Asian Currents

Considering the size of the Chinese population, I suppose it is lamentably understandable if you are not aware of massive storms that have killed and made homeless a relatively small amount of people. However, these storms might hold much greater meaning, as they are being referred to by some as Climate Change Storms. The implications of a changing climate are not only momumental for China, but for the whole world – the fact that this month’s storms have already “affected 200 million” (Times Online) shows how seriously the world needs to not only recognize but take action.

The size of the problem and the disaster potential here in China is definitely huge, but it cannot be said that it is going unnoticed. Although more than one observer is skeptical of a government that goes to such lengths in micromanaging public discourse, the government has had a relatively consistent internal dialogue about the importance of controlling environmental distraction and climate change. The rapidly developing economy of China is held above most other things as a paramount concern, and the economic impacts of rising oceans and increasingly ferocious “climate change storms” are all too obvious. Also, the issue of China’s massive population and an increasing economic disparity in its society is a constant concern. The degree to which today’s economic prosperity has been spread around (often at least enough to be noticed by rural people, but not always), has worked to create a relatively peaceful situation in many parts of China. It is still very evident, however, how unrest continues to stir in the many places of deep poverty. Climate change has the long term affect of affecting the economy, but also guarentees a degree of political instability, especially since the impact of environmental destruction is unequally felt amongst the population.

The momentum of bad as it moves towards worse is of course always a challenge for any government. This is no exception for China, and observers say that the government is finding itself having to catch up from ignoring certain situations for too long.
Aside from the environmental crisis, some are predicting that China’s economy, which has been allowed to grow at a spectacular rate, an expansion supported by the maintaining of a massive trade imballance, is hardly sustainable.
Also, of course, there is the recent uproar over the quality and safety of goods that are exported out of China to around the world. Even Indonesia, in South East Asia, has recently blocked certain products coming from China over concerns of their quality and safety.
In response, the Chinese government has gone on a campaign of its own to restore international trust, and has shut down a number of companies that are producing inferior food, medicine, and other products, such as the toothpaste that is blamed for several deaths.

Reminiscing Indonesia

A certain element that floats around in the air, something very thick, somehow spicy – maybe it’s because, in Indonesia, the skin, even as you sleep at night, glows with a clinging persperation. The pores are always wide open, a window through which this essence of Indonesia somehow intoxicates, planting itself deep inside the soul, a narcotic that is forever craved. Images, tastes, intangible touches that are felt even today, ghosts that unexpectedly arrive to haunt, pushing out the real stimuli of moment.

A certain passion dwells in the heart of Indonesian culture, a certain blend of its long, deep and vibrant history and the rough edge of modern life.indonesia13.jpg

Continue reading “Reminiscing Indonesia”

Defying Explanation, Eluding Understanding

The trip to the city of Chengdu, the capital of China’s Sichuan Province, although short, resulted in many insights and even more ambiguities and questions. It would be nice if I could say that, after living here for almost six months, I have a relatively firm grasp on the state of China’s society and economy, the relationship of forces exerted upon it and that it itself exerts, the momentum of change.

train to chengdu

Chengdu Ho!

if this train were to leap off the tracks right now for some reason, careening off the sides of the tunnel before launching off a cliff, flattening against the side of the canyon and plunging, burning reckage, into the river below, it really wouldn’t be that bad. that was a thought that passed through my mind briefly the other day, probably around 2 in the morning, as i was once again jerked out of my light and uncomfortable sleep for one of many reasons.
it hit me the other day that i hadn’t really seen much of china, even after living here over five months. so, i made an impulsive trip to the train station, deciding that the sichuan province was worth a look with the rapidly disappearing time that i still have. it is the case in china that, with so many people, any place of public transportation is crazy, all the time. so, of course, all of the sleeper car train tickets were sold out for the 22 hour train ride. how bad could a hard seat be, really. well, besides the discomfort of the seat, there is also the remarkable environment, the absolute non-existence of privacy, the dramatically different concept of acceptable public behaviour that one finds on the public train. man, awesome, just great, it’s a good thing that i’m masochistic in the first place. travelling is, after all, supposed to be a little uncomfortable, right? well, mission accomplished. lots of stories i could tell, of course, lots of interesting conversations with my fellow passengers – believe me, i got lots of attention, there were definitely no other foreign travelers on this train.
anyway, now in the city of chengdu, the capital of the sichuan province. ya, the sichuan food is pretty good. sometimes i think “wow, they’ve really mastered the art of cooking, add enough chili oil, salt and MSG to anything and it tastes delicious…” but no, there is some stuff that is quite good. i was here about half a day before i started going crazy without a bike, so i found some little shop by the river where i could rent one. i love travelling and having at least a basic grasp of the language, it opens such different and special opportunities, and it’s so very rewarding to me. it’s probably the best feeling, actually, for me, the reaction that i get so many times a day when an otherwise cranky shop owner discovers that i can bullshit with him.
i believe this is the third largest city in china, but im not sure. i don’t know how many kl’s i put on today, more than a few. i already feel somewhat comfortable biking around the city, but that’s probably because it is a manifestation of that wonderfully organized city planning by virtue of the absolute power of a government. but the city just keeps going, whichever direction you head. what an amazing experience it is to see, this incredibly modern city, blowing away so many assumptions and misperceptions that may have been left about china. my brain is probably suffering from overexposure to sun today, so my words are hardly adequate, i wish i could do better.
anyway, time is not enough, back to kunming soon. have some things to do there still, and it’s so very soon that i make my way down to hanoi again, to catch my flight to malaysia, the winding road back to minnesota.

A Rant. Pay no attention.

America is exporting some of its most brilliant minds and entrepreneurial spirits to places like China, not only because these are today’s pioneers and entrepreneurs, but because they are also intelligent. It is a sad statement that, because of their intelligence and their disposition to build relationships with people regardless of their nationality or religion makes them feel politically isolated and sometimes even threatened by what they perceive as a growing environment of fear and suspicion in the United States.

This is not to say, of course, that only the best and brightest are fleeing their homeland under a cloud of disillusionment. There are also a fair number of people fleeing the flaws in their own lives, frustrated by the perception of insurmountable obstacles in the path of some kind of de-facto success that they feel they are owed by life. So, they arrive here, or other places all over Asia, seeking comfort and pleasure minus the hard work.

Notes on a Rainy Morning

Floods continue to ravage Southern China, I see the latest body count is up to 79 (Friday morning).

The international press is heralding China’s role in disarming North Korea’s nuclear weapons, while at the same time condemning the rapid growth of its own military and more recent clampdowns on civil liberties and the arrest of more journalists.

Every day I look at my Google News Alert for China and experience a shock of panic, until I realize that it’s just another catchy article title about the Asian Cup that is so much on the mind of every football fan. “China Can’t Keep up with Peers,” “Uzbekistan Crush China,” “Up Against Iran, Again,” “The Battle Wages On.”

My little shouji is so sexy, and espresso is so yummy…sexy phone.jpg

The Vice President of Indonesia said some very interesting things during a speach recently. He very wisely pointed out the constant tension between democracy and liberty, on the one hand, and a guarentee of stability on the other. Foreign investment plays a large role in Indonesia’s economy, and ensuring a stable environment to maintain the confidence of these investors is seen as a priority for the government. Kalla, the VP, said “he is always thankful to hear compliments about Indonesia’s strides forward in democracy, but not when those giving the compliments hopped on a plane and went to Beijing with their investment dollars.” (ABC News, http://abc.net.au/news/stories/2007/07/19/1983232.htm?section=justin)

Chinese Journalism, Part 1 1/2

A student of Journalism and Media, I have found particularly interesting studying and experiencing mass media and communication in different countries. America, Malaysia, Indonesia and now China have all offered very unique perspectives. Despite some very stark differences, they all reinforce the understanding of the mass media as a key component of society and its importance in engineering how people understand the world and how they interact with others.

The past few weeks here in Kunming, China, have been especially interesting. Following a local friend to her Editorial Column Writing class at Yunnan Normal University, I had a first hand look at the next generation of Chinese journalists and how they were being taught to approach their profession. Also, I went against the odds and walked into the Yunnan Province Daily News Industry Corporation, expecting the closed doors that a foreigner usually finds when independently searching for information here. However, I was pleasantly surprised when a curious security guard led to an anxious receptionist led to a round of phone calls led to an armed escort up to the 15th floor of the huge building for a fascinating hour and a half talk with a veteran, chain smoking newspaper journalist.

Visiting the journalism class at Normal University, I was taken aback by the familiarity of the situation. A large classroom was full of students looking very much like college students, their questioning of the status quo evident in their Che Guevarra tshirts and the occasional facial piercing. The teacher was a fashionable young woman who encouraged a lively discussion with the students as she presented the lesson. Despite the similarities, however, discussions with students and the professor were very illuminating. On the one hand, they recognized the fact that journalism and the nature of information in China is different than other countries. During the lecture, the professor used many examples of articles from the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, but only to illustrate certain points of style or format. In this class, it seemed, learning to write an editorial column was a matter of form.

If my visit to the University was a glimpse into the shaping of journalism in China, the experience at the Daily News Corporation was a window into the current practice of mass media here. I gained many insights, despite the need to ask the veteran newspaper journalist to slow down his spit-fire Kunming dialect and explain a few new vocabulary words.

The degree to which the news industry in China is centralized is perhaps one of the more telling aspects of that industry here. The reporter told me that the city of Kunming alone, the capitol of the Yunnan Province, has about 14 seperate newspapers. While they all have unique formats, styles, and contributors, the fact is that they are all produced in the same building, behind the one-way glass windows towering above XinWen Lu. At the end of the day, all of the individual publications report to the same boss in the office on the top floor.

The ownership of or the institutions that take on the task of producing mass media in China also highlight meaningful differences when compared to other countries. In America, for example, most of the media is owned and operated by private companies, corporations or organizations. In Malaysia, the major newspapers have very close ties to specific political interests. Considering that one entity has a virtual monopoly over the production of newspapers in the Yunnan Province, it is somehow unsurprising that the Yunnan Daily News Corporation has very close ties to the government. After speaking with journalism students, professors, and professional journalists, it is evident that a majority of the information published in the daily paper comes directly from the government. This by no means makes the information inaccurate – it does, however, have a large impact in terms of what is not published and what does not enter the public discourse, as well as the angle from which news is approached.

The “engineered” nature of information in China is by no means a secret in China – it is well recognized by everyone I have spoken with. Several people, in fact, made the criticism that information is just as manipulated in Western countries as it is in China, but that neither the authorities responsible nor the masses admit to the manipulation. Response to this recognition has been mixed…

And News For All!

Against the advice of everyone with the credentials to know, this afternoon saw a trip to the giant building on XinWen Lu (News Road) that houses the brain, the main production and administrative center for almost every newspaper in China’s Yunnan Province. The nature of information in China is hardly a secret in China, and Chinese friends, classmates and teachers all told me that there was very little chance that there were going to let a foreigner, especially one claiming to be an aspiring journalist, to dig into something as vital to national security as the production of mass media content, the engineering of what people in and outside China know and think about the country. One friend, a fellow journalism student from Northern China, said the government “pa linglingqi,” was afraid of 007. Playing the always handy student card, I told the guard at the front gate that, as a student of media at the local Yunnan University, my professor had told me to stop by and take a look at the production of news in China. I was pleasantly surprised when I was not turned immediately away, and even more happy when a phonecall to a boss led to a phonecall to another official, who apparently set me up to talk to a journalist up on the 15th floor.

The Yunnan Newspaper Center houses a literal army of journalists, writers, and others, over three thousand people inside a mighty, new looking skyscraper that easily dwarfes every other building in the neighborhood.
I learned many things, some expected some unexpected.
The relationship with the government is still not entirely clear, though it is obvious that they are closely connected.