Thursday, 2 April 2009

Band of Brothers, an American monologue

I have had little interest in watching this piece of work from the famed American directors and actors. They worked hard on this, perhaps in consideration of some anniversaries of Normandy landing or the end of war in Europe. Lest we forget, the Americans fighting in France and Germany deserve our remembrance and respect, as long as these not exceeding the limits of the sky. Through movies and television series, the Americans have indoctrinated the popular, and simple, rules of seeing the war of their way. Hence the depictions of American soldiers in Band of Brothers. That is fine, but just don’t get so cocky and selective that people receive information but not true information.
(Colonel von Heydte, 6th Parachute Regiment, Carentan)
I only tentatively watched two episodes of “Carentan” and “Replacements”. For other episodes I had a glimpse of the beginning of each episode and pressed fast forward. The main point I would like to make is that it is not real. People tend to say it is very real, better than many war movies. That impression is only partly true. As a renowned tradition of Hollywood and movie making in the US, many scenes are very real, in detail, down to buttons and handkerchiefs, to make people believe the actors are telling a real life story and you are the witness. With great help from FX, special effects, and computer simulations, war movies have become livelier, a gun shot sounds like a shot, you can hear the clicking of trigger and dropping of shells, and soldiers’ legs were cut off by shrapnel. The movie industry there has done a fantastic job to make these all up and make people believe the truthfulness of the scenes, and of the stories. Unfortunately, these efforts to make it real cover mostly details, some pieces, or realistic acting by people in the play. Some of the troubles are that what was on show is not real, say in the wrong age, wrong place. That can be pointed out and corrected easily and does little harm. The bigger trouble is that people believe it as a true and correct story, but in reality many come out not reflecting the true situation or story. This is the hard part, as people come to be influenced by the true state of all details and of the parts with truth. No one would tell them that behind the assumed real story are many faults and false information, which the directors and writers did not want to mention and clarify. The whole process is to produce certain impressions on the audience; if that is done, the movie makers feel no obligation to caution you that maybe they used partially correct interpretations, not the whole truth.

Band of Brothers follows Saving Private Ryan in many ways, and we now know the movie is typical of half truth, half fiction. The landing is real enough, as one element causing endless praises. What happens next falls back into the conventional ways of portraying WWII since the 1950s. And it is likely the whole story never occurred in real life. A detachment sent by General Patton, much larger than Captain Miller’s squad, to snatch his relative behind enemy line got what it did not want to face, losses of more men and equipment, coming back with nothing. The movie depicts a mission more like a patrol, storming through many areas controlled by the Germans and lost little. Even if Typhoons destroyed “Tigers” with their bombs, the surviving soldiers of this tiny squad still would not be able to suddenly rush back to their safety, unless the entire area was taken by the Allies in a major operation. Script writers tend to put separate scenes together to make a straight line story, but that does not often happen in real life, you have to get in and out in some ways feasible and can’t just disappear.
Back to Band, in the two episodes I watched, rather fleetingly, there are many places where you are given wrong impressions. In the real Carentan battle, the 101st was a much larger force than the Germans who counterattacked, and they were adequately supported by powerful artillery batteries. In fact, artillery barrages hammered German defence well before the troopers moved forward, including in the famous charge along the causeway. The German counterattack came from about two battalions of panzer grenadiers, hurriedly rushed in, and the surviving elements of the 6th Paratroop Regiment. The Americans had two regiments out of Carentan in defensive positions, again with their excellent fire support from artillery batteries and big naval guns in the bay. The Germans had no tanks, only a few tank destroyers, and mortars. In the end, they kept advancing and almost reached the town. In fire fights, two sides were equal, but the 2nd Armoured rushed in with 60 tanks, as a result of a rumour that the Germans sent in 120 tanks to take back Carentan. The 101st fought the battle with a force big enough in size, rather than an image of underdog projected in the series.
The episode does not want to tell you this, as it also does not want to tell you that through all battles in Normandy, the Allies had their numerical superiority in hand, often to an unbelievable margin. In the scenes, it looks funny that German soldiers did not advance behind or by the “tanks”, but stood in the open in a loose line to fire at the troopers, like having target practice. With such a tardy pace, how could they advance to the railway junction and the town, and some troopers even fled? It is also not real a scene when Shermans appeared, as the Germans had tank destroyers, specifically made for destroying tanks, especially vulnerable tanks like Shermans; they could pound through the armour of Shermans easily at that close distance. It was for the sheer number of tanks there that the Germans retreated. In this episode, only three or four Shermans came out the woods, actually from a wrong direction, and those American soldiers stood on tanks to fire, in the open, with no protection, are more like truckies than tankers. This is just for showing how brave they are, nothing else; in a real battle, they would be dead very soon.
The encounter in a Dutch town in the episode of “Replacements” is even more unreal. First, that is not a Tiger in the scene, at the most a Panther, from its sloped shape, or even an IV. There is no way that a direct hit on the front of a Sherman, at that close distance, would only produce some fire, rather than a big hole or a blown away turret. Tiger 88mm guns could knock out a Sherman at a distance up to 1800 metres. Also about these guns, when the Americans fled in their trucks, not far from the exit of the town, they had not got out of the range of effective Tiger shots yet. If a Tiger chased to the edge of the town and fired into the column, the whole column would be destroyed. German Tiger crews often lined up and fired into Russian T-34s one by one from a distance over 1000 metres. It is ridiculous to think once these troopers got into a truck they are safe. This is more like a battle scene set up by the director, to enter, fight, and retreat safely, not real at all.

The usual features of WWII movies remain, such as the Germans always missed their shots, no matter how intense their machine guns fired into a crowd of soldiers. On the other hand, an American machine gunner fired into German soldiers crossing a creek at a far distance and got them all. A trooper shot casually to the head of a German sniper upstairs, behind balcony bars, and killed him with that single shot. In a close wrestling fight, an American trooper won. Large numbers of German soldiers ran into open fields for no particular reason or purpose until they were all gunned down. It is always a sudden shot to some troopers and the whole team reacted to fire back and silenced the German soldier or soldiers. In fact, this routine repeats itself many times in these two episodes, and there are no real battle scenes except these skirmishes. Throughout the entire series, there are no decent fighting at defensive positions or taking positions, merely sneaky snatch missions or encounters. This looks more like special forces in action, in so many Hollywood movies of anti terrorism, than real battles of WWII.
The most disappointing part is what the director tried to tell you something and what not to tell. The scene that an officer suddenly announced canceling trip back to England and going to France is very untrue. After the battle of Carentan, the 101st had been a reserve and saw little combat, relieving this or that formation and then moving to the next. They did move back to England by the end of June and stayed there resting and rebuilding for nearly three months. The disappointment of those soldiers when hearing not going back to England looks real, but the following return trip is not mentioned, until the scenes of some new guys appeared to come to duty. The director is obviously trying hard to give an impression of hard fighting all the way, no break, and of being called up so close to Operation Market Garden. This makes audience miss that fact of the Germans in Normandy continuing their fighting while these Americans got their lengthy break. If the director made that point clear, then the impression would be a more persistent and tougher German force than this American formation. That simply cannot be implied in this series, despite it is a truth.

Like many war movies, this series has tried to show the human side of war, of soldiers, with a lot of talks, confusions, emotions, desperation, and fear. It is just that these take too long to end, leaving less room for real battles. Perhaps the writers are more familiar with peace time life or love, that they could hardly resist inserting some humane conversations about feelings, traumatised to the degree to need a shrink.

Some improvements in this series are worth mentioning. It acknowledges that American soldiers did kill surrendered German soldiers on the spot, and some units did run away from their positions being scared. These had not been possible in previous American movies or series, since that would infuriate their home audience and break those taboos. But old habits die hard, especially in this series specifically made for portraying and saluting those war time soldiers.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Red Guards and old Chinese treasures

To a small boy, the grounds of this institute in Beijing was a paradise, especially the centre strips of large gardens, fountains, endless rows of plants, and tall pine trees providing plenty of places to stroll around and hide, without being seen. The centre strips are extremely long, extending over several large blocks till it meets the institute’s library, which is again grand in scale and style. This zone of gardens to me felt like the Central Park of New York, where one can bury oneself in it and wander for days. And it is the perfect place for children to get a sense of water, soil, plants, and insects like butterflies and worms. There was also a man-made hill in the adjacent staff quarters of the institute, whose countless paths and trails up and down at both slopes provided endless fun. I was addicted to exploring and trying all these paths during hill climbing and often stopped to marvel the tall, majestic pine trees at the top of the hill. To me, this was like the hills in Beijing’s Summer Place right at our backyard. Occasionally, if failing to grab the tangled vines and thus rolling down the hill, I got a dressing down from my parents for wearing dirty cloths.
The chaotic Cultural Revolution shook this tranquil place as well, presenting activities mainly in two aspects. One was the spectres of rallies condemning top institute officials, as the guidelines from the top requested. The Grand Hall served this purpose fine, with rallies held frequently by different political organisations. People were called to step up on the stage to receive criticisms, or two opposing factions staged a public debate there. We as kids could often slip to the front section to watch closely those being paraded and ridiculed, the officials who had been in charge of various administrative affairs, and those opposing delegates in fierce debating and often personal insults. I once resided, due to a shortage of accommodation, in a room which happened to house the number two man in this large institute. As a veteran party cadre, he already had white beard and wore a shirt all the time. As he said little and was always in deep thought when not being dragged out to the rallies, he sometimes looked at my direction to acknowledge my existence in the same room. I was of course a little scare of this silent figure and asked to change to another room to sleep. Those exuberant rebel members, actually young lecturers with high spirit and ambitions, let me move to another place in the building. Years later when verdicts made during the Culture Revolution were reversed by Deng, this senior leader of the institute went back to his old post, and he gave me some passing recognition during a brief meeting of being some kind of roommates.
The leaders of rebel groups made their moves in radical ways, in competition to show their revolutionary credentials, also perhaps for their desire to change social status. One emerging leader, a talkative lecturer, managed to get his fame by getting audience with top officials and instructions from there to rise against the establishment in the institute. With these assurances of his direction, he came back to make bold moves to hit hard on former institute officials with rallies and on other groups seen as not radical enough. When his activities were noticed by top leaders, his position moved up to be in charge of the revolutionary movement in the institute. He soon moved out the dormitories he had shared with others and got his official car with driver, a genuine testament that you have made it in those years in China when people mostly walked to work, at best riding a bicycle. This gain was only temporary, a year later he was put in jail for disrupting the proceedings of the movement when things calmed down. My parents often commented on his rise and fall with pity, on the ground that they knew that guy well since they all began teaching there about the same time. But for many in this movement, a brief rocket rise to the top and grabbing the places of power from old cadres were what they desperately wanted to achieve, even at all costs.

Another exciting activity was the Red Guards and various political groups converging in Beijing to receive Mao’s blessing during his eight mass public audiences at the Tian An Men Gate from the 1966 on. The Red Guards were a mixed bunch, not a uniform organisation of iron discipline, the Brown Shirt type. They were more of the kind of the young and the restless, eager to be part of the process creating a new era of the republic. They were particularly young, mostly teens and some leaders over 20, from colleges and senior high groups. It is understandable that these zealous groups had the urge and energy to carry out political instructions of Mao’s echelon for ongoing movements. Their tasks to attack the establishment caused plenty of shocks to officials at various levels, and many of them undertook long journeys from far corners of the country to see with their own eyes of Mao and his leadership. They roamed around the country, went to Beijing, and fanned out to other parts of the country, or back to their home provinces, all free of charge, on the orders from the top, since this was a mass movement for political purposes, rather than travelling at low costs. The trip to Beijing is a kind of pilgrim to them, and millions of them saw Mao in person. From many of their memories recalling those years, that pilgrim trip and other travelling changed their lives, at least in the sense of giving them the chance to see the many parts of the country for the first time, out of their remote localities.
Since the institute has large grounds, especially at the track and field place, it became an ideal hosting place for many of those groups from all over the country. Those people lived in large tents and in a military manner, lining up to wash, have meals, and attend meetings. The institute provided all support and logistics to these swarming groups. Altercations and fights often erupted among groups of different opinions; they argued passionately over issues of their own localities and were resolved to get a final judgement or justice when they came to Beijing. When two opposing Red Guards groups from the same province or city came head to head, tempers flied, and it is indeed full of air of fierce attacking. To us as kids, this immense tent city proved a fun playing ground for hide and seek, and also for watching the amusement of public quarreling and humiliation if one was beaten in public debate. There seemed no authority in this chaotic mess, as all pledged loyalty to Mao and claimed to have received true blessings from the top. These provincial Red Guards returned to their localities with deep feud and divisions after Mao’s public parades. It is quite understandable that violent and armed struggles among these opposing groups contributed to most of the fatalities in localities during the early stages of the Cultural Revolution, those without direct supervision of the central authorities and with deep vengeance in incredible chaos. It is this kind of torture and death that literary writers have given the most revealing touches, the so-called “scar literature” based on personal experiences or that of close connections. To me, they left a huge mess behind around the institute and especially in that vast sports field. It also heralded a calm-down after the highs of revolutionary fevers, a sign of hollowness amidst the loud calls and echoes from those devoted young radicals.

I moved between two places of dwelling, one in the institute dormitories and the other at the city centre where my father’s institute provided some accommodations. That was a typical Beijing courtyard for well-to-dos, built and lived by those with money before the Communist Revolution succeeded. Its centre court is precisely symmetry, with the long main residence set at the north side, with two side houses at east and west wings, each with its own centre entrance and living rooms. The main house is very long in length, comprising about 8 separate rooms, with quality timber floors and hydraulic heating, rare provisions in those early years. With high roofs and ceilings, these rooms provided an air of comfort and sense of space. There are stone steps up to the front doors and neatly laid large slabs in the gardens. The places of treat are stone stools under the two grape vines at each side of the front of the house, for people to enjoy cool breeze of summer nights. The arched timber front gate of the whole courtyard was guarded by two carved stone lions, and one passes first small rooms leading to the centre court. These are obviously the places for doormen and servants, perhaps also for those who provided transport in horse-drawn sedan chairs for their masters. There is also a side courtyard with several rooms, which might have been used by the head butler of the household. Behind the main court, there is a long and deep galley leading to the back gate, perhaps also for housing more servants, such as numerous maids and cooks. The entire courtyard was designed and built for the purpose to accommodate the masters in comfort and style, also for them to be sufficiently supported by large number of resident servants. It was not grand, palace like, but was adequate to reflect on the owners’ status and financial affluence.
We were of course far from close to that group of people, but since the government assigned that courtyard to my father’s institute as accommodation, and young researchers did need places to live, we moved in to take up one of the apartments with two rooms in the main house, sharing with other of his colleagues, one of then took up the side courtyard used to be for the head butler. We could not get more space, because the remaining, dominating part of the main house was taken up by an eminent historian, Professor Gu, and his family. The main house and the wing houses of the centre court had been his own residence since 1949, as a privilege fitting his status. He was already over 80 by the time of the Cultural Revolution, and in the early 1900s he was well known for establishing the principles or guidelines of studying Chinese history, with both traditional Chinese record reading and memorising, and western ways of systematic analysis. His prestige was so immense that even Mao regarded him as tutor and instructed before the Cultural Revolution to provide him with whatever conditions he desired. Hence the large courtyard as his own residence.
All these niceties disappeared when the mass movement ran its course. Fragile Professor Gu received numerous visitors from organisations which tried to find something useful from him about someone in the past. Once I heard shouting and face slapping in his room, and his wife called police. Social order at this stage was collapsing fast, and places of authorities, such as government offices and police, were under attack themselves. Surprisingly enough, two policemen answered the call and asked the visitors from whatever the organisations to leave. In pre-revolution circumstances, police would have had those people detained on the spot. Due to his fame and some high level coordinating, such intrusions ceased to occur.
His two adult sons were quite friendly towards me and let me enter his part of the house, especially his library, I mean library. I had never imaged that someone had so many books lined up in rows of bookshelves just for himself to use, let alone how he could manage and memorise the contents of so many books there. It was a sea of knowledge and you don’t know where to start. This is particularly stunning, since reading in those days was a risky business, as one did not know which one could be deemed not suitable and thus banned some day. His sons allowed me to take a few books back to my place to read, under the conditions of returning before borrowing others. I read quite some interesting writings, in particular a book by a Russian (then Soviet) author, titled “Blood in Sand” or something like it. Such foreign books were of course already translated into Chinese for publication, just as Gunther’s “Inside Australia”, as well as his other "Inside" books, which I also read then. The book by the Russian writer gave me a great shock for quite sometime, mainly because of its stories about ancient tribes and mammoths, the hunting and surviving, the desperate fighting between man and beast. Its vivid descriptions of human community in the wild and the imaginative quality have left a lasting impression on me, so much so that after reading this, I now find the likes of “10,000 B.C.” laughable. The two Gu sons later moved to other parts of the country and disappeared from the scene. The only one left beside Professor Gu was his much younger nagging wife who complained from time to time about how her husband was such a useless burden and therefore treated him with little care.
The charge to attack and replace those people in power was accompanied by the so-called smashing old Chinese traditions, with unaccountable ancient Chinese artifacts in public places and in individual hands confiscated or destroyed. People holding these things from the past were seen as lacking of revolutionary mantel and made to hand them over. In panic, large quantities of old treasures and handcrafted genuine articles shifted from family homes to antique shops. They were actually dumped there, with little thought from the owners for a good price. Ironically, that was a wonderful time for collectors. A nearby such shop was full of old style Chinese furniture made of rare hard wood and countless all sorts of stuff. They changed hands not through auctions but private sales. Because supply was overwhelming and demand collapsed, not many sales could be made. I went through that shop many times, curious about the items on display. My problem was money, unlike others who did not want to buy for the reason of demonstrating political correctness. Some who dared to buy were either with the right political credentials, such as a factory worker’s family background, or with crazy collector’s instinct and determination. The ones who made the purchases and kept their “loots” were rewarded fabulously in later years; a fine china bowl made by imperial kilns fetched about 5 yuan or less, and could easily get well over half a million in late 1990s. But these treasures were openly despised and thrown away as if the owners committed a sin, so there was no real valuation of those worthy assets.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Life in early Cultural Revolution

The years between 1966 and 1976 are a period in China defined by a special term “the Culture Revolution”. The country ran through a turbulent historical course with unprecedented chaos, which touched upon the populace with massive forces and caused devastating results in many cases. People’s experiences of this period vary wildly, but overwhelmingly negative, as summarised by the later official verdict under the Deng leadership from the late 1970s. The surging rise and tragic fall of elite social groups and various individual players have made many refer to this period with utter disgust, and a bitter taste in mouth when the term “Cultural Revolution” is mentioned. It however needs to be pointed out that the suffering of the people in general and the missed opportunities of the country during the nation-wide infighting are in importance well above the random personal sorrow and sense of vengeance of certain intellectuals and learned people.

It is undeniable that great expectations emerged at the outset of the mass movement when Mao called for struggles against those in power, bureaucrats, corrupt officials, inert cadres, etc. In addition to Mao’s intention to wage power struggles internally, the political party in power operated in general less satisfactorily after years in charge of state affairs. Mao’s early calls for rebelling against the establishment, except himself and a group of trusted leaders, were received with enthusiasms from young and perhaps na├»ve people who took the future directions of the country seriously. It is a kind of confusion that instructions in fact came from the very top, while the movements and activities against those in power at different levels of government were mostly spontaneous and from the grassroots. People were sort of mobilised, but they also rose to take part in the movement willingly. There were idealists, opportunists, and potential leaders, those who would not have been able to demonstrate their talents in certain areas under normal, orderly circumstances.

When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, I was in early primary school years, at a stage of fast changing social environments. The first school year passed quietly, no drama, but routine early age, basic learning. That was 1965 and things did not show much excitement. My first school locates in the eastern district of Beijing, and the district sports facilities there provided training sessions for students. I was picked to play table tennis at one centre near Wang Fu Jing commercial streets, and one day every week we walked there to have about two hours playing with instructions from coaches working there. I learnt to use back hand playing table tennis and got quite used to it. The following weeks would be the time to learn and practice the right hand playing, the most common way people play the game. But we were told one day that due to some changes all these free training sessions would end. On the way home, I did not know what happened to the sport programme and could not expect much to change in life. The following year came with the news and scenes of the Cultural Revolution, which disrupted all life routines, including my table tennis training. From then on, I have been particularly good at back hand table tennis playing, which surprised friends numerous times, but my right hand playing is weak and terrible, which is also notorious. All these can be blamed on the political movement raging in the nation at that time.
In the second year, it was a time when many pupils changed their colours from Young Pioneers (similar to scouts in western cultures) to Little Red Guards, with red collar ties being replaced by red armbands, with three Chinese characters on them. It made little difference to me and to many of this change, since people who were active would be supposed to join Young Pioneers or Little Red Guards early than others, and pupils with so-called leadership qualities and tendency to show-off would be appointed as leaders in Young Pioneers or Little Red Guards later. I was from the beginning not part of that group favoured by teachers, so getting permission to join Little Red Guards became a delayed process.
Pupils, like other groups of people at the time, were hyper active, not only at frequent public rallies, but also in cases of fights against teachers, especially head teachers and principals at those rallies. It was a routine that we marched to some places to attend rallies condemning some senior teachers, and in the afternoon or the next day attended some other activities supervised or led by those same teachers. Status of those teachers changed dramatically in a day, and it is a question how most of them maintained the sense of dignity and courage to face their pupils after being paraded in humiliating manners at rallies. I remember that one leading teacher stood to receive public speeches attacking him, and later on yelled at some undisciplined pupils to make them behave, not to run down and up the stairs. His authority remained while he was not forced to walk up the stage. These were just little boys, so making them listen was still possible by adult teachers, unlike those high school students who were already tall and physically matured. As far as I can remember as a small boy at the time, physical abuses to teachers did not occur at rallies I attended; a routine practice was to hang a square wood sign with condemning capital Chinese characters around the neck of a teacher, which forced the person to bow low. The only dead people I saw with my own eyes was an old man hanging himself in a room at the next courtyard, who was identified as a former large landlord before 1949, a political crime highlighted in those hectic years. That was a suicide, with one burned out piece of coal in each of his hand, for the purpose of fainting him with the burning pain in order not to feel the short breaths from suffocating hanging with a tight rope, subsequently depriving him of the deep fear of the incoming death.
There were often lines of trucks screaming past the streets, loaded with excited people shouting political slogans. They had different purposes and thus had conflicting slogans, normally with “oppose such and such” versus “defend such and such”. To outsiders, these were quite some shows, and few considered the consequences to their lives if one of these groups won over the others. The key point is not to raise questions about their loyalties to Mao and other remaining leaders not yet named as counter-revolutionaries. As time went by, the list of names at the top became shorter, with some purged one day or another, but the loyalty towards the top two, Mao and Lin, was demonstrated by all different groups rallying and performing daily.

I soon moved to dormitories at my parents’ institute in the west of Beijing, at the National Institute of Ethnicities, a place for teaching and studies of the 51 (now 56 officially recognised) minority ethnic groups of the country. My parents came from the same university in Sichuan province in the south, both of them from families of medium-sized landowners, but they got into tertiary institutions after 1949, having passed political examinations of their family backgrounds, seemingly acceptable to the government at a time when China urgently needed people for the reconstruction after decades of political disintegration and wars. They were selected to move to Beijing to do research work at two different institutes. Their major subjects were history, however, not much to do with the actual building of the nation, only literary enquires on issues of the past. In those times, people well known in literary and humanities fields enjoyed great prestige and took up top and key academic positions. The head of the later National Academy of Social Sciences was a celebrated poet and revered historian on early Chinese history, especially on reading scripts carved on animal bones two thousand years before Christ. University presidents also mostly came from humanities faculties. A prominent dean at my mother’s institute graduated from an Australian university with a Doctor degree, Sydney perhaps, and was regarded the ultimate authority in anthropology and sociology in China. Most of the deans at my father’s institute of history in that National Academy had already enjoyed reputation beyond national borders in their relevant academic fields before 1949. These were the people you should look up and pay great respect to, with thorough knowledge and wisdom not to be casually challenged. A short essay from one such authority in academic value is worth more than a couple of books university researchers now publish. That was a time of authentic academic research and education, for the purpose of these two alone, unlike the situation today when economics professors and business experts command the show, giving people an unmistakable impression that they lack depth and are too market smart to be true scholars. And there is now a sea of worthless publications around every year.
I was not daunted by the prospect of meeting those great scholars at the time; the more obvious and attractive fact was the institute itself. It was located in a quiet part of western suburbs, midway to the Summer Palace, after passing endless green fields, giving one deep impression of getting into the countryside. The road leading to the institute was divided, with one way traffic on each side, separated by an up to ten metre high hill running all the way to the far north, until it met the famous Beijing University campus. Dense woods grew on the hill, making it an ideal place for boys to play and charge up and down the hill at will. The whole area surrounding the institute was green through and through, an ideal area to have spring time outings and picnics. All those natural setting is now gone, replaced today by annoying endless motor traffic, crowds and plain buildings of concrete. The institute was a beautiful place to live for thousands of students annually, with most of the buildings coming to the existence in the 1950s under Russian influences. The remaining influences of this kind of architecture can still be seen today at the grand Friendship Hotel, not far from that institute and initially for accommodating Russian experts. The ground of the institute is expansive, wide boulevards separated by large and elaborate gardens, lined by rock solid buildings of high ceilings and ornate entrances. Universities established decades later certainly lack this kind of luxury in design, space, building materials, and attention to details. Especially the Grand Hall, as shown in the picture of its grand entrance, it was massive with deep back stage, several dozens rows of comfortable seats and elaborate decorations around, and four more entrances by its sides, fit for lavish concert and opera performance. The institute is, was, itself a magnificent garden and designed and built to last.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

The Age's news reports from Beijing

It is only natural that readers in western countries rely on foreign correspondents of their local papers to get some glimpses of life in other countries. This medium is so important that the risk of some resident correspondents tending to abuse the trust of their home readers and give fuzzy pictures of their liking is very high, and few at home country have the means to check them out, they are in effect the lords of news by themselves. For an important country to Australia, China has drawn attention from media organisations from Australia, and resident correspondents are common in Beijing and routinely give their say on what is going on over there. It is in this respect that a reporting by such Beijing correspondents shake and form the minds of Australians about China. Needless to say, the picture is seldom pretty in their writings. One particular correspondent, Ms. Toy, has been particularly picky or nasty in her news reports, as far as giving misleading messages and displaying her preferences openly. "Openly" means she was hardly checked for accuracy, and her readers had no way of knowing what is true, especially when she quoted sources in Chinese. I have been reading the Age's China reporting for a long time, and found it hard to accept her version of things on many occasions, especially hard to swallow her own sentiments and bias in many of her writings. Routinely, I wrote to the Age's editors to remind them something is wrong in her reporting and interpretation of things in China, but few responses came. The following are some of my views expressed on Ms. Toy's strange ways of writing from her Beijing post.
I am glad to report that perhaps as a result of this pursuit of made errors and prejudice, Ms. Toy's name dropped from the list of news reporting Beijing correspondents from the latter half of 2008, and her written pieces disappear from the Age's news columns. But if she persists, she could find a place in another western media organisation to continue her career of reporting on China in her old way.

After reading Ms. Toy's leading article on Olympic relay, I wonder whether she stations in Beijing or in Melbourne. Most of her quoted sources are from overseas, Europe or the US, those comments people can read anyway from thousands of other English language papers. One important information missing on the same day her article came out is from President Hu Jin Tao, which says clearly the issue with the Da Lai La Ma is of national unity and security, not religion, ethnic minorities, or human rights. And the President said all these to the face of Kevin Rudd, visiting at the time. Is this clear enough? Why her report is slow to include this newest information in relation to Rudd's visit, a visit many Australian reporters hope to get explosive outcomes or confrontations, good for news? Hu's words have indicated clearly the way forward, the way the Chinese government and nation will handle the Tibet (Xi Zang) issue in the future. Then why her piece still asked the question of the way forward? The objections and disagreements from the West, and some Chinese, now are not relevant, after Hu's direct, no-nonsense talk with Rudd. If Ms Toy did station in Beijing, she would not have missed this important information. Another possibility is that she did deliberately not to report on this official stand of the Chinese government, in case it conflicts with her written reporting back to the Age.
Another sign of her article being late is that the relay in Argentina went smoothly, as reported in the Age, contrary to her prediction of ongoing violent protests to the relay everywhere thereafter.
One more sign is that the Olympic Committee President already stated that boycott is not what people around the world (including those in Europe and the US) wanted to see and that even if some western politicians decided not to attend the opening ceremony,the Games will be a success. This is not at all in her reporting from Beijing, especially that of the President's statement.
One more information lacking in her article is about the mounting waves of protests by overseas Chinese against western media's unashamed bias and distortion on the issue of Xi Zang (Tibet). Instead, her report cites a few unknown Chinese writers' letter which allegedly differs from the official policies.
This letter, even if it exists, is certainly unrepresentative and unpopular in China and among overseas Chinese, and is anyway dismissed outright, as shown in President Hu's statement. Her report relies heavily and repeatedly on a celebrity architect Ai, son of a famed Chinese writer who himself suffered during the Cultural Revolution. Taking Ai's words as a typical Chinese public opinion, especially on the issue of Xi Zang (Tibet), is definitely unwise, and he has shown consistent tendency to please his western visitors and journalists, to say what they wanted to hear. And citing one source for over half a dozen times is also questionable, for the reason that the two parties may forge an alliance, thus losing crucial objectivity in later reporting.
If Ms Toy was a journalist stationed in Melbourne, these mishaps and missing information should not be taken seriously. When Australians rely on overseas correspondents to provide them with the latest and correct information on countries of significance, such reporting will only cause confusion and breed misconception to readers back home.

Reading Ms Toy’s reporting on China often gives one a sense of reading last week’s newspapers. One feels that while there is nothing new in her reports, she tries hard to impress the reader of her closeness to the story or deep-throat sources, or something all the people missed but she doe not. This show of self-centredness is quite annoying sometimes.
Take her dispatch on May 24, for example. She presents the story of tents missing in Chendu in a serious tone and claims all Chinese-language newspapers and their websites reporting such incidents are blocked, so implying Chinese people are deprived of their right of knowing the truth. In fact, this is old news, as there have been tons of blogs writing about the story with photos, and officials already promised to investigate and prosecute those misbehaved. All of these are on open websites, under discussion constantly. One can’t believe Ms Toy pretends to be the only one on this story while others are in the dark.
For the allegation that there is little reporting on quake prevention or substandard construction, I don’t know what Ms Toy has been reading, as if she is unaffected by daily hot debates and discussions online and in newspaper sites.
The story lines on initial response to restrict news reports on the quake allegedly by the Propaganda Department are also old and cold, and your correspondents have made a big fuzz about that already, including Mr. Garnaut in Beijing. So, Ms Toy recycles that story in order to fill up this bucket of report.
About reporting mostly on tragedy and heroic human actions, rather than negative gutter journalism and digging of possible neglect or corruption, Ms Toy appears to be late in reporting again. The choice between the former and latter as the focus of reporting or discussion has been widely and openly debated in the media and online in China. Initially, angry people were hard to control their rage and condemned those who may be responsible. Gradually, the mood changed, as people reached the conclusion that during this unprecedented tragedy the first priority is to save life and get relief in, the most humanitarian choice at the moment. Investigation and possible punishment will follow, but not to impede current rescue effort. That is why it seems journalists toed the line, as Ms Toy prefers to describe, simply because first the magnitude of the disaster warrants the emphasis on life rescuing rather than cynicism or sarcasm, and second organization and rescue effectiveness obviously improved as time goes on. There is no shortage of exposing bad behaviours in this whole process either, including the reporting on missing tents or substandard building materials (the party disciplinary commission made the pledge to do just that a few days ago).
Ms Toy is accustomed to naming a few sources which cannot be identified, and making those invisible figures back up her main points. And some of the “volunteered” opinions are really weird and cannot be substantiated, such as the claim that the government’s days are numbered after this quake. No wonder that senior journalist and dear friend of Ms Toy’s had his remark rebuked, since that would make the publication appear extremely silly and become the laughing stock in the country and among overseas Chinese.

After reading today's report by your Beijing correspondent Ms. Toy and the original speech in question in Chinese, I believe she added a little too much of her own elaborations in the piece, as well as largely ignored the main text.
The key points of party control of legal departments are drawn from a couple of sentences in the original speech, about which I have to say the translation is quite liberal, either picking out a few alarm-sounding words or failing to see the limited significance of routine party jargon. She virtually amplified the volume of the jargon and made them stand out in the whole text.
Several of her assertions are hard to be found in the Chinese text. "Better-educated people"? This is not to be found; instead "socially mobile citizens" are mentioned in a way as to organise them in an orderly fashion. We all understand this refers to millions of roaming peasant migrants to big cities, but they are certainly not "key citizens" or "better educated" of the country as presented by the correspondent.
Also, about "re-education camps for political and religious activists", it is in the text of work-and-study schools for law breaking teens (you can say that these schools are loosely in the large category of re-education camps, but not precisely the same). The sharpest words in the report, "an independent judiciary was not appropriate", seems not coming out of his mouth.
The whole text focuses on restoring the reputation of the legal system and work for the "harmonious society". Many measures and words in that are surely responses to the worsening injustice and unfair treatment of people, exactly aiming at countering the corruption and illegal activities mentioned at the end of this news report. Whether this speech works or not is not the point here.
I strongly recommend that the editors download a copy of the text, get someone who really read Chinese, and check the text word by word before convinced of those words indeed spoken and approving the report. I don't blame the routine tendency in the media to print sensational overseas stories; I am just amazed how often original words turned into something else in the papers.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Bush Fires and Marysville

It is shocking to learn the sad news of bush fires raging in hills around Melbourne these days. Death tolls rose to the levels Aussies have never seen before; the Ash Wednesday looks pale against this. Luckily no one I know or my son Bob knows in the city has been reported missing or gone in flames. Even if not being there, I can feel the sorrow and horror of seeing the fires right a front of you and having one's properties completed up in the smokes.
We have particular sentiments regarding the areas this terrible fire has affected. When we were students in Melbourne, we lived in the north of the city and not far from the Kinglake area being burned by fire this past week. The road to this hilly area, with some expansive national park and woods, is a straight one at one section, you don't need to adjust your steering wheel a tiny little bit for several minutes in a high speed drive. It is an ideal road to learn driving, not me, some other guys I know, because the first thing to do in driving is to gain confidence in handling the monster, and a cheap way to get that confidence is drive at high speed, to have that feel that driving is not bad, and is simple, just put your foot down. So that straight road for miles did help.
The Kinglake area can be reached by winding and sloping up roads, not a problem for good cars, but troublesome for our second hand, manual car at the time. A trip up there demanded concentration in driving and managing sharp turns. It was a pleasant place to be, country, bush, and hills all at once. The disappointment was the tiny falls in the national park, as water came down in small streams, rather than big falls we had expected. The sceneries were wonderful, green and woody in the national park, and brown fields of farms along the roads. The first impression was the wide open space, and you wonder what kinds of people live here, far from each other and far behind the shabby, wobbly gates along the roads. It is in fact hard to see anyone around and out there. One of my uni. tutors lived somewhere in these woods, in a mud-brick house, miles from anyone, good for thorough and deep thinking of how people and societies have evolved. An old lady we knew also from the uni. had a ground, not farm, and house there, it covered several footy grounds, and tall, dark trees formed a forest at the far end of her estate. She said just that woods, if chopped down for timber, would return handsome money. Those were the outings for immersing in nature and fruit-picking we did to the north of Melbourne (Bob has great photos there labouring in strawberry picking with his kid friend), and Kinglake is a name we remember well, a little mysterious really, imagine we had a farm there and kept away from people, just like Brian Nylor did. One unfortunately thing was that a friend of mine was fined there after finishing strawberry picking, because he did not fully stop at the line before turning to the left, and a police car happened to be right behind him. Two things followed, he vowed never to go to Kinglake again, and we have seriously obeyed the rule of stop at the solid line before turning ever since.

Marysville is another matter. That is a place I always wanted to go and look around when we had time. It looked great and sensational in tourist brochures, for a holiday place for just a couple days. I am not sure we have been there or passed it before. During numerous trips up the hills in the north and east, partly for enhancing my driving skills, in particular dealing with winding and uphill roads, we passed a lot of small towns and were impressed by how pretty they were, and then wanted to come back there again. But driving in the hills were very confusing, even with the Melway, so not long after we forgot what towns we had been to and never traced the tracks exactly again. But the name Marysville stuck and had been a place name on my schedules for later outer Melbourne trips. I have never had that chance again after leaving Melbourne. What a shame! This God’s own garden is no longer there any more. Even if it was rebuilt, it would not be the same, and the scars of heavy losses remain. I sadly take it off my list of traveling in later years.

A familiar face emerged in the list of the deceased in the fire, and I never would have thought that he would be on the list. I did not know Brian Nylor had a house in Kinglake; he was not a farmer or academic intellectual, those guys like to reside in those areas, and his residence could be in any of the blue ribbon areas of the southeast. We benefited so much from him, not financially, of course. In our earlier years at uni. we basically learned and improved our English language from him and David Johnston of Channel Ten. These two newsreaders showed us the perfect way of speaking the language, clear and formal, easy for us to understand and follow. That tone sounded official Australian, with residual of BBC English, but better and livelier than ABC English. Although theirs are a little far from everyday Aussie and British talking, we felt much better at least having someone speaking something we understood, without much difficulty. That was a very long time ago, and we heard little of Brian Nylor after we left, until this terrible news of him, a person in our neighbourhood (a far off neighbourhood from our first home in Bundoora) and a language tutor-like man giving you most of the news in life. His image has not been tainted by that kind of celebrity scandals, and few newsreaders in Australia today would be able to catch up with him in the ways people’s life are influenced.

A bad feeling about this horrendous fire and huge losses is that we probably have to forsake the idea of living in a country residence, especially a bushy one. The lovely hilly towns in the north and east of Melbourne now look less safe and attractive. But we will visit them in our holidays; only wished we saw Marysville more before this tragedy happened.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Election 2007, Rudd the winner!

Election 2007, Rudd the winner!

It was Rudd’s turn in 2006 to turn Labour around and unseat the Coalition government. He completed these missions, a “big ask” in his own word, with flying colours.

His win on the 24th of November marks a historic event of change in over a decade in Australia’s politics. Other former Labour prime ministers at his sworn in ceremony were all pretty old-aged, and Labour had been in opposition wilderness for so long that few had any hands-on administration experience at the federal level. A young talent then rose up to the challenge and led Labour to the stunning victory. During the campaign trail, there have been plenty of doubts and cautions that Rudd would not make it or the canny Howard could always pull out tricks of surviving another Labour resurgence. In the end, the night was Rudd’s to celebrate with open arms, with enough seats grabbed from the Coalition and for forming the first Labour government in over 11 years.

It is perhaps just a simple matter of “time for change” that created the winning swings for Rudd to move into the Lodge. Howard showed signs of aging at the TV debate, breathing heavily and speaking haltingly. He also made angry comments on issues so frequently, indicating his impatience and temper as a senior leader of the nation towards a much younger challenger, a kind of contempt if you like. These don’t make good impressions to potential undecided voters, especially the younger ones. After the debate results showed unfavourable facts to him, Howard simply rejected any invitation for further debate and let Liberals’ campaign issues rot in a natural course. There is a chance that he expected a repeat of the last election dysfunction on the Labour side and a collapsed Rudd at the last moment.

The Liberals in fact agonized over the leadership issue before the election. It is one matter that Howard makes history with his record election wins and the unbeatable achievement of being the longest serving prime minister in Australia’s history, over the top of revered Sir Robert Menzies. It is a completely different matter of the survival of the party. There is Peter Costello eagerly waiting in the wing to succeed Howard at any time, and there is that anxiety in the party that an old Howard is better replaced with a younger leader for the coming election. Of course Costello is not a fresher face, as he has served the conservative cause and in the conservative government for so long to hardly be identified as a change for new. Despite his youthfulness in comparison with Howard, Costello lacks the real leadership quality in critical times, making no declaration of leadership intention and initiated no leadership challenge. He fared worse than Keating; the latter challenged old Hawke and led Labour to another election win. With a weak party and a silent potential successor, Howard with a strong will to stay naturally ignored the issue of leadership change and went ahead with his own plans to make history.

History making indeed! Howard not only lost the government to Labour in a shocking fashion, losing over 20 seats in a 6% national swing, but also managed to lose his own seat in Bennelong as the incumbent Prime Minister to Labour challenger Maxine McKew, a feat only matched by another Liberal prime minister 75 years ago.

Howard’s anti-political correctness and Americanisation eroded the society and spoiled the good things Australians took for granted, such as fair go and social liberty. Australians, surprisingly, made little noise about these retreat from progress and threat to true Aussie spirit, for fear of being branded radicals. They did this also for the false belief of absolute security in a phony war on terror and superiority of their tradition and values. There is this bankruptcy of neo-conservatism in the evolving process during the Howard years, as promises broken and humanitarian principles thrashed by the government on many occasions, in particular after the Iraq war, which made false claims increasingly ridiculous in people’s mind. In the end, the Liberals lost power to convince people and preach more of the same conservatism, being badly hurt by ugly reality as consequences of the war. At the time of this election, it becomes a rare chance for speaking out, leading to the resounding defeat of the Liberals.

Surprisingly, the Liberals collapsed so quickly and quietly so soon after the election results were ascertained. They lost their leader, the successor leader and a number of top team members. It seems some Liberals are jumping ship in panic. The Nationals are doing the same. It is incredible that the almighty conservative party, reigning supreme for over a decade as described in the manuscript, could so quickly changed its mind and lost the fighting spirit. The prime example is Costello’s prompt declaration of leaving politics, causing Kennett branding him a coward with no leadership quality and not fighting when his party needed him most. This is not entirely a surprise, as he avoided challenging Howard before the election, thus shirking the responsibility of being a sensible leader at critical times. The Liberals also became humble so soon, down from their cockiness in just previous weeks in front of Labour opposition. The new leader Brendan Nelson immediately supported Rudd’s decision to rectify the Kyoto protocol, an act Howard would not give a slice of serious thought. This implies that the Liberals perhaps had their doubts about party policies but kept silence under strict Howard rule.

Now they lost their leaders, their cause, and their power bases as well, because all states were already under Labour even before the election, and now the federal government is Labour’s too, a situation rare in Australian history and ultimately dire for the Liberals.

It is fortunate for one to witness dramatic turns in political history of Australia; it is fortunate for me to observe these exciting events at least twice, one of the Keating win in 1993 and the current Rudd win just weeks ago. The second one is especially meaningful, since it occurred at the end of a long run of opposition bad luck, and world neo-conservatism only begins to recede after high tides of unilateralism from the US. I always have faith in the egalitarianism and humanism of Australian people, but only with this Rudd’s win I am convinced of the trueness of these Australian qualities not being submerged by the tyranny of economic rationalism in the previous decade.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

wild goose chase by Victorian police

Dear Sir,
One of the Sunday Age pieces on Victoria's stolen construction vehicles written
by Mark Russel
"Made in China (from goods stolen in Victoria)" is really an eye opener.
It seems anywhere there is a problem,
journos can link it to and blame it on China, and they don't need to
substantiate. The story is basically on a local Victorian problem and on
organised crimes by local Australians, but the title of the piece screams of
bad apples in China. China bashing is indeed an enjoyable and no cost fun game
for some. The local sergeant on the case provides little of China -related
evidence, hard evidence, but is courageous enough to make a quantum leap in
investigation by saying that definitely stolen goods went out of Australia
China bound. He perhaps understands fully that no one can really challenge his
speculations and allegations, because no one has anything on that speculated
link. Now your journalist comes in to fill up the gap, by drawing a picture of
massive construction projects in China for the coming Olympics. Better still,
even sporting venues and facilities in Beijing are in fact all built with great
Australian help, some way or other. The sergeant in question is overwhelmingly
happy to cooperate on this, giving your journalist whatever the writing of the
piece needs. Along the same vein of reasoning by the sergeant, stolen
construction vehicles could well be for the building of the Sydney Olympics,
because he just loves to link lost properties with international sporting
The wild guessing and irresponsible accusation in the piece reflects a darker
side of human beings, that is the tendency to blame others for the troubles
one faces. This is not something new, as shown in European news in previous
years of missing well covers on public roads for the shortage of copper in
China. These wild rumours die down after a flash and storm, but what caused
these spreads of rumours remain in people's mind, that is a whispering of
suspicion on the behavours of China and self-righteous ways of detecting
The allegations in the piece are unfounded and unsubstantiated. Since it is
published in a local newspaper on the weekend, it is not likely China formally
responds to these accusations. So this may pass as a non-occasion, giving the
official and journalist in question no reason to get nervous of consequences of
misleading. The question is really how journalists write their pieces with
integrity. There are of course correct information included in the piece, such
as detailed numbers and values of stolen properties, and building frenzies in a
far away land, but this does not form the foundation for the writer to jump on
conclusion of supposed links. The intriguing thing is the way the writer
peppers over those correct information with leading words and then makes bold
as well as wild speculations. Journalists would better work harder on the part
of providing information and shy from pursuing a career of a detective on a
wild goose chase.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Dalai and the White House farce

It is that hunting time again, a China-bashing season with a new twist. An elder Buddhist monk was dragged out of his fox cell to be put up stage with US politicians, whose eagerness to not be beaten in showing some sense of humanity, often seriously lacking, are for everyone to see. This is, however, a farce in its true form, since the murmuring elder is none other than Dalai, a veteran Tibetan politician savvy in misleading western media. After nearly two decades after he received that controversial Nobel Peace Prize, why this seemingly belated and irrelevant US honour to the same guy who has since done little to advance his cause and almost lost his political argument and followings in the west? Again, it is the China-bashing season, and American politicians feel they have had enough of good news in China and bad news in Iraq and elsewhere with an American presence. They have fallen into a deep hole their extraordinary leader Bush dug for them, and have sensed the strong international resentment toward their bully tactics outside the US. It is time to climb on a moral high ground and start lecturing again.
That the monk is set up as prop is not new; what is new is the sentiment and advocacy of a complete overhaul of recent Tibetan past in the so-called China friendly country of Australia. The leading newspaper of Melbourne, The Age, issued a stinging editorial on the photo op of Dalai. The author tried to bluntly call Tibet an independent nation in the recent past, disregarding the facts of the collapsing of Chinese empire, revolutions, and foreign aggressions. This is unacceptable for a seemingly educated writer, whose tone resembles Tibetan separatists and is obviously showing signs of brain washing by those exile activists. With some justifiable fury from the author on human rights and racial equality in general, the editorial simply misses the point of the whole process, which goes back to repeated attempts by separatists to gain footholds in China with the backing of foreign forces, Australia included. Dalai is not the issue; the issue is unpredictable consequences of territorial disputes and border disturbances by outside fundamentalist radicals while the economy is growing. Any such fools rushing in drags China back a bit and satisfies those expecting a collapse any time soon. It is for this reason that the Chinese stance has not changed, with talks on and restrictions on as well. In comparison with national development and reform, Tibet is not a major issue, and Dalai accordingly is put at a back burner.
The editorial author lauds Dalai of peace intent and non-violence preaching. Indeed, those are preachings, especially to westerners, while his rule in Tibet did not shrink cruelty or halt armed rising supported by the CIA, nor his preachings discourage violence by mobs against civilian rule in Tibet today, those actions in effect leading to government responses in force. Here is the irony or display of hypocrisy in the west: why Dalai or the author not preach peaceful solution and non-violence to the person who handed the medal to Dalai? That person has caused the most human suffering and carnage in the 21st century than anyone else, including Chinese leaders. Where are your courage, fury, insight, or just common sense when you watch the head of a nation which invaded other countries for no reason to bestow some medal to another person who has done little for his people rather than PR shows around the world? Your harsh criticisms seem always reserved for those in developing countries, rather than for those in a western super power. By following this writing tradition, you have lost objectivity, no matter how strenuously you deny it. It is not that Australian politicians are spineless in front of China, as you imply, but many Australian journalist are simply spineless when they face the choice of harsh criticising the wrong judgements their leaders made, in regard to other countries. This spinelessness comes from the deep fear of losing moral high ground among readers (O', I kowtowed!") and losing favours from politicians, even when those same politicians are routinely ignorant of what are happening outside their constituencies.
The US has staged a show for salvaging their bankrupt morality; they have the right and acute reasons to do that, but why a loud call came from Australia which took the stand higher than the Americans'? Some people must be seriously blinded by certain sentiment or ideology.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Rudd rubs shoulders with Hu and sweet talks in Putonghua

At the Sydney APEC summit, Kevin Rudd, though not a government minister but opposition leader so that counts, presented himself very well at this international occasion. In particular to him, this is a chance not just to meet world leaders but to meet a special guest of honour Hu Jintao from China because of the multiple links behind the meeting.
Rudd has good reasons to be very pleased for catching a chance to show off his Putonghua speaking skill, one that had not been overwhelmingly appreciated in Australia. As a low ranking diplomat in Beijing, Rudd could not convincingly show that language skill as a strong credit for his career back home, since not many Australians understood that and did not care by that time. In the mid 1980s, I came to Australia and met a young Australian Peter who can speak Putonghua like Beijing natives (he lived and studied in Beijing for years). Now he is somewhere in the federal government as a senior translator or official in some capacity, but in those less exciting days, he was supposed to teach the language in some local schools (hard to find) or do something totally away from using that language. Rudd had the same problems and instead he went into politics. Another way is to teach Chinese at universities, like Professor Colin Mackerras or others. As I mentioned before, Rudd once had a rare chance being interviewed by a Putonghua speaking host on a Hong Kong TV programme about WTO and international trade. He performed well, spoke with confidence, and beat the heavy accented host in Putonghua by not just a few metres. It is obvious indeed that Rudd was extremely happy to finally demonstrate that his language skill is as good as he declared, and that even native Putonghua speakers would be awed by that. That TV programme, though only shown in Hong Kong, filled a big hole in his mind, at least diminished some of his hidden regrets of learning a language most Australians pay little attention to, despite economic and business connections between China and Australia.
This time it is totally different. The APEC meeting is a many folds larger stage than that TV programme, and Rudd, becoming the opposition leader after that TV talk, steps on under international media limelight not only to present himself as a credible national leader, but also to project his image as a genuine friend of a country important to Australia. The best way to convince is none other than speaking their own language. In this case, Rudd had made preparations for decades, not as a smart politician rushing to pronounce a few simple words just for the occasion to please the guests, but as a learned near native speaker toiling at the low point of bilateral relations and then shining eventually when the time finally came. For this reason, there is little ground to mock Rudd's enthusiasm on speaking for a few minutes in Putonghua at that luncheon and at meeting with Hu; if it is a show off, then imagine how one can endure troubles and troubles and neglect to learn an obscure and remote language, try it for yourself.
Hu Jintao is obviously surprised and delighted by this nice gesture from Rudd. The impression is cast in iron, that of a genuine friend of China not just catching the current benefits in, say, mineral exports, but underwent turbulent years working and not giving up. In everywhere around the world, meeting a person not your race but speaking your language is such a moving experience that few would forget. When Hu Jintao visited Australia in the mid 1980s, he must have felt lonely, despite officially organised tours and arrangements, because at that time the Australian government did not fully recognise the vital interest in embracing China and the language in communication was of course all in English. That is why he was so happy to see my wife and me in Melbourne, getting a chance to talk and laugh as one can in such gatherings of native language speakers. It is then not surprising that, after 20 years, a major political figure in an English speaking country talking with Hu in Putonghua made such a good impression on the visiting leader. Now we can talk business.
Rudd did not upstage Howard on purpose; showing off his language skill in public after suppressing it for two decades and narrowing his own distance from Hu are the main goals. But, inevitably, this is interpreted in many ways as what it actually means to Rudd and to Australia. Some noticed that Howard was not looking very comfortable at this; it is also suggested that people around realised the difference between him and Rudd, that he hugged an old ally, Bush, as usual while Rudd embraced a new friend of strength.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Australia's experience and development issues

An extension of enquire can be made from this self-fulfilling Australian experience of a well balanced place of development. All major development issues of the world boil down to two judgements. One is the possibility and prospects of development, evolving from a poor status to a developed one, implying a catch up and narrowing of the gaps between the two clusters. This has been a vital issue to poor countries and also a thorny one to developed countries. The latter in fact had made extensive transformations from poor regions to rich ones of modern times. The challenge now is finding the path for poor ones to make it as well. What paths are plausible enough to be chosen? Are these paths merely similar to that of the West, or there can be multiple alternatives? Responses from developed countries may first cast doubts over a chance of developing countries ever reaching their current levels, and then suspect whether their own paths should be faithfully copied in the absence of viable alternatives.

It has been a casual and common happening in world history that previously weak economies emerged to rule. There is nothing exceptional that waning powers attracted fierce assaults from rising, fresh leaders. When Europe stuck in the dark medieval times, few expected them to have a great future or climb above the status of other matured cultures, on the basis of their evident backwardness, chaos, fragmentation, and hopeless stagnation. For some reasons, they rose to the challenge, cumulated wealth in a steady fashion, encroached on others’ territories persistently, and eventually secured international dominance, the British Empire as the outstanding representative. They began to realise that an uplifting of their societies and attached ideals could be achieved such easily and then proceeded to trample over other cultures they used to respect and admire immensely. This course of ascendancy gave them an unwavering sense of eternal justification of Western superiority and fostered a belief of never falling again to the level equal or below other cultures.

As they passed a plateau of development due to exhausting expansion and self-inflicted wars and mayhem, another power stepped onto the centre stage to replace old European powers, in the shape and form of the US. Those wars of little loss, pure gains brought the US with unprecedented power and influence, but short of domination, because it had to share war loots and gains with an ideological enemy. By the time that opposite power collapsed by its own self-destruction, the US got what it wanted all along. This triumph at the end of the 20th century gave it supreme confidence over another eternal rule of its power alone in the world, including its ideologies and doctrines. European powers experienced spectacular rises and painful falls, and have vivid memories of traumas of leaning too heavily on one side and losing sight on long term goals. They also had the experience of falls, so that too sure of one’s beliefs does no good and the fate could be reversed later on. The US as the new world power has so far suffered minor setbacks and has had no valuable European experience for guidance, so people there assume their right path is right for all time and all types. It is thus understandable that the US would not admit or concede any wrongdoing or mistakes of principles.

With their past achievements and current wealth, developed countries in general see no viable alternatives to their own paths, as long as a Western entity dominates the world economy and the ranking of wealth holding. This has become an ideology, taking the path to development as a wholesale deal, all or nothing. Development of certain poor countries have strings attached, either they fit the prescriptions and are granted generous treatments, or they fail the test and are discriminated against. This uniformity request comes from a hidden fear of open competition from those non-adhering but growing countries. Restrictions on those entities become a necessity in justifying the certified right direction of development. It is likely that the issue of development today is ideologically driven and politicised. Taking away the smoke screen of the debates, a development under reasonable conditions is plausible, and market forces allow demand and growth to occur, thus spur development of a particular economy. There should be emphasis on removing restraints, barriers, and discriminations. Development is not a particularly difficult issue; only when development forms a challenge to the status quo and power balance that it becomes serious and even threatening to the leader of the pack. How this development fits in the existing rules and cause unease and even countering measures from developed countries comes to be the centre of controversy. The more difficult tasks of the WTO in recent years openly illustrate the conflicts and changes in the world economy. The issue of development, along with a catch up, thus becomes more complicated than routine economic growth.

Taking a longer view, there is no guarantee that a leading power sustains its rule and dominance for an indefinite long time without a down phase or fall. It is also feasible that development outside the power bloc will move forward as a common phenomenon, gradually re-arranging the existing order of matters.

The other judgement is the real meaning in all these development. Development signals achievement, but tradeoffs remain, between material gains and quality of life. Suppose one economy is not completely efficient or advanced, and maintains its own lifestyles, a common perception is that this is bad for people there, and they should pursue wealth in a more extreme fashion, so that their demands for a good life could be met. This view does not prove to be true, in development or in life. There should be a point of balance that economic gains match standards of living and welfare. The question of quality of life is so far primarily an issue for developed countries. The varied European and American experiences attest to a divergence in choice. Australia has maintained its European traditions and preferences, staying well short of worshipping of productivity, and thus is less likely to put in long hours of work for higher output or returns. Allocation of time is balanced between work and leisure. In addition, since human societies are merely in a very short time of existence on earth, pushing production and consumption to the limits, in order to get maximum returns at current time, will only exhaust the resources at an alarming rate and make later life more unbearable and intolerable. Current gains essentially imply future losses. This approach is affordable, but not sustainable, being particularly unfair to future generations. I short, a pursuit of development could incur multiple costs and inadvertently harm quality of life, instead of enhancing it.

The world is indeed moving and changing face fast, swiftly churning out numerous new attractions and easily breaking old norms. With all of these shocks and distractions, the question that really matters remains whether life is getting better, or just more complicated, annoying, and stressful? Fast pace unavoidably generates heightened stress, accompanied by temptation and hypes. More to the point, these induce people to confusion and disillusion of their wellbeing. No matter what happens in economic development and how many long historical periods fly past, people’s desire since the dawn of civilisation are for peaceful and tranquil life, and that will not disappear or fade in the face of certain contemporary dramatic or exciting changes.

This lasting pursuit has been carried on by generations of people who held firm beliefs of a continued betterment of human societies. Without doubt, the mixed reality of early modern time, supposed to be a new dawn in human history and breakthrough in liberation of man from shackles and restraints, proved less satisfactory and led to earnest searches of new balances in the society. Worthy trials were seriously undertaken, as shown in the establishment of New Harmony, a utopian trial site by the initiative of Robert Owen since 1824. The experiment, for the purpose of setting up a just and fair base in the world of ruthless capitalist exploitation of the working population, generated high expectations. For the lack of funding, this experiment ceased to function shortly after, but it had just long enough time to explore multiple novel social practices, in the forms of the first kindergarten, public library, public school, equal education for boys and girls, etc. The community experienced free speech, communal life, democratic mechanisms, and a rudimental classless living environment. Such pioneering work is indeed remarkable. The experiment was apparently way ahead of the contemporaries in a frontier market economy of the US, but it demonstrated the practical ways of implementing social democratic ideals. Many of those pioneering work are now common, standard institutions in Australia, especially social welfare, equality, and the spirit of fair go. A good one and half century passed for the political acceptance and faithful application of those daring trials of earlier devotees and volunteers.

From this trying process, it should be clear to all that there is no base or excuse laughing at or ridicule idealist European experiments and legacies in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as Owen’s, making dismissive judgement by criteria of a rational and pragmatic world these days. Those people searched hard for reaching a fair and progressive society, which should also be the primary purpose of work and administration of societies today. The important point is that, despite dazzling happenings and occurrences of this new century, they should not shake the fundamental goal of human existence, the improvement, not worsening, of quality of life and basic decency and rights, rather than temporary success or gains.

In this context, the issue of development is to be put in perspective, up against people’s real needs and desires. A development priority could easily breed killer instinct in market competition, which increases stress and disrupt essential components of life, such as work routines. The relative smoothness of Australian experience is perhaps out of their customary views of work and life, similar to western Europeans’, stopping well short of ultra competitive and lean rationales persistently in fashion in the US, those rationales dreading ultimately losing to adversaries badly. There are generally contrasting attitudes toward economic activities and business, wars to win to the Americans but ways of sustaining reasonably comfortable living conditions to the Australians. The essence and purpose of development fully illustrate their merits in the case of Australia.

In contemporary history so far, the disappointment over the US’s let down is the most striking and heart-breaking, since the country trumpeted great promises and generated incredibly high expectations. That hope quickly waned after the brutal nature of this super power and its ideologies were fully exposed in recent bloody conflicts of America’s doing. Sectoral and national interests hide behind rhetoric of moral and religious justifications for unilateralism in this virtual global village. As this once standard bearer of freedom and so-called mankind’s last hope on earth disappoints with familiar materialist calculations, extreme selfish hypocrisy, and imposing indoctrination, it makes little sense for people to hinge future hope and choice on the now widely discredited American way. Bad human characters are in full display soon after the inception of the new century, in both so-called “failed” states and the civilised super power. Attempts to reverse historical trends of progress also emerge with constant repudiation of social democratic traditions and unabashed advocacy of greed and naked self interests.

In this disheartening environment, the fair minded, non-fundamentalist, non-radical Australian mentality shows its worth and value, precious and rare in this age of extremists. It is basically not shockingly strong armed, unlike some ideologies which come out to prove them worthy of everything and prevailing over all the rest. This model is not radical either, as opposed to the revolutionary Marxism or resolute ultra conservatism. It has grown out of well developed market economies, gaining a sound economic foundation, rather than of poor and developing countries where a radical thought could provoke positive responses and cause mass social movements, in the meantime may also be quite destructive. The underdevelopment status is a crucial reason for those economies to turn to authoritarianism, because that approach solves contemporary problems and achieves certain marked development. The real hope, however, will lie in a social democratic model in examples like Australia’s, since there is a much more desirable balance of clashing social forces and ways of democratic participation while maintaining higher living standards. This model undoubtedly excludes the strict socialist doctrines of the 20th century, but it also differs sharply from the ultra right tendencies currently prevailing in the US.

The social democratic nature of Australia is the best bet so far in the tug of war between the left and the right raged on for centuries. This tradition comes from repeated trials and corrections, in order to reach a right balance and maintain acceptable social cohesion and harmony. The Australian experience amply shows that social democratic beliefs are to be treasured, and the most likely solution is a combination of both elements, making it work under a market economy with adequate social welfare for all. This experience builds on what people have tested and already achieved. It is extraordinarily unassuming, claims no end of history or a solution to all worries, especially in regard to super wealth, but only tries to address problems in social justice and equality, involving constant adjustments. This in general demonstrates the future trend of progress, turning sideways from time to time, but keeping the principles and essence of an egalitarian society in tact.

Other peoples are attracted to the Australian life not merely by accumulated wealth, high standard living, relaxed lifestyle, or welfare benefits, but also by their appreciation that this country offers a fair chance to all citizens, an emphasis on social equality, and fair dealing with issues and problems in the society, considerations more important than being granted the right to bomb, attack, humiliate, or pressure other peoples at will. This Australian way gives people a peace of mind that this society is just, seriously guards people’s rights, and opposes unrestrained state power or extreme ideologies. The origin of this freedom and security is a lasting social democratic tradition, rather than power and influence grown out of enviable wealth. It includes specific rights to be free of fear and threat, such as fear of the authority and of destitution after retirement. Providing pension and social security is unquestionably the government’s job, never a job completely for private organisations or individuals.

Australia as a medium power is spared of the dramatic experience of rise and fall accorded to past great powers. It is steady and smooth running, only with usual economic cycles of ups and downs. This instead makes it manageable for Australia to sustain economic difficulties and problems, unlike the US which will inevitably feel very bad about losing and decline. The 2001 US tech bubble bursts, for example, gave Australia a mild shock and made tech people panicked for a while, but the scene of large numbers of bankrupt tech companies did not occur. The HIH insurance collapse represents a typical company fraud, rather than tech related rocket rise and hard fall in the US. The economy has maintained its pace fairly steadily, relying on mature business sectors and promising export for investment, consumption, and growth.

Australia needs not to fear open competition in international business. It has enormous resources and reserves under the soil for export and benefits from swings and uncertainties in international markets. Along with an increasingly acute prospect of scarcity in the world, the real value of Australian export will surely rise. Australia can also learn from others’ tested ways to compete, such as practices in outsourcing and off-shoring. These are simply techniques, and their application does not flag a change to the principal aims of economics and business: supporting and sustaining people’s wellbeing and security in life. It is not the right way to interpret what happened under globalisation as having reasons or pretence to treat employees and their welfare as a non-issue. Welfare has to be the central concern of all governments, left and right or extremely economical and ruthless. A top priority is to prevent bottom lines from being crossed.

Recent debates on social trends have got so much one-sided and right wing market fanatics got so excited that they would rather forget market failures and desperate situations of free exploitation of labour in the past. This deviation comes from Americanised globalisation and ballooning power of capital markets. The flexibility in choosing approaches and adjusting is seriously lacking under fashionable worshipping of economic rationalism and drive to success, and alternative academic thinking are not taken into account in government policies and mainstream media advocacy. It seems that there is a paucity of indigenous creative thinking, and the most productive way of formulating policy is simply imitating the fashionable celebrity models or agendas from the US.

What is fairly worrying is that the right wing conservatives under the Coalition government are losing Australia’s values and humanist touches and making people loose confidence in upholding their treasured principles. Previous Labour governments started a process of erosion through deregulation, and the Howard administration happily push that initiative to the limit, depriving more rights and benefits from the working people of Australia. And all these are justified in jargons borrowed from American right wing think tanks, typically business competitiveness and market demands. When Howard identified something un-Australian, it caused confusion as he might from his heart prefer Australia to get more American, because those Australian values are undermined and attacked right at that moment by his party and followers. Even in deregulated Australia, this government obligation for social welfare has held on, but the risk that a conservative administration may alter or shirk from that obligation looms larger. If that happens, people have to bear with more fears and curtailed security. It is for the remaining social democratic forces to salvage the progress making mission and halt the erosion of rights Australians used to take for granted in a just and egalitarian society.

This Australian experience has come to a full circle, in many respects in the course of a century. In regard to political parties, for example, they have evolved from many competing minor parties of the early times to two major parties of national governing mandates, and there have been more recent calls for giving small parties a chance in politics and administration, seemingly a rendezvous or a backtrack, but in effect a sign of renewed efforts to better respond to public demands and requests. In guiding principles, there were wide swings to the left and the right, from social welfare doctrines to more economics-oriented practices, such as deregulation, argument for figure-based productivity improvement, and welfare cuts in the name of efficiency. These recent tides are now accepted wisdoms in the Anglo-Saxon bloc including Australia. The country also proceeded forward in strategic positioning, from a colonial outpost and a despise of its Asian neighbours in the era of frontier discoveries and uncertainties to a shifted focus on East Asia and multiculturalism, and to the latest realignment of the triple relations with Europe, the US and the Asia Pacific. Among all these swings and turns, the central theme of domestic policies remains how provision of essential social welfare for citizens sustains costs with greater output, export, and added value in the economy. This is an issue more crucial and troubling to governing social democratic parties, while the parties on the right simply steer a market-driven economy on models from the US or reformed British Labour Party.

Australia’s position and future role have also run a complete circle and moved into the next course. Alfred Deakin in early years of Federation claimed for an Australia reserved entirely for white Australians only, especially for whites from Britain, to be pure blood and with same traditions, so that the country could have hope in future. This flagrantly racially based political correctness of that era has been replaced by the Commonwealth of multiculturalism today, by law, tolerance, and participation. The country is still great and remains fundamentally humane and economically sound. To some extent, certain truth in Deakin’s singular statement of vision could be easily turned around in a 21st century context and come to indicate Australia’s extended roles in supplying necessities for the needy of the world and in preserving crucial resources and hidden wealth underground for the survival of the human race, at the very least, maintaining consumption and living standards of populations for a long period of time. Global missions or a power status notwithstanding, this designated salvation responsibility places a social democratic Australia in a more prominent position of being a rare oasis of the world.