Erenlai - Benoit Vermander (魏明德)
Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

Wednesday, 02 September 2009 01:50

The Aftermath of Typhoon Morakot

On August 7-10, Typhoon Morakot’s torrential rains devastated southern Taiwan. At least 600 people died under the giant mudslides triggered by the typhoon. More than three weeks after the disaster, the psychological and political aftershocks are still felt throughout the island. The raging debate has become increasingly multilayered:

- The first debate has been about the dismal performance of the forecasting system, unable to predict the deluge that has engulfed the southern part of the island.

- The second one, and the most damaging politically, has focused on the slow response of the central government. President Ma Ying-jeou, it has been argued, has shown that he was not a strong and capable leader. From the start, he had appointed a cabinet of technocrats insensitive to real life issues and popular feelings. And he has focused so much on bettering relationships with China that he has forgotten to tackle Taiwan’s everyday concerns. Whatever the fairness of these allegations, they have suddenly altered drastically his public image, with consequences so far-reaching that they are still difficult to predict.

- Though they have not taken the brunt of political criticisms, local governments have not fared much better than the Center. They sometimes have been slow to request external help. Roads and other public facilities might have been so inadequate because public works contracts are given out by local powers in dubious fashion; however, the “Green” counties of the South have been keen to shift the blame towards the central government.

- Quite logically, the attention now focuses on the poor quality of public works, deforestation and general neglect of environmental imperatives, which might explain the amplitude of the mudslides. Political leaders are not the only ones to blame. The strife towards rapid profit and Taiwan society’s indifference to long-term issues account for the rapid ecological deterioration, especially in mountain areas, which might trigger similar disasters in the future.

- The prayer tour conducted by the Dalai Lama has opened up a new front: political motivations have been invoked, as the invitation made by Green local leaders is deeply embarrassing for Ma Ying-jeou, who could not reject the Dalai Lama’s application without further political consequences but has now to deal with China’s anger. Meanwhile, not all Taiwanese religious leaders have reacted enthusiastically to the coming of the Dalai Lama: many victims from the mountainous area were aborigine, thus probably Christians. Taiwanese Buddhist leaders fear the growing influence of Tibetan Buddhism on their own flock; and Chinese religion associations have pointedly underlined the “efficacy” of traditional memorial services and rituals…

- Once avidly watched, medias have also suffered from a backlash: their unbridled sensationalism, the relentless flow of often meaningless reports and interviews and the competition among TV channels have illustrated once again the very poor quality of information service in Taiwan. Medias now appear as the main profiteers of a national disaster.

- One positive effect of the disaster has rarely been noticed: Civil society has very quickly taken up relief work (from the outset of the disaster in fact), without public support, and newly relying on Internet Social Networks, especially through Plurk, preferred by many young Taiwanese activists to Twitter. Once again, Taiwan has shown that its main strength lies in its robust civil society that works independently from the public and media apparatus. A positive inheritance from the way Taiwan’s democratization came about.

The typhoon has thus proven to be a social and cultural revelation. Taiwanese have experienced once again the ills that come with short-term vision and concerns, and have strongly expressed their political disillusions. At the same time, their natural gift for self-introspection and for self-organization has been as remarkable as has been the case in previous circumstances, such as after the massive earthquake that happened ten years ago. The problem is now to draw the right lessons from the disaster, and to resolutely orient Taiwan towards sustainability and proper use of land resources. A global challenge that new social networks might help to spell out for the greater good of a traumatized society looking for meaning, purpose and unity…

Tuesday, 11 August 2009 00:00

Hercules and the Hydra: the Seven Crises of Humankind


When I was a child, I enjoyed reading the tales and legends from the Greek mythology. Young boys are especially mesmerized by the Twelve Labours of Hercules, a hero not so smart, but so brave and enthusiastic… Among the Twelve Labours he had to accomplish, Hercules fought a hydra with seven heads – or nine heads according to the different versions. In fact, there are several different tales of the fight. The most common one tells that the seven heads of the hydra would grow back after being cut and Hercules had to sever the heads one by one to prevent their growing again. One of these heads was even immortal and Hercules had to bury it under a rock. Curiously, the version I kept in my mind is different: each head would grow up if cut separately, and Hercules had to sever the seven heads at the same time to defeat the hydra… Each version of the same myth has its own coherence and its own significance, thus it is the latter version that I choose, to make Hercules be the symbol of mankind struggling with a multiplicity of crises and challenges…


The Crises are systemic

The lesson to be drawn from the Hercules’ story that I recall, is that we should view and tackle problems in their globalism. Nothing is more dangerous than the international community twirling around the crises, without solving any of them, while leaving aside a universal view of the planet’s situation.

We are not only living a time of recession. We are not only going through one crisis. We are facing an era of crises. Their complexity and their overlapping are entirely part of the challenge met by the global community now, at this time in history: the crises of the global financial system, global warming, natural resources, cultural diversity, great poverty, migrations and world governance… All these crises are systemic, they retroact on each other and they require us to think and ponder on a global level in order to really confront each of these crises in their entirety.

Certainly, technical solutions must be defined and adopted for each particular challenge. But when their interactions are ignored, the problems that appeared solved just re-emerge even more acutely. The present recession is a good example of this phenomenon: after the alert of the Asian financial crisis and the “Internet bubble” collapsing, around year 2000, the economists were professing to understand so perfectly the international system that another recession was not conceivable. But the lack of concern for ethics (the exhaustion of our “cultural resources”) and the excessive deregulation (sign of the global governance deficit) have broken this unwarranted self-confidence.

And yet, humanity has proven its capacity to reflect collectively as a global community on the significance of the times. An important step for this reflection on a global spectrum was taken with the ‘Millennium Goals’. Here, international institutions stated, in unison, the planets situation then they came to an agreement on priority goals, designing an action program for a period of time following the symbolic year 2000. Their striving to make judgements and the common will, were demonstrated with vigour and inventiveness. Nevertheless; while the global community has shown its aptitude and volition, it has also shown its limitations. These are also our limitations when it comes to taking action, and more importantly acting in unison. They did not make an error with the diagnosis or the objectives as such. However the means were simply not there to put the goals into practice. Admittedly, some efforts have been made to remedy the scandalizing situation where millions of people are suffering without access to clean water, to eradicate great poverty, to promote the sharing of educational resources and in the fight against epidemics - but the resources freed up for the tasks still remain minor compared to the challenges we are confronting…thus, it may not be enough to attempt to tackle each crisis one by one, rather it is a matter of apprehending, as a system, all the different challenges presently faced by the international community. Here, I have split these challenges into seven: the struggle against global warming, the need to overhaul the international financial system, the management of natural resources, the exhaustion of cultural resources, the crisis of structural poverty which nurtures the crisis of migrations and intercommunity tensions, and the reform of global governance.


Monday, 03 August 2009 00:00

A Portable Spiritual Compendium

I have read a good number of spiritual treatises and some of them have helped me tremendously along my spiritual path, however short and bumpy the latter might be. However, sometimes a mere few sentences suffice to inspire me. Today, I just feel like sharing with others a few things I believe in and experience, and doing so in as concise a fashion as possible. What follows might be clumsily expressed, and it remains provisional in essence – for insights change and grow along the way, and it is never easy to write about “spiritual” matters. I take this risk though… Of course, spiritual journeys are manifold and some of the convictions I share may not resonate with other pilgrims’ experience. Still, here is my own little spiritual compendium…

-Pursuing one’s spiritual journey means to develop a capacity for ‘inner attention’: attention to inner movements; attention to what happens in our life and the way we react to it; attention to the Scriptures that we are reading and tasting – and simply, attention, pure attention… Being attentive just means to remain in an expectant and listening attitude, even when “nothing happens.” Such a faculty goes with confidence, calm and perseverance.

-Spiritual progress also cannot but imply a “denying” of oneself, a struggle towards generosity and gratuitousness, a decision not to primarily focus on oneself. Yes, there is a kind of ”death to oneself” to accept, but paradoxically such acceptation goes with an accrued sense of life. Somehow, we do experience that it is this part of us that we let die which bears much fruit, and that this paradoxical joy cannot be taken away from us.

-Inner peace goes along the awakening of a dynamism that transforms our soul. The peace that comes from our surrendering to God’s love and simplicity makes the same sound as the waves of the sea running on the shore. There is something triumphal and majestic about it, something similar to what we feel when immersed in the interplay between the waves and the wind.

-There is a social dimension of our spiritual journey. The concern one feels for others, for one’s community, as the full awakening of humaneness in every human being is a fruit of our spiritual growth, perpetually purified and amplified. There is something within us that is striving and yearning for the fullness of unity and reconciliation - something in us as in the whole of humankind that experiences childbirth. Something that awakens, that nurtures and brings to fulfillment our spiritual fecundity.

-For me, sacramental life is a way of expressing and experiencing this communal dimension of spirituality. Entering deeper into the life of the Church is both a joyful and painful experience, as it means to become member of a community of sinners – and recognizing oneself as not being better than the other, while aspiring to be a force for renewal and communion. At the same time, being immersed in this communal body brings my spiritual being to completion and links me to all the other people, dead or alive, who have tried to walk the path of truth and freedom.

-I sometimes remind myself never to be afraid of or discouraged by weaknesses and failures: they will always help me not to rely on my own powers but, again and again, on the One who calls me to the fullness of His life. When I am weak, I am strong.

And it may all be so much simpler than I am able to express it…
Monday, 03 August 2009 00:00

China’s shrinking arable land?

The crisis in natural resources affecting mankind is multifaceted, and it’s not always easy to evaluate the acuteness of the phenomena. China’s shrinking arable land offers a perspective on the way such challenges can be analyzed and assessed. It shows that problems are real but should not be exaggerated. Rather than relying on general statistics it is always good to look at the data and trends in more detail. In a nutshell, China’s land problem is a real one, but land resources are still available and some changes in land use have been commendable. However, the needs of the country will probably put additional pressure on world markets.

The Maoist period had seen much pasture and forest devoted to agricultural production. Conversely, the years from 1979 to 1985 constitute a period of rapid deterioration in terms of available arable land. In 1981, 1984 and 1985, China suffered an annual loss of more than a million hectares. The next five years saw this trend reversed and in 1990 more new land was brought into cultivation than was lost. Thereafter, however, conditions deteriorated once more. Most cultivated land that disappeared because of industrial, urban and infrastructural development was fertile land on the periphery of urban centers. On the other hand, there still exists a considerable amount of wasteland, especially in the southeast and central eastern regions, unused as a result of mining or industrial activities. Some of this could still be restored for agricultural use.

It is often said that China’s arable land might drop below the red line of 120 million hectares in a few years time due to rampant illegal use. This might be true but is not proven. Looking at statistics production by production, one sees some sown areas growing in size and others diminishing, in an inconsistent pattern. Also, there is progress recorded in irrigation and water-saving irrigation systems.

Some scholars assert that the situation is not as bad as often described. The official total of China’s farmland, they say, is about 50 per cent lower than the real figure. Moreover, they argue that the decline has been the result mostly of desirable land use changes rather than of disappearance of farmland in favour of new cities, industries and transportation links.

China has a long history of underreporting its grain production area, one of the difficulties lying in the diversity of local criterion used for area measurement. Other reasons for underreporting are linked to taxation issues and the need to keep a “space’ for reporting big rises in production gain when asked to do so by higher levels of government.

There is still available farmland. Also, China’s average grain yields are still below the South Korean and Japanese rates, giving the country room for improvement. On the other hand, figures of the losses incurred during the last thirty years may actually underestimate the real loss. Reasons for the loss must be assessed carefully. The combined total of urban and rural construction has been responsible for less than one-fifth of China’s recent farmland loss. Another fifth of the total loss was the result of conversion to orchards, reflecting the increased demand for fruit.

In any case, the most problematic losses occur in areas with inadequate production capacity and in suburban coastal areas where the most productive agricultural land is converted to other uses. After careful, cautious analysis, one may conclude that in the future, grain imports from China are highly likely. For the time being, looking at the situation of world markets, there should be little problem with the country eventually doubling or tripling, its current grain imports. This however could change within the next few years. For sure, no catastrophic scenario is likely, but China’s farmland problem must be seen in an ever-changing global context.

Friday, 12 June 2009 22:27

The Resilience of the Party-State Model

It is now official: from July on, Ma Ying-jeou will add to the position of President of Taiwan, that of Chairman of the Kuomintang (KMT). The move is hardly surprising: Ma has difficulties in controlling his own party; he needs stronger leverage over the parliamentary group, to impose nominees during the next elections, and to make his policies prevail, notably when it comes to relationships with China. Furthermore, presiding over the KMT should allow him, eventually, to meet with Hu Jintao – and such a meeting will be one between two party chiefs, thus putting aside many embarrassing questions about protocol and Taiwan’s international status.

This might be a smart political move – but hardly a laudable one. It shows how resilient remains the model of the Party-State in Taiwan – a stain in an otherwise democratic political culture. Both the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communist Party structures were shaped according to the Leninist model, which draws out a way of controlling and monopolizing power, independently from any ideological content. The Party-State model has even inspired the party that was founded to oppose the Kuomintang’s dominant position, i.e. the DPP. During the time of the Chen Shui-bian‘s presidency, Chen was sometimes the party’s chairman, and sometimes not, according to circumstances. Also, the DPP showed some disquieting signs of trying to substitute itself to the control of the State apparatus as was done previously held by the KMT. Due to the minority position of its internal division on the Legislative Yuan it was prevented from doing so. Its revival and moral status as an opposition party will largely depend on its capacity to fully modernize its political outlook and to further contribute to Taiwan’s democratization. There is no “providential man (or woman)” who will save the DPP and Taiwan by concentrating all powers between their hands, as some supporters still seem inclined to believe.

In a fully democratic culture, a Chief of State should not preside over a political party (though of course he often unofficially retains ultimate control over the one from which he comes.) The Chief of State has to keep the moral capacity of being a referee in times of troubles or national division. Conversely, in a parliamentary regime, the Prime Minister can be the chief of the party holding the majority: a Chief of State, who only enjoys limited powers, still incarnates the State’s legitimacy. This might sound like a formal requirement, but it has profound significance, and the fact that Taiwan’s Presidents are still prone to double-up as party chiefs, is a sad remanent from the political past of the country.

There is another reason to lament the taking-over of the KMT’s chairmanship by Ma Ying-jeou: Clearly, China is in favor of developing party-to-party negotiations. The reconstitution of a Party-State structure, even if mitigated by Taiwan’s otherwise democratic institutions, makes it easier for China to engage Taiwan in a political agreement on its own terms. Should Taiwan play its hand by mimicking the Party-State structure that is at the core of China’s system, or should it remain faithful to the spirit that has made it the most vibrant Asian democracy, and thus continuing to offer to China the insight that comes from its political experiment?

Clearly, the new atmosphere that reigns between China and Taiwan has many beneficial aspects, and is conducive to changes not only for the nature of the cross-strait relationship but also, potentially, on China’s political system. However, there is a question mark about the course on which Taiwan is ready to embark further smoothen the relationship and about the nature of the concessions it is ready to make to that effect. The fact that the Chief of State will become once again Chairman of the KMT is bringing back a strong stench of the past, and is sending the wrong signal.

(Drawing by Li Jinyuan)

Wednesday, 03 June 2009 00:00

Beyond illusion: the positive power of imagination

I Dwell in Possibility
A Fairer House than Prose
--Emily Dickinson

Using one’s imagination is always risky. First, it amounts to depart from the common lot, to come up with ideas and ways of expressing oneself that might meet with hostility or bewilderment. Second… using one’s imagination might just lead you to make mistakes, to come up with hypothesis that do not pass the test of time or experience. Do not we say to someone “this is the fruit of your imagination” for decrying what he tells us, implying that he is living in a world of delusion? Our imagination can be aroused by the daemons of jealousy, pride, fear or hatred… and lead us to tragic mistakes. So, let us recognize it from the start: imagination indeed can be a force of evil and destruction.

But the main point is that, indeed, imagination is a force. It cannot be separated from our physical condition (fever awakens in us the power of imagination…), our desires and our memories. However, when these factors are monitored, imagination can fly in the sky like a bird of prey, and open up new horizons. The problem is not imagination per se, it is what we feed our imaginative power with. Our imagination becomes what we give it to eat and drink, so to speak…

To let our imagination run free means that we are able to abstract ourselves from present conditions, to create a distance between oneself and the world as it is introduced and conditioned for our use. At some point, we doubt what is asserted around us… and from this doubt arise new hypotheses. This doubt might no be provoked by our “reason”, but “reason” will be stimulated by what comes from outside. Without imagination and dream, no way to invent non-Euclidian geometry…

Imagination is begotten by dreams – and dreams are begotten by sleep… Only the one who sleeps and liberates his mind and soul during the sleep will be able to imagine a different world. Imagination is in conflict with utilitarianism. Imagination is anchored into gratuitousness. You need moments when you dream about nothing in particular for imagining something so new that it seems to be directly emerging from Nothingness. Conversely, organizations that are fully “rational”, letting no place to chance or fantasy, progressively destroy the imaginative power of the people who work in them. You need imperfection, free space, free time and some degree of fuzziness for giving imagination its chance, so as it might change the world you dwell in. A world too perfect or too rational becomes entropic, and perishes from its own virtues.

Five keys for developing the positive power of imagination
Taking into account what precedes, I’d like to suggest five basic attitudes through which we can nurture our imaginative power and make it a force for changing our environment:

-First, our imagination is powerfully nourished by the contemplation of the human person in her riches and complexity. Persons focus our dreams and desires; entering into relationship with concrete people awakens our eloquence, our passions and senses, and consequently our imagination. As a matter of fact, the first person with whom we deal is “I”, and the relationship I nurture with myself is key for the way I use my imagination. So, let us start by contemplating ourselves, to assess and enjoy our own gifts - and our gratitude for everything we have received will already enhance the positive power of our imagination.

-Imagination is nurtured by a sense of time, there are natural tempos of maturation in nature, in art, in personal growth, or in management. Being too hasty will kill our imaginative power. On the contrary, being stubborn in one’s dream and project while respecting the rhythm of maturation proper to the project and its environment will make our imagination more vivid and powerful.

-Imagination is nurtured by freedom. My own inner freedom makes me able to challenge what I have been taught. The freedom I give to the Other will make her able to challenge our common assumptions and to come up with creative solutions to the problems we are encountering.

-Imagination is nurtured by our spirit of service. When I prove to be sensitive to the needs, disarrays and desires of the people I am living or working with, I develop a new sensitivity to my environment, and I naturally ask myself questions on what is to be done for answering these needs, opening up spaces of growth and creativity. The very fact of not putting myself “at the center” liberates my vision and makes me able to imagine solution that would be unconceivable for someone who puts his self-interest first. It is from the margins that the scene appears most clearly…

-Imagination is nurtured by communication and friendship. When communication is inspired by a desire for truth in respect, i.e. by a common search for the common good, the exchange of words, opinions and emotions naturally awakes ideas and ways of proceedings that could not be imagined as long as exchange was not taking place. Imagination, likes fire, needs wood, and communication is akin to the process of cutting wood and putting it into the flame when one fears it might become extinct.

“Poetry is what is lost in translation”- or so wrote Robert Frost. And if the reverse was true? It seems to me that imagination arises in a kind of “translation process.” When I make the effort to explain to myself with my own words and through my own feelings what had been taught to me, then I discover the limits of the ancient statements I was nourished with, or I discover new truths within them. The fact of “translating” old truths into a new language opens up a window through which new landscapes are discovered. Translation is also what happens when we mutually elucidate for each other what we have understood and how we feel. The exchange that takes place is the space into which “common imagination” arises, so as to become a drive for change. “Translation” of shapes, sounds, feelings and images is also what happens throughout the artistic process. “Imagination is what is gained in translation” – and, so, it is in our power to generate endless supplies of it. Contrarily to oil or to coal, imagination is an inexhaustible energy.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009 01:16

Local power in a time of global crisis

The recession is a global phenomenon that requires global measures: coordination of economic policies, regulation of the world financial markets and instruments, as well as fiscal stimuli… At the same time, the crisis has revealed that too strong a reliance on the “global” side of economics jeopardizes the vitality of “local” territories: during the last two decades or so, local planning has been more or less identified with inserting these territories even more closely into global trends, networks and exchanges.

The crisis calls for a revitalization of local territories. Revitalization can apply to a number of actions:
-Diversifying economic activities, by developing alternative industries, encouraging “niche” services and products, fostering the revival of know-how that can be of economic value, be it in the field of agriculture, tourism or craftsmanship;
-Concentrating stimulus packages on needed infrastructures, especially in the fields of water access and sanitation, healthcare facilities and carbon dioxide reduction;
-Stimulating citizens’ participation when it comes to (a) solidarity with the population most affected by the crisis, (b) the common invention and planning of the territory’s future and (c) the impetus to nurture economic activities with a clear social and environmental outlook.

These are not only “side measures.” It might be actually in the flourishing of local initiative that the new economic paradigm we are looking for might be devised, tried and confirmed. “Globalization” will be beneficial to all if and when fully associated with a “localization” of economic, social and cultural dynamics.

Such turn of events requires a revitalization of local powers, without which local initiative will not come through. Though decentralization and grassroots democracy were the talk of our global village for long, the very globalization of exchanges and services has eviscerated the power bestowed to local communities. Today, the revitalization of local territories cannot be reduced to an experiment in economics, it has to be an experiment in politics as well.

The Greek city has been the place where modern politics has taken shape. Nowadays, our counties, metropolis and regions shape the space, both virtual and real, in which are found new ways of identifying challenges, fostering participation, giving room to dissenting opinions, devising consensus and mobilizing creative energies. Recession has come partly as a result of “political regression’, i.e. of the weakening of the public sphere. Now, the local public sphere is the space where political progress and inventiveness might foster a new model of sustainable growth that will make the network of our local territories the agents of globalization with a humane face.

Photo by C. Phiv
Wednesday, 08 April 2009 18:56

Life after G20

The London G20 Summit had been cautiously orchestrated: rumors of a possible walkout, excitement over President Obama’s maiden voyage, and dramatic speculations upon whether the participants were ready to unite and “save the world”- all of this came up to the expected conclusion: our leaders had risen up to the circumstances. The additional funding pledged for the IMF and the resolution to enforce stricter financial regulations are supposed to provide us with the best possible deal in the worst possible economic environment…

Actually, the hype about the Summit had positive results per se. World economy these days seems to be ruled as much by “psychological stimuli” than by a financial one, and anything that concurs to a boost of optimism has real effects in the real world… World leaders need to be global cheerleaders as well, and their smiling faces splashed on TV screens and newspapers’ front pages somehow contribute to economic stimulation.

This however does not mean that the Summit was purely rhetoric. The steps announced for controlling the world financial system were slightly more stringent than one could have expected, and its step by step re-foundation now looks like a real possibility – only ten or fifteen years later than should have been the case. No lessons had been drawn form the Asian financial crisis, and the reforms suggested at that time are only now being examined.

The additional funding for the IMF and the foreseen stimulus packages are good news for the emerging economies, the growth of which remains the best hope of revival for the world economy. However, these measures will do little for solving the haunting problems of toxic assets that still besets the American economy and virtually threatens its partners. More importantly, the nature of the growth to be achieved has not been truly addressed by the Summit. A mere rise in consumption will not solve the long-term issues that the present crisis has put under light. The rate of growth is much less important than the quality of development. This is not true only for developed nations but for emerging ones as well, as environmental hazards, public health risks and growing inequalities threaten their stability as surely as recession does.

The debate now runs between the ones who advocate strong stimulus packages and those alarmed that fiscal stimuli will only add up to the burden of future generations. Both parties are wrong. The most pressing issue has to do with the way fiscal packages will be invested where they should be. Since the beginning of the nineties, the world community has done its homework well and has recognized where the true priorities are to be found: universal access to clean water, primary education and quality medication, public health facilities, energy-saving investments and soil conservation are the assets needed for ensuring that we inhabit the common house of the earth in a just and sustainable way. The current recession does not change the nature of the global agenda, it makes it even more stringent. The G20 has not succeeded in igniting a sense of urgency and purpose that would make the crisis the opportunity to engineer a genuine new world order. Short-term economic revival and long-term overhaul of the global system should not be seen as conflicting objectives but rather as mutually reinforcing obligations.
(Photo by C. Phiv, London, 2009)

Monday, 23 March 2009 00:00

The Chinese Paradox

In these times of crises, there is something like a Chinese paradox.

On the one hand, Chinese is doing better than most nations when it comes to economic resilience: China has not been at the origin of the crisis; it does not experience a financial breakdown, though its stock market has been devastated and unemployment is increasing quickly; it has fiscal and financial means far superior to the ones of any other nation for engineering a stimulus; if its exports are falling, its imports are following on the same rhythm, letting its commercial surplus intact; once the crisis is over, it will most probably become the number two world economy, and Japan will be relegated to number three; its stimulus might actually come at the right time, helping it to achieve the infrastructure it still needs; its foreign reserves make it able to buy world-class industrial assets at unheard-of prices and to secure its energy and raw material supply for a long time. Summing up, the present world recession might actually be one decisive step in the accession of China to world prominence.

But there is the other side of the equation…

If China’s economic and financial bases are comparatively sound, Chinas’ social and political sensitivity to the crisis is extremely high. Years of growth as well as the citizens’ acute perception of inequalities and corruption make society prone to rebel if revenues fall or unemployment continues to grow. According to unofficial reports, urban unemployment is already above 9 percent. The arrival of university graduates on the labor market is a source of tension, nurtured by parents’ expectations after having overpaid for ensuring that their children receive education and the job that used to be almost automatically attached to a university degree. Chinas’ higher education system proves to be very ill adapted to current economic needs…

When it comes to the stimulus, a significant rise in consumption will be extremely difficult to achieve, with consumers’ anxiety and expectant attitude linked to the cost of healthcare, threat of unemployment and necessary family investment in education. Vouchers can only achieve a very temporary effect. Public investment is easier to stimulate, but the problem here lies elsewhere: China is still not able to ensure quality spending where it needs it most – water sanitation, green buildings and green industries. “White elephants” types of projects and mere dilapidation of funds are still attached to sudden increase in public spending. If banks are now lending money more easily, they seem to do so preferentially to state industries (maybe recreating rampant bad loans), which is not where China needs to invest. So, stimulus might impede rather than hasten the necessary shift in China’s economic logic. Sustainability still remains a dream rather than a strategy.

In the countryside, the coming back of migrant workers makes the problem of land scarcity and degradation even more acute than before. Actually, the fact that millions of rural workers are left jobless (there will probably be more than forty millions people in this situation at the end of the year) has consequences that might be even more difficult to estimate. Part of this population comes back to the fields, where it will be mostly idle. Another part will stay in the cities, looking for an opportunity and constituting a growing lumpenproletariat. Finally, many of them will establish themselves in prefectoral-level and county-level cities, somewhere between their village and bigger metropolis, in several cases thus creating social tensions. In some parts of Chinas’ West, unemployment might already be a factor in the rise of animosity between Han Chinese and ethnic minorities.

Finally, there are several anniversaries this year that make the whole situation even more sensitive… The most important of these anniversaries is the foundation of the People’s Republic on October 1st. Some analysts see dissensions brewing within the Party’s leadership ahead of this celebration as to the course of action to be taken. Nobody knows yet in which mod China will celebrate the sixty years of the regime. The hydra of the crisis might be already largely vanquished, but the most plausible scenario is that China by then will enter into full struggle with its tentacles.

(Photo: B.V.)


Wednesday, 07 January 2009 22:45

A Tribute to Bob Ronald

You were smiling a lot, Bob, not speaking very much.
But, during these last years, you wrote down streams of words,recollections, essays, editorials...And, above all: fables. Around 250 of them.
You loved fables, you loved these short stories with malicious endings

- "There are lessons hidden here" -,

stories with dogs who bark and dogs who do not bark,
stories with trees, kings and farmers,
stories full of the wisdom taught by the Earth and by Heavens,
stories as flavory as the cookies that your mother was keeping in a jar.
We loved your fables, Bob, and we will share them with many,
with all people ready to open up their ears and to listen.

But do you know Bob?

You were a fable by yourself, the best, the most majestic of all the ones you wrote.
You were for us the parable of God.
Seeing you as you were, we learnt to know better the God who takes patience,
the God who has lovingly entrusted the world to his sons and daughters,
the God who transforms us just by doing nothing, just by staying with us.
And we were also witnessing in your silent, constant and formidable fight
the God who works as a gardener so that life may flourish,
the God who cherishes all forms of life,
the God who constantly works in the rocks, in the flesh and in the spirit.
Yes, you were for us the living story of the God who inhabits your body, our bodies,
and who makes them the seed of His Kingdom,
provided we freely accept to fall into the earth and to die there for bearing fruit
as you did, day after day, with few words and good smiles.

So, Bob, thanks for having been the seed and the story hidden in our midst,
and help us to make sense of our own story, keeping gratefully in mind
the fable that has been your life,
now that it has become one with the wondrous story of Christ

- "For there are lessons hidden here."

Bob was born in Martinez, California on Oct. 1, 1932. He entered the Jesuits in 1950 and was ordained a priest in 1965. He arrived in Taiwan in 1957 and was diagnosed with polio in 1958. After getting a M.A. as a professional rehabilitation counselor he founded the Operation De-Handicap in 1973 and worked at the Veteran General Hospital till his retirement. During the last five years he worked as English editor for Renlai and eRenlai and wrote around 250 fables as well as more than 200 editorials and essays.


We will miss him dearly. At the same time, we remember him as a living story of the God, a parable of God in our midst, showing us the patience and serenity of the Creator who has entrusted the world to his sons and daughters as well as His tireless labor for making life grow and triumph. Bob was a patient but formidable fighter, and will help us to receive as a gift the resources of strength, and inner peace that we continuously need.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008 00:00

Beyond the Beijing and Washington Consensus

The "Beijing consensus" is an expression that has often been used during the last ten years to characterize the Chinese way of dealing with Africa and other areas: The "Beijing consensus" is seen by many as a way to counter U.S. supremacy by not imposing on developing countries constraints usually set up by the U.S. policy (transparency, greater respect for human rights, gradual democratization..), while other analysts see it as a pragmatic alternative to the now defunct "Washington consensus", rejected by developing countries after the experiments imposed by international financial organizations and the impasses of "forced democratization". The term "Beijing consensus " should not dissimulate the fact that the countries to which the Chinese strategy apply do not correspond to a "coalition", but rather to a loose alliance of partners intent on defending "national sovereignty" against the infringement of international law.

Mercantilism or Tributarism?

The United States often summarize their criticisms against the Chinese strategy by using the term "mercantilism". A passage of the revised National Security Strategy in April 2006, says:
"(Chinese leaders) are expanding trade but acting as if they can somehow "lock up" energy supplies around the world or seek to direct markets rather than opening them up - as if they can follow a Mercantilism borrowed from a discredited era ... "

The word mercantilism is highly controversial and for a long time, well expressed the frustration of American leaders in front the accumulation of trade surpluses by China. However, the American Treasury itself always stopped short of accusing the Chinese authorities of "manipulation" of their currency but spoke simply of the "misalignment" of the Renminbi (RMB). The expression was to implicitly assign international financial organizations the heavy task to convince the Chinese authorities in accepting a regime of flexible change.

An entirely different way of looking at China’s international policy towards developing countries has been one provided by the "Tributarism" paradigm. China sometimes knows how to use the political asset that a trade deficit can constitute: with most neighboring countries and African countries that China wants to attract into its sphere of influence, China develops favorable commercial trends in exchange for political allegiance. Already, during the Ming and Qing dynasties, the Chinese emperor would give more favors to tributary states or kingdoms than he received from them; for this generosity, the emperor obtained their respect and goodwill. Indeed, it is clear that China carefully differentiates its commercial strategy according to the political areas it deals with, following strategic considerations.

Shaping a New Consensus

Recent political and economic developments have weakened both the Washington and Beijing consensus. The Washington consensus has been broken by the excesses of extreme liberalism. The Beijing consensus now suffers from the international outcry on some aspects of China’s African policy (Darfur), backlash against Chinese interests in some African countries, and the weakening of China’s position along with the worsening global crisis.

The Time of a "Global Consensus" Partnership between China, Europe, India, the United States and Africa should help this continent to achieve the right balance between economic development and political reform. This cannot be done in the same way in all countries. Africa, on the long run, does not gain anything in being the battlefield where the great Powers confront their strategies. Rather than making Americans, Europeans and Chinese compete among themselves for a slice of African’s resources, leaders of this continent should call for a "Global Consensus for Africa" in which all partners would cooperate in making Africa a showcase of sustainable and peaceful development. Will the current crisis teach us at last some common sense, in showing the global community that cooperation serves everyone’s interests much better than strategic competition?
Photo: B.V.
Wednesday, 26 November 2008 23:38

The Tafalong Project

“On the fifth day the sea tide rose…”

What happens exactly from the first to the fourth day? The song does tell us the events that unfolded before the big tide’s rise, allowing Kariwasan to take Tiamacan away, but, still, the chronology starts with this disjunctive event – as if only the recollection of total chaos could help one to create some kind of order within time and space. At some point, you have to start counting, but you do know that the Primordial Tale cannot truly speak of the Origin of the origins, that there is always a first day before the first. So, why not starting with the fifth one?

In the same vein, it is hard to say how the Tafalong movie exactly took shape. For sure, there was an encounter between Nakao Eki and the Ricci Institute. Nakao has spent the year 2008 working on an oral history project sponsored by the Institute with the help of “WeShare” Foundation. At some point (but when exactly?), it appeared to me that Nakao’s narrative was the stuff of a great documentary, in a way that would complement and enrich her writings and drawings, telling the same and yet a very different story. Renlai monthly and, both published by the Ricci Institute, were also trying to improve their skills in movie making, and had asked Nicolas Priniotakis to guide them in filming and editing a full-fledged production. Tafalong village was chosen most naturally as the perfect setting for this endeavour. I stayed in Tafalong several times between March and July 2008, and witnessed Nakao struggling with a project that was reaching far deeper than a mere academic fieldwork would have done. At the end of July, Cerise, Nicolas, Nakao and I gathered in Tafalong, also filming in the adjacent Fata’an township and Sado hamlet. We were joined in this adventure by Ta-cheng (Nakao’s cousin), several of their relatives, and other members of the Ricci team.

But is it really the way it happened? The “origins” of the movie reach far deeper anyway, and the more we advanced into production, the farther we went into the past: Nakao had to find her way into her own memories. We were sometimes dealing with a place (two places actually, discovering the strategic importance of the hamlet of Sado, the stronghold of Nakao’s extended family), sometimes with a clan or a family, sometimes with recollections linked to personal burning events. At some points, we were having a glimpse on the rise of the giant tide, but we could sense that the surge of the ocean was happening “on the fifth day”, that the tide would have not risen if there was not the mysterious unfolding of events from the unknown first day till the fourth…

So, the Tafalong project is not about a person, a place or a clan. It is about all of these and yet about something different. It is about the way memories – memories shared by and divided among individuals, villages and families – are told, re-enacted, slowly digested or suddenly cried out at the face of the earth, memories that obscure and illuminate the present, and that bless or curse the future… From the start, without us actually knowing it, the project was about the tides that endlessly shape, erode and engulf our mental universe.

On the fifth day the sea tide rose…” : There are the giant tides of the hidden, remotest past, there are the tides that have shaped the history of Taiwan and the Amis people during the last four hundred years, there are the endless sea currents experienced in the course of the most eventful twentieth century, there are the tides that unite and divide families, there are also the tides (insignificant and yet sometimes devastating) surging in the soul of the one who relate anew to the people and the lineage she comes from… and in this movie, there is also, on the shore of the Pacific, a real tide, the tide that takes away a beloved one and thus reawakens memories of the floods that engulfed people’s life in time past…

Drawing by Nakao Eki

Page 11 of 12

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