Thursday, May 23, 2013

A Perspective on the Protests in Kunming

The hot topic in Kunming these days is plans for the construction of a new petrochemicals plant just west of town and the (illegal) public demonstrations that are challenging the construction of that plant. The plant has been in the works for about five years, but became well known to the residents of Kunming after a small protest against the plant May 4. Even though the protest happened less than a mile from our house, we didn't know about it until afterwards. I started asking my Chinese acquaintances about the protests and it set off hours of discussion each time. So far, anyone I've asked here has been passionately against the construction of the plant. But then again, the only people I talk to are the highly educated, politically conscious elite who can speak English. What does the guy who sells us vegetables in the market think about construction of the plant so near to Kunming? I have no idea, my Chinese isn't nearly that good and that would be a somewhat awkward question to ask.

Demonstrators held a second protest last week, May 16, and about 2000 people showed up - only "several hundred" according to Chinese press. Despite many warnings to stay away and expectations of violence, the May 16 protests went off relatively peacefully. There was a large police presence and several people were arrested during the rally, but otherwise, it was pretty peaceful. This doesn't mean that the government was tolerating it, though. Faculty at the two major universities in town all received emails from University administration warning them that they could lose their jobs if they were known to be taking part in the demonstration and students were threatened with expulsion if they were caught attending. I'm sure similar emails were sent out to any other employees who worked for the government, as well as other major employers in town who operate with the blessing of the government - such as the Yunnan Tobacco Company, hospitals and banks. Our school planned an excursion that day for all of the foreign students. They took us all (for free) safely about an hour outside of town to see some caves. I can't confirm that they planned this excursion to get a few bus loads of foreigners out of town to make sure they missed the protests, but the timing is uncanny. We went to the caves. Even though many attended, it's a bad idea for a foreigner to show up to one of these protests. Visas can mysteriously expire early, the police can come visit and generally unpleasant things can happen.  

The issue with the petrochemical plant is the concern that it will pollute Kunming's air and water. This similar grievance has already been the cause of thousands of other protests around China. I'm sure at least once a week you could find an environmental protest happening in China that gets reported in the international press. The international press loves covering it because it reinforces China's image as being the big bad polluter. In other words, it's a nice, easy story to cover because it already has a nice narrative; the story basically writes itself.

Kunming has an especially strong case because, being so far inland and unattractive to major manufacturers, it doesn't see so much industrial activity. The price of getting things to market (i.e. ports along the Pacific) is just too expensive. Kunming's best known export, actually, is flowers, which can grow nearly year-round, thanks to Kunming's sunny climate: It's known as the "Spring City". Since flowers have to be flown to market to preserve freshness, Kunming's flower producers aren't punished financially for being far away from the ports. Imagine Kunming, as pristine of a big city as you can find in China due to its lack of industy, the provider of flowers the world over, facing the prospects of a petrochemical plant. If you live on the heavily export focused east coast of China, a petrochemical plant next door is just the way of life. People in Kunming have a lower tolerance.

The big fear is that the plant will produce annually 500,000 tons Paraxylene (PX), a nasty, carcinogenic petrochemical used in the production of polyester and other synthetic fabrics. The local government denied that the plant would produce PX, but opposers say that's a parsing of words: the government is either lying, or the plant will produce another chemical, similarly nasty to PX but with a different name.

Why build this plant in Kunming? In China's flower capital? Well, it gets back to a blogpost that I wrote back in March about Yunnan province's strategic position vis-a-vis southeast Asia. While Yunnan is a thousand miles away from the highly profitable Pacific ports along China's east coast, it geographically serves as China's land bridge to southeast Asia. Myanmar, in our case, is selling China crude oil through a pipeline to Yunnan province. In order to capitalize on this access to hydrocarbons and attempt to diversify China's access to energy (as well as Kunming's economy) producers decided to build the petrochemical plant here. The important thing to remember is that this isn't just some local economic stimulus plan - this is an advancement in the economic relations between China and Myanmar. The more successfully China can exploit Myanmar's raw commodities, the more China can hold Myanmar in its orbit and the easier it will be for China to influence Myanmar in the future. This is especially crucial now since western countries are dropping sanctions against Myanmar and trying to open up commercial relations with the country. Myanmar's strategic importance to China (it offers, perhaps, China's most accessible land route to the Indian ocean) means that China needs to keep it on good terms. In other words, China needs to maintain vigilance over its back door. China doesn't necessarily welcome western adventures into Myanmar, as they provide competition to China. China has the advantage in Myanmar now, but will need to work hard to maintain it.

The petro-chemical plant, then, does have some strategic significance. For that reason, it will be hard for the government to back down to protester demands. Sure, the plant site may be slightly relocated, but China is eager to get the plant producing in order to strengthen business relations with Myanmar. Delays would be a big nuisance.

As for the protesters, the target and timing of their demonstrations shows intelligent design. There are a million environmental hazards in Kunming - one needs only venture a few miles south to Dian Lake to find a heavily polluted body of water that serves as the region's drinking water supply. But if you're protesting against water pollution in China, take a number and get in line. That's nothing new. Protesting a strategic petrochemical plant is a higher stakes game that will get more attention. Beijing has already reportedly put some pressure on the provincial and local governments in Kunming to fix the problem of opposition to the plant's construction. The timing is also really good for the protesters. Kunming will host the high profile China-South Asia Expo June 6-10, which will draw international attention to Kunming for a week. Rumor has it that Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend. And if not the president himself, then surely some high level government officials from Beijing. Sure enough, the next planned protest is June 6. The planners of the protest appear to have been leading up to June 6, when they will have the biggest stage a city like Kunming can hope to have. The Communist Party certainly does not want the protesters to hijack the expo and corrupt the established message of positive Chinese economic relations with south Asia into a message of Chinese environmental evils.   

One option for the authorities is to just block the protests and start arresting people. I think one of the reasons that the authorities let the first two protests happen was to give them a chance to get to know all those protesters involved. They could take pictures, identify leaders and basically just get a good idea of the composition of the protest. Then, on June 4th or 5th, they can go make some visits to some key people and quietly put pressure on the participants to not turn out in large numbers. It's much more tasteful to quietly detain and preempt a protest than cause a big scene in front of the international media by beating protesters with batons and firing tear gas on them.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens June 6. We'll be out of town, in Beijing, so we won't see the action first hand, but I'm ok with that. I'm not here to make a judgement on China's policies. I remember in college, there was a big stink one year over the fact that a science lab on campus was carrying out military research on chemical weapons. The university administration denied the danger of the program, discouraged people from protesting (although they certainly didn't threaten expulsion or termination) and generally tried to keep things going on as usual. However, the city of Boston, much less the state of Massachusetts, did not get involved in the issue. The big difference I see here is the ability for the government to exert its influence through all sorts of institutions. Yunnan University, for example, is half controlled by the Communist Party. It's one thing to appeal to people not to protest, it's another to threaten their livelihood if they do. I'm not here to say whether that's good or bad, just that I'm impressed with China's ability to exert central control. I think that's the major lesson I've learned throughout this string of protests.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Book reviews

During my 2011 trip, I kept a running commentary on the books I was reading. I'm doing a lot of reading now, so I thought I'd rekindle the tradition here. Enjoy!

Forgotten Kingdom - Peter Goullart

Forgotten Kingdom is the personal story of a Russian man who goes to work for the Chinese government setting up cooperatives in northwestern Yunnan province, specifically the town of Lijiang. The story of how Peter Goullart got to the tiny outpost in the 1930s is interesting in its own right. His family fled Moscow during the revolution and settled in Shanghai where, as a young man, Peter picked up Chinese and gained experience as a tour guide. He travelled deeper into China to Kunming, where we’re living now, but quickly found the remote hills of northwest Yunnan more attractive. The first half of the book on how he got to Lijiang was my favorite. The second half mainly documents Naxi and other minority groups’ culture in the area, while heaping on plenty of self-praise for his own achievements with the cooperatives. The book is a must read for anyone travelling in the area (Lijiang is now a UNESCO world heritage site) but, as a short-term resident here painfully aware of all the challenges foreigners face in China, I’d be more interested in hearing about his failures in Lijiang. I’d be grateful to have been able to read a book about foreigners’ failures in Yunnan province. I remember hearing a review of such a book on NPR a while ago so it’s out there. It just isn’t this one.

On China - Henry Kissinger

Bryn got an audio version of this one for me for Christmas, soon after we decided to move to China. Kissinger lays out about 500 years of Chinese international relations history, making clear that China developed a very different way of viewing the world and engaging in international relations from the standard strategies and practices that emerged out of Europe over the past 500 years. China’s superiority in virtual isolation didn’t help it though once it did finally come into regular contact with Europe starting in the 19th century and China was quickly overrun. But China has faced wave-upon-wave of uprisings usurping dynastic power over its history. Kissinger argues that Chinese diplomacy and politics attempts to surround, absorb and assimilate outside threats rather than attack them head-on as western powers tend to do. This patient and giving approach to international relations may make China appear to lose, but “the invisible hand” of Chinese bureaucracy always comes out on top. The second half of the book deals with Kissinger’s role in re-establishing ties between the US and China in 1972. The anecdotes about interacting with Mao personalize the leader and differentiate his extreme rhetoric and actions from his clear, practical strategic vision.

Wild Swans - Jung Chang

I read Wild Swans at the same time that I was reading On China and they make great reading companions. Wild Swans is the story of three generations of women growing up during the 20th century. It gave a personal point of view to the calamities of the Communist revolution, Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Jung’s family was pretty harshly persecuted during the Cultural Revolution and so she definitely portrays herself and her family as the stoic victims, which, naturally, she has the right to do. She wrote the book in the 1990s, well after history had condemned Mao’s social experiments. Even though she was just a girl during the 1960s, I would love to have gotten her point of view at the time, rather than in hindsight. I get the feeling that she’s trying to protect the integrity of her family’s name rather than portray a controversial era through impersonal reporting. But that’s to be expected from a family memoir. Kissinger can provide the cold, hard historical analysis. Nevertheless, after reading her book, every time I talk to someone here over the age of 50, I have an overwhelming urge to ask them what it was like here during the 1960s. Has their opinion of the time changed over the years as others have come out and condemned it? I know from my experience in Germany that those who lived through the Nazi era weren’t particularly alarmed at the situation then - their moral derision of the time period didn’t come until later, after it had become acceptable to reject those ideas. Unlike in Germany though, I haven’t mustered the courage yet to actually broach the subject here..

Flashman - George Macdonald Fraser

Flashman is a series of books written in the 1960s and 70s about the fictional memoirs of Henry Flashman, captain in the British Army. It’s historical fiction, well researched and educational. But whereas reading ACTUAL personal accounts of history, which run into the problem of the narrator trying to preserve their and their family’s honor, this fictional account of the Afghan rebellion and British retreat from Kabul in 1842 is sullied with all the cowardice and dishonor that British officers actually portrayed. He adulterizes local women, angering the locals, evades his duty when he’s too afraid, takes credit for victory when he is the lone survivor of battle and only survived because he hid in fear, and all sorts of other “cowardly” acts. But the essential truth within Flashman is that bravery and ideology tend to get you killed, and for a comfortable gentleman like Flashman, there’s never anything to be gained from dying. If you survive, you get to write the history and take credit for the sacrifices of others. Afterall, they’re dead, so they can’t contest you!

Mandalay to Momien - John Anderson

John Anderson was a doctor and naturalist who accompanied a British mission to explore the trade routes between Mandalay, Burma and southwest China (present day Yunnan province) back in the late 19th century. I tried to overlay the likely reality of Flashman over Anderson’s brave, stoic account of the month long trips over rivers and hills. Whenever he said something like, “the village was full of handsome women” I interpreted that to mean that he likely took advantage of as many women as he could during his stay there. It’s hard to fess up to such adventures - especially as an officer in Queen Victoria’s army. Anyways, Anderson’s account of the borderlands between Burma and China are very interesting and very detailed. His trip should be retraced by a braver traveller than me. The land borders between China and Burma are closed to foreigners now and there is internmittent fighting between the government and a variety of border minority groups. It was an enexplored frontier then and it’s not much better understood today. His accounts of the difficulties in logistics was also really interesting. Imagine moving a party of several hundred people, all of their equipment, provisions, gifts for VIPs along the way and extra space to bring along specimens along unmarked paths in unfamiliar terrain and you’ve got a convoy stretched out over several days. The missions is a force in and of itself that changes the landscape and local politics as it goes.

Diplomacy - Henry Kissinger

An epic read on the evolution of the international system over the past half-century. It was also the first book I read on a Kindle. I’m sure I spared myself many hand cramps by holding the slender device instead of the 900 page behemoth. First, this is a must read for anyone seriously pursuing international relations. I’m embarassed that I hadn’t read it earlier. You won’t necessarily learn a whole lot of new history, but the value added that Kissinger provides is in the elegance of the narrative that he weaves, connecting all those years of history and international relations together. He makes sense of the world in a way that I had picked up over the past several years in one volume. The core lesson I took out of it is that great leaders need to both have a intellectual vision for where their state needs to go to be the most successful and an innate understanding of their citizens’ capabilities so that the leader can make the transition without ruining the state in the process. In “Diplomacy”, Kissinger documents plenty of leaders who achieved that balancing act and plenty of leaders who failed. He teaches in only a way that someone who practiced statesmanship could teach, connecting the big picture, overarching framework to the miniscule, individual events that comprise it.

Burmese Days - George Orwell

Burmese Days was Orwell’s first novel and is often overlooked. I hadn’t heard of it until I started researching books to read on Myanmar for our upcoming trip. It’s a relatively simple novel with only a few characters, which I like. It portrays a small town on the upper Irrawaddy river and life for the few British subjects who have settled there. It’s a very focused story on Burma - it doesn’t span generations, capturing the big picture of Burma like Amitav Ghosh’s “Glass Palace” (which I am reading now). You certainly won’t come away with a sophisticated understanding of Burma after reading Burmese Days, but it’s a great introduction to the place, the customs, the vocabulary and a little of the history. As I read “Glass Palace” I find that the value of “Burmese Days” has increased. I suppose it’s best as an appetizer in a multi-course study of Burma.  

Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction - Damien Keown

Bryn and I were wandering around one of the many Buddhist temples in our neighborhood one day and I became so overwhelmed with ignorance that I rushed to the library and checked out this book on Buddhism. I really like the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction to....” series - there are over 200 now. The point that stood out to me the most was one that Kissinger had also made: when studying China and East Asia, you have to overcome the myths that westerners have come up with in attempts to frame East Asia as what the West is not. Studied from a western perspective, East Asian philosophy and religion is often attributed by critics of western culture as protagonists against the western antagonist. But that approach won’t neccesarily help you understand how people here, in East Asia, view Buddhism. Reading the book has helped me understand what’s going on in temples more. One scroll Bryn and I found in the Yunnan Provincial Museum depicted a hierarchy of creatures -humanoid and not - engaging in all types of ceremonies. I realized that it was a “roadmap to Nirvana” showing all the levels of devils, earthly world, titans and Gods, leading up to the Buddha. It was an amazing image, about 30 feet long and intricately painted. Just having a little insight into that work of art made reading the book worthwhile.  

Medici Money - Tim Parks

This book has a very intriguing premise, but gets a little too wound up in the weeds of 15th century Florentine politics for my taste. I read it thinking it would be a good way to learn a little bit about the history of finance and Italy in one go in preparation for grad school. It served both purposes, with an emphasis on “a little bit”. The idea is that the de’ Medici family got its start as bankers in the late 14th century, operating on the frontier of legal and religious propriety by dealing in usury - the charging of interest. Financial prowess trumps cultural norms though and the de’ Medici family manages to improve its position in Florence to the point of essentially ruling the kingdom as despots. The book describes how four generations of de’ Medicis leveraged their financial assets to win favor in the political and religious world. Starting off as prudent bankers, as their wealth grew, they couldn’t help but get involved in political matters. They had to manage the transition from banking magnates to political leaders carefully; being a prudent banker doesn’t make for an inspiring politician, and being a charismatic leader is typically bad for business. But by the time Lorenzo de’ Medici ruled the bank, the fourth generation to do so, the solvency of the bank didn’t much matter anymore because the family had achieved political power and elevated their station in life yet again. The idea is really interesting to me and kind of reminds me of Mexican drug traffickers and how we will view them generations from now: as criminals or the forefathers of a new Mexico?

But between the flashes of insight in Medici Money, there are long slogs of Florentine political history that only link back to the central premise tenuously and relies heavily on a large and hard to remember cast of characters. Still, it makes me want to read more about the Medicis to learn how a family can transform itself over generations, remaking the social fabric of a city to serve its own interests in the process.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Future

This year, the month of May is a kind of “eye of the storm” period for us. Over the past six months, Bryn and I have quit our jobs, applied to graduate schools, traveled to Jordan, moved to China, acclimated ourselves to Kunming and traveled to the edge of China - the foothills of the Himalayas. Now that we’ve been in Kunming for over two months, life is settling into a rhythm. We’re still discovering new corners of Kunming every day and we have by no means conquered this place yet, but we wake up every morning 80-90% certain that we will survive the day. I can’t say we gave ourselves as good of chances two months ago. 

For the rest of the month of May, life will be somewhat subdued. We’ll go to class, we’ll read, we’ll keep discovering new things about Kunming. The teaching job that mentioned a couple of posts ago is gone now. After four weeks of lessons, the parents (through their daughter - my student) told me that they wouldn’t continue with class anymore. The reason was that their daughter had a school commitment on Tuesday nights that would prevent us from meeting. Seemed like a flimsy excuse, but they paid me for my month of lessons and the “break-up” was relatively painless. Other English teachers here that I know said that my experience was a little better than par. Apparently these kinds of things happen. No fear though, I’ve got another weekend teaching job lined up to take us through the month of May, so I’ll stay busy on that front.

However, as of June 1, we will begin the process of leaving Kunming. The next step: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)! This graduate program was my top choice and I couldn’t be happier with the acceptance. Harvard, London School of Economics and Oxford all rejected me, but Kings College London and the National Unversity of Singapore also accepted me. I was very happy with results. I opted for a year at the SAIS Bologna campus in Italy, so Bryn and I will be spending a year in Bologna before finishing up in Washington DC in 2014/2015. On June 1, we fly to Beijing with our fingers crossed to apply for a visa to Italy. The checklist for getting an Italian visa in China is several pages long. Even though we’ve gotten verbal confirmation from the embassy that our application should be fine, we’re still nervous. We’re staying in Beijing for a week just to make sure that we get the covted sticker that lets us live in Italy for 10 months. 

After Beijing, we’ll come back to Kunming for about a week, and then we’re off to Singapore to catch our flight to Italy. We’re taking the slow way, though. I wasn’t able to get to South East Asia during my 2011 trip, and Bryn has never been, so we’re making our way from Kunming to Singapore overland through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia. From Thailand, we’ll make a 10 day detour in Myanmar! We’re actually going to get our visas for Myanmar tomorrow morning. That trip will certainly provide plenty of material for future blog posts. 

We’ll arrive in Italy August 10 for an economics pre-term course and then graduate school starts for real in mid-September. 

So, this precious month of May is one of the last quiet months that we’ll have for the forseeable future. Even though I know I should be appreciating this downtime, my brain is having trouble accepting it. I’ve been reading voraciously preparing for the SE Asia trip and graduate school. I’m trying to keep my head in the present and live this amazing life in Kunming, but it’s hard to keep my mind from wandering into the future that’s set up for us. I remember visiting my grandparents out in rural East Texas, wiling the hours away watching them read and do the cross-word. As an 8 year old, I was incredibly impatient and even bored. My grandpa used to tell me that it’s good to be bored every once in a while - it gives your mind time to recharge. 

I’m re-telling that to myself now. Not that I’m bored, but I’m just trying to appreciate this downtime while I have it.