Democracy and Truth

If you look closely at the stream of information emanating from China, some of it looks suspiciously “complacent”, which is to say, looks like PR spin. Where is the critical view, where the alternative, competing views?

Newspapers speak of the environment but do they go far enough? Are they, perhaps, simply writing for link-minded readers, perhaps a form of window dressing for general viewing.

The difficulty in cultivating a national democratic culture lies in encouraging vigorous, outspoken debate without fear that factions will gain the upper hand tearing asunder the “hard won” polity as it was following the Cultural Revolution, and as it might have been had the regime not suppressed the student demonstrations and occupation of Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Wherein then lies authority? With capitalism at its doorstep and modernisation a preordained outcome, how might the Chinese nation have encouraged national debate without unleashing sectarian violence?

Topography and Geomorphology: environmental debate in China

The following OpEd piece is reproduced in its entirety from the August 20, 2010 issue of The China Daily. This opinion by a senior editor of the “national English-language newspaper” may be read as a reflection on Chinese environmental sensitivity. The writer argues for placing “conservation” at the center of an ecological approach to the stark geographical and environmental realities that confront the PRC.

This article helps allay one’s fear that the Chinese pursue growth policies without regard to environmental consequences. Everywhere we visited there was evidence the Chinese are discreetly aware of the environmental cost of their success. But, while there may be no point in being alarmist, the issues are pressing.

Whatever success the Chinese may have in building a more just and equitable society, whatever the challenges of soil and water conservation, the Chinese are tributary to a “youthful” geomorphology characterized by frequent earthquakes, flooding and progressive “natural” desertification.

Water, water everywhere, but not a drop

By Op Rana (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-08-20 06:10

Asia is home to half the world’s population yet it has the least volume of freshwater of any other continent, except Antarctica if we discount its ice sheets.

And among all Asian countries, the situation in China is perhaps the gravest: It’s home to more than 20 percent of the world’s population but has only 7 percent of global water resources. Worse still, its per capita freshwater availability is one-fourth the world average.

Till the heavy downpours triggered floods and landslides, killing hundreds of people across vast stretches of South, East and even Northwest China, a large part of the country had been under the grip of drought or drought-like conditions. The blame for this unusual weather rests primarily on global warming. But the tragic developments – drought one moment, floods the next – teach us a lesson, too.

That lesson is not necessarily [that we should build] huge dams, diverting water from South to North, although such measures might in the short term, solve the problem. By far the most important lesson to be learnt is how to conserve water.

Almost half of China’s more than 660 cities face, what in modern terminology, is called a water crisis. Beijing, unfortunately, sits somewhere at the top of that list.

As if that was not enough, Beijing’s underground water table is said to be receding, and receding fast. China’s capital doesn’t enjoy the luxury of being situated on a major river. It has to depend on underground water for a large part of its freshwater supply.

The problem is that the more water it pumps out from the ground, the faster the water table recedes and the drier the city becomes. That’s an invitation to desertification, which has been checked, at least for the time being, by the planting of hundreds of thousands of trees in the northern part of Beijing and its neighboring provinces. But these trees, or afforested areas, as hardy as they may be, need a certain amount of precipitation to survive. And precipitation depends partly on the water table of an area, which tragically is receding.

Studies have shown a large percentage of the cities’ groundwater and a majority of rivers and lakes are polluted. The result: millions of people have to make do with contaminated drinking water. Beijing residents are not among such people. But the signs are ominous.

There’s a saying among Indians, irrespective of which of the many Indian languages they speak: Tiny drops go on to make a pond. Every drop of water is precious, every drop of water counts – more so in China.

That’s precisely why one is surprised to see tree trunks on streets beautifully guarded by immaculately paved tiles, with just one-meter-square of bare soil. The rest of the pavements, as the term suggests, are paved. And shockingly enough, the moment a tree is chopped off or uprooted for some construction project or the other, even that one-square-meter of bare soil is covered with tiles.

Beijing has all the trappings of a modern city: glitzy high-rises, wide, tar-bitumen carpeted roads, beautifully laid-out pavements and paved walkways (as we see in the Olympic Green). None of these surfaces allow the little rain (and snowfall) that Beijing receives to seep into the soil. The precious water flows into gutters, and ultimately into the nearest sea or river, which, in turn, flows untapped into a sea.

It’s no secret that groundwater tables are replenished by water seeping through the soil. But the logic of human beauty teaches us to keep cities (and if possible, the entire country) dust-free, and thus “concretize” every possible inch of space. The tragedy is that nature doesn’t follow our logic.

A 2006 UN report says: “There is enough water for everyone” and “Water insufficiency is often due to mismanagement, corruption, lack of appropriate institutions, bureaucratic inertia and a shortage of investment both in human capacity and physical infrastructure”.

China neither has enough (fresh) water nor smart management to harness freshwater (harvest rainwater for instance), which otherwise flows into seas.

If we cannot build reservoirs in which rainwater can be drained into, can we at least let as much water as possible seep through the soil, especially in cities like Beijing?

For further information, the reader might take a look at the website “China’s Environmental Issues” (, a site produced by students for students and hosted by the Oracle education foundation, ThinkQuest ( Alternatively, one might have a more detailed look via the website, Facts and Details


It’s only six days until we board a train for Paris and begin our outbound trip for China. I continue to experiment with my blog and the possibilities the Arras template (a WordPress template) affords for media integration

Just how does the “Chinese awakening” constitute a “catalogue of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability”?

Contemporary Chinese culture is the expression of 4500 years of cultural learning. The virtue of continuity arises, not so much from the continuous occupation of an unusually rich biotope but in sustained interaction with that space and vigorous competition for the honor of ruling with “Heaven’s Mandate”. In this sense, China’s history is a long history of upheaval and renewal.

What is unusual is that the inventive spirit functions so well in this “old nation”.The Chinese are credited with many firsts–paper, gun powder, the compass, iron foundries, the crossbow. One innovation that is sometimes overlooked however, is their grasp of the social narrative as a tool for nation building. It was the Chinese who invented the professionalized civil service, admission to which was by competitive examination. China may be justly recognized as first among bretheren, simply because we could not have invented a narrative of continuity extending over 4000 years, or spatial scales and social organization adapted to a population of 1.3 billion people. These are products of time and cultural learning and cannot be invented.

I look forward to exploring how the Chinese inhabit their landscapes as well as the cities and monuments they have grown out of their rich geography. Our trip will take us from the Ming capital, Beijing, across the northern rim of the Yellow River Valley and through coal mining country to Xi’an on the Wei, a tributary of the Yellow River. It was here that the Qin finallly wrested power to themselves, transforming forever zhongguo (the Middle Kingdom) into China.

From the “uplands” of the Yellow River we will travel across the lower Yangtse to the historic city of Suzhou, the oldest continously inhabited city in the Yangtse Valley (2500 years), home of the Wu clan (one of three kingdoms competing for Heaven’s Mandate) and today, a city of 5.5 million people and an important center for China’s silk industry. Suzhou is located on the Grand Canal, a public works project begun 486 BC.

From Suzhou we will travel the last 100 km to Shanghai, that XIXth century port city whose role in international trade was consecrated by the 1842 Treaty of Nanking. There, of course we will be dazzled by glass and steel skyscrapers, a bustling Bund and the 2010 Shanghai Exposition.

In addition to the “built” environment, I look forward to Chinese railroading and to verifying (however superficially) the credibility of reports that the Chinese are destroying their environment. Such reports are pervasive in the European press even while there is no shortage of bucolic, beautifully lighted photographic cliches of the countryside under snow, of cherry and apple blossoms. How are these facts reconciled?

Finally, of course, I look forward to exploring market places and menus.

I approach this trip with a certain humility. I anticipate problems with language but do not anticipate resolving these simply by opening my wallet. I anticipate a certain amount of physical discomfort due to knees and joints with no obvious relief beyond anti-inflammatory medication. I anticipate self-restraint and an otherwise ascetic experience of an unfamiliar environment. This will be a first.

China, summer 2010

In July 2007 I wrote that the Chinese “great awakening”

might be apprehended as a mirror of Western society and a unique opportunity to see ourselves in a new light. There are perhaps as many ways to tell a story as their are stories to tell. But for those who listen and observe, the Chinese awakening is a catalog of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability.

This summer Françoise and I will travel to China to meet Katie and her travel companion, Pauline on their return trip from Sydney. Katie and Pauline arrive in Beijing on the 8th. From there we will travel to Pingyao, Xi’an, Suzhou and Shanghai spending two-plus weeks in China. We return to Aix via Moscow and Paris on the 22nd of August.

In the three years since I wrote that entry, China has emerged as a world power. 300 million people have been lifted out of poverty and a vast middle class has emerged. China hosted a dazzling media event, the 2008 summer Olympics and is hosting the 2010 Shanghai Exposition, a world’s fair on par with anything the West ever organized. And yet, desertification continues in China’s far west, torrential rains and flooding dog Hubei province and the mid-Yangtse, and coal remains the fuel of necessity.

The image we in the West hold of China is that of a proud country in a rush to claim its place in the comity of nations. This is inevitably only a small part of the story and undoubtedly the story told by well-meaning and thoughtful men and women, news and assignment editors who decide which stories will get underwritten and published.

We all live in an attention economy where the rule is that “change originates beyond the pale of consciousness”. In visiting China we will meet Chinese people from all walks of life. We will sample the infinitude of spaces in which the Chinese live and move and we will get a glimpse the magnitude of their national project. But it will be a challenge to reconcile the tourism imperative–buildings, monuments, museums, landscapes, temples, mausoleums and parks–with the spontaneous exploration of people, places and community enterprise.

But even these obey the laws of the attention economy in a material marketplace, where the question “whence my next meal” trumps poetry, and where the ruckus of public life is but an note in a natural harmonic scale.

A 21st Century Awakening

Of all the subjects available for discussion and involvement, perhaps the most interesting is the “great awakening”. Certainly China existed before the Cultural Revolution and it will certainly exist long after you and I have moved on.

Yet here are 1.3 billion people – young people, mothers, fathers, educators, scientists, consumers – awakening to consciousness. As interesting as this would be in any event, in the case of China it is all the more remarkable because the Chinese are playing by our rules, mimicking Western social forms, making their own mistakes, learning from ours’.

This awakening is unselfconscious. It is full of itself and confident, a youthful coming to maturity of a society whose cultural conventions and ethos represent many thousands of generations of refinement.

This great awakening might be apprehended as a mirror of Western society and a unique opportunity to see ourselves in a new light. There are perhaps as many ways to tell a story as their are stories to tell. But for those who listen and observe, the Chinese awakening is a catalog of new forms by which to measure our own sense of accountability.

Background for this article is taken from an MSN article, “What do Chinese Teens Want?“. If you are reading this post, you might like to explore MSN’s use of multimedia (multiple media types) in reporting on Chinese consumerism. Also, the video segment “Rapping Over Opera” makes a number of interesting inter-cultural points.