Africa, more than just a bend in the river

DanShotAfrica1After visiting Uganda and Kenya for a bit more than a week, I am sure of one thing: what I don’t know could fill an encyclopedia. It would be presumptuous of me to claim anything but the most superficial knowledge of Africa. This is true, even after I was fortunate to spend most of the time learning from true world-class experts in the Horn of Africa, courtesy of the fine lecture series put on by the Reef Valley Institute.

But I feel compelled to share a few thoughts. Gary Kebbel, a colleague at school who has spent more time on the continent than I, told me before I went that Africa can change you for life. Similarly, my daughter, Abigail, who spent a semester in west Africa, found that the place changes one’s views of many things, from ghastly poverty to the often-trivial things we in the First World regard as problems.

It will take time before I can tell whether my short stay in Africa – in mostly privileged conditions – will change me. My semester teaching in China in 2011 certainly did that, though four months is a lot longer than 10 days. But I must admit that I have a slightly broader outlook on things from just this short stint – a wider outlook on the U.S., as well as on the rest of the world.

So, here are a few impressions from someone who parachuted in:

First, life in Africa can be brutal and is, at best, a daily struggle for millions of people. Folks in the Horn area and elsewhere are subject to famines, terrorism, war and disease. The poverty in Nairobi and even in smaller places such as Entebbe takes one’s breath away. People scavenge waste heaps for recyclable material and then someone sets fire periodically to the dumps to pare back the volume, tossing off smog-boosting smoke. Many in Nairobi live in dire slums, in huts topped by corrugated steel, because it’s far too costly to snare an apartment. The photos here, shot by my son, Daniel, offer a glimpse of those in Uganda who are relatively better off.

The dilemma of such poverty in Africa is a riddle. When one looks at how China has lifted millions out of destitution and built a solid middle class over the last 30 years – after Chinese leaders opened their economic system to capitalism – one can only wonder why the same phenomenon hasn’t occurred in so many parts of Africa. Why have manufacturers such as Foxconn not flocked to the Horn to take advantage of cheap labor, building iPhones for world markets and providing jobs? Why have local entrepreneurs not done the same?DanShot2Africa

It may be that the stability insured by the Chinese political system allowed for growth and that leaders in the often volatile African countries cannot deliver that same security. Will entrepreneurs invest millions in plants when one can’t be sure of who will be in charge and whether revolution might unsettle everything? The last 50 years in many of the Horn countries have been marked by repeated changes in governance, with upheaval, cronyism and self-dealing by leaders, compared to which China’s Communist Party has been an oasis of stability and continuity. Where would you invest if you ran a multinational or even were a homegrown entrepreneur?

On this front, there are grounds for hope, though. The Chinese, as it happens, are expanding their military presence in Djibouti with plans for up to 10,000 soldiers to be based there. Can the capitalists of China not be far behind? Would Foxconn, for one, see this a great spot to escape the comparatively high wages and labor shortages on its home turf? I’m persuaded that nothing can lift the living standards in places such as Ethiopia, Somaliland, Uganda and Kenya more than factories that can provide jobs and income for thousands. It will take stability to bring in such factories, to draw investors.

How ironic would it be, though, if the Chinese, aided by their military, ride to the rescue and bring heightened living standards to Africa when longtime capitalists from the West have failed to do so? Indeed, the northeastern corner of Africa is awash in nongovernmental organizations staffed by well-meaning Westerners who offer helping hands and hearts in the region – and who do vital work, especially in health. But they can’t hold a candle to the roaring dynamo that capitalism has been for China, a place unhelped by NGOs for most of the last few decades. Still more irony there.

Second, I was struck by what life in a police state is like. Nairobi, in particular, is a place where both the wealthy and the just-above-poverty level folks live behind cinderblock walls and concertina wire, usually guarded by security service people in military-style uniforms who pack submachine guns. Heavily armed men are everywhere. They make for a dystopic panorama straight out of end-of-the-world sci-fi movies. One can have a wonderful life, I imagine, behind such walls. But who really wants that? Who wants to emerge to see squalor not far from the tall gates?

In the U.S., many people have electronic security systems in their homes and some wealthy people live in gated compounds or on estates surrounded by fences. But most of us live in open neighborhoods where one skips a few steps across a lawn to front doors and windows that would take nothing but a small hammer to defeat. That, to me, is a far better way to live than to exist in a perpetual state of insecurity and fear, unable to stroll around a neighborhood on cool evening or feel comfortable taking a quick run.

Yes, crime is a problem in the U.S. and, yes, the proliferation of guns is a true tragedy. But in Uganda and Kenya, guarding against theft or home invasion is a daily challenge that changes the look and feel of cities. Everywhere I went in Nairobi, I walked through metal detectors and had guards run mirrors beneath the cars I was in, and I grew inured to the sight of young people in fatigues carrying weapons that could take out a pack of attackers. In Nairobi, one goes nowhere without a driver and no one goes out at night.

Who could possibly want that sort of life? It’s no wonder that so many Africans look to the U.S. or Europe for far better opportunities and for simple safety. And, if one wants to see an argument against income inequality and in favor of the development of strong middle classes, just check out Africa. The gap between the haves and have-nots is a Grand Canyon and that, and the desperate levels of poverty, make for awful insecurity and crime.

DanShotAfrica3Third, the people I came in contact with were uniformly delightful. A friend who has spent years in the region said that while the U.S. and the West in general provide a “transaction-based society,” where people buy and sell services and vanish from one another’s lives, the African societies in the Horn especially are “relationship-based.” People want to get to know one another, not merely do business. Take the time to ask how people are doing, this friend said, and you will get by far better, even in the most mundane things. Security guards in Nairobi would see books I was carrying and start conversations about them, and not short ones. A driver and I had long chats about the importance of education, along with local and international politics.

It was extraordinary to see how friendly and engaging — and often well informed — the people I came across were, especially about the U.S. Indeed, it surprised me to have people fretting over strained race relations and the turn in politics in the U.S., probably a product of watching CNN.

Finally, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the Horn of Africa. Will the walls ever come down around the compounds? Certainly, in places such as Nairobi there is development, the construction of grand complexes of housing, offices and shopping in areas such as the Westlands, not far from the foreign embassies. But will there be enough, and will it provide well-paying jobs for enough people? And, in Somalia, we are seeing steps toward governance, perhaps toward reestablishing a central state, even as Al-Shabaab controls so much territory. Will the clans who run the place find a way to share power in the interest of all, not just some?

The daily struggles of so many people in the region, the persistent income inequality, and the troublesome politics make it tough to see anything but a slow course upward. This part of the world certainly is unlike most of what we see in the U.S., even in areas hard-pressed by globalism’s downsides. And it’s far different from China or other parts of Asia. One can only wish the Horn’s leaders the kind of wisdom and opportunity it will take to find the economic engines the place so desperately needs.

One artist reflects on another: Klayman and Ai Weiwei

Sometimes, the world seems astonishingly smaller and filled with more wonder than one can imagine. Take the case of filmmaker Alison Klayman, whose documentary about a famous dissident Chinese artist, “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” debuts July 27 in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C

Alison’s film has garnered a ton of praise. It won a special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival, was an official selection of the Berlin International Film Festival and was an opening night film at the Hotdocs Film Festival and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. “The Chinese art-star emerges as a stirring symbol of antiauthoritarianism – and also as the kind of magnetic, irreverent prankster you’d want to dine with, not to mention follow on Twitter,” the Village Voice said. “Ai Weiwei is captivating on camera, and the film makes the case that there is really no separation between the artist and his work,” crowed Toronto’s Globe and Mail. “Chinese activist Ai Weiwei combines the chutzpah of Michael Moore, the antic iconoclasm of Duchamp, and the humility of Gandhi,” observed the Boston Phoenix. “Let’s hope Klayman gets to make a sequel,” added The Guardian of London, giving Alison’s work four stars.

There are many more paeans to her work. Details and a trailer are available here. There’s also a Facebook page for the film here.

Much to the consternation of Chinese authorities, Ai Weiwei continues to generate attention. The Wall Street Journal just this morning ran a piece about his battle with authorities over a $2.4 million tax bill. Once celebrated for his work on the Bird’s Nest for the Beijing Olympics of 2008, Ai has riled Chinese officials with persistent criticisms. He was detained without charges for nearly three months in 2011, and state media reported he confessed to tax-evasion, though he has challenged the tax case at every turn. He set up a website, fakecase.com, to chronicle his battle.

So what does Ai Weiwei have to do with the world getting smaller and more wonderful? Well, this is personal. Last fall, a short time after I arrived in Beijing to teach journalism for the semester, I chanced upon a group that held weekly services, Kehillat Beijing (cleverly named website: sinogogue.org). On my second Friday night service, who should walk in but Alison Klayman, who I hadn’t seen for an absurdly long time. Alison, dear reader, has been a good friend of my eldest daughter, Becky, for about 16 years, since both girls were 12 years old and we lived in the Philly area.

In a coincidence no fiction editor would let an author get away with, Alison had rushed to services from the airport, bags in tow. She had long before become a fan of the delightful Jewish group — a havurah for expats and visitors — while living and working in Beijing. She happened to be back in the city for some final work on the Ai Weiwei movie. Needless to say, we had a fine time catching up over a rather nice, western-style dinner that followed services.

So, count me among those eager to see the film. I can’t make the NYC premiere, but will catch it here in Lincoln, Nebraska, where it will be shown at the Ross from Sept. 7-13. It will be a highlight of the fall.

Christmas in Beijing — Bah, Humbug!

Isn’t there an ancient myth about an oracle that reflects different images of the same event to different viewers? Celebrations of Christmas seem like that to me, especially after watching the buildup to the holiday in China.

China, of course, has little history to make Dec. 25 any more than just another day. For modern China, where atheism is a requirement for Communist Party membership, celebrating Christmas is odd, to say the least. Mao would spin wildly in his grave at the idea. And Buddhists, who practice the dominant religion in the country, would have little use for marking a foreign god’s birthday. And yet, the Chinese have rushed to embrace the day – though in their own peculiarly non-religious way. They see in it what they want to see, just as many Americans do.

Celebrations of the day abound in China, at least in the cities. It’s a big day for young people, especially, who wish one another Merry Christmas. Some, particularly lovers, give each other presents. One of my teacher’s aides at Tsinghua, a bright young man going through the grueling yearlong process of applying for membership in the Party, was fretting over what to get his girlfriend, for instance. (Let’s not tell his Party sponsor about that). And Wei Wei, a delightful grad student, just sent me an electronic Christmas card on the Tencent system, a Chinese email system.

It’s a bit of a mystery, this adoption of the holiday. Certainly, it’s understandable why the department stores in Beijing would deck themselves out for the day. Like American retailers, they’ve found that carols on the PA systems, twinkling lights and images of Santa, reindeer and decorated evergreens help drive people to buy. It’s a retail holiday in the States, too, of course. There’s a buck (or a yuan) to be made. Plus, in Beijing, there are Westerners to cater to.

But there’s more to it in China. The Chinese seem to see Christmas as part of what it means to be like the West. They have a manic drive under way to teach English to all school kids. They have taken to capitalism in ways that would stun Adam Smith and are worrying demagogic American politicians. Some 120,000 Chinese are studying at American universities, including my own school, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where we are forging exchange alliances with Chinese schools.

China is going through a headlong love affair with all things foreign, a feeling of being smitten that is almost adolescent in its passion. A saying in the country holds that the moon shines brighter on foreign lands, and the American moon in particular has the Chinese in full swoon. Indeed, Beijing, Shanghai, and even inland cities such as Xi’an, along with British-dominated Hong Kong warm to anything American. Just look at the proliferation of outlets for Starbucks, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut, not to mention American-branded clothes and other products (even counterfeit ones). Steve Jobs was mourned in ways no Politburo member could expect to be (counterfeit copies of the new biography graced peddler’s carts seemingly in minutes after it was issued; I got one for the equivalent of $3).

The odd thing, of course, is that it’s Christmas without Christ. The imagery gracing the stores – which, you can be sure, is Party-approved or at least not opposed – is all about Santa Claus, trees and reindeer. One does not see crucifixes, crèches or pictures of Jesus (not that there are many of these in American malls either). A friend says her nine-year-old daughter has been practicing to sing in a school Christmas pageant, though there won’t be any religious elements in it (I’m not sure how many non-religious songs there are beyond Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman. But, even if Silent Night is on the list, the religious words would be sung without any divine intent).

Many of my non-religious friends in the U.S. take the same tack, of course. Even some Jews have Christmas trees (“Hanukkah Bushes”), arguing that such pagan-derived symbols are part of the non-religious character the holiday has taken on. It’s just a cultural thing, they say, and what’s wrong with giving presents and offering one another good wishes? Then, of course, there’s the idea that no occasion for a party ought to be passed up.

Still, there’s something shallow about the Chinese celebration of the holiday. It has a hollow ring. Along with stripping out the religious elements, the Chinese have no traditional basis for the day, nothing that links it to anything Chinese. Far more important, of course, are the Chinese New Year and other holidays where it seems the whole nation is on trains and planes to get home. Those days, far older than anything we have in the West, are all about the warmth of family.

For now, Christmas in China still is no home-and-hearth holiday. People work on the day. Schools remain in session, at least when the date falls on a weekday. And present-giving hasn’t become the potentially bankrupting affair that it is for so many American parents. Oddly, perhaps, that’s heartening. Sure, it’s funny to see pictures of smiling, white-bearded, red-nosed St. Nick (of course, one wonders if the Coca-Cola-fostered image has anything to do with the saint). But, Scrooge-like as it may sound, there’s something pathetic about it. China has plenty of traditions to mark, after all, and many have been around longer than the couple thousand thousand years Westerners have been marking the mid-winter holiday.

Idealism: a global phenomenon

Idealism knows few national boundaries.

Students at Tsinghua University and other schools in China would see eye-to-eye (better, heart-to-heart) with many in the U.S. on this. A 22-year-old grad student of mine in Beijing showed this in spades in a recent English-language speech competition. Her outrage at injustice, her sympathy for those in distress, and her hopes for change could make her a soulmate of my 23-year-old daughter back in Chicago. Continents, oceans or economic and political systems seem not to separate them intellectually.

My student – call her “Blossom” – took on Apple Computer, a company hugely popular in China. She faulted its reliance on Chinese suppliers whose working conditions have been linked to suicides, workplace fatalities and illness-inducing toxic chemicals. Her anger at conditions she branded “inhumane” was palpable and she was unsparing in her criticism, saying Apple had failed in its social responsibilities. She also took aim at fellow Chinese, bemoaning the idea that contestants at speaking competitions, blind to problems, have routinely extolled Steve Jobs for how he “thought differently and changed the world.”

“Blossom” went further. She faulted globalization, pointing her young finger at big companies and consumers alike. “Multinationals choose suppliers with the cheapest labor and the highest efficiency, regardless of their safety standard,” she argued. “Customers care about the ink of ‘designed in Cupertino’ or the Silicon Valley, instead of the words right below it, ‘Made in China.’ Globalization institutionalizes global ignorance.”

And she called for change. Supplier information – accidents, suicides, etc. – should be made public, she argued. Invoking Justice Brandeis’ contention that sunlight is the best disinfectant, she argued, “the multinationals would be embarrassed and therefore [would pressure] the supplier to change.” Policing by government and NGO advocacy groups should be encouraged. And, she added, “As consumers, every one of us can do our bit: keep watch for suspect brands and refuse to consume immoral products.” Indeed, “Blossom” argued that every iPhone should come with a photo of its assembler. “That could serve as a reminder that an actual, living, breathing person used their own hands to help make this product. Let’s give the cold technology a human face. We will all be better off for it.”

In fairness, I must note that Apple does seem troubled by its subcontractors. It applies a code of conduct to suppliers, audits their behavior and says worker protections and factory conditions have improved at many facilities throughout its supply base. Problems, however, persist, according to reports by the company itself, as relayed by the Telegraph. Underage workers, excessive hours and other problems evade even Apple’s efforts to drive change — something that may reflect different cultural attitudes among nations, as well varying levels of economic development. Remember that capitalism is still young in China, poverty is rampant, and it took the West decades to outlaw the practices that trouble Westerners and “Blossom” alike.

Nonetheless, I’m blown away by how like my youngest child this young Chinese woman is. Reared in a country whose values seem so foreign, “Blossom” brings a kind heart and a keen eye to the world she sees around her – just like my Abi. My daughter now works to help homeless people in Chicago get back into the social system. She supported Occupy Chicago. Her criticisms of global capitalism – which we often argue about — throb with an idealist’s heart just as big as “Blossom’s.”

As globalization grows and such young people take on bigger roles in the system in coming years, I expect they will bear the torch for change. I hope they do so, whether they work within or outside multinationals. While we graybeards may quibble with some of their arguments and solutions, their passions for justice and decency should inspire us all. Over time, life may cool the fires they now burn with — but I’m in no hurry to see that happen. And I hope the Ab and “Blossom” someday can meet to see how much more unites them than divides them.

Something to meditate about

Do you meditate?

People have for eons, of course. The practice seems to provide a way to quiet busy minds, shut out the frenzy around us and restore a sense of calm. It also seems more necessary than ever these days, given the blizzard of distractions – and electronic addictions – that confront us.

But the question arises: what exactly is meditation? Further, what practice is best? Further still, are there forms that can be harmful?

When I was younger and practiced karate, my absorption in the katas felt like a form of meditation. The dance-like movements required concentration and focus, but, with practice, grew to be effortless. There was something liberating mentally and physically about the routines – especially when done in groups. The forms seemed to pull together body and soul, perhaps in a way similar to what athletes feel at times.

I have seen the same sort of absorption on the faces of people here in China practicing tai chi. Even as they move in those ballet-like steps, with their eyes open and apparently taking in all that’s going on around them, they seem to be somewhere else mentally. They are engaged, body and mind. If I had more time here, I could easily take up the practice.

Similarly, at meditation sessions in my gym in Lincoln, Neb., last year, I found the sense of calm marvelously refreshing. That practice involved someone chanting hypnotically on tape. We also had the help of sounds teased out of a group of large and small crystal bowls. The pleasant background noise was transporting.

These days, as I head out in the mornings for solo runs, I sometimes go to a place like that. The “runner’s high” combines a sense of peace with exhilaration. It’s a wonder to be alive once those endorphins kick in, with all that oxygen whooshing into one’s lungs. The sky seems bluer, the sun brighter. The frustrations of the day melt away. Nagging thoughts vanish.

I wonder if people who pray regularly feel the same paradoxical mix of exhilaration and calm. People here in China bow and kneel in concentration before various Buddhas when they go to their temples. It’s impossible to know what is going on in their heads, of course, but there is a sense of calm and focus about such practices. These folks seem to be getting in touch with something outside – or deep inside – themselves. Call it plugging into a sense of sacredness, perhaps tapping into powerful sources.

People who practice Transcendental Meditation speak of the experience in much the same terms. Indeed, one fellow I know in Fairfield, Iowa, attends group meditation sessions regularly because, he says, it’s simply a pleasure for him. TM’ers are pressed to go to such sessions, on the claim that power radiates out from the group, the so-called “Maharishi Effect” that brings peace into the neighborhood. Who knows if such claims are true? But certainly it seems likely that few people would repeatedly go to the Golden Domes in Fairfield to engage in meditations if they weren’t pleasant.

But is TM superior to meditation in a gym or tai chi or karate katas? Does it take you to a deeper or more meaningful place than, say, the psychic spot where monks singing in monasteries go? Is it any different from what whirling dervishes feel or native Americans experience in sweat lodges or even in drug-assisted religious ceremonies? How does it compare with what Hasidim feel chanting the Amidah weekly? Indeed, are all such practices really no different from listening, enraptured, to a favorite symphony or even singing along with some toe-tapping rock and roll?

Moreover, there’s the issue of whether the benefit is a passing thing. Sure, meditation can be pleasant, but so is sex. Alas, the benefit is all too short-lived (though repetition surely helps!) Does meditation lead to an enduring sense of mental discipline, an internal relaxation? Or is it a fleeting thing, gone the moment one leaves the lotus position? Advocates argue it gives them a sense of focus that, among other things, helps them succeed on Wall Street, in Hollywood or in a variety of businesses that meditators have gone into. But would they be winners even without the practice?

Then there is the potential downside. Critics say repeated or prolonged meditation sessions – sometimes as long as six hours at a sitting in the TM Movement – spawn all sorts of problems. Some who have broken with the movement complain of feeling incoherent, of winding up unable to focus their thoughts, to stay attentive to tasks. Longtime meditators are easy to spot, they say, because of a faraway look in the eye that is anything but healthy. Is it possible that the practice rewires one’s brain in ways that could be dangerous? Or do such practices just attract people whose faulty wiring needs more than meditation to set it right?

I will deal with these issues in my forthcoming book on Fairfield, the U.S. home of the TM Movement. In the meantime, dear reader, please drop me a line to share your thoughts. I can be reached at jweber8@unl.edu.

My book on Fairfield will be published by the University of Iowa Press

China: students think journalism can change the world

Every once in a while, I am knocked flat by the students in China. They ask for more work on top of the piles I already require. They call journalism heroic because it can really change things. Today, one pointed to Upton Sinclair’s masterwork, “The Jungle,” and the development of U.S. food regulation, saying China needs to follow suit. And some know more than I do about America – such as one today who discussed tensions between the First and Fourteenth Amendments to our Constitution.

I’m getting spoiled here.

There are many things to love about teaching in China. I could start with the craving here for my specialty, business and economic journalism. These kids know what matters in the world and they know it’s not sports or entertainment. Every week, 30 motivated students come to class to wrestle with high concepts like comparative advantage and more pedestrian ones such as earnings per share. Each time, they’ve read the several chapters I assigned, as proved by the perfect scores (including answers to extra-credit questions) many get on my quizzes. They ask smart questions that make me think, some sending me to the reference books for answers. They pay attention. They can’t get enough of it all.

I ask them to compare coverage in different publications. Using Power Point presentations graced with artwork – leaves that flutter and drop is my favorite so far – they stand in front of the class and break down stories in such pubs as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times, as well as China Daily, and offerings by Reuters and Bloomberg. They discuss quotes (quality and quantity), numbers and levels of sources, variety in viewpoint. They apply every metric you could imagine, from numbers of paragraphs to the use or lack of use of active verbs. They talk about substance and style alike. Their textual analysis skills could humble Ph.D students in literature.

And these students, master’s candidates, do it all with a sense of innocence, earnestness and openness I rarely see in my undergrads at home. Not once have I heard a sarcastic comment. There’s none of the jadedness, boredom with life or cynicism that afflict American post-adolescents. And it’s not that they are naïve: one went undercover as an intern at his newspaper to work for many weeks in the alienating factory environment of Foxconn, a major manufacturer whose mind-numbing workplace culture may have led to a rash of suicides. He got a series of pieces out of it. Others talk of how police have beaten journalists. Still others talk admiringly of instructors whose investigative work has broken new ground in China.

It reminds me of the 1970s idealism that got me into journalism in the first place. Remember those days. We didn’t worry about the Internet. Instead we yearned to imitate Woodward and Bernstein. We weren’t plagued by phone-hacking or the likes of Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Stephen Glass and R. Foster Winans. Instead, we wanted to make a difference, tilting our lances against the dark forces. After journalists helped end the Vietnam War, we thought we could change the world.

Now, these kids are not so naïve as to think they won’t face a tough go if they plan to dislodge corruption in high places. They quote editors who’ve told them journalists must move fast to stay a step ahead of the censors. Indeed, the government periodically comes out with lists of topics that no longer can be written about. Chinese journalists don’t seem to compete with one another so much as they do with their official overseers. Maybe the kids know so much about the First Amendment because they lack such a hallowed (and often threatened) guarantee.

There are many other things to love about the kids here. There’s their candor. Consider this email one sent me the other day:

“Dear sir,
On the reporting for assignment 3, i have rewrite the article based on your suggestions, but as my English is not so good as others, so maybe there are still some mistakes in it. Advices is always welcomed and in fact, the more, the better.
I have learned a lot from your class and your detailed notes gave in our homework. So responsible and patient a teacher you are that i am extremely moved by the wonderful work you have did for us.
We love you, dear teacher.
Thanks and best wishes.”

How many American professors get notes like that? I’ve gotten thank-you notes from good, hard-working Nebraska students, but none have touched me quite so much as that one did. Once, too, the students liked a class so much they applauded at the end. How can a teacher not preen a bit? That kind of thing makes you feel like you are making a difference.

This week, I visited another school in Beijing, the University of International Business & Economics. A group of students and I had a wonderful chat on topics ranging from whether China had become too money-hungry and culture-blind (a politely contentious topic among the students) to discrimination against women in the workplace to concerns over American journalists getting smitten with billionaires and losing their feeling for working-class people. Clearly, they were smart, engaged students.

Nor have I ever felt quite as much like a rock star as I did in Chongqing, a sprawling central China city I visited a few weeks ago. Some 80 students – undergrads – turned out for a talk about business and economic journalism at the Southwest University of Political Science and Law. For nearly two hours, we talked about journalism. They broke into applause when I answered “no” to the question of whether I had ever been pressured by a political official over something I wrote. My journalism school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln is setting up exchanges of students with SUPSL and I hope to host up to five in Nebraska in the spring. I can’t wait to see their reactions to life in the U.S.

Finally, there are the personal things. One student who had dug around the Internet found out that I like to run marathons. So last Sunday morning the student and two friends and I set out for a four-mile run around campus. It was the longest distance the kids had ever run and they felt great about it. For my part, I felt great that they did. One pronounced my running outfit “sexy.” It would have been nicer, of course, if that compliment came from one of the girls in the class, but, hey, it’s nice from anyone. Hearing it from a student more than 30 years younger than me is music to aging ears. That’s what happens in China — these kids strike just the right chords.

Pollution: China’s towering challenge

2:30 p.m., Beijing
Almost no country can do big things as well as China can. It rebuilt a sprawling section of Beijing to make room for the Olympics a few years ago. It has created a subway system in the city that has few peers. Its bullet trains have narrowed vast distances between cities whose stunning architecture is almost certainly the most advanced on the globe. It is building a vast system for moving water from the lush south to the dry north, a nation-spanning effort that residents of the U.S. Southwest could only marvel at.

So why can’t Beijing do something about pollution? We’re not talking about a little whiff of smoke every now and then. No, the city’s air is so bad that popular wisdom here says the numerical scale for measuring it had to be expanded. On many days, the poisons are so bad that the U.S. Embassy warns people to stay indoors with windows closed. The embassy provides a Twitter feed to measure air quality hourly, and was embarrassed a while ago when the term “crazy bad” went out on the feed by mistake. The air that day was 20 times as bad as the guideline provided by the World Health Organization.

People here buy household air purifiers and sophisticated masks. Without protection, one hardly wants to go out – you can feel the weight of the bad air deep in your lungs. Teary eyes, runny noses and scratchy throats are the norm. Wholly enervating.

No escape
What’s more, the pollution sullies the air far from downtown. One can drive an hour and an half north, going into the mountains, and still not escape the eye-stinging smog. Early afternoons look like dusk on bad days, with no hint of a sun up beyond the foul, dense mist. Friends compare it to a sci-fi movie set in a world where ecological disaster blotted out the light. It’s common to see people wearing surgical masks – some fancy, colored types — on the roads of the city.

Troublingly, it’s not as if China can’t cut down on the smog. For big events, such as the Olympics — and, probably, the recent Beijing Marathon — authorities can shut down the factories and power plants. Routinely, they limit driving by alternating odd and even license plates to try to contain road-choking traffic and, incidentally perhaps, limit foul emissions. Officials supposedly seed the clouds in normally dry Beijing at times to clear the air. And certainly there are clear, nice days, when the sky is blue and the sun brilliant — just too few of them.

Deadly fashion statement
Indeed, it’s ironic that China sees the growth of green energy around the world as a great business opportunity. It plans to be a global powerhouse in the production of devices and technology to serve the needs of the world’s businesses for ecologically sound production techniques.

And yet, China continues to depend for much of its energy on coal. Wagons haul the stuff around for people to buy for cooking. Much of the country’s electricity comes from coal, and one doubts that this is the so-called clean coal of the West. Certainly, if coal accounts for much of Beijing’s visibly awful smog, it is anything but clean. Fossil fuels, in general, drive this economy, just as they do that of the U.S., windmills aside.

China’s leaders are smart people. As they permit the pollution to ravage their people – creating God knows what amount of disease now and in the future – they must have made some sort of cost-benefit calculation. They must have weighed the costs of their headlong rush to modernize against the environmental harm their policies are causing, and judged that public health (and comfort) can be sacrificed. As they’ve let millions of cars take the place of millions of bicycles in just the last decade or so, they must have calculated that their people feel the tradeoff is worth it – wealth for health.

She's no surgeon
Then again, one has to wonder whether it’s been all that conscious and deliberate. The astounding growth of the last couple decades has brought many discomforts – inflation, widening inequality in income, the destruction of ground-level life in neighborhoods formed by low-profile warrens known as hutongs in favor of endless rows of high-rise apartment blocks. Much of the change has been good, of course, and the use of market forces to accomplish it is testimony to how powerful such forces can be. And it may be that pollution – certainly an unintended consequence – has come along as just another unpleasant byproduct. Controlling it may now just seem too difficult, with too many people committed to keep the steamroller growth going at any cost.

A friend from Japan says Chinese leaders are trying to address the issue. They have been in consultation with Japanese scientists and experts who wrestled down much of their pollution problem years ago. They’d like to rein in the problem here in China and do so even as they keep growing their economy.

But one wonders how far off the solution will be. Sadly, I’m reminded of the Lyndon LaRouche folks back in the U.S. They used to argue that the drive to control pollution, especially efforts to halt it in the Third World, was part of some bizarre conspiracy to keep poor countries poor. That was nonsense, of course. And certainly there’s no conspiracy now within developing countries to foster pollution. Still, tolerating the poisonous air is a choice. And for many of today’s Chinese – young and old – that choice will prove to be a deadly one.

China’s censors stanch the corrosion of morality

"If You Are The One"
In the West, pundits wring their hands over the unsavory fare that airs on TV nightly. Ordinary folks watch the three or four shows weekly that we can abide and we sigh about how much better Bonanza and the Beav were. But in China, the government goes further – forcefully moving to curb programs about dating, talent contests, marital problems and reality shows.

Such programming, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television said, is “overly entertaining and of low taste,” China Daily reported this week. So, each of China’s 34 satellite channels are being limited to two such shows per week. State-approved news programs will largely take their place.

I, for one, applaud this move. There’s no doubt that the morals of young Chinese are being compromised by such products as “If You Are The One,” a dating show where girls wear, migosh, short skirts. In the wake of such broadcasts, girls now are wearing such skirts on the streets! Then there’s the corrosive effect of “Super Girl,” a knockoff of American Idol that fosters the myth that ordinary folks have talent. Let’s stop feeding such fantasies. Thank goodness that the show, which drew 400 million viewers even as officials branded it “vulgar,” “manipulative” and “poison for our youth,” was cancelled last month.

As China Daily described them, many such programs are “simple reproductions of popular ones.” Miming popular shows? Horrors! That kind of thing may suit the U.S., but not China. Further, according to the paper, “some tried to attract audiences through low-taste contents such as gossip and exposure of privacy.” Leave that sort of thing to Entertainment Tonight, I say. Sagely, the state’s TV watchdog agency observed that such things are a waste of resources and “also bad for improving the quality of TV programs.”

“Too many entertainment programs, broadcast during prime hours, will hold TV channels back from exercising their full duties. The media is not only to entertain people but also to inform and educate them, the [SARFT agency] statement said,” China Daily added, all under the headline “Entertainment cutback for better quality.”

"Supergirl"
It’s about time somebody made that case. China needs more broadcasts about the annual rice harvest. Give viewers more about heroic workers marching off daily to produce iPads and iPhones. Tell them more about the 50-year-old project to divert water from the south to the north. Run more documentaries about Japanese aggression 75 years ago.

Even better, take a page from CCTV 24, the English-language channel of the state broadcasting service. Air more talking heads, commercials for distant provinces and fashion, fashion and more fashion, along with occasional bits about Occupy Wall Street, riots in Greece and shooting in Libya. That’s the kind of thing the public needs.

And, while we’re at it, something should be done about those pesky Western journalists. For one thing, they irresponsibly linked the prudent changes ordered for TV to an alleged crackdown on social media, especially a couple Twitter-like services used by more than 200 million Chinese each. Ignoring the reality that highbrow culture and correct opinions are what the Chinese need now, The New York Times reported critically about right-thinking calls for swift censorship.

The Irish Times was even worse. It quoted bloggers – bloggers! – saying most inharmonious things. “This is not a restriction on entertainment, it’s a new cultural revolution,” carped blogger Susaikeniao. Another, clearly in need of re-education, wrote, “How can a government say it represents you if it wants to control how many times a day you watch entertainment on TV?” And Susaikeniao added that “instability” could follow “because people focus on current affairs by watching CCTV, they … follow its way of thinking and are controlled on its tracks.”

The Beav was better
Western journalists insensibly connected the moves to upgrade entertainment and quash rumor-mongering to alleged nervousness about Arab Spring Twittering and disclosures about “official malfeasance.” The New York Times cited blog posts, with photos, of a Yunnan Province city official’s sex orgy. I bet that the guy had been watching too many episodes of “If You Are The One.”

I’m reminded of the days when Ed Sullivan chastely refused to show Elvis Presley’s gyrating hips, when married couples slept in separate beds on TV-sitcoms and when actors had to keep one foot on the floor in bedroom scenes. If only we had such rules again in the West. No doubt, there would be less teen pregnancy, fewer divorces and more church-going. Perhaps even a balanced budget and less unemployment. Oh, and longer skirts, too.

Occupy Beijing?

"Absolutely support the American people’s great ‘Occupy Wall Street revolution’’ - ChinaHush.com
The Occupy Wall Street movement is fascinating people in China. The media here — at least the English-language outlets — have been filled with coverage ever since the movement started gathering steam. My students at Tsinghua, too, seem intrigued, if puzzled, by the whole business.

For some, the idea of people taking to the streets all across America to question capitalism, the Wall Street power structure and the Man, in general, may confirm a Chinese idea that the U.S., in historic decline, is rife with instability and confusion. Babel on the other side of the planet, perhaps, and a far cry from stability-loving China. The heavy coverage may also serve to reassure the Chinese about their health and continuing growth, as the one big economy still perking along.

CCTV, Channel 24, the English-language arm of the state broadcasting service, has aired repeated broadcasts about the marches. Correspondents on the ground in NYC have interviewed demonstrators. A group there sporting a Communist banner got some short play, unsurprisingly. And CCTV even dedicated a big chunk of a regular debate and discussion program called Dialogue to the demos, linking the protests to marches and occasional violence in Europe and Greece, and thus painting a worrisome picture of chaos outside the comfortably safe borders of China.

It would be wrong, however, to look on the coverage as a heavy-handed bid to soothe Chinese about the superiority of their system. For one thing, the talking heads on Dialogue – an American prof from the New School in NYC, a German from the Imperial College in London and a Chinese international-relations scholar from Tsinghua University in Beijing – made it clear that the dynamics of the Eurodemos and the U.S. affairs are quite different. For another, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the demonstrators have yet to cohere around a single agenda beyond their furor at lingering high unemployment.

Washington Post
Moreover, some of the discussion has been surprisingly astute. For instance, one of the folks argued that things would be a lot worse if not for the bank bailout that protesters have pilloried Obama over. And that was the Chinese fellow from Tsinghua! The Chinese academics, particularly those who have studied in the West, are a sharp bunch, not to be underestimated. Certainly, they aren’t faulting capitalism as a concept; they just want to do better at it than the West.

Still, the subheads that the producers at CCTV dropped in under the speakers were, well, entertaining. Things such as “problems within the capitalist system” and “rich get richer, poor get poorer.”

As for my students, they have been mystified and entertained. One, who studied for a while in Florida, maintained that the demonstrations suggest that the U.S. has a serious problem. Another, however, said he found the business amusing, noting it’s the kind of thing that would never happen in China. Certainly, the government here would never permit the raft of videos on the Net agitating for the movement, as has happened in the U.S. He said he was once tasked by his media employer to cover a demo here and police broke it up before he could get there. That sort of thing is just not done in China.

There has been much discussion, too, about how the demos seem to be a left-wing response to the Tea Party. That idea has come up on TV and was suggested by an American visitor, an economist, who was kind enough to visit my class in business and economic reporting this week. He thought it perfectly natural for young people, especially, to do this sort of thing in the U.S.

RedState
If the Chinese media have paid so much attention because the demos offer comfort that the Chinese system is superior, the editors may be making a mistake. It’s possible that some Chinese see the demos not as a signs of decay but rather as evidence of a robust democracy debating its future in civil, at times carnival-like, ways. What’s more, China has big and growing problems with income inequality, soaring housing prices and food-price inflation – all of which could indeed put Chinese into the streets, if they had the right to do that. My students recently have been reporting on major unemployment and underemployment issues among millions of college graduates, as well as among impoverished migrants from the countryside.

Indeed, there was a supportive demonstration in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan Province. The website, ChinaHush.com, reported that the news was removed from a lot of Chinese mainstream media sites but continues to pop up on various Internet forums.

Might the Chinese follow the coverage of the U.S. and get a touch envious? Is the freedom to speak one’s mind, to make one’s grievances known, an appealing thing? Is influencing your country’s politics – proving that the right wing isn’t the only game in town – so bad?

China looks outward and upward — but for how long?

As I sat entranced by Tchaikovsky performed by Russia’s Gergiev and Mariinsky Orchestra at Beijing’s sprawling and ultramodern National Center for the Performing Arts this weekend, I was struck again by the country’s stark contrasts. By the thousands, people here delight in orchestras, dance troupes and theater companies from across the world. Demonstrating its scientific prowess, China just last week launched a rocket carrying the Tiangong-1 lab module into orbit, a step toward a manned space station. And, economically, China’s robust growth is making the rest of the world pale.

And yet, China is also a place where indoor plumbing is a dream for squatters and the poor who live in ramshackle houses, including some still scattered about the Tsinghua University campus. For all its openness to people and companies from around the world, the country still shuts out such powerful communication tools as Facebook and Twitter and muzzles its own knockoffs of such social networks. And university graduates who go to work for foreign companies in their offices here – whether media such as Bloomberg News or global manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble – can’t get needed Beijing residency permits, crucial papers that give them to right to do everything from buy cars to send their kids to public schools.

I suppose such contrasts – and contradictions – are nothing new here. Emperors and empresses lived in opulence so lavish that long canals were built to let them travel in comfort between palaces (this weekend, we visited one such canal linking the Summer Palace with a central Beijing spot). At the same time, peasants starved in the countryside. More recently, as a middle class has surged into prominence, residents in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities have been able to snap up spacious gated-community apartments, cars and other amenities they could scarcely imagine when they were young. Flashy shopping malls, many stocked with pricey western goods, fill architecturally fascinating towers that have risen by the hundreds in the last decade in Beijing. And yet, some of the poor in rural areas attend schools with cinderblocks for seats, no books and no real hope for the future.

Economists measure disparities in income in societies, and China’s ranking is surprising. While the U.S. looks worse, at 39th place in terms of distribution, thanks to all those zillionaires President Obama wants to tax, China isn’t far behind, at 52nd place. This ranking, the Gini index, is based on fairly old data (from 2007 in China’s case), and I suspect the measure will worsen when newer numbers come in. But already it suggests that China’s flood of new wealth hasn’t lifted all boats. Indeed, China’s leaders are so concerned about disparities that they have banned certain words in advertising – “supreme,” “high class” and “luxury,” for instance – apparently believing that such terms only spawn dangerous envy.

As for its ambivalent dealings with the West, China has long alternated between periods of openness and times of circling the wagons. Its leaders have adopted Western ways only to shrug them off. They have shut the borders when they felt the contacts were hurting them. These days, China is pushing its promising youngsters to learn English – teaching it from the earliest years – and facilities from the subway here to signs on school buildings, in stores and on major locations boast English. I am teaching in the Global Business Journalism program, an example of China’s openness, as Western journalists teach their techniques to Chinese graduate students. This sort of openness would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.

Like any developing economy, China’s system has a long way to go. It has come remarkably far since it set out on the once-reviled capitalist road in the early 1980s. Even as it pushes ahead technologically – as symbolized by Tiangong-1, its gleaming towers in Beijing and the bullet trains that zip around the country – it will continue to grapple with problems spawned by income inequality. Growing – and sharing — the wealth, and opening the doors more to the outside are unlikely to proceed evenly. The march forward may be marked by occasional steps backward – as with the government’s attitude toward Facebook. But, unlike earlier times when China’s leaders sought to close the country off from the rest of the world, it may be that such insularity proves impossible in a globally integrated economy. For hundreds of millions of Chinese, the open door will lead to a dazzling future.