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According to economic historian Angus Maddison, in the year 1820, the Chinese economy was the world’s largest, accounting for approximately 33% of global GDP. At the same time, India’s was half that, with 16%, and a youthful United States around 1.8%. Europe ranked second in this GDP league table with 26.6%. (Here’s a link to the 200-page OECD report. If you’re interested, see p.46)
It was around this time that British opium traders began to export Indian-grown opium to China, an act, ostensibly in support of the principles of global free trade, that impoverished both India and China. The import of opium was illegal under Chinese law, but the fading Qing dynasty was unable to stop the smuggling, principally through Canton, or Guangdong as it is known today. In this period began what the Chinese now call “the century of humiliation” where they could not compete with superior western naval power and suffered internal fragmentation. In subsequent decades, China ceded territories to Germany, to Britain, to France and to Japan. One of the few happy results of these forced occupations is that China’s best beer, Tsingtao, comes from the Jiaozhou Bay area that was ceded to Germany. Tsingtao beer was listed as the world’s top-selling beer in 2017.
By 1952, the picture had changed dramatically. Europe’s share of world GDP was 29.3%, the US 27.5%. China’s GDP had dropped to 5.2% and India’s to 4%. Today, nearly 200 years after the first opium war, it looks as though China is resuming its old dominance, with close to 20% of world GDP; this time as a united country that willingly trades with other countries around the world. So, contrary to what is often written in the media, maybe China’s expanding global influence is not really so threatening. From the Chinese perspective, they are merely returning to their rightful place in the international world order. Rightful place this may be, but the accompanying geopolitical shifts are worrisome to many countries, especially Asian ones. India now wears a necklace of potentially hostile naval bases in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka, and in Pakistan, all built and financed by China. Until Duterte came to power, the Philippine leadership worried about Chinese occupation of the Spratly islands that are claimed by six countries: Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei. China has now pre-empted the discussion by building a military base there.
The increasingly authoritarian rule of supreme leader Xi Jinping does not bode well for China. Neither does the crackdown on Uighur ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, or independence movements in Taiwan and Tibet. Meanwhile, climate change looms over the entire world, so amidst rising prosperity in the region, there are tough geopolitical questions to be dealt with in every corner of it. So here’s a toast to some schoolgirl or boy who, unknown to the world today, will come to power and find answers to some of these questions in the decades ahead.
Ever wanted to go on an ocean liner? Cruise ship advertisements idealise the high life to be had on the high seas. What they never say is how much ships pollute. The average ship runs on low grade oil, which can be likened to a sludge that emits more particulate matter than a million cars; more sulfur than seven million cars. And that’s just one cruise liner!
Several Scandinavian ferries now run on hybrid diesel-electric systems but, as in most advances in electric propulsion these days, China is taking the lead, as a cargo ship with a 2.4 MWh battery pack launches in Guangdong. Ironically, the ship will be used to transport dirty coal!
Car makers have a problem. They don’t admit it yet. Or maybe they do admit it to themselves, although not in public. Why should they, when enough people are buying bigger cars? Global car sales in 2017 were close to 90 million vehicles in all categories, including SUVs and light trucks. That’s roughly 1 car for every 77 people. Less than 1% of these were electric. How many more cars do we need? Car companies are powerful entities that are in the business of selling dreams; dreams of freedom, of the joy of the open road, dreams of independence. The irony is that as we buy into the dream, we destroy the very foundation on which our dreams are based.
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Enough of worrying news about fake news, Kim Jong Un’s hydrogen bomb, the summer of hurricanes, melting glaciers, etc. A London newspaper reports that on 9th October, after robbing a jewelry store (ok, jewellery store for you Brits and Aussies), the six thieves got away with stolen goods unknown on just one moped.
Surely one for the record books. Do they deserve to get away with it? Should they be sentenced to work for no pay with Cirque du Soleil? Should they find work in glass safety and certification? Suggestions and opinions welcomed.
I recently saw a snippet of an interview with actor Denzel Washington where he talks about the media. “If you don’t read the news,” he says, “you’re uninformed. And if you do read the news, you’re misinformed.” There’s a lot of truth in that statement. However, it’s one thing to read the news as an endless litany of the day’s evils all over the world, and quite another thing to seek out those media that offer in-depth, thoughtful news coverage of trends that shape the world. In the latter type, there is more information on the trends that shape events rather than on sensational local events with no geopolitical significance. Social media is not all bad. In fact, like most technology, good or bad depends on how you use social media and whether you feed off it indiscriminately or choose to sip from the nourishing bits on offer. Gandhi apparently once said: life is like a mirror; if you smile at life, it will smile back at you. Keeping that in mind, go ahead and read news roundups of the year 2016, which has been a pretty horrible year.
But remember that mirror and keep smiling for 2017. Here are some things that the daily news stories do not say. Or if they do, not as headline news but only buried on an inside page. Below is a post by stalwart statistician Hans Rosling that shows unmistakeable positive trends in the world today. I encourage you to sample at least a few minutes of it, and if you’re hooked, there are plenty more by him on YouTube.
I suspect that most of the people who voted for Brexit and the current US President-elect are unaware of the basic facts illustrated by this lecture. In an earlier blog, I cited a quote by Karl Menninger that said: attitudes are more important than facts. Very true, but if facts are accepted to be true they can help to change attitudes. Whatever the year 2017 brings, there will certainly be a lot of surprises, so don’t forget to smile at the mirror of life.
Here’s a Sufi story to answer the question so many are asking these days, post-Brexit, pre-Trump, pan-ISIS, mass shootings; what’s going on in the world today?
“We have a word,” said the Sufi, “which sums all this up. It describes what we are doing, and it summarises our way of thinking. Through it you will understand the very reason for your existence, and the reason why mankind is generally speaking at odds. The word is Anguruzuminabstafil.” And he explained it in a traditional Sufi story.
Four men – a Persian, a Turk, an Arab and a Greek – were standing in a village street. They were travelling companions, making for some distant place; but at this moment they were arguing over the spending of a single piece of money which was all that they had among them.
“I want to buy angur,” said the Persian.
“I want uzum,” said the Turk.
“I want inab,” said the Arab.
“No!” said the Greek, “we should buy stafil.”
Another traveller passing, a linguist, said, “Give the coin to me. I undertake to satisfy the desires of all of you.”
At first they would not trust him. Ultimately they let him have the coin. He went to the shop of a fruit seller and bought four small bunches of grapes.
“This is my angur,” said the Persian.
“But this is what I call uzum,” said the Turk.
“You have brought me inab,” said the Arab.
“No!” said the Greek, “this in my language is stafil.”
The grapes were shared out among them, and each realised that the disharmony had been due to his faulty understanding of the language of others. (From: Idries Shah – The Sufis)
Perhaps now, more than ever, is the time for us to learn the language of “others,” and this involves two kinds of listening. This might also be a Sufi parable for the European Union.
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Fifteen kilometers southwest of Chiang Rai stands a surreal, snowy white temple. It is known as the Wat at Rong Khun, but tourists simply call it the white temple and flock there in the thousands. Entrance is free, from around 9 to 5 every day, and tourists arrive in groups, large and small, or privately in a taxi, as we did. Apart from its natural beauty spots, half of the most important tourist sites in Thailand are palaces and temples, or Wats. Some of the beautiful palaces have Wats attached to them, and some of the Wats look like beautiful palaces. So much so that a friend warned me, it’s easy to have your fill and get wat-ed out. So I was reluctant to make a detour to see another temple, but we heard so much about it that we decided to go.
To begin with, the parking lot itself was dauntingly huge for such a small village so close to the Thai-Myanmar border. There were large groups of mostly Chinese and Thai tourists at the temple; smaller groups from a smattering of nearby Asian countries and a few Europeans. Picking up a free brochure available in several languages, one learns that the temple is a work in progress begun 16 years ago, that it was conceived and built by Ajarn Chalermchai Kositpipat, an artist who was born in Chiang Rai. “I want to be good and valuable to my country. I want to create arts in my own style and to develop Thai Buddhist arts to be developed internationally. I want people of all nations to come and admire my works, like when they want to visit the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat.”
The art and architecture of the temple certainly is distinctly Thai. One sees shapes reminiscent of mudras made by the flowing hand movements of a Thai dancer. Chalermchai says he takes themes from ancient Thai murals, trying to create a modern synthesis that is recognizably and uniquely Thai. If the number of visitors is taken as a measure, then his ambition has certainly been realized. Within the temple are modern murals that face a statue of the Lord Buddha. “I want people to feel peace and happiness and to envision the kindness of the Lord Buddha to all beings,” says Chalermchai. “The mural shows the final conflict of the Lord Buddha’s own demon before he received enlightenment and freedom from immoral thoughts.” When asked about the images of George Bush and bin Laden in the demon’s eyes, the artist replies. “I want everyone to know that our world is being destroyed by those who crave to build weapons that kill. They segregate and therefore cannot find peace….”
Chalermchai expects to complete the temple in 90 years.He begins each day at 2 a.m. with an hour of meditation, then creates and sculpts. An artist whose wealth stems from the roughly 200 artworks he produced every year, he now devotes most of his time to the completion of the temple and currently produces around ten paintings a year. The entire site is kept spotlessly clean and supervised by zealous volunteers who ensure that tourists are modestly attired before they enter the temple. The toilets are guarded by a bronze hermaphrodite keeper.
Concluding with the artist’s own words: “I want to discipline the mind to train me toward being a good person with clear thinking, speaking well and doing good deeds. We are all human and I want to give goodness to people. If we have love and forgiveness in our hearts, it will come out naturally. You need to practice patience before you can control your own mind.”
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I see this older man on every visit to the local supermarket. He notices me, because Vari and I are among the few people who park our bikes at the small stand and carry home all our shopping in bicycle saddle bags. He sells a newspaper, called the Augustin. The Augustin is an inclusive newspaper run by volunteers who have formed an association, a ‘verein’ that promotes tolerance and provides opportunity for marginalised members of society to earn a little money with dignity, selling issues of the paper on the streets. Not many people buy them.
My Augustin man is always well groomed, clean shaven and decently dressed. He stands by the bank of shopping trolleys outside the supermarket. Sometimes, when he sees an elderly lady fumbling with change to release a shopping trolley from the stand, he steps forward with a metal gadget from his pocket the size of a beer opener that releases a trolley. Some people take the trolley from him with a sideways glance or nod of acknowledgement. Sometimes not even that. A few people stop to talk to him. I bought an Augustin from him one day, as a gesture of support.
Last week he used his gadget with a flourish when I was entering the supermarket and presented me with a trolley. I stood and spoke with him for some time. He’s from Georgia, he said, and 62 years old, a professor of philology. He’s waiting for his papers to be processed. I’m not sure how much I can ask about why he’s here. He’s so dignified and reserved. Does he have family? Did he lose his job? Is he a political refugee? He’s not allowed to work, he said, and lives with the support of Caritas while waiting for his papers. Caritas is the catholic relief agency that does a lot of good work among refugees in Austria and elsewhere.
When I come home, I check the definition of philology in Wikipedia. Philology is the study of language in written historical sources; it is a combination of literary criticism, history and linguistics, it says. I read a beautiful poem by John Milton when I was a child. Seeing the unemployed philologist reminded me of it. It’s called, When I Consider How my Light is Spent.
When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg’d with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide;
“Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?”
I fondly ask. But Patience to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: “God doth not need
Either man’s work or his own gifts; who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly. Thousands at his bidding speed
And post o’er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.”
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