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 ...



Sunday, May 18, 2008

Footbinding and the Olympics

Dorothy Ko, in what is bound to become a classic on the topic, “Cinderella’s Sisters: A Revisionist History of Footbinding”, has pointed out that the final decline of footbinding as a general practice in China was, to a certain extent, linked to what she calls the “global episteme”. Though by no means the only reason for the decline, it has been the basis for much of the rhetoric of the tianzu (natural feet) and fangzu (letting feet out) movement starting in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the wake of the Opium Wars and the Unequal Treaties, China, the “Middle Kingdom” that had been largely fenced off up till then, found itself suddenly confronted with a mostly hostile outside world that criticized the country for what it perceived as barbaric practices such as footbinding. China was dragged into the international community, only to find it had become the laughingstock and the subject of humiliation. It came as a shock. The great intellectuals of their time, such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, made the eradication of footbinding one of the central themes of their nationalist discourse. The Chinese women and their lotus feet, which in the heydays of the practice had been THE distinguishing factor between us (the Chinese) and them (the barbarians, whose women didn’t bind), became yet again the body where the political discourse of the time was almost literally written onto. Only this time the “writing” was exactly the opposite of what it once had been. China’s weakness in the global community was blamed on the bound feet of women, which made them almost useless to play a serious economic role in a world that was quickly industrializing. It should come as no surprise that the advocates of the anti-footbinding movement (apart from the foreign missionaries, of course) were mostly people that had studied abroad or traveled extensively outside China.

Looking at today’s context, I couldn’t but see certain similarities with respect tot that “global episteme”. Today’s tokens are not bandages, exposing heavily deformed feet, being taken away, or wooden soles, guaranteeing the bound foot to be well arched, to be turned in to the fangzu officials. But one could say that now it’s blindfolds coming off.

Nobody will contest any longer that China has woken up after a century of wars and has emerged from the ruined wasteland left by the Cultural Revolution. It is stepping again on the international stage and entrusting the country with the organization of the Olympics is like the pinnacle of the “festivities” marking the re-entry in the global community … And then the first thing the Chinese get to see is the Olympic torch (“ the “Sacred Torch”) being attacked by activists. And they are shocked yet again by the miscomprehension of the outer world. How come the world seems to pay so much attention to some rebel rousers in a far off part of China, while apparently missing out, or at least disregarding, the enormous progress it has and is still making ? China is unmistakably taking notice of what the world thinks, but where it had thought the way to the Olympics would be strewn with rose-petals and jubilant cries, it once again is confronted with a lot of hostility and I’m not sure they understand where the hostility is coming from. I’m not sure whether I understand it myself. But the blindfold that has held the Chinese happily unaware of what was in wait for them certainly has come off. The wake-up call is not some silent melodious music but a noisy buzzer hurting the ears. The world is telling China that, like in a sports match, it will side with the underdog fighting the giant, even more if the underdog can add if not entirely, at least a sense, of legitimacy to it’s claim. And it is telling China that the judgment it will bestow on a country is only partially linked to it’s economic prowess, but even more to it’s answering to a set of values deemed universal.


But, unlike at the beginning of the twentieth century, also in the “outer world”, the blindfolds are coming off with respect to China. The world is starting to see what a formidable contender has newly entered the arena and it starts to get worried. Realizing that it is nearly impossible to live a normal life without products coming out of China (the ubiquitous “made in China”-label), therefore letting China have control of part of your life and then to realize that you nearly have no clue of what today’s China is about is a rather scary experience. Seeing China buying large chunks of the world’s oil reserves is an equally scary thought and by the time Chinese companies tread en masse in the footsteps of Lenovo, Huawei and some others and grab their piece of the Western marketpie, we’ll be scared out of our wits. The Western world is answering to a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more it says the rise of China will break-up the current status quo (in which of course the West still has a perceived advantage), the more the status quo is being torn down, for fear weakens your position. The West, by demonizing China, is still focusing on the threats and forgets about the opportunities. By he time the Olympics are over – the best ever, there is not a trace of doubt in my mind in that respect, but let’s now quickly get it over with, so we can all move on – the world will be even more aware of the hunger and the energy of the new kid on the block who’s here to stay and better sets it’s strategy accordingly.


So Dorothy Ko’s “global episteme” is still fiercely influential, but whereas the vibes it radiates once were unidirectional, they have now become multidirectional and everybody feels the heat. Unlike the bound foot, that “twisted dough”, that could never be untwisted after having been bound for some many years, we can only hope that the eyes of the Chinese and the rest of the world, now that the blindfolds are coming off, can still adapt to the light and see things in their real perspective.


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Shouting at the Rashô-gate

I think it can be called an understatement to say that I am kinda fed up with a certain group of Chinese hacking away at the western media and it's so-called biased reporting with respect to the Tibetan uprising of the past weeks. I shed my catholic belief long time ago, but these words I still strongly underwrite: "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone" (free after the Gospel of John 8: 1-11). If anyone can consciously make the case that China can outdo the western press in truthfulness, I stop writing right here right now, but the official media are commonly agreed -also by the Chinese themselves- to be the mouthpiece of the CCP and thus not exactly a source of reliable reporting, and the ones that have tried to bring a more indepth view (which in this context is often synonym to "antagonistic" to the official Partyline on a number of hot issues) have been walking (and often crossing) a very thin line. So I have no need for a bunch of "angry young men" shouting that the western press has been doing injustice to China - I know myself that that is a fact in certain cases and I know it because I have access to a plethora of sources that will tell me there is more than one side to a certain issue ... and so do most of those that are the noisiest: the foreign students. So please stop shouting about how bad your feelings are being hurt and save your energy for bringing your own media and press up to standard, so you won't have to shy away in the future when someone from outside China asks for some unbiased reporting from within China.

I know this is a bit of a rant, but I found a good antidote in the comments section of J. Pomfret's article "China Bashing: It's Back". It's a very long comment thread and I haven't read it all (far from that even), but I found a person writing under the nick Wu Wei making some very reasonable statements on this media bias. For starters:

U see, the problem is that Journalism is NOT a science. So it is impossible to really make any conclusion based on universal laws. We make our judgments based on our emotion and our value systems. So it is inherently biased. When two people may not even be able to agree on what bias is in Journalism, it is really pointless to quantify it.

Journalism is not a science ... wow ! I couldn't think of any better way to put it. As long as people are involved in the production process, there is bound to be bias and even mistakes. We just aren't perfect and we ARE for a good deal defined by the environment we live in and the value systems that are imposed onto it. Before someone mistakes these words for a meaning that is not there, let me be very clear: I am NOT making any statement on a certain set of values being superior to another one, I am just saying that diverging views can not, in any way, be avoided and that any journalist is always under the influence of a specific part of society at a specific moment in time. Good journalists will try to break open those boundaries and try to put themselves above those limitations which are inherent to their roots, but it is not easy.

With regard to the issue of media bias, it's clear that the Western media can and does present things in a biased manner, and when it comes to international affairs this bias often reflects the Western democratic point of view. That is unsurprising, and frankly I'm not very concerned about it; we all seem to acknowledge that there will be some bias intrinsic in any account of a given event. We shouldn't feel because of this that there is no truth and hence all points of view have either equal validity or no validity--that depends on a given source’s journalistic integrity, and I believe the Western media does best Chinese state-run media in this regard. Rather, we should use an understanding of a given source's bias to place it in a social context in order to better understand the main population to which it addresses itself. However, having an identifiable bias is different from issuing false reports or flagrantly ignoring inconvenient facts. That is what the public must watch out for, and the only way to do that is seek out multiple news sources on a regular basis and to challenge one's assumptions.


Wu Wei is making the point that bias will always be unavoidable to a certain extent, but on the other hand needn't have us overly concerned either, as long as we are mature enough to recognize that it exists. He / she is not blind for the extreme end of bias, which is knowingly distorting the truth. I am very much aware that this happens and has certainly happened in relation to what occurred in Tibet. But as a sidenote to this, I just can't refrain from making the remark that closing the area off for foreign journalists is not going to help China in any way to get the story of what is really happening out. If some in the Western world are constantly on the lookout for a stick to beat China with, then China is offering it time and again on a silver platter to those people, by preventing the media from doing their work. If you give the impression you got things to hide, then you'd better be prepared to roll with the punches as well. To be sure: all nations, every country has got things it rather wants to stay hidden. The ability of the media to bring those out in the open and the way it is being dealt with in the aftermath, are indicative of the maturity of a country. Western governments are getting punched all the time, for they indeed also have lots they'd rather keep in the shades (CIA deportations of "suspects" to non-American countries for torturing, arms sales to countries under embargo, cruelties committed in a colonial past: sounds familiar to anyone ?). It's the press that brings these things out in the open and makes the heads of state their worst nightmare come true, but at the same time it strengthens the foundations on which society is based. It is the most direct way to make sure that something is entered in history and history is (ideally) what we learn from to prevent us from making the same mistakes again. I hope China is on the way of realizing this and will over time learn to come to terms with it, but in the meantime the shouting crowd of youngsters are doing their country a disservice.

 Let me once again refer back to one of the greatest humanists of our time, an idol of mine that I have been "propagating" here a couple of times already (here and here): Akira Kurosawa. Strange as it may seem, but even on this issue of bias he seems to have had something to say, notably in his 1950 masterpiece that won him (and by extension the Japanese cinema) wide international acclaim: "Rashômon" (The Rashô-gate). The movie brings the story of the rape of a woman and what seems to be the murder of her husband, but told from four different angles: a priest who claims he saw the samurai and his wife on the day the crime happened; the rapist; the wife and (by way of a medium) the dead man. All these witness accounts have the same facts at the basis, yet diverge widely from one another AND all seem plausible in their explanation. The director leaves it up to the audience to decide on what's the truth, thereby seemingly implying that there is no such thing as an absolute truth.


With regard to the Tibet issue, China will not be as black as it (sometimes) may be depicted in certain western media and it for sure is not as white as it depicts itself in it's own media. So if we agree that the truth will always be the composite of a story told from different angles, can we then now please stop the shouting and let the media do their work ?


Sunday, April 27, 2008

A Complex World

It's a complex world we live in and though of course it is not anything new I was confronted several times with that thought in the past couple of days. Just take this for instance: with our world's growing focus on the effects of global warming, on seeking to reduce greenhouse gases and CO2 emissions..., we start to look more and more for environmentally friendly technologies and models for sustainable development, so enters the currently best alternative to our dependence on oil to make our cars take us wherever we want to go: biofuel. We're not quite there yet, but it's supposed to be one step in the right direction. But is it really ? Because of the success of the biofuel crops, other crops get neglected and before we know it, the more vulnerable places on this world have another famine in the making. So shall we choke or starve ? Indeed not an easy choice.

Or what to think about this ? About two weeks ago, my colleague was telling about the solar panels he had installed half a year ago on his roof, and how, after a sunfilled weekend, it had been the first time he had actually produced more energy than he needed so the overproduction gets sent onto the nations' power grid and no energy gets wasted. Sounds beautiful ? It does but think again. About two days later I heard a representative of the incumbent energy supplier explain on the radio that the success and growth of new environmentally friendly energy systems such as solar panels started to become a problem, because the national power grid was at it's maximum capacity and couldn't take all the new energy that was infused onto it by all these households that were under the impression they were making a contribution to making our planet a place that might actually survive.

No fact seems allowed to be taken for granted anymore and adding to the complexity in this confusing world is ... China. As if the French had a monopoly on people who could foresee the future, there was next to Jules Verne -who took us for a trip of twenty thousand leagues under the sea more than a century before Jacques Piccard would steer his bathyscaphe "Triëste" to the deepest point on earth, the Marianen Trench- that other Frenchman of worldfame, Napoleon, who predicted that "Lorsque la Chine s'éveillera, le monde tremblera" (When China will wake up, the world will tremble). Nobody will argue the fact anymore: China HAS waken up and the world is just dressing up to go and attend it's welcoming reception as the new kid on the block is hosting the Olympics ... the single biggest spor ... euh ... geo-political event in the world since it was assigned to the Middle Kingdom in 2001.

Shall we tremble ? It is not so difficult to see where the unease of the Western world with respect to China is coming from. Like it's very symbol, the dragon, China is a hybrid creature of the capitalism we have grown up with on the one hand and communism that we have been told was the enemy on the other hand. It just doesn't fit in a Cold War model, so you can't attack it like we used to see with the USSR (remember some slogans like: "Rather a nuclear missile in my garden than a Russian in my kitchen" ?). Okay, then let's go for the engagement model. But what happens when you engage a giant ? People see their jobs being taken away and handed over to Chinese who, after some trying, succeed in producing roughly the same quality as we did here, only at a fraction of the cost, and all because of the very system we have all been very happy with while all went well for our side: capitalism. We brought the gospel of capitalism to China and now China is outdoing us at our own game. It's difficult to grasp when you actually have to face the facts, it's actually quite ... complex.

The Chinese reality is evading us at every level. For years we have been predicting the decline of their economic model, for too much too fast. Still, the double digit growth is still on the tables and voices claming an imminent collapse have become increasingly rare. So could it be that China has developed a system that actually might work ? The problem with being the first is that you can't prove it until it has existed long enough to be able to withstand any further scrutiny. As for now, we still don't trust China will be able to sustain what it is doing right now, for it hasn't been done before. Not in a country of this scale. So now we tremble, for a collapse of the giant has become just as frightening as it's further strengthening. We can only hope that, as "capitalist roaders" amongst each other, in the end we will be able to find a modus vivendi ...

Pierre de Coubertin may turn around in his grave, but for this year's host of the Olympic Games, it is NOT about participating, it's all about winning. It's up to the rest of the world to decide how to deal with it.