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China Commentary– Youthful Musings on the Environment, Culture & Development

Archive for April 2008

“Baracky” = Classic.

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Check out this pretty ingenious Youtube clip of Barack doing his best Sly Stone.


Written by Miles

April 16, 2008 at 9:27 am

A Look at Asia, Tourism and Tension

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My cousin recently ventured into Burma, after we parted ways in Vietnam.  He later told me the contrast between the two was nearly indescribable.  On the one hand, you have Vietnam, rolling in new money and racing ahead at reckless speeds.  On the other, Burma, idle and eroding, sinking into dictatorship and economic stagnation.

It had me thinking of the Asian countries I have visited in the past two years, in comparison to each other, and in comparison to some of the places I have been in Africa.  It’s a unique system of development in this corner of the world, one very dependent on its geography.  There’s massive China.  South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have all followed similar paths, straight down to Singapore.  Then there’s the peninsula with Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, all lead by Thailand in regional power and leadership.  The island nations, they have their own type of development, the Philippines, Malaysia, etc.

Common to them all is the boon of tourism.  Unlike Africa, people think of Asia as a “safe” place.  It’s long been part of the backpacker circuit, and has been further pushed and developed in the last 20 years than ever before.  The situation is slightly different in China and Japan, who are welcoming more tourists but also sending out an all-time high as well.  Meanwhile, the peninsula and the island nations are facing a huge influx of transient visitors, some relying greatly on their financial input.

Often, upon returning from trips, I have written of the downside of tourism.  Primarily, the 3 P’s: pollution, poverty, and prostitution.  I think I should expand on the notion of prostitution, because it is not just young women being forced into intimate interactions, but entire populations.  There is a cultural prostitution, a sense that everything is for sale in these places, and it is tragic.  The more tourist flood in, the more enormous cameras dangle from necks, the more tour buses, stupid guides with little flags, groups with matching hats, youth just in search of a party, elederly in search of 5-star hotels… its enough to make me sick.  It’s enough to make entire nations sick.

Here are two articles that I think point out the contrast in what has become the search for “authentic” places.  The first discusses how Luang Prabang, a sleepy city in the center of Laos I visited just over a year and a half ago, is dealing with a record number of tourists streaming into its quiet streets.  The second article talks about Myanmar and the situation there, in which a society is being “preserved” to such an throttling extent that it is now starving itself to death.  It’s two ends of the extreme.  And after reading the article on Myanmar, thinking of my cousin, I realize that soon enough that country will open its gates to the floods of foreign visitors and let the rainfall of cash wash away any seeds of culture still in the land.

Lastly, I wanted to follow up on my premise that China has silently regained sole superpower status on our globe.   The article is a wake up call, but I think we, especially the U.S., have hit the snooze button a few too many times to reverse course now.  A U.S. government spokesperson recently spoke of silent diplomacy being used against China.  Ha!  What a crock of shit!  Our soft and hard power are being shown to be exactly what they are, weak.  Our moral legitimacy is in peril, our thirst for war has lost us allies, and with our economy in the toilet, our nation has become a clinger, desperately holding on to resources and the last clutches of geopolitical hegemony as they slip through its grip.

Obama Says We’re Bitter, I Say He’s Damn Right

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Apparently the big campaign trail news is a co-sponsored, bipartisan “attack” on a piece of Barack’s speech in San Fran the other day.  According to the NY Times, it went like this:

At the fund-raiser in San Francisco last Sunday, Mr. Obama outlined challenges facing his presidential candidacy in the coming primaries in Pennsylvania and Indiana, particularly persuading white working-class voters who, he said, fell through the cracks during the Bush and Clinton administrations.

“So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations,” Mr. Obama said…

McCain and Clinton responded calling him “out of touch” with “small town America.” Is that insinuating these two D.C. knuckleheads are down with the git-down on Main Street? Please! “That’s rich,” Obama retorted, perhaps unaware of his pun.

This is EXACTLY why we need Obama in the White House. His rivals live in an idealized world where everyone pulls the wool over their eyes and tries to go to sleep. There’s a bogeyman in America’s closet, and it’s about time people come to terms with what we fear.

Bitter? Hell yes, I am bitter. I am from a working-class family, with a father who owns his own fledgling company, a Mom who works too much OT, a step-dad who works multiple jobs, a 21 year old sister working nearly full-time to help pay her way through college, and a 16-year-old sister working part-time for spending money after school and on weekends… that’s what Bush calls “uniquely American.” My whole family is sick and tired of politicians who don’t have a clue, who cut taxes on the rich thinking it’s going to trickle down Main Street. It doesn’t.

One of my favorite lines from Obama came before the South Carolina primary where, to paraphrase, he said something like, “I was pounding the pavement as a community organizer when you were busy sitting on the board at Wal-Mart, Hillary, trying to figure out how to ship our jobs overseas!”

Oh Lordy, the audacity, to borrow another campaign buzzword, of two candidates who think they are in tune with the realities of the middle class! Is this the same McCain who has no problem leaving sons and daughters of the lower classes burning in the desert of our immorality in Iraq? The same McCain married to a millionaire? Is this the same Clinton who reported a family income of $109 million dollars last year? Is that in touch with my family? Hell no.

I try not to be a defeatist or a pessimist, but it is this backward thinking by these status-quo preaching politicians that has our country sitting atop the sinkhole of eternity. Stay in Iraq, Johnboy? And pay for that how? With our awesome economy being buoyed up by those doubly-awesome tax cuts you are so proud of? Keep borrowing from China? Hope it buys another TRILLION dollars of our debt? That’s a great way to maintain any miniscule inkling of geopolitical strength, when we are begging and groveling to the world’s new authoritarian superpower.

Does this rant sound bitter? It should. That’s exactly what I am. I met an American woman working as a bartender in a hostel on Baobob beach in Mozambique in 2004. She told me she had become so disenchanted with the direction of her country that she was boycotting living there while Bush was in office. A week before, he had won reelection, and she said she was too stubborn to head back now.

I’m not praising her for fleeing the US. I praise her for being aware. Clinton and McCain can keep pounding the pulpit in the US, telling everyone everything is ok, that there is nothing to fear about our economy, our war on terror, our education, our healthcare, our dependency on oil, our expansionist military regime, our debt, our obese gluttony of what we hold as our country’s entitlements… sure. Keep telling us that’s normal, that’s the way it oughta be. Me and my friend in Mozambique, we’ll keep waiting.

Written by Miles

April 12, 2008 at 6:12 am

The Dilemma: Tibet Before, China Now

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My own personal dilemma at work has partially handicapped my own thought process.   I realized this recently.  When confronted with something weighing heavily in one direction, the natural reaction is to instinctively pull in the other, seeking balance.  But issues rarely find that equilibrium.

Every time protesters interrupt the Olympic torch relay, an irrepressible smirk slides its way across face.   It’s not about spiting China, and maybe not even about Tibet.  It’s about the action, about people taking action.  It’s inspiring.  And I cannot help being amazed and intrigued by the reactions of my Chinese colleagues as they find out how the world is welcoming their torch (as a news organization, we are allowed to pipe in BBC news for footage purposes).

At the same time, this seemingly rewarding feeling shames me.  Many of my friends here in Shanghai are very proud of their country hosting the Olympics.  They should be.  This country has come a long way in a short time, not citing tactics, to arrive as a major world power… arguably THE world power.  Patriotism, often manipulated into nationalism, is an inevitable result of a nation which believes in a 5,000 year history of glorious facts and fables.  The Olympics symbolize China’s return to its rightful reign, in their minds.

It can be said that this idea is narrow and naive.  Yet, I have often pointed out the similarities in the way in which we Americans are taught to perceive our national identity.  We constantly hearken back to our own glorious periods of history, primarily the Revolutionary War and World War II– the Founding Fathers and the Greatest Generation.  We rarely discuss, let alone teach, let alone review, our past actions in those times or between.  We ignore realist justifications for our involvements, rather choosing to recognize the idealism and rhetoric of our actions.  Are we so different?  Is China a bastard nation for holding its own notions of Manifest Destiny?

And it must be realized that Tibet is given the benefit of the doubt with the foreign press.  Rarely do you hear the other side’s description of life in Tibet before China took control of the region in the 1950s.  Tibet’s feudal empire was ruled by religion, something I find repulsive in all forms.  I believe people should be free to choose and follow their own religions, sure.  But to rule by them is wrong.  Too often the world excuses backward ways of life as a certain people’s culture.  I just don’t buy that.  Freedom is choice.  Culture is too often a tool of repression, granting a mandate to megalomaniacs who defend their actions as a culture others fail to understand.

There is plenty I do not understand about Chinese culture.  Yet, as an American, their stubborn pride is not that surprising.  I chuckled when one colleague commented (in Chinese thinking I didn’t understand), “These are foreigners protesting in London?  Not even Chinese?  What the hell do they know about our affairs?”  This coming from a citizen in a nation that systematically denies access to balanced, timely information!  Ha!   Then I saw BBC footage of a cute young Chinese lady in London saying she was proud of her country and didn’t understand why people couldn’t celebrate China’s progress.  Achk!  It’s all a paradox of pride and shame, fact and fiction, progress and policy, reform and repression… can there be balance?  How?

Tibet in China’s Eyes: The Power of Words

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I’ve been discussing my recent angst about working as a tool to the Chinese propaganda machine, even from an independently owned media company.  While I don’t feel the mainstream U.S. media is any less victimized by its alignment with government information sources, in our country we have the right to choose to hear our own perverted news the way we like it.  It is the distinct lack of choice here, the standard of un-informing the masses in order to maintain control, that troubles me.   It’s fascinating, really, to consider both countries’ ability to manipulate news with a dichotomy between those who choose to be misinformed and those who are systematically uninformed.  How does each strategy affect behavior and beliefs?

To exemplify what I mean by the power of words, how small changes in context and phrasing can lead to drastic changes in meaning, I have added below one piece of news I was asked to edit tonight.  In this anchor on camera reader, as is common, we cover the Chinese (government) reaction to a news event without first airing the initial impetus.  To start, here is the first draft sent by the news-gatherer to the producer:

The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu said today that the resolution recently proposed by the U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tibet is with “ulterior motives.”  She says the proposal neither condemned the mobs who conducted violence in Lhasa nor did it denounce the Dalai Clique who organized the crimes, it instead blamed the Chinese government and Chinese people.  The resolution calls on the Chinese government to end its “crackdown” in Tibet and to enter into a substantive dialogue with the Dalai Lama.

Here is the first edited version after the producer cleaned it up:

The resolution recently proposed by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tibet has “ulterior motives.”  Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu made the comment today at a press conference, where she noted the resolution neither condemned the mobs who conducted violence in Lhasa nor did it denounce the Dalai clique who organized the crimes, it instead blamed the Chinese government and Chinese people.  Jiang urged the US Congresswoman to respect the truth, give up preconceptions, and recognize the true nature of the Dalai Clique.

Now, this is pretty striking in its own right.  But I never saw these changes.  I only receive the first-edit version, and thus I was unaware of the first draft.  It was now my turn, and I went through trying to balance the news as much as possible, very much a bend-don’t-break tactic for me.  I know if I bend it too much, the producer will take note of it and strike my changes, criticizing me for changing the story.  This was my polished draft:

The resolution on Tibet recently proposed by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has “ulterior motives,” according to Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu. Jiang made the comment today at a press conference, where she also noted the resolution neither condemned mob violence in Lhasa nor denounced the Dalai clique whom China believes organized the crimes. Pelosi’s resolution criticized the Chinese government’s handling of the unrest and called for a dialogue between Beijing and the Dalai Lama. Jiang urged the US Congresswoman to respect the truth, give up preconceptions, and recognize the true nature of the Dalai Clique.

Oops.  Too much.  I had thought by leaving in that poisonous final sentence I would appease the producers, who to their credit are only trying to protect their ass and not have their bosses– let alone some government press official– burn them at the stake.  Remember, this is their job, their livelihood, and they have been doing this in China for years.  Like it or not, they know how to play the game; even if that means sitting on the sidelines.  In this case, I was explained that the news was largely a direct quote from Jiang Yu reported by China’s state-controlled Xinhua news agency.  I was taught in college never to use direct quotes in broadcast news because the reader cannot distinguish between speaker and the broadcaster opinion.  Always paraphrase.  If you must, attribute clearly.  For instance, never leave a quote like “ulterior motives” at the end of the sentence, because an anchor always pauses to catch a short breath between lines, thus fracturing the logic.  If you MUST, attribute clearly.  For instance, you should write “Jiang said the resolution quote blamed China and Chinese citizens unquote.”  I tried in vain to subtly pass this tip on to the producer.  I failed.  And though I usually have final say, producers always trump my position.  This is the final draft that went to air:

The resolution on Tibet recently proposed by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has “ulterior motives.”  Foreign Ministry spokesperson Jiang Yu made the comment today at a press conference, where she also said the resolution neither condemned the mobs who conducted violence in Lhasa nor did it denounce the Dalai clique who organized the crimes.  She noted, instead, it blamed the Chinese government and Chinese people. Jiang urged the US Congresswoman to respect the truth, give up preconceptions, and recognize the true nature of the Dalai Clique.

Written by Miles

April 7, 2008 at 5:08 pm

Patriotism and Pariahs

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A coworker recently told me that when he was younger he thought all young teenagers in the U.S. had closets full of top designer clothes.  “One hundred pairs of jeans,” he told me.  “A thousand t-shirts.  And suits, even kids, I thought they all had suits.”

For my colleague, the U.S. was a collage of American Pie movies… well maybe a bit before those.  His main conduit was Hollywood, and that became his prism.  Today, the filters have changed.  Hollywood may no longer be our largest podium of American idealism, but the stage has remained.  Our closets are not full of suits.  They are full of costumes.

The most popular of which most certainly is the Uncle Sam mask.  Not too many can actually wear the whole suit, because they can’t slide out of it fast enough if they start to feel the heat.  But surely everyone is a patriot these days.  It has long been a badge of merit.  Yes, yes, we are all patriots.  But not soldiers.  No, those aren’t the kind of patriots we care about.  We don’t care about our veterans enough to fund their hospitals.  We don’t care about our children enough to get recruiters out of high-school hallways and the ears of 17-year-olds.  We don’t seem to mind the sacrifice of all our troops doing involuntary return tours, or our reservists being called up.

Nah, those people aren’t our patriots.  Our patriots are those who know the values of our Founding Fathers like they just spoke to them at lunch.  They are our political pundits, broadcasting broad sweeps of criticism, plucking the hart-strings of our true stay-at-home patriots.  Those, yeah, we love those patriots.  You know, the patriots with the yellow ribbon bumper sticker on their Ford Excursion.  The patriots who shop to support our war on terror.  The patriots who don’t hold passports and want border fences.

It’s all about ego, God, and inalienable control.  Acting to secure those interests outweighs the balance of right and wrong for most of these American patriots.  Primarily, it is ego.  Americans are not willing to concede that we are no longer the world’s sole superpower.  We are not willing to concede the fact that our children need to be educated about other cultures.  We are not willing to concede that our lack of understanding how the world works is dragging us under.

Instead, we would rather attack decorated war veterans as traitors.  We would rather ignore the pleas of 23 million peaceful people asking for their democracy to have a seat at the U.N. (beside such beauties as North Korea and Syria).  We would rather sit back and wait for underdeveloped nations to formulate a brilliant solution for global climate change than take the lead.

We talk a big game at this geopolitical card table.  But other players have stopped listening.  Tell someone to respect human rights?  Tell someone not to invade their neighbor?  Tell someone to disarm?

Andre Gide wrote, “The true hypocrite is the one who ceases to perceive his deception, the one who lies with sincerity.”  It’s time to analyze the sincerity of our patriotism.

Written by Miles

April 6, 2008 at 5:04 pm