A night at Asia Society — 夜访亚洲协会

I taught a 5-day course at the beginning of December in New York City. Thanks to information from Danwei, I bought a ticket and went to see John D. Liu’s presentation about rebuilding ecosystem in part of the Loess Plateau (Huangtu Plateau 黄土高原), and how that experience could benefit some other countries, especially in Africa. It was really great experience.

It was my first time going to the Asia Society in New York, although I’ve come across this organization many times through my readings. I am not sure if it is doing a special exhibition or what, but the exterior and the interior, as far as I can tell, is all Mao-themed: Mao suits, Mao statues, and Mao posters all over the place. Worse, on prominent display on one side of the building is Jung Chang and Jon Holliday’s horrible, dishonest “Mao The Unknown Story”. Now there is no question that learning about Mao is very important in understanding contemporary Chinese history (although his influence is waning, especially for people born after the 70s), but don’t you think it is appropriate to display something else, in addition to Mao, given that he died more than 32 years ago and China has undergone tremendous changes since? Especially given Asia Society’s stated purpose of “working to strengthen relationships and promote understanding among the people, leaders, and institutions of Asia and the United States”, that one-dimensional display was a letdown.

(Obviously if it is doing a special exhibition, then it is a totally different matter. Its web site says the organization has a lot of interesting things in its collection, so I’d like to come back for a proper visit, when I am in town next time.)

John’s presentation was excellent, and the discussion was based on a documentary he shot, “The Lessons of the Loess Plateau”. He talked about how the ecosystems in the Plateau was altered almost completely by thousands of years of human activity, how rainwater cannot be retained because of lack of vegetation, and how top soil is easily washed down to the river, and the resulting land erosion and desertification.

In 1994, the Loess Plateau Watershed Rehabilitation Project was initiated, with the World Bank providing some loans. Experts, both domestic and from abroad, joined hands to provide technical and scientific assistance. Trees were planted, free range goat grazing was banned, low yield land was taken back to plant other vegetation, along with other land rehabilitation efforts. By all accounts, it was very successful: silt load in the Yellow River was decreased, biodiversity is gradually making a comeback, farm land yield increased, and farmers’ income increased as well.

John mentioned that the key to success, which I totally concur, is that ecosystem rehabilitation and poverty alleviation were tackled together. There is a Chinese idiom called 标本兼治, meaning that both symptoms and root cause need to be cured together. One cannot hope for success if only one aspect of a complex issue is addressed.

The ensuing discussion was also interesting. John’s comment that corporations could play with the carbon dioxide trading scheme for monetary purposes is very much worth pondering. Like Wu Fei’s boyfriend commented, paraphrased here: “paying me for not hurting you”.

Speaking of Wu Fei, it was really nice meeting her and her boyfriend there. I bumped into them at the lobby. I thought I met her in the past. It turned out that I met her virtually via Danwei here. I enjoyed that Danwei interview, because I appreciated her sense of humor. Her sentiment of returning when she performed in Beijing, after being in the United States for so long, also resonated with me. Anyway, we talked and reminisced a little bit, especially about slangs in the late 80s and early 90s, like 个体户, 倒爷, and 练摊儿. It’s kinda funny that we are both 个体户 in the United States nowadays. Wu Fei’s music can be found here.

Another highlight was that I met Jocelyn Ford, NPR contributor in Beijing. Wu Fei, her boyfriend, Jocelyn, and I had dinner together at a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. I wished the dinner could have been longer, because I am curious to learn from Jocelyn how, in general, do foreign journalists gather news in China, if and how their reporting is edited back in the headquarter, how many of those journalists know (speaking/reading/writing) Chinese, and if not, how reporting is done, etc..

All in all, a great evening. I wish the rehabilitation effort continues in Loess Plateau and other parts of China. We need to take care of the planet for ourselves and for generations to come.

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