Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

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

Friday, 31 October 2008 02:44

China’s Resilience

Whomever lives or travels in China cannot but be struck by China’s resilience in the midst of the world economic crisis. For sure, China’s stock market is taking a beating, real estate is steadily going down, and unemployment is threatening to become a major social problem. However, most Chinese people still show a robust optimism, consumption remains vibrant, and the majority of Chinese observers believe that China will suffer from the crisis much less than the rest of the world, eventually consolidating its economic and diplomatic rise. Recollections from the Asian economic crisis of 1997-2000 play a role in this decidedly optimistic scenario.

Is this a delusion? In the near future will China meet with much more severe challenges than foreseen today? It is far from being impossible. However, China’s psychological resilience might prove to be a factor of economic resilience as well. The positive energy displayed by ordinary Chinese can help the country tackle its problems with resources not found in countries which suffer from a crisis of confidence and from doubts about their own future. Weathering a storm is largely a question of collective spirit, and economy has proven to be for a very large part a field of social psychology…

It remains that a reversal in the public feelings would be very dangerous for China - an especially volatile country. In other words, the stakes of the crisis are higher for China than for other nations: weathering the storm would be a resounding success giving even more significance to China’s rise; conversely, a breakup of public confidence would have consequences deeper and more far-reaching than anywhere else. China’s resilience makes a pessimistic scenario less likely than an analysis based on mere statistical data would suggest. It remains that resilience has limits and that a breakdown is still a working hypothesis.

(Photo by B.V.)
Friday, 29 August 2008 02:10

Asia and Environmental Diplomacy

The exhaustion of natural resources and the damage to the ecological environment, competition for resources and environmental damage have become issues of concern in the international community. Environmental issues are redefining the notion of security. Consequently, initiatives have been flourishing: Japan launched its Cool Earth 50 initiative in May 2007. End of November 2007, the new Australian government put to immediate execution its decision to sign the Kyoto Protocol. In December 2007, the United Nations Climate Change conference held in Bali draw much international attention, as the question of which mechanism will succeed to the Kyoto Protocol after 2012 is becoming one of the main global concerns and fields of diplomatic initiative. The Bali forum has seen developed countries set more ambitious goals to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, and developing countries such as Brazil and South Africa voluntarily proposing to set goals to reduce emissions. Also, innovative mechanisms for stopping the greenhouse effects of deforestation were agreed upon. The conference culminated in the adoption of the Bali roadmap, which charts the course for a new negotiating process to be concluded by 2009 that will ultimately lead to a post-2012 international agreement on climate change. In July 2008, the enlarged G8 summit in Japan was another stepping stone, closely followed by the largely successful Accra conference at the end of August 2008.

During the last 25 years or so, several significant documents and conferences testify to the development of environmental diplomacy as a choice area for multilateral, global cooperation: most often mentioned are the 1985 Vienna Convention on Protecting the Ozone Layer; the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer; the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development, and its offshoots, Agenda 21 and the Commission on Sustainable Development; the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change; the 1992 Convention on Biological Diversity; the 1994 UN Conference on Sustainable Development of Small Island Developing States; the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development; the 1997 Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change; the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg, South Africa… Of decisive importance was the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro.

From what precedes it clearly appears that the prominent role now given to environmental diplomacy at the global level makes it impossible for any responsible nation-state not to actively participate in it. First, this derives from a sense of global responsibility. Second, the change in methods and focus that environmental diplomacy encompasses opens up new venues for a culture and a nation, allowing it to intensify and diversify its presence in the international arena. Finally, it allows a nation to encourage its citizens, its scientists, its entrepreneurs and its social agents to become a defining force of this global endeavor, such “democratizing” international relations..

At the same time, it should be recognized from the start that engaging into proactive environmental diplomacy comes with a requisite, i.e. making international and national policies fully congruent. If a nation engages further into the path of sustainable development, with all adjustments needed in terms of legal regulation, economic policies and social implications, then its sincerity will be recognized by the international opinion, and its moral status will be consequently enhanced. Conversely, if a nation’s international diplomacy does not go along concrete policies and far-reaching domestic initiatives, then it risks to be accused of making environmental diplomacy a ploy, weakening its moral status at a time when the effectiveness of national policies on the issues at stake is becoming the focus of attention.

The contribution of entrepreneurs and scientists is of primary importance. Developed nations have to take advantage of their energy-saving technologies and experience in solar power, organic agriculture, nature conservation, ecological tourism… in order to create more opportunities for environmental diplomacy. This should start from the example provided by their entrepreneurs. Responsible environmental behavior must not be limited to one’s territory but extend to all countries where industries have delocalized. The development of a culture of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) among a nation’s entrepreneurs will go a long way in helping her to achieve a decisive advantage through environmental diplomacy.

Summing up, environmental diplomacy should be based on citizens’ and entrepreneurs’ participation, technical cooperation with interested countries, spreading of knowledge and experience, and sense of global responsibility. Such strategy aims at creating model experiences in national policies, international pilot projects and institutional innovations. As illustrated above, there cannot be efficient and convincing environmental policy without a national policy of sustainable development that involves governmental agencies in charge of economic affairs, agriculture, the environment and, eventually, all public policies.

Nations, especially in Asia, must deploy an even greater inventiveness. This starts by paying an acute attention to the changing nature of global challenges. The ongoing debate on sustainability - with more specific questions on global warming, developmental model, use of energy resources, preservation of biodiversity as well as cultural diversity - is the most striking example of the questions that they must confront. It is not enough for Asian “dragons” to have been pioneers of accelerated growth and of democratization, they have now to be at the forefront of a new global battle: the one engaged for making sure that future generations will benefit from environmental, cultural and energy resources sufficient for ensuring the satisfaction of their needs. This is the ultimate rationale behind the rise of environmental diplomacy.

Friday, 29 August 2008 00:00

Local Democracy and Climate Change

Urbanization has spread to the entire planet: the majority of the world’s population now lives in urban areas versus only 14% in 1900. This is not necessarily bad news: in fact, the city, say many analysts, can become a privileged place in the fight against climate change; the streamlining of the systems of transportation, water sanitation, energy distribution provide evidences of this fact. The experimental construction of "green buildings" that produce the energy they consume is another step forward. The city is also a place where information flows, a place of inventions, of collective discussion, and, as such, it can generate a number of innovative measures.

Actually, when it comes to the relationship between city and global warming, much will depend on ourselves, on the moral and political environment that policy makers forge for urban dwellers and on the collective conscience that we will develop. In this regard, the role of locally elected officials is essential. The development of downtown, the connections between downtown and suburbs, the method of garbage collection and recovery, the renovation of the systems of water sanitation... Each time, these issues prove to be partly technical, partly political, for it is always necessary to challenge vested interests and viewpoints so as to build a city at once more hospitable, more balanced and more human. Local democracy helps to introduce clearly the choices and issues at stake, giving people information and criteria that will allow them to understand, taking into account the diversity of their viewpoints, how to meet the "general interest". Yes, it is through local democracy that will emerge responsible, compact and united cities, carrying an innovative environmental project.

When it comes to environmental issues, should not the cities of the world hold more local referenda? Without doubt this is a good way to settle in difficult situations, when the fight against global warming requires sacrifices (use of automobiles, water prices, choice of such investment rather than another ...) It is up to the citizens then duly informed, to state the scale of their priorities and their values… and to draw the consequences of them. So, let us make local democracy become a decisive factor in the global struggle against climate change!

(Photo: B.V.)
Monday, 25 August 2008 23:04

Buddhism and China’s Religious Awakening

Buddhism’s present revival in China is remarkable in two respects: it combines the richness of a bimillennial religious, spiritual and cultural tradition with the dynamics of a reinvention which nowadays makes the Buddhist monastic communities one of the most notable and organized forces of the civil Chinese society. One would be tempted to say: when China will awake…Buddha will smile!

In China, the temples asserted themselves very soon as the epicenter of the Buddhist expansion all over China: a liturgical place, the temple acts as a collective intercessor for the community of believers directing to it their wishes and their prayers, especially for the deceased; a place of learning, the great temples make it possible to carry on through several centuries the translation of the Buddhist canon into Chinese, one of the greatest editorial enterprises of history, and to multiply the interpretations of it; a place of power, the temple knows how to negotiate its relationship with the great men and women of the locality and then of the Empire, although this model was held at bay at the time of the big persecution of the ninth century, partly due to the concentration of wealth realized by the monastic communities.

The reconstruction of Chinese Buddhism after the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution relied therefore on the monastic institution, as it was already the case in other times. Furthermore, the recognition of the role of the Chinese Buddhist Association and the concomitant creation of “transmission belts” between the Power and the local religious organizations go hand in hand with a greater communication and solidarity between the various centers, big or small, which, taken as a whole, innervate Chinese Buddhism. In other words, Chinese Buddhism seems to be more robust and more interdependent today than at any time in the past.

It is not so easy to describe the Chinese Buddhist world in its totality. Monks and nuns, be they still novices or already ordained, are easily identified by their clothing, their tonsure, and, for those who have been ordained, by their ordination certificates as by the scars on the head following the fulfilled rites. But the faithful are not recognizable in the crowd of those who visit the temples, so great is the diversity of their motivations and behaviors. The quality of “Buddhist faithful” (jushi) is normally reserved for those who have formally taken refuge (guiyi) in the “three Jewels” (The Buddha, the Law, the Community) and in return have received a certificate, which they can show at the entrance of a temple to be exempted the admission fees or to get board and lodging for instance. The levels of membership are many and not always so clearly identified.
The visitor of a Buddhist monastery will generally be struck by the predominance of young monks, often already at the head of their monasteries, sometimes graduated from prestigious universities, and the production of this elite of clerics is facilitated by regulations reserving the admission into Buddhist studies centers to those of less than thirty years of age as an average. Beside these young monks, who are more and more engrossed in their tasks – construction of buildings, setting up of research centers, libraries of social institutions-, one will see usually some quite old and silent monks: entered at a very young age in the monasteries, and long before the turmoil of the sixties, they had already assimilated the spirit and the traditions of the School to which belonged their temple, and managed to survive and then to start anew some communities at the beginning of the eighties, before handing over their responsibilities to their successors.

Of course, with the passing of time, the absence of an intermediary generation, so much conspicuous between about 1985 and 2000, is less visible now, and the generation today in power has progressively asserted its experience and its authority. The nature and the exercise of this authority depend mostly on a transformation in the economic bases of the monasteries: the exploitation of the agricultural estates was replaced by an increased dependence on donations (from overseas first, then from local donors), on the help of the governmental agencies (for the reconstruction of buildings in particular), on the practice of rituals, and on some specialized productions. The monks affiliated to a given monastery receive generally a modest allowance, in nature or in cash, in return for their liturgical talents or by other services.

One cannot understand the present state of Chinese Buddhism by looking only at its two extremes – the time of its beginnings, when the look of the monastic community has taken form, and the reconstruction boom of the last two or three decades. One must also say a word about the ups and downs of its history throughout the last 150 years. For the destructions of the Cultural Revolution had been preceded by those of the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864), particularly in South China, the traditional Buddhist bastion. The subsequent effort of reconstruction coincided then with the rising internal criticisms concerning the system of formation and the (non) effective aspects of precepts. Chinese Buddhism was entering the era of the aggiornamento. Some of the reformer monks advocated mainly going back to the ancient disciplines, selecting a small number of texts and practices of meditation to be privileged. A little later, another trend, of which the monk Taixu (1890-1947) is the most well known representative, undertook a modernization of Buddhism, following a way of doing close to that of the Chinese Republicans of the beginning of the last century – the ideal “science and democracy” applied, so to speak, to the religious sphere. The role of the laity was emphasized. The monastic education was also to approach the mode of the western universities. The creation, in this first half of the twentieth century, of the Chinese Buddhist Association, the popularization of a “humanistic Buddhism” or “Buddhism in the world” (renjian fojiao), the contacts between monks and political leaders of that time, all these characteristics have probably helped shape the look taken by the Chinese Buddhism when it recovered a relative freedom of movement after 1980. In the same time, the debates which characterized the revival of the years 1870-1940 are still present today within a Buddhist community which must from now on define its relationship with the post-modernity of a China in constant transformation.

According to the opinion of the majority of observers, and this in spite of the difficult interpretation of statistics, the two religions whose growth is today the fastest in China are obviously Buddhism and Christianity. A multiform growth, which must not hide the weaknesses, the divisions and the contradictions within these believing communities. The question of the stature and of the influence of Tibetan Buddhism with respect to Han Buddhism will mark the next development of the first of these two religions. And the influence of the evangelist groups, or, on the contrary, syncretists, within Catholicism as well as within Protestantism, will determine the final relation between Christianity on one hand, and Chinese society and power on the other one – Christianity being perceived by the authorities with more suspicion than a Buddhism reputed more “national” and politically accommodating. But still, it is the very interaction between these two religions which is going also to exert its influence on the future outlines of the Chinese civilian society, reducing it to a series of juxtaposed communities, mutually ignoring the groups nearby, or favoring mutual understanding and interconfessional collaboration. If both believing expressions, as one may assume, go beyond the present stage of their growth crisis, if both can assert themselves as authentically “Chinese” and nevertheless universal religions, their interaction will determine how China takes part in the cultural globalization.
To know more on this topic, read C. Cochini’s book (in French)

Friday, 29 February 2008 18:15

Fatherhood as Withdrawal

My father died at 47. I was then 18, and my younger sister was 10. His own father had died when he was 15 or 15 if I remember well. My mother’s father died when she was 7. It means that, in our family, we have experienced what the loss of a father feels like, and we know what its long-term consequences are, when it comes to family equilibrium and psychological development.

What I want to stress here is that not all consequences are negative. In some respect, a good father remains a father in death, as withdrawal is an inherent part of a father’s role. What it means to be a father evolves with the coming of age of a son or daughter. However, very quickly, a father proves to be truly a “good” one if he is able to withdraw, to give space to the growth of his children – it might be what the Bible tells us when it is said that on the seventh day God rested: the creation was now the playing ground of His children, and He was giving them the space needed for becoming themselves and continue His work.

A father is an authority figure, even if he has to show a loving and compassionate face. He is the one who gives the Law, who teaches the rules that makes it possible to live as a human being in harmony with the rest of the species. The Law is ultimately the setting that allows us to grow as being “one among other people”, with our rights and duties. But he also has to make his children discover that the Law is for growth and freedom, not for enslaving them, not for cloistering them within the age of childhood and irresponsibility. He has to “let it go”, to retreat from the Law he gave them, so that they can interpret it, understand it in their own terms, and ultimately make the Law their own, as they will be able to transmit it to their own children. He is a father because he enables children to become father on their own terms, not according to a ready-to-made model.

As I grow older, I remember more vividly things that my father said and did, I remember his way of reacting to people and situation, his inner joy and his frailties, I make his life experience mine, not that I am repeating it – not in the least -, but rather because it provides me with renewed insights. In the process, I feel as if my own father was growing within me, as if I was becoming responsible of his ultimate destiny. The best of what he lived for, the meaning and essence of his existence, all of this is now entrusted to me, and I have to transmit it in new and inventive ways, so that the common tree that humankind is called to become may continue to grow and to bear fruits.

Friday, 28 December 2007 20:17

Millennium Goals or Global Warming?

The struggle against global warming has taken a new dimension during the year 2007. Though many concrete decisions remain to be agreed upon and implemented, financial and human investments are sure to increase dramatically during the years to come so as to tackle an unparalleled challenge. This is good news indeed. At the same time, this evolution reflects a shift in global consciousness that might bear some preoccupying counter-effects. Around 2000, the Millennium Goals were sketching a roadmap, the focal point of which was the elimination of extreme poverty for 2025. It was apparent enough that humankind had the means and the know-how for achieving what, in other times, would have seemed like an impossible dream.

Struggle against poverty is still very much on the agenda. At the same time, mobilization has been far below what is deemed necessary for achieving such a lofty goal. And we might now witness a subtle trade-off between two objectives: eradicating poverty and alleviating global warming. For sure, the two goals are not contradictory per se, they are even mutually reinforcing: eradicating poverty will prove to be impossible if natural disasters caused by climatic changes occur in Africa or impoverished Asian coastlines. Deforestation and water depletion diminish the meager capital that many populations have to rely upon for earning an income. However, international credit allocation obeys to bargaining laws and power games, and these games might actually benefit rising developing nations rather than the ones suffering from extreme poverty – the latest counting for around one sixth of the world’s population. Developing nations contribute to the rise in carbon emissions and rely on highly polluting technologies: subsidies for cleaning up the environment will go primarily to them. When poverty is such that you do not contribute to greenhouses emissions you might be left out of the new distribution mechanisms of global subsidies… Global warming would such become a pretext for developed nations to spread and sell their technologies, and for middle—income nations to profit from an array of international subsidies.

World governance is still suffering from a lack of comprehensive mechanisms that would allow people to arbitrate between priorities and policy choices. Still, from now on, the struggle against poverty and the one against global warming must be conceived and implemented together rather than risking to become, even partly, a kind of trade-off – in which case the losers of the game would be, once again, the poorest of the poor. This shows that the struggle against global warming cannot be considered as a mere technical challenge bur rather as a political and humanist endeavor. It is not enough of a Al Gore for tackling the issue. We also need a Gandhi who would remind us of the humane, social and spiritual issues at stake.

Photo by Liang Zhun
Friday, 30 March 2007 03:49

Vanishing Land and Growing Cities

The Chongqing "nail house’ story has focused medias’ attention. The case may be a small one, maybe blown out of prorportion, but its symbolic importnace cannot be overestimated.

Not so long ago, Chen Xiwen, vice-minister of the Central Office on Financial and Economic Affairs, said that “disputes about possession of land are the cause of more than 50% of all social protests”. Indeed, in today’s China, the path of urbanizations and subsequent tensions about the use of land are the structural reasons for the gravest protests. The issue links together environmental and social concerns.

Urban population is expected to continue growing by as much as 15 million annually. There are already 90 cities with more than a million residents. The World Bank predicts that China’s urban population (430 million in 2001) will double to 850 million by 2015, bringing the urbanization rate to 57%, from 36% in 2000. At the same time, the number of Chinese cities of 100,000 persons or more is expected to increase from 630 in 2001 to over 1,000 by 2015. For sure, this does not correspond to the number of people moving into cities. On the one hand, migrant workers might go unreported. On the other hand, “towns’ are regularly reinforced and enlarged for reaching the rank of “cities’, which allows for the inclusion of their inhabitants into the categories of ‘urban dwellers’ at some point. Most important: the population is classified by the registration status into “agricultural” and “non-agricultural “. “Of the 430 million individuals with “non-agricultural registration” (thus officially urban) in 1999, 37.2 per cent (160 million) were resident in rural counties, not in urban districts. On the other hand, around 38.6 per cent of long-term residents of urban districts (101 million) carried agricultural registration and were thus regarded as part of the rural population, even though most of these no longer had any relation with farming.” (Athar Hussain, International Labor Office, ” Urban Poverty in China: Measurement, Patterns and Policies”)

Forty million farmers have lost their land over the past decade due to urbanization, with another 15 million to suffer a similar fate over the next five years, according to a report from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security in July, 2006. Disputes on land expropriation and property rights are brewing everywhere. The Property Law finally passed by the NPA in March 2007 defined private wealth, including income, houses, investments and other personal assets. However, it maintained the concept that property is owned publicly, and individuals are merely given a right to use that property. It is that right of use that the law protects, not private ownership of land. However, the law also explicitly gives farmers the right to renew their land-use leases after they expire.

The issue is further complicated by the poor quality and scarcity of China’s land. Over the last ten years, China has lost almost 8 million hectares of farmland, and the process is continuing at a pace of 200,000 to 300,000 hectares a year. Some studies even expect that ten additional million of arable lands could be lost by 2030. The ecology of 60 per cent of the country’s territory is considered fragile. A national study in 2000 rated the ecological quality of one-third of the country’s territory as good and another third as bad. About 90 per cent of natural pasture land, which accounts for more than 40 per cent of the country’s territory, is facing degradation and desertification to some extent. Desertified pastures have become the major source of sand and dust storms. Acid rain falls on 30% of the country; affecting the quality of soil.

The answer to the questions raised by China’s pace of urbanization will not be solved by legal means only. Should not the quality of urbanization take precedence over the rest? And should not small and medium towns be revalorized in a way that fosters more diverse, sustainable ways of living? The use of land and the pace of urbanization constitute the focal points around which all the challenges linked to China’s development and social model are presently evolving.

Tuesday, 06 February 2007 20:06

Knowledge Networks

“Network”, it can be said, is a loosely used word that refers to loosely structured ways of exchanging information, supporting each other and/or leading common actions. It links people and groups at various levels, local or global, sometimes for their own mutual benefit, sometimes in the interest of a cause that transcends and unites the members of the network.

The reach and efficiency of networks has been greatly enhanced by the Internet. This might be partly because the Internet allows for horizontal relationships, and that horizontal relationships are very much at the core of networking, distinguishing networks from other organizational structures.

Exchange of knowledge is another characteristic of networks. This is already true of “social networks”, exemplified by the Old Boys associations. For sure, social networks primarily provide emotional and cultural support, but they constitute also the port through which information that might help one to change one’s career path or get valuable tips on the stock market are exchanged. Information becomes even more central when we come to what can be labeled as “knowledge networks”: this kind of networks is basically a space for discussion that helps to determine research directions (for an academic community) or action strategies (for an association of people and groups committed to a social or environmental cause for instance.) For putting it another way, it is only within knowledge networks that “information” truly becomes “knowledge”, i.e. is crystallized into a body of consistent and mutually reinforcing assumptions. It is also within knowledge networks that knowledge receives a meaning that leads a group to enact value judgments and maybe to decide on a course of action.

The need to connect together scientific assessments, policymaking and grassroots activism explains the spread of knowledge networks. Also, the globalization of issues such as environment, violence, international trade and workers’ rights induces people to connect to groups that share similar concerns in various cultural and political contexts. International networks are partly a product of the eroding power of the Nation-State, and partly a response to the increased influence of other players, such as multinational companies.

Willemijn Verkoren has identified a few conditions under which knowledge networks can function correctly (International Journal of Peace Studies, 11-2, 2006). I rephrase here in my own way those that seem to me more important:
1) The network does not exist in isolation; exchanges going through the network and real life activities are linked in a sustainable way.
2) The purpose of networking is clear, as are the possibilities offered by the network and the limits of what it can achieve.
3) Capacity for learning, room for discussion, and openness in membership, discussion and sharing are requisites for the efficacy of the network.
4) While being able to operate autonomously, the network must be linked to a wider environment, to enable it to give and to receive.
5) Results of the interaction have to be visible at some stage.
6) To facilitate and moderate a network requires time and expertise.
7) Finally, the flexibility of the network helps it to facilitate exchanges, action and empowerment without trespassing over its boundaries, rather than aiming to become an all-encompassing knowledge system.

In the field of social action, there might be not stronger incentive to the spreading of the knowledge network model than the concerns raised around the sustainability of our economies and the current world governance system. The debate on climatic change shows that scientific conclusions are themselves reached through the nurturing of a permanent network of information and debate. The policy debate is nurtured by different (and often diverging) networks of citizens, experts and companies. Interconnection between these groups helps to go from traditional lobbying to innovative networking, and the growing debate on facts and values is conducive of such interconnections. Technical expertise is not sufficient for tackling such a broadly-shaped issue, and groups of citizens will continue to debate on consumption models, the resurgence of values such as frugality and solidarity, hopefully advancing towards formulations and insights that will develop a cultural model in line with the technical imperatives linked to the issue at stake. The mobilization of cultural resources for nurturing sustainable development - a mobilization achieved through a dialogue on core values, sharing of success stories and exchange of strategic analyses - is exactly what a knowledge network might want to achieve.

Maybe it would be useful for all of us to reflect on the following questions:
- What are the knowledge networks that I am presently engaged into?
- Are these networks akin to my real interests and current concerns, or should I try to engage into new ones?
- May I possibly be active in a web of relationships that could happily develop into a real knowledge network, sharing information among its members and with other networks, provided that I encourage the group to take the necessary steps for becoming more reflexive and participatory?
- What kind of knowledge networks does my environment need, and may I be instrumental in fostering such alliances?

May our online interactions and our real life activities follow more and more the model sketched here, so as to overcome the feeling of impotence that often overwhelms all of us. Our participation in some kind of knowledge networks should encourage us to become active citizens of a world whose destiny will finally be determined by the quality of the networking we enter into and the course of actions that naturally follows.
International Institute for Sustainable Development: about knowledge networks

Sunday, 04 February 2007 00:00

Beyond Superstition

Belief in spirits or similar supernatural beings is a universal phenomenon. It provides a society with a set of stories and explanatory mechanisms through which individual and collective fears, traumas and expectations are channeled. It is expressed through ritual activities that are supposed to monitor the interaction between the human and the supernatural world, to repel or at least limit the nefarious activities of spirits and, sometimes, to take benefit from the help they can provide. The interaction between human and spirits often takes the form of a trade-off. Humans provide the spirits with goods that will make their afterlife happier or less painful while the spirits restrain form using their evil powers or even offer some kind of protection. Of course, the nature of the trade-off depends on the class of spirits that human are dealing with, and such negotiating process is always hazardous, as spirits in general prove to be rather capricious and unreliable beings. This accounts for the importance given to the skills of the go-between, i.e. the man or woman (shaman, sorcerer, priest…) who works as intermediary between the human and the supernatural world. Performing a ritual is not enough. The ritual is to be performed skillfully by someone on whose wisdom, vision and experience one can rely.

Social sciences (especially anthropology and sociology of religion) provide us with a rich array of accounts and analyses on the forms that these rituals and beliefs take throughout ages and culture. However, I would like now to go beyond the objectivist attitude of the social scientist and share a few thoughts and impressions that my observation of Yi religion has arisen in me. First and foremost, I have been struck from the start by the fact that belief in spirits had to do with the struggle for life in a very difficult natural environment. Issues of life and death are surrounding the Nuosu (Sichuan Yi) family all the time. Illness, hunger, cold are still the basic facts to be dealt with. In this perspective, the belief in spirits and the rituals that come along are a way to give an account of the duress of life and to find some practical and existential response to the pain that comes from the death of one’s child, the affliction of a physical handicap, the hardships that arise from the life in mountains.

Second observation: the rituals express the solidarity that links together a family or a neighborhood. The efficiency of a ritual comes primarily from its collective character, the grouping of relatives of friends around the body of the sick person. I found very moving the discreet gestures of solidarity and tenderness that are given to the sick while the ritual is performed. Ritual is about compassion and comfort. As I pointed out already, the spirits represent the dark side of solitude, selfishness, lack of proper social behavior. From a theological perspective, I see in a ritual of exorcism an expression of the alliance that binds together a community. Such alliance is not only social, it is also religious in nature. Conversely, a religious alliance has a social component from the very start. The Bible teaches us that justice and pity within the community are the tenets of a proper alliance between a community and God Himself. Expelling the spirits while expressing compassion and comfort is to renew a social and family alliance that prepares the binding together of this given community and the God who dwells among us.

As I said already, it is very striking that the form taken by the expulsion of evil and the restoration of the physical and social body is a sacrificial meal. Sharing together the food that has been offered in sacrifice is the best answer that can be given to the forces of solitude and disruption. The sharing of such meals during rituals has helped me to understand better the anthropological roots of the sacrament of the Eucharist. It has helped me to see this sacrament a process of healing and reconciliation because it has been prepared and is still prefigured by the way cultures and societies have dealt with violence, illness and death throughout the ages: they have made the sharing of meals the norm of human existence, they have made the taking of meals, where everyone receives what he/she is entitled to, the real means to restore personal and social health. Eating and drinking together in an orderly fashion is to seal an alliance, to seal the promise that justice and solidarity will ultimately be stronger than solitude, violence, illness and death.

Summing up, the belief in spirits and the way people deal with them through rituals often express deep intuitions on the ills that threaten the social body. They also express profound intuitions on the fact that solidarity, self-sacrifice and communal sharing are prerequisites for preserving or restoring human existence and dignity. When the beliefs and rituals proper to a culture express the way human relationships are meant to be if we want to ensure healing and reconciliation, then God is dwelling among us.

Tuesday, 05 December 2006 00:00

My trip to the Yangjuan school

Christian (a German volunteer), and I have been to the Yangjuan school, in the mountains of southwest Sichuan, on November 6-8, 2006. During these three days, we taught the school teachers basic computer knowledge, participated in an English lesson with the six grade students, and visited two villagers’ families.

Possibly influenced by the volunteers from outside world, people around the school behaved towards us in a very friendly way. A three days stay is a very short time indeed, but it was enough for me to witness the huge changes having happened spiritually, materially and emotionally since the school was built in 1999-2000. At the same time, though moved by the grateful words that the Abu (grandfather) of the Mgebu family was repeating now and then, I could but not feel the harshness and gloom that the geographical factors bring to the people here: soil erosion, landslides, hihgland climate, traffic inconvenience, poor power supply and communication signals, etc... Moreover, either allured or stressed by the modern life outside, most of the grownups go out to do find work in the big cities, while leaving the old and weak to do the farming.

I respect these simple and earthy people so much! They do not expect much from life, but they hope that the younger generation will have better living conditions as well as a better education, in order to become men and women of worth.

When the time came of bidding farewell, I could not keep wishing that the road be finished so that the villagers could have a better access to the county township; that there be a solar power accumulator so that they would not be worry about power cuts; and that there be a green house for each family so that they need not go a long way to buy vegetables, thus avoiding vitamin shortage. Deep in my thoughts, I went away from the Yangjuan school...

Saturday, 09 September 2006 18:16

New Wine and Old Skins

(Speech delivered at the meeting of the US Catholic China Bureau, University of San Francisco, February 1999)

"Nobody puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost and the skins too. No! New wine, fresh skins!" (Mk 2, 22)

Is the parable recorded by Mark relevant for envisioning the coming of Peace and Justice, as proclaimed by the Gospel, in the Chinese context? In other words, can Peace and Justice, or, in a broader sense, can the spirit of the Beatitudes accommodate to insights brought by ancient Chinese culture and philosophy? Will new interpretations, new intellectual ventures reconcile the novelty of the Kingdom with the seemingly timeless character of Chinese wisdom?

Obviously, the question goes far beyond what our meeting aims to achieve during these three days. However, putting our present tasks into this broader context might help us to assess the challenges that we deal with, and to define anew what Christians are called to do and proclaim in the present Chinese situation, in its present cultural and intellectual landscape.

When dealing with an issue such as Peace and Justice in the Chinese context we confront simultaneously several tasks, rather different in nature.
- First, we can identify key issues in Chinese society and examine in which ways they are related to basic peace and justice concerns. In other words, we make an assessment of the current situation in China using ethical norms that we define in an either stricter or broader fashion. For instance we might ask: is the present situation of the people who belong to the so-called "national minorities" conform to criteria of economic justice (the way resources are allocated) or formal justice (equality in front of the law)? Do the policies implemented towards these national minorities concretely promote harmony between people of Han descent and other nationalities, or do they generate frustrations and jealousies? In other words, we investigate the "national minorities" policy from specific peace and justice concerns. The same can be done for ecology, human rights, the reform of the state enterprises, etc. Often, the standpoint from which we investigate these issues is a "spontaneous" or "natural" understanding of what justice and peace are about. We focus on social concerns, and concrete situations take precedence on cultural or philosophical issues.

- Of course, the so-called “spontaneous” or “natural” understanding of peace and justice can be challenged as belonging solely to the Western “cultural” worldview. This is why we have also to ask ourselves whether traditional Chinese culture and philosophy embodies approaches to peace and justice fundamentally different from the concepts that were developed in the West or the ones promoted by Christianity (the two being linked but remaining distinct in several ways). The debate is very similar to the questions raised on the universality of human rights or the specificity of "East Asian values." Such a debate is important, insofar as it might determine the relevancy of what Christians want to contribute, and the relationship they develop with Chinese culture.

- The third set of questions is somehow at the crossroad of the two first ones: what is the set of standards and values that Chinese people are able to mobilize today when trying to define a meaningful course of social and cultural development? Are there consensual or, at least, acceptable references for defining within the Chinese context what a peaceful and just developmental process should be? This set of questions is markedly different from the preceding one: it does not focus on traditional Chinese culture per se, but rather on the various interpretations given of this cultural pattern as well as of Western culture as it is now grounded into the Chinese psyche. The question is not to define theoretical grounds for such a developmental process but rather to pragmatically assess the intellectual resources that help to give meaning to what happens in society. This is the approach I am now going to develop.

Harmony and Modernization

I will therefore start from a set of contributions made by Chinese intellectuals when they are asked what a just and peaceful development is meant to be. I will do this as objectively as possible. Only at the end will I raise some questions in order to assess the value and relevancy of their endeavor. The corpus I am working with is basically made by contributions of mainstream intellectuals, working within universities or within Academies of Social Sciences. While these people are very far from being "dissidents" they do want to take some distance from the Party-State or, at the very least, to influence for a change its discourse and doctrine. They represent a kind of "alternative pattern of thought from within." They often say that their contributions aim at nurturing a "culture of peace and cooperation" - hehe wenha, the first he standing for hexie (harmony) and the second he for hezuo (cooperation) or juhe (meeting together). One senses immediately how this can be at the same time both similar to and different from what we could call a "culture of peace and justice".

Let then first put the question this way: whenever Westerners speak of peace, Chinese tradition thinks in terms of harmony. Harmony has always been and still remains a central concept in China’s spiritual as well as social thought. To be sure, the decades that followed 1949 saw a sharp decline in the use of the term, as political circumstances made the central government emphasize the role of struggle in the process of building-up a new social model. However, Harmony, as a spiritual ideal and a regulating social concept, has been progressively revived and investigated anew. In this line, the emphasis now put on hehe wenhua is an attempt at a conciliation between the traditional social thought and today’s realities.

Such conciliation is not an easy task. Anyone who wants to make use of the traditional Harmony concept meets immediately with a problem: the concept suited well a homogeneous society with clear-cut levels of authority and firm control on external influences. Contemporary societies (be it in China or elsewhere) are characterized by their fluidity, their internationalization, a constant diversification in thinking and norms of conduct, and by the ever-increasing degree of human, economic and cultural interactions. In this context, if Harmony is still to utilized, it certainly has to refer less to a former state of things to which one should come back (a sheer impossibility) than to a new social ideal to be worked out, this throughout diversity, contradictions and exchanges.

This is in some sense what the promoters of hehe wenha try to achieve. There is no fully satisfactory translation for hehe. Its meaning goes beyond "harmony" and this is why I add "cooperation." One could also translate "communitarian culture" but this is a bit misleading as it focuses only on the social aspect of the doctrine, whereas hehe supposedly embodies epistemological, ecological, even aesthetic dimensions. The most comprehensive description of what hehe is meant to be can be found in two volumes, totaling 1165 pages, published by Professeur Zhang Liwen, of People’s University, in 1996. This is complemented by articles published on a regular basis by the journal Zhonghua wenhua luntan of the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences. This Academy specializes in promoting and enhancing the hehe concept. Noteworthy is also the article published in Guangming Ribao on January 17, 1998 by Cai Fanglu, since this article is the clearest attempt to put the hehe wenhua concept into the public and political sphere. Although the flourishing of the hehe terminology is very recent, its success relies on previous attempts made by philosophers such as Qian Mu and Zhang Daininan.

Defining a new cultural paradigm

The premises of the promoters of the "culture of peace and cooperation" can be summarized rather easily:

- Hehe is the prominent value of the Chinese humanist culture, encompassing all schools and religious traditions. Hehe wenhua expresses the quintessence of the Taoist, Buddhist and Confucian traditions put together.

- This common nucleus is to be enhanced and interpreted anew in order to answer the challenges that the world confronts as it enters a new millenium. These challenges come from conflicts between man and nature, man and society, man and man, man and his own soul, as well as conflicts between civilization and civilization. In addition, this re-interpretation is necessary to help China to answer the crises brought by the increasing contacts with the West and by modernization.

- Such a task is similar in nature to the one undertaken by the "School of Principle" of the Song and Ming dynasties. New intellectual paradigms are brought forth by new social, political and cultural challenges. In this sense, rather than speaking of hehe culture, Zhang Liwen likes to speak of hehe studies or school (hehexue) as one uses to speak of the "School of the Principle" (lixue).\

- Hehe is a mode of existence. As an efficient wisdom of life, it is a contribution of Chinese culture to the whole of humankind. The hehe school constitutes the interpretation and development of this wisdom.

- The hehe school starts by recognizing the importance and reality of differences, oppositions and conflicts. Be it in the cosmological sphere (the yin and the yang, Heaven and man), the epistemological paradigm (the five agents), the social sphere (the five relationships), differences are subsumed without being annihilated, and, consequently, the process of unification is not different from the process of generating differences. Conflict is the cause of fusion; fusion is the fruit of conflict. In the traditional Chinese philosophical vocabulary, Harmony is seen as the natural fruit of the process of generation and regeneration (sheng sheng bu xi).

- In this respect, Harmony is not a static concept, it means to enter into the process of change, and change is transformation, communication, fluidity

- By accentuating the role of conflict, differences or fluidity, the Hehe school thus criticizes some aspects of traditional Chinese thought on Harmony. It especially emphasizes the role of mediations, of symbolism, in order to go beyond oversimplified expressions of traditional Chinese thought such as "unity of Man and Heaven" or "unity of knowledge and action." Actually the process of renewal of Chinese culture that the hehe schools aims to exemplify has to follow the pattern of thought of this very culture. In other words, this renewal itself has to be a process of "generation and regeneration" going from difference to unity and from unity to difference.

I will not describe further this attempt to build up a culture of "harmony and cooperation." First, the presentation given by our authors is often extremely repetitive. Second, we are more interested here in the meaning of such an attempt than in its actual elaboration. What I intend to do now is to raise a few questions on the relevance of this new form of a culture of harmony for today’s China. This will lead us to specify what might be the Christian viewpoint on that matter.

The framing of tradition: from Harmony to Equality

- Part of my summary might remind one of the irritating controversy on Asian values. However, the big difference between what I will call the "New School of Harmony" and the diverse attempts at building up a specific body of Asian values is that the former makes a frank attempt at being universal in scope. Not only is the Western contribution to the new face of Chinese culture recognized and appreciated, but also the Hehe school aims at framing an epistemological, moral and social body of assumptions that might be of value for all humankind. Whatever the obvious shortcomings of this attempt, what strikes me is that it underlines the universalization of Chinese thought, and this trend is in my view a very positive element, that by itself bears on the long run fruits of peace and justice.

- Similarly, some may smile at the pretension to situate such an attempt vis-a-vis the intellectual achievements of the School of the Principle. However, this attitude of continuity and criticism at the same time reminds me of an observation made by Professor De Bary: "If there has been one aspect of Confucian tradition most seriously underestimated in the West, it has been its capacity for self-criticism and self-renewal.” It seems to me that this capacity reaches beyond the Confucian tradition. In this respect, the living relationship that Chinese thinkers hold with their predecessors should not be seen only as an obsession with "national culture", as it is sometimes suspected by Western scholars, but as a vehicle for nurturing critical thought and renewal. In this light, intellectual pursuits in today’s China (be it the one just analyzed or similar projects) are indeed building up the requisites for a culture of peace and justice relevant and appealing for the Chinese mind.

- These positive aspects should not hide the ambiguities of the attempts presently made for reviving the Chinese social and philosophical tradition. An examination of the literature on hehe wenhua shows immediately that "harmony" is invoked for justifying the "one country, two systems" approach or the reunification with Taiwan. However, even if the hehe school has benefited from appreciative comments made by some leaders, Qian Qichen for instance, the calls for an official approval of the label and its meanings have been rebuked, at least to my knowledge. Central to the development of hehe wenhua popularity has been the discussion about Huntington’s "Clash of Civilizations." Though at first heavily criticized, the book became very popular among Chinese intellectuals. It upholds the idea that Chinese culture is one of the dominant cultures of the present world, with a universalistic appeal. For sure, Chinese interpretations of Huntington’s book stress the fact that, contrary to other world cultures, Chinese culture is not contentious by essence. The main merit of the book, for its Chinese reader, is that, volens nolens it emphasizes the necessity to gather all people of Chinese origin within the same cultural sphere, and its describes such a process as an ineluctable one.

- If we translate the "New School of Harmony" worldview into the "peace and justice" approach proper to the Christian-Western tradition one will immediately notice that the stress is on peace rather than on justice. Actually, for many leading Chinese intellectuals, implementing justice will appear as a difficulty, as a task almost contradictory with the one of realizing harmony. The difficulty is not openly analyzed in the books and articles that I use here. I discussed it in several occasions with intellectuals influenced by the hehe model. The idea usually stressed is that peace is an ideal reached through violence: what is generally called "justice" is actually the violence within the peace process. Justice is a means, not an end. My interlocutors sometimes stress the fact that, even when it comes to the Chinese Communist Party, its ultimate ideal was most of the time presented under the label of da tong (the great harmony) rather than under any explicit concept of "justice." In order to avoid misunderstanding, let me specify that I refer here to "justice" in its "social" meaning. "Justice" understood as "personal righteousness" (as also its first meaning in the Bible) has always been enhanced by the Chinese philosophical tradition, especially by Confucianism. There might be a natural path from "righteousness" to the upholding of social justice, but such a theoretical development depends very much on the overall social and intellectual structure and did not happen in this form within the Chinese world.

- There is however a related concept central to part of the Taoist tradition, and this is the one of "equality" (pingdeng). This is first a philosophical concept, referring to the equality of nature of all sentient beings, a concept that Buddhist thought further developed and reinforced. Equality is also an existential concept, strongly linked to the one of "simplicity", rusticity", “parsimony.” The concept of equality that can be grasped in the Laozi and other works is very much linked to the nostalgia of a state of things where one was not led astray by exotic flavors, charming music, exotic clothes. The concept became fully political in latter Taoist-inspired upheavals.
This is an interesting reminder. China lives in an age of growing inequalities, waste of resources and ostentatious consumption. There is presently no serious challenge to this model of consumption. Should such a challenge come to light, it would for sure borrow from this Taoist tradition, which, after all, has solid roots in history. In other words, one way to give more consistency and credibility to the "communitarian" or "harmony" model would be to dare to develop further the tradition to which it belongs. Community values could very well include a criticism of the consumption paradigm, a call to more simplicity and equality in society. In other words, including the "justice" dimension within the communitarian model might be a way to overcome the ambiguities of its present stress on "harmony." This would be also the way to start an historical and, in some way, spiritual reassessment of the so-called modernization process of the last twenty years. This might be the test that the hehe school is not ready to undergo yet.
- In other words, it is not the call to Tradition that is problematic, this is rather the way this tradition is framed. Indeed, interpretation is renewed, a certain degree of self-criticism is allowed, but within textual boundaries, within the limits of a given set of concepts and questions, such limiting the relevancy of what this Tradition might really have to say to society today. It is surprising for instance to see how the political statements of the Laozi, that might be read as a devastating analysis of today’s China, are watered down to the benefit of an "ontological’ reading that loses much of the strength of the text. The Chinese tradition might very well include a good number of new wineskins into which new wine could be poured. The problem is that, most of the time, only the old ones, already worn out, are put into use.

Towards a Christian challenge


My task tonight is almost ended. It was to point out some of the resources and ambiguities of the Chinese tradition as it is interpreted today. Others will now discuss what can be the Christian input when it comes to issues of justice and peace in China. I will myself enter directly into this discussion tomorrow night. It seemed to me that starting, even briefly, from the perspective developed by contemporary Chinese intellectuals could be stimulating for our debate, and this is why I choose to discuss hehe wenhua in the first place.

However, I wish to conclude by an appreciation of the so-called Harmony school from a viewpoint directly inspired by the Christian culture. What strikes me when I read this literature is its underlying denial of what History is about. The intellectual attempts at reviving the Chinese tradition are made by extremely decent people, who want earnestly to put forth a contribution that might help their children to live in a more peaceful, more humane, fairer, gentler society. They implicitly draw lessons from recent history, and they see in the revival and re-interpretation of their own culture a protection against the coming back of Barbarian upheavals. At the same time, they end up with extremely abstract models, explaining how conflict produces harmony and harmony produces conflict through the process of generation-regeneration, this in a way that totally eviscerates the flesh and blood of what the Chinese people have suffered. Abstraction here is a process of "des-historicization" of reality. Abstraction here is meant to witewash tragedy. The negation of history that this kind of cultural interpretation presently conveys covers up the experience, the voice of the real people, it forbids the coming out of voices that would give its real meaning to what China went through during these times of change and of maturation. What Christian tradition can contribute is the claim that what happens during the actual course of history is important and meaningful, that peace, justice, harmony or equality are pursuits that can only happen in time and space, through a process that mixes failures and achievements. Christianity stresses that what happens to the smallest of the men and women living in this world is important and meaningful. It goes as far as to say that the final meaning of history is precisely to be found in what happens to the smallest among ourselves. Yes, Meaning appears in the course of events seemingly unimportant when compared to the majestic process of cosmic change. When deprived of any eschatological perspective, Peace and Justice run the risk of remaining mere abstractions. For sure, Christianity has to appreciate and to better understand the overall process of generation and regeneration, the wisdom of mediation and maturation, the paradigm of change and growth, and in that respect it has very much to learn from Chinese culture. But, more than anything else, Christianity has to keep aflame the hope that generation, maturation, change and growth are eventually meant for a harvest, a bountiful harvest coming from the seeds of peace and justice that are sown here and now.


Monday, 04 September 2006 00:00

Communication and Jesuit Mission

(This paper was written for the September 2005 meeting of “Jesuit Communication in East Asia and Oceania” in Manila)

- Abstract -

"What I intend to do in here is to reflect upon the experience we have developed at the Taipei Ricci Institute during the past ten years or so. The underlying question can be summarized as follows: how did a Jesuit-run research center on traditional Chinese culture evolve into a network trying to build new lines of communication in China to help to redefine what is at stake in China today in the broader context of sustainable development and world governance issues to foster a sense of mission and urgency among Jesuits?"

- I - The Ricci Institute: a historical background

- II – Vision, Tradition and Trials: 1966-1996

- III – The Ricci in Transition: 1996-2003
Page 12 of 12

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