Qatar zeroes in on cousin marriage

DOHA // Six years after the law passed, Qatar launched mandatory premarital screenings this week, mainly to alert couples who may be related of any potential health risks for their future offspring.

About half of all marriages across Gulf nations are between cousins, and their frequency is increasing, according to a recent study in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention. At 54 per cent, the rate of cousin marriage appears highest in Qatar, and has increased nearly 30 per cent from the previous generation.

On its own, marriage between cousins, or consanguinity, is not necessarily problematic. But many debilitating genetic disorders – including sickle cell anaemia, cystic fibrosis, spinal muscular atrophy, mental retardation, epilepsy and Down syndrome – can be up to 20 times more frequent among populations in which cousin marriages are common.

“It is certainly a problem,” said Dr Ahmad Teeb. A genetics and paediatrics professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College of Qatar, he has been researching Arab genetic disorders for more than 25 years and contributed to the recent study.

“The issue here is not the cousin marriage, the issue here is to avoid the disease,” Dr Teebi sai. “However, virtually none of us is free from carrying some bad genes, and when you are cousins the likelihood of you are carrying the same bad gene is higher.”

Marriage between second cousins or more distant relations has very little impact on the passing down of genetic disorders. Yet the children of first cousins, who share 12.5 per cent of their genes, are nearly twice as likely as the general population to contract a disorder. And within populations that intermarry regularly over generations, the coincidence of disorders can increase exponentially.

“If certain disorders are more common in a population,” said Dr Teebi, “the likelihood of its occurrence can be many times increased.” In the Gulf, most cousin marriages are between first cousins.

A report by the Dubai-based Centre for Arab Genomic Studies (CAGS) in September found that a handful of genetic diseases – the blood disorder thalassaemia, diabetes and Down syndrome among them – have reached epidemic levels (more than 100 cases per 100,000) in several Gulf countries. The report also found that Arabs have one of the world’s highest rates of genetic disorders, nearly two-thirds of which are linked to consanguinity.

Qatari leaders have been working to improve national health and medical awareness. This week, the Doha Exhibition Centre hosted Qatar Health 2009, an international forum for the latest advancements in health care research and technology. Sidra Medical and Research Center, a Qatar Foundation initiative that is backed by a US$7.9 billion (Dh29bn) grant and set to open in 2012, aims to become a regional centre of biomedical research and medical education.

Yet Qatar is the last Gulf nation to institute premarital screenings and many nationals remain unaware of the risks of marrying a close relation. A study to be published in Cambridge University’s Journal of Biosocial Science next month found that most Qataris surveyed did not know that consanguinity had been linked to serious genetic diseases or that distant cousin marriages were genetically less risky than unions between first cousins.

“These results indicate that more effort needs to be made in developing public health strategies to improve the population’s understanding of the cost-benefit analysis involved in contracting consanguineous marriages given the goal of healthy offspring,” the report’s authors wrote.

Although cousin marriage is legal in 26 US states and across Europe, the rate of consanguinity in industrialised nations is generally less than one per cent. In Muslim countries, meanwhile, cousin marriage represents about 35 per cent 40 per cent of all unions. Research from CAGS and others suggests consanguinity is declining in Lebanon, Egypt and among Palestinians, but increasing in Morocco, Mauritania and Sudan.

It is also increasing across the Gulf. Dr Teebi links the trend to tribal tradition and the region’s expanding economies. “Rich families tend to marry rich families, and from their own – and the rich like to protect their wealth,” he said. “So it’s partly economic, and it’s also partly cultural.”

Qatar’s Supreme Council of Health aims to change that culture, with an outreach campaign that includes workshops, online information, university lectures and the distribution of educational CDs and brochures. Earlier this week, the Qatari minister of public health, Abdullah bin Khalid al Qahtani said, “a healthy family is the basic cell of society”.

The screenings are meant to strengthen that cell. Couples are tested for both communicable and genetic diseases. Doctors warn of any disorders likely to be passed to each other or to the couple’s potential offspring, but cannot withhold a marriage licence due to any health risks.

The final decision rests with the betrothed. “The couple will think twice or maybe three or four times,” said Dr Teebi. He said that similar screenings in the UAE and Bahrain appear to have lowered the frequency of sickle cell anaemia.

“Some people might say, ‘All right, we will take the risk,’ and some will change their mind,” he said. “It’s the nature of humans that they will think about it.”


Arabs encouraged to blog and be heard

DOHA // For Raouf Shabayek, blogging is easy.

“Everyone can blog,” the editor-in-chief of the Dubai-based consultancy Real Marketing Solutions said during a blogging conference on Saturday. “It doesn’t have to be 1,000 or 2,000 words, it can be one sentence, one picture – we can all add something to the conversation.”

Five years ago, Mr Shabayek started a blog about Arabic entrepreneurship (blog.shebayek.com). Waves of positive feedback soon inspired him to organise his writing into a book, which he published himself. He has since published three more, and now sees blogging as a potential Gutenberg Bible for the region. "We in the Arab world can now have our own Renaissance," he said.

About 300 speakers, bloggers and guests turned up at “Mudawanat: All About Blogging,” a one-day forum held at Doha’s Sharq Village resort, to help realise that vision. IctQatar, a government-run technology support group, organised the event to nurture interest in blogging in Qatar and across the region.

Arabic is the world’s fifth most widely spoken language, yet Arabic speakers represent less than three per cent of all web users, according to Internet World Stats. Nearly three-quarters of the world’s blogs are written from Europe and the United States. A June study by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society found there are an estimated 35,000 active blogs in the Arabic language. But compare that to 70,000 blogs in Farsi.

Yet the potential is considerable. A report from Internet World Stats found that internet users in the Middle East and North Africa increased nearly twenty-fold between 2000 and 2009, faster than in any other language or region. Google searches for the word “mudawanat” (“blogging” in Arabic) have increased 20 per cent to 50 per cent in the past few years, most prominently in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Jeremiah Owyang, a partner at Altimeter Group, a social media research and advisory firm in California, called for clarity among those interested in starting a blog. “What is your topic, and who is your audience?” Mr Owyang asked. “Find your area of interest and focus on it.”

He advocated several steps: treat your blog like a brand; make an editorial calendar; hire a designer to improve the site; and incorporate social networking tools from Facebook and Twitter to better respond to your readers.

An attendee asked Mr Owyang if social networks were pulling web surfers away from blogs. “They’re not taking away from each other; they’re all becoming one,” he said. “You’re building a house and you have many tools – a hammer, saw, nails – you should use them all.”

Ahmad Hamzawi, Google’s head of engineering for the Middle East and North Africa, highlighted some of those tools. He showed how to use Google’s keyword tools to find frequently used search terms, explaining that increasing the use of such terms on a blog increases that blog’s search rank.

For those uncomfortable with English, Mr Hamzawi explained Google Translate, an add-on that offers immediate translations of blog posts in up to 50 languages. Finally, he emphasised the growing popularity of the form: more than 120,000 new blogs are launched every day. Technorati, which indexes blogs, reported in October 2008 that there were 133 million blogs worldwide.

There are about 1,100 blogs in Qatar, according to Ammar Mohammed Khaled, who blogs at ammar- talk.com and founded Al Jazeera Talk, where Arab youth discuss a wide range of issues online. He urged more Qataris to blog, pointing out that blogs can incorporate words, images and video and blogs offer freedom when so much news is controlled.

At least one audience member appreciated this last point. Hassan Al Jefairi said that over the past two decades he had been forced out of columnist positions from three of Qatar’s Arabic-language newspapers because his work ruffled government feathers.

“Everybody knows I’ve got a hot mouth and a hot pen, and I write about hot issues,” said al Jefairi, who writes mostly on environmental and economic issues.
Recently he took to the internet. Al Jefairi’s new blog – he calls it an “electronic magazine” – attracted more than 3,000 visitors in its first month and inspired him to distribute his writing in book form. “There’s more freedom of speech today,” he said.

“The topics I am raising today, 15 years ago I couldn’t discuss them.”

Shabina Khatri discusses a wide variety of issues on her personal and professional blogs, as well as in contributions to Global Voices Online. Her initial inspiration? A slow work day, several years ago. “I was bored at work and decided to start a blog,” said Ms Khatri, whose site quickly gained attention. “You don’t have to be famous. Anybody in this room can just start blogging.”

Blogs can also be a way to make money, according to Mr Hamzawi. He showed attendees how to use Google’s AdSense and FeedBurner applications to place advertisements on their blog and generate income.

Mr Owyang offered a warning to the profit-seekers. “Start a blog with passion first, and then if it turns into a business, great,” he said. “But if you’re starting a blog just to make money, it will probably fail.”

Originally published in The National --


Qatari father vents anger sentence given to son's killer

DOHA // After the killing of his 16-year-old son Mohammed in England, Abdulla al Majed vowed, “justice has to be done”. Some 16 months later that justice has come, but it is not the sort the grieving father envisioned.

The judge Anthony Scott-Gall last week sentenced George Austin, 22, from South London, to four and a half years in jail for the killing of Mohammed. Austin has been in police custody since November 2008. With more than a year of time served, plus a possible early release for good behaviour, he could be a free man by early 2011.

“I’m not happy, I’m angry,” said Mr al Majed. “The judge was very good, very fair – the fault is with the British justice system. Their penal code encourages killing because it does not punish harshly. What guarantee do we have that when he’s released he will not kill again?”

In the summer of 2008, Mohammed al Majed left Doha to study English at an international school in Hastings, England. A few days before he was due to complete his studies and return home, Mohammed was with a couple classmates outside a kebab shop. Austin and two of his friends, all of whom had been drinking alcohol, began harassing the foreign students with racist taunts.

Austin struck Mohammed in the face as the teenager tried to run away. Mohammed’s head slammed into a kerb. He suffered a fractured skull and a brain haemorrhage and died in hospital three days later.

Austin was convicted of manslaughter last month and sentenced on November 25. His attorney, Susan Rodham, argued that the killing “was not premeditated”, and that the head wounds were “indirect” and “not foreseeable”. The British newspaper The Observer termed the sentence “lenient”.

“He should have gotten either a death sentence or 25 years in jail,” Mr al Majed said. “Sharia says, ‘An eye for an eye.’”

In Qatar, such a killing would probably receive a harsher penalty. “The sentence would depend on many factors – including the age of the defendant, did the victim die immediately, the anger of the victim’s family – but it would certainly be more than this,” said Hanan Malaeb, a law professor at Qatar University.

George Austin received a four and a half year jail sentence for killing Mohammed al Majed Nigel Bowles for The National

She estimated the punishment could vary from the death penalty plus a “blood money” payment of up to 150,000 Qatari rials (Dh151,322) to the victim’s family, to a much smaller fine and a dozen years in jail. “If this happened to my son, I don’t think a few years would be enough,” Prof Malaeb added. “This would not give me the satisfaction that he got his punishment.”

Mohammed’s family remains unsatisfied. His mother, father and four siblings live together in Doha, and recall the 16-year-old who liked football and was a member of the Kashafa, or scouts.

“Still no days pass without shedding tears,” said Mr al Majed. “It still makes me too sad to remember him – I don’t like to think about it. All of his family is missing him. But now we are not only upset about losing him, we are upset about this sentence.”

Each year, about 40,000 foreign students study English in Hastings, an East Sussex town of about 85,000. Police say confrontations with locals are not uncommon. Just hours before the incident, the owner of the kebab shop had warned police about the potential for violence from Austin and his friends.

“This was the duty of the British government, but they have failed,” Mr al Majed said.

On Tuesday the killer’s mother, Jacqueline Austin, pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice. She helped her son flee the country to evade capture a month after the killing.

In sentencing Austin, the judge said: “What a sad indictment you are for the youth of Britain.”

The victim’s father puts the killing in context.

“We have respect for the British people,” said Mr al Majed. “But some like this George, they defame the country. They are a danger to their own society.”

Mr al Majed believes the scars left by Austin will be deep and lasting. “The Quran says: ‘To kill one man is to kill all of humanity,’” he said. “He has not just killed one person he has killed against a family and a nation.”

--- originally ran 4 Dec 2009 in The National (www.thenational.ae).

Young learn principles of print

DOHA // Erika Widén is thinking big. With her new initiative, the director of business development at Qatar’s leading English-language daily newspaper aims to rescue the country’s print media and help build a skilled workforce in the Gulf.

“Not too many people are interested in reading the news around here anymore – they are checking their BlackBerry, maybe getting Al Jazeera on their mobile,” she said at the offices of The Peninsula.

“We want to get these kids interested in reading, interested in the news, and also help them write. There are not a lot of opportunities like this for young people in this region.”

Ms Widén and the Peninsula editor-in-chief, Khalid Abdul Rahim al Sayed, have just launched the Young Peninsula Journalists (YPS) programme, a free journalism training scheme for middle and secondary students. YPJ hopes to engage citizens in news, impart valuable work skills and steer local youth towards a successful career.

On the first day of classes last weekend, the Peninsula offices bustled. Dozens of the programme’s 300 seven to 12th grade students mingled in the halls. Teenage girls in headscarves talked about photography on couches in the lobby. Adolescent boys discussed journalistic integrity. “Some papers are trying their best to cover the real news,” said 13-year-old Vignesh during class. “But some are just publishing news that is not there at all.”

Ethics and accuracy are among the topics of discussion, along with writing, reporting and various media-related concerns. The students come up with their own story ideas – on sport, society, arts, business and more – but are advised to focus on what’s happening in Qatar.

Starting in early January, a YPJ newspaper – with student reporting, photography, graphics and cartoons – will be inserted every Sunday into The Peninsula. The best student work will receive awards.

Over the year-long programme, the students will receive 60 hours of training in the job skills that are much needed in Qatar and across the region. In the UAE, a government body tasked with finding jobs for young Emirati nationals has found the private sector is willing to hire, but often cannot because of a lack of skills.

The Arab Labor Organization estimates unemployment at nearly 15 per cent in Arab countries – the highest for any region.Without intervention, the problem is likely to fester.

“The GCC will remain an unusually young part of the world,” said a report by the Economist Intelligence Unit called The GCC in 2020, which was released last week.

“Much will depend on the extent to which the young population can be harnessed as an effective labour force.”

That goal dovetails with one of YPJ’s lead sponsors. Silatech, an organisation created by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned in 2008, engages public, private and civil society sectors to create jobs and opportunities for Arab youth.

“This helps young people inside Qatar that give back to Qatari society and enhance its growth,” said Ahmed Younis, director of strategic partnerships and communications at Silatech. “It’s important for the development and growth of the Middle East and North Africa region to be sure young people have a robust set of skills in journalism, public policy, and writing, and this is what we’re hoping to achieve.”

More than half of the YPJ students are Arab, 15 per cent to 20 per cent of whom are Qatari nationals. About 40 per cent are from South Asia, along with a handful of westerners. The initiative will also train 20 students with special needs from The Shaffallah School.

“This is the way the world works today, with people from all different places working together,” said Ms Widén, who put advertisements for the initiative in local Arabic and English-language newspapers. “We want all these different students to be integrated.”

Still, students will learn writing and interviewing skills, the role of a reporter and the value of news. The first class began with the basics – “What is Journalism?” – and ended with an assignment: write the five Ws (who, what, when, where, why) about a recent event.

The Palestinian triplets Yosra, Mohammad and Latifa, all 14, left class together, notebooks in hand. “We want to know more about newspapers, how they work,” said Latifa. She is doing her assignment on natural disasters, while her sister Yosra will focus on crime.

Their brother could not decide what to write about, then he brightened. “I know,” said Mohammad. “I’m going to write about the Algeria-Egypt football match.”

-- originally appeared Friday, 27 Nov 2009, in the National (www.thenational.ae).


Dubai is Good

The Burj Dubai sticks out from the city's skyline like a raised middle finger. Head, shoulders, torso and waist above all comers, the tower tells off legions of Dubai doubters. Indeed the building, which opens in January, is so tall as to be ludicrous. I first saw it from the plane as we prepared to land, and more than anything it looked like a creation beyond human capability, it rose so high, so sharply, piercing the sky like something out of a sci-fi movie. That the tower is stunning, a feat of both imagination and engineering, awe-inspiring and a wonder to behold is without question. But now that Dubai World has defaulted on its debt, the narrative of this Gulf city's glorious rise to global prominence -- as a financial center, a playground for the rich and adventurous, a laboratory for new ideas on architecture and urban planning -- and the meaning of the Burj have taken a darker turn.

A writer friend of mine, responding to mostly unfounded rumors that the foundation of the Burj had long since cracked, called the tower "the height of hypocrisy -- a most apt symbol for the city." Of course the Burj is a metaphor, but of what is as yet unclear. It's unlikely to become the Titanic, for one. Westerners seeking high salaries, ideal weather and the good life will continue to wash up on these shores.

Abu Dhabi will most likely bolster its economy and Dubai the dream will move on - and thank god for that. For Dubai is both a positive force in an unsettled Muslim world and a much-needed poverty reduction machine. Its economy is about as liberal and market-friendly as they get. Its government, although monarchic, is more laissez faire than any from Pakistan to Morocco -- and Muslims are all too aware of this. Ask any non-radical across the Muslim World where he'd like to go on holiday, or for the duration, and you'll likely hear "Dubai" within the first few options. Perhaps more importantly, there are few better places for developing world poor to go looking for work and success. The majority of Dubai's population is not Emirati, nor is it predominantly Western-expats splashing out for pads in Jumeirah beach. This city is comprised of mostly Indians and Bangladeshis, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Fillipinos -- people from poor countries who've come looking for a better life, and mostly found it.

Still, with its reputation tarnished, its leadership chastened in the wake of the debt default, Dubai must now move out of its adolescence. Most likely, the opening of the Burj Dubai will represent the end of an era, and an awakening -- the moment Dubai accepted its mortality, stepped back from the brink and steadied itself.


A Glimpse of Doha

Having a hard time picturing Doha? This might help.

Envision Las Vegas, a city of gleaming towers rising from the dunes. Add a decent expanse of moderate to low-slung housing stretching inland and southward around a grand, C-shaped bay (some say the city's name comes from dohat, Arabic for bay, while others believe it's a derivation of ad dhawa, for "big tree"). Encircling this bay is the Corniche, a two-mile long pedestrian promenade that skirts the glistening Gulf waters past the rocking dhows in the harbor and terminates at I.M. Pei's glorious new Museum of Islamic Art (it's a gorgeous building, fantastically well placed on its own tiny peninsula jutting into the Gulf -- it changes color during the day, depending on the angle of the sun's rays, and it feels both ancient and new. The inside is less spectacular, mainly broad open spaces, but I've yet to take a good look at the collection, was there only for a couple screenings and discussions during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival. One very neat-o thing about it is that it's also a woman in a niqab -- the two windows at the top are shaped much like a woman's eye slits in a niqab. Find a picture online and you'll see what I mean). The Corniche is Doha's Las Ramblas, its Champs-Elysees, although nowhere near as appealing or popular. Still, on any evening you will find joggers from three or four continents, Indian families dangling toes into the water, various Arab men smoking cigarettes and couples from everywhere but Qatar leisurely taking in the view.

Otherwise, imagine wide boulevards and dull highways linking glass-walled apartment buildings and five-star hotels, strip malls with foreign franchises of retail, fast food, autos, banking, travel and anything else a consumer bursting with cash might desire. For Qatar is the world's greatest supplier of liquid natural gas, and there's really been no recession here -- Qatar's economy is among the world's fastest growing. The government is predicting 16 percent growth next year and few are disputing. Its per capita income is in the vicinity of $80,000, highest in the world -- but keep in mind there aren't many capitas here.

Qatari citizens make up less than 20 percent of Qatar's total population, which is around 1.3 million. Other Arabs -- mainly from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan -- make up another 20 percent, followed by Western expats at maybe 15 percent. Then at last we have the immigrant laborers, mostly from South Asia and the Phillipines, who work endless hours in the searing heat and the dead of night, raising buildings, who clean and park cars, tend gardens, run restaurants and serve food -- they make up around 40 percent of the population of Qatar. Doha is rather international: at a mid-level cafe or restaurant – not too swish, not too dhaba, perhaps in a mall or the made-to-look-old Souq Waqif – you'll see an Indian family, a group of Jordanians chatting over tea, a few Qatari men in their dishdashas and thobes and a smattering of Western professionals all minding their own business and feeling relatively at home. Foreigners seem quite comfortable in Qatar, perhaps because they sort of own the place.

But in reality they will never own any of its great wealth. Foreigners cannot become citizens in Qatar, much like the other wealthy emirates and kingdoms in the Gulf. These governments prefer to distribute the booty to as few people as possible.

Despite being on the edge of the desert, there's not much sand here because it's all covered up with concrete. The women, too, are generally covered -- you can tell Qatari women because they were the niqab, generally, or at least the full body and head-cover black with exposed face. Many of them do glamorize the look with makeup and earrings and pastel designs along the cuffs and hem. Most other Muslim women generally wear a headscarf over their hair, but a lot don't. And the Western women wear nearly whatever they want -- I've seen tight jeans and short skirts and cleavage, surprisingly. Westerners make good money working for big business, finance and oil and consulting and airlines and banking and the like, live in very nice apartments, drive sleek cars and dine and dance at the fancy restaurants and bars within 5-star foreign brand hotels like the W, Ramada, Four Seasons, Intercontinental and Sheraton.

Qatar puts on a show

Doha// Brazil snatched Saturday's much-anticipated friendly from England 1-0, but the real winner may have been Qatar.

Despite 50,000 fans from around the Gulf cheering, dancing and chanting in a sold out Khalifa International Stadium, much of the action took place off the pitch. Match organizers Al Jazeera Sports and the Qatar Football Association spent some 5 million pounds to lure two top teams, build an entertainment center and display Qatar's readiness to host the 2022 World Cup, which would be the first ever in the Middle East.

“Everything has been very efficient,” Pat Brogan, a 42-year-old salon owner from London, said before the game. “Qatar Airways was fantastic. The transport has been good. The stadium's gorgeous and everybody has been very nice.”

Brogan and his friend Ricky Darcy have followed their team across several continents and had rarely been treated so well. “In some countries we were cordoned off and separated,” said Darcy, a 37-year-old social worker, referring to England fans' reputation for hooliganism. “In Slovakia we were greeted off the plane by policemen with big dogs. But this, this is the way it should be.”

But questions remained about whether this country of 1.3 million people – and only 250,000 Qataris – could handle the demands of hosting the world's most popular sports championship.

“In terms of infrastructure, I think they could handle a World Cup here,” said Mustafa Ramadan, an English citizen who recently moved to Doha to work as a schoolteacher.

His compatriots were less optimistic. “I can't understand how they could possibly do it,” said Brogan. “They've got one good stadium and a lot of desert.”

As part of the bid, the government plans to build at least two new stadiums in addition to Khalifa: the 86,000-seat National Stadium, to be built as part of the $5billion Lusail City project, and the Doha Port Stadium, a smaller, modular sports stadium with seating for 43,000.

Qatar's 2022 bid is aiming for “a completely new type of World Cup.” While previous cups have been played in up to eight cities, all the events for the Qatar tournament would take place in and around Doha. Organizers say a more compact event will save teams the hassle of constant travel and offer fans the opportunity to see more than one match per day.

Before Saturday's match, fans thronged the Fanzone, an 18,000 square foot festival set up outside the stadium. It included Brazilian, Qatari and English food stands, live music, a mini beach-football pitch, camel rides and face painting.

“This is fantastic,” said Steve Collins, 43, an Australian living in Doha for a year. He came with his wife, a friend and her two children. “This opens up Qatar to the whole world. They should do something like this every weekend.”

A traditional Brazilian Batucada drum band led dozens of fans dancing down the main thoroughfare. Kids played the latest FIFA Soccer video game on a 12' foot screen and a quartet of Buckingham Palace guards marched smartly about the grounds.

“It's been really nice so far,” said Camilla Delboni, a 23-year-old Brazilian who works on an oil rig near Doha. “They brought Brazil here to play – that's very good. But I don't think they could host the World Cup – it's too hot here during the summer.”

A key aspect of the bid is the use of low-carbon cooling technology to control temperatures in outdoor stadiums and practice facilities during the Gulf's broasting summer months. Along with modular tournament sites, after the World Cup this technology would be passed on to other Arab countries looking to improve their football and sports infrastructure.

“For this one match, they've done fine," said Waleed Al Harbi, a 30-year-old Saudi. “But during the World Cup it's different; where's the after party going to be?”

One key party to the bid is Mohammad bin Hammam, a Qatari who is president of the Asian Football Confederation and an influential member of FIFA's Exective Committee. Bin Hammam led the teams onto the field for Saturday's match, and recently spoke out in support of England's bid for the 2018 World Cup. Many believe he did so on the assumption that England will return the favor for Qatar's 2022 bid.

That support needs to come soon. Completed official bid books must be submitted to FIFA by next May and the hosts of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups will be named in December 2010.

This weekend likely boosted the Qatari bid – to what extent is unclear. On the Fanzone “Wall of Support” spirits ran high. “Good luck for Qatar!” wrote one backer. They may need it.

-- an edited version of this story appeared 18 Nov in The National (www.thenational.ae)


Qatar school reforms pass test

By David Lepeska

Doha // Qatari first lady Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al Missned launched this week’s inaugural WISE Summit with clear objectives. “Innovation in education should become an achievable and executable process,” she told hundreds of educators, academics and experts gathered here to discuss the future of education. “Innovation stems from the society and is not imposed on it – it should therefore be a part of the identity of educational institutions."

Innovation may soon be part of the scholastic identity in Qatar, where an ambitious, six-year-old reform programme has begun bearing fruit. In several dozen new government-run schools teachers have shown greater engagement and students tested higher than peers at standard public schools.

“The reform has achieved important successes in its early years,” said a study released this month by the Rand Corporation. “Independent schools have been showing clear progress in applying new student-centred curriculum and teaching methods.”

In a region with few high-achieving school systems, and millions of knowledge-hungry youths, this tiny nation’s new schools offer hope.

The seeds of Qatar’s billion-dollar reform programme, “Education for a New Era”, were planted in 2001. At that time, some 70,000 K-12 (kindergarten through 12th grade) students attended government financed and operated public schools that could impart the basics but little more.

Seeking to better prepare Qataris for post-secondary education and careers in a globalised economy, the government tasked the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, to analyse its schools and make recommendations.

Rand found a woeful public school system and laid out three options for reform. Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani chose the most ambitious – a comprehensive structural reform that would encourage innovation, accountability and variety within independently managed, publicly funded independent schools – and asked Rand to help implement the programme.

Advisers from the Centre for British Teachers and the US-based Charter Schools Development Center helped new school managers design learning programmes and developed an advanced curriculum centred on Arabic, English, science and mathematics. In 2004, the first dozen schools opened their doors. Increased demand led to the opening of a few dozen more schools by 2006.

Progress followed. “This is just a much better learning environment,” said Jan Wilson, director of professional development at Qatar’s new Supreme Education Council (SEC), which runs the independent schools. After 15 years helping the United Nations rebuild school systems in war-torn countries, she joined the SEC in 2003 and helped replace the traditional school system.

A two-year study by the Rand-Qatar Policy Institute, a joint partnership between Rand and the Qatar Foundation, was released last month and describes more demanding yet more supportive classrooms.

“The leadership teams are well-trained and have a good understanding of what they have to do and the teachers are much more secure and knowledgeable,” added Ms Wilson, pointing out the value of the annual assessment tests given to all students at the new schools. “The tests show a year-on-year improvement across the schools.”

At the Abu Baker Asdeeq Independent School, a boys’ middle school in Doha, the conference room shelves are lined with row upon row of binders – comprehensive profiles of all 650 students. Some 70 per cent are Qatari, according to the vice principal, Fareed Yaghi, and the rest from neighbouring countries.

“Everything is different from the other school,” said Abdullah Yousef Deyab, 14, an Abu Baker 9th-grader who attended a ministry-run school until a few years ago. “The students, the teachers, the whole way of learning – this school is much better.” The teenager is not sure what profession he would like to pursue, but he wants to study at a US university.

That’s a possibility. The number of Qatari students in the US increased by 35 per cent in 2008 – the fastest growth rate in the Gulf, according to the latest Open Doors Report from the New York-based International Institute for Education. About 1,000 Qataris are now studying at US institutions within the US and at Education City in Doha. Some of these students graduated from Qatar’s new independent schools.

Yet Qatar’s success remains a regional exception. “The divide between education and employment has not been bridged and the quality of education continues to be disappointing,” said a 2008 World Bank report on education reform in the Middle East and North Africa. “Despite considerable growth in the level of educational attainment, there continues to be an ‘education gap’ with other regions.”

Qatar’s 106 independent schools have begun narrowing that gap. The government eliminated the ministry of education and by September next year, will have also eliminated all its traditional public schools. By that time, the SEC will be operating 180 independent schools, with the possibility of more to come.

Yet the initiative has not been perfect. School leaders have had difficulty explaining to parents how their schools differ from traditional public schools.

Too many policy changes have slowed administrative progress, and classes in English have lagged because of little proficiency among teachers and students.

Most troublesome has been a shortage of Qatari teachers. “Local capacity is limited by numbers,” said Ms Wilson. “There are just not enough Qatari teachers in the country.” She has partnered with Qatar University to attract more, but that’s not the only hurdle.

Female Qataris are willing to teach in part because it provides a secure, gender-segregated workplace. Qatari males take a different view. “Qatari men just don’t want to teach,” said Fareed Yaghi, vice principal of Abu Baker, where six of the 50 teachers are Qatari.

That may change as the independent schools take root. For now, Qatari educators must content themselves with small, daily revelations. “Today the student parliament requested more time for exams, they told me one hour is too short,” Mr Yaghi said. “I’ll have to talk to the teachers – they may be right.”

-- originally appeared 20 Nov 2009, in The National (www.thenational.ae)


A Look at My Place

Some folks have been clamoring for a glimpse of my living conditions here in Doha. Not sure why, exactly, but I thought I'd deliver anyway -- if only to appeal to potential house guests. Come one, come all, anytime after the holidays (I'm heading back to the States for Xmas and New Year's), when Doha is 80 degrees and sunny almost every day, and cool in the evenings.

The living room often looks like this, empty yet welcoming.

This is the ground floor pool, which has a small connected patio. Many an evening you will find me going back and forth from corner to corner lengthwise because it's too short to do laps the normal way. Still it's a cozy little nook, yeah?

And the rooftop pool, nicely tucked away from the world and the perfect spot to while away an afternoon and evening.

The view is not bad either. And when you're surrounded by desert, the sunsets are perfect every night.

Afterwards, the place to go is the Sky View bar at La Cigale, one of the best nightlife spots in the city. Fortunately it's right down the street.

Hope all are well this fine Sunday.


Q & A Show's Value Beyond Debate

By David Lepeska

DOHA // During the question and answer session of this week’s Doha Debates, a Qatari student named Donna stood and asked one of the guest analysts a tough question about political trust, then pressed him to give an honest response. The exchange begged the question: why don’t we have many TV shows like this in the United States?

The thought seems revolutionary. The common wisdom is that it is Arab countries that lag behind, with poor education, little freedom of expression and a dearth of quality entertainment. There is some truth to these beliefs.

But consider that on American television this week, Oprah’s karaoke contest came down to three finalists, Tyra Banks, supermodel turned talk show host, wondered if you’d like to try The Tapeworm Diet, and The Jerry Springer Show asked the eternal question, “My Cousin’s Baby is Yours?”

Yes, US television has some intelligent programming, such as the Emmy-winning The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Charlie Rose on PBS. The BBC, which manages and broadcasts The Doha Debates, is a world leader in news and entertainment programming.

But The Doha Debates is financed entirely by the Qatar Foundation and the majority of its speakers and audience are of Arab origin. It is an Arab production, one that regularly hosts illuminating and often heated discussions on some of the most pressing topics of the day, including extremism, women’s rights and the occupation of Iraq.

It is also closing in on its 50th episode, and with its appeal to the region’s youth, it may be creating a new image of Arab intellectualism.

“In some ways the show has exceeded our expectations,” said the show’s host and founder, Tim Sebastian, who hosted the BBC’s HARDtalk interview show for decades.
The Doha Debates is the BBC’s most popular weekend programme, according to producer Tanya Sakzewski, and the show’s website is among its most visited. This week The Doha Debates rolled out an Arabic-language website, where episodes can be viewed with Arabic subtitles.

At least 2,000 Arab and Qatari students have attended debating classes at QatarDebate, a national debating society established in September 2007 in response to the show’s success. The Qatar Foundation recently launched an Arabic-language student debate show, Lakom Al Karar (“The Decision is Yours”) and Doha will be host to the World Schools Debate Championship in February. Debating clubs have sprung up not just in Doha, but in Saudi Arabia and at a Palestinian university.

This in a region with a rich intellectual history and tradition of debate that many -- especially in the West -- assume has been lost in today's more conservative societies.

“In a sense, this is a giant leap backwards – and that’s a good thing,” added Sebastian. “These young people are questioning, probing, arming themselves with good questions and being dogged about getting answers.”

This week’s motion,“this house trusts Iran not to build a nuclear bomb”, could hardly be more timely. The international community has been pressing Iran on a UN-brokered plan to swap its low-enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. Iran agreed to the deal last month in Vienna but has wavered, hinting that it does not trust western negotiators to keep up their end of the bargain.

The opinions expressed were wide-ranging, belying the “Arab Street” myth of ideological uniformity that lingers in much of the West. “One of the surprising things is Arab diversity, in terms of opinion,” said Sebastian. “We used to be able to tell by dress how people would vote. Now we rarely have any idea.”

Iran and its nuclear ambitions have long been a grave concern in the Gulf. Arguing for the motion, Mr Marandi placed Iran’s nuclear energy programme in the broader framework of breaking the western monopoly on advanced research and technologies.

“We should question the motives of those countries who have and use nuclear weapons,” said Seyyed Mohammad Marandi, head of North American studies at the University of Tehran. “While Iran is the world’s biggest victim of WMD’s, it is very revealing that it has never produced chemical weapons, because Iran deems them immoral.”

An Egyptian student named Rama braved catcalls to voice a potentially controversial query: “How can we trust that any Supreme Leader, present or future, will not issue a fatwa saying it is a Muslim duty to nuke or attack any nation?”

Alireza Nourizadeh, director of the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies in London, argued against the motion. “How can you trust a government who kills its own people?” he asked.

“Where is your evidence?” asked Sebastian.

“I’m not going to disclose my evidence here,” said Mr Nourizadeh.

“Well then it doesn’t sound very credible, does it?” said Sebastian, earning titters from a studio audience made up mostly of local high school and university students.

That audience seemed to side with Mr Nourizadeh, as 52 per cent voted against the motion. But a Qatari student who voted in favour was unfazed. “I like how this reveals two sides to every question,” said Ahmed al Malik, 18. “We can express both sides, and understand the issues better.”

Sebastian saw the ground shifting.

“You’d be hard-pressed to walk down Oxford Street in London,” he said, “and find students that would rather go debate than spend the day shopping.”

-- edited version appeared in The National, 13 Nov 2009.


The Doha Story Begins

So I'm here. I think. Hard to tell I've arrived because, well, Doha can look pretty familiar to an American. On my street alone I've got a heart attack of US franchises, flashing bright red neon signs in two languages. Chili's is considerably more appealing in Arabic, I'll have you know. You've got your McDonald's and Burger King, Hardee's and the like, but the group includes a few I wouldn't expect (Dairy Queen? Johnny Rockets?? Ponderosa?!). The streets are relatively neat and tidy, the buildings dutifully scrape the sky, the doormen are deferential and the bars are filled with beer-swilling, sports-watching professional types.

So you stroll into H&M to look into some duds and you notice a group of veiled women waiting in line to buy their clo...Wait. Where am I? Oh, right, the Gulf. Where all of these cities -- yes, I'm looking at you, Dubai, and you, too, Abu Dhabi; Sharjah and Manama you can join in as well -- are competing to be the most seductive port of call for international bankers and glamorous stars of sport and film, media power players and wealthy businessmen of all stripes. The Gulf may be the only region in the world where the leadership is consciously and purposefully building castles not for the use and improvement of its own citizens but for the delectation of the foreign hordes. Not a moment too soon, either -- about three-fourths of Doha is foreign-born. And here I've come. Am I impressed? Am I enjoying it? Has it bowled me over? Eh.

Which reminds me, what am I doing here? Oh right, the journalism, the reporting, finding stories and sniffing out leads and making contacts and getting the answers. I've done a little of that:


And I'll do more. But for now I'm just trying to get my bearings. What helped most we're the eye-rolling, drool-inducing, try-one-and-you-must-eat-ten kebabs in Souq Waqif. Al Hateem restaurant you have rescued Doha from every-place hell, and I thank you heartily. Shabu W Masa you can take a bow as well, but your franchising ways have me doubting your authenticity. I'm watching you.

Some more images from the first fortnight (I took these with my phone, apologies for the poor quality -- I'll be busting out my camera soon enough):

A shot of "The Mummy" in Souq Waqif, a fantastic old Egyptian flick screened during the Doha Tribeca Film Festival in a great open square abutting the old market in downtown Doha.

A view of West Bay, or the Towers, as their known, from across the bay. Like little boys, they grow taller every day.

At the supermarket Carrefour, above each produce selection is a sign telling you the country in which it was grown. European varieties, you can see, are a bit more costly than those from the developing world - three times more expensive in this case. Predictably, immigrant laborers take the cheaper varieties, and Western expats go with what they know. Qataris? Well they do like their status symbols.

The Villaggio Mall replicates a Venetian street scene. This is indoors -- see the H&M to the left, and you might be able to make out the clouds and blue sky painted on the ceiling, in the upper left corner. This canal is plied all day and evening by what may be the world's only motorized gondola. Even in Vegas the gondoliers actually propel the boat. Not here. But that doesn't deter the steady stream of ride seekers.


Sustainable Cities Are the Solution

Recent op-ed for The Guardian (London):

Despite our romantic ideas about nature, it will be well-run, energy-efficient cities that ultimately save us from ourselves

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a $25m, energy-efficient office building on the Brooklyn waterfront a few months back. The Perry Avenue Building features solar panels, rainwater-fed toilets and six rooftop windmills, which will produce 10% of its energy supply. "Wind power in this city," said the mayor, "is one of the solutions to our problem."

That problem – devising more sustainable cities – has rightfully drawn a great deal of attention of late. In February, Barack Obama created the White House office of urban affairs and quickly set about staffing it with experienced urban planners, to complement what many have called his "green dream team" on environmental policy.

Earlier this year in Strasburg, Obama acknowledged that the US bears the brunt of the responsibility for climate change. Combined with nearly $50bn in infrastructure spending in the stimulus package, the new administration's emphasis on building better cities is clear.

As for New York, the new Brooklyn building is part of a $250m programme to make Brooklyn's Navy Yard a hub for green industry, just one aspect of the mayor's broader plan to make the city more eco-friendly. When he launched PlanNYC two years ago, Bloomberg pointed out that the world's cities were responsible for 80% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Former US president Bill Clinton and UN officials have quoted the same figure.

This bit of data would mean city dwellers emit nearly four times as much as their rural counterparts. (The UN estimates that humanity became more urban than rural in 2008. Right now, the global populations of urban and rural folk are roughly the same.) Put another way, living in a city is almost four times as polluting as living outside of one.

Thankfully, the figure turns out to be wildly inaccurate.

The carbon footprint of urban dwellers is relatively light, says a report by David Dodman in the April issue of Environment and Urbanisation. Dodman, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development, examined emissions reports from cities in the Americas, Asia and Europe.

He found that New Yorkers emit a third less greenhouse gases than the average American and that Barcelonans and Londoners emit about half of their national averages. And urban Brazilians are truly green: the residents of Sao Paolo and Rio de Janeiro are responsible for only one-third the national emissions average. Dodman's paper complements an earlier study by IIED senior fellow David Satterthwaite, who argued that cities emit about 40% of all greenhouse gases, as opposed to the oft-cited 80%.

On average, then, people who live in small towns and rural areas emit 50% more greenhouse gases than city folk. That cities may be part of the solution, however, does not mean that efforts like Bloomberg's PlanNYC are misplaced. Precisely the opposite is true.

By 2050, some 70% of us will live in urban settings, and it will ultimately be well-managed urban environments, with smart, energy-efficient buildings, power systems, transport and planning, that will save us from ourselves. Seeking better ways to do precisely that, a constellation of designers, architects and academics gathered at a conference on "ecological urbanism" at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design earlier this year.

Mitchell Joachim, who teaches architecture and design at Columbia University and was selected by Wired magazine as one of 15 people Obama should listen to, presented his vision for a collapsible and stackable electric city car, which would hang at public recharging stations, available for shared use.

He also explained "meat tectonics". Aiming to use meat proteins developed in a lab as building material, Joachim presented a digital rendering of an armadillo-shaped, kidney-coloured home. "It's very ugly, we know that," he said. "We're not sure what a meat house is supposed to look like."

Dorothee Imbert, associate professor in landscape architecture at Harvard, pointed to urban farming, a trend that has taken root in Detroit, New York, Milwaukee and a handful of international cities. Imbert mentioned her own student-assisted organic farms in Boston, yet acknowledged that adequate food supplies for future cities "would require rethinking of landscape in the building process".

Pritzker-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is thinking regionally. The Harvard professor and designer of the MC Escher-esque CCTV building in Beijing talked about his Zeekracht ("sea power" in Dutch), a plan for oceanic wind farms across the North Sea that would provide energy to much of northern Europe. With its constant high winds, shallow waters and advanced renewable industries, Koolhaas believes the North Sea offers energy potential approaching that of Persian Gulf oil.

His plan, which includes production belts in a half-dozen urban centres on or near the sea, energy cooperation and clean-tech research centres, is the type of project that, ideally, will both preserve green spaces and increase urban sustainability.

Another is a recently approved high-speed rail project in California, which will link that state's southern and northern hubs. Obama's stimulus package contains $8bn for high-speed and urban rail projects. That amount is nowhere near enough to install networks on a European scale, but, like windmills on the Brooklyn waterfront, it's a step in the right direction.

Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond "to live deliberately", as he put it. But shortly thereafter the American naturalist and philosopher accidentally burned over a hundred acres of pristine Massachusetts woodlands. We can no longer afford to be like Thoreau. If we want to continue to romanticise our natural world, we, as a civilisation, must also avoid it.

Games Lessons

My latest Economist story, from Sept 3rd issue:

It sounds like a cop-out, but the future of schooling may lie with video games

SINCE the beginning of mass education, schools have relied on what is known in educational circles as “chalk and talk”. Chalk and blackboard may sometimes be replaced by felt-tip pens and a whiteboard, and electronics in the form of computers may sometimes be bolted on, but the idea of a pedagogue leading his pupils more or less willingly through a day based on periods of study of recognisable academic disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, history, geography and whatever the local language happens to be, has rarely been abandoned.

Abandoning it, though, is what Katie Salen hopes to do. Ms Salen is a games designer and a professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design, in New York. She is also the moving spirit behind Quest to Learn, a new, taxpayer-funded school in that city which is about to open its doors to pupils who will never suffer the indignity of snoring through double French but will, rather, spend their entire days playing games.

Quest to Learn draws on many roots. One is the research of James Gee of the University of Wisconsin. In 2003 Dr Gee published a book called “What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy”, in which he argued that playing such games helps people develop a sense of identity, grasp meaning, learn to follow commands and even pick role models. Another is the MacArthur Foundation’s digital media and learning initiative, which began in 2006 and which has acted as a test-bed for some of Ms Salen’s ideas about educational-games design. A third is the success of the Bank Street School for Children, an independent primary school in New York that practises what its parent, the nearby Bank Street College of Education, preaches in the way of interdisciplinary teaching methods and the encouragement of pupil collaboration.

Ms Salen is, in effect, seeking to mechanise Bank Street’s methods by transferring much of the pedagogic effort from the teachers themselves (who will now act in an advisory role) to a set of video games that she and her colleagues have devised. Instead of chalk and talk, children learn by doing—and do so in a way that tears up the usual subject-based curriculum altogether.

Periods of maths, science, history and so on are no more. Quest to Learn’s school day will, rather, be divided into four 90-minute blocks devoted to the study of “domains”. Such domains include Codeworlds (a combination of mathematics and English), Being, Space and Place (English and social studies), The Way Things Work (maths and science) and Sports for the Mind (game design and digital literacy). Each domain concludes with a two-week examination called a “Boss Level”—a common phrase in video-game parlance.

In one of the units of Being, Space and Place, for example, pupils take on the role of an ancient Spartan who has to assess Athenian strengths and recommend a course of action. In doing so, they learn bits of history, geography and public policy. In a unit of The Way Things Work, they try to inhabit the minds of scientists devising a pathway for a beam of light to reach a target. This lesson touches on maths, optics—and, the organisers hope, creative thinking and teamwork. Another Way-Things-Work unit asks pupils to imagine they are pyramid-builders in ancient Egypt. This means learning about maths and engineering, and something about the country’s religion and geography.

Whether things will work the way Ms Salen hopes will, itself, take a few years to find out. The school plans to admit pupils at the age of 12 and keep them until they are 18, so the first batch will not leave until 2016. If it fails, traditionalists will no doubt scoff at the idea that teaching through playing games was ever seriously entertained. If it succeeds, though, it will provide a model that could make chalk and talk redundant. And it will have shown that in education, as in other fields of activity, it is not enough just to apply new technologies to existing processes—for maximum effect you have to apply them in new and imaginative ways.


Tip of the Iceberg: Behind China’s Stunning Growth

Independent Study Report
April 2006

The multitude of the people will, with one heart, proceed to build the richest and happiest country in the world – a country of the people, by the people, and for the people. – Sun Yatsen, father of modern China, 1919

Soon after settling into my window seat for the Beijing to New York return flight I came across a small story in China Daily that pretty well summed up the state of the People’s Republic of China in early 2006:

“Sales of adult diapers are booming as residents prepare themselves for lengthy journeys home on crowded trains for Lunar New Year. Many supermarkets…have reported an increase in sales of about 50 percent.…The number of train seats for people returning home for family reunions are limited because of the huge demand in the period. It means large numbers of passengers have to buy standing-only tickets and have to jam into all corners of carriages, even in toilets. This often makes it almost impossible for passengers to pass through and reach the toilets and they are forced to go without relieving themselves for the whole journey, up to 24 hours.”

Apart from generating the unpleasant image of dozens of train travelers nonchalantly defecating while chatting with a nephew or glancing out the window, the piece touches on every major obstacle to China’s continued prosperity: the regular, increasing, and unprecedented rural to urban migration; a severe shortage of support services and infrastructure; the raw human and industrial waste and overcrowding problems that have contributed to China’s environmental havoc; and the divide between the multitudinous poor, who are forced to urinate on themselves to get home for the holidays, and the growing middle and upper classes, who are not. It is nice to know that these disadvantaged souls could afford both the train ticket home and extra-absorbent undergarments, and one assumes the Chinese rail business is pleased about the record 144 million journeys during the Festival period of January 14 to February 29. But for a nation beginning to assume world power status, this is a black spot. And the fact that the article is written matter-of-factly and buried in the lower left corner of Page 3 just below a piece on banks handing out brand new yuan bills for traditional holiday cash giving suggests the indifference of the well-off, well-educated populace, who might rather be shopping.

With annual gross domestic product growth rates hovering just below double digits since 1980, the economic boom reported in every news outlet from here to Hohhot has waved a magic wand of prosperity across much of China, giving the governing party and much of the populace reason to cheer. The neo-communist country is awash with young people enjoying new jobs, toys, partners, and homes, and its cities are rapidly industrializing, modernized, and well-oiled. Yet there is a dark side to this full moon of development, as the almost incomprehensible economic growth of the past fifteen years has wrought havoc for millions of Chinese and endangered the land they call home.

“The development has definitely been a double-edged sword, because there have been many thousands, even millions of people, whose lives have improved dramatically in many ways, but at the same time there are certain problems for China,” said Wei Wei Yang, 25, an economics student at Nanjing University’s Johns Hopkins Center for Chinese and American Studies. “There is more pollution than ten years ago, and many farmers and people from the countryside are still very poor and upset with the government.”

Indeed, the rural-urban and rich-poor divides have yawned into vast, angry maws that threaten to swallow China’s peaceful prosperity. The land is shrouded in smog, pocked with dry, unusable land, and crisscrossed by increasingly polluted waterways. A new, consumerist culture is overwhelming ancient traditions. Freedoms of speech and the press are more on the government’s radar than at anytime since the Cultural Revolution.

Perhaps most crucially, the citizens of the People’s Republic of China, one-fifth of humanity, are by market forces and government fiat attempting to overcome an old nemesis, the deep roots of collectivism. The ruling People’s Communist Party has placed its hope for the future in a buzzword—innovation—that goes against its very political foundation and millennia of Confucian philosophy. Can members of a populace trained to work and think collectively and to blindly trust undisputed leaders be made to think and act for themselves, as creative individuals, without also desiring democracy? Time will tell, but in early 2006 most signs suggest that the current generation is indifferent to grasping and wielding control.

The Great Expansion and a New Society

“To get rich is glorious.”
– Deng Xiaoping

China took center stage as an international economic success story in 2005 – surpassing Britain and France to become the world’s 4th largest economy, replacing the US as the world’s leading technology goods exporter, and becoming gloriously almost-rich. Its trade surplus tripled to a record $102 billion as its economy surged another 9.9 percent, slightly above par for the past quarter century. Shanghai became the world’s busiest port by volume, handling about 443 million tons of cargo, and, perhaps most importantly, the 170 commercial lending institutions of China’s much-derided banking sector achieved a non-performing loans percentage of 30, down from nearly 60 percent in 1999 – a sign that most Chinese now have enough to make good on their interest, debt and loan repayments.

The purchase of homes, cars, luxury goods, leisure items and other totems of materialism, primarily by the under-40 generation, are symptoms of a tectonic cultural and societal shift away from traditional values and strict morality towards a more selfish consumerist culture. No more the selfless droning comrade of socialism and labor nor the obedient, domesticated wife, today’s citizens of the People’s Republic want to purchase Western goods, own property, drive a car, have casual sex, and the booming economy is increasingly allowing them their hearts’ desire.

A stroller down Nanjing Xilu, HuaHai Lu or any Shanghai thoroughfare in 2006 will be greeted with six to eight story mega-malls plastered with digital billboards and flashing neon and fast-food restaurants of every imaginable sort, crowded with young adults emptying their pockets of disposable income. In Beijing, construction of malls and supermarkets grew so crowded by February that the government announced limits on retail construction within the Second and Third Ring Roads. Although there remains a notable absence of international print media, a Shanghai newsstand presents a tableau not uncommon to a New Yorker: Vogue, Elle, Mademoiselle, Men’s Health, FHM, and Maxim jostle each other for space and the attention of passersby, with images of bare midriffs and Seven Secret Sex Tips stark next to food stands offering skewered meats.
As they embrace the Western world’s pleasure, health, and shopping obsessed lifestyle, however, many Chinese twentysomethings see traditional Chinese life quietly fading away. “When I was young, nobody had a car; people rode their bike. But now everybody seems to have one, and they’re all moving so fast,” said Lydia Wang, 21, an English major at Changzhou Teacher’s College. She plans to work as an interpreter for an international business and said that cars had brought a faster pace.

“I think China is becoming more materialist and it’s definitely taking away from our culture,” said Wang, furrowing her brow. “It’s becoming a very different China. We’re not very used to this kind of life, so it is changing us, not always for the better.”
“It is much harder to find a decent teahouse now,” said accounts manager at insurance conglomerate Manulife-Sinochem and Shanghai resident Feng Wang, 28, tucking her long black hair into a light blue knit cap as she prepared to head out into a wintry January Wednesday. “Much more difficult than even five years ago, because everybody wants Starbucks and American coffee. I hate coffee!”

She is clearly in the minority, as crowded Starbucks and other coffee shops and fast food joints have elbowed aside teahouses and traditional Chinese noodle shops in Shanghai and across much of China. The country had 1,200 KFC’s and almost 800 McDonald’s restaurants as of early 2006, both of which have presumably had a hand in the doubling of China’s obesity rate in the past decade.

“And Christmas and Valentine’s Day are like real holidays– these are occasions to go out and buy gifts now, but they weren’t when I was little,” added Wang. “Now all of the people are buying things and the shops are offering big discounts.”

Flaunting wealth as shiny status symbol, China’s newly minted millionaires need no such discounts. Strutting into Louis Vuitton and Mercedes dealerships, booking designer vacations, buying yachts, fancy cars, and expensive jewelry; this high-end group is being catered to like never before. Their $2 billion 2005 luxury spending represented 12 percent of global sales for such items, third behind the US and Japan. British expat Rupert Hoogewerf founded the Hurun Report in 1999 expressly for China’s wealthy –there are now over 400,000 US$ millionaires – and its annual best products issue listed over 400 high-end Chinese products. Hoogewerf says the wealthy in China are predominantly new money, as opposed to Europe, where there is a great deal of inherited wealth. As a result, “the Chinese are more willing to spend,” he told Shanghai Daily.

And they want other people to know they are spending, almost to the point of tackiness. “At this point I would say that the new wealthy can be voracious and are attracted to the more ostentatious products, definitely,” said Yonggui Wang, 46, Professor of Marketing and Strategy at Nanjing University. “They want everything, and they want it now. So it’s basically a field day for Chinese and Western producers.” Speaking of field days, the playing of golf has spread like wildfire, but not because the Chinese have any particular talent for it, according to Shanghai businessman Chow Wei: “People play because they think they're rich, or because they want you to think it." Finally, The New York Times recently reported a new trend that has wealthy Chinese men retaining lawyers and placing newspaper and magazine ads to buy themselves a bride, preferably a beautiful virgin, for up to a million dollars.

“I do see more malls and more people buying expensive things,” said Hopkins Center grad student Yang. “I don’t know whether it’s definitely good or definitely bad for Chinese culture, but it’s definitely something different. We will see if lasts and marks a long-term change for our culture.”

One thing that has lasted is demand for new buildings. In laying down an astounding 4.7 billion square feet in new construction in 2005, China’s urban centers required armies of migrant laborers. Shanghai built more living and working space than there is in all of New York’s office buildings, and its 4000 skyscrapers nearly double that of New York. To fill jobs in construction and other labor sectors, China experienced an urban migration the equal of which has never been seen in human history. Some 150 million Chinese have flocked to the cities as the rural-urban population ratio went from 82-18 in 1978 to 35-65 in 2004, leading to an explosion of new construction. (China has four times the population of the US, but consider that while the United States has a grand total of nine cities with a population over 1 million, the PRC has 170. ) Many of these workers, skipped over by China’s economic growth and easy riches, must periodically return home, to their families, to the reality of their neglected way of life.

“They are constructing buildings that are way up here,” said Feng Wang, 28, raising her hand high over her head, “but meanwhile most of the people are still down here,” putting her hand down at her ankles.

Asymmetric Development

Many migrant laborers have taken up residence in their adopted cities, creating an urban underclass left behind by the asymmetric economic development. Urban ghettoes have sprung up in the shadows of wondrous new skyscrapers and retail complexes. China Daily columnist Raymond Zhou recently made note of the trend, with a story on the rise of poor and neglected neighborhoods he dubbed “urban villages:”

“The majority of residents are migrant workers. The streets, if they can be called that, are narrow, dirty, and lined with all kinds of small shops selling fake or shoddy merchandise. It’s the birthplace of much of a city’s sweatshops and crime cases.”

Common to much of the developing world, a vast rural-urban divide and dangerous, poverty-stricken ghettoes may not seem a reason for concern, but in China in 2006 their breadth and depth highlight a broader trend: the cleavage of two Chinas.
In August 2005, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs released their annual Report on the World’s Social Situation, entitled “The Inequality Predicament.” The 158-page study argues that greater economic globalization is often accompanied by increased inequality between and within countries. “High migration streams engender and exacerbate inequalitites,” the authors state. “Many migrants encounter circumstances that leave them vulnerable to exploitation…inequalities between migrants and resident populations are even wider when migrants constitute a source of cheap labor.” Further negative consequences in many areas, including employment, job security and wages, create dangerous tensions. “Ignoring inequality in the pursuit of development is perilous,” the report warns. “Focusing exclusively on economic growth and income generation as a development strategy is ineffective, as it leads to the accumulation of wealth by a few and deepens the poverty of many.” Perhaps most importantly, the UN report goes on to document how inequality creates divergences in regards to health, life expectancy, birth rates, disease contraction, and education, and describes the lingering intergenerational dimensions that make it more and more difficult to overcome over time.

The post-boom People’s Republic is a textbook example. The consumption and literacy maps of the 2005 State of China Atlas suggest that a journey beyond an invisible DMZ about 150 miles inland from China’s developed eastern coastline will increasingly turn up illiterate locals with inadequate health services and no disposable income. In 2001, two scholars confirmed that China’s educational inequality “has created occupational and income gaps between the coastal urban business elites and the farmers of remote areas and inland provinces.” Today, the majority Han people, who dominate the developed southeast and coastal regions, have literacy rates almost double that of minorities. The latest statistics show that the wealthiest 10 percent—all urban—earn 45 percent of China’s income, with the bottom 10—predominantly rural—a slightly more modest 1.4 percent. Furthermore, in 1978 about 85 percent of China’s rural population was provided collective health care via the “barefoot doctor” system. Today, it is less than 20 percent. In the most recent World Health Organization survey measuring the equality of medical treatment, China–the world’s fourth largest economy, remember—placed 187th out of 191 countries. According the New York Times, “the collapse of socialized medicine and staggering cost increases have opened a yawning gap between health care in the cities and the rural areas, where the former system of free clinics has disintegrated.” Recent reform measures have failed, with peasants overburdened by annual payments, hepatitis and tuberculosis spreading, vulnerability to SARS and bird flu epidemics increasing, and resentment festering. And, after a small bump during the 1980’s, the economic fortunes of rural farmers have declined; with China’s WTO entry in 2001, cheap, highly subsidized agricultural goods from developed nations undermined their livelihood, leading to income declines for almost half of rural households.

After working 12-hour days six days a week on construction projects, Zhang Xiao, 28, from Guizhou Province in the southwest, waited in line for 7 hours at Beijing Railway Station in late January before finally getting a ticket home. This will be his first time back since he migrated to Beijing shortly after the 2005 Spring Festival, and he is lugging three bags, one with new clothes for his wife and another holding food and toys for his son.

“I’m going home to spend the festival with my family,” he said, smiling. “My hometown is very poor and most of the young male villagers go to big cities for work all year round to earn a living. So the short period during Spring Festival is very valuable for us to reunite with our families.”

Zhang was at first shocked by what he found in Beijing, how different people’s lives were—how much they owned, how much time they had to enjoy themselves. But he quickly came to appreciate their lifestyle and said it was almost like they lived in a different, better country.

“To be honest with you, I’m very envious of the city dwellers’ life.” Zhang told me. “They have a decent job and can entertain themselves as they wish after work. I hope my son can lead such a life.”

Zhang is not alone in his envy, with good reason. The economic boom changing Chinese culture and society has passed him and hundreds of millions like him by, leaving them struggling for survival. From a plateau of about 58 percent in 1985, average rural incomes have fallen to less than a third of urban incomes, and tens of millions have lost some or all of their land due to urban and suburban sprawl.

Such problems are especially acute for a nation with a deep and abiding connection to the land and over two-thirds of its population—almost 900 million people— still living outside urban areas. In 1919, Li Dizhao, former long-time head librarian at Peking University and respected communist thinker whose influential study group included Mao Zedong, wrote:

“Our China is a rural nation and most of the laboring class is made up of peasants. If they are not liberated, then our whole nation will not be liberated; their sufferings are the sufferings of our whole nation; their ignorance is the ignorance of our whole nation; the advantages and defects of their lives are the advantages and defects of all of our politics. Go out and develop them and cause them to know that they should demand liberation, speak out about their sufferings, throw off their ignorance and be people who will themselves plan their own lives.”

How rural China has responded to its perceived slight, then, has been no surprise. From 10,000 incidents of rural protest in 1993, China’s Public Security Ministry estimated 74,000 riots and demonstrations in 2004 and 87,000 in 2005, a boom of political uprisings some are calling the Latin Americanization of China, in reference to that region’s political instability. In recent months a string of rural protests turned violent, including one in Dongzhou, 125 miles northeast of Hong Kong, at which authorities killed at least six locals, and another in Panlong, in Guandong Province, where over 60 residents were injured and a young girl killed by baton-wielding officers.

Both incidents were a reaction to illegal land grabs by local officials, a practice that has become increasingly common as China’s real estate and development boom moves beyond urban centers. The de facto privatization of agriculture was a key part of late-1970’s rural reform, in which rural collectives were disbanded and land ownership, although officially belonging to the village, was essentially handed to individual households through usage rights. The backlash in recent years has come as city, council, and village officials have seized and purchased the land at cut-rate prices—often paying agricultural as opposed to market value—illegally separating farmers from their livelihoods. Peasants and rural villagers that have begun to fight back could even use the revered Chairman Mao as inspiration: “We should struggle against society in order to regain the hope that we have lost,” he wrote in 1919. “We should die fighting.”

Clearly concerned, the ruling party has taken notice. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao both celebrated Chinese New Year with farmers’ families in rural areas – for the third straight year – announcing that improving the lot of farmers and curbing the encroachment of development would be the focus of the newest five-year plan, which seeks “to build a new socialist countryside” and went into effect early this year. Wen highlighted the land grab problems in a late January speech, blaming rural unrest on “illegal seizures of farmland without reasonable compensation” and warning rural bureaucrats against making “a historical mistake” by failing to protect farmers and their lands, which he predicted would lead to more violence. He cautioned against towns seizing land or selling confiscated fields to developers as a way to raise public funds: “This is a key issue that affects the stability of the countryside and the society, and it must be clearly recognized by all levels of government and party committees.” Days later President Hu Jintao gave a similar message to the Politburo: “If we cannot succeed in developing agriculture and rural areas while helping farmers improve their lives markedly, we will fail to reach the goal of building a comparatively prosperous society.”

The reforms have begun to take shape. Late last year they repealed a 2,600-year-old farm tax and instituted free public schooling for rural children. New legislation is intended to bring rural health care and education back to 1970’s era levels, and a long-discussed property rights law is closing in on passage, but still being intensely debated. Perhaps the most impressive instance of increased government vigilance was the news that He Feng, the official who hired thugs to attack protesting villagers in the Dongzhou incident, was recently and swiftly sentenced to life in prison.
But these improvements do not an equal society make. Corruption is still rampant throughout the countryside, and most officials involved in crackdowns are being neither fired, as the latest reforms recommend they should, nor disciplined. Even though government prosecutions against corrupt party officials doubled in 2002, both the frequency and sums involved are increasing. Additionally, the repealed farm tax represented only .01 of China’s GDP, or $2.86 billion. That number breaks down to about $3.50 per rural resident, and reveals more about the way China’s economy has industrialized in recent decades than any legitimate concern for farmers. In fact, 28 of China’s 42 provinces had already scratched the tax the previous year. Discriminatory laws make life more difficult for rural to urban migrants. Health care and education still lag drastically. And then there is most worrisome problem: environmental deterioration.

The Environmental Fallout of Expansion

When the wealthy vie with each other in splendor and display while the poor squeeze each other to death; when the poor do not enjoy a moment’s rest while the rich are comfortable; when the poor lose more and more while the rich keep piling up treasures; when in some more extravagant desires awaken, and in others an ever more burning hatred; when some become more and more arrogant and overbearing in their conduct, and others ever more miserable and pitiful until gradually the most perverse and curious customs arise, bursting forth as though from a hundred springs and impossible to stop, all of this will finally congeal in an ominous vapor which will fill the space between heaven and earth with its darkness.
– Chinese scholar Gong Zizhen.

Moving through China in January 2006, I am astounded by the Nostradamic accuracy of Zizhen’s Gothic 1830 prophecy. Everywhere one looks decadence is contrasted with destitution and the ominous vapor – permasmog – is pea-soup thick and getting worse. In the Shanghai area, the smog was so bad during the Lunar New Year peak travel season that highway accidents surged 50 percent as drivers had barely 20 feet of visibility. Although the Chinese media played up a two-point downward tic in oil imports in 2005, behind the statistic was the country’s increasing reliance on coal. In releasing sixteen percent of the world’s carbon dioxide and becoming the world’s 2nd biggest producer of greenhouse gas emissions behind the US, China very nearly crossed 2 billion tons of coal burnt in 2005. (Only South Africa generates a greater percentage of its electricity via burning coal.) Compounding the problem is China’s new must have item: the automobile. With almost 6 million units sold in 2005, China became the world’s 2nd-largest auto market after the US, and one of its most prolific emissions polluters. With very little warning, China has reached what many are calling an environmental tipping point; where there was once air, there is now a great deal more, and none of it is good. With pollution levels estimated to triple or even quadruple over the next 15 years, the problem is neither limited to China nor something that will just go away.

The awe-inspiring development boom has over the past 50 years cut the habitable and usable land in half and degraded 40% of arable land. Part of 60 percent of China’s major rivers are classified as unsuitable for human contact, and seven of the world’s ten most polluted cities are in China. Approximately one third of the country receives acid rain and round 400,000 premature deaths each year can be attributed to pollution. China has 339 million goats and sheep, compared to 7 million in the U.S., and feeding them takes entire swaths of countryside. Without roots to hold the soil, much of North China’s open land has turned to sand as deserts advanced hundreds of miles each year, and dust storm season has become an annual occurrence in Beijing. A major chemical spill that poisoned the water supply of the city of Harbin, in Northeast China, leaving 10 million area residents without water for a week, was symptomatic of a larger potable water crisis. And, perhaps most worrisome to the rest of the world, pollution does not respect national borders; the United States Environmental Protection Agency recently reported that 25 percent of Los Angeles’ pollution can, on any given day, be of Chinese origin. Acknowledging the crisis, China’s Deputy Environment Minister Pan Yue showed some rare candor in a summer 2005 interview for Der Spiegel, saying China’s economic “miracle will end soon because the environment can no longer keep pace.”

Zhuzhou in Hunan Province could serve as exhibit A for the problems of China’s newly industrialized cities. The Xianjing River links three cities totaling 10 million in population – Zhuzhou, Xiangtan, Changsha – and carries dangerously high levels of mercury and cadmium. In Zhuzhou’s industrial northern zone are over 200 glass-production, paper-making, melting and pesticide factories, and with all the pollutants released daily the air has gotten so toxic that taxi drivers refuse to go there. Yet with no means to move, the poor are forced to stay, and suffer.

“Some residents have moved out of the region, but for those poor and laid-off worker families, they have no choice but to suffer,” said Xu Wei, a recently laid-off driver. Peng Hualin, 95, grew up in Zhuzhou and does not like what he sees today. “What we breathe in every day is smog, not clean air.”

As China eyes a great and complex problem, words of change have been spreading like wildfire. “The biggest threat to China's growth is now the environment,” wrote Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “That is the economic, environmental and national security issue of our day. Nothing else is even close.” In an October 2005 China Daily editorial, Zou Hanru urged the Chinese people to give up their beloved wood chopsticks as a means to save their forests, and thus, their country. Three months later in that same paper, columnist Gong Li insisted:
“the country has to face squarely the matter of handling contradictions between economic growth and pressures exerted by the huge population, limited resources (especially energy) and worsening environment. This calls for the promotion of a cyclical economy, energy-saving economy and environmentally friendly economy. A new road of industrialization ought to be exploited, characterized by high science and technology content, energy efficiency, low pollution, and optimized use of human resources.”

As with growing rural unrest, the ruling PCP has taken note, with a series of anti-pollution and green projects focused on what President Hu Jintao calls “sustainable development.” China’s first major project will be a PCB management and disposal project in Northeast China’s Zhejiang and Liaoning provinces over the next four years. As part of its commitment to 2001’s Stockholm Convention, the Sino-Envirnmental Protection Agency said it will spend over $32 million in the period to reduce 6 to 8 tons of serious PCB’s in the region and prevent further problems. Even though a recent PCP-sponsored poll declared 87 percent of Shanghai residents satisfied with governmental response to their urban environment, Shanghai recently made pubic a $4.9 billion, three-year environmental clean-up blueprint. Although it will include 260 projects, the plan zeroes in the city’s water treatment facilities, which, for a major metropolis in which residents cannot drink the water, is not a bad idea. In Qingdao, eastern Shandong province, the Party announced plans to build a wind power farm that will include five of Asia’s largest turbines. With a funding assist from Germany, the farm is to be completed in time to provide power for maritime events in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. And in the area of green technologies China has shown some leadership. Work recently began near Beijing on suburban Tangye New Town, which in about three years’ time will be a seven-square mile city with housing for 180,000 that can “convert its waste into fuel, draw its energy from the sun, and return its water to the ground through natural drainage and irrigation.” The compound will save up to 18 million liters of water per day. Additionally, China’s Ministry of Science and Technology in Beijing is one of only about 60 gold-standard green buildings in the world, which means it is optimized to reduce waste, emissions, and energy use.
Beyond the worry that it may be too little too late, the major concern with all of these grand projects is expense. For example, after adding 50 gigawatts of generating capacity in 2004 and 65 in 2005—equivalent to adding the electrical grid of Brazil in a single year —the State Grid Corp of China will spend nearly US $100b to upgrade the country electricity transmission network over the next five years. And while China’s cleanup of the Songua River spill was praised by United Nations Environment Program officials in January, it is likely to cost $3 billion when all is said and done. Cleaning up their ecological dirty laundry will take all the money, innovation, and determination the PCP can muster.

The Dream of Innovation

Acknowledging its dire straits, the ruling party has turned to its people for answers. Twenty-eight years after Deng Xiaoping first touted the importance of scientific progress, the focus at the 4th National Science and Technology Conference held January in Beijing was on making China an “innovation-oriented country.” During his keynote speech, Premier Wen Jiabao called for a progression from a resource-reliant to an innovation-driven economy: “Innovation is the soul of scientific and technological development and the engine behind national development.” President Hu Jintao, too, has invoked the word several times, and both were behind a much-hyped fifteen-year plan for doubling research and development investment and overhauling the science and technology sectors to foster increased patent filings and strengthen copyrights.
But is China capable?

“Of course we can innovate – we have very intelligent scientists and technology experts, good instruction, adequate funding,” said Yonggui Wang, the marketing professor. “The question is when, and how? Innovation will give our country recognition, but it hasn’t happened yet.” Yet even as revered a personage as Mao has admitted China’s shortcomings in regards to creativity and valuable innovations. “China ought to make a greater contribution to humanity. But for a long time in the past its contribution was far too small.” A People’s Daily editorial that ran shortly after the National Science Conference this January, echoed these sentiments and went further:

“We have to admit that China faces a weak basis for its economic and social development with poor independent innovation performance and will have to face various pressures over the course of its development. However, that should never be an excuse for backwardness. Instead, it should be the motivation to catch up.”

To that end, ideas to foster innovation have ranged far and wide. There is the new government plan to invest in R & D and new sciences and technologies over the next couple decades. A People’s Daily editorial recommended major international scientific programs and competitions to foster greater technological energy and commitment within China, and China Daily suggested incentives to retain and incubate Chinese talent. “Innovation is not so widely embraced as a lifeline by Chinese enterprises. Excessive reliance on low-cost labor has prevented many [Chinese businesses] from investing in self-owned technologies, their real core competitive edges.” One movement has recommended harnessing the vast, untapped potential of the rural population while another has centered on the creation of a definitive brand name. “I find it very interesting and somewhat troubling that China does not yet have a major international brand,” said Wang, the marketing professor. “Korea has Samsung and Hyundai, Japan has Sony and Toyota, even tiny Finland has Nokia, but China has none.”

All are worthy ideas, undoubtedly, and a great brand might put Chinese creativity on the map. But like Band-Aids for interior bleeding, they are superficial cures for a deeper problem, the result of a unique beast in world history: a liberal socialist state. And to get a better idea of its potential future success, a look at China’s centuries-long debate between individualism and collectivity, its history of working for the greater good and struggling for selfish advancement and creativity, is instructive.

Much of Chinese culture over the past two and a half millennia has centered on the Confucian ideal of datong, or Grand Harmony, which does not appear conducive to individualistic creativity:

“When the Grand Harmony was pursued, a public and common spirit ruled all under the sky….words were sincere and they cultivated harmony…possessions were used, but not hoarded for selfish reasons. Work was encouraged but not for selfish advantage. In this way, selfish schemings were repressed.”

Thus all proposed social advancements have had to first address this common foundation. As a result, Chinese economy and society, although generally smoothly run over centuries of dynastic rule, advanced in fits and starts, if at all. As early as the mid-18th century, Western visitors were struck by a China unable to progress, perhaps heading inexorably towards nothingness. In 1763, Nicolas Boulanger noted a lack of creativity and, in taking a severely pessimistic view, predicted the Cultural Revolution in all but name:

“All the remains of her ancient institutions, which China now possesses, will necessarily be lost; they will disappear in the future revolutions; as what she hath already lost of them vanished in former ones; and finally, as she acquires nothing new, she will always be on the losing side.”

Their best hope, many believed, was in reaching beyond its borders and joining the stream of the global marketplace, which was formally undertaken when the Qing Dynasty ruler signed the Treaty of Nanjing with Britain in 1842. Yet Communism triumphed about a century later, and as the Cultural Revolution peaked in the mid-70’s, many saw the socialist educational system and increasingly open economy undermining Chinese ambition and advantage.

“If we do not rely mainly on our own efforts but, as Deng Xiaoping advocated, rely solely on importing foreign techniques, copying foreign designs and technological processes and patterning our equipment on foreign models, we will forever trail behind foreigners…China would be reduced step by step to a raw materials supplying base for imperialism and social-imperialism, a market for their commodities, and an outlet for their investment.If the new-type socialist universities train nothing but plain, ordinary workers, then we can proudly say that they have completely destroyed the ladder for climbing to higher positions.”

A major goal of Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward program of the early 1950’s, in fact, was to narrow the “’three great differences’ – between industry and agriculture, town and country, and manual and mental labour.” Efforts towards bridging the first two differences have failed miserably in the proceeding half century, and in fact have widened significantly, as described above. Closing the third, meanwhile, is not only a 21st century impossibility, but for a China seeking to innovate and assume a leadership role on the global economics stage, undesirable. In recently adding capacity to its exploding auto industry, China did not attempt to design a sleek, super-modern facility that would save both money and the environment, or copy a successful foreign model. Instead, they bought one already functioning in Brazil and began to move it, piece by piece, halfway around the world. A recent baby step offered a degree of measured optimism: After China announced in March that the new speed rail lines connecting Shanghai to Beijing and Hangzhou will not use any foreign technology, railways minister Zhijun Liu qualified the statement: “Our technology is a re-innovation on the basis of assimilating advanced technologies of foreign countries.”

Making unfettered private innovation more difficult, the state machinery is still deeply embedded in the economy. The state employs one third of the urban workforce and controls 38 percent of GDP, 56 percent of the country’s fixed industrial assets, the financing, banking, telecom, energy, autos, and natural resources sectors and the majority of investment projects, credit, and land-use rights. Only 40 of the 1520 Chinese companies listed on the world’s stock exchanges are private firms. Moreover, even though one official was recently sentenced to 15 years in prison for taking bribes, a three-year-old, major anti-corruption drive has proven more difficult than originally hoped. “China’s government bureaucracies are rife with corruption and the eradication will take years if not decades,” said President Hu. So at the same time China is telling its countrymen to innovate, it maintains illegally tight control on the reins of free enterprise across industries.

Yet many informed voices, including Booker Prize-winning novelist and Chinese national Ha Jin, see the increased protests and cultural shift away from traditional moral values as a sign of impending individualism and democracy, the budding of a new China.

“Young people have become cynical about all the old rules, and their sense of personal self-worth is stronger. People think about how much money they can make, and what kind of life they want to live. All these are Western influences. Individualism is not a bad thing anymore. That is a big step forward.”

A raging debate on the power and import of socialism has been raging through Chinese parliament, however, suggesting such voices may have “underestimated the continued appeal of socialist ideas in a country where glaring disparities between rich and poor, rampant corruption, labor abuses and land seizures offer daily reminders of how far China has strayed from its official ideology.” Gao Xudong, highly-respected Technology Professor at Tsinhua University, one of China’s finest academies, saw another, more systemic obstacle to innovation.

“There is no sense of urgency among Chinese technology companies to innovate and develop their own technologies. Mostly I think it’s an issue of confidence. There is a lack of risk-taking in terms of testing new ideas. Many important people – government and business leaders – still don’t understand the importance of developing our own technology. If China cannot innovate, its economy will inevitably plateau, even wither.”

In the 1820’s, German philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel touched a similar nerve, blaming China’s dearth of progress on what he perceived as a lack of boldness and self-esteem in its people, who:

“’cherish the meanest opinion of themselves, and believe that men are born only to drag the car of Imperial Power…the burden which presses them to the ground, seems to them to be their inevitable destiny: and it appears nothing terrible to them to sell themselves as slaves, and to eat the bitter bread of slavery.’”

A further parsing of Hegel’s reflections on the nature of human beings and their proclivities for recognition, individuality and innovation, crossed with Francis Fukuyama’s assertion regarding the progress of history will shed light on China today. What separates man from the animals, Hegel argued, is his desire for the attentions of other members of his species, his desire to be recognized as a being of particular worth or dignity. Hegel believed that this drive for recognition, and accompanying emotions like anger and pride, incited the American and French Revolutions and drove the historical political process. The establishment of liberal democracy, therefore, expressed the end goal of the human urge for recognition – equal rights, dignity, and political worth for all. Fukuyama went a step further, employing this concept, what Aristotle called the thymotic urge, in his classic book The End of History and the Last Man, as the missing link between liberal democracy and liberal economics, and asserting that desire and reason could explain industrialization but only the urge for recognition explained the self-determinative desire often concomitant with economic development:

The social changes that accompany advanced industrialization, in particular universal education, appear to liberate a certain demand for recognition that did not exist among poorer and less educated people. As standards of living increase, as populations become more cosmopolitan and better educated, and as society as a whole achieves a greater equality of condition, people begin to demand not simply more wealth but recognition of their status. If people were nothing more than desire and reason, they would be content to live in market-oriented authoritarian states like Franco’s Spain, or a South Korea or Brazil under military rule.

Or Red China, apparently, for in 2006 that country seems to have put Fukuyama’s assertion on its head. If Fukuyama were right, China’s new urbane sophisticates – educated, well-off – would be demanding democracy now. Yet the great masses of struggling, 19th-century-living rural residents are fighting almost daily for change and recognition while the cosmopolitans are seeking recognition of a baser sort, blissfully buying beautiful virgins to marry, golfing for show, and snapping up bling. Does China, then, lack a thymotic urge, which might bring about not only liberal democracy, but creativity and innovation as well? Impossible to say for sure, but there some signs. A well-circulated People’s Daily editorial acknowledged a certain shortcoming in this regard:

“The whole society should be educated to be more scientifically minded and wipe off the negative elements in the traditional culture which discourage the mentality of independent innovation. Our society needs an active and democratic atmosphere for innovation.”

The People’s Communist Party has not been fostering a democratic atmosphere of late. In March 2005, the party asserted its authority over rural elections after locals’ attempts to replace the director of a village committee led to a police raid in which farmers were blasted with water hoses. China, with 150 million users and over 700,000 websites, is the world’s second largest Internet market; yet closer monitoring of online news and commentary postings has led to the imprisonment of over 60 Chinese nationals and recently prodded Reporters Without Borders to dub China “The World Champion” of Internet censorship. The Party announced recently that it had shutdown 76 websites since September 2005, and this is in addition to a media crackdown that included replacing three prominent newspaper and magazine editors. On the same day that Google announced that its China edition would not offer email or blogging, China’s Propaganda Department ordered the closing of China Youth Daily supplement Bing Dian (Freezing Point), a weekly newspaper that often addressed touchy political and social subjects. And when Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao met in Beijing last November, Hu had resolved none of the twenty-five human rights cases on a list Bush had given him two months prior.

Yet the problems don’t end there. Consider this rebuff from the opening lines of China’s first white paper on democracy, released last October:

“Democracy is an outcome of the development of political civilization of mankind. It is also the common desire of people all over the world. Democracy of a country is generated internally, not imposed by external forces.”

And then stir in the findings of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and George W. Downs, who in the September/October Foreign Affairs smartly detail how “economic growth, rather than being a force for democratic change in tyrannical states, can sometimes be used to strengthen oppressive regimes.”

In light of the proliferation of politically-oriented blogs, open-minded shops and malls, and the availability of modern Western goods, most college students I interviewed over several weeks in January considered China if not a full-fledged democracy, then at least free enough. “As for democracy, our government tells us it is coming, but we don’t know when,” said Yang, whose view was typical. “Personally, I feel free to do almost whatever I like, but I guess some people don’t. It’s all about what you want to do or say, and how you want to say it.” Most expressed a desire for what might be considered the American Dream: a good, solid job, a car, a house, financial security. Very few of them noted any problems along the periphery, from the poor, or the environment, or felt the need to demand greater freedom of expression. A an April 2006 New York Times article about Google in China quoted Kai-Fu Lee, head of Google in China and something of a celebrity there, as saying: “I don’t think they care that much (about democracy and human rights in China). I think people would say: ‘Hey, US democracy, that’s a good form of government. Chinese government, good and stable, that’s a good form of government. Whatever, as long as I get to go to my favorite Web site, see my friends, live happily.’”

Has the combination of its unique, collectivist history and liberal economics and open markets remade China in the image of the West sans the urge for recognition, for self-determination? Like a human clone without a soul, China’s new middle class seems to want whatever luxuries and decadence the state is offering, and little more. One begins to see how Fukuyama and Hegel have been put on their head.

“They also have a thymotic pride in their own self-worth, and this leads them to demand democratic governments that treat them like adults rather than children, recognising their autonomy as free individuals. Communism is being superseded by liberal democracy in our time because of the realisation that the former provides a gravely defective form of recognition.”

I’d like to believe that Fukuyama’s famous “end of history” conclusions are valid today, but, as impossible as it might seem, 2500 years of collectivist thinking plus a half century of harshly imposed communism, abetted quite suddenly and surprisingly by the ability to own whatever your heart desires, may have bred the democratic urge out of a populace. The key question might be whether the cultural sea change I detailed above will also include a need for greater freedom, for self-determination, and a true liberal democracy.

Regardless, the destinies of China’s economy, resources, and environment are directly linked to that of its politics. In a nation where two-thirds of its residents aggressively push their noses against the windows of the decadent lives of the newly rich and the national mindset has long been one of anti-individualism, social unrest is likely to grow in the coming years as innovation lags. This is no recipe for a world power. If the PCP evolves into a multi-party democratic system, innovation will be more likely. If not, the boom will wilt and die.


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