On studying in China

Later this afternoon I leave for the People’s Republic to start my first of two semesters at Peking University, close to Beijing’s beautiful Summer Palace in the northwest. While I like to kid that I look forward most of all to the food, I will also enjoy the opportunity to study and learn about China. But coming to China from Europe, where you cannot help but be exposed to all sorts of stereotypes, assumptions, and truisms, it might be healthy to reflect a bit on how exactly I will study there before I leave.

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Carving up the Girdle of Emerald: colonialism’s violent cleavages

'The Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro to General De Kock' by Nicolaas Pieneman is a good example of Dutch portrayals of the Indies.
The 1830 painting ‘The Submission of Prince Dipo Negoro to General De Kock’ by Nicolaas Pieneman is a good example of Dutch portrayals of the Indies.

The evil of colonialism is not expressed in a sum of its benefits and downsides. These debates over British railways in India and economic development miss the point of colonialism entirely. Colonialism is violence. It is not just that it entails violence as an inevitable product of its system, colonialism itself is an act of epistemic violence. Colonies require colonial subjects, which needs a cleavage to separate the humans from the lesser creatures.

In my Dutch primary school our teacher would illustrate history class with the school’s antique school prints. They piqued my interest in East Asia, but in hindsight they were rather orientalist. Invariably, you would see a pittoresque landscape, a mise-en-scène of stern Dutch overlooking interchangeable inlanders going about their daily business, or unwavering Dutch ships of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). For a little bookish boy longing for a more exciting world these heroic tales of ‘discovery’ were enthralling.

Our classes put less emphasis on the unfortunate collateral damage of these exciting adventures. The prints perpetuated the unaddressed colonial gaze, as the teacher left out the fundamentals of the story: the dependency of colonialism on violence. First, metal violence, in the mind of the colonist. After that, physical. Then, after armed resistance has been eliminated and the people’s bodies are subjugated, the work of mental domination begins. The tools: dichotomies. A community is taken and carved up into slices. Those slices are carved up again: superior versus inferior, salvageable versus beyond civilisation, useful versus useless, rational versus irrational, etc.

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Is China trying use the COC to beef up its Article 281 defence?

Besides ‘we do not accept,’ another legal argument China used to argue that the Philippines case before An Arbitral Tribunal under Annex VII of UNCLOS was inadmissible was that the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties (DOC) in the South China Sea prevented arbitration as per UNCLOS Article 281. This article states that if states have agreed on a way to settle the dispute, no case can be brought in that area. However, the tribunal quashed the reasoning that the DOC prevents it from judging in this case in its award on admissibility of 29 October 2015.

Following the frenzy after the tribunal released its final decision on 12 July 2016, there have been various attempts to lower the tensions. Both sides appear committed to keep the peace, even if reaching an agreement proves difficult. At the same time, however, states are positioning themselves for future possible legal challenges. Some claimant states may see the Philippines’ success as encouragement to start their own cases. China must be preparing for such eventuality already by beefing up its legal defences. One area I think we should keep an eye on is Article 281.

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Section 377A is racist

Former High Court of Australia Justice Michael Kirby once termed the sodomy offence ‘England’s Least Lovely Criminal Law Export.’ Much has been said about this nefarious side-effect of the supposed rule of law exported throughout the British Empire in the form of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. There is a certain irony in seeing non-Western leaders defending this colonial law implementing colonial values as protecting local tradition against pernicious Westernisation. However, noticing this irony also directs the observer to something often missed in discussions of the prohibition of ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’ between consenting men: it is racist.

The lessons of intersectionality are still often ignored in studies of both sexuality and colonialism. Race is important to understand the views on sexuality on colonies, since it is the concept at the base of the subjugation of entire peoples. In order to justify such complete exploitation, you need the ultimate dichotomy of humans versus non-humans, or: Europeans versus non-Europeans. Literature written during the colonial period highlights this process: the strong and vigorous white European, epitome of human rationality, is juxtaposed with the corrupt and incomprehensible colonial subject, cesspit of carnal vices. In Dutch Indies literature this takes the shape of the tropics intruding on the white, clean houses of the Europeans, slowly corrupting the white world.

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The argument for democracy is its mediocrity

Any review of the argument for democracy as the best form of governance as a matter of tradition starts with Churchill’s citation in the House of Commons of the quote that Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. I oblige. Its popularity shows how wary many people have become of democracy. Gone is the faith of Enlightenment that the sublime wisdom of the people would lead us to a glorious future once education would have been sufficiently perfected. Instead a disenchanted Churchill-like the-alternatives-are-worse attitude has taken hold of an elite that vaguely remembers being told that democracy is morally superior, but is increasingly hard-pressed when having to say exactly why. Even a partial challenge arising in the nineties from the Asian Values debate already caused great panic. Only the Asian Financial Crisis saved the democrats when it appeared just in time to undermine the credibility of the Asian Values proponents.

Now the world is turning multipolar, the challenges to the democracy of the West will only gain in strength. This time it will take more than a short financial crisis to dislodge the counterarguments. Meanwhile, the structural problems facing the West only seem to become worse and worse, while the success of extreme right and populist politicians show a powerful desire for a strong leader to solve all the woes in one fell swoop. Unfortunately, less and less people are prepared to boldly state the case for the compromise-based, inclusive democracy we need. That is the following:

The argument for democracy is that it produces mediocre outcomes.

It might sound rather disappointing and of course: democracy as a provider of information from bottom to top, and as way for the bottom to be represented up high are both essential as well, but they are both not the ultimate argument for why democracy is the best form of governance. The latter point might even at times be present in other regimes when the leadership is particularly charismatic.

It is very tempting to look at so many success cases of developing countries where strong leaders seem to have produced such impressive results. The smart and capable strongman seems to have lead his country to improbably heights by developing a system that is not entirely democratic But without checks such a system also allows the leaders to drive the country into the ground once their excellency starts to fade and the products of meritocracy become less suitable.

History is about cycles. nunc obdurat et tunc curat Leaders and their genius rise and fall. Bad judgements follow good judgements. In democracies, too, good governments can be followed by bad governments. What is important is whether a system is capable of dampening the extremes of the inevitable highs and lows. In an autocratic or oligarchic system really smart people might in theory be able to achieve greater things more rapidly than you see happening these days in the ‘mature’ democracies. But those very same systems also allow less qualified leaders to destroy many things more rapidly than is possible in a proper democracy

The points democracy is so often criticised for are precisely what creates this dampening effect. Socialisation into party machinery and the lagging effect in representation of shrinking societal support for a party sometimes seem archaic, but they create stability. Taking a true democratic decision requires taking into account views from a large majority of the people, necessitating compromise. Media and societal forces can make the government more cautious, but also ensure it goes not too far beyond what its citizens are comfortable with.

Say there is a plant which grows best when the temperature is as high as possible, but dies immediately when it goes below zero even once. There is country A where the temperature during the day is 15° C and at night 5° C, and country B where during the day it is 35° C but at night -5° C. Land A surely is preferable if you want to have at least something left to grow. The days in country B are much warmer and the average temperature is 15° C, 50% higher than country A’s meagre 10° C. Still, even if it were one million percent better, in country B our precious plant dies when night falls.

Surely, the outcome of a democratic process might not always inspire the greatest enthusiasm. But a meh view of politics is still much better than the thrill you get from the swift and well-executed destruction of your economy. When choosing a system to govern a country, it is imperative to think long-term, to think beyond the current generation. And that is precisely where its tepid results start to shine.

Long live democracy’s mediocrity!

NB: I purposely ignore the debate in developmental studies about democracy versus autocracy in developing economies. That is an entirely separate discussion besides this more general argument about democracy long-term.
NB2: Yes, this is a pro-stability post: I could write a whole separate post on how revolutions often end up benefiting mostly the mobile higher classes and only hurt the downtrodden they are supposed to help, because they more than anyone are helpless without any system. (Unless the system is designed to kill or dehumanise them.)

R.M. Rilke – “Wir sind ganz angstallein”

Wir sind ganz angstallein,
haben nur aneinander Halt,
jedes Wort wird wie ein Wald
vor unserm Wandern sein.
Unser Wille ist nur der Wind,
der uns drängt und dreht;
weil wir selber die Sehnsucht sind,
die in Blüten steht.

– R.M. Rilke (24.4.1898)

Archiving my youthful ignorance

My teenage years were for a large part spent online, in the Ubuntu community. This website, under changing domain names, covered most of this period. I published my first blog post on 25 December 2006, when I was still 13 years old. I have always been an eager participant in whatever debate I find, and during these years I did just that. Being still a child that did not even know how to write properly in English—or in Dutch, for that matter—not all of what I wrote stands the test of time, or was even outstanding at the time of publication. Some of it merely serves to chronicle mistakes I made.

Therefore, I have been tempted to remove everything before a certain cut-off date and that would probably be very helpful in making sure that I would not be haunted by these things in the future. However, I have decided not to do so. Instead, I have moved everything to a single category with this warning on top.

Whatever I have written before is kept for archiving purposes. My statistics show that certain posts still help people looking for information. I do not want to break links. I do want to remark, though, that whatever I wrote in the past does not necessarily reflect my current opinion. I have grown and I have changed. I hope that you will keep that in mind while reading the musings of a teenager.

Closed meritocracy in a segregated Dutch society

It must have been a news article on the occasion of a report from the Netherlands Institute for Social Research (Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau; SCP) where I read this interesting observation: the Dutch upper class is both very open and closed. This outwardly nonsensical statement could be rephrased by saying that the Netherlands has ‘closed meritocracy’. It is very possible to join the elite, but once you have been allocated to a group, the borders close. Subsequently, there is very little interaction amongst the different groups. This is the direct consequence of the Dutch educational system.

Our school system in the Netherlands has three (four) tiers. After an optional stint at nursery school each child has to go to primary school for eight years when they turn four years old. An exam and the opinion of your teacher determines to what kind of secondary school you will go; your educational level is determined when you are twelve. In theory you can stack levels, but that rarely happens. Only the highest level, VWO, grants you direct access to an academic Bachelor.

The consequence is that once you get into the right secondary school and manage to stay in, your membership of the middle or upper class is virtually assured. Starting from puberty Dutch children are socialised into their stations in society. This allows everyone, even those from humble backgrounds, to learn ‘proper’ behaviour and keeps them on track to finish with the rest of their cohort. It also clearly demarcates the boundaries between the classes. People who are part of the elite not because of inalienable birthright constantly have to signal and stress their belonging.

My background is not humble, but it is also not spectacular. I come from a countryside family, and my brother and I are the first to go to university. In the Dutch system this is perfectly possible. Once we will graduate with a master’s degree, we will be part of the upper middle class. With that comes a set of thoughts, behaviour and social spheres that are very different from those of the world in which we grew up. Our meritocracy is open, because everyone can be selected, but closed, because the separation seals the groups off socially at a very early stage.

Dutch society in the past was plagued by what is called the verzuiling, the ‘pillar-isation’. Everyone was part of their own group. You had the labourers, the Catholics, myriads of Protestant denominations, the urbanite left-wing, and so on. These groups had their own news papers, public broadcasters, social organisations, political parties, and even shops. Even though the other was better, my grandparents would only shop at the baker who went to their church.

These denominational pillars are gone now. But commentators argue, and I agree, that a new kind of pillar system has come up: education. Whereas in the past people with different educational levels could be found in one pillar, these days different educational classes lead different lives. Papers and political parties seem now to be speaking to the world views of distinct educational groups—de Volkskrant used to be the Catholic daily, is now the paper of the centre-left elite—rather than of different religious or political convictions. If you have money, you go to concept stores, if you need to watch every penny, you shop at Aldi or Lidl.

There is very little exchange between the educational classes. SCP research showed that people marry within their class, have friends within their class and live amongst their class. When I leaf through the country’s main tabloid I see a different country.

The SCP argued that one important change with the past is that there are less people in the lower educated group that are there because they missed out on educational opportunities. Where I come from it was not uncommon in the past for parents to send their children to lower-level secondary schools than possible, because that was what befitted their station. Nowadays that would be unthinkable. Study finance and the growth of universities and polytechnics have done the rest. In other words: it seems that our meritocracy is working well, but because of that is only making inequality worse.

The current situation of deep cleavages is not conducive to the solidarity that is necessary to keep up our welfare state. If there is no interaction amongst the classes, there is no understanding of what matters to people outside your own group. A clear example was the public outrage against salary increases for the directors of state-owned (because state-rescued) bank ABN AMRO of €100,000 a year. When the bankers appeared before a parliamentary commission they were incredulous. To them it seemed very reasonable.

Worse is that empathy is necessary for the good functioning of our government. Policy makers need to have some relation to the life world of all classes in our society. If voters all live in their own world, they will drive their parties to different extremes and be estranged from politics when inevitably compromises have to be made that seem inconceivable from the voter’s perspective.

Another issue is that the meritocracy is not entirely fair. The primary school teacher’s advice matters more than the final exam when it comes to your secondary school level. It is a well-known fact that non-white pupils get lower advices than white pupils. When I tried to find the recent newspaper article to support this claim, I instead found one from 2007; this issue has been playing for a while.

Moreover, social mobility is never absolutely blind to background. Children from parents with an academic background have higher changes of making it to university too. This is in part related to natural selection, but has also to do with their environment: better family life, more stimulation, better neighbourhoods with better schools, and so on. As the educational classes become more physically concentrated, this disparity will only become more pronounced.

What can be done against this? Discrimination is obviously something that has to be eradicated via action. But if besides that our meritocracy works well, the education system ought to be left alone. Instead, we should look carefully into ways to weaken the walls between the groups. Perhaps one solution can be gleaned from officially multiracial Singapore.

There, around 80% of all housing is public and the government uses that to enforce a policy whereby every flat has to reflect the ethnic composition of the population. The Netherlands, whose urban planning was a source of inspiration for Singapore, could be inspired in its turn: the government ought to make neighbourhoods a reflection of the educational composition of our population.

Kurhaus and apartments at the beach in The Hague.
Kurhaus and apartments at the beach in The Hague.

Lucebert – “ik draai een kleine revolutie af…”

ik draai een kleine revolutie af
ik draai een kleine mooie revolutie af
ik ben niet langer van land
ik ben weer water
ik draag schuimende koppen op mijn hoofd
ik draag schietende schimmen in mijn hoofd
op mijn rug rust een zeemeermin
op mijn rug rust de wind
de wind en de zeemeermin zingen
de schuimende koppen ruisen
de schietende schimmen vallen

ik draai een kleine mooie ritselende revolutie af
en ik val en ik ruis en ik zing

ik draai een kleine revolutie af… – Lucebert (source)

Reis door Korea: de laatste weken van de zomer

Voor ik vertrok naar Korea beloofde ik hier om niet zo’n typische reisblogger te worden die elk wissewasje met het thuisfront deelt. Daarin ben ik geslaagd: ik heb in Korea welgeteld één blogbericht geschreven. Gefeliciteerd! Maar ik denk dat ze thuis toch wel ietsje meer hadden willen horen. Daarom, nu ik in een kleine maand al weer terug vlieg naar Nederland, een overzichtje van waar ik me zoal mee bezig heb gehouden in de afgelopen maanden. Eerst de zomer!

Suncheon

Zonsondergang bij de Baai van Suncheon (순천만).
Zonsondergang bij de Baai van Suncheon (순천만).

Toen ik mijn laatste teken van leven gaf, was ik nog maar net begonnen met mijn rondreis door het land. Dat is jammer, want wat volgde waren misschien wel de interessantste twee weken hier. Ik was net vanuit Daejeon aangekomen in Gongju en stond op het punt om verder te trekken naar de zuidkust.

Daar zat ik drie nachten in een hostel in Suncheon. De stad zelf lag niet aan de kust, maar met de trein was je binnen twintig minuten bij Yeosu, een kustplaats bekend van het schildpadschip van admiraal Yi Sun-shin en de Expo van 2012. Maar het meest bijzondere uitzicht lag dichter bij mijn hostel: de Baai van Suncheon, een wadlandschap omgeven door rijst- en rietvelden. De zonsondergang die ik daar vanaf een heuvel zag tussen de ontelbare koppels, die je in Korea over ziet, was de meest indrukwekkende die ik ooit gezien heb.

De slaapzaal waar ik sliep in Suncheon.
De slaapzaal waar ik drie nachten sliep in Suncheon.

In Suncheon ontdekte ik ook het plezier van het reizen langs hostels door Korea. In de zomer zijn er veel groepen of enkele Koreanen die ook door het land reizen, buiten de enkele buitenlander. In Suncheon regelden de eigenaar ‘s avonds het meest typische Koreaanse studentenvoer – gefrituurde kip met cola en bier – en op die ‘chicken parties’ leer je mensen kennen! Dan zit je zomaar in een bar met wildvreemde mensen in een willekeurige stad ergens in Korea.

Daegu

Een traditioneel huis in Hahoe Folk Village bij Andong.
Een traditioneel huis in Hahoe Folk Village bij Andong.

Mijn volgende uitvalsbasis voor vier nachten was de grote stad Daegu. Vlakbij is een grote Amerikaanse militaire basis en dat was te merken in het winkelpubliek. Daegu was zelf niet heel erg interessant, maar het lag precies tussen drie plaatsen die ik wilde zien in: het nog altijd bewoonde Hahoe Folk Village bij Andong, de oude Shilla-hoofdstad Gyeongju met haar vele oudheden, en de Haein-tempel waar ze al bijna zeshonderd jaar de bijna achthonderd jaar oude Tripitaka Koreana bewaren, de oudste en meest complete kopie van de boeddhistische geschriften in Chinese karakters. In het hostel hier kwam ik vooral buitenlanders tegen die Engelse les gaven, maar ook een Koreaan die leerde voor dirigent en opgewonden was binnen niet al te lange tijd in Amsterdam het Concertgebouworkest zijn geliefde Mahler te kunnen horen spelen.

Busan

Het strand van Haeundae in de mist.
Het strand van Haeundae in de mist.

De laatste dagen van mijn vakantie was ik in Busan. Ik had gehoopt op een rustige strandvakantie om bij te komen van bijna vijf weken non-stop wandelen, maar helaas begonnen mijn vijf dagen daar met regen en mist. Maar niet getreurd, want er was genoeg te zien! In Suncheon had ik twee jongens uit Busan leren kennen, die hadden aangeboden mij hun stad te laten zien en dus kreeg ik een dagtour langs een indrukwekkende tempel die haast over de rotsen aan de zee gedrapeerd leek, de VN-begraafplaats, waar ook 122 Nederlands liggen, en het drukke stadscentrum. Busan heeft onder andere het grootste warenhuis ter wereld (Shinsegae) en is de thuisplaats van het grootste filmfestivals van Azië. Toen het de laatste dagen ook nog mooi weer werd, leek Busan haast een leukere stad van Seoel!

Maar zaterdag 23 augustus was het toch echt afgelopen met mijn gereis. Ik ging weer terug naar mijn startpunt: met de hogesnelheidstrein (KTX) naar Seoel om me daar weer tussen de toch altijd schrikbarende drukte naar de metro te begeven, op weg naar wat voor de volgende vier maanden mijn thuis zou zijn: de Universiteit van Korea.

Strandwacht op Haeundae Beach