The world’s supranational financial institutions have drawn a lot of flack over the years. The International Monetary Fund has been called a neo-imperialist tool of US economic hegemony, and has often been blamed for causing, rather than curing, financial crises. The World Bank has been criticised for wreaking environmental and social devastation with its development projects. And the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development was famously slammed for spending more lavishly on its own headquarters than on any actual reconstruction or development.
But none of those institutions has ever attracted anything like the astonishing invective aimed at the Asian Development Bank in the bizarre new book Cesspool Kamikazes by Peter Lee and Wei Zhang.
Styled as a manga-type cartoon comic, Cesspool Kamikazes purports to tell the story of the “Asian Destruction Bank”, a Manila-based supranational whose logo, location and palatial headquarters all look remarkably like those of the real ADB.
The book bills itself as “a shocking exposé into the corrupt underbelly of a dysfunctional financial institution and the severe environmental and social consequences of its unchecked greed, arrogance and pride”. In reality it is an overwrought piece of low propaganda that aims to portray the ADB as the direct spiritual, political and financial successor to Japan’s expansionist military government of the second world war, perpetuating its dream of Asian domination, but through development finance rather than invasion and war crimes.
Indeed, at one point the book “quotes” the ADB’s first president, Japanese bureaucrat Takeshi Watanabe, as telling a group of his countrymen that “the time has come for us to rule Asia again! But this time we will do it not with an army but with a bank!”
It is true that Japan has dominated the ADB since its foundation 50 years ago. Japan controls 12.8 per cent of the bank’s votes, the largest share alongside the US. And Japan has provided all of the ADB’s presidents, and is by far the ADB’s biggest provider of concessional funding.
But to portray the bank’s officials as the contemporary equivalent of war criminals is as grotesque as it is crude. Yes, there are many criticisms that can be levelled at the ADB. It is unwieldy and bureaucratic. And its projects are often flawed. Just consider the ADB-funded YuanMo expressway in China’s Yunnan province. Not only did construction costs overshoot by 24 per cent, but 12 years after completion its revenues remain 75 per cent short of the backers’ original projections.
However, the ADB’s failings hardly equate to war crimes, or even economic imperialism. Cesspool Kamikazes represents itself as “biting social satire”. It is not. Satire is witty. This is merely coarse agitprop.
But therein lies a mystery: whose agitprop? Who on earth could care so much about a relatively obscure development bank that they would spend so much money to commission an entire manga-style comic book with such undeniably expensive production values?
There are a few clues. All the nationalities involved in the ADB come in for excoriating criticism—except for one. The Japanese are “reptilian”. The Americans are “scheming” capitalists. The Germans are Nazi cockroaches. The Australians are genocidal racists. The Indians are US stooges. South East Asians are all corrupt. And the British collect porcelain, a hobby the authors clearly believe to be deeply sinister.
The Chinese, however, are only ever mentioned in favourable terms. There is a further indication of Cesspool Kamikazes’ origins in the afterword at the end of the book. While the ADB might once have seemed like a good idea, “the reasons for such a bank no longer exist”, it declares.
“Now the emergence of a major new competitor, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank poses a direct challenge to the hegemony of Japan ... over Asia’s development finance.”
“Given the financial strength and technical know-how of the AIIB,” it argues, the ADB is irrelevant and should be wound up.
Clearly the authors are enthusiasts for the Shanghai-based AIIB, who believe that the continued existence of the ADB somehow poses a threat to the new institution. Indeed, so great is their enthusiasm for the AIIB that it has blinded them to a few inconvenient truths.
For one thing, it stretches credulity to talk of the AIIB’s financial strength and technical know-how, when the Chinese-led bank lent only US$1.7 billion last year and boasts just 90 employees. In contrast, the ADB’s financing operations totalled US$31.5 billion, while the Manila-based institution employs more than 3,000 staff across 28 countries.
And for another, if the ADB is irretrievably blackened by a culture of corruption, greed and incompetence, as Cesspool Kamikazes alleges, then it follows that the AIIB must be similarly tainted. After all, AIIB president Jin Liqun was a long-serving vice president of the ADB before he was tapped by Beijing to head the new bank. Moreover, Jin has repeatedly stressed that the AIIB intends to work in conjunction, rather than in competition, with the ADB. Indeed, many of the AIIB’s loans so far have gone to projects already backed by the ADB.
In short, the authors of Cesspool Kamikazes have got the wrong end of the stick – and badly. Nevertheless, give the book a glance should you come across a copy. It is a curious example of propaganda so woefully misguided and crude, it is hard to imagine who it could be aimed at, or why. The book’s frontispiece claims it is the first of a forthcoming series. It will be interesting to see if any further volumes emerge, or whether whoever put up the money for this one realises the error and pulls the plug. ■