Saturday, November 14, 2009

Obama's Visit to China

U.S. president Barack Obama has begun his one week, four-country visit to Asia. That about half of that time will be spent in China is a measure of the importance of this bilateral relationship.

From the outset of his office, Obama dispensed with the customary China-bashing and immediately declared the need for a strong bilateral relation with China in order to tackle the many problems that confront the world, not least the economic downturn, climate change, nuclear proliferation, and counterterrorism.

The actions of his administration followed his rhetoric. His two Chinese American cabinet secretaries, Steven Chu (Energy) and Gary Locke (Commerce), were among the first high ranking officials to visit Beijing and began the dialogue on collaboration. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s first trip after taking office was to China, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has also made an official visit and Treasury Secretary Tom Geithner has been to China more than once.

Obama’s actions have brought results. China’s premier Wen Jiabao went to North Korea and came back to report that Pyongyang was ready to re-enter the six party talks, subject to the U.S. being willing to conduct direct bilateral discussions. In response the White House has announced the intention to send special envoy Stephen Bosworth to Pyongyang. This is a refreshing change from the unilateral approach of the previous Bush administration.

Recently Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission visited the U.S. hosted by Secretary Gates. As part of his 11-day visit, Xu was taken to sensitive military sites including the Strategic Command Headquarter in a show of desire for closer cooperation. The result was seven points of consensus that will serve as a blueprint for closer military cooperation and exchanges.

Beijing has been making a fuss over recent remarks by Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg relating to “strategic reassurance” between the parties as part of the road to closer partnership. China views this development as an elevation of the importance of the relationship. Zhou Wenzhong, China’s ambassador to Washington remarked that he has witnessed the bilateral tie evolving from one of frequent tensions to one of extensive cooperation.

In light of the warming bilateral relations, what can we expect out of Obama’s meetings with Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao in Beijing? They certainly have a lot to talk about. China would love to hear Obama declare unequivocally that Taiwan and Tibet are part of China. Obama probably would ask for more assurances on arms control and non-proliferation and more military transparency and cooperation.

While both sides profess to be against protectionism, China would want Obama’s assurance that he would not yield to the domestic protectionist pressures despite his declarations to the contrary. Obama would like China to strengthen the value of the Renminbi against the dollar. China might ask about the granting market economy status which China has received from over 90 countries; the status lessens trade disputes.

The most likely agreement to come out of Beijing, I believe, is some kind of declaration on climate change that would allow both nations to attend the December climate summit in Copenhagen with some appearance of a united front.

Most specific agreements take many working level bilateral meetings to hammer out the details. Unless these meetings have already been taking place, more specific announcements are unlikely to come from Obama’s visit. The most would be agreement on a working framework that would allow negotiations to proceed. Indeed, declaration for a framework for closer cooperation was the result of an April meeting between Obama and Hu Jintao which led to the subsequent series of positive developments.

The young people in Shanghai are excited by Obama’s plan to begin his China visit with an open town hall Q&A with them in the audience. Obama has been accorded rock star appeal among the youth of China “because he embodies the personality and character of a leader to whom young people feel they can relate to as opposed to some stern-faced Chinese officials they have learned to dread”—a quote from one of the Chinese commentators.

Bill Clinton made his greatest impact on China when he visited China after his presidency. On national TV, he put his arms around a young man afflicted with AIDS. This image changed China’s attitude about AIDS victims and Wen Jiabao was later seen shaking hands with AIDS patients.

Perhaps the greatest legacy from Obama’s visit is to turn the stern faces of Chinese officials into friendlier demeanors. The Chinese people would remember Obama for a long time if that change is to come about.

See edited version of this commentary in New America Media.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Uyghurs and China

Mr. Kasim Tuman, Council Member, Uyghur Association of America was one of the speakers at a seminar on "Ethnicity and Identity in Xinjiang" held at Stanford. My wife and I have been to Xinjiang, in particular to Kashgar where Mr. Tuman came from, and naturally we were interested in what he had to say.

I was struck by some of Mr. Tuman's statements. Since the forum did not offer an opportunity for a real dialogue and discussion, I thought I would offer some counterpoints and observations in response to what I heard.

Tuman said: The Uyghurs are not interested in mixing with the Chinese for fear of losing their cultural identity. They fear being assimilated by the Chinese culture.

My response would have been: Cultures are not static but dynamic and are subject to influences and stimulus especially from other neighboring cultures. Cultures that do not evolve and remain static become endangered and face extinction with time. The Xianbeis, one of many forefathers of the Uyghurs, used to rule northern China, known in Chinese history as the Northern Wei dynasty. They admired the Han Chinese culture so much that they adopted Chinese customs, language and many social and political practices. Indeed the Xianbeis did get assimilated and their own culture became lost to history. But I do not see anything unnatural about this outcome. If people no longer accept or willing to adopt certain cultural values and practices, that culture will fade away.

Cultures can also disappear on the point of the sword. Genghis Khan so thoroughly decimated the Tangut kingdom (Xixia in Chinese), another contributor to the Uyghur gene pool, that there is no trace of the Tangut culture remain. The meaning of their writing is lost as is their historical records. The propagation of Islam was also accomplished by military conquest as the religion spread from the Middle East westward to Spain and eastward to the Indonesian archipelago imposing the Islamic religion on the local people and replacing the previous ways of worship.

But use of force has not been how the Chinese culture has proliferated. Non-Chinese people adopted certain aspects of the Chinese culture that they found more appealing than their own. One can see evidence of the influence of Chinese culture in South Asia, Southeast Asia as well as Korea and Japan. These people were not forced to adopt Chinese manners and practices; they willingly did so.

In an attempt to distinguish the Chinese culture from the Uyghur, Mr. Tuman said that it is very much in the Chinese culture for the young people to study hard and strive to attend the best school and best university and to work hard and make a lot of money. This is not part of the Uyghur culture, he said, as the Uyghurs like to take life as it comes. He used a map from Wikipedia as a platform for his talk. I noticed from the same Wiki article, one of the characteristics attributed ancestors of Uyghurs was "they showed greed without restraint, for they often made their living by looting." Perhaps given that heritage, it is understandable why Mr. Tuman made that distinction between the Uyghur and the Chinese culture.

The map from Wikipedia showed a Uyghur Khaganate that at one moment in history spread from western part of today's Manchuria westward to nearly the Caspian Sea. Mr. Tuman seemed to imply that the Uyghur people has had a long continuous history since as early as 4th century AD. But a close reading of the Wiki article would reveal that there was no such continuity but the Uyghur state, when it existed at all, ebb and flowed with time. With mostly nomads as ancesters, it is understandable that continuity would have been difficult and any sort of ethnic purity and identity even more improbable.

On the one hand, Mr. Tumen assured the audience that the Uyghur culture is quite distinct and unique and no way related to the Chinese culture. On the other, he said that he has learned the value of cultural diversity since he came to the United States nine years ago. I believe China also recognized the value of diversity. Beijing government's policy is to allow the fifty plus ethnic minorities to teach their own language alongside putonghua in their schools and to enjoy certain levels of local autonomy in maintaining their daily lives and traditions. Of course, if the minority wish to succeed in a Chinese dominated economy, that person must also learn Chinese and understand how to operate in a Chinese society. This is no different from an ethnic minority living in America. That person can no more succeed in the U.S. if the person is unable or unwilling to communicate in English.

Mr. Tumen seemed to believe that in a democracy like the U.S., the Uyghur culture can thrive. Apparently he has not been in America long enough to understand what happened to the many different forms of native American cultures that have been obliterated by actual acts of genocide.

Mr. Tumen also stated that there are 20 million Uyghurs living outside China, implying that they were originally from China. This implication is most misleading. Uyghurs are not just native to the Xinjiang Automomous Region but also in nearby Central Asian countries. If there is a Uyghur diaspora of 20 million, somebody needs to clarify as to what portion have their roots in China and what portion from outside of China.

When we visited Xinjiang, we learned a little about the colorful Uyghur dress, beautifully crafted music instruments to accompany the Uyghur music and dance, Uyghur food and how Uyghur kids are raised. We were not there long enough to detect any racial tension or alienation. After visiting many parts of China with autonomous regions belonging to various enthinic minorities, we did get the impression that the Chinese government is trying hard to be a nation for all ethnicities. Go to here for further discussion of ethnic minorities in China.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Looming tension between India and China

Recent developments on the borders between China and India hint at rising tension between the two giants. Most reports and commentaries portray China as the aggressor and India as the aggrieved state defending its national interest. These developments will bear close monitoring in the months to come.

Most frequently, the cause of the border disputes is traced back to the border conflict fought between China and India in 1962, invariably portraying China as the aggressor. Foster Stockwell has kindly reminded us that a contrary assessment was provided by John Fairbank in 1971. Fairbank was an OSS operative during WWII and a highly respected professor of East Asian studies at Harvard University after the war. Excerpt of Professor Fairbank's commentary as provided by Stockwell is quoted below for the record.

How Aggressive is China?/ by John K. Fairbank, /The New York Review/, April 22, 1971 (pg. 6)

The border war was triggered when the Indians sent 2,500 troops, in summer uniforms and with only the equipment they could carry, across high passes north of the McMahon Line, with orders to assault Chinese bunkers that were heavily reinforced on the mountain ridges farther north. This truly suicidal project was denounced by some of the professional officers, who resigned on the spot, but was ordered by the political generals now in command. Supplying a post at 15,500 feet, for example, required a five-day climb by porters from the air strip, and on a ten-day round trip the porters could carry almost no payloads beyond what they needed for their own survival. Among 2,500 troops beyond the McMahon Line only two or three hundred had winter clothing and tents, and none had axes or digging tools, to say nothing of heavy guns and adequate ammunition. As ordered, they mounted a small attack, and the Chinese reacted and drove it back on October 10.

The Chinese reaction against the announced Indian buildup for an attack north of the McMahon Line initially produced in New Delhi not only the excitement of warfare but even euphoria. Chou En-lai’s proposal that everybody stop where they were and negotiate was again denounced as aggressive. Nehru said that China’s proposal “would mean mere existence at the mercy of an aggressive, arrogant and expansionist neighbor.” He began to accept American and British military aid as well as Russian. As Maxwell remarks, “It was almost forgotten that the Indian army had been about to take offensive action; ignored, that the government had refused to meet the Chinese for talks.” Meanwhile, after their initial reaction, the Chinese paused and built roads to supply their advanced positions, while the Indian forces were kept widely distributed in defenseless, small contingents, still in the belief that the Chinese would never dare to attack.

All this was resolved on November 17 when the Chinese did attack again and in three days overran or routed all the ill-supplied Indian forces in the field, east and west. Many brave Indian troops died at their posts and were found frozen there months later. India’s political generals behaved like headless chickens. The Indian defeat was complete. On November 21, l962, China announced a unilateral cease-fire and a withdrawal in the west by stages to positions twenty kilometers behind their lines of control and in the east to the north of the McMahon Line, so that they would hold essentially what they had been proposing for three years past.

But the Indian government, while accepting the cease-fire in fact, objected to the proposal publicly. Its forward policy was finished and two or three thousand Indian troops had been lost; but “no negotiations” was still the Indian policy “The border war, almost universally reported as an unprovoked Chinese invasion of India, had only confirmed the general impression that Peking pursued a reckless, chauvinistic and belligerent foreign policy.” China had won the match but India the verdict.

Inevitably Tibet will figure prominently in any conflict between China and India. Go to here for a comprehensive review of the issues on Tibet.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Now Obama has the Peace Prize Expectations to Live Up to

No doubt President Barrack Obama woke up with the biggest surprise of his life when he found out that he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Of course, he understood that the award was not for what he has done but for the vision of world peace he has been promoting.

The award could not be based on actual accomplishments since he was nominated in February, within days of his coming into office. He only had time to express his intentions that his administration will embark on a collaborative diplomacy in international relations; he could not have done much yet.

Apparently it was enough for the Peace Prize committee. They simply couldn't pass up the opportunity to repudiate the Bush doctrine of unilateralism and peace by shock and awe. By giving the prize to Obama, the message to the American people is clear: the neoconservative idea of hegemony over the world as the last superpower standing is no way to world peace.

Now comes the hard part. By the end of his term, Obama will have to show that he can deliver results commensurate with winning the Peace Prize. To be the world leader for peace, Obama will have to resolve a host of challenges facing him. It may not be obvious but China could be a big help to Obama in carrying out a world peace initiative.

North Korea is the first that comes to mind. After branding North Korea as part of axis of evil and antagonizing the hermit kingdom to no end, Obama's predecessor defaulted and left the relationship for China to bail out.

China's premier Wen Jiabao just made a high profile visit to Pyongyang. He returned to Beijing with the news that North Korea will agree to return to the six party talks provided a bilateral meeting with the United States takes place first. Bush never showed the inclination to give any slack to the North Koreans. It will be up to Obama to take a more flexible approach and break the deadlock.

China and the U.S. share a common interest in preventing a nuclear Iran but China will not agree to economic sanctions or even more extreme action, such as embargo, because China depends on Iran for oil. Since sanctions rarely work especially when many of the European allies will also not support such sanctions, Obama will be better served by quietly conferring with China for a viable non-confrontational approach to Iran that both can buy-in.

Al Qaeda has just declared jihad on China. This puts China and the U.S. in the same boat in desiring to suppress terrorism. Pakistan is strategically positioned to either help defeat the Taliban or allow the Taliban to thrive and once again overrun Afghanistan. Here too China enjoys a long relationship with Pakistan, and not nearly as ambivalent as Pakistan's love-hate relationship with the U.S. For the U.S. and China to work together would surely be more productive than the impasse currently facing the U.S.

The recent global financial crisis amply demonstrated that the economic interests of China and the U.S. are tightly bound. One cannot win at the expense of the other. Instead, officials from both sides are meeting frequently and have acknowledged their common interest and desire to solve challenges of global warming and willingness to cooperate on energy and environmental concerns.

Enlisting China to work on world peace is a logical extension of the current bi-lateral relationship. China is unlikely to be of much help on the Israeli-Palestinian question and extricating the Americans out of Iraq, but by taking on China as a full and equal partner, Obama will have a valuable ally to shoulder some of the other burden. He would increase his chance of reporting to the Peace Prize committee that the award is deserved.
An edited version is published by New America Media.
A partial translation of the New America Media version was published in the Chinese World Journal, (世界日报)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Is China the next superpower?

    China has just concluded a national celebration widely seen live on TV and for days afterwards on CCTV website. The scope and grandeur of the parade down the Avenue of Eternal Peace (Chang An Jie) left on-site spectators breathless, most foreign observers impressed and the people of China excited and proud.

    The message seems to be that China has arrived as a nation to be reckoned with. Indeed since the successful rendering of the Olympics in August 2008, there has been a stream of increasingly positive commentaries in the West suggesting that China has arrived.

    Some pundits in the West have gone so far as to suggest that China will soon eclipse the U.S. and become the sole hegemonic nation standing. Have these sentiments perhaps exceeded reality?

    Certainly plaudits are coming from many directions.

    China seems to have survived the global economic downturn in far better shape than anyone else. While all the major economies followed the American lead and suffered a drop in GDP, China merely grew less rapidly than before.

    When American consumers were abruptly confronted with their looming debt and stopped buying, China's economy with its export driven dependency was expected to suffer terrible withdrawal. But China's economy turned out to be more resilient than the West anticipated.

    China not only managed to stay out of the economic recession but very skillfully used the economic stimulus package to ward off economic decline. It seemed every dollar for the stimulus actually did just that and not for the purpose of bailing out sick banks and resuscitating auto industry on life support.

    As China grew its economy at breakneck speed, China has surpassed the U.S. as the largest emitter of green house gases. Now it appears that China has also seized the leadership from the U.S. in efforts to rectify the environmental damage and set the country on to the path of going green.

    International relations observers have reported on China's increase in use of soft power and broadening its influence in the international arena, especially in Africa and Latin America. Not only China seems to be acting as a "responsible stakeholder," but exercising effective leadership with much of the third world nations.

    After eight years of demanding American unilateralism, the world welcomes China's diplomacy as a much needed breath of fresh air.

    A longtime China watcher recently observed that unless the U.S. gets it act together, it will become increasingly obvious that democratic capitalism cannot compete with today's China.

    So does this mean that China is ready to take over the world leadership from the U.S.? Many in China's blogosphere seem quite ready to accept this idea. I think it is quite premature. China's GDP is merely one-third of the U.S. and per capita GDP less than one-tenth. Furthermore, China's military might is technologically at least one generation or more behind the U.S.

    China also has yet to develop that aura of a superpower that the U.S. once carried with aplomb. It is something that I would call the dafang-ness of a great power. After WWII, the U.S. had this dafang attribute. America was generous to its friends and former foes, confidently led by example rather than by hectoring and built a political and economic system that others admire and aspired to.

    Since September 11, America basically rejected its former set of values and degenerated into unilateralism internationally and pettiness domestically. While the new administration led by Obama is trying to regain the prestige U.S. used to enjoy, whether he will be able to bring about the change remains to be seen.

    China on the other hand has yet to assume the swagger and confidence of a superpower that win reflexive trust from the international community. Some of the resistance can be attributed to China's detractors living outside of China. Their noisy and visible protests, such as the globe circling Dalai Lama, can exert influence that China has to overcome.

    More importantly China's leadership has not reached the level of self-confidence that they can institute a policy of transparency and openness. Beijing has been moving in that direction but they are not there yet. The world needs to see how policies are made and decisions formulated. The world needs to understand actions or inactions that China undertakes.

    The day China can absorb criticisms, fairly rendered or not, with equanimity and welcomes the critic to visit China for further discourse is when China becomes the next superpower.
An edited version was published by New America Media.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Chen Shui Bian's latest gambit

Certainly we can hardly accuse convicted felon and Taiwan's former president, Chen Shui-bian, for lack of imagination. His latest gambit for getting out of jail is to sue the United States and as part of the lawsuit, he has generously offered to come to Washington to testify on his own behalf--presumably at his own expense.

One can no doubt read about the basis of his suit in a number of places. SCMP is but one of them.

As one analysis from Taiwan pointed out the obvious,

What President Chen wants is to create a smokescreen under which he can get out of Tucheng, where he has been held since December 30 last year.

In another story,
Tsai Ing-wen, chairwoman of the Democratic Progressive Party, said: "The DPP demands that the ex-president is swiftly released so that he is able to defend himself freely."

I met Ms. Tsai in 2001 as a member of the Committee of 100 delegation. At the time, she was a member of Chen's cabinet in charge of the cross straits relations. Chen was still in his "four no's and one don't have" mode and his true colors about Taiwan and China were still well hidden from view.

Educated in the U.S. and U.K., Tsai came across as a highly intelligent woman, all the more puzzling to us then as to why she was so thickheaded over any interest in warming the relations with the mainland, which ostensibly was her portfolio.

In retrospect, of course, it was obvious that she was following her boss' orders. But today she is the head of DPP and Chen has been drummed out of the party upon his conviction. Tsai has ample justification to distant herself and her party from Chen and thus disavow any connection to the corrupt practices of Chen's regime.

Why Tsai would continue to come to Chen's defense is open to speculation. A PhD recipient from London School of Economics, she surely has to appreciate the economic basket case that Taiwan became because of Chen's malfeasance. Surely it could not be admiration as cause of her continued loyalty.

Is it her desire not to offend the small group of Chen's adherents who continue to protest his innocence? Is it, heavens forbid, some linkage from Chen's hidden millions and to possible future financing of DPP activities? Perhaps time will tell us.

Chen desperately wanted to be out of jail. In order to help his own defense, he claimed. But while in jail, he had done all he can to impede his own attorney preparation of his defense. Realizing that he had no legitimate defense, it seemed his gambit then was to be as theatrically ludicrous as possible. Filing a lawsuit against the United States is his latest attempt along these lines.

In the meantime, prosecution is continuing to press new charges on Chen. This circus is not going to fold its big tent for years to come.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The never ending story of Taiwan's Chen Shui Bian

Taiwan’s first opposition leader to be elected president, Chen Shui-bian, has just become the first to be convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for graft, corruption, embezzlement, money laundering and perjury.

His wife, Wu Shu-chen was also sentenced to jail for the rest of her life on similar charges. According to the prosecution, she knew more about money laundering than most drug cartels. Under her management, illicit funds were routinely moved up to 20 times to disguise the origin.

Many observers of Taiwan are surprised that Chen has come so far in this debacle. Most expected Chen and his family to have long flown the coop for safe havens where millions in cache are waiting for him.

Shih Ming-teh can only express sorrow over the outcome that has befallen his friend and former comrade-in-arms. Shih was one time leader of Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) who spent 25 years in jail under the Kuomingtang regime. He was one of Chen’s early supporters when Chen first ran for presidency in 2000.

In 2006, Shih launched a massive protest against Chen’s blatant misconduct. Over 200,000 people in Taipei held a candle light vigil outside of the presidential palace demanding that Chen resign from office. Instead, Chen withstood the public’s withering voice of disapproval and stayed in office until the end of his term in 2008.

After the court’s decision of life imprisonment was handed down on September 11, Shih publicly expressed regret that Chen did not step down when he had the chance. Had he resigned under public pressure, Chen could have quietly left Taiwan and all the sordid details would not need to see the light of day and thus save Taiwan from having to contend with the embarrassing blot in its young venture into democracy.

Perhaps it was hubris that caused Chen and his first family not to take their ill gotten gains and run. He probably did not expect to be held in detention once he was arrested—ironically, on the grounds of flight risk—so that leaving Taiwan under the cover of darkness was no longer an option.

Instead Chen devoted his time in jail to making a mockery of Taiwan’s judiciary system. He went on periodic but highly publicized hunger strikes. He wrote books proclaiming his innocence. He and his wife selectively came up with reasons not to appear in court to disrupt proceedings whenever possible. He found fault with his attorneys and lambasted the judges.

Chen disowned any knowledge of the irregular financial dealings but accepted responsibility for not keeping track of what his family did.

Most incredulous of all, Chen proclaimed that he was railroaded by the long arms of Beijing complicit with the KMT as a pay-back for his pro independence stance while in office. He provided no evidence to support his contention. Instead his faithful long-time assistant gave chapter and verse on how he and the first family arm twisted Taiwan’s scions for millions and squeezed nickels and dimes out of every falsified expense receipt.

When Lee Teng-hui, the first native born Taiwanese to become president, came to the end of his term of office, he engineered a split among the KMT which enabled Chen to win his first term with less than 40% of the votes cast. Chen then won a squeaker of re-election with the help of a miraculous assassination attempt on election eve. The home made bullet grazed his stomach but more importantly netted enough sympathy votes to put him over the top.

By the second term, it was obvious to Lee that Chen was more interested in adding to his personal wealth than in governance of Taiwan. Although both men shared the same desire of separating Taiwan from China, Lee publicly criticized the “son of Taiwan” as the “shame of Taiwan.”

The sentence of life imprisonment is, of course, not the end of the story on Chen and the former first family. His case will be contested in successive courts of justice until it reaches Taiwan's highest court. A drawn out process could take the next 5 years and Chen’s misdeeds will be on display repeatedly before the people of Taiwan. Like fermented tofu, the salacious details are likely to ripen with further investigation and as more are willing to come forward to testify.

Chen began his presidency pledging clean government. Instead, everything was for sale--including another star for generals desiring a promotion. As his case, including new charges still pending, winds through Taiwan’s judiciary system, Taiwan will be reminded of his misconduct and his family’s involvement for years to come.

DPP, Chen’s old party, is in a quandary. A small but vocal group continues to insist on Chen’s innocence, convictions notwithstanding. Their defense of Chen is to attack the legitimacy of Taiwan’s rule of law and cast suspicion by accusing the current government of collusion with the mainland. Unable to unite in face of these noisy demonstrations, DPP is in disarray. The challenge for the people of Taiwan is to keep the disarray contained and not spread and infect the entire island.
Read a polished version in New America Media.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Who is an Ethnic Chinese Anyway?

As David Henry Hwang tells it in his latest award winning play, Yellow Face, Hollywood has for years, up to today, freely portrayed Asians with Caucasian actors abetted by yellow make-up and perhaps artificially slanted eyes with or without buck teeth.

Some of the most accomplished actors and actresses had been cast in Asian roles as if such credits in their repertoire further burnish their credentials. Luminaries that underwent the Heath Ledger/Joker transformation of their days included Loretta Young, Katharine Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Marlon Brando, Alec Guinness, Linda Hunt and Leonard Nimoy.

The reverse has yet to happen in Hollywood, i.e., using an Asian actor to play a white character, whether in earnest or in caricature. Hwang’s point seems to be that in a Hollywood where all Asians look alike and any white can play the role, getting an Asian to play an Asian character is already a win against industry practice.

The one time I saw a quid pro quo, i.e., Asians portraying Caucasians, was a production of Mozart’s Figaro in Beijing. The Chinese actors and actresses did not disguise their blond wigs and big false noses. They also did not use pasty white make-up. Most productions in China, however, seem to be able find white actors to play white roles.

It used to be, ironically, that in China only the Han Chinese were considered “real” Chinese. All the other ethnic groups were generically lumped as fan, meaning that these people were less cultured perhaps even barbarians. In their own condescending way, the Chinese used to consider all foreigners as barbarians. When Lord McCartney, King George’s emissary, kneel before Emperor Qianlong instead of the customary kowtow, it was considered a magnanimous gesture by Qianlong.

Indeed there was some basis to justify such chauvinism. Throughout the centuries, China has often been invaded by nomadic tribes along its northern border, sometimes even totally occupied by non-Han nationalities. The Yuan dynasty founded by Mongols (13th century AD) and Qing dynasty by Manchus (17th century AD) were two examples in China’s relatively recent history.

Inevitably, the invaders took on Chinese customs, ceremony, beliefs and values. They inter-married with the local population and in a matter of few generations would lose their original ethnic identity and became Chinese.

In the 4th to 6th centuries AD, northern China was dominated by Xianbei people. One tribe even founded the northern Wei dynasty with its seat at Datong and ruled for nearly 200 years. Today there is plenty of physical evidence of their existence but there is nobody known as Xianbei anymore. The Xianbeis along with many other ethnic groups that came to China were assimilated and absorbed.

In addition to marauders that came to plunder, people from Persia, Central Asia, Middle East and beyond came to China to trade. Still others in neighboring countries such Korea, Japan, Vietnam and other parts of Asia came to study. Along with the historic ebb and flow of imperial China’s boundaries with Korea, Vietnam, Mongolia and ethnic Miaos and Tibetans, it would be hard to conceive of a Chinese gene pool undisturbed by periodic infusions.

Today’s China has identified 56 separate ethnic groups living inside China with Han Chinese make up nearly 92%. The Beijing government has shed the historical biases and considers all of them equally as Chinese. Some policies are even tilted in favor of non-Han Chinese such as permission to have more than one child and assistance in access to education.

It doesn’t make any sense to me to make a distinction between Hans and other people of China. Unless the ethnic minorities are dressed in their colorful traditional native costumes, it would be a challenge, for the most part, to tell a Han apart from a non Han Chinese. Intuitively I believe there are as much genetic variation among the Hans as there are between the Hans and other ethnic minorities in China.

The Chinese civilization has been a long and enduring one. Its richness attracts many ethnic groups and nationalities. Its cultural values are so strong that China has repeatedly assimilated its invaders and conquerors. I believe this is a hidden strength not widely recognized. Namely, China has been able to continuously renew its vitality by absorbing the inflow of new people and new blood.

In this respect, China and America are very much alike. America has been a land of opportunity that has attracted many from all over the world and thus allows the American society to retain its vigor and continue its spirit of innovation.

Hwang’s play, it seems to me, is another expression celebrating the diversity in America.
Yellow Face is currently being presented by TheatreWorks of Silicon Valley at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center through September 20. See an edited version of this preview in New America Media.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tibet as a tourist destination

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the fifth and last in the series for my blog from this trip.

Now that Lhasa can be reached by plane or by train and highways run across Tibet to the borders with Nepal and India, Tibet is significantly more accessible than ever before. There is real prospect of Tibet becoming a popular destination for the mainstream tourists around the world.

And why not?
Tibet offers spectacular natural scenery with breath taking views of mountains, glaciers, lakes and canyons. Tibet also has its share of world heritage sites, a long history and culture that intrigues most people in the West and attractive indigenous arts and crafts almost unique to Tibet.

However, as Tibet becomes a more common tourist destination, surely those that fantasize about finding Shangri-la in Tibet will object. Similarly those that come to the Tibetan plateaus in search of their personal spiritual high may get upset at finding more concrete than straw and mud, more electrical lights than yak butter lamps, more cars than donkey carts, and more tourists than believers.

In reality, Tibet is sparsely populated. There are plenty of hidden valleys waiting to be “discovered” as someone’s personal Shangri-la and lonely mountain tops for those desiring a spiritual encounter of a special kind. Driving along the highways, I noticed signs to other monasteries that we and, I suspect, most run of the mill touring groups did not visit. Perhaps those more remote holy places would offer the spiritual experience of more substance to those seeking such solace.

Furthermore, Tibet has a long ways to go before it is overrun with international travelers. Let’s start with the train system that runs on the roof of the world. Other than the ability to provide oxygen on demand, the equipment is disappointingly ordinary, not commensurate with the technological breakthrough of the railroad. Lacking are glass-domed observation cars where first class passengers can lounge, have a drink or meal and enjoy the vistas. There is nothing to suggest that this is a special ride.

The service on the train is somewhat more slovenly than regular trains that run at lower altitudes. The dining car is under capacity relative to demand and not particularly high on hygiene standards. Worst of all, the demand for soft sleeping berths exceeds supply. The shortage of soft berths can be easily rectified by adding more cars with sleeping compartments along with a computer system that would assure selling every berth along the route.

The Ministry of Railway has yet to introduce such a reservation system but has continued to rely on the archaic allocation of sleeping berths at the station of origination. For example, in order to ensure that our group of 20 would be able to board the same train departing from Xining, our travel service had to buy the tickets from Beijing, where the train originated. This meant that 5 sleeping compartments were unoccupied for the 24 hours from Beijing to Xining, accompanied only by the travel service representative who went to Beijing to buy the tickets and bring them back to Xining for us.

The other alternative was for the travel service to buy the tickets in the black market, but there would be no assurance of buying the full block to ensure that our group stays together. Since none of the 5 trains that go to Lhasa via Xining originate from Xining, it meant the necessity of buying tickets for phantom legs or dealing with huang niu, scalpers who are thriving as illegal intermediaries.

While Beijing made great strides to raise the standard of public toilets just prior to the 2008 Olympics, the improvements have not found Tibet. Except for certain hotel facilities, most public toilets are primitive and smelly. The toilets at the monasteries are particularly bad; they smell, well, to high heaven. Smelly toilets will deter many from coming to Tibet.

Lastly, Tibet is not fully prepared for tourists. In cities such as Lhasa and Xigaze, there should be tourist information centers to provide maps and suggestions of tourist related activity. We did not see any such offices. We saw plenty of soldiers and policemen guarding key intersections and major edifices. Clearly, at this point in Tibet’s development, security considerations trump tourism.

Tibet is also not everybody’s cup of tea from a physical point of view. A visit to Tibet means spending most of the time at altitudes from 12,000 to 16,000 ft. There is no way to predict who will feel severe discomfort at such heights but those who have experienced elevation sickness at lower altitudes definitely should not go to Tibet.
Colorful apartments above the nunnery shop in old Lhasa.

Debating monk at the Sera Monastery in Lhasa

White yaks grazing when not working as photo stops

The receding Kharola Glacier due to global warming

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The People of Tibet

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the fourth in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Before I went to Tibet, my stereotypical image of Tibetans was that they were sun-baked brown with leathery and wrinkled skin that made them look much older than their actual age. Now, having been to Tibet, I come to realize that Tibetans can have a complexion as fine and fair as any other ethnic Asians. This was particularly true of young Tibetans living in the cities and made a practice of avoiding the sun.
A charming roadside vendor with gold teeth

While it is not possible to develop a deep understanding of the Tibetan psyche in a short visit, I can offer some of the vignettes of our encounters with the people in Tibet that suggest a kind of innocence that is second nature to the Tibetans.

While leading a bus load of American tourists to the next attraction, our Tibetan tour guide was asked the question, “Where would you like to go as your first trip abroad?” His quick reply was Nepal and India because being a devout Buddhist, he would like to visit places where the religion originated--just quick candor and no hesitation not even some tactful passing reference about America.

At the lookout for the Yamdrok Lake, a Tibetan woman selling trinkets and souvenirs walked up to my daughter saying to her, “You are beautiful. I want to give you a necklace because I want to be your friend.” The Tibetan woman did not want anything in return and did not ask my daughter to buy anything from her. She settled for seeing a digital photo taken of the two of them. Everybody in our group agreed that it was a real positive experience.

At a roadside stop, my sister and a seller of souvenirs started negotiations for a bunch of Tibetan necklaces. The negotiations were interrupted by lunch being served and my sister paid the agreed price for nine of them, but she really wanted ten. Later as lunch was winding down, the Tibetan woman vendor came back and gave my sister one more necklace as a gesture of goodwill.

We stopped at a village by the highway to take pictures of typical Tibetan homes. These homes consisted of a courtyard, full of their domesticated animals, next to the first floor, used as the barn for those animals and the second floor, brightly trimmed in green and orange, as their own living quarters. The dogs in the village did not like us and barked unceasingly but the villagers smiled, beckoned to us and invited us to step in for a closer look.

Of course, I am not suggesting that the Tibetan people are naïve and being taken advantage of by the rapacious tourists. Far from it. The Tibetan vendors at Barkhor district and roadside stands were skilled negotiators and quite capable of getting their price while at the same time letting the tourist feel that she has gotten the best possible deal.

At the lookout for Yamdrok Lake, young Tibetan men were aggressively pushing tourists away from the stone tablet marker with the name of the lake and the elevation. This was the kind of location where tourists love to take a souvenir photo. Here they weren’t allowed to unless they agreed to pay the young men 5 RMB for a photo fee. Since the stone tablet look official and not apparently privately owned, the young men’s bullying tactics dampened the appeal of that scenic stop.

Will increasing contact with outside visitors from all over the world alter the gentle nature of the Tibetan personality? I suspect most likely not. I believe the Tibetan personality is deeply rooted in their devotion to Buddhism and that is unlikely to change much in the foreseeable future.

Worshippers visiting Tashilunpo in Xigaze

Monday, July 20, 2009

Tibet's Changing Values

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the third in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

It’s not possible to walk by the imposing Potala Palace in Lhasa and not be awestruck by the structure, rising to majestic heights in a background of blue sky and billowing white clouds. From the visit by Francis Younghusband over a century ago to now, the palace has not changed but the foreground has.

Potala used to sit amidst mud hovel and surrounded by smelly squalor. Now it towers over a broad boulevard and a huge square in the tradition of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, except in Lhasa the square is ringed with potted flowers. Most visitors will inevitably stop at the square for their souvenir photo with the palace as background.

Some observers might say this is Tibet modernizing and making progress to join the rest of the world. Others think this is cultural genocide.

The Central Government in Beijing has lavished billions to build up the infrastructure inside Tibet. In addition to the railroad on the roof of the world, at an altitude impossible to be built according to experts in the West, highways now criss-cross Tibet linking this region to rest of China.

Just a mere three years ago, a trip over the pass to see Yamdrok Lake and transit through Gyantze to get to Xigaze would have required riding an all-terrain vehicle over bone jarring mud tracks and an overnight stay at Gyantze. Now with a newly paved highway 307, the drive took less than a day.

Before the liberation of Tibet from theocratic rule, the nearest trading partner was India. From Gyantze, the nearest town to the border of India, the Tibetan trader would mount up and take 15 days to get to India and 15 days to get back. Today, Tibetans no longer get their tea from Darjeeling but from Yunnan and elsewhere within China and it doesn’t take a month to bring the shipment in.

In every village we drove by, the best looking building in the village was invariably the government funded primary school. Of course in the old days, the lords of the land never felt the need to educate the peasants and such a building was not necessary and did not exist.

On the western side of the pass on 307, we passed a man-made reservoir, built about a decade ago to capture the glacier run-off which feed an irrigation system for the farm lands below. Many farmers in addition to raising crops had built plastic film covered green houses to grow vegetables which they sold to nearby cities.

A fortress on top of a steep hill dominated the valley around Gyantse. An aristocratic family used to live in that fortress until 1959, now a museum and landmark of the city. If the valley was still controlled by the lord in the fortress, there would be no irrigation ditches, no green houses and the farmers would have remained peasants with no incentives.

The monument in front of the fortress commemorates the heroic (and tragic) resistance of Tibetans against the British incursion of 1904.

Within the commanding view of the fortress is the Palkor Temple built by the first Panchen Lama in 1418. One of the side chapel connected to the main temple contains a breathtakingly beautiful collection of clay statues of abbots, revered monks and famed scholars of Buddhism from far and wide including some from Bangladesh and India.

Except for the main temple and the great white pagoda containing 108 shrines, much of the Palkor complex was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. As our guide explained, the extent of destruction during the Cultural Revolution was quite uneven in Tibet and dependent on the cooperation and participation of local Red Guards.

The ringleaders came from the mainland but they needed local complicity to know where the targets were located and local volunteers to help with the destruction. In places where they were rebuffed by the local denizens, they left and went elsewhere for easier objectives.

At Palkor, much of the complex still lay in ruins. Elsewhere such as the Potala Palace, Jokhang, Drepung and Sera Monasteries and Norbulinka in Lhasa and the Tashilunpo Monastery in Xigaze, the tourist can see the restoration and maintenance work going on but would be hard pressed to distinguish recovery efforts from the revolution to routine maintenance from age.

In the past, the monasteries owned the land surrounding them and the peasants were at best tenant farmers. Today, the monasteries are profitable selling traditional medicine, Buddhist souvenirs, rights to photography inside the temples and unending stream of donations from the believers.

Devout worshippers visit these monasteries clutching stacks of one jiao bills (worth one tenth of a yuan and about 1.5 cents U.S.) which they stuff in front of Thankas, Buddhas, and anything else they consider holy that can help them in this and next life. These pennies can add up.

What we didn’t see in our tour was a Buddhist equivalent of the Catholic Charities, organized to help the indigent. Apparently, the mission of the monasteries is to help the people attain enlightenment but nothing to help them ease the temporal pains and physical needs.

So the lives of Tibetans are changing. They are getting educated and have more control of their livelihood. More of them may settle for promenading around the Potala holding prayer wheels rather than the three-step then full prostration march. But the Tibetans remain deeply devoted Buddhists and the feudal mindset that put themselves in the hapless class will take a long time to wear off.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tibet Today

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the second in the series for my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Arriving in Lhasa by train, a quick first impression would be that Lhasa seemed like another modern city in China. Look at Lhasa a little more closely and one then sees that it is not exactly another Chinese city. Being a recently built city, the streets were wide and cleaner than most cities on the mainland. All the billboards and storefront signs were bilingual, in hanzi and in Tibetan script in place of pinyin.

Tibetan people in colorful garb walked, clockwise around objects of veneration, such as a temple, all the while spinning a prayer wheel held in their hands. Every once in a while, we would see some Tibetans clap three times, take three steps and prostrate themselves in full stretch on the ground and then getting up to repeat the process.

We were told by our guide, a Tibetan, that 30% of the population of 2.8 million lived in the urban area, another 30% lived in the countryside as farmers and the remaining 40% has continued to live according to their nomadic tradition. As we drove through the Tibetan countryside, we can see that lives of at least 60% of the (non-nomadic) lives of ordinary Tibetans have materially improved from the feudal days.

Those living in the cities are participating in a booming economy, our multilingual tour guide being one example. As Lhasa, Shigatse and other cities become increasingly popular tourist destinations, a boom in the hospitality industry has followed. As more tourists come, demand for restaurants and native handicraft also increased.

Jobs are also created by the infrastructure investments made by the central government. We saw early efforts underway to lay a second track connecting Lhasa and Xining in Qinghai. National Highway 109 begins from Beijing and runs over 3700 km to Lhasa. National Highway 318 runs from Shanghai through Lhasa to the border, over 5400 km in length. Road crews are constantly maintaining and repairing these and other highways in Tibet.

As we drove to Xigaze on the newly paved NH 307, a trip that took two days only 5 years ago now took less than one, we saw lush farms fed by a well coordinated system of irrigation ditches. Many newly built homes in these villages along the road side testified to evidence of new wealth.

Would the people of Tibet welcome Dalai Lama back, I asked. Yes, most of the Tibetans would welcome him back as the spiritual leader but not as the secular leader, our guide said. “Because we fully understand that if the Dalai Lama becomes the leader of our government again, our standard of living would take a big step backwards.”

For two reasons, he went to say. Tibet’s economy is weak and not self-sustaining. More than half of Tibet’s operating budget comes from the central government. If the Dalai Lama takes over, the subsidy is likely to go away. More importantly, about 70% of Tibet’s aristocrats fled to India with the Dalai Lama. These followers want nothing more than to revert to the feudal days when they owned everything. While such a reversion is unlikely after so many years, just the tension could wreak havoc on the Tibetan society.

Here is the dilemma of modern Tibet as I see it. The Dalai Lama is just one person, albeit first among them. Even if he wants moderation and willing to give up claims to secular rule, his followers are unlikely to let him do so. They have lost too much in leaving Tibet and seeing former serfs and slaves thrive and becoming financially independent.

Beijing also has a problem. When Beijing interjected itself in the selection of the next Panchen Lama, most Tibetans are skeptical of the legitimacy of this selection. The 11th Panchen Lama is only 19. It remains to be seen whether he can win the hearts of the Tibetan people with time. The popularity of the 10th was damaged by the perception that he collaborated with the Beijing government. He died in 1989.

Beijing also has to deal with a perception and education problem. Most Tibetans born after 1959 have only a vague to no idea of what life was like under a theocratic rule. Without knowledge of Tibet’s past, some now believe they could do even better by themselves without the Han Chinese presence. This is still a minority voice but is being fed by resentment over the evident success of roadside restaurants and stalls all seemingly owned and run by the Han Chinese from neighboring Sichuan province.

The aforementioned 60% of Tibetans now appreciates the value of education and sees a good education as the ticket to a better life. Beijing’s challenge is figuring out how to reach the 40% nomads roaming in Tibet and get them to join the mainstream economy. Our guide told us that the government has been building permanent dwellings for them and encouraging them to live in a permanent base. Thus the percent of nomads is expected to decline, albeit gradually.

The future of Tibet is clouded with uncertainties. Beijing is not going to negotiate with Dalai Lama unless he is willing to renounce his right to rule. He can’t renounce because his followers of aristocrats won’t let him. The impasse might not be broken until he passes on. Then the Beijing anointed Panchen Lama will help find the 15th Dalai Lama and selling that candidate to the people of Tibet—a huge undertaking of uncertain outcome.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Buddhism in Tibet

A group of us has just returned from an 11-day trip to China's Qinghai and Tibet. This is the first of my blog on what I learned from this trip.

Buddhism was introduced to Tibet in the 7th century AD (some say earlier but that would spoil this story) when the great king of the Tubo kingdom, Songtsen Gampo united what was then the territory of Tibetan influence. As gestures of goodwill (or appeasement depending on your point of view), the kings of Nepal and Tang China sent their daughters to become consorts to the great king.

This 33rd king of Tubo did more than marry two princesses in addition to his principal wife of ethnic Tibetan origin. He was a military genius, ordered the creation of the Tibetan language in written form, began the construction that was to become the Potala Palace, among many other worthy undertakings.

Princess Wencheng, daughter of Li Shimin, himself one of the great Tang emperors in China’s history, brought with her a sacred statue of Buddha said to have been made in celestial heaven and resided there for many years before being sent down to earth. I don’t have the full story of how the statue ended up in Li Shimin’s hands or why he would willingly give it up, but this statue is on display in the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa.

Of course from Tibetan’s point of view, they can’t simply give Wencheng and China all the credit for introducing Buddhism to Tibet but gave partial credit to the beautiful princess from Nepal in influencing the great king to accept Buddhism. After all, the religion originated from Nepal.

All religions take on local flavor in part to ensure more ready acceptance by the indigenous population. It was no different with Buddhism in Tibet where much of the beliefs of Bon was incorporated into the rituals. Bon based on animism was the dominant religion before being supplanted by Buddhism which in Tibet was more commonly referred to as Lamaism to distinguish from other forms of Buddhism elsewhere. “Lama” is the Tibetan term for monk.

Ironically, while Songtsen Gampo, the 33rd king of the Tubo kingdom introduced Buddhism to Tibet, the 42nd and last king wanted to revert to Bon and he was assassinated by a monk. The lesser wife bore the king a son but had to contend with the senior wife who adopted a son to bolster her legitimacy. A bitter squabble ended inconclusively. Thus ended the continuous lineage of Tibetan kings and the kingdom fell into disarray from the 9th to the 11th century.

In the 17th century, the 5th Dalai Lama was invited to the court of the first emperor of the Qing dynasty where he was conferred the official title of Dalai Lama and granted the right to become the titular ruler of Tibet. Up to then, the Dalai Lama was merely the head of the yellow hat sect, which was founded in the 16th century and was a new comer and a minor sect compared to the other three major sects in Tibet at the time. Since then, thanks to the appointment by the emperor in Beijing, the yellow sect has flourished and today makes up perhaps 60% of all the Tibetan followers.

The practice of identifying the reincarnate of the deceased Dalai Lama as the successor and next ruler began with the 4th Dalai Lama who was attributed as the reincarnation of the 3rd. The 1st and 2nd were not part of the cycle and were apparently retrospectively revered for their learnedness and holiness.

With increasing wealth and power, the selection of the successor to the deceased Dalai Lamas became increasing crucial and a bone of contention. In fact the death of the 9th Dalai Lama even before he reached puberty, a suspected victim of poison, may have been because of violent disagreement among members of the “selection committee.”

Typically, the new Dalai Lama was selected at a very young age and then tutored intensively in preparation for the day when he will take over. In the meantime, a regent was appointed to rule in his place until he reached the age of majority at 18. It was undoubtedly tempting for some regents to hold onto the power a little longer by sending the young Dalai Lama on to reincarnation before his time.

Another indication of the risk involved in becoming the Dalai Lama is that while we are at the 14th of Dalai Lama, we are only at the 11th Panchen Lama. Since both exalted holy lamas were accorded their exalted titles at about the same time, the life expectancy of the Panchen Lama appeared to be longer than that of the Dalai lama.

It remained for Qianlong, emperor of Qing dynasty, to settle the dispute among various factions by establishing and formalizing on a procedure for the identification and selection of the reincarnate of the late Dalai Lama. The golden jar used to draw lots to help choose from among the finalists was on display in the Tibet Museum in Lhasa, another said to be Beijing at the Lama Temple. So you see, there is historical precedence for Beijing to take a hand in settling the domestic affairs of Tibet.

A tour of Potala Palace, even when limited by one hour per tour group during the tourist high season, can be quite revealing. We saw many statues and stupas (our guide called them tomb pagodas) made of solid gold. The 5th and the 13th were consider the greatest of the deceased Dalai Lamas. The stupa for the 5th weighed nearly 4 metric tons of solid gold. The 13th was so revered that his stupa was unveiled for public viewing only once every year. We were not there on that lucky day but were told that his stupa was as magnificent as the 5th. Perhaps a coincidence, they were the only two Dalai Lamas that wore a mustache during their time on earth.

By my seat of the pants estimate, there are easily 20 to 30 tons of gold sitting just in the Potala Palace. I felt indelicate to ask as to exactly how much gold there is in Potala but I did ask our guide as to where all that gold came from. We mined for our gold, he said, Tibet is rich in natural resources.

Good thing, I thought, the Spaniards did not hear about the gold of Tibet. They could have sacked Tibet the way they did in Mexico and Peru--which brings up the story of speculation as to why the 13th Dalai Lama is so revered by the Tibetans.

In 1904, the 13th led the Tibetans against the incursion of the British expeditionary force led by Francis Younghusband outside of Gyantse. The Tibetans had no concept of the destructive powers of modern weapons such as the machine gun. A tragic massacre ensued which gave Younghusband the pretext needed to march on to Lhasa. (Apparently the 13th was not there in person, he had removed himself to outer Mongolia out of harm’s way.)

A typical unequal treaty was the result, but even the British government felt repelled by the one-sided circumstances and the massacre of Tibetans needed for Younghusband to bring back this treaty. London promptly consigned it to the dust bins and never took advantage of any of the terms of the treaty.

It would take more research to understand why the 13th was so revered by the Tibetans, with a stature on par with the 5th. As the leader of the military confrontation with the British, he was an unmitigated disaster. The Tibetans probably looked upon him as the symbol of Tibet’s resistance to British imperialism. The Beijing government has erected a memorial in Gyantse in honor of all the “martyrs” of that historic confrontation.

It will take more scholarly research than represented here to understand why the Brits did not proceed to take over Tibet. Perhaps they were satisfied that then Czarist Russia were not in Tibet contrary to the rumors used to justify the invasion into Tibet. They had no idea of the amount of gold in Tibet nor the immense collection of art objects that could have overflowed the British Museum.

An interesting side note is that the 13th, the immediate predecessor of the current one residing in Dharamsala, eventually fled to Moscow, (USSR being the other player of the “Great Game,”) and died there. It would be interesting to find out exactly how the 14th was selected because there is a chance of history repeating itself when the current one passed on.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Evaluation of Taiwan's Ma Ying-jeou

Taiwan's president, Ma Ying-jeou, has been in office for one year. After his first hundred days, he was criticized for not immediately turning Taiwan's economy around, as he had promised during the presidential campaign.

When Ma orchestrated a warming of cross strait relationship that led to signing a number of economic cooperation including the direct flight from the mainland to bring in tourists, he was immediately criticized for failing to attract 3000 tourists per day to Taiwan. This year, Taiwan is receiving the full daily quota of tourists from the mainland, the local economy is beginning to warm and discussion is now directed toward possible direct investment from the mainland.

Rather than giving any credit for the positive outcome by his administration, extreme pan green supporters are accusing Ma of prosecutorial persecution of Chen Shui Bian. Even though he has steadfastly stayed away from interfering with the judiciary process underway to examine the full extent of Chen's economic crime against the people of Taiwan, Chen's supporters accused him for doing so anyway.

Recently, I attended a conference at Stanford on state of the cross strait relations. The presenters and discussants were uniformedly courteous and genteel. None saw fit to point out Chen's singularly pivotal role in destroying Taiwan's economy during his eight year reign.

"It's the economy, stupid" has been the mantra that governed the success or failure of the last three U.S. president, including the current Obama Administration, but somehow this measure of a leader's effectiveness never applied to Chen.

Since the beginning of 2009, the Taiwan stock market has bounced back by 50%, the strongest recovery in Asia. The Stanford conference took little note and did not even speculate on whether Taiwan's economic recovery and its dependence on cooperation with the mainland will alter the dynamics of the question of independence vs. reunification vs. status quo.

For more information, a recent review of Ma's first year as president published by a major daily in Taiwan and is available in English.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

America Remembers Tiananmen with "Humanitarian" Racism

In the West, “June 4” has become a shorthand reminder of the weeks of student-led protests that culminated in the tragic confrontation with China’s People’s Liberation Army ending on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.

While the bloody images from the streets of Beijing have seared the minds of America’s TV audience, liusi, June 4 in Mandarin, is a distant memory inside China--so much has happened in the intervening 20 years that transformed China into an economic superpower.

An ironic and curious American reminder of the drama on Tiananmen Square can be found in the little known “The Chinese Student Protection Act” enacted in 1992 and an even more obscure provision in this Act.

Authored by then second-term Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the legislation was to provide a safe harbor by giving the Chinese students in the U.S., some of whom demonstrated in sympathy with their colleagues in China, the opportunity to apply for immediate permanent residency in America.

America has a long generous tradition toward people being persecuted by their own government by offering them asylum and the opportunity to build new lives in the U.S. Eastern Europeans in the 1950s, Cubans after Castro’s 1959 revolution, and boat people from Southeast Asia and Soviet Jews in the 1970s are among those that come to mind.

Pelosi’s student protection act took three years to get through Congress. The backroom dealings apparently necessitated charging the 55,000 green cards slots needed by the students as an “advance” against future quotas of employment-based green card applications made on behalf of Chinese professionals that American companies wanted to hire.

The purpose of employment-based green cards is to allow American companies to hold onto foreign professional talent and keep them in the U.S. This provision is motivated by national self-interest and has nothing to do with humanitarian action. Indeed, the success of Silicon Valley has been due to the foreign talent we have been able to attract and keep as they start new companies and create jobs.

There was no logical reason or justification to tie a humanitarian act to our ability to employ skilled immigrants from the same country. The case involving students from China was unique.

Every year the U.S. grants a maximum of 140,000 green cards to highly skilled foreign professional workers, not more than 9800 from any one country. In fact, the 9800 slots from any one country of origin are rarely all given away except for China and India; in these cases, there are always more highly qualified applicants waiting to get their green cards than available slots. Chinese professionals being sponsored for green cards typically earned advanced degrees from American universities in the sciences, medicine and engineering.

America’s biggest sources of highly trained talent, needed to keep our companies on the leading edge, naturally come from the two countries with the largest population. (One can, of course, argue whether it makes sense to use the same fixed quota for China and India as for other much smaller countries.)

In the case with China, the quota is made even more restrictive because the Student Protection Act took away 1000 slots from China every year until all 55,000 have been offset. It will be another 14 years before the green cards for students have been “paid back.”

Consequently, there is a log jam of Chinese with advanced degrees waiting for permanent residency in the US. Because of the offset, the average wait for a Chinese applying for a green card is over three years longer than for any other nationality.

Does it make any sense to make it harder for the professionals we want to keep, to stay in America? China’s economy is on the ascendancy while ours is heading in the opposite direction. Why are we encouraging them to consider taking their talents back to China—or even Canada?

Chinese immigrants have had to face a history of exclusionary discrimination in order to live in America. This obscure provision of the Student Protection Act, which came to light only recently, seems rooted in the same racist mindset.

A group of Chinese professionals in America waiting for their green cards has formed the Legal Immigrant Association to ask Congress to repeal this discriminatory provision of the Chinese Student Protection Act. They are also seeking support from Chinese American communities.

With two prominent Chinese Americans serving in President Obama’s cabinet, it should not be necessary to remind the people of America and members of Congress of the many contributions Chinese Americans have made in America.

This should be the right time to strike another racially discriminatory statute against the Chinese from our laws.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Touring Provence by boat

Paris in this spring time was greener and cleaner than I remembered the city from 15 years ago--greener because I didn’t have to focus all my attention on the treachery of a sidewalk mined with random deposits of dog doo. In the past, the Parisian sidewalks
were marked with curbside signs
pointing to troughs where the dog
poo should be deposited. Since
most Parisian dogs were not literate, the signs were ignored. Today, the Parisians use the ubiquitous plastic bags (a new meaning to “doggie bags”), available at nearly every street corner, to pick up after their pets, and thus gave me a sense of
security that allowed me to look around. I noticed that most streets in the cities of France were lined with canopies of trees adding to the aesthetics appearances of these streets and boulevards, not to mention shade for the many sidewalk cafes.

France is slightly smaller than Texas with more than 2.5 times population. Nonetheless the cruise down the Saone and then the Rhone River saw no signs of a dense population but only leafy banks and green rolling hills, occasionally dotted by a ruined fortress on top of some particularly jagged hilltop. If one were expecting Disneyland-like castles beckoning from the shore, one would be disappointed. Without a good book to read, or a card playing companion, quite possibly one would find the cruise too sedate for most tastes. Monet’s magical garden & pond at Giverny

Rhone is described as a rushing torrent from the Swiss Alps crashing eastward to Provence. Alas by the time the river merges with the Saone, the wildness has been tamed by a series of dams and locks. The wild Rhone, at one time washed away more than half of the bridge at Avignon, leaving the rest for posterity as a tourist landmark. Now, we might as well have been drifting on a lake. These dams, we were told, were built after World War II, but well before there were any requirements for environmental impact statements.
15th century hospital for indigents, Beaune

Actually, France along with other countries in Europe has a more advanced and balanced environmental policy than the U.S. Aside from flood control, the dams provide hydro power and the locks regulate the flow to facilitate shipping. Along the river, we noticed at least two nuclear power plants as well as wind farms. There seemed to be a balance between energy demands and protecting the environment. As one significant indicator, plastic bags were not in wide spread use and reflected in the absence of plastic bags and bottles as flotsam at the locks.
Nuclear and wind power by the Rhone River

Historically, Provence is as important and interesting part of France as Paris. It was a region of France first occupied by the Romans and incorporated as a province of the Roman Empire. Later, from 1309 to 1404, Avignon became the seat of seven successive Popes when Rome was regarded as too unstable and then two anti-Popes when the Church decided to go back to the Vatican but the anti-Popes did not. The Papal palace remains the star tourist attraction today.

Walled city of Avignon and the broken bridge

Avignon is also surrounded by one of the few remaining city walls completely intact in Europe. It was possible to walk from the lookout point behind the Papal palace to the wall and from the wall to the photogenic remains the bridge washed away by some monstrous flood in the days of old—except the gate on the tower of the wall was locked to deny access to the bridge without paying another ticket. (France, by the way, is world’s most popular tourist destination and the country takes full advantage by charging admission everywhere they can.)

From Avignon, it is possible to take a short side trip to Pont du Gard, the spectacular remains of a Roman aqueduct that used to run some 30 miles from the source of spring to the important Roman city of Nimes, a city that still stands today. We learned from the museum at Pont du Gard that Romans built aqueducts all over their empire not just to keep their public baths and fountains operating but as a unifying symbol of their might and presence.

Roman aqua duct at Pont du Gard

Taking the side trip to Pont du Gard meant spending less time wandering around Avignon. For those of us that enjoyed walking around old medieval towns, this was a regrettable trade-off inherent to most river cruises. Other examples of trade-offs include taking a tour of the Beaujolais wine country that included a walking tour of Oingt, a medieval city constructed out of gold colored stones, but that meant not walking around Trevoux where the ship docked.

Same thing happened at Arles. The optional tour was to Les Baux, a medieval town at the foot of a fortress sitting on top of a rugged and rocky outcrop. We then went to a multi-sensory presentation of Picasso in a nearby converted quarry called Cathedral of Images.

Picasso’s art projected with surround sound

Certainly a worthwhile side trip but it meant missing the opportunity to wander around Arles. Arles has a nearly intact Roman arena and an old church with a stone façade. The carvings of the facade escaped defacing during the French Revolution because they were in relief rather than free standing which would have facilitated the separation of the heads from the statures. (With a little reflection, one can see that the French Revolution rebelling against the monarchy and the church was a forerunner to China’s Great Cultural Revolution.)
The Roman arena in Arles

The only stop where I felt we had enough time was Lyon, the city at the confluence of the two rivers. Our ship pulled in one night and stayed for another, thus giving us time to meander around the many bridges of Lyon. Lyon, one time silk capital of Europe, was a wealthy city and it showed. Reflections on the Rhone in Lyon

Nice was another city where by taking an extension, we had a four-night stay to get to know the city and its restaurants. Nice even allowed free admission to its Matisse Museum. Matisse lived to a ripe old age and spent the second half of his life in Nice, so perhaps the city was proud of its adopted son and wanted the tourists to know about the artist. Nice is at about the middle of the French Riviera that stretches from Monaco to Cannes. It was hard to appreciate the appeal of the sandless beaches where people flock to be seen, lying on beds of pebbles and rocks.

Pebbly beach at Nice

Would I visit France again? Of course I would, France is an expensive tourist destination but has so much to see and to do. Two of the women on our cruise, picked up a rental car at the end of the cruise and drove back from Nice to Paris. Next time, that’s what I would do: drive. The reputation that French waiters are rude to tourists not able to speak French is not confirmed. We met only pleasant and accommodating service and that’s another reason for wanting to return.Another morning reflection on the Rhone in Lyon

Some other images of France

On our way to Giverny, we passed a charming village but we could not stop because of the lack of parking for a big bus. Instead, we paused across the river and had a view of the toll house on a defunct bridge.

In Beaune, while the highlight was Hotel Deux, the hospital, the local guide also took us to a 11th Century Romanesque church.

Our cruise started at Macon where the ship was waiting for us. Eric told us that there weren’t much to see on the other side of the bridge. But there weren’t much on this side either.

In Paris we noticed that there were specially marked bicycles that anyone can rent. The idea was actually started in Lyon.

We toured the Beaujolais wine country for wine tasting after a side tour of the medieval town of Oingt, built from gold colored stones.

The side tour from Arles was to Les Baux in a very rocky part of Provence.

Nice, part of the French Riviera, is a pretty city. One can easily see the wealth in this part of France from the expensive cars to ornate buildings and yacht harbors.

The difference between Nice and Monaco, it seems, is that there is more substance to Nice, more diversity and real people.

There is, for example, a thriving population of Russian émigrés living in Nice.

It’s possible to get a nice panoramic view of the promenade of Nice from the bluff, a short hike from old quarters of Nice.

Monaco is just a short drive, around 10 miles, from Nice and the drive along the coast is almost as picturesque as Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Monaco is one of the places to visit once to say “I’ve been there,” and mingle with the rich and famous.

From Monaco’s palace, it’s possible to see the Monte Carlo casino in the distance and the Grand Prix viewing stands directly below, apparently in preparation of the racing event to take place a few weeks after our visit.

People Watching in Nice