eyes on the U.S.

Sex, Politics And Power: An American Morality Tale, As Seen From China

Essay: As the “Culture Wars” heat up again in the race for the White House, a Chinese commentator makes some key distinctions between private and public morality. And suggests China take notes.

In the U.S., private affairs are a matter of public debate (Fibonacci Blue)
In the U.S., private affairs are a matter of public debate (Fibonacci Blue)
Xie Tao*

BEIJING - Whether in real life or on television, Chinese people believe that Americans live in a "post-moral" era. Americans seem to get divorced as quickly as they get married or dispense entirely with the notion of marriage. "How can one regard Americans as moral if they are so casual about their marriages and sex life?" is a basic question Chinese ask.

But Americans actually have a far stronger sense of morality on matters of gender and power. For instance, it's not uncommon for Chinese men to have mistresses, relegating women to be the so-called "minor third" or the "junior wife - or for Chinese actresses to obey the unwritten law of going to bed with the film director or producer to be accepted for a role. Such practices are far rarer in the United States.

And even if corruption does exists in America, in comparison with most other countries, US government officials could be absolutely regarded as models to emulate.

Due to our cultural tradition, we often just see the immoral or amoral side of American private life whereas we ignore their strong sense of morality in public life.

American immorality in private life exists thanks to the high degree of political freedom they enjoy. Some Chinese say that without the American Bill of Rights, the active participation of the Supreme Court or of various social groups' tradition of lobbying, it would have been difficult for a lot of the "unethical behavior" of the Americans to exist.

And yet, the ethical behavior of Americans in public life is largely a product of U.S. political system as well. Through the mechanism of elections, restricted government power as well as supervision and the balance of power, American public life is restrained.

Immoral public life is much worse than an unethical private life. When a society is lacking in both private and public morality, it's a society that is in peril. On the contrary, it is thanks to their moral public life that the Americans can indulge themselves in public debate, as well as enjoy their immoral private lives.

The pain and pleasure of American's moral issues

The right to abortion, the rights of homosexuals to marry, and the right to possess firearms are among the hottest social issues in the United States. Part of the reason why they are popular topics is because these issues are related to fundamental moral values. In addition, none of these issues require any complex expertise. Any American with some common sense will have clear and strong views on these topics, and will be ready to participate in discussion.

Around these hot debates, Americans are divided into two groups: generally speaking, the ones who support abortion rights and gay marriage and oppose the unrestricted possession of guns are the Liberals whereas the other group is the Conservatives. Some intellectuals and media also call the dispute between the two factions a "Culture War," each side battling for the American soul.

It was not until 1973 that the Federal Supreme Court ruled clearly for the first time that the right of abortion is protected by a right to privacy, and thus to be protected by the Constitution. The ruling immediately split Americans into two incompatible groups where one emphasizes the value of life while the other supports the freedom of choice of women.

Now, many ask if people of the same sex can get married. Today six U.S. states and the District of Columbia allow same-sex marriage. To many Americans, same-sex marriage is a subversion of traditional ethics and the destruction of the most fundamental human unit, the family.

Whether it's about same-sex marriage or abortion, these hot social issues are basically all-American politics. Without the Bill of Rights, Americans wouldn't have had their privacy. Without the Supreme Court, their right to privacy could not be defended, nor would abortion exist legally. Social issues are therefore an extension of the political system.

These social issues might make the American democracy look very discordant in Chinese eyes, but what the Americans advocate is not "harmony" but personal rights. To us, Americans are in pain, but in their own minds they are the happiest people on Earth.

Politicized ethical issues

Since American citizens can participate and influence their government's decision-making through various legal channels, the groups that hold different moral values thus evolve into political factions. The White House, the executive branch, the Congress, the Federal Courts, the media, the think tanks etc… all make up the zone of competition for these social groups to battle over these principles.

In a presidential election year like this one, the politicization of ethical issues is most obvious.

In the past ten days, President Obama has been given a headache because of the topic of homosexual marriage. After Vice Presiden Joe Biden and U.S Secretary of Education Arne Duncan both publicly supported same-sex marriage, the White House was faced with a dilemma. After all, President Obama is to stand for reelection, and doesn't want to lose potential votes one way or the other. Even if gays have traditionally been the most loyal supporters of the Democrats, Obama is obviously worried that he'll alienate the conservative voters in key states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. (In the end, Obama finally declared publicly that he personally was in favor of gay marriage rights)

And Kansas?

In 2004, Thomas Frank, an American journalist and historian, published a sensational book called "What's the Matter with Kansas?" The main thesis of the book is that America's political discourse has dramatically shifted in recent years from social and economic equality to one in which "explosive" cultural issues, such as abortion and gay marriage predominate. As a consequence, a lot of lower-middle class Americans are beginning to support a conservative Republican agenda, despite the latter's fiscal austerity policy being most disadvantageous to them.

In other words, the conservatives have replaced economic issues with moral issues in order to win over the lower-middle class American vote.

Of course, there are also numerous scholars who express doubts about Frank's view. They argue that what most affected the American presidential election of 2004 was the Iraq War and national security.

Some scholars also use massive opinion poll data to prove that the ordinary American public isn't really engaged in a battle of life and death just because they have differences over moral issues.

No matter what the outcome of the November election is, what should be more important and interesting for us Chinese remains the morality of American politicians. Though there are always private life scandals which are bound be exposed, such as those of former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain, it is nonetheless much less important in comparison with their public morality. After all, what country – democratic or otherwise – doesn't have politicians involved in extra-marital love affairs.

Ultimately, the most vital thing is that politicians are honest and have integrity in their public life, because that is how best to serve the interests of the nation.

*Xie Tao is a Professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University

Read more from 经济观察报E.O in Chinese.

Photo - Fibonacci Blue

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At the Mango Festival held in Aswan, Egypt

Nada Arafat

ISMAILIA – Every year during the month of July, crowds gather in the mango farms of Ismailia, in northeastern Egypt, to pick the delectable summer fruit during its relatively short harvest season. But this year, as a result of erratic weather patterns throughout March and April, the usual bountiful mango harvest was severely affected with farmers witnessing a precipitous drop in yield. Some 300,000 farms saw an 80% decrease in productivity, leading to a supply shortage in the market and a corresponding 40% increase in the price of mangoes.

The effects of these climate fluctuations could have been mitigated by farmers, yet according to experts who spoke to Mada Masr, the agriculture minister failed to play a role in raising awareness among farmers and in providing agricultural guidance services.

Heatwaves kill crops

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature. For germination to occur, the ideal temperature should be between 10 °C at night and 28 °C during the day, according to agricultural consultants. In Egypt, this weather pattern usually occurs in February. Mango trees then flower and the flowers turn into fruits that take 40 days to grow and be ready for harvest, according to Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer.

This year, however, according to mango farmers in Ismailia who spoke to Mada Masr, the beginning of the winter farming season experienced a sudden heatwave followed by another heatwave at the end of March. In both March and April, the temperature dipped to as low as 5 °C at night and as high as 25 °C during the day. Due to these erratic weather fluctuations, the mango flowers that develop into fruit fell before they could mature.

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres or 0.40 hectares) ranges between 6 to 8 tons. This year however, the yield per feddan averaged between just 1 to 2 tons, according to several sources.

Frozen mango suppliers multiply purchases

A farm owner in Al-Tal al-Kebir on the Ismailia Desert Road, who spoke to Mada Masr on condition of anonymity, said that his farm produced approximately 35 tons of mangoes last year, whereas this year his yield did not exceed 4 tons. He added that many farmers in the surrounding area, which is famous for mango cultivation, experienced the same steep declines in yield.

The limited mango yield and the subsequent hike in prices has also prompted frozen mango suppliers to multiply their purchases from farms in order to capitalize and sell them next year at an even higher price, according to Ali Saqr, an agricultural engineer in a fruit export company, along with a number of other farm owners who spoke to Mada Masr. Mangos can stay frozen for up to two years.

Khaled Eweis, who buys mangoes and stores them in rented freezers then later sells the frozen mangoes to juice and dessert shops, explained to Mada Masr that juice shops usually use the Zebdia variety of mangoes, whereas dessert shops use Keitt mangoes. The latter is expected to be priced at 25 Egyptian pounds ($1.5) this year after having been sold for half the price at the same time last year.

Last year, Eweis bought Zebdia mangoes for 10–12 Egyptian pounds ($0.6–$0.7) per kilo then resold them for 16 ($1) after freezing them. This year, the Zebdia prices ranged from 17–21 ($1–$1.30) per kilo, and Eweis expects that the price after freezing will reach as high as 25 ($1.5).

Photo of an Egyptian man shouldering a basket full of mangoes

The typical average mango yield from one feddan (approx 1.03 acres) ranges between 6 to 8 tons


Threat to water security

This is not the first time that mango production has been hit hard as a result of fluctuating weather patterns. A similar crisis in the mango harvest took place in 2018, and other crops, such as olives, potatoes, wheat, rice and cotton, have also been adversely affected over the last few years, according to Mohamed Fahem, the head of the government Climate Change Information Center. And human-induced changes to global weather patterns as a result of climate change point to increased agricultural challenges in the future.

The deadly heat waves, fires, hurricanes and other extreme weather events that have dominated headlines in recent years will only become more frequent in the coming decades, according to a United Nations report on climate change released in August. In its sixth assessment report, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change called human-induced changes to global climate systems "unprecedented." While the report calls for drastic cuts to the global emission of greenhouse gases, much of the effects of climate change are already locked in for decades to come.

Among the areas most vulnerable to climate change is agriculture. A 2018 report titled Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Changes in Egypt found that climate change can have drastic effects on agriculture through changes in temperature, rainfall, CO2 levels and solar radiation. Meanwhile, a 2020 European Union report also found that climate change will pose a threat to global food production in the medium to long-term through projected changes in daily temperature, precipitation, wind, relative humidity and global radiation.

According to various studies, climate change gradually reduces the duration of spring, autumn and winter, which in turn affects the crops that are cultivated during those seasons. In Egypt in particular, the country's agricultural crop map will likely change as a result of a prolonged summer season, according to a study by former Agriculture Minister Ayman Abou Hadid, published in 2010 when he was heading the Center for Agricultural Studies. The study predicted that grain cultivation will gradually move north from Upper Egypt due to increases in winter temperatures, though it did not give a projected timeframe.

Cold and heat waves

Climate change also increases salinity levels in soil due to rising sea levels, which in turn renders the soil only suitable for crops that can handle high salinity yet still require intensive irrigation to mitigate the salinity levels. At the same time, Egypt is currently facing a threat to its water security due to the changes in rain patterns and droughts as well as the potential effects of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

According to Fahim, the increased cold and heat waves Egypt has experienced has led to the emergence of new, mutated varieties of pests and fungal diseases that are resistant to chemicals. For example, in 2018, aphids and whiteflies spread due to the shortened winter season, and the accumulation of these pests led to huge losses in potato and cotton yields. Meanwhile, palm trees were harmed due to the appearance of red palm weevils.

How farmers counter mango losses

The severe losses in the 2021 mango yield were hard to avoid, but is there a way to counter them?

Karam Suleiman, an agricultural engineer, believes that better methods of agriculture, irrigation and fertilization, along with raising awareness among farmers about the dangers of climate change and how to monitor weather fluctuations could succeed in mitigating such outcomes.

However, Egypt appears currently incapable of providing sufficient safety networks to farmers in order to enable them to confront the effects of climate change.

An example of this is apparent in the failure to enforce mechanisms for warning farmers about potential difficulties in upcoming farming seasons. In June, a report by the Center for Agricultural Studies warned about a decline of as much as 85% in the productivity of farms in Ismailia, where mangoes are mainly cultivated, as well as farms in Sharqiya, Suez and Beheira, due to climate change. However, this report only reached about 13 farmers and owners of mango farms, according to agricultural sources who spoke to Mada Masr.

Ahmed Asal, a mango farmer in Qantara in Ismailia, told Mada Masr that there has been no guidance from authorities in helping farmers understand climate change and how to respond to it. "No one told us what to do and we never received any compensation for our losses," Asal said.

Photo of a hand picking a mango from the tree in Egypt

Mangoes are highly sensitive to changes in temperature

Ahmed Gomaa/Xinhua/ZUMA

Agriculture engineers must become climate engineers

Agricultural guidance is a service offered by the Agriculture Ministry to raise awareness and educate farmers about all aspects of farming. The service is usually provided through agricultural engineers who are based in the agricultural cooperatives that exist in every city and town.

Fahim, the head of the Climate Change Information Center, works to play a similar role through his Facebook page and, at times, on various TV channels and newspapers, by raising awareness about weather fluctuations and their effects on agriculture. However, his insights do not have a wide enough audience, particularly at a time when the agricultural guidance is dwindling despite the opening of the Agricultural Guidance Center in Qantara earlier this year under the auspices of the Agriculture Ministry.

"Agricultural guidance has been doing a good job lately, but only in the media, not on the ground," said Alaa Khairy,* an engineer at the Central Laboratory for Climate Change. "If they were really working on the ground, farmers would not have lost as much as they did."

More important crops like wheat will be next

What exacerbates the crisis is that those who are harmed the most are small farmers — those who have between 10 to 20 feddans of land — who cannot afford to take preemptive precautionary measures to mitigate erratic weather patterns nor hire experts who can help them make better decisions about how to handle sudden climate fluctuations. Those farmers also cannot afford to provide covers for their fruits during hot seasons, which is one way to prevent crop damage that is quite costly.

This year's crisis is expected to be repeated in the coming years due to the rapid consequences and effects of climate change on global food security. Aside from mangoes, the effects of climate change are projected to affect far more important crops, such as wheat, with reports showing global wheat crop losses due to heat and drought, a particularly worrisome development for Egypt — the largest importer of wheat in the world.

"In the coming period, agricultural engineers must become climate engineers as well," Suleiman said.


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