When You Want Things to Change, You Have to Change Yourself First

Monday, July 16 2007 @ 07:36 AM JST

Contributed by: Y.Yamamoto

In May, Chinese environmentalist groups in the coastal city of Xiamen finally succeeded in making city's Vice Mayor Ding Guoyan say, "The city government has listened to the opinions expressed [by the citizens who took to the streets in response largely to text messages disseminated by environmental protection groups] and has decided, after careful consideration, that the project must be reevaluated."

The aborted project was to produce a petrochemical substance called p-Xylene, which is an essential raw material for colorants in fabrics, solvents for pharmaceuticals and pesticides, and some other things. P-Xylene is a highly toxic substance that can cause dire birth defects over time.

Now that the countdown for the Beijing Olympics has started, it seems the Beijing government and local authorities in Xiamen had to "listen to the opinions." And yet, it remains true that the ostensible success was attributable to the fact the organizers could mobilize a big crowd by cellphone. So far so good.

Let us not mistake, however, these incidents for a tidal wave driven by people power. Without doubt, the 1.5 million citizens of Xiamen are now more or less better off than if the factory went ahead as initially planned. But the successful movement hasn't brought about any benefits to the rest of the 1.3 billion people. Some of you may argue that doing a little thing is always better than saying a big thing while doing nothing at all. I've heard this killer line hundred times before. But hold on for a second. Are you sure that people power in China is gaining ground, if only little by little? Or do you think you can change others without changing yourself first?

To the best of my knowledge, the Xiamen citizens didn't have answers to the following:
1) Were they ready to live without the double-edged substance the chemical factory would have been poised to churn out by now? If not, they were just acting like advocates of the prevention of cruelty to animals who are not vegetarians.
2) Were they absolutely sure that they could afford the immediate consequence of thwarting the project - loss of job opportunities?
In short, I don't believe they are ready to change themselves before demanding others change.

In the meantime, many manufacturers are labeling their products "CHINA-FREE." Consumers are changing their buying habits and swallowing the extra costs. Chinese people's willingness to change is a far cry from the keen awareness, on the part of American consumers, that there is no such thing as a free lunch. A makeshift environmentalist in Xiamen would say: "Maybe someone else will have to pay the price. But the headache is not mine. So who cares?". In fact, though, that's not the way humanity has been progressing all along.

If I am correct, tens of millions of rioters, protestors and other dissidents have not been able to create the momentum needed to achieve their goals primarily because they are not willing to change their own life before taking to the streets. Apparently they are just running round in circles. And why is that? Because they take it for granted that their handsets, hundreds of millions of them, will help them ignite a wildfire that ultimately burns down the communist regime. What a fairy tale.

My observation is that the Chinese are, like the Japanese, suffering from what I call Keitai Meru (Text Messages) Syndrome which is typically marked by short messages as well as long thumbs. They should have known by now that they can't thoroughly internalize any social or political issue so as to form a valid idea worth sharing just by quickly exchanging a dozen words. In a sense, the mobile phone was invented to tame and neutralize dissidents who would otherwise subvert a corrupt regime. It's no wonder that China's State Council Information Office hasn't taken any major step, as it has done with the Internet, against the proliferation of mobile phones.

The worst thing that can happen to a nation, or any other system for that matter, is not to collapse, when it should. That is certainly the case with the two Asian giants.

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