Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: February, 2016

The Alps as a “third place”?

Depopulation of rural areas is a problem in Europe as elsewhere. Industry tends not to stick around rural areas, but to go where the action is, namely to the big cities – and the jobs go with it. There seems little that can be done. Here in Switzerland, neo-liberals advocate everybody moving from “peripheral regions” to the cities and leaving the Alps as one big national park.

Yet it seems hard to understand why the urbanization trend should be inevitable. In the era of computers and the Internet, people should be able to work at home or in local groups, like the watchmakers did in the past as a cottage industry in parts of Switzerland. Why is this not happening? Well, it could be because the locals are not computer-savvy enough. They don’t belong to the modern mobile international élite.

Now some people in the rather peripheral Grisons canton, where I live, have come up with the idea of attracting the international élite here. They want to develop the Lower Engadine Valley, which is a good way even from the main local centre of St Moritz, into a place where the digital nomads of the world can come and stay for a while. It will give them a break from fast-paced big-city life, supposedly, and help them to avoid burnout. The only requirement is that they need very good wireless internet access to stay connected to their workplace, wherever it is. The tourist infrastructure is already available in the Engadine, with hotels and the like geared to skiing tourism.

The promoters of this idea are pitching the idea of a “third place”: a place that is not home or office, but a convivial space where (among other things) work can be done. Solo workers increasingly telecommute from such third places, it is said, because at home they feel lonely and isolated. So, the reasoning goes, wouldn’t stressed-out business and computer types, who are globalized nomads anyway, want to get away from the office just to work in a refreshingly different environment – a “third place”?

The idea is that the snowy, Alpine Engadine valley will appeal to the international business élite as just such a “third place”. Whether this is going to attract Indians from Bangalore who have never skied in their life, I would doubt. But the folks here are Romansh. For generations they have seen their meal ticket as being a German-speaking tourist on skis. Whether they can adjust to a new type of visitor who probably doesn’t speak German and may not know how to ski or even want to, is a moot point. But the promoters are optimistic. So: snow, anyone?




Culture and education

These days we hear a lot about ranking schools and educational achievement. In the European Union, there is frequent comparison of educational standards and outcomes in different countries. This is supposedly in the interests of international mobility. It seems to stand to reason, doesn’t it? If all educational systems at every level were the same, students could easily move around from country to country, enriching their perspectives, and barriers would fall.

Most of the time, however, it’s comparing apples and oranges. Different countries have different educational traditions. Why? Because education is a part of culture. It does not just convey information or a set of skills. It also inculcates the values and beliefs of society. The school years are society’s best chance to get at young minds and mould them into good future citizens.

The European system, first developed in the Middle Ages, was based on a knowledge of the Greek and Latin classics. Two centuries ago, this began to be replaced by national classics in the national language. In fact, education has become more national since universal education was introduced in Western countries. One of the purposes of the educational system was to instill national pride and devotion in the pupils.

The national educational systems diverged considerably due to these cultural factors. The philosophy of education behind the German Gymnasium, the French lycée and the English public schools is very different. University traditions are very different too. The Sorbonne is not Oxford or Cambridge, nor is it like the German universities inspired by the humanistic philosophy of Wilhelm von Humboldt.

One of the things most talked about when comparing educational systems of different countries is attendance at university as a measure of something. In the English-speaking world, a very high percentage of young people now go on to university. Whether they get jobs afterwards is another question. Whether anybody in the establishment cares if they do or not is another question again. In some other countries, like here in Switzerland, the number going to university is much less. Does that mean that Swiss youth are stupider, or that the system here blights the chances for social mobility of the less well-off? Not at all. It just means that the Swiss prefer to meet the needs of their industries by putting young people into apprenticeships and vocational college programmes. Youth unemployment is correspondingly low.

Anyway, what we call “the University” is not so much a hallowed institution as a moving target. Since the late 20th century, the university has been extending its reach to include all kinds of stuff it never taught before. And there are more and more universities – just about every local college in the English-speaking world now demands the right to grant degrees.

There is no reason why the university system in the English-speaking world should be taken as the perfect model for the education of the world tomorrow. Something else might be called for. Something that might reflect other cultures and civilizations, with their untapped treasury of values and aspirations.

The paradox of moving somewhere else

Here in Switzerland a while ago there was a referendum about “secondary residences”. This means people building chalets or (more often) buying into apartment blocks in and around the Alpine ski resorts. The people who do this either live in the big cities in Switzerland or else they are from another country like Germany. These housing developments have been mushrooming, basically taking over picturesque Alpine villages and turning them into a kind of urban sprawl. Because they are not occupied for a large part of the year, the secondary residences are known as “cold beds”. In the Swiss referendum, a majority voted to put a cap on the construction of secondary residences, on the good grounds that the Alps are losing their character to this unchecked development.

An Englishman named Peter Mayle wrote a book called A Year in Provence about his adventures buying and fitting up an old house in the South of France – the picturesqueness of the landscape, the quaintness of the locals, and all the usual stuff you find in books like that. It turned out to be a bestseller, and soon British and Americans started buying up every other house in Provence. As a matter of fact, there is now a craze in the Anglo-Saxon world for buying up picturesque farmhouses in villages anywhere in France. The effect on the authenticity of the landscape can easily be imagined.

Secondary residences have something in common with immigration. They change the character of the place. That is the paradox: you go somewhere because you like it there, because it is different from what you know. But by going there in large numbers, you change the place and it starts to look like what you left.

Thinking specifically of immigration, I recall an American man who was helping out unaccompanied minors coming across the Rio Grande saying to a newspaper reporter: if they all come here, this country will no longer be what they came here for. Very astute observation! Secondary residences spell “change from above” and immigration spells “change from below” but the same principle is at work: people come looking for something – and because they come, it changes and eventually disappears.

There is not much can be done about either kind of change, as far as I can see. The trends in economic and social development worldwide are feeding them both. The prosperous Western countries now have little population growth, and the poorer parts of the earth do. The prosperous countries need immigration to keep the pot boiling, and people from the poorer parts can supply it. Meanwhile, in many parts of Europe, the countryside is dying, with peasant folk moving to find work in the cities, leaving picturesque, empty farmhouses to be snapped up by foreign buyers.


Dragon dance for mardi gras

Today it is mardi gras, the last day of Carnival in Europe, and in Asia they are well into the Chinese New Year celebrations. The other day there was a cartoon in one of the Swiss newspapers: two business types see a dragon rearing its head over a factory and ask each other “is this Carnival?”

This year, indeed, it seems like the Chinese dragon has invited itself to the Carnival parade. The agricultural products multinational Syngenta, which has not been doing too well lately and needed new investment, was almost taken over last year by the American multinational Monsanto, but the takeover fell through. Now the company is being taken over by ChemChina. Ren Jianxin, chief of the state-owned company, was in Basel the other day to close the deal. “Never before have the Chinese offered so much money for a foreign firm” commented another Swiss newspaper.

Some people here are worried about cash-rich Chinese buyers coming here and elsewhere in Europe on the lookout for acquisitions – they are also taking over firms in Germany, but nothing very big yet. People assume the Chinese want more Western know-how for their own growth. ChemChina’s Ren himself said that Syngenta would help modernize Chinese agriculture. Naysayers here grumble that the Chinese buyers have the financial muscle of the Chinese state behind them, so private investors can’t compete, and it’s unfair. There is a general apprehension about China buying up the Western world.

Yet the Swiss government seems to be supporting and facilitating the Syngenta deal, now that ChemChina has reportedly guaranteed that the head office will stay in Basel and there will be no changes for at least five years. Voices have also been raised in support of the deal in Swiss industry, notably those of well-known CEOs Daniel Vasella and Magdalena Martullo-Blocher. Such business figures realize that there has to be give and take. If Western companies large and small dream of nothing so much as “cracking the Chinese market”, they have to give the Chinese a chance to crack the West.




The term hétérotopie seems to have been invented by Michel Foucault, though he himself made limited use of it. In one sense, he used the word to designate the “other places” he studied in his books, all of which were places to send deviants or people in crisis: the prison, the lunatic asylum, or the hospital. Yet he used the term in another sense – writing about the basic order of discourse in society and its rules – to designate China and “other places” where the rules of the game differ.

In this latter context, he distinguished heterotopias from utopias, which are ideal places but, of course, they do not exist (utopia means “nowhere”). Heterotopias are not ideal, they are just different. (Lacking this useful word, Samuel Butler called New Zealand Erewhon – nowhere backwards.)

Today people also talk about “dystopias”, which are utopias gone wrong. But again heterotopias are neither good nor bad, they are just different. They are parallel worlds to ours. The same things are going on there as go on here, but entirely independently. As French philosopher and sinologist François Jullien says, these worlds are indifferent to one another.

Foucault said that utopias console us, but heterotopias make us uneasy. The uneasiness, he says, comes from the fact that they are organized on different principles. But I think it also comes from the parallel quality. If you go “there”, you see life going on, and when you come back “here”, it’s still going on over “there”. But if you have ever lived in two places – an increasingly common experience in this globalized world – you gradually get to accept it. Often, when you are “here”, you find yourself thinking of “there” and wondering what’s going on in your absence. There is a lost innocence of “here”. You know now that there is always a “there”, that in fact there are many “there”s – a world of heterotopias.