Monday, 23 December 2013

Bo's Story, and My Memories of Dalian and Chongqing...

Book Review
John Garnaut, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo 
ISBN: 9780143569350

When I lived in Beijing in 2005-2009, all I heard about Bo Xilai was good.  At the time, he was everything any Chinese people would possibly asked for in a Minister of Commerce.  He was handsome, well dressed, and appeared very much at ease in engaging officials from any part of the world.  He was the poster boy for a China that was opening up its economy more and more.  His image symbolized a proud, promising, and modern nation, ready to be among the other economic giants of the world.

Indeed, Bo Xilai was at the time China’s fast-rising political star.  I remember visiting Dalian in 2007 and marveled at how awesome the city felt.  Not only was it clean and orderly, Dalian was such a nice break from the grey pavements of Beijing.  The sea, the breeze, the greenery, the food, the sights… The city also felt worldly, seemingly ready to open its doors to international engagement.  I remember eating really good Korean BBQ there, and shopping products that had been destined for other parts of Asia.  And throughout my time there, I couldn’t help but recognize that much of this could be attributed to Dalian’s former Mayor, Bo Xilai.

But in 2013, as I watched the news coming out from China from the comfort of my home in Jakarta, I was astounded by the political drama that was unfurling with Bo Xilai as its central figure.  He was on BBC, CNN, ChannelNews Asia; he was even on Indonesia’s MetroTV and TvOne.  And the drama was beyond my belief.  China’s most popular politician had fallen from grace.  Not only has he lost his position as one of the contenders in China’s future leadership, the political rock star was found guilty of corruption, bribery and abuse of power.  His sentence: life imprisonment. 

Colourful fans in Dalian, 2007 (Private Collection)
How did this all happen?  And how did it all happen so fast?

Indeed, although the news did make the headlines in Indonesia, it never really grabbed the regular political observers’ attention.  Of course, it’s probably different if you were someone who is particularly keen on developments taking place in China.

But in the western media, the Bo Xilai drama was dissected left, right, and center, and used as an examination of the problems that China was facing internally.  Moreover, Bo Xilai was many times portrayed as a someone who was willing to stand up to the heavy-handedness of the Chinese leadership at the time, led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao.

Everyone knows that the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party is rife with problems.  But the cruelty of Bo’s political assassination demonstrated just how dangerous politics is in this one-party country.  And for the western media and academia, this gave reason to comment on the high likelihood of political implosion in China.  A political implosion that could bring this gigantic economy to its knees, the way the Soviet Union unraveled and disappeared into history.

Hanging out in downtown Dalian, 2007 (Private Collection)
In his book, The Rise and Fall of the House of Bo, John Garnaut gives an excellent account of the Bo Xilai’s political successes, and of course, failures. Garnaut not only revealsthe nastiness that lies behind the rule of Bo Xilai and his family in Chongqing (where Bo was Party chief), but goes back into China’s history to outline the beginnings of Bo’s rivalry with the present Chinese leadership.

Through careful research, Garnaut provides a rich, flowing, and highly engaging narrative of how Bo Xilai came into power, and then lost it. Whatever good image I had previously had of Bo immediately became questionable, as accounts after another are revealed about Bo’s strong-hand rule.  On screen, Bo played the personae of a down-to-earth leader who is willing to stand for the rights of the people and the glory of the Chinese Communist Party.  However, behind the screen, Bo not only bended, but knowingly broke laws and regulations in order to gain financial profits for himself and his close inner circle.  

Garnaut also describes the rivalries that exist among China’s political elite today.  Rivalries that have existed not only in the post-Deng Xiaoping reform period, but those that went as back as the times of the People’s Republic’s first foundation.  Rivalries that began between Bo’s father, Bo Yibo, and Xi Zhongxun, the father of China’s present top leader, Xi Jinping.  And most of all, the rivalries that have pitted reformists and conservatives within the Chinese Communist Party in a cross-generational power struggle.

Taichi at Chongqing's central square, 2007 (Private Collection)
I recommend this book to anyone even slightly interested in China.  For many, the Chinese Government is seen as an impenetrable juggernaut.  Not only that, the totalitarian nature of China’s Stalinist state has created an image in which everyone in the government has a common voice on anything even remotely important in the country. 

The Bo Xilai drama reminds us all that divisions do exist among the Chinese elite.  And more so, these divisions run very deep, originating from decades before any of the present leaders were even in power.  For some, this may be an indication that democracy is well and alive in China, even if it is only within the Communist Party (as in, no public participation).  Meanwhile, for others, this drama clearly indicates the inexistence of any form of democracy in China.  Not only that, China is also devoid of other norms and principles that go hand-in-hand with democracy, such as transparency, equality, human rights, and anti-corruption.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Misty Memories

The Garden of Evening Mists
Tan Twan Eng

I have a new favourite writer: Malaysia’s Tan Twan Eng.

Such revelation came to me very early into my reading of Tan’s spellbinding novel, “The Garden of Evening Mists”.  It took me only the first six pages to recognize what a true gem I had in my hands.  I was immediately hooked on it, and feeling dizzy, Tan took me on a journey to the magical and mysterious setting of the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia.

The book centers on Yun Ling Teoh, a former Japanese prisoner of war, who has become a top Malaysian judge.  Yun Ling is suffering from a gradual loss of memory.  And in her efforts to fight this disease, she travels back to the place of her childhood.  A place where she experienced many life-changing events.  A place of violence, anger, hatred, betrayal, guilt, and sadness, yet one that is also capable of victory, perseverance, truth, peace, and joy.  A place where she lost love, loved ones, and almost her live.  Where dreams shadow living nightmares, and nightmares end live-long dreams.

The Garden of Evening Mists—and the surrounding backdrop of Malaysia’s Cameron Highlands—is where Yun Ling’s life intertwined with those of the other fascinating characters in the book.   There is Yun Hong, Yun Ling’s sister, who disappeared like many other “guests of the Sun Emperor”. There is Magnus Praetorius, the Transvaal adventurer who fled his homeland to build a new one in Malaysia, in the form of the Majuba Tea Estate.  There is also Tatsuji, a Japanese historian and former Kamikaze pilot, who lived to see the end of the World War II because of the sacrifice of his lover and commanding officer.  

And then, there is Aritomo, the Japanese Emperor’s former gardener.  He designed the Garden of Evening Mists, and in him, Yun Ling finds solace from the trauma of her imprisonment.  Aritomo is the embodiment of the novel’s misty mystery.  He is not only a master gardener, but also an artist capable of expressing fleeting beauty and impermanence.  And as the story builds up, Yun Ling discovers clues associating Aritomo with Japan’s conquest of Malaya.

The book also tells Malaysia’s tumultuous history.  From the Japanese invasion, and subsequent conquest, to the Malayan Emergency period, when the communists were bent on challenging not only the British rulers, but also other Malaysians (their own people) who could cross in their paths.  The book talks about Japanese war treasures, the Chinese community in Malaysia, and the marginalization of local indigenous tribes.  It also talks about the country’s capacity to heal from its deep historical wounds.

All in all, the book evolves around the role of memory in human existence, and the relationship between memory and forgetting.

What I find most enjoyable about this book is Tan’s attention to detail.  Not only that, but the way in which he crafts all the details into a string of beautiful sentences.  A hand imprint on an oakwood table, visible for only seconds after the hand is pulled back.  “The scent of pine resin sticking to the air, the bamboo creaking and knocking in the breeze, the broken mosaic of sunlight scattered over the ground.” Memories, like sandbar, cut off from the shore by the incoming tide, slowly becoming submerged, no longer there.

The book won the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.  Indeed, these awards are merely indicative of the public’s reception.  But somehow, even these awards are incapable of describing the feelings and sensations that overwhelmed me during my many moments with this book.  

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Life in Red

"Change" is the second Mo Yan book I’ve ever read, the first being a collection of short stories titled "Shifu: You'll Do Anything for a Laugh".  I have, however, seen two Zhang Yimou movies based on his stories: "Red Sorghum", and "Happy Times". Therefore, having read "Change" in one sitting, and enjoying it from cover to cover, I got the feeling that I should probably read more books by this Nobel Laureate (in Literature).  

The version of “Change” that I bought in Singapore's Kinokuniya (as my baby daughter lies asleep in her stroller just inches away from the bookshelves) was published as part of a series of books titled “What Was Communism?”  I think, being part of these series sorta reveals what the book’s story would be.

I’ve read many accounts of life during China’s super-communist periods of the 1960s and 1970s.  Many of these accounts talk about the brutality, senselessness, hypocrisy, impunity of actions carried out in the name of upholding communism in those periods.  Many more talked about the pain, grief, anger, and frustration the Chinese people in coping with the tragedies that befell them during those periods.

In describing his experience growing up as a small village boy in the 1960s, a member of the People’s Liberation Army in the 1970s, as a struggling writer in the 1980s, and a literary celebrity since the turn of the century, Mo Yan also paints a picture of a China in constant change.  A China that has become more and more driven simply by its people’s pursuit of money; a China whose buildings, like the people’s dreams, now reach for the sky.

But amidst all these changes, there are constants in the life of the Chinese people.  Continuity symbolized by the Gaz 51 trucks that had been the highlight of his school days, then becoming the vessel which first took him to Beijing, and later in life, the reminder of all the people who has entered, left, re-entered, and so on, in his life.  Continuity also came in the form of the “gift” he received as a judge in the 2000s; it seems that some things just never change in China, with or without reform.

Mo Yan writes with simplicity and tells his story like I would tell of my life during the oppressive rule of Soeharto.  Yes, life was tough, and yes, many suffered.  But life goes on, and we the people make best of whatever was in front of us.  We learn to appreciate the small things in life, laugh at the hint of a comedic episode, and appreciate things more than what they may actually be worth.  He doesn’t paint a rosy picture of life in China under communism; nor does he paint a picture with a bloody brush.

Indeed, Mo Yan has received numerous criticisms from peers at home and abroad for his unwillingness to bluntly challenge the communist government in China.  But from my perspective, Mo Yan’s ideological standing doesn’t lessen his value as a writer, a poet, a story-teller of the Chinese people. 

To many, Mo Yan may have not captured the anti-establishment angst that permeates the literary works of many great writers, anywhere around the world.  But, it would be silly to say that he has failed to capture voice of the people, when we know very well that not all express their sadness, pain, and frustration simply through anger.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

In China, Honest History Is Hard To Do

“Honest history is hard to do in China, given the determination of Beijing to put forward a historical narrative that presents an essentially benevolent Communist Party guiding China from weakness to strength and occasionally going astray through no fault of its own”.

– James Palmer, “The Death of Mao”

As a self-proclaimed “China observer”, I’ve had my share of reading elaborate accounts of this fascinating country’s turbulent past.  Some have been biographical accounts, written with the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution as their backdrops.  Others have been gone further back in history, highlighting, among others, Zheng He’s voyages and the Opium War.

But none of them beat James Palmer’s The Death of Mao: The Tangshan Earthquake and the Birth of the New China in terms of readability (is that even a word). Anyways, it was a pleasure to read this gem of an account, which narrates the year 1976 in China’s modern history.  A year when the much beloved Premier Zhou Enlai died; Chairman Mao Zedong laid helplessly on his deathbed (he would also die in 1976); the Cultural Revolution was a national wound that kept on being reopened; the infighting among the political elite reached its apex; and Deng Xiaoping re-entered politics;

It was the year when earthquake measuring 7.8 on the Richter scale hit the small, industrial town of Tangshan in Hebei Province, killing around 650,000 people.  People who lived through the tragedy remembered the earth moving as if attacked by an atomic bomb; not one, not two or three, but four hundred Hiroshimas.

To say the least, 1976 felt like a cursed year for many Chinese people.  The mandate of heaven seemed to have run out on Mao, as China was on the brink of political collapse.  Economic wise, the country was a basket case, after purges spread economic inefficiency, killed many of China’s bright minds, and destroyed the people’s competitiveness.

In general, the people were tired of the violence and propaganda of the political elite.  While Jiang Qing (Mao’s ultra-leftist wife) watched imported movies daily, the people were hungry, unsheltered, afraid, down, and beaten.  The Tangshan earthquake, which was also felt strongly in Beijing, was a nail on Mao’s coffin, even as he was still gasping for his last ounce of air.

Obviously, this book is not only about the earthquake.  Yes, there are photos of the destruction.  Palmer also described the scenes during and after the earth shook.  But it was just enough.  Not too much tugging at the heart strings or gory descriptions of the impact of the quake.  What James Palmer did was to tell the story of China in those days with the earthquake tragedy at its center. 

Many things were elaborated, including the monstrosity of the Cultural Revolution; how it came about and how its excesses scarred the Chinese population for years to come.  The book also talks about Zhou Enlai, the venerable leader loved by the people.  “The other leader” who worked diligently while Mao built a modern empire on the blood, sweat, and tears of the Chinese proletariats.  And of course, it talks about Tangshan, as symbol of how life was in a city neither as big as nor as near to Beijing, but constantly affected by the follies of the political elite in the country’s capital.

The book also highlights the “problem” with the writing of history in Chinese books.  Honestly, I have never had the pleasure of reading about Chinese history from books usually given out to students; my Mandarin is nowhere at the level to comprehend such thick texts.  But I could imagine the events and perspectives that may have been left out in order to paint a rosy picture of the government, and most importantly, the Chinese Communist Party.  I lived through Indonesia’s New Order era, and I know very well previous attempts to re-write Indonesia’s history according to the preferences of Suharto and his clique.

The Tangshan earthquake is often remembered in China as a moment of grief.  The Chinese history books may put up pictures of the PLA working hand-in-hand with the local people to help survivors.  But the truth is that Beijing’s unwillingness to accept international assistance demonstrated the government’s lack of empathy.  It showed that while the propaganda of the Party continued to eschew the fight for the people, in actuality the people were suffering from policies after another hammered down by the political elite.

The Tangshan earthquake was a moment when the death of so many people underlined the ineptness of the government at the time, thus ushering the desire for changes to happen.   Palmer described a bit of this towards the end book, as if setting the stage for analyses on present-day Chinese politics by other “China observers”.  I, for one, am thankful of Palmer’s narration, as I try to understand more and more about this country where I may be spending more time in the future.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Lebih dari Sekadar ABBA dan IKEA

Hubungan Indonesia-Swedia Melampaui Singkatan Populer

Kalau masyarakat Indonesia ditanya tentang Swedia, mungkin dua hal yang akan sering muncul adalah ABBA dan IKEA. Apalagi lagu “Dancing Queen” dari grup musik ABBA bisa jadi merupakan salah satu lagu yang paling sering dinyanyikan di tempat-tempat karaoke, sementara produk-produk IKEA secara unik berhasil menjadi populer di kalangan urban Indonesia. ‘Unik’ karena IKEA sendiri baru akan membuka toko pertama di Indonesia sekitar tahun 2014.

Bagi banyak masyarakat Indonesia, Swedia memang telah menjadi lebih dari sekadar negara bersalju di Eropa Utara. Walau nama-nama yang saya sebut di atas terkenal di seluruh dunia, faktanya adalah Swedia telah hadir di benak masyarakat Indonesia yang kini makin dekat dengan globalisasi.

Apakah kita dapat mengatakan hal yang sama tentang pandangan masyarakat Swedia terhadap Indonesia? Saya belum pernah mengunjungi Swedia, tapi saya cukup yakin jawabannya adalah “tidak”. Walaupun demikian, saat ini pandangan tersebut mungkin mulai berubah.

Kunjungan Raja Carl XVI Gustaf pada awal tahun lalu merupakan yang pertama kalinya dilakukan oleh anggota kerajaan Swedia. Dan menjelang akhir tahun 2012, Perdana Menteri Fredrik Reinfeldt juga mengunjungi Indonesia, pertama kalinya dilakukan Kepala Pemerintahan Swedia. Kedua kunjungan ini merupakan bukti meningkatnya ketertarikan masyarakat Swedia untuk memperkuat hubungan bilateral dengan Indonesia. Dan kunjungan Presiden Yudhoyono ke Swedia pada 27-29 Mei 2013 dapat pula dijadikan bukti kalau ketertarikan tersebut juga dimiliki masyarakat Indonesia.

Upaya memperkuat kerjasama Swedia-Indonesia harus ditanggapi baik. Karena, dengan menduduki posisi ke-8 dalam Indeks Kapasitas Inovasi (Innovation Capacity Index), Swedia adalah negara kaya inovasi yang telah menghasilkan penemuan-penemuan seperti cardiac pacemaker, GPS, dan sabuk pengaman tiga titik. Pemerintahan Swedia menyadari kalau ilmu pengetahuan dan teknologi telah menjadi faktor penting yang mengangkat negara mereka dari kemiskinan dan keterbelakangan hanya dari seratus tahun yang lalu, dan hingga kini terus mendedikasikan sumber daya mereka ke dalam bidang ini.

Karena inovasi merupakan bagian penting pembangunan ekonomi, kemitraan Indonesia dengan Swedia sewajarnya memiliki fokus di bidang tersebut. Dapat dilihat, kerjasama terkini antar kedua negara menitikberatkan modernisasi kota dan bandar udara Indonesia, dengan menjadikan mereka lebih ramah lingkungan. Harapannya adalah kemitraan di bidang ilmu pengetahuan dan teknologi juga dapat berkembang d bidang lain seperti kesehatan dan energi terbarukan.

Tak dapat dipungkiri pula, dimensi kerjasama Indonesia-Swedia telah berkembang luas dalam beberapa tahun terakhir. Betapa berbedanya hubungan kedua negara dari satu dekade yang lalu, saat hubungan kedua negara didominasi isu-isu politik seperti demokrasi dan hak asasi manusia. Pada saat itu, banyak tuduhan yang dilayangkan dari Swedia ke Pemerintah Indonesia. Namun demikian, mempertimbangkan banyaknya pemimpin Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) tinggal di Swedia, dapat dimengerti kalau pandangan umum masyarakat Swedia tentang Indonesia tidak selalu baik.

Saat ini, konflik di Aceh telah usai dan banyak anggota GAM menaruh senjata mereka dan duduk sebagai anggota parlemen lokal. Secara keseluruhan, Indonesia telah mengalami perubahan demokratis—dari sebuah negara yang dikukung krisis multi-dimensi menjadi stabil, demokratis, maju secara ekonomi, dan menjadi percontohan di kawasan. Swedia pun bukan satu-satunya negara Eropa yang melihat baik perkembangan ini. Tahun lalu, pemimpin-pemimpin dari Ceko, Jerman, Norwegia, Portugis, dan Inggris datang ke Jakarta untuk memperkuat kemitraan.

Pejabat pemerintahan juga bukan satu-satunya elemen masyarakat Swedia yang mengunjungi Indonesia. Pada 2012, turis asal Swedia merupakan pengunjung tertinggi untuk Indonesia di antara negara-negara Skandinavia lainnya. Lebih lanjut, di antara masyarakat Eropa, turis Swedia rata-rata tinggal lebih lama di Indonesia, menjadikan potensi kontribusi ke ekonomi lokal lebih tinggi.

Perdagangan Indonesia-Swedia secara umum telah mengalami peningkatan dan membukukan total volume perdagangan USD 1,4 milyar pada 2012. Pada 2009, Presiden Yudhoyono dan Presiden Komisi Eropa Manuel Barroso setuju untuk memperkuat kerjasama perdagangan Indonesia-Uni Eropa, termasuk dengan membahas kemungkinan Perjanjian Kemitraan Ekonomi Komprehensif (CEPA). Sebuah komite yang terdiri dari perwakilan sektor bisnis, akademisi, dan pejabat pemerintahan telah memasukkan saran-saran untuk mendukung negosiasi CEPA. Jika lolos, perjanjian ini dapat meningkatkan hubungan dagang Indonesia-Uni Eropa, termasuk Swedia.

Lebih penting lagi untuk dicermati adalah meningkatnya ketertarikan kalangan bisnis Swedia untuk mengucurkan investasi ke Indonesia. Pada awal 2011, Menteri Perdagangan Swedia Ewa Bjorling mengunjungi Indonesia bersama perwakilan dari 25 perusahaan di bidang energi, teknologi ramah lingkungan, telekomunikasi, dan perhubungan. Pada tahun yang sama, investasi Swedia yang terealisasikan baru sebesar USD 916.000; satu tahun kemudian, nilainya melonjak menjadi USD 5,2 juta.

Perdagangan dan investasi memang merupakan agenda penting yang dibawa Presiden Yudhoyono dalam kunjungan kenegaraannya ke Swedia minggu ini. Selain bertemu dengan pejabat tinggi Swedia, Presiden juga dijadwalkan bertemu dengan pemimpin komunitas bisnis Swedia. Isu-isu yang akan diangkat Presiden, antara lain, adalah akses yang lebih tinggi bagi produk-produk Indonesia, sebagai bagian dari upaya menembus pasar Uni Eropa.

Walau pertumbuhan investasi Swedia di Indonesia patut disambut baik, Presiden Yudhoyono kemungkinan besar akan lebih lanjut menggarisbawahi kesempatan luas dalam mendorong kerjasama di sektor tersebut. Sebagai contoh, keahlian Swedia di bidang pembangunan infrastruktur dapat membuka pintu kemitraan bilateral untuk merealisasikan MP3EI. Demikian pula, masih ada ruang untuk membuka kemitraan di bidang inovasi teknologi sebagai cara memperkuat pembangunan berkelanjutan di Indonesia.

Pada akhirnya, kunjungan Presiden Yudhoyono akan membantu masyarakat Swedia untuk mengenal Indonesia lebih lanjut, sehinga berkontribusi pada citra baik Indonesia sebagai negara emerging economy. Mudah-mudahan, hal ini memungkinkan lebih banyak lagi masyarakat Swedia yang melihat Indonesia lebih luas dari hanya sebuah stereotip negara tropis di Asia Tenggara. Setidaknya, sama luasnya dengan pandangan masyarakat Indonesia yang melihat Swedia lebih dari sekadar ABBA atau IKEA.

(Terjemahan ke Bahasa Indonesia oleh Wirya Adiwena)