Back to Common Ground Archive

Week of March 4, 2003

Program 0309


US Foreign Service | Transcript | MP3

Chile Pension | Transcript | MP3

Chinese Dissident Art | Transcript | MP3

China Learns English | Transcript | MP3

Dracula World | Transcript | MP3

India-Pakistan Journey | Transcript | MP3

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

JOHN NALAND: I think we’d like to take a hardship assignment. But there are different kinds of hardship assignments. I wouldn’t want to go back to a danger pay post right now. I wouldn’t want to take her to Kabul.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: This week on Common Ground, exploring the not so glamorous life of the US Foreign Service.

MCHUGH: And why Chile’s privatized social security system is leaving some out in the cold.

LARRAIN: Approximately one-third of the workforce in Chili are independents. They are probably not willing to make contributions to a social security system for 20 or 30 years more.

MCHUGH: And dissident Chinese artists make it big.

KAREN SMITH: I think some artists have made fortunes on the back of not terribly original ideas.

KEITH PORTER: These stories—coming up next.

PORTER: Common Ground is radio’s weekly program on world affairs. I’m Keith Porter.

MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh.

Top of Page

US Foreign Service

Listen to This Segment: MP3

MCHUGH: More than half of America’s embassies and consulates overseas are classified as hardship posts—for everything from remoteness of location to poor schools to extreme personal danger. And at this crucial time in international relations, the State Department is having a hard time finding qualified people to work at those posts. Judith Smelser reports.

THE LATE US SENATOR PAUL WELLSTONE: [calling a Senate subcommittee meeting to order.] The subcommittee hearing on ambassadorial nominations to Oman and Pakistan will come to order.

JUSITH SMELSER: This summer, senators came together to approve two new US ambassadors—a routine process, but this time there was a twist. The same committee had confirmed a different ambassador to Pakistan just a year earlier, as Senator Paul Wellstone acknowledged.

WELLSTONE: [speaking before a Senate subcommittee] I want to express my profound gratitude to Ambassador Chamberlin for her service in Pakistan after September 11th and to all of the American and local staff at the American embassy and consulates in Pakistan.

SMELSER: Since September 11th and the ensuing war in neighboring Afghanistan, there have been a number of attacks on foreigners in Pakistan. Families of US diplomats, and even some embassy staff, were evacuated from the country. Among the evacuees were Ambassador Chamberlin’s two teenage children, and she felt she couldn’t be separated from them. And so, just over nine months after she arrived in Pakistan, Ambassador Chamberlin went back to the US. Her story is just the tip of the iceberg. A recent report by the General Accounting Office—the investigative arm of Congress—suggests that many positions at hardship posts are staffed by unqualified people, and some are not staffed at all. Representative Vic Snyder of Arkansas requested the GAO report.

VIC SNYDER: Particularly for the first few months after September 11th, we heard a lot of discussion about, gee, why doesn’t the Arab world understand us? Why isn’t the American story getting out? Then you read through this study and you see some of the challenges, some of the shortages that some of these key embassies have.

SMELSER: The report found that in many hardship locations, a large number of employees hold positions above their so-called grade levels. Meaning essentially that junior foreign service officers are doing jobs that should be done by more experienced members of the corps. And in some cases, embassies and consulates are forced to hire people who lack the language skills they need. For example, the GAO found that while 93 percent of foreign service positions in China require language proficiency, only 38 percent of the officers in that country meet the requirement. And in one consulate in Saudi Arabia, the head of public diplomacy doesn’t speak Arabic. So, what’s causing the problem?

TOM BOYATT: It’s just that right now it’s a seller’s market, and this is what happens when you have a seller’s market.

SMELSER: Former US Ambassador to Colombia and longtime foreign service veteran, Tom Boyatt, says there simply aren’t enough people to fill all the positions.

BOYATT: If you have 4,000 posts and 3,000 people, they’re gonna volunteer to go to the safer, more comfortable posts. And Colin Powell is moving to correct that, bringing in 1,000 new foreign service officers over the next three years.

SMELSER: Ambassador Boyatt says the State Department is having to play catch up now because the Clinton Administration made drastic cuts in the foreign service budget during the 1990s. And he’s still angry about it.

BOYATT: We won the Cold War in ’89 and ’90. In 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. We won! And then, like we always do, we proceeded to disarm, unilaterally, both in the military and in the intelligence, and in the diplomatic. And we paid for that on September 11th.

SMELSER: But the problem in the foreign service is not all about the numbers. Ambassador Boyatt agrees that society has changed since he was a diplomat, especially when it comes to employment for spouses of foreign service officers.

BOYATT: That wasn’t a problem in my day. We both saluted and went where they sent us and did what we were told to do.

SMELSER: Now, foreign service officers have to worry about whether their spouses will be able to find work in an overseas post, and in some cases, whether their families will even be safe. John Naland is the President of the American Foreign Service Association, a kind of union representing thousands of current and former foreign service employees. He also served in Colombia, as well as Nicaragua—another hardship post. He says he liked the high morale and sense of purpose that come with working in difficult places, but now that he has a wife and two young daughters, he admits his considerations would be different.

JOHN NALAND: I think we’d like to take a hardship assignment. But there are different kinds of hardship assignments. I wouldn’t want to go back to a danger pay post right now. I wouldn’t want to take her to Kabul.

SMELSER: Mr. Naland thinks those types of concerns are very valid. But he’s frustrated that some people in the foreign service seem unwilling to serve at hardship locations at all. For that reason, his organization suggested that the State Department make sure all officers do their fair share of service at those types of posts.

NALAND: We, the union, believe that during the course of a foreign service career, that everyone should do service in developing countries and places that aren’t, you know, as nice as Paris. Because that allows people like me, who prefer hardship posts because of the high morale or whatever reasons, allows us to once in awhile, you know, go to Paris.

SMELSER: But the State Department is skittish about forcing people to go places they don’t want to go, for fear those people will simply resign. The foreign service already offers pay incentives for hardship posts and dangerous locations, but Ambassador Boyatt thinks different types of rewards might work better.

BOYATT: You can’t become an ambassador unless you’ve had a hardship post—that kind of thing. Or, at certain levels if you want to get promoted, particularly at the senior levels, you have to, you know, punch that hole in the career sheet.

SMELSER: Ambassador Boyatt is convinced that many of the problems will disappear when the newly hired foreign service officers gain some experience. And there’s no lack of interest in the foreign service—the number of applicants for the corps has tripled since September 11th. The challenge will be to make sure the people coming in are well trained and that they end up in the places they’re needed most. For Common Ground, I’m Judith Smelser in Washington.

MCHUGH: Chile’s social security system, next, on Common Ground.

[Musical interlude]

Top of Page

Chile Pension

Listen to This Segment: MP3

PORTER: Chile completely privatized its social security system 21 years ago, and some in the US say it’s a model for reform. But does Chile’s pension system really work? Reese Erlich reports from Santiago.

[The sound of a gate opening and someone walking into a house.]

REESE ERLICH: Sixty-six-year-old retired high school teacher Olga Seguel welcomes a visitor into her modest 2 bedroom, brick house in Santiago.

[A door closes.]

ERLICH: She pulls open an envelope to reveal her monthly pension check. It’s only $167, about half of what she earned as a teacher. She has no other source of income. Her husband, a retired salesmen, earns less than one-third of his old wages.

OLGA SEGUEL: [via a translator] It’s miserable. The pensions are, aren’t enough for anything. We have a lot of expenses. There’s lots of things we have to pay for and can’t. Because of the low pensions, we’re being evicted from our house, which we bought 20 years ago.

ERLICH: That’s not how Chile’s pension system is supposed to work. In 1981 dictator General Augusto Pinochet completely eliminated Chile’s government sponsored social security system and implemented a free market, privatized pension plan. Thirteen percent of a worker’s wage is automatically deducted and sent to one of seven mutual funds. Contributions are tax deferred, similar to 401K plans in the US. If workers save enough and invest wisely, they are supposed to retire with dignity.

[A stockbroker’s phone rings, and brokers type on computers.]

ERLICH: The very modern Santiago stock exchange is home to Chile’s pension funds. Those funds have grown an average of 10.7 percent over the past 21 years. Luis Larrain sits on the board of directors of Habitat, Chile’s second largest pension fund. He says Chile’s mutual funds are better than American retirement accounts because employees can’t be forced to invest in their employer’s stock, as happened at Enron.

Luis Larrain: It’s superior to the, to the 401k system you have. Because, for example in the situations as of this famous company, Enron, the pension funds are always involved in the great problem. In this case they are completely out. The employer has nothing to do with the management of this fund.

ERLICH: Guillermo Arthur, President of the Association of Pension Funds, says Chile could serve as a model for social security reform in the US.

Guillermo Arthur: [via a translator] It would be a big advance for American workers to have a privatized, voluntary system like we have in Chile.

ERLICH: But critics say Chile’s system has far too many flaws to serve as a model for anyone. For one thing, neither employers nor the government contribute to the retirement system. Arthur maintains this gives employers the flexibility to pay higher wages.

Arthur: [via a translator] Here in Chile we have a culture of liquid wages. As a consequence, the worker would rather have an increased salary than a contribution to the pension fund. That’s the reason employers don’t contribute. The employers don’t have to pay anything for pensions. But they should negotiate with the workers to provide higher wages.

ERLICH: But unions are weak in Chile, in part because of 15 years of repression under the Pinochet dictatorship. Blue collar workers complain that employers just don’t get around to raising wages voluntarily.

[The sound of a truck pulling out, followed by the loud noise of a drill.]

ERLICH: Workers at this Santiago construction site are busy building a beautiful new apartment complex. This laborer named Rich is old enough to remember Chile’s previous pension system under socialist President Salvador Allende. In the early 1970s employees contributed 12.5% of their monthly wage to the government sponsored plan, and employers matched it.

Rich: [via a translator] I think the new mutual fund pension system is unjust for us, the workers. We were supposed to receive more money than under the old pension system. But it’s just the opposite. It’s not fair. The old system was much better. Today the rich are benefiting, not us.

[The sound of shovel digging dirt.]

ERLICH: Alejandro, another worker, says when General Pinochet imposed the new system in 1981, it was aimed at reducing costs to the government, not improving pensions for workers.

Alejandro: [via a translator] I don’t think the system works very well. The benefits are very bad. They don’t reflect the needs of ordinary people. The new system was an economic decision to benefit businessmen, not the individual. The fund companies make big profits but we, ordinary people, don’t benefit. The cost of running a pension fund is very low, and they don’t invest anything. But every month they’re making money.

ERLICH: Alejandro has something there. Of that 13% deducted from worker’s wages each month, 1.7% goes to the mutual funds for expenses and profits. So it’s not surprising that the funds report shareholder profits of 20-30% every year. The funds have become so lucrative that American and European companies have bought up significant stakes. Juan Gumucio is a law professor and pension expert.

Juan Gumucio: [via a translator] The companies make fabulous profits. They make more money than the drug traffickers make selling white powder. They have no costs above their immediate expenses. They produce profits many times over their invested capital. There is no significant government regulation. The market is concentrated in a few companies. In reality, three big companies control the entire pension fund market.

ERLICH: Such high profits don’t bother some workers, however, if they also benefit. A construction worker named Roberto is getting close to retirement age and he has voluntarily increased his monthly contributions.

Roberto: [via a translator] It’s the only way we have to retire. I hope the pension will be adequate. I contribute 20% of my monthly salary. It’s a lot. I haven’t calculated my pension. But I have a friend who is getting a good pension. He has children who are still in school, and it’s good enough for his family.

ERLICH: The system does work for some higher paid workers who save a lot and invest wisely. But that only applies to regularly employed workers. Remember retiree Olga Seguel who we met at the beginning of this story? Her husband worked as a self employed salesman for awhile, so for a time he wasn’t covered by the system. In fact, 42 percent of the workforce in Chile isn’t covered.

[The sound of street vendors shouting out in Spanish: “Cheap prices; good deals.”]

ERLICH: Independent contractors and workers in the informal economy, such as these street vendors, aren’t required to participate in the pension plan. They could voluntarily contribute money each month, but as this vendor explains, he can’t afford it.

Male street vendor: [via a translator] We simply don’t have enough money. I have a child in school. I don’t have any money left over. No street vendor I know participates in the pension plan because we have so little money. We make only $4 or $5 a day.

[The sound of street vendors shouting out in Spanish: “Cheap prices; good deals.”]

ERLICH: Pension fund board member Larrain admits this lack of coverage is a serious flaw in the system. He says the government should provide special tax incentives to encourage self-employed workers to participate.

Larrain: They are looking for the next 20 days, not the next 20 years. And that’s a problem. Approximately one-third of the workforce in Chile are independents. They are probably not willing to make contributions to a social security system for 20 or 30 years more. So it’s very difficult. The only way I think that you can really increase coverage is with some special tax incentives for those people.

ERLICH: But Larrain says, on the whole, the system works well and helps promote Chile’s free market economy. Because participation is mandatory, the pension system has increased the savings rate. The roughly $40 billion dollars held by the funds helps stir Chile’s economic growth and helps make the country one of the most economically stable in South America, say supporters such as Fund Association President Guillermo Arthur. He says the pension system has increased employees’ faith in free markets, because workers earn more if they take an active role in investing.

Arthur: [via a translator] The old pension system was pay as you go. It was passive. The active workers paid for the pensions of the passive workers. The active workers made less and the passive ones made more by doing nothing. We changed to an individual investment system in which the worker invests month to month to pay for his pension.

ERLICH: [asking a question of Arthur] In the United States many people are worried that the fluctuation in the stock market can cause problems with their pensions. How do you deal with that problem?

Arthur: [via a translator] We diversify our investments. For example, it’s completely wrong for the funds to be heavily invested in government bonds. In Argentina they did that. They aren’t the most secure. We invest around the world, not only in Chile. The law allows up to 30% foreign investments.

ERLICH: But not everyone in Chile must contribute to the system. In fact, the very people who instituted the system shielded themselves from having to participate in it. When Gen. Pinochet imposed the free market pension plan in 1981, he specifically excluded military and police. They have maintained a traditional plan in which the government provides pensions based on rank and years of service. Law professor Juan Gumucio.

Gumucio: [via a translator] The pension system for the military and police is unquestionably much better than the privatized system for civilians. After 20 years on the job, they get pensions based on their most recent salaries. They have health care with their own hospitals, which have the most modern equipment. This is a significant cost for the state. When the Pinochet dictatorship imposed the plan, the idea was to reduce costs to the government. Curiously enough, he didn’t eliminate the high cost of military and police pensions.

ERLICH: In the US, politicians of both parties worry that the Social Security system will go bankrupt and require large government subsidies. Privatization is supposed to solve that problem by making the system pay for itself. But Chile’s privatized system still requires government subsidies, a whopping 5.7 percent of the gross domestic product every year between 1981 and 1998. That’s because the military pensions are still subsidized, but also because the government guarantees a minimum pension to anyone who has worked 20 years or more. The minimum pension is now only $110 per month, well below the poverty level. Gumucio says within a few years, most Chileans will only collect the minimum.

Gumucio: [via a translator] After more than 20 years of experience with the system, we know we have serious problems. The system benefits some people, but not the majority. By the year 2010, 60% of retirees will only qualify for the minimum pension. That means the state must subsidize the difference between the minimum pension and what those individuals have in their mutual fund.

ERLICH: Mutual fund official Larrain disputes those figures.

Larrain: I think the proportion of people with the minimum pension would be rather similar to the proportion of people that earns the minimum salary in Chile. And that proportion goes between 15 and 18 percent of the population.

ERLICH: Depending on whose figures are correct, in years to come Chile may have to subsidize some of its pension system or a whole lot of it. Jorge Millan, pension specialist with the country’s largest union federation, says this kind of privatized system would never pass Chile’s House and Senate today.

JORGE Millan: [via a translator] Don’t forget that the pension system was created during the time of the military dictatorship when there were no parties. There was no democratic constitution and when workers had no right to vote. About four military officers made the decision. We can say without doubt that the Chilean government has created a very sick child. If we don’t operate, the child will die.

[The sound of someone entering a house and a door closing.]

ERLICH: At home, retirees Olga Seguel and her husband Carlos Passache express puzzlement that anyone in the US Congress would look to Chile as an example of social security reform. They tried to live on their pensions for three years. Passache drives cab six days a week to earn some extra money. But they still got evicted from their house.

Carlos Passache: [via a translator] The people running the mutual funds paint a pretty picture of our pension system, but it’s not true. The profits that go to the pension funds should go to us.

ERLICH: For Common Ground, I’m Reese Erlich in Santiago, Chile.

Top of Page

Chinese Dissident Art

Listen to This Segment: MP3

MCHUGH: The western hunger for modern Chinese art grows year after year, with a premium placed on so-called “dissident” work which challenges the stilted images of Communist propaganda.

PORTER: But, just outside Beijing, small villages have become wealthy artists’ colonies, where some artists live remarkably comfortable lives. Now, critics are asking, when you’re making this much money, just how dissident can you be? Nina-Maria Potts reports.

[The sound of chirping cicadas.]

NINA MARIA-POTTS: An hour to the northeast of Beijing, there is a small village filled with very rich men and women. Crickets sing in the sweltering heat, large dogs guard high-walled villas, and four- wheel drive cars gleam in the sun. This is not the summer resort of Communist cadres. This is Shang Yuan, in Changping county, an unofficial artists’ colony of roughly 80 avant-garde painters, sculptors, and writers. They are not here hiding from the Communist thought police. It’s just that once you can sell your work for thousands of US dollars a time to wealthy foreign collectors, a cramped apartment in the city center does not have quite the same appeal.

[The sound of people chatting at an art gallery opening or similar event.]

POTTS: On the weekends, the artists and hangers-on in this colony, and a handful of others like it, hold court to a select group of well-connected Chinese professionals and foreigners in the know. Karen Smith, a British writer and sometime dealer in modern Chinese art, has been at the heart of this world for eight years.

KAREN SMITH: The artists here, some of them are making extraordinary livings. Ultimately it relies on two things—either you’re an excellent artist and you’re recognized for your talent, or you’re an incredible entrepreneur, who happens to have a good hand and a good feeling for things.

POTTS: There are foreign buyers who have a very fixed idea of what modern Chinese art should look like. There are already many established clichés—old men in Mao suits holding cans of Coca Cola, or Chinese peasants with Big Macs, among other examples of supposedly political art. Cynics would charge that painters willing to play up to some idea of dissident Chinese art can make money faster than someone more original but harder to gauge. Karen Smith partly agrees with the cynical view.

SMITH: I think with China opening up, the late ’80s, early ’90s, it was very easy to sell this kind of art on the back of that idea, because it was what everybody expected. Because of the notions of repression created from the period of the Cultural Revolution, people couldn’t imagine that there would be the freedom to create in China. So to see works that were coming out, if they had any kind of image of Mao, anything that looked vaguely ideological, then people assumed that, of course, it had to be this way.

POTTS: Karen Smith sums up the critical backlash that currently clouds the Chinese art market this way.

SMITH: I think some artists have made fortunes on the back of not terribly original ideas, and the hype that has gone with the certain styles of art in the West. I think that there are many more artists whose work is of a higher quality who are more dedicated and more committed to what they’re doing but because their art to date has not necessarily fulfilled a dream of China or is not immediately recognizable as being Chinese, they’ve had a harder time establishing themselves and gaining a certain financial success.

POTTS: The main reason is that, to date, the people buying the art are overwhelmingly foreigners.

SMITH: There has been very little market in China and it largely comes from abroad.

POTTS: As China gets richer, and its largest cities more international, the art market is becoming more sophisticated and rich Chinese and foreign collectors are meeting on more equal terms. Among a small elite, art is increasingly fashionable in Shanghai and Beijing right now and ambitious young artists from around China are flocking to join this lucrative scene.

[The sounds of a cocktail party at a gallery opening.]

POTTS: Few galleries are more fashionable than the Courtyard Gallery. In the shadow of Beijing’s old imperial Forbidden City, this expensively modernized slice of Qing dynasty China is part modern art gallery, and fashionable restaurant. The food and its location even landed a spot in Conde Nast’s Traveller magazine’s top 50 restaurants of the world. Today is Sunday and the opening of one of the Courtyard’s regular group exhibitions. The guests are film producers, diplomats, magazine editors, and journalists. Meg Maggio, is the Courtyard Gallery’s director and today she is selling some of China’s most successful artists.

Meg Maggio: Yes, Zhang Huei, was in the Venice Biennale, he was in the Lyons Biennale, he’s an extremely well established artist. Zhang Dali also. Zhang Dali lived for six years in Italy. He’s very well established in Europe especially.

POTTS: The art on show today is not about overthrowing the system.

Maggio: I think politics are very boring, and I think it’s a very boring subject. I think you don’t need to pollute visual arts with politics. I think it’s actually very boring. I get very frustrated when people come here and they’re sort of disappointed because they don’t think there’s enough of a political content in the works we represent. We’re not here to allow people to use their art as some sort of tool for political messages. I mean, we’re interested in their art, we’re really not interested in their politics.

POTTS: Among the established names, two newcomers, the Gao brothers, fresh from the inland province of Sichuan, are attracting attention with their challenging photographs which feature male nudes wearing nothing but a pair of rubber gloves, selected children’s toys, and television sets. The Gao brothers are not shy about revealing their asking price.

THE GAO BROTHERS: [via a translator] $1,600 US dollars—the more expensive the better.

POTTS: Their only customers are foreigners. The brothers admit the reason has nothing to do with Communist ideology. It seems the Gao brothers are doomed to the same fate as all avant-guarde artists. Their neighbors and contemporaries back home in Sichuan, just didn’t quite understand them.

THE GAO BROTHERS: [via a translator] Chinese people don’t buy contemporary art, mainly because they don’t think it’s art.

POTTS: While some Chinese artists blame their fellow countrymen for being unappreciative, critics worry a Chinese bubble is being created, which could burst at any moment. Karen Smith is among those concerned about the state of the Chinese art market.

SMITH: I think pricing is a terrible problem with Chinese art right now. Very often the Chinese art for young unknown or emerging artists comes out way beyond the equivalent for artists in the US or the UK. Probably, you know, the top artists are selling their works at enormous prices, tens of thousands of US dollars. My worry is when you achieve such a high price so young, where do you go? You know, there’s a point beyond which it becomes silly.

POTTS: For now the bubble continues to swell. This is one group of rebels who are not suffering for their art. For Common Ground, I’m Nina-Maria Potts in Beijing.

PORTER: This is Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

KEITH PORTER: I’m Keith Porter.

KRISTIN MCHUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Coming up this half hour on Common Ground, Chinese businessmen learn the “A-B-C’s” of English.

Lin Jun: [via a translator] I think the best way to put it is to say that since China entered the WTO, the Chinese people need to be players on the world stage. So that is the largest driver for the need to learn English and to raise the bar.

PORTER: And Transylvania’s theme park dreams.

Top of Page

China Learns English

Listen to This Segment: MP3

PORTER: The same people that brought you the dreaded SAT exam, the Education Testing Service, are now using their question-forming talents to teach English to business people and workers in China. With help and prompting from the Beijing government, a Chinese education company has signed a multimillion dollar deal with America’s largest educational testing service to create and use a practical English test throughout the country. Catherine Drew reports.

[The sound of people applauding and taking photographs.]

CATHERINE DREW: Representatives from the Beijing Topeak Education Company traveled all the way to New Jersey to sign the contract with the nonprofit Education Testing Service at a small ceremony. The deal is worth between $70 and $100 million dollars for ETS. For that, the company will specially design an exam to test the English language skills of businessmen and women, and service workers in state and private industries. Lin Jun, the CEO of the Beijing Topeak Group, says the Chinese must do more to learn the dominant language of the western business world.

Lin Jun: [via a translator] I think the best way to put it is to say that since China entered the WTO, the Chinese people need to be players on the world stage. So that is the largest driver for the need to learn English and to raise the bar.

CHINESE SECRETARY: [speaking English and answering a telephone call] Welcome to How may I help you?

CHINESE BUSINESSMAN: [speaking in English] Oh, I’m Mr. Chan. I would like to find Mr. Lee.

CHINESE SECRETARY: Okay. One moment please.


DREW: Many Chinese businesses, like Internet company Culture dot com, use English to greet foreign visitors, many of whom come from China’s English speaking neighbors and economic rivals like Singapore. Kurt Landgraf, head of ETS, is helping China with a long-term plan.

KURT LANDGRAF: It’s very clear that they intend to become a significant economic power. This will help them to do that.

DREW: Since the early 1980s China has pushed English language training in schools. Many children start learning in third grade, although many rural schools lag behind those in the major cities due to a lack of qualified teachers. But this latest multimillion dollar deal puts the focus on the drive for the adult population to learn English.

Mark Fung: China is trying to seek an image of modernity right now. And what better way to do that than to show that its people possess the skills of the world’s lingua franca.

DREW: Mark Fung, a China scholar at Johns Hopkins University, says this latest deal with ETS highlights the importance the Chinese are placing on making sure a wide range of citizens speak English ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games.

FUNG: They have such a short amount of time. This is China’s one chance to show their face to the entire world. And if you have people who are not being able to facilitate either spectators or athletes, you’re going to have some problems. So they have to ramp up right away.

DREW: That sense of urgency about learning English is echoed by Liu Jun, the CEO of Beijing Topeak Group.

LIU JUN: [via a translator] Specifically, I think we’ll start seeing increased learning activities as early as next year. We expect a significant number of people to start taking tests right away. As they prepare for the test, they’ll focus on functional English skills.

CATHERINE DREW: Mr. Liu says they’re confident tens of thousands of service industry and business people will soon be studying for and taking the English language test, devised thousands of miles away at ETS headquarters in New Jersey. Initially it will be offered as a paper test, although ETS plans to administer it via the Internet soon, another indication that a process of modernization is underway in China. While individually, the Chinese may be keen to improve their job prospects, it’s clear the country’s leaders have their eyes on a future where as many people as possible are proficient in the language of their economic rivals. For Common Ground, I’m Catherine Drew in Princeton, New Jersey.

PORTER: You’re listening to Common Ground, radio’s weekly program on world affairs.

[Musical interlude]

Top of Page

Dracula World

Listen to This Segment: MP3

MCHUGH: Thousands of people each year flock to Romania to catch a glimpse of the country’s many historical sites. And now, Romania’s Tourism Ministry is hoping a new theme park will attract even more. But as Drew Leifheit reports, the plan has critics ready to draw first blood.

DREW LEIFHEIT: Maria Popescu sits in a drab basement office located in the villa complex of Romania’s former dictator. For over a decade, she’s been trying to promote Romania as a cultural tourist destination. Popescu says it’s not easy and there are never enough funds to do it effectively.

Maria Popescu: The selling points of Romania as a cultural tourist destination are relating to its areas of excellence: Bukovina’s painted monasteries, the wooden churches in Maramoresh(?), and last but not least, with whatever Transylvania has to offer in point of medieval vestiges and built heritage.

LEIFHEIT: Despite the wealth of historical treasures—many of them designated world heritage sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization—Popescu says those who worked in tourism during communism lack the proper marketing skills for promoting Romania, and that it’s also difficult to convince foreign travel agencies that Romania is a reliable tourist destination.

Popescu: This is a stage where we have to sensibilize people about what Romania is worth visiting for and then try to sell the best cultural tourist products we’ve got and then look in our pocket and see whether there is enough money for that.

[The sound of a church bell.]

LEIFHEIT: Popescu says one town in Transylvania called Sighisoara is especially intriguing, that it’s Romania’s best preserved medieval town. Located in the citadel at the top of a hill in Sighisoara, is a striking medieval clock tower, similar to those in majestic cities like Prague.

[The sound of the medieval clock tower chiming.]

LEIFHEIT: Locals tread along the cobblestone streets past houses dating back hundreds of years. Within walking distance up an adjacent hill, a historic church is being refurbished with the help of international funding.

[The sound of people walking on cobblestone streets.]

LEIFHEIT: A seemingly likely tourist destination, Sighisoara’s old citadel only has a couple of restaurants, one or two shops, and a museum at the base of the clock tower. Just down the way is the birthplace of someone who has come back to haunt the city of Sighisoara—Vlad the Impaler Sepesh, otherwise known to the outside world as Count Dracula through Irish writer Bram Stoker’s book written in 1897.

BELA LUGOSI: [speaking in the 1931 film, Dracula] The year, 1462. Constantinopol had fallen. Muslim Turks swept into Europe with a vast superior force, striking at Romania, threatening all of Christendom. From Transylvania arose a Romanian knight of the Sacred Order of the Dragon, known as Dracula.

LEIFHEIT: It’s this popular notion of Dracula—like Bela Lugosi’s fanged, blood-sucking character in the 1931 film—upon which Romania’s ministry of tourism would like to capitalize. Last fall, the ministry announced a $35 million project to build a Dracula park about a mile outside of Sighisoara. Deputy Minister of Tourism Alin Burcea describes the project.

Alin Burcea: It’s a little bit like, like Disneyland. It is a main street, left and right different restaurants, pubs, shops selling a lot of things. Of course the theme is Dracula. It will have the Dracula castle, which is a little bit separate on the right side. Also the Institute of Vampirology where all those associations of vampires or Dracula fan clubs, they will come to have conferences. And there’s going to be a artificial lake and forests—something more, more strange and as you said, exotic.

LEIFHEIT: The ministry plans to start the project this year and finish it by 2004. The Dracula park would be run by a private company, the local government being one of the shareholders along with other private investors. Alin Burcea says that the area around the park will require extensive infrastructure improvements from the government including road building and expanding the town’s railway station. But historical preservationists, as well as environmentalists, say the park is being built too close to the medieval city.

Maria Berza heads Pro Patrimonio, a foundation which seeks to preserve cultural treasures in Romania. The organization purchases sites, refurbishes them, and uses subsequent earnings from tourism to continue the cycle of purchasing and restoring. Berza says the foundation is not categorically against the idea of a Dracula park.

Maria Berza: But what we say is that it should be placed somewhere else where it does not hinder or destroy heritage. There are many other places in Romania and we have suggested some of them where Dracula could flourish, develop, bring tourists, bring money, bring whatever.

LEIFHEIT: Berza says that Sighisoara became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, along with 18 other sites, while she still worked in the Ministry of Culture. She believes that the prospect of Sighisoara hosting a mass tourism project like Dracula park does not bode well for the town because some tourists would not be visiting to enjoy Sighisoara’s cultural heritage.

BERZA: It’s a very different category of people. And all they would do is show disrespect to the heritage.

LEIFHEIT: Berza’s organization hopes to convince the Ministry of Tourism to utilize another site for the Dracula park. Berza is not the only naysayer. Environmentalists in Romania are dismayed at both the close proximity of the Dracula park to the town and the fact that construction of the park would mean destroying a grove of ancient oak trees on the site proposed for the park. Tourism Minister Alin Burcea brushes those concerns aside.

Burcea: The reality is not as they say it is if we could cut all the hills and all the trees, of course, the distance is 1.5 kilometers. But coming by road there are about 6 kilometers. So it is a very correct distance and nothing can happen to the city. Also, all those trees they’ll become attractions in the park because they look very strange and are very interesting. Some of them they have 200, 300 years and I think they can be useful to the park theme which is Dracula.

LEIFHEIT: But considering Sighisoara’s world heritage site status, the biggest potential naysayer to the project is UNESCO. In the organization’s meeting last year, the International Council on Monuments and Sites expressed concerns about the Dracula project’s proximity to Sighisoara and that “The tourism generated by this park would constitute a mass tourism of a very different kind than that generated by cultural tourism experienced by the town itself.” Still, Alin Burcea says the Ministry of Tourism—not UNESCO—will have the final say about the project.

BURCEA: They can give us advice in order to protect the Sighisoara medieval city, but they can’t say yes or no.

LEIFHEIT: Back in Sighisoara, many of the locals are interested in the prospect of a significant increase in tourists, bringing more jobs and prosperity to the sleepy town. The owner of the medieval theme restaurant located in the building where Vlad the Impaler was born says Dracula park could be a good thing for his business.

ROMANIAN RESTAURANT OWNER: [via a translator] We are happy when people come from all over the world because we’re dependent upon this for our living. We’d like as many tourists as possible to be our guests.

LEIFHEIT: And there’s been some talk of Dracula park proceeds going to fix things up in Sighisoara’s citadel, things like the clock tower and its tiny adjacent museum which contains archeological findings from the town’s first settlers. On this day, Romanian students on a field trip to Sighisoara pack the museum’s entrance. Adrian Antihi is the director of the clock tower museum. She says that although some renovation has been done to the workings of the clock, completely restoring it at present would be prohibitively expensive.

Adrian Antihi: [via a translator] It would be a very good thing if the money from the park were used to restore the citadel—it deserves to be in a good state. We also need new roads—they would build them to connect the town with the park. This would also help tourists enjoy the natural beauty surrounding the town and we think it will give people jobs.

LEIFHEIT: Whether the Dracula park will be built just outside of Sighisoara remains to be seen. This spring the Romanian government was having a tough time getting potential investors to commit the necessary funding. Still, the Ministry of Tourism has promised to push the project forward. Zoltan Fejos has researched the effects of mass tourism upon culturally important sites. He says an influx of tourism has its plusses and minuses.

Fejos: This is a new situation where it’s very easy or a little bit easier than earlier to get cash, funds for development. But from the other side, the normal critique goes that it’s very bad for the local people, because it destroys the tradition, it destroys the life, and so on and so on.

LEIFHEIT: Fejos says that the world heritage designation can serve as an effective marketing tool for those promoting a cultural destination. Cultural tourism, he says, is a growing facet of the overall tourist experience.

Fejos: The world heritage sites are more and more popular all over the world, and they attract more and more people, And it is part of the philosophy, I guess, that it’s important that more and more people come and see what is important on a global scale.

LEIFHEIT: Still, Fejos adds that massive influxes of tourists can place stress upon and even harm precious sites, especially small ones. But, he says it’s impossible to say “Stop! No more people here!” when a culturally important treasure belongs to humankind. For Common Ground, I’m Drew Leifheit.

PORTER: Government officials recently announced a plan that appears to end the controversy over the theme park’s location. Tourism officials say the park will now be built outside Bucharest, the Romanian capital. They cite a study which shows nearly a half million more people will visit the park if it’s located near Bucharest.

[Musical interlude]

Top of Page

India-Pakistan Journey

Listen to This Segment: MP3

MCHUGH: When Common Ground correspondent Simon Marks started planning a recent trip to India and Pakistan, he scarcely imagined that one of the most challenging problems he would face would be traveling between the two countries. Though not formally at war, the Pakistanis and the Indians are certainly engaged in an ongoing conflict over the disputed territory of Kashmir and a host of other policy issues.

PORTER: That conflict translates into an enormous problem for businesspeople, vacationers, and families trying to make the journey from Pakistan to India and back again. Simon sent us this essay on the journey he made from one capital city to another.

SIMON MARKS: It is just after 8 o’clock in the morning on a warm Saturday in Islamabad, Pakistan. And we have just arrived at the city’s international airport. Our task today should be a relatively simple one: to travel the 400 miles between here and the Indian capital, New Delhi. It’s a distance equivalent to the distance between New York and Washington or London and Paris—two journeys that traditionally could be accomplished in around four hours or less. But this journey is going to take us considerably longer.

[Sounds from an airport terminal.]

MARKS: Well, we’re now inside the airport. Our journey to Delhi is due to begin with a flight from Islamabad to the Pakistani city of Karachi. But there are only two flights this Saturday from Islamabad to Karachi and both are full. So we’re on what’s called a “chance list.” It’s kind of like being a stand-by passenger, although it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what our chances are of making the flight from here to Karachi.

[The sound of people talking at an airport ticket counter.]

MARKS: [with the sound of jet engines in the background] Well, it’s now 10 o’clock in the morning and it turns out that our chances were actually pretty good. We finally got cleared to get on board the flight to Karachi, so we’re heading out to our plane now. We can’t fly direct to Delhi because there are no direct air links between India and Pakistan. So Karachi becomes the first stop on a rather lengthy journey.

[The sound of a flight attendant speaking over a plane’s public address system, in both English and a non-English language. Then the sound of a crying baby and jet engine noise on a flying aircraft.]

MARKS: We have now arrived in Karachi. It’s a little after midday and we’ve been on the road for just over fours now. Were relations between India and Pakistan normal we could probably have been in New Delhi by now. But they’re not and we aren’t. Even though these two neighbors were forged from the same single nation when the British left India back in 1947, they are barely on speaking terms and permit no direct travel in either direction between mostly Muslim Pakistan and mostly Hindu India. So next, instead of continuing our journey eastwards towards Delhi we’re actually about to travel in exactly the opposite direction.

[The sound of a traveling jet aircraft.]

MARKS: It’s just after 4:15 now. And after a 3 and a half hour layover in Karachi we are on board Emirates Flight 581 from Karachi to Dubai. Lunch has just been served. We’re flying directly west. And only once we’ve reached Dubai will we then be able to get on board a plane to Delhi. Every passenger from India trying to reach Pakistan or from Pakistan trying to reach India is forced to find a third country through which to transit in order to reach their final destination.

[The sounds from an airport terminal.]

MARKS: Well, we are now in Dubai, in the lounge operated by Emirates Airlines. We’ve been here for quite a while. Patience is beginning to wear a little thin because we’ve faced a seven-hour layover waiting for our connection to Delhi. It’s now around 11 o’clock in the evening back in Pakistan where our day began at 8 o’clock this morning. We’ve got another couple of hours to wait before our flight will finally be available to take us to Delhi. We’re told that we’re quite lucky though, that a seven-hour layover could be worse. Because some days of the week—this is a Saturday—but on Sundays, for example, there’s a 16-hour layover for those people arriving here from Karachi and awaiting a flight to Delhi.

[The sound of a traveling jet aircraft, followed by announcements on a public address system from the flight crew.]

MARKS: It is now five to five in the morning in Delhi. It’s taken around 20 hours to complete the journey. We’ve been traveling at an average speed of just 20 miles per hour. A little earlier this year India and Pakistan agreed to allow each other’s airlines to fly over their respective territory. That means a Pakistani jet heading to Australia, for example, can fly over India; an Indian jet heading to Paris could fly over Pakistan. But for these two nations battling each other over the disputed territory of Kashmir, and suspicious of each other’s motives in virtually all other aspects of policy, direct flights remain a no-go. So later today another group of travelers will begin the journey we’ve just completed. As we check into our hotel the only thing on our minds is getting to bed. For Common Ground, I’m Simon Marks—finally in Delhi.

[Musical interlude]

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

Copyright © Stanley Center for Peace and Security

Top of Page