Friday, August 8, 2008

Why can’t they be more like us?

Fearing the polluted air, the American Olympic cycling team arrived in Beijing wearing masks. The West continues to wonder why China can not fix its problems, and think and behave like them. President Bush’s address to the world on the eve of the Beijing Olympics raises some important questions…

On behalf of the United States of America, I congratulate the Chinese people and leadership for the impressive preparation they have made for hosting the 2008 Olympics. But while I say this, I must also urge the Chinese to learn more from the great nations of the world – particularly America.

We run a benign state, providing generous loans to our citizens, to buy houses which are larger than their incomes would allow, to live in a comfort that they can not afford. We allow them to live from month to month, borrowing from one credit card to repay the debt of another, to continue to flourish in an end less circle of debt fuelled luxury. The Chinese citizens are deprived of these benefits and need to pay 30% down payment for their apartment, and provide income certificates to apply for a mortgage.

I acknowledge that our poor are now facing unheard hardship, including facing the threat of losing their 4 bedroom sub-urban mansions, Most glaringly their very livelihood is threatened as they are unable to afford the gasoline to drive their 3 gas-guzzling sedans to work. The Chinese poor live in villages on their farms and struggle to feed their families and provide them with clean drinking water.

America has been tottering on the verge of recession, lost trillion of dollars in ingeniously crafted collateralized debt obligations and its legendary manufacturing enterprises are making losses in billions of dollars. China’s economy, on the other hand, staged a record growth of 11.4% in 2007 and managed to grow at 10.4% in the first half of 2008, despite the chaos that we inflicted on the world.

We take natural disasters in our stride, neglecting hurricane Katrina till the man made disaster overshadowed the natural one. Chinese, also frequently blessed with nature’s fury, fly their Prime minister to Sichuan within two hours of the being struck with an earthquake, and mobilize the entire nation to bring succor and comfort to the afflicted.

Our citizens quake to step after dusk in downtown streets of Chicago, New York and other great American cities, because of fear of getting mugged, stabbed or raped. The Chinese youth roam freely and happily in Shanghai, Beijing and Chengdu, while solemn faced Chinese policemen patrol in total oblivion of their merriment.

Our citizens have freedom – freedom to sell sub-prime mortgages, freedom to buy them, freedom to disguise them as respectable debt instruments, freedom to give them as AAA ratings, freedom to gamble (absolute luxury, when they can lose so much in the financial markets), freedom to buy guns (to escape from it all, if nothing else works), freedom to bomb Iraq (to share and divide the misery that we feeling our own country). The Chinese enjoy none of this freedom and are tightly controlled by a draconian regime with a misguided determination to protect its citizens from harming themselves.

While in most areas we want the Chinese to become more like us, there is one area where we want to retain our unique position and unassailable lead. We are the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world. Unfortunately this is one area in which China is becoming more and more like us. But our position as number 1 polluter is unshakable. We will not let the Chinese poor benefit from electricity, motorized transport or air travel. As we steadfastly refuse to sign the Kyoto protocol, we are determined to use all our power to prevent the Chinese from enjoying an excessive lifestyle which threatens the world with dire consequences of global warming.

I wish a great success for the Olympics and hope that they will change China for the better.

Written by Ashok Sethi

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Moral Debate in China

Despite repeated aftershocks, the dust is slowly settling on the devastation of the Sichuan earthquake and the Chinese media coverage has shifted its focus to celebrating the Olympics. In all the heart-rending destruction and devastation, there are two episodes from the earthquake which generate a quizzical smile. The first of these is the story of Fan Meizhong, a school teacher who ran for his life when the quake struck, leaving his students behind. Fortunately, his school remained standing and none of his students were hurt. However, the aggravating fact was that he later, in a fit of candidness, admitted to abandoning his wards and defended his action as guided by his own sense of morality and the natural instinct of self-preservation. He proclaimed that he loved his life and that he would not sacrifice it for anyone. Only safety of his daughter (not even his mother) could induce him to sacrifice his own life. Expectedly this proclamation elicited a huge hue and cry from the general public. Nicknamed “Run Run Fan” in light of his action, faced swift condemnation and was fired from his job. Not only that, it even prompted the Ministry of education to issue a new State ethics regulation, which says that protecting the students is a moral obligation of the teachers.

While Fan’s detractors have been more numerous as well as more strident, the media has not been devoid of a few who have dared to praise him for his honesty. Fan could have kept quiet and possibly lived with a nagging feeling of guilt throughout his life. But he chose to publicly expunge it and in a way proclaim his innocence while admitting his guilt.

The second incident is perhaps even more intriguing. Jiang Xiaojuan, a 30 year old police woman in Jiangyou city in Sichuan province and a mother of a six month old child, breastfed six children who lost their mothers in the earthquake. Caught in the act by a press photographer, Jiang expectedly faced profuse showers of praise and approval. Clearly this was a unambiguous case of selfless compassion, of a member of the police force behaving with uncharacteristic tenderness and care. While most agreed to this, what caused the debate among the Chinese was her subsequent promotion to assistant commissioner of public security for the city. While her action was clearly commendable, the resultant promotion, the Chinese public felt, was not justified - as compassion alone, however heart-felt and moving it may be, is not an adequate criteria for elevation to a senior position in the police department.

The Western media and political leaders are obsessed with what they see as absence of democracy and free speech in the China. Some even go to the absurd length of saying that the country suffers from a moral vacuum. The lively and open debate around the Run Run Fan and Jiang Xiaojuan shows that it there is spirit of debate and moral discussion which is alive and vibrant in China – it is just that the issues that the West considers as the core of morality are perhaps not the same as the ones that excite debate and passion among the Chinese. West needs to resist the temptation of judging every country and every person by the single minded view of Western morality and democratic ideals. The Sichuan earthquake revealed a profile of the country which is compassionate, considerate and reflective. There is a sense of balance and intense reflection on what is right and wrong. Recognizing such a mindset, the West needs to let go, relax and let China find its own path at its own pace.