing his jovial gestures. He even joked about the former British Queen just two days before her death which became condemned by many international journalists. What a Joker! It is difficult to believe that he is serious bout democracy or the economy. It is more difficult to believe that he will be trusted by the IMF although they might give priority to the country.
There is no doubt that compared to many other political leaders of the country he has some economic knowledge and experience. As a Minister (Finance or in charge of the economy) he can be good. But as the President of the country, he has so far proved to be hopeless,useless, and intolerable.
Importance Local Government
The local government system in Sri Lanka has a long history as Gam Sabha (village councils). It is not something just introduced by the British. Both the Colebrook Commission and the Donoughmore Commission acknowledged their importance. However, it was the British who introduced franchise to the system now under threat from the present President. It is difficult to believe that Philip Gunawardena’s son, as the Prime Minister, would oppose the elections. President undoubtedly is the culprit. From what heritage has he got this undemocratic orientation?
Of course, there are some weaknesses within the local government system. But who havecreated them? Present day politicians have done so. One of the major weaknesses of the present day politicians is their rigmarole manner in addressing crucial economic, political and social problems. They appoint committees (or commissions)and committeesand produce reports and reports. They are in the absence of commonsense, principles and practicalities. They change positions very easily and forget what they have said or promised even the last week! The reason is that they have come to politics for opportunistic purposes. Under the present ‘preferential voting’ system,it is difficult for the ordinary, the educated and genuine people to come into politics unless they go behind the opportunistic leaders.
The present President has a more precise heritage. It is not directly related to his family except they all were rich and cherished personal wealth directly and indirectly. Wickremesinghe’s heritage is more of something created by him. It is about power, glory and perhaps fun! He has been the Prime Minister for five timesin the past without delivering much, except creating crisis from crisis. Can he deny that he was involved in Batalandatorture and violence? This was revealedby a commission, although no action was taken against him.
It appears that Ranil Wickremesinghe particularly has a hatred against youth from lower social classes.
Of course, no one can condone what the JVP has done in the past. Even at present they should be more careful not to ignite violence or unnecessary trouble in the country. But there are/wereindications that they are at a reform path, and this is something that should be strengthened without condemning all their actions and policies. Even in genuinely creating good governance (Yahapalanaya) they tried their best to support and participate. These principles also should apply to former LTTE supporters and even remaining sections.
There is a major task in the country to reform and reorient the youth for democratic processes and encourage them for positive, creative, and responsible activities. This cannot be done unless the establish political parties and leaders like Wickremesinghe, Kumaratunga or Premadasa take a positive attitude towards the JVP or the NPP. The universities, academics,and civil society organizations (NGOs) also can play a pivotal role in this endeavor if they free themselves from narrow party politics or similar orientations. A constructively worked out strategy is necessary.
Violence and Non-Violence
During the Aragalaya(struggle) last year, incursion and occupation of Presidential Office and Presidential House were perhapsinspired by what happened in America after the last elections. However, the invasion and damaging of Wickremesinghe’s private home was different and cannot be condoned by any means. Likewise, the attacks and burning of over 60 houses belonging to the government MPs also were despicable. If (or As) the JVP was involved, there is a necessity of soul searching in the country. Otherwise, the country would soon drag into the situation of 1980s.
Even if the JVP (or NPP) was involved inthese violence and violations, the President should not behave in the same manner. That is not expected from a democratic leader. This is not merely a defect of the presidential system. This is about the broader political system and qualities of the political leaders.
In coming straight to the recent situation, the way the police handled the protest march organized by the JVP and the National People’s Power(NPP) on 26Februaryin Colombo was reprehensible. Who was behind it? There cannot be any doubt that it was the President. Those parties and others have every right to protest over the virtual sabotage of the local government elections by the President. One has died and 28 others were hospitalizedbecause of police attacks at these protests. Although only water and teargas were used, those were enormous and brutal.
In sabotaging the local government elections,planned to be held on 9 March, the reason given was lack of funds. However, millions of funds were spent on Independence Daycelebrations for the armed forces. Instead of the military, school children should have been mobilized for the occasion.The election is not an ‘essential service,’ according to the President!The Speaker has agreed however now to allow the Parliament to put forward a resolution to allocate necessary funds for the local government elections. Parliament is supreme. If it is approved (no doubt) the elections could be held somewhere in April.
However, there are other matters to be considered. Majority of the trade unions are on (token) strike on 1 March against the new high taxation and coercion against the working class. The situation reminds the year 1980 where the present President’s ‘maha-guru’ (big teacher), J. R. Jayewardene took measures to attack the working people and the trade union movement as a measure of economic reform. This is again the trend today.
Under the present circumstances, it might be good for the country to go for an overall political change by holding both Presidential and Parliamentary elections together and look for a new economic agenda with the support of the international community and closely friendly countries like India, China, Japan, EU,and other countries. This will save money and possibly bring a new agenda for democracy and development.
“…we emphasise that we won’t hesitate at all to unite with all health workers and take tough measures which can paralyse the entire hospital system against this unfair wage cut.”
Statement by the GMOA (23.2.2023)
Sri Lanka’s poorest of the poor, their lives devastated by economic collapse, may face a killer blow soon: a crippling of the public health system.
That GMOA is planning to ‘paralyse the entire hospital system’ in protest against a government decision to institute a ‘wage cut’. Needless to say, ‘the hospital system’ they are planning to paralyse is the public one, used by those Lankans who constitute the bottommost layers of the income totem pole. The fee-levying private health care system, used by middle and upper layers of society, including politicians, will function smoothly. The very doctors who refuse to treat patients in government hospitals will attend to their private practices with usual assiduity.
Hippocrates and our own physician-king Buddhadasa, who, according to legend, stopped a royal progress to treat a sick cobra, would turn in their graves at the conduct of these medical merchants.
We excoriate politicians, and rightly so, for their unconscionable and irresponsible conduct, for their greed and their willingness to risk the safety and wellbeing of citizens who sustain them. Are the doctors, who threaten to hold the poorest of the poor hostage to win a wage demand, any better?
The UNP president and the SLPP government will probably condemn the doctors’ strike because they are in power. Had they been in opposition, they wouldn’t have.
Will the SJB, the JVP, and sundry opposition parties have the moral and political courage to ask the doctors not to penalise the already pulverised poor in order to win a wage demand? Will Sajith Premadasa, Anura Kumara Dissanayake or Dulles Alahapperuma possess the decency to tell the doctors to find another weapon to attack the government with?
The doctors’ demand may be just. But their tactic is supremely unjust. Weaponizing poor patients is heartless and malicious at any time, doubly so in the midst of a calamitous economic crisis. The strike won’t hurt politicians. It will hurt the fiscally impoverished 36% of the population who are missing meals and missing school, the 600,000 families who might lose access to power thanks to the recent electricity hike. The very people, who through indirect taxes, helped fund the medical education of these doctors.
When President Gotabaya and PM Mahinda Rajapaksa reduced health expenditure in the midst of a pandemic, the GMOA doctors remained mute. They were too busy enjoying the rich fruits of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s 2019 tax cut, the first step in Sri Lanka’s fast-track to bankruptcy. The GMOA bosses were probably among those who whispered sweet lies about tax cuts and instant growth into the ignorant ears of the former Lt. Colonel.
In Sri Lanka’s avoidable tragedy, the only bad guys are not the politicians. The rot in the political class is a reflection of a widespread and deep-going societal malaise. The politicians are the most culpable. But none of us voting age citizens are completely innocent. If any solution is to work, if any change is to be effective, it must move beyond the simplistic formula of bad politicians and good everyone-else and confront special and vested interests, from monks and military to professionals and privileged trade unions.
Are there other predators apart from politicians?
According to the latest IHP survey, while no political leader has a net favourability rating, in a general election, the NPP/JVP and the SJB will win a plurality.
Stirring oratory and pie-in-the-sky promises apart, how will a NPP/JVP or SJB government apportion the economic and social costs of recovery? The answer will depend mostly on how the tax burden is distributed. And on this seminal matter, the SJB and the NPP/JVP fudges at best. The SJB talks about reducing direct taxes for the uppermost bracket, while remaining silent about which income segment/s will have to pick the extra tab for that tax break. The NPP/JVP criticises the current imbalance between direct and indirect taxes, promises to correct it, but says nothing about how.
The reason is obvious. Neither party wants to anger those professional groups who are demanding tax cuts for themselves.
The demonstrating professionals are not saying they don’t want to pay higher taxes to fund such government waste as the silly Janaraja Perahara or the huge stable of cabinet, deputy, and state ministers. The government – any government – must be held to account about how public funds are used. But that is not what the protesting professionals are doing. They don’t want to pay higher taxes, period; irrespective of the identity of the president or the hue of the government. Their reasons have nothing to do with how government borrow and spend and everything to do with how they themselves have lived beyond their means. They too, like successive governments, have borrowed heavily to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle. They want to continue that lifestyle, even as the poorest of the poor are starving. That is the burden of their tax-song. And their tax song will remain unchanged irrespective of who sits in the president’s chair and who forms the government. What is Ranil’s headache today could be Sajith’s or Anura’s headache tomorrrow, if either leader achieves his presidential ambitions.
The Australian TV channel, ABC News did a feature on Finland’s education system. Arguably the best in the world, it is completely free. Not just the teaching, but also lunches, books, and excursions. Teachers are highly paid; teaching is one of the most sought after professions, and one of the hardest to get into. As a school principal told the interviewer, “Schools can’t raise private funds or to charge fees from parents. All schools are equitably funded from taxation” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7xCe2m0kiSg).
Finland has one of the highest direct tax rates in the world. And this high rate came into being not after the country became developed but before. From 1945 to 1951, when Finland was dirt-poor and war-devastated, about one third of public revenue was generated through income and wealth taxes. (https://helda.helsinki.fi/bitstream/handle/10224/3553/pihkala26-47.pdf?sequence=1). That money was used to build free health and education systems of the highest quality, which in turn helped the country to escape poverty without falling into the debt trap.
Taxation, argues Thomas Picketty, in Capital and Ideology, played the leading role in West’s economic triumph over the East. Based on a wealth of data, he points out that by the end of the 15th Century Oriental and Occidental powers were evenly balanced. The West took its great leaps upwards firstly from 1500 to 1800 and secondly from 1930 to 1980. Both were enabled by increases in tax income. Chinese and Ottoman empires declined because their tax revenues remained low. Japan was the only exception, Prof Picketty points out, with higher taxes being a major pillar of its Meiji reforms.
Taxation is not the only issue. The recent electricity hike which disproportionately burdens the poor was caused not only by political corruption but also by the wasteful way in which the CEB was run for decades. Wages for excess workers, bonuses despite huge annual losses, and other privileges all added up to push the unit cost of electricity sky high. Now more than half a million poor families might be pushed back into the kuppi lamp era in consequence.
State owned enterprises (SOEs) were supposed to rescue consumers from exploitative practices of private entrepreneurs. But in Sri Lanka, SOE officials and trade unions have themselves turned predator, preying on citizens. Several recent directives provide examples of how these groups battened themselves on public funds. One ended the practice of top government officials taking their official vehicles home at retirement. Another prevented officials from holding their retirement parties at state expense. A third directed all officials to travel economy class and not business. Are these unearned and unjust privileges only the tip of the iceberg? How come no trade union screamed about these high-way-robbery type practices? Is their silence indicative of a mutually beneficial understanding of the plunder-and-let-plunder variety?
] When rulers are hegemonic, they transplant their own values and beliefs on to the society they rule; and by doing so successfully, they manage to maintain their moments of hegemony longer. From an addiction to unearned privileges to tax phobia, from anti-compassion to indecency, we are still Rajapaksa children.
During a recent parliamentary debate, when MP Rohini Wijeratne was speaking, a parliamentarian was heard scolding her in filth. The Speaker remained silent, during and after. Not a single opposition parliamentarian intervened to defend their colleague. This is what the Rajapaksas have brought the country down to. Unless the President orders the miscreant to apologise publicly (and removes him from his ministry if he happens to be the education minister), unless the opposition in one voice demands such action, then, even if the last member of the Rajapaksa clan departs politics, Sri Lanka will remain a Rajapaksa land.
Mahinda Rajapaksa is correct, for once. The real reason President Wickremesinghe scuttled the local government election was not economics but politics.
In 2020, the timing of the general election became a bone of contention between the Rajapaksa government and the Opposition. The government, knowing it was on a winning streak, wanted to hold elections as soon as possible, despite the pandemic. The Opposition, citing the pandemic, wanted the election to be postponed. The Opposition’s argument was more factual; having an election in the midst of a pandemic was risky. But the real reason the Opposition wanted a postponement was the fear of losing.
Now the opposition wants an immediate local government election because it believes it is ahead politically. The wisdom of spending so much money on an LG election in the midst of an economic devastation is not even considered. In truth, their much shouted fidelity to democracy is but a cover for power. If the SJB was clearly ahead and the NPP/JVP trailing way behind, the latter wouldn’t have been so averse to a postponement and vice versa. And Ranil Wickremesinghe would have found the money for the election somehow, if he thought the UNP could come first. This is how real priorities are decided. This is why Sri Lanka is unlikely to do better in the future than it did in the past.
Elections are necessary for democratic health. But democratic health cannot be reduced to periodic elections. Moreover, if there are powerful groups with vested interests who claim that they have the ultimate right in deciding how a country is run, a democracy’s health becomes precarious, with or without periodic elections. In many countries, it is the military which arrogates unto itself such political veto powers. In Sri Lanka, so far, it is the Buddhist clergy.
During their anti-devolution demonstration outside parliament, several monks argued that the president should not implement the 13th Amendment in full because the chief prelates are opposed to it. In a subsequent interview with a You Tube channel, two leading political monks, Ulapane Sumangala thero and Akmeemana Dayaratne thero reiterated the argument. The former said, “Even if the entire parliament agrees we won’t allow the 13th to be implemented. If 13th is given the country will become a lake of blood.”
Sri Lanka’s bloated military might become a threat to democracy in the future (especially if politicians continue their constant bickering, making an exhausted public turn to the Uniformed Man for salvation). The Buddhist clergy is an actual threat to democracy now. They insist on having the final say in every matter, from how much devolution Tamils should be given to how much sex education children should be taught. (The answer to both is none; no devolution, no sex-education, we are Sinhala Buddhists). The monks obviously think Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist Iran and they are the Sinhala-Buddhist ayatollahs. If every measure needs saffron sanction, why bother with elections or parliaments? Why not save a lot of money by asking the chief prelates to run the show?
Given the key role political monks played in Ceylon/Sri Lanka’s downward trajectory right up to the re-election of the Rajapaksas in 2019 and 2020, their undiminished determination to interfere in governance poses a real danger to the prospects of recovery. If political and societal leaders lack the courage to stand up to rampaging monks and other vested interests (civilian and military), what hope for the future, irrespective of which party comes to office and which politicians hold power?
A few years ago, a minor medical problem took me to the Hospital Alemán-Nicaragüense in Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. While I was being treated, I asked the doctor, a kindly older man, if the hospital had been built in association with a German missionary organisation, given its name (in Spanish, alemán means ‘German’). No, he said: this hospital used to be called the Carlos Marx Hospital, and it was built in collaboration with the German Democratic Republic (DDR), or East Germany, in the 1980s. The DDR worked with Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to build the hospital in the working-class area of Xolotlán, where three hundred thousand people lived without access to health care. A massive solidarity campaign in the DDR helped raise funds for the project, and East German medical professionals travelled to Xolotlán to set up a camp of provisional medical tents before beginning construction. The brick-and-mortar hospital opened on 23 July 1985.
When the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took power in 1979, the revolutionaries inherited a country where infant mortality rates had skyrocketed to 82 per thousand live births (which would be the highest rate in the world today) and where health care was a privilege restricted to a small minority of the population. Besides, by the time the FSLN rode into Managua, whatever health care apparatus had been built by the regime of the Somoza family during their 43-year rule had been shattered: the 1972 earthquake destroyed 70% of the city’s buildings, including the military and Baptist hospitals and most of its health care facilities. The Carlos Marx Hospital was an act of immense solidarity by the socialists, built in Managua on the ruins of a society brutalised by the country’s oligarchy and by their enablers in Washington (as US President Franklin D. Roosevelt said in 1939 of the dictator at the time, ‘Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch’). Socialist internationalism, from the DDR’s assistance to the efforts of Cuban medical personnel, along with the development of the Sandinista health campaigns, markedly improved the lives of Nicaraguans.
I was reminded of the Carlos Marx Hospital by the newest edition in our series Studies on the DDR, jointly produced by Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and the Internationale Forschungsstelle DDR (IFDDR) and entitled ‘Socialism Is the Best Prophylaxis’: The German Democratic Republic’s Health Care System. The information about the Carlos Marx Hospital comes from a brief section in the study on the DDR’s international medical solidarity, which also included, among many other examples, building a hospital in Vietnam during the US war on that country and training thousands of doctors from across the Third World in the DDR. But the study is not focused on medical solidarity, which was a part of the DDR’s wider socialist internationalism that will be taken up in a later edition in the series.
The study is about the DDR’s attempt to create a humane and just health care system in a country devastated by World War II, with few resources available (and a population one-third the size of West Germany’s). The title of the study, ‘Socialism Is the Best Prophylaxis’, comes from a statement made by Dr. Maxim Zetkin (1883–1965), the son of the communist and international women’s rights activist Clara Zetkin (1857–1933). Zetkin’s words became a widely propagated slogan in the DDR and the leitmotif for the public health care system that the DDR sought to build with and for its population, emphasising that health care must be preventative, or prophylactic, and not reactive, or merely concerned with treating illness and injury after they occur. Truly preventative care did not reduce health to medical treatment but focused on the general well-being of the population by continuously improving living and working conditions. The DDR recognised that health must be understood as a social responsibility and a priority in all policies, from workplace safety to women’s universal access to reproductive care, nutrition and check-ups in kindergarten and school, and the need to guarantee holidays for the working class. But Zetkin’s quote also highlights how preventive care can only be realised by a system that eliminates the profit motive, which inevitably results in the exploitation of care workers, inflated prices, patents on life-saving medication, and artificial scarcity.
The DDR created a network of medical institutions that worked to improve diet and lifestyle as well as to identify and treat ailments early on rather than wait for them to develop into more severe illnesses. All of this had to be built in a heavily sanctioned country where the physical infrastructure had been destroyed by the war and where many doctors fled to the West (largely because roughly 45 percent of German physicians had been Nazi Party members, and they knew that they would be treated leniently in the West while they would likely be prosecuted in the DDR and in the Soviet Union).
The DDR’s commitment to comprehensive health care was based on the idea of social medicine (Sozialhygiene), developed by the founder of modern pathology Rudolf Virchow (1821–1902) to examine the socio-political determinants of health, and on the Soviet Semashko ‘single payer’ health care system, developed by Nikolai Semashko, People’s Commissar for Health in the Soviet Union from 1918 to 1930.
Among the key aspects of the DDR’s health care system detailed in our study are polyclinics and the community nurse system. When a person in the DDR felt sick, that person would go to a polyclinic, which would be located within their neighbourhood or workplace. Any person could walk into the polyclinic, inform the staff of their ailment, and see a doctor, who would, in turn, direct them to one of the clinic’s many specialist departments (such as internal medicine, oral medicine, gynaecology, surgery, paediatrics, and general medicine). Medical professionals were publicly employed and remunerated and could thus focus on healing the patient rather than on prescribing unnecessary tests and medicines simply to overbill insurance companies or the patients. The different medical professionals and specialists who worked in a single polyclinic consulted each other to find the best course of treatment. Furthermore, on average, 18 to 19 doctors worked in each clinic, allowing for extended hours of operations.
The DDR was not the only place to build a health care system based on this kind of socialist polyclinic format: two years ago, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research published dossier no. 25 on the polyclinics run by communists in the Telugu-speaking regions of India, entitled People’s Polyclinics: The Initiative of the Telugu Communist Movement. The most vital aspect of these polyclinics for our time is that no money was exchanged for care (which is particularly notable in India, where there are extraordinarily high out-of-pocket expenses for health care).
One paragraph in our study stopped me in my tracks:
In order to extend preventive care to rural areas and scattered villages, rural outpatient centres were built and staffed with up to three doctors, with the number of these facilities rising from 250 in 1953 to 433 by 1989. In many towns, physicians worked in public medical practices or temporarily staffed field offices to provide residents with consultation hours and home visits, while mobile dental clinics visited remote villages to provide all children with preventive care. In addition, the profession of the community nurse was developed in the early 1950s to alleviate the initial shortage of doctors in the countryside, with the number of community nurses expanding from 3,571 in 1953 to 5,585 by 1989. This extensive rural infrastructure helped to provide less densely populated regions with medical services comparable to what was available in urban areas.
In 2015, the International Labour Organisation published a report that found that 56 per cent of rural population worldwide lacks health coverage, with the highest deficit found in Africa, followed by Latin America and Asia. Meanwhile, in the DDR – which lasted a mere forty-one years, from 1949 to 1990 – the socialist project built a rural health care system that linked every resident to the polyclinics in nearby towns through the Gemeindeschwester (community nurse) system. The nurse would get to know every one of the residents in the village, give preliminary diagnoses, and either offer treatments or await the weekly visit of a doctor to each village. When the DDR was dismantled and absorbed into unified Germany in 1990, the community nurse system was disbanded, all 5,585 community nurses were laid off, and rural health care in the country collapsed.
We hope you will join us in an online panel discussion on February 28 to discuss how socialist systems of the past and present have transformed health care to serve the needs of the people rather than profit.
Northwest of Managua, in the city of León, lived the poet Alfonso Cortés (1893–1969), who had been declared ‘mad’ at the age of 34 and chained in his bedroom. Another of Nicaragua’s great poets, Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), grew up not far from the home of Cortés. As a child, Cardenal said he used to walk by the Cortés home from the Christian Brothers School and once he saw the ‘poeta loco’ in his chains. A lack of health care condemned Cortés to this humiliation. On one occasion, on his way to see a doctor in Managua, Cortés was driven past a thousand-year-old Genízaro tree in Nagarote, a tree to whom the ‘poeta loco’ wrote a beautiful poem of hope:
I love you, old tree, because at all hours,
you generate mysteries and destinies
in the voice of the afternoon winds
or the birds at dawn.
You who the public plaza decorate,
thinking thoughts more divine
than those of man, indicating the paths
with your proud and sonorous branches.
Genízaro, your old scars
where, like an in an old book, it is written
what time does in its constant falling;
But your leaves are fresh and happy
and you make your treetop tremble into infinity
while humankind goes forward.
While levying an income tax on individual earnings to supplement government revenue is a necessity to meet government expenditure, the issue in question is the perception and/or the reality of its unfairness and the lack of confidence and trust that people have about the way the tax they pay is spent by the government. There is no evidence that just and equitable approaches have been taken by politicians to address revenue raising and the curtailment of unaffordable expenditure in a systematic manner.
On the question of unfairness, many are of the opinion that there are a significant number of individuals who operate in a cash economy, with black and/or white cash, who either do not pay any tax or pay a minuscule amount by declaring an income far less than their real income. Big guns in this group are said to include some specialist doctors, architects, engineers, lawyers, customs officials, tuition teachers, and officials of the department of motor traffic among others. A report of a specialist doctor who charges a huge amount of money in cash per patient for a procedure that takes less than 15 minutes underscores the massive earnings of some and the underreporting of income by professionals and government officials, the latter category obviously making their money via bribes, depriving the government of much-needed revenue. There is anecdotal evidence of properties and luxury motor vehicles purchased for large sums of money, and extravagant expenditures incurred for weddings and other functions by individuals who apparently pay for these with cash.
On the same side of the coin of lost revenue, but on the corporate side, the Morning newspaper reported on the 13th of February that the government lost Rs. 560 mn in revenue due to tax concessions for listed companies in 2021/22.
Imesh Ranasinghe writing in the Morning stated that “the Government of Sri Lanka missed out on Rs. 560 million in corporate income tax in the financial year 2021/22 from 13 companies that enjoyed a 50% tax concession for being listed on the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) in 2021, financial statements of the listed companies revealed. As per the financial statements of the said 13 companies to which the concessions were granted for being listed on the CSE between May-December 2021, First Capital Treasuries PLC and Capital Alliance PLC recorded losses for the financial year 2021/22, while Lanka Credit and Business Finance PLC LOLC General Insurance paid deferred taxation charges. Some of the major companies that enjoyed higher taxation benefits include LOLC General Insurance PLC, which had earned a profit before tax (PBT) of Rs. 1.2 billion and had only paid Rs. 170.6 million under the concessionary tax rate after paying Rs. 413.5 million as taxes in 2022. Prime Land Residencies PLC had made a PBT of Rs. 1.8 billion and had paid Rs. 162 million as taxes from Rs. 289 million in 2020 and Cooperative Insurance PLC paid Rs. 97 million as corporate income tax from a PBT of Rs. 933 million after paying Rs. 260 million as taxes in 2020”.
This example of loss of tax revenue from 13 companies may be the tip of the iceberg as there could be other companies, smaller and bigger, who have paid less tax although their revenue was higher and their profit before tax was higher, and companies which are unlisted who may have not paid or paid fewer taxes although their revenues and profit before tax were higher than previous years.
In the context of the individual and corporate situations noted, increasing income tax from those at the bottom end of the income/revenue scale cannot be regarded as a fair proposition. As per the International Monetary Fund, Government Finance Statistics Yearbook and data files, and World Bank and OECD GDP estimates, the tax revenue in Sri Lanka had dropped to 7.7% of GDP in 2020 from 19% in the 1990as illustrated in the graph below. The revenue in 2022 was reported at 7.6 % of GDP in Sep 2022. As the graph depicts revenue has been steadily declining since 1990
Economynext in an article state that quote “Sri Lanka has aimed at increasing tax revenue by 69 percent to fund government spending in the crisis-hit economy, but analysts say the 2023 budget failed to address core issues on excess spending and articulate strong policies on restructuring loss-making state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The budget has aimed at increasing tax revenue by 69 percent to 3,130 billion rupees next year from this year’s 1,852 billion rupees while bringing down the budget deficit to 7.9 percent in 2023 from this year’s revised 9.8 percent. The high tax revenue target comes as millions of Sri Lankans face the impacts of the ongoing economic crisis – 66 percent inflation, job losses, and shrinking disposable income, unquote.
These factors portend even more of a difficult period in the coming years as no one appears willing and/or able to take the difficult decisions that must be taken to yield an effective course correction that will take the country out of the economic mess it is in. However, the pain of such decisions cannot fall unjustly on ordinary people who are already in great pain, while some segments of society enjoy a largesse that is both embarrassing and unkind to those who are struggling to find their next meal.
The following table on tax revenue estimate and collection by tax type (2019) published in lankastatistics gives an insight into the contribution to tax revenue from different categories. As can be seen, value-added tax and income tax comprise nearly 90% of the tax estimated and collected.
The value-added tax also contributes to the unfairness of tax because of its regressive nature. The Tax Policy Centre, is a joint venture of the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution made up of nationally recognized experts in tax, budget, and social policy who have served at the highest levels of government.
A briefing book, states, “because lower-income households spend a greater share of their income on consumption than higher-income households do, the burden of a VAT is regressive when measured as a share of current income: the tax burden as a share of income is highest for low-income households and falls sharply as household income rises. Because income saved today is generally spent in the future, the burden of a VAT is more proportional to income when measured as a share of income over a lifetime. Even by a lifetime income measure, however, the burden of the VAT as a share of income is lower for high-income households than for other households. A VAT (like any consumption tax) does not tax the returns (such as dividends and capital gains) from new capital investment, and income from capital makes up a larger portion of the total income of high-income households”.
If Sri Lanka is serious about an equitable and fair tax system, it needs a complete overhaul of the system and not patchwork changes at the behest of external agencies. The morally and politically bankrupt politicians and special interest groups may not wish for such an overhaul and the country would continue its debilitating slide into further trouble despite the best efforts of a few.
Firstly, if as suspected, a significant number of high earners are either not paying their fair share of income tax or not paying any income tax, that loophole needs to be fixed. There are measures that could be considered. The idea of levying a tax at the source could be considered for professionals who deal in cash payments. For example, unless a law exists, a new law could be brought in to make it compulsory that doctors see patients only in hospitals or certified medical or home practices, and that ALL cash or credit card transactions are recorded as auditable, legal documents. If patients are seen or treated at a hospital or a similar medical institution, the attending doctor SHOULD be paid by the institution and no direct patient transactions should be permitted. The hospital in these instances could be compelled by law to deduct a percentage of the doctor’s fee as a tax, with the doctor permitted to disclose this payment in their annual tax returns. A similar methodology could be adopted with some variations to other high earners by way of a registration process where and all such registered individuals are required to submit periodic returns to the Inland Revenue department.
Government officials who become high earners through bribe taking will be harder to rope in although in their case as well as in the case of professionals, strict asset tests conducted by the tax office, and also bank disclosures on ALL cash deposits over a given amount, plus a tax levy imposed when deposits are made, for deposits over a given value, could be some of the plugs that can be used to close loopholes.
In all cases it is vital that penalties for violating existing and new tax laws are very stringent and they include jail terms and confiscation of assets including any unlawfully held cash assets in the name of the individuals. As suspected, if such assets are written in the name of relatives or friends of the individuals concerned, such persons should be called upon to explain and justify how they managed to acquire such assets.
Secondly, value added taxes needs to be revised and redress given to individuals when they purchase essentials. Instead, a tax overhaul could investigate increasing value added taxes for functions held in hotels and function halls. It is no secret that vast sums of money are spent on these functions. Many such spending is unconscionable and an affront to the hundreds and thousands of ordinary people who do not have money for their basic, routine meals. However, rather than focusing on the morals and ethics of such high spenders, as that would be more or less water off duck’s backs, charging a high value added tax would at least allow the government to support the most vulnerable with such funds. To the best of the writer’s knowledge, no surveys have been carried out to ascertain the revenue to hotels and function centres from such functions.
The tax office could undertake such a survey to ascertain the current and potential value added tax collection from such venues.A tax overhaul should naturally include corporate taxation and a re look at concessions provided and how a situation reported in the Morning newspaper described earlier could be addressed. CEIC Unlimited states the following
- Sri Lanka Tax Revenue was reported at 6.562 USD bn in Dec 2021.
- This is a decrease from the previous figure of 6.566 USD bn for Dec 2020.
The decline in tax revenue is shown in the illustration below. The corporate tax component and individual income tax component is not mentioned here, and this is something that needs to be examined to ascertain the contribution from the corporate sector and if the Morning article is to be taken as perhaps the tip of the iceberg, the potential loss of income tax from the corporate sector.
Clearly, it appears that there are some individuals who earn vast amounts of money but hardly pay reasonable income taxes, corporate earnings and profits are not consistent with taxes paid, there is no assessment of the income of some individuals who purchase high-value properties and other assets and whether they have fulfilled their tax commitments. On the other hand, successive governments seem to have and still are taking the easy way out by taxing wage earners.
If the country is serious about increasing its revenue base from taxes, it should engage in a complete overhaul of the tax system, strengthen the hand of the tax department by way of suitable legislation and introduce serious punitive measures to punish individuals and corporate entities who firstly do not declare their real income, and secondly who do not pay their fair share of taxes. The VAT system too should be revised in such a way that the most vulnerable are safeguarded from the regressive nature of the VAT system.