Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Taiwan experience

The  immigration counter is usually the first experience of a country by a visitor.  The lady at the Taipei airport immigration smiled and wished you an enjoyable stay in Taiwan. The person who showed me how to get a bus ticket to the city centre and the bus driver were equally helpful and friendly.  Taiwan is a friendly country and the people appear relaxed and content. It is where one experiences a certain harmony in the rhythm of life of the population. This seems to be absent in parts of  mainland China where people appear rushed and somewhat traumatised  and where officials seem to be trained not to smile and be suspicious of foreigners.

Every morning in Duan park in Taipei various groups gather to meditate, dance to music or just walk and exercise.  One is free to join any particular group  and will be helped by one of the participants to  learn the moves of Tai Chai or rock and roll.  It is an excellent way to start the day from 6am onwards.

The other great place to visit is the national palace museum of Taipei which  contains almost 700,000 pieces of Chinese artifacts and paintings which came to Taiwan from mainland China before the invasion of China by the Japanese and again before the cultural revolution.  It contains over 8,000 years of Chinese history and the collections and treasures of Chinese emperors are on display there. If one was to delve into Chinese culture and history this museum is a must see.

What is obvious in Taipei is the number of visitors from the mainland who come in their thousands to visit.  More flexible travel restrictions to and from from mainland China is a boom for the tourist industry and is  also a great outlet  for the people from the mainland who are free to experience another world in Taiwan.  An ex -labour camp intern from mainland China who now lives in Taiwan expresses it this way '' in Taiwan one can say or do what one wants ''.  Perhaps this freer movement of peoples from inside China to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan may  lead o an unfreezing of the strict controls the Party has on the people in the mainland.  It will sure raise awareness amongst the visitors that life can be lived and organized otherwise, free from suspicion and fear of speaking and meeting as one pleases.

It is important is to visit the mountains south of  Taipei. They are beautiful but it is more important to  meet and greet the indigenous people.  Some of them  suffer as much as the immigrants in terms of labour opportunities, social conditions  and low standards of living.  A number of NGOs and Church groups including the Jesuits and the Jesuit inspired sociall centre Rerum Novarum, work to advocate to bring about better conditions of these marginalized groups. The beauty of the mountains can hide the struggles of those who live there and the freedom given to many different groups to work amongst them to improve their lot is both inspiring and encouraging.

Perhaps of all the Chinas, mainland China, Macau and Hong Hong,  Taiwan  seems to be more at ease with themselves and with one another as a people in spite of the future political uncertaninty.


Sunday, 10 July 2011

The Hong Kong experience

A visitor from Mars may ask how can 7 million people live is an area which is half the size of County Limerick in Ireland- just 400 hundred  square miles. Hong Kong has a very high density of population - 6,300 people per square kilometre and walking around Nathan Rd or any street one can feel dwarfed by the height of the buildings which can be  50-60 floors.  Hong Kong builds up and not out because it has no space.  It has an aging population, in 2033 they forecast that 37% of the population.will be 65 years and over.  It has one of the lowest birth rates in the world.

While 95% of the population is Chinese it has  had an amazing  miixture of races living there. In St. Michael's cemetery in Happy Valley, which is opposite  the Jockey Club one views the headstones and wall plaques of people from many nations who are buried.  Over 30 Irish Jesuits are laid to rest  there as well as numerous other Irish missionaries.

 The first Irish Jesuits  arrived on December 3rd, 1926.  107 Irish Jesuits worked for some time in Hong Kong.  Some others  went to Malaysia, Signapore, Japan and Cambodia- an amazing contribtion to the Far East mission  from a small island on the western shores of the Atlantic.

The Jesuits in Hong Kong are often known as the Wah Yan Jesuits because of the enormous educational impact of two secondary/high schools, Wah Yan Hong Kong and Wah Yan Kowloon.  The graduates of these two schools are dispersed all over the world and their allegiance to the past pupils union and affection for their Jesuit teachers lives on.  The 9 Irish Jesuits who remain in Hong Kong continue to work in diverse works in spite of their advancing years.  They work in the spiritual ministry, education, publications, chaplaincy and assisting the local Church in diverse ways.  Their impact is enormous and the challenge remains  how Ireland and the the Irish Province can remain connected with the Far East when these men have passed away.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Visit China

It is really important  to visit a country, meet the people and hear their story. One sees and judge things from where one stands  but when one can walk in the shoes of someone  shoes even for a short time one can see their life differently.  Media has the power to fashion attitudes towards others and towards whole nations, and so it makes it all the more important to immerse oneself in a culture, even for a short time, before one makes ones' mind up.  China is one most ancient civilizations, contains 1.37 billion people which is one fifth of the world's population.  it  is forecast to be the worlds leading economies within the next 30 years.  The impact it is having on all the people on the planet is increasing and not decreasing. . It is a complex nation full of contradictions and growing rapidly on all fronts and its future will affect the future of the whole world.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

China- religion and the Churches

Some commentators on religion in China call it a ''religous state''. China they say is a space and all space in China is seen as sacred, that is, it is inhabited by divine energies which,  because they sustain us , must receive in return our sacrificial recognition.

This view needeless to say, is not the view of the communist party in China today. Religion is viewed by the Party manifesto as a sign of underdevelopment  and when people reach a more advanced stage of development religion will disappear.  Meanwhile, a certain accommodation with religious practice with severe restrictions takes place.  It is estimated there are over 30 million Christians in China and 10 million are Catholic.  The evangelical Christians are increasing while the Catholics remain relative stable in number. House Churches are growing and very difficult to enumerate.

The Catholic tradition in China is a complex one.  There are two Catholic organizations- the underground Church which is not approved by the Government and the Patriotic Church which is approved  and subsidized by the Governemt.  The underground Church has been and is a persecuted Church with many members harassed or in prision.

Rome says there is only one Church but Bishops need to be approved by the Holy See as well as the State. There are over 120 dioceses in China and 80% of the Bishops who hold office at present are recognized by Rome.  In recent weeks the Government has approved Bishops which have not been approved by Rome and this new tension between the State and Rome causes great confusion to the people of God. It is as if, Catholics are caught between two feuding parents- Rome and the State.  While Rome is far away, the State is close  and choosing loyalty either between the State or Rome is a terrible dilemma for good Church leaders.  Local Church leaders have to deal with the intricacies of local bureaucracy whose goalposts keep changing and the State is fearful of meetings between Bishops and all assemblies.  They keep strict surveillance on all their activities. Control is the name of the game and outside interference is seen as an affront to the power and authority of the State. However, people continue to seek the sacraments, spiritual food for their lives and  Biblical knowledge. The outsider is often left baffled,confused, sad at time, yet amazed and joyous on how the spirit of God is working among the people of China.

Monday, 4 July 2011

China today-a view from the West and from China.

Many commentators note that  the Chinese political system  is characterized by being Secretive, Authoritarian and Bureaucratic.

China is socially open and politically closed.  The ''forbidden city'' continues to be a metaphor for Chinese society. The Party controls everything. It is impossible to find out really what is going on and even the timetable of the top leaders is kept secret -where they meet and when they will visit different places is kept from the public. . Some newspapers like the China Daily is mere propaganda and often the opposite is written of what is really true. China needs to be presented in a certain way.  This public image  is determined by the Party and media is used to send out that message. Blogs are banned and although the social media is trying get beyond the firewalls  freedom of expression is severely limited.

China is authoritarian and power rests with the Party and in the upper echelons of the Party. In order to get close to power and privilege  one needs to get into the Party. 4% of the population of 1.3 billion are members  and almost 70% of the party are male.  Even today in this seemingly'' liberal climate'' young males stream into the party. It is a way to social promotion, influence, power and money. Policy is controlled by the party ad not only does it control media and policy but it also controls the market. The majority of companies listed in the stock exchange are companies affiliated to the party and private companies remain a minority.

It is a very bureaucratic society and 1 out of every 28 people work for the Government. The amount of paperwork  even to buy a shirt in a market in Beijing is incredible-you need 3 pieces of paper or receipts. One for the seller, another for the cashier and one for oneself. Control, following the rules of the system is supreme and it is estimated there are over 30,000 security personnel  controlling the internet.  Internet policing has become a new expertise in the Chinese system.

 Chinese society of 1.3 billion people is held together through all these controls. The recent arrest and torture of a group of lawyers testify to the tight control and crackdown the Party exercises over dissent or opposition.

However, it  claims  the world continues to misunderstand it and the following poem written by a Chinese intellectual exemplifies the fraught historical and present relationship between the West and China.

What do you really want from us?

When we were the sick man of Asia, we were called the yellow peril.
When we are billed to be the next superpower,we are called the threat.
When we closed our doors,you struggled drugs to open markets.
When we embrace free trade, you blame us for taking away your jobs.
When we were falling apart,you marched in your troops and wanted your fair share.
When we tried to put the broken pieces together again, free Tibet you screamed.  It was an invasion!
When we tried communism, you hated us for being communist.
When we embrace hate us for being capitalist
When we have a billion people, you said we were destroying the planet.
When we tried limiting our numbers, you said we abused human rights.
When we were poor, you thought we were dogs.
When we loan you cash, you blame us for your national debts.
When we build our industries, you call us polluters.
When we sell you goods, you blame us for global warming.
When we buy oil, you call it exploitation and genocide.
When you go to war for oil, you call it liberation.
When we were lost in chaos and rampage, you demanded rules of law.
When we uphold law and order against violence, you call it violating human rights.
When we were silent, you said you wanted us to have free speech.
When we are silent no more, you said we were brainwashed xenophobes.
''Why do you hate us so much'? we asked.
'No'you answered, 'we don't hate you'
We don't hate you either , but do you understand us?
Óf course we do,'you said 'we have AFP,CNN and BBCs.........'
What do you really want from us?
Think hard first, then answer. Because yio only get so many chances.
Enough is enough, enough hypocrisy for this one world.
We want one world, one dream, and peace on earth.
The big blue sky is big enough for all of us.

End of poem.

The challenge of our human family is  to continually move out of our comfort zones to dialogue and mutual  understanding.  It is easy to throw stones or even missiles at one another.  Otherwise, we may all perish.  Building a safer and better world, for each and all, is a noble and urgent task for all men and women of good will in the West and in China.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

First Blog on China

The China experience:

Going to China is a big decision for the traveler.  It is far away.  Flights from Dublin to Beijing take about 14 hours.  The language and culture is different and the stories of China are various.  Stories of rapid development, hard work, rich cultures, human rights abuses, liberalization and oppression, opening up to the outside world and yet closed in many ways are common narratives of China in the West.  It is all this and much more in this mysterious and secretive land.

Arriving on a Sunday afternoon and going immediately, to visit the Lama Buddhist Temple in Beijing defied ones’ previous view that religion was dead and not allowed.  Many Chinese love going to the temple to offer incense and prayers.  Although the Party line is that religion is a sign of the underdevelopment of a people it will work with it and control it according to their rules.
The rules are enforced by surveillance and the security system while not very public or interfering to the visitor is everywhere. In our hotel a security officer in uniform was ever present.  Visiting Tiananmen Square the scene of the most public massacre of hundred s of Chinese some years ago the police and army trucks are present in full uniform.
Tiananmen Square and its surrounding symbolize the complexity of China.  Here lies the tomb of Mao Tse Tung the great liberator of China in the eyes of many Chinese – a man who restored their pride although over 30 million people died of starvation during his crazy ‘’Great Leap forward plan’ and whose cultural revolution burned books, closed universities and killed and imprisoned intellectuals who were seen as tolls of western imperialism.  The location of his tomb is also the location of the most recent efforts to stand up against the party for free speech and democracy and what a violent response it received. 
This is also the location of the Forbidden City representing the different Emperors of the different dynasties of China.  It is an architectural masterpiece and brimming with history and riches of the Chinese culture which was somewhat feudal in nature but represents also China in its glory days. 

All these ‘tourist sites ‘are located in the capital of Beijing- an ultra modern city of almost 20 million people with modern architecture and a rail and road system that matches and outstrips any modern European and American city.  It is the shop window of China, was location of the very successful Olympic Games and also is a much polluted city.  If one does move out of Beijing and go into the countryside one gets a very one sided view of China where the disparity between the rich and poor is growing, where almost 30% of the rivers and waterways are so polluted that the health and food supply on millions of Chinese is adversely affected.  In the jewel of China ,Beijing, one breathes the greatest crisis of China and that is lack of clean air and pure drinking water.   China greatest crisis is perhaps an environmental one.  The lack of regulation over dirty industry, the incessant and rapid drive for progress at any cost has damages the health  millions of people in China. The situation will only get worse because the greed of vested interests that are linked to the party  do not favor regulation. 
If China does not regulate its dirty industries and work on environment issues it could experience a greater  humiliation than the opium wars. 
This environmental crisis is not only China’s problem it is a problem for its neighbors but also for the whole worlds since all of us share the same air.