Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Three Commemorations of 1 July (Part 2)

As an ethnic Chinese born and bred in Hong Kong and trained as a journalist, I always find it extremely interesting to compare the media coverage in Mainland China and the rest of the world, including Hong Kong, which has been so closely connected to the country and yet has been maintaining some sort of distance from it all these years. The opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is yet another example.

Not surprisingly, the state-controlled Mainland Chinese media - and a good number of their private-owned counterparts in Hong Kong - are overwhelmed with positive coverage, hailing the world's most elevated railway as a "miracle" and a dream of several generations come true. The English media in the West, however, remain somewhat sceptical about the environmental implications and even political consequences of this ground-breaking transport link to Tibet. Only privileged readers like me in Hong Kong are able to enjoy the opportunity of being exposed to diverse views on the same matter before making any personal judgements.

What seems most interesting to me is to see how sceptical and even cynical people outside the country are when they comment on something about the People's Republic. For some reasons, many people seem to have negative perceptions of varying degrees of a communist regime, regardless of what it does. Communism is bad. Communists are ruthless killers and oppressors. Communists make their people suffer. Ulterior, unspeakable motives drive whatever communists do. Communists are stubborn and stupid authoritarians who do not respect human rights and democracy. Communists will do anything that will help them prolong their dictatorship... Let me stop here as the list of allegations of communists can go on indefinitely. What amuses me is that these allegations actually apply, at least to a certain extent, to most government leaders around the world despite the diverse differences in political systems. While communists, especially those in China, share most responsibilities for their poor impressions deep-rooted in people's minds as a result of previous crimes and major mistakes in governance, the devilisation propaganda led by the so-called "Free World" during the Cold War has also, undoubtedly, played an important role to reinforce people's negative perceptions of communists for at least two generations.

Another provoking question of the opening of the Qinghai-Tibet Railway is: Where can a line be drawn between cultural integrity and environmental conservation on one side of the scale, and economic progress and social development on the other? This is precisely where the current debate sets in. People against the railway insist that the unique and indigenous culture of Tibet must be protected from being contaminated by modernisation, urbanisation and colonisation by Han Chinese. People supporting the project dismiss their opponents' concerns, emphasising that the authorities have invested billions of dollars to ensure the fragile, primitive ecology along the railway is not terribly disturbed. Their favourite argument is that the railway will bring enormous economic benefits to the region that has been geographically denied from the rest of the country for centuries.

Both sides have excellent arguments and legitimate concerns. But this issue should not be addressed from a bipolar perspective as it currently is. The much-touted cliche of "striking a balance" between two legitimate objectives is by all means easier said than done. And this is exactly why this dichotomous mentality, proven to be unhelpful and destructive by restricting innovation and creativity in problem-solving but encouraging confrontation and hostility, should be completely abandoned. Highlighting only one aspect of the issue without sufficient address to other areas is not going to offer any help in resolving the matter in a satisfactory manner.

I think it is good news after all to learn that the Chinese Government appreciates the importance of environmental conservation by investing more than 1.5 billion yuan (roughly US$187.56 million) on precautions to minimise the railway's environmental implications. However, environmental conservation is a long-term commitment that requires much more than a one-off investment, no matter how big the lump sum is. In addition to strong financial support to fund the long-term conservation programmes, well-thought planning and prudent but effective implementation of the protective measures are essential. Cooperation from all levels of government and stakeholders, including visitors at home and abroad, is also pivotal. While I urge the authorities to pay close attention to the maintenance of the railway and the management of its environmental implications, I restrain from giving the verdict prematurely when sustainable measures may still be under planning, and their effectiveness remains to be observed.

Preserving and sustaining the dynamics of local culture, however, is even more complicated. As culture is so closely associated with the climate, social, economic, political environments and other variable factors that may be unique to a particular geographic area, a one-size-fits-all approach virtually does not exist for heritage preservation, let alone sustainment of its appeal and even revitalisation. More precisely, I do have reservations over replicating the successful case studies elsewhere to Tibet, or even Hong Kong, where the socio-economic conditions are by no means comparable. The only thing that seems fundamental and applies to all is a sincere respect and appreciation of the intrinsic and non-monetary value of local culture. Only when people truly respect something more than the economic benefits or political advantages can they be committed to holistic and sustainable cultural preservation policies and programmes. Although some critics already pointed out that the Chinese Government has failed to address the emerging cultural shock in Tibet, it is understandable that the Chinese leaders may not have the sufficient knowledge that makes them aware of the magnitude of a potential crisis. My frustration lies with the Hong Kong officials who have launched too much propaganda about the cosmopolitan's status as Asia's world city but only carried out a shameful bit of work, if any at all, to preserve our past.

Nevertheless, I do look forward to visiting Qinghai and Tibet, the Wild West of China, perhaps some time next year, before any transformation takes place.

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