Smells Like Old Spirit

China! Have no idea how to write it down without rambling … but something deeply troubles me and there is no easy way around or out of it. It troubles me a lot, it creates a huge challenge and also brings a certain sense of helplessness.

In the West, we are very worried about the rise of authoritarianism in many places around the world, including in our midst. But there is another large elephant in the room – what about about the dilemma and conundrum of our dealings with the Communist government in China? The system and power which reminds the Chinese people who is in charge and plans to stay in charge and tells the rest of the world “Stay out of it if you want our business”. And, oh, we want and need that business.

If you are an American reading my blog, this has nothing to do with the current trade wars between the US and China because you may have noticed that the human rights, liberty and democracy question is not even on the table. All we hear is talk of money and superpower competition. If you are an Asian, you have your own strong opinions which I am familiar with after having lived in Southeast Asia for many years. It is always difficult to be the smaller and weaker neighbor next to a regional hegemony and world superpower. Just ask the people in Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, etc…

Remember Francis Fukuyama and his famous (or by now infamous?) 1989 thesis of The End of History? Well, this “end” is turning into the “same old, same old”. My personal strong emotions and reflections come from the fact that I still remember my childhood and the life in the USSR – a totally oppressive and repressive system – and for those  who know what it smells, tastes and feels like, there is a strong aversion to these kinds of manifestations of power, manipulation, abuse and denial of freedom.

I also remember the propaganda and how hard the Soviet regime tried to manufacture a pretty image of a happy society. especially to the outside world. And I sense such a familiar spirit when I think of China  and when I watch how carefully and masterfully it manufactures and lobbies its image around the world  as the most “peace loving, truthful, pragmatic, benevolent, long-term thinking, secure, wealth producing and well-wishing” government. There are too many cracks in this facade.

And through those cracks, if we care to know and look carefully, we know that all is not what it seems. But these days we have to look hard because we don’t hear these stories in our media. Every once in a while there may be an article about the oppression of ethnic Uighur, a primarily Muslim group in Xinjiang province. We can read the reports about “re-education” camps and massive abuses of human rights. Or we can read the stories about the escalating crackdown on personal religious freedom and religious groups . In case it has completely escaped your attention, read this article by the Washington Post.

It has nothing to do with my personal Chinese friends whom I love and cherish. It has nothing to do with the amazing culture, history, cuisine, hard work, entrepreneurship and simply amazing people and the beautiful country of China. I have been privileged to visit it and have my claim of having walked on the Great Wall. And I certainly hope to return because there is so much more to see and to learn.

But what about those things that the Chinese government does not want the rest of the world to see? Working very hard to keep this poster image and somehow succeeding. What about the proponents of the ‘liberalism’ theory of international relations which proposes that the Western liberal values will get planted and automatically bring fruit in places like China through closer ties, trade and co-operation? Is it really working out??? I wish it was. I am no expert on Chinese politics but from what I can hear, read and sense, instead of the liberal values gaining momentum, the system is cracking down and making another hard effort to convince the Chinese people and the rest of the world that exchanging your freedom, including your faith convictions, for some kind of national security, financial gain and state control is a perfectly good way for the future.

Last night I went to hear a lecture by an American historian Stephen Kotkin and few things he said triggered this post because it reminded why many things in our Western approach to Chinese “capitalist” communism does not sit well with me. The most important question is always the personal one – even if my government will not criticize and speak out against these massive human rights abuses, I do have a voice. Small and insignificant but a voice.

After the lecture I had two short conversations and one person used the example of a woodpecker – how it keeps pecking and pecking and pecking until the branch or even the whole tree is hollow enough to come down. I would like to borrow this metaphor. So, while churches are getting closed down, people jailed for all kinds of political, ideological and religious reasons and minority ethnic groups being “Sinicized” in China, we need to keep pecking and pecking… that it is not OK and that we refuse to accept it as the new ‘normal’.


The old man who is still looking for peace

You never know who you may meet while traveling. Last week I spent some long hours on the plane from Riga – Moscow – Bangkok. Sometimes you have an encounter and think, “Interesting timing! Why am I meeting this person here and now?”

When boarding the plane in Moscow, I noticed that I would sit next to an old man. I thought to myself, “He will probably sleep most of the way, so not much talking here.” I don’t mind to talk to strangers; I like to meet new people but sometimes it is nice to put the headphones on and just watch movies. The old man had an English newspaper and I asked if I could borrow it after he finished reading.

He answered in English with an American accent and asked where I was from. “Latvia”, I answered and heard the common reply, “I have never met anyone from Latvia.” As I had guessed, he was an American but living in Thailand. And we started to talk… and continued for many hours.

Read on and you will understand why he is still on my mind. He was traveling back from Russia where he had attended the Victory Parade on May 9 in Moscow. Then he had traveled to Crimea, the peninsula of Ukraine that was annexed by Russia last year. Why so interested in Russia? All four of his grandparents had lived in parts of Russian Empire before the communist revolution of 1917 and had emigrated to the USA because of pogroms and persecution. So, I discovered he was Jewish…

Why live in Thailand? Well, he was trying to be a Buddhist and wanted to spend more of his life in meditation. As we talked though I discovered that he was still very far from finding that inner peace. He was a very angry and frustrated man. Mad at so many things – mad at his own country which he considered the most evil nation messing up the world, mad at his family which he blamed for being pro-Zionist and conservative, mad at his friends in Thailand who wanted live a relaxing life without worries… basically he was mad at the whole world.

Except Russia. He respected Russia and felt like this nation is totally misunderstood. He went to the Victory Parade out of gratefulness that Russian people had sacrificed so much to defeat the Nazis. Then he went to Crimea to see it for himself and to hear the stories. He came away convinced that Russia today again was protecting people against the great evil of ‘Fascism”.

My mind was racing… If you read my reflections from two weeks ago, you will understand why. What to say? We had to travel together for many hours and I could tell that he would get very angry if I disagreed with him. I told him that he was obviously a seeker. Seeking peace and truth… Well, I am a seeker of peace and truth also. I told him that actually I teach about peace building and reconciliation. He was very attentive now. I said that I cannot speak for Russia or Ukraine but I can speak for Latvia. I shared my family’s story and he admitted that he had never heard this side of the story. Story of the small nations that were caught in the middle of power struggle between two totalitarian regimes and two totalitarian leaders – Stalin and Hitler and how people in Latvia suffered under both.

I talked about ‘Shalom’ – peace with God, with yourself, with others and with creation. He asked, “Are you Jewish? How do you know about Shalom?” I said that I am a Christian, that I read the Bible and that I believe in the vision of this universal, cosmic peace. Then he started talking how Jesus was a ‘communist’ since he gave food and healthcare for free, stood against the establishment and rich classes and then was killed for it.

During our conversation I realized that he was very leftist in his thinking and had a positive view of former Soviet Union. Now you know what I mean… what a mix of ideas. An American Jewish guy who thinks like a communist but tries to be Buddhist. No wonder his inner person was in such a turmoil. As we left the plane, he looked so lost and lonely… still not finding what he is looking for. I wish him to find ‘Shalom’ that is so incredibly close to us that we too often miss it.