Tag Archives: China

Seeking the Spiritual: The Intimate Bond of Culture and Religion

Grow up in a different culture, and chances are you'll follow a different faith.

One of the very important things that I’ve been realizing about the world and the people in it over the last few months is the level to which religion is a cultural tradition and inheritance. This may seem like an extremely obvious conclusion for anyone to come to, but for me, this has been a difficult thing. As I’ve mentioned in a number of previous posts, I was brought up in a strongly Christian environment. For most of my life, when I was an adherent of evangelical Christianity, I rarely, if ever, questioned why I believed what I did. If I were to seriously ask myself this question a few years ago, my answer would’ve been, “Because you know that it’s true!”

But recently, I’ve allowed my old conceptions of religion and people be challenged and remodeled. This has been partially due to my travels over the last summer to France, Holland, Greece, and most importantly, Turkey. I’ve had the privilege of seeing how other people live their faith, particularly in the case of Islam, as I experienced life in a country where the (very) dominant religion is one very different from what I had experienced for the greater part of my life. I also have a great many friends from China (due to the large international student program at my school), and getting to know them and their fascinating culture has helped my understanding of Eastern thought to broaden.

Here’s where I’m going with this. Over recent months, I’ve discovered more and more that the reason I believed what I did for most of my life has been because I grew up with it, in a mini-culture that told me that the right thing to believe was Christianity. And more importantly, I’ve realized that others (again, this sounds like an obvious point), particularly those in vastly different parts of the world like Turkey, have grown up being taught that the right thing to believe was Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or even atheism. I can see now that so much of what I “believed” was simply what had been passed down to.

Now, this is only natural. Parents teach their children what they think is right, and in fact many holy books instruct parents to do this (Proverbs 22:6 of the Bible, for example). But when someone becomes a brash conversionist (I know, I made it up) with their religion, they seem to leave sanity behind in their mad rush to change others to their way of thinking. What I mean by “leaving their sanity behind,” is that these religious practitioners have so thoroughly convinced themselves of their own rightness and the wrongness of others, that they forget that they probably only believe what they do because they were raised that way!

More frightening than that though, they forget that the beliefs that others hold dear are ones that they were always raised on as well. The reason for their belief in whatever religion it may be is their upbringing, not some deep-seated and witless desire to be a heretic. So when you get down to the heart of the issue, an evangelical Christian (this is only an example) and the young Indian Hindu he is trying to convert both believe in their respective religions for the same reason: They were always taught to.

I strongly believe that if more people, from all places, traditions, and religions could accept this, there would be far fewer people condemning each other for what seem to me to be obviously cultural influences. No person can decide the circumstances of their birth, and it’s a terrible thing that religious people of all kinds issue bold proclamations that anyone who doesn’t accept their truth, including young children who have heard nothing about it, is doomed. Truth be told, this is a pretty typical trait of the evangelical Christian in particular. I was talking with an evangelical acquaintance of mine about this very issue, not too long ago. I asked her, “What about an orphaned child in India? Chances are they’re going to grow up learning Hinduism as their religion. What happens if that child dies, and they’ve never heard anything about the Christian god?” She answered (paraphrase), “God’s justice is different from our justice. It’s sad that it has to happen, but the Bible says that anyone who doesn’t accept Jesus Christ is going to hell, no matter what. And that’s just the way it is!”

There is something desperately wrong with that picture.

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Filed under Religion & Reason, Seeking the Spiritual

The Plight of the Chinese Farmer

It's not all sunshine and rainbows in the People's Republic.

China is one of the countries most on the minds of people these days. As a rising power in the modern world, it commands a certain amount of respect and attention due to its status as a very rapidly developing nation. Many Westerners see China as a mighty new engine of industrial might and technological advancement, a strong and fresh new player on the stage of global politics.

China has spent years of effort combined with billions and billions of dollars to give itself a very polished, modern appearance to the rest of the world. Events like the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai cost billions of dollars to put on (40 billion and 48 billion, respectively), a huge (and actually record-breaking) and grandiose expenditure of epic proportions, especially considering the economic state of the rest of the country.

You see, while China may portray itself as a gleaming new world power and a rising giant in the global market, the truth is that much of this economic strength is held up by people in devastating poverty, economically and socially. In a way, China has two sides. One side is the urban, modern, rapidly developing side that China shows to the rest of the world, the side that funnels billions into the development of elaborate new ways to show the world how great China is. The other side is the rural, impoverished, beleaguered side, the one made up of farmers with no upward mobility, marked by discontent, corruption, and graft.

I know many Chinese international students at my university, and I’ve spoken to a number of them about the state that China is in right now. Many see their own country as a corrupt place, where the prime force behind most people’s actions (particularly those of the government) is money and most people act selfishly out of a survivalist streak going back hundreds of years. I’m not saying that China is a universally corrupt country, and neither are my Chinese friends. I would, however, be so bold as to say that China is a country full of terrible class divisions and outright oppressive government tactics.

A perfect picture of the stark dichotomy between rich and poor, privileged and powerless, is that of the Chinese farmer and his boss. There is a substantial wealth gap in China, particularly between those who work on farms in rural areas and those who work in an urban setting. In fact, workers in cities earn about three times as much as those in the country. A report published in 2006 by the World Bank found that about 8% of China’s population lived on less than a dollar day, and most of these people lived in the countryside.

To make matters worse, the Chinese government has done little to address these issues. While they recently lifted ancient taxes on farmers, the benefit has not been enough to promise farmers security. Almost all farmers in China find themselves at the mercy of fluctuating markets and environmental disasters, with no income buffer to protect them from hard times. In fact, few farmers have any power over the value of their crop. Farmers typically sell their goods through a “boss,” who will buy the goods from them and resell them; a middle man, so to speak. The problem here is that these bosses are usually unconcerned about the wellbeing of the farmers, and often give them almost no money for their crop relative to the amount they sell the crops for.

(Most of these stats were gathered from here)

Naturally, there’s a lot of resentment and inequality here. Many of the Chinese people would like something to change, and most Chinese farmers would love for the government to make their lives a little easier. But rather than subsidize farmers, order a scrutiny of farmers’ “bosses,” or simply provide farmers with more advanced equipment, the government has chosen to build colossal monuments to Chinese dominance with their money. And due to China’s repression of free speech, and the lack of a legal safety net to rely on for protection from embezzlement by bosses, it seems the Chinese farmers will be trapped in poverty and silence for years to come.

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America: Over-Defended (Part 2)

How many more of these do we really need?

(This post is a continuation of America: Over-Defended (Part 1), which you can find right here. Read that first! Not very good blog etiquette, I know, but I wanna keep these posts kinda short and sweet.)

A good (if vague) principle to use to combat this, in my opinion, is to start treating the Department of Defense as just that, defensive. America seems to be constantly gearing up for total war, and it’s costing us a shitload of money to do so. Our country has always been a subtly imperial one, worming our military tentacles in wherever possible. In a way, America is a very imperialistic country, but in a subtle, subversive kind of way. There are more than 700 United States military bases across the globe (and 6,000 on US and territory soil), forming a spider’s web of armed power. (My figures are from here) While American imperialism is far from obvious (or perhaps even totally intentional), the simple fact is that American military presence is firmly established almost everywhere in the world. This “passive imperialism” (I think I came up with that myself!) further strengthens my argument that America hardly needs to invest in even more military power, at least for now. In fact, we may benefit from pulling up roots in some more secure areas. After all, as George Bush so deftly showed with Iraq, the United States has mastered rushing into volatile and delicate situations with little reserve.

Back to my defensive Department of Defense idea. As the name implies, the DoD’s primary purpose is, well, defense. According to their website, defense.gov, “The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country.” Notice that its stated purpose is to deter war, not engage in it. The proper use of a standing army is as a defensive measure, a way to keep America and its people from being devastated by war. It is not meant to be used as the arm of American ideology, in the Middle East or elsewhere.

The simple fact is that no country, not even America, can pour so much money into defense without expecting serious drawbacks. If we want our country to excel in the coming years, then it’s imperative that military spending is drastically reduced, and fast.

Here’s how much we’re paying.

 

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Filed under Military & Might

America: Over-Defended (Part 1)

The United States is well-known as the strongest military power in the world, and with good reason. Few would claim that America is lacking in military might, and those few would pretty stupid. America has long been the predominant military power in the modern world, and this trend is likely to continue for quite a while.

Simply put, America’s armed forces are more than a few cuts above the rest. But just how far ahead do we need to be? America’s military dominance comes with a substantial price tag. At the time of this post’s writing, America’s defense budget was 739.2 billion dollars. For comparison,  China’s budget for 2010 was 78.6 billion dollars – which is almost the exact sum Robert Gates is proposing we cut from our own defense budget. Got that? The amount we’re hoping to cut from our military spending is the same as China’s entire military spending. Notice from the graph that China is the second largest spender in the world, next to us, and they still pale in comparison.

And it’s not as if America will be put at critical risk if spending were to be cut. America has (for the most part) gotten its money’s worth from its colossal military spending. We’re the world leaders in more or less every kind of weaponry, with eleven times as many aircraft carriers as China, nine times as many nuclear submarines, and a Marine corps twenty times the size of theirs (figures all taken from GlobalSecurity.org). So it seems fairly obvious that we have little to worry about from China, which I’ll remind you is the second largest military spender after us. We’re winning by a huge margin, so to speak.

So, you’ve probably been wondering what the title’s all about. How can a country possibly be over-defended? Well here’s the thing. As I hope most, if not all, of my readers know, the country is facing a pretty titanic budget deficit at the moment. And at the very same time, our country has fallen behind in such crucial areas as education, in no small part because of the lack of money that can be dedicated to it. In 2006, “National Defense” accounted for 57% of our budget, while “Education, training, employment, and social services” got only 8%. There’s a reason Chinese students are destroying American students in areas like math and science, and that reason is that America is pouring over half of its budget into weaponry.

So what needs to happen? We can’t just stop making weapons and vehicles, or stop sending bullets to troops, after all. But there are smart ways to cut back in the areas in which we already excel. Take aircraft carriers for example. As I mentioned earlier, America faces little competition from China in this area, and this trend is common throughout the world. Of the 15 other countries that use or have used aircraft carriers, none has more than 2 carriers in service. By comparison, America has 11. The last aircraft carrier produced by the US, the USS George H. W. Bush, cost 6.2 billion dollars to crank out, and the next one slated for production, the USS Gerald R. Ford will cost around 7.8 billion. Do we really need to be pouring this colossal amount of money into more ships, when we already have more than five times as many of these as the next countries up from us? I could rattle off more examples, but I don’t want to waste too much of your time!

This post is already quite long, so I’m going to break it into two parts. Come back in just a bit for part two!

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The Dragon’s Breath

Most people would agree that the future of the environment, and the way we treat it, are some of the most important issues we face today. How we handle today’s environmental issues will affect how tomorrow’s world will operate.

Many Americans are (thankfully) pretty conscious about environmental risks and the consequences of a failure to care for the Earth. But part of this awareness arises from the mistakes that our nation has made in the past. During the Industrial Revolution, America and other Western nations were blazing new trails of industry and commerce, coming up with incredible new technologies like the steam engine, or the use of electricity for energy. This came at a high cost to the environment though, dealing a blow to American soil, water, and air.

Now, China’s obviously made it past Industrial Revolution standards – at least technologically and industrially. But at the same time, their impact on the environment is colossal, not just for their own country, but for the world in general. As a rising nation in the world, China has an obligation not to burden the environment as they ascend in global power. And they’re doing a pretty bad job at holding to that obligation.

I won’t absolve America from guilt for this either. The average American contributes vastly more to global warming than the average Chinese. Really, this is part of the problem! America isn’t in much of a position to insist that China be more environmentally conscious, especially in light of the somewhat tense relationship between the two countries. As was put in another article (a review of a book on this subject, and my inspiration for this post), “A seventy-a-day smoker riddled with lung cancer isn’t really in a position to lecture a younger man to stop smoking, especially if he’s trying to steal his nicotine patches.” America really has little authority to tell China to clean up.

On the other side though, American pollution doesn’t claim the lives of 700,000 people every year, at least not directly. China can’t say the same. And while America still has a lot to learn, China has the benefits of experience from other nations making mistakes during their periods of industrialization. Now that countries like Germany, France, the US, and Britain have all had their screw-ups during industrial development, China has a lot more to look back on and avoid.

The real problem here is that China is unlikely to cut back on pollution, out of a deeply rooted philosophy of pragmatism. As China has risen to power in the world, keeping up with other nations like the US economically has been of primary importance. When weighted against things like water pollution or the difficulties of the peasantry, economic strength and vitality has always come out on top. That’s the side of China that most of the West sees: a rising power that has seemingly conjured economic and military might out of nowhere. What many people don’t see is the heavy toll this mindset has taken on the Chinese people.

I’m planning to write more on this later, so stay tuned! If you didn’t before, you should definitely check out that article I mentioned earlier. For now, 再见!

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Filed under Environment & Nature, International Focus