093 Asia: Spiritually Subversive, Speculatively Sublime, Sometimes Silly

ASIA SERIES: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7.


An Asian journalist pulled out his pen and scribbled a name and a phrase on a napkin over coffees we shared one morning in the Bangkok hotel where more than 150 media professionals from 23 Asian-Pacific countries were meeting for four days.

    “Just mention him on your Web site and that will help,” the man said. “We don’t know what will happen to Hu Jia, but everyone is spreading the word that he is being held. His family is in trouble. If enough public pressure is brought to bear, the Chinese authorities may release him. With the Olympics coming, they don’t want any embarrassments.”
    “Should I mention your name?” I asked.
    He shrugged. “Better not. Doesn’t matter, does it? Just mention Hu Jia’s name.”
    While this secretive passing of notes in an Asian hotel may seem like a scene out of James Bond, the truth is that Asian media is exploding with creative vitality in all directions — but, specifically of interest to ReadTheSpirit, are movements in Asian media that can broadly be called spiritual and are deliberately aimed at encouraging cross-cultural connections.
    This journalist who passed the note to me on the napkin was not the first — he was the fourth journalist at the Bangkok conference to urge me to mention Hu Jia in ReadTheSpirit!

    Concerning Hu Jia, click on his name to read the regularly updated Wikipedia article on his life and work — one Web-based strategy that human-rights activists use to raise public awareness about his situation. In a nutshell — his main focus has been pro-democracy and environmental-protection efforts, but, over the past eight years, he has become an eloquent activist for the plight of AIDS victims and people at risk from HIV-infection in China.
    He was taken into custody by Chinese authorities on December 30 — an almost common-place occurrence for Chinese journalists and activists — but, in this case, his wife and their small daughter are closely monitored by authorities. They are largely confined to their home and there was talk in Bangkok about the family needing regular visits by friends to deliver necessary staples like powdered milk for Hu Jia’s little girl.


    Here’s where Asian new-media pioneers are unleashing a whole host of innovative cyber-connections!
    CLICK HERE to jump to Google mapping
— to a page where people concerned about Hu Jia’s family are charting
not only the location of his home, but also the position of
authorities’ monitoring Hu Jia’s home. At the Bangkok conference, this was shown in a presentation by pioneering Chinese blogger Isaac Mao (shown at left) as one example of
the power of new media emerging from China. (If the mapping link stops working, it may be because Chinese authorities have reached out to shut down the Chinese activists updating the map.)
   Mao’s hour-long presentation was built around a spiritual theme that he dubbed, “Sharism.” He described this as an emerging global value shared by thousands — and, he hopes, soon by millions — of “moving from isolation to
connection.” Very quickly, Mao began sounding like the Founding Principles of ReadTheSpirit.
We regularly proclaim the message: “It’s about connection, not
competition.” Beyond this, we talk about the important spiritual power within ordinary people’s lives
— and we talk about spiritual power as communicated in “voice.” We stress that spiritual “voice” can transcend any specific book or media product.

    That’s exactly what Mao was proclaiming in Bangkok. Mao argued passionately that the
growing network of human-rights activists around the world — and,
beyond activists, the growing movement of ordinary men and women who
want to become cross-cultural “bridge builders” — does NOT depend on any of the
enormous mega-sites on the Web. Rather, the success of this bridge
building movement depends on strategically placed catalytic sites, blogs and experiences. He envisions thousands of these smaller nodes that hold the power to move important information —
and to transform communities.
    Mao said, “Even bloggers who have few readers can be very important as relay points in social media.”

    To read more about Isaac Mao:
    Here is his personal site — but English-speaking readers may find this confusing, because much of it is in Chinese.
    He also has a secondary link — which will pull up just the English-language posts from his site. What’s great, at the moment, about this secondary link is that Isaac has posted the Powerpoint slide show he used in Bangkok. The slides may seem a little cryptic without Isaac’s hour-long talk to accompany the images, but you may glimpse a fuller version of his message by clicking through the slides.
    Plus, here’s a link to a New Scientist article in 2004 about the growth of Chinese blogging that includes Isaac Mao. However, Isaac pointed out in Bangkok that the growth in citizen-run Web sites in China is so volcanic that it’s difficult to keep track of the growing numbers — including the ever-increasing number of sites specifically devoted to cross-cultural bridge building. Nevertheless, the New Scientist article will provide some important background, if you’re interested in these trends.
    Isaac also is involved in Global Voices, the Harvard-sponsored online project that is one of our ReadTheSpirit Recommended Web links.

    Don’t focus too heavily on Asian media as tools for activists, though, and miss the far larger window Asian writers, artists, journalists, scholars and new media theorists are opening for Americans. Most American media professionals are focused on their crumbling corporate infrastructure — almost to the point that they’re paralyzed. In the four-day Bangkok conference, in one session after another as Asian pioneers like Isaac Mao presented their innovative approaches — some older journalist (and most were Americans who did this) would stand up in the Q-and-A portion and say, “Yes, but how do you make money off of what you’re talking about? We need to find ways to monetize what you’re describing — and we’re not talking about marginal little streams of revenue. How do we make real money at this?”


    That approach completely missed the windows Isaac Mao and others were throwing open.
    One American who “gets this” is Tim O’Reilly, the American publisher of guides to software who is behind the emerging “Tools of Change” movement in the U.S. A sure sign of the energy within this global inter-connection was Isaac Mao’s own engagement with Tim’s speculatively spiritual reflections on “the frontier between human and machine-decision making.” Click Here to read Tim’s original post from January 4 on “Human vs. Machine: The Great Challenge of Our Time.” While this may seem like a fairly esoteric conversation about technology and software — both Isaac and Tim recognize the underlying spiritual issues or, to put it another way, the transcendent human values that are stake here.

    NOW, I may be reaching a point of “Speculatively Sublime” reflection here that’s too abstract. So, let’s bring this home with a very practical — even Sometimes Silly — conclusion.
    First of all, for very practical reasons, I asked nearly everyone I met in Bangkok to recommend great books in English for Americans to read to capture some of this explosive energy sweeping across Asia and, generally, people were at a loss to suggest good books.
    Orville Schell — dean of the University of California graduate school of journalism at Berkley and a world-class scholar on China — spoke at the conference (more on his provocative message in next week’s ReadTheSpirit series). Schell has written a host of books about Asia, most of which are now out of date. He suggested to me that Americans might be best served by simply reading “The Analects of Confucius.” Orville told me, “In times of change like this, sometimes it’s best to go back and read the foundational texts to remind us of deeper influences behind what is happening.”
    The Wall Street Journal’s Asia edition published a list of recommended books on Asia in late January and honored one of the books on western Asia that’s already very popular with ReadTheSpirit readers: Khaled Hosseini’s “A Thousand Splendid Suns.”



    And, the Sometimes Silly part?
     Well, not everything in Asian new media is spiritual subversive or speculatively sublime. Some of it can get pretty darned silly. While traveling in Singapore, the economic gem of southeast Asia, we were hosted by executives of the Straits Times newspaper for a series of talks on new directions in news media.
    One of the most creative departures for the otherwise conservative newspaper is “STOMP,” which stands for Straits Times Online-Mobile-Print. Stomp has a staff 17 (including 3 interns), commissioned with exploring new formats of interacting with readers.
    Within Stomp, the most exciting areas are collectively called “Singapore Seen,” a broad array of reader-generated photos, videos and commentaries — many of them sent in by readers via their cellular telephones. And, naturally, much of this is mighty silly. Just take a look by clicking on the link above.

    However, even within Stomp there’s a serious reflection of emerging Asian values, at least Singaporean values.
    Singapore is famous — in some circles infamous — for its tightly regulated social structures. Residents can’t buy chewing gum, for example, as a social-engineering strategy to prevent unsightly blobs of gum from marring the sidewalks. After decades of this kind of hightly controlled social consciousness, however, all sorts of Singapore residents told me that they rather like the clean, beautiful lines of their city. In most city streets, there’s not a single speck of litter!
    For all of its silliness, Stomp now reflects this tight control in the social fabric by encouraging anyone in the city-state to send Stomp, via cell phone, any socially unacceptable behavior that people witness in the streets. This isn’t a government-run site. It’s ordinary citizens sending the newspaper’s Web site their personal complaints about bad civic behavior.
    While the American journalists traveling with me frowned at this concept, which seemed rather Orwellian at first glance, we wound up witnessing this first hand.

    Several of us visited the celebrations in Singapore’s Chinatown markets as the lunar New Year approached. Streets were blocked off so that families could spill out of the dozens of restaurants into tables set up to handle the overflow in the middle of the jam-packed streets.
    As we made our way back to our hotel, one of the journalists stood in the pristine Singapore subway and noticed a sticky food wrapper of some kind trailing from her shoe. Disgusted, she scuffed her shoe against the floor, trying to dislodge the wrapper. She was so focused on this task that she didn’t noticed that virtually every man and woman on our subway car had turned to gaze at the problem. When she finally dislodged the wrapper and kicked it aside, people were obviously offended at her behavior.
    One man actually raised a cell phone.
    “My goodness,” said a woman who was guiding our group to many of our interviews, when this woman heard us talking about this subway incident later. “Yes, you could wind up on Stomp because of this, if someone snapped you on a cell phone and decided to send it in. You could become one of Stomp’s ‘Ugly Commuters.’”
    We laughed at this.
    Our guide looked puzzled. “But why did you leave this wrapper behind?” she asked, her forehead furrowing. “Why didn’t you pick it up?”



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