Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Come again, Mrs. Clinton ??

I must admit I was pretty shocked when I read that Hillary Clinton, in the frame of her visit to China during her first Asia-trip as U.S. Secretary of State, had stated that human rights could not interfere with other more pressing issues:

"Successive administrations and Chinese governments have been poised back and forth on these issues, and we have to continue to press them. But our pressing on those issues can't interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis, and the security crisis," she told reporters in Seoul, South Korea.

I guess the world had expected she would sound a different bell, but I can't help the feeling that in a certain sense she is right: there are piles of pressing issues on the table and it's impossible to treat them all at an equal level. Actually, it's almost become hard to think up an issue that would not be pressing. Yet to use the word "interfere" in connection to human rights, I think, is outright dangerous. The word has an outspoken negative ring to it, as if one would want to shrug off something annoying that won't go away by itself, which of course the issue of the human rights in China is. It is annoying on that level of interaction where two global giants are eyeing each other with distrust while all the time knowing very well their fates are tied together and they have to make do with each other. Human rights, in that kind of "marriage de raison", is a conversational topic that doesn't make for a great opening line.

Taking it one step further, I get more scared, because what does that mean "not interfere with the global economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis" ? Is there anybody here on earth who has a reasonable clue on when each of these three issues will be solved ? I don't think so. Global climate change crisis: let us safely assume we will be taking that one at least into the second part of this century, if not straight into the next one, which is the more likely assumption in my opinion. So is Mrs. Clinton now saying that, while this crisis plays out, she will all the time not have human rights "interfere" with it till it's solved ? Sounds like bad luck for those in the wrong side of the human rights camp.

Let us also assume she diligently fulfills her job and performs excellent crisis management in the economic, security and climate sphere (good luck to her on all three counts, she'll need it), then who will be able to enjoy the results of it ? Surely not the human rights victims, who, if they haven't gone into oblivion by that time, probably won't be heard of a lot anymore either. Annoying, you know. And how does this reflect then on our societies here in the West, who (often rightfully still) pride themselves on trying to take care equally of the less fortunate, where the offenders have the equal right to defense as the victims and where the principle of making every voice, no matter how small, heard in a democractic decision-making process all but makes it impossible to come to an agreement on several issues (the European Union, anyone ?) ? How would our societies look like if we, from time to time, wouldn't allow human rights to "interfere" with our business as usual ? Maybe not all that different, but different nonetheless.

Now I've always considered it a bit awkward myself, hearing about the next statesman going to China, promising he or she would table the human rights issue with whatever leader China choose to put in front of this Excellency. Delivered my line, been there, done that, KPI achieved, now can I have my bonus please ? It starts to sound outright boring, the way it is delivered. Yet, to me, swinging the pendulum to the completely opposite side of "non-interference", is a station too far. Obama signed the closing of Guantanamo on his very first day in office as president of the United States. Had the world not consistently shown his anger on the violation of some of the most basic of human rights in there, he might have done it a month, maybe a year later, maybe even not, for it wouldn't have been perceived as "a pressing issue". Driving the message home time and again, I believe, in the end does change things and makes simple "issues" become "priorities".

Allow me also to wholeheartedly disagree with the article being presented here. I always have this uncomfortable feeling when we get to the point of the "face-saving". I definitely consider myself quite lacking in the skill of saving or giving face, but it seems to me that, when it comes to China, to some it is the only thing that matters and the beneficiaries of it are, of course, always the Chinese. I am absolutely not opposed to courteous diplomacy when it concerns two partners talking about the most elegant way around a problem. It is the only reason why my country still exists today and we have elevated the "compromise" (for is that not the essence of "giving face" ?) almost to an artform. I am however also not opposed to have a party, from time to time, loose some face on certain issues that are blatantly counter to my sense of propriety and justice. Silencing people for voicing their opinion is one example, just like eavesdropping on your own people in name of a rather undefinable national security threat is another. May I refer to my previous post on Bogota mayor Antanas Mockus and his rather unconventional method of using mimes to regulate the unruly traffic in downtown Bogota ? The whole concept of what he did is based on making people, in a gentle way, loose face, for those mimes were posted at the major crossroads where there were mostly big crowds who would see the "culprits" made fun of by mimicking their every move. Traffic casualties dropped by half in the period when Mockus was mayor. You and me, we have been raised in an education system that incorporates the "loosing face" concept as a way of self-betterment: how many times, as a kid, did you have to go and stand in a corner for ten minutes when you had been too noisy when there were guests around ? I remember in elementary school, when we had crossed the rules, we had to walk ten times around the playground, hands on our back so the rest of the kids could see. I haven't suffered trauma because of it, and likewise, I am very confident that China will not suffer trauma from loosing some face now and then when it comes to something as important as "human rights".


Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Wonder Years - Part One

It is with great pleasure that I present here today the first ever guest post on this blog.

C. showed up on my Facebook page a couple of weeks ago. We haven't met for 20 years, ever since we left Tongji University in Shanghai. Now I like to make fun of Italians -rephrase: we ALL like to make fun of Italians ;-)- but the crowd at Tongji was super and I have the fondest memories for several of them: there was "la mama", loud, noisy, good-humoured and caring; there were two priests, one of them as crazy as they come in that line of business; there was the even more crazy architect ... and of course there was C., studax par excellence, speaking beautiful English in a satin-soft voice, getting sometimes worked up over certain things and still giving you that don't-worry-tea-is-almost-ready kinda feeling. C. was impossible to get angry at ...

When she posted a picture on her FB page of an evening with a Chinese friend we had both attended 20 years ago, I rushed to my photo-collection of that era and dug up the same picture, only now with C. also in it, as opposed to hers which she had taken. The two pictures were like two Mandarin ducks and it kinda triggered a feeling of China melancholy (which I already mentioned in my comment here) with both of us. That's when I asked her if she would be prepared to write a post for this blog, reminiscing on what China, as we lived it during those two years at the end of the eighties, has meant for her and how she experienced it. The result of that question is what you find here. Go on and read it: the conclusion of her post is both surprising and inspiring, I would say.

But this reminds me that I also asked A. to do the same. Yes, another Italian, I'm sure you would excuse me if you knew her :-) A. was a bit like the "lone prospector", walking into our university from time to time from faraway Beijing when she needed to be among friends. One day I took her to Suzhou and that's how we met. So A., if you read this, the invitation is still open. Notice I titled this "Part One" ? Hope yours is coming up next !


When I left for Shanghai, September 13th 1988, I had no clue of what was expecting laying in wait for me there as I had never been to China before, and what I found was certainly beyond any imagination.

What saved me from an untreatable choc was that I was very curious and liked to see all the seemingly funny things that happened around me: I took an incredible amount of pictures with my pocket Minolta camera in and outside the campus to remind me that everything was real!!!

Thinking of it, what impressed me the most was the poverty and the filth you stepped onto everywhere: remember the little river that ran close to Tongji on the way to town? It was at times blue, other times pink but never the colour water should be! And what about the butcher that piled frozen halfs of pigs on the sidewalk before putting them in storage? You’d better cook meat very well-done!!!!

But at that time nothing seemed to matter: Shanghai was just recovering from a Hepatitis epidemics when we arrived, and we kept eating food from the roadside stalls all the same because the food there met our taste; the food from the campus canteen was something VERY different.

Everyday was a discovery and we were always the centre of attention. White skinned, fair haired, with blue eyes, smelling of something between milk and cheese: we might even scare the simple Chinese people who’d never seen a Westerner.

I had a few Chinese friends, though, I had met through other acquaintances (I don’t even remember how) and I experienced their friendliness and hospitality, their shyness but also their will to give you their utmost, even tough they might have to accompany you somewhere far to go to the toilet (some houses didn’t have a toilet) or they’d have to give you a few blankets to survive in the cold of their houses when you were invited for dinner. How could we refuse to eat even the occasional unpalatable looking food when offered with such sweetness ? Sometimes I didn’t even know what was lying on my plate!!

Our Chinese life was lived inside Tongji for most of the time: knowing it, I am not sure my parents would have agreed to let me live alone in such a student’s building as Tongji’s, with no adult control whatsoever!

We were young, we were extremely free, but in the end we didn’t do much wrong.

No one got into big trouble and we learned to accept different points of view (the Japanese together with the Germans, the French, the Italians......), and especially to live close to a huge male Muslim population, which was not always quiet.

We also learned fear and anxiety though, when they suddenly asked us to leave in a hurry because nobody knew what was going to happen after Liu Si (Tian‘an Men’s massacre). Then I was really scared and I witnessed the control Chinese authorities had on media: no radio, no tv, no newspaper said anything about it. We could only guess and listen to BBC World-service or VoA (if it worked out). Or go out and read what students wrote on sheets hanging from the few buses still running.

Shanghai was certainly not like Beijing, but it changed deeply during that awful month.

I was not ready for all I went through there. I lived it, but I hardly enjoyed it, as my first effort was to survive the loneliness and the distance from my life in Italy. I guess I was not mature enough.

And it was very difficult to feel part of my previous life when I came back: I felt different, I was different, extremely different. If living anywhere abroad widens your mind, living in China first makes your mind burst and then widens it to an extent you cannot ignore!

But the greatest difference I found in myself when I came back after the second year was that I had completely lost my faith in God. I was not able to follow anymore my Christian education, and remember: I am Italian and the Vatican is my next-door neighbour !

I don’t regret it at all, it was a sort of Enlightenment: I found out I could be good and merciful and proud of myself even without mass and prayers, and that I was free from all of that.

I still feel like that and I think that I’ve done much better for me and for the world around me because I lived in a place where Christ is still largely unknown.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

"Look up, Hannah !" - Some thoughts on China and the "Charter 08"

"In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it is written the kingdom of God is within man, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power. Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men's happiness ..."

These words were spoken by a little guy, with a funny little mustache, in a German uniform. No, they're not Hitler's words -how could they be ?-, they're Chaplin's, and I was wondering who, among all the people that have ever watched the speech of Chaplin's barber, mistaken for Adenoid Hynkel in "The Great Dictator", could ever oppose democracy again ? It is telling that Chaplin's first "talkie", to which he reluctantly diverted after the era of silent movies that had brought him to fame, ended with one of the strongest anti-fascism and pro-democracy statements ever made.

I thought this excerpt of Chaplin's speech would be a good intro to my contribution to the "Charter 08" debate, that seems to be picking up heat in the blogosphere, more than 2 months after it was released. To be sure: this post will have nothing to with fascism, for it has no place in the current Chinese context, but I thought it important to point out the target of Chaplin's words, since I chose to use them here. It WILL have everything to do with that other, that infinitely more peaceful term, "democracy", that nevertheless always seems to set off a whole lot of triggers just as well.

There is still the ongoing debate -and it will continue for some time to come, no doubt- on how democracy should be understood and whether its' concept is viable at all for China. I am no expert at this kind of political / social issues and questions, but I would like to refer here to a line Israëls' president Shimon Peres used in his now (in)famous speech on the World Economic Forum in Davos, result of which Turkish prime-minister Tayyip Erdogan angrily walked off. Peres said:

"Democracy is not a matter of elections, it is a civilisation".

I may find fault with a lot of what has recently happened in Gaza, but I think this line hit the mark. Of course, democracy does also have to do with elections, but they may not be it's defining factor. When Bush stole the election from Gore, the democratic rules were strictly speaking violated, yet I wouldn't dare to say that the United States were no longer a democratic country. The aura of democracy got more tarnished by the stories coming from Abu Ghraib, the secret prisons from the CIA, the waterboarding techniques, etc ... which in se have nothing to do with elections but are all about the decline of civilised behaviour. This civilised behaviour finds it's purest expression in respect for the other and means, in a democratic context, offering the people a chance to vote for their opinion. Not having elections in this respect is less of an evil than denying people the right to have elections. And this is precisely what I think the "Charter 08" is attacking: not being offered a choice, being denied the basic respect for each opinion.

Now when it comes to China, this "democracy" discussion in the West is often equaled with toppling the government or the CCP, which of course is just as well an expression of lack of respect for a different system because, let's face it, the CCP has come a long way and has figures to prove it: hundred's of millions raised above the poverty level, a literacy level other developping countries can only dream of, a decade of GDP growth over ... well, ok, let's skip that one, I bet everybody is getting tired of hearing that figure repeated over and over again, like a mantra. The problem is, the CCP has constantly been driving a one-way lane, with, admittedly, a lot of success since the open door policy came into vogue, but also developping tunnelsight as it went. Deng Xiaoping's "Let some people get rich first" has probably already far exceeded of what he had in mind with that "some", but it's never been asked if the others that are left out would have agreed to the principle at the outset. China is an authoritarian state, undoubtedly trying to make the best of it's development, but it's always avoiding the question whether there wouldn't be an alternative that comes at a lesser cost to the total of its' people. Alternatives are typically what you arrive at when you allow people to speak their mind. And that is what the "Charter 08" is after, in my opinion.

Last year, I took a company course on "negotiating skills". The first thing we discussed in terms of strategy was how to structure the opening bid and the advise we got was to go with an "extreme offer": try to figure out where you expect competition to position their offer, and then go just beyond it. What I think is happening (making abstraction of the competitive factor) is that "Charter 08" is putting such an extreme offer on the table, in what is clearly a negotiation request to the Chinese government: reaching for the max and expecting to be negotiated down .. a lot. The signatories have gone as far as possible, hoping in first instance to get the government around the table. For all of us who have been watching China from far or from nearby, I suppose no-one thinks it is likely to happen, but anything less radical would not even have caused the ripple on the surface it is at least causing now. On the contrary, anything less high profile (or call it prolific) would have been even more dangerous for those who drafted the document, for not catching the attention from outside that is needed to protect them from being silenced without anyone even noticing it.

It has further been uttered here (in the "Comment"-section) that the Charter misses impact by staying too vague, leaning too much on western-inspired semantics and debating only some high-brow priciples while shying away from any concrete proposals. My take on this is quite different. Under the circumstances "with chinese characteristics", I see it as utterly impossible to come up with any concrete proposals until some sort of legitimacy of any movement putting forward such proposals is at least recognised. "Intruding" in the day-to-day business of the government seems not a viable option to me. What if for instance the Charter had come up with interesting proposals in the field of health care, environment or whatever ? The CCP could never give due credit to any such kind of proposal, as this would reflect badly on them for not coming up themselves with such an idea and it would thus be lost as a possible solution in the future as well, because it would always inevitably be linked to "the wrong party" proposing it. Any movement serious about itself needs a framework of principles, a justification for what it is (or will be) doing and this is what we find in this text.

"...We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine. And remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to associate, to speak and to defend the causes that were, for the moment, unpopular...The actions of the Junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear -- he merely exploited it, and rather successfully. Cassius was right: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Good night, and good luck"

Another great speech, from another great movie: reporter Edward R. Murrow (played by David Strathairn) attacking Wisconsin Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy in "Good Night and Good Luck". The drafters and signatories of the "Charter 08" haven't been afraid to write and defend what is unpopular with the Chinese government, who no doubt will mislabel their dissenting voices again as disloyalty, while I am convinced both groups -government and charterists- ultimately share the same goal: make China progress. The difference lies in the means to get there. While the government still favours the authoritarian method and seems not likely to change anytime soon, the Charter says it wants to give the people its' voice back. Now the question arising from that is "Is that what the people want ?". To be honest, I don't see a big basis of support yet and I doubt that China would be served by the kind of major overhaul like is suggested in the text. I do believe in the necessity of the gradual transition to a different system to release all the powers that are present but often hidden in today's China for fear of being labelled "dissent". Virtually all the great men and women in history had to push a few buttons that were not very liked by the ruling class (or clergy), but by allowing them at least to speak their mind, entire societies have greatly benefitted. The "Charter 08", I think, is subscribing itself in that tradition of people and texts that challenge the existing status quo, that look for alternatives and is concerned with the next stage in China's development. "Cassius is right: the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves". The Roman empire finally ended because of the evils of self-indulgence and stagnation. China should be happy and proud that the voice of it's intellectuals still makes itself heard, for instance through this text, to keep the country on alert. I don't see any major change will take place because of it, but at least yet another seed has been planted and eventually some time, someone will want to harvest it. By the time when China's leaders will further refuse to associate the "dis-" with "dissent" and "disloyalty" but will rather prefer to integrate it in terms as "discourse" and "discussion", that will be the time when China will no longer just be regarded as an economic miracle, but as a beacon to watch and learn from also on moral grounds on the international scene.

Then the words of the little guy with the funny little moustache, standing in front of that microphone and facing the camera, will resonate again:

"Look up, Hannah ! The soul of man has been given wings and at last he is beginning to fly. (...) Look up, Hannah ! Look up !"

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Beijing - Towering Inferno

As no doubt a lot of us who would by coincidence happen to read this post, I have been watching the footage on the burning TVCC complex with the "Mandarin Oriental" hotel, next to the new CCTV headquartes in Beijing, and there were two things that struck me in my own analysis of what had happened.

First, I found myself wondering: "Do I believe this ?". Of course, I'm not talking about the event itself. I'm talking about the explanation. So it appears CCTV has conceded itself in the meantime that the fire was set off by a flare of the (illegal) fireworks CCTV had commissioned itself to celebrate the end of the Chinese New Year period. The fireworks that were set off by the national broadcasting company were class "A" fireworks, which would have required a special permission from the municipal government to use (the normal firecrackers used by the majority of the people in this period seems to fall under the category "C" or "D" - fireworks light, so to say). So CCTV broke the rules, apparently even denying warnings from local police, but even so I was wondering: could one flare, or maybe even a few, landing on top of the building set off such a fire ?

I look at the photo's of the building and see the entire structure, from top to bottom, being ablaze. I then "google" my memory for some reference material and quite obviously I land up with the images of the Twin Towers. Now in the case of the Twin Towers, there were two Boeing airplanes, full of kerosene, crashing into the buildings which quite obviously resulted in a tremendous fire, but ... as far as I remember, I didn't see the fire spread to all the floors below. The buildings crumbled, but not because the fire spread over all the building. I am quite well aware that the size of the "Mandarin Oriental" is in no way to be compared with the Twin Towers, but still. I am grappling with the comparison between the impact of an airplane and the impact of a couple of flares of fireworks. Am I seeing a conspiracy ? The thought didn't occur on my mind till I saw someone mentioning it in the comments on chinaSMACK, but that doesn't really make sense to me at this point. I guess I'll have to wait for the explanations of the experts that no doubt will start to appear in the media in the time to follow, to learn how that fire could spread so quickly with the known devastating results. Was the construction that slipshod; were the safety precautions so loose or were the used building materials (again) not measuring up to the "A"-class of the fireworks ? It will be interesting to find out.

The second thing that surprised me is how easily the facts, also in my mind, would become overshadowed by the symbolic value of the events. I am not a scientist in any way, but I ususally try to give the superstition department also a miss. Still seeing these images, I couldn't help but think I was watching the human "hubris" being punished:

Hubris (/hjuːbrɪs/) or hybris (/'haɪbrɪs/) (ancient Greek ὕβρις), mythology is a term used in modern English to indicate overweening pride, self-confidence, superciliousness, or arrogance, often resulting in fatal retribution. In ancient Greece, hubris referred to actions which, intentionally or not, shamed and humiliated the victim, and frequently the perpetrator as well. It was most evident in the public and private actions of the powerful and rich. The word was also used to describe actions of those who challenged the gods or their laws, especially in Greek tragedy, resulting in the protagonist's downfall.

China has undergone tremendous changes in the past decennia, changes of a size and impact possibly never witnessed before. And before anyone would think otherwise, I do wish China to progress and the Chinese people to take up their rightful place under the sun. But it is undeniably true that things have sometimes gotten out of balance and that the "ever bigger, ever grander" adagium has also struck there. Though I hate to admit to it, seeing the TVCC building burn, I was asking myself: Is someone or something trying to send a signal that the limits have been reached and that it's up till here and no further ? It's an unsettling thought for an agnosticus like myself, but it was there nevertheless ... and I'm not the only one who has been asking itself similar questions. Anybody here who knows whether firecrackers are a common thing in Dubai ?

There are three things that give me reason for some positive upside, foremost of course the victim toll of the fire being reasonably low for the size of the disaster. I do of course regret the death of firefighter Zhang Jianyong and the others that got hurt, for it's always so useless to die for the mistakes made by others, but all in all it could have been much worse. Second, I think Beijing may have been rid of a seriously ugly building. I had actually never seen it before. No picture of Rem Koolhaas' new CCTV tower ("The Big Underpants") I've ever seen shows that troglodyte behind it but now that I have, I hope it doesn't get rebuilt. If we give up the balance, let's try at least to safeguard some good taste. And third, when a fire can give reason for this awesome blogger to go back to his childhood when he was a 12-year old kid and his fascination with firecrackers and other "pyrofernalia" and write these memories down, then I am inclined to think that somehow, in the end, we'll be fine ...

(picture on top via "Shanghaiist")

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Innovative traffic solutions: mime ...

I have this friend who is from Bogota, so it should only be natural that when I see something about Bogota in the news, in a magazine or on the Internet, I linger a little longer.

So last week, I was reading this article in Newsweek discussing the danger of Obama's "change"-program getting compromised from the start by the nomination of Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary, Geithner, as we may remember, who's reputation recently got a little tarnished for "forgetting" to pay some taxes. The article calls for Obama to set the tone right from the beginning and warns for cutting corners. The cut from the past has to be clean:

Changing an equilibrium of corruption—or of anything else—is extremely difficult because it's so costly to be the odd person out. As a result, everyone has to make the switch all at once. Imagine what would happen if a country tried to switch from driving on the right to driving on the left through gradual change. Mismatched expectations about the rules of the road would quickly lead to chaos, fender benders and even a reversion to the old "equilibrium" by the few early left-siders.

The author does not underestimate the difficulty in reversing the established course of things, but refuses to see it as impossible and thereby finds inspiration in what happened in Bogota in the nineties.

The change may be difficult, but not impossible. Perhaps the new administration can take inspiration from the transformation of Bogotá in the early 1990s. At the time, the city was the murder capital of the world and still reeling from the legacy of Pablo Escobar and the drug wars of the previous decade. In 1994, Bogotános elected Antanas Mockus, a former philosophy professor, to bring order to this landscape of urban chaos.

Now Antanas Mockus apparently was not the most obvious choice for becoming Mayor of a metropole like Bogota. A philosopher, artist and math professor all in one, he gained his first five minutes of fame when he bared his buttocks for an auditorium of art students to get them to calm down:

The gesture, he said at the time, should be understood "as a part of the resources which an artist can use."

Far more interesting however is what he actually did to the traffic in Bogota, which seems to have been utter chaos at the time (see where I'm coming to ?). Where I live, we see traffic camera's going up in big numbers ? Been speeding ? FLASH !! Got the sun in your eyes and didn't see the light turn red ? FLASH !! Ticket follows a month later ... no way you'll get away with anything less than 25 Euro's and the above delicts are sure to drive you over 50 Euro's. It works, I must say, but it's still a repressive system. So very much unlike what our friend Mockus came up with:

Another innovative idea was to use mimes to improve both traffic and citizens' behavior. Initially 20 professional mimes shadowed pedestrians who didn't follow crossing rules: A pedestrian running across the road would be tracked by a mime who mocked his every move. Mimes also poked fun at reckless drivers. The program was so popular that another 400 people were trained as mimes.

"It was a pacifist counterweight," Mockus said. "With neither words nor weapons, the mimes were doubly unarmed. My goal was to show the importance of cultural regulations."

Mimes ??? What the hell ??? But come to think of it and it has that touch of genius. Just imagine how you behave when someone is trying to make fun of you, even such gentle fun as mimicry, in front of a crowd. You try to get your act together, the sooner the better.

In the period between 1993 and 2003, traffic fatalities per 100.000 inhabitants in Bogota dropped from 1300 to 600. I'm not sure on how that compares to the more "repressive" ways I see implemented here, but in the series of innovative ideas, this one is sure to score high.

And so I was thinking ... China ! What ingredients do we require ?
Big cities. Check.
Chaotic traffic. Check.
Willingness to learn. Check !
Reading these articles on Mayor Mockus, I wondered if his idea could be implemented in some of the big cities in China. The country is actually the only one where I have been to that has a "special task force" beside the police to bring some rule in the often (very) unruly traffic: the retired people at the crossroads with the cap and a whistle. Now it's been two years since I was last in China, so I may not have witnessed some changes that may already have taken place, but in my memory those people's authority -sorry as I feel for them, having to do that kind of job to earn a buck after their retirement- is a joke. More often than not neglected, not able to reprimand a culprit for mostly the culprit's are much faster than they are, in fact they're a sorry sight. So could the mimes work as an alternative ? I used to often take groups of Chinese that visited our company to some of the nearby big cities and it was not seldom we ran into one of those "statues", either completely immobile, or sometimes scaring the hell out of little kids or nice looking girls by a sudden blink of an eye, or the slightest movement of their hand towards the onlooker. I noticed my fellow travel companions always went over to take a look and of course ... take the obligatory picture. So mime seems to be something that could capture their attention. Add to that the chinese fear of loosing face in front of "the rest", so how powerful could a mime, imitating your every move when you yet again break a traffic rule, be ? Pretty powerful, I would think so. And when Marcel Marceau died, he didn't go unnoticed by the Chinese press. So, worth a try ?

By any means, read this entire article on Bogota's unconventional Mayor. If only half of what the article pretends him to be were true, this would be a guy I would like to meet. And I wouldn't mind seeing for instance Sam's analysis of this "governing by example" as I definitely feel a flavour of Mencius and Confucius in there.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Gaza Tank Man

A couple of days ago, "Danwei" brought this article, which seems to have aroused some commotion on the chinese BBS-fora, to our attention. It relates the story of what appears to have been a class, taught by a Renmin University professor and well-known sociologist, Zhou Xiaozheng. Topic of the impromptu lecture: "Israël is definitely a good country"

When I read the first few lines of the article today, I was wondering: "But why would a professor in China at this point in time choose to disrupt his normal class schedule and switch to an improvised (?) speech on his belief in the inherent goodness of the Israëlian state ?" Let's admit that, no matter what your opinions on the Israëli - Palestinian conflict may be, it's an uphill battle he was in for, with the images coming out of Gaza, and some of the comments on the article (that was also posted on Mr. Zhou's blog) are ample evidence of it.

But then reading further down the article, there's these interesting two paragraphs:

I was once looking through photos posted onto [Chinese SNS website], and one photo made me think deeply. The caption for this photo was “Hero,” and the photo showed an unarmed Palestinian youth standing in front of a long line of Israeli tanks. He forced the tanks to stop.

Students, this Palestinian youth is indeed a “Hero,” fighting fully equipped tanks with his body of blood and flesh. But students, have you thought about this? In a situation of hostility how many countries’ tanks would stop? The Japanese tanks that invaded China didn’t stop, the Russian tanks that invaded Georgia didn’t stop, but the tanks of Israel did. I personally believe that these soldiers, as well as others in their ethnic group, are the real and undeniable heroes.

The professor found ... the Gaza Tank Man ! And this got me thinking ...

Maybe I read more in this text than there is to find, but the image he relates to IS an exact copy of a scene which happened in June 1989 on Tiananmen Square, which made the rounds of the global media and still stands as one of the most powerful images of the last few decades, maybe at par with this picture which inspired me to this blog post. The scene has been televised again and again all over the world ... or was it ? Could it be that China "forgot" to show it to it's citizens ? I am wondering why, in the year that will witness the 20th anniversary of the student demonstrations on Tiananmen, a professor at one of the top universities of the country, in the capital of China where the Chinese future elite is gathered, would want to bring up exactly this image, be it transposed to a different setting ?

My take on the speech is that what follows doesn't really matter anymore: it was this part that had to drive the message home. My take is that we are seeing the beginning of a brainwashing operation to "welcome" the infamous anniversary. I imagine that most of China's youths that are currently in university have not yet have access to the "Tank Man" footage. Most of them were toddlers or maybe not even born yet at the time the events took place. Yet I am guessing that the Chinese government is realising that the risk that around the June timeframe coverage of the events of 20 years ago in the rest of the world will be so extensive, for instance via the internet, that there will be no way to completely avoid that some of them will be exposed to it. And that that is why the events need to be given a twist, that that is why a colonne of tanks that stops for one man standing in their way has to be labelelled benevolent and the soldiers "undeniable heroes". Mind also the wording of the chinese text: it's not just the soldiers, it's also the state (这样的国度) that produces such soldiers, that is lauded. The logic also cleverly anticipates on the most probable thing the Chinese students will get to hear from the outside world, even seemingly corroborating it at first, namely that "Tank man" is the hero, while immediately afterward toppling that "foreign" logic and bringing it back in the correct framework of the State and the soldiers being the real heroes for showing so much constraint. It made me think of the famous Mark Anthony speech in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar": "Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears: I have come to bury Caesar, not to praise him ..." with the shattering repitition of that "... and Brutus is an honourable man" which in the end means as good as his death verdict. Though brought much more eloquent by Shakespeare, the twisted and cunning rhetoric feels the same.

There's also a small part which is not found in the translation on "Danwei", but which I found in the original chinese text here and which seems to be be some complementary comment. It's not clear to me whether this should also be attributed to Zhou, or whether it's to be considered as added by someone else.


(Not sure on how to translate the first two characters, unless it's a name, Xigu - any addition / correction is very welcome):
"By way of commentary: the fact that Israëlian tanks halt in front of a Palestinian "hero", is in no way a propaganda move by the Israëlian government, as it didn't order the tanks to stop just for giving the foreign reporters some good footage nor to present itself afterwards with an opportunity to boast on how "constrained" and "benevolent" it had acted"

Whoever thought this was necessary to be added, must have been under the impression that repetition never hurts, and in my opinion clearly had the intention to downplay the role of the State in the events.

Frankly speaking, I was flabbergasted reading this ... but then again, I guess I shouldn't have been. I'm only curious whether it will work.

Commencing countdown: 5 months to go ...

Sunday, July 13, 2008

For Luc

I know this is supposed to be a China-blog, but sometimes there are other things that take precedence over the Middle Kingdom and last month was just such a moment, when one of the most remarkable persons I have and will ever meet in this life came to pass away and started on his journey to the Yellow Springs. So for him, this posthumous tribute:



I have been thinking about what to write and how to write it, and slowly it is growing here inside my mind what I want to say, but one thing has been clear from the beginning: it had to be something I could send off, a bit like the message in the bottle that you throw in the sea, feeding the feeble but nevertheless real hope that someday, somewhere there will be a recipient at the other end. So what I still have left to say to you, I'll say it here on my blog, so that when I push that "publish" button when I'm all done and finished, I'll be left with the feeling that somewhere there will be an Inbox at the other side of that great divide between life and death that will say "You have mail".

I've chosen Le Grand Jacques to guide me along the words and thoughts. I think you wouldn't have objected to be in his company, so here is from me to you, my

"Brel-ude for a friend"

"Adieu l'Émile je vais mourir
C'est dur de mourir au printemps tu sais
Mais je pars aux fleurs la paix dans l'âme"

("Le Moribond"; Jacques Brel)

How many times have you watched together with Els "The Legends of the Falls" ? Ten Times ? More ? It came as no surprise that you had us walk past your coffin and out of that chapel on the music of "The Legends ...". What else would you have chosen if not this ?

You've run into your bear, Luc.

It was YOUR bear.

He was called Cancer, and when he came upon you for the second time, you didn't stand a chance. Just like Tristan, you had evaded him already one time before. But once your blood got mixed with that of your bear, your fate was decided. In his second attack, he was out for the kill and killing is what he did ... but what a fight you have put up ! You were a worthy adversary for the fearsome creature. You nearly beat him ... but yet again the skin of the bear couldn't be sold before he was shot. Cancer's cruel paws mowed you down with no mercy ... yet he wasn't able to erase you. Nobody, no matter how powerful, will ever be able to erase you. The memories of you are carved all over the place, in the hearts of so many people who crossed your path, for a shorter period, like me and Feng, or for a long time already, like your family and others that were lucky. There's no defeating you, it couldn't be done even if one wanted to. The bear took your life alright, but you left us your legacy of what it means to be simply human, without much ado, and that legacy stands forever, till all those who have known you here have joined you at the other side. 

It was difficult to die during Spring, Luc, "c'est dur de mourir au printemps ...", while you were still so much looking forward to the Summer, to share the last bottles of wine in the garden, to receive your last guests around the table on the terrace, to simply feel the sunshine a couple of more times on your smiling face, to spend a couple more days, hours, minutes with Els. Your wish wasn't granted, you knew it wouldn't be ... but you insisted to keep control over how you walked off the stage. And so it happened. May peace be with you when you walk around the flowerfields: you arranged all you could, the rest is up to us.

"On a vu souvent rejaillir le feu,

d'un ancien volcan qu'on croyait trop vieux.

Il est, paraît-il, des terres brûlées

donnant plus de blé qu'un meilleur avril ..."

("Ne me quitte pas"; Jacques Brel)

The volcano that was you will never erupt again, that is a fact of life (or death) that we have to face, yet your ashes will not go wasted. Last week I was listening to an interview with a Dutch popjournalist, Constant Meijers, who more or less introduced The Eagles to the Netherlands. He had interviewed them a couple of times, before they were the superband they became and one last time in the seventies, when they had hit the top of the charts already. So he asked the drummer of the band, Don Henley, what they would do to keep innovating themselves after the success they were meeting then, he asked "what would be their yardstick" to measure their own future music.

About 30 years later, at a concert of The Eagles in Amsterdam, Meijers was backstage when Don Henley after the concert came walking down the stairs. He caught a glimpse of Meijers, walked over and said: "Constant, we still have the yardstick".

When I just mentioned your "legacy", Luc, it was the same kind of yardstick I was thinking of. Everything we do from now, we'll be able to measure as to how it compares to you. You were no saint, we all know that, but you had your principles and you stuck to them. I believe you didn't just leave us that yardstick, but you actually passed it on, to Els, in whom we'll always find your image back. When she was standing next to your coffin, bravely reading her last parting words to you, saying that you had made her a better person, that was the first time I heard those words actually ringing true. I believed them as they were spoken. And I'm sure that she'll keep guard over that yardstick with the same devotion and intensity as you did during your life. The fields are burned, the earth is scorched ... your departing left an unerasable scar ... yet the seeds are in the ground, where you put them ... and they will bloom eventually, Luc. They will bloom.

"Laisse moi devenir l'ombre de ton ombre,

l'ombre de ta main,

l'ombre de ton chien,

Ne me quitte pas .... "

("Ne me quitte pas"; Jacques Brel)

Leaving us is what you were forced to do and leaving us is what you did. It wasn't of your own choice and it was as hard for you as for any who went before you. Seldom have I seen anyone as addicted to life as you, but when time ran out, you were as ready as one can be. And so you went with great dignity... you wouldn't let life, or what was left of it, choke you to death. When time was there for the appointment you had set yourself with the ferryman that would bring you across, you just showed up ... and went with no looking back.

With yourself, you took away a friend, with whom it was fantastic to discuss books, movies, our favourite music, with whom every bottle of wine, every glass of whiskey was a moment of pure and intense joy.
You took away Feng's mentor, whom she enormously admired and whom she needed from time to time to put her back with her feet on the ground or to make her pursue what she started till the end.
You took away the mirror where we both only needed to take a look at to know what needed to be corrected or where we were lacking. Now that the mirror cracked, we'll have to do with the reflection of the light on those thousands of pieces that you have scattered around, so everyone that was dear to you can still enjoy the memory of who you've been and always will remain, albeit only in our memory. But what a fine memory it is ...   

I'll never be able to live up to your standards, Luc. I didn't in your last days and I feel terrible about it. 

I don't have the energy you possessed and which made you go on and on.

I don't have the passion which made everything you undertook seem so natural and easy, while I know it often was not.

I don't have what it takes to be "Luc" ...

but I can try ... and I will. I may never be good enough to come out of your shadow, but he who reaches even up to your knees is already to be considered a giant. I have a long way to go, but you have shown the direction. I couldn't have asked for more. 

I've been asking myself again several times in the past period whether there is anything left after you cross the border from life into the black hole that is called death. It may or may not be. The truth is it doesn't matter: the border is not shut to memories, they keep and will keep flowing back from The Other Side, not hindered by any obstacles ... but time, but I hope that when the moment comes around that time has faded out most of the memories, I'll have harvested enough of those seeds you planted, for other people to enjoy ... enough for your memory to live on.

So here's the final goodbye, my friend: it's time to push the button, time to put the words into the bottle and throw them into sea. If they ever land up on your coast, you'll know how grateful I've been of having known you, for I was never able to express it properly during your life. If they don't, I'll tell you myself after I took the ferry. And I'll bring a full bottle then. Jameson. Don't you go changing your brand in the afterlife now ...