Iraqi Guangxi August 5, 2005
I would like to honor a brave journalist, Steven Vincent, who went to Iraq as a free-lancer. It is difficult to state the danger a free-lance journalist who is not "embedded" in a protective unit of the U.S. Armed Forces faces in Iraq; there is no protection except one's own intelligence network, street moxie and luck. Apparently Vincent was hot on the trail of a "weird tangle of criminal gangs, Iranians coming over, and the corruption" in the Basra Police force. A more dangerous set of foes would be hard to imagine--criminal gangs, Iranians and corrupt Police--as these are precisely the people who desire secrecy most ardently.
If you substituted "offshore Chinese" for "Iranians," you would have a remarkably accurate description of the state of affairs in China, where corruption and "guanxi" rule beneath the surface of apparent government control. Thus the photo of Shanghai, which is certainly a city built on guanxi. When it was stripped of influence during the 50s and 60s, it was a backwater; but once the ideological grip of the Gang of Four was loosened, Shanghai regained both its vigor and its guanxi (interlocking obligations and financial dealings between various people with some degree of either power or money). It is now the New York of China, relegating Beijing to the status of Washington D.C.--the seat of central government but of little else.
The revelations Vincent was beginning to reveal--the heavy penetration of Iranian influence into the Police Force, the British error in ceding control of Basra to the religious leaders tied to the Iranians, the terrible corruption threading through everything from the Police to reconstruction funds--lead me to wonder if anthropologists wouldn't make the most valuable analysts in Iraq. It seems obvious that we as a nation will never understand how to repair the fractured social contract in Iraq without a complete grasp of Iraqi "guanxi" and how tribal/family connections power a pervasive and debilitating corruption.
Interestingly enough, these same issues threaten to undermine all that's been accomplished in China; for a fuller explanation, take a look at my essay China: An Interim Report". It should be noted that criminal gangs in China are not necessarily the violent street-level drug dealers who characterize gangs in the U.S; they are sophisticated networks which may well control drugs and prostitution but whose more lucrative business is counterfeiting software, DVDs, medicines and more. Members of criminal triads are often intimately linked to those in power, often through family or clan connections.
For more on Chinese triads, read The Dragon Syndicates: The Global Phenomenon of the Triads by Martin Booth (1999, Carroll & Graf).
One complexity burdening Iraq but not China is the interplay of conflicting religions and ethnic identities. Despite this, not all parts of Iraq are as bleak as the headlines might lead you to believe. For a fascinating "on the ground" look at events in Mosul, Iraq, check the blog of Michael Yon, another free-lance journalist in Iraq.
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copyright © 2005 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.
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