Tag Archives: China

Grotesque Domestic Product

I have read, as most anyone has, that China will within the next few years overtake the United States as the world’s largest economy. I used to be impressed by this, and, to a certain degree, I still am.  However, the more I realize that this statistic pertains to each nation’s respective GDP, I have become increasingly skeptical.  

GDP, as best I understand it, has to do with total goods produced, plain and simple.  It has nothing to do with whether those goods are in fact productive, beneficial, lead to development, or are of any use whatsoever.  They simply need to be produced, and in so doing produce jobs, revenue, and so on.

Here in the Middle Kingdom I am recognizing that much of the country’s GDP must literally go up in smoke.  Here’s my for-instance.  Even in the winter, schools in China insist on keeping doors to the outside world open. And, when people see them open, they simply walk through them without closing them.  Closing them does not enter most people’s, students’ or teachers’, conceptual framework here.  Open doors offer a path of least resistance, so take it.  

What I have tried to explain to students is that keeping doors open in winter wastes energy.  Wasted energy forces Beijing’s coal-fired power plants to burn more coal.  More burning of coal creates more air pollution.  One would think that this would result in immediate awareness and that people would begin to close doors.  

What I have begun to realize is, of course, keeping doors open does in fact mean more burning of coal.  Burning more coal means that more coal has to be produced.  Producing more coal increases expenditures as well as revenues.  Increased expenditures, jobs, revenues and so forth increases GDP.  And, one must not forget that this cycle, whether beneficial or not, of increasing the GDP leads to bonuses.  Bonuses accrue to individuals, and those individuals become beholden to those who pay the bonuses, who are often members of or closely connected to the Party.  So, much like smokers in the United States subsidize all sorts of wasteful and harmful practices and policies, the “Open Door” policy here does the same.  Each, of course, lines the pockets of certain beneficiaries and benefactors alike.  Again, it doesn’t matter what is made or produced, as long as it is in fact made or produced.  One would not normally think of wasted energy as a product, but here in China it appears to be.  

Are school administrators and students tacitly instructed to keep doors open in order to increase wasteful spending?  I don’t know, but it seems that way.  Implementing a policy that would encourage a school not to waste energy would seem to be a simple and non-controversial thing to do.  Still, I have been through two winters here, and thus far open doors to the winter cold appear to be the norm.  

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Reading Augustine’s Confessions in Beijing

I will be the first to admit that “reading Augustine’s Confessions in Beijing” doesn’t have, or most likely will not have, the same allure as the book, Reading Lolita in Tehran. Still, my guess is that there are some points of convergence.  To begin with, as an English teacher here in China, I never would have assumed that one day I would be teaching Medieval Literature at any high school in Beijing, much less to only two students in a seminar class, and, as a first text, to be looking at Augustine’s Confessions.  Even so, as Augustine had a high doctrine of the sovereignty of God, I should perhaps not be too surprised by any of this.  Indeed, a year ago I taught a part-time English course to a group of young seminarians here in Beijing, at the Beijing National Seminary for the Roman Catholic Church in China — which is funded by the government.  Go figure.  

This seminar on medieval literature, as I indicated, has two students in it, both young women.  Yes, the Confessions is new to them.  Yes, trying to tease out Augustine’s understanding of sin, original sin, memory, sex, temptation, good and evil, the Fall, and the infinite love and grace of an infinitely loving God, and how all this has somehow contributed not only to western literature, but also to a great degree to western thought and psychology, is slow going.  However, it is slow going in the same way that plants, flowers, trees and so on do not sprout overnight.  To be sure, this is a process of cultivation not (yet) of harvesting.  And it is exceptionally enjoyable and rewarding.

One of the things that has not surprised me too much, but which has, rather, delighted me and broadened my sense of wonder, is how well Augustine’s thinking and observations, inasmuch as he is a close reader of human nature, translates into Chinese culture, and, more specifically, into the modern 21st century understanding of two young Chinese women.  On several occasions, for instance, when Augustine is describing his experience with schooling, Roman literature, the Greek language, and doing things to please one’s elders, both of these students find ready points of convergence.  It’s as though Augustine is describing them.  Of course, when the conversation turns to more specifically theological questions, which these two seem eager to understand, the conversations become less animated and more circumspect.  When trying to describe to them Augustine’s conception of God as not only being infinite, but everywhere infinite, that is in indivisible infinity such that the infinity of God exits everywhere infinitely, that became a bit dizzying. Of course, when I think about this on my own, I may feel myself losing my own balance.  

When discussions turn to matters of sin and sex and sexuality, what is surprising is that these two are able to speak frankly and without flinching.  There is a pragmatic matter-of-factness to these discussions which is at once absolutely appropriate to the moment, and yet revealing enough of our humanity to remind us that these are not merely abstract, academic issues, but rather questions of the mind, heart, body, soul and spirit.  Augustine’s Confessions thus far has provided an excellent platform or staging area to deepen East-meets-West thinking about any number of questions.  

In the remaining weeks of this term I hope at least to introduce Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy.

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China Little Flower

China Little Flower

China Little Flower is a medical orphanage in the Shunyi District of Beijing.  The home is in a villa, reconfigured to serve this very valuable and beautiful work.  When I first arrived in Beijing in 2011, there were, on a regular basis, about 40 babies there.  Now the number is roughly 60.

As I learned from the founder of Little Flower about a week ago, medical problems are the primary reason why children are abandoned in China.  There really is no national health care, and the costs for treating a baby with a life-threatening or chronic disease can be well beyond the means of many families.  So, as I understand it, thousands of these children each year are left in hospitals, where they enter the orphanage system.  Some are left at the orphanages themselves. Interestingly, perhaps sadly, this phenomenon of child abandonment is relatively recent in China’s history.  Apparently it began to grow exponentially following the opening of China in the 1980s.

About a third of the state-run orphanages are apparently well run, a third make an honest effort at trying to do well, and a third are where babies and young children go to die, victims of institutional neglect and disease.  The quality of these orphanages depends, as one might infer, on the financial status of the municipalities in which they exist.  If the village or city is well off, so, most likely, will be the orphanages.  If however the area is poor, all bets are off.  For those so inclined, one can find on Youtube segments of the 1995 BBC documentary, “The Dying Rooms,” which portray the horrific conditions of the poor state-run orphanages.  I have been told that things have improved since then, but are still not good for thousands upon thousands of babies and children across China.

China Little Flower, which came into being in the 1990s, is private founded and established by a couple from the United States, but who have made China their home.  It is also one of the few orphanages in China that is able to provide round-the-clock medical care for babies, preemies, as well as children born with cleft palates, digestive and coronary conditions, infections and so on.  In cases, it will fly children outside China for specialized surgeries that cannot be done within the country.  It is not a long-term orphanage.  Rather, other homes send babies to Little Flower for specific medical care. When the children are well enough to leave Little Flower, they are then sent back to the orphanages from which they came, with the express mandate that these children be adopted.  Little Flower itself cannot and does not do adoptions.  These are done by the government.  In January of 2012, Little Flower joined with the Beijing Chunmiao Children’s Aid Foundation.

Over the course of the past two years I have visited Little Flower regularly, and have introduced it to others, students and colleagues alike.  As I mentioned before, it is an amazing place, where medical care is combined with warmth and love.  I am always inspired by my visits there, inspired and filled with hope.  It is one of the reasons why I wish to continue to stay in China.

More information on China Little Flower can be found at its website, and on Facebook.Image

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Easter 2013

One of the priests at St. Joseph’s here in Beijing wrote this account.  I should like to meet the ladies of whom he speaks.

“He Is Risen! He Is Risen Indeed! 

     The eight ladies sitting around me in the plain conference room definitely belonged to the rural side of the Chinese urban rural divide. They were all middle aged peasant women very much of their time and place. Their weatherbeaten faces told of the hardships of life in a “cotton belt where planting, tending and harvesting of the white plant are still done “old school” and mechanisation remains a pipe dream. Too old to have been caught up in the extraordinary growth that has transformed China they live according to the rhythm of the seasons; a lifestyle that is fast becoming archaic in the new China. Their age is also against them in other ways also, the upheavals of the Cultural Revolution, and a poor appreciation of the merits of educating girls deprived them of schooling; all of them are functionally illiterate. Only a few of them are comfortable in Mandarin, and even those that seem to be speaking in the Standard Language are difficult to understand. Though only four hours by train from the capital one is definitely a world away from urbane Beijing.

       Despite their apparent unsophistication, these women have a global sense that is surprisingly rich. Foreigners are relatively common visitors, and I am welcomed with curtesy but little of the wonder that is par for the course in other places. Despite their limited education, certain world events are discussed and analysed with as much enthusiasm as in Poland or the Spain. They will never visit France or Italy but they mention towns and cities in both countries with relative ease. I don’t know if any of these ladies have sons or daughters who studied in the US but it would be unremarkable if they did and they are in daily contact with returned graduates. Their sense of the august universities of US may be vague but are at most only one degree of affinity away from those hallowed halls.

      The link that makes these village women global citizens is their Faith. With their sisters (and brothers!) in New York, Dublin and Bombay the ladies of XizhongYing face the challenge of making the love of God and neighbour alive. Through their Faith Jerusalem, Nazareth, Rome and Lourdes become barely less real and perhaps more emotionally present to them than Beijing or Shanghai. The network of relationships which follow faith has made their pastor a graduate of Catholic University of America and a Sister from the village a student at Chicago Theological Union. The new Pope’s election, is already old news even if the CCTV failed to cover the white smoke as the rest of the world did, and nobody had to ask who is this Francis after whom he chose to be named. These women may be illiterate, and have no access to the internet, but they the are connected into something which is bigger than themselves and which means the world to them.

      The ladies of Xizhongying face a problem. Poverty in the Middle Kingdom, like Socialism, has “Chinese Characteristics”and rural poverty is proving particularly intractable. Though poor themselves, their faith demands they help those even worse off around them. They have reached the limits of individual charitable deeds and these brave women are dipping their toes in rather murky waters of organised social service in a Communist country. What may seem second nature in Europe or the ‘States is bewilderingly novel here. The impulse to serve the poor of course is common, but the stuff of organised charity, meeting, minutes, treasurer’s reports, fundraising, and volunteer management, is all strange and new for women who can have a deep impulse to love of neighbour, but have never even heard of a raffle, or a bake sale, let alone organised one, nor managed the proceeds for the good of the poor.

      Often, for outsiders, the High Drama of China-Vatican’s on again off again relationship dominates our understanding of the Catholic Church in China. But for me the exciting story is in the experiences of people like the women of Xizhongying. In a small village in a forgotten part of Hebei, the yearly retold story of feet washed, a cross borne and an empty tomb offers and demands of these villagers more than the Confucian tradition or family loyalty expects. These ladies, rather than work out their response to this story on their own, are struggling to organise co-ordinate, sustainable charitable work. We may never arrive at announcements of “Bingo Night in the Church Hall” to fund it, but in the halting efforts of these women to care together for the poor around them I see evidence, if such were needed, that Christ not only washed feed and then died for us but that on the third day He did indeed Rise from the Dead! Alleluia.”

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Back to 1942

It has been several months.

Yesterday afternoon I went to see the movie, “Back to 1942,” grim account of the famine that devastated Henan Province during the Second World War.  Some of the reviews from the States I have read speak of the film as being “distant.”  However, this was not at all the case for me.  Moreover, several of the students I work with are originally from Henan, and several of them have grandparents who survived this horrific episode in China’s history.  The movie was not distant to these students.  Just about all the students left the theater in a pensive mood.  They were in the process of digesting a very grim visual presentation of a time in their country’s history that, until very recently, was largely unknown. Outside the theater, on a cold early Beijing evening, a group of students and I huddled together to have a brief discussion about what we had just seen. I hope to have opportunities over the coming days to speak more about this movie with them.  In the movie the priest, played by Tim Robbins, says something to the effect of, “After 10 years in China, I thought I understood the country, now, after 30 years, I am not so sure.”  I have been in this country now for going on a year and a half.  My knowledge of China, not only its history and language, but also how the people here think, and what shapes and informs their thinking, is still skimming the surface.

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