Friday, June 30, 2006

Generations Ago

A night when you randomly run into an ex-girlfriend (note: a girlfriend from almost a decade ago; from Grahamstown -- a thousand miles away; whom you sort of thought dumped you, only to find out tonight that maybe things were different from her vantage point; who avows that she always loved you [what was she talking about? Every night was like a game of cat and mouse with her?]; who kind-of, sort-of offered one last time for old-times sake-and-maybe-future-sake; who still is remarkably attractive by South African party-girl standards) coupled with a night in which you realize that running into that same ex- does not have the same effect on you that it would have five years ago (ie: that it would screw with your head) can really screw with your head.

It felt like a scene from High Fidelty, one of my favorite books-cum-movies ever, that ended up on the cutting room floor. She was like the top-five breakup who was never on the list, but she heard of the list, so in light of knowing that she knew the list existed, I felt I ought to give her a place on the list, but we both would have known that being high on the list would be a lie, so we agreed to accept that she was #4 even though she was nowhere near number four.

So it was a weird night.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Conferences, Research, and Memorials

My conference is done -- my paper was well received and had one of the moments that was talked about for the rest of the meeting when a member of the audience claimed that there is no room for comparing the US and South African racial struggles because the one in the US was "merely a civil rights struggle" where in South Africa it was a "matter of life and death." I went off, listing about 25-30 men and women who died in the US Movement, told him that he disrespected their sacrifices, and that his comments were clearly more geared toward being a polemic than an interest in oopen inquiry. I got a rousing ovation. So yeay me! Otherwise in the wrapup one of the conference leaders praised my paper, and one of the journals here asked for a copy of the paper to consider publishing, which would be nice. I made some friends and networked my way into a few contacts, and in all, I had fun.

I spent today in the National Archives, where I had done some work in December. I finished up everything I will need to get from there on any of my projects for the next few years. It is weird to conceptualize my work in that kind of time span. I guess I still think like a kid, where years are abstractions, yet realistically, my next visit to the National Archives will most likely be for a project I have not even begun to conceive. On the flip side, I pretty much have all of the research that I need to get done to start writing this next manuscript. It's always nice to have excuses. For now, there are no excuses. I have saeveral projects in the hopper, I'll have a month or more before classes start when I get back, and so in between wedding planning, I have lots of writing to do.

Pretoria has been cold, but I've been able to do a bit of wandering, and the conference culminated with a treip to the future site of Freedom Park, a comprehensive plan for a vast hilly-area within sightlines of the Voortrekker Monument, the vast and forboding ediface that serves to commemorate the steely Afrkaner drive to subjugate black people. I kid, I kid. Well, sort of. The Park is one of these feel-good projects that has emerged in the wake of 1994, the TRC, and the general wave of good feeling in the Rainbow Nation. It seems committed to presenting a particular view of South Africa that I would guess will end up being more contested than they presently envision. There will, for example, be a Hall of heroes with three representatives from South Africa, three from the rest of the continent, and two or three from the rest of the world. One can imagine the politics that will be involved with that. Furthermore, there is going to be a wall of names that intends to include nameplates of all of those who gave up their lives in the quest for freedom. This to me has disaster written all over it and will surely be a situation in which they either aim to offend no one, in which case it will be useless, or else they offend vast swathes of the very constituencies they need to rely upon for support. All of this said, I'll take Freedom Park, even if it is now just a construction-pocked hill, over the homage to Afrikanerdom that is the Voortrekker Monument every day of the week.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Universiteit Van Pretoria

I'm writing from the library of the University of Pretoria, one of South Africa's finest universities (or "varsities," as South Africans often call tertiary institutions) and the host of the Historical Association of South Africa's (HASA) Jubilee Meeting. This afternoon I'll be presenting a paper on my project on comparative bus boycotts in the US and South Africa. I've presented aspects of this work before, but this will be my first fleshing out of the comparative framework before an audience of South Africans, so hopefully I will get some fruitful leads and feedback.

It is cold in South Africa. Damned cold. Especially when there are gaps between the door and the doorjam that allow in breezes into the room of your guesthouse, when the heating unit sputters but emits little heat, and when the floor is solely made of tile. Pretoria being 60 km or so north of Joburg, I thought that maybe it would actually be a bit warmer here than there, but a cold front is kicking through the entire country. I suppose this is payback for skipping the brunt of winter in Texas when I came here for six weeks in December and January.

Access to computers may be intermittent in these next few days, but I'll touch base as I can.

Monday, June 26, 2006

The Orange Crush

I got to experience one of those sublime sporting experiences last night. My buddy Andrew (who looks like Bruscino and sounds like my friend Brendan) has a handful of Dutch friends who are here for reasons various and sundry. Since the beginning of the World Cup they have effectively colonized (in a benign meaning of the term) a bar that for three years and eleven months otherwise goes by an African name, turning it into "Holland House," the home for the orange-clad crazies who passionately follow their footballers. The Netherlands has had some great soccer teams in the past -- the 1974 team being the most legendary -- but has never been able to get over the hump. The Dutch -- hundreds of them -- are joined by large numbers of Afrikaners disinclined to root for England and apparently not on the Ghana bandwagon as well as isolated pods of black South Africans, English South Africans, and the odd American interloper.

The scene last night at this second-story bar in a shopping center wedged in the affluent northern suburbs between Jo-burg and Pretoria captured all that is great about the way the World Cup mobilizes passion. Everyone was bedecked in Orange -- some wore jerseys, others orange lederhosen that has actually caused quite a stir in Germany, still others came in "Holland House" t-shirts that, alas, the bar ran out of on the first night. There were funky hats (a girl gave me one so that I could blend in), feather boas, painted faces, Dutch flags and beer. Lots and lots of beer. The scene at Holland House has become so well known that it draws lots of media -- I had my picture taken with a group by a newspaper photographer, and I was interviewed by SuperSport, South Africa's equivalent to ESPN, which wanted an American vantage point -- which never leaves without good footage to perpetuate the deserved World Cup passion stories that are a staple of the highlight shows.

By kickoff things were at a fevered pitch. We had scarfed down several boerewors and chicken satay skewers that were being grilled out on the porch. The Dutch National Anthem had gone through several rousing renditions. Bodies were pressed together with no seats and little room to move, which seemed to bother precisely nobody. By the time of the official national anthem and the opening kickoff, I was as swept up in the wave of orange emotion as anyone. It was euphoric. It was glorious. It was sport at its communal best.

It was like a punch to the gut when Portugal potted a goal a half hour into the game, a goal that, we could not have then known, would provide the only scoring of the match. The game was epically chippy -- a score of yellow and red cards. A few near fights, a lot of tension, and much screaming at the officials. The bar reflected the mood on the pitch. I learned some choice Dutch profanity that either does not exist or I do not know from Afrikaans, including a choice one aimed at the referees that prominently involves dog penises. Portugal will move on to face England (who won an otherwise bland game on a stunning David Beckhamn free kick)seriously undermanned because of a slew of red cards. (A decimated Portugal gives England an advantage that I hope brings me ever closer to my desire to see the final game in Oxford with England in the match.) The only question that lingers for me is how Dutch superstar Ruud van Nistelrooy could languish on the bench for the whole game. My guess is that it is a question lingering in a lot of hungover Dutch minds today, including several who will want answers from the coach.

The second half was almost painful to watch, and each passing minute saw the Dutch fans slip into despair. Being a Red Sox fan provided me with a little bit of wmpathy for them. Knowing that the World Cup only comes around once every four years -- if your country's team makes it into the tournament -- surely makes it all the worse. The somber mood lingered in the air for the rest of the night, but the solemnity did not prevent more drinking and I made a lot of new friends who seemed genuinely thrilled that I had been there to experience their wonderful, bittersweet, and finally devastating moment with them.

Next stop: Pretoria for the Historical Association of South Africa conference as well as research at ther National Archives. I'll be there for the next four days.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Springboks to Shebeens

Yesterday was a hoot. My new buddy Andrew and I ended up at a sports bar to watch the Springboks choke big-tme against France. As a general rule, when the Springboks are beaten in the pack, they are going to lose. Amabokkobokko rely on the fact that they almost always have the biggest, strongest forwards in the world. Not yesterday. Were it not for the stellar kicking of wizened (he was a Springbok back in 1997 when I first came to South Africa) fullback Percy Montgomery the Boks might not have even been in the game. It was a disappointing performance, but it was a good time nonetheless.

From there we hit the town, setling first at a place called Ratz, where we got in good with the owner and thus had a lot of our drinks comped as we watched soccer and made more new friends. I hoped Mexico would pull off a shocker over Argentina, but it was not to be. Then the Germans just dominated an overmatched Swedish team.

From there we moved on to a place that would like to fancy itself as Melville's equivalent of a shebeen, the once-illicit bars that flourish in the townships. We went with another American, a talented grad student from UT-Austin working on his PhD field research. He recognized me from a conference we attended last year in Burlington, the wonderful Northeast Workshop on Southern African Studies (NEWSAS). It was a great time. Basically, it was an African bar -- lots of drinking, lots of music, lots of fun, though the shabeen conceit is rather tough to pull off in the midst of upscale Melville. It nonetheless is always nice to immerse myself into a more "African" tableaux. It is interesting how racial tensions are both alleviated and have manifested themselves differently in the last few years. Generally we were welcomed with open arms, but there are always some who look askance at what they probably perceive to be whities trying to impress with their open-mindedness. I suppose that not only can I not blame them, there is also some truth to their implied accusation. In any case, the time just disappeared amidst the music and beer and people, and I emerged exhausted but contented at 5:30 this morning.

Oh -- and Williams has, for the third year in a row finished the year ranked #1 in both the U.S. News and World Report National Liberal Arts College Rankings as well as in the year-end Director's Cup for overall athletic excellence (the eighth win in a row in that latter category). Ho hum. And Big Papi won another game for the Sox with another walkoff home run in extras to beat the Phils. Another glorious ho-hum.

Finally, Shawn Wilsey has a worthwhile article in the New York Times on what Ghana's World Cup successes mean to the little West African nation that led the way to decolonization on this continent.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The Break?: South African Politics and the Potential Earthquake

I have said it for years. The dominance of the African National Congress will not wane as the result of a challenge from the right. The days of the National Party and its inconsequential successors is past. There is room and a need for true conservatism (which I will then heartily oppose) in South Africa, but it cannot rise from the ashes of the Afrikaner Broederbond, the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) or the Nats, new, old, gereformeerde or otherwise. The challenge, then will come from the left. More accurately it will come as the result of a break in the tripartite alliance that makes up the ANC -- the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). I am certainly not an original thinker on this point, but these are observations I have been making since 1997 so I feel some sense that my construction of the discussion, at least, is my own.

The reason one can envision such a break is because recently both COSATU and the SACP have been making noise indicating that they could, possibly, at some point, consider breaking fron the alliance and going forward on their own in the political waters. That it has taken this long, and that it might never come to pass, is testament to the hold that power has on any constituency that has it. Being in the ANC fold is a virtual guarantee of access, status, and viability -- of, in essence, the concrete benefits of being in the catbird seat. COSATU and the SACP have always been second among equals, however, and this has long chafed the leadership of these organizations that, rightly, remind us of their vital role in the long liberation struggle.

This last point cannot be overstated. I know that many of my readers place themselves in the ardent anti-Communist camp, a standing that generally is the right one. For reasons too obvious to explore here, when Americans think of Communists we think of the Soviets, or possible China. Those, especially the Soviets, posed a real and serious threat and embodied the ultimate evil. In that context, I too am an anti-Communist. But the South African example is a significant exception, because almost universally the Communists in South Africa subsumed the idea of class revolution to the necessary fight against racial dominance. In so doing, they contributed greatly to providing both an intellectual framework and a multi-racial dynamic that proved vital to the ANC. It is worth noting that the SACP was virtually the only organization to which white South Africans could belong and contribute to the long fight against apartheid. On top of all of this, the explanatory apparatus of socialism really did resonate in South Africa, and for good reason: The apartheid system was many things, most of them bad. One of the most significant of its grotesqueries was that its very existence was based on the existence and ruthless exploitation of masses of black labor. Capitalism, free markets -- these quintessential components of liberalism were a farce for black South Africans. There was nothing free about South Africa's markets, a point that a succession of American presidential administrations never understood, which is remarkably obtuse. Furthermore, white South African anti-Communism was ardent -- in significant ways, far more so than in the US. This too made the National Party's rule seem appealing to the United States. The problem was that it was an anti-Communism borne of the most vicious racism, yet another point that myopic American governments failed to grasp in their simplistic use of Africa as a Cold War battlefield. In sum, then, as long as they subsumed Communist ideology to the anti-Apartheid fight, and they did for the duration, the SACP were the good guys in the decades after 1948.

It is in recognition of this that the ANC has bent over backward to accomodate, or at least pay lip service to the SACP and to the socialist-sympathetic unions of COSATU. Plus the ANC has always known that keeping these groups in the fold maximized their own power. But times are changing. This relationship that for so long has been fruitful is wearing out its usefulness. It may finally be time for a change.

The SACP is antsy to push a socialist agenda. It is an agenda that, while it has some fruitful points, would, if implemented in toto, be an utter disaster in the one country that Africans across the continent simply cannot afford to go awry. COSATU rightly emphasizes the rights of workers, but like all unions is largely unconcerned with masses who live on the agricultural fringes and with those not within its ranks, which is to say, a majority of South Africans, apoint that COSATU elides because to do otherwise would raise some uncomfortable questions.

South Africa has a parliamentary legislature that the ANC has dominated since 1994. I surmise that even after a break of the alliance the ANC will continue to do so. But its support levels will surely drop to or below where they were after the 1994 elections when the Nats and Inkatha Freedom Party, the one defunct the other irrelevant, drew support. This is to my mind a good thing. The ANC with too much support, which translates to too much power, frightens me. I'd like to think that South Africa is different from other African states, its leaders more sage, its democracy more stable, its juduciary and military more independent. But power is power, and when too much of it is consolodated for too long, such power becomes dangerous. Such a break would be especially good if it could be amicable -- if COSATU and SACP can maintain an alliance on a large number of issues while pursuing their own course where there is divergence.

This is all by way of description -- what I see happening -- rather than prediction, though I have long held that in the long run the alliance would be untenable if the partners ultimately chose to care about more than simply maintaining their grip on the levers of control. It is a dynamic well worth watching in the weeks, months and years to come.

On matters seemingly more prosaic, but almost assuredly of more immediate interest to a huge number of South Africans, the Springboks face off against the French in a rugby test match at 2:00. Just enough time for me to head back, drop some things off, and hit a (hopefully warm) pub for the clash.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Doin' Nothin', Soccer Style

Traditionally, I am not very good at just doing nothing. While I am a huge tv fan, for example, I cannot watch anything except for the most important sporting events without a book in hand to read during down times and commercials. I get antsy just lounging around. The idea of doing nothing but sitting, say, on a beach all day is not my idea of paradise, though if there are volleyball courts and books and picnics and walking and swimming and a radio I can start getting with it.

So this is an interesting few days. Until I head to Pretoria for my conference and some research, I have literally no plans. I've already met some people in cafes and bars, and when they ask me what my schedule looks like, I can honestly tell them that it is completely free for the next three days. Yesterday the goal was simply to stay awake, which I did (more on that in a moment)and today the goal is just to wander. I met an interesting actress/writer at a coffee shop and we talked for a couple of hours. Now I am ensconced at a used bookstore/internet cafe that I visit every time I am in Melville. In an hour or so I'll move on again. I might get my hair buzzed (it's already short, so I balk a bit at paying 70 rands -- $10! -- to get it shaved, but at the same time, once I decide I am getting my hair cut I tend just to do it. I'll surely grab a late lunch/early dinner, and even though the games are not very compelling today, I will go watch at least one of them over beer or wine or hot chocolate. I got the weekly Mail & Guardian, my favorite South African paper, which comes out on Fridays, as well as the Star, which is my fav . . . well, which is a South African daily. I am carrying a bag with stuuff to read. So I still am not doing nothing, but for me, this is as close to it as it gets, and I am adjusting. I suspect I'll keep meeting people, making short-term friends, one of the joys of travel, and taking things as they come.

As promised, I met my goal of making it as far as the game yesterday, at which point I knew I'd be fine. I found a nifty little cafe with two couches next to a fireplace -- a serious score. A woman about my age was there and started a conversation. She is a journalist working on some documentary, and we just talked and enjoyed the fire. One of her friends came in, we chatted a bit more, and then they shifted to Afrikaans while I awaited the opening kickoff of the game. They were chatting about boys. Eventually I decided to let them know that while I am not fluent, and I was trying not to listen, I understood about two thirds of what they were saying and gleaned most of the rest. They were surprised and a bit embarassed. No real need, but still, I felt it only fair to let them know. We chatted some more, though most of my attentions were on the game, and when the game ended and their friends started pouring in, it added a nice social element to the ambience, at least until inevitably I was the outsider, at which point I was due to move on anyway.

What can I say? The US simply did not come to play in this World Cup. But it was a fun scene. I was a bit removed from the screen, having chosen to keep my fireside poll position, but there was a roomful of African guys and we jawed back and forth in a friendly way. They respected the Americans but as with most of the continent, had fully embraced the Black Stars as their own, as well they should. They did not really put up a fight when I argued that the penalty kick was based on a cheap call, but they also pointed out that in the most technical sense our goal likely came on an offsides. They were ebullient when the clock, after a capriciously announced five minutes of injury time (they all assumed it was a conspiracy against Ghana), ran down to all zeros. It was all good fun. Except for one aspect that left a nasty taste in my mouth, even if I restrained myself. There were two white South African women rooting for Ghana, and why wouldn't they. But they kept referring to Ghana as "we," which seemed a bit odd. I suppose they have some claim to the continent as well, but it struck me as disjunctive and maybe a bit pretentious. But then one of them said "beat the fucking imperialist Americans."

Um, excuse me, what was that? Let me get this straight. You are a white South African. Not to put too fine a point on it, but you and your predecessors were beneficiaries of the most noxious colonial settler regime in African history and the world's worst racial dictatorship in the decades after World war II. Yes, yes, yes, I know you PERSONALLY opposed apartheid. I just find it funny that all of the white people I encounter who are over the age of 35 all opposed Apartheid, yet the National Party never received less than 84% of the vote until 1983, when the Conservative Party, which was more ardently pro-apartheid than even the Nats stole a few percentage points. I find the American Imperialism argument problematic when it comes from the most well-meaning critics. When blurted from the mouth of a white South African who benefitted in every possible way from apartheid for half of her life (where she lived, where she went to school, where she could attend college, where she could travel, what sorts of jobs she could have, with whom she could associate . . .) using "we" to describe Ghana's soccer successes? Well, color me unimpressed by your Pan-Africanism couched in geo-political inanities.

That exception aside, I do think Ghana's win marks a great Pan-African moment. The explosion of happiness in the bar was legitimate. The celebrations across the continent have been rapturous. This win means so much more to Africans than it ever would have meant to Americans that I not only do not begrudge the Ghanaian victory, I am happy for it. They have a tough draw against Brazil coming up, but what do they have to lose? They faced a gantlet of top 10 teams, two of which they defeated to get to this stage. They are aggressive and vibrant. They are a little bit lucky. They are confident. Why not? (Beyond the fact that Brazil is the greatest national team in the history of the sport, is playing well now, and has what by any measure is a better roster of superstars, I mean). Africans have been talking about Pan-Africanism and falling short of it for the entirety of the post-colonial era. At least this one time, this grand African nationalism seems to be a welcome, if undoubtedly temporal, reality.

I stayed out for a bit longer, drinking Castles and making new friends. I went back to my B&B ("Akuwaiseni," which means "Place of rest" in, I believe, Zulu.) and tried to watch some bad television, but before long I crashed. I awoke a few times during the night, but slept until 7 this morning and remained in bed for a while before starting my day. I am rested and ready, even if it was zero degrees celcius when I got up (which as you might recall is exactly 32 degrees fahrenheit, or freaking freezing).

A few additional notes: The M&G this week has several articles (print and online) on South Africa's take on the China question, which is basically whether or not to Fear the (China) Dragon. I certainly feel as if the China question is following me. I'll be writing more on that issue for other forums when I get back.

Meanwhile, over at Big Tent, Tom has a beautiful evisceration of Steve Rushin's assertion in Sports Illustrated last week that Americans hate soccer because we are ignorant provincials. I add my two cents in the comments, as do other folks.

In any case, it's time to move on as I practice this strange doing nothing thing.
Update: More on SA and China from this week's M&G can be found here.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Summer to Winter


After a damned long 48 or so hours, I have successfully made it from Beijing to Hong Kong to South Africa. And I have been reminded of the unique chill of South African winter, surely exacerbated by the fact that it was 90 and humid as hell when I was wandering Hong Kong yesterday. The winters here can get pretty raw, but the biggest issue is that there is no cultural infrastructure for winter. This morning, for example, was no colder than a brisk but sunny spring day in New England. But houses here are not insulated for cold, they do not often have central heating, and so the frigid factor is out of all proportion to the conditions. Jo-burg will not be that bad, but if I make it to Grahamstown it can get pretty raw, and a windy day in Cape Town will send you scurrying for cover and a duvet as well.

In any case, I am back and savoring the special familiarity I have with South Africa -- not as familiar, and thus as banal, as home, but even if I don't know it blind, I know the contours. South Africa is the friend I go months without seeing, but when we do get together it feels good and right and special. I pay extra close attention, because it may be a while before it happens again and a chance meeting is unlikely, but it is highly doubtful that I'll be thrown for a loop by much that I see and hear, and I appreciate the differences that absence affords me the opportunity to notice.

Yesterday was long, but not uneventful. I headed into Hong Kong proper for several hours with the highlight being a trip up the tram to the "Peak," a hill (mountain? Though that designation seems a bit grandiloquent) that affords splendid views of Hong Kong's unquestionably fabulous skyline (I place it in my top five) but which also captures the essence of Hong Kong as I have discerned it from an admittedly small sample. The first thing one sees upon debarking from the vertiginously steep two-car tram (which, impossibly, has not had a single accident since 1888) is a glitzy, unabashed, out-of-place Shopping Mall in the midst of a beaucolic escape that most cities would work to preserve, to keep somehow sacred. Not Hong Kong -- if it can be developed, exploited, sold and commercialized, bring it on.

After two weeks in Beijing the contrast was sharp. I loathe false designations like "real" versus "false" with regard to Asia or anything else, but there was something ersatz and chintzy about Hong Kong. Maybe the root is its status as a former colony. Hong Kong sees itself as self-consciously different and better than the rest of the leviathan that now more than ever hovers so menacingly nearby. The gorgeous setting is just a delivery system for a soulless brand of commercialism. I'm sure there is much more to Hong Kong than this, but in so brazenly cultivating the high-end mall culture the city doesn't do much to tug at the curiousity of guys like me who travel enough not to be suckered. Of course the city's world-class airport serves as a hub to much of the rest of Asia, and that will draw in the filthy lucre. Plus, my views may represent a minority -- Disney Asia has opened up in close and convenient proximity to the airport, right off the Airport Express train service. Hong Kong seems content to cultivate the empty shell approach to tourism.

Dizzy from commercial overload I was almost relieved to get back to the airport for what still loomed as a five-hour wait, which I killed quite well, made easier by the fact that I ran into my new friend from the last weeks, Kaz, who was in Hong Kong from her trip to Nanking on her way back to Australia. I also was able to spend my Hong Kong dollars down to the nub, which I always like to be able to do. I did keep a garish HK$10 note, which looks like technocolor vomit.

Not much to say about the flight. Happily it was not full, and my row of four seats had two of us. The entertainment system was largely down, so I got quite a lot of reading done. The stewardesses were first-rate (Cathay Pacific earns high marks based on these last four flights) and while long, it was not unbearable. Customs was easy and my Melville bed-and-breakfast dispatched someone to fetch me for two thirds of what a private taxi hire would have run me. I have managed to avoid sleeping, and even finished the last hundred or so pages of a book and caught a rerun of Dallas, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My memories of that show are that my Mom loved it, periodically watched it with friends, and that it followed a heavy-hitter Friday Night Lineup from the vantage of an eight-year old, The Incredible Hulk and The Dukes of Hazzard a show the passion for which I had cannot be described. In the early years of South African television (the country kept tv's pervasive influence at bay until thirty years ago almost wholly because of the closed nature of the apartheid state) Dallas was huge. One could analyze why for hours (it represented the ideal of privilege that white South Africans had cultivated for themselves; secretly everyone here envied the hats; etc.) but apparently the romance is still alive, as wedged between the soap operas (South Africans love their soap operas, which can be found throughout the day, both imported US soaps and as importantly from a cultural vantagepoint, their own domestic ones, which, because they sometimes try to carry a message and because they are multi-lingual might actually have at least some social value) was J. R. Ewing in all of his conniving glory. I'm not going to lie to you -- if it is on dvd, I might have to buy season one of Dallas when I get back to the States.

I'm in danger-zone time. If I sleep anytime before tonight, I'm royally screwed, no two ways about it. I could have stolen a nap upon arrival and been ok -- when I got in it was 11:00 pm last night in China -- but if I do so now, I am going to end up awake in the middle of the night, and that sometimes leads me to depression, plus it makes getting my clock right all the more difficult. So I am just going to catch up on some internet, wander around Melville for a while longer, and by 3 settle in to a bar to watch the US-Ghana game that kicks off at 4, which I think will be especially fascinating because not only do I expect everyone here to be anti-US, but also the fact that we are playing an African nation should ratchet it up a few notches. Fortunately, it will be friendly banter, and truth be told, I would be fine with Ghana moving on because that would mean so much more to that country and this continent than if the US wins. That said, I'd like the US to strap on a pair and begin to look like a team that deserved its ranking coming in. If Ghana wins, I am rooting for them and England the rest of the way.

You know what's good for a chill in the air? Beer. It will soon be Castle Lager time. Lekker.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Zai Jian!

Update: Edited from Hong Kong, where I can see my work after a couple of weeks under the censors' gaze. I have a hellish 12 hour layover -- enough to go into the city, not enough to keep me from staring at my watch regularly.

First off, it should be noted that almost everything I have written this past couple of weeks invoking Chinese has been utterly based on my own understanding of phonetics and misunderstanding of what I have heard.

Quick final night story:

So, I was just out drinking -- not too much, but wanted to do a little tippling on my last night. I went to a place near campus and had a couple of pijiou (Beer, or in this case, big assed bottles of beer). I am reading a book, but feel nature calling. I hit the bathroom -- I cannot even begin to tell you just how nasty many Chinese public toilets are, plus so many of them are just these odd little one-person porcelain troughs in the ground -- and have two options for a stall. I picked the one I used the other night (the one on the left), when I went with a bunch of colleagues to the same humble streetside eatery after our final banquet. Squatting just beyond the door is a tiny Chinese women. She screams. I scream back. Which leads her to scream more. I scurry to the other filthy stall (I guess my reading of the symbols for women and men got crossed) take a quick wee, and realize that in her mind, I might be some sort of sicko. So I head back to the sidewalk, tag down about 16 ounces of remaining beer (a man's got to have priorities) and take off, not wanting my last night to be characterized by some sort of bizarre Chinese revenge ritual.

The lesson: Drink all of your beer before you go pee; Learn the Chinese characters for the women's room; Knock. Loudly. (Another lesson one could draw is that those toilets teach Chinese folks to squat deeply; it's a country of catchers in the making. But that was not the first lesson I garnered from that little experience;) Yet another is that I pissed in the women's room on Friday night.

Went solo into Tiananmen and the Forbidden City today. The first observation about Tiananmen is that it is vast. It is supposed to be the largest public square in any city in the world, and I believe it. I tried to eyeball it in terms of football fields, and my sense of space failed me, but the answer must be dozens, maybe scores. It is huge. Mao's mausoleum is there (didn't visit; knowing he's dead is enough for me) and flanking it on the sides are the Chinese museum (didn't go in. Knowing it's there is enough for me) and the Chinese equivalent of the Parliament, which is enormous. It has a regal, vaguely Stalinesque look (go figure), and I don't know if I could have gone in (Knowing I shouldn't have been there was enough for me).

I don't need to remind any of you of 4 June 1989. The facts, as we know them, are somewhat sketchy. It is quite possible that no one was killed that day in the square. It is quite possible that thousands were slaughtered once students were rousted out from it. That day is misunderstood, and it was not a simple morality play -- there were serious and important reformers within the Communist Party who pleaded with students to leave and by many accounts their legitimate and brave attempts at reform from within during Deng's time died on that day; The vast majority of the students had no idea why they were there, many descended on the square because it was an event, a jol, the thing to do; The ones who thought they knew oftentimes had no real concept of democracy. And so forth. In any case, there are now just enough soldiers on the grounds to remind anyone who has any ideas that they are probably bad ones. And there are cameras. Lots of cameras. And yet more desperate hawkers. Lots of desperate hawkers. I've come to hate them.

I have to admit, I took on the Foridden City (so named because for more than 500 years it was off limits to outsiders, with punishments ranging from 100 lashes to death to those who violated) in a somewhat perfunctory way. It is enormous beyond comprehension (the Chinese do big well. Americans are pikers by comparison, which may not be a bad thing) and I did spend a couple of hours or so there. But I was a bit touristed out, and my main goal was to get to this hill beyond the Walls of the Forbidden City, on the north side of the axis that is Tiananmen-Forbidden City. That hill is part of a bucolic park complex, the centerpiece of which is the steep hill that quickly rises from the pool-table flat surroundings. The climb was a tester, but I presumed worth it, until I discovered that the pagoda- or temple-like building at the top, which promised exquisite views of the city on all sides, was closed. I saw a leggy Chinese girl get beyond the mesh gates. When I opened the gate and peered within, I was brusquely waved off by a soldier. The soldiers here tend toward the scrawny and short, but with visions of 1989 in my head I demurred, even if I muttered complaints that they did not understand ("Fuck Mao" becoming standard juvenile boilerplate nonsequiter by now.)

The rebuffing granted me time to wander the park, which is lovely, then to make my way back through a hutong that, given its proximity to the Square and the Forbidden City, and given that 10,000 hutong are disappearing a year, is surely ill fated. Intermittently in the hutong were scattered what is to me already a familiar dual-role business: hairdresser shops by day, and shall we say red light districts by, well, apparently at least by 5:00. I could have gotten some serious tail, but my newfound status as an engaged man and love for my fiancee, coupled with my aversion to venereal disease, trebled with the fact that my fate in matters intimate was clearly to walk in on some poor woman taking a dump, led me to keep on walking.

I have to be up in 5 hours for what will be 48 hours of: Flying, getting one last shot at Hong Kong, lots more flying, and then arriving in South Africa. I'll try to touch base from Hong Kong, where I'll have the benefit of being able actually to see the blog. China has been remarkable. Too much to absorb. I've learned so very much, met some great people and new friends, immersed myself as deeply as possible, eaten amazing food, drank lots of pijou, and avoided becoming a political prisoner. Not a bad couple of weeks.

Zai jian, China.

Monday, June 19, 2006

A Few Things . . .

. . . before I head out to Tiananmen and the Forbidden City.

In what seems like remarkable coinsidence, just as I head from China to South Africa, Chinese premier Wen Jinbao embarks on a trip to South Africa as well. His purpose is to pull together ties between the two nations, both developing regional powers, with China of course a country with far more than regional ambitions. It seems clear that China's goal is to establish itself as a go-to power for the developing world. South Africa is a smart place to start. In years to come it may well occur that developing regions like Africa become a site of contestation for the attentions of the great powers, much like during the Cold War, except in the future, this competition need not be a zero-sum game. Countries will be able to fan the attentions of both China and the United States. And as importantly, unlike the Cold War, this need not be the consequence of global hostility. Hopefully the attention that comes from the outside world will also be different in another way -- hopefully this time, it will be good for Africa.

Meanwhile most of you may have seen Nicholas Kristof's far-from-flattering piece on China's justice system, the farcical trial of journalist Zhao Yan, and the way it reflects negatively on Hu Jintao:

The courthouse is a perfect symbol of Mr. Hu's vision of China today: a dazzling building with lavish facilities, but empty in every sense. It's all infrastructure, no software. It's as if Mr. Hu thinks that building a modern judicial system is about high ceilings and padded seats rather than about laws and justice. . . .
I'm still a believer in China, partly because Mr. Hu and his aides have managed the economy so well. Mr. Hu has also done well in canceling the agriculture tax and taking other measures to try to address the destabilizing income gaps in China (there, 1 percent of the population now controls 60 percent of the wealth, whereas in the U.S., 5 percent controls 60 percent of the wealth).

Yet ultimately, Mr. Hu's efforts to create stability by clamping down just risk more instability. Most Chinese don't want upheavals, but they are fed up with corruption and lies, with being blocked from Google and Wikipedia, with having to waste time studying political drivel like Mr. Hu's "Eight Honorables and Eight Shames" campaign. Wags call it "Hu shuo ba dao," a clever pun that translates as "utter nonsense."

Indeed, Mr. Hu's crackdown has been singularly ineffective, annoying people more than scaring them. Many Communist Party officials worry that crackdowns just anger and alienate the public; that is why some have talked of allowing people to let off steam through greater freedom of the press and more elections. In one province, a poll found that 85 percent of officials themselves wanted to speed up political reform.

But Mr. Hu seems paralyzed, altogether the weakest Chinese leader since Hua Guofeng in the 1970's. The result? Brace yourself for turbulence ahead in China.

Of course here in China? Not a word, which sort of lends credence to Kristof's alarmism, doesn't it?

And just so that you know that I have hardly forgotten about the Red Sox, or sports generally (I can find out Sox results with some detail by about 11 in the morning if I can access a computer), I want to post this fascinating Dan Shaughnessy article in the Boston Globe Magazine about the state of Boston sports fans. This is a follow-up to a piece he wrote in 1990. I am loving experiencing the World Cup abroad and am almost giddy for the (remote) possibility that I will be in Oxford for the finals and that England has a shot at being there. Meanwhile, in the next few weeks I'll be in South Africa. I am very much looking forward to finding a public place to watch that important US-Ghana match. I will very much be a minority in my rooting interests, though if Ghana wins, I am instantly on their bandwagon along with England's. Nonetheless, I miss my Red Sox, and I miss Sportscenter.

The Great Wall of China

Can there be a better metaphor for China than its Great Wall? Almost unfathomable in its size and scope, awe-inspiring in its ambition and grandeur, forged on the backs of the thoroughly expendable labor of millions, emblematic of a fear of the outside world and a simultaneous desire to show that world that it is impenetrable, in a sense the Wall and China seem as one. The one embodies the hopes and fear and paranoia of the other. A country and its most well known landmark have perhaps never been so perfectly matched, so inextricably intertwined.

Oddly, from China's most powerful city, its capital, there are only two real options to see the Wall, and one is far closer than the other, though still taking more than an hour to reach. This might be why this closest point is known as the more touristy choice. Nonetheless it was the only viable option today for me, my Aussie friend Jonathan, and his lovely wife Lotus. And so this morning we forged out from China Foreign Affairs University, where the three of us still were staying (Jonathan and Lotus, who arrived a couple of days ago, left tonight for a long train ride through the countryside), in the care of a cab driver who spoke not a word of English (and who subsequently would try to screw us out of about 50 remnibi despite a rather clear deal that had been brokered through the folks here at CFAU).

The drive through hazy, polluted Beijing has become familiar, but about forty-five minutes into the trip we began to see mountains. The landscape grew more rugged and more beautiful, with the highway increasingly enveloped by the tree-shrouded mountains, the grade becoming ever more steep and testing the capacity of our little taxi, which chugged upward slowly. Traffic in Beijing is a disaster -- Chinese drivers are the worst, cutting into lanes with no warning even if they know you are there, and it was odd to see the same phenomenon manifest itself in slow-motion as we forged through the hills and valleys and toward the Great Wall. Drivers did the same things they do in the city, but they did so at a creeping pace, turtles racing one another and swapping paint, laying on the horns, but barely meaning it, honking as if to say "I do it too, but you're doing it TO ME," as opposed to "stop that, people could get killed," or, as would seem more appropriate, "what the fuck are you doing? Are you insane?" On more than one occasion today, whether hurtling through the city or struggling up the mountain, I could easily have reached out and touched a car as it swerved into our lane and took it, or as our driver bravely stayed the course even as two vehicles seemingly simultaneously shared the exact same plot of tar, breaking the time-space continuum until one miraculously eked ahead of the other.

After arrival and a quick breakfast of dumplings and noodles -- no English spoken even at a restaurant in the tourist mecca at the base of the Wall; I am getting rather good at a commbination of pidgin Chinese, slowly spoken English, and charades -- we started the ascent. If the lingo seems alpine, it is for good cause. At least at the Badaling entrance to the Wall, there is nowhere to go but up, at least until you hit the end of where foot traffic is allowed -- the Wall goes on endlessly even as the parameters of our capacity to walk it are clear -- and then you turn around. It is a lung-testing, thigh-searing, hamstring-stretching haul, especially if you try to take it briskly, but it is also breathtaking. In between the ubiquitous hucksters trying to sell t-shirts, postcards and various forms of kitschy Wall-related folk art, the photo opportunities are amazing. I am not a big fan of check-the-boxes tourism, though I am experiencing a bit of that in my waning days in China, but despite all of the masses of people -- mostly Chinese but with a smattering of Americans and Europeans -- the rampant salesmanship of the pesky and inexhaustible proto-capitalists, and the limited access to a Wall that seems to go on forever in all directions (and for all intents and purposes does), the Great Wall of China is an awesome manifestation, all the more so when one couples what it is -- breathtaking, spectacular, epic -- with what it embodies.

I have less than two days left and am determined to get a good, long night's sleep tonight before my flight itinerary takes a turn for the crazy as I head for South Africa via Hong Kong. Last night I was up late watching soccer in the Ho Hi hutong, I have not gotten more than four or five hours sleep in so long I cannot even remember, and I want at least one restful night to absorb some of the wonderment before heading off to another day of exploration. I am the last remaining member of the group with which I began, so I am more and more on my own in this vast, sprawling, squawking city.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Graduation Day!

The Chautauqua Program on China's New Security Perspectives is now done, and I have a nice certificate (suitable for framing) to prove it. We ended on a high note -- an incredible banquet. The food just kept coming, seemingly endlessly. I was chosen among the group to try my hand at the noodle dance, which is just a fancy, showy way of twisting and twirling the dough for the noodles that are a staple of Beijing diets. There are allegedly pictures of me doing so, with the noodles sprawled all over my head, but I can neither confirm nor deny their existence. The company was wonderful the food plentiful, the wine and drinkable yogurt endless. We heard jokes in Chinese, and our learning process continued, at least for those of us new to China.

The group was split between experienced China hands, people who had travelled here before but are not experts, and guys like me with a peripheral interest based in international relations, other regional experience, or as in my case, comparative historical and policy interests. There were lots of very sharp folks, several among us were fluent in Chinese. My own vocabulary has somewhat stagnated, though I am here for another four days or so and plan to continue to work to be able to, oh, say "good bye" as well as "hello," or to order Sprite as well as Coke.

Suffice it to say that in one week of intense work plus deep cultural immersion, I learned a great deal about China, though I have barely scratched the surface of even gradual knowledge of the area. A few issues clearly stand out, however:

China values national sovereignty above all other issues, at least rhetorically, and this stance informs everything they do with regard to foreign policy. This view informs what appears to me to be a mistrust of American intentions. It explains why China is not more forceful with regards to North Korea. It provides a fig leaf for China's noxious policies in relation to the Sudan (on which I plan to write much more in the future). It even serves to explain the one policy that was on everyone's lips as hands down the most important issue for everyone we spoke to here -- high level military officials, diplomats, politicians, professors, students, and taxi drivers all see the issue of Taiwan as the most significant one that China faces both on its own and vis-a-vis the United States. From an American vantage point, this stance seems contradictory -- after all, how can China preach national sovereignty yet maintain its stance regarding Taiwan? But the answer is simple -- they see Taiwan as an internal matter because they do not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. I do not defend this stance. I was not "spun" over the course of the last week. But it is clear that this is China's stance, and understanding this is a key to understanding China's take on its own nationalism and our foreign policy toward them.

I honestly still cannot get my brain around the primacy this issue plays given that so many other issues are, from a geopolitical framework, so much more significant. To give just one example, China's truculent neighbor, North Korea, is of far more significance. Chinese relations with its western neighbors surely have more power to disrupt international relations than should the Taiwan issue. But here is what I perceive to be key -- with the exception, perhaps, of Taiwan's rather difficult current leadership, everyone else involved would probably be happy to maintain a vague and unresolved status quo whereby the Chinese keeps the military out, the United States does not agitate for taiwan's separate and democratic status, and taiwan maintain its place as a more autonomous version of Hong Kong. Who knows if such a situation could hold, but I get the sense that neither side among the superpowers has any interest in rocking the boat to find out if the Taiwan issue has gills.

So, does China pose a threat? This question is at the heart of the debate among Sinologists these days, so I will not presume to interject in that debate in any meaningful way, and certainly I carry almost zero authority on the question. But I perceive that this question has multiple dimensions.

From a lip service vantage point, everyone here acknowledges a disparity between the US and China that they expect to last for a long time. The Chinese leaders with whom we spoke were clear to maintain that the country has almost no wish to be a military threat to the United States. But underneath even that humility was a hint that China is trying to grow its capacity even while understating its intentions. Nonetheless, among the speakers I found most open and trustworthy (and there were several of whom I thought the opposite), I got no sense of a Chinese dragon seeking to strike. But there is more than the military to consider.

From a framework of international relations, the reality is that China has the capacity to be both friend and foe depending upon the interests at stake. Given their position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and their differing take on the utility and desirability of the use of force, it seems to me that we will sometimes find ourselves at loggerheads with China in the global arena. But I have to think that unlike during the Cold War, when opposition between the US and USSR was almost reflexive, the US and China do not always have to be on opposiing sides and that there is much about which we can find agreement. It was instuctive to see how from a rhetorical standpoint, the word we heard most often this week was "friends": "American friends," foreign friends," "professor friends." At least at a base level there need be no Axis of Evil/Evil Empire/"We will bury you" verbiage spewing from the lips of our leaders.

In the economic arena things are interesting, because China plays a role of both partner and competitor. On the surface China has fully embraced liberal capitalism, but beneath that surface roils a state still very much tied into controlling the economy, to making sure that whatever changes occur do not alter the fundamental nature of the state. China has adopted some of the accoutrements of capitalism. It has done little to adopt a similar puruit of openness in other arenas, and even most of the economy does not function as a free and open market unfettered by state control. Some experts predict that by 2020 China will be either the second or first largest economy in the world. Predicting that China will surpass the United States seems to imply a simple take on economic strength that is mechanistically linked sheerly to population numbers. It also seesm to underestimate the poitential force of economic nature that coiuld be India. But the larger point is that China will in fact become an increasingly vital player in world economic circles. Buzzwords of "growth" and "development" and "markets" and "prosperity" flow ubiquitously, like a faucet left on in an overlooked side street. It seems logical that it is in the realm of global economics that China will pose both the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge.

One final realm in which I am not so guarded or unsure is that this will continue for a long time to be a country in which human rights, internally and abroad, will be given lower status than they warrant. I have learned a great deal this week --among even hawkish American colleagues who are experts, for example, I learned that what happened on 4 June 1989 has been turned into a simplistic morality tale that elides some vitally important issues, discrepancies, and outright failings on the part of the student movement. But even if we grant that the rest of the world oftentimes misunderstands China, the fact remains that the current regime, like those that came before it and almost assuredly like those to follow in the near and distant future, simply places a diminished value on rights that we in the west hold, and that I maintain are fundamental. To put it bluntly, the Chinese simply seem not to care that their policies in the Sudan buttress genocide. Since they do not value free speech, they are willing to imprison journalists, to crush dissenters, to beat and torture critics. They are willing to shroud Mao in a gauzy hagiography because his cruel ideology of murder and violence does not possess the same capacity to outrage as it does elsewhere. Too many people here, leaders and otherwise, simply do not believe that means matter as much as ends, and do not think that individual rights and liberties are significant compared to a sort of forced social cohesion.

These are tentative conclusions drawn from just a week or so of first-hand observation, moderately privileged access (we were told that we were the first group of Americans to be allowed access to the Foreign Ministry the other day; most of what we saw and heard was anodyne, useless, and strictly within the realm of propotcol; I also do not believe that we were the first such group for even a moment, though if we really were, I guess that is a sign of something -- I suppose both of just how closed the Chinese past is and how progress is coming, but very slowly), a lot of reading, and in my case, the luck of having made friends with some of the more astute and experienced China observers in the group.

I've somewhat made the transition from observer, scholar, writer, and intellectual to camera-toting tourist. Yesterday I went with a couple of my new friends (probably the two best, most experienced, cleverest experts among our group) to the spectacular Summer Palace on a hot, steamy, but clear day (this latter condition is rare enough that both Kaz and Dex made mention of it several times) followed by a trip to one of the more boistrous of the hutong for dinner and beers and talk and more cultural exposure (I can now confirm that while there has been a crack down, one can, if so inclined, buy hundreds of movies on dvd for less than a dollar apiece, though quality is apparently an issue and buying them thus a crapshoot). Today the three of us had a brunchy-meal, before which we gave in to the relentless bootleg sellers of Beijing 2008 Olympic stuff (somewhat shoddy, but one cannot beat the price), and then headed off to the Kingdom of Heaven. Dex left partway through to catch his plane back to Rhode Island. For tonight I have been invited to a barbecue with Kaz and some of her friends (I may be lost once she leaves tomorrow morning!), which should be interesting. Tomorrow I'll be trekking some distance to see the Great Wall. Tuesday I hope to go to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Then on Wednesday I fly out to Hong Kong and about 12 hours later, to Johannesburg and the next phase of this extended adventure.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

This is not necessarily what you want to read when you wake up in the morning in Beijing. It's not the first time this has happened -- I remember quite clearly sitting at the back of a bus headed in the direction of the Gaza Strip in 2003 and reading in Ha'aretz that intelligence indicated that terrorists planned to target Americans in the area. And I do not feel even a bit unsafe -- today we are going to be guests of the foreign ministry, so my guess is that we will be more than well-protected. Nonetheless, as we sit here in Beijing addressing security issues, this is a pretty stark reminder of the world we inhabit.

Meanwhile I am hungover to beat the band (does that even make any sense?). Went out for yet another great dinner last night with a large group. Then I went with my new Australian friend Kaz, who is teaching me as much about China as I could ever have gotten from a private tour guide, to a boistrous sidewalk eatery that had Chinese World Cup coverage on a precariously balanced television and drank our weight in Beijing Beer. The process was fueled by some chatty locals who interrogated me about American policies through Kaz.

Initially, the scene was a bit ominous -- we were sitting near a couple with a cute little dog. The dog was curious to sample the world around it, and the woman just started whaling on the poor beast. Kaz scolded her, (rightly -- people who hit animals and children always deserve to be called out whether in Beijing, Beirut, or Boston) which started a bit of a row. The man in the relationship just wanted to scurry for cover, and his only real concern was that I not become involved. Given that I can only say about ten things in Chinese, such intervention was unlikely as long as no one got physical.

Next thing I know, the woman and Kaz are chatting, she has pulled her chair up to our table, and the beer is flowing. Apparently the dog-slapper, who was really soused, owned the place, and since she only knew two words of English ("my friend") my sole interaction with her, beyond the interpreted inquisition, was when she used her phrase and poured more beer. Two wiry little young men joined in. The only words they knew were "Kobe Bryant" and "Los Angeles Lakers," which allowed me to incorporate "Yao Ming" into the conversation. They were the driving force behind my newly discovered role as ad hoc State Department Spokesman.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

The Inexplicable Cult of Chairman Mao

The Chinese seem to have an ambivalent relationship with Mao Zedong. This is curious, given Mao's record as a mass murderer. Nonetheless, even skeptical academics, who seem on the whole glad for Mao to be gone, every so often like to quote on of his aphorisms (it has happened several times so far on this trip). Kitsch with Mao's visage is all over the cluttered market stalls in the alleyways of the huton (I think I am using that phrase right, thought the huton might be the alleyways themselves). One woman tried to sell me a "Mao bag" (a kind of messenger bag the style of which I was enamored) with the old man's picture and one of his pronouncements and when I demurred, she apparently thought my problem was not with Mao but rather with the bag, so she tried to seell me a Mao t-shirt. I told her that I try to limit my clothing depicting rapacious murdering thugs. She tried to sell me a Mao watch. And so forth.

One of my professors back in graduate school had a bust of Stalin in his office. It was for ironic effect. I could not pull the same off with a Mao bag (or t-shirt or watch) largely because I think some things might be beyond ironic kitschiness. Somehow I doubt that the same folks who think Mao was on to something but just went too far (yes, I've heard that assessment in recent days) would be quite so sanguine if I walked in wearing, say, board shoirts with Hitler across the ass and "work will set you free" beneath his picture. One man's irony is another country's very real symbol of the crushing of millions. Call me humorless, but I can do without that sort of irony.

From all that I can tell, the real hero for most people here is Deng Xiaoping, the leader who carried China into an era of reform and away from Mao's Great Leap into the Chasm and the Cultural Revolution. Deng was not exactly Franklin Roosevelt, but he undeniably allowed for an openness that China desperately needed and laid the groundowrk for today's China which, while still autocratic, is far from what it once was. If anyone might warrant a healthily skeptical ambivalence and a place at the table, one would think it would be Deng and not Mao.

So why is Mao not a universally hated figure throughout China? After all, even the Soviets, who continued Stalin's draconioan system with some modification, turned Stalin into a model from which to flee after the despot's death. The short answer is that I don't know. A longer answer is that the Chinese tend to think of history in far longer cycles than much of the rest of the world does, and that many still have not gotten to grips with just what Mao meant. I hinted yesterday that one of my colleagues -- a very sharp Australian professor who is a China experts, whose language skills carried me through a wonderful afternoon and evening shopping, people watching, wandering, eating, and chatting with a couple of other Aussies -- has, if not defended Mao, at least has consciously minimized his atrocities (she argues that he could only have killed ten million, an awful figure, she acknowledges. I am highly skeptical of this assertion). Some of the Chinese speakers we have encountered seem to speak of Mao in the sorts of hushed, swooning tones that one might mention a religious figure or dreamy rock star even while celebrating market reforms, openness, a spirit of debate, and improved relations with the west that would have been anathema to the humble old constipated despot (That same Aussie professor had a rather interesting story about Mao involving his almost chronic bowel blockages, a pair of chopsticks, and a lackey with a very, very unpleasant job).

I dig kitsch. Maybe a messenger bag with Deng, or, better yet, Yao Ming, would do the job. I'd definitely buy and wear a watch with Yao staring out at me with that goofy smile. But I still believe that Mao was directly responsible for the death of tens of millions, ruined the lives of exponentially more, and set China's development back by decades. As a consequence, I don't find him cute, funny, or ironic. I don't find his aphorisms worth repeating, his example worth citing, or his "excesses" worth diminishing. A China I am quite coming to like but will never get to know is a far worse place because of his influence. Lady, you can keep the messenger bag, t-shirt, and watch.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Blogging, Fighting, Eating

OK, so here's the deal -- basically China closes off access to all blogger sites, but not always to the main blogger page, so I can register, I can blog, but I cannot see my posts, I cannot respond to comments, and I cannot see the blog in any way, shape or form.

Had our first mouthpiece today. A woman from the army. We also had our first really heated discussion after I called to question some of her assertions about the United States. I am sure I came across as a real jingoist, which was not the intent. A country that practices stringent censorship probably is not in the best position to be calling other countries out on their own standards, however, and while I know she was just toeing the party line, the party line was wrong (Mao prepared for war in the 1960s and 1970s against American imperialists, the US has no right to judge the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran if we do not do so to Israel and India, who are we to call any nation evil . . ..) A few of my colleagues had issues with America "passing judgment" on other nations, wondering "what right" we have to do so, a question that I do not even understand. We really were not talking about rights per se, but even if we were, countries have rights to determine their own policies. The "double standard" at issue was that the United States seems selective about who we will accept and not accept having nuclear weapons. So I simply asked if there was not a difference between having "double standards" and just plain having standards -- that we do not see Iran as being morally or practically equal to Israel and India. I think we have not only a right but a responsibility to "judge" other nations if those nations are rogue, dangerous, destabilizing or just plain evil. If we are wrong in making those judgments, so be it, but I am not certain when it became a virtue not to make judgments. Cravenness is not a commendable character trait. Nor is a blind moral relativism that refuses to see a difference between, say, Canada and Syria. Plus, even people who maintain that judging other nations make their own judgmnents all the time about a whole host of issues, including human rights practices, so it seems like a convenient dose of hypocrisy for those same folks to pass judgment on America as a nation state making its own judgments.

It was all good fun, in any case. Or at least there are no hard feelings, as we just got back from another stunning meal. The tables at many eateries are outfitted with these enormous glass lazy susans on which they waitresses deliver piles of food. You spin the dolly, scoop from the dishes onto your little plate, eat away, sip beer and tea, and watch as dish after dish follows. Peking duck followed by sweet and sour chicken with mango, alongside some fiery hot soup with indeterminate fleshy bits, alongside the most incredible, piping hot pastries filled with some sweet goo and dipped in custard sauce, plus sticky rice, next to a beef dish with chestnuts. My share came to 40 Remnibi, or $5.

One of my colleagues is sitting behind me and is testing censorship on Google. She managed to pull up an article on the Tiananman Square Massacre because of a spelling error in the text that allowed it to squeeze by the watchful eye of China's guardians of truth.

So that's the latest from Beijing. It's a rare cool night here, we got rain today, which apparently has been pounding South China and perhaps is moving northward. My belly is full. An army officer (and academic -- she is an accomplished scholar) tried to spin me round round like a record, baby, and we have been warned that there will be no water in the building or area from 10:00 pm (fifteen minutes) until 6 tomorrow morning.

From Behind the Red Curtain

Ni hao!

China tends to support, oh, what is the word, "censorship," so my access to blogging has been circumscribed thus far. Nonetheless, where there is a will there is a way, and so this may just get through the red wall of secrecy to all of you.

I, on the other hand, may end up in a Chinese prison with electrodes attached to my nether regions.

I kid! I kid!

I arrived in Beijing on Sunday night after an uneventful flight from misty, foggy Hong Kong. This is not you father's Red China. The first thing one notices upon arrival is the advertisements. Neon, gaudy, offering an array of goods and services, representing the apogee of consumerist competition, the airport at Beijing happily hopes you will part weith your Yuan. In between the adverts, spread every couple of hundred yards, stand young women in blue outfits at little kiosks trying to sell you Sim cards, which they chattily offer in between sentences of their own conversation. China may stil be in the thrall of an autocratic Communist party. It is not a communist country in any meaningful way.

In between sessions of our seminars we have tea breaks (The Chinese, who came up with the idea, are even more devoted to their tea than are the denizens of Commonwelth countries). Our tea bags? Lipton. Our bottled water? Brought to you by the same folks who provide our soda -- Coca Cola. Alongside Chinese biscuits and fresh fruit are Ritz crackers and Oreos. On our seminar table sits microphones from Philips. Our speaker today was using a Sony Vaio. Whatever else you might think about China, it has long since entered the world of capitalism, competition, something resembling free markets, and goods and services.

I am here as part of as Chautauqua Short Course on China's Security issues. My work is in no way connected to China or to Asian history, but I was slotted to go to Pakistan until that fell apart. When given the opportunity to come to China instead, I jumped, figuring my comparativist bent and the question of security would be applicable to my interest and work in the area of global terrorism. Thus far the program has been enlightening, challenging, fascinating, and useful. I am learning a great deal and fine that I am able to contribute based on comparison, intuition, a capacity to frame good questions and a frisson of bs.

My colleagues are great both in the seminar room and outside. Last night we went out for beers -- big bottles, probably 30 ounces or so, for the equivalent of 40 cents. At that price, we felt we had to have a lot of them. The conversation was flowing -- I had no idea there were Aussies who did not like sports, or that you were even allowed to be a vegetarian Down Under. Or that there are people who can argue a case for why Mao was not as bad as commonly thought. Or that those same people are trying to convince me that this is not a totalitarian country. And I now am able to order a round of three beers or a single beer. I do not yet know "2," "4" or any other numbers. But I became really good at saying "San ping pee jao." I also became quite adept at peeing in the little individual porcelain troughs that sit in the middle of the bathroom stall.

I can also sort of say "Thank you," (something like "shea shea").

In any case, my adventures continue. This afternoon we are hearing from a Senior Colonel in the Army who will be speaking about "Chinese PLA's Perspectives on Global and Regional Security." Our previous speakers have covered political theory and Chinese foreign policy (an interesting, if flawed, argument about "geogravitaional centersd" that engendered serious discussion); "Sino-US relations and the Taiwan Issue," and "Strategic Culture and International security." We are getting to hear froma host of really heavy hitters in Beijing's intellectual, academic and policy community. Our hosts, China Foreign Affaird University, has been great thus far. And I have been really impressed with the openness, honesty, and candor of our speakers, and even moreso by the give and take in conversations.

As I wrote, this is not your father's Red China.

I'll weigh in as I can. Zaizian! (Now to see if this will publish -- I won't be able to look at the actual site.)

Monday, June 12, 2006

Tom at Big Tent on DCAT

Traveling in Asia

Blocked, Forbidden

I just got an email from DCAT himself. He told me to pass along this message:
"On a night when I hear from some of my colleagues here in Beijing that China
is really not that bad in terms of tyranny, I discover that my blog os
"blocked; forbidden." Could you let dcat's reader's know as much?"


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Golfing (Badly) In Hong Kong

After parambulating through Hong Kong's affluent, glitzy, shiny center, I decided to hit a spot on the periphery. I had heard that Kowloon is a gaudy, tacky, touristy mecca, which both repelled and intrigued me. Unfortunately I misread my guide book and did not doublecheck, and so when I got off at the Kowloon MTR stop I did not realize that I was about to step into a dreary industrial dock land, and not to the huckster-filled Miracle Mile, which is on another line and another stop.

Oh well. After wandering around the enormous and foreboding station ediface, I was about to give up when a sign caught my eye -- "City Golf Club." It looked a bit like Fenway Park in the days before the Monster seats -- huge nets stretching upward, promising something magical within. Instead, in the middle of urban blight and industrial macinary was a three-tiered astroturf wonderland of a driving range, putting green, urban golf mecca. It was hot and humid and I had not swung a golf club in weeks, but I figured you have one shot to do certain things, such as fire golf balls toward cranes overlooking the bay. I got a station at the lowest lever. At its farthest point, I'd say there were no more than 240 yards or so, but the netting stretched a good 200 feet in the air, so it would take a good shot to do damage to the periphery.

I'd like to say that I am pleased to report that I sprayed balls all over the place and showed a latent shotmaking capacity with the too-short driver I rented. I did spray shots all over the place, but that was largely the result of my inability to forge a satisfactory repeatable swing. I did likely do some damage outside of the facility, as I tagged a couple of good shots, but I did equal daqmage to the caddy shack ahead of me. They did not invite me to be a member, put it that way.

On the train ride back I marvelled about one urban consistency -- the way in which the urban facade quickly gives way to the reality of city life for the majority of its denizens. Whether on the train ride from London to Heathrow or Hong Kong to its airport, the glimmer gives way to grit. Hong Kong is a skyscraper oriented city -- space is at a premium -- and there were countless towers, clearly residencies, along the route of the MTR. Dingy buildings with clearly struggling wall air conditioning units attached to little flats far from the splendour of the city's glass, steel and reenforced concrete monuments to prosperity. On the surface, Hong Kong is a rich city. But the majority of its people are far from affluent, as the train ride away from the Fenway Park golf complex, a playground for the successful classes, reminded me.

Now and truly, I am off to the airport and Beijing.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Hong Kong

The flight to Hong Kong was relatively uneventful. Long, but uneventful. Midway through I started experiencing a sense of grim foreboding that something was going to go horribly, tragically awry on this trip, but I suspect that was just time screwing with me. I don't believe in that sort of stuff, so I'm sure all will be fine.

Lots of good movies and television options -- arguably the best I've experienced ona flight. I caught Brokeback Mountain and Tsotsi and Lady and the Tramp and a few others that I seem to have forgotten. My seat companion was fine -- talkative but not too much so, though he kept referring to his "lady friend" in Hong Kong, which both creeped me out and reminded me of a rule that my friend David Pottie and I decided should hold several years ago -- the only people who should be allowed to use the word "lady" or any of its variations are Beastie Boys and documented ironists.

The debarkation took a remarkably short amount of time, which was merciful given how long we had been on the flight. We ended up in a musty, barren area leading to passport control -- it smelled as if a typhoon had recently hit and soaked the rugs, but otherwise it had that pretty familiar international arrivals vibe of a long and undistinguished passageway before you actually get anywhere. The passport control process was easy -- too easy. Given that I am arriving on a security program to China, my thoughts were of how easy it would be to breach the Hong Kong airport. We ahd to get in a shuttle train to get from the gate to the airport. We arrived and crossed through a hallway across from the departure gates -- the only thing preventing us from crossing were flowers no more than a meter high. I'm sure they have people watching, but satill. Now I know that the passport process leaving the US is pretty rigorous, so in theory no undesirables would be on the plane, or at least none who had no documents. But I could not help but think that as thorough as the US recordkeeping process may be, it is hard to fathom that the US has more interest in keeping undesitrables out of Hong Kong than Hong Kong or China do.

The process was quick in any case, and before I knew it I was in Hong Kong. I had to arange for a hotel -- i did not do so beforehand because of visa issues. My visa to China had not arrived the day before I left, and I wanted to make sure that I was not on the hook for any hotel costs if I was delayed. In any case, I found my space at the Novotel Citygate and meandered my way to the proper waiting area to catch my shuttle. Most everyone spoke English well, so there were few hassles -- again, a welcome expetrience given that by this time I had been up for more than 24 hours.

It has been hot (in the 80s) and especially humid -- at or above 80% with some rain and lots of fog, ruining views. As I mentioned yesterday, the hotel is nice, and the television, always a good way to decompress after a long flight, has been good, with a balance of the familiar and the local, with lots of international channels (Italian, French, German) thrown in for flair. I've been able to stay very much on top of the World Cup, which has been enjoyable. I've caught World Cup fever, which is a lot better than catching Avian flu, which is enough of a concern here that there are signs in the train stations warning people about handling birds, especially poultry, and some people roam around wearing surgical masks as a sort of prophylaxis.

I went into the center city yesterday. At the train station I ran into an American guy, Dave, who was a bit chatty, but very nice, and experienced in international travel. He has lived in Beijing before and has just moved to Hong Kong as a contractor to do airplane repair. We wandered into the heart of Beijing together. It is a striking city architecturaly and geographically, and seems close to approaching its goal of being the Manhattan of Asia. The most striking aspect to me was the unapologetic sense of commerce that dominates the urban core. Pedestrians who randomly plop into the Central District find that everywhere they walk they encounter shopping mall after shopping mall, each one glitzier, flashier, more opulent than the one before it. I spent more time wandering through malls yesterday than I ever have outside of the US (The hotel is attached to a five-story galleria as well). I bought little, realized that the world of commerce brings the world pretty close together -- with the exception of the Cantonese characters and the sounds of China, by looking just at the products one could have been in London or Paris or Munich or New York.

I found this especially fascinating given Hong Kong's relationship with China. In 1997, of course, Hong Kong moved from its status as British protectorate into Chinese hands, and I have been curious all along to discover just how much China has tried to bring Hong Kong into the fold. The best way I have heard it phrased in two days here is that Hong Kong, as a "Special Administrative Region" has a certain level of autonomy embodied in the phrase "one country, two systems." One wonders if Hong Kong might lead the way toward a particular kind of Chinese capitalism, or if it will remain an outlier that the authorities in China would like to but cannot control.

One of the pleasures of travelling abroad is eating. Hong Kong has not disappointed on that score. I am already finding that my chopstick skills, always dubious, have improved dramatically. I tend to be an adventurous eater, and am not cowed by spiciness, which is good given that yesterday's lunch, a brothy noodle-pork concoction, was definitely worthy of the chili pepper designation on the menu. It was a good restaurant, and the fact that almost no one on staff spoke English and the clientele was solely local was a good sign. I provided some amusement, I think, as I tried to figure out what everything was, how to consume it, and how to keep it off of myself, since they only provided a sort of wet-nap equivalent rather than napkins. That was especially problematic given that the spices were making my nose and eyes run. In any case, all of the food I have eaten has been "authentic," whatever that means. I have eaten in self-conscioiusly "Chinese restaurants," which I assume here are known as "restaurants," as well as at the hotel bar while watching Trinidad and Tobago shock Sweden with a tie despite being undermanned, and have been pleased with the food. I hear I can get fried scorpion among other rarities in Beijing, so I am looking forward to that, though no dog or horse for me.

I fly to Beijing in a couple of hours to continue the adventure. My time here is running out, so I will sign off. No idea what internet access or blogging capacity I'll have from the Mainland, but I'll do what I can.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Day One: Midland to Dallas to Los Angeles

Greetings from the Novotel Citygate Hotel in Hong Kong, a beautiful if somewhat austere new complex not far from the airport. It was the best option after getting in at 8:00 without a booking (more on that later) and more than 24 hours in to the trip. My room is beautiful, as I say,m austere, but larger than I would have expected,with lots of glass and sharp angles, a flat widescreen television with enough channels to mix local flavor with my need for a news, sports, and information fix, and just the right comfort in amenities to make the slight splurging worthwhile. I am fourteen hours ahead of Odessa time, so while you all are finishing up your Friday, I am starting my Saturday, when I plan to head into the city for a long day of being a surreptitious tourist.

It was hard leaving Odessa yesterday. The good review (see my last post) notwithstanding, I was shocked to realize that leaving my new fiancee felt a whole lot different from leaving my girlfriend. Of course from here on out my days of five-week, three-month, and longer trips are probably over, or at least will be strictly limited, so I suppose I ought to appreciate that. Still, saying goodbye was tough. Also I should give a public shout out to my friend and colleague Jaime who brought me to the airport, and who has done a whole hell of a lot more for me these last two years than I have for him.

The Midland airport was just rousing itself from sleep when I arrived. Once you have taken enough flights from Midland at 6 or 7 in the morning you knowm what to expecty -- a lot of businessmen who are wearing the clothes they will return in, bearing nothing more than a messenger bag or briefcase, set to depart for a day's work in Dallas or Houston, affiliated in some way more than likely with the oil industry that gives our part of the world an airport, a university, hell, the two cities. I, meanwhile, am pretty certain that I have the longest itinerary that has strolled into the Midland International Airport in some time, and the reservations specialist assures me that I am right. Unlike the day's business warriors, have two bags, a reasonably efficiently packed rolling backpack that I just got on sale at Foleys in San Antonio ($40 down from $100!) and a heavy carryon, the bulk being caused mostly by books, periodicals, my toiletry kit, and the like -- books are my salvation, but when it comes to travel they are also my bane. And it will be worse when I return.

In any case the flight to Dallas was uneventful, the shortest flight and smallest plane I will see for weeks, and by the time we landed, Dallas was awake, its travel class moving forward with the sleep rubbed out of tis eyes, set for a big day on airplanes and in terminals paying too much for goods and services. I had enough time to waset a bit of time and money but not enough for boredom to set in, and the flight to Los Angeles was uneventful if slightly annoying. I was wedged in the middle seat in between a sullen old man swathed in a Florida State hat and bad breath and a slightly older women from Singapore who was flying to LA from Dallas to meet her mother, who was flying in to the country, and they would return later that day. An unenviable itinerary to be sure, but under the circumstances I felt I could be a little smug. The old man apparently does not fly too often, as he seemed perturbed when the woman asked halfway through the flight if she could get up and use the bathroom. It seemed a reasonable request to me, pissing one's pants generally not being an option I espouse on long flights, but the gentleman seemed put out. Maybe if he had brushed his teeth that week he would have ben in a better mood.In any case, I have gotten pretty good at working on plans, so i just alternated between a couple of books and a handful of periodicals to keep me occupied. At the end of the flight, when the man stood up, he seemed annoyed again when I asked if I could reach over to get my carryon from the overhead bin so i could get myself sorted. I hope he gets struck by lightning.

At LAX I scurried on over to the Tom Bradley International Terminal, thinking that it is odd to name the most international of all locations for someone who served in one of the most provincial of all political positions, and ready to deal with what I knew was coming next: Lines. International flights are all about being in a big hurry to be put through a whole lot of lines, delays, just-a-minutes, and we'll-be-with-you-in-a-seconds.

It was in that first line, to head to my gate, that I got a visit from that old friend, the travel sweats. If you have travelled a lot you know what Imean -- carrying bags, hurrying from place to place, walking at a slightly accelerated pace, dressed more thaqn you would be otherwise given the weather, standing in the midst of humanity that sometimes does not value hygiene as much as you do, and the periodic bouts of stress -- they lead to a slight film, a sort of flopsweat that is not all that noticable to the outside world but that reminds you that it will be quite some time before you hit a shower or a bed.

LA really is its own little world. Even in the airport the ratio of fake to real breasts rose significantly from my world in West Texas, or really, most of our worlds just about anywhere. One pair of young women were rocking the Paris Hilton-Nicole Richie look, replete with matching valour outfits (hip hugging and low riding, natch), those bad trendy sunglasses that Hilton has spawned, gooey lip gloss, and the requisite attitude and drivel in tow. It was almost impressive what ciphers these two were.

Once I crossed into that netherworld of the actual gates, I also was reminded of another of the more vexing and curious phenomena of global travel -- why do so many airports leave guests with so little options once they have crossed through security? Before the security check there are restaurants and stores and newsstands and just enough to do to kill an hour or two, provided you have the disposable income. On the other side, at least in too many airports? Nothing. Maybe an overpriced bar-cum-cafe with sterile furnishings and barely awake staff. One would think that the good folks at LAX would do more to make the departure hall a bit more of a wonderland -- foreign airports tend to be more mindful of these things, and it is a lesson we ought to learn.

Before long the departure gate started to fill up. The woman at the mic was getting frustrated with our lack of attentiveness to her rather specific details, I was getting frustrated because I kept being run bacdk and forth between the line and the desk -- I either did or did not need to exchange boarding passes; I am in Hong Kong now and I still am not certain of the answer. Eventually they let me on to my Cathay Pacific plane, two rows from the back, emergency row but with no extra legroom, and within a half hour or forty five minutes, we were off.

Phase one was accomplished. Next stop, Hong Kong.

Good Trip Omen?

I'm now in Hong Kong, exhausted after 24 hours of traveling and thankful that the enormous time gap got me here at night so I can sleep soon and tackle the city-state tomorrow. Before leaving this morning before 6:00, I checked my email and found something that started my trip off very nicely indeed. Over at the Sports Literature Association's Arete (which used to be H-Arete) The University of Maine's Scott D. Peterson, whom I can assure you I have never so much as met, gave a very kind and gracious review of my book Bleeding Red: A Red Sox Fan's Diary of the 2004 Season

I'll try to recount the first day or two of action tomorrow. Right now I plan to go fall asleep in front of World Cup coverage.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Around the World

Tomorrow morning I step onto a series of planes that will quite literally take me around the world. As a consequence, blogging will be intermittent but when it comes, hopefully worth following. Tomorrow I'll leave Midland just before 7:00 am for a flight to Dallas, then from Dallas to LA, where I will prepare to leave for a two-night layover in Hong Kong because let's face it -- I may not soon be in the neighborhood again.

On Sunday I leave Hong Kong for Beijing, where I will be participating in a program on security issues that should be interesting given the location. I was supposed to go to a program in Pakistan, but I guess the kidnappings and beheadings gave someone pause at the higher levels of either the program or the government. I am most interested to see if blogging from behind the Great Wall will even be possible, and if so, what gets through. Outposts of tyranny tend to frown upon the whole free speech and publishing thing.

After just under two weeks in Beijing (five days for the program, but again, I don't think I'll just find myself in China again anytime soon) I head back to Hong Kong where I have a cozy ten hour layover, then it is back to the more familiar confines of South Africa. I am giving a paper at a conference, I have a lot of research I want to do, including hopefully finishing up some work that will allow me to start a new book, and I would bet that I'll see some old friends and favored places.

After three weeks of South African winter, which will range from the mild -- think of Florida in winter) to the chilly (think the mid-South in winter), I'll fly to England for a far-too-brief return to some old stomping grounds (The Armitage Shanks are reuniting -- rock on!) for just a couple of days, and then I take a circuitous london-New York-Chicago-Dallas-Midland route back. Around the world fares are something.

I am thrilled to be abroad for the World Cup, and although Brits can only dream, I will be in England for the July 9 finals, so the country may be rife with hooliganism and besottedness. The US was screwed in the draw, but I would imagine that the rest of the world is not taking pity on us.

I'll write as I can. You are in good hands.


Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Some said it would never happen. Others said it could never happen. Many maintained that it simply should never happen.

On Saturday, at a beautiful Bed and Breakfast in San Antonio I said goodbye to a good life of bachelorhood and hello to a better life beyond. I held her in my arms, told her I love her and that I want to spend the rest of my life with her, dropped to my knees, and asked her to marry me. She said yes.

(Next June. San Antonio.)

Fair Development in Africa

The Ford Foundation is announcing a bold new Africa initiative today. "Trust Africa," according to the New York Times, "aims to strengthen an expanding network of nonprofit groups across the continent that seek to hold governments accountable, whether elected or dictatorships." Although $30 million will come from the Ford Foundation, the organization hopes to draw in resources from elsewhere, especially pulling support from the African diaspora in the United States, Europe and elsewhere.

Trust Africa will be based in Dakar and hopefully will serve to provide much-desired "African slutions to African problems," but Africans cannot do it on their own, however much they ought to be allowed to take the lead and develop the vision for what the continent and her people most need. The truth remains that Africa still needs support from the outside, including investment and development. In today's Times Nikolas Kristof may surprise some by calling for what we label "sweatshops" in Africa. Since the geniuses at the Times hide their columnists behind a password-protected firewall, here is the gist:

Africa desperately needs Western help in the form of schools, clinics and sweatshops.
Oops, don't spill your coffee. We in the West mostly despise sweatshops as exploiters of the poor, while the poor themselves tend to see sweatshops as opportunities. [. . .]
Well-meaning American university students regularly campaign against sweatshops. But instead, anyone who cares about fighting poverty should campaign in favor of sweatshops, demanding that companies set up factories in Africa. If Africa could establish a clothing export industry, that would fight poverty far more effectively than any foreign aid program. [. . .]
The problem is that it's still costly to manufacture in Africa. The headaches across much of the continent include red tape, corruption, political instability, unreliable electricity and ports, and an inexperienced labor force that leads to low productivity and quality. The anti-sweatshop movement isn't a prime obstacle, but it's one more reason not to manufacture in Africa.
Some of those who campaign against sweatshops respond to my arguments by noting that they aren't against factories in Africa, but only demand a "living wage" in them. After all, if labor costs amount to only $1 per shirt, then doubling wages would barely make a difference in the final cost.
One problem [. . .] is that it already isn't profitable to pay respectable salaries, and so any pressure to raise them becomes one more reason to avoid Africa altogether. Moreover, when Western companies do pay above-market wages, in places like Cambodia, local managers extort huge bribes in exchange for jobs. So the workers themselves don't get the benefit.
One of the best U.S. initiatives in Africa has been the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which allows duty-free imports from Africa — and thus has stimulated manufacturing there. But last year, partly because of competition from China, textile and clothing imports under the initiative fell by 12 percent.
The Congo Republic's president, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, told me that he would love to have more factories. It's incredibly frustrating, he noted, to see African countries export cotton, timber and other raw materials but rarely have the chance to process them. The American initiative "is a step in the right direction," he said. "But it needs more of a push."
One push needs to come from African countries themselves: a crackdown on corruption and red tape. But another useful step would be for American students to stop trying to ban sweatshops, and instead campaign to bring them to the most desperately poor countries.

The key to development in Africa along this model would be to ensure that big global companies pay a local, sustainable living wage in the context of the countries in which they invest. One of the most misleading trends for those who oppose "sweatshops" (and there is much to oppose, Kristoff's piece notwithstanding) is to couch worker wages in dollar terms. The problem with this, of course, is that the rest of the world oftentimes does not live by the standards of the dollar. What it might take to live comfortably, even well, in an African country might seem paltry, indeed outrageous, to an idealistic but largely uninformed college sophomore. Kristoff, then, is not actually caling for "sweatshops" as we understand them, but rather for investment, fair wages, and a deeper understanding of African needs on the part of well-meaning but sometimes self-righteous Americans who, as Stephen Colbert might say, know what feels right, even if the facts do not back them up.

Update: Reader GoodLiberal reveals that Paul Krugman made much the same point not so long ago.