Thursday, August 2, 2007

Chinese RM awardees unlike China’s me-generation

One of this year’s seven Ramon Magsaysay awardees, China’s Chen Guangcheng who is blind, will not be able to come. He is in prison. Three of the seven RM awardees are from China.

This week’s Time magazine’s cover story is about China’s burgeoning young adults (under age 30) numbering about 300 million. Unflatteringly called the “me-generation”, they are post-Mao, post-cultural revolution babies born in the era of Deng and his successors. They woke up to the hum of a rapidly growing economy, made their first steps inside a bubble that radiated a sheen their parents never knew when they were that age.

Now these 20-sometings are taking over and living it up. Although their lives are still within the confines of a communist state, this so-called me-generation couldn’t care less. They have what they want, they enjoy the myriad pleasures and satisfaction the economy they work for could offer, so why rock the boat?

The hunger for democracy, the lack of it in China—that the world frowns on—is not going to hamper their lifestyle. The rural countryside and the poverty that still stalk millions who toil under deplorable conditions—these are not in their list of priorities.

That’s what the Time cover story tried to portray. As a 27-year-old advertising company owner said: “We are more self-centered. We live for ourselves, and that’s good. We contribute to the economy. That’s our power.”

It’s the good life for another 27-year-old fashion writer who loves spas, facials, massages and gym work-outs. They work hard and they play even harder. Another 27-year-old account executive in a global advertising company says, “There’s nothing we can do about politics. So there’s no point in talking about it or getting involved.”

Wow. Tell that to the Filipinos in the same age group, or older, who still swear by the name of Mao and who continue to wage a guerrilla war against the government in the hope of seeing their Maoist dream come true. The Maoist insurgency in the Philippines is the oldest in Southeast Asia.

The Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, now on its 50th year, announced yesterday batch of awardees for 2007. Among the awardees are three Chinese nationals. Two of them—Cheng Guangcheng and Chung To—will receive the award for Emergent Leadership (for those under 40). Tang Xiyang will receive the award for Peace and International Understanding.

The Philippines’ own Jovito Salonga is this year’s awardee for Government Service, India’s Palagummi Sainath is the awardee for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, Nepal’s Mahabir Pun for Community Leadership and Korea’s Kim Sun-Tae for Public Service.

As I said earlier, Chen who is blind will not be able to come. He is in prison. The RM Awards Foundation has picked Chen for “his irrepressible passion for justice in leading ordinary Chinese citizens to assert their legitimate rights under the law.”

Blinded as an infant, Chen learned early how to confront life’s limitations. Denied formal schooling for most of his youth, he amassed knowledge by listening to the radio. By age 30 he had completed a university course in massage and acupuncture therapy.

Chen also immersed himself in the study of law and became a “barefoot lawyer”. He helped people file complaints and civil cases in local courts. He defended the rights of the disabled and accessed funds to provide safe water for villages near factories that polluted rivers. He filed a first-ever class-action suit against local officials for abusive violation of population policies.

Chen’s activism didn’t go unnoticed. He angered local officials who soon went after him. Chen was harassed, beaten and later convicted and jailed on spurious charges. He remains in jail to this day.

Chung To was born in Hong Kong and was already a successful banker when he decided to do something for those at risk from HIV-AIDS in China. In 1995, he set up the Chi Heng Foundation in order to reach millions of gay Chinese men and inform them about the disease. Chung waged his battle through workshops, counseling, legal advice and by linking up with doctors.

Confronted with an AIDS epidemic caused by sale of contaminated blood and moved by the plight of AIDS orphans, Chung left his banking career to work fulltime with AIDS Orphans Project. Starting with 127 students in one village, Chung has now helped 4,000 AIDS-impacted children in four provinces through vocational training and university schooling.

I hope Chung would be able to come. Some years ago, awardee Gao Yaojie, a doctor who discovered the wanton distribution of AIDS-contaminated blood and who worked to contain the anomalous practice was prevented by her government from coming. I ended up interviewing her representative.

Tang Xiyang, the awardee for Peace and International Understanding, comes from a different era. Sent to do forced labor in the countryside during China’s Cultural Revolution, Tang could have turned out a bitter and broken man. Instead he drew from his experience of nature and embarked on a conservation process in order to reverse environmental damage wrought by years of violence and indifference.

A prolific writer and lecturer, Tang advocated for environmental reform and democracy. He established “green camps” for the young so that they would learn about nature’s laws and respect them.

I hope the pleasure-loving me-generation of China would learn lessons from these special individuals. China is not wanting in heroes who are not in the Mao-mold.