#AndrewSingerChina December Newsletter
A Note from Andrew Singer
This month's Newsletter includes a postscript to the recent U.S. national election and a discussion of Chinese investment strategy in Southeast Asia, as well as an introduction to several U.S. organizations whose respective goals are to foster deeper awareness and knowledge about Chinese-American history. There is also a discussion of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin's historical transformation in China from an Indian male to a Chinese female deity. If you like podcasts, four excellent selections are linked in the China Resources section. Please share my Newsletter with your friends and contacts. Please sign up here on my website to stay in touch. I welcome your thoughts and questions.
The United States election has happened. There should be a change of Administration in January. By its very nature, the Biden Administration offers the opportunity for a cooling down in tensions. This will be after not only four plus years of open hostility, but also what happens between now and January 20th, 2021. The Trump Administration is sure to take more provocative measures. Will the Chinese government respond, and if so, how? The how could speak volumes for the future. The Biden Administration will attempt to de-escalate with China and re-engage with allies and the world. The reality is that reacquiring trust once shattered is hard, and at times impossible. America’s policies and position will never be what they were previously. America has relinquished much of what carried the country through since the end of World War II, while at the same time, China is now in a position of power. Both of these situations require adaptation. The Chinese government needs to learn the nuance between soft and hard power. They need a thicker skin to the words and actions of others. They need to understand that when you sit close to the top of the perch, people will naturally try to probe you and punch at you. The Chinese Communist Party needs work on all of these fronts. Ironically, the United States must itself re-learn the very same things if it wants to remain at the top of the perch. China is engaged with the world, while the United States has benched itself. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) was signed in November. While it still for now may be more aspirational than practical, China is a leading member and has been able to dictate much of the structural framework. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) continues, even with hiccups and speed bumps (see next section), and here too, China has been able to establish much of the structural framework of the program. The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (the former Trans-Pacific Partnership that was spearheaded initially by the United States) was signed without either America or China. Even if America attempts to rejoin the former TPP (and that is a big if), much of its structural framework, which had been established originally by the U.S., was jettisoned after the Trump Administration withdrew in 2017. The Chinese recognize that if you want to have a say in the game, you have to play. If America wants to have a meaningful say in the future of world affairs in Asia and beyond, it too needs to play in the game.
Chinese Investment in Continental Southeast Asia
“To get rich, build a road.” 要想富先修路. David Lampton, Professor Emeritus at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, former chairman of The Asia Foundation, and past president of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, stressed this saying in a recent discussion with the USC US-China Institute (南加州大学美中学) about his new book, Rivers of Iron: Railroads and Chinese Power in Southeast Asia. Professor Lampton was emphasizing Chinese trust in infrastructure, their belief that infrastructure leads to economic growth. His context is one aspect of the broader Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)--now enshrined in the Chinese Constitution, which would connect China with continental Southeast Asia (with a nod also to the Indonesian archipelago) utilizing three, north-south, high-speed train lines from Kunming, China, to Bangkok, Thailand, and extending south through Malaysia to Singapore. The driving rationale of such a rail system is to improve economic connectivity as well as provide China with a backup to continued access to Singapore and beyond if there are future sea route challenges through the South China Sea. This ambitious proposal, if it comes to fruition, will unite Southeast Asia with China and promote China’s vision of serving as the economic hub around its periphery. Success will depend on the interplay of a multitude of incentives, influences, leverages, and local conditions that weigh on the various countries (Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), Malaysia, and Singapore) in dealing with China, and vice versa. The engineering challenges (some seventy percent of the Laotian line from the Chinese border to Vientiane would require tunnels and bridges), the economic challenges (where many see opportunity, others in China question the outlay of resources and effort that would be required), and the political challenges (some of the countries have a complicated relationship with China, and geopolitics with India, Europe, and the United States are also in play), will be massive. As Professor Lampton succinctly notes, “building infrastructure is a messy business.” The Chinese government recognizes that “there are first mover advantages” with technology, transportation, and influence. If the Chinese are the first in, and are successful, it will be their leadership and management protocols, their digital and brick and mortar technology and standards, their hardware and software that will drive the future. They will be the standard setters.
The US and other Western countries have an opportunity to play a role, if they want to, but it will require commitment, foresight, and resources. One cited example of possible synergy lies in India. India has an extensive domestic rail system and a large ridership, and they would like to build out east-west rail lines that could connect up to China’s proposed north-south lines to the east and Central Asia to the west. If there is broad, multinational connectivity and participation, each player can help balance the other players and spread economic growth and advancement. A key take-away from Professor Lampton’s talk, and an implicit warning to the West, is his opinion that many in Southeast Asia have concluded that the future now lies more with China than with the West. This, as much as anything, will help push the high-speed rail connection forward.
Chinese Investment in Continental Southeast Asia
The Chinese have a long history in America, a proud history that built the transcontinental railroad, developed businesses, spread culture, and enhances diversity throughout the nation. But the Chinese in America (immigrants and native born) are also a group that has always been treated as other. They were the targets of the only law excluding a specific nationality (the 1882-1943 Chinese Exclusion Acts). They are routinely targeted for xenophobic racism and attacked when things go wrong in American society. Since racism is based in fear, misunderstanding, and ignorance, the antidote is to spread knowledge, awareness, and information. For a nation whose citizens, with the sole exception of Native Americans, are each members of immigrant families at one point in their American history, we would all do well to emphasize learning about and supporting all Americans. Countless organizations, associations, historical societies, cultural groups, gardens, schools, centers, institutes, and museums in America are dedicated to bringing this learning to a wider audience. The following are but a brief (overflowing) handful. The efforts of all those endeavoring to spread awareness, promote dialogue, counter racism, and improve relations should be applauded and encouraged.
The new Chinese-American Museum DC in Washington, DC (opening 2021) aims to “show how Chinese-Americans are woven into the nation’s fabric.”
The Museum of Chinese in America in New York City is “dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.”
The mission of the Chinese American Museum of Chicago is “to advance the appreciation of Chinese American culture through exhibitions, education, and research and to preserve the past, present, and future of Chinese Americans primarily in the Midwest.”
The mission of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle is to “connect everyone to the dynamic history, cultures, and art of Asian Pacific Americans through vivid storytelling and inspiring experiences to advance racial and social equity.
The Kam Wah Chung & Co. Museum in John Day, Oregon preserves the nineteenth century general store-doctor’s office-apothecary-community center-residence of two Chinese pioneers, Doc Hay and Lung On, with the goal of educating and informing “future generations about the importance of the Chinese immigrants who helped define the culture and history of the American West.”
The Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles strives to “foster a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, America’s diverse heritage by researching, preserving, and sharing the history, rich cultural legacy, and continued contributions of Chinese Americans."
Guanyin. Guan Shi Yin. The divine feminine “One Who Hears the Cries of the World.” The Goddess of Mercy. This Buddhist Bodhisattva of Compassion is China’s most popular, most revered, and most human deity. Her ancestry is Indian, and male. The story of the transformation is enmeshed in a swirling tangle of religion, myth, and the struggles we face on earth. But in the end, whether he or she, this bodhisattva brings comfort. Her representation in art throughout Chinese society is extensive.
When the Mahayana form of Buddhism first developed in northern India in the sixth century BCE, there was a bodhisattva who heard the cries of the world. A bodhisattva is a being who has successfully overcome his or her emotions and desires, a being who has attained the right to enter Nirvana and become a Buddha in his or her own right, but who voluntarily chooses to remain in the realm of humanity to assist others achieve the same release. This particular bodhisattva was the masculine Avalokitesvara. He could take many forms. If you petitioned him, he would come to your aid when you were suffering, when you desired advice, when you needed a shoulder to lean on. He would help free you from your delusions. This is a key step in the Buddhism path.
As Buddhism spread from India to east and southeast Asia in the third century BCE, Avalokitesvara was there. This compassionate universal bodhisattva was molded by each new country to its own cultural, religious, and origin stories. Different names, different appearances, different rituals. Same promise. Until the Tang Dynasty (608-907 CE), Avalokitesvara was male in China as well. Then, a new form slowly emerged. This form was feminine. Guanyin as a female has ancestral roots in China before patriarchal Confucianism, a time of shamanism and belief in the equality of male and female. Guanyin as a female emerges at a time when Confucianism was competing with patriarchal Buddhism, when Buddhism was competing with the only somewhat more egalitarian Daoism. Guanyin as a female emerges at a time when multiple religious traditions were mingling along the Silk Road in Northwestern China. The influences on Guanyin in China are diverse, yet all speak to the human desire for compassion and caring.
Guanyin worship includes rituals at physical sites, of which there are ubiquitous temples--large and small, caves, and even an island off the east coast of China. The worship includes poems and prophecies that people consult for guidance, advice, and assistance. The worship includes the retelling of stories and legends to help every person cope with and respond to life. Guanyin can bring miracles, exorcise ghosts, offer a path to repentance. She can help produce children, alleviate pain, offer mercy and compassion. Guanyin is all seeing and all hearing. She often carries a vase and a willow branch and is depicted looking down over the world. The vase of pure water represents the pouring out of her compassion to the world she gazes upon. The willow represents the ability to bend, but not break, to heal. Guanyin transcends. She is here for all.
Podcasts on China run a gamut of topics, something for everyone’s taste, including:
Barbarians at the Gate with Jeremiah Jenne and David Moser (Chinese History and Culture)
Wo Men with Yajun Zhang and Jingjing Zhang (Modern China Life and Culture)
China EconTalk with Jordan Schneider
UPenn Center for the Study of Contemporary China with Neysun Mahboubi