Transnational China Project Commentary:
"The Serious Problems Facing Mankind"
Professor R.C.T. Lee,
Chinan University

Talk Given at Rice University
Co-Sponsored by Fondren Library and the
North American Chinese Writers' Association -- Southern Chapter
September 15, 2000
(Text based on audio transcript)

Steven Lewis:

Thank you all very much for coming. My name is Steven Lewis and I am with the Transnational China Project at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. I would like to welcome you all and thank our co-sponsors who have helped us out. First of all, Fondren Library, and also the North American Chinese Writers' Association, Southern Chapter, which has helped to bring Prof. Lee to Houston. Tammy Cheng, president of the association, is here. Please stand and take a bow, Tammy. I would also like to thank the various student groups, including the Chinese Student's Association, the Taiwanese Student's Association, the Rice Chinese Students and Scholars Club, and the Rice Chinese Alumni Association, for helping get the word out on this talk.

Many of you already know something about Professor Lee, but by way of introduction I will say a few words about his background. First of all, Professor Lee is a scientist. He is an electrical engineer who is very accomplished in his research. He attended Taiwan University and received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley. He worked as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health in the early 1970s before returning to Taiwan to take up a faculty position at Tsinghua University, where he went on to become head of the department, provost and eventually acting president.

He is also well known as an educator and administrator. He left Tsinghua to become president of Providence University and then Chinan University, last year. As you know, that university was leveled by an earthquake. As president of the university Professor Lee oversaw the relocation of the students to National Taiwan University. Professor Lee has now returned to teaching, but that does not mean that his schedule has lightened up any. .

He is also well known in Taiwan as a writer. I would like to mention that two of his books, Let the Walls Come Down, and Stranger, are particularly popular, selling many copies. He has also written many short stories, one of which has been made into a made-for-television movie for public television.

Finally, and this is one of the reasons we were particularly interested in bringing him to Rice, he is a humanitarian. This is very important in all of his writings and in his work, and I would like to mention that he has a lot of experience in volunteer work, both in Taiwan and even working with Mother Teresa in India. This spirit of volunteerism is very important in his writings and in his work. That is one reason why we have asked him to come today to talk, the title of which is "The Serious Problems Facing Mankind". Please join me in welcoming Prof. Lee Chia-tung.

R.C.T. Lee:

Thank you Professor Lewis. You know me very well. I am going to talk about the serious problems facing mankind. Any organization has to examine itself from time to time. I believe this is true of Rice University and every other organization, and so perhaps here at Rice University people should look to see if there are any serious problems. As we human beings enter into the 21st Century it is probably appropriate for us to make an analysis of ourselves, to see if we are facing serious problems.

The first problem I would like to point out is the decline of morality. If you use morality as a keyword to search on the Internet I do not think you will hit many homepages these days. We have the illusion that if we have better laws, better systems, better governments we will have a better world. Actually, even if we have good laws, the laws have to be enforced by policemen, by lawyers, by prosecutors and by judges. But the policemen can be corrupted, the lawyers can be corrupted, the prosecutors can be corrupted, and the judges can be corrupted. In fact, we regularly see those things happen. Recently I saw a movie about a lawyer who found out there was something wrong about the prosecutor. The prosecutor knew from the beginning that the person being prosecuted was innocent. That was in a movie, one I saw on the HBO Channel. I thought it was just a movie, but it is in the newspaper as well, so it is a true story. Therefore, we still need good lawyers, good judges, good prosecutors to enforce the good laws. Good laws are never sufficient.

We may look at the problem from another point of view. Look at the violence and pornography existing in the so-called R-rated movies. The government claims that 70 percent of these movies are targeted at teenagers and those under 17 years of age. This is another case of a lack of morality, and a typical case that cannot be solved by law. I do not believe that any Senate hearing or action by Congress can solve this problem. It is simply impossible. And I have heard that there are songs that talk about murdering mothers, all mothers. Can you find those songs in the old days? I do not believe you could, but nowadays those songs exist. Even in cartoons made by Disney for little kids, I believe, there is a lot of violence. There is a cartoon, Toy Story, in which there is a little kid who likes to chop off the heads of the toys. Did the movie's makers know that this will harm the little kids? I think they did, but they still did it anyway because they have no morality whatsoever in their minds. In Taiwan there are a lot of superstitious TV programs, radio programs and shows on the cable TV stations. Those who produce these programs are not superstitious. They are well-educated, very clear-minded, very intelligent people who have done lots of marketing research. They target the uneducated and poor people in Taiwan. Or in other words, a group of smart, well-educated people is deliberately cheating a large number of poorly-informed and poorly-educated people. Now my question is, can this be solved by having more laws? I think you can all agree with me that this cannot be solved by more laws.

The juvenile delinquency problem is another one. Now lately in the United Kingdom the minister of education said the schools would expel 13,000 students each year, of whom 70 percent will be involved in some kind of crime. Is this caused by poverty? In Taiwan, this problem, the juvenile delinquency one, becomes more acute as we become more capitalist. Most of the juvenile delinquents have broken families, but what caused the broken families? It is not poverty, but instead the lack of morality.

The second problem is the racial bias problem. At this moment around 10 million people around Africa are starving. The average weight of an adult, hungry person in the Horn of Africa is only 33 kilograms. Yet the world pays little attention to this serious problem. When the Balkan states had some kind of massacre the United Nations took action. But this world body took no action when there was a much more serious massacre in Rwanda. We all know now that the Holocaust caused the deaths of four million Jews, but when some two million Armenians were systematically murdered and massacred by Turkey the world paid no attention. When the massacre in Cambodia took place the United States did not raise a finger. In fact, it clearly pointed out that this was an "internal affair," that no foreign country should interfere. And the United Nations did not do anything. In other words, in my opinion, we human beings are far from being equal. Some people are more equal than others.

The third problem, which is a most serious problem, is the rapid depletion of resources on the Earth. We use petroleum as if we have an infinite supply of it. Of course there is not. Forty-three years later not a single drop of petroleum will be available. If you are an electrical engineering student you know there is such a thing as galium arcenite in integrated circuits. Both galium and arcenite will be gone in a few years. They will not exist any more, because of those integrated circuits. Other energy resources such as natural gas will be gone in a rather short time. We use gasoline so lavishly because we are sacrificing the benefits of our next generations. And besides we are ignoring the poor of the world. If all human beings eat ocean fish, as we do in Taiwan, the fish in all oceans will be gone in one day. We can eat so much fish from the oceans because the poor of the world cannot eat any such fish. By the time they improve their living standard they may find out that the many of the precious natural resources will be gone. It took three billion years to produce petroleum, but we human beings have exhausted it in 200 years.

Now I come to the fourth problem, the problem of the large gap between the poor and the rich. In 1964 the United Stations did a survey and found out that the richest 20 percent of the world had 60 percent of the total income, and the poorest 20 percent had only 2.2 percent of the total income. So the ratio was 30 to 1. The United Nations said it was alarming. And in 1999, just before we entered the 21st Century, the United Nations said the richest 20 percent of the world have 80 percent of the total income, and the poorest 20 percent have only 1.12 percent. The ratio is 77 to 1. I would like to tell you that maybe within five years the richest 20 percent will have 90 percent of all income, and the poorest 20 percent will have only 1 percent. The ratio will become 90 to 1. If you look at the richest three persons they have the total gross domestic product of the 48 poorest nations. If you look at the richest 15 they have the total gross domestic product of all of the African nations south of the Sahara desert. The richest 200 people have around 1,000 billion dollars, but among the 43 poorest nations, which have 580 million people, they only have 140 billion dollars. In other words, 580 million people have far less wealth than those 200 rich people.

The United Nations poverty line is still one U.S. dollar per day. Now, there are 1.5 billion people who are under the United Nations poverty line. Among 174 nations in the United Nations, 80 of them have incomes less than what they had 10 years ago. Among the 48 poorest nations, the total exports is only 0.4 percent of the total exports of the entire world. Tanzania is supposed to be what we could call a very good country in Africa. In 1993, the percentage of students entering elementary school was 93 percent. In year 2000, only seven years later, it dropped to 66 percent. This is a serious problem. It is a problem that few people in the world like to talk about. I do not think this problem will go away. And I do not think we can say this is not a serious problem.

The fifth problem is the pollution problem. Forty years ago we could swim in all of the rivers in Taipei. Forty years ago I was a graduate of National Taiwan University in Taipei, and at that time we could swim in every river. But if you talk to the young people in Taiwan they will tell you that none of the rivers in Taiwan can be swum in. And when the rescue teams arrived in the Barents Sea to rescue the Russian submarine they found that where there should be a large body of ice covering the ocean there was instead a large hole. Our ozone layer is becoming thinner and thinner. Mosquitoes in the old days could only fly up to one kilometer in the sky. Now in Venezuela and Colombia mosquitoes have been found to fly up to two kilometers high because the Earth is getting warmer and warmer. In New Hampshire there is a lake called Mirror Lake. For the last 30 years the number of days for which it was frozen has decreased half a day for every year. The glaciers are getting higher and higher. About 50 years ago if you went to the South of New Zealand you could see them touch the ground, but now they are much higher because it is getting warmer and warmer.

Actually, the pollution problem can be even more severe if there are not so many poor people in the world. The poor people in the world do not produce so much carbon dioxide. Imagine what will happen when all the people in China drive as many cars as people in Taiwan do, not to mention those in the United States. I have heard that the pollution in Beijing is horrible, but it is limited to Beijing and its roads. If the people in Mainland China are becoming so affluent that they all want to drive cars like the people in Taiwan, the carbon dioxide that China produces will become a very serious problem, not to mention that of the people in India and the people in Russia.

Now I would like to talk about the sixth problem, the expensive arms race problem. Before Gorbachev stopped the Cold War, we spent nearly 1,000 billion dollars every year. The last report released by the U.S. State Department said we now spend nearly 840 billion dollars every year on weapons. That is 600 billion by the developed countries, including the United States and Western Europe. But in the developing countries, including India, China, Taiwan, we still spend 240 billion on weapons. Now, the Taiwanese government buys the Mirage fighters, purchased from France. The cost of a Mirage fighter is nearly equal to the budget of Providence University, where I served as president. In other words, whenever I heard that a Mirage fighter went down I knew that the budget of our university was gone. If the government did not buy that Mirage fighter they could support our university for one year, and support 10,000 students for one year. Of course, I did not mention the other, expensive weapons, the B-1 bombers, or the very expensive budgets in Russia for the SU 27.

The sad thing is that developing countries such as India, such as Pakistan, have to spend so much money on expensive weapons. Let us take a look at India. In India 24 million people are born every year. Ten percent of them die within 12 months. Among these 40 percent do not live longer than one month, 20 percent not more than one week. Among the 24 million babies born every year, one-fourth weigh less than 2 kilograms. In fact, in 1993 1.5 million kids died before the age of 5 in the whole world: .4 million in Africa, .8 million in Asia, and India alone there were .35 million. Another serious thing is that the weapon industry has become so important because it does help our economy. In the First World War, the cost of arms was 4,000 billion dollars. For the Second World War, the United States spent ten times that amount. So we cannot help but wonder what kind of industry this is that helps the economy, otherwise intelligent people would not spend so much money on weapons.

The seventh problem is that the technologies vital to the welfare of human beings are becoming more and more concentrated in the hands of a small group of capitalists. For a very long time the agricultural technologies were developed by the government and distributed to the ordinary citizens of that country. The so-called Green Revolution Project in India was a typical example. The famous scientist who made this revolution possible is Dr. Swamipanathan. He swore that he would not keep any secrets from his research. He himself did not himself make any money on his research, and his research benefited all Indians. Nowadays, since bio-technology companies have found huge profits in agricultural industries, agricultural technologies are more and more concentrated in the hands of companies whose sole interest is to make money. We must alert ourselves that the welfare of human beings heavily depends on these technologies. I am especially concerned about the poor countries. Their fate will be totally controlled by a few Western capitalists.

In the old days, when scientists discovered chemical elements - such as radium, discovered by Madame Curie - they did not apply for patents, for one simple reason: the elements belong to nature and so should not be patented. Only the technologies for discovering these elements could be patented. But nowadays genes have been patented. The day will come when we will ask our doctors to conduct an analysis on a particular gene and we will have to pay a high royalty to those companies who have patents on one of our genes. Theoretically, science should always be made public and technologies can be made private. Unfortunately, people are so much interested in making a big profit out of research that the distinction between science and technology is becoming more and more blurred. Scientists will deliberately make science look technology so that they can keep it as a secret and make huge profits out of it. In the old days, algorithms were always considered science. The programs were considered as technology. These days even algorithms can be patented.

These are some of the problems facing mankind. The absence of public morality is of course a serious problem. The rapid disappearance of precious resources is of course a serious problem. The existence of a large number of poor people cannot be a minor, trivial problem. Why are there so many serious problems? I strongly believe that these problems exist because we intellectuals are quite indifferent to these problems. Why are we so indifferent? Charles Dickens called upon our conscience by describing the misery of the poor whom he saw in England. It did bother the social conscience of the upper class English intellectuals. In fact, this is what caused Dickensonian misery. Unfortunately, as England, as well as many developed Western countries, successfully wiped out poverty to some degree, intellectuals could not see the misery of the poor. The hungry people are now outside England and other developed countries. Hell still exists, but it has been pushed outside of these countries. But we cannot have a Heaven in England by pushing Hell outside. Unfortunately, this is what we did.

Since the Hell exists outside of England the intellectuals can happily deny its existence. It is easy for us to ignore serious problems so that we can have peace of mind. But we cannot pretend that these problems do not exist. If we ignore the morality problem our society will be even more chaotic and violent. If we ignore the fact that precious resources are fast disappearing, what will we our sons and daughters use? Let me say again, 43 years later there will be no gasoline in the world. At that time I will be 104 years old, so I do not care. But some of you will see that day. If we ignore the fact that the majority of the whole human being are living in absolute poverty, some crooked politicians may use this fact to cause conflicts and wars. Do not forget that Communism controlled large parts of the Earth and put billions of people behind the Iron Curtain because of the existence of poverty.

Finally, let us remind ourselves, if we let capitalists control the technology vital to the welfare of human beings all of humanity will suffer. I hope that historians will not judge this era as an era of indifference. But we may well be judged so. When the G-8 leaders discussed the poverty problem in Okinawa they suggested the poor nations to develop the information technology. They said, why don't you use computers? After doing that you will become rich. This reminds me, in fact it reminds many of us, of when Marie Antoinette heard the news that mobs were storming the palace and she asked why. The guards said the mobs were hungry, and she said why don't they eat cake? This is the same thing. The G-8 leaders said why don't they use the Internet? The Chinese emperors said the same thing. We are all Marie Antoinette. I do not think it is a shame that we face a lot of serious problems, but I do think that it is a shame that we pretend that they do not exist.

Thank you for inviting me to give this talk. It is perhaps not a pleasant talk. Many people do not like to know that there are many poor people in the world. Many people do not like to know that in 43 years all of the petroleum will be gone. But some people have to be unpleasant. Some people have to be annoying. People should be annoyed from time to time. Thank you very much.