Monday, 20 February 2012

I Know What I Did Those Summers

I got James Fallow’s “Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China” on sale from a local bookstore in Pondok Indah. At Rp. 35.000, it was a bargain not to be missed. I actually have had my eyes on this book for some time. But somehow I had never found the right reason to buy yet another publication on China, especially when many of them have remained unread ‘til this very day.

In the end, I was happy with my purchase. It was worth all Rp. 35.000, and probably more. After reading just the first few paragraphs, I became hooked. I felt that I just had to read the entire book immediately; the other books on the shelf will have to wait their turn. I figured out that reading 260 pages in the next few days would unlikely be a problem.
Fallows explained that the book comprised of articles written between 2006 and 2008 while he lived and worked in Shanghai as The Atlantic Monthly’s China correspondent. I couldn’t help but think that that was almost the same period as my stay in Beijing. Actually, I was in China longer, having arrived in Capital Airport’s Terminal 2 in October 2005, and then leaving the brand-new, high tech, most awesome Terminal 3 in March 2009.
Then, I had an idea, a simple enough idea. If Fallows had lived in China at the same time as me, then not much from his book would differ from the way I looked, analyzed, and understood China. Of course, as a journalist, he probably had more time to wander around the country and write down an insightful mélange of ideas. But at least, the topics that he would raise should be in line with some of the things that ran around my head at the time.
Simple enough, eh? Fallows’ book would provide a way to gauge my 3.5 years experience in Beijing. If much of Fallows’ views did not ring any bell, this would mean that my observation of China had been lacking. And if I nodded my head enough during the reading of the book, that would mean I had experienced the same feelings and sensations.
In his book, Fallows described the country as a complex, diverse, and often, a contradictory entity. He stated: “I have not been anyplace that seemed simultaneously so controlled and so out of control. The control is from on high – and for most people in the cities, most of the time, it’s not something they bump into. What’s out of control is everything else”.
Fallows’ writing was in general an easy read. Then again, the fact that I had had immense interest in the topic may have skewed my opinion. He wrote about, among others, China’s nouveau riche, its industrial prowess, the media and the internet, Macau’s growth as the region’s gambling capital, and the Chinese leaders’ perception of the world outside of the Middle Kingdom.
I totally recommend this book to anyone who is interested in China, both rookies and experts.
There were things Fallows talked about which I completely missed during my stay in China. One of them was his account of the growth of television reality shows, in which he described the new Chinese spirit for progress. I guess, I should’ve watched more Chinese TV while I was in Beijing, instead of AXN, HBO, or the BBC. Through such reality shows, Fallows introduced me to the various sentiments growing among the Chinese people with regards to nationalism, entrepreneurship, camaraderie, and… I guess, reality.
As well, unlike Fallows, I didn’t have a chance to meet very, very, very rich Chinese people like air-conditioning tycoon Zhang Yue. Zhang is different from what people assume as today’s Chinese industrialists. His company is a world leader in central air-conditioning systems that use diesel or natural gas instead of electricity. Yes, he likes his expensive toys like private jets, stretched limos, and gargantuan mansions. But, at the same time, Zhang is at the front of making China more energy efficient, and hopefully, more environmentally friendly.
When reading the chapters on these two topics above, I suddenly felt that I hadn’t learned enough about China. It made me feel somewhat disappointed at the times I had wasted while loitering aimlessly through the hutongs of Gulou or when I wallowed on a heart break or two.
Then again, I was probably too harsh on myself. Other parts of the book would later reveal that I may have just been focusing on different things about China. Things that Fallows preferred to look at in a different way.
In his account of the Olympics, Fallows focused on internet freedom (or the lack thereof) in China. I guess its kinda natural for a journalist to discuss about freedom of speech. I had an eventful Olympics period in Beijing, and if I had to write something on it, I’d probably write about ticket scalping and the Chinese people’s sense of entrepreneurship. I’d also probably write about how the Chinese made the Olympics not the international event it was supposed to be, but instead a local, coming-out party dedicated for the Chinese people. I was so surprised at how little foreigners were in some of the Olympic events, and how easy it was for Chinese people to get tickets compared to foreigners.
In his account of the Wenchuan earthquake, Fallows chose to write about corruption and the complex relations between central and regional governments in the Chinese system. His perspective on this issue was something that I shared. But just to be different, I maybe would’ve written about the time when I witnessed Chinese solidarity in the middle of traffic in downtown Beijing. A week after the earthquake happened, at the exact same time when the earth had shook Wenchuan, everybody in Beijing stopped their car, got out, stood still, while honking the horns of their cars. It was a magical moment of solidarity, which, I (of course) didn’t have a chance to record on my mobile phone.
So, maybe Fallows did write about some of the things that I never really thought of or experienced. But, then again, there were things also that I experienced which Fallows didn’t pen down in his book. I knew what I had done those summers in China, and I knew what they meant in terms of China analyses. Maybe Fallows and I just saw China differently.
This all leads me to (at least) these conclusions:
  1. There are so many perspectives with which to observe, analyze, and understand China and the Chinese people;
  2. While many prefer to treat China as one, the truth is that China must be one of the most diverse, complex, and dynamic countries to analyze (definitely more so than, let’s say, Canada, where I lived for 9 years, and saw changes that were mostly “Chinese-looking”);
  3. I should learn more Chinese so that I could understand Chinese reality shows;
  4. I should’ve written a book describing my 3.5 year experience in China;
  5. I must write this book if I ever get a chance to live there again; and
  6. Damn, that was Rp. 35.000 really well-spent.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

In The Eyes of the Tiger

As an avid China observer, it’s always interesting to read assessments of the Middle Kingdom by researchers other than those residing in the United States. Indeed, much of the research on China these days are carried out by American think tanks and academic institutions. This shouldn’t come as a surprise as the Americans are probably some of the ones most concerned by China’s rise to power, and its impact on the US’ present super power status.

I’ve read numerous novels by Indian writers; this also includes books written by members of the Indian diaspora across the world, like Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, and my all time favourite, Jhumpa Lahiri. I love them all. Sometimes even my dreams have Indian settings (more Mississippi Masala-like, and less Bollywood) or feature people speaking language that sounds Hindi, or Tamil, or an Indian sub-continent dialect of some sort.

But when it comes to academic analyses by Indian scholars, I have admittedly been ignorant of developments on “that side” of the Indian Ocean. It’s embarrassing, but the closest I’d probably get to an Indian perspective would be that of Amitav Acharya, a Canadian scholar born in India. And even then, it is most likely that I’d learn more about Southeast Asian perspectives on international affairs (or even Canadian) rather than views from the sub-continent.

Therefore, it was with much anticipation that I read Brahma Chellaney’s “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India, and Japan”. Using the backdrop of the rise of an Asian Century, Chellaney elaborates on the roles that China, India, and Japan will have in shaping international politics in the years to come.

Over the years, these three Asian juggernauts have evolved to become economic powerhouses. China is the world’s manufacturing capital; India is the largest democracy in the world; and Japan remains as a technological mover in spite of its recent economic woes. At a glance, there is much hope for cooperation towards developing peace and stability in a globalized and more interconnected Asia. However, in spite of the network of bilateral cooperation existing among them, the potential for conflicts (particularly involving China) will be the determinant factor in these countries’ role in the Asia Pacific region.

Much of Chellaney’s attention is devoted to an analysis of China’s rise, particularly in reference to India’s effort (or lack thereof) to deal with this phenomenon. Chellaney is critical of the way in which Indian leaders have appeared weak in the face of China’s challenge. He calls iconic Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru “an unabashed panda-hugger” and argues that the present inferiority complex is a direct result of previous leaders’ “credulity and negligence” vis-à-vis China.

Therefore, in order to balance the rise of an undemocratic and irredentist China, Chellaney proposes greater cooperation between India and Japan, both in economic and politico-security terms. In overcoming the political and security problems that vis-à-vis Red China, India and Japan are a perfect match. In economic terms, they are complementary, thus allowing for mutual support in each other’s continued development and industrialization. They are both democracies, sharing ideals which are inherently peaceful. And most importantly, they have a common enemy in the form of China.

Not only that, Chellaney even suggests the possibility of a Washington-Tokyo-New Delhi axis to “forestall the preeminence that China covets in Asia”. Basically, in his view, an Asia-Pacific dominated by China would spell disaster for every single country in the region, and most importantly, India. This is not the first time that I’m hearing such an argument. However, it is interesting that this is the type of argument that I am getting from my first experience in Indian views on China.

Indeed, while it may have not been Chellaney’s original intention, his book would fit as nice addition to the “China threat” discourse that has been running around in the western academic circles. And while Chellaney tries his best to give off an optimist outlook on regional cooperation in the coming years, the emphasis on China’s accumulation of power assumes otherwise.

If we are to regard Chellaney’s argument as representative of India’s mindset, then we would see a country that is under the threat of China’s siege efforts. Chellaney paints India as a country that is reaching out for partnerships in order to counter the rising power of China, and its negative implications on Indian statehood and survival. A country which needs to “develop a comprehensive national power while steering clear of China’s negative nationalistic elements and its mix of crony capitalism and widespread, state dispensed patronage”. A country that needs to pull its boot-straps up in facing the challenges of today’s globalized world.

For me, another glaring point about Chellaney’s argument is that while he talks about the future shaping of the Asia-Pacific region, there is very little (almost none) reference to ASEAN, let alone Indonesia. I do wonder. Is it because of Chellaney’s preference to highlight India’s role in the new make-up of the region? Or is it because our part of the region just doesn’t register in the mind of an Indian scholar like him (a well-known scholar, for that matter)?

This then brings me back to the beginning of this article. Much has been said with regards to the lack of cooperation between ASEAN and India, and more so between Indonesia and India. During the East Asian Summit in Bali last Novermber, it was almost obvious to whom the stage belonged: Indonesia, the USA, and China.

I’m maybe part of this problem, as a result of my continued ignorance on the India’s potential to shape the Asia-Pacific regional architecture. I’m also guilty for believing that India’s geographical position is just too far to matter, and too distant to influence the hustle and bustle of East Asian politics.

But if this is so, then wouldn’t Chellaney also be guilty for under-estimating Southeast Asia’s role (and more importantly, Indonesia’s role) in a world dominated by the rise of the Asian Juggernauts? I guess, there’s much that we can learn from each other in our search for a more comprehensive view of the region.

Friday, 3 February 2012

After "A Million Friends Zero Enemy The Facebook Way"

In October 2011, I wrote a blog posting trying to demistify our current foreign policy slogan of “Million Friends, Zero Enemy”. It received a few hundred hits, thus making it my most read blog posting. Then, my good friend, Astari Daenuwy, told me that I should send the article to The Jakarta Post.

The article was finally published by this leading English-language newspaper on Sunday, October 2, 2011 with the title of “A Million Friends Zero Enemies The Facebook Way”. I figured, who’d read the newspaper on a Sunday. But, I guess I was wrong, and the article apparently enjoyed significant readership, both in-print and online.

Since then, there have been a number of comments based on the argument I proposed. Some have expressed an understanding of what I was trying to convey, while others prefer to criticize not only my article, but more so, the basic of my point, which is, an appreciation of President Yudhoyono’s foreign policy perspective of a million friends and zero enemy.

In a piece in Sinar Harapan Newspaper titled “Politik Luar Negeri 'A Million Friends, Zero Enemies', Apa Mungkin?”, Mr. Asrudin, a researcher with Lingkaran Survei Indonesia (LSI) argues this foreign policy slogan is utterly wrong because it does not take note of the fact that some countries act as “enemies”, and therefore should not ever be considered as “friends”. Thus, such a slogan would in the end condemn Indonesia’s foreign policy to eternal weakness, always at the mercy of its international counterparts.

Meanwhile, a more positive reception of my article could be found in the blog of Mr. Fuad Hasan, who claims that “Millions Friends and Zero Enemies, Bukan Cemen”. Mr. Fuad exclaimed that the foreign policy slogan serves the purpose of projecting an image of Indonesia as a “low-profile” worker, cooperating with the international community towards greater peace and stability.

Of course, I would have a tendency to favor with Mr. Fuad’s argument over Mr. Asrudin’s. I guess it’s only human nature to feel more sympathetic to those who show appreciation. I am guilty. But more so than that, I actually believe that Mr. Fuad was able to get more out my article than Mr. Asrudin. That, in the end, Mr. Fuad was sharper in reading between the lines of my analysis, instead of resorting to rhetoric.

Nevertheless, in the end, I should thank both of these writers for allowing the discourse on “million friends zero enemy” to grow. This is exactly what I wanted to happen; for the people in Indonesia to discuss about our foreign policy in a critical, yet constructive way.

In today’s era of reform, our foreign policy making is becoming more democratic. There is greater room for the participation of people, importantly opinionated people such as Mr. Asrudin and Mr. Hasan. However, participation should come in the form of thoughtful analysis, instead of emotional sentiments expressed to a dimwit reporter from a national television with a red logo.