The Clippings File: Political Change in Asia

New Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as Boy Journalist Tintin. Cartoon by Bill Leak

Journalists as Candidates in the Australian Election

Australian Prime Minister John Howard was defeated in the federal election on Saturday and also seems set to lose his own seat of Bennelong, on Sydney’s North Shore, to former Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalist Maxine McKew. She was an articulate and respected print and television journalist, working with the television news analysis programs Lateline and the 7.30 Report. She also had a column for the news magazine, The Bulletin, called “Lunch With Maxine McKew”. “With her uncanny ability to prise secrets out of people, Maxine McKew is that rare person in Australian life: a public figure who can redraw the political map in a single lunch,” wrote Sydney Morning Herald Journalist, Margaret Simons in 2003.

In an interview with 7 News during the election McKew was asked who she admires, and why:

(Burmese Resistance Leader) Aung San Suu Kyi was spectacularly impressive. Because, I suppose, of the moral leadership she provides. And the extraordinary continuity of her stance against the Burmese tyranny. (Former US Secretary of State) Madeleine Albright. And closer to home, Susan Ryan. When she became Education Minister in the Hawke government in 1983 only one third of Australian teenagers had a Year 12 qualification. And under her stewardship, during the Hawke years, that figure more than doubled. Susan Ryan fought the good fight. The tragedy now is that that figure has been flat lining. And here we are in 2007 and we need to be the smart country and we still have one in five teenagers not finishing Year 12. Among the dead, Jessie Street has always been a great hero of mine. She was talking about equal pay for women in the 1930s. She put equal pay on the map.

Climate Change was the major issue in the Australian election. I live in the Sydney electorate of Wentworth, which has been retained by John Howard’s former Minister for the Environment, Malcolm Turnbull. John Howard refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol. The candidate for Kevin Rudd’s Labor Party in Wentworth, George Newhouse, had his campaign team hand out postcards at the Kings Cross Farmers Market with a drawing of coal smokestacks belching out smoke, with two words written under it: Ratify Kyoto. This seems likely to be Kevin Rudd’s first act as Prime Minister. The Age today reports on a phone call Rudd received from British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has personally congratulated Kevin Rudd on Labor’s federal election victory and welcomed his plan to quickly ratify the Kyoto protocol.

Mr Brown telephoned Mr Rudd from the Ugandan capital of Kampala, where he is attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), shortly after outgoing prime minister John Howard conceded defeat on Saturday night.

“I have talked to Kevin Rudd … and congratulated him on his election and talked to him about some of the issues, including climate change, that we are discussing here today,” Mr Brown told reporters.

“Kevin Rudd has told me he will immediately sign the Kyoto agreement and he is proposing these binding agreements in the post-Kyoto talks that start in Bali in a few days’ time.”

Former SBS television journalist Patrice Newell has operated a biodynamic farm in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales for the last twenty years and created a coalition of independent candidates around the issue of climate change. She and Australian Broadcasting Corporation science commentator Dr. Karl Kruzelnicki ran for the senate, unsuccessfully it seems. But the Greens Party gathered more votes. “Tonight we have seen Australians vote for a greener, more compassionate Australian Parliament,” Greens Senator Bob Brown told ABC News. “Right across the country, seats are changing hands from the [Liberal / National Party] Coalition to the Labor Party on Greens preferences. Welcome, Kevin Rudd, new prime minister of Australia. This is a remarkable vote by the Australian people for a new era for this country to tackle climate change, to tackle inequality.”

Still from Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s movie of the childhood of the Dalai Lama

The Dalai Lama Considers Changing How the his Successor Will Be Chosen

In an interview with the Japanese newspaper the Sankei Shimbun, the Dalai Lama said that he and his aides are considering replacing the tradition of searching for a reincarnation of the Dalai Lama among Tibetan boys born around the time of the previous Dalai Lama’s death.

“If the Tibetan people want to keep the Dalai Lama system, one of the possibilities I have been considering with my aides is to select the next Dalai Lama while I’m alive,” he told the Sankei Shimbun in an interview published November 21st. That could mean either some kind of democratic election among senior Buddhist monks or a personal selection by the current Dalai Lama himself, who is the 14th of the line. For 13 successive incarnations, monks have fanned out across Tibet with relics of the deceased Dalai Lama to try and find his next incarnation – a boy who recognized the objects and thus signaled that the Dalai’s soul had passed into a new earthly envelope. It is a ritual that both affirms and reflects the basic foundations of Tibetan Buddhism, reincarnation and the rule of a revered group of repeatedly reborn monks. That the protector of Tibetan culture would consider scrapping a core tenet of Tibetan tradition and possibly undermining his own legitimacy are sure signs that China is solidifying its dominant position in the decades-long standoff.

The boy the Dalai Lama recognised in 1995 as the reincarnation of the second highest lama, the Panchen Lama, mysteriously disappeared shortly after and the Chinese government named its own Panchen Lama.

To counter this, the Dalai Lama appears to have set on finding a suitable successor himself, one whose legitimacy is unsullied by unseemly squabbles over ritual with China and who has been handpicked to take up the advocacy work on behalf of his people once he dies. Making his succession an issue at this time may also be an attempt to tweak the Chinese – sensitive about their reputation in the walk-up to the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008 – into taking a more accommodating position regarding the Tibet issue. Unlike more radical Tibetans, the Dalai Lama has always advocated autonomy, not independence, from China; and he has always said that he admired Mao Zedong, the founder of the People’s Republic. Beijing, however, has consistently lumped the Dalai Lama with the rest of what it calls the “splittists,” or those who would break up China.

Freedom of Expression in China

The New York Times today reviews the novel A Free Life by Chinese novelist Ha Jin, who left China for America after the Tiananmen Square uprising.

Nan and Pingping Wu, a husband and wife, are the sort of persevering newcomers, firmly set on a legal path to citizenship by way of unremitting thrift and toil, whom presidents like to point to from the podium during major addresses on the economy. Much as Jin himself did, the Wus came from China to study, not to stay, but they realized after the Tiananmen Square massacre (as Jin did too, he’s said in interviews) that they couldn’t go home again and be themselves, since both their selves and their native land had changed. “A Free Life” is the story of their family’s naturalization — bank deposit by bank deposit, dental appointment by dental appointment, appliance purchase by appliance purchase — and like most novels of what professors call “The American Immigrant Experience,” it’s chiefly a tale of trial and error. The trials provide the drama, the errors the comedy, and their overlap the pathos. It’s an orthodox format, hard to reinvent, mostly because reinvention is its theme.

Walter Kirn. The New York Times. November 25, 2007

In 2000, The New York Times published a long profile of Ha Jin, focusing on his powerful eye for the details of everyday life observed close up while other writers of his generation quote life refracted through the media.

If the lucidity and focus of ”Waiting” puts you in mind of Russian masters like Gogol and Chekhov, that’s no accident. Jin reads and rereads these writers, he says, to remind him of what fiction is supposed to be. ”You read so many novels these days by young writers and they feel so ephemeral,” he says. ”They are full of references to TV shows and movies. What’s important is to get human feeling onto paper. That’s what is timeless, and that’s what you get from Tolstoy and from Gogol and from Chekhov.”

In a funny way, says the Chinese-American novelist Gish Jen, the timeless quality of Jin’s writing may be among the few really new things happening in American fiction right now. ”The whole idea of looking to masters instead of overturning something is very Chinese,” she says. ”On some level, Ha Jin has chosen mastery over genius. It’s as if he said, ‘I am going to make something like that.’ This never happens with American writers. We are too beset with the anxiety of influence. What he’s doing is very challenging, and I am interested to see how the American literati pick it up and deal with it.”

Dwight Garner. “Ha Jin’s Cultural Revolution.” The New York Times. February 6, 2000.

In 2006 Indian journalist Pankaj Mishra visited China. The liberal Chinese intellectual Zhu Xueqin told Mishra that he’d come to admire Gandhi after reading a book on him by Chester Bowles, who had been America’s ambassador to India in the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Gandhi and Nehru were greater men than Mao, Zhu had said, and I briefly wondered if this was meant as a gesture to me, his first Indian visitor,” wrote Mishra in the London Review of Books in November of 2006. “But such comparisons were once part of everyday conversation for many Chinese and Indians. In recent years, the two countries have increasingly starred in a triumphalist narrative: essentially, of Western capitalist modernity showing non-Western peoples the path to progress and development. Yet for many Indians and Chinese, their national experience and identity were shaped by the struggle for freedom from Western military and economic domination.”

Indian politicians and businessmen, and their supporters in the English-language media watched with envy the flow of capital into China – ten times the total foreign investment in India – and the rapid transformation of its coastal cities. These new Indian elites, impatient with Nehru’s vision of economic equality and social justice, pointed to Deng Xiaoping’s reforms as evidence that the creation of wealth must precede the eradication of poverty, disease and illiteracy. At the same time, many Chinese intellectuals had watched closely as India’s granting of universal suffrage at a stroke ensured a much greater degree of public accountability than exists in China. But many privileged Indians increasingly see representative politics as a nuisance – one of the reasons, they say, that India has not received as much foreign investment as China. For what China proves (though this is left unsaid) is that an authoritarian system helps rather than hinders economic growth on the neo-liberal model, by ensuring that labour laws, trade unions, the legislature, the judiciary and the fear of environmental destruction do not impede the privatisation of state assets, the appropriation of agricultural land, the provision of subsidies and tax cuts to businessmen, or the concentration of wealth in fewer hands.

Pankaj Mishra. London Review of Books. 30 November, 2006

Pankaj Mishra talked to novelists, film-makers and journalists who report on the lives of everyday Chinese people.

One of the best-known literary novelists, Yu Hua, told me that he had started out as a formally experimental writer in the 1980s, looking up to Borges, García Márquez and Robbe-Grillet in conscious reaction to the official norms of socialist realism. But as the 1980s wore on, he felt less and less need to challenge state propaganda, and instead chose to portray the experiences of ordinary rural and small-town people in such straightforward narratives as To Live (1992) and Chronicle of a Blood Merchant (1995).

When I met Yu in Shanghai he appeared to be enjoying the success of his latest novel, Brothers (2006). It describes how two siblings, orphaned during the violence of the Cultural Revolution, fare in the aggressively materialistic China of the 1980s and 1990s. The younger brother sets up a beauty contest for virgins, while the elder has a breast implant in order to peddle a line of breast enlargement gels in the countryside. With its explicit, and often exaggerated, violence and sex, the novel must have tested the censors. But Yu insisted that he had only described a commonplace reality. ‘Things were bad during the Cultural Revolution,’ he said, ‘but what we are seeing now is total moral breakdown.’

Pankaj Mishra. London Review of Books.


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