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The Future of Asia's Nature and Culture

Buddhist temples in Laos at 4:49AM. (mrlob/Flickr)

Buddhist temples in Laos at 4:49AM. (mrlob/Flickr)


Robert Oxnam, President Emeritus, Asia Society

Dai Qing, writer and activist opposing the building of China's Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest dam
Kenny Bruno, Campaigns Coordinator, EarthRights International
Joan Carling, Secretary General, Cordillera Peoples Alliance, Philippines
Kirk Talbott, Vice President, Asia Pacific Division, Conservation International(moderator)

Robert Oxnam
Ladies and gentlemen, I am Bob Oxnam, President Emeritus of the Asia Society. I am also a trustee of the Erpf Fund which is the supporter of this new series of programs. I’ve always tried to be organized and I will try to do that tonight.

I have four reasons why it’s a pleasure to introduce this evening’s program. The first is this is the first chance I’ve had to welcome you to the newly renovated Asia Society. Since I’m not directly responsible for it, I can say that I think they’ve done a spectacular job and I hope that all of you enjoy coming to the many programs in the years ahead. Someone who is responsible both for the renovation and also the overseeing of this evening’s program happens to be someone I know extremely well. I wanted to acknowledge the presence of Vishakha Desai, Senior Vice President of the Asia Society. She also happens to be my wife.

The second reason why it’s a pleasure to welcome all of you is that tonight, we launch a new series of programs under the rubric of the Future of Asia’s Nature and Culture. It will, over a number of years, through a variety of programs, look at the impact of development on Asia’s environment and also on Asia’s man-made monuments. It will feature a variety of public events drawing together, as we did tonight, a sterling panel. Other panels, in the future, will bring together journalists, scientists, environmentalists, preservationists, filmmakers, all of whom have a particular take on the issues on both Asia’s nature and culture. In addition, there will also be web-based information available from this project featuring the presentations that have been made here, and information about relevant programs and publications. All of this is due to a grant of the Erpf Fund. Sue Erpf Van de Bovenkamp couldn’t be with us tonight but we are extremely grateful for the support they have provided which will unfold over ten years.

The third reason why it’s a pleasure to welcome all of you is that I think this is a topic of utmost importance. For many ways, this program tonight and those that follow would address a cluster of issues that are among the most important and perhaps the least understood in terms of challenges facing Asia. From my point of view, one of the fascinations of Asia is that in many countries, we are seeing living culture; traditions that date back thousands of years that are brought, often in a filtered fashion, into the contemporary world. And we’re talking about monuments and man-made objects, many of which are facing enormous threats. The Asia Society undertook a project several years ago called The Future of Asia’s Past and we’ve had ample illustration what some of the challenges facing Asia’ monuments in just recent months. The destruction of Bamiyan comes to mind. Asia, also in my mind, has been widely heralded for its very rapid economic development in the late twentieth century. And there is much, I suppose, to applaud in all of that. At the same time, much of Asia confronts a tragedy of gargantuan proportions in terms of air pollution, in terms of water pollution and diminishing water supply, in terms of enormous attacks on marine resources and in terms of arable land. And so for all of these reasons, the way in which these challenges are introduced with the cultures of various Asian societies, that’s our subject. In some ways, it’s the question of how to struggle to preserve Asia’s body and soul. Our three panelists and our moderator tonight have been very much involved, in many ways, with the struggle.

And the fourth reason why I’m delightful to welcome you tonight is that the panel consists of three remarkable figures who have been at work in China, Burma, Myanmar, and in the Philippines. I will turn to our moderator tonight, Kirk Talbott, who will introduce each of them. Kirk is the Vice President of the Pacific Division of Conservation International, formerly with the Nature’s Conservancy and with the World Resources Institute. He has written and talked widely on environmental security, environmental law, and on human rights. He’s the author of several books and articles on these subjects. I look forward to this evening’s panel and I would ask all of you, along with me, to welcome our moderator Kirk Talbott.

Kirk Talbott
Thank you very much Bob. I appreciate that introduction. I actually have only written one book and I don’t think I’ll even be able to write another one. It was so difficult to get through that one. We’ll see. It has been a real pleasure and privilege to be associated with the Asia Society. The last couple of years, I’ve been joined by several of my colleagues in the conservation community to work in a very authentic collaborative way with the Society in trying to get critical issues that we’re seeing, those of us who are practitioners, if you will, of development and of the environment. To get our perspectives integrated into the programs of the Society is really to heighten the power of this forum. It’s really marvelous to see you all here tonight and with all the recent events and the reasons to stay at home, to see this many people coming out is terrific.

I just wanted to introduce the speakers and set the framework for tonight’s discussion. I think it’s fair to say that when people talk about the environment, whether it’s in the Asia Pacific or anywhere in the world, you cannot ignore how important politics and economics is. Then the third distant cousin that’s often mentioned is the social realm.

But tonight I think this great. For the first of this series of talks that we are looking right at culture and here is Asia Society being on the cutting edge of looking at the nexus between culture and environment. We couldn't be better served tonight than we are with the three panelists we have with very different backgrounds, but are all certainly working on that nexus, on the cutting edge of linking their actions, their contribution to our global society with the issues of culture that are universal. Since we only have a little bit more than an hour, as is always the case, these society meetings, we are filled with an audience tonight of people who have a great deal of experience and perspectives. It is good to see many friends here. what would be good is that we are going to keep to ten minutes or so. I'm going to try to be organized too, along with Bob, and keep us to just about ten minutes per speaker, which is less than we'd want, and which all the speaker have agreed, but this way we can really engage in some discussion. After each speaker, I will just take a moment and if there's one or two really burning questions, feel free to raise your hand and throw out a question or two and then we'll move on to the second speaker to the third, and then that way, we'll still have several minutes to engage in discussion at the end.

So without further ado, I’ll just introduce our first speaker, Dai Qing who is from China. All of you actually have the bio and I don't think we need to take up our precious time with reading through the bio, but you can tell that this is a person who has been in the leading edge, who's been at the forefront of some of the most contentious, or the center stage, if you will, issue in terms of environment. She's won the prestigious Golden Award for Freedom and she has just a long record behind her. It's a real privilege to have you, Dai Qing, tonight. And why don't you start off with the discussion. 

Dai Qing
The day before yesterday, China had formally entered the WTO. From now on, formidable and rigid China will completely open its market to the outside world. Within 5-10 years, no need of any war or cold war, only reached that growth in business and trade. The communist ideology, which has held this country for more than hold a century will become nothing but empty words preached by the officials. But China, really a member of the global family, sharing the same standards, having the same sense of human rights and environment, willing to take same responsibility, just like Americans.

Being a member of the WTO, how will the Chinese government behave when they face the two most crucial pressing problems of human rights and environment? I just want to give some words about the human rights issues in China. China has been a kingdom under the central government since Chin dynasty. It means it has lasted over two thousand years. People will argue that right now, in the beginning one had a republic, and now we have People’s Republic, we have law, we have constitution, we have courts, police, we have People’s Congress, and state council, and we have guided missiles, nuclear bombs, and the biggest dams (Three Gorges). How can you call that a kingdom? Since last year, the person who got their positions through arms use all the title which the modern society title always use just like president, chairman, or chief secretary, but actually they just use the modern administration to try to push his own will to this dictator and all the people. Right now, the majority of the Chinese people just think how to keep themselves safe and make more money. So the whole society is still that traditional society.

Even after WTO, the society cannot change immediately, especially when the person in the position are dictators. They're so happy to be there, they try to keep the army for themselves and strictly control the freedom of speech. What will happen then now that China is totally open to the world?

After the WTO, the worst, but the biggest possibility could be the powerful foreign capital which will rush to China will have close cooperation with the communist government, working hand and glove with the corrupt head officials turning a blind eye to the nature of authority. The authority that represses thought and free speech. The authority that controls the troops and the secret police disregard the regulations of the environment and human rights. If the investors can behave like that, it will be very comfortable to get profit because it’s very easy for them to make close friends with the corrupt head officials and escape the supervision and monitoring from the other government departments, the environmentalists, human rights NGOs because nowadays, we don't have these kinds of NGOs. Then in 5-10 years, with the help of the foreign capital, a more powerful military force will appear in the world with depleted natural resources, destroyed environment, terrible gap between the rich an the poor, continued social turmoil and illegal immigration to other countries including NY harbor. This is not a happy future, but if we don’t give enough estimate to the positive side, it could be like that.

I want to tell you one story about me. Right now, I live in Beijing. Do I have my right as a citizen in China. Maybe you all already know about the Three Gorges Project. Besides the central government and right now, they foreign banker, not your American government because in 1994, the American Bureau of Reclamation announced the withdrawal of financial support to the Three Gorges Project . When they announced this decision they said, "If the U.S. government does not want to use our money to destroy our rivers, why should we spend the tax payers money to destroy other persons river?" Then the American government, the World Bank, Export and Import Bank totally withdraw. Right now only Merrill Lynch. and Morgan Stanley is trying to cooperate to support the Chinese government with the Three Gorges Project. They just keep it a secret from all of you.

In the American side, we just support China’s building and something but inside China, we try to raise money for the Three Gorges Project because this is a paid project by the government when promised the government will give Merrill Lynch and all that lots of benefits. So this is exchange.

For me, when I was in Beijing, I just wanted to sue the authority of Three Gorges Project. I’m only one person, a citizen, and I want to sue the Three Gorges construction I wrote my paper and I tried to find a lawyer. The lawyer accepted my case tried to do this. And then the lawyer laughed. "Dai Qing, are you a Chinese? All the years, have you lived in Beijing? Do you happen to know who leads the country? And everything under the leadership of the communist party. No one will accept your paper, so forget it."

I was forced to pay for the project. I was against it but if you live in China, everyone who uses electricity, then you have to pay for the Three Gorges Project. Right now, as the Three Gorges Project is a political project, it’s a red empress pet project so it uses the political way to try to push for its approval in the National Council. Then the central government uses the whole nation’s money to support it. Then in the name of the government, in the name of the whole nation, try to borrow foreign money to support it. So, right now, it is underway and right now the forced resettlement is very dangerous. Then the government uses political power to try to move the people to other provinces in the eastern coast, a rich place. Then force the people in the rich place to welcome them. Settle down here. So everything from the beginning is a political issue.

So we are against it. For the environment, for the human rights, for everything we try to change the political system today in China.