WTO Dispatches from Hong Kong, Continued

AlterNet staff writer Joshua Holland is reporting from Hong Kong on the World Trade Organization Sixth Ministerial Conference. His dispatches of events from the protests and trade negotiations will be updated throughout the week.

You can read Joshua Holland's most recent entries here.

Cultivating an Impasse on Agriculture
Updated -- December 15, 5:13 pm PST

The big issue -- and the issue that threatens the 6th WTO Ministerial meet most prominently -- continues to be agriculture.

While U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman is in Hong Kong defending the United States' against continued criticism, an unfortunate bit of timing back in DC may undermine his position: the House and Senate may announce as soon as today a budget reconciliation package that would extend the commodity subsidies in the U.S. Farm Bill through 2011.

The Senate version contains the extension, authored by Saxby Chambliss (R-GA). Chambliss has said, "U.S. food and farm policy won't be decided in Hong Kong."

His bill would extend only the price supports that distort world crop prices and hurt the livelihoods of poor nations' farmers. The rest of the farm bill includes anti-hunger provisions- food stamps are a part of the bill -- money for environmental protections, support for low-intensity farming and other areas. These would all be allowed to expire as scheduled in 2007.

Members of the NGO community slammed the provision, which insiders expect to survive in the final budget. Gawain Kripke of OxFam U.S. said it was indicative of a "troubling disconnect" between Congress and the Trade Representative -- a member of the president's Cabinet. He said that the Farm Bill has provisions for "haves and have nots" and this would "give a free pass to the haves." David Waskow of Friends of the Earth said, "Congress is balancing the budget on the backs of the poor and the environment" -- pretty much in keeping with this Congress's governing philosophy.

The farm bill is currently set to expire at the same time as the Doha "development round" -- in which the development needs of poor countries is supposed to take center stage -- is scheduled to be completed. That would have lined up nicely for some much-needed ag reform. Sophia Murphy of the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy said if the provision makes it into the final budget it will "change the whole political calculus."

The United States has been in violation of some agricultural provisions since the completion of the Uruguay Round in 1994. It lost a case brought by Brazil challenging its cotton subsidies -- $4billion dollars worth for 25,000 farmers -- in 2004. It lost a subsequent appeal, but has not cut the subsidies, which are among the provisions extended under Chambliss' bill.

The United States and EU (then EC) have promised to address crop subsidies since the 1950s, but haven't gotten around to it yet. Readers should keep that in mind when they peruse the next Wall Street Journal editorial lambasting the developing countries for creating an impasse. Emily Byers, with the U.S. faith-based lobbying group Bread for the World, said plainly that the United States has a "rogue" crop policy. The EU may be even worse.

In a press conference of leading G-20 members, Brazil's Trade Minister said yesterday that "it is clear these issues are not going to be resolved now," and the Argentinean Minister affirmed what everyone knows: "Agriculture has to be the first domino to fall" if a deal is to be made. The Indian Minister said, "There have been too many statements of good intention. At the end of the day they have to yield some results."

The Ministers said that some progress had been made on one kind of agricultural subsidy, but they remained pessimistic that the large services-dominated economies would give enough to the group of agricultural producers to complete a deal. The movement was on one of the easiest points of negotiation -- changing "at a date to be determined" in one paragraph to a date ... that's been determined -- for the expiration of crop export subsidies. Those are the subsidies that everyone agrees are "market-distorting." Brazil's Minister said subsidies in general are the "big elephant in the room." Of a potential deadlock on the least controversial issue, he asked: "if we can't deal with the mouse how can we hope to deal with the elephant?"

The farm bill extension couldn't have come at a worse time. When I asked OxFam's Gawain Kripke if the conference report could have been scheduled a few days later, and whether we were seeing a message to the Trade Rep in the scheduling, he made it seem like I was suggesting something conspiratorial - he used that word. What is it about these DC-based weenies that leads them to deny that back-stabbing politics transpire everyday? Anyway, there's the usual tension in the right's worldview: being global's good for the bottom line, but there's the hyper-Jacksonian idea that we can't cede an inch of sovereignty under any circumstance. Kripke's probably right that the timing is an unfortunate coincidence as lawmakers scramble to get home for their secularized holidays, but that tension between the corporatists and the hegemonists is almost irreconcilable.

Speaking of weenies, the EU claims that it has already cut crop subsidies by 70 percent. I got the scoop on that claim during a briefing by the NGO Action Aid. There are different kinds of subsidies -- in WTO-speak: "amber box" are definitely trade-distorting, "green box" are not and "blue box" falls in between. If you don't behave, I'll explain the details -- they're mind-numbing.

The EU claim is based 1) on tweaking the structure of subsidies so that they move from box to box and 2) using not the actual subsidies that they were paying as the baseline, but theoretical caps agreed to in the Uruguay Round. Say I've never had a hundred dollars in my pocket, but I theoretically could have. I actually had fifty. If I spend ten, you and I would think my funds have been reduced by 20 percent. The EU would claim that as a reduction of sixty percent from the theoretical C-note I never had. Trade gobbledy-gook.

Anyway, nobody knows if they're even being straight on the issue because the U.S. and EU haven't filed the WTO-required reports on subsidy levels for the last four years.

I uploaded some pix here.

Day Three Wrap-up
Updated -- December 15, 2:10 pm PST

It was a relatively quiet news day today, as the action moved to the "green rooms." The word is that the late-night negotiations will start to heat up, running between 6 pm and 3 or 4 am. This, as one reporter put it, is when it becomes a "war of attrition." The U.S. and EU delegations have a leg up as they're staffed by hundreds of negotiators and advisors.

Lots of yawns, and my many NGO sources all looked ragged.

Oh, and those green room sessions have become so infamous that the WTO Secretariat (the bureaucrats) are trying to rename them. They're now officially "Chairman's Consultative Groups." But it doesn't seem to be catching on; too many syllables. Everyone still talks about green rooms, including U.S. Trade Rep Rob Portman.

Speaking of Portman, he said today that the U.S. "shouldn't promise what it can't deliver." This, a day after he had done just that (see below). Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agricultural Trade Policy (IACT) -- an NGO -- said that Portman "didn't have a mandate for some of the proposals" he made in months leading up to the Ministerial.

Also today, an offer for duty- and tariff-free access for cotton imports from the poorest countries -- cotton being a sticky widget if ever there was one. But Sophia Murphy, also of IACT, said that access wasn't going to help because the poorer producers in Africa didn't have the capacity to take advantage. It's the U.S. cotton subsidies that have hurt the livelihoods of millions of poor cotton farmers by bringing down world prices.

She added that enforcing the existing rules would help. Part of the U.S. offer was to live up to previous commitments -- we've been in violation of some agricultural rules we'd previously agreed to for the past 10 years. I spent most of the day talking agriculture, and a more detailed dispatch will follow after a bit of shut-eye.

I've had a low-level headache since that little snoot of "pepper foam" at the riot photo-op yesterday. I don't want to leave the wrong impression about the Hong Kong police, they weren't aiming at me and I didn't get much. I don't think the headache is related; I'm as sleep deprived as the next person and the air quality in HK is terrible.

This makes me four for four: hit with "less-than-lethal" chemical weapons in four countries at four trade meets. For you connoisseurs, the Mexican tear-gas was the worst, the Miami cops shot me with pepper paint balls that wore off pretty quick (no notice to disperse, I might add) and the Canucks used something that fell in between.

The police here have been very restrained. Just like the Canadians and the Mexicans. It's interesting that so many Americans think they live in a land with absolute guarantees of freedom of expression -- they take it for granted -- but in fact it's the worst place to demonstrate in the West.

Granted, we have a strong rule of law. That means that after you get pushed around and abused and arrested for speaking out you can pretty much count on the prosecutor dropping all charges just as soon as whatever you're demonstrating against is over.
While I'm on the subject of riots, a headline in this morning's South China Morning Post read "Faced with fists of fury, police won't rule out heavy hand." Yup, my friend and "fellow journo" Barclay Crawford at it again, reporting what hasn't been "ruled out." A neat trick, that. (If you're just tuning in, scroll down to see what I'm talking about).

And while I've been bashing the sensationalistic SCMP, there's a second English-language daily in Hong Kong, The Standard. I got an e-mail from reporter Douglas Crets, and he linked me to his coverage of the same protest:
Six protesters were injured Wednesday, two of them foreigners, when for the second consecutive day a protest march ended in confrontation at the Wan Chai Public Cargo Working Area near the convention center headquarters for the WTO gathering. Televised images make the clashes between protesters and local police appear chaotic and violent, but up close the incidents seemed controlled and almost ceremonial.
In Wednesday's scuffle, about 200 protesters -- mostly Koreans under the banner of the Korean Federation of Trade Unions -- separated from a larger group near the cargo area, broke through a police line and confronted a security cordon in the same place they engaged police the day before.
Then about 20 protesters, wearing cling wrap to protect their eyes from pepper spray, repeatedly walked up to the cordon and attempted to break through the police line.
The injuries occurred in the confrontation, but no stones were thrown, no firebombs hurled and no one was arrested.
Crets pointed me to a local WTO blog as well. You can read it here.

Very accurate, although he does buy that previous WTO meetings have had a lot of violence, and implied is that it was on the part of the protesters.

Last note on the myth of the violent WTO protests. I was chatting with a BBC reporter who commented in passing that the WTO demos were nothing like those at European G-8 meetings. That struck a cord -- those EU anarchists are true bad-asses, and there's heavy violence at those meets. I think there's a tendency to conflate the two groups, even though they don't really travel to these things if they're not in Europe.

While the big news story yesterday were the offers put on the table and the U.S.-EU finger pointing on topics like food aid (see below), probably more significant was the emergence of a "G-110" group of countries. They're a mega-grouping that includes members of the existing big blocs of developing countries (G-20, G-33 and G-90), and they represent over 80 percent of the world's population.

This flummoxes all those economists who believe firmly in the rational actor; they say such a large bloc has too many diverse and divergent interests to hold together. They always point to Brazil, a leader in GMOs, and all those poor countries that are fighting to maintain their food security by avoiding patented seeds.

My own sense -- take it for what it's worth -- is that this is the law of unintended consequences at play; it's a backlash against the big three's (U.S., EU, Japan) legendary bullying, tactics that have worked so well for them in the past.

In Cancun, the U.S. tried to peel off five of the G-20 countries, but they held firm and the talks collapsed.

If this big bloc does hold together, it's of huge significance. Adriano Campolina of Action Aid told me, "It's the only way that the issues that matter most to billions of people in the third world will come to anything in these negotiations."

I asked what kind of tactics we were going to see to peel countries off and he said, "there's a wide range of tools. Sometimes they seduce, sometimes they offer one or two countries a good deal. And sometimes they get rough. Among the tactics in Cancun was the promise that USAID would "be watching" those countries that didn't toe the line. Campolina said I should look for an escalation in tactics and rhetoric in the next few days. So far, things have been relatively civil.

After writing about how easily one could be seduced by the one-stop-shopping convenience of the Convention Center, I realize I've been spending too much time there. Tomorrow, I'm going to spend most of the day in Victoria Park with the humans. I just can't resist the G-90 press briefing, and I'll swing by in the evening to get the day's wrap-up.

I've been thinking about how the Canadians are very aggressive in all the same areas as the U.S. and EU, but they don't get much flack for it from activists. They work under the radar. Why? I have two theories.

The first is that they're 6.5 percent less aggressive and that makes a huge difference. I spoke with a member of the Canadian team a couple of years back -- this'll be off the record because I wasn't writing for public consumption when he spoke to me -- and he said that Canada wanted all the same things as the U.S. and EU, but were "a bit softer" about getting it. The other theory is about foreign-policy bleed-through. The Canadians have developed what they call the "New Foreign Policy," which is very human rights and aid-oriented. Lots of development projects bring lots of good will. And their NGOs are really prominent in working with the poorer countries.

Of course the conventional wisdom is that it's a result of their much smaller economy, which probably does account for most of the difference.

The Turkish ex-pat who sold me a much-needed döner-kebab the other day explained what was going on inside: "I understand the rules allow Americans to sell everything everywhere around the world and nobody can sell anything to them."

At first I thought, "what a wildly distorted view." Then I asked myself if it was any further from some elemental truth than the Moonies at the Washington Times spouting off about how "free-trade" is the answer to everything -- from world peace to the end of poverty to coming and mowing your lawn. I decided it was a draw.

From the Farmer's Mouth
Updated -- Dec. 14, 11:49 pm PST

The bad guys here in Hong Kong are, in order: wild-eyed anti-globalization protesters, rich countries' selfish farmers, the stubborn and dependent poor countries, the ignorant anti-trade NGOs and, as usual, the obstructionist surrender-monkey French.

George Naylor falls into one of those categories -- at least -- and he would like you to rethink that. Naylor looks like a family farmer from Central Casting -- big, hearty and all-American. He's traveled from Iowa to Hong Kong because his livelihood is threatened by agricultural liberalization.

More than anything else, he'd like you to understand the difference between the family farmer -- a dying breed in America -- and the big multi-national agribusinesses.

I'm not an expert on these issues. I hear from the NGOs how damaging U.S. and EU farm subsidies are for poor nations. But 70 percent of those subsidies go to big agribusinesses, not guys like Naylor.

Here's a brief Q and A, so you can get Naylor's take on what's at stake in Hong Kong in his own words:

Why did you come all the way to Hong Kong?

We come here to be here with other farmers from around the world -- to be with other farmers in an international coalition called Via Campesina to say that the WTO shouldn't be making rules on agriculture. Liberalization of agriculture is a disaster for family farmers and for the environment. And it's really a disaster for consumers too because it's putting all the power into the hands of multinational corporations – power over their food supply.

People here say that rich countries' subsidies are hurting the development of poorer countries, say in Africa. But you have a different view.

The subsidy system is very hypocritical -- it's hypocritical for the United States to be preaching free trade and then still relying on subsidies. The fact is that when you liberalize trade and then let commodities be priced in international markets -- like letting the Chicago Board of Trade determine what the price of wheat and corn is, then the price is going to go so low that an agricultural system in almost any country will not function. So the United States uses subsidies to make up for it. And the cheap grain and soy beans still get sold to big corporations where they can use that to feed livestock themselves instead of having farmers do it.

Tell me about the environmental impact, and the difference between family farming and factory farming

Well, it's a funny thing with farmers: when their price goes down they're not going to produce less, they're going to try to produce more to make up for the low price. And consequently they -- lots of times they use chemicals or other technology that's bad for the environment. And then, like in the United States the cheap corn and soybeans will feed livestock in big corporate confinements and the family farmer doesn't have any need for hay or pasture anymore. And then the manure runoff from these huge livestock containments creates a huge environmental problem in contaminating groundwater for instance, which goes down to the Gulf of Mexico.

How do you think the media does in portraying your issue?

In the media they try to say that us farmers are benefiting from the subsidy system, and the US government is representing us farmers but that’s not the case at all. They'd love to stop paying subsidies, but if they did the whole system would crash. And they don't put in enough to take care of family farmers; they only pay enough to keep the system alive. So it's really just the multinational corporations that benefit because they can still buy tons of cheap corn and soybeans.

Many say that consumers benefit from those low grocery prices. What's your response?

Well, I'll tell you when a consumer goes into a big supermarket and they see the price of apples or meat or milk and things like that, they should realize that the difference in the price they're paying and what the farmers get is huge. And you don't know where that produce came from and you don't know how it's produced. And chances are there are family farmers in rural communities that are suffering because of the way our system is functioning.

Day Two: Grand talk, But Where's the Beef?
Updated -- Dec. 14, 5:50 pm PST

During the second day of the 6th WTO Ministerial Conference, the U.S. delegation announced an offer it claimed might break through what is looking more and more like another deadlock in the making. The package would include an increase in trade-related development assistance from 1.3 billion dollars annually to 2.7 billion. It also included some tariff-free access to the U.S. market for the least developed countries.

The move comes a day after The European Union offered an aid package for developing countries worth 400 million euros annually. In announcing the package, EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson took a swipe at the other wealthy countries -- and especially the U.S. -- saying: "Europe did not come to Hong Kong empty-handed." He also criticized the U.S. for unloading surplus agricultural goods on poor countries in the form of food aid. Europe has been transitioning from shipping foodstuffs directly to needy countries to offering cash grants, which don't depress prices for poor countries' domestic farmers. The EU's offer also included tariff-free access to the poorest countries.

Both packages were presented with great fanfare, and both, according to members of the NGO community, are typically hollow when one gets down to the fine print.

The offers were in the form of "aid-for-trade," a popular catch-phrase among wealthy country negotiators that, in theory, means aid grants designed to build trade capacity. In reality, say activists, aid-for-trade deals are highly conditional on developing countries buying into provisions that they've so far resisted as too onerous.

Walden Bello, Director of Focus on the Global South, said the packages were being used "as a battering ram" to bring countries into agreement on issues like privatizing public services. He compared the package to the IMF's structural adjustment agreements, which force developing countries to enact public sector cuts that often impact the most vulnerable. He added that the aid would be in the form of loans, adding to the poor countries' debt burdens.

Aftab Khan, of the NGO Action Aid, agreed, saying, "trade cannot substitute for aid." He also pointed out that much of the U.S.'s offer had already been made under the terms of the African Growth and Opportunity Act enacted in 2002.

Activists say that these offers, like the whole "development package" being touted here in Hong Kong, are an attempt to "change the subject" from the WTO's failure to follow through on the development-focused round promised in Doha, Qatar in 2001.

Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch, summed it up thusly: "If it's a development round, why do you need a development package, unless the round undermines development, at which point you have to buy the developing countries' agreement for a development round with a development package. This was not necessarily a good reframing and change of message."

"The only thing worse than a bad anti-development deal," she added, "is a deal based on lies."

And that's what yesterday's offers look like. Caroline Lucas, a member of the EU Parliament with the Greens, called the EU's offer a "sweetened pill" and a "massive diversion." She pointed out that the offer consisted of "concessions that have already been given" under the EU's "everything but arms" program -- an initiative that allows the poorest countries duty free access for just that -- or things that the EU couldn't possibly deliver in a time of tight budgets.

The U.S. offer is similarly disingenuous. As Citizen's Trade watch pointed out in a release, Rob Portman doesn't have the authority, under U.S. law, to offer tariff reductions on 500 different goods. His office lost it in the 2002 Fast Track bill. It would require amending the General System of Preferences, which only Congress can do. And influential members of Congress have said publicly that they'd fight against it tooth-and-nail.

What's more, the offer of increased aid is "contingent on approval of the president's budget request." That's laugh-out-loud funny; the president's budget request is recycled 10 minutes after it hits congress, and then the real budget process begins.

Now, let me use these grand and beneficent offers to make a larger point. In your paper tomorrow morning, if it's covered at all, these carrots will be announced as a big move to come to terms with those stubborn poor countries. None of the details -- the fact that these are completely empty gestures -- will be mentioned.

Then, if the talks collapse, the National Review or the Wall Street Journal's editorial board will blame the poor countries for being "anti-trade." But, and this will be a recurring theme, the devil is indeed in the details. I have yet to meet anyone who is against trade in general. The only issue being kicked around in these late-night "green room" sessions is trade on what terms?

*Update: the U.S. aid-for-trade offer is a grant, not a loan. Either Bello had it wrong or I heard him wrong.

WTO, Where Did You Come From?
Updated -- Dec. 14, 2:07 pm PST

I want to take a brief moment for a bit of background.

Most people still believe that discussions of "free-trade" are about ships full of bananas or ball bearings or high-tech widgets crossing oceans. Understanding why that's just a small part of the issue is key to grasping the difference between "free trade" and "power grab."

Prior to World War II, trade wars were common, and they often led to shooting wars. In the mid-1940s the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) was created to foster world peace. Many of its authors were FDR liberals. They had high ideals.

Between 1944 and the mid-1990s, trade negotiations were conducted by (mostly) white guys in business suits and nobody really gave a damn. Poor countries griped about agricultural subsidies and the rich countries' protectionism, but they were also free to try various development strategies (a big subject itself, but one for another day).

The key to understanding what's gone awry since then -- and to gaining a grasp on most of the fights currently underway in the WTO -- is how the world's economies are structured.

During the first decades of the GATT, which governed trade between 1947-1995, the United States and "old" Europe had economies based heavily on manufacturing. Today, almost all advanced economies share a very similar distribution: about one to two percent in agriculture, maybe 20 or so percent in manufacturing and around 80 percent in services.

For the first forty or so years, the members of the GATT negotiated reductions in tariffs, quotas and other traditional forms of market protectionism. They were the manufacturers, and those deals were for the most part negotiated on a level playing field -- what they call "North-North" negotiations in trade lingo.

Those who brand opponents of today's trade deals "protectionists" might ask themselves why nobody resisted the GATT during those years of slashing tariffs and quotas and the like.

Beginning in the 1970s two things happened -- or I should say two things aside from the oil shock of '73.

In 1979, during the Tokyo round of the GATT, negotiators began looking at "non-tariff barriers." These included onerous customs procedures, mountains of paperwork, subsidies for domestic industry, etc.

That coincided with the emergence of the new conservative movement -- with its think tanks and front groups -- and the elections of Reagan and Thatcher to head the world's leading political and economic powers. They were, if nothing else, union-busters extraordinaire.

That marked the beginning of a precipitous decline in union membership and a massive shift in the wealthy economies -- their bread and butter went from manufacturing to services (the latter shift had already begun after the oil shock).

When it comes to services, and this is really a key point, there's a massive pile of cash just sitting there in the things that governments commonly did at the time: from education to sanitation and everything in between. According to Tony Clarke of the Polaris Institute, a Canadian NGO, the total estimated value of the world's service sector -- including public services -- is between 15-20 trillion dollars (I have a wide-ranging interview scheduled with Tony in Hong Kong this week).

Now, once they started looking at non-tariff barriers, it was inevitable that somewhere along the line, someone in those think tanks said, "we can call a strict environmental or food-safety regulation a non-tariff barrier too!"

With that mindset, in 1986, after seven years of negotiating, the GATT culminated in the creation of the WTO, which had enforcement powers unlike any other multilateral organization. But its rules hadn't been written up by FDR liberals, but by Reagan-Thatcher big-business conservatives.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Public Citizen found that of 500 "experts" who sat on the advisory boards that hammered out the thousands of pages of the WTO treaty, there were a dozen representatives of labor. There were none from groups advocating for the environment, poor country development, human rights or anything else. The rest were multinational execs and various lawyers, lobbyists and industry experts.

For too many of them, the new framework provided a back door in which to advance an agenda. They could push a set of treaties that pressured -- and in some instances legally constrained -- domestic legislatures to conform to the prevailing economic theories known as the "Washington Consensus" (whenever anyone calls something a "consensus," it probably isn't even close).

In the meantime, since the early days, dozens of countries -- many newly liberated colonies -- had been added -- and most were poor and had poor infrastructure and very different economic distributions. Many relied on agriculture not only for food, but also as a significant source of employment. Early on, the developed countries had promised to start cutting agricultural subsidies and giving them greater market protection but so far, they just haven't gotten around to it on the scale promised.

Nonetheless, by the time we got to the Singapore Round in 1996, there was an aggressive push to 1) enact a broad set of "investor protections" that made a variety of laws -- some protecting the public interest -- subject to the WTO's dispute-resolution process and 2) allowed countries to exert pressure on other governments to privatize their public services.

Organized labor, community activists, environmentalists, food security specialists, farmers and many other groups started to see these rules as a significant threat to their work. They gathered to greet the Ministers in Seattle -- the famous "teamsters and turtles" coalition -- and there followed the infamous "Battle in Seattle" (which was actually a police riot).

The major media corporations saw the grass-roots rejection of their trade rules as a threat and invented the insulting and inaccurate moniker "anti-globalization" to marginalize the activists. Their sensational reporting led to a lot of unnecessary violence, mostly on the part of police. Nonetheless, the activists and NGOs lent expertise and moral courage to the poor countries' representatives, shared information and created global networks. Their educational efforts brought attention to the issues, despite the shabby treatment of most of the media, and Seattle and Cancun ended in deadlocks.

Here we are again in Hong Kong, and regardless of the spin it doesn't look like this Conference will end very differently.

Sleepy Eyes (and Errata)
Updated -- Dec. 14, 2:14 am PST

It's six pm in Hong Kong, and all the fashionable kids are wearing a big yawn. This is a 24-hour activity and it's hard to stay sharp. We hear from the NGOs about all the ways that the big boys bring pressure to bear on the developing countries, but sleep deprivation is something that's not fully appreciated. The wealthy states have huge contingents of lawyers, advisors, press flacks and, of course, negotiators. Many of the poor countries have small staffs that run ragged. The "green rooms" where much of the arm-twisting occurs are going all the time, and ministers are kept up all night. I don't want to argue that poor countries are "victims" -- that's a meme we hear enough of and I think has real pitfalls -- but it is what it is. I know I'm not at my sharpest.

Anyway, as one of the endless press briefings goes on in the background here --a Minister from New Zealand was just saying that "the North-South conflicts are a thing of the past" -- tell it to the South, buddy! -- I thought I'd share some errata.

**The U.S. announced an offer for a bunch of aid and ag access that they are portraying as a potential breakthrough. Judging by the grumbling I hear, it's not what it seems. I'm working on getting details for you.

**Rumor has it that the tiny African nation of Benin was so frustrated by the cotton talks that they threatened to walk out. So far, just a rumor.

**A guy on the elevator asked me in heavily accented English if my penis was working. I wonder to what degree language is a barrier with so many advisors, NGOs, ministers and assorted hangers-on running around from 148 countries. I assured him it was working alright and he nodded.

**I just came from a great brief by some of the legends of the fair trade movement --Vendana Shiva, Maude Barlowe and others -- about how the WTO process puts pressure on countries to privatize public services -- education, sanitation, water delivery -- you name it. According to WTO Deputy Secretary-General Jara -- I didn't catch his first name -- there's no problem as they can always say no. But activists point out how the WTO works in conjunction with the World Bank, IMF and wealthy countries' aid agencies to bring pressure. I'll bring more on that story before the week's out.

What struck me about the briefing was how many people I recognized from past trade meets I've been to in Canada and Mexico. There is a growing grass-roots version of globalization that's an unintended consequence of the corporate project. People are sharing research and creating transnational social movements around these issues. This scares the bejesus out of the corporate globalizers, who consider all those people to be so pesky. This relates to a blog post I wrote the other day calling for more, not less globalization.

**Water privatization especially is a big issue among the NGO community and activists. I can't think of anything so emblematic of the tension between human values and economic efficiency. I'm working on something in-depth.

The Media Are the Riot
Updated -- Dec. 13, 10:22 pm PST

I just arrived from one of the South Korean "riots." They are, in fact, small, well-orchestrated photo opportunities. According to reporters I talked to on the scene, the media who were there in droves understood that, but will report the story as if the actions were widespread, spontaneous violence against the security forces.

Witnessing it confirms the most cynical views of media spin, and offers an insight into how the myth of violent "anti-globalization" protests is reinforced.

I marched with about 300 South Korean farmers. At one point, as we approached the Convention Center, police formed a line and divided the protest into two groups. A small group of about 50-60 protesters were allowed to proceed to a second police line, this one with several hundred riot-clad officers forming a barrier with their plexiglass shields. The protesters gathered by the line and the media surrounded them. There were approximately 500 officers, and an equal number of journalists surrounding the small knot of demonstrators.

On a pre-arranged signal several organizers moved the media back far enough to create a space in front of the line of riot police. They sat down. My Korean's rusty, so I can't report what was said, but by appearances, a leader of the group made a brief motivational announcement. They stood and began to drum, shouting "down, down WTO!"

At another signal, maybe ten protesters ran at the police line. Police fired chemical agents. At least one protester was hit by a baton and was dragged away, bleeding from a minor headwound. He later appeared to be OK.

This was repeated several times. I was standing next to a reporter, who turned out to be Barclay Crawford, whose reporting for the South China Morning Post, I've written about critically over the past few days. I asked him why his paper insisted on putting the words 'radical' or 'militant' in front of each mention of Korean farmers. He said he didn't know. When I asked if it was an editorial decision from above, he bristled at the suggestion. He told me his personal view: "they're fighting for their livelihood," a notion that will never grace the pages of the Morning Post.

I asked him about his front page story about the prospect of South Korean "suicide attacks" against the Convention Center. He said that he had asked the Koreans and "they didn't rule it out." I told him I couldn't rule out his being hit by lightning in the next few moments, but he didn't seem amused.

The money quote of the exchange was when he told me, "look I'm a journo, you're a journo [he's an Australian]. We sing another's tune but we're still singing for our supper." I took that to mean he was intentionally sensationalizing his reporting on the violence. Perhaps sensing my discomfort, he told me "you should see the native Chinese reporting, you'd think it was bloody World War III."

I walked away sickened by the whole incident, and not just by the nose-full of pepper spray I got when I tried to get a good picture. I'll post those pix later.

Day One Ends with Finger-Pointing, Pessimism, Sensationalism
Updated -- Dec. 14, 6:31 pm

The first day of the 6th WTO Ministerial conference in Hong Kong ended with an overwhelming sense of pessimism among the participants, even as all sides tried to set up any possible achievement as a success. Meanwhile, thousands gathered to protest the talks, both outside in large demos, and inside in the form of banners being broken out by the NGO community -- including several of AlterNet's informal reporting partners -- during the opening ceremony.

Secretary General (and former E.U. negotiator) Pascal Lamy launched the conference by brandishing a magic wand, which he claimed -- Tinkerbell-style -- would only work if everyone "believed in it." His talk was disrupted by members of the Our World Is Not For Sale coalition -- a group of leading NGOs. Unfurling a huge banner with the words "No Deal is Better Than A Bad Deal," they shouted "no more lies!" AlterNet contributor Deborah James of Global Exchange and Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute took part. The local papers gave the incident big play -- describing the group as "Trojan horses," but James told me that the security personnel's primary concern was that they didn't make trouble while Hong Kong's Minister was speaking. "We basically had to escort ourselves out," she said.

Meanwhile, E.U, ministers were saying that their offer to cut tariffs on European agricultural subsidies were as good as it would get. There was some grumbling that the French were holding the EU delegation firm, but that wasn't confirmed. During a press briefing, French Trade Minister christine Lagarde said there was unanimity among the 25 E.U. states. E.U. negotiator Peter Mandelson, who the South China Morning Post almost always describes as "smooth," complained that the focus on agriculture wasn't leaving "enough on the table to negotiate" -- the E.U. wants to talk services -- even as Pascal Lamy was saying that delegations needed to focus on ag, industrial goods and the needs of the poorest countries. "Negotiating energy is a limited quantum," he said.

Meanwhile, a group representing 80 percent of the world's population, led by the "G-20" countries (it's up to 22) met behind closed doors. One participant from a Philippine rice NGO who was present told me that they were "hanging firm" and working out the "fine points" of their position. Analysts from developed countries wonder how such diverse states as crop exporting Brazil could maintain common ground with crop importer India. The coalition's demise has been predicted since before the Cancun ministerial in 2003. To the degree those predictions were simply wishful thinking on the part of the wealthy service economies remains to be seen.

Outside, tens of thousands protested peacefully and security forces were restrained. But coverage continued to be almost hysterical in the local English-language press. The front page of today's South China Morning Post featured the headline "Nothing will stop us, vow Korean militants." Underneath, there's a remarkable photograph of one or maybe two "militant" Korean farmers kicking a police shield and being pepper-sprayed, while hundreds of photographers snapped pictures in the background. A British reporter who witnessed the confrontation later told me the whole thing "was a joke."

The South China Morning Post reported that 4,500 demonstrators had marched to the Convention Center, but I stood in one place and the march took forty minutes to pass me in a not-too-narrow street.

In Bed with the Embeds
Updated -- Dec. 13, 10:15 am

Media activists decry the "he-said/ she-said" reporting typical of American journalism. In reporting any controversial issue reporters consider their job done when they've presented both sides -- generally in the form of statements by opposing press flacks -- and leave critical analysis to readers, whether they're prepared to make it or not.

Fair trade activists would kill for that kind of tepid coverage. With trade, it's just "he said" along with a gripe or two from organized labor.

But why? The issues are complex, but they're not a secret. Activists in Hong Kong want domestic governments to have a free hand to make policy in areas like public services, fisheries, and GMOs, they want to relax intellectual property laws for drug production in poor countries and they want the wealthy countries to fulfill long-standing promises to get rid of agricultural subsidies that distort world crop prices.

Most of all they want a transparent, fair process that brings all the stakeholders affected by the deals to the negotiating table.

Activists ascribe the lack of coverage to the fact that the major media corporations have a direct "horse in the race."

I believe that to be the case. But being credentialed here -- a first for me although I've attended several Ministerial meets -- I realize there's more to it. The 3,107 journalists covering the Hong Kong negotiations have a choice: they can spend most of their time in the plush Convention and Exhibition Center, where they're given refreshing cocktails and treated to dramatic Hong Kong welcome dances. There, they're provided working spaces with all the bells and whistles, a comfy reporters' lounge, spaces where they can set up cameras and access, access, access.


You want to know what the trade minister of Indonesia is thinking about bananas? The press office will get you someone from the delegation if not the minister himself. You want to be briefed on the negotiations? Oh, there are briefings -- dozens each day!

And in case they're feeling a bit bad about not covering those trade skeptics, they've brought some of the larger NGOs in; reporters can hear from Oxfam and Doctors Without Borders right there in the comfort of the Convention Center!

Or, they can go talk to the thousands of people from grass-roots organizations all over the planet who have traveled here to express dissatisfaction with the WTO and the growing corporate control of public policy.

They just need to get through the intense layers of security -- they can't easily catch a cab because all the streets are closed down in the security zone -- and traipse about a mile and a half away to Victoria Park, where the Hong Kong security services have issued permits for civil society groups to assemble. There, they'll be greeted with mud and porta-potties, but they might not be able to get juice for their equipment.

It's doubtful that any but the largest operations can do both with the limited resources of today's news budgets and the hectic pace of the negotiations.

It's small wonder that the modest claims of the fair trade activists gathered here are almost never reported.

They Like Us, They Really Like U.S.
Updated -- Dec. 13, 9:00 am

And I mean us.

I was in Cancun for the 5th WTO Ministerial in late 2003 and there was plenty of resentment about Iraq and U.S. policies in general. But the nature of that resentment has changed; that was before Abu Ghraib and extraordinary rendition and, for that matter, the extraordinary rip-off of the Iraqi reconstruction process were fully exposed.


This time around it's different. Last evening, after a briefing by a British NGO, I swung by the Boys and Girls Club -- where a series of teach-ins have been organized by civil society groups -- to hear a lecture on the nexus between neo-liberalism and militarism (an interesting subject I'll be following up on in the next days). As you might imagine, "American imperialism" was a recurring theme and the speakers -- I may have been the only Yank in the room -- were pissed.

This is often presented as "anti-Americanism" -- a ridiculous word if you think about it -- but it's far more nuanced and far more generous to the average American. Even now, even after all that's passed, I was surprised to notice that the vitriol was directed not towards America or Americans but towards George W. Bush and, to a lesser degree, "American militarism."

Imagine how great our moral leadership has been for the past 50 years if even after all that's passed not one person seemed to have contempt for the whole of American society. I wonder how long the world will continue to make the distinction.


Just after 9/11 Barry Buzan, an International relations scholar whose work I'm not a fan of, wrote an essay titled "Who May We Bomb?" In it, he argued that targeting civilians in countries with repressive governments is less moral than targeting citizens of countries -- not necessarily democracies -- who presumably could have some say in the direction their military takes. (I'm simplifying a complex argument that you can purchase here if you care to (I say skip it)).

Buzan was trying to argue that we shouldn't let those pesky "Western" human rights concerns get in the way of flattening Afghanistan, but It always struck me he had inadvertently made the Ward Churchill argument that the victims of 9/11 were "little Eichmanns" -- responsible to some degree for their leaders' transgressions.

I'm quite happy to report that that view is not widespread among a very frustrated group of activists here in Hong Kong. For the moment, they still like us — most of us anyway -- even while they hate our policies.

Who knows how long that will last?

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