Roving thoughts and provocations

China’s Tibetan Theme Park

Richard Bernstein

In the international press, China’s tensions with Tibet are often traced to the Chinese invasion of 1950 and Tibet’s failed uprising of 1959. But for the Chinese themselves, the story goes back much further—at least to the reign of Kangxi, the Qing Dynasty emperor, who ruled for sixty-one years (1661-1722) and, in the official Chinese view, incorporated many lands, including Tibet, into a glorious Chinese empire. One of the most important symbols of those events, moreover, lies not in Tibet but thousands of miles east in the city of Chengde, near Beijing. There, Kangxi’s grandson, the emperor Qianlong, built one of the more astonishing architectural monuments in China: a Tibetan Buddhist temple housed in a scrupulously detailed scale model of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, the seat of Tibetan cultural and spiritual power. This Little Potala, as it’s called, was intended as an architectural expression of the great unity of China under his rule. In recent years, the tourist authorities have used Chengde to create a sort of national monument to Kangxi, and, through him, to advance China’s contemporary position on Tibet.

Exxon’s Russian Roulette

Peter Maass

Bloomberg/Getty Images

How can you turn $3.2 billion into $500 billion in a day? If you are Vladimir Putin, the prime minister of Russia, and Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon, you announce a deal that allows Exxon to explore for oil in Russia’s Arctic waters. According to Putin, who last week said, “It’s scary to utter such huge figures,” the deal could reach $500 billion. According to Exxon’s news release, all that’s been agreed so far is an investment of $3.2 billion. The only certainty is that the energy industry’s numbers game sometimes resembles the magical calculations the financial industry relied on before the 2008 crash.

Take natural gas. There has been a flood of recent investment in the effort to extract gas from the Marcellus shale, a geological formation that runs underground from Virginia to New York. Drilling rights have been snapped up as everyone tries to get a piece of the hazardous action. Few seem concerned that it involves an extraction technique, known as hydraulic fracturing—it uses chemicals and explosives to release deposits of oil or gas that are trapped in rock formations—that can poison water tables.

Let’s Bring the Astronauts Home

Jeremy Bernstein

AP Photo/NASA, Paolo Nespoli

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station said this week that human activity on the station may soon be suspended, because the Russian rockets that are now the only way to transport astronauts and cargo there are no longer reliable. While many people view the prospect of the astronauts ending their work at the space station as an extraordinary loss, I am not among them. I think that the station was a hundred billion dollar folly and the sooner it is abandoned the better.

Sacrificing Their Lives to Work

72migrantes.com

Francisco Mata Rosas

When it was established in the late nineteenth century, Labor Day was intended to honor the American working man. Yet a great deal of our menial labor today is performed not by American citizens but by undocumented migrant workers—many of whom risk their lives in thousand-mile journeys simply to get to the United States. A year ago this August, 72 of those migrants—58 men and 14 women—were on their way to the US border when they were murdered by a drug gang at a ranch in northern Mexico, in circumstances that remain unexplained.

Egypt’s Israel Problem

Yasmine El Rashidi

AP Photo/Oded Balilty

The Israeli embassy in Cairo is tucked away on the top two levels of a 21-floor residential tower ten minutes from Tahrir. It is flanked by graying buildings and a usually traffic-clogged bridge. Nearby are Cairo University and the National Zoo. In the past, its busy location served it well; it was inconspicuous, and under Mubarak, the security around the building was so tight that even reaching the barricades surrounding it felt like a feat. In one of the more revealing signs of change in the New Egypt, however, it has now become the focus of the public’s attention and the site of unobstructed demonstrations.

A Reunion with Boredom

Charles Simic

Jean Gaumy/Magnum Photos

Do people still suffer from periods of boredom even with computers, smart phones and tablets to occupy them endlessly? This and other thoughts came to me as I sat in a dark house for three days in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

The CIA’s Islamist Cover Up

Ian Johnson

AP Photo/Ben Curtis

The tenth anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington will be accompanied by the usual solemn political pronouncements and predictable media retrospectives. But they shouldn’t distract us from a very precise and practical problem that hasn’t been addressed: the refusal of the CIA to disclose the details of its involvement with Islamist groups.

What the Taliban Want

Ahmed Rashid

An important message by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban movement in Afghanistan, has been released on the occasion of Eid—the end of Ramadan. It is the longest and by far the most forward-looking political message he has ever sent, offering the Taliban’s latest views on several central issues that are uppermost in the minds of US and NATO leaders, Afghans, and governments around the region as the US begins a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.

Eyes Above the Street: The High Line’s Second Installment

Martin Filler

Photo by Iwan Baan/Courtesy Friends of the High Line

Rarely do additions to works of architecture or engineering by the same designers who created the originals attract as much comment as the initial installments. Thus there was some question as to just how much excitement could be generated by the debut this June of the second segment of the High Line, which runs between West 20th and West 30th streets.

Letter From Rome: Scandal Among the Plutocrats

Ingrid D. Rowland

Vittorio Zunino Celotto/Getty Images

Italy, from many standpoints, is in dreadful shape. The news is out and inescapable. People in the rest of the world wonder why, in the face of a stagnant economy and pervasive corruption, the country continues to keep Silvio Berlusconi as its prime minister. The reasons are many, from inertia to resignation to the conviction that at last the man can stew in his own juices—and he certainly looks awful enough to suggest that he is no longer enjoying the position to which he clings with limpet-like tenacity.

The reasons for Italy’s inaction also, however, include a well-founded fear that the left will not be able to do much better. Take, for example, Piero Marrazzo, the former presidente (governor) of Lazio— the region (roughly equivalent to a state in the US) that includes Rome. A member of the Partito Democratico, the largest party of Italy’s center-left, Marrazzo gave an interview on August 15 to journalist Conchita de Gregorio of La Repubblica, addressing the scandal that pushed him out of office two years ago.