Saturday, November 18, 2006

The "H"-word

Hu Jintao seems to have engaged in a fierce struggle with George W.

In the old days, father Bush (or Bush 41 as he's now named by Newsweek, as compared to the son Bush 43) still had to tell the Americans: "Read my lips". It seemed like the message he had to bring couldn't have been very convincing, as he got stuck with a single term in his presidency. That remark aside, he still required more effort from us than his son does: without reading his lips, everybody already knows what he is going to say: "freedom and democracy". If you want F&D for Iraq, F&D for Afghanistan, F&D for Cuba, F&D for ... well, basically, the entire world ... you can easily rely on Bush Jr. to make it happen !

But the president of the US of A recently has seen a formidable challenger standing up, in the person of the president of the People's Republic of China, Hu Jintao.

Mr.Hu, in line with his country's increasing importance on the world's stage, undoubtedly must have thought that he also needed a term tagged to him like ...uh, a fig leaf to Adam. And thus he took recourse to the most famous of ancient Chinese philosophers, Confucius, to deliver him the concept of "Harmony". From that moment of enlightenment onwards we have seen Mr. Hu embarking on a crusade, first in China itself, but now also outside China's borders, to promote his "harmonious society" and by extension, a "harmonious world":

"China will work with other countries for harmonious coexistence in the political field, common development in the economic field, mutual enriching in the cultural field and mutual trust and coordination in the security field," Hu told a CEO summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Hanoi.

Let's call it the "H"-word. I'll readily agree to the fact that it definitely has more appeal than his predecessor Jiang Zemin's "Three Represents":

"Reviewing the course of struggle and the basic experience over the past 80 years and looking ahead to the arduous tasks and bright future in the new century, our Party should continue to stand in the forefront of the times and lead the people in marching toward victory. In a word, the Party must always represent the requirements of the development of China's advanced productive forces, the orientation of the development of China's advanced culture, and the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people in China." (from Jiang's speech at the 16th CPC Congress)

I guess nobody really ever knew what his ideas represented.

Coming back to Hu, he took a somewhat broader view and defined his ideas for China's harmonious society not in a set of just three but eight guidelines, the so-called "Eight Honors and Eight Disgraces" (八荣八耻):

Hu Jintao listed the "Eight Honors and Disgraces" as follows: "Loving the Mother Country is honorable, harming the Mother Country is disgraceful; Serving the People is honorable, neglecting the People is disgraceful; Upholding science is honorable, blindness and ignorance are disgraceful; Hard work is honorable, idleness disgraceful; Unity and cooperation are honorable, using others for profit is disgraceful; Honesty and keeping one's word are honorable, seeing personal gain and forgetting justice is disgraceful; Respecting laws and regulations is honorable, disobeying laws and regulations is disgraceful; Suffering for the struggle is honorable, conceit and lasciviousness are disgraceful".

Some neat statements in there, no doubt, but I wonder whether he's going to pull off the trick though, as his formidable contender under the F&D banner has the "Ten Commandments" to rely on. They have some trait in common though: you already do not need to read their lips to know what they are going to say, but both of them also don't do very well under intense scrutiny of their deeds.

No matter the force of his resounding buzz-words, Bush Jr. took a "thumping" last week in the mid-term elections. Now if the Chinese joke "胡说八道" (can be read as "Hu speaks about the eight ways / rules", but is also a standard Chinese idiom for "nonsense") is any indication, his "harmony"-trump must have some false chords in it's sound as well.

Gentleman, may The Force be with you and may the best prevail !

Monday, November 13, 2006

Lesson 45: Beijing has "countless" hutongs

Somewhat of a sad irony, I thought, that while in the countdown to the 2008 Beijing Olympics more and more of Beijing's hutongs (alleyway with typical courtyard houses) fall victim to the merciless verdict of the character "拆" (to be demolished), new web-based chinese learning sites would exactly pick the quickly disappearing hutong as something that comes to mind in the context of teaching the new word "不计其数" (countless).

To be fair, I have not an exact idea on the size of destruction taking place. As I have never been living in Beijing myself, I can in no way accurately relate the current situation to how it was, say, 20 years ago, when I was thriving in the city of the "里弄" (lilong), Shanghai. But if this article and photo reportage by Sean Gallagher is any indication, it must be pretty devastating:

According to UNESCO, in the past three years a third of the 62km squared area that makes up the central part of the old city has now been destroyed. This has displaced close to 580,000 people – one and a half times the total population of Washington D.C.

There's the arguments pro and contra, for a lot of these hutongs are indeed rife with dilapidated dwellings which are basically screaming for a sledgehammer to help them end their torment. But more important even than the architectural value may be the social fabric that these alleyways have woven throughout the centuries they have been in existence and which is now being ripped to shreds by moving out the original residents to the high rise buildings in the outskirts of Beijing.

It is too early to judge, I believe, the social implications this will have on the new Beijing as it is emerging. If the Chinese have proven anything to this day, it is definitely their resilience and ability to bounce back even under harsh conditions. However, what is sure is that the high rises can not replace the cosy and protective atmosphere of the hutongs. In that respect, I feel a lot of sympathy for this site, that tries to capture the spirit of the hutong society through the eyes of it's residents:

Hutong to Highrise is dedicated to extensively documenting the disappearing hutong communities of old Beijing. Hutong to Highrise (H2H) visits Hutongs, interviews the residents and dispenses cameras so that residents may photograph what they deem important in their daily lives. H2H is slowly building a photographic archive of Beijing's rich Hutong culture, one supplemented with the stories, and insights of Hutong residents.

Like the Japanese ukiyo-e prints, these are truly "images of the floating life" and life may be floating faster than one would like.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

China & Africa: a new bride or merely a concubine ?

If the ability to halt Chinese construction work is any indicator of a big thing going on, then the Chinese - African summit held last weekend must have been a major gig. Which of course it was. The biggest diplomatic top meeting ever organized by the PRC (48 heads of state or government leaders from 40 different countries) focused on strengthening the ties between the Middle Kingdom and the Black Continent, which have steadily been on the increase in the last couple of years.

The situation is said to be a win-win for all parties: China gets access to the abundance of Africa's resources (especially the oil) and Africa gets an investor that asks no questions. At least not the troubling kind, such as on human rights abuses, genocide, corruption etc ... Seems like we are witnessing the birth (or better: the honeymoon) of a match made in Heaven.

Let there be no doubt: whatever would be able to show Africa and it's people a way out of the deadly spiral of poverty, violence, disease ... is to be applauded. The West till this day has failed to do so. While we have shed most of our colonial behavior, we have not been able to redress what we have ruined in the past. So to let the Chinese have a go at it, is only fair. They, as a country that also only recently has emerged from the ruins left after a century of wars upon disasters, may have more affinity after all with the situation on the ground in a lot of those African countries. I believe they have the clout to do it, they have the people to do it ... but I can't help wondering if the Chinese face is showing it's real intentions.

A honeymoon is fun while it lasts, but it tends to come to an end very soon when real life kicks in. China may start already to feel the first hiccups in the relation with it's new bride:

Despite the cordial relations that exist between China and Zambia, resentment towards Chinese businesspeople is widespread among small-scale Zambian businesspeople and poorly-paid workers.

Neo Simutanyi, a political scientist at the University of Zambia, says the anti-China sentiment that Sata raised in the run-up to the election endeared him to many voters in Lusaka and the Copperbelt.

Simutanyi believes the labor practices of especially Chinese businesspeople spurred some people to vote for Sata. The Chinese are frequently accused of being the main culprits in the use of casual labor, which involves lower pay and no social security benefits.

Let us also take a look at the results of the summit. 16 deals were inked with 11 countries (I'm wondering how that makes the countries feel that are not part of the 11) for a total value of 1.9 billion USD. Just for comparison: when Jacques Chirac visited China last month, he brought back deals totaling 10 billion USD. The comparison is unfair, as Africa has to date no company such as Airbus, who took the lion's part of the 10 billion (and Airbus is not entirely a French company either), but still, it gives some perspective, however relative, to the figures.

When we further look at the kind of business that was concluded, it is said to be entirely in the range of infrastructure, telecoms, mineral resources and insurance. Though the first two of course ARE crucial to the reconstruction of countries in decline, it seems to me that they are also first and foremost needed by the Chinese to get their part of the deal safe and sound out of those countries: oil. Isn't it a little bit strange, or worrying, that in a continent like Africa none of these investments bears on agriculture ? Judging from the Tanzam Railway, the "track"-record the Chinese have on building railways in Africa, seems also not much to boast about:

For the last two years, Africa has experienced an annual 5 percent increase in its gross domestic product due to China's demand for resources. The continent has gained increased access to Chinese markets and several countries have signed agreements with Beijing to implement a host of development projects.

But some observers say these gains do not provide a sound economic basis for future growth. They point to the TanZam railway as an example of how the Chinese send in their workers to construct a project and then withdraw once it is completed without leaving behind the expertise necessary to keep it going.

I sure do hope that for both "newlyweds" there is profit to be found in their relation and I am quite confident that in the short term there is going to be actual gain involved. I tend to be more sceptic on the long term, as I don't see enough altruism in China to make this relationship work over a prolonged period of time. What the weekends summit, by it's sheer scope and number of countries involved, for me has demonstrated, is China's anguish -not to say fear- to loose out on the oil it so badly needs for it's own continued development. By trying to lure an entire continent with one top-notch charm offensive, China may also have revealed it's main weakness: it's voracious hunger for fuel.

If this series of pictures (via "virtualreview: china") gives any hint to the warmth of the relations shared between both partners (take a good look to the pictures with Wen Jiabao), then we better prepare for a new Ice-age.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

On reading Xinran's "Sky Burial"

I just finished "Sky Burial", the second book by London-based journalist Xinran, who acquired fame for her account of different Chinese women's lives in "The Good Women of China".

In "Sky Burial" she brings the story of another Chinese woman, Shu Wen, whom she met for a few short days in Nanjing, during which she told Xinran about the amazing twist that brought her to live in Tibet for 30 years.

A native of Suzhou, Shu Wen marries Kejun, an army doctor, who is sent to Tibet in the fifties and goes missing soon thereafter. Having only been married for a hundred days, Shu Wen joins the army herself and sets out on a search for her husband whom she believes might still be alive. What ensues is pretty mindboggling: she saves a Tibetan aristocratic woman named Zhuoma, gets separated from her army unit, is saved by a Tibetan nomad family and continues to live with them for nearly thirty years, in the process of which she sheds most of her Chinese identity and blends in in the Tibetan Buddhist world around her. She never gives up her search for Kejun and in the end she finds the truth revealed.

The book has been described as "Wild Swans crossed with Seven Years in Tibet" (Giles Foden in "The Guardian"). I would rather say it is "Dances with Wolves" in Tibet. Xinran presents us with the oriental version of the noble savage: it's rough land, with a rough culture, where people are struggling to survive in dignity. In that sense, the book transcends the geographical boundaries drawn by man and brings us into a world of universal values that all of us like to connect with.

The question on the authenticity of the story has also been raised several times. Maybe I have to refer to this review which in my opinion makes several valuable points.

"XINRAN's SKY BURIAL exists in that strange place where truth and fiction overlap. Some fiction, perhaps the best fiction, illuminates the truth in way mere fact cannot, while some true stories are so unique and extraordinary as to intersect less with everyday reality than most fiction.

a number of SKY BURIAL's Tibetan protagonists might very well recognize this place of blurred boundaries between what is and what might be, for it is often a place of spirituality and hope. This is just one of ironies in Xinran's account of Shu Wen's tale. The relationship between the Chinese and Tibetans is hardly the black and white affair it usually presented to be (by either side of the issue). Not all Chinese revolutionary martyrs were hypocritical propaganda constructs."

In the end it doesn't really matter whether all is based on factual truth. The fact that the boundaries between reality and fiction are very narrow at some times IS the truth and it is illustrated in this book. The account of all that is told in the book could not have entirely been revealed in the two days time Xinran had the occasion to talk to Shu Wen, so for sure fiction is used in helping to create the image of the reality. Xinran is walking the path Karl May took when he wrote about the West he had never been to, yet May's accounts were well funded in reality.

For those wanting to read the book, let there be no mistaking: it is NOT about the ritual known as sky burial (jhator in Tibetan), where the corpse of a deceased person -during life the vehicle that carries the spirit and soul of the person but merely an empty vessel after death that can be disposed of without much further ado (since the spirit leaves the body at death)- is cut up, crushed and fed to the vultures. It is a last gesture of kindness to the other living beings. Though there is a key scene describing the ritual, I believe Xinran is using this connotation of the sky burial practice as representing the selfless behaviour of Kejun and by extrapolation most of what is going on the book: it is acts of humanity that make people survive in the struggle for life, it is one living being taking care of the other that makes us come through. The title, in my opinion, therefore should not be read in any ethnographic sense or as a reference to a cruel, uncivilized world, but rather as symbolizing the opposite.

Seen from that point of view, it is a remarkable book that deserves everybody's attention. I would like to end with Peter Gordon's final remarks from the above mentionned review:

Xinran has once again written with understanding and compassion about strong women who seem to have stepped out of the pages of a novel. Shu Wen disappeared right after Xinran's copied down her story. Is SKY BURIAL true? The strength of the story is that it doesn't matter.