Erenlai - Displaying items by tag: china
Tuesday, 16 June 2015 09:02

Teilhard and China, Behind the Scenes

The 'Teilhard adventure' started for me at the beginning of the year 2013 after reading the 'libretto', written in French by Benoit Vermander. Very dense and documented, the 20 pages were my first immersion into Teilhard de Chardin's world. I appreciated Benoit Vermander's pedagogical approach: in his usual concise style, he resumed a lifelong story while giving prominence to the texts and the voice of Teilhard. Thus I discovered the intense text of the Mass on the World and even had the chance to re-read a French school classic: an excerpt from 17th century philosopher Pascal.

But my challenge was to make a film of this 20 pages-long literary piece.

While working on the pre-production phase of the movie, we came across another team preparing a bigger scale documentary for US television: Frank and Mary Frost from Frank Frost Productions. Frank and Benoit had met during a colloquium on Teilhard in 2012 and they had kept in touch since then. Frank and Mary had planned a research site trip to China and they were very kind to invite us to join them.

In May 2013, I embarked on a trip to Beijing and Ningxia with Taiwanese filming assistant, Sharon Liu. Thanks to Frank and Mary's contacts, we met for example Hailu You, a paleontologist from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of China (IVPP) who appears in the movie.


The following video is an interview with Frank at the end of our trip:

In the meantime, Benoit Vermander was planning an intercultural workshop organized by Fudan University with the support of the Taipei Ricci Institute. The workshop, held in Inner Mongolia, would invite scholars and writers, mostly from Shanghai and Taipei, to read and discuss excerpts from Teilhard's work. The logistical preparation of the workshop was undertaken by Liang Zhun, a photographer based in Shanghai and a long-term collaborator of Benoit Vermander. She notably contributed to the film the beautiful shots of the desert and the Salawusu Valley.

The workshop was also quite an interesting experience: our heteroclit group got immersed in the immensity of the landscapes that Teilhard had crossed nearly a century ago. One of the most dramatic moments was probably when a small group of us went at dawn to the plateau bordering the desert of Ordos to listen to Yaling Wu, a lecturer at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, read in Chinese the Mass on the World at the same spot Teilhard celebrated it.


After my trip to China, I joined Benoit Vermander in the region of Auvergne, Teilhard's birthplace in France, where we were very generously welcomed by his closest living relatives: his nephew Henri du Passage and daughter Marie Bayon de La Tour who inherited Teilhard's passion for geology. As we accompanied her to the banks of the river Allier where he used to take his nephews to show them rocks, one could even more vividly feel Teilhard's deep understanding of nature and Marie Bayon de la Tour, interviewed in the film, also emphasized this aspect: "Auvergne can only be understood if we imagine that it is alive, and that its geology evolves with time. I think it influenced Father Teilhard."


Once back in Taipei, I undertook the task of editing and finalizing the production of the movie, and finally the French version of the documentary premiered in Paris in June 2014 at the Centre Sèvres. The Chinese version was screened during the colloquium "Teilhard and the Future of Humankind" held in Beijing in October 2014. (Lien vers article BV) A year later the release of the DVD in its three versions, French, English and simplified Chinese would coincide with the anniversary of Teilhard's death.

Like any other project and human experience, this film in its three versions is the result of lucky encounters and fruitful collaborative work with all the difficulties and obstacles that it implies. I hope that this attempt of introducing Teilhard de Chardin to the Chinese audience, and to a broader public in general, can be the start of more dialogue, discussion and understanding between the people of different horizons.

Meynard beijing-small

Thursday, 19 February 2015 21:47

Memory and Small Town China: 'Hometown Boy' Review 《金城小子》影評


This is a slow-brewing documentary and Taiwanese director, Yao Hung-yi (姚宏易) clearly shares a love of long but poignant camera shots with executive director Hou Hsiao-hsien (候孝賢). The documentary is about Chinese artist and actor Liu Xiaodong (劉小東) going back to his hometown of Jincheng in China's north-western Liaoning province to paint his childhood friends. Liu was a producer on Devils On the Doorstep, which I reviewed here, and starred in the film The Days (《冬春的日子》), which I haven't yet seen.

Monday, 05 January 2015 22:15

Things are seldom what they seem in China: Religions and China’s Creative Power

There are many Chinas – from isolated, struggling mountain communities to the communities of connected urbanites who live in futuristic landscapes. But there might be only two ways of looking at China, and both are right on their own terms.

On the one hand, engaging with Chinese realities sometimes overwhelms an observer who is struck most forcefully by the apparent homogeneity of the country. Unequal levels of regional economic development hardly mask an impression of sameness to life across China. The systematic formatting of modes of thought, urban planning and consumer habits necessarily leads one to lament the fact that sustainability and cultural diversity have been sacrificed as the price of quantitative growth and state-sponsored values and discourse. The gloom generated by looking at uniform skylines may then lead the observer to nurture a deep pessimism about the human future of China.

On the other hand, immersed into day-to-day Chinese life as I am, I often marvel at the ingenuity of a society that continuously renews the "practices of everyday life" as Michel de Certeau famously called them. Starting and maintaining social networks (both real and virtual) so as to build supportive communities, nurturing local art scenes, supplementing the state's deficiencies when it comes to take care of older people or bettering one's neighborhood, taking advantage of every educational opportunity... Such endeavors and many others translate into personal and collective tactics in which ordinary people engage with seemingly endless energy and creativity.

Gloomy skylines belie what happens at ground level. The more I enter into China, the more I feel impressed by the way Chinese people and the society they make renew themselves through ever evolving grassroots endeavors.

Religious vitality is far from being the sole expression and motor of a burgeoning society. But one should not underestimate how much it contributes to it. Its expressions are manifold: volunteers regroup in the compounds of Buddhist temples both for organizing workshops and charity events; in Shantou (Guangdong Province), a popular religion fellowship is revived for taking care of funerals in a way more sensitive to the grieving than the ones provided by state-sanctioned rituals; in various cities, mosques have become centers for professional training; and as Protestant and Catholic networks proliferate beyond control, they can come to define the full reach of the social life of their most devoted members.

As long as such vitality remains limited in numbers and in public expression, the State remains neutral. It may even start to favor these developments when the goals of local communities are congruent with official strategies, as it is most often the case.

Problems occur when social movements become far too conspicuous and autonomous. Such is the case in Zhejiang province, and especially in Wenzhou city, where the growth of Christianity has taken Korea-like proportions. The campaign to demolish crosses and sometimes even entire churches that occurred in 2014 needs this context for its interpretation: limits had to be enforced in a way that left no place for ambiguity about who is in charge.

However, in 2014, Christmas celebrations have supplied even more testimonies to both the popular appeal and organizational strength of Christianity. Far more than in preceding years, crowds at services, concerts and other events testify to its popularity – even if the reasons for such popularity remain debated, with the spiritual, the exotic and the taste for all things fun and fashionable mixing in varying degrees.

Not surprisingly, adverse reactions came from various sectors, especially in the Ministry of Education that is anxious to see that youth Chinese do not to embrace "foreign" festivals, but also from intellectuals advocating cultural nationalism. However, these sorts of reactions were not as common or notable as sometimes reported in the Western medias.

The directions in which Chinese society and culture are presently moving remain hard to assess. What is certain is that, from now on, their very creativity make them both unpredictable and, ultimately, uncontrollable.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Monday, 15 December 2014 16:34

A pantomime of a war film: 'Devils on the Doorstep' Review

In a phrase: A pantomime until the end, at which point it rushes to satisfy nationalistic appetites.

(Spoilers below)

This film is set in a small Chinese town called Guajia (hang up armor) under Japanese occupation during the second world war.

Thursday, 11 December 2014 17:46

A Touch of Sin Review

 A Touch of Sin is a film by Jia Zhangke (賈樟柯). I've only seen Platform (《站台》) by him before, so am unfamiliar with the majority of his work. The Chinese title of the film differs from the English title, in that the Chinese means literally, "fate appointed by the heavens," whereas the English title has a more Christian ring to it, although I read that it is apparently a nod to the English title of a martial arts film called A Touch of Zen (《俠女》).

Friday, 05 September 2014 00:00

Locating Utopia on the Map

In August 2014, while traveling through Scotland, I was taken to New Lanark, a village located some 40 km southeast of Glasgow. Under the leadership of Robert Owen (1771-1858), a social reformer, New Lanark became an oasis of utopian socialism as well as a successful business venture, with waterpower for the mill afforded by the falls of the River Clyde. Cooperative shops, education ventures and new labor legislation all trace part of their origins to the New Lanark experiment. Nowadays, having become a UNESCO World Heritage Sites, New Lanark is also an Anchor Point of The European Route of Industrial Heritage.

Where are located the Utopias on our maps today? Have we lost the ability to start experiments in social and humane engineering? Have the currents of globalization definitely discouraged our capacity to start local ventures that would design new models for social justice and peaceful cooperation? If it were the case, we certainly would have lost a skill vital for social and political development. Even if Utopias often meet with all kinds of disappointments, on the long-term they are rich with discoveries and implications that foster overall human progress.

No village, no community is an island... But we are empowered with the capacity to start communal ventures on a voluntary basis, deciding on specific, innovative models of “social contract’ as to the way of living together, sharing our resources and relating to adjacent communities. Religious faith, reinterpretation of ancient traditions as well as political idealism can inspire and direct such experiments. Let us hope that, in Taiwan, China or elsewhere, there are still people able to create “communes” gathering like-minded fellow-beings so as to experiment new ways of living and interacting among ourselves and within our environment.

Picture by Bendu

Friday, 05 September 2014 00:00

The Prophetic Task of Chinese Christianity

Chinese Christianity is confronted to many challenges, some of them present from the start of its history, others fostered by current social and political conditions. There is however one challenge that I would like to point out, which is not proper to China but about which Chinese Christians could, I believe, make a difference that would, on the long term, hugely impact World Christianity.

As in other parts of the world, Chinese Christians inherited the divisions that came from the history of the West: the "Eastern {Syrian} Church" that modestly expanded in China around the 5th-9th centuries was already marked by the theological and cultural divisions agitating the Church during that period. Tridentine Catholicism firmly shaped the Chinese Church from the end of the 16th century onwards. The arrival of Protestant missionaries during the nineteenth century radically diversified China's religious landscapes. Cultural differences among the Catholic religious congregations that were in charge of the missionary endeavor also fostered different types of devotion and liturgical sensitivities. Even Orthodoxy has left some marks on Chinese Christianity.

Such diversity is not without merits. It offers various outlooks on Christian traditions and overall understanding. It opened up a variety of paths for the development of local communities. Still, Chinese Christianity taken as a whole has suffered from the hostility and misunderstandings that the various denominations have brought with them and that some of its leaders are stirring even today. If open hostility is usually avoided, indifference and self-centered development are the norm, to the extent that Protestant and Catholics often have difficulties to recognize each other as sharing the same creed and the same baptism. The ecumenical encounters that may happen are enforced by the state administration, and have no impact on grassroots communities. Each Church is mainly preoccupied with its endogenous growth, and even when religious groups are subjected to the same challenges (as is recently the case in Zhejiang province and, progressively, other places) they are at pains to identify a commonality of interests. 

Making China a beacon of ecumenical cooperation sounds like a far-away ideal, a dream without basis in reality. However, would not such cooperation be a road for the development of Chinese Christianity by healing past misunderstandings, and asserting a communion of faith conducive to a better appreciation of Christian ethos by Chinese society as a whole? Would it not be a "conversion within the conversion" that would give impetus and accrued reflexivity to Christian Churches experiencing the challenges associated with rapid, sometimes anarchic growth? Would it not give them accrued leverage upon the state? And, more importantly, would it not be a way to mobilize Chinese traditional resources of religious toleration by showing the world ways to pragmatically but purposefully overcome past divisions within Christianity?

It is precisely because Chinese Christianity is in a predicament that it needs to look for inventive ways of developing and asserting itself. And instead of being seen by other Churches as a "mission field" that permanently needs help and support from them, China's Churches could and should be making a decisive contribution to the future of Christianity. There is no better way for this than being at the frontline when it comes to the overcoming of the divisions that Western Churches brought with them along with the Gospel of reconciliation.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Thursday, 07 August 2014 00:00

Maria’s Secret

Maria sat on the edge of her bathtub, looking straight at the display window of the test stick. She kept staring at it, in disbelief, after a pink line appeared first faint then distinct. She put her face in her hands and sobbed.

Saturday, 12 July 2014 00:00

Renewal of Buddhism in Mainland China and its Interaction with the Government

Since the reform and opening up policy ushered in by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, Buddhism in mainland China is experiencing a dramatic revival. Out of the five major religions in China, it is in fact the one which has taken the most advantage of the conditions created by the government. Millions of tourists, Chinese or foreign, who take trips in China each year can attest to the fact that a large majority of the most popular sites are Buddhist shrines, constructed, or rebuilt within thirty-odd years. Almost entirely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, the religion of Buddha Sakhyamuni rises from its ashes today with a surprising vitality, which shows his willingness to take his place in contemporary Chinese society and, as in the past - even more perhaps than in the past - to play a leading role in the modernization of the country.

According to official statistics, there are now more than13,000 buddhist temples in China, and about 200,000 monks and nuns. There are more than 3,000 temples and monasteries for Tibetan-language Buddhism, that is to say, lamaism, with 7 million faithful belonging to various ethnic groups, mainly Tibetans and Mongols, and about 120,000 monks and nuns. Pali-language Buddhism, mainly practised among various ethicities in south and south-west Yunnan, has around 1.5 million practitioners, with 8,000 monks and nuns in more than 1,000 temples and monasteries. The temples and monasteries of the Han nationality, which constitutes the main body of the Chinese nation, number around 9,000, with more than 70,000 monks and nuns.

Another sign of vitality is that several buddhist studies institutes have been also set up or reopened, with a view to training an elite class of monks and nuns with a deep spiritual life combined with a high level of education. This has resulted in many monks and nuns having a good knowledge of their religion and of modern sciences and they have already started to contribute to the propagation of Buddhism and to its dynamic integration in the socialist Chinese society of the 21st century. The first one was the China Buddhist Institute, reopened in Beijing, at the Fayuan Si (法源寺) in 1980.

All these achievements, and many others, have been possible only with the help and under the control of the government. The majority of temples, monasteries, and institutes which have been restored or rebuilt after the Cultural Revolution have received a substantial amount of financial support from state organisms, and the various activities which take place in them are subjected to the approval of the authorities, just like the other religions in the country. The extraordinary revival of Buddhism observed presently in China shows that the government is itself directly interested in the progress of a religion which, in the past, has played a decisive role in chinese history and civilization.

To better understand this interaction between Buddhism and the Chinese government, it may be useful to look back on the two thousand year history of Buddhism in China. It appears clear from the outset that the religion that came from India could take root and grow in the Middle Kingdom only with the support of civil authorities. This is clearly recognized by Master Dao An (道 安) (312-385) , a renowned translator and interpreter of Buddhist Scriptures of the Eastern Jin dynasty, which laid down the principle that "without the support of the leaders of the country, the affairs of the Dharma are not on solid ground." This principle, which somehow summarizes the history of the establishment of Buddhism in China, is also a kind of axiom that defines the line adopted over the centuries by the Sangha. The fate of the temples, their prosperity or decline depends on good relations with the state. What we read in the Annals of the Guoqing temple (國清寺) (Zhejiang) can be said of the vast majority of temples: "Over the centuries, the Guoqing Temple flourished and widely spread the Dharma thanks to the magnanimity of princes and emperors; wars and the contempt of the powerful led to Buddhism's decline. The Buddhsit tradition has continued uninterrupted - from profliferation to decadence and from decadence to profliferation - such is the characteristic of the history of the age-old development of the Guoqing Si". Zanning (贊寧) (919-1001), a Buddhist Master and author of Biographies of eminent monks of the Song Dynasty said one day: "Buddha entrusted the Dharma to kings and ministers." He was probably referring to two sutras now considered apocryphal, but which had throughout the history of China a decisive influence on the attitude of the princes towards Buddhism: the Humane King Sutra1 and the Golden Light Sutra2. In "entrusting the Dharma to kings and ministers," Buddha not only entrusted to them the protection of religion, but by this very fact gave them an authority allowing them to exercise direct control over the Sangha. The history of the temples shows that they are the ones who allowed the construction of monasteries, and often provided at least part of the funding; they also gave the temples their official names by the gift of an inscription together with an official seal, thereby giving it right to exist; they, also, were the who appointed the priors (fangzhang) of the main temples and give them the title of "national master" or "imperial master."

In short, the existence and activities of monasteries depended on their goodwill. They also often depended on their generosity, for princes and emperors like to be magnanimous and to give lavish donations: liturgical instruments, paintings, calligraphy, poems, precious objects, Tripitaka and so on, which make and enrich the cultural patrimony of the temples.


Naturally, the rulers of China's history were not all in favor of Buddhism, as evidenced by the great persecutions of the religion at various times, especially in the time of Emperor Wuzong (武宗) (841-845) of the Tang dynasty. But we can mention here, by way of illustration, the names of some of them who exerted the most positive influence on the development of Buddhism:

  • Liang Wudi (梁武帝) (502-549) He was the most fervent and the most liberal of the sovereigns of the Southern Dynasties, who were all favourable to Buddhism. A great supporter of the Sangha, he was nicknamed " the Bodhisattva Emperor"; leading his subjects to observe the Precepts, he entered himself on several occasions in a monastery, and built numerous temples, including the Kaishan Si (開山寺, now Linggu Si 靈谷寺), in Nanjing, to honour the memory of his favourite adviser, the Monk Bao Zhi (寶志).
  • Wu Zetian (武則天) (684-704) considered herself as the mother of Buddha, and the incarnation of Maitreya. Having formerly spent three years in a convent of Bikkhunis, she showed a special fondness for Wutaishan, where she built several temples and pagodas, donating to the mountain's collection of books, statues and valuables.
  • Kubilay Khan (1214–1294) From Kubilay (Shizong世宗), the founder, to Shundi (順帝), the last of the dynasty, the rulers of the Yuan dynasty were all fervent supporters of Buddhism, on which they lavished presents and favors. The number of temples increased, and the monastic population grew in a spectacular way. The most famous Lama was Basiba (八思巴), whom Kubilay named an imperial Master and his Prime Minister; he gave him the imperial seal and appointed him Great Pontiff of the Central Plain, enjoying authority over all Buddhists in the Empire. Basiba created the written language which bears his name; it entered common usage in 1269, and was the official language throughout the whole Yuan dynasty.
  • Zhu Yuanzhang (朱元璋) (1368-1398), the founder of the Ming dynasty had been a monk during his youth, and showed a great interest in Buddhism, both in terms of his personal convictions and for political motives. He helped it develop and organize, drawing up strict rules for admission to the Sangha and for monastic discipline.
  • Kangxi (康熙) (1662-1722) considered himself as the incarnation of the Wuliangshou Buddha (Buddha of Infinite Life, i.e. Amithaba). He visited the sacred mountain of Wutaishan five times; among other significant gestures, he conferred on the Great Lama of the Pusa Ding lamasery the seal of Governor, and ordered all the Authorities of Shanxi, including the Governor of the province and the General commandant of Datong, to pay him tribute. He had the great halls of the temple covered with glazed yellow tiles, a colour normally reserved for the buildings of the imperial family.
  • Qianlong 乾隆 (1736–96) considered himself the incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. He visited Wutaishan six times, each time leaving laudatory signs of his passage, in the form of poems and calligraphy. At the death of Yong Zheng, he transformed the former Palace of the latter, the Yong He Gong, into a lamasery with imperial colours, conferring to Tibetan Buddhism one of the most prominent and most envied position in the heart of the Capital.
  • Cixi 慈喜 (1835-1908) also considered himself the incarnation of the bodhisattva Guanyin. She liked to be called "Laofoye" (老佛爷), meaning the old Buddha.

These examples and many others in the two thousand year history of Buddhism in China, show that when he "entrusted the Dharma to kings and ministers," the Buddha Sakyamuni actually secured the establishment and development of the religion in the Middle Kingdom.

The support of the princes demanded that Buddhists of the country made a commitment to promote national prosperity, security and stability. This responsibility was assumed largely by those of the members of the Sangha to whom was conferred the honorary title of "national master" 國師 or "imperial master" 帝師. Advisors to the sovereigns, they controlled the organization of monastic communities on the ground, and with their prestige and influence, contributed to the legitimacy of the central power. This was the case, for example, of Fo Tudeng (佛圖澄) (232-348), senior adviser to Emperor Shile (石勒) of the Zhao, thanks to whom Buddhism became the official religion of the kingdom3; of the national Master Kumarajiva (鳩摩羅什) (343-413?) whose unmatched quality of translations' ensured Buddhism a leading position); of Xuanzang (玄奘) (ca 600-664), who, without having the official title of national master, enjoyed the exceptional favor of the emperor, and made Buddhism in China a privileged religion; of the national master Amoghavajra, also known as Bukong (不 空) (705-774), who was one of the most powerful monks politically in the history of China, whose great religious authority consolidated the power of the leaders and promoted the prosperity of the country; of the national Master Chengguan (澄觀) (738-838), the fourth patriarch of Huayanzong, the School of the Flower Garland, who was the spiritual master of seven successive emperors; of Basiba 八思巴 (1235-1280), national then imperial master under Kubilay Khan, who worked efficiently for the political rallying of Tibetans; of Yishan Yining (一山一寧) (1247-1317), who was made responsible for restoring Sino-Japanese relations that had been broken off after the attempted invasions of Japan by Kublai Khan, in 1274 and 1281; and of many others. Besides the influence of these "national " or "imperial" masters, the inculturation of Buddhism on Chinese soil, and its uneven but continuous development for two millennia, were obviously also due to many other monks and lay Buddhists whose moral authority and writings were equally, if not more, critical, and whose action developed also in the framework of bilateral relations with the authorities.

This interaction of Buddhism with the civil and political power has been a constant phenomenon in the history of China. It explains both the success of the religion of Buddha Sakhyamuni in the Middle Kingdom, and the interest, as a whole, that princes and emperors granted it. During the celebration of the two thousandth anniversary of the introduction of Buddhism in China in 1998, Ven. Jing Hui (凈慧), vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association, could declare without fear of being contradicted: "Buddhism was introduced to China two thousand years ago. During these two thousand years, Buddhism has always played an obvious role of purification of the heart, it has raised the moral level, ensured the peace and the stability of the country, favoured national unity, protected the environment, assisted the poor and the needy. It has exerted a very deep influence on the politics, the economy, the culture and the popular customs of our country..."

The spectacular revival accomplished by Buddhism since the reform and opening up policy of Deng Xiaoping in 1978, shows notable similarities with the past in the process of the interaction between the religion of the Buddha and the country's leaders. Different as it is from the feudal dynasties, the socialist system of the People's Republic of China exerts on Buddhism, like on all religions in the country, a similar function of support and control, while the Buddhist communities, for their part, are invited to help with promoting national stability, unity and prosperity. The axiom formulated by Master Dao An in the 4th century is still true today, implicitely, the relations of Buddhism with the government: "without the support of the country's leaders, the affairs of the Dharma are not on solid ground."

The government's support and control effect change today through the Buddhist Association of China, whose objectives are clearly defined in the statutes: "The aims of B.A.C. are to assist the government to implement the policy on freedom of religious affairs , to protect the legitimate rights and interests of Buddhist circles, to propagate Buddhist teachings, to develop Buddhism under its traditions, to unite Buddhists nationwide, to work for the happiness of people as well as the prosperity of the country, to make contributions for the unity of the motherland as well as world peace." With the exception of Tibet, these objectives seem to meet no opposition in the country, and have actually favored the extraordinary revival made by Buddhism in the limited space of about thirty years. Thus can we make a connection between the role formerly entrusted by the rulers to their "national " or "imperial masters" and the institutional role assigned today by the government of the People's Republic of China to the Buddhist Association of China. The high-ranking officials in this association, exercise a moral and political authority that make them resemble the "national masters" of the past, and enjoy, both in China and abroad, a reputation that greatly favors the interests of Buddhism on the national and international levels, as well as the growing influence of traditional Chinese culture in the world.

In an important speech at the UNESCO on March 27, Xi Jinping (習近平), the President of the People's Republic of China, stressed the need to promote exchanges and mutual sharing of knowledge among civilizations. This speech, the first of a Chinese head of state before this organization of the United Nations, puts focus clearly as never before on the value and meaning of traditional Chinese civilization, to the extent of being called the manifesto of the renaissance of Chinese civilization:

"Having gone through over 5,000 years of vicissitudes, the Chinese civilization has always kept to its original roots. Unique in representing China spiritually, it contains some most profound pursuits of the Chinese nation and provides it with abundant nourishment for existence and development. Though born on the soil of China, it has come to its present form through constant exchanges and mutual learning with other civilizations..."

Buddhism originated in ancient India. After it was introduced into China, the religion went through an extended period of integrated development with indigenous Confucianism and Taoism and finally became the Buddhism with Chinese characteristics, thus making a deep impact on religious belief, philosophy, literature, art, etiquette and customs of the Chinese people.

It goes without saying that, for the president of the People's Republic of China, this interaction of Buddhism with the Chinese people means also interaction with the leaders of the nation. On behalf of the whole country, Xi Jinping points clearly to a certain direction:

"the Chinese civilization, together with the rich and colorful civilizations created by the people of other countries, will provide mankind with the right cultural guidance and strong motivation".

Thus, among all the world's civilizations, the thousand years old Chinese civilization appears to be a rich and potentially most effective partner. A civilization that encompasses traditional religions and philosophies, especially Buddhism, which has become over the centuries an essential component of Chinese culture. While showing, as we have just seen, the direction to be taken, the president of the People's Republic of China also expresses the hope placed by the Chinese people and their leaders in the Buddhist religion to promote the international role of China on the cultural level. The interaction between Buddhism and the Chinese authorities will from now, more than anywhere else, manifest itself in the traditional civilization "going out" beyond the frontiers in order to exert, within the alliance of civilizations of mankind, an influence commensurate to its thousand years old history.

Echoing the keynote speech of Xi Jinping at UNESCO, Buddhist circles are now committing themselves in turn to promote Chinese culture internationally. Ven. Xue Cheng (學誠), vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China, and one of the most prominent personalities of the Sangha, likes to emphasize the fact that Buddhism is, of the three religious components of China, the one which has had and will have the greatest influence. After being propagated in East and South East Asia. Buddhism has now extended its reach to Europe and the USA, and acts as a powerful vehicle for the revival of Chinese culture.

"If we hope to see Chinese culture, including Buddhist culture advance in the world", said Ven. Xue Cheng, "if we hope to see the civilization of China make an even greater contribution to the civilizations of mankind, we must above all 'go out' , go into all regions of the world, learn languages and understand the cultures of different countries, and in a process of continual self-improvement, allow the Chinese culture to bring happiness to men, and Buddhist culture, by the spiritual quality of compassion, bring freshness in the world."

This is also the conviction of Ven. Yong Xin (永信), abbot of Shaolin Temple (少林寺) and renowned vice-chairman of the Buddhist Association of China. The Shaolin Temple, by touring martial arts in the world, not only makes known the essence of traditional culture, but still more spreads this culture outside of China, helping China's culture "go out" into the world, expand its influence, and strengthen exchanges with other countries. Thjis is the crucial role that Shaolin Temple wants to play under the dynamic leadership of its abbot.

In "going out" of China, Chinese Buddhist culture will help expand the influence of Chinese civilization in the world, while the international rise of China, which is on the way to becoming a major economic and political power, will promote the extension of Buddhism in many countries. The interaction between the religion of the Buddha and the Chinese authorities, which has proven itself for two thousand years, takes on now a new dimension, at the global level.

Christian Cochini s.j.
Hongkong, June 19, 2014


For the original French please click here

1 仁王經, Ren wang jing. Its full name is the Prajnaparamita Sutra for Humane Kings Who Protect their Country. In some Chinese temples, this sutra is used today during prayers on behalf of the government and the country.
2 金光明經, Jinguang ming jing. It is a very important Mahayana sutra, and one of the most popular Mahayana sutras of all times.
3 The successor of Shile, emperor Shihu, promulgated an edict making Fo Tudeng a « national treasure » and granted him many privileges.

Wednesday, 02 July 2014 00:00

The Red Side of the Moon: China's Pursuit of Lunar Helium 3

This paper was presented at the "Tamkang School of Strategic Studies 2014 Annual Events" (4/25-4/27), and is going to be published by Tamkang University Press as a book chapter by the end of 2014. Two abridged versions of this paper have been published as articles on The Diplomat and The Eurasia Review, but here the paper appears in its entirety.

舉頭望明月 "Upwards the glorious Moon I raise my head." [ 李白 "Li Bai", 701-762]


When poets and lovers gaze at the Moon, they might also be looking at a clean and abundant resource that could meet the bulk of the global energy demand. In a world where energy requirements are bound to increase and fossil fuels are finite resources, the cratered satellite may offer mankind a way out of the energy conundrum: Helium-3. This element is a light, non-radioactive, and extremely rare on Earth isotope of helium that is mooted as the fuel of the future to enable nuclear fusion as a power source. It has been calculated that there are over one million tonnes of helium-3 on the lunar surface down to a depth of a few metres. Mining the Moon for the precious isotope, shipping it to our planet - and developing suitable fusion reactors - would provide clean energy for the next millennia. Alas, the costs and scientific challenges of such an enterprise would be phenomenal. Nonetheless, China - which allocates a stable and expectedly growing budget for space activities - appears determined to make it a reality of tomorrow. For years, Beijing has been systematically and patiently building up the key competence and platforms needed for an advanced lunar exploration program, under the conviction that 'walking on the Moon' is a reflection of a country's comprehensive national power. China stresses that its space program is for peaceful purposes and maintains its lunar mining would be for the benefit of all humanity. However, given the absence of wilful competitors, it is also speculated that the Chinese intend to lock up the resources of the Moon and establish a helium-3 monopoly. Thus, the question of whether China will act as a benevolent lunar dragon or create a helium-3 'hydraulic empire' might become one of immense relevance in the next decade.

Keywords: Moon, China, Helium-3, Nuclear Fusion, Lunar Exploration

1. Introduction

"Secure, reliable, affordable, clean and equitable energy supply is fundamental to global economic growth and human development and presents huge challenges for us." [World Energy Council, World Energy Scenarios: Composing energy futures to 2050, 2013]

According to a 2013 United Nations report, the world population is projected to reach 9.6 billion by 20501. Of those future earthlings, 1.6 billion will live in India, and 1.3 billion in China2. By then, Nigeria's population is expected to surpass that of the United States3. Also, the forty-nine least developed countries are going to double in size from around 900 million people in 2013 to 1.8 billion4. In light of these figures, it is not difficult to understand that humanity is going to face an increasingly acute energy trilemma - how to simultaneously achieve and balance energy security, energy equity (access and affordability) and environmental sustainability - in the coming decades5. "Conservatively, [...] more than a nine-fold increase in annual energy production needs to be made available by middle of the 21st Century"6 and, in the not so distant future "we have to replace oil, and in the next century we have to replace natural gas - and these two, taken together, represent sixty per cent of the total energy use of every country today."7 By factoring in that, as the Chinese government's white paper China's Energy Policy 2012 states, "energy is the material basis for the progress of human civilization and an indispensable basic condition for the development of modern society,"8 it is then easy to see that the trilemma poses a really formidable and frightening challenge.

As the world's second largest energy consumer, China is paying every effort to develop clean and unconventional energy in order to quench its thirst for energy.9 Beijing is profoundly aware of the imperative of addressing the trilemma.10 In fact, powering an economy the size of China's, especially the size it will be in three decades, only by burning massive quantities of finite fossil fuels and relying on conventional nuclear power is not an option.11 Besides making China unsustainably energy insecure and growingly politically unstable, this would eventually result into the country's environmental, socio-economic and political collapse, and destructively impact the rest of the world.12 Also, the rampaging competition for fossil fuels in the international arena would generate intense geopolitical frictions, fuel regional tensions and breed armed conflicts that would make the international system savagely Hobbesian and highly flammable.13 For all these reasons, apart from investing in conventional energy sources, China is also focusing on renewable and unconventional energy, and has made it a strategic priority.14 Beijing has even officially declared war on pollution,15 and is not going to leave any stone unturned in the search for a long-term, stable, and biosphere-friendly energy source.16

China's energy policies are in a state of rapid flux, but coal and other fossil fuels are still the source of the vast majority of China's energy consumption today. Currently, coal accounts for 67 percent of the energy consumed in the Asian giant, oil is the second largest source (17 percent).17 This situation cannot be changed overnight and, as a popular Chinese saying reminds us "water from afar cannot put out a fire close at hand" [遠水救不了近火], id est a slow remedy cannot meet an urgency. For this reason, the Chinese are pouring substantial resources into and placing their bet on the most futuristic and elusive of unconventional energies: nuclear fusion. In essence, developing nuclear fusion means to develop "what has been labelled 'unconventional nuclear technologies' in order to solve the world's impending energy crisis."18 Achieving fusion requires sparking and controlling a self-sustaining 'star in a bottle', "using temperatures of 200 million degrees Celsius to get atoms [...] to fuse together, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process."19 Beijing is also actively fostering conventional nuclear power as a source of electricity generation, although it makes up only a very small percentage of generating capacity at present - a fraction that is expected to grow to 6 percent by 2035.20 However, nuclear fission power plants produce vast quantities of radioactive waste to store, have catastrophic incidents on their record, and are limited by the fact the world's uranium stocks may run out in a couple of hundred years.21 "Fusion on the other hand," as Steven Cowley - director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and chief executive of the UK Atomic Energy Authority - points out, "gets its fuels, deuterium and lithium, from seawater - not only in plentiful supply but easily accessed, a definite bonus for an increasingly energy-insecure China. Moreover, fusion produces no significant waste. Against the background of a global struggle to dispose of toxic waste piles, this is a weighty advantage."22

Yet, while other scientific challenges have been overcome, a breakthrough in controlled thermonuclear energy (fusion power) seems to be always 'thirty years away'. Notably, The US National Academy of Engineering regards the construction of a commercial thermonuclear reactor, as one of the top engineering challenges of the twenty-first century.23 Most fusion research has focused on deuterium and/or tritium (heavy isotopes of hydrogen) as fuel for generating fusion. Deuterium is found in abundance in all water on earth while tritium is not found in nature but can be produced by the neutron bombardment of lithium.24 However, the nuclear fusion Gordian knot could be untied by shifting to another isotope on the periodic table of elements: helium-3.

2. Helium-3: Rare under Heaven

"But when the black gold's in doubt There's none left for you or for me Fusing helium-3 Our last hope." [Muse, Explorers, The 2nd Law, 2012]

Helium-3 is a light, non-radioactive isotope of helium with two protons and one neutron. Even though this gas is found naturally as a trace component in reservoirs of natural gas and also as a decay product of tritium - one of the elements used in making the hydrogen bomb - there is extremely little helium-3 on our planet.25 In 2010, University of Wisconsin-Madison's nuclear chemist Layton J. Wittenberg calculated that the potential helium-3 availability from natural and man-made resources on Earth for scientific experimentation was a mere 161 Kgs.26 The stockpile of nuclear weapons, the best current terrestrial source of the gas, provides only a supply of 15 kg circa a year. Helium-3 has applications in many domains. On the one hand, it is used in complex low temperature physical measurements as well as in certain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) in hospitals. On the other hand, the gas has such valuable military applications that the US army's security services use it for the detection of dirty bombs.27 Although helium-3 is already in high demand for many reasons, it could become a universally coveted commodity thanks to its extraordinary energy properties, namely for its future use in nuclear fusion to generate electric power with no dangerous and long-lasting radioactive by-products.28

Fission power plants use a nuclear reaction to generate heat which turns water into steam which then hits a turbine to produce power. Current nuclear power plants have nuclear fission reactors in which uranium nuclei are split apart. This releases energy, but also radioactivity and spent nuclear fuel that is reprocessed into uranium, plutonium and radioactive waste which has to be safely and time-proof stored.29 For decades scientists have been working to obtain nuclear power from nuclear fusion rather than nuclear fission. In current nuclear fusion reactors, the hydrogen isotopes tritium and deuterium release atomic energy when their nuclei fuse to create helium and a neutron. Nuclear fusion employs the same energy source that fuels the Sun and other stars, without yielding the radioactivity and nuclear waste that is the by-product of nuclear fission power generation.30 However, the 'fast' neutrons released by nuclear fusion reactors fuelled by tritium and deuterium lead to significant energy loss and are immensely difficult to contain.31 One potential solution may be to use helium-3 and deuterium - "substituting helium-3 for tritium significantly reduces neutron production, making it safe to locate fusion plants nearer to where power is needed the most, large cities"32 - or helium-3 alone as the fuel in 'aneutronic' (power without emission of neutrons) fusion reactors. "Perhaps the most promising idea is to fuel a third-generation reactor solely with helium-3, which can directly yield an electric current - no generator required. As much as seventy percent of the energy in the fuels could be captured and put directly to work,"33 out-pacing coal and natural gas electricity generation by twenty percent.34

Nuclear fusion reactors using helium-3 could therefore provide a highly efficient form of nuclear power with virtually no waste and negligible radiation.35 In the words of Matthew Genge, lecturer at the Faculty of Engineering at the Imperial College in London, "nuclear fusion using Helium-3 would be cleaner, as it doesn't produce any spare neutrons. It should produce vastly more energy than fission reactions without the problem of excessive amounts of radioactive waste."36 Moreover, eliminating the use of slightly radioactive tritium in the fusion process, by using deuterium and helium-3 for fuel, also has the benefit of simplifying the engineering to meet radiation standards. Also, tritium is not an abundant, naturally occurring isotope of hydrogen on Earth, because of its short half-life of 12.3 years. For Deuterium-Tritium fusion, the tritium would have to be bred from lithium, in a blanket surrounding the inside of the fusion reactor, which is a complication that would be eliminated with Deuterium-Helium-3 fusion.37

Actually, the Helium-3 fusion process is not simply theoretical.38 The University of Wisconsin-Madison Fusion Technology Institute successfully performed helium-3 fuelled fusion experiments. To date, scientists have only been able to sustain a fusion reaction for a few seconds, but with nothing near the scale or energy yield necessary to be released for commercial use.39 In fact, the development of commercial fusion reactors is dependent upon demonstrating 'break-even': producing as much energy as it is needed to start the reaction.40 So far, deuterium-Helium-3 or Helium3-Helium 3 fusion has not yet come close to break-even.41 However, with massive investments in nuclear fusion research, commercial fusion reactors might become a reality within the next three decades.42 At that point, the demand for Helium-3 would skyrocket. Presently, even though nuclear fusion does not even work properly yet, helium-3 is so scarce and in demand that in 2010 the US Department of Energy officially lamented a critical shortage in the global supply43 and is already worth US$16 million per kilo.44

Indeed, Helium-3 is really rare 'under Heaven'. How about 'above Heaven'? Actually, the Sun - like all stars - continuously emits helium-3 within its solar wind, which consists largely of ionized hydrogen and ionized helium. The reason why Helium 3 is so rare on the Earth is that the terrestrial atmosphere and magnetic field prevent any of the solar helium-3 from arriving on our planet. However, as the Moon does not have an atmosphere, there is nothing to stop helium-3 arriving on the surface of our satellite and being absorbed by the lunar soil.45 Given that The Moon has been bombarded for billions of years by solar wind, helium-3 is available in the dust of the lunar surface.46 It has been calculated that there are about 1,100,000 metric tonnes of helium-3 on the lunar surface down to a depth of a few metres (since the regolith - i.e. the lunar soil - has been stirred up by collisions with meteorites).47 More precisely, according to two Chinese scientists, the lunar inventory of Helium-3 is estimated as 6.50×1^8 kg, where 3.72×1^8 kg is for the lunar nearside and 2.78×1^8 kg is for the lunar far side.48 Helium-3 could potentially be extracted by heating the lunar dust to around 600 degrees C, before bringing it back to the Earth to fuel a new generation of nuclear fusion power plants.49 Professor Gerald Kulcinski, Director of the Fusion Technology Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison, maintains that about 40 tonnes of helium-3 - which equate to two fully-loaded Space Shuttle cargo bay's worth - could power the United States for a year at the current rate of energy consumption, without causing smog, acid rain and radioactive waste.50 This would require mining an area the size of Washington, D.C. Besides, several other valuable materials - such as oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide and dioxide - will be produced in the course of recovering the helium-3.51 It comes as no surprise, then, that the gas has a potential economic value in the order of US$ 1bn to 3bn a tonne, making it the only thing remotely economically viable to consider mining from the Moon given current and likely-near-future space travel technologies and capabilities.52

3. "Upwards the glorious moon I raise my head"

"Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars; in the heavens you have made them, precious and beautiful." [Francis of Assisi, Canticle of the Sun, 1224]

A team of University of Wisconsin scientists has calculated that if the entire lunar surface were mined, and all of the helium-3 were used for fusion fuel on Earth, it could meet world energy demand for over 10,000 years. In addition, given the estimated potential energy of a ton of helium-3 (the equivalent of about 50 million barrels of crude oil),53 helium-3 fuelled fusion could free the world from fossil fuel dependency, and is likely to increase mankind's productivity by orders of magnitude.54 But to supply the planet with fusion power for centuries, humanity has first to return to the Moon. Although mining helium-3 on the cratered satellite to power the Earth has been in the minds of scientists and political deciders since the end of the Apollo program in the early 1970s, to date only China has embarked on a long-term endeavour to achieve such an ambitious goal, having established a satellite-based lunar exploration program called the Chang'e Project (Chang'e is a fairy living on the moon in a Chinese legend) in 2004.55 The question is: why China? The opinion of Michael C. Zarnstorff, deputy director of research for Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, can assist in the quest for the answer. "They [China] need a lot more energy due to their increasing population, and they really want to get rid of the pollution problems they have."56 If Beijing is able to mine the lunar helium-3 and effectively use it for fusion power, then it could avert China's environmental crisis. In addition, the People's Republic would become a major energy resource player and "offer a clean energy option to countries looking to wean themselves from oil dependency."57

Besides having "lots of cash and lots of educated people,"58 China is graced with a pervasively strategic culture, according to which thorough preparedness and long-term planning are the keys to success.59 Also, China's one-party political system, in which the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is the most important factor in determining the future of the country and the generational turnover at the top happens by co-optation once a decade,60 guarantees that strategic policies are consistently implemented over many years, rather than being reneged on or upturned at every budget or change of administration as it is often the case with Western democracies.61 Normally, in the 'State of the Center' long-term plans are ably enacted by highly selected practical visionaries undisturbed by democracy's glitches62 who are acutely aware that addressing the energy trilemma is vital for regime survival and that conversion to a sustainable world economy is the only way to go. Moreover, going to the Moon to harvest helium-3 is synergistically compatible with and reflective of the values and ambitions of President Xi Jinping's 'Chinese Dream'. The 'Chinese dream' slogan was launched soon after Xi's inauguration and has quickly become the new national mantra. The expression is used to describe the aspiration of individual and collective self-improvement in Chinese society and calls for patriotic unity under one-party rule. Interestingly, the 'Chinese Dream' vision also includes a space exploration élan,63 Mr. Xi having emphasized that "the space dream is an important part of the dream of a strong nation."64 Indeed, for a country like China, spacefaring and moonwalking are greatly instrumental to consolidating its legitimacy as a rising power. And many Chinese see their space program as the symbol of their once-impoverished nation's ascension to economic and technological primacy.65

As Joan Johnson-Freese, a United States Naval War College in Rhode Island professor who researches China's space activities, has pointed out: "China's getting a lot of prestige, which turns into geostrategic influence, from the fact that they are the third country to have manned spaceflight capabilities, [...] that they are going to the moon."66 Professor Ouyang Ziyuan (歐陽自遠), the chief scientist of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program appears to agree. "Lunar exploration is a reflection of a country's comprehensive national power. It is significant for raising our international prestige and increasing our people's cohesion," he told the media. But the Moon could also become an energy cornucopia. Professor Ouyang explained that solar panels would operate far more efficiently on the airless lunar surface and believes that a "belt" of them could "support the whole world" provided the generated electricity is sent back to Earth via lasers or microwaves.67 Plus, the Moon is "so rich" in helium-3, that this could "solve human beings' energy demand for around 10,000 years at least."68 In light of the statements above, it is clear that Beijing's lunar program represents a triple-win venture. Internationally, lunar expeditions "will increase China's political influence in the world."69

Domestically, 'conquering the Moon' would bolster the consensus for the political leadership and prop up Chinese national pride. Thirdly, on the energy security side, tapping into the Moon has the potential to make China not only energy self-sufficient and secure, but also turn the Chinese into the 'helium-3 Arabs' of the 21st century, especially in case they get to enjoy the position of monopolists. China would then become not only an energy superpower able to fix its social and environmental problems, but also the center of a global helium-3 hydraulic empire.70 The "spice must flow, and he who controls the spice, controls the universe!" Frank Herbert, the author of Dune, would say.71

Officially China's lunar program has three official main goals. The first is to gain technological skill. Secondly, the Chinese scientists seek to understand the moon's evolution and compare it with Earth.72 Thirdly, "in terms of talent, China needs its own intellectual team who can explore the whole lunar and solar system." Additionally, it is acknowledged that the rationale for a long-term program is that "there are many ways humans can use the Moon,"73 and that Beijing is planning a lunar base.74 As for the exploitation of the lunar resources, on the one hand the Chinese have repeatedly declared that they are going to utilize them "to benefit the whole of mankind,"75 on the other hand, Professor Ouyang has tellingly remarked that "Whoever first conquers the Moon will benefit first."76 In order to achieve such goals and eventually 'use the Moon,' the lunar exploration program consists of three stages: 1) flying around the Moon. Respectively in 2007 and 2010, Beijing launched the Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2 unmanned lunar probes to circle the Moon and map its surface to get three-dimensional images of the body from space. Scientists then analyzed the information sent back by the orbiters. 2) Landing on the moon. In December 2013 the Chang'e-3 mission, incorporating a robotic lander and China's first lunar rover, reached the Moon. The wheeled rover explored the vicinity of the landing area and radar-scanned the lunar subsurface structure. The second phase of the program will be completed by the Chang'e-4 mission, incorporating a robotic lander and rover, which is scheduled for launch in 2015. 3) Returning from the moon. The Chang'e-5 mission may be launched in 2017 or 2018 to further explore the Moon and collect lunar soil, and then would return soil and rock samples to China for first-hand examination. Only after the completion of these three phases China will be finally able to land human beings on the Moon.77 According to British space scientist Richard Holdaway, China could have astronauts treading on the regolith by 2025.78

4. To the Moon (and beyond)!

"We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too." [John F. Kennedy, Moon Speech at Rice University, 1962]

As observed by former US astronaut and geologist Harrison Schmitt, Chinese scientists and experts have framed Beijing's space program partially in terms of their nation's constant quest for energy and raw materials, "talking about ­helium-3 and solar power as potential energy sources on the moon, as well as its reserves of titanium, rare earths, uranium and thorite."79 This 'pursuit of lunar resources' theme has then been combined with a 'geopolitical competition' discourse conveying a sense of urgency. "If China doesn't explore the moon, we will have no say in international lunar exploration and can't safeguard our proper rights and interests,"80 Professor Ouyang declared in 2010, hinting that progress in the lunar program would confer an edge to China if and when the extraction of the Moon's riches turns political. The 15 December 2013 edition of the Beijing Youth Daily argued that "China can obtain a certificate to sharing lunar interests only by carrying out exploration and gaining actual results." It also contended: "How to protect China's interest in outer space has become an inevitable question."81 Dean Cheng, an expert on China's space program at the Heritage Foundation, got the message clear. "Once you start mining, and even before, questions arise as to ownership, as to profit-sharing (if any), as to who has the ability to establish and enforce claims in space," he said. "A long-term presence in space will give China political capital."82 Thirdly, the lunar program has been presented to policy makers and the general public as a cost effective investment. For example, the chief scientist of the program has stressed that the total spending of Chang'e-1 mission was about RMB 1.4 billion, the same amount as the money used to construct two kilometers of subway in Beijing.83 Similarly, the Chinese political leaders can be reminded that, according to experts in the US , the total estimated cost for fusion development, rocket development and starting lunar operations would be about US$15-20 billion over two decades.84 By comparison, another big nuclear fusion project (on Earth), the International Thermonuclear Reactor Project (ITER) has an estimated total cost of now €15 billion (US$20.5 billion),85 and going to the Moon to mine helium-3 would cost "about the same as was required for the 1970s Trans Alaska Pipeline."86 Actually, US$ 15-20 billion does not appear to be an excessive financial commitment for a country which is to spend US$ 1.7 trillion between 2011-2015 - in the form of investment, assistance for state-owned enterprises, and bank loans - for a plan aiming at covering 11.4 percent of China's energy needs by 2015, and 15 percent by 2020, from non-fossil energy.87

Finally, the seductiveness of China's lunar vision has been enhanced with two additional charms: China's technological advancement and solar system exploration. As for the first, Ouyang Ziyuan's speeches often mention the achievements of the US Apollo program (1963-1972) in order to illustrate the transformational characteristics of any lunar project. The Chinese scientist reminds his audiences that Washington spent US$25.4 billion on the Moon's exploration at that time, which has thus far yielded an output worth fourteen times the original investment, leading to the birth of several new hi-tech industries and technologies such as the rocket, radar, radio guidance and so on, which were then put into civil use.88 The implication is that China's Moon exploration and colonization are going to be the catalyst for revolutionary technological progress that can transform the country's entire industrial landscape and bring a galaxy of economic and social benefits.89 However, helium-3 remains the biggest gem on the selenitic crown. If it is postulated that the commercial value of helium-3 will be US$3 billion/ton,90 and defensively estimated that there are 1 million tons of the precious gas trapped in the regolith,91 then the whole stock of lunar helium-3 would be worth an astonishing three quadrillion dollars. That is more than enough to cover the costs and risks of extracting and shipping it back to Earth. Finally, it should be kept in mind that while rocket fuel and consumables now cost an average of $20,000 per pound to lift off Earth, resources could instead be carried off the Moon much more economically. Given that the lunar gravitational pull is inferior to the Earth's, 83.3% (or 5/6) less to be exact,92 transporting material from the moon requires just 1/14th to 1/20th of the fuel needed to lift material up from the terrestrial surface.93

Financial considerations apart, helium-3 would be crucial for what perhaps is the most ambitious goal of China's lunar program: setting up a lunar base and using the Moon as a stepping-stone for space exploration.94 In order to turn the Moon into an operational headquarters for scientific experimentation and further exploration of the solar system, a lunar base should be established first.95 Helium-3 would be crucial for achieving that. In fact, the immediately available by-products of helium-3 production include hydrogen, water, and compounds of nitrogen and carbon. Oxygen can be easily produced by electrolysis of water. Thus, by mining Helium-3 Moon settlers would be able to obtain the air and water they would need to make lunar colonization sustainable.96 In essence, extracting helium-3 produces the resources we need to gather more of it.97 Lunar helium-3 could also become the premier rocket fuel of the future, turning the Moon into the launching pad or a refueling service station for space-bound missions. It appears that in the permanently darkened craters of the Moon's polar regions there are significant reserves of water (ice) that can be melted, purified and electrolyzed into hydrogen and oxygen.98 One by-product would be hydrogen peroxide for rocket fuel. Hydrogen can be obtained also as a by-product of helium-3 mining. Yet, helium-3 would offer ginormous advantages over hydrogen if it is used a nuclear rocket fuel. As John Slough, a University of Washington's professor of aeronautics and astronautics explains, "Using existing rocket fuels, it is nearly impossible for humans to explore much beyond Earth."99 NASA estimates a round-trip human expedition to Mars would take more than four years using current technology, but according to Slough the same voyage could be completed in maximum-three-month expeditions on a spaceship powered by fusion.100 Helium-3 would then be the best candidate as fuel for the fusion engines because it is abundant on the Moon and would provide far more power per unit of mass than chemical rocket fuels.101 Moreover, helium-3 as fusion fuel greatly reduces neutron production and therefore would be the safest option for the crews of ships.102

In the light of all these elements, it is clear that China is not just re-enacting and repeating the past US space program, but intends to shape the future. Beijing's grand plan to mine lunar helium-3 should be understood as "the first step toward creating a scientific and economic revolution which will power global economic growth and open the entire Solar System to mankind."103

5. Game of Moons

"A trader from Quarth told me that dragons come from the Moon." [Game of Thrones, Season 1, Episode 2, 2011]

Two years before the Apollo 11 mission, a treaty was signed by the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union. Inked even as the race to plant a flag on the lunar soil was well underway, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty stipulated that no nation-state could ever own the Moon.104 According to the Treaty - to which 102 countries, including the People's Republic of China (which joined in 1983), are currently parties105 - Activities on the Moon may be pursued freely without any discrimination of any kind, and countries can place vehicles, personnel, stations, and facilities anywhere on or below the surface. However, as said above, neither the surface nor the subsurface of the Moon can become the property of any country or its citizens. In fact, a 2009 Statement by the Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law clarifies that: "The current international legal regime is binding both on States and, through the precise wording of Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, [...] also on non-governmental entities, i.e. individuals, legal persons and private companies. [...]Since there is no territorial jurisdiction in outer space or on celestial bodies, there can be no private ownership of parts thereof, as this would presuppose the existence of a territorial sovereign competent to confer such titles of ownership."106 Also, as leading international law of space scholar Harold Bashor points out: "There are no rights of ownership for any natural resources in place. [...] This is generally interpreted to mean that a country may not claim ownership of any resources until they have been extracted. Yet, any extraction is required to be for the benefit of mankind according to the Common Heritage of Mankind principle."107 Moreover, since the Moon is to be explored and exploited for peaceful purposes, Bashor argues, states have an obligation not to interfere with the activities of any other state on the Moon, and any conflict has to be reported to the United Nations.108 Alas, the current system is predicated heavily on good faith, and whether future Moon-settling countries will behave fairly is yet to be seen. "A system lacking a clear legal framework has thus far worked for scientific ventures, such as the International Space Station. But history tells a different story when big businesses and competing nations turn their sights on a new frontier."109

This said, which states are actually going to play 'game of Moons'? As many as eleven robotic lunar missions including orbiters, rovers and sample return missions are to be launched between now and 2020.110 China (2015; 2017-18),111 Russia (2016;2019),112 India (2017),113 Japan (2018)114 and the US (2018)115 all have missions planned during this period, while new players eyeing post 2020 Moon missions may include South Korea (2020),116 while the European Space Agency's Lunar Lander project has been shelved due to budgetary constraints.117 Those states giving serious study to the launch of manned Moon missions by 2020-2030 are China,118 and Russia,119 Japan (in collaboration with the US),120 and perhaps India.121 Even though it appears that there are going to be several contenders playing the selenitic game, what is really needed in order to extract helium-3 and the other lunar resources is a lunar base. Hence, only two chess-pieces remain standing on the board: the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation. Officials from both Beijing and Moscow have declared that their countries are going to build a base on the Moon. On 8 January 2014, Zhang Yuhua - Deputy General Director and Deputy General Designer of the Chang'e-3 probe system revealed that: "In addition to manned lunar landing technology, we are also working on the construction of a lunar base, which will be used for new energy development and living space expansion."122 His words echo Oyuang Ziyuan's 2002 mantic statement: "China will establish a base on the moon as we did in the South Pole and the North Pole."123 In Russia's case, the announcement has come from the upper echelons. Deputy premier Dmitry Rogozin, who is in overall charge of Russia's space and defence industries, writing about the "colonisation of the moon and near-moon space" on the 10 April 2014 issue of the official daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta stated that Moscow plans to establish a lunar base for long-term missions to the Moon by 2040. Rogozin affirmed that that Earth's satellite is the only realistic source to obtain water, minerals and other resources for future space missions. A lunar laboratory complex will also be used for testing new space technologies. "This process has the beginning, but has no end. We are coming to the Moon forever," he promised.124 Despite Rogozin's rhetoric, it might be surmised that the Chinese are better positioned in the race for lunar helium-3. For a start, they have more money and resources, began "from a long way back but now they are catching up fast,"125 and "by the end of the decade [...] want to move from being what is classed as a major space power to being a strong space power." Tellingly, "within a little more than a decade, the only working space station in orbit could be Chinese."126 In sum, Beijing backs words with facts. For this reason, when asked if the idea of a Chinese lunar base extracting minerals was remotely plausible, the afore-mentioned Prof. Richard Holdaway: "It is perfectly plausible from the technical point of view, absolutely plausible from the finance point of view because they have great buying power."127 Buying power will be certainly needed, given that a 2009 analysis by the Center for Strategic and International Studies estimated that a four-person research station on the lunar surface would cost US$35 billion to build and US$7.35 billion per year to operate.128

If China wins the 'race for the Moon' and establishes a manned outpost conducting helium-3 mining operations, it would create a scenario similar that of the 2009 movie Moon. In that motion picture, a private company called Lunar Industries has built a mining base on the Moon and enjoys a helium-3 extraction and shipping monopoly - the same kind of monopoly that in the past created the fortunes of ventures like the East India Companies.129 Unlike that fictional universe, in the case of a Chinese lunar base the monopoly would be held by a state. The ramifications and consequences of such a scenario would be 'cosmic'. First, "China is what international relations scholars call a 'revisionist power,' seeking opportunities to assert its enhanced relative position in international affairs."130 Thus, establishing an automated or manned helium-3 operation on the Moon would be a spectacular statement of grandeur.131 Secondly, due to the inevitable depletion of fossil fuels on Earth, Beijing would be in a position to gradually build a helium-3 hydraulic empire in which it would control the supply of the precious gas, and become the only energy superpower. The making of such an empire would be most likely met with resistance. Plausibly, the prospect of China's energy supremacy, which would undoubtedly transubstantiate into pervasive geopolitical influence, would cause geopolitical tension, agglutinate anti-Chinese alliances, and prompt the other space-faring nations - the US in primis - to rush to the Moon to break the Dragon's monopoly. Then, a scenario similar to that described in Limit, a science and political fiction novel by Frank Schatzing set in a 2025, seeing China and the US develop a new Cold War for lunar helium-3 taking the space race of yesteryear to new heights. Thirdly, China might decide to acquire or retain control over helium-3 deposits by annexing lunar regions. International law would be neither an impassable hurdle nor an effective deterrent. Although the 1967 Outer Space Treaty asserts common ownership over everything in the universe beyond the Earth and requires all countries to share in the benefits of space,132 its article 17 permits signatory states to withdraw from the treaty with only a year's notice.133 Unilateral withdrawal by one of the major space-faring powers would undermine the existing international legal regime in space, prompting the other players to secure a piece of the pie in the sky for themselves. This would start a period of colonialism reminiscent of that in 19th century. Having established a permanent manned lunar base, China would be able to substantiate its claim by satisfying an important criterion for sovereignty: the wishes of the inhabitants. Also, claims over lunar areas beyond China's 'red side of the Moon' by other powers would legitimize Beijing's acquisition of its new selenitic dominions (where Chinese sovereignty would provide regulations and protection for private investors to operate).134 Once in control of vast helium-3 fields, China could even astutely play the 'game of Moons' by favouring the settlement and encouraging the territorial claims of non-hostile or friendly powers - for example other BRICS countries - in order to contain Western expansion and access to helium-3 on the lunar surface. Finally, China could decide to use its lunar base as a military asset "to dominate access on and off our planet Earth and determine who will extract valuable resources from the moon in the years ahead."135 More piercingly put, "the Moon could hypothetically be used as a military battle station and ballistic missiles could be launched against any military target on Earth"136 or in space. Our planet's celestial sister could also become one of the battlefields of future 'helium-3 conflicts', which would be simultaneously fought or spill-over on lunar, space and Earth domains.137 If this will turn into 'tomorrow's truth', then helium-3 will not just fuel the future, but also future rivalries and wars. The price for global energy security would then be global geopolitical insecurity.


6. Conclusion: A Call to Cooperation

"There was a time when energy was a dirty world - when turning on your lights was a hard choice. Cities in brown out, food shortages, cars burning fuel to run. But that was the past, where are we now? How did we make the world so much better, make deserts bloom? Right now we're the largest producer of fusion energy in the world. The energy of the sun, trapped in rock, harvested by machine from the far side of the moon. Today we deliver enough clean burning Helium-3 to supply the energy needs of nearly 70% of the planet. Who'd have thought, all the energy we ever needed, right above our heads. The power of the moon. The power of our future." ['Lunar Industries Commercial' in Duncan Jones, Moon, 2009]

The 'game of Moons' scenarios evoked in the previous pages are not anticipations of an inescapable future. On the contrary, lunar exploration and resources development can be international cooperation synergizers and confidence building catalysts. Consistently, the Beijing Declaration, issued at the 2008 Global Space Development Summit in Beijing, calls for international cooperation "in all the applicative fields of space [...] as the world enters a challenging period characterized by globalization, dramatic population growth, serious environmental concerns and scarcity of resources."138 By 2050 there will be a dire paucity of all the economically recoverable fossil fuels (there would still be plenty of coal, but can humankind afford to put up with greenhouse gases?). "Also, all alternative sources of energy, like water power, solar power, tidal power, wind power, geothermal power, and wood will not be sufficient to supply more than 10 percent of the energy which will be needed by the 20 billion people that will be on earth at that time. We will be out of energy and forced to seek a new source,"139 predicted a venerable scholar at the turn of the millennium. And Sister Moon, "precious and beautiful,"140 can tend the Earth its energy salvation. The helium-3 trapped in the lunar soil offers humanity about ten times the energy that could be obtained from mining all the fossil fuels on Earth, without causing apocalyptic pollution. Also by tossing all the Earth's uranium into liquid metal fast breeder reactors, we could generate about half this much energy.141 But some men will have to cross the sky and conquer the Moon, and other people will have to tame particles, to open a new future up to humanity. Indeed, the quest for helium-3 is involved with the dynamics of succumbing to or reversing the process of global collapse. Common destiny and enlightened self-interest both dictate cooperation among all space-faring nations. Two countries in particular have greater responsibilities than the others: the US and China.

In almost every area of space activity, the US has a clear technological and operational advantage over other countries, including China. For example, in 2012 NASA landed the Curiosity rover on Mars, a much more difficult task than the Chang'e 3 mission by any measure.142 However, the US star does not shine as bright as in the past due to budget cuts, and a reluctance to maintain its space leadership143 as revealed by the cancellation of the American project designed to take humans back to the Moon (Constellation Program).144 On the other hand, even though Beijing's overall budget in space programmes is still rather moderate compared with that of the US, China appears to have what Confucius would describe as "the will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach its full potential" in lunar and space exploration. The Chinese are quickly developing their own space technology kung fu and are currently collaborating with other countries such as Russia, Brazil, France, Germany and, very fruitfully, with the European Space Agency145 - but not with the US. Actually, China has recently made several overtures to the US. For example, Xu Dazhe, the new chief of China's space industry, while attending the International Space Exploration Forum in Washington in January 2014 said: "We are willing to cooperate with all the countries in the world, including the United States and developing countries."146 "The US, however, is wary of entering in any type of collaborative interaction with the Chinese, primarily for national security reasons ranging from technology transfer concerns to a general mistrust of the People's Liberation Army's involvement in Beijing's space program. Consequently, in 2011 Washington "has enacted Public Law 112-10, Public Law 101-246 and Public Law 106-391 to suspend all bilateral activities between NASA and the Chinese in spaceflight projects."147 Furthermore, China was barred from participating in the current orbiting space station, largely because of US objections over political differences.148 By contrast, the Chinese said they will welcome foreign astronauts aboard their future space station, which is scheduled to become operational in 2020.149

While the US government's duty and prerogative to protect national security is not in question, the issue of collaborating with China in space activities should be considered in the light of the benefits of going back to the Moon and establishing a settlement for the production of the Helium-3 fusion fuel. Working with the Chinese as part of a global effort to solve the energy conundrum would then become "the next logical step."150 For sure, combining forces would make humanity's pursuit of helium-3 power, quicker, cheaper and more efficient. Starting a cooperative effort, inclusive of China and the US, for lunar exploration would, first of all, require each participant a change of mindset as well as adopting an approach based on the four principles indicated by the Beijing Declaration: mutual benefit, transparency, reciprocity, and cost sharing.151 Actually, the same document identifies the development of a lunar base as the ideal next project for international collaboration on space exploration.152 Creative politics and diplomacy will also play a crucial role in ensuring good governance and fair dividends to all parties. New legal regimes for exploiting helium-3 and other lunar resources could be designed and approved. A new international regime, organization or enterprise for the cooperative development and terrestrial fusion of lunar helium-3 may be needed.153 Many diverse solutions will be possible as long as a sense of common destiny will be shared by the moon-settling nations. The race for making available a safe, clean and revolutionary source of energy to all human beings should not have any loser, only winners. Thus, civilizational or national egoisms should be left back on Earth. Helium-3 power is not meant to be the flame casting deep shadows over a new Dark Age, but the glorious light of a global renaissance: an era in which people will look at the Moon through a clear unpolluted sky. In Washington as in Moscow, New Delhi or Beijing.

1 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Population Estimates and Projection Section, "World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision." 27 February 2014 (last update),
2 World Bank, "Population Projection Tables by Country and Group." 2014,,,contentMDK:21737699~menuPK:3385623~pagePK:64168445~piPK:64168309~theSitePK:3237118,00.html
3 United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division, Population Estimates and Projection Section, "World Population Prospects: The 2012 Revision."
4 Ibid.
5 Christoph Frei et al., World Energy Scenarios: Composing energy futures to 2050, World Energy Council, 2013, p. 218.
6 Harrison H. Schmitt et al., "Lunar Helium-3 Fusion Resource Distribution," University of Wisconsin - Madison, 2011, p. 2.
7 Guenter Janeschitz as quoted in Raffi Katchadourian, "A Star in a Bottle," New Yorker, 3 March 2014,
8 Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, China's Energy Policy 2012, October 2012, p. 2.
9 China Briefing, "China to Encourage Corporate Participation in Shale Gas Exploration", 10 October 2011,
10 Chang Chung Young and Fabrizio Bozzato, "The Dragon is Thirsty: China's Quest for Energy," International Conference on the Making of New Asia: Migration, Identity, Interaction and Security, Fo Guang University, Taiwan, 5-6 November 2011. See also: Jenny Lin, "China's Energy Security Dilemma," Projet 2049 Institute, 13 February 2012.
11 Joseph P. Giljum, "The Future of China's Energy Security," The 
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12 See, for example, Scott Doney, "Oceans of Acid: How Fossil Fuels Could Destroy Marine Ecosystems," PBS, 12 Feb 2014,
13 Michael T. Klare, "Fueling the Dragon: China's Strategic Energy Dilemma," Current History, Issue 150, April 2006, p. 180.
14 Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, China's Energy Policy 2012, October 2012.
15 Reuters, "China to 'declare war' on pollution, premier says," 4 March 2014,
16 Maria Van Der Hoeven, "Strategizing for Energy Policy: China's Drive to Reduce Dependence," Harvard International Review, Vol. 35, No. 1, Summer 2013, pp. 14-25.
17 Joachim Betz, "The Reform of China's Energy Policies," German Institute of Global and Area Studies Working Papers, No. 216, February 2013, p. 6. Also, biomass and waste: 9 percent; hydro-power: 3 percent; Natural gas: 3 percent; nuclear power: 1 percent; and other renewable sources: 0.2 percent.
18 Mark Piesing, "Big nuke vs little nuke: how the nuclear establishment is stifling innovation," Wired, 21 February 2012,
19 Olivia Boyd, "Nuclear fusion: an answer to China's energy problems?," China Dialogue, 2 December 2013,
20 Ibid, p. 8.
21 Scientific American, "How long will the world's uranium supplies last?", 26 January 2009,
22 Steven Cowley as quoted in Olivia Boyd, "Nuclear fusion: an answer to China's energy problems?"
23 Raffi Katchadourian, "A Star in a Bottle."
24 Egbert Boeker and Rienk van Grondelle, Environmental Physics: Sustainable Energy and Climate Change, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 2011, p. 66.
25 Marsha R. D'Souza, Diana M. Otalvaro and Deep Arjun Singh, Harvesting Helium-3 from the Moon, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, 2006, pp. 18-25.
26 Layton J. Wittenberg, "Helium-3 Resources and Acquisition for Use as Fusion Fuel in Aries III," in Farrokh Najmabadi, Robert W. Conn, et al., The ARIES-III Tokamak Fusion Reactor Study - The Final Report, University of California-San Diego, Advanced Energy Technology Group, Center for Energy Research, p. 15-5.
27 Dana A. Shea and Daniel Morgan, "The Helium-3 Shortage: Supply, Demand, and Options for Congress", Congressional Research Service, 7-5700, 22 December 2010, pp. 1-20.
28 Satish Kumar and Kopal Gupta, "Helium-3 As An Alternate Fuel Technology (for Producing Electricity)," Journal of Department of Applied Sciences & Humanities, Vol. IV, 2006, pp. 77-84
29 World Nuclear Association, "Nuclear Power Reactors," November 2013,
30 World Nuclear Association, "Nuclear Fusion Power," February 2014,
31 Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, "Nuclear Fusion Power," 9 August 2000,
32 Stefano Coledan, "Mining The Moon," Popular Mechanics, 7 December 2004,
33 Singam Jayanthu, Bhishm Tripathi and Arjun Sandeep, "Scope of Mining on the Moon - A Critical Appraisal," Golden Jubilee celebration & MineTECH'11 of The Indian Mining & Engineering Journal, Raipur, 18-19 November 2011, p. 2.
34 Keith Veronese, "Could Helium-3 really solve Earth's energy problems?" io9, 5 November 2012,
35 Gary Pajer et al., "Modular Aneutronic Fusion Engine," Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, May 2012.
36 Matthew Genge as quoted in Henry Gass, "Plans to strip mine the moon may soon be more than just science-fiction," The Ecologist, 4 July 2011,
37 Marsha Freeman, "Mining the Moon To Power the Earth," Executive Intelligence Review, 24 January 2014,
38 Matt Treske, "Moon Power," Wisconsin Engineer, Vol. 116, No. 1, November 2011
39 National Academy of Engineering, "Provide energy from fusion," 2012,
40 Bruno Maffei, "The Physics of Energy sources Nuclear Fusion," University of Manchester, 2012, p.10
41 Mohammad Mahdavi and Behnaz Kaleji, "Deuterium/helium-3 fusion reactors with lithium seeding," Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion, Vol. 51, No. 8, July 2009, pp. 85003-0
42 Sergei V. Ryzhkov, "Alternative Fusion Reactors as Future Commercial Power Plants," Journal of Plasma and Fusion Research, Vol. 8, April 2009, pp. 35-38.
43 David Kramer, "DOE begins rationing helium-3," Physics Today, June 2010,
44 Henry Gass, "Plans to Strip Mine the Moon May Soon be More Than Just Science-Fiction," Global Research, 7 July, 2011,
45 Christopher Barnatt, "Helium-3 Power Generation,", 13 September 2012,
46 Harrison Schmitt, Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space, Copernicus Books, New York, 2007, pp. 48-51.
47 Artemis Society International, "Lunar Helium-3 as an Energy Source, in a nutshell," 2007,
48 Wenzhe Fa and Ya-Qiu Jin, "Quantitative estimation of helium-3 spatial distribution in the lunar regolith layer," Icarus, No. 190, April 2007, pp. 15-23.
49 Alfred O. Nier and Dennis J. Schlutter, "Extraction of Helium from Individual IDPs and Lunar Grains by Pulse Heating," Meteoritics, Vol. 27, No. 3, July 1992,
50 Richard Bilder, "A Legal Regime for the Mining of Helium-3 on the Moon: U.S. Policy Options," Fordham International Law Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, January 2010, p. 246.
51 Marsha Freeman, "Mining the Moon to Power the Earth."
52 Christopher Barnatt, "Helium-3 Power Generation."
53 Joshua E. Keating, "Is There Money In the Moon? Maybe Someday," Foreign Policy, 18 June 2012,
54 Marsha Freeman, "Mining the Moon to Power the Earth."
55 Liu Yuanhui, "Reaching the Moon," China Radio International's English Service, 13 December 2013,
56 Michael C. Zarnstorff as quoted in Brandon Southward, "China's quest for a new energy source heads to space," CNN Money, 20 December 2013,
57 Brandon Southward, "China's quest for a new energy source heads to space."
58 Steven Cowley as quoted in Olivia Boyd, "Nuclear fusion: an answer to China's energy problems?"
59 Gilbert Rozman, Chinese Strategic Thought Toward Asia, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2012, pp. 1-6.
60 Xiaowei Zang, Elite Dualism and Leadership Selection in China, Routledge, London and New York, 2004, pp. 147-162.
61 Walter Wang, "Long Term Planning Puts China on a Different Path," CleanTechies, 16 August 2011,
62 Robert Lawrence Kuhn, How China's Leaders Think: The Inside Story of China's Past, Current and Future Leaders, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 2011, pp. 580-590.
63 The Economist, "Reaching for the Moon," 21 December 2013,
64 Xi Jinping as quoted in The Economist, "Reaching for the Moon."
65 Cole Pfeiffer, "Asia's space race: China looks to dominate the final frontier," Foreign Policy Today, 11 December 2013,
66 Joan Johnson-Freese as quoted in Chris Buckley, "China blasts off to moon with rover mission," Seattle Times, 2 December 2013,
67 Lulu Zhang, "Chief scientist chides narrow view on lunar project,", 17 December 2013,
68 Ouyang Ziyuan as quoted in David Shukman, "Why China is fixated on the Moon," BBC, 29 November 2013,
69 Ouyang Ziyuan as quoted in Antoaneta Bezlova "China reaps a moon harvest," Asia Times Online, 30 October 2007,
70 Karl A. Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: A Comparative Study of Total Power, New York, Random House, 1957.
71 Brian Herbert, Dreamer of Dune: The Biography of Frank Herbert, Tom Doherty Associates, New York, 2003, p. 172.
72 Julie Sullivan, "Why is China interested in the Moon? Lunar Program Secrets Revealed," Headlines and Global News, 30 November 2013,
73 Ouyang Ziyuan as quoted in David Shukman, "Why China is fixated on the Moon."
74 Marsha Freeman, "China Takes Next Step Toward Lunar Industrial Development," Beijing Review, No. 9, 27 February 2014,
75 Information Office of the State Council of the People's Republic of China, China's Space Activities in 2011 - I. Purposes and Principles of Development, 29 December 2011,
76 Ouyang Ziyuan as quoted in Ajey Lele, Asian Space Race: Rhetoric Or Reality?, Springer India, London, 2013, p. 170.
77 Ling Xin, "An Interview with Ouyang Ziyuan: Chang'e-3 and China's Lunar Missions," Bulletin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, vol. 27, no. 4, November 2013, pp. 26-31.
78 David Shukman, "Why China is fixated on the Moon."
79 Harrison Schmitt as quoted in Simon Denyer "China launches 'Jade Rabbit' rover to moon, precursor to manned mission," Washington Post, 2 December 2013,
80 Ouyang Ziyuan as quoted in Jonathan Adams, "Dragon watch: China pulls ahead in moon race," Global Post, 2 November 2010,,1
81 Beijing Youth Daily as reported in The Asahi Shimbun, "ANALYSIS: Lunar success marks China's rise as next space power," 16 December 2013,
82 Dean Cheng as quoted in Jonathan Adams, "Dragon watch: China pulls ahead in moon race."
83 Ling Xin, "An Interview with Ouyang Ziyuan: Chang'e-3 and China's Lunar Missions," p. 229.
84 Steve Almasy, "Could the moon provide clean energy for Earth?" CNN, 21 July 2011,
85 Dave Keating, "Oettinger aims to get ITER back on track," European Voice, 5 September 2013,
86 Harrison Smith as quoted in Cecilia Jamasmie, "Mining the Moon is Closer than Ever,", 1 January 2010,
87 Arthur Guschin, "China's Renewable Energy Opportunity," Diplomat, 3 April 2014,
88 Lulu Zhang, "Chief scientist chides narrow view on lunar project."
89 South Central University for Nationalities, "Chief Scientist of CLEP Ouyang Ziyuan was Named Honor Professor of SCUN," 14 November 2012,
90 Steve Taranovich, "Helium-3 and Lunar power for Earth reactors," EDN Network, 15 March 2013,
91 University of Wisconsin-Madison - Fusion Technology Institute, "Lunar Mining of Helium-3," 12 March 2014 (updated),
92 Fabrizio Tamburini et al., "No quantum gravity signature from the farthest quasars," Astronomy & Astrophysics, Vol. 533, A71, September 2011, p. 5.
, C. Cuofano2, M. Della Valle3,4 and R. Gilmozzi5
93 Ray Villard, "Strip Mine the Moon to Fuel Space Exploration," Discovery Communications, 13 July 2011,
94 Defang Kong and Qian Zhang, "Manned lunar landing under research," People's Daily Online, 8 January 2014,
95 Sarah Fecht, "Six Reasons NASA Should Build a Research Base on the Moon," National Geographic, 20 December 2013,
96 William A. Ambrose, James F. Reilly II and Douglas C. Peters (eds.), AAPG Memoir 101: Energy Resources for Human Settlement in the Solar System and Earth's Future in Space, American Association of Petroleum Geologists, Tulsa, 2013, p. 41.
97 At the University of Wisconsin, Dr. Kulcinski and his colleagues have designed a ten ton regolith mining machine called the Mark 3. They predict that one of their Mark 3 robotic miners could process six million tons of regolith per year and produce 201 tons of hydrogen, 109 tons of water, 0.033 tons of helium 3 (that's 33 kg.), 102 tons of helium 4, 16.5 tons of nitrogen, 63 tons of carbon monoxide, 56 tons of CO2 and 53 tons of methane. The CO, CO2 and CH4 contain a total of 82 tons of carbon. These researchers have chosen to heat the regolith only up to 700 C. See: Gerald L. Kulcinski , A Resource Assessment and Extraction of Lunar 3He, Presented at the US-USSR Workshop on D-3He Reactor Studies, 25 September- 2 October 1991, Moscow.
98 National Space Agency, "Researchers Estimate Ice Content of Crater at Moon's South Pole," 20 June 2012,
99 John Slough as quoted in Michelle Ma, "Rocket powered by nuclear fusion could send humans to Mars," University of Washington News and Information, 4 April 2013,
100 Michelle Ma, "Rocket powered by nuclear fusion could send humans to Mars."
101 John F. Santarius, "Lunar 3He, Fusion Propulsion, and Space Development," Proceedings of the Second Conference on Lunar Bases and Space Activities of the 21st Century (Houston, Texas, 5-7 Apr 1988), NASA Conference Publication 3166, Vol. 1, p. 75 (1992).
102 John F. Santarius, Role of Advanced-Fuel and, Innovative Concept Fusion in the Nuclear Renaissance, APS Division of Plasma Physics Meeting, Philadelphia, 31 October 2006
103 Marsha Freeman, "Mining the Moon to Power the Earth."
104 K.R., "Lunar property rights - Hard cheese," Economist, 16 February 2014,
105 United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,, (retrieved) 11 April 2014.
106 International Institute of Space Law, Statement of the Board of Directors of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL), 22 March 2009.
107 Harold Bashor as quoted in Leonard David, "Moon Water: A Trickle of Data and a Flood of Questions,", 06 March 2006,
108 Ibid.
109 Joshua Philipp, "Mining the Moon: Plans Taking Off, but Rules Lacking," Epoch Times, 29 January 2014,
110 Craig Covault, "The New Race for the Moon," SpaceRef, 4 October 2013,
111 Ningzhu Zhu, "China plans to launch Chang'e 5 in 2017," Xinhua,
112 Igor Mitrofanov et al., 'Luna-Glob' and 'Luna-Resurs': science goals, payload and status, European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2014, Vienna, 27 April-02 May 2014.
113 The Hindu, "India to launch Chandrayaan-II by 2017," 10 January 2014,
114 Kenichi Fujita, "An Overview of Japan's Planetary Probe Mission Planning," 9th International Planetary Probe Workshop, Toulouse, June 2012.
115 National Aeronautics and Space Administration, "ILN - International Lunar Network," 30 April 2013,; See also: Irene Klotz, "NASA Planning for Mission To Mine Water on the Moon," 28 January 2014
116 Soo Bin Park, "South Korea reveals Moon-lander plans," Nature, 13 November 2013,
117 Stephen Clark, "ESA lunar lander shelved ahead of budget conference," Astronomy Now, 8 November 2012,
118 Shaoting Ji and Wen Wang, "China's space exploration goals before 2020," China Daily,, 10 March 2014,
119 William Stewart, "Is Vlad keen on a trip? Putin eyes up cosmonaut uniform as his deputy premier sets out plans to colonise space and declares 'We are coming to the Moon FOREVER'," Daily Mail,
120 Srinivas Laxman, "Japan SELENE-2 Lunar Mission Planned For 2017," Asian Scientist, 16 July 2012,
121 Express News Service, "ISRO: No Manned Mission to Moon," 1 January 2014,
122 Zhang Yuhua as quoted in Defang Kong and Qian Zhang, "Manned lunar landing under research," People's Daily Online, 8 January 2014,
123 CNN, "2010 moon mission for China," 20 May 2002,
124 Dmitry Rogozin as quoted in The Voice of Russia, "Russia plans to get a foothold in the Moon - Dmitriy Rogozin," 11 April 2014,
125 Richard Holdaway as quoted in David Shukman, "Why China is fixated on the Moon."
126 Kevin Pollpeter as quoted in Sarah Cruddas, "Will China have an Apollo moment?", BBC, 11 December 2013,
127 Richard Holdaway as quoted in David Shukman, "Why China is fixated on the Moon."
128 Vincent G. Sabathier, Johannes Weppler and Ashley Bander, "Costs of an International Lunar Base," Center for Strategic and International Studies, 24 September 2009.
129 Duane Byrge, "Firm Review: Moon", Hollywood Reporter, 26 January 2009,
130 John Hickman, "Red Moon Rising: Could China's lunar ambitions scramble politics here on Earth?" Foreign Policy, 18 June 2012,
131 John M. Logdson, "Lost in Space," Politico Magazine, 19 December 2013,
132 Everett C. Dolman, Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age, Frank Cass Publishers, London and Portland, 2002, pp. 84-88.
133 John Hickman, "Still crazy after four decades: The case for withdrawing from the 1967 Outer Space Treaty," Space Review, 24 September 2007,
134 Henry Hertzfeld, "The Moon is a Land without Sovereignty: Will it be a Business Friendly Environment?," High Frontier Journal, Vol. 3, No. 2, Spring 2007, Page 43.
135 Richard C. Cook, "Militarization and the Moon-Mars Program: Another Wrong Turn in Space?," Global Research, 22 January 2007,
136 Want China Times, "PLA dreams of turning moon into Death Star, says expert," 12 December 2013,
137 Metro, "How the Moon could fuel World Wars," 26 May 2009,
138 Beijing Declaration, Global Space Development Summit, Beijing, 24 April 2008, p. 2.
139 Wilson Greatbatch "War is not the Answer, Nuclear Fusion Power with Helium 3 is the Answer," Prometheus, No. 87, Special Issue, 2003,
140 Francis of Assisi, "Canticle of the Sun," 1225,
141 Satish Kumar and Kopal Gupta, "Helium-3 As An Alternate Fuel Technology (for Producing Electricity)," p. 80.
142 Keith Cowing, "Is China Really Winning a Space Race with Us?," NASA Watch, 20 December 2013,
143 Lamont Colucci, "America Must Retake Lead in Space Exploration," US News, 11 December 2012,
144 Jonathan Amos, "Obama cancels Moon return project," BBC,
145 Jane Qiu, "Head of China's space science reaches out," Nature, 6 March 2014,
146 Xu Dazhe as quoted in PTI, "China wants space collaboration with US," Economic Times, 11 January 2014,
147 Sanford Healey, "The Future of United States-Chinese Space Relations," Proceedings of the National Conference on Undergraduate Research, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, 11-13 April 2013, p. 342.
148 Peter Rakobowchuk, "Hadfield: The future of Canadian space exploration lies with China," Canadian Press, 28 December 2013,
149 Leonard David, "China Invites Foreign Astronauts to Fly On Future Space Station,, 28 September 2013,
150 Chris Hadfield as quoted in Peter Rakobowchuk, "Hadfield: The future of Canadian space exploration lies with China."
151 Beijing Declaration, p. 2.
152 Vincent G. Sabathier, Johannes Weppler and Ashley Bander, "Costs of an International Lunar Base."
153 Richard Bilder, "A Legal Regime for the Mining of Helium-3 on the Moon: U.S. Policy Options," Fordham International Law Journal, pp. 289-299.

Monday, 23 June 2014 00:00

Book Review: Evan Osnos 'Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China'

This is a great, accessible read, that offers a map for those interested in picking their way through the minefield of press reports on China, ranging from the "China threat" myth perpetuated by some of the Western press and the "China is the best thing since sliced bread" line served up by China's state media.


On my first read I felt a little uncomfortable with the same old rhetoric trotted out about China at the start of this book, which set out the argument that China is traditionally a "collective" society in contrast to the "individualist" Western society. The logic seemed slightly confused for me, as the timeline jumped around a bit, citing Liang Qichao's invocation of Cromwell to illustrate China's collectivism, and contrasting this to the ideals of Greek society - despite the fact that Cromwell is also "Western". This became a lot clearer, however, when I heard a Sinica podcast on the subject, which makes the division between wheat growing cultures, herding cultures and rice-growing cultures, and explains that this division is not so necessarily East/West, but also divides different places in China. It also clarified what is actually meant by "individualist" and "collectivist" societies, which may sometimes be slightly counter-intuitive:


Listen to it here.


This also reminded me of an interview that I had subtitled on the differences between Western art and Chinese art that had sparked a long discussion between me and a Taiwanese friend, when she revealed that she thought there was inherent differences between Western and (ethnically or culturally) Chinese people, whereas I've always been in the "people are essentially the same" camp - it's just about relative conservatism. The interview was with Tim Yip, the art director for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, who was talking about differences between Western and Chinese art:



I thought that it was a little inappropriate to contrast Chinese traditional art or furniture to Andy Warhol and concept art, as if that's representative of Western tradition, but it sparked an interesting conversation with my friend and Yip raises some interesting points on the role of the artist and of religion in traditional Western art and how perceived individualism and collectivism impinges on artistic expression, although I felt his idea of Eastern tradition sounded a lot like Plato's plane of ideal forms, despite my friend's protestations that I just wasn't understanding spacial dimensions of the Chinese word "境界" - which I think I translated as "aura" but could easily have been "paradigm".


I've regularly engaged Taiwanese friends on the cultural exceptionalism they often use to define themselves, but am yet to find a difference that is greater than the cultural divide between me and my maternal grandmother, although in China I thought that the culture gap was a lot larger. I thought Osnos made an effort throughout the book to undermine this cultural relativism later in the book, however, by presenting a wide range of interesting and diverse individuals throughout the book, and I even suspected that this was a deliberate attempt by the author to undermine this kind of generalization. He actively debunks many of the prevalent ideas about Chinese cultural differences, particularly with the common stories featured in the news about accidents or attacks in China which include a heartless onlooker trope, like in the story about a woman attacked and killed in a McDonald's across the street from a police station by members of a pseudo-religious organization while other patrons just looked on, or this story about a man in Yunnan who was jeered at and told to get on with it, when he was threatening to jump to his death in Yunnan. This is often attributed to a difference in cultural norms, and I've even heard some ex-pats insist that China has too many people for individual life to be of any value. Osnos does a good job of undercutting this trope, with reference to the case of a young girl who was killed in a hit-and-run killing, and whose body was passed over by several people before a trash collector found her and tried to get her help. By fleshing out the story and letting us see that the "heartless onlookers" in the eye-grabbing headline are more human than we'd like them to be portrayed, when he visits them and asked them why they failed to help her:


They were conscripted into a parable, but the morality play did not do justice to the layers of their lives.


Indeed, it's in his descriptions of people, that Osnos gives us some of the most well-crafted lines in the book, like, when describing a dating site founder, he says of her:


... she was propelled by bursts of exuberance and impatience, as if she were channeling China's industrial id.


Osnos is very insightful and sensitive in his portrayal of all the people that he presents to us in his book, and they appear completely unvarnished, giving readers an insight into how high-profile figures in the West, like Ai Weiwei are viewed in China. He knows a lot of key figures in China's art and media scene, which allows him to pepper the book with comments from figures from China's literary and arts scene, like Wang Shuo and Jia Zhangke, while he still gives equal weight to the Chinese everyman and those whose ambitions were never realized.


There's an incredible range of facts in the book and lots of interesting detail, which give us the context to decisions announced dryly by the state press, and allow for a more rounded interpretation of the logic and aims of the Communist Party and what dilemmas they face as China continues to develop, along with the ideological impact of the choices they make, like the decision in 2002 to change references to the party from "revolutionary party" to "party in power," for example.


I was also fascinated to solve a question that I still remember from my third year course in Chinese at Leeds in the UK, when we translated a text with the term "bobozu" (波波族) and there had been a debate as to where the term came from, with one of my coursemates informing us that it was an acronym for "burnt out but opulent," which didn't seem very relevant to the China we had left the previous year. Osnos reveals that a satirical sociological book by David Brooks had been translated into Chinese a few years earlier called Bobos in Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and had become a bestseller, "bourgeious bohemians" being the "bobo" or "bubo" in question, although I still like my classmate's explanation better.


Osnos' book is also very funny, with little tidbits of information that will have you chuckling, such as night schools teaching Chinese to spit liquor into their tea to avoid getting drunk when out with their bosses and the state-media accusing a Chinese nationalist blogger of being a fifty-center (paid by government to keep the public internet debate in line amongst other funny tales.


There's also a real insight into the power of nationalism in the book, captured by the author in the words of Lu Xun on foreigners:


We either look up to them as gods or down on them as animals.


The way tools, such as patriotism, xenophobia and nationalism, are deployed in China, by the state, the media and individuals is highlighted by the author throughout the book, as well as how the state censorship machine really functions on the ground.


A worthwhile read for anyone with even a passing interest in China who wants to understand what China is really all about, and the people that constitute its citizenry. The book is divided into the three sections that are the three things most discussed in references to China by outsiders - "fortune" referring to is now the cliched "meteoric rise" of China's economy, "truth" dealing with the media in China and censorship, and finally faith, dealing with what people often refer to as the spiritual poverty of China, and how this is rapidly changing as China opens up and people look for something beyond the physical.


5/5 Must read


This was originally published on Conor's blog, check it out here.

Thursday, 08 May 2014 00:00

China: The Hidden Cost of Migration

In today's China, there might be around 150 million "migrant workers', having left the place of their household registration and working in cities for varying lengths of time. The numbers remain debated and fluctuating. Migrant workers' situations vary tremendously, from stable insertion into the urban setting to utmost precariousness. Even when taking into account the great diversity that characterizes inner migrations in China, what remains undisputed is the severity of the social, affective and educational cost paid by migrant workers' children.

Here, two categories of children need to be distinguished: children having migrated together with their parents, and so called 'left-behind" children. The number of migrant children in cities (the first category) is difficult to estimate. Their number has probably reached 20 million. When considering children within the compulsory education age, according to the Ministry of Education, in 2011, 12.6 million of them moved with their parents, 938 000 more than in 2010. Over 60 % of migrant workers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou have their kids with them. One third of migrant children are born in their current city of residence and one third have stayed there for at least 5 years. However, they remain second-class citizens in cities, where they face institutional barriers to school and healthcare as well as social discrimination. Still, their overall situation may be progressively improving, as their fate has now been debated for years, and administrative discriminations are removed step by step, with different speed and targets from city to city.

Comparatively, children "left behind" in the countryside by parents who migrate for work constitute a group that has drawn less attention, though they are more numerous. Their number was estimated to 58 million by a 2008 report authored by the All-China Women's Federation, thus accounting for 21.72 percent of rural children aged 17 or less. Administrative statistics are more conservative; according to the Ministry of Education, in 2011 there were 22 million "left-behind" children of school age - 712 000 less than the year before..

A recent study trip to Sichuan has made me more conscious of the continuing seriousness of the situation, and of the psychological costs it entails. In the rural county we visited, a very large number of young people are working in the cities, scattered all around China. Even when they work in Chengdu (a 2 to 3 hours drive away) they very rarely visit back. From a list of around sixty students considered as living in a precarious situation, we paid a home visit to seven of them, who were all aged 7 to 11. Among them, only one child lived with his foster parents. Four of them were living with both grandparents, one with her grandmother alone, and one with her grandfather. None of them, it seemed, had seen their parents for at least one year. All parents had separated, except for one case where the father had died already. In several cases, the grandparents were trying to encourage the children to phone their parents, but the children were refusing to do so.

We were struck also by the dignity and resilience of the grandparents - Sichuanese peasants who had gone already through lots of hardship in their life, the most unexpected of them having probably been to lose their children because of the lure of city and money, and now all starting anew with the younger generation. The parents' generation was also obviously among the victims: the economic boom had been creating expectations to which they were not psychologically ready to respond in a sustainable way. Marital relationships had been shattered by conditions imposed upon them for staying in the urban job market.

The real concern and the sound assessment of the situation expressed by the teachers who guided us was also reason for comfort. So was the development of local volunteers' associations trying to deal with the plight of rural women and children. They were one more testimony to the building-up of China's civil society. In other words, today's China is more equipped than before for dealing with the social and psychological traumas that its developmental model has engineered. However, the extent to which children are still paying the price of social imbalance needs to be more openly recognized and prioritized. The future of China lies in its children, and a very large number of them remain collateral victims of the drive to prosperity.

Photo by Chialin Huang for the TRI


Wednesday, 12 March 2014 00:00

Say Goodbye to Taiwan?

I recently had a conversation with a Taiwanese-American friend of mine visiting Taipei from California about the future of Taiwan in relation to the rise of China. He was of the opinion that Taiwan had already lost the long term battle for sovereignty, and that it was only a matter of time before it would be absorbed into China in a manner similar to Hong Kong, the "one country, two systems" model. As a business man, however, he viewed this eventual unification as likely to take place in the manner of a corporate merger, with the possibility of a military conflict between China and Taiwan completely forgone.

John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, a renowned theorist on US-Chinese relations, weighed in on the debate last month with his much talked-about piece "Say Goodbye to Taiwan", published in the National Interest. Mearsheimer is an academic known for his solid support of the realist theory of international relations, namely that all states exist in a state of anarchy and are constantly seeking to maximize their power vis-a-vis competitor states. In Mearsheimer's estimation, every country would relish the chance to rule the entire world given the opportunity. It is this course of the accumulation of regional hegemony that will eventually bring the United States and China into conflict over the issue of Taiwan.

While it is true that successive leaders of the People's Republic of China have made it clear that China's stated intention is eventual unification with Taiwan, Mearsheimer's quite pessimistic view of the future of Taiwan is based upon the assumption that the current status quo is unsustainable. The 2010 Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement and the subsequent Trade Services Agreement signed between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, however, demonstrate some of the headway that the countries have made in mutual recognition of the other. Critics of the agreements would argue that the agreements actually bring the two sides closer to unification, but the much feared Chinese takeover of the Taiwanese economy following the signing has yet to occur. If anything, the recent conclusion of the first government to government meeting since the end of the Chinese Civil War gives credence to the idea that, at least for the time being, China is willing to at least partially acknowledge the authority of the government in Taipei.

Taiwanese national identity has undergone a rejuvenation in the past two decades, particularly since the lifting of martial law in 1987 and the emergence of a multi-party democracy. Should pro-de jure independence advocates have their way, China will almost certainly respond with military force, despite the doubts of those who believe Beijing would never resort to such an extreme solution. However, the issue of Taiwanese independence is something to which the Chinese government would almost assuredly respond to with a fervently nationalistic knee jerk; there is little room for a rational, measured response where issues of high sentiment are concerned.

Mearsheimer argues that the best way for Taiwan to solidify its current status would have been the bomb, though he concedes that neither Beijing nor Washington would be comfortable with a nuclear-armed Taipei. Mearsheimer, however, reveals his tendency to view all these developments through the lens of great power competition. There are other ways Taiwan can preserve its current status into the the long term, namely by coalition building with other Asian states anxious about the rise of China in the region. By remaining relevant in the continuing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Taiwan asserts its position as an agent in the Asia Pacific region rather than merely a bystander. Though few states recognize Taiwanese sovereignty, building closer economic and cultural relations with states like Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia would give Taiwan valuable Asian allies in its struggle for self-determination.

In the estimation of realists like Mearsheimer, a strong offense is the best defense, and Taiwan, with its limited military might, cannot stand against the Chinese for very long. While this is true, it is not necessarily true that Taiwan would be completely abandoned by the United States were it to be threatened by mainland China. While China sees the issue of Taiwan as an internal challenge, and an attempted takeover of Taiwan would most likely not be a prelude to Chinese expansionism throughout Asia, in terms of strategy a Chinese Taiwan would not bode well for the United States. By shifting much of its naval might to the Pacific, the United States has made a strong statement that the region is of great value to its interests, interests that include containing the growing might of China.

Mearsheimer, though an accomplished academic, has a penchant for a viewing events in a way that feels more like a Netflix series than a balanced interpretation of facts. In the long term, China is facing an environmental crisis far more devastating than is being talked about and an economy burdened by an aging population and growing inequality. Their military, though rapidly modernizing, is still at least a decade away from catching up to other world powers. The political consciousness of young Chinese is growing at a fast pace thanks to new exposures to media and communication, and an invasion of Taiwan may do more harm than good to China's face. None of this is to say that China will forgot about the issue of unification with Taiwan anytime in the near future, but if Taiwan is careful about the way they approach the issue, their doomsday may not be as imminent as Mearsheimer believes.


Originally published on the blog: One Student's Thoughts on the Way the World Works

Image source: WebProNews

Tuesday, 21 June 2011 19:11

Taiwan's Museum of Alien Studies: a new view of the extraterrestrial

The Museum of Alien Studies is nestled in a basement in Taichung, central Taiwan. Containing a large collection of alien 'artefacts' and offering divination and massage services, the museum grants visitors an alternative conception of extraterrestrial life and how these entities can aid humanity.

Friday, 27 September 2013 11:53

Learning Chinese the Traditional Way

In this video we talk to different students of Chinese about their experiences learning it, what the hardest aspect of it is, and the aides and help they have found along the way.

Friday, 27 December 2013 00:00

Sustainability and Corporate Culture in China

An interview with Benoit Vermander who introduces us his latest book: Corporate Social Responsibility in China, A Vision, an Assessment and a Blueprint. He tells us about the genesis and the results of his research which "aims at helping companies operating in China to better assess and exercise their corporate social responsibility (CSR) in specific contexts".

The general presentation and the table of content of the book are available at:

Friday, 22 November 2013 11:46

Grateful Reminiscences

There are moments in life when we feel backed into a corner and at the end of our rope. It seems only by near-miracle that we somehow managed to find our way. As important as we knew they were, we could not have immediately grasped their full impact. It is only over the years, as we revisit those moments through our grateful reminiscences, that we come to realize they have crystallized into points of no return and gradually transformed how we live the rest of our life.

I spent my last day in China frantically running up and down, round and round. It was early September 1989. I had a scholarship from Boston College to pursue my graduate studies. Already two week late for the semester because passport application had been halted for months due to the June Fourth movement, I had finally received my visa the day before. There was only one last task left to do: I needed to cancel my resident registration (hukou) and my food quota in order to receive the exit permit. The process was supposed to be straightforward for people with all the required documents.

When I went to the neighborhood police substation to cancel my resident registration, a grumpy women behind the front desk told me to cancel my food quota first; when I arrived at the local food station, a bunch of chatty staff asked me all sorts of nosy questions (WHO in their right mind would give up a Beijing hukou? Why would the Americans offer YOU a scholarship?) before announcing that I should cancel my resident registration first. After spending hours running between the two places and getting the same response no matter how pitifully I pleaded, it finally dawned on me that the employees from the food station made more sense: as long as I was a resident, I should be entitled to my food quota, which can only be cancelled when I ceased to be a resident.

I paced and paced desperately in front of the police station, where an inexplicably hostile woman seemed to hold the key to my future. Going anywhere else would be as pointless as getting inside once more to face her. My flight was to depart the next day, I needed to return the key to my apartment early in the morning, and I had even sold my bed. Even worse, as a required step, I had quitted my job, because unlike those who were officially sponsored by the government with state scholarships, I applied to study abroad with "private" funding... I looked at the sun in the sky, bright and scarlet, wishing it would never set. Tomorrow would be a terrible day.

A solid-built man walked towards the police station and asked me what was wrong.
- You look distressed, he said.

I explained why and he told me to follow him inside where he asked the woman to process my paperwork, right away, before walking into his office. I only knew his last name was Wang; he was the head of the station.

You need to know how things work, or don't, in China, in order to appreciate how unbelievably lucky I was on that day, and how much hardship would await me otherwise. The event changed my life in the most obvious way as I left for Boston the next day, but slowly and imperceptibly, it also altered my outlook on life. In my naïvely rationalist mind, I used to believe we reap what we sow and I worked hard to deserve things I wanted, but I could not have possibly "deserved" Mr. Wang's timely intervention, a pure gift. Deus ex machina: I would not have written a play this way, but that was how it happened. Looking back on that day and recognizing we do not necessarily deserve what happens to us remind me to be more grateful, more forgiving and more compassionate.

Years later, my daughter was born when I was a beginning assistant professor in a small Midwestern town. My husband, who still worked in Boston, took a leave to care for us and was driving back to Boston on the day Lydia turned one month old. She would have to go to a baby-sitter we barely knew during weekdays.

- Don't go downstairs to see me off. You would have to climb back upstairs with the baby, he said.

I stood in the middle of my second floor apartment, now so big, so empty, with Lydia in my arm, terrified by the realization that if I ever messed up my life, it would hurt her as well. I felt twice as vulnerable, yet at the same time, filled up by a tremendous love for this little life I brought into the world and for whom I would be irrevocably responsible.

Then, with amazement, I saw Lydia smiling, a smile of quiet contentment and calm assurance. As she smiled for what appeared to me a long time, I became less scared and more determined. I vowed that I would do my best not to hurt anyone or let anyone hurt me. Together we would prepare the background colors for the canvas of her life, so that whatever landscape she would decide to paint, the time she would have spent with me leave no stain of bitterness. Through complex situations and imperfect decisions, I have steered my heart to remain true to the silent promise I made to her on that day. I used to associate parental love with toil and sacrifice, but alone, literally a thousand miles from the nearest family support, during the nine months that I took care of her by myself while juggling a demanding career, I experienced it as a pure joy, and its intensity took me by surprise.

What is the chance that a baby would smile when her mother feels panic and helpless? Lydia was a sensitive baby who cried no less than most others. Some people think little children can sense how their mothers feel, perhaps that is not always true, or somehow, through an unfathomable connection, she was the one to anchor me.

What if Mr. Wang had not appeared at the moment when I was hopelessly stranded in front of the Police station? What if, instead of smiling, Lydia had cried, as babies often do? I probably would have coped, but I am grateful things happened as they did, without rhyme or reason, when I did not even know what to hope for and likely did nothing to deserve them. Those moments of grace are not something we can expect, or even wish for, but only to receive with utmost surprise and gratitude. They make mere happiness dull and uninspiring, as we ponder on the incredible mystery which is life.

Drawing by Bendu

Tuesday, 12 November 2013 13:33

An Interview with Liz Hingley

Liz Hingley is a British photographer who holds a first class BA Honours in Photography from Brighton University. Her work has been recognized with many international awards, including the Prix Virginia in 2012. She is currently living in Shanghai and working on her new project in the city. On an interview with her over Skype, we discuss her experiences in Shanghai. 

Friday, 01 November 2013 11:18

Yi Studies on the Move

In 1995, a group of scholars, from the Yi and Han nationalities as well as from a few countries outside China, gathered at University of Washington in Seattle, at the initiative of Professor Stevan Harrell.

Thursday, 31 October 2013 13:50

Water in Classical Chinese Literature

The Yangtze River is the longest river in Asia and one of the longest rivers in the world. The Yellow River is the second biggest river in Asia and the sixth biggest in the world. Both are the most important rivers in the history, culture and economy of China.

Ever since the early history of China, the water of the Yangzi was used for sanitation, irrigation and industry. The vastness of the river meant it was often used to mark borders and was an important consideration in war tactics.

The Yellow river is seen as the cradle of Chinese civilization. The most prosperous civilizations in the history of China were mostly situated along this river. Therefore, it is not surprising that images of water are apparent in ancient Chinese culture and particularly in Chinese poetry.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013 07:57

Publishing Debate part 2: Are you sure we're still really free?

The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement is a mirror into a possible dystopian future, in which appears a undemocratic Taiwan, lacking in freedom. Regardless if you're for or against the opening up, the publishing industry should take this opportunity to reflect on their own problems.

By Sharky Chen (the head of commaBOOKS Publishing House), translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photo by 楊忠銘.

Sunday, 06 October 2013 16:19

Publishing Debate part 1: Greater Freedoms Grant Greater Power

The Cross-strait Trade on Services Agreement does not, nominally at least, extend to the publishing industry, but it has unleashed an explosive debate in the publishing industry. Those in favour and those against both agree that 'freedom' is at the heart of Taiwan's publishing industry and that it's a value that must be upheld, but they hold opposing views of the effect that the implementation of the agreement will have on the industry. This special two part series allows two publishers on opposite sides of the argument to air their views, giving the reader a fuller picture of the possible advantages and drawbacks that the agreement will bring. The second article is available here.

What does the publishing industry really have to fear from the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement?

By Octw Chen (A long-time publishing industry insider), translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart. Photo by 楊忠銘.

Under the pressure of China's large capital is Taiwan left with no other option and destined to go under? The strong "soft" power of the vital and diverse space cultivated by publishing freedom might just exceed our expectations...

Are we really seeing things clearly when we talk about the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement?

A new debate has broken out in Taiwan surrounding the signing of the Cross-strait Trade in Services Agreement. What's interesting is that it was in the publishing industry that the controversy first blew up, despite the fact that this industry has no direct relationship to the content of the agreement. Despite the fact that the publishing industry wasn't one of the industries under discussion in this agreement, some of the topics discussed are very interesting and deserve further discussion. However, it's necessary to first state that what follows is limited to the publishing industry and that this essay is unable to make a more comprehensive judgment on the merits of the trade agreement as a whole, or to state with authority what effect it will have on other industries.

According to the views expressed by Hao Mingyi in his piece 'We have less than 24 hours left', which was the subject of much debate, Taiwan's publishing industry is a model for cultural industry that will quickly be swallowed up and obliterated when the market is opened up. Publishers on the other side of the strait need only kill us softly with cash injections and these 'essentially small scale, micro-industries' will 'all be outgunned, unable to escape going under or being bought out'.

Is this true? Is the publishing industry in Taiwan really so weak that it can't even withstand one blow? This assertion really is rather horrifying and it certainly serves the function of scaremongering well, the only unfortunate thing about it though is that it does nothing to explain the status quo.

In a creative and innovative industry it's hard to succeed just with capital

It's true that we have countless micro-publishers. We also have a publishing market that is the most liberal, fortified and competitive in the history of the Republic of China. However, because of this, in the best-seller lists, it is the small to medium sized publishing houses that are strongest when it comes to innovation, influence and competition.

In the 2012 top hundred overall bestseller list, the hundred books came from forty-four different publishing houses. This would be hard to imagine in a country like the United States – the bestseller list in America is the province of six major publishing groups (Oh yeah, that's right, now there's only five!) – the fact that Taiwan's bestsellers aren't concentrated in a few publishing houses is testament to the fact that no one publishing house in Taiwan enjoys market dominance.

The bestseller list has another peculiarity, which is that small to medium-scale publishing houses feature prominently, making up more than half of the total, with even a few legendary one-man publishing houses. These small- to medium-scale publishing houses have little fear of the capital of larger-scale publishing houses and they even outperform them by quite a margin in the bestseller rankings.

'Is this particularly out of the ordinary?' you might ask. Of course it is. This is indicative of the fact that Taiwan's publishing industry is still based on innovation and creativity and that you can't dominate the market with just capital. There have been competing investments from Hong Kong, Japan, the UK and the US in Taiwan's publishing market, but no single publishing group or foreign investor has achieved market dominance and no foreign investor has been able to use their vast capital and resources to defeat the innovative and creative small- to medium-scale publishing houses.

This is the simple reality of Taiwan's publishing market since the end of Martial Law in 1987.

The assertion that Taiwan's publishing market is too unconstrained, that it lacks security and as a result is too easy to infiltrate or 'invade', not only demonstrates an inability to understand the status quo, but also an ignorance of the way a free system functions.

The publishing market is already a healthy ecosystem

If Taiwan's publishing industry is defenseless, why hasn't it been monopolized by a major publishing group? I my opinion, this is because of publishing freedom. In Taiwan nobody can stop you starting up a publishing house or starting a publishing branch of your company or even just striking out on your own as a self-published author without need of a company, you just need to apply to the ISBN centre of the National Central Library for your own ISBN – you can even call them up to complain if they're not quick enough about it.

As this industry is so simple, in the past few decades many people working in the publishing industry have resigned their posts at big companies and starting out in their own micro-publishing house, making waves in the book market with a lot more capacity for innovation than bigger companies. This is an industry that is impossible to monopolize, because the industry allows for new people and companies on the scene, not only in terms of the lack of a structural hierarchy but also in terms of the ability to do business. You don't need to have a lot of capital to play the game and there's no burdensome entrance fee. The top hundred bestsellers' list tells us that you can make an impact on the bestseller list with just your own individual intelligence and hard work.

You'd be hard-pressed to find another industry in Taiwan that values individual creativity so much, and this is all due to the individual transactions of the readers as they choose this book or that. Anyone seeking to dominate the market wouldn't be able to do it just by buying up all the existing publishing houses, they would also have to pay off all the editors to prevent them from setting up shop themselves. How can one clamp down on the freedom to start one's own business? And how also, can one dictate reading preferences to readers on a national scale? If capital could warp preferences when it comes to buying books, then the top hundred bestseller list should, by rights, be dominated by big companies.

I believe that Taiwan's publishing market is already a healthy eco-system, it is strong enough and determined enough to withstand 'invaders' from abroad, these 'invaders' could even be said to strengthen the industry by challenging it. This is the truly formidable power of Taiwan's publishing industry.

The best defense is in not erecting walls around ourselves

In an article in Next Magazine under the title 'A great place for reading', Zhan Hongzhi, the founder of Cite Publishing stated, 'Historically, the places where there was most freedom to print and publish often became the places were cultural renaissances took shape amongst a diverse range of voices.' Such was the Dutch enlightenment, wherein many French and English thinkers, because their views were proscribed in their own countries, were forced to publish their most important works in the Netherlands. Freedom and openness pushed the Netherlands to be a country at the forefront of European thought at that time, attracting a talented elite, allowing this small Western European country to cut a formidable figure on the seas in competition with the English and the Spanish. Dutch navigators were more or less engaged in global trade even then.

Freedom and liberty forged the Netherlands' golden era, likewise, publishing freedom is an extremely valuable soft power for Taiwan. It represents not only the collecting together of ideas, but it serves to awaken our minds – only places where there is publishing freedom will win the recognition of intellectuals.

What's most startling about the viewpoints that have been put forward concerning the publishing industry amidst the controversy surrounding the trade in services agreement is that these commentators seem to see Taiwan's clear strength as its weakness. The firm ground of freedom is seen as unable to withstand even one blow. When we should be upholding freedom, we instead build a high wall to cut ourselves off. This viewpoint is blind to the reality of the publishing industry, and underestimates its strength. If this viewpoint becomes the popular one, then that is a pity for Taiwan and if it goes further and becomes government policy, than that will be a tragedy for Taiwan – as our greatest advantage will be destroyed by our own hand.

We do need to protect Taiwan's publishing freedom, but the best way to do this is not to build ourselves a greenhouse, that will, on the contrary, destroy competition within the industry. The best line of defence is to continue to give free reign to competition, only then will the industry continue to cultivate publishers with determination, who will, when unhappy, be able to go their own way and start up influential independent publishing houses. To ensure that the eco-system continues to be balanced, innovative, free and diverse, this is the only way in which we can safeguard Taiwan's publishing industry.

Wednesday, 02 October 2013 16:10

When Dreams Don't Pan Out

Translated from the original Chinese by Conor Stuart, photo by Cerise Phiv.

Dreams have the dual meaning of hope and desperation: they can represent longing for the future, or they can be an unrealistic fantasy.

"中國夢" (Chinese Dream) . In the middle of August this year, I embarked on my first steps onto Chinese soil. From when I entered the airport, these three characters followed me on my trip. In the papers, in the media, even slogans written on walls at the side of the road, these three characters appeared at every turn. According to the Chinese government, the meaning of this phrase is 'Realize a rich and powerful nation, to reinvigorate the Chinese nation and to make the people happy'. On the surface, this dream not only looks to have a very solid definition, but it seems to have the power to be passed down from the top to the bottom rungs of society.

When conjuring up the Chinese Dream, it's very hard not to associate it with the American Dream, which took its origins in the nineteenth century, which consists of the idea that if you only work hard, you will not lack for opportunities and was pursued and yearned for by people the world over. And now, a rising superpower is staking a new claim in an attempt, it goes without saying, to replace it. Only, amidst this atmosphere of prosperity for all, I can't help but feel a little troubled: Don't dreams represent people at their most unconstrained? People under the same roof often have different dreams from one another, so how could more than a billion people all have the same dream?

By chance, it was at the end of August when I was jettisoned into this dream. Fifty years before, on 28th August, the American civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King made his famous speech which featured the famous line "I have a dream", which is probably one of the most widely known dreams in the world. The dream Dr. King describes is one in which "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood [...] that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." So, the American Dream actually turns out not to be realizable with just hard work, certain people are already pre-excluded from it. Half a century has since passed, and even though the US has already elected its first black president, I'm not naive enough to think that Dr King's dream has been realized. One need only open one's eyes to see the multitude of dividing lines that exist in the world today, and what keeps us apart is not only race, but also gender, sexuality, class and even religion...

The Chinese Dream, the American Dream and Dr. King's dream remind me of the era of illusion in Taiwan spurred by the lines "Having a dream is wonderful, hope is never far behind" (有夢最美,希望相隨, you meng zui mei, xiwang xiangsui). These lines, a slogan from an election campaign (Chen Shuibian's election campaign), used the simplest of words to inspire hope in countless people, as if just believing in these words, one could emerge from the darkest of times. However, the reality of the situation is that dreams can't dispel the differences between people and they give us a clear direction, as for Taiwan this turned out to be an even more ambiguous and tumultuous era than what had gone before.

Perhaps, as we sing the virtues of dreams, we often forget that dreams have the dual meaning of hope and desperation: they can represent a longing for the future, if you naively believe that where there's a will, there's a way", allowing you to release your unlimited potential. Or, on the other hand dreams can be an unrealistic fantasy because what you yearn for is so distant from reality, so, in the end, it can only ever be a dream. Of course, if we get to the core of the issue, as the Diamond sutra says, everything in this world is simply a "phantasm". 

Wednesday, 02 October 2013 09:24

5 different Chinese input methods

Here we have a short guide to five different Chinese input methods, including pinyin, zhuyin, cangjie, sucheng and boshiamy, all of which can help your Chinese in different ways, some can improve your tones and some are based on the shape of the different characters. We apologize for the bad video quality - hopefully we can improve it soon.

Wednesday, 07 August 2013 18:20

Does the way you hold your chopsticks influence the way people see you?

We asked around the office, asking both foreigner and Taiwanese people how the way people hold their chopsticks influences the way they feel they are perceived or the way they perceive others - we got a range of responses, some which contradicted one another, others which seemed to have been fabricated out of thin air.

Tuesday, 25 June 2013 11:19

After the Quake: Rituals in North Western Sichuan

Rituals organize and symbolize a way of living together. Through the enactment of rituals, a community expresses its fear, its solidarity and its longings. In traditional societies, performing rituals enables people to organize time and space into a meaningful universe, to renew their commitment to the group to which they belong, and to cement an alliance among them, with nature and with the supernatural.
The variety of ritual forms is astounding. It reflects the richness of cultural forms, artworks and humane inventiveness. Among the ethnic minorities who, all together, account for almost ten percent of China's population, those living in the southwest may offer the widest repertoire of ritual performances. Caring for the souls of the dead, exorcising ghosts so as to cure illnesses, rejoicing at marriages, New Year or at harvest time. The four rituals mentioned here all take place in Sichuan province, among people of Yi, Qiang and Ersu ethnic origins.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013 16:09

A Centre for the Middle Country

The Beijing Centre for Chinese Studies (TBC) opened in 1998 and is located on the campus of the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. 

In this interview with Father Thierry Meynard SJ, director of TBC, we learn of his story leading up to being named director, his thoughts on the importance of learning about China, and a detailed explanation of the services that the Centre provides.

Programs and contact:

Friday, 27 September 2013 17:45

Thinking outside the box: Inventing words and Chinese variants in Taiwan

When reading in Chinese, particularly literature and academic essays on literature or on certain blogs, you'll notice that the author uses combinations of words that don't exist in any dictionary as compounds - this practice, known as 「造詞」(zaoci), is frustrating when one is first trying to get to grips with academic writing or blogs, but eventually you start to appreciate the wit and creative charm behind it. If you've ever read The Meaning of Liff you'll get an idea of what this achieves and the possible comic effects.

This can be done for several reasons.

The first is to translate a foreign concept (or what was once only a foreign concept) into Chinese, many of these are simple but amusingly to the point, examples include 無政府主義 (no-government-ism) as a rendering of 'anarchism', 天主教 (master-of-the-heavens-religion) for Catholicism, or 利己主義者 (interest-self-ism) as a fancy way to say 'egotist' or for someone who subscribes to a self-interested ideology. A lot of these subsequently end up in the dictionary. More recent and artistic examples of this kind of word include both 「多音交響」(duo1yin1jiao1xiang3) "many-tones-symphony" and 「眾聲喧嘩」 (zhong4sheng1xuan1hua2) "many-sounds-clamouring" which attempt to render Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of "heteroglossia" into Chinese. These are usually found in academic articles and the source language equivalent is normally still placed in brackets behind the word to indicate that this is an experimental attempt. These words are also often translated differently in mainland China and Taiwan. 

Another form of zaoci, however, is simply to create a new word by blending aspects of existing words. This form is more interesting and harder to identify, but can sometimes catch on and enter common usage. The technique is generally taking two words (normally consisting of two characters each) and taking one character from the first and one from the second to make a new word. These examples are quite hard to find, as they are essentially invented by the individual on the spot. Here's a short list of some of the more artful ones that I've discovered so far, feel free to add more in the comments box.

1. 「索愛」(suo3ai4) which blends 「索討」(suo3tao3), "to ask for", with 「愛情」(ai4qing4), "love," to mean someone who acts in a cutesy manner to try and get what they want - a near synonym for the mainland Chinese term 「賣萌」(mai4meng2) and the term 「撒嬌」 (sa1jiao1).

2. 「魘醒」(yan3xing2) which is an abbreviation for 「從夢魘中醒來」, "waking up from a nightmare".

3. 「熹亮」(xi1liang4) which combines 「熹微」, "the faint sunlight just after dawn" with 「光亮」(guang1liang4), "bright", to get a synonym of 「微亮」(faint light).

4. 「憤罣」(fen4gua4) which combines 「憤怒」 (fen4nu4), rage, and 「罣礙」(gua4ai4), worry, to mean a rage born of worry.

5. 「離聚」(li2ju4) which combines 「離散」(li2san4), "disperse", and 「相聚」(xiang4ju4), assembly, to mean when an assembly disperses.  

 Using variants is another way to make your writing more aesthetically pleasing (and also dictionary/foreigner proof). A variant is essentially another way of writing a certain character in Chinese which makes no significant change to its meaning. Some have been lost to standardization, but many are still commonly used - both versions in different settings and registers of writing. A common example is 「角色」 vs 「 腳角」. Another is the 「台」 in 「台灣」and 「舞台」 vs 「臺灣」 and 「舞臺」. Sometimes the variants are interchangeable in every combination like 「台」; at other times the variant can only be used when the word forms a verb or a noun, for example, my colleague Jiahe talks about the difference between 「鋪」 and 「舖」 below: 


Another colleague, loathe to appear on camera, gave me this explanation of the difference between 「掛礙」 and 「罣礙」, which the Ministry of Education online dictionary states to be the same, meaning that here, 「掛」 and 「罣」 are variants of each other:


(Translation: I originally learned to write this word as 「罣礙」, the 「罣」meaning "stuffed up or congested", I interpreted this as one's heart being congested or stuffed up with some worry. However, later I discovered that 「掛礙」was a more common way of writing this word, with the 「掛」 meaning "worry" or "concern". Moreover 「掛」is easier to write, so people are more likely to write the word as 「掛礙」。The two forms of the word can be used interchangably according to the online dictionary of the Ministry of Education. This is because language is essentially just down to convention.)  

 In this second interview, I had the mainlander of the office, Yingying, discuss the variant pairs 「分/份」 and 「姐/姊」:


My interest in this subject really started when I changed to using the Cangjie input system - which is an entry system based on visual components of each character (if you're using a computer in Taiwan, these can be found on the bottom left corner of your PC's keys, or bottom right of your Mac's keys) : 

日 (sun radical) + 月 (moon radical) = 明 (bright) for example

Although it's slightly more complicated to learn, it's helpful in getting characters to stick in your head - but as a side effect of this entry system - sometimes strange looking characters pop up when you get a stroke in the wrong sequence, like the long list that appears when you type a sound in pinyin as shown below:


In writing my thesis the title of the play I was discussing includes the character 「間」written 日弓日, but if you put an extra 弓 on the end, then you get 「闁」, a rare archaic variant of the character 「褒」 - meaning to praise. A mistroke in writing 「且」 written 月一 (and) gets you a variant of 「冉」 which is as follows: 「冄」 written 月一一. This is essentially the same as when you're typing in Zhuyin or pinyin and you have to sort through a list of weird characters, but in Changjie you generally only get one character with each combination you type, except on the rare occasions that two characters share the same canjie code, as above. Regardless if you're interested or not in the different ways to input Chinese characters, this really got me interested in why different people chose to use different variants in different situations. Have you found any interesting characters, variants or new invented words, if so feel free to let loose on the comments section! 



Tuesday, 16 April 2013 15:00

A Tale of Three Lands

Everybody thought she was a lucky girl, set for life. She worked at the small library of this huge and important boiler factory, one of the few young people there with a college degree, from a nearby provincial university. Her boyfriend, a young engineer in the same factory, was known to be gentle and attentive. They would get married when they qualified for "late marriage". The only quibble people could find was she cared too much about her appearance, compared with other Chinese women in the late fifties: she wore her silky black hair in two long braids, had a light mauve summer dress with elastic collar and dark mauve polka dots, even her jacket was fitted because she made alterations... But she had the redeeming quality of being really friendly, always smiled before speaking. Her warm presence made the library one of the favorite gathering places for the employees' lunch-time breaks.

Then came the "Hundred Flowers Movement." People in the entire country were encouraged to criticize the Party and the government. Meetings after meetings were held to pressure people to contribute to socialism through their criticism. She really did not have much to say, spending her days in the library with her nose in the books. When pressed, she finally said one thing: a famous poet from their province wrote better poems in the twenties, but his most recent collection of 101 poems, which he wrote in 10 days, was simply full of slogans. By writing more slowly, he might be able to produce socialist poems as beautiful as those written by Pushkin. Nobody in the factory paid much attention at the time to her bookish comment, which in the end got her into trouble in so many ways: praising poems written before the "Liberation" over those written after it, a foreign aristocrat over a socialist Chinese poet, and slowness over high speed. She was designated a "rightist", dragged from meetings to meetings to be criticized and humiliated. She lost her job in the library and was assigned to work in the cleaning crew. Her boyfriend disappeared from her view and publicly announced that he "had a clean break" with her. When running into her, people looked aside when they did not have enough time to walk away. For the first time in her life, she found herself in complete isolation.

The day Soviet expert Alexander walked towards her, she caught sight of his eyes looking straight at her before she had the time to turn hers away, and their blue gleam shone upon the darkness of her life. He used to go to the library frequently during breaks and had always felt a special connection with her. Knowing that she had fallen into misfortune by praising Pushkin, he came to her defense. Like before, they managed to communicate with his little Chinese and her little Russian; every new word or phrase they learned seemed to bring them closer to each other. When he read to her one of Pushkin's most famous poems "If life has deceived you", although she did not know enough Russian to understand the original much beyond the title, she was so familiar with its Chinese translation that she wept, bitterly.

After a few weeks though, he was called to a meeting with the Party secretary, and the director of the Women's Union came to see her. In order not to "damage international relation between two brotherly countries", they either needed to get married or avoid contact. They were by then inseparable and agreed to be married. Their marriage improved her situation. She stayed in the factory while other "rightists" were sent into exile in the countryside or the border provinces. Alexander enjoyed the warm weather and lush landscape of this picturesque southern town. They forgot themselves in the nearby bamboo forest dotted with ponds dyed green by bamboo reflections. When spring arrived, they immersed themselves in the clouds of peach blossoms on the hills, and ocean of undulating golden rapeseed flowers in the fields, under the splendid luminosity of the southern sky.

When the Great Famine (officially called the Natural Disasters) hit in 1959, they were largely spared thanks to the special treatment afforded to the Soviet experts and were even able to help her parents, but they could not have foreseen the split between the Soviet Union and China, and the abrupt withdrawal of all the Soviet experts. There was no choice but to follow Alexander back to his country. From the day she unfortunately talked about the Chinese poet and Pushkin, she felt like a small train driven by an invisible and silent conductor, never knowing where would be her next station or what landscape she would encounter. Alexander went back to the aviation plant where he used to work, in a mid-sized city near the Ural Mountains. They arrived in summer when the weather was mild. She gazed at this hilly city by a river, a tributary of the famous Volga, and was determined to make it her new home.
- We will go downtown so that you can get a haircut and buy some new clothes, he said the next morning.
- Haircut?
- Yes. There will be a gathering with friends and co-workers tonight.

bendu009decv11He was looking at her braids. He used to enjoy playing with them. He never had to change his hair or clothing styles while in China. Then it occurred to Anna that he was in China as a Soviet expert and she came to his country as his wife.
As weeks went by, Anna made increasing progress in Russian and met more people. Each new person encountered was like a new word endowed with its multiple meanings and shifting forms, wrapped around a sentence and surrounded by a paragraph, except that words do not look back at you and judge you, making you feel clumsy or awkward. They patiently wait for you and welcome you to discover their hidden messages. She started to work a few hours a day in the library of the city's technical school, completing simple tasks such as dusting the shelves and reshelving the books. Shy and meticulous, Anna felt a great satisfaction working in the library.
Then winter set in, and it seemed never-ending. Anna had never seen anything more than a few flurries that melted as soon as they hit ground, but now snow blanketed the entire mountains and the city, while the river was frozen, and gusty bone-piercing wind made her stumble as soon as she stepped outside. Before winter was over, she received her older sister's "last letter": Their parents had died during the continuing Natural Disasters. Food had to be rationed; there was not enough even for blameless people, not to say a family with a rightist relative who left for an enemy country.

As Anna spoke more and more Russian, Alexander was losing the little Chinese he had acquired over his years in China, as if the more she moved towards him, the more he was drifting away. To make matters worse, none of the doctors they consulted was able to determine the cause of their infertility. Meanwhile, the relationship between their two countries – yes, China still counted as Anna's country even though she could no longer go back to it and had nothing there to go back to – worsen, until the border disputes escalated into a military confrontation in 1969. Alexander lost his security clearance as a senior engineer in the aviation plant and was reassigned to teach in the technical school where Anna by then worked full-time in the library circulation department. They started to have those silly arguments which left them both upset and frustrated, even though she never knew how they started or why they mattered. She tried to make peace by apologizing.
- I am really sorry to have made you angry.
- If you know you were wrong, why did you do (say) it?
- Until you became angry, I did not realize it mattered.
- Are you trying to justify yourself?
- No, I am really sorry.
- How many times have you done the same thing? You always apologize, but there is never any improvement.
- I would be happy if you apologized just once.
- Are you apologizing or you want to make me apologize?

Anna realized when Alexander became angry there was no way to bring him around. Words were useless. The only thing she could do was to wait, for hours, days, or weeks. Patience was what she needed. She was grateful that he always returned home. She had nowhere else to go, and the small apartment felt so much warmer when he was there, even in silence. She would sit quietly close to him, but not too close. By observing him she could tell how a storm was gradually fading, and when a faint ray of sunlight was about to reappear. She learned to stop digging, stop talking as soon as she sensed a small trace of upset in him. She would watch him while he looked away, and her eyes would try to tell him how grateful she was, and how sorry she was to have messed up his career, his life. Marriage is a box. You feel safe inside not only because of where you are, but also because how people think of you: since you are so neatly "arranged" they would not wonder about you, try to figure you out, or project their inquisitive gaze on you. A natural librarian, Anna liked things neat and tidy.

The year Gorbachev visited China, Alexander had a stroke. He suffered speech loss and partial paralysis, with the ability only to move his left arm and hand. Anna retired from the library to take care of him. She learned to understand what he wanted by looking into his eyes and, in the most unexpected way, she finally felt her heart at peace. Words can hurt. Now that they could no longer talk with each other, they were safer than ever before. She would hold and stroke his left hand, let time drip away in the sand of eternity. To paraphrase Rilke with a twist: their story consists of two solitudes that met, warmed and comforted each other. For about a year, his condition fluctuated. One day, he fell asleep and never woke up again.

bendu 007dec11Anna continued to live in their small apartment. A year later, the Soviet Union dissolved. With inflation skyrocketing year after year, Anna's small pension became barely enough for bread and butter, while breathtaking changes were occurring all around her: highways, tall buildings, and new stores sprang up before she even noticed when the constructions had started. The worst part though was the weather, the monotony of seasons. She dreaded winter even in summer, as if she were waiting for the other shoe to drop. She felt like she was on a train, a preprogrammed automated train, which circulated predictably from short summer to long winter, very long winter, with snow everywhere, and gusty bone-piercing wind. What if she jumped off?

On a late summer day when she could already feel a slight coldness in the breeze, she walked by a newly opened travel agency, which displayed attractive photos of faraway lands. She had her eyes set on one place: tropical islands surrounded by the warm blue ocean, luxuriant forests with splashing waterfalls, cascades of unknown rainbow-colored climbing flowers and abundant fruits: mangoes, bananas, pineapples, and coconuts... no winter, no visa required for Russian citizens. The native people on the pictures somehow bore resemblance to her.

She sold her apartment to a crafty developer who had been pestering the residents of the building where she lived, and went back to the travel agency. She bought a one-way ticket to the only place she had ever chosen.

Drawings by Bendu


Friday, 22 February 2013 00:00

China’s shadow cast upon the textbooks of Taiwan and Hong Kong

In recent times Taiwan and Hong Kong have both gotten caught up in text book controversies, although these have root in different political contexts, they are both closely tied to the "rise" of China and its expansionist policies.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013 16:29

Historical Resonances: War, Colonial Experiences and Peace-Making

The following video is a recording of the Q&A from the second session of the International Austronesian Conference 2012 - Historical Resonances - War, Colonial Experiences and Peace-Making.

Friday, 28 December 2012 15:56

The Sunken and Forbidden Islands

There are many islands strewn across the Pacific, they withdrew from the world, and hoped never to be found. The footsteps of the Han quietly snuck up upon them however, their persuasive words laced with the rhetoric of modernity and development. From Orchid Island to Yap, what does the trajectory of these footprints tell us?

Monday, 19 November 2012 15:21

The Simple Lives of "Simple" Minds

In today’s cinema, with its emphasis on entertainment and commercial success, it is no easy feat to find stories that take a risk by using people that are different as their main characters. It is much simpler to use explosions and CGI or make a sequel than to try to voice some form of social criticism. The two movies I am choosing to review this week try to do exactly that. Their central characters are special, and have limited capacity for interaction, but that does not mean that they are limited human beings.

Wednesday, 24 October 2012 15:47

Chiang Kai Shek Remembered? Collective Memory in Taiwan

Vladimir Stolojan, a current Ph.D Candidate at the University of Paris Diderot, explores for us the shifts in collective memories associated with Chiang Kai-shek over the years since democratization, in Taiwan, in China and in the West.

Monday, 03 September 2012 00:00

Just how Chinese is "Chinese Taipei"?

In this Olympic year, submerged as we are in an economic crisis, much has been said about whether the Olympics are viable and responsible economically, whether they have merely been a distraction for the country, even whether the opening Ceremony was better than the Beijing one four years ago. Today I want to look a little deeper and analyse certain political issues creating tension and the way that the Olympics can unfortunately, often be used to exert political pressure.

Friday, 22 June 2012 16:55

Life on the Yangtze in the early 20th century

My grand-father had always been a great fan of photography. As a photographer himself he did some exhibitions with his own pictures and had the opportunity to share his passion with many people.

During one of his exposition for the « Week of Arts » at the Lanvignec Junior High School of Paimpol the school bursar told him she had very old pictures in her attic and would like to share them with him. These pictures were in fact photographic glass plates taken between 1903 and 1905 in China by the old landlord. My grand-father who was very interested in sharing these began to take pictures of the plates using his own camera and developed them in his photography studio.

He then proceeded to make contact with the family of the original photographer, Leon Collos, a sailor, and his grandson encouraged him to pursue his work in order to honor the officer's memory.

Leon Collos was a sailor during the 1900's, he was born in Noumea in 1879 and died aboard the Kleber in 1917 after the ship was hit by a mine. Collos was honoured afterwards for his bravery during the sinking. He stayed aboard the ship until the last sailors could escape, and continued leading his men with great self-control.

Old picture of the Kleber crew.

Nowadays the Kleber wreck can be found near the Brest harbor, in Brittany, and many scuba-divers like to explore it as it was very well conserved. You can find pictures of the Kleber taken by Hervé Severe in may 2003 on this website and also watch this video made by the CSA Diving Club of Brest which regularly goes diving near the wreck by clicking this link.



Picture of the Olry taken by the crew of the english gunboat Kinsha. Source

During his career in the navy he was an officer on the Olry, a french gunboat that travelled along the Yangtze river in China. He stayed 3 years on this boat and had the occasion to take pictures shown here.

Boats and harbours:

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Near the river:

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Original pictures by Leon Collos taken between 1903 and 1905, rediscovered and scanned by Jean-Claude Baron, arranged digitally by Witold Chudy and Marie Baron.

Thursday, 15 March 2012 00:00

Interpreting China for the West - Jean François Billeter

Jean Francois Billeter (畢來德) is a Swiss sinologist who published in French a series of studies and translations on the Zhuangzi. Two of his books were recently translated into Chinese in Taiwan: Leçons sur Tchouang-tseu (莊子四講) and Contre François Jullien (駁于連). We had the opportunity to meet him during his visit to Taipei to present his books last November. In this interview he discusses his attempts to overcome the domination of Chinese scholars in interpreting Chinese classics and Chinese history, and explores the possibilities of looking at China with a Western audience in mind.

Friday, 17 February 2012 00:00

China's Challenges in the Year of the Dragon

Benoît Vermander comments on challenges that China needs to face in 2012, the Year of the Dragon.

Monday, 30 January 2012 14:43

The Year of the Voiceless

One of the great advantages of looking at 2011 from Taiwan is that writing an article reviewing the year of the rabbit is still a legitimate endeavour in the month of February. Although, it has to be said, even in the less fortunate parts of the world, where New Year is celebrated only once, 2011 will resist being shelved away as ‘soo last year’ well into March or even April.

The fortunate coincidence that the yearly celebration cycle, gives a second chance for commentators who were too busy to write in December, is not the only interesting aspect of looking at the world from Taiwan.

Those of us who have a certain familiarity with this island, understand quite well that we are living in a geographic region that is ill understood and whose voice often goes unheard. In fact, Taiwan is exceptional in its conduciveness to misunderstanding. Its unique relationship with China lies at the core of this bewilderment. The extent to which Taiwan is part of China and the extent to which it is an independent nation are both endless sources of confusion.

China itself induces a state of intellectual disarray on most Western observers. In the words of sinologist Francois Billeter: “China is more and more present in the world. But at the same time it is absent. We don’t hear its voice.” Taiwan, thanks to its complicated relationship with this already mystifying civilization, starts off on the race for global attention on the wrong foot. The fact that the island nation is largely unrecognized in international diplomacy does not help it to make its voice heard.

It is for this reason that those of us dwelling in Taiwan have an even more significant understanding of the developments around the world in the past year. Because 2011 has been the year in which those who seemed forever doomed to silence finally gained a voice. So many actors whom most never even knew existed appeared on the world stage, that we can make an exception in renaming the year of the rabbit the year of the voiceless.

Let us first look at what has arguably been the most significant social movement, namely the Arab Spring. Since time immemorial, occidental observers have scornfully assumed that non-autocratic forms of governance are fundamentally incompatible with the Muslim population of the region. Dismissing the rather obvious fact, that the majority of the ruthless dictators in the region, were granted power by the benevolent might of the neo-colonial powers.

Today the same commentators are screaming bloody murder at the election of the Muslim Brotherhood as the main party in Egypt. With the confidence of medieval clergymen who claimed that the Earth is flat, they declare that Muslims are incapable of establishing political regimes based on fair representation. Again, ignoring the fact that the Brotherhood have expressed their intention to operate within the democratic framework.

The ‘Manifesto Against Islamist Totalitarianism’ signed by leading intellectuals, among whom Salman Rushdie (Europe's favourite drama queen) is one, states the alleged impossibility of reconciling Islam and Democracy in a language that Shaggy himself (from the 90’s) would have described as ‘bombastic, very fantastic’. This is the first line: “After having overcome Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism, the world now faces a new totalitarian global threat: Islamism.” It continues, two very short paragraphs later with the following words: “Like all totalitarianisms, Islamism is nurtured by fears and frustrations.” If the fine art of writing a manifesto, was subject to strict rules, like that of a game of chess, invoking the ghost of Fascism, Nazism and Stalinism on the opening move, then accusing your opponent of nurturing ‘fears and frustrations’, would be the equivalent of running your Knight diagonally across the board while simultaneously declaring your opponent’s pieces as your own and calling checkmate!

2011 saw the passing of one such man. A man who has achieved immortality thanks to his superhuman ability to talk out of his ass and yet refuse the possibility of miracles. Christopher Hitchens and the rest of his costumed tag team who cheerfully made appearances as ‘The Four Horsemen of Atheism’ are chiefly responsible for re-interpreting racism to apply exclusively to Muslims. His chum Richard Dawkins (who’s fighting name is ‘the Dalek’ due to the irritating quality of his voice) has recently croaked in praise of the British Prime Minister, David Cameron. For the latter’s speech condemning multiculturalism that ‘coincided’ with a racist rally organised by the English Defence League.

Speaking of Islamophobia, 2011 has also seen an explosion of white supremacist violence. Norway was struck by Anders Breivik’s assault. Whilst in Germany an extreme right wing terrorist organisation was finally exposed after going on a rampage of 10 murders including a policewoman, 14 bank robberies and two nail bomb attacks between 2000 and 2007. What is stunning is that both catastrophes were coloured by the tendency of the European public and commentators to suspect Muslims. Recall, if you will, how the first day of reporting on the Oslo massacre was largely guided by fact free conjecture. It was not until the very last minute when Breivik was finally captured, that self declared terrorist experts have dropped all talk of al Qaida and picked up the question of right wing terrorism. Similarly in Germany racist terrorists were not picked up on, because for ten long years German intelligence had simply assumed that the murders were committed by the Turkish mafia.

Muslim and Chinese civilisations seem to be causing a tremendous degree of worry for the ex-colonial powers. Those who consider themselves to be the custodians of all that is good and just are making some very loud noises about the decline of the West. They claim, the cherished values of equality, liberty, fraternity are being eroded by the demographic rise of Islam and the economic rise of China. They claim, the members of these civilizational models are intrinsically incapable of understanding Western values and are likely to impose authoritarian systems on the free world.

There is a dangerous isolationist tendency in these apocalyptic visions. The suggestion is that Western civilisation should start digging its trenches and building its fortresses to resist the coming tide. The tragi-comic aspect of this line of thinking manifests itself more fully when it comes to sexual politics. A little known aspect of Breivik’s manifesto is it’s accusation of feminism for the demographic decline of his master race. “The female manipulation of males has been institutionalised during the last decades and is a partial cause of the feminisation of men in Europe,” he writes, possibly while scraping semen stains off his trousers with a commando knife. The argument is that, women empowered by feminism refuse to be bossed around by their men into producing enough babies to rescue the ubermensch from demographic extermination.

Of course we can discard the ramblings of a deranged man who has insisted that he should be treated by Japanese psychiatrists for reasons known to him alone. However similar versions of this concern manifest themselves in different guises, even in the writings of respectable thinkers. Umberto Eco for instance has recently hopped into the cacophony of voices that attempt to suggest ways out of the ‘European crisis’. In a very recent interview for the Italian newspaper La Stampa, Eco throws modesty to the wind and presents his credentials, by declaring that he is “speaking as someone who doesn’t understand anything about the economy”. According to Eco’s uniquely qualified opinion it is the Erasmus programme, which will prove the salvation of Europe’s cultural heritage. And here is why:

I call it a sexual revolution: a young Catalan man meets a Flemish girl – they fall in love, they get married and they become European, as do their children. The Erasmus idea should be compulsory – not just for students, but also for taxi drivers, plumbers and other workers. By this, I mean they need to spend time in other countries within the European Union; they should integrate.

I would like to urge the very few readers who have resiliently read my ramblings thus far to chase the image of a handful of Welsh plumbers prowling the gloomy housing estates of Warsaw in cold winter nights, preying on the nubile to ‘become European’ with, out of their minds. Although the image may well be hilarious, it is not as pressing as the question of to what extent young Arabs, Chinese or Caribbean people are allowed to participate in this so called sexual revolution. I may be a somewhat old fashioned sort of chap, who is not entirely familiar with the latest developments in the sexual revolution scene. But the last time I checked a sexual revolution does not imply an ethnic limitation, however broad it may be. More importantly it does not insist that the act of ‘becoming European’ is to be engaged in within wedlock or that it should have a reproductive purpose. My outdated idea of sexual revolution, is a state of affairs in which anyone can choose to ‘become European’ with anyone, regardless not only of their race, but also of their gender and orientation.

Yes, 2011 was a year in which people stood up to be heard. But it was also a year in which certain members of a civilisation which considers itself to be in perpetual decline have stooped to ridiculous lows to avoid hearing these new voices and engage with them. We must remember time and time again that what makes the human condition special is not just the universal attributes that runs through us like a long thread, it is also about the things that make us different.

In his book The Interpretation of Cultures, Clifford Geertz explains how the evolution of the human mind has happened alongside the development of culture. Contrary to common belief, our ancestors have not developed language and other means of socialisation once their brain had fully evolved. Instead, he explains: “human cortical expansion has followed, not preceded, ‘the beginning’ of culture.”

Eco perhaps had it right in one aspect. That the fate of Europe or any other culture in fact, lies not so much in the grand decisions made by its cream and crust but more in the daily practices of its plumbers and taxi drivers. It is up to them to open their eyes and ears to new cultures and engage with them in the spirit of mutual exchange. Without expecting them to abandon what makes them and their cultures unique. Because expecting them to do so would imply forcing them into becoming, in the words of Geertz: “unworkable monstrosities”.

Faithful to the Middle Eastern tradition (though I don’t presume to be a religious observer) of giving the last word to one’s elders I wish to conclude this piece with a quote from Philosopher Gilbert Ryle, which is also quoted in full in the above mentioned work by Geertz.

“The statement “the mind is its own place”, as theorists might construe it, is not true, for the mind is not even a metaphorical “place.” On the contrary, the chessboard, the platform, the scholar’s desk, the judge’s bench, the lorry-driver’s seat, the studio and the football field are among its places. These are where people work and play stupidly, or intelligently. “Mind” is not the name of another person, working or frolicking behind an impenetrable screen; it is not the name of another place where work is done or games are played; and it is not the name of another tool with which work is done, or another appliance with which games are played.”

Illustration by Bendu


A reader responds to Efe


Wednesday, 04 January 2012 14:13

A Portrait of China Emerging

The narrative of China's emergence that has predominated in the Western press over the last decade is one of a racially homogenous economic superpower in ascendance; the West seems to characterize China simply in terms of its potential as a huge untapped market to be exploited or as a threat to Western cultural and economic hegemony. This month, eRenlai hopes to offer an alternative perspective on China's emergence, wherein the reality of China's racial and spiritual heterogeneity and multicultural legacy can be borne witness to on a level more fundamental than that of Nationalism. Away from the rhetoric and scare-mongering of politics and economics is the space where one can experience China on a more personal and experiential plane. Here, eRenlai has picked a variety of stories that span the last decade which paint an alternative picture of China in its period of rapid development, focusing primarily on rural life.

First we get a snapshot into the lives of the nomadic people who now populate the birthplace of the legendary Tibetan King, King Gesar, and the remnants of the Barge Wall and the Funeral city which once stood in Shiqu. Then we  move on to Shangri-La to experience the growth of eco-tourism in the Tibetan village of Napa. In Chengdu we hear of the hardships experienced by Yi migrant workers, faced with discrimination and being taken advantage of by employers. We then arrive in Yongren County to bear witness to the more colourful side of the Yi people, with their annual fashion show. Then on to Yangjuan village to monitor the progress of the school built there in 2000, with two different perspectives on the village and the project, one from the Summer of 2006 by Liang Zhun and the second from Father Duraud in Winter 2010. We also take a look at China's Muslim Hui people as they celebrate the feast of the birth of the prophet Muhammad in Pi County and attend the rebuilding of the Tibetan Buddhist Kangwu Temple in Muli County. We also discover how the previously thought to be defunct Tibetan Buddhist school of Jonang, turns out to be very much alive in Dzamthang.

Photo by Liang Zhun

Wednesday, 28 December 2011 18:07

Summer in Yangjuan Pass

I have travelled many times to Liangshan Prefecture, home of Sichuan’s Yi minority. Reporting on festivals in Zhaojue, Puge or Meigu counties, I have taken countless photographs and made many Yi friends, whom I like to visit each time I am back in Liangshan.

It was only during the summer of 2006, however, that I went to Yanyuan County, in the western corner of the prefecture. I was accompanying a French scholar, Benoit Vermander, to Yangjuan village. Yangjuan has more or less become a household name in Liangshan and Chengdu, as a school has been built there thanks to the efforts of Benoit, Professor Stevan Harrell (University of Washington in Seattle) and many friends from Chengdu and other parts of China. Not only does Yangjuan enjoy the benefits of a good primary school, it has also embarked on a variety of experiments: summer educational courses, hydraulic works, sheep rearing and following the lives of young migrant workers… Most of these experiments are small-scale, which is actually an advantage because it allows for trial and error, involvement of the villagers, and potential duplication in other places… Even if the experience remains limited in scope, Yangjuan is a kind of social laboratory.

In fact, “Yangjuan” is not the official name of the place. This community is officially part of Baiwu Township, in the north-central part of Yanyuan County. The area is beautiful, with streams and cliffs, fields of buckwheat, corn and sunflowers. There are mountains on all sides, rich with forests of Yunnan Pine and hundreds of species of plants. Sheep, goats, horses, cattle and pigs graze in the pastures. However, I know that in wintertime, things are different. Everything is barren, water is sorely lacking, people are cold, malnourished and often sick without reliable medical care. Development is needed, but local people must be the actors of the development process.

What made summer of 2006 so special was also that Benoit was not alone this year. He came with his younger sister, his brother in law and their four children (7 to 13 years old); all of them arriving directly from France. Going to Yangjuan when this is your first trip to China is most certainly not a banal experience!

These pictures document this extraordinary summer at a remote village in Liangshan, where friends come together every summer, to forge a tiny part of a better future…

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Wednesday, 28 December 2011 17:23

Muli, an ethnic frontier

Muli is a tiny multi-ethnic county at the southwest corner of Sichuan province, nearby Yunnan province. On its west, lies the Ganze Tibetan autonomous prefecture. Muli itself is officially called a “Tibetan autonomous county”, though it is located within the “Yi Prefecture” of Liangshan, the Yi being another important ethnic group of Southwest China.

In this multi ethnic county, and contrarily to their neighbors, the Tibetan population is little prone to migrations, as tourism prospects are opening up (although much more timidly than in adjacent Yunnan province) with the re-assertion of the Tibetan character and culture of the area. Overall, one third of Muli’s population is Tibetan, around 28 per cent is Yi, 22 per cent Han, with a number of other minorities completing the census. Tibetans in Muli take advantage of this cultural trend and of the investments that go with: rebuilding of the main three Tibetan temples of Muli County, stupas and other Tibetan artifacts constructed near the mountain lakes… Other minorities, especially Yi people, are prone to leave the area in search for job, especially since state industries have been closed. If the mountain landscape is stupendous indeed, Muli township looks to the passer-by as a sad little place, cut off from the outside world during the rainy season from mid July till end of September.


Before 1949, Muli’s Grand Lama was the main political power in the area, a fact attested by Western travelers such as J. Rock and A. David-Neel. Muli housed three major Tibetan temples. In late July 2007, I went to one of these temples, Kangwu (Kulu in Tibetan language), and discovered the ruins of an imposing building burned down during the Cultural Revolution. Before this period, up to 550 monks were staying there. In the eighties, a small temple was built nearby, and 16 monks were living there at the time of my visit. They were in charge of supervising the rebirth a new, imposing Kangwu temple… This was the beginning of the second year of this large-scale endeavor. Tibetan craftsmen from neighboring Daocheng county had recently arrived. The structural work having been completed, it was now the turn of sculptors and painters to enter into action.

On this particular afternoon, the current Grand Lama of Muli was supervising the work.  I had the feeling of being at a special moment in time, standing between past and future, taken between the shadow of a temple existing no more and the mirage of a new one slowly coming to existence… These pictures testify to this enlightenment, to my sudden grasp of the impermanence of things.

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All pictures taken in July 2007

Tuesday, 27 December 2011 18:12

Yi Migrant Workers in Chengdu

Though the numbers change according to economic circumstances, an estimated 150-200 million Chinese rural workers are living and working in cities. They often face discrimination in housing, education, healthcare and employment due to their temporary status, though several cities are working towards improving their conditions. Employers often take advantage of internal migrants’ vulnerable status by withholding billions of Yuan in unpaid wages. Also, school and healthcare fees have a disproportionate impact on migrant workers, whose incomes are on average lower than other urban residents. For migrant families, various additional fees make attendance at state schools unfeasible. Furthermore, most migrants in China’s cities live without health insurance, rarely visit a doctor, and only go to the hospital in the most extreme cases of illness or injury.

The above is especially true when it comes to “ethnic minority migrant workers.” Altogether, 56 "nationalities" are officially recognized in China, the Han and 55 “national minorities". The Yi nationality is one of these national minorities. The various subgroups belonging to entity are spread throughout the provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou, totaling more than seven million people (five million in Yunnan, two millions in Sichuan). In Sichuan, most Yi people live in Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. The Autonomous Prefecture covers over sixty thousand square kilometers. It comprises seventeen counties and about five hundred major villages with a total population of more than four million, more than 2 million of the inhabitants being Yi. The relative prosperity of its capital, Xichang city, does not hide the fact that the Liangshan Prefecture is the third poorest among the 30 autonomous prefectures in China. The altitude ranges on the whole from 2000 to 3000 meters, with the highest peak at 5,959 meters.

One can find migrant workers from Liangshan in most of the major cities of China. Many group together in Sichuan’s capital. There are no statistics on the number of Yi migrant workers living in Chengdu, mainly because of the very high volatility of this population (many migrants only stay a few days or a few weeks), and of the low visibility of the Yi community (Yi migrants don’t wear ethnic clothes and look very similar to other migrants). The proximity with Liangshan makes Chengdu one of the natural destinations for inexperienced migrants who want to benefit from the presence of Yi fellows in the city, and older migrants who favor the possibility of returning home regularly to take care of their family.

In contrast with the Tibetan community, Yi people in Chengdu seem very scattered. There are almost no Yi shops, only 1 or 2 Yi bars, almost no place where Yi people particularly enjoy gathering (except the Southwest University for Nationalities). The surroundings area of the two railway stations are known for attracting a number of poor Yi migrants who don’t know were to go and how to get started in Chengdu. The very poor east part of the city used to have some quasi-slums inhabited by drug-addicts, and it is said that many of them were Yi. But it seems that most Yi people in Chengdu are spread out in the city, or in suburb factories, and have relationship with small groups of friends from their native area. They are not strictly enclosed in Yi networks; on the contrary most of them also socialize with local Han people and migrants from other ethnic groups.

These photographs focus on a group of workers coming from the small township of Baiwu, the most distant part of Liangshan, in the Yanyuan district of Sichuan Province. Their ancestors’ lives consisted in farming and grazing sheep, a lifestyle that kept them working from sunrise to sunset every day. Later, through the acquaintances of relatives and friends they went to Chengdu and began to hire themselves out as workers.

As many have not even graduated from primary school and are without any special skills, most of them can only do hard physical labor, such as construction workers or furniture movers. Some also work in restaurants or as security guards. The work is strenuous, the labor very intense and income is low (around 700-800 Yuan per month or even lower, food and rent not included).

The Yi workers range in age from 20 to 40 years old, so they are carrying the twin burdens of supporting their elders and caring for their children, who sometimes number three or four (minorities are exempt from the one child policy). They still have to send money back home (around 500 Yuan per month) in order to satisfy the demanding expectations and desires of their families back in their hometowns.

To save money, several workers rent a single room together so each one only pays 50 to 60 Yuan per month. The living conditions are barely adequate and the hygiene extremely poor. They buy their own food and cook extremely simple meals themselves. When someone from the same province celebrates his birthday, everyone goes together to a small restaurant to share a meal. This is their most extravagant luxury in this big city. Sometimes they allow themselves the pleasure of going to watch a movie. Their social interactions are constricted, with little room for intimacy, but they help each other whenever one of them gets sick or has problems.

The majority of the workers who are currently working in Chengdu are satisfied with the current situation because they consider it to be better than farming in their hometown or grazing sheep. It could be better, it could be worse: the workers are generally of a placid spirit. They frankly say that although the city of Chengdu is pleasurable, bustling and lively, they are only passing by. In the end, they will return to their land where their roots are.

Working as hired men gives them an opportunity to experience another style of life, and shows them their own deficiencies and shortcomings. All the workers also assert that they will do their best to allow the future generations a greater chance to study. Although each worker has his own aspirations and expectations concerning the future, the general wish is just to earn a little more money and go back home, in order to improve their own lives and those of their families.

Minority migrant workers are often the first victims of overall economic difficulties. If their experience in the cities is to be a meaningful one, it is urgent to teach them the skills that will later on help them build a sustainable future once they are back on their land.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011 00:00

The Festival of the Birth of the Prophet in Pi county, Sichuan

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The Festival of the Birth of the Prophet is one of the three most important Islamic festivals, it commemorates the birth and the death of the founder of Islam, Muhammad. On the 5th November 2006, the Festival of the Birth of the Prophet was held at the Pitong township mosque in Pi County, Sichuan. Before the festival, after the mosque's imam, Ma Rugang and the director of the management committee of the mosque, Ma Junru, have carried out prepatory arrangements for the festival, Muslims come to donate grains, oil, meat and money, and arrange for a groups of people to take responsibility for grinding the flour, buying certain items, frying flour-and-salt sesame oil cakes, cooking the meat and other dishes, the other odd jobs that the festival entails are all carried out by Muslim volunteers.

The Hui people see the different tasks surrounding the festival as good works, therefore, they often strive to outdo each other. Everyone takes part to decorate the gate, the main hall and the surroundings of the mosque with lanterns and streamers, and banners, the banners commemorate the calligraphy of Muhammad with Arabic writing, as well as incorporating slogans celebrating the festival. The festival normally lasts for two days, on the first day people come to the mosque in the evening to recite scriptures in praise of the Prophet, after the worship ceremony a symposium is held, the second day is a more formal commemoration. At the appointed time, the Muslims bathe and change their clothes, dressing up and congregating at the mosque to recite scripture, praise the Prophet and worship. The imam pronounces the main events in the life of Muhammad, his achievements and his moral character, as well as exciting historical tales about the hardships undergone in missionary work, of wisdom and bravery, of skill at debating and of war, instructing the Hui people not to forget the teachings of the Prophet, and to be good Muslims.

On this day Muslims also have to "taw/ba" (توبة rendered in Chinese as 討白 tǎobái), which means to repent. The Hui people believe: "Men are not sages or saints, how are they not to sin? To know thy sin and to correct it, that is the greatest of acts." (Chunqiu Zuozhuan: Xuangong Ernian). "Taw ba" consists of making up for their former misdeeds, asking God's forgiveness, promising not to continue in sin, and commiting oneself to this new course in life through good works. After the ritual, they dine together. Dozens of table laden with dishes are spread, everybody makes merry, in a feast together. As to those who had contributed to the meal by donating in the spirit of Niyyah (نیّة rendered 乜貼 niètiē in Chinese: the intention one evokes in his heart to do an act for the sake of Allah) but are unable to come themselves have to rely on friends, relatives and neighbours to bring a flour-and-salt cake for them to try1.

What makes the feast of the Prophet so special is that the people come together to praise the Prophet, the people donate things for a common goal and that the people eat together, which shows how united the Hui people are, and how they celebrate the festival imbued with the spirit of friendship. The Hui people of Pi County invite Muslims from the surroundings of Chengdu and even Aba Prefecture to celebrate the feast of the Prophet with them. As well as its ritual significance, this day is an opportunity for Muslims to interact with each other, the imams discuss theological issues and preaching methods with each other, and the Hui people wish one another well, and talk about all kinds of things, in an atmosphere of great joy. A group of students who, off their own backs, set up a Muslim student society at Sichuan University and Southwest University for Nationalities, volunteered to serve as stewards for the festival.

Translated from the Chinese by Conor Stuart, photos by Liang Zhun



1. Interestingly Chinese sources ascribe the origin of this flour and salt cake as what Abu Ayyub al-Ansari prepared for Muhammad when his house was chosen to host the Prophet on his arrival in Medina, and was even purportedly named by the Prophet as 油香 yóuxiāng , although this cake does not appear in English language versions of the life of the Prophet. For Chinese version of the origin of this cake see here.




Wednesday, 23 November 2011 00:00

CEFC Files: Neighbour of China, Taiwan's Liminality

Stéphane Corcuff is a political scientist trained in Sinology and Geopolitics. When he is not on sabbatical research in Taipei, he is also a professor at Lyon Institute of Political Studies and lecturer at Paris’ National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations. When we visited the CEFC, Taipei branch, Stéphane explained some conclusions from his past research leading up to his current program of study based around identity politics in Taiwan and the geopolitics of Taiwan since the 17th century. He draws a parralel between Zheng Keshuang (鄭克塽) - the grandson of Koxinga (鄭成功) - who was briefly the leader of Taiwan (1681-83), and the incumbent President of the ROC, Ma Ying-jeou. He then uses this historical context to analyse the policies and consequences of the current Kuomintang regime.

Furthermore, for the past 15 years, Stéphane has been conducting research focused on the Mainlander population in Taiwan. His research leads him to consider the Mainlanders not as an ethnic group but a population of distinct collective identifications. Here Stéphane rounds up a tumultuous 20 years for Mainlanders  in Taiwan, since Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) split from the Kuomintang and so called process of 'desinicisation' began, before showing the identity consequences this has had for the 'Mainlanders'.

Stéphane Corcuff's latest book has been published this month "Zhonghua linguo / Neighbor of China. Taiwan's liminality" Taipei, Yunchen, 2011, 250 p. (Chi: Zhonghua linguo. Taiwan yujingxing / Fr: Zhonghua linguo / Pays riverain de la Chine. La liminalité de Taiwan). If you were interested in this content, Stéphane's latest book provides his most comprehensive compiling yet of his research on Taiwan's 'liminality'. Stéphane's publications can be found and downloaded at "Web de la doc" de Sciences-po Lyon or Association Francophone d'Etudes Taiwanaises. Stéphane is committed to bringing a higher level of sensory interactivity into his academia. Below is an interactive multimedia image of his current research program.

Thursday, 10 November 2011 00:00

An all-new flavour? Australia’s Asian Century

Their knowledge of China is thin. They relate to the world outside through a limited range of material symbols rather than through deep cultural engagement.[1]

To those of us following media commentary immediately after Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard pronounced “we are truly already a decade into an Asian century”[2], the above statement would be familiar.

Routine sentiment appeared on the airwaves: Australian students show no interest in studying Asian languages; government funding is misdirected; there is an entrenched failure of Australians to grasp even the most basic cultural aspects of our northern neighbours. Not just China, but India, Indonesia, South Korea and the rest. Even Japan, our old mate, remains as misunderstood as ever.

Sure, Australians love a good curry and are happy to chill out on an island in southern Thailand. Aussies might even feign worldliness so far as to tattoo exotic scripts down their sunburnt and rippling biceps, but they just don’t really comprehend the place. "Asia? I’ll get back to ya on that one, mate".

But the quotation leading this article was not about Australia, it was about Hong Kong, about the professional elite in Hong Kong. A place that is as close to China as you can get—physically and politically—and a demographic whose wealth is arguably much closer tied to the palpitations of the Chinese economy than that of the average Australian is. It would appear that Australia is not alone in puzzling over a "deep cultural engagement" with the emerging Asian powers.

Now it is true that Australia, as a nation, struggles to articulate how it fits into Asia. This is nothing new. The White Australia Policy restricted immigration to Europeans and was in place for over 70 years. Politicians, both maverick (independent representative Pauline Hanson) and mainstream (former Prime Minister John Howard)[3] have expressed concern about Australia’s place in Asia. During my first year as an economic history student in 1997, I was required to read an article in The Economist that reminded us “The idea that Australia’s future belongs in Asia has been around a long time”[4]

As a former British colony, Australia’s links to England have remained, albeit less strong than in the past. While the Queen managed to generate decent crowds and cloying press coverage during her recent tour, Oprah Winfrey might well have been even more popular when she came ‘down under[5]’ last year.

Historically, or so it goes, as the British Empire waned, Australia’s alliance with the USA grew. Gillard recently gushed to a joint sitting of the US Congress, “you have a true friend down under”[6]. Hokey, yes, but an accurate reflection of Australia’s diplomatic, military and political connections. And for many of us, cultural connections too. America still exerts a strong push and pull through electronic and other media.

In this context, many eyebrows were raised in late September 2011 when Gillard announced the impending publication of a discussion paper called Australia in the Asian Century. This weighty tome is designed to uncover the risks and opportunities in a world where Europe and North America do not dominate as they have in the past. Australian government policy needs to be guided in this reoriented world and this paper will help set the bearings.

Of course, Gillard’s enthusiasm for the 'Asian Century' must be put into context. Domestically her popularity has been dire and the political conversation here is constantly bogged down by the opportunistic and oppugnant opposition leader. Insular matters such as regulating poker machines and dealing with boat people have dominated headlines. When it comes to Asia, Gillard has been hidden by the shadows of Australia’s Mandarin-speaking former PM and current foreign minister, Kevin Rudd (aka Kevin07 aka 陸克文). The ‘Asian Century’ discussion paper is a chance for her to shape Australia’s future engagement with the region and kick some domestic political goals at the same time. Tellingly, the leader of the task force, his three colleagues in the committee of cabinet, and the further three members of the external advisory panel are all economists[7]. Eminent and successful economists, of course, but economist nonetheless, and therefore likely to emphasize the broadening financial dimensions of the Australia/Asia relationship(s).

As the impact of Gillard’s announcement has settled, a range of considered opinions beyond the economic aspects have emerged. Some optimistic for the future, some mournful for missed opportunities. Australia’s national broadsheet newspaper, The Australian, has praised Sydney University’s attempt to create academic linkages with China[8]. The leading security strategist, Hugh White, has floated the sensible idea that in order to truly boost the Asian language capacity of young Australians, the government should fund 1-2 year exchanges in the region[9]. In an online (and utterly unscientific) poll, 56% of respondents supported his idea. Bloggers at the Lowy Institute (an international policy think tank) have canvassed various issues inherent in Australia’s Asian connections. From reading these exchanges, it emerges that, among other things, there is resistance among Australian students to learning Asian languages. Many high school students studying foreign languages have an ethnic connection to the particular language, either through their parents or having grown up overseas. Students without this ‘advantage’ do not wish to take these classes for fear of bleeding grades to the better-equipped students. Reflecting a sense of intimidation masquerading as ambivalence, Australians tend to think “Why bother trying in a cosmopolitan world where English is the lingua franca? Learning a language is just too bloody hard, and besides, just because you know the language doesn’t mean you know the place… right? ”.

Not necessarily. Drawing on the long-standing debate about Australia’s ‘China literacy’, Geremie Barmé affirmed at the 2011 Australian Centre on China in the World Inaugural Lecture that

Those who rely for their literacy of China on the translated, whose interests are confined to that which is relevant or useful but in the short term, whether it be in the sphere of business or diplomacy, need to appreciate the fact that whatever their Chinese contacts might say to their face about their ability to 'understand China', perhaps even calling them a 中国通, in the end they'll be considered at best a simple-minded, even malleable, friend. So long as things go well, everyone muddles through. But when they don't, there's no substitute for the ability to think about, engage within and contend with a China that is itself a world of complexity[10].

Pro-China and pro-Tibet supporters mingle with locals at the Beijing Olympic Torch relay - Canberra, April 2008 (P. Farrelly)

I doubt that any Australian (or anyone not versed in the vernacular, for that matter) could claim that they truly understood a country if the didn’t understand the ‘local lingo’. No matter how many topical books and subtitled shows the monoglot devours, he or she will always be scrambling for the full story. Fluency, or even just proficiency, in the native tongue opens a whole different dimension of experience. Walking down the street becomes a new realm of opportunity, with advertisements to interpret and chatter to overhear, goods to buy and transport systems to navigate. With language skills, business meetings, conferences and banquets become even greater opportunities to forge connections. Many businessmen/women would no doubt attest that deals are generally not made on a country-to-country or even company-to-company level, but between individuals.

In conceptualising the ‘Asian century’, a considerable dose of nuance must be applied. The linguistic, cultural and developmental differences within places such as India and China can be almost as glaring as those that separate them. How does one simultaneously understand authoritarian pariah states such as Burma and North Korea and robust democracies such as Japan and Taiwan? Lapsing into monolithic generalisations about Asia presents a genuine risk. Subtlety will be required in ‘Australia’s Asian Century’.

Australia is not alone in trying to adjust to the recalibrated world order, and this in itself is something to consider. The countries mentioned above, along with every other nation under the sun, are trying to make sense of the new global landscape. Politically, economically, militarily, linguistically and culturally, nations around the world are seeking to determine the trade-offs required to best hitch their prosperity on to the Asian high-speed train of development.

The extent to which Australia is connected with Asia is something Australians can no longer stick their heads in the sand about. Our football team, the Socceroos, are preparing to battle Thailand in a waterlogged Bangkok to inch closer to the 2014 World Cup Finals. This weekend the Korea pop juggernaut blasts into town for an arena show in Sydney[11]. These events might well have been inconceivable even just a decade ago, having been shaped by recent (but long-gestating) diplomatic and cultural evolutions. Along with curry and discount flights to tropical islands, they are but two examples of what Helen F. Siu might refer as the “limited range of material symbols” that Australians use to understand Asia. Limited, perhaps, but still signs of some sort of ongoing integration and awareness.

Prime Minister Gillard’s speech from the launch of the ‘Asian Century’ is riddled with use of the ‘new’. New powers. New investment. New strengths. New Asian middle class. New relationships. New century.

And yes, much of ‘Australia’s Asian Century’ is new, some of it strikingly so. But what if you were to ask an old Australian Digger[12] about the ‘Asian century’? Someone who fought the Japanese in Malaya in WWII, who spent time rotting away in the Changi prisoner of war camp in Singapore. Someone who then went on to do business with the Japanese, helping hitch his homeland’s economy to that of the booming one of his former, bitter enemy. The old Digger might have a different perspective. His century, the 20th, was very much an Asian one. Not just for him, but for Australia too.

How Australia deals with the ‘Asian century’ will be interesting. How Asia deals with the ‘Asian century’ will be interesting too! The team writing the government report will no doubt adroitly address the important economic issues. However, complex cultural and linguistic elements should not be deemphasised. A ‘deep cultural engagement’ with our Asian neighbours will surely benefit all.


[1] Helen F. Siu, “A Provincialized Middle Class in Hong Kong” in Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global, edited by Ananya Roy and Aihwa Ong. Blackwell 2011. Page 136.



[4] ‘A national identity crisis’, The Economist, 14 December 1996.

[5] ‘Down under’ refers to Australia. See this old tourism advertisement featuring Paul ‘Crocodile Dundee’ - The Wonders Down Under







[12] A ‘digger’ is slang for an Australian soldier

Monday, 31 October 2011 14:41

Microblogs with Macro Reach: Spirituality Online In China

Sina Weibo is big in China right now. Essentially a microblogging service, it has elements of Facebook and Twitter, both of which (along with YouTube) are banned on the Mainland. With over 400 million users1, Sina Weibo is definitely a hit, and is likely to remain so as long as it does not become a vehicle for dissent and upset or threaten the government. Like all social media, Sina Weibo is overflowing with minutiae. Triumphs and tragedies, love and loathing, it is there for all to see. I enjoyed reading one of my Chinese namesakes wax lyrical about his newly rounded eyes (via eyelid cosmetic surgery). Body modification aside, the communication possibilities that Sina Weibo has generated are proving attractive to many in China, including those in the religious and spiritual spheres.

As I have written before, religion is a constantly evolving and fascinating phenomenon2, even in China where regulations continue to be more restrictive than in other countries in the region3. Here I will profile some of the various characters taking advantage of the enormous opportunity to promote their personalities, organisations and messages through Sina Weibo.

Taiwan’s Dharma Drum Mountain (法鼓山) is a large Buddhist organisation that uses its Sina Weibo account4 to share quotations of spiritual inspiration and considered reflection - “What is self?” and “Success is a beautiful result, failure is a beautiful experience” are two recent thought provoking and decidedly non-menacing examples.

Xing Yun (星云) is a monk who fled China decades ago and has built a massive international Buddhist organisation based at Foguangshan (佛光山) in southern Taiwan. On Sina Weibo he has garnered an impressive 327,593 followers5. Like Dharma Drum Mountain, Xing Yun reaches out to his followers with a stream of short and poignant pieces of Buddhist wisdom. For many years Xing Yun and the late founder of Dharma Drum Mountain, Sheng-yen (聖嚴), would have dreamed about having such direct access to Buddhists in the land of their birth. Sina Weibo now gives them unprecedented reach. However, it is in the less orthodox bloggers that we can find even more innovative examples.

Terry Hu (胡茵夢) is a Taiwanese movie star turned author6. Her works are spiritual in nature, and include a translation of the biography of the 20th century Indian philosopher Krishnamurti. Currently promoting her autobiography, Hu is tapping into her network of Sina Weibo followers to drum up publicity by holding competitions. Those who forward details of her book onto three friends have the opportunity to win more books and the writers of the five most outstanding comments will also win a book. Several hundred bloggers have participated in this marketing ploy.

Another Taiwanese author writing and translating in the ‘body, mind, spirit’ genre (身心靈) is Tiffany Chang (張德芬)7 . Prior to her career as a spiritual figure, Chang was a news anchor on Taiwan’s TTV channel. Aside from writing her own books (Meeting the Unknown Self) and translating popular foreign authors, such as Eckhart Tolle (A New Earth), Chang has produced a short series of videos where she reviews books8 and has assisted Taipei’s Huan-ting zen in Taiwan and China. Demonstrating considerable web savvy, Chang operates a China-based body, mind, spirit website called ‘Inner Space’9. She uses her Sina Weibo account to distribute news of updates on Inner Space to her followers, who number just under 100,000.

Perhaps the most interesting religious figure using Sina Weibo is the young Buddhist monk, Shi Daoxin (釋道心)10. Having accumulated over 189,000 followers, he uses Sina Weibo in a way that some might more associate with a self-absorbed and self-promoting youth. I have never seen a monk demonstrate such fashion sense; Shi Daoxin has a knack for matching his robes with his (often gaudily coloured) glasses. Even if you don’t understand Chinese, scroll down his blog and you will see a fantastic variety of photos.

Shi Daoxin pouting. Shi Daoxin posing wistfully outside a temple. Shi Daoxin rendered as a cartoon. Shi Daoxin meditating. Shi Daoxin meditating next to a naked babe.

The photo of Shi Daoxin meditating behind a penitent-looking female nude is particularly interesting. Apparently the winner of the Virginia Photo Exhibition in the USA, this photo is titled “Mind without obscuration” (心無罣礙) and is re-blogged with a quote from the Heart Sutra: “form is emptiness” (色即是空).

Besides his own manifold images, Shi Daoxin also uses Sina Weibo to disseminate Buddhist teachings, including videos from more established teachers, such as Xing Yun. He has also circulated several of his music videos, including one karaoke-friendly ditty where he sings a Buddhist song while wandering around a temple garden and market. The suitably devout chorus is “Amitabha Buddha, please protect me” (阿彌陀佛,呵護著我). Shi Daoxin has achieved some degree of celebrity, having participated in the TV dating show “The Whole City is Madly in Love” (全城熱戀) and was interviewed on China’s top daytime TV talk show “A Date with Luyu” (魯豫有約).

If there is one thing that this brief survey shows, it is that each of these bloggers is attempting to make religious ideas relevant to life in contemporary China. Methods vary greatly—orthodox or radical, commercial or benevolent—but the bloggers are linked by the common goal of seeking to share a spiritual message with the widest possible audience. Doing so via Sina Weibo does not necessarily dilute the potency of their messages. Writing on religious innovation in contemporary China, the Cambridge anthropologist Adam Yuet Chau recently wrote that

Modern technologies and other non-traditional elements can often be effortlessly incorporated into the framework of traditional idioms and practices, which in turn reveals the dynamic innovability of the traditions themselves11.

Sina Weibo is an ideal example of this innovability. Even the more ‘traditional’ bloggers discussed here, such as Dharma Drum Mountain and Xing Yun, have made a concerted effort over many decades to revitalise Buddhism so it is more relevant to life in the contemporary world. Microblogs are just another stage in the evolution of this process. Not surprisingly, Shi Daoxin also claims to be a disseminator of modern Buddhist culture and art, albeit in his own unique way. For the time being, Shi Daoxin et al will continue to be able to encourage, inspire, question and interact with their followers through Sina Weibo. And when Sina Weibo loses its lustre or is blocked, then I’m sure they will be among the early adopters of the next web platform, whatever it may be.

(Photo courtesy of













11. Adam Yuet Chau. Religion in Contemporary China: Revitalization and Innovation, Taylor and Francis, 2011, page 20.



Friday, 28 October 2011 14:21

India, China and Their Digital Natives

We've been digging through our archives, and found this gem of an interview from 2009 in which Nishant Shah, the Director of Research of the Bangalore Centre for Internet and Society, discusses the changing definitions of the term "Digital Native", the effect that the internet age has had on India, and provides a more balanced viewpoint on China's "Great Firewall of China" than the usual barrage of criticism.

India and its Digital Natives:

Alternate for readers in China

The Great Firewall of China: Censorship or Safeguard:

Apologies, this video is unavailable to readers in China



Monday, 24 October 2011 11:06

Internet and Civil Society in China

Is there a “civil society 公民社会”in China? For more than two decades, Chinese intellectuals have been hotly debating the topic. Some of them stress that the basic differences in political system and traditions between China and the west make the use of such term inadequate, Other try to discern a “Chinese model”, according to which the participation of civic organizations to the consultative mechanisms established by the state ultimately fosters their independence. For these scholars, an “independent” civil society will ultimately be a fruit of the cooptation by the state of certain associations (chambers of commerce, charities, interest groups…), which feel gradually empowered by the tasks that the state entrusts to them.

However, ordinary citizens do not seem content anymore to see their participation limited to the domains and the mechanisms that the state unilaterally allow them to enter into. The meteoric rise of the use and power of Internet can largely be explained by the popular will to trespass the gradual mechanisms of social and political participation that the ruling class tries to enforce.  Online activism is not only about the content it carries: it stresses first and foremost the right of the public to debate any problem it finds relevant, and to do so at any time.

Different forces try to promote or constrain online activism – the state, the market and civic groupings work in fierce competition. Smaller organizations, less visible and which do not need to invest much in personnel and equipment may actually benefit the most of the flexibility of the online tools, fostering grassroots communities that are able to grow and to adapt very rapidly.

The Chinese Internet is not “democracy.” But it is an experimental platform where Chinese citizens aspire to build a model of debate and participation different from the limited version that the government tries to defend and promote. In the years to come, Internet will continue to be the focal point around which the evolution of China’s political, civic and cultural system will be debated and determined. In China, Internet may be already more than a “virtual civil society”: it has become civil society itself.

Read B.V.'s previous article on a similar subject:
Is the Internet the Bedrock of Civil Society in China?

(Drawing by Claire Shen)

Wednesday, 19 October 2011 16:39

A Virtual Game that I Play for Real!

By Ni Ming, edited by Chen Yujun(Raining), translated from the Chinese original by Conor Stuart, artwork by Arvid Torres

I don't think I would survive without online games. I've enjoyed playing all kinds of computer games since I was little. In first year of university, all the guys in my class were playing ‘World of Warcraft’, so I decided to start playing it too. At one point I was playing for 8-10 hours a day, which would normally give me a headache and make me feel a little queasy because of the 3D gameplay. I had to sprint to the toilet all of a sudden.

The world of online games is like a microcosm of society. One needs to invest a lot of time and money in it. There are even people who arrange to go online every day at a certain time like punching a time-clock. As each team is made up of different characters with different classes, someone will be in charge of inflicting as much DPS (Damage per second) as possible, others heal, and others still tank, so if you are missing a team member it is impossible to continue with a quest. For the most part I undertake quests, play PvP (player vs player), or purely wandering around inside this other dimension made up of a fusion of technology and beauty. At times, when playing instances with randomly selected strangers as team members, I would be on the verge of tears from the pressure, although I also had good experiences. As the more challenging parts of the game need cooperation and communication between team members, if you make a mistake it can lead to the death of the whole team, so when you make a mistake it is hard to avoid feeling frustrated, that you have let everyone else down.

However, not everyone's attitude to the online game is the same, not everyone takes it as seriously as others. As well as this, due to controls set in place by the CCP on the mainland, if mainlanders want to play the latest version of World of Warcraft they have to find a way to use the servers for Taiwan and Hong-Kong, which means the servers are overburdened. Differences in culture, habits, and ways of talking inevitably cause friction between players. For example, one time when our team were in the middle of a game, one member of the team suddenly stopped responding, I was stunned, after a quite a long while someone said, "He runs a store, he's with a customer...". Everyone commits a lot of time and money to play, but this guy just abandoned the game without even a word to his team members! It leaves you speechless. As well as this kind of thing, there are quite a lot of strongly worded political arguments conducted between Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese players, which destroy the experience of the game for many people, leading some of the game's older devotees to stop playing altogether. Although the simulated world of the game is not so far from the real world in terms of how people interact, in the game gender is not important except in appearance, it all depends on the skill and style of the player, this makes the game's reality different from real life. Although it is not easy to tell a player's real gender, in the world of the game, girls often play male characters and male players often play as pretty girls, which is pretty interesting (although because male players are the majority, when people come across a female character they will often assume that the player is male).

On the whole, the current World of Warcraft is very diverse, although this diversity comes hand and hand with the problems mentioned above. People still organize player get-togethers, arrange to meet in the real world and make friends but the game lacks the sense of community that it once had. This is also true of the internet in general, due to changes in society, it has become less and less safe, and it is impossible to go back to simpler times. My experience of online gaming has influenced my value system, because it is real experience, even if it occurs in a simulated world, it is still an extension of the real world.


Thursday, 07 July 2011 00:00

Romance of the Three Kingdoms: The Sequel

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms”, written in the 14th century, is the most popular Chinese historical novel, based on the tumultuous history of the country during the second and third centuries. A cultural icon, it has lost nothing of its evocative power, revived through TV series, mangas and videogames. Throughout the centuries, its over-complex plot has also provided the Chinese political scene with endless analogies, helping politicians and commentators to assess power relationships, strategies and claims to legitimacy.

No wonder that the “Three Kingdoms” metaphor is still in use. And it serves today to describe the somehow subdued battle going on between the three main ideological forces that divide the Chinese intellectual spectrum, all of them trying to define policy making and future institutional transformations. Roughly speaking, the “Three Kingdoms” are now referred to as Confucianism, Christianity and a populist form of Maoist revival.

Let us start with the latter “Kingdom”: Bo Xilai (薄熙来), Party secretary of Chongqing Special Municipality and a scion of a prominent Communist family, has built up his popularity on the eradication of local mafias (or its substitution by new factions), the building of scores of social housing, and the chanting in group and on TV of revolutionary songs of the past. He has somehow reshaped a “spiritual civilization” based (a) on the comfort of small groups fostering mutual support through chanting together and participating in community activities, (b) on nostalgia for less corrupt times, and (c) on the reassertion of the quasi-religious nature of the Party.  Strangely enough, the model has proven effective, and is now embraced by a growing number of national and local cadres, making the ones who embrace the revival of the Party and the enshrinement its history leading contenders in the political battles to come. For sure, the ultimate motivations behind Bo’s launching of the “Red songs campaign” remain unclear, but it any case it has initiated a movement that has implications going beyond his personal political future. Current dissatisfactions as to inflation and unemployment may give more impetus to this peculiar form of populism.

Confucianism fits better the mind of the leaders and intellectuals who envision the future of China as a continuation and refinement of the current model: meritocracy is the core value, a meritocracy mainly based on technical and administrative expertise; virtue is to be extolled, along with obedience and sense of order; “scientific development” associates with uncritical reverence for China’s long past (while the Populist-Maoist model relies more on generational nostalgia and short-term memory); caution and wisdom anchored into the ruminating of Chinese classics have to predominate over daring attempts at change, so prone is the country to disorder and division.

Finally, “Christianity” is fostered by the rapid growth of Christian churches, joined by people aspiring to a spiritual experience anchored in both personal and community life; at the same time, it clearly posses political undertones as it goes with aspiration to personal freedom and rights understood in the Western sense; such aspiration ultimately implies to relax or even to overcome the Party-State’s overall control on society. “Christians’ are thus often assimilated to people aspiring towards a Western-leaning model, and such people can also be found in leading circles. An example is the one provided by the economist Zhao Xiao (赵晓), who has equaled the historical achievement of the West with its adhesion to Christian beliefs and has converted to Christianity. During the last few years and months, spiritual and political values have been more clearly associated than was the case at the beginning of the “religious fever’ tide, with tensions and debates consequently growing.

“Romance of the Three Kingdoms” is characterized by the intricacy of its plot and the innumerable changes of alliances and fortune that occur. It would thus be unwise to see in the three “Kingdoms” now emerging the sole actors of an ever-evolving drama. But the understanding of the Characters who appear on the stage at a given moment of time might help all observers to better follow the plot yet to unfold.

Photo: C.P.

Monday, 25 April 2011 12:04

Religions and Charities in China

The religious growth that China currently experiences is leading towards a most interesting trend: the organization of faith-based charities.  For sure, such trend is still hampered by a number of factors, but it does express the growing assertiveness of China’s civil society and of its religious groups.

Tuesday, 28 December 2010 18:16

December in Yangjuan

I went to Yangjuan beginning of December 2010. During these 10 years I have been more or less10 times to this little village…

This time my purpose was to see the state of the school we help to start in 2000. The school does not need outside subsidies any more. Now schooling is free and the government is also paying for textbooks. But there is at least one reason to worry: this semester the school has only 6 certified teachers. According to the number of students the school should be entitled to get 11 certified teachers, but the local government or the bureau of education is always short of personnel. Consequently the gap is filled with substitute teachers. They receive a monthly salary of only RMB 600 which is not high (RMB1100 for a unqualified work, construction work for example, is not considered that much). Nothing surprising that a there is a great turnover of substitute teachers. How to help in the management of the school is another question that none of us presently can answer properly. There is an informal network of friends that may provide some ideas. It seems to me that we cannot only focus on the management of the school. From the beginning, ten years ago, we came with this idea that the school could become a center for local development. The school itself has its own goals but the shelter it provides every summer has been instrumental for working on the development of this small place.

In 2001 we started to bring Taiwanese students for animation and tutoring. In 2001 and 2002 two nurses and two medical students came to make a health survey of the children. After the health survey we started “waterworks” in order to provide cleaner water. The idea of a French engineer during a trip to Yangjuan has been at the origin of this endeavor. He thought it could be possible to build a dam along the river feeding a small power plant. That idea brought to Yangjuan the following years a team of “Hydraulic without borders”, an organization founded by a retired hydraulic engineer, Mr Wang, born in Canton but brought up and educated in France. Our first practical realization was to dig a well. That was a failure and a good example. A failure because the well dig during summer (when underground water is at its highest level) became dry three months after. It was a good example because we told the people that the water from the well was much cleaner and healthier than the water from the river. Thereafter, especially in lower locations of the village, people dig wells in their courtyards to keep water supply at hand and alleviate the chores of fetching water from the river (most of the time this burden is allotted to women and children).

duraud_yangjuan_dec_3The next step was very interesting. One year after digging the well we were ready to dig another one the following summer. We were served a flat refusal. People from the 3rd brigade belonging to a “lower class” in the “old Yi society” asked us if it could be possible to help them in order to fetch water more easily. The fact that the initiative came from them is noteworthy. After discussion we decided to build a very simple network of water supply serving about twenty households. Unfortunately this network is less efficient during the “dry season”, but it was successful enough to inspire later the 6th brigade who asked for help in turn. This new water network has not been a success either for the same reasons but led the people of the whole village to look for a more satisfactory solution.

During these years my back and forth travels were always reported to the Liangshan Friendship Association. People from the office knowing what we were doing in Yangjuan and what we were planning to do sent me an estimate asking if I was willing to finance a project intended to provide water to the whole village. The price tag was well above our means and the realization of the project would have been entrusted to an outside company. This outsourcing could deprive the villagers from appropriating the technology, so to say, and from being involved in the maintenance of the network. Of course that would have also guaranteed a more reliable construction and for sure that would have sent money in private pockets.



This year, on December 7, I could see that the work had been done: a small dam on the creek of a remote valley tributary to the river running down the school secures water intake and brings it 20 meters down below to a water tank. About 1500 meters down below from the first water tank another one was built above the houses of the 6th brigade (the highest houses in the village). Most lines for distribution seem to start from this water tank. While I was in Yangjuan, one morning, water ran from the faucets for about half an hour. I guess by now distribution of water is ensured.

Though impressive and as far as I can judge well built, this water supply is not absolutely perfect. After a survey I found out that 4 houses from the 3rd brigade were left aloof though the main pipe runs only 200 meters from their houses. After pondering the matter I decided to give them RMB 1,000 to buy the pipes needed for the extension.

This very remote village, Yangjuan has been affected all these years by the changes in Chinese society and the effects of globalization. Ten years ago very few people had left the village to pursue studies outside and even to work outside. Now it is obvious that the trend for young people is to go out for temporary work. People went even as far as Pakistan and Burma, with the company they were working for. Most of the people go to places like Shanghai, Beijing or Canton and Shenzhen. Three years ago, an acquaintance from Taiwan operating a factory in Shanghai tried to hire about 30 workers from that village. That was a failure. Despite seriously warned about the necessary requirements they left the village unprepared (lack of documents like ID card, health certificate, under age etc.). After one year they were all back to Yangjuan or headed on for other destinations. On of their main complains was the weather conditions in Shanghai (very cold in winter and unbearably hot during summer). During that year a friend of ours in Shanghai tried to accompany them. Their salaries were spent in sophisticated electronic objects like cell phones but it seemed that there was no plan whatsoever to use the earned money to improved their livelihood back home.

duraud_yangjuan_dec_4While in the village, I had a conversation with one villager. He has been going out for work for 20 years. He is now 42 years old, father of three children (one in Senior High School, one in Junior High School and the third one is attending classes in the elementary school of Yangjuan). He has been working all over China. So his Mandarin is devoid of the Sichuan’s accent. During these twenty years his longest absence from the village was a full year. Now he does not venture farther than Chengdu and only for periods of three to four months. He usually does not go alone but with other villagers.

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Another phenomenon affecting the village is that people from the upper part buy land halfway between the village and the nearby township. The reason is that communications with outside is easier. They nevertheless continue to cultivate their plots of land in upper locations. Moving down the village these people find themselves now deprived of the benefit of the last water supply improvement. They came to me asking for subsidies in order to extend the network up to their houses. I did not give a definite answer as I don’t know clearly the capability of the newly built system. If the network is extended for 2 kilometers it may require the construction of another water tank in order to secure enough pressure. In the coming months this is a matter to consider.

This last trip showed me also that living conditions were improving. Nobody builds anymore adobe houses. They all use cement bricks, and in many houses they cement the front yard, which is cleaner and more practical to dry the crops.

After this trip I can see that further action from our side could be the improvement of the water supply. Water supply is not only of importance for good health condition, it is also a factor that makes life in Yangjuan more sustainable particularly if part of the young labor force is outside to secure some cash income. Water supply makes life of those left behind (often children and grand parents, women) less painful.

duraud_yangjuan_dec_2Another line of action is education. The general trend is to go outside to work. This task force unfortunately inflates big cities underclass. Mr Ma, mentioned above, who has been working outside for 20 years thinks that a monthly salary of RMB 1,100 for construction work is indeed not a good salary. It could be that helping young people getting skills will allow them to emerge from the underclass. It might be a better option than sponsoring studies up to Senior High School that don’t secure anyway access to good Universities. A skilled worker can make much more than the basic RMB 1,100 a month and can, if smart enough, start his own business. There is a Japanese foundation running a school not far from Yangjuan providing short trainings to boys and girls in different crafts and businesses. That could be a possibility to explore.

Photos by J. Duraud


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Monday, 13 December 2010 22:33

New Religions in China

An Italian translation of this article appeared in the December 2010 edition of popoli and is a continuation of some ideas raised in eRenlai's October 2010 Focus on religious innovation in East Asia.

To recap, the term 'new religious movement' was originally coined as a less loaded alternative to 'cult'.  It represents an attempt to classify new religious groups that are either a brand new conception of reality, a reinterpretation of an existing belief system or transplanted beliefs in a foreign land. Such groups are continuously evolving all over the world, and China is no exception.

Sunday, 31 October 2010 00:00

Next stop on the Denim Express … Struggletown

On a recent long distance train trip in China, a budding entrepreneur and proud patriot asked me if my country had any factories.

“Sure”, I said, “we’ve got a few, but not as many as China does”.


“That’s right!” he quickly retorted.


“Because of OUR factories YOU have a good lifestyle and WE have a lot of hardship!”


He expressed these views very forthrightly and had no doubt about whose favour the Chinese balance of trade was in.  Perhaps my new friend’s family had felt some strain from China’s rapid industrialisation.  After all, he was making a 15 hour train journey to return home to his young family after working in Beijing.


Last Train Home screened at the 7th Taiwan International Documentary Festival in Taichung and gave me a new perspective on my earlier encounter on the train.  The cinema was almost full and arriving late, I had to find a seat in the front row.  Seated behind me were a bunch of 10 year olds, probably attending as part of a school excursion.  To begin with they were merrily chatting away, no doubt wishing they were watching a cartoon, and oblivious to the projections of the grim cityscapes of China’s south-eastern megacities.  But it didn’t take too long for them to be drawn into the story, wide-eyed and silently absorbed by the unfolding tragedy.


Presenting the tale of the Zhang family – parents toiling in a jeans factory in Guangdong, kids raised by their grandparents in rural Sichuan – Last Train Home is a bleak look at life in modern China.  As the story develops over 6 years, we see the characters evolve against the dual backdrops of the urban and the rural: sewing machines and tiny bedrooms alternating with cornfields and crumbling and damp farmhouses.


The story is very engaging, despite some of the dialogue appearing a bit too staged.  Flashes of brutality alternate with misguided optimism, all the while dreams are torn apart and the scraps reshaped, like denim off-cuts salvaged from the factory floor and haphazardly stitched together into something new.


The cinematography is artful throughout, generating a strong sense of place. The scenes at Guangzhou train station during the Chinse New Year are particularly powerful. We see hordes of travellers stranded as the rail grid is thrown into turmoil by inclement weather, progressively getting anxious as the narrow window of time they have to return to their hometowns grows ever smaller.  The claustrophobia of the crammed station and tension of the travellers as they jostle for space is palpable.


Last Train Home is a gruelling look at the flipside of China’s year on year 10% economic growth.  The Zhang family are just some of the many millions manning the machines that drive China’s economic juggernaut.  At times harrowing, this is a film that will appeal to anyone seeking an alternative perspective on China’s economic miracle.

Wednesday, 06 October 2010 18:13

An Expo-lent Australian Adventure

In early September I spent a day at the Shanghai Expo.  Bracing myself for crowds of up to 300,000 jostling queue-jumpers, I was relieved that the venue was not too packed. Most pavilions (especially later in the day) did not require any considerable time lining up.  The vast number of unused crowd barriers snaking around entrances that I bypassed at various stages of the day were testament to just how bad the queues might have been.  That said, there were still a hell of a lot of people there.

Arriving a little too late to snap up the special tickets required for China’s gargantuan pavilion (a great design actually, and one that I hope primary school kids around the world can mimic with Paddle Pop sticks), I had to settle for some of the less grandiose pavilions.

The South Korea pavilion had a great mix of 3D and interactive technology, all set to an infectious K-Pop soundtrack.  The hosts remained unflinchingly gracious in the face of relentless questioning (“Are you really Korean? REALLY? But how can you possibly speak such good Chinese?”), even managing to diffuse a vicious brawl between two frazzled and possibly queued-out ladies in the theatrette.

The India pavilion offered a snapshot of Indian civilisation from ancient times through to the recent period of economic development, but my lasting memory was of the handicraft bazaar and the tantalising smells from the curry kitchen that seduced guests meandering around the venue.

The Singapore pavilion was slick, if somewhat forgettable, and the Denmark pavilion had the actual Little Mermaid statue, shipped all the way over to China, and some bikes for visitors to cruise around on.

All good stuff but in spite of the smorgasbord of global morsels that were at my finger tips, the one pavilion I really itched to visit was that of the land of my birth – Australia.  Not just to reconnect, but to see how Australia had decided to pitch itself to what former Prime Minster Kevin Rudd famously called it’s “true friend (zhēngyǒu)”.

pf_shanghai_expo_1Upon arriving at the giant undulating pavilion, which looks a bit like a corrugated tin off-cut left to rust in a paddock, I was able to breeze in through the door, unhindered by any queue. Here I was greeted by a friendly Akubra-clad avuncular type with “G’day! When watching the movie, you might wanna sit at the back so you can see the subtitles”.  Thanks for the tip, mate.

Spiralling up a ramp around the inside of the pavilion I was treated to a potted history of Australia in series of cute dioramas. Unsurprisingly, there was an emphasis on the relationship between Australia and China.  If you were looking for any information about Aboriginal Australians, you had to wait for the last section, where the landmark 2008 apology to ‘the stolen generations’ was highlighted.

Australia’s first inhabitants were excluded from the diorama of when the English landed in Australia.  Instead of Aboriginals, as are normally included in such stylised versions of this event, the pompous-looking Englishmen were confronted with a stick-waving Koala and a stern Kangaroo with crossed arms.  Crikey!  Look at claws on that one!

While there were brief explanations of the diorama scenes, no one really seemed to be paying much attention to them. Unlike the other more hi-tech pavilions I visited, there were certainly no snazzy gizmos here to keep the punters entertained.  The crowd hurriedly snapped photos of each of the dioramas and then barrelled on up the ramp, to where though, no one seemed to know.

pf_shanghai_expo_3As it turned out, at the top of the ramp was the theatrette, where we were rounded up like cattle (how very Australian).  Once in the proverbial cattle yard, some burly Aussie bloke did his best to keep us placated until the next screening, cracking jokes in Chinese and exhorting us to be orderly “for your own safety”.  I found this guy to be pretty funny, but the people around me seemed mainly to be sniggering at his pronunciation.  Perhaps something was lost in translation.  I’m not sure how well the average Chinese person understands the Australian sense of humour.  Some didn’t seem to understand his safety instructions either, with a couple of people trying to push through the queue, even though there was a closed door at the end of it and we had been told that there were enough seats in the theatre for everyone.  The queues at the Expo were generally much more orderly than I expected based on my previous experiences lining up at various Chinese train stations and tourist venues. Nevertheless, some people still found the need to fruitlessly try to push through, only succeeding in pissing everyone else off. I’m surprised that I didn’t see more fights on the day.

The Australian movie was passable, but nowhere near the level of South Korea’s all singing, all dancing, roller coaster ride. Not that the crowd, many of whom were quite young, cared.  They all seemed very happy to be there.  The spritely attendant even managed to cajole them into chanting a mangled version of the dire Sydney Olympics-era chant “Aussie! Aussie! Aussie!”.

My favourite image from the movie was towards the beginning. Just after the characters had been introduced and the audience subjected to a montage of dodgy computer graphics, the side of an open-cut mine was spectacularly blown up.  This led in to a sequence of heavy machinery carting rocks out of the ground and onto the marketplace.  The market of course, as Australia’s recent recession-proof prosperity might testify to, is China.  What better symbol to represent Australia and China’s current relationship.  I loved it.

After the movie, we were herded down the ramp, out of the theatre and into the gift shop.  There was also some dinky-di Aussie tucker – meat pies, fish and chips, beer and other imported delicacies.  Despite my strong urge for a pie and sauce, it was all a bit pricey for me, so I skedaddled out the door and to find something a bit cheaper and possibly more tasty.

pf_shanghai_expo_4Judging by the chirpy crowds hanging around in the foyer and checking out the tacky merchandise for sale, I think the organisers had a done a good job.  The primarily Chinese guests seemed happy.  However, the Australian government wants to do more than just flog off a couple of overpriced fluffy kangaroos and tinnies of VB.  The real impact of the pavilion will be felt in the years to come, as Chinese students head to Australian universities or Chinese and Australian companies enter into business deals.

While appearing to be solid, Australia's relationship with China is not without hiccups. The level of China-awareness among the Australian public is low and at times paranoid.  My only lasting memory of China from my childhood education is of the prospectors who came out to Australia in the Gold Rush of the 1850s.  A reciprocal Chinese pavilion in downtown Sydney or Melbourne might help raise the general level of awareness of our looming northern neighbour.  You wouldn't get the full story on China, that's for sure, but at least it would be a start.  However, it is not only the Chinese government that emphasises some aspects of the country at the expense of others in order to paint an attractive picture.

Staging the Australian Expo pavilion in China means pitching the message to a Chinese audience.  If the 2010 Expo was being held in Australia, the pavilion would undoubtedly be significantly different. Australians can be very sensitive about how the nation broadcasts itself to foreign nations.  Witness the  domestic controversy generated by each new iteration of advertisements selling our wide brown land to the global tourist market.  Some Australians wish to entice foreigners with our cosmpolitan metropolises and sophisticated urban lifestyle, while others think that the beaches/bikinis/kangaroos/koalas model sells the nation best.  Given this unfortunate and out-dated dichotomy, those Australians affected by the dreaded  ‘cultural cringe’ would be best served by staying well away from the Australia pavilion.  Do yourself a favour and go to the South Korea pavilion instead.

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Friday, 24 September 2010 19:30

Product of Taiwan

Ask someone what they know about Taiwan and you will get any number of answers.  There are many things that people associate with the place – the world’s second tallest building, the Cold War icon Chiang Kai Shek, a fragile relationship with China, lots of factories, bubble tea, that chubby guy with a fringe who sings Whitney Houston songs.  But the details are probably still a bit sketchy.  Did you know that the Giant bike you rode around the lake on the weekend was made by a Taiwanese company?  Or that the Asus/Acer/BenQ laptop and D-Link modem that you are using right now are also Taiwanese products?  Probably not.  Taiwan’s ubiquitious electronic gadgets are but just one product of the recent decades of reform and development. Religion has also boomed there.

Taiwan’s religious groups have expanded extensively. The Foguangshan Buddhist group has built several large temples around the world and a university in Los Angeles.  Tzu Chi, ‘the Compassion Society’, dispatches aid teams to disasters across the globe and has been granted Special Consultative Status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council.  It has also been active in disaster relief in China for over a decade.

While not quite reaching the ubiquity of Taiwan’s hi-tech brands, Taiwan’s religious groups are out and about establishing themselves around the world.  And it is not just the big groups either.  The New Testament Church, a radical Protestant group who are based on their own Mount Zion in southern Taiwan, have built a small network of sacred lands (that double up as organic farms) throughout Asia and the Pacific.  The Taiwan-based Supreme Master Ching Hai had paid for a large poster in the Canberra airport warning Australians of the danger of rising sea levels.  Have you looked at the flyers and books that your local vegetarian restaurant has by the front door?  These pamphlets could well have been placed there by a religious group from Taiwan.

Taiwan’s religious scene is illuminated by the innovation that certain groups invest to spread their message.  The Taiwanese community has spread across the world, as has the Chinese, and abroad these religious groups first find their feet in immigrant communities.  ‘China towns’ around the world are havens of new religious movements and it is from there that these religious groups take their first steps in a new country before trying to find acceptance in the wider community.

Not to forget the potential of China.  Taiwan’s colossal neighbour has long been an abundant market for Taiwanese capitalists and entrepreneurs to invest in.  The centuries’ long immigration between the two lands reached a peak when hundreds of thousands of Chinese fled in 1949 with the rise of the Communist Party.  Now, with cross-strait relations appearing to slowly thaw, the opportunity is better than ever before for Taiwanese religious groups to also take the plunge into China.  The cultural, linguistic and religious bonds are so strong between these two political foes that China is a ‘religious market’ that can no longer be ignored, and in fact is ripe for the taking.

But building a temple in Shenzhen is not the same as opening a hi-tech factory there.  Despite the gradual concessions that the atheist Communist Party of China has given religion in recent decades, the religious scene in China remains subject to a net of bureaucratic controls, something that ambitious foreign groups are well-served to abide by.

How Taiwan’s religious groups navigate the tremendous opportunity that China offers, yet manage to keep themselves (and their adherents) within the boundaries of the law will be fascinating to watch.

To find out more, please watch the following videos, where representatives from the Lord of Universe Church and Huang Ting Chan talk about how their groups are seeking to make inroads into China:

(Photo by C. Phiv)

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:24

A New Age for China

The Lama Temple (雍和宮) on Yonghegong Street in Beijing’s inner north is one of the most impressive temples in Beijing.  Built over 300 years ago during the Qing Dynasty, it now serves the dual purposes of being both an active Buddhist temple and a popular tourist destination.  Camera-toting tourists mingle with incense-offering devotees, marvelling at the impressive and sprawling compound, before heading over to the nearby Confucius Temple (孔廟) for some more happy snaps in a slightly more serene atmosphere.

Anyone approaching the Lama Temple from the nearby subway station will be struck by the number of stores selling impressively large packets of incense, not to mention the hawkers prowling around the subway exit, ever ready to pounce on potential worshippers and try to offload a packet of incense or two.

Indeed, Yonghegong Street and the surrounding hutongs (alleys) are not only filled with incense vendors, but a whole range of stores selling statues, prayer beads, Tibetan religious curios and items of worship (My favourite was a solar powered prayer wheel).  There are also a few vegetarian restaurants in the area.  Add to this a large number of Daoist fortune tellers and geomancers and the neighbourhood has a strongly Chinese religious appearance.

I was then quite surprised to come across 智慧之光 or ‘Wisdom Light – the New Age Shop’, a mere 100 or so metres south of the Lama Temple and nestled next to a vendor of Taiwanese tea.  To anyone who has perused the advertisements in a Western New Age magazine or attended some sort of New Age ‘gathering’, this location might make perfect sense – “Fengshui and astrology – *tick*.  Tibetan artefacts – *tick*.  New Age trinkets and tchotchkes – *tick*”.  But I was not walking down the main street of a hippie town on the East Coast of Australia or one of Canada’s Gulf Islands.  I was in Beijing.  A place that in recent decades has seen little of the type of religious experimentation and social conditions that spawned the West’s now nebulous and pervasive New Age movement.

While it is tricky trying to define the New Age movement (NAM) as a religion, it is certainly influenced by religious thought.  The NAM is a loose collection of ideas and philosophies – often contradictory – with the general intention being to engender personal or societal change.  Lorne L. Dawson wrote that the NAM often utilises “processes of self-discovery that have either been invented or recovered from numerous traditional and usually pre-modern or marginalized groups of the world”[1].  How such a group would fit into the rigidly defined Chinese religious landscape (with  state-sanctioned religious groups limited to Buddhist, Daoist, Islamic, Protestant and Catholic) is not clear.  It would not be inconceivable for a New Age group elsewhere to include aspects of two or more of these five groups, not to mention influences from Chinese and Tibetan religiosity.  This ‘recycling’ of spirituality – the NAM in the West takes a Chinese idea and reconfigures it to be suitable for Western audiences and now attempts to market this back in China – is fascinating.  In discussing the potential of the NAM in Asia, Lee writes that individuals seeking to give meaning to their sense of being may “turn to enchanted traditions as a form of resistance to state attempts in enforcing the processes of disenchantment”[2].  Such a state of affairs could be possible in China, where the Communist party continues to reign supreme and oversee a rapid modernisation of society.  Of course, with China being the vast place that it is, not all areas are modernising at the same rate and not everyone has the same opportunity to engage in some form of spiritual practice.

The nascent NAM in China most likely began through contacts with Hong Kong and Taiwan, often through businessman assigned to Chinese posts.  The NAM really began to develop in Taiwan after Martial Law was lifted in 1987[3].  Significantly, all the printed material in ‘Wisdom Light’ was published in traditional Chinese (the script used in Hong Kong and Taiwan) rather than simplified Chinese (as used in mainland China).  Photocopies of books were also available for sale.  I was told that the books were primarily printed in Taiwan.  Returning to the store one day, I spied some new flyers advertising Reiki courses in Hong Kong, left earlier in the day by a Reiki representative.

Singing-bowls-for-saleBesides literature, the store offered an eclectic range of products and services - bell chimes, angels, pyramids, crystal singing bowls, herbs, Native American dreamcatchers, DVDs, CDs and aura photography. The shop’s staff were not too sure about their boss’ New Age background or credentials, but did know that he owned another business.  Compared to the other shops on Yonghegong St, ‘Wisdom Light’ was not too busy.  However, perhaps the boss has recognized a niche market.  As long as China’s middle classes continue to grow and relative religious freedom remains, the New Age has the potential to be quite profitable.  China’s moneyed class just needs to be convinced to buy the crystal singing bowl from ‘Wisdom Light’ instead of a copper one from the Tibetan merchant across the road, even though it might be several times more expensive. At this stage, ‘Wisdom Light’ only sells products, not having yet expanded to offer courses.

One could ask, is the NAM suitable for China?  The experience in Taiwan and Hong Kong, similar cultures to that of China, suggests so.  In Taiwan one can purchase a wide range of New Age books at the most mainstream of outlets.  But if we shift the focus back to Yonghegong Street, then perhaps we might reconsider the NAM’s short term prospects in China.

China’s thawing religious landscape offers hints. Ten years ago Yonghegong Street might well have looked considerably different.  It was only in 2002 that the Beijing Religious Regulations were amended to allow fortune tellers and palm readers to be considered as ‘cultural heritage’, rather than feudal superstition[4].  While these businesses are now ubiquitous, it was not that long ago, certainly during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976, that they would have been more difficult to find.  Now packaged as ‘cultural heritage’, palmistry and the like might not seem so alien to the average Chinese citizen.  And it is making this cultural connection that foreign religious groups in China must do.  As long as something is seen as alien, its relevance will be questioned and acceptance will be slow, if at all.  Christian and Catholic missionaries in China have long recognized this.  The NAM is no different.  To take hold in China, the new ideas that the NAM encompasses and how entrepreneurs promulagate them will have to be adapted to Chinese society.  Translating some of the available texts into simplified Chinese might be a good start.

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[1] Lorne L. Dawson.  Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.  Oxford University Press. Toronto. 1998. Page 191.

[2] Lee, Raymond L. M., The reenchantment of the self, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 18:3, 351-367, 2003.

[3] Chen, Shu-Chuan and Beckford, James A., Parallel glocalization: the New Age in Taiwan, page 3 (available online)

[4] Chan, Kim-Kwok and Carlson, Eric R., Religious Freedom in China, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, 2005, 15.


Friday, 24 September 2010 19:13

Lord of Universe Church - from China to Taiwan and back again

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao), which as one of its key tenets, aims to reunite China and Taiwan.  Here Stacey discusses the church's relationship with China and some of its experiences there.
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Stacey also introduces the church here and discusses the time she has spent on long-term retreat.

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:09

An introduction to the Lord of Universe Church

Stacey Hsieh is a member of the Lord of Universe Church (天帝教, Tiandijiao).  Here she introduces the origins and beliefs of the church.

Stacey also discusses her long-term retreats and the church's experience in China.

Friday, 24 September 2010 00:00

Traditional Chinese religiosity repackaged and exported... to China: How Huang Ting Chan does it

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Based in the mountains south of Taipei, Huang Ting Chan is now regularly conducting workshops in cities on the Chinese mainland.  Here Huang Ting Chan's founder, Mr Zhang, provides some insight into how his Taiwan-based philosophy/psychology group is able to operate in China.



For an introduction to Huang Ting Chan and the concept of huang ting, please watch this video.

Friday, 24 September 2010 19:01

What is Huang Ting?

Based in the mountains south of Taipei, Huang Ting Chan is a retreat centre where traditional Chinese religiosity and modern psychology come together. In this interview, Huang Ting Chan's founder, Mr Zhang, introduces the concept of huang ting and explains how despite the advances of modern science, traditional Chinese concepts of the mind remain important.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010 00:00

Happy 10th anniversary, Yangjuan!

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Yangjuan is a village of the Yi minority, located in the mountains of southwestern Sichuan. In Fall 2000, the Yangjuan Primary School, built with the support of Chinese and foreign friends and dedicated to comprehensive education for the children of Yangjuan opened its doors. Thus, Yangjuan is the site of an innovative arts education program directed by Benoit Vermander of the Taipei Ricci Institute and Li Jinyuan of Sichuan Normal University and of a multidiciplinary anthropological-ecological research project carried on by the Sichuan Provincial Institute for Minority Studies, Sichuan University, and the University of Washington.

The 10th anniversary of Yangjuan took place in August 2010 and was a real success, with even more people in attendance than at the opening in 2000. To me the highlight was Aku Vyvy, the foremost Yi poet, getting the children to recite his famous poem yyr ggut (calling the soul) along with him. There was also a lot of very nice singing and dancing. It rained before and after, but not during the ceremony, just as HiesseVuga had predicted from his astrological knowledge. Three yaks were butchered, constituting the largest pile of meat I've ever seen as it sat in the courtyard. He Laoban donated 10,000 kuai for the top-ten students in the graduating class. Unfortunately the Principal literally put the money in his pocket, so we don't know how much of it the students will eventually see. We can ask them next time we go back.

Foreigners in attendance were very few, consisting of Eddie Schmitt, Geoff Morgan, Abby Lunstrum, Prof Chen Mei-ying of Chiayi (all current or former University of Washington students) and me. Zhang Wei presented a very nice set of posters that I think he and Li Jinyuan had made up (I was not there to ask when they arrived), and Li Xingxing and I put together a slide show of 200 pictures or so, using a projector borrowed from Chuan Da.

The dearest thing was that Fagen found out that it was my birthday on the 15th, and went all the way to Yanyuan to purchase a cake, watermelon, and bananas, and someone else had a bottle of vin rouge français (vraiment!), so it was a very endearing gesture and a welcome break from the succession of more carnivorous parties.

The next day we gave out 160 scholarships, including 15 for students in their last year of high school, which means we need to think about college next year. I'm applying for some funds from a Seattle foundation for this purpose.

Li Xingxing wants to start an online discussion group about the present and future of the school. The primary proximate problem is the lack of state-credentialed teachers; of course the ultimate problem is the management skills of the principal, everyone including the teachers (except for Ma Erzi's close relatives) seems to agree.

Geoff made some further repairs to the 6 water system, after Amanda Henck and her husband had made some earlier this summer. But it's clear that that system is a stop-gap measure. But none of us outsiders needs to do much, we think, because the ¥310,000 that was given by the Provincial Assembly (省民委) to the Prefecture Poverty Alleviation Office (州扶贫办) is apparently actually physically in Xichang, so that work on the larger system is to start soon.

In connection with water, Geoff and I went to see both the 3rd system given by a Chinese entrepreneur, and the revived version of the 4th system from Hydroliques sans Frontières. The #3 system, using Laizigou water, seems to work very well, and people say it provides water year-round, unlike any of the others built so far. The big surprise to me is the 4th system, which was revitalized last year. They have given up on the communal taps that were part of the original system, and every household paid a small amount to bring water inside where children won't mess with the taps. Only four households are still using a communal tap, which is, predictably, broken. Two households near the well are still using the well. Geoff and I talked to several families, all of whom are quite satisfied with the new system, except that it still runs dry in the winter. They pay the manager 20 jin of corn per year for his services. Anyway, it's in the best shape I've seen it since just after it was built.

The people depending of the 6th system are almost sure to "sell" its forest to a company in Xichang. The deal is being kept quite secret, and Ma Ningjun claimed not even to know the name of the company. The final papers have not been signed yet, but everyone seems to think they will be. The remaining rights of members to the resources are ambiguous at present. All the members of the other 3 systems have agreed not to sell theirs for the time being.


(Photos provided by S. Harrell)




Monday, 06 September 2010 00:00

Attracting youth to politics in Taiwan

The old cliché has it that a nation's future will be determined by its youth. If that holds true, then Taiwan had best start hooking its young on politics now. The problem is that Taiwan currently holds the lowest birthrate in the world and, much like Japan, faces the prospect of a future in which much of the population will be elderly, leaving very few of the dwindling younger generation to, among other things, run for political office and guide their country into this early stage of the new millennium. In fact, according to the most recent statistics released by Taiwan’s Council for Economic Planning and Development, Taiwan’s population will stop growing and start falling in 2022, four years earlier than had previously been predicted in 2008.

This is coupled with the fact that Taiwan is in a uniquely precarious political position. The country, which has been governed separately from China since Chiang Kai-shek evacuated the KMT government to Taiwan after losing the civil war with the communists in 1949, claims sovereignty which is vehemently refuted by China and recognized by only a handful of marginalized nations scattered around Central America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Statements from the Chinese government routinely make reference to the eventual reunification of Taiwan and China, while the U.S. and Taiwan are bound to the status quo, in which Taiwan governs itself, but makes no strong movements toward formally declared independence from China.

Reports abound in the media that economic and political ties between Taiwan and China continue to grow warmer under the watchful eye of President Ma Ying-jeou of the pro-unification KMT party. This was supposedly exemplified by the signing of the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA) in July, a free trade agreement that, among other concessions in regard to banking and investment, will see tariffs on a wide array of Taiwanese and Chinese goods fall or be eliminated altogether. But the fact remains that China continues to point an ever increasing amount of missiles at its neighbor to the west, with that number expected to hit just under 2,000, up from an estimated 1,600, by the end of the year.

Despite this obvious threat, Taiwanese youth aren't exactly chomping at the bit to get involved in political activities or learn about the pertinent issues facing Taiwan. This could pose some big problems for Taiwan in the not-so-distant future. So, what's the best way to get them interested in political matters?

Enter Freddy Lim, an advocate of an independent Taiwan, front man for Taiwan's most well-known metal band, Chthonic, and one of the leaders of GUTS United, an organization composed of artists, musicians, and movie industry figures that strives to get Taiwanese youth to care about Taiwan's political future. Founded in 2002, the group began by organizing concerts surrounding political or social issues, and during the 2008 presidential campaign became more active in attempting to mobilize the young voters of today as well as the voters of tomorrow.

Lim would like to mimic the modern western method of appealing to the young generation through soft means such as music, movies, and fashion. However, living in Taipei, one of the world’s most wired cities, he is wary of the growing contemporary trend of “slacktivism,” by which increasingly keyboard bound youth voice their support in the most passive way possible—at the click of a button.

“Now everybody does their movements on the Internet. I think that’s bullshit. It’s useless. If you really care about something, you should be there, not in front of your computer,” he says while seated at a table at The Wall, a live music venue in Taipei which he is part owner of.

Though appealing to youth via the web will obviously play a large role in attracting the Net generation, Lim is aware of the need for personal contact and interaction in bringing young people into the political fold and helping them understand the relevant issues surrounding Taiwan and other regions that profess to be sovereign but are nevertheless claimed by China. This summer, he has organized politically-themed summer camps in which dozens of students have participated. He also brought notable political figures to Taiwan, such as Raela Tosh, daughter of the World Uyghur Congress (WUC) leader Rebiya Kadeer, who came to Taiwan in July to attend a screening of a documentary, The 10 Conditions of Love, which focuses on her mother. Lim had also invited the elder Kadeer to come to Taipei and give a presentation on the plight of the Uyghur people in September of last year, but she was denied entry into Taiwan by the ruling KMT party.

Kadeer campaigns for the rights of China’s Uyghur people, a Muslim minority largely living in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the northwest of the country. The area is rich in oil reserves, and is currently the nation’s top producer of natural gas. But the Chinese government’s main concern these days seems to be the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, a separatist group that has made the American list of terrorist organizations. China has accused Kadeer of having connections to the group, a charge she denies, but the accusation alone was enough for the KMT government in Taiwan to deny Kadeer entry when she tried to come to the country. Kadeer is a former businesswoman and philanthropist who rose to become one of the richest people in China. But in 1999 she was accused by her government of endangering state security. Her crime was sending news clippings pertaining to the treatment of the Uyghur people to her husband in the U.S., even though they were widely available domestically. She spent six years in prison before being released and fleeing to the U.S., where she resides in Virginia, separated from some of her 11 children. Kadeer says her family members that remain in China, like many of the country’s most vociferous political activists, are often targeted for persecution. Two of her sons are currently imprisoned there for allegedly endangering state security.

How does Kadeer’s story and that of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region apply to Taiwan? Xinjiang, along with the Tibet Autonomous Regions, is a modern example of how the Communist Party handles its so-called “renegade provinces,” a label it has applied to Taiwan. China has made no secret of the fact that it remains open to using military force to reclaim Taiwan at any point in the future, and in those regions that hold the word “autonomous” as part of their name, the Chinese military contrarily maintains a strong, controlling presence. The Chinese government has also encouraged the migration of Han Chinese to both Xinjiang and Tibet as a means of further integrating these regions into its One China ideal.

Could this same scenario play out in Taiwan one day? That remains to be seen, but it is a possibility, however remote it may be at present. Taiwan has recently opened the door for a small number of Chinese students to study at Taiwanese universities, though these students will not be allowed to stay in Taiwan and work following the completion of their degrees. Still, this move represents a complete about face from the previous policy of banning Chinese students altogether, a ban deemed necessary to avoid the spread of Chinese governmental and ideological influence in Taiwan. Could this be a sign of future policies that will relax restrictions on the presence of citizens of China in Taiwan? Time will tell, but the admission of Chinese students, along with the fact that Taiwan is likely to lift a ban on individual Chinese tourists traveling within the country, is a sign that China could be wedging its foot in the door in what may become a protracted process of opening that door for larger and larger numbers of mainland Chinese to come to Taiwan, the effects of which Tibetans and Uyghurs alike can attest to.

And yet, the youth of Taiwan seem largely unmoved. This malaise persists despite the efforts of Lim and others to bring to light the risks involved in Taiwan cozying up to China both politically and economically. You can lead a teenager or twenty-something to the relevant information, but you can’t force them to give it more than a cursory glance, never mind become impassioned by it. Lim knows attracting youth to political issues is an uphill battle—one that is not unique to Taiwan.

“Globally, the young people don’t care too much about political things,” Lim laments. “They care more about their own lives, so they don’t pay much attention to serious political issues.”

According to Lim, the way to make politics accessible to youth is to make it fun, rather than boring and preachy, and unenviable task under the best of circumstances. He is always striving to find something that young people can relate to and enjoy, while imparting a basic message that they can latch onto.

“Cool music, cool movies, cool shirts can attract young people,” says Lim before offering an example. “Most of the Tibet protests in Taiwan can only get three or four hundred people. But [at] the Free Tibet concert there were more than 6,000 people. They may not get the idea at that day, but you just need them to get the most simple message and they will go back to search on the Net. That’s what you do, you give them an idea.”

J. Michael Cole, a former intelligence officer at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), the current deputy news editor at the Taipei Times, and the author ofDemocracy in Peril, a book detailing the last 18 months of the Chen Shui-bian administration and the first year of the Ma Ying-jeou presidency, agrees with Taiwan independence activist and musician Freddy Lim that in order to get Taiwanese youth involved in political activities, the key to their hearts and minds lies in popular culture.

“I think Freddy is bang on, and I’ve actually been saying this for years. Art is definitely something that reaches out and appeals to younger people.”

Freddy-lim-gareth-griffiths2Cole is a veteran of several political protests, which he has attended both as a journalist and a spectator, over the past two years in Taiwan, and has seen the number of attendees slide considerably. He notes that when Chen Yunlin, chairman of the Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), first visited Taiwan in 2008, half a million people took to the streets of Taipei to protest the presence of the Chinese official. Two years later, the ECFA protest in June barely managed to draw 50,000 people. Cole conducted a quick survey of the attendees, and the most common explanation for the drop seemed to be that people young and old in Taiwan are starting to feel that protests don’t make a difference, and even the diehard Lim said later that he didn’t really want to be there. But no matter what the number of people who have been at such protests is, people under 40 have been but a small minority.

“What really struck me was you look around and maybe 80, 85 percent of the participants are people in their late forties, fifties, sixties, seventies—some even in their eighties. If you’re lucky, you might see 15 percent of people like young adults, or children, or teenagers, who I suspect are there mostly because their parents are there rather than out of their own volition,” says Cole from across the table at a watering hole favored by the foreign correspondents in Taipei.

In Cole’s opinion, Taiwan’s rapid democratization and the relatively quick jump in the standard of living of Taiwanese in the past few decades has given rise to a generation that has no idea what it is like to live under an authoritarian regime, as their parents and grandparents do. Those who lived in Taiwan between 1949 and 1987 existed under what is known as the White Terror period, during which Taiwan was under martial law, and 140,000 Taiwanese were imprisoned, tortured, or executed by the KMT. Those who suffered at the hands of the KMT were labeled as “bandit spies,” and were accused of working for the Chinese communists. But on July 15th, 1987, the longest period of martial law in world history came to an end. All Taiwanese who were either infants at the time, or were born after that date, have no concept of what it was like to live under such oppression. All they have are the history books and the stories of this dark chapter in Taiwan’s past that their elders may or may not choose to share with them.

This knowledge and experiential gap between the current generation of young people and older Taiwanese could account for the noticeable lack of youth at political rallies and protests in Taiwan. Simply put, young people have little stake in the consequences of current political actions, for the time being at least. There is no authoritarian regime for them to speak out or rebel against and, for the most part, they live comfortable lives and enjoy the same freedoms as young people would in any of the world’s fully democratic countries. In other words, they have little to gain by becoming politically active, and little to lose by not doing so.

With that being said, they may find themselves with more to lose in the coming years if the ECFA doesn’t work out in Taiwan’s favor. It will likely take something such as this—something that directly impacts the young people of Taiwan—to get them to realize that their participation in the electoral process will have a direct effect on their own future and that of the nation at large. They may not have had a hand in bringing ECFA to the table, but perhaps, if it has negative repercussions for the people of Taiwan, young voters could play a part in rectifying the situation.

“If the ECFA goes wrong, and if it really starts hurting some industries, if it lowers Taiwan’s competitiveness, if it lowers their chances of getting good paying jobs in Taiwan because companies here can now hire cheaper labor from China, then Taiwanese old and young might become more engaged in politics and actually use electoral retribution to kick out a government that is actually hurting them,” speculates Cole.

Nevertheless, as China and Taiwan move closer together politically and economically, as is the current trend, Cole also believes that it could become more and more difficult for young Taiwanese to identify themselves as being overtly political. With the door open for Chinese investment in a growing number of sectors, including the media, those who are in favor of Taiwan independence, which currently represents approximately one in four Taiwanese, could find themselves having to choose between their political beliefs and their paycheck. Meanwhile, the nearly 58 percent of Taiwanese who support the current status quo could find themselves similarly compromised.

“What I fear is that those young Taiwanese who would like to become involved politically, they’re going to weigh their options and say, ‘If I decide to become very open with my political beliefs, this is going to have an impact on my career,’” says Cole.

Are there inherit dangers in this mode of thinking? Definitely, according to Cole, who points to the example of Hong Kong. Prior to the British handover of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, it has been widely documented that Beijing reached out to members of the business and industrial elite in Hong Kong. These elites, who had much to lose from a financial standpoint if the handover resulted in instability, were offered positions as consultants on government committees in an attempt to consolidate power and ensure that Hong Kong’s absorption back into China after 100 years of British colonial rule would go smoothly. Beijing’s current efforts to absorb Taiwan by offering a series of economic carrots could be referred to as a quiet takeover. Nevertheless, it could result in a similar situation playing out in Taiwan, in which the fiscal motives of the elite, or even just the working or middle class, play a key role in the nation’s political future.

“If you have tomorrow’s leaders focusing more on getting a job and stabilizing the economy and not rocking the boat than actually fighting for what their nation stands for, these are the elite that can easily be co-opted,” Cole elaborates. “Starting in the early or mid-eighties, the Chinese government already was working at co-opting the elite in Hong Kong to make sure that when the handover occurred, the transition would be very easy and in Beijing’s favor, which explains why even today you don’t have a fully democratic Hong Kong.”

If the Taiwanese youth are forced into such a delicate situation in which speaking out in support of their own freedom could put their livelihoods at risk, then who will be their voice on the world stage? Part of the responsibility may fall on young overseas Taiwanese not living in China’s looming shadow.

That’s where organizations such as the Formosan Association for Public Affairs Young Professional Group (FAPA YPG) come in. Ketty Chen is the media coordinator for FAPA YPG, a group consisting of Taiwanese Americans aged 18 to 35 that lobbies the U.S. Congress on the issue of Taiwan independence, and a political science professor at Austin College. She believes that, given the fact that Taiwanese Americans have little to fear when advocating Taiwanese sovereignty, they can be all the more vocal with little, if anything, in the way of personal or professional consequences hanging over their heads.

“First, geographically, Taiwanese Americans are able to enjoy the safety of distance while advocating for Taiwan,” Chen states via email. “Secondly, while Taiwanese Americans hold jobs in all kinds of industries in the US, I feel that the proportion of the Taiwanese American population affected by the economic integration between Taiwan and China is not as high as people in Taiwan.”

Despite all the obstacles they face, there are small groups of young people dedicated to spreading political awareness among young people in Taiwan. Sisters Yu-shan and Yu-ting Chang, aged 22 and 20 respectively, volunteer at GUTS United events around Taiwan, and were made aware of political issues by their parents from a young age. For Yu-shan, the low level of involvement of young people in political matters might simply come down to not knowing where to begin.

“Maybe they follow the news, but they don’t know what to do,” she says during an interview outside the Guting MRT station in Taipei on a sunny Saturday afternoon. The sisters are granting an interview before heading to a punk show at The Wall later that evening.

“They think it’s their duty to know what’s happening out there, but they don’t really care,” Yu-ting adds. “

Both Yu-shan and Yu-ting are of the opinion that the voting age in Taiwan, currently 20, should be lowered to 18, which, apart from some countries in the region such as Japan, South Korea and Singapore, is the age of suffrage in the vast majority of countries today. Those who can’t vote, according to Yu-shan, feel that they share no part of the responsibility for the future of their nation. The sisters are also in agreement that both the DPP and the KMT need to do better when it comes to appealing to Taiwanese youth and getting them to care about the future of Taiwan, rather than just paying lip service to those who will one day replace them.

“I think they pretend to like the young generation, but they don’t really take care of us,” says Yu-ting. “When they’re having a campaign they always want the young generation to stand up for them, but when doing real things, they still don’t really care about what the young generation is thinking.”

And therein could lie the heart of the problem.

(Freddy Lim's photos are courtesy of Gareth Griffiths)

Friday, 06 August 2010 16:08

The boundary between religion and the state in China

In this video Professor John Lagerwey examines the boundary between the state and religion in China.  Importantly, he identifies the problems that arise when attempting to understand Chinese religiosity through a Western religious framework, rather than through a Chinese cultural one.

This video is an excerpt from Professor Lagerwey's presentation on 11 May 2010 at the "Dialogue among Civilizations and Global Challenges" forum hosted by the Xu-Ricci Dialogue Institute at Fudan University, Shanghai.

Professor Lagerwey is the Professor for Chinese Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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Tuesday, 30 September 2008 05:02

Migrations from Liangshan: New Data

eRenlai has published a series of articles on Yi migrants. The team of the magazine also gives regular news about the Yangjuan primary school and the area where it is located, i.e. Yanyuan county in Liangshan autonomous prefecture, southwestern Sichuan.

As it is the case every summer, a team of volunteers went to the school in July and August. This was an opportunity to collect new data on migrations from this area to other parts of China. Here are a few findings, which can give some light on changes taking place when it comes to the relationship between peripheral regions and urban areas.
Among the 107 families living in Yangjuan proper (units 5 and 6 of Baiwu First Village), 61 have members with migrant experience. 81 villagers went out looking for jobs, and 60 of them are currently on their migrant endeavor. Actually, migrants from Yangjuan can roughly be put into two categories---‘the younger migrants’ and ‘the bread-earning migrants’.

There are currently 26 migrants belonging to the younger generation’. Most of them joined the labor migration directly after leaving school (not necessarily until graduation), which also means that they were not the breadwinner of the family. So they do not need so much to compensate their leaving by providing their family with cash. In fact, only a few of them could save some money and send it home.
As a matter of fact, a group of Yi workers who were introduced by friends from afar into a factory of Shanghai consists mostly of girls who, when leaving home hadn’t finished junior high. They left home in spite of doubts or objections within the family, with the dream of living a comfortable city life. But very soon it turned out that money is much more difficult to earn than they thought, and that there are a number of problems to deal with, such as the boiling weather in summer, suburb lifestyle, language, discrimination, homesickness, strict regulation in the factory… However, they gradually learn to get along with Han people, practice Mandarin, pay rent and bill, and surf the Internet. At least, they keep themselves warm and fed, and to a certain extent, some even enjoy the factory life. Each month they earn about 1300 yuan on average, but one year has passed since they started working and several of them failed to save any money. They also see the importance of skill, knowledge, and certificates (Wenping) in one’s career. In the course of their work, few skills can be learned. Within one year they only have one chance to go back home and stay for a short period. Most of them don’t have a long-term plan about the future, they just intend to stay in the factory for some time. When it comes to farm work, some say they “can’t and don’t know how to farm.”

Other young migrants are males now still working in factories or construction sites in places such as Shenzhen and Henan. They do not save much money either. Many of those working in Shenzhen factories are not as lucky as their countrymen in Shanghai. Usually they follow brokers to the factory. There they often work more than 10 hours a day and then earn less than 30 Yuan, from which the brokers will take away 2~3 Yuan. Moreover, the food and housing provided by the factories are rustic, and they barely have labor insurances.

After having been cheated by the job recruiter and having gotten seriously sick in her migration to Shenzhen, one young woman has the following comments:
‘When I decided to work outside, many people opposed the plan, especially my father, who said migration was not what I thought it was. And some people coming back home also tried to persuade me that life out there is hard for most migrants. But I didn’t take in a single word of them, still dreaming that I could be among the few lucky ones and earn money easily… Now I’ve got bad health and spent thousands on medicine, and I deeply regret having migrated. I finally realize that my father had told me the truth! But there are still more young people migrating, including my cousins. I tell them about my experience and try to persuade them not to do so, but they just don’t listen to me and insist on leaving, just like what I did when I migrated…”

The other category of Yangjuan migrants are the bread earners. The cash entailed by children’s education, the increasing cost of farming, the unfavorable weather… all these factors prompt these villagers to buttress their families’ economy by seeking money from outside. Some of them hand their land over to other family members (old parents or wives) and seek additional income from outside. Others have comparatively more land so they leave home only when the busy farming seasons are over. Their goal is simply to bring money home, so they accept unfavorable working condition as long as the pay is high enough. And, unlike the younger migrants, the financial pressure keeps them from spending money on seeking and trying novel things.

Recently, Zhengzhou has become a hot spot for these bread earners. They follow brokers to different construction sites, working more than 10 hours a day, and being paid 140~180RMB by the brokers, who have already extracted a portion (about 10%~25%) from their original earning. If the brokers can’t find work for them in the construction sites, the migrants have to wait, consuming their own money. Some of them spend almost all their savings waiting, and then come back home with empty hands. They often try hard to learn professional knowledge through practice. Also, the pressure and competition at work as well as the high wages for skilled workers enable them to learn skills such as bending steel with machines and woodwork. Some brokers still try avoiding to give the migrants the money they should receive. Many Yangjuan migrants want to go to Zhengzhou because it is pictured as a place with “good’ brokers.

Last year, the prices of farming necessities surged, lessening further the profit of farming. The phosphate fertilizer rose from 20~25 Yuan per bag to 48~50 Yuan, and the corn seeds from less than 7 Yuan/kilogram to 38 Yuan. Some migrants invest their earnings on these highly-priced farming necessities, but the unpredictable weather exerts another risk on the harvest. Ma Linjun, who because of poor health had to come back home, says that, nowadays, compared to the profit brought by farming, earning money through migration seems not that bad. On the other hand, the high price of meat stimulates in the villagers an impulse to find some capital for raising animals. Ali Vuda is one of them. Although in his last labor migration he was cheated by the broker and got 1800 Yuan less than was promised, he still plans to go out because he believes that this time he will be more careful and may find a better broker. He says that once he has saved thirty thousand Yuan he will raise pigs on a large scale. He would spend about 10 thousand on 5 sows, another 10 thousand on the shed, and the rest on forage. He says the buckwheat and corn in his field could be used to feed pigs, and his family, in turn, would sell the young pigs at high price and then buy rice to eat. By then, he says, he would never go out, because seeing the colorful life outside would just make him feel sad about himself. Though they migrate for different reasons, both Ma Linjun and Ali Vuda are family bread earners, adjusting their income in order to fit in with the increasing commodity prices.

Ma Pengchen calls himself a veteran of labor migration in Yangjuan. At the age of 17 he started working outside and has been doing so off and on for almost ten years. He has been to places such as Shenzhen, Shanghai, Wenzhou, Zhengzhou and Tianjin, as well as some other parts of Sichuan. He helps with farming at home in the busy seasons, and migrates at other time, leaving the comparatively easier farm work to his parents. In the early years, he was no different from other young migrants, spending almost all his earnings before coming home. But later on he began to save money for his family, especially since he decided to get married. Till now he has brought about 40 to 50 thousand Yuan back home. When he worked in a factory in Shenzhen, the broker refused to pay the promised wages, alleging that he himself had no money. It was after several quarrels that he finally paid Ma the long-delayed 1400 RMB. Ma plans to leave again soon: he says that, by growing crops and taking care of the animals, his family has a daily average income of about 12 Yuan, while his bending steel skills can bring him more than 100 Yuan of net income in a single day. He also wants to grow some walnut trees at home, because he finds that a big walnut tree may bring in about 4000~5000 Yuan each year (after they are grown, it takes four years before walnut trees begin to bear fruit). He says that growing walnut trees and migration can bring him quite a good income, but he needs to carefully distribute his time and energy between the two in order to optimize the benefit. He urges his nephew, who has been herding the family goats after dropping out of primary school, to go back to school, pointing out that only going back to school can bring about a brighter future for the nephew, and that the bottom line is to finish his junior high.

With different mentalities, both the younger migrants and the migrant family bread earners start on their journeys of seeking fortune away from home. Differences in their desires and responsibilities explain for the variety of outcomes. Presently, some youths from Yangjuan are advancing towards graduation from high school. Consequently, new trends in migration may emerge, and a third category of labor migrants will come into being. In a few years of time, we will see how various educational tracks determine the young migrants’ career paths and their future lives.

PDF version

Tuesday, 01 December 2009 23:29

Of Stones and Ink

A few hours from the towers of Shanghai, at the feet of the Yellow Mountains, lies a country of round, green hills and of narrow valleys-its name, Huizhou. Serpentine hillsides, mosaics of fields, well-trimmed tea tree bushes, and wet landscapes often filled with mist irresistibly evoke the magic of the ink-painted scenes from ancient China. This is where a brilliant culture flourished between the 16th and 18th centuries; the culture of the rich and literari merchant class who, under the Ming and the Qing dynasties, built private residencies, temples, porches, pavilions and bridges. These constructions still show today an art of living and an aesthetic, which is symbolically carved into the wood or the stone.

These are sample pictures from my book entitled ’De pierres et d’encre’, illustrated with more than 250 photos by Zhang Jianping. The book recounts the history of the literati merchants, of their culture, of the architecture of the houses and temples they built. It also it gives a concrete idea of China’s protection of its heritage and of the rebirth of popular crafts. It is also an evocation of the peasants and villagers’ daily life in the region.

Contact Anne Garrigue for more info
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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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.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008 20:31

China’s Environmental Crisis and Global Warming

(extract from the speech given by B.V. during the colloquium on Cultural resources against Global Warming. oct 4, 2008, Taipei)

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IV- The international position

- Efforts by China to become a player in global governance, including in the environmental field, should not be underestimated. The country has signed more than fifty international conventions and treaties related to environmental protection and natural resources. The review of implementation by China of the Montreal Protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer, has shown gradual compliance by China to the Protocol and its willingness to fulfill its contractual obligations (it had completed in 1999 the targets set for 2002), but also conflicts of interest adversely affecting its ability to act. China is also aware of the strategic role played by NGOs in environmental diplomacy.
- However, China implicitly refuses to engage positively in the management of environmental resources, contributing to the unbridled exploitation of tropical forests of Southeast Asia or hydro-electric resources in the Amazon Basin.
- China’s position in international forums is constant: national responsibilities in this area are "common but differentiated"; climate change and sustainable development must be thought as a whole; technology transfer play a key role in meet the climate challenge; the "Clean Development Mechanism" and other similar programs should be continued and encouraged.

V – International Margin of Action

China may moderate its demands but will hardly abandon its basic positions. However, a change in the level of quotas could be acceptable to China, with a passage to a non-binding commitment level higher and stronger. China would probably limit international agreements with a regime that would facilitate practical cooperation projects and would thus releasing funds for promoting research and development in the field of new energies and to introduce renewable energy. At present, external pressures as influential as they are, are still weaker than internal resistance.
However, Hu Angang, an renowned economics professor at Tsinghua University, advisor to the government on environmental and social issues, has publicly called for China to accept to be bound by an international pact to reduce emissions. He acknowledged that his point of view remains in the minority but emphasizes the seriousness of the problems encountered by China. It envisages a sharp increase in Chinese emissions until 2020, but feels that implementation of drastic reductions in the following decade is quite feasible, so that Chinese emissions may go down to their 1990 level by 2030, and be reduced again by half over the next twenty years. China, he insists, will be the first victim of climate change, and has a strong economic and diplomatic interest to transform itself into a "green power.”
China therefore has the potential to play a positive international role, if it dares to tackle the speculative and risky nature of its present model of development. It will thus contribute to a better management of "global public goods". Making the turn towards sustainable development is without doubt the best way to assert its global contribution. Yet the Chinese response seems hesitant, often contradictory. Because the debate on its own model of governance remains severely limited, China finds it difficult to play a more active role in reforming global governance.
For now, we can just bet that China will carry out its ecological reform at its own pace but that it still refuses to be bound by a priori international agreements. The Chinese reticence should not block the commitments of other partners: Global governance, when it comes to climate change, must be one of "variable geometry" rather than based on the principle of "everything or nothing." In other words, the WTO model, (based on the search for consensus without offering viable alternative if unanimity is not achieved), model strongly challenged in recent months with the failure of the Doha Round, is not directly exportable in the field of environmental diplomacy.
It remains possible that, faced with bold initiatives of other nations, starting with the ones that the European Union must take in any case, China decided to take on the role it says to be aspiring to. In other words, the best way to engage China in world climate governance is perhaps to start without waiting that China finally decides to join global initiatives...

Thursday, 01 May 2008 02:14

A New Perspective on the Opening and Development of West China

Speech pronounced during the "Cultural Resources for Sustainable Development" Conference, Shanghai, China, April 25, 2008.This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.">

Mr. Chairman and Distinguished Guests:

I feel honored to be able to attend today's Forum which made us all feel the importance of dialogue between culture and development and the role of culture as a tool for self-reflection. This spirit of self-reflection has generated and continues to generate a more and more mature reflection on the historical task that constitutes for the Chinese the development of West China.

Today, being south of the Yangtze river and considering  our geographical opposite North-West China (the former state of Loulan around Lob-Nor in Xinjiang), we cannot but recall how the men living in the North two millenia ago (then in a central position in cultural and economic terms) were describing the state of things in Southern China.

At that time, Sima Qian, the father of Chinese historical science, and Ban Gu, author of the “History of the Han”, both said that “on the south of the Yangtze the land is low and humid, most men die when they are still young.” when characterizing the life condition of people situated in the south of the Yangtze and Hui rivers. They also wrote that in these regions the territory was vast and men were few, and the farmers burned the fields, in order to use the ashes of weed fertilizers, and then watered rice.

Still according to them, fruits, vegetables and fishes were abundant, the life there was easy and the people prone to laziness, not experiencing cold and hunger, and there were no rich families either. One sees clearly that social divisions had not arisen yet, no gathering of important population in one place either; people were speaking a large variety of languages, including ancestor languages of present-day Zhuang, Dong, Tibeto-burmese and Mon-khmer languages  

At the time of the Song dynasty it was already noticed that in ancient times the character “jiang’ (river) was used only when referring to the rivers of southern China. This might have been the case because of the origins of the word in Mon-khmer (kroŋ) that might have produced a loanword in ancient Chinese. Such evidences testify to the fact that in the Yangtze basin there were a number of ethnic groups using Mon-khmer languages.

During the same period, the civilization of the central plains had already developed in a number of areas. Using again the description of Sima Qian, in North China, in big and small towns people were pressing against each other to the extent that if you were attaching their sleeves together you could have made a tent for obscuring the sun. The bustling crowd was scrambling for schemes and profit.

All this points out to a situation in which the North was strong and the South weak, in political, economic and cultural terms, a situation that was to gradually change during the first millennium of the Common Era. The most important reason for the change was the gradual large-scale migration of Chinese-speaking people from the North towards the South and the consequent shift off the center of gravity of Chinese civilization.

This large-scale migration had two climaxes, one around the year 310 and the other around the year 750. The first one was the “Yongjia southward migration”[1] provoked by the invasion from the five non-Chinese people from the North, and the second followed the rebellion of An Lushan that precipitated the decline of the Tang dynasty. The northern people having migrated to the south abandoned the planting of millet, wheat, sorghum and their dry land farming methods in favor of higher rice output. For the sparsely populated South they were not only a precious labor force, they were also most important agents of economic, cultural and social change.

At the beginning of the second millennium of the Common Era, as Northern immigrants and local populations were melting into a new “southern population”, they were able to overcome the disrespect shown to them by the northern Song dynasty and to introduce themselves into the elite circles.

In the years after 1120, the entry of the (Northern) Jin dynasty into the central plains provoked the “disaster of the Jingkang era”[2] and the third large-scale wave of migration from the North to the South. If we compare the southern population of China in the final years of the Southern Song dynasty with the one recorded five hundred years before this time, we discover that the rise of population south of the Yangtze is of 643 percent, with a peak in the coastal provinces of 695 percent. In comparison, the rise in the central plains region is only of 483 percent.

During the same period of time, the rise of population in North China had been only of 54 percent. According to the present evaluation of ancient European agrarian conditions, on the same surface of land the calorific values produced by pasture, wheat and rice were respectively 1, 4.4 and 21.6. This might help us to understand how Southern China was continuously able to receive and integrate such a large influx of immigrants from the North.

The military weakness of the Southern Song dynasty has put it in a very unfavorable light in the eyes of the Chinese today, and they are quick to forget the glorious achievements of this period. It is during this time that the center of gravity of China’s economy and culture completed its shift from North to South. What Eurasia witnessed during the 12th and 13th centuries was the economic and cultural flourishing of the Southern Song dynasty.

Even the destructions that accompanied the dynastic shift from the Song to the Yuan did not stop such dynamics. With the help of new historical factors, this flourishing continued during the latter period of the Yuan dynasty. And Chinese civilization flourished again from the late Ming dynasty on, overcoming the troubles associated with the change from the Ming to the Qing dynasty, till the middle of the Qing era.

However, when evoking the shift of Chinese civilization from North to South, our geographical and historical understanding is still limited to the eastern regions. Here, let me introduce a well-known frontier that characterizes the distribution of Chinese population. On the Chinese map draw a line going from the extremity of the North East to the one of the South West, from the middle of Heilongjiang province (city of Heihe) to the middle of Yunnan province (county of Tengchong), and this line will divide the present territory of China into approximately two equal parts, one on the East and the other on the West. Still thirty to forty years ago, the proportion of the population living on the Western part (54 percent of the total territory) was around 10 percent – which means that 90 percent of the Chinese population was living on the 46 percent of the territory that forms the eastern part.

What the drawing of the Heihe-Tengchong line suggests to us goes beyond the mere repartition of the population. When you add to the map the ethnic repartition of the population it is not difficult to see that, on the East (except for some agrarian ethnic minorities such as the Zhuang, the Dong and the Tai) the immense majority of the population is Han. So, such a line can also be considered as a line of separation between the Han ethnic group and the territories of other ethnic groups. But what makes the Han population settle and distribute itself within this geographical area?

What we must notice is that such a line also roughly corresponds to a division of the territory where yearly rain fall stands between 200 and 400 millimeters. And, in ancient conditions, such a division is also the one that allows respectively for agrarian and pastoral activities.

Therefore, with the exception of the central plains where additional considerations should be brought in, this line already divides from ancient time agrarian territories from the world of West China. Migrating Han population were not staying within this lien for no reason. Success and limitations of the expansion of Chinese civilization were intrinsically linked to its agrarian characteristics.

During the course of Chinese history, central powers emanating and developing from Han civilization have determined several times the extent of the political territory of non Han-speaking populations. During the Tang, the Song and the Ming dynasties, the central power  stabilized the territory of non Han populations, making it enter into the map of the country, using three successive methods, first “subaltern prefectures’, then “indigenous chiefs’ and finally  “assimilation” (i.e. substituting indigenous chiefs with Han dignitaries).

And this policy of assimilation was meant to raise the percentage of Han population in these areas. But in the West of the Heilongjiang-Yunnan line this was very hard to achieve. The successive dynasties could not really attain durable success in controlling these areas.

During the Song and Ming dynasties, we do not find a ministry or organization effectively in charge of the administration of these territories. The integration of the West into the territory controlled by the central power originating from the central plains has been a task mainly accomplished by dynasties originating from non Han-speaking populations. This achievement itself testifies to the indispensable contribution made by ethnic minorities in the course of Chinese history. Let us now say a few words more about this question.

We just spoke about the Southward migration of Chinese economy and culture. What deserves attention is that, about the same time, the political center of China moved on a line going from Xi’an to Loyang to Kaifeng till today’s Beijing. What was the reason for this?

During the last millennium, today’s Beijing was chosen as a capital by the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, three of them being founded by Non-Han populations. For the Han, the plains of the North and the forests of the North-East were simply a line of defense of their agrarian societies. Not so for non-Han rulers. For these rulers with a very specific cultural background, these regions were the depository of their cultural origins and identity, and also where human resources of the same ethnic origin could be found, hence the most important meaning that these regions had for them.

Because these rulers’ concern for the land of their ancestors and of the necessity for them to preserve the stability of the agrarian land of the Han population, they had to move the capital northward, in a zone still deemed acceptable by the Han population. During the time of the Ming dynasty the transfer of the capital to Beijing was somehow due to circumstances, as the military and economic bases of the Emperor Yongle were gathered in the North and he himself was strongly influenced by the Northern culture, but looked at from a broader historical perspective, this move was taking place within a long-term trend.

In the perspective of the central powers emerged and developed within the framework of Han civilization, making the non-Han areas their “frontiers” meant to make “hanization” their most important policy objective, which meant unifying measurements, written signs and behaviors, without any exception.

  What is interesting is that the shift of the Jin, Yuan and Qing dynasties from the status of “marches of the Empire” to the one of “Empire of the marches” did not result in a simplistic reversal of the relationship between the original “political center” and the “periphery.” Thanks to high political wisdom and art, the “Empire of the marches” resulted in a truly diverse territorial organization. Only thanks to such diversity could the “periphery” be on equal footing with Han territory, and even gain more importance. The languages spoken by officials of times past were not limited to spoken and written Mandarin but, by law, were including several others.

According to what precedes, we may be able to take one millennium for one given historical period, and divide the three last millennia of Chinese political, economic and cultural evolutions in an extremely rough fashion:

In the millennium preceding the Common Era, North China establishes itself as the core territory of China’s economy and culture. The rulers who gathered centralized powers into their hands in these areas started to spread the influence of Chinese civilization towards the new frontier areas under their control.

During the first millennium of the Common Era, the flourishing Chinese civilization achieved a shift from North to South and, on a more and more rapid rhythm, activated the economic and cultural progresses of East China. The efforts of the central powers for making the West of China enter into their sphere were important but the results were quite limited.

During the second millennium, the South overcame the North, the historical shift towards the South was completed. The West and then the North West were progressively integrated into the territorial structure controlled by the central power.

History is a master of wisdom. When using a historical perspective for evaluating the present drive for opening and developing the West, what useful lessons can we draw?

From the course of evolutions during the last three millennia, we can know very clearly that we need to reduce the economic, cultural and social gaps between the development of the East and the West so as to accomplish the historical task inherited from the past to make the West a more and more integral part of a China united in the diversity of its nationalities.

This sense of history is an inexhaustible source of inspiration for nurturing the sense of duty of every Chinese when it comes to prioritize and implement the task of opening and developing the West.

From another perspective, relying on the testimonies of human activities of the three or four last millennia, the differences between East and West in natural and cultural conditions teach us an all-important lesson: today’s opening and development of the West cannot and absolutely should not reproduce the model and strategies that characterized the shift from the North to the South – including the migratory flux for opening new territories, the prevalence of agrarian economy as developmental model, the overall hanization of opened territories, and so on.

During the last thirty years, the policies followed in East and West China of letting forests, pastures and wild fields take over some cultivated land show that what we have learned already has helped us to make necessary adjustments. However, since the Han account for the overwhelming majority of China’s population, and especially in the Han developed regions of the East, most people do not have any experience nor any feeling about the degrading ecological condition of the West or about the basic fact that China is a nation composed of a variety of nationalities.

From the earlier stages of modernization, the traditional model of development of the South which in history was a tremendous success of the Han civilization has brought with it a reverence for large-scale industrialization (with the smoke and the roaring engines that go with it), with a kind of romantic complex expressed in sentences such as “a man’s resolve can overcome fate” or “calling the mountain to make room for roads and ordering the river’s water to submit.” This model is still silently influencing the way we are looking at West China’s development and acting accordingly. Should we not be extremely vigilant in this respect?

The difference from the conditions that preceded the shift of the Chinese civilization towards the South is that today’s West China has produced in the course of its history a multiplicity of cultures possessing their own achievements. Such is the case of the Tibetan people having crafted the Tufan culture and its own Buddhist tradition, the encounter of the Gandhara and Han cultures in the southern part of Xinjiang on the Silk Road and the historical testimonies of Indo-European peoples living there, the specific Islamic culture of the Uighurs in the oasis of Xinjiang, the nomad culture of the highlands of West Mongolia, and so on.

From a cultural viewpoint, the duty of opening and developing the West means to accelerate the transition that each of these minorities’ culture faces when confronting modernity, and is certainly not to impose a cultural “model’, be it endogenous or exogenous, on the whole of these areas.

While the process of modernization makes this world become a “global village”, it does not mean nor does it imply that it should abolish the multiple differences and cultural specificities that exist among groups and territories. When looking at the development of the West from this perspective, I think that two points need to be stressed:

First of all, following what my teacher, professor Han Rulin used to say, the Chinese civilization has not been shaped only by Han culture. Each non Han culture of the West, including the one of the Hui who are already speaking only Chinese, is an inalienable constitutive part of Chinese civilization, each maintains the health and equilibrium of the “ecology” of Chinese culture, and each contributes to maintain the precious resources that nurture its splendid life. This point cannot be overstressed.

Second of all, the characteristics of West China’s cultures essentially reflect the variety, richness and complexity of these areas’ nationalities and religions. At the present stage, when speaking about the West’s development, attention is focused on the way to develop the economy, which is of course understandable.

However, the problem of Western China is not only one of economic development. Using a larger perspective, when confronting this problem in the 21st century – when confronting the next stage of the problem should I say - Chinese people might very well have to focus on how to deepen institutional solutions for problems linked to nationalities and religious development. China is one nation with many nationalities, and is developing in very special historical conditions, be it on the national or international level.

Loving the unity and territorial integrity of this nation composed of various nationalities as we love the pupil of our eye does not mean that we make “unity” an uncritically accepted “grand tale”. We need to enter into a larger perspective, a deeper humanist concern, a more diverse understanding and sense of empathy so as to nurture more harmony among the ethnic groups, to unite in happiness as in sorrow, and to foster a political and cultural environment based on union of hearts and virtue.

Before concluding, I would like to mention two famous prime ministers of the Tang dynasty, Fang Xuanling and Du Ruhui. The 11th century historian Song Qi speaks of the two by saying that after the period of troubles that accompanied the succession between the Sui and the Tang dynasties they were able to enforce right principles and to regulate the State and that their influence lasted for several hundreds of years.

Although they achieved such a task, they did not try to elevate themselves or leave any trace of extraordinary action. Song Qi praises the sense of public good shown by these two men, saying that they had not tried to exalt their names and become famous.

Today, the historical task of opening and developing West China requires the contribution of all people of good will. Maybe the ones who participate in this task will not be included in historical records, but this does not matter. We are not trying to exalt our own names. The most important is that, through the efforts of all of us, China’s West may have a beautiful future, filled with hope. Such is the objective that inspires us.

Thank you.


[1] The Yongjia era corresponds here to the reign of the Emperor Huai Di (306-311).

[2] Jingkang era: reign of the Emperor Qin Zong of the northern Song dynasty (1126-1127).


Friday, 28 September 2007 00:10

Ethnic migrant workers in China today

Ethnic minority communities are experiencing the impact of social transformations at work in the whole of China. People – especially young people - leave for the cities in search of jobs. Minority villagers usually know little about life in the city, they are often handicapped by a poor knowledge of Chinese, and, consequently, face strong difficulties in making their living in a world that is totally new to them. They stay away from their village for a few weeks, a few months or a few years. After they come back they often wait for another opportunity to leave and find a job. Most often, they lack resources to engage in local development projects and have a pessimistic outlook on their future at home. In other words, the needs and difficulties faced by ethnic minority migrant workers are multifaceted: they comprise
(a) the lack or the very poor quality of the formal education received before they have left;
(b) the general problems met by migrant workers all over China (housing, working conditions, lack of work contracts, healthcare…);
(c) additional difficulties linked to their cultural and linguistic estrangement;
(d) lack of sustainable community projects at home, which also means
(e) lack of long-term perspectives and subsequent difficulty in formulating a personal project.

Migrants do bring back some (modest) financial capital and practical experience to the places where they come from, but these resources are often wasted or under utilized. In any case, their pledge is to be understood in the general context of Chinese rural migration towards the cities. An estimated 150 million Chinese rural workers are currently living and working in cities. Their number has risen rapidly and is expected to grow even further, with some estimating 300 million by 2015. The household registration system requires them to register with local authorities as temporary residents. Employers often take advantage of internal migrants’ vulnerable. School and healthcare fees have also a disproportionate impact on migrant workers. And most migrants in China’s cities live without health insurance, rarely visit a doctor.

At the same time, as the interviews recorded here show, there is a resilience and a sense of purpose in many migrant workers that should make us hope that the migration movement that is still affecting China will also enhance the creativity of the ones who are exposed to new surroundings and experiences. Better legal implementation and renewed formation structures are needed. What is especially needed is the liberation of social energy, eventually allowing for the reinforcement of real local communities, able to take in charge their own destiny.

Thursday, 21 June 2007 02:23

Patience and Diversity are China's Best Spiritual Asset

I have been doing photo reporting in China’s southwest for the last twenty five years or so, and am struck more and more deeply by the riches of the intangible patrimony that can be found from one place to another. This is not only the result of the variety of people and ethnic groups, this is also the fruit of encounters, adaptations, migrations, cross-fertilization. At its best, cultural diversity is not the addition of different traditions living in isolation, it is rather the web of evolving ways of life that take inspiration from each other and add up in a creative pattern of colors, feasts, beliefs, craftsmanship and social organizations.

Cultural riches are the process of a long evolutionary process. A culture grows like a tree, nurtured by time, love and aptiience. This is something that we need to remind ourselves, as China’s development relies now on speed and immediate profit.

Nowadays, the ecology and culture of China’s southwest, especially of minority areas, is fragile. Traditions are not eternal. They adapt, they die, they are recreated… What I feel sure of is the fact that these riches are not only a treasure of the past, they are indispensable tools for tackling the challenges that come from natural and cultural erosion. When I travel on the highlands of Ganze, I feel the impact of a way to deal with natural phenomena, animals and other people that, for sure, cannot be repeated in the cities but can still inspire our behaviors and help us to articulate a wisdom for today.

I deeply hope that this diversity will be preserved, enhanced and more and more appreciated. Ultimately, the cultural diversity of China is what should make it able to renew in depth its spiritual civilization. A civilization that has blossomed through patience and wisdom....


Wednesday, 04 April 2007 00:00

Migrant Workers and Local Development

The migration of young people from the Chinese countryside to cities raises a number of questions about the future of rural and mountainous areas. Will this exodus create deserted areas, without working force and creativity, or will these youth come back to transform and energize their place of origins? Here are a few reflections that come from my experience as an intermediary for developing sourcing of Chinese products by foreign companies. I often say to my clients that the labour cost in China should remain stable in the coming years as there is a large reservoir in China’s countryside – though I am starting to wonder whether the supply is so large after all.


I like to discuss with migrant workers at our suppliers’ place. Generally speaking, they are happy with their situation even if social safety net is lacking. The typical young migrant worker stays in the city for 3 to 5 years and then returns home for marrying a local woman. I remember the night watchman of a small brush joint-venture in Tianjin, he was so happy to have found this job: “My life is very comfortable here, I have heating and a shower, and I can eat 3 hot meals a day, my wife is working in the factory during the day when I sleep; in the evening, when the workers are back home, the general manager gives us the opportunity to produce more brushes. I have the chance to be with my wife at night when she sleeps, I look after the factory and can make more brushes, together we get 4 salaries each month probably 20 fold what we would earn in our village; after 3 years I will be back to my hometown near Yan’an, then I can buy the largest cave house of the village with a small plot of arable land and have a quite life with my friends for the rest of my life.”


These workers learn a lot and will certainly bring back know-how. I believe that the recent development of Chinese countryside comes from such people. Nearly all of them are going home for each Chinese New Year, and many do not come back afterwards, even if they promised to do so. Only the cleverest ones will go up in the hierarchy or start their own company and stay in the city. The ones who speak English will have a greater chance to stay, and will get far higher pay, these as white collars have few chance to go back.

The employers I meet have more and more difficulties to find workers (more in Guangdong who seem to pay less than in Shanghai area), and some decide to move their factories inland to follow the workmanship. Some of my clients hesitate to purchase from suppliers who require extensive overtime from their workers, but the workers prefer to work more during a short period and get a better pay. I therefore ask myself: why should we consider overtime on a year per year basis? Working double time during three years and then having a 3 years holiday at home might come to the same...

Summing up, migration is a decision taken by an individual within the frame of possibilities offered to him or her. It is also largely a side effect of schooling and development, directly or … indirectly: The creation of a primary school in a remote village often goes with the introduction of electricity in the village, electricity allowed for the purchase of TV sets, and TV spread the use of Mandarin language, which enabled people to find jobs out of their home place (statistics tell us that still less than half of Chinese people speak correct mandarin !)

The development of local initiative in the countryside, partly due to the coming home of migrant workers, should be progressive and based on local initiative. Tourism is certainly a service industry with much potential, as can be seen in many places of China. Let me give here some examples:
Songpan: the main attraction is a horse team started and developed by a local; they propose horse treks (2 to 15 days) at 100Y/ person/ day all inclusive, one guide will accompany 2 visitors and supply horse, tent & sleeping bag, the team supplies the food.
TLG (Tiger leaping Gorge) near Lijiang: many simple private inns developed aside the gorge providing food, accommodation and guides. It seems it developed completely from private initiative with the help of some backpackers.
"Nongjiale" in the suburbs of Peking, Shanghai, Chengdu,… designed mainly for town people wishing to spend one week-end enjoying bio fresh food in the countryside, some offering fishing.
Heshun near Tengchong (Yunnan at the border of Burma) is an example of the development of old villages. Heshun is so isolated that it can cater only to Yunnan people. It has 5 to 10 private hotels, many restaurants, it developed some commerce of souvenirs, and reactivated the local customs of which the locals are very proud.
Once again, economic development starts from local developers. Helpers from outside can still organize task forces for support: teaching project management, giving and exchanging ideas, and providing some technical know-how on management and marketing.


Tuesday, 26 September 2006 20:07

China's Water Challenge


Rivers’ pollution, hazardous water management, devastating typhoons in the East, water shortage in the North and the West, erosion of arable land and desertification... China’s looming water crisis challenges its very model of development.
The debate goes even beyond: how far is China’s water problem related to world wide challenges? And what is to be done at the global level in order for China to let water bless again its soil and its people?

This flash animation presentation states the basic facts about China’s water challenges. While it is downloading, have a look at the main points it develops.

The per capita share of fresh water in China, which stands at 2,200 cubic meters, is only one-quarter of the world average. By 2030 when China’s population reaches 1.6 billion, per capita water resources will drop to 1760 cubic meters; close to 1700 cubic meters, the internationally recognized benchmark for water shortages:

- 42% of China’s population, or 538 million people, in the northern provinces (60% of its cultivated land) have access to only 14% of the country’s water. If northern China were counted as a separate country, its water availability—757 cubic meters per person—would be comparable to that of parts of North Africa: lower, for example, than the water resources of Morocco. In central Gansu, some areas get less than 300 millimeters of rain a year. (In order to address China’s northern water shortage, the government is spending almost 500 billion yuan on a three canals project to divert some 38-48 billion cubic meters of flow northward from the Yangzi River to the Yellow, Huaihe, and Haihe River systems)

- More than half of China’s 660 cities suffer from water shortages, affecting 160 million people. By 2010, it is expected that, of the 600 larger cities in the country, 550 will be subjected to water shortages.

- 90% of cities’ groundwater and 75% of rivers and lakes are polluted. Every year, about 25 billion tons of sewage and pollutants, 42 percent of all generated in China, is piped into the Yangtze River, making it one of the ten most endangered rivers in the world to face drying up, according to a report released by the World Wildlife Fund.

- China also lags behind in sanitation coverage, which was 48% in 2004 , the same as Nigeria and Papua New Guinea, but less than China’s neighbor, Vietnam, whose GDP per capita is only about half of China’s. In 2006, the percentage of treated urban sewage and safely handled urban household waste reached 56% and 54% respectively, 4 and 2.3 percentage points higher than the year before.

- The water problem is in no way limited to urban areas. According to the WHO, acid rain, polluted rivers and inadequate sewage treatment have left nearly half of China’s rural population without access to clean drinking water. (See also I-C)
- As a result of widespread water pollution, around 340 million people drink contaminated water every day, with an additional 350 million drinking poor quality water. Over 26 million people in China suffer from dental fluorosis due to elevated fluoride in their drinking water, and over 1 million cases of skeletal fluorosis are thought to be attributable to drinking-water.

- Between November 2005 and January 2006, three major accidents occurred, stopping water supply for millions of people and raising awareness of the challenges ahead.

- In 2006, it was estimated that nearly 80 per cent of China’s 7,555 more heavily polluting factories were located in rivers or lakes or in heavily populated areas.

- If presents trends are not reversed, experts forecast that by 2020 there will be 30 million environmental refugees in China due to water stress.

- “The struggle for water will lead to "a fight between rural interests, urban interests and industrial interests on who gets water in China.” (Yukon Huang, World Bank, January 2005)

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