Monday, April 28, 2008

What if?

Whenever I visited Beijing, I’d always make time to check out its bookstores. It’s been both a hobby and a habit of mine. Back in the late 1980s when I was a resident of the city, I remember the two main bookstores - one carried books only in Chinese; the other, in languages other than Chinese, both run by the States and both situated in the busy shopping district of Wangfujing- were my regular hangouts on weekend as at the time, Beijing was literally a city free of cafes and bars. Nowadays, compared to the number of coffee houses and drinking dens that are in business in the city, the number of bookstores may still be minuscule, but the quantity and variety of books they’re selling and the size of some of their venues are nothing but. The mega bookstore in Xidan - right off subway line one - claims to have 300,000 titles on display and is 3-4 times the size of any Barns & Noble in the United States. In addition, it’s perpetually crowded. To save space and to keep customers from overstaying, the store offers no sitting facilities. As a result, many people choose to squat or sit on the floor to give a quick read to the books they intend to buy - which inevitably causes more congestion. Yet despite of all this, people keep flocking in. In general Chinese love and enjoy reading.

It was during these trips that I found one particular genre of books was gaining popularity in China. Those were books on spirituality, on ethics, on moral principles and on life as a whole. Besides titles written by Chinese, many western bestsellers such as “The Secret” have also made into China and most of all, people were buying them. Yet, certain titles that would otherwise be placed prominently in the “Spirituality Section” of a western bookstore, namely books on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, were achingly missing. What if those books became available in China, translated and read by ordinary Chinese? Will it help to bridge the gap between China and the west in view of Tibet and its spiritual leader?

Based on my own experience I think it will. When I lived in China, I have never read anything about the Dalai Lama or his teachings. All I knew was the offical line that he had fled Tibet in 1959 and was a separatist. After I moved to the United States and purely out of curiosity, I got hold of some books on him and his philosophy and read them. The experience was quite refreshing. For one thing, I learned the “other side” of the story that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to if I were still in China. But more importantly, I came to understand why he is so popular in the west.

In fact, his popularity is not based on advocating for the independence of Tibet. Rather, it’s based on promoting humanity, tolerance and self-cultivation. This is the core factor why he has a huge following in the west. Most people who pay money to listen to him or buy his books are attracted to his philosophy not to his politics. Also, as it turned out, reading those books didn’t convert me into a follower of him nor a supporter for Tibetan independence. It only gave me the knowledge to exercise independent thinking.

Knowledge is power. Back to the old days, Mao had once emphasized on the importance of being skeptical. Regardless of what he was referring to, skepticism may still be a value worth being promoted in today’s China because it’s the first step leading to knowledge, the real knowledge.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Harbinger of unrest?

The commotions arising from the Olympic torch relay and the negative comments made by CNN’s Jack Cafferty on the Chinese government might have culminated over the weekend with Chinese picketers lining up on the streets of Los Angeles and Atlanta demanding for the dismissal of Cafferty and simultaneous mass rallies held in a number of Chinese cities against the successful French supermarket chain Carrefour.

Both Cafferty and Carrefour became the convenient targets as they provided the perfect pretext for the protesters to lash out their anger - although in the case of Carrefour, their anger might have been misled because it was largely based on a rumor on the internet that one of the CEOs of Carrefour might have been a supporter of the Dalai Lama.

As the weekend whines down, no matter how much resentment still felt by the protesters, for the time being, large scale rallies may be coming to an end. One major factor behind this is that China, in view of the imminent danger that the boiling nationalism may easily turn inward and ignite protests against its own problems, has moved to cool down the “heat” by ordering online search engines to monitor and delete inflammatory posts and feeds and banning students from participating in any demonstrations against Carrefour. To the picketers living abroad, this means coordinations, support and media coverage from China will come to an end. The best option for them might be to claim victory yet refrain from going any further before the circumstance becomes clear. Although by and large they have failed to generate sympathy let alone support from the mainstream public in the west, they did manage to create the impressions that as if there has been a global outrage shared by all Chinese.

Still, the damage has been done and the consequences are yet to come.
For one thing, the west is again reminded of the ugly reality of blind nationalism that has been building steam for some time in China. The old memories of the attacks on US Embassy in Beijing and the riots against Japanese business interest in China become fresh again. Already, some foreigner who live in China have voiced concerns about their personal safety. All this will undoubtedly affect the public opinion in the west, diminish all the PR efforts made by the Chinese government and boost the validity of the so-called “China Threat” theory.

But more importantly, nationalism, if unchecked, may bring unrest to China itself. Given the rising gap between the rich and poor, the rampant corruptions and the conflicts erupted from land grabs, China may already be on the edge of having a new round of massive protests. All it needs is a spark, an excuse and nationalism can definitely be exploited for this purpose. This is why the Chinese government has taken precautionary measures to prevent such a thing from happening, but whether the measures are effective or not remains a question because Pro-Tibet, anti-China activists will unlikley go away and “patriotic” Chinese are also on alert looking for an opportunity to start the next round of battle.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Another country, another world...

"China isn't a country. It's another world." This was the first sentence that jumped into my eyes when I opened Fydor's China guide book.

But the same can be said about America - especially from the POV of those, like me, who are actually from the "other world" - China.

One life time, two decisively different worlds. This may summarize the story of my life. Yet as time goes by, I begin to see more and more similarities in these two universes. I'm not living in two secluded pieces of land. I'm more or less living in between the two worlds.

Is this because of globalization, or simply of the fact that the citizens of both America and China are the same human beings that whatever mighty force has created?

I'd like to find out more...