HIT MEN: American and Chinese

John Perkins - Confession of an Economic Hit Man

During the cold war with the Soviet Union, the United States executed an active program of “development” in the lower-income countries of the global south. The United States aimed to cultivate neoliberal economies and political systems that would ally with the United States against the Soviet Union. The American public understood this as an act of generosity.

John Perkins was a player in this program. He refers to the representatives of the United States who worked with the lower-income governments in this way as “economic hit men.”  The term reflects his disillusionment and regret regarding participating in this program. In his trilogy of “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man” books, Perkins exposed the nature of the relationships he and other hit men arranged with the governments of developing countries.

The United States loaned money to the lower income nation with the condition that the money would be used to hire US contractors to build infrastructure projects (highways, ports, etc.). The recipient countries used their natural resources (oil, minerals, etc.) as collateral for large loans from the United States through banks controlled by the United States. The American companies profited greatly, as did the few individuals in the lower-income countries.  

In many cases, lower-income countries could not repay these loans. This resulted in American corporations expropriating the natural resources of the debtor countries. The United States and its wealthy corporations thus controlled the natural resources of many developing countries to their own benefit with little consideration for the lower-income nation’s people.  If such a nation refused to accept the takeover of its resources, the United States sent in what Perkins calls the “jackals”. The jackals used violence, including assassinations and coups, to enforce American dominance. This program also paid little to no attention to local environmental issues in lower-income countries. This resulted in environmental deterioration in much of the global south.

In 2013, China launched its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This program also enables the development of lower-income countries using large infrastructure loans. However, the Chinese effort does not coerce governments to accept the loans and the accompanying contracts to the extent that the United States does. There are no jackals, no assassinations, and no coups. In many cases, China has forgiven loans that the debtor countries found difficult or impossible to reimburse. Some economists have compared the BRI to the post World War II Marshal Plan that rebuilt the war-devastated economies of Western Europe.

Both the United States hit man program and the BRI result in environmental destruction in the developing world. Both programs of “development” are designed to change the culture in the direction of “modernization”.  Modernization increases global consumption even though the present level of consumption is unsustainable. Increased consumption inevitably results in ecological decline and what Perkins calls the death economy.

China’s success in this competition has weakened American dominance in much of the world and it has heightened American resentment toward China. We suggest reading John Perkin’s book, Confessions of an Economic Hitman, Third Edition.