Monday, 19 September 2011

Book Review - Chinese Whispers

Chinese Whispers: A Journey Into Betrayal
Jan Wong
London: Atlantic House, 2010

I read my first Jan Wong book, Red China Blues, when I was in third year at UBC, Vancouver, Canada. I was an aspiring sinologist at the time, eager to learn more about the country which would become the heart of my studies until this very day. At the time, I thought Red China Blues was a great book. Easy to read, intersecting between history, personal anecdotes, and stories of places that I had never been to, but would love to visit some day.

And so, I had much anticipation when I started reading Chinese Whispers; it superseded all my expectations. Since my UBC days, I’ve read a considerable amount of books on China, some of them having the similar theme of comparing China now and then. But none grabbed my attention more than Jan Wong’s Chinese Whispers. None kept me from enjoying a pirated DVD of a Hollywood blockbuster on a Sunday afternoon.

Maybe it was because Jan wrote about China, particularly Beijing, partly in the years when I was in Beijing. Thus, many of the images she drew coincided with how I viewed Beijing. The post-reform, pre-Olympics Beijing.

Maybe because Mrs. Wong provided me with answers on the question I most asked when I traveled the many parts of Beijing “What was this place like before China opened up to the world? What kind of life did they experience here before Beijing was decided as the site of the 2008 Olympics?” My first trip to China was in 2003, and even then I noticed so many changes to the city. I cannot even begin to imagine the differences between 1970s Beijing and now.

Maybe because Jan intelligently tied in her own observations (both as an ultra-leftist in 1970s China, as a reporter of the Globe in the 1980s, and as a mom of two half-Chinese Canadians in this century) with current facts, historical accounts, reflections by well-known sinologists, etc. Other writers have tried the same, but Jan was more successful than others, with her writing style, running like water, very easy to read, understand, and take in wholly.

And maybe because Jan’s comparison of the old and new China was developed within the framework of her own very interesting story: to find Yin Luoyi and seek absolution of past mistakes. Everything built up from the bottom, brick by brick, each piece of information emerging one at a time, filling in the gaps, one by one. Of course, some account does not go into detail, but it was enough, more than enough.

I smiled and giggled… I used my highlighter to underline lines I wanted to use as quotes… I was taken back to Beijing and its unusual people… Well, at least, unusual from my perspective…

Jan Wong’s travel story is not only about her physical travel to a changed Beijing, but also her personal account of travelling during China’s most changing times (the Cultural revolution, the Tiananmen time, and post-Tiananmen development), and more importantly, an account of how China and the Chinese have changed over the years. Their views and feelings… Their pain and vindication… Their optimism for years to come.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Understanding “Million Friends, Zero Enemy”… The Facebook Way

There were a number of notifications awaiting me when I opened my Facebook account, having just finished a Kompas opinion piece criticizing Indonesia’s contemporary foreign policy philosophy. One of the notifications stood out: John Smith has requested your permission to add you as a friend.

I met John the only time a week ago, over coffee. He was introduced to me as the boyfriend of my wife’s former classmates. I guess it was the discussion on last year’s UEFA Champions League Final (I’m a Barcelona fan, and he a Red Devil) that made our acquaintance bearable, if not even enjoyable.

He was a nice chap, someone I would consider sharing duties with on the grill during a picnic. But I certainly wouldn’t regard him as a friend – not yet, at least – in spite of the 20-minute “friendly” chat on the beautiful game that is football. Yet, a week later, he is inquiring to be my “friend”. I had no reasons to hesitate on his proposal. And so, with a press of the Enter button, Mr. John Smith became my “friend”.

This brought me back to Mr. Mohamad Rosyidin’s criticism of Indonesia’s foreign policy doctrine of “million friends, zero enemy”, as frequently shared by President Yudhoyono and Minister Natalegawa. Mr. Rosyidin argues that by labeling every one of our foreign policy counterpart as “friends”, Indonesia fails to see that some may not regard us that of a friend. From this perspective, Indonesia stands to lose if it continues to treat others as friends even when the others behave otherwise.

Mr. Rosyidin used Malaysia and Saudi Arabia as examples of countries which do not deserve to be labeled as “friends”. He identified Indonesia’s relations with Malaysia “lebih diwarnai oleh permusuhan ketimbang persahabatan”, and argued that problems with Saudi Arabia resulting from the Ruyati case should not be approached with a “million friends, zero enemy” perspective.

In the end, Mr. Rosyidin mentions, a friendly outlook of the world WOULD NOT make Indonesia’s foreign policy “lebih berkarakter supaya kita bangga menjadi bangsa Indonesia”.

Don’t take me wrong here. I am one of those people who feel that the concept of “million friends, zero enemy” still require further analysis and public diplomacy (in Indonesian, “sosialisasi”) on the part of the Government.

However, I do not believe that “million friends, zero enemy” is inherently flawed. If anything, our capacity to look at the world in a more optimistic, idealistic fashion (yet remaining attentive of our national interests) is what makes our post-Cold War, post-reform foreign policy that much interesting.

As an underlying, basic principle in our foreign policy, I can’t seem to understand why so many people look down at the concept of “million friends, zero enemy”. A re-interpretation of the aged-old “free and active diplomacy” championed by our nation’s forefathers, “million friends, zero enemy” is an ideal shaped by the liberal internationalism and non-ideological globalism of the post-Cold War era, and the openness and pragmatism of Indonesia’s democratic reform.

A lesson, therefore, can be drawn from our approach in identifying “friends” on Facebook.

Each and one of us are linked to other Facebook account holders as “friends”. It doesn’t matter if they are people whom you know since childhood, your ex-flames, co-workers, bosses, or even recently-met acquaintances, like Mr. John Smith. When others see our Facebook profile, they will see that these links are all listed under “friends”. Of course, there are exceptions, such as your wife/husband/significant other and family members, all whom you’ve identified as such, and others accept as a fact.

No matter the various levels of closeness you have with each of these Facebook “friends”, they are all grouped as “friends”. And although you wouldn’t want to admit it, you strive to have as many “friends” as possible on Facebook; for work purposes, for old time’s sake, or to get some special treatment when applying for a visa abroad.

Of course, you value some of these “friends” more than others. There are some who you allow only to access certain albums or features or notes you posted on your Facebook profile. Meanwhile, there are others who have a more complete, intimate view of your profile, your interest, your desires – this can come in the form of photos of “last night’s party”, or accounts of that vacation you took with a particular group of friends.

By exercising the option of managing your “friends”, Facebook allows you to group people according to your comfort level. You would share photos of your family with your bosses, but certainly not photos of a drunken night out, particularly when the possibility of incriminating comments is abundant. Your “friends” will not know in which category you’ve put them into: “workmates”, “high school buddies”, “ravers”, etc. They will not know the restrictions you’ve imposed on each of their status as your “friend”. They will not know that you value one “friend” more than another “friend”.

While you may want to appear open to friendships across the board, Facebook actually allows you to categorize according to your individual interests and need. In the world of Facebook, all friends are equal, but some friends are more equal than others. This Animal Farm-like saying has very strong resonance in our lives.

And this is how we should view “million friends, zero enemy”. In speeches, bilateral meetings, and other state activities, it is imperative that President Yudhoyono emphasize this perspective. In a flat world no longer divided along ideological lines, it is counterproductive NOT to identify other countries as friends.

Friendship provides a basis for international relations; it provides the means for communication in this freer, more globalized era. National interests, however, determine our level of friendship with other countries. Therefore, when Indonesia encounters conflicting issues with Malaysia and Saudi Arabia, the question raised should not be “Have they stopped becoming our friends?” Instead, the question should be, “Have they become lesser friends?”

Upholding the principle of friendship allows countries to continue dialogue and mediation in the face of conflicting issues, such as border disputes and the treatment of citizens abroad. If at the onset we identify a relationship on the basic status of “friends”, we establish an environment that is conducive for conflict-resolution if or when conflict does erupt.

How does one de-“friend” another? It seems impossible, unless you seek war. But aren’t we now living in a world that is better than that? Isn’t it better to solve conflicts as friends, no matter how tattered the friendship could be? Xavi Hernandez and Iker Casillas overcame their heated differences as captains of Barcelona and Real Madrid, and worked together to take the Spanish national team to overcome Lichtenstein, based on the fact that they’ve been “friends” for 15 years. Anything is possible, when ones are friends.

I can’t understand Mr. Rosyidin’s claims that our relations with Malaysia is dominated more by conflict than friendship, when the truth is that our bilateral relations are overall good, except when it comes to issues related to maritime borders and the treatment of Indonesian citizens in Malaysia. RI-Malaysia bilateral trade in 2010 reached over US 18 billion. And from 2004 to 2009, Malaysia invested $1.5 billion in Indonesia, becoming the second-highest country-to-country investor among Southeast Asia countries. I don’t think we even need to discuss our close ties within the framework of ASEAN.

Just as its antecedent (“free and active diplomacy”), “million friends, zero enemy” is a basic principle. It underlies our overall approach to bilateral relations and international affairs. It should not be regarded as a refined foreign policy directive, something that Indonesian diplomats, policymakers, analysts and pundits develop vis-à-vis each country, organization, issue, and case we face every day. However, do that we must.

It is up to us diplomats to identify how much of a “friend” is a particular foreign country. It is up to us diplomats also to engage other domestic stakeholders, such as Mr. Rosyidin, in deciding on the level of friendship with which we feel comfortable engaging other countries. Only then will there be a sense of belonging to (and hopefully, better understanding of) this principle of “million friends, zero enemy”.

And importantly, it is up to us to make sure that none of these “friends” actually know how their friendship status is categorized and valued by us. Our interests and needs are not things to be casually shared. Well, maybe to some of our closest “friends”. Then again, what gains can we make by sharing such intimate perspectives?

That’s just the way… the Facebook way.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

How Much Longer, The Clash...?

A project by the Pew Research Center projected that the Muslim population would increase from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.2 billion in 2030.

This would mean that Muslims will make up more than 26% of the world’s projected population (up from 23% in 2010). Continuing on current trends, most of the world’s Muslims will live in the Asia-Pacific.

Of particular significance is the estimation that in 2030 Indonesia will no longer become the country with the world’s largest population; that title will go to Pakistan, which presently sits at second. The reasons for this are, among others, the declining fertility rate in Indonesia because of better education and living standards as well as urbanization.

Muslims will also become more present in western societies. In the US, the Muslim share of the population will grow considerably, making the Muslims as numerous as the American Jewish population today. In 2030, nearly 45% of American Muslims will be US-born. France, Spain, and the UK will also experience booms in their respective Muslim populations due to the flow of immigrants. In total, Muslims will make up to 10% of the European population, with Russia having the largest share.

What would this mean to international politics?

Many in the West would look at the estimations proposed by the Pew Research Center as indications of the major threat facing western civilization in the years to come. However, such a view would not be there if certain westerners had not held onto the belief that the West is dominant and superior. A fear of usurpers could never exist in conditions of parity.

There needs to be more efforts into building harmony between Islam (and the Muslims around the world) and the rest, particularly the West. Muslims must learn to live with the rest of the world because despite the Muslim population’s considerable growth, Muslims will remain minorities, particularly in the West. And the West will have to learn to live with Islam and its followers because none is likely to dissipate the way Communism and the Communists did.

As Steve Kull, from the Program on International Policy Attitude, expressed, the West (represented by the US) will most likely improve its relations with the West “as it comes to understand, accept and embrace the whole of Muslim society and the course of development that it has chosen for itself..”

Many in the West perceive the evolution of society along stages that the West has gone through. Religion is largely banished from the public sphere, thus allowing pluralism, the divisions between a private sphere and a secular public sphere. This leads to the elevation of freedoms and democratic principles making the will of the people (rather than religious principles) as the basis of human society. Therefore, when viewed from this perspective, the Muslim society would be seen as simply behind the West in this evolutionary process.

This is a discourse that needs further exploration and development. A discourse that is as much me (a Muslim raised in the West) as it is my surroundings (a country with the world’s largest Muslim population, born-again with western liberal-like values of democracy and human rights). A discourse that I am still grappling to understand, let alone conclude.