Monday, December 30, 2013

China, Book 3



China, Book 3

The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama

I have to admit, on that day, I was beyond excited. I forsook all of my studies for exams the upcoming week for the opportunity to attend my first legitimate “Spanish” party. The occasion was watching the Barcelona-Madrid soccer game on television. It was hosted by a group of Spaniards/Catalans at a Spanish/Catalan guy’s house out in the countryside of Catalonia. All there was to eat was white bread and red meat and all there was to drink was various types of alcohol. (A feast planned by Spanish men, indeed!) And I was the only one from the USA invited. 

Most of the people at the party were typical European professionals – multi-lingual and well-traveled. I loved it – I was never without an interesting conversation partner. And, even when there was a lull in conversation, I would often just switch languages just for the practice of it. Conversations in Catalan, Spanish, Italian, English, French, and Mandarin Chinese could be heard when there was a lull in the game (which wasn’t very often.) 

After the soccer game and before the dancing began, I found myself outside around the grill with a group of Spanish guys. One of them smiled at me, leaned over, and whispered: “Watch closely. Spain has 46 million people and 46 million potential presidents every election.” I stood with him in the background and before my eyes, I saw an argument unfold – a passionate argument, growing ever-louder, spurred on by the vast amounts of alcohol being drunk – about the fate of Tibet. Just when I thought the score was settled, the argument was further complicated by the presence of a woman from mainland China, who vehemently opposed the Dalai Lama and saw China’s involvement in Tibet as a means of supporting development, rather than a violation of human rights. I am not exactly sure how the argument ended, but one man finally threw his hands up into the air in frustration and sulked into the house. A large faction followed him. Never before had I attended a sports-viewing party with such an engaging and passionate debate. Of course, I knew some about Tibet, but decided at that point in time that I certainly needed to learn more.

One of my Chinese friends expressed her disapproval when she saw that I did not have a book on my blog that focused on Tibet. She found some music videos from China on Youtube that celebrated the Tibetan culture – exclaiming to me that Tibet was an integral part of China and helped make her country unique. It was her encouragement that led me to purchase The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dali Lama, from a local used book store. Published in 1997 by the University of California Press, this book was written by Melvyn C. Goldstein, a professor at Case Western Reserve University. 

Tibet, which is an autonomous region located in the southwestern region of the People’s Republic of China, has a unique culture and development, as well as geography. Bordering the countries of India, Nepal, and Bhutan, Tibet covers a great deal of the Himalayan Mountain Range. Tibet indeed poses a very difficult question, which the author describes as:

“The Tibet Question, the long-standing conflict over the political status of Tibet in relation to China, is a conflict about nationalism – an emotion-laden debate over whether political units should directly parallel ethnic units. This question pit the right of a ‘people’ (Tibetans) to self-determination and independence against the right of a multiethnic state (the People’s Republic of China) to maintain what it sees as its historical integrity.” (page ix)

This book is a brief overview which details the complex history between China and Tibet, starting from the seventh century CE, when the two regions became unified under the dynasty started by King Songsten Gampo. As my knowledge of Chinese imperial history leaves a great deal to learn, I found some of the information flying over my head. However, there is one thing for certain: Tibet was able to retain its autonomy of religion and its own culture only through the tactful political maneuvering of its leaders. It is also important to note that by the 18th century, the Dalai Lama had lost its political power and had become solely a “spiritual figurehead.” (page 17) The relationship between China and Tibet became increasingly complex when the British conquered Tibet in 1904. 

To be honest, I had no idea about the western colonial forces at play in Tibet before I read this book, however these forces helped determine Tibet’s fate following World War II. Britain’s post-war priority was the decolonization of India, and subsequently, when Mao’s forces invaded Tibet in 1950, the Tibetans did not receive any western aid or support. At first, the communists tried to provide the Tibetans a certain degree of autonomy. However in 1959, the Tibetans attempted to expel the Chinese in a failed uprising after which, “Buddhism was destroyed and Tibetans were forced to abandon deeply held values and customs that went to the core of their cultural identity. The class struggle sessions and the constant barrage of propaganda contradicting and ridiculing everything they understood and felt, sought to destroy the social and cultural fabric of the Tibetans’ traditional way of life.” (page 60)

In the 1980s, the Dalai Lama began on a very successful international campaign to bring attention to the Tibetan question. This campaign truly made an impact – if not politically, at least in the hearts and minds of people around the world. In Germany, I was shocked by the sheer magnitude of books by the Dalai Lama available for purchase (especially in comparison to the amount of available literature by other religious leaders around the world.) In the midst of this campaign, China has changed its policy toward Tibet –essentially, ensuring a certain level of development that the Tibetans could not achieve on their own. “The cornerstone of the central government’s new policy was (and is) economic growth and modernization – accelerating economic developing in Tibet by providing large subsidies for development projects aimed at building infrastructure and productive capacity.” (page 93) 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

China, Book 2



China, Book 2

Understanding China

I am convinced that China will save opera, and will indeed save the entire classical music industry as a whole. As opera companies are closing in the West, China is developing an operatic tradition of its own – in Mandarin Chinese (no less!) Western-style operas in the Mandarin language are being composed and performed at an astonishingly fast pace. The National Center for Performing Arts in Beijing, which hosted its first ever western-style opera festival in 2009, has brought a modern edge to the city’s architecture through its egg-shaped design. Moreover, China boasts two other modern opera houses in Shanghai and Guangzhou, the latter whose opening in 2010 marked the end of a 202 million USD construction project. 

It was this belief that led me to dedicate an entire year of my undergraduate studies to taking Mandarin Chinese courses – day in and day out. I must admit, I was more than daunted when, during the first week of the semester, I was provided a list of Chinese characters as vocabulary words and a dialogue which I was to recite from memory in class the next day. It was then that I began kicking myself for my academic curiosity: by taking this course, surely I had shot my GPA – there was no way I could pull off an A, or a B for that matter. However, as time went on, I found that the language came naturally. I found that some of my favorite hours of the day were filled with Mandarin Chinese study – drawing the intricate characters over and over again; repeating the phrases until they felt natural. It was in this process of learning the language that I developed an interest in the country of China itself.

There are so many misconceptions about China in the United States today. I do not claim to have the answers, but one thing that I do know about China is that it is much more complex and diverse than we, in the States, often give it credit for. From a personal perspective, I have noticed that among my mainland Chinese friends (which now number in the dozens), there is no one consensus. Indeed, each one of my friends has differing and unique views on the history and society of their country; about how China should develop in the future; and what are the greatest challenges currently facing China. However, we can see this diversity even in the geography of the country itself. Just slightly smaller than the United States, China spans from the snowy Himalayas to the dry Gobi Desert and the fertile Yellow River Valley. Ethnically speaking, “more than nine-tenths of the population consider themselves of the same Han ethnicity, but the remaining tenth is divided among fifty-five distinct ethnic groups,” (page 9) many which have their own languages. In my mind, it is extremely important to keep this extreme diversity in mind when discussing any aspect of China (government, economics, etc.) This opinion was reinforced by the second book I read about China, Understanding China: A Guide to China’s Economy, History, and Political Culture. Written by Yale professor John Bryan Starr, this book offers a broad, yet thorough, 400-page overview of the issues facing China today.
“China is divided into thirty-three governments at the provincial level (thirty-four if one chooses, as does the government in Beijing, to regard Taiwan as a province), twenty-three of which are provinces: four city government (Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, and Shanghai); two special administrative regions (Hong Kong and Macao); and five autonomous regions.” (page 69) This diversity is very important because it provides us with the background and the understanding of some of the biggest issues discussed in the book – from the Taiwan question (which is indeed an international concern) to rural development and the potential for political instability. Although the book delves into many topics, I will focus on the ones that have its basis in the diversity of the country of China.  

One of the most challenging aspects to the country is development, which is intricately intertwined with ethnicity. The most developed regions with urban centers in China are in the East, while the West (which is populated predominately by non-Han ethnic groups – notably the Uighurs and the Tibetans) is by far less developed. The divide between rural and urban is great and will only become greater in time: “The average urban per capita income in China’s cities stands at just over $2,000 per year; the average rural per capita income is somewhat less than $605 per year. Twenty-three percent of the Chinese population is living in poverty (defined by the World Bank as a per capita income of less than $456 per year), and the vast majority of these are rural residents. And the situation is getting worse. The overall growth rate in the urban economy is more than 10 recent, and in the rural sector only about 4 percent.” (page 177)

An equally important question that China faces on diversity is its special administrative regions. (Indeed, for this blog, I actually read separate books for Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan because I recognized the culture and paths of development to be so utterly different.) The author describes the turning over of Hong Kong from the hands of the British to the hands of the Chinese, and describes what this transition could mean for Taiwan. While perhaps overlooked in many cases, Taiwan could develop into a very serious problem indeed, as “Japan and the United States signed in 2005 a joint security statement declaring a peaceful Taiwan Strait as a common security objective.” (page 351)

I would highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to develop a stronger understanding of the region – especially if he/she has been keeping up with the news coming out of China. This book puts these hot topics into perspective. Despite having already read a great deal on the Chinese economy and culture, I found myself learning a lot from this book. I found one topic regarding the Chinese legal system of particular interest because I had never read anything about it before: “As is the case with law in China today, so is the case with judges: the problem is not one of quantity but of quality. Although there are some 180,000 judges nationwide, many are demobilized PLA [People’s Liberation Army] soldiers selected not for their intellect and judicial expertise but rather for their patriotism and their ideological correctness. At this point, fewer than half of judges have completed postsecondary degrees.” (page 248) After reading this, I was very interested in the implications for the Chinese economy (i.e., intellectual property), the status of human rights in China, and future political developments. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Rwanda, Book 2



Rwanda, Book 2

Rwanda Inc.

The impetus for the creation of this blog came from one of my best friends, Regis. We met in a General Physics lab over five years ago – and while Regis continued in STEM disciplines (he is now getting his doctorate in Computational Sciences), I made the switch to economics and the social sciences. In spite of our mutual love for classical music, our shared dry sense of humor, and our quest for academic excellence, we are in some ways complete opposites. Regis is not only ethnic Rwandan, but he is also at least a foot taller than me. Right before classes let out for summer in 2012, we took the opportunity to grab a coffee together and talk. I have to admit, in the conversation, I got little frustrated with him because he kept pushing me to journal about all of the books I had read. I told him that after my year of physics, I had developed an aversion to lab book/journals of any kind, but nonetheless, I promised him that I would consider it. It was during the following week at the beach that I began to think about what he said and developed the idea for my blog.

Although Regis and I haven’t seen each other in nearly two years, we call and message frequently. It was at his constant insistence that I started reading about Africa after completing Asia. I really appreciate Regis because, when I develop questions about African culture/society (men and women relationships; classes and kinship; child and parent relationships; military; economic development; etc.) through my reading, he is willing to answer them without reserve.  

Needless to say, Regis is in Kigali (the capital city of Rwanda) for the holiday break. I have enjoyed living Kigali vicariously through him – his impressions of returning back to his home country, as well as his reverse culture shocks. One such culture shock? The clothing. Apparently, everyone in Kigali is dressed to impress – for men, dress pants are the norm and shorts are unthinkable. Another culture shock? The amazing and sudden development of Kigali – its cleanliness, its large new buildings, etc.

With this in mind, I will share the best book that provides an overall picture of Rwanda to-date: Rwanda Inc.: How a Devastated Nation Became an Economic Model for the Developing World by Patricia Crisaulli and Andrea Redmond. I have to admit, that even though I found some of the parts repetitive and somewhat shallow in analysis – probably because I already have a strong understanding of Rwanda - this is a perfect read for someone with a limited background of Rwanda and who wants to learn more. While it mentions the genocide, it does not focus on the genocide – a particularly important aspect, as all of the Rwandans I have met are much more focused on the future rather than remembering the past. It also discusses many of the issues facing Rwanda on its path to development.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was the issue of western aid. Earlier this year, I read Oxford-trained economist Dambisa Moyo’s book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. In this book, Moyo often quotes Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has been very clear that he wants Rwanda to not be dependent on western aid, in the same way that so many countries in Africa are. The authors explain this through the psychological effect of genocide on the Rwandan leadership:  “Another big part of the genocide story is that of a country abandoned by the West.” (page 28) During the genocide of 1994 in which up to one million individuals perished, the Western countries did not come to Rwanda’s aid. The United Nations was not able to stop genocide and, in fact, President Mitterrand of France actually provided arms and support for the Hutu-controlled government. 

Another important result of the Rwandan genocide is certainly the humanitarian lens by which the Rwandan government continues on its path to development. The government is hoping to become a hub in the service industry in East Africa - recently even switching the language of instruction in school to English language immersion in order to quicken this process – and place a high importance on human capital. “Although Rwanda is the most densely populated country in Africa (10.7 million people in 10,000 square miles), it continues to welcome its refugees home. ‘Even though Rwanda is small geographically, it doesn’t mean we don’t need our people. The greatest resource we have is our people,’ Rucyahana said.” (page 82) Following the 1994 genocide, the social fabric of Rwanda was torn apart. Despite this and the devastation of the country’s institutions, Rwanda immediately began trying to attract ethnic Rwandan refugees from all around the world to engage in the rebuilding process of the country. 

One aspect that I disliked about this book was that it did not seem to be very objective, especially in regard to Paul Kagame. Don’t get me wrong – I respect Kagame and recognize him to be a very bright leader. Although I do not often talk politics, all of my Rwandan friends (whose opinions I respect greatly) have expressed their admiration of him and appreciation for his work. That being said, this book does not provide as objective a view into Kagame’s leadership as Stephen Kinzer’s book, A Thousand Hills. Indeed, when I read about Kagame’s background in Kinzer’s book as a guerilla fighter for Ugandan President Museveni, as an officer in the Ugandan military intelligence, and his training in Cuba, I actually gained more respect for him. In Rwanda, Inc., however, while criticisms of Kagame are brought up, they are almost immediately discredited by the authors. Instead, the book is just filled with praise for Kagame’s leadership, which indeed deserves praise: “Through strong leadership, decentralization to empower the grassroots, free markets, private sector development, managing and aligning the activities of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with the Rwanda government’s priorities, and active courting of foreign direct investment – all enhanced by cultural values and traditions – Rwanda has become a model for the developing world.” (page 110)

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

Rwanda, Book 1



Rwanda, Book 1

A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It

My best friend in the entire world is a Rwandan genocide survivor. If you take a look at Angelique, you wouldn’t guess that she had experienced such unthinkable brutality in her life. Always dressed to fashionable perfection with coifed hair and carefully-applied makeup, the first thing that you will notice about her (beside her breathtaking beauty) is her broad smile. We became fast friends during our first year of college and quickly began referring to ourselves as “sisters.” I loved sharing with her my culture. (I will never forget her surprise when she discovered that more ice cream flavors than “chocolate” and “vanilla” existed.) And in turn, I loved learning about Rwanda. (Likewise, I will never forget when she facetiously shared with me the number of cows her dowry would be now that she had studied in the US.) She bought me beautiful Rwandan clothes and attempted to teach me how to dance in the traditional style, as well as speak some of her native language of Kinyarwanda. She ate Thanksgiving turkey at my house, attended an opera with me, and went kayaking in the North Carolina lakes with my family. 

I never asked about the genocide. It is an extremely sensitive topic and I figured that she would share that with me if she wanted to. Months after we first met, she opened up and shared with me some her story. Just four years of age when the violence broke out in April 1994, she remembered everything – the massacres, the death, and her family’s escape. Her story is not mine to tell, and so I won’t share it on this blog. I will just share how I felt when she finally told me her story as we were driving along in the car. I was awestruck and felt completely numb. I didn’t cry (neither did she), but it took every ounce of effort to keep my thoughts on the road. 

I felt so inadequate. After hearing about the unspeakable hardships she had overcome, I had no reason – nor any right – to complain about the so-called “hardships” of my life.  It was then that I recognized myself as a United States American, blessed beyond all belief: I had never seen someone killed, I had never experienced a single day of hunger, I had electricity (and cable) every day of my life, and I lived in the superpower of the world. I looked over at Angelique and was amazed by her strength of character. It was then that she broke out into song. Looking straight ahead, she started to sing in French a beautiful melody which I recognized as a hymn. It was one of the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard in my life. 

Needless to say, Rwanda holds a very special place in my heart and I decided to read several books on it. The first was Stephen Kinzer’s well-reviewed book, A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It. The title refers to President Paul Kagame, one of the most well-known and dynamic leaders in all of Africa. He not only led the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) which liberated the country, he set the path for development by acting as Vice President for the six years following the genocide and as President since 2000.

For those of you who need a refresher course in Rwanda history, Rwanda is a tiny landlocked country in East Africa – surrounded by the countries Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly called Zaire.) It first found itself under German colonial control up until the aftermath of World War I, after which it fell into the hands of Belgium. In order to administer the country, the Belgians magnified the existing differences between the two ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi, in order to divide them and better ensure the country under their control. Interestingly, both of the ethnic tribes spoke the same Kinyarwanda language. It is also important to mention that before the arrival of the Europeans, Rwanda had a very different idea of kinship and tribe than we hold in the West: “Tutsi constituted the governing class, tended to be taller than Hutu, and raised cattle rather than tilling the soil. Little else of substance, though, separated the two groups. It was even possible for people to move from one to the other. If a Hutu became an owner of many cattle, he also became a Tutsi; a Tutsi family that turned to farming would eventually become Hutu. Intermarriage was accepted and communal conflict was all but nonexistent.” (page 23) In the midst of the process by which Rwanda gained independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s, ethnic tensions had developed to the point that the ethnic Hutu majority conducted a mini-genocide against the minority Tutsi. (These ethnic tensions had been particularly inflamed by Belgian colonization. At first, the Belgians utilized and empowered the Tutsi aristocracy to administer the country in a form of indirect colonization. Later, in a process called reverse favoritism, the Belgians began to support the Hutu in order to gain a stronger foothold in the country.) 

In April 1994, the Rwandan genocide began in full force, with Hutus massacring Tutsis mercilessly (often with machetes) in locally-organized death campaigns. Within three months, an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed (including the moderate Hutu Prime Minsiter Agathe Uwilingiyimana.) Paul Kagame and his RPF Army gained control of the country, but found themselves in possession of a broken state: “The devastation counted Rwanda itself among its victims. More than 10 percent of the population had been murdered in the space of a hundred days. At least another 30 percent had fled or was fleeing. There was no government or security force. Even if any institutions had remained, there would have been no one to run them. Nor was there any cash; leaders of the old regime had fled with every cent in the treasury…” (page 181) In regard to development, Rwanda faced an incredibly daunting task, especially in regard to the psychological effects of genocide on its population: “99.9 percent of Rwandan children witnessed violence during the spring of 1994. Ninety percent believed they would die. Eighty-seven percent saw dead bodies, 80 percent lost at least one relative, 58 percent saw people being hacked with pangas, and 31% percent witnessed rapes or other sexual assaults.” (page 253) ­

This book is a very interesting book in that it not only describes the genocide, but also the post-genocide Rwanda, headed by Paul Kagame. Indeed, Rwanda has changed a great deal since the genocide and is now viewed as somewhat of a success story. Looking upon the Asian tigers (with their limited forms of democracy and their authoritarian-style visionary leaders) as his model, Kagame developed lofty goals for his country: “Since Rwanda has few natural resources and is too small for large-scale agriculture, the new government concluded that it needed to find another niche. It proclaimed a new mission: to make Rwanda the trade and commercial hub of East and Central Africa, a region awash in resources but plagued by poverty, corruption, and paralyzing inefficiency.” (page 227) Certainly, the country is well on its way to this goal and was actually ranked #3 in the Sub-Saharan Africa region in the Heritage Foundation’s 2013 Economic Freedom Index, following only Mauritius and Botswana. That being said, there is no clear consensus in the international community about the legacy and the power of Kagame. The question remains as to  “…whether President Kagame is a prudent leader who limits freedom only to the extent necessary to safeguard his people or an instinctively repressive one who overstates threats in order to protect his own personal power. In no other country does the opinion of Western human rights groups clash so directly with that of diplomats and antipoverty activists.” (page 326) This book provides very interesting insights into this question and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to develop a deep working understanding of the issues facing Rwanda today. 

Please feel free to comment on these topics or note something interesting from the book. I look forward to hearing your opinions! 

(This post is dedicated to A.I.N. - the most wonderful and beautiful sister anyone could ever ask for. I am so proud of you and cannot wait to see the miraculous plans that God has in store for you. Jeremiah 29:11)