On the eve of the opening of the Beijing Olympics, we have some very special guests, along with the much-anticipated return of Cleo Paskal from her wanderings (who else do we know who covers the UK, Athens, Faroe Islands and India in what seems like a minute?). Cleo will no doubt have insight regarding the role of India in the collapse of the latest Doha Round talks.
The special guests include one of Diana’s favourite electronic Pen Pals, An Xin,
an expat ‘on leave’ from Beijing during the games. She describes herself as a humble MA and a systems fan, especially in relation to education, training, content management and human performance improvement methods, and was introduced to us by our OWN David Mitchell. She has been the source of some fascinating and well-written observations on her life in China, frequently debunking news reports and analysis.
Dr. Gary Boyd teaches in the Educational Technology program at Concordia and his interests are chiefly sustainability (social and ecological) and educational cybernetics or systems theory. He was in Tien’amen at the time of the ‘incident’, and is a long-time friend of David Mitchell.
Dr. Allenna Leonard was the partner of
Stafford Beer, the father of management cybernetics and such processes as the Viable Systems Model (he was an architect of Allende’s Chile) and Syntegrations, both organizational diagnostic and planning tools. She continues his work to some extent and has her own consulting practice for social processes (her PhD was in Administration), and specializes in NGOs.
China will be one of our major topics, and not only with respect to the Olympics. Whether it is the world economy, the WTO, or environmental considerations, China plays an increasingly important role.
We commend to you
A columnist’s parting thoughts on China whose concluding thought – “China’s model has a lot to offer the world, but one senses that it has taken China itself about as far as it can. This government has stopped making the massive, brutal blunders it committed in the 20th century, which killed or stunted the lives of huge numbers of its citizens. What it needs most now is to get out of the way of ideas and enterprise, and to learn, bit by bit, the virtues of trust.” – might well apply to many other countries – including perhaps our own.
More pieces well worth pondering:The Weng’an model: China’s fix-it governance – The Beijing government’s response to an eruption of local fury in Guizhou province signals a vital change in its operating mode, says Li Datong – and Despite Flaws, Rights in China Have Expanded, a second piece by Howard French; also China’s repression of civil society will haunt it by Minxin Pei

The Report

Five new faces in the room this evening: Diana’s electronic Pen Pal, best known by her ‘pen name’ AnXin, and her two friends, all linked to Wednesday Night through David Mitchell and the Concordia Educational Technology Program where Penny took her Master’s. Cleo, a welcome returnee after a long absence, introduced her “American cousin”, Diana Plachowski and Corey Anhorn. Diana is a McGill student in Sociology and Hispanic Studies. She spent 3 years supervising a shelter for abused and neglected children in Austin, Texas, and running the child care program for Austin Area Inter-religious Ministries, a refugee ESL school also in Austin. Corey Anhorn, is a founding member and presentations coordinator for “In Their Shoes Canada”, an NGO working on informing and empowering youth on developmental issues in Montreal. He is also an Infantry Officer in the Canadian Forces Reserves and is currently an Honours Anthropology major at Concordia University.
Robert Galbraith
has been working to save a magnificent elm tree (photos) in Phillipsburg. As Robert has written in a story for The Gazette:
“The Philipsburg Elm has been the pride and ever-present “sentinel” of the village since its founding in the latter part of the 18th century. It has seen close to three centuries of history pass under its leafy canopy. As a sapling, it was witness to Abenaki hunting parties in the early 1700s. Then came the French regime, the British regime, the arrival of the United Empire Loyalists who were displaced by the American Revolution, the War of 1812, the formation of Canada in 1867, both Great Wars and the Korean War.”
Unfortunately, diagnosis by the experts confirms that the Dutch Elm Disease is too far advanced to save the tree that has witnessed so much history.
He has also been leading the charge on the blue-green algae that is closing the shores of Lake Champlain   for most recreational activity. The principal cause is industrial (pig) farming – a delicate political issue in a province where every rural/agricultural vote counts. It  would be nice to think that the Quebec government could follow the example of the Chinese authorities who have moved swiftly to overcome a similar invasion of the Olympic sailing ( More than 10,000 people have been mobilised in the Chinese city of Qingdao to clean up green algae, which have invaded the Olympic sailing venue.)
Many, if not most, westerners having little knowledge of China, are nonetheless prejudiced against what they know of officialdom. This has been reflected in much of the publicity surrounding the organization of the Beijing Olympics which has concentrated on topics such as the destruction of people’s houses and livelihoods for the construction of the truly amazing Olympic facilities, and the repression of dissent.
The past century has been a period of successful but varied evolution in the world.  The current Beijing Olympics   narrow the focus not only on China’s incredible effort to ensure their success but on the divergence in the political and economic post-World War II paths followed by China, Japan and India  as compared with that of the western world.
As the  Games are about to begin, the focus has been on the complexity and beauty of the infrastructure and the extent of detail in the planning process.  The main criticism to date appears to be the persistent smog in Beijing, not the result of the organizing committee’s insistence on the opening date of 08-08-08, but of the IOC’s refusal to have the Games held in smog-reduced October, in order to ensure maximum viewership (read television rights revenues).
China has evolved from that proud era when its culture and innovations surpassed that of the western world, an image that appears to motivate it to conceal its current shortcomings and to require the world to marvel at its successes.  This, to some extent, explains the incredibly spectacular success of the infrastructure of the Olympic site as well as to other organizational and engineering feats throughout China, even when achieved at great human cost in death and misery.  This also explains the suppression of open protests, demonstrations and other newsworthy events, as well as the paradox of permitting open discussion in private settings on the world, but not on China.

China‘s economy
China has two economies, both tightly controlled. One is foreign, based on manufacturing and the other, domestic. The government needs the authority to ensure that (pretty draconian) conditions remain favourable for the manufacture of cheap goods for export, which is what feeds the domestic economy. But, if China progresses to a democratic system, and loosens the controls, it would be very difficult to maintain the export market. However, controls over infrastructure and much urban development have loosened up somewhat, and profit is quite acceptable provided that it forms part of the national agenda.
With respect to global economic relations, very tightly controlled by the government, China uses the levers of capitalism to accomplish the goals of the nationalist agenda. This may be done at a loss in order to support The focus is clearly on growth and prosperity at all cost.  China has invested heavily in Africa – monetarily and diplomatically – , sending Chinese nationals to work in African countries, building infrastructure and importing raw materials from those countries for manufacture and re-exportation of the manufactured items to Africa, competing at the local level, creating resentment among the local population (China’s trade with Africa carries a price tag)  

Research and Innovation
The Chinese authorities are oriented towards tangible things.  Their idea is to buy or otherwise acquire the expertise, develop and exploit it.  The facility is there, but their educational system has not encouraged innovation.  They do not want to make mistakes.  Creative, innovative thinking is anathema to Communist thinking, although there is now an attempt to cultivate creative questioning in some of the research centres. The advantage of the authoritarian system is that the acquisition and implementation of existing techniques and technology and the correction of resulting errors all follow on one another very quickly until the optimum procedure is achieved.
The authorities appear to strive for demonstrated superiority in all areas at all cost in order to promote the image of the persistence of the glory of ancient China in today’s world.  This, in large measure, explains the paradox of the co-existence of some personal success and wealth in a tightly controlled communist country.  The maintenance of this apparent paradoxical psychology requires that human life be of secondary importance to the continuity of the myth.  This also inhibits the creative thinking and action that is the hallmark of western and other Asian culture.  However, the downside of innovation without adequate planning has led to errors that have the potential for long term adverse effects, such as building infrastructure in the wrong place.  The entire heavily built up east coast of China is in constant danger of flooding.  The railway to Tibet is built on permafrost, subject to possible disaster and the Three Gorges Dam is said to be located on an earthquake fault line — aside from all the other problems that have been identified.

Like China, Japan is not a democratic country, but has evolved quite differently largely due, it is believed, to the benevolent post World War II U.S. occupation government implemented by General Macarthur.
Although India, with its large and diverse population appears chaotic, the historical separations of many states and rulers coupled with the mixed blessing legacy of British imperialism has prepared India for a bright future in a relatively open  and knowledge-based society. Despite the traditional caste system, there is much possibility for upward mobility.  Infrastructure may not be as impressive as in China, but the planning process guarantees that it will not be built in the wrong place, subject to the impacts of environmental change.

2 Comments on "WEDNESDAY NIGHT #1379"

  1. David Mitchell OWN August 2, 2008 at 8:42 am ·

    Wow, Diana and David, the presence of four favourite people (Cleo, Penny, Allenna and Gary) is almost enough to pry me loose from this place. Almost, but alas, not quite sufficient.
    It should be a very interesting evening with such talent added to the ever-present roster, even if there are no newsworthy events between now and then.
    You noted Allenna’s late partner, Stafford Beer (friend of Penny and Gary, and my friend and mentor). I … think the title and first bit of this –from a founder of Open Democracy (which I assume you have book-marked) — might tickle your imagination. Bon weekend, David

  2. David Jones August 2, 2008 at 8:51 am ·

    I’m glad that you are circulating the “Last Thoughts on China” column. It echoes some of Terry and my conclusions to the extent that (a) you hear nothing good about the Govt of China in the western media; (b) many/many Chinese are quite satisfied with the financial compensation they have received for property expropriation, etc; (c) there is substantially greater toleration for dissent than the media would suggest.
    You and we have a much longer perspective than many observers. We were aware of the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution” as they were happening; the costs in human lives and ruined futures were in the tens of millions. What is happening now is bitterly unpleasant and a clear violation of human rights and humanitarian norms–but these are now more like retail violations of human dignity than wholesale depredations.

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