Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Lesson of Watanabe

Yesterday I came across this story, taken over from the "Southern Weekend", which Roland translated on his ESWN-blog.

Tracking the history of the owners of one of the now infamous brick kilns in Shanxi province, it's a very insightful account of how corruption at the basis works, from it's seemingly harmless origins to it's detrimental results. Go and read it by all means, and don't be frightened by the length, it has some mighty entertaining passages along the way:

Many reporters thought that he had vanished mysteriously over the past 20 or so day. Actually, he was staying alone in a cave in the hill behind the brick kiln and refusing to receive any visitors. On the early morning of June 16, our reporter climbed over the hill and arrived at this s

imple and crude hole to meet this village party secretary who was under a lot of pressure. The 58-year-old man wailed, "At this stage, I am better off killing myself by ramming my head against the wall!"

Could you imagine Saddam in his pit, also "under a

lot of pressure", fending off the US Marines and the international press, saying he refused to receive any visitors ?

What struck me most, however, was this single line near the end of the story:

The various other base-level officials who were interviewed by our reporter all explained: They each have limitations to th

eir job responsibilities and they could not have investigated the illegal brick kilns.

Sad, but all too familiar story, isn't it ? It made me reminisce about one of the movies by that other hero of mine, Akira Kurosawa. Takashi Shimura, next to Toshiro Mifune Kurosawa's fetish actor, plays Kanji Watanabe, the Section Chief at the Public Affairs Office in the Town Hall of some town. He is one of those soulless office clogs that does nothing all day but stamp documents -piles of them with grievances and requests from the towns' people- and by stamping them in practice transferring the responsibility to another department. Until he is diagnosed with cancer of the stomach and he realizes he has only six more months to spend on this earth. He then takes a hard look at his life, and realizes he is a virtual nobody ... and dies halfway the movie. What follows is the reconstruction of Watanabe's last six months through discussions between his former colleagues, family members, city officials ... at his funeral.

It gradually becomes clear that this man, disregarded by his own son, respected by nobody, had decided for himself he had to do at least one thing right in his life, that there had to be at least one thing for which he could be remembered. And so he picked the case of a group of town's women who pleaded (in vain, so far) to have a swamp in their neighborhood transformed in a playground for their children. By way of the conversations and several flashbacks, the audience is then taken along on the crusade of Watanabe through the Kafkaian maze of the Japanese bureaucracy. We see a man who asks, is refused, stalls, is humiliated, but stubbornly goes down all the departments, one by one, until he has collected all the stamps he needs to get the project off the ground. The image of Watanabe, sitting on a swing on "his" playground, while snow is falling down, is as much an image of a man who has finally made peace with himself as it is a tribute to human persistency and what it can achieve.

And so I thought when reading that article: if only those base-level officials had tried a little more and instead of eyeing the limits of their job responsibilities, had rather looked at the possibilities and duties of their jobs, the Shanxi brick kiln scandal (and who knows how many more ?) might not have existed.

By the way, did I mention the title of the movie ? It's "Ikiru" and it means "To Live".


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

China through the eyes of Hedda Morrison

Sometimes, surfing the web, you just get lucky.

The day I stumbled into this website, must have been such a lucky day.

Hedda Hammer (Morrison) was born in Stuttgart, Germany in 1908. From an early age she had an interest in photography. In 1929 she enrolled at the Bavarian State Institute for Photography in Munich where she studied for three years. Two years after graduation Hedda, like many German artists and intellectuals, made plans to leave Germany which was coming increasingly under Nazi control. She answered an advertisement in a German photographic journal and secured a job as manager of the Hartung’s Photo Shop in Peking. From 1933 Hedda Morrison managed the German-owned commercial photographic studio in the Legation quarter which had a well-established clientele of customers including diplomats and resident foreigners. After her contract expired in 1938, she continued to work in Peking as a freelance photographer.

During her thirteen years in Peking, Hedda Morrison took thousands of photographs that document architecture and streetscapes, craftspeople at work, street vendors, and religious or folk customs. She was particularly interested in traditional crafts and took many series of photographs that record processes of making. Being a long-term resident of Peking she had an established network of contacts that provided her with unique access to people and places.

When you get to see pictures like this, you can not but be amazed how far China has come in such a short time, while at the same time regret how much of the scenery has disappeared under the relentless sledgehammer of the construction boom. With some of the pictures however, you'll feel amazed how some things never seem to change at all

Having added Howard French's " A Glimpse of the World" to my blogroll just yesterday, it may be a good idea to have these scenes from pre-liberation China contrast with his photographic impressions of contemporary China. (Btw, French just put up a new, photography only, website called "Glimpse"

Be sure to check out the pictures on display on this well designed website of the Powerhouse Museum. The pictures are in Flash, which allows you to view them in stunning detail. And for those of you that crave to see more, just continue on to these pages of the Harvard University Library for almost 5000 pictures of this amazing German woman photographer. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Pebbles ... a world of difference

It's been a long time since I have been posting here. I'm not a compulsory blogger, in fact, I even don't qualify as a real blogger when compared to a lot of others. But neither did I say I was quitting this little hobby of mine. Let's just say I took an extended break and now I'm back. That's all there is to it.

I was inspired for this post by all the China and US bashing by the usual suspects that has been going on in the comment sections over at The Peking Duck. It seems to even have managed in driving good old Richard up the curtains. Still, I started to wonder for myself where I would situate the divide between the so-called democratic system and the so-called communist system (or should I say: "socialism with Chinese characteristics" ?)

What they have in common is that they're both "just" frameworks in which societies operate. There's no such body of laws labeled "democracy", as neither there is one tagged "communism". Societies, as they evolve over time, will tweak their laws and customs to make them fit in one of the frameworks they choose, like the aforementioned two. I explicitly say "choose", as I believe neither system at the outset is something imposed from above. It just comes into existence, partly by virtue of a theoretical basis, partly through the words and acts of some very charismatic persons who identify themselves with a set of values that could loosely be described as "democratic" or "communist". Some have come into existence very early ("democracy" has a trail as far back as Ancient Greece), others relatively late. So far I find the divide to be nearly not existing.

It is however not the frameworks that matter, it is the people. And neither is it the frameworks that rule. The ruling is done by people. People worldwide tend to differ on a set of culturally defined characteristics, but I find them very similar on the basics: the ego is prime and whether that ego is inherently good or bad, is debatable.

Now here is something that struck me: where democratic constitutions like to refer to the idea of "All men are created equal", I think democracies are firmly rooted in the belief that some ego's will always find themselves if not above, then at least apart from the rest. I believe the strength of democracy is that it got rid of the utopian belief in an equalitarian society, thus giving breathing room to those that wanted to stand out to take the reins and lead, to those ego's that want to spread their wings and fly, while at the same time empowering the others to take back the reins should they abuse their mandate. Democracy's strength is that it brings to the forefront the people that have the desire (and hopefully the ability) to rule, while at the same time trying to accommodate in the system a vaccine against the inevitable truth that power corrupts. Democracy is not unfamiliar with the ailing and depressions of normal life, but it carries the cure in it's pockets. Therefore, after a slump, it may thrive again.

So what about communism then ?

Castro was not corrupted when he steered the "Granma" to the shores of Cuba in 1956. Mao was not corrupted when he founded the Communist Party in 1921. They both had lofty ideals about liberating a people that was being oppressed. They both claimed victory and what they then did could have been taken from a handbook on democratic constitutions: they tried to create an "all men equal" society. However, they failed to understand that their enormous ego's were not the only ones out there, that a country or society is not to be molded into a uniform mass but is the total of it's ego's and that's where I think communism went wrong, for once you claim equality, the voice that speaks out differently must by consequence be a dissident voice, which can not be tolerated lest it should harm the perceived unity of the rest of the society.

Communism, as I see it, didn't set out to be corrupt, autocratic, even tyrannic and neither did their leaders. I still believe that all the great "red" revolutions, be it China, be it Cuba or be it Russia, were started with the best interest of the people at heart. Whether the ideas embraced by those revolutionary leaders were the right ones for the specific situations of the countries where they fought, is a different matter. Ideas will just be ideas, until they get the opportunity to prove themselves right or wrong in the field. And it seemed like a safe bet: if you treat everybody equal, the "harmonious society" is just around the corner, right ? The moment it went wrong is when that farmer threw a little pebble in the river, by way of evidence that he had existed. And the day after someone else threw another pebble, and the next day yet another one ..., till the river, swollen with pebbles, left the riverbed and shifted direction. That's when communism became a form of disaster management. Still, from our corporate experience in the West, we know that disaster management actually may work ... as long as it doesn't continue for too long.

So if you ask me where is the divide between democracy and communism, the answer is fairly simple: it's on you and me.