23 January 2006

Crisis or Opportunity, China Looms Large

A good friend of mine is fond of using the Chinese characters known as "Crisis," commonly assumed to be a combination of "Danger" + "Opportunity," to illustrate crucial moments of decision. Turns out this may be fallacious, according to Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, who says that "while it is true that wēijī does indeed mean 'crisis' and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of 'danger,' the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify 'opportunity.'"

The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like 'incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).' Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry....If one wants to find a word containing the element jī that means 'opportunity' (i.e., a favorable juncture of circumstances, or a good chance for advancement), one needs to look elsewhere than wēijī, which means precisely 'crisis' (viz., a dangerous, critical moment)."

Mair suggests "zhuanjī ('turn' + 'incipient moment' = 'favorable turn; turn for the better'), liángjī ('excellent' + 'incipient moment' = 'opportunity' [!!]), or hao shíjī ('good' + 'time' + 'incipient moment' = 'favorable opportunity')." [Note: this program does not support the symbols that should appear in a couple of the words above, my apologies to the author. Please follow the link above to a complete version of the article.]

I bring this to your attention neither to embarrass my friend nor to contribute to what Mair calls "a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society," but rather to illustrate a point: whether "wēijī" or "liángjī," we are facing a crisis, an incipient moment, a crucial point at which things may go awry or take a favorable turn with regard to China and indeed all of Asia.

According to an article in GreenBiz.com last week, the newly released State of the World 2006 Report, published by the Worldwatch Institute, suggests that the "dramatic rise of China and India presents one of the gravest threats -- and greatest opportunities -- facing the world today."

The next few years, Worldwatch posits, will spin the world towards "growing ecologial and political instability" or towards the next global revolution, a "path based on efficient technologies and better stewardship of resources."

Worldwatch President Christopher Flavin says that he was "encouraged to find that a growing number of opinion leaders in China and India now recognize that the resource-intensive model for economic growth can't work in the 21st century." He cites China's growing investments in solar energy and India's pioneering rainwater harvesting as examples of how the two countries are poised "to leapfrog today's industrial powers and become world leaders in sustainable energy and agriculture within a decade."

Not all is rosy in the report's estimation; China and India and their huge populations are fast emulating the United States and Europe and their tremendous demands on the earth's ecosystems. The report cites a number of negatives, including the Songhua River chemical spill, rapidly dwindling feshwater resources, increased dependence on oil and coal, and grain consumption.

Nevertheless, says Worldwatch, there are "early successful efforts to employ new approaches," such as the 2005 commitment by both nations to accelerate the development of new and renewable energy sources, a growing emphasis on public transportation, and laws that give "Chinese non-governmental organizations (NGOs) stronger legal standing to participate in decision-making."

The question is whether China, India, Europe and the United States can cooperate to "develop new energy and agricultural systems, maximize resource efficiency, and continue recent progress towards participatory decision-making in China and India."

One must not jump to the conclusion that China is offering a beacon of hope in the smog of natural resource use, just yet. Environmentalists and scientists are concerned by the impact China is having on ocean ecosystems, specifically large predators like sharks. According to a recent article by Juan Forero released through the New York Times News Service, China's burgeoning middle class is increasing the demand for shark fins -- shark fin soup being a delicacy used in ceremonial dinners. Populations of shark species "like the hammerhead and great white, have been reduced by upwards of 70 percent in the last 15 years, while others, like the silky white-tip have disappeared from the Caribbean."

Still, as the Worldwatch Report concludes, "The rise of China and India is the wake-up call that should prompt people in the United States and around the world to take seriously the need for strong commitments to build sustainable economies." Perhaps, as the authors surmise, viewing this turn in the global arena as an opportunity (liángjī) rather than a crisis (wēijī) makes for an incipient moment that may result in favorable circumstances for the global environment, economy, and society.

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