Showing posts with label Tibet. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Tibet. Show all posts

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Nouveau Art is Thriving in Tibet

Most people get their information on Tibet based on declarations from Dalai Lama or his exiled followers residing in the west. Since these sources have not been to Tibet for decades, people can be expected to have at best a partial idea of what today's Tibet is like.

Those that have visited Tibet are likely to have a more well-rounded impression of what Tibet is like today. By touring various temples and souvenir shops, visitors would have been exposed to the richness of traditional Tibetan art embedded in religious objects and takeaway thangkas.

Very few, however, would know that there is such thing as modern Tibetan art and the art is dynamic and evolving in dramatic directions. My good friend, Dr. Cyrus Hui knows. A PhD economist and former banker, he became fascinated with Tibet, its culture and people, and he visits there often. He has written a historical fiction based on his Tibetan experiences.

He got to know some of the artists and had decided to help promote the new Tibetan art by opening an art gallery in Lhasa in late June 2011. See his eloquent discussion of the evolution of Tibetan art on the website of his gallery.

Many years ago, Cyrus was the first to recognize the universal appeal of paintings from Vietnam by artists trained in French impressionism. He bought the first collection of paintings back to Hongkong that became the seed for Galerie LaVong, the first gallery to launch its business exclusively on Vietnamese art.

Owned and operated by Shirley Hui, Cyrus' wife and good friend, the gallery in Lan Kwai Fong, has become the place where trendy new art is first unveiled. Prior to opening of the Lhasa gallery, a selection of Tibetan art was shown at Galerie LaVong with a gala in mid June. A selection of Tibetan art depicting its versatility and diversity can be seen at the end of the blog.

By opening an art gallery on Tibetan art, Cyrus is doing more than introducing today's Tibetan culture to the world. He is also explicitly saying: "Look, Tibet is a thriving place where its artists are free to experiment, innovate and create." Can we say the same for the residue of Tibetan culture eking out an existence in Dharamshala?

From top to bottom and left to right, the paintings are
Thousand Buddhas by Ang Sang
Story from Ruins by Penba
Deliverance by Sonlang Tsering
Longevity by Han Shuli
Shepherd Weavers by Bama Tashi

Posted with the permission of Cyrus and Shirley Hui.

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, 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.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Let's Talk About Tibet (II)

In recent issues of World Journal (世界日报), there was an interesting comparison of “two Lhasa’s,” written by three co-authors, Messrs Yin, Fei and Yu from the Bay Area. The two Lhasa’s in question were the Lhasa in Tibet and the “little Lhasa” established by the Dalai Lama in upper Dharamsala upon his exile from Tibet in 1959. In the interest of introducing the results of their research to a broader English reading public, I have loosely translated some of their major findings and observations in this blog.

When Dalai Lama fled Tibet in 1959, the Lhasa he left behind had a population of 29,000. Of this total, 14,000 were monks and nuns that did not contribute to the economy and 4,000 were homeless beggars, all were supported by a working population of 11,000. By way of comparison, in America for every 10,000 population, the average is 24 in the clergy and 2 homeless. Obviously the economic burden of the working class in the Lhasa Dalai Lama left behind was unimaginably onerous to say the least.

On the other hand, the little Lhasa in Dharmsala had all the advantages of a roaring new beginning. The followers of Dalai Lama were the elites of Tibet. They were educated, skilled and wealthy. They knew what it would take to set up an exile government. Furthermore, Dalai Lama and his cohort had the explicit support of the CIA and the State Department, to the tune of $2-3 million in annual subsidy. Lastly, Dalai Lama took his personal wealth with him to India. Just the antiquities he took with him were judged to be worth $200 million in today’s dollars. He also owned approximately 8 tons of gold and 4,750 tons of silver, worth $8.7 billion in today’s dollars. In other words, Dalai Lama had plenty of assets to establish a new Lhasa in style.

So, after 50 years, how do the old Lhasa in Tibet compare to the little Lhasa in India?

The population of Lhasa has increased from the original 29,000 to 300,000 Tibetans, while the population of little Lhasa remained static at 30,000 of which about 5000 are Tibetans.

In Tibet’s Lhasa, there used to be a total of 4 automobiles, bought by the 13th Dalai Lama, the predecessor to the current Dalai Lama. Today, there are 16,000 vehicles in Lhasa. In little Lhasa, only the Dalai Lama and senior government officials have cars, none of the regular Tibetans own cars.

In 2007, Lhasa replaced all plastics shopping bags with textile bags, and the practice has now spread to all of Tibet. Little Lhasa continues to be littered with plastics bags fluttering in the wind. There are 110 public toilets in Lhasa, none in little Lhasa.

There are two public reading facilities (书楼) in Lhasa and 17 book stores, of which 16 sell books in Tibetan language and 4 sell sutras and Buddhist scriptures. In little Lhasa, there is not one bookstore that specialize in Tibetan books.

In Lhasa, by 2007 Tibetan language was taught for the first nine years of school but has now expanded to 12 years of school. In little Lhasa, Tibetan language is taught up through first 5 years of school and everything is then taught in English from the sixth grade on.

In the 50 years of existence, Dalai Lama received $150 million of financial support from the U.S. government—generous by American standards of foreign aid but pale by the amount Beijing has invested in Tibet, a total closer to $15.4 billion.

During the Cultural Revolution, many of the temples and historic structures were damaged or destroyed by the “Red Guards,” many of whom were ethnic Tibetans. Beijing has since allocated the necessary funds to restore and repair these structures and publicly apologized to the people of Tibet. The Dalai Lama has never apologized for the crimes against humanity committed by the religious government under his rule before his exile.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Let's Talk About Tibet

Hard facts and data on Tibet are hard to come by, most come from Beijing which folks in the West tend to reflexively dismiss as propaganda. I have just returned from Beijing where a retrospective on the 50 years of reform in Tibet is on display. I propose to focus on various statistical data presented at the exhibit and examine them for possible validity and credibility.

Nobody knows exactly how many Tibetan exiles live outside of China. A general consensus is around 150,000. Using this number as base, there are around 18 to 19 Tibetans living inside Tibet for every exile outside of China. Since there are slightly more Tibetans living in surrounding provinces outside of Tibet, we are on reasonably safe grounds to assume that there are 40 times more Tibetans inside China than out.

I find it strange that Dalai Lama and his cohort representing 2.5% of all the Tibetans are regarded as the legitimate voices representing all the Tibetans. His Holiness and most of his lieutenants have not seen Tibet for 50 years. Their assertions and statements about Tibet surely could not be more accurate than those coming from Beijing.

According to the exhibit in Beijing, the population in Tibet before the reform was roughly divided into three groups of people. The first group consisted of government officials, monks in monasteries and those of nobility made up about 5% of the population. The major group of serfs made up about 90%. The so called serfs have no rights and were obligated to provide free labor to the land owning class. The remaining 5% were called lang sheng (郎生), a genteel sounding name for the unfortunate group of people that were owned by the ruling class and treated like livestock.

The ruling class owned approximately 99.7% of all the agriculture land divided as follows: Local government officials - 38.9%
Monasteries - 36.8
Nobility - 24.0
Self supporting Tibetans 0.3

After Beijing suppressed the insurrection in 1959 that led to exile of the Dalai Lama to India, the central government began land reform in earnest which was completed by October 1960. During this period, approximately 85% of the land was redistributed to 200,000 households of former serfs and slaves, representing about 800,000 people that became land owners. There were approximately one million Tibetans living in Tibet then. The land distributed was equivalent to about 187,000 hectares.

Compared to the grain output before land reform, the yield in 2008 has improved by more than 4 fold and total heads of livestock increased by 2.5 fold. Nonetheless, even today locally derived revenue accounts for barely over 6% of the total budget, with the rest of Tibet’s annual expenditure coming from the central government subsidy.

The life expectancy in Tibet has improved from 35.5 years in 1959 to 67 in 2008. Today, the number of color TV’s in the urban area is 131 per 100 households and 62 TV’s per 100 households in the rural area. Even so, the exhibit admitted that the per capita GDP in Tibet is almost 40% below national average.

Approximately 98.5% of Tibetan children now attend primary schools and about 95% of the schools offer bilingual courses in both Chinese and Tibetan. In 1951, more than 95% of the Tibetan population was illiterate.

Are these facts and figures about Tibet “reliable”?

China has over 50 identifiably distinct ethnic minorities living in China. The policy of the central government is to extend favorable treatment to each ethnic group such as allowing more than one child per family, affirmative action influenced admission standards to higher education and bi-lingual education. The policy is to preserve ethnic diversity and not to eliminate them. Tibetans are treated no different from other ethnic minorities.

A world congress on Buddhism has just been concluded in Hangzhou before the venue moved on to Taiwan. The practice of Buddhism is flourishing in China and there is no evidence of any policy to discourage worship. Unless “cultural genocide” is strictly defined as preserving the good old days before the Communists entered Tibet, there is no indication of genocide of any kind taking place in China.

The “good old days” when Dalai Lama ruled Tibet were ghastly and brutal to most of the ordinary Tibetans. Not only there were no highways, TV’s and telephones, the exhibit showed plenty of photos of Tibetans with feet, hands, eyes or noses cut off as punishment meted by their masters.

Surely there can be no doubt that the lives of most Tibetans are better today than it was fifty years ago.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

What America Needs to Know about China

Below is text of address delivered at Pitzer College

Thank you for coming to hear what I have to say about China and about the U.S. China bilateral relations. As a business consultant, I have been going to China regularly for the last 30 years, essentially from the beginning of China’s economic reform. My first personal visit to China actually took place in 1974, during the height of the Great Cultural Revolution. I certainly have enjoyed a ringside seat watching China’s amazing transition and transformation during this period.

In my early trips into China, I would be interviewed by the CIA and the FBI upon my return. They would want to know whom I saw, what we talked about and so on. I was happy to tell them all I knew because from the start, I thought I had a mission, which was to explain China to Americans and America to the Chinese. I felt that I was in the position to act as a bridge between the two countries that meant the most to me.

Thirty years later, some things have not changed much. In particular, there remains a lot about China that America does not understand and I continue to feel that the role of a cultural intermediary is as relevant as ever. So it is today that I am here to describe and explain some things about China that America needs to know and understand--such understanding being crucial to the development of a healthy bilateral relationship. As the two arguably most powerful nations and economies in the world, a strong positive bilateral relationship is important not only to the peoples of the two countries but to a peaceful world.

I might also add that given the recent financial turmoil on Wall Street and the increasing importance of China, holding close to $1 trillion or our treasury notes and government debt, it becomes increasing relevant that we develop a measure of respect for someone that is likely to end up owning a bit of America in exchange for bailing us of out of our financial excesses.

My talk today is not about western media distortion of China or the biases of western politicians. If it is, I would be on the podium for hours. What I hope to do is to take you outside of your customary American frame of reference. I would like to present some data and thoughts that would automatically counter many of the preconceptions of China that you have grown up with. To paraphrase Secretary Paulson from his Foreign Affairs article about China, I want to help you see the country as it actually is, not as many Americans imagine it to be. If I can persuade you to rethink about China, I would feel that I have accomplished something worthwhile today.

Olympics Aftermath
Let’s start with the Olympics. By most accounts, the Beijing Olympics was an overwhelming success. Certainly, the people of China, and for that matter most of the overseas ethnic Chinese, are rightfully proud of the number of gold and medals the Chinese athletes won. But frankly, that was not the most significant achievement in my mind. Considering that Australia won 42 medals with a population of 21 million, that’s two medals for every million population. To attain parity on a per capita basis, the U.S. would have to win more than five times their actual tally. For China, they would have to sweep every event and then supplement with plenty of knock-offs to meet that standard. On the other hand, if one were to measure achievement against the level of economic development, Ethiopia, Jamaica and Georgia would come in first, second and third.

There are many ways to slice and dice the Olympic outcome, but more important in my mind, is that billions of people in the world have tuned in and caught a glimpse of today’s China for possibly their first time without the filter of the western media or political leaders or the bias of some religious cult. I thought NBC did a good job of introducing some of China’s culture to their viewing audience, particularly short vignettes such as Shaolin martial arts by Mary Carillo and hand pulled noodles by Martin Yan. I was also impressed with GE and their commercials specially done just for the Olympics—sort of like commercials geared just for the Super Bowls--using authentic Chinese backdrops and storylines to make their point.

Despite all the anti Olympic torch rallies and sentiments advocating another Olympic boycott, some even go so far as to call this the “genocide Olympics,” a record number of 100 heads of state representing 80 different countries attended the opening ceremony. They did not witness any slaughter of innocents but did see that the Chinese could really put on a show and raised the bar that likely will stand for many future Olympics. I am glad that Mr. Steven Spielberg was not involved so as not to confuse the minds of the viewers as to who contributed what. The visitors left after seeing a virtually flawless execution of a 16-day event. The 10,000 athletes from around world went home with, I am sure, memories to last a life time.

The 30,000 some journalists found different perspectives and events to write about and most, by and large, will further understanding between the East and West. The worst example of going out of his way to look for dirt under the carpet, that I happened to have read, was a near hysteric blog on ESPN accusing Beijing of a cover-up because a building under construction was draped by a beautifully decorated plastic sheet to hide the construction in progress underneath. Why an attempt to present a more pleasant public appearance became an excuse to blacken China is something I do not understand.

The Chinese Spy that Never Was
How many of you read Physics Today regularly? In the September issue, there is an article written by the former Secretary of Air Force talking about the period in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when Chinese scientists were attending scientific conferences in the U.S. As the testimony at the Cox Committee hearing later revealed, the American authorities regarded these attendances as intelligence gathering on the part of the Chinese. Actually, just opposite was going on, the visitors, according to Thomas Reed, the author, was trying to find ways to let America know what China was doing in nuclear weapon development.

These visitors found Danny Stillman, a nuclear weapon scientist at Los Alamos who was charged with gathering intelligence on China’s weapon development—a polite way of saying that he was a spy. Stillman was eager to meet and talk to the Chinese visitors, who in turn invited Stillman to visit China. Through a series of visits over months to various secret facilities including the nuclear testing grounds, Stillman came away thoroughly impressed with what China had done. He put all his trip reports together into a cohesive tome and sought permission to publish his book. The U.S. government said no.

Stillman’s timing was bad. The Congressional Committee headed by then Representative Christopher Cox had just concluded that America was running wild with Chinese spies, that every Chinese company was a front to steal secrets from America. And then Dr. Wen Ho Lee was identified as the one who leaked W-88 multi-head missile technology to China. It would have contradicted all that anti-China rhetoric if Stillman’s book were to come out saying that China detonated their first atomic bomb in 1964 and in a mere 32 months their first H-bomb and launched their first unmanned satellite in 1970. The unacceptable conclusion would have been that China has independently developed their first class nuclear weaponry all along--all of it having taken place well before Nixon went to China in 1972 and before exchanges were taking place between the two countries. Stillman’s book had to be suppressed as it would have taken the hot air out of the hysterical China bashing balloon floating around Washington from 1998 to 2000.

Why, you might ask, did the Chinese want to expose their nuclear secrets to the U.S.? I think the answer is very simple. How can you have a nuclear deterrence if the other side doesn’t know that you have the capability to deter? China has consistently declined to join the arms race to see who can pile up the larger heap of ever more sophisticated arms. But once in a while, I think, China feels that Washington and Pentagon need to be updated and be informed that China has a credible 2nd strike capability to retaliate and enter that data into their calculations when they plot the course to world domination. Of course, this leads to the question of whether the DoD’s current expanding defense budget makes any sense, which we can discuss in the Q&A if you wish.

America’s Racism
Personally I am acutely aware of the historic racial bias of the American authorities towards the ethnic Chinese in America as exemplified by the Congressional hearings and by the case of Wen Ho Lee, where after 9 months of solitary confinement, all the charges against him were dropped except for one, and that was for not following lab procedure and downloading files from office computer to home computer. Just think, nine months of solitary confinement for downloading computer files against procedure. The special agent of the FBI involved in this case had to admit in court that he lied. The presiding judge apologized to Dr. Lee on behalf of the government for their misconduct. It had to be one of the more embarrassing chapters of American justice.

Lest you think the Wen Ho Lee case was an isolated aberration, it is not. I live in Silicon Valley and there are frequent cases of miscarriage of justice and official intimidation. Recently, there was a Bill Chen originally from China who was appointed sales manager to sell vibration tables to China. The government accused him of selling the tables to a missile building facility when his sales report indicated that they went to a locomotive factory. Originally his employer supported his defense but then the government quietly informed the company that if they plan to sell any more tables to the American Air Force, they better withdraw their support. The company had to fire him. He was in limbo for some time before the government dropped all charges. The last public statement he made to the local press last year was that his career was ruined and he was taking his family back to China.

Just earlier this year, there was a case involving another PhD whose expertise was in agriculture remote sensing, involving the use of satellite data to predict crop harvest, and had been in this country for 20 years. He came to the U.S. from China to study for his PhD. Most recently he worked for a contract research organization analyzing publicly available satellite data to quantify global climate changes for NASA at its facility in Mountain View. His work had no connection to national security. He even got clearance for his ID badge to enter NASA at will. Then the FBI came to interview him, followed by a lie detector test and then two more interviews, at the end of which he was escorted off the premises and fired. He never could figure out why the FBI came to see him and on what grounds he was dismissed. The only explanation I could offer him was that the special-agent-in-charge of Silicon Valley had told BBC in a public interview that the valley was crawling with spies from China and that every working Chinese was a potential security risk.

There are, of course, costs associated with the national practice of racial profiling. Let me ask you, which universities and colleges do you think, have sent the most number of graduates on to obtain a doctorate degree in America? If you guess UC Berkeley, you would be close but incorrect. According to National Science Foundation’s latest compilation, in 2006, the latest year of the survey, the two schools that contributed the most number of Bachelor degree holders that went on to earn a doctorate degree in the United States (in science or engineering) was Tsinghua and Beijing University. This is the first time in history where two Chinese institutions of higher learning out supplied the American universities. Berkeley was third. Over the period of 1999 to 2006, over 26 thousand doctorates earned their undergraduate degrees from China. For 2006, the latest year reported, for every 6 that got their undergraduate training from the U.S., one more came from China. So the question to ponder is this: Given the racist attitudes that prevail, how many of these PhD’s would remain in the U.S. after getting their degree, and of those that remain how many would risk their careers by working in a national laboratory?

Shipping Jobs Overseas
This bias against ethnic Chinese in this country has been around since the 19th century. This prejudice is tied to how we feel about China which is why I personally want to do what I can to counter the China bashing rhetoric by our political leaders. The first one I would like to tackle is the question of so-called “shipping jobs overseas.” According to the National Association of Manufacturers, manufacturing from the U.S. contributes 22% of the total global output with a workforce of about 14 million, by far the leader of the world. China, the rising manufacturing power that we love to demonize, contributes just 8% and with a workforce as large as 100 million if the migrant workers in rural industries are included--22% with 14 million versus 8% with 100 million, that is roughly 20 fold difference in productivity. It should immediately become obvious that there is no way that the American worker would be willing to take a humongous pay cut to do the low paying jobs being done in China. The Chinese might wish to move up the value chain and take over the American job but their productivity (and capability) has a long way to go. The next time you hear about shipping jobs overseas, you should challenge the speaker not to sprout nonsense.

China’s emergence in becoming the global factory really began in earnest when China entered WTO (World Trade Organization) in 2001. In order to conform to the stipulations of membership, China had to stop subsidizing inefficient, state-owned enterprises and let some of them go belly up. They knew that the price to be paid was to put around 30 million of their workers out on the streets. Led by Premier Zhu Rongji, China accepted the pain because they saw the long term benefits of competing in the global market. China made the right choice and hopefully America will also have the courage to make the hard decisions necessary to overcome their current economic dilemma. Blaming China is not going to cut it.

China, the Polluter
Now, China’s rapid economic development does come at a price and the most serious would be the environmental cost. In recent weeks, lambasting China for runaway pollution damage has become a fashionable diatribe for the politicians. They seem offended that China is soon going to overtake us as the biggest polluter in the world. Our political leaders say: “How dare the Chinese insist that we take the lead in pollution abatement before they, India and the rest of developing countries take corrective measures?”

I used to think well, the politicians have a point there. But then a July 31, 2008 press release from the The Climate Group caught my attention. The lead paragraph of this press release said. “China is already the world’s leading renewable energy producer and is over taking more developed economies in the exploiting valuable economic opportunities, creating green collar jobs and leading development of critical low carbon technologies.” The report goes on to say that China has the advantage of low cost, a clear policy framework, a dynamic and entrepreneurial business environment and plenty of abatement opportunities. I must admit until I read the report, I didn't know that China is already a leader in the Green revolution. That China is already a world leader in the manufacture of solar panels and wind turbines. That China is introducing fuel efficiency standards for cars which are 40% higher than those in the U.S. Forty percent! While Washington continues to talk about going green, China has been doing something about it. I have no expertise on China’s effort to go green and I was really surprised by the strong definitive statements from this non-profit organization, organized in 2004 in multiple countries to promote a green and clean earth. However, in recent separate visits to Beijing, my friends and I can testify to seeing blue skies, so there must be something to this report.

Human Rights & Democracy
Now let’s talk about human rights and democracy. First, I find it ironic that the country who perpetrated Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the fine art of waterboarding should be the leading critic of others facing their own set of human rights challenges. I believe that at the very least, the very visible and prompt manner that authorities came to the rescue of the unfortunate victims of the giant earthquake in Sichuan showed to the world that the Chinese government is not a callous body but cares as much about its people as any responsible government.

There are at least 56 ethnic groups living in peaceful co-existence inside China. Official policies go out of their way to favor the 55 ethnic minorities such as no single child restrictions and a Chinese version of affirmative action that makes it easier for minorities to get a higher education. During my travels inside China, I have met folks that are half Han and half another minority. Invariably when they fill out their residence registration (hukou), they claim to be the minority and not a Han majority in order to take advantage of the more favorable conditions. I cannot recall ever talking to a Chinese citizen that disparages another because of the other person’s ethnicity. Conversely, every minority person will openly admit that they belong to Bai, or Miao, or Korean, or Hui, or Mongolian, or Tibetan, or whatever minority in the course of normal conversation. They can be proud of who they are and do not feel that they need to hide their ethnic identity.

We do blanch at how quickly China carried out the executions of the condemned. It’s sort of “one strike and you’re out.” But it is not our place to condone or condemn China’s administration of justice. They have a huge population to deal with and how to maintain order and stability in such a society is beyond our American experience and expertise. Human rights abuses abound in China, such as children in sweat shops, slave labor camps, tainted blood transfusions, toxic baby formulas and so on. These are appalling situations, but it’s important to bear in mind that the Chinese government is combating the problems and not condoning them—no more than the U.S. government condoning many of the human right abuses in this country.

The city of Shenzhen bordering Hong Kong, which a quarter of a century ago was nothing more than rice paddies and fishing boats, has been the greatest experiment since China launched its reform. Up to now, the reform is most visible economically, but they have just announced that the mayor will be the first of China’s major cities to be elected and not appointed. This is a major step for China.

Chinese officials have been talking about democracy even back in Mao days but always within a single political party and not in a pluralistic framework. We Americans have trouble understanding the seeming contradiction of a democracy functioning within a single party rule. We are befuddled, I think, partly because we are accustomed to associating exercise of democracy with serious fundraising and that money is what makes democracy go around.

But there is something to be said about the Chinese system of governing. Leaders are judged and promoted based on the merits of their past performance. They are tested every step along the way. They rise to the top, not dependent on their lineage and on their cronies and public persona. In their selection process, the candidate who knows how to stay low key and keep a low profile (di diao in Chinese) is more likely to be promoted over the handsome, flamboyant and dynamic orator. These promotions came not because of unilateral decisions of a strong man but through consensus, compromise and horse trading between various factions.

China’s Foreign Policy
China’s foreign policy is also diametrically different from the U.S. China has insisted on non-interference of the internal affairs and non-infringement of the sovereignty of another country and to work within the confines of the United Nations. They have contributed troops and police in 13 of 17 on-going UN Peacekeeping operations. Since 1990, China has contributed 9000 peacekeepers in 22 UN operations, more than the combined total of the other four permanent members of the Security Council. As of the end of 2007, China has exercised its veto power on the Security Council a total of 6 times since they joined that body. During that same period, USSR/Russia cast 123 vetoes, the U.S. 80 times, UK 32 and France 18.

I would like to describe just one example of China’s foreign policy based on the exercise of soft power and on the principle of mutual benefit. About a year ago, China signed a deal with Congo to work on infrastructure projects in accordance with the Congo government’s priorities, which were water, electricity, education, health and transportation. The total cost will exceed $9 billion, far more than Congo’s annual budget of $1.3 billion. To pay for the infrastructure investment, China formed a JV with Congo to extract copper, nickel and cobalt, a $3 billion investment. Presumably, the Congo side will pay for their share of the investment with their share of the extracted minerals. Other parts of the deal include technology transfer and training of Congolese staff, work on social welfare and environment and subcontracting certain work to local Congolese companies.

The deal is neither colonial exploitation nor charity to a destitute developing nation. China is not telling the Congo government how to run their country and make no judgment on whether the government is to their liking. Instead, they just structured a win-win arrangement that will make a difference in Congo quickly. The World Bank considers Congo one of the worst countries to conduct business. So the success of this cooperation is not assured. Hopefully the Congolese people will soon see and reap the benefits of this outcome.

The West likes to hold China responsible for Darfur. The premise seems to be that China is doing business with the Sudan government and Sudan government is using the revenue to commit genocide in Darfur. But China is not the only country doing a lot of business in Sudan. India, Japan and Russia are also major players. Furthermore, many years before China was involved in Sudan, the U.S. was there. The CIA backed the other faction and when that faction did not win control of the government, conflict resulted which gradually moved to the Darfur region. Needless to say, conflict takes two opposing parties, in this case the Sudanese government and the rebel faction. Since we Americans are backing the rebels, the government must be the bad guys. Just ask Mia Farrow.

At least last year, China was able persuade the Sudan government to allow a 20,000 strong UN-AU peace-keeping force into the Darfur region, and China took the lead in contributing peace keepers to the force. Unfortunately the force has not been effective, in part because other UN member and African nations have been slow to contribute their share of personnel. Everybody bears some responsibility for the tragedy that is Darfur, it is too easy just to fault China.

I would like to make a brief comment about Taiwan and Tibet so that we can move on to the Q&A, which is my favorite part of the program.

Taiwan & China
Taiwan has been economically integrated with the mainland for well over a decade. Taiwan is either the largest or second largest source of foreign direct investment in China. Entrepreneurs from Taiwan have made millions, and at least one billionaire, from China. Today, over one million Taiwanese live and work in China. Taiwan’s productizing expertise and understanding of the world market coupled with China’s manufacturing prowess has been a powerful amalgamation of complementary strengths. Taiwan’s early factories in China served as the foundation of China’s manufacturing strength. In turn, the components and sub-assemblies shipped from Taiwan across the straits for final assembly every year has earned Taiwan a trade surplus that has always exceeded the total trade deficit incurred with the rest of the world. The common culture, language and ethnicity across the straits have made the synergy a natural outcome.

Unfortunately for Taiwan, the last eight year under President Chen Shui-bian has been an absolute disaster. He did not care about how to manage Taiwan’s comparative advantages. He was much too busy figuring out ways to line his and his family’s pockets. He and his immediate family are currently under investigation for various money laundering schemes, hidden Swiss accounts and bogus accounts in Singapore, the U.S. and who knows where. Having stepped down, Chen lost his presidential immunity and the investigators are hot after many leads. The Taiwan stock market seems unable to get out of the free fall as nervous investors wonder how many of the listed companies are waiting to be implicated by the radiating circle of wrongdoing. It didn’t help that the incoming president Ma Ying-jeou campaigned on the promise of a quick turn-around in Taiwan’s economy. The voters took him literally and expected miracles in his first 100 days in office, and he has not delivered. It is fair to assume that he did not anticipate a financial scandal as he stepped into office.

Tibet & China
The Dalai Lama is an excellent proselytizer for Lamaism, a form of Buddhism--based on animism--indigenous to Tibet. In the case of His Holiness, admirers in the West seem willing to overlook the principles of separation of church and state. No doubt he is the religious leader of a majority (but not all) of the Tibetans. As a secular leader, he represents perhaps the 5% of the population that formerly belonged to the privileged ruling class. In his days, the other 95% were serfs and had no rights whatsoever. Today, China has invested heavily in the infrastructure and offered every Tibetan the opportunity to an education and the freedom to make a decent living by the dint of his/her own efforts. When Dalai Lama ruled Tibet, the average life expectancy was not even 36 years of age, now it’s 67; still less than China’s national average but far better than what it was. Today, Dalai Lama cannot legitimately champion the human rights of the Tibetan masses that had no rights when he was the titular ruler. I am planning to visit Tibet next year. Perhaps I will have more to say about this matter then.

At the beginning of my talk, I proposed raising a perspective about China different from the mainstream to stimulate your interest. I hope I have been provocative enough for this audience. I don’t know why it is that China is the favorite punching bag in the West--sometimes, I refer China as the go to piñata—but I believe this attitude is in for some adjustment. Let me quickly raise some other issues without elaboration to round out our topic.

• China has just put three astronauts in space along with a space walk and has plans to go to the moon. Heretofore, the U.S. has specifically excluded China from the space consortium membership that included Russia. Now NASA has been quietly meeting with China’s space officials about cooperation and leverage from technology that China has developed that NASA does not own. If we weren’t so darn sure that the Chinese needs to steal everything from us, we might have come to this realization sooner.
• China has steadfastly been buying U.S. treasury bills and agency notes and now owns close to $1 trillion of American debt. They have been buying even as Japan has been decreasing their holding for the very practical reason that the dollar is worth less and less. If you ask, the Treasury Department officials will privately admit to you that without China’s financial support, our economy would be in worse shape than it is.
• The Bush Administration made a hash of the relationship with North Korea. Without China’s assistance and leadership, the situation would be even more unstable than it is now.
• China built their Great Wall to keep foreigners out. They do not have the mentality or a history of conquering and occupying other countries. If that is the U.S. goal, China is unlikely to stand in the way. There is no need to regard China as an adversary so long we do not insist on their seeing everything our way.
• Just as China is rapidly becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations, China is also fast becoming the largest source of international tourists. Europeans will tell you that tourists from China are bigger spenders than Americans or Japanese. Until recently, we did not welcome tourists from China. This situation is changing to the potential benefit of our local economy.
• Just as China has become America’s largest source of foreign graduate students, China is also becoming a popular destination for foreign student. According to the most recent tally, China is the 6th most popular destination of the world for students going abroad. I hope some of you will take advantage study abroad opportunities to go to China and see for yourself. With more exchange of people will come improved mutual understanding and more acceptance of the other and different points of view and way of life. I believe this is important to the prospects of attaining world peace.

Now, I want to thank you for your attention and I welcome the opportunity to extend our discussion in any manner you, the audience would like. Please do allow me one small commercial. Much of what I presented today has been elaborated under various entries in my blog. I invite you to visit and to share with others. I have also posted today’s speech on my blog if you wish to refer to anything I've said. Thank you.

Monday, June 9, 2008

What America Needs to Know ABout China - 2, Tibet and the Dalai Lama

When it comes to American perception of America's world standing, an attitude adjustment of major proportion is indicated. In general, Americans are among the most ignorant people of all nations when it comes to other countries. Yet, we insist on telling others about proper conduct of international relations.

Hollywood personalities by virtue of their high public profile have a real advantage whenever they step up to the bully pulpit to pointificate on an issue. Unfortunately, they do not always know what they are talking about. Tibet and the Dalai Lama is just one such case in point. How many in America know some of the statements below?

Dalai Lama is the leader of one of the Tibetan sects of Lamaism but not the leader of all the sects. He even outlawed one of the Tibetan sects as recently as 1996. Isn't it strange that a particular branch of Tibetan Buddhism should all of a sudden turn rancid after enjoying the worship of Tibetans, including earlier incarnations of Dalai Lama, for centuries?

The West positions the Dalai Lama as one peaceful guy. He doesn't want Tibet to separate from China. Oh no, he just wish to enjoy autonomy within China's political system wherever Tibetans can be found. Well, there are many Tibetans living outside of Tibet in such neighboring provinces as Qinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Guizhou and Yunnan. Granting autonomy is roughly equivalent to the American federal government granting autonomy to California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and a good slice of Texas.

Dalai Lama and his supporters accuse Beijing of conducting cultural genocide. What does he mean by that? Under his rule, over 90% of Tibetans lived the life of a serf in bondage. These Tibetans owned no property but were instead themselves property of the ruling class. They were lucky to live to a ripe old age of 40. Today, they can send their children to school, they control their own destiny and can look forward to living to 70 and beyond.

Beijing has allocated millions to preserve and protect the cultural icons and Lama temples. Beijing has also spent millions on infrastructure development such as schools, highways and the technological breakthrough known as the world's highest railroad. School children are not discouraged from learning their native Tibetan language but are encouraged to also learn Mandarin Chinese for the sake of their future.

So is modernization of Tibet a form of cultural genocide? Must cannibals in the rain forest continue to eat their neighbors in order to maintain their cultural purity?

Actually, there are plenty of pundits and commentators in the West with perfectly respectable credentials willing to point out that the holy Dalai Lama might not be so holy afterall. Brendan O'Neill and Michael Parenti are just two examples. These folks may not be as pretty as the Hollywood Geres and Stones but they certainly speak with more authentic depth and substance.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Reflections after the Rain on the Torch Parade

With a sleight of hand, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom staged the Olympic Torch parade without any ugly incidents but also left demonstrators and spectators alike unfulfilled. They showed up at one announced venue and the relay took place at another.

After seeing the riotous fracases that disrupted the parade in London and Paris, Mayor Newsom took the safer course by taking the torch bearers away from the incendiary crowd gathered to celebrate on the one side and to protest on the other.

Now as the torch winds it way through South America, Africa and Asia, western media will lose interest. Without the western media, the protesters have no reason to show up. The event will revert to its original purpose, namely a universal celebration of good will by the peoples of the world.

Among the disparate groups of protesters, each with a pet cause of their own—one even linked China out of Tibet with impeach Dick Cheney—the Tibetan protest won hands down for the most professional orchestration.

First a riot broke out in Lhasa a month earlier which the Chinese police was slow to respond and the incident got out of hand. The western media got hold of this news and promptly beatified the thugs into freedom fighters.

The German press was particularly creative--though Washington Post, CNN and other American media were not without distortions of their own—using photos of Nepalese police brutalizing civilians in Katmandu as stand-in for Chinese soldiers in Lhasa.

Our fearless Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi promptly flew to India on our taxpayer dollar to stand in solidarity with the Dalai Lama. Until then, the world had no clue that Dalai Lama could even contemplate instigating such violence as arson, looting and murder.

As if acting to be the matching bookend to Pelosi’s act, San Francisco supervisor Chris Daly sponsored a meaningless resolution, which Mayor Newsom ignored, pretending to align the City of San Francisco with the human rights for the 1.3 billion “hapless” Chinese.

Just as Nancy has plenty of national domestic issues to grapple with, and many accuse her of lackluster performance as Speaker, Chris has not done much for his home district either, one of the most run down in San Francisco. Both, however, are avowed champions of the downtrodden, so long as they live far away.

The negative publicity, however, aroused the normally placid community of ethnic Chinese living in the Bay Area. To show their resentment of seeing the source of their pride, the Olympics torch relay, threatened to be doused by the sputum of rowdy protesters, they galvanized and came to the parade by the bus loads.

They may have gone home disappointed, not seeing the actual passing of the torch, but at least they drowned out the noise of the vociferous few and let the world know that many in the Chinese American community are proud of a China that will host its first Olympics.

The Pelosis and Dalys in American politics like to posture that they represent the majority of Chinese Americans in their constituency. By the turn out, the community is saying, “Not so, we do not agree with their demonizing of China, and they do not speak for us.”

Indeed when Dalai Lama came to Seattle two days after the torch parade, he was greeted not just by his followers but also by a healthy turnout of detractors. More importantly, these detractors’ views got their share of media coverage.

The detractors pointed out that by “cultural genocide,” the Dalai Lama was referring to the roads and other infrastructure investments that Beijing has made in Tibet to improve the lives of the common Tibetan. In contrast, under the previous regime of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetans lived as slaves under the control of the few monks and the ruling class.

The Richard Geres of Hollywood have a Shangri-la image of Tibet untainted by reality. In their minds, Tibetans in rags, bent and toothless before middle age, living in mud hovels without the benefit of electricity represent the cultural purity of the golden age.

Perhaps now as the Tibetan activists make the rounds around the world, the contrarian views will also get heard and the world will learn of a more complete perspective of the real Tibet.

This will happen, of course, only if the media is fair and will look at different sides of the issue. The actual description of the riots in Lhasa seeped out due to outside witnesses that happened to be there at the time, so there is hope.

Perhaps Beijing will also learn a lesson. Namely, having western journalists roaming freely inside China, even if they view through funhouse lenses, is ultimately less damaging than barring them access so that they can only rely on their imagination soaked in predisposed biases.