Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It was a Golden State in a Golden Era

‎"What’s needed is not a revolution, but a restoration and a modernization of what California once had."

Good piece by David Brooks today about the "pro-market progressivism" in California that helped the state raise its living standards to the highest in the nation and supported an influential and expansive middle class.
"That kind of government existed for decades right here in California" through the 1960s, with leaders who were "pro-market and pro-business, but also progressive reformers. They rode a great wave of prosperity, and people flocked to the Golden State, but they used the fruits of that prosperity in a disciplined way to lay the groundwork for even more growth. They built an outstanding school and university system. [Which in the 1950s were once the best in the nation.] 
They started a series of gigantic public works projects that today are seen as engineering miracles. These included monumental water projects, harbors and ports, the sprawling highway system and even mental health facilities.
They disdained partisanship. They continually reorganized government to make it more businesslike and cost effective. “Thus,” the historian Kevin Starr has written, “California progressivism contained within itself both liberal and conservative impulses, as judged by the standards of today.”
My one quibble with this piece is the critique about the "environmentalists." There are ways of attaining development while upholding the state's environmental ethic -- ala Oregon and Washington. And it's false to say that only "wealthy" "coastal" people care about environmental standards. Celebrating the outdoors and caring for the natural world are part of California's DNA, alongside entrerpreneurship, agriculture and high-tech innovation.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

There's nationalism everywhere ...

I just had a very enlightening conversation with a couple of Chinese students at Ray's Bar and Grill on campus. We were standing in line to order, and all three of us noticed the following fliers pinned to the message board:

The two Chinese students were actually quite dismayed by this, and expressed surprise that this sort of nationalistic rant would crop up here at Stanford. According to them, the 愤青 "angry youth" phenomenon is really more of a domestic Chinese phenomenon, which takes hold among the "... er ... less well-educated students in China." They have some level of educational attainment, but are not the top students in the country. (Those ones usually end up going overseas). What concerned my fellow diners the most was that these "angry youth" only know a little bit about the issues, and then with this limited, often inaccurate understanding of history and world affairs, they go off on a rampage. "It's just not logical or rational," one sighed. He felt that most well-informed people wouldn't undertake such acts.

I realized suddenly that they were as embarrassed by these ultra-nationalists (so-called 爱国主义者), as we Americans are distressed by our Muslim-hating/Koran-burning/refudiating Tea Party brethren who wave American flags in the name of "patriotism," while they eviscerate the principles of pluralism and religious toleration that our Founding Fathers stood for. It turns out that rabid nationalism, ethnically-motivated anger, hate-filled invective, and poisonous political rhetoric are cause for concern to decent people everywhere who worry about extremist views taking root in their societies.

Now I don't know if this realization should assuage anybody. I cannot, for instance, ascertain how prevalent the view of these two Chinese students really is. And part of me is a little bit apprehensive about asking around, as this could be a really touchy subject. (People have been roundly criticized, even beaten for less). We must recognize that these (so-called) nationalists are a real force. Their discourse impacts society, and as they agitate for discriminatory policies or outright war, we cannot assume their voices will be diminished by other more logical actors. Still, it's encouraging to know that not everybody falls to their knees when someone waves the flag.

Personally, I still want to reiterate a question I raised in an earlier post: When claiming to be patriotic, why do we care about islands, but not about people?


Anyhow, the three of us conversed over dinner, which also included some interesting discussion about Mongolia (i.e. the country of Outer Mongolia, which one of them had visited during the summer), and how the economy there is largely based on the extraction of mineral resources. ("Developing countries are definitely not all in the same category," he sighed. "Mongolia is not well developed.") According to him, many products like socks and cups are still largely imported -- largely from Russia, Japan and Korea, as the Mongolians don't appear to like the Chinese much. (Many fruits and vegetables do have to be imported from China, however reluctantly).

"Why don't they like the Chinese?" the other fellow at our table inquired.

"There's a historical narrative that paints China as wanting to take over and dominate its neighbours," the first guy said. "It's in their textbooks. You know the way our textbooks portray Japan and its rapaciousness? Well, that's the way Mongolian textbooks depict the Chinese."

Sometimes tables turn.


I don't mean to suggest that all history is simply constructed -- good textbooks should be based in historical truth, though of course there are judgements on what is to be emphasized. But the history on which we can rely should be less of a propaganda tool and more of an educational aid to create thoughtful and discerning citizens.

Indeed, a history based in truth can inoculate a population against discrimination and tyranny, because it strives to uncover cause and effect, while leaving room for ethical understanding. Such texts make it more difficult for demagogues to appeal to the masses, because their tired tropes are recognized for what they are: ideological propositions that radically over-simplify problems.

The text must take a look at the hard parts of history, but need not delve into victim-hood. (For instance, a "century of humiliation.") I do not believe this characterization of China's modern history is healthy. It is a recipe for entitlement and seems to excuse all the petulant and bullying behavior that comes eafter.

Instead, an inspirational story of perseverance and magnanimity under unfair circumstances could ultimately be a healthier and more appropriate reflection of what happened. But then again, that's only if you want balanced, free-thinking citizens who are proud of who they are and what their country stands for -- and who care about humanistic and universal norms -- rather than subjects who are simply grateful for being "rescued" and angry/resentful at the intrusion of outsiders.

In the end, a lot of it comes down to education and the kind of national narrative that is crafted. I'll post more about this topic some other time, but the implications of the different versions of history in textbooks are sometimes pretty worrisome.

BONUS: Video of ninjas and pandas clashing. Via WSJ.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Let's keep our lead!

Protect AB32, California's landmark climate legislation! Now that action has been waylaid at the federal level, it's more important than ever that our states move ahead. As this editorial in The New York Times recounts:
"Four years ago, bipartisan majorities in the California Legislature approved a landmark clean energy bill that many hoped would serve as a template for a national effort to reduce dependence on foreign oil and mitigate the threat of climate change." However, a "well-financed coalition of right-wing ideologues, out-of-state oil and gas companies and climate-change skeptics is seeking to effectively kill that law with an initiative on the November state ballot."
The harmful measure these polluters are pushing is Proposition 23, which will delay implementation of AB32 until California's unemployment drops to what are nearly historical lows. (According to Kristin Grenfell-Eberhard of NRDC, when these politicos first submitted the bill, they proposed quashing AB32 until the state had a level of unemployment that had never even been attained in California's history! They realized this would just look really obvious (i.e. they just don't want to stop polluting), so they adjusted the number upward by a little bit). As written, Prop 23 effectively guts AB32; climate change legislation might simply never be implemented in our state if these greedy energy companies have their way!

These polluters are trying to scare people by warning of higher energy prices and the loss of jobs, but completely ignore the new jobs that are being created and the clean technology industries whose growth has accelerated. Many of these jobs cannot be exported -- for instance, solar installation on rooftops has to take place in state. And if California becomes a leader in developing clean technologies and innovating low-carbon lifestyles -- in other words, if it it leads the way it does in IT, computers and semiconductors -- then countless employers would stream into our state, attracting talent from around the world.

These oil companies and greedy, out-of-state rich people (from Texas for instance) should not be allowed to drag California down and prevent us from capturing the jobs, economic opportunity and sense of renewal that accompany our state's pioneering effort. It is heartening to see that in response, "AB 32’s many friends — led by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California — have therefore mounted a spirited counterattack in defense of the law. Another respected Republican, George Shultz — a cabinet member in both the Nixon and Reagan administrations — has signed on as a co-chairman of this effort. Mr. Shultz credits AB 32 for an unprecedented “outburst” of technological creativity and investment."

Let's keep our lead! Protect AB32 and promote innovation and green jobs in California! Don't let these oil companies win. Vote NO on PROP 23!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The icing on the cake

On Saturday, "sirens wailed to mark the 79th anniversary of Japan's invasion" and "hundreds of Chinese gathered outside Japanese diplomatic residences across the country" to "protest Japan's seizure of a Chinese fishing boat." Some choice quotes about the 9-18 九一八 protests, via Xinhua:
  • In Beijing, dozens of protestors gathered outside the Japanese embassy, unfurling banners and shouting "Japan, get out of the Diaoyu Islands," "Boycott Japanese goods," "Don't forget national humiliation, don't forget Sept. 18" and other slogans. 
  • During the protest, a man held a cake -- the icing of which formed the image of the Diaoyu Islands, China's national flag and the message "Japan, get out of the Diaoyu Islands." "As a cake maker, I make such a cake to express my patriotism," said the protester surnamed Wu. "I think every Chinese in every industry should take action."
  • "An outstanding nation must be a nation that respects history," said Wang Jinsi, a member with the Chinese Society for Anti-Japanese War History. "To remember history is not to remember hatred, but to prevent the tragedy from recurring," he said. [Really, huh? I would very much agree.]
  • In Shenyang, "TV and radio programs will be paused during the three minutes. Drivers on nine main roads and 18 main streets, which symbolize Sept. 18, will stop their vehicles and sound their horns, said the officials."

So as this 九一八 situation unfolds with flags waving, voices hollering, tempers rising, one observation strikes me as to what is so misguided and sad about the situation: We fight over islands, but not for people's lives. Because we just don't give a damn about people.

In the United States, Martin Peretz's recent quote that "frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims" caused a huge uproar. That statement naturally engenders another question for our discussion: How precious are Chinese lives to Chinese people? Apparently, not very much. In China, individuals act in ways that are completely unethical because they don't value the lives of others. That's why you end up with poisoned milk, and shoddily constructed schools that crush children and teachers. (Furthermore, if you ask for investigations into such things, you are detained).

This state of affairs is simply abhorrent, because the life of a Chinese person is worth as much as the life of any other human being. Each Chinese person should be accorded a basic respect and dignity. After all, isn't that really the "equality" we are seeking? The quest for equal respect that so often motivates China's development mindset ("demanding" respect from the West) is misguided. If pursued in its current form, it will fail.

Real respect is not something that can be demanded; it is inspired. It comes not from fear, but from love or admiration. It comes from the recognition of one's virtue.

If you do not respect yourself and your fellow citizens, how can you ask anyone else to respect you? If you are not proud of who you are, and seek to tear down your heritage (and replace it with somebody else's notions of modernity), how can you expect anyone else to cherish your culture? Conversely, if you are cruel to your own people, for whom you have the greatest responsibility in the world, how can we expect you to be kind to anyone else?

It is urgent that we start behaving with humanity, treating people as living beings instead of as expendable resources to be exploited, manipulated and thrown away in the search for wealth/development/growth i.e. greed. When will people instead of things start to matter?

Indeed, one does not need to "demand" respect from anybody. One should simply strive to act in a virtuous manner, and this merit will be recognized in the natural course of things. If others want to remain ignorant or brutal, that is their problem; as long as we can face ourselves (对得起自己), then that is the right direction in which to travel.

Finally, I shall make one more observation: a quote from today's piece says that "an outstanding nation must be a nation that respects history." The double standard of investigating the history of Japan's atrocities, but ignoring other later crimes, is sorely problematic. After all, in addition to valuing history, an outstanding nation must also be a nation that respects the lives of its people -- not as a political tool, but as an end in itself. When we move toward these more universal notions of justice and affirm the value of life, we become more civilized. Isn't being "civilized" something we ought to strive for?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Just a small comment on an old tale

My friend is writing an article about anti-Japanese protests that may be taking place in China on September 18, the anniversary of the Mukden Incident of 1931 (called 九一八 in Chinese). This event marked the start of Japanese aggression into China's northeast, and six years later, full-scale war would break out.

[UPDATE 9/18/2010: The protests did happen.]

Such "protesting" behavior actually puzzles me. The illegal act by the Japanese was certainly wrong; it is wholly inappropriate to invade another country to grab territory and resources. Thus, it makes sense to condemn this action and recall its consequences.

Indeed, the issue of Japan's war crimes has not yet been put to rest. Many victims throughout Asia remain upset that, to this day, the Japanese government has not fully admitted its wrong-doings. Commentators have observed that the Japanese government has not unequivocally acknowledged and apologized for its illegal actions and the subsequent atrocities. Even in the cases where statements have been issued, the "official apologies are widely viewed as inadequate or only a symbolic exchange by many of the survivors of such crimes or the families of dead victims." (Wiki) Historians and historical memory groups continue to press for the Japanese government to release all information related to this period, to allow for a full accounting of events, and to prevent (elected) right-wing politicians in Japan from issuing denials.

So this begs the question: if we are mad about this white-washing of history, then what about other tragedies experienced in Modern China? Don't they warrant the same treatment: transparency, academic study and open discussion; assumption of responsibility by those who gave orders to kill; public apology and contrition from the perpetrators; recognition and remembrance by all people? Where are the demonstrations and protests about these events? Where are the calls for proper treatment of the innocent victims and a full historical accounting?

FYI the people who perpetrated 九一八 are out of power. (So maybe we should call it '旧尾巴' instead.) We kind of kicked their a** during WWII. And yet we are still protesting about it. Meanwhile, the people responsible for certain other "incidents" remain in power and continue to benefit from their positions -- but we don't say anything about them?! Doesn't that seem a little cowardly?

These so-called hyper-nationalists in China don't seem to care about their own people -- friends, neighbors and fellow citizens who were mowed down. So tell me please, what are they defending? Where is the moral basis for their action? On whose behalf are they protesting? Narrow-minded nationalism can be pretty ugly, and often descends into ethnic chauvinism. (Isn't that chauvinism the story behind Japan's war crimes in World War II? How do you think they justified their invasion and colonization of Asia? Because they saw themselves as a superior race. Race-thinking, so prevalent in those days.)

For a cause to resonate, it must appeal to universal principles. Protests are most powerful when they unite peoples and transcend race -- when they educate and warn against the common danger of inhumanity. We don't criticize the Japanese simply because they are Japanese and we are otherwise. We criticize them for their actions -- because the cruelty and violence carried out by the leaders and rank-and-file soldiers were abhorrent and wrong! Such actions violated fundamental tenets of human decency, and all people of good conscience would oppose them. Yet these "hyper-nationalists" who protest in China today are conspicuously silent when it comes to decrying the oppression visited upon their fellow human beings in more recent times.

If our real goal is to prevent these human tragedies from happening again, instead of scoring cheap political points, we must see with clear eyes. We should memorialize the victims, examine the conditions that led to acts of such cruelty, and share with future generations the lessons we have learned, in order to inoculate them from further hatred and prevent more suffering.

It should not be about nationalism, but about humanity. Yet even today, we see people grabbing that old tail of 旧尾巴 and waving it like a cudgel. But one day, perhaps we will also begin to gather the traces of history that remain with us -- maybe we can call these '留丝', strands of the past that still merit our attention -- and weave a better future.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I Love My State

Two nice pieces on how Republicans in California have to tread carefully when discussing climate change legislation, because two-thirds of voters (including over 70% of independents) support AB32, our state's pioneering climate change bill.
Global warming bill a lose-lose issue for GOP candidates (Los Angeles Times)
"Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina have wavered on Proposition 23, trying to appease their conservative base without alienating independent voters ... Those voters tend to be fiscally conservative but socially and environmentally liberal"

In California, Climate Politics Are Tricky... For Republicans (The New Republic)
"Republicans are actually getting into trouble for opposing the state's climate law"
P.S. Remember to vote against Proposition 23, the naked attempt by oil companies (primarily Valero Energy Corp and Tesoro Corp) to gut AB32 and avoid paying for their pollution. I'll post a couple of editorials on that soon.

Luckily, other businesses are not lining up behind them. Indeed, "a number of well-funded tech companies in Silicon Valley want AB32 to go forward—they have a lot invested in the state's burgeoning renewable and efficiency industries." Even the California Chamber of Commerce has "said it will remain neutral, and the Bay Area Council and the Silicon Valley Leadership Group both oppose Prop 23."

Go California!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Maybe it’s about values.

I just returned from Beijing yesterday morning, feeling joyous and deeply grateful with every breath of fresh air. I dearly love this country and am glad to have returned home. But a sense of gnawing discomfort has been growing in me all summer as I read about the political turmoil, poisonous rhetoric and growing intolerance in America. That such rhetoric (read: naked political opportunism) could take hold and animate the electorate was disturbing, indicative of some worrisome trends.

We face challenging times ahead, yet instead of standing up for reform, people are buying into a self-indulgent narrative, where any attempt at change is deemed an “un-American,” an attack on our rights that must be resisted. For instance, revenues and profits (and by analogy, salaries and lifestyles) are seen as deserved, rather than earned. This all fits into a larger national complacency, the idea that we’re simply the best—always have been, always will be—and therefore never need to improve. Our education system? Superb. Our health care? Never better. People assume that the United States is simply the pinnacle of human achievement, when in fact, if you look at the statistics (on educational achievement, on health, even on economic competitiveness), we’re not at the top, and in some cases getting worse!

National malaise and self-congratulation is a serious mismatch. So what gives? In a recent piece about America’s apparent decline in the world, Thomas Friedman decries the “national epidemic of get-rich-quickism and something-for-nothingism,” noting that:
China and India have been catching up to America not only via cheap labor and currencies. They are catching us because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had. That is, a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.

In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do.
Hm… and maybe that's why, as the Wall Street Journal reports:
High school students' performance on the SAT college-entrance exam remained mostly unchanged from last year, except for notable gains by Asian-Americans, who continue to outperform all other test takers. [Oh, snap!]
In short, values matter, and it’s not confined to China and India alone. People with those values in the US—people with greater commitment to education and a willingness to work hard—do have success. They create it. Of course, certain basic social conditions are needed for success to arise—things like human security, political stability, and free markets. But once those are in place, then it's up to individuals and communities to make a go at it.

This summer, I visited Suzhou and Singapore, both of which were incredibly dynamic. Both places were in the midst of rapid growth, with many new projects breaking ground, while still remaining grounded in fundamental ideas of what makes a workable, livable society. The sharp contrast between what I see in East Asia—a spirit of modernization and renewal, a willingness to embrace new things—with what I see at home in the US, is deeply worrisome. We Americans have decided that we are the world's greatest country, and therefore don’t have to look outward for anything. Yet looking inward has not been a source of introspection or strength, but rather of self-inflation: we are the best and nothing ever needs to be changed.  (Note: I understand that Suzhou is not typical of much of China. It is a particularly forward-looking city, and in some ways more balanced. But the example still stands. And as Singapore shows, one can still hold fast to ideals and modernize at the same time; these things are not incompatible.)

Now, in response to Friedman, I do have to point out that "get-rich-quicki-ism" and "something-for-nothing-ism" also exist in China in spades. Because the whole country seems to be rising, everyone wants to grab a piece of the economic pie for themselves, often with no moral constraints. Hence you get poisoned milk, shoddy construction and tainted crayfish as par for the course. So while the Confucian focus on education is clearly back in force, the moral aspect of his teachings was terribly weakened by sixty years of Communist rule, leaving major openings for unscrupulous actors who just want to make a quick buck, with no consideration for the lives or interests of others.

But to return to the issue of our own country, I’m definitely beginning to think that it’s a values issue here in America—and I don't mean the values issues touted by the right-wing. (Statistically speaking, it’s not the East and West Coasts that are in trouble. We’re still the ones generating a lot of the GDP, you know).

Today, Americans are coming across as fat, greedy, and ignorant, preferring to indulge in whining and blame, instead of picking up the mantle of reform. We would rather accuse others of mistreating us and giving us our due, instead of standing up, taking action, and making our own success. Historically, America was number one because its citizens were willing to work and sacrifice and strive to improve their own lives. Unfortunately, if you just sit around on your (increasingly obese) a-s, don’t expect to keep the top spot for long.

I believe America can turn itself around, but not if we buy into the narrative that, “We’re the greatest, and we always will be, just because we are.” That’s a recipe for stagnation and at some point, disaster. The country may be "going in the wrong direction", but it's not because we've taken a few tentative steps toward reform; it's because we refuse to admit the need for greater introspection and more sustained self-improvement.

UPDATE (9/14/2010)

Related post came out this evening in the International Herald Tribune.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

I keep humming this song

And thinking of Singapore ...