My dad recently asked me what I thought about while biking 4-5hrs a day, 6 days a week. My response? The automatic answer: “Oh, I don’t know, not much.” Sometimes I do zone out as I pass by fields, farmers, villages, markets, fields, farmers, villages, repeat. But I quickly realized, actually, I think about a lot, usually in recurring themes, as I try to synthesize new and recent experiences from this bicycle expedition with my past life experience and knowledge. I think about so much that at first it was difficult for me to grab any of the slippery ideas swimming past in the rushing stream of my mind. Here it goes for today though…
As we move west in Guangxi province, China, I’ve noticed the standard of living get simpler and simpler (or lower) – especially after Guangdong province, China’s economic powerhouse. Now that we’re within 100km of the Vietnam-China Friendship Highway border crossing at 凭祥Pingxiang City, market towns are more spread out with sugar cane fields more expansive. Today’s 60km ride on a sheng dao (provincial highway) brought us through 2 or 3 towns, whereas we would usually hit one every 10-15km in other provinces. The small villages we pass now are increasingly composed of mud-brick houses with old Chinese-style slate roofs and make-shift scrap wood doors. The boxy multi-story concrete buildings that define modern Chinese architecture are fewer and fewer. These villages are “old school,” homes to the old lifestyle that is nearly the same as it was 200 years ago. The old way is changing quickly in rural China, but is not in danger of extinction…yet.
Today’s sheng dao was surprisingly empty, with thankfully very few honking trucks and long distance busses that usually deafen us on the bigger roads. The asphalt surface is brand new, would-be steep hills have been broken down and reformed into gentle slopes. The mountains we went through before Shangsi town (our Christmas town) gave way to rolling hills of sugarcane, and despite that crop, looked quite similar to spans of corn fields in Minnesota between Minneapolis and Rochester. On one of our breaks about 30km west of Shangsi, two women – a middle aged daughter and her mother – growing sugarcane offered us each a whole 1.5m long stalk for free, slicing off the tough skin with a hooked machete. It didn’t seem to matter to them that we already had two long stalks our Shangsi guesthouse boss had given Drew, which he was eager to stop carrying. At one point, Jim was holding four stalks. “Have some more tangzi!” they told us several times. “Women chi bao le! (We’re full!)”
Down the road, we came across several young farmers driving water buffalo carts loaded with freshly cut sugarcane. We stopped and asked them a bit about sugarcane farming. They were surprisingly light-hearted, clowning around with us and their buffalo, though steadily unloading their carts onto the side of the road. Just before turning back to get another load, one of the young men said about their work, “Xinku. XINKU! 辛苦 (exhausting and difficult!)” We watched them laboriously and clumsily turn their buffalo carts around, at one point temporarily blocking the road as a truck came flying around the corner, and slowly head back down the rocky field road.
Further down the road, parked in front of the first and only fanguan (restaurant) we saw, were three luxury cars - a BMW, SUV, and Volkswagen - all very new, and ridiculously out of place in this little town of 500-700 residents. The sight of the BMW made me want to smash its wind shield or better, take a rock and scrape it along its side, digging into its perfect paint finish (no offense Bavarian Motor Works). I was as surprised as you at my thoughts. Why in the world did I have such a strong reaction?! Sure, I’m on a bicycle tour, and most people when on bikes hate cars (and vice-versa), but still. In the US I frequently see BMWs and probably more SUVs than cars, and it usually doesn’t bother me so much. So what’s different? It got me thinking as I was restraining myself.
There were several factors at work in my mind.
First, last fall I happened across an auto show in Chaoyang Park,Beijing. At the BMW booth, I couldn’t help but notice that a standard nothing-fancy sedan was over 1.5 million Yuan (US$192,000.). Granted,as far as I know, China has a 100% car tax, but I was quite sure I didn’t know anyone in the US who would pay even US$150,000 for a BMW. Heck, why not buy a house with land for that price? In Beijing though, I saw plenty of BMWs. In fact many were fancier and bigger than that one at the car show, as the one we saw today in nowhere Guangxi. Last year I heard a statistic that China now has more millionaires (in US$) than the US, a symptom of the increasing income gap that seriously threatens China’s “harmonious society” campaign.
Second, I had just talked with the sugarcane farmers who used ox carts, were working hard, had very little material wealth, and directly vocalized the difficulty and dissatisfaction with their lives to us.
Third, I am familiar with the problem of unqualified and undeserving Chinese coming into wealth and power (which certainly happens through out the world in different ways too) which makes witnessing the income gap more bothersome. After working in two Chinese universities and talking with foreign teachers at those and other Chinese universities, I understand that although in the minority, there are a reasonable number of young Chinese who receive the privilege to study at a university simply because their families have excess wealth and/or good connections with people in positions of power (关系guanxi). I taught such a class of students for 1 month during my first year in Jilin, China. They were by far the worst students I’ve ever taught. Out of a class of 15 students, the most I had show up were 10 on the first day, and by our 4th class, only 1 student showed up 15 min late until I told the department about the situation and requested the class canceled. I’d never met such students who lacked respect for a teacher and seemed to not care at all about their education or their futures. Moreover, their English levels were quite poor for the college level (except for one), the lowest of all my classes at that point. Yet, at that University, it was those students and those students only who had the opportunity to study abroad in the US at the sister college – an opportunity my regular hard-working English Department students dreamed of having but in reality had no possibility of attaining during their undergraduate studies at that school. The head of the special department of these special students agreed to cancel the class and was well aware of the problems students in this program created. I learned I wasn’t the first (or the last) teacher to find such problems with these students. After asking the senior foreign teacher about the situation, I learned that most of these students had comparatively low test scores, but came from wealthy families and so were allowed to study there. Not only were they basically guaranteed a BA degree unless they REALLY messed up, but they didn’t have to worry and stress out about finding a job like nearly all other Chinese students. Their families also had contacts that would land them high paying jobs after their graduation. I then understood their lack of interest and effort in my class and was dismayed by the injustice created by misplaced wealth and power, similar to the “Old Boys Club” and getting “Grandfathered” into American universities one’s rich father or grandfather had attended in the past. Americans have since taken a stand against similar situations, but from what I can tell, it is still strong in the growing upper class of
Fourth and finally, I recalled a thought one of my friends had shared with me during one of my visits home in the last 2 years: “I doubt if there is any just way to make US$1,000,000.” Is there a truly just way for an individual to make US$1,000,000? This is a huge question begging reflection, questioning the justice of the whole global capitalist economy. The 5 of us had a vigorous discussion over lunch as we sat beside the BMW in the poor town where we spent US$8.00 for a large lunch for us all.
Analyzing global economic justice is enough for more than one PhD dissertation, but a few main ideas surrounding the injustice are as follows:
1) Perhaps the most important factor for Europe’s and the US’s advanced state of development is from its superior fire power in the colonial days (1500s-1900s) when each country used violent force, thievery, and slavery to boost its own wealth. Thus, the current global economy has grown directly out of the last 500 years of colonialism. During this time, powerful nations at first stole raw materials and labor from less powerful nations resulting in driving the 1850s Industrial Revolution beyond its otherwise natural capacity and thus cementing their comparative advantage in the world economy (i.e. in the case of Spain and Portugal stealing gold and other valuable resources in Latin America while destroying whole civilizations including the Incas, Mayans, Aztecs, and other ethnic groups with a total of 60 million people dieing in Latin America alone as a result of direct war violence or through disease from Europeans in the 1500s-1700s, and the African slave trade, which greatly contributed to building the US’s young economy). Later, the European colonial powers cheaply bought raw materials from the same poorer countries and expensively sold finished goods with forced and Europe-favored trade agreements, which still existed into the mid 1900s in countries until violent or peaceful revolution changed this situation – the latter exemplified by India in 1947, under Gandhi’s leadership, or the former in Kenya’s revolution for independence ending in 1963. Europe and more indirectly the US, have never stopped benefiting from this historical economic pillaging and associated advantage. Furthermore, in the last 50 years, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have been accused of using loans and aid money to lure and bully developing countries to enact economic policies that are favorable to the European and North American countries controlling those international institutions.
2) If there were no poor people living in comparatively terrible conditions desperate and eager for work paying even the lowest wages, the current global economy would literally collapse. This is what has made China the world’s economic center and why every large American company has flocked here to manufacture its products – it is so profitable because everything is cheap (and security for investments high) in China but prices remain high back home – buy low sell high. This is why everything bought in the US and Europe is increasingly, if not Made In China, is made in Latin America or South East Asia. Check your shoes and clothes tags. The whole system stands on the shoulders of the poor and inherently depends on there being many uneducated poor people willing to work repetitive, tiring, and mind-numbing jobs.
3) It takes money to make money. After an individual, family, corporation, or national government has X amount of money it becomes easier to make much more money through investments and even for individuals to stop working (early retirement) – i.e. living off the interest of a US$1 million CD, mutual fund, or other investment – more realistically, a combination of all of these and more. Certainly, after acquiring X amount of money, one never must return to physical labor as a means to make a living. On the other hand, a poor investment could lead to loss, but connections and good credit make it easy enough for the well-off to recover from bankruptcy.
4) Inheritance of large amounts of wealth leads to misplaced power in individuals not based on intellectual ability, informed and logical decision making ability, morality, or responsibility.
5) Just living in the US and making US salaries where it might be possible to save a million bucks over a life time for retirement is called in for analysis. This is because our economy is based on 1 & 2 (the requirement of the current system to have poor people in other countries competing with each other to work comparatively undesirable jobs) and most retirement funds are based on investing in large corporations through stocks and mutual funds, who’s board of directors are likely exploiting their advantageous geo-economic position, or perhaps forgetting loyalty to employees to cut jobs to raise stock prices in order to make millionaires out of themselves and other stock holders before retiring.
During our conversation, I recalled a Kenyan book I’d read after living there in 2003. It strongly criticizes the current world economy which is largely based on taking advantage of the poor and low wages (as mentioned above), and vividly illustrates this in the Kenyan experience: Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s famous book, Devil on the Cross. Ngugi first wrote the book on toilet paper while imprisoned in 1977 due to his involvement in communal theaters performing plays dealing with political corruption in post-colonial Kenya, and upon release the book cast him into continuing exile. It deals, in part, with the process of rich European and North American business leaders going to developing nations, finding locals to be puppets in their new branchs, and in turn making them rich by local standards and teaching them the whole questionable business of making money off the labor of the poor. I’d highly recommend it both as in insight into the above issues, and as an insight into the challenges of African development.
Speaking of Kenya, Dec 29-31 2007 has seen violence and chaos break out in Nairobi after fraudulent elections. I have several friends who still live in Kibera slum, the heart of the violence, in addition to Maryknollers (Americans) doing mission work there. Nearly 100 people have already died (as of Dec 31 2007), and the tribal violence continues. Please keep Kenyans, Somolians, Sudanese, and Middle Easterners from Saudi Arabia to Iraq to Afghanistan to Pakistan in your prayers and pray for PEACE around the world, that all people around the world may see the light and say to their leaders who propagate hate and war through economic insentives (”The Military Industrial Complex,” coined by former pres. Eisenhower): “ENOUGH IS ENOUGH! NEVER AGAIN!”
I also remembered a short story one of my St. John’s advisors assigned, The Ones Who Leave Omelas by URSULA LE GUIN. This story is also quite provocative in its metaphorical depiction of the world’s economic and material inequality (though in some ways a bit further removed from reality) and responses to it. You can find the text on-line here here however,
this html is missing the last paragraph, which I’ll put at the bottom of this post if you’re interested).
Another book written about an alternative, more just world system I read in my class, “Justice in the 21st Century,” at St. John’s that I’d recommend is Edward Bellamy’s book, Looking Backward 2000-1887, written in 1887 about a better future. It is utopian, and an interesting contrast to the anti-utopian book, 1984, written by George Orwell in 1949 in response to WWII and rising communism. 1984 is one of my favorite pieces of fiction.
Don’t get me wrong, my purpose is not to make you feel terrible and guilty about your material life, whatever it may be. I do, however, believe these issues are worthy of meditation and reflection, as they are directly connected to one’s daily activities and long term goals. I also believe that you have thought about these things before. It is likely that these or similar thoughts caused some level of discomfort, a feeling of helplessness, perhaps a feeling of thankfulness, and then were dismissed. I don’t have a comprehensive solution (like Bellamy), and no, I don’t think communism as it has so far manifested itself is a reasonable response either. But before I share varied responses from some of us here at Fueled By Rice, I’d like to open all of these issues up to your thoughts and responses:
1) Imagining yourself in our position, having seen the sugarcane farmers and then the BMW, SUV, and Volkswagen in front of the small restaurant in a small town, what are your thoughts and reactions to the obvious income gap in China?
2) Is there a just way to make US$1 million?
3) What makes one way, method, or path to US$1 million more just than another? Are there some characteristics that you can name?
I welcome you to share your thoughts, through the “# comments” feature of this blog, where you can post your ideas directly on this website.
Thanks for thinking!
**LAST PARAGRAPH OF**THE ONES WHO LEAVE OMELAS (missing from the version on the link above)
At times one of the adolescent girls or boys who go to see the child does not go home to weep or rage, does not, in fact, go home at all. Sometimes also a man or woman much older falls silent for a day or two, and then leaves home. These people go out into the street, and walk down the street alone. They keep walking, and walk straight out of the city of Omelas, through the beautiful gates. They keep walking across the farmlands of Omelas. Each one goes alone, youth or girl, man or woman. Night falls; the traveler must pass down village streets, between the houses with yellow-lit windows, and on out into the darkness of the fields. Each alone, they go west or north, towards the mountains. They go on. They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas. (from The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction )