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’.

 

Davos aims at our shared future but what about shared good

If you noticed I have been silent for a short while, I stopped posting on ‘peaceroads’ in January because of various other commitments, mainly my university studies. And after all the deadlines and sleepless nights, I enjoyed one week in a quiet, pretty and posh English town – Harpenden. Everything there is so green compared to the winter scenery in Latvia and the life seems ‘greener’ on that side, too.

While I enjoyed walks in the English countryside, looked for good deals in charity shops and wondered where to get the best fish and chips, the news on my computer screen showed another idyllic picture  from Davos, a small sleepy town in the Swiss Alps, and the headlines talked about the rich and powerful gathering for the annual World Economic Forum.

For many people the name “Davos” is probably like the word “Disneyland” is for most children. To be rewarded and privileged to go there and to mingle with the powerful, rich and famous, to stay in expensive hotels, eat gourmet food, make deals, build networks, meet the right person at the right time for your idea, business or even country and feel like you are in the center of the ‘things to be’. No doubt a thrilling experience if you believe in it.

Don’t misunderstand. I have no doubt that many good and socially responsible initiatives have their beginning  in such meetings, many important decisions are made and the original vision of this gathering is still being fulfilled to some extent. Many of the people whom I turn to for their expertise and opinion attend this forum of leaders and they don’t see it as a waste of time. Still, I struggle to take this year’s theme “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World” without a dose of heavy skepticism.

It is not the words I disagree with . “Creating” is what we all do. Even if we are just sitting on our couch and doing ‘nothing’, we are affecting our lives, others and our world in some way or another. “Shared” is a fact which nobody in his right mind denies. The world is so interconnected. Just ask Europeans how the war in Syria affected them. Or the people who suffer through extreme weather patterns because of climate change.

“Future” is already here. “Fractured” is the feeling and view that many have and are generally afraid of. “World” is every human being and in fact everything else that exists. There is no escaping this framework, unless you can ‘pretend’. And there are those realists who, I believe, pretend the ‘sharing’ because these ‘fractures’ affect them the least.

The statistics of growing inequality are getting worse and worse. The American facts show that the richest 1% of families controlled a record-high 38.6% of the country’s wealth in 2016, according to a Federal Reserve, and this gap keeps growing. The UK experts state that rising inequality has seen a dramatic increase in the share of income going to the top, a decline in the share of those at the bottom and, more recently, a stagnation of incomes among those in the middle. You can go country by country on every continent. (Yes, Norway and few others are the exception!)

This is a global trend and poses one of the greatest threats to our future if we want it to be peaceful and stable and good life for everyone. I don’t have to be an expert in history or politics or economics to see that this is very dangerous in many ways. Not least if we care about democracy because the concentration of wealth and power is happening faster than we can blink.

The main drivers of this growing ‘fracture’ in our societies are identified as technology, political systems and institutions, family, childhood, globalisation. This is also where most of the solutions lie but somehow I get the feeling that these urgent and difficult changes will not come from ‘top down’. Our long human experience shows us that people will rarely share power and access to wealth and goods if they don’t have to. But we also have more than enough bad experiences with ‘bottom up’  pushing back in the form of violent revolutions.

Since this is an election year in Latvia, I will end with small but crucial practical step. Voting matters and informed choices matter! We have the same fractures in Latvia and we have to guard and continue improving our political system and institutions. Practice of democracy for sure decreases inequality.

We should not aim at simply “shared future”. We should aim at sharing good future.

Martin Luther, Krišjānis Barons and my claim to fame

My parents could not pick the day I was born but my mom was always very proud of the date – October 31. She used to tell me that I was born on the same day as Krišjānis Barons (1835-1923), one of the most influential people in forming Latvian national identity and shaping cultural history. He is considered the “father of Latvian folksongs” to honour his work in collecting, researching and preserving this cultural heritage. A wise looking man with long white beard and glasses… I used to look at his image and wonder what kind of wisdom he would impart if we had met.  I felt that my mom’s pride about the special date was supposed to inspire and encourage me to learn, to explore, to gain knowledge and then pass it on.

The example was set… Be intelligent and visionary!

I was born when the USSR still existed and my family were not particularly religious (except my grandmother). Scientific atheism was the official “faith” and certainly there were no celebrations for significant religious events. Like Reformation Day which also happens to be on October 31. I had never heard of it even though the skyline of any Latvian city is dominated by churches, especially Lutheran ones. Even many non-church people like to think of themselves as “Protestants”.

Today, Oct. 31, 2017 was the 500th anniversary of Reformation movement. I learned about the Reformation and 95 Thesis and Martin Luther much later and there is still so much I wish I knew. It does not matter if Luther actually nailed his thesis to the church door in Wittenberg or mailed them, the fact is that these thoughts, questions, critical analysis, challenge to the institutions and powers-to-be spread like a wildfire and continue to impact all of us today. Especially in Europe. I have a feeling that, just like me, many of us still have no clue what actually happened and why is it such a big deal?!

Certainly Luther’s challenge to the highest civil and religious authorities of his day continues to inspire those who struggle against corrupt power systems and those who claim to hold “the keys to eternity”: “I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God.”

 

The example was set… Be courageous and always seek and speak the truth!

It really is a big deal if we get it. Today we had another discussion in our university where my professor shared his passion and also deep frustration that Reformation is still undervalued and underestimated. Certainly Martin Luther was no Jesus when it comes to changing hearts and minds and some of his views, especially in later life, are very controversial. Many of his views I do not share. But history is made by imperfect people since perfect people simply do not exist.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote: “Extraordinarily, God the omnipotent One depends on us, puny, fragile, and vulnerable as we may be, to accomplish God’s purposes for good, for justice, for forgiveness and healing and wholeness.”

The example is set… Be just, compassionate and above all loving person!

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