Taking Racism and Xenophobia out of Protests against Neo-Liberalism (2)


This is part 2 of “Taking Racism and Xenophobia out of Protests against Neo-Liberalism”… for part 1 please click here.

The Anti-TPP Movement and the ‘Progressive Left’

The anti-TPP activists see the threats of the TPP from imperialistic and nationalistic lenses. Take labour rights issues for example. The TPP facilitates preferential trade agreements where comparative advantage forces less developed countries to reduce tariffs and to deregulate their labour market. As result, those actions will have negative effects on the role of unions, push down wages, and promote poor working conditions. Comparative advantage is an opportunity for corporations to give less but take more. Subsequently, they will move their operations to countries that give them access to this opportunity, such as to Vietnam and Malaysia. In the eyes of anti-TPP activists, Malaysia and Vietnam are notorious for letting their own people be enslaved for the sake of profit.

A joint statement released by the US Senator Bob Menendez (which was endorsed by 18 other senators, including Elizabeth Warren) had demanded that the US government must not implement the TPP until they made sure Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei Darussalam improve their labour conditions.

For Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is portrayed as a lead figure of the progressive left, opposition to the deals did not fundamentally have anything to do with improving labour rights or environmental protection in developing countries. The biggest concerns were those about the draconian function of Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in the agreement, which gives corporations the ability to circumvent national legal systems. The arguments suggested that the TPP is acceptable as long as it serves to improve the US economy, but the ISDS provisions must be removed because that process amounts to a threat to US interests. Ultimately, it was thought acceptable for US companies to sue foreign governments but not for foreign companies to sue the US government. If Congress can get rid of the ISDS clause, then many would not oppose the deals.

Last year, a coalition of civil society in the United States called for investigation of reports of serious human rights committed by Felda Global Venture, a Malaysian owned agricultural and commodities company. Another group of anti-TPP activists in Portland protested that Nike must not encourage any trade deals with Brunei’s dictators as they stone LGBTI people to death. In Australia, the threat of losing local jobs to unskilled and underpaid foreign workers escalate subconscious racism within the anti-TPP activists. The xenophobic sentiments expressed by anti-TPP activists show that many of them are still confused about what the TPP really involves, such as who the beneficiaries and the losers of the agreements are.

We see the use of xenophobic arguments disparaging other countries as a reason for the US to not enter into the TPP alongside comments that the TPP can be good for US economy if US interests are protected. In doing so, those purporting to champion human rights causes are simply part of their government’s neoliberal foreign policy, without questioning whether free-trade agreements are unethical regardless of whether it serves national interests or not.

Human Rights and Imperialism

Criticising human rights violations have been an effective tool to attack countries’ credibility for various reasons, and this has certainly been the case in anti-TPP activism. However, this approach means that developing countries whose presents are shaped by past human rights violations are in difficult positions that prevent them from moving forward and catching up with the changing world. Activists in these countries, who work unbelievably hard to effect change for their own people, do not yet have the capacity to shape policy the way they want to. Having their would-be comrades in developed countries criticise their governments only makes things more difficult. What is often forgotten by those who complain from outside is that many violations can be linked directly to imperialist policies: the 1965-6 massacres in Indonesia, for example, were backed by anti-Communist sentiments of the US. It is unacceptable for activists from developed countries to criticise developing countries for their human rights violations without acknowledging the effect of crimes of imperialism that have been committed in their names.

It has been reported that the US has had separate side agreements on labour with the government of Malaysia, Vietnam and Brunei. Human Rights Watch, for example, states these plans “require the three governments to implement specific legislative and regulatory reforms and increase enforcement capacity before they can enjoy TPP trade benefits with the United States”. The original TPP/TTIP agreements were not meant to include the US but since then, the US government decided to join the party in order to maintain and increase its power in the Asia-Pacific.

A Better Argument

The TPP is the new incarnation of neoliberalism advocated by the United States. It goes beyond conventional nation-state functions by giving multinational corporations freedom to move around borders and regulations for maximum economic gain. The TPP transfers power that nation-states traditionally have to corporations. Yet xenophobic and patronising attacks on other countries because of their inability to regulate their labour laws and human rights standards are usually the loudest arguments against it. But there are far better, and useful ones that could be made instead.

The ISDS clauses affect more than just the US’s interests – circumventing the jurisdiction of national legal systems are bad for all the countries involved. What ISDS does is this: if, for example, Malaysia happens to regulate their industrial laws to be more humane, multinational corporations can sue the Malaysian government for making it hard for them to make profits. Malaysians know very well of this threat and they too oppose the TPP. If a US company operating in Vietnam is not happy with the Vietnamese government’s plan to increase its labour minimum wage or introduce stricter environmental regulations, the company could bring a dispute against the government over this. Ultimately, such provisions have the effect of stifling domestic campaigns to improve wages or environmental campaigns. It is indeed outrageous to give foreign corporations special rights over a national legal system, be it in the US or Malaysia or Vietnam. Doing so in ways that would hamper efforts to protect human rights or environmental protections is abhorrent.

These are the things we should all be fighting against.

This is What “Solidarity” Looks Like

The casual racism amongst the “Progressive Left” is at odds with the solidarity they aspire to build with activists in developing countries. There is no secret that activists in the US and Australia have been experiencing defaults within themselves in defining what foreign policy for the leftists would look like. Many of their campaigns could have ended up becoming ancillary to their governments’ imperial foreign policy initiatives when national interests and security are prioritised over building international solidarity. This demonstrates that decolonising solidarity can only be achieved when (mostly-white) activists in the developed world stop demonising other countries and ignoring the real threats only to achieve their own national political agendas. The TPP and TTIP are globalised and authoritarian free trade agreements. In the process, the agreements have become part of the US foreign policy agenda for the advancement and prosperity of its national interests.

It is absurd to be advocating anti-neoliberalism but employing nationalism and xenophobia sentiments at the same time (unless of course you are a left-wing nationalist, which is another story entirely). The only way to stop the TPP is by working together on equal terms with other activists from the “Global South” who share the same concerns. If the “we are the 99%” calculation does not factor in economic and racial injustices arising from colonialism in the Global South, then they are only wasting their time.

Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APFWLD) and other civil society organisations at ASEAN People's Forum 22-24 April 2015, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image courtesy of APFWLD.
Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APFWLD) and other civil society organisations at ASEAN People’s Forum 22-24 April 2015, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image courtesy of APFWLD.

Activists in Chile, Mexico, Peru, Japan, Vietnam and Malaysia have demanded their government cease to be parties to the TPP. Dissident voices on the TPP rarely appear from Brunei and Singapore due to the government restrictions on public protests. There are plenty of things activists in developed countries can do to support their comrades. To stop draconian globalised free trade agreements, we need globalised movements, not xenophobia. Let’s get organised and work together to smash neoliberalism.


The Asian Australian Democracy Caucus (AADC) is a non-partisan organisation. One of our ongoing commitments is to contribute a monthly blog in collaboration with Peril magazine. To find out more about this collaboration read here. If you want more information or would like to write for us, get in touch with us, Shinen Wong or Karen Schamberger at aadc@peril.com.au

Please also visit us on Twitter and Facebook

Fia Hamid-Walker

Author: Fia Hamid-Walker

Fia Hamid-Walker is a proud Indonesian human rights activist migrated to Australia in 2006, a trainee lawyer, an emerging playwright, and international development practitioner of Javanese-Malay heritage. Fia has worked with several not-for-profits organisations that focused on improving the life of street kids and their family. In 2011 Fia assisted Indonesian regional government to strengthen its policies to combat potential human trafficking in the eastern part of Indonesia. In 2014, Fia led efforts to establish Reprieve Australia in Southeast Asia. Fia is currently working on a theater performance to raise public awareness of labor conditions in Southeast Asia sweatshops factories used by Australia clothing brands.