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Happy holidays! Know Your Planet Earth! took a bit of break for the last couple of weeks due to pre-holiday madness.

This week through New Year’s Day, we will be on a slower schedule as well.

Twenty-five years ago, on Dec. 26, 1991, was the first day after the official collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), which was one of two competing world superpowers between 1945 and 1991. When I grew up, I heard much of the impending nuclear war between the United States and the USSR. In 1984, the Eastern Bloc (communist) countries boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics —in retaliation of the Western Bloc’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. In cities across the United States, many older buildings had a sign that read fallout shelter. No one at the time thought the Soviet Union would go away.

Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev (Михаи́л Серге́евич Горбачёв) became the general secretary (later president) of the USSR after the deaths of his predecessors Yuri Andropov (Ю́рий Влади́мирович Андро́пов) and Konstantin Chernenko (Константи́н Усти́нович Черне́нко). At the time, when the USSR was run by old men, Gorbachev made history for being young and for his openness to change.

Perestroika (перестройка, restructuring), glasnost (гла́сность, transparency), and demokratia (демократия, democracy) were his three pillars of saving the ossifying socialist state and its ailing economy. Ironically, these three movements ultimately became Gorbachev’s own undoing. Soviet satellite states such as Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany introduced open multiparty elections and soon dismantled the socialist one-party dictatorship. Domestically, Gorbachev made lots of enemies with old-guard members of the Communist Party and more importantly, the military brass. In the summer of 1991, the military and the old-guard conspired to overthrow Gorbachev in order to introduce so-called emergency measures while he went for his vacation in Crimea. Though this ultimately failed, Gorbachev never regained power as the head of the Russian Federative Soviet Socialist Republic, Boris Yeltsin, rose to leadership.

On Dec. 25 (not Christmas in Russia—according to the Eastern Orthodox calendar it is January 7) Gorbachev resigned as the president of the USSR and on that same day, the Soviet Union officially disbanded.

Heads of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine met in Minsk, Belarus shortly in prior to this event as heads of three sovereign independent nations, and organized the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). On Dec. 26, most of former USSR republics (with notable exceptions of the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—which all claimed that the USSR illegally annexed their countries in 1940 and declared independence before the end of USSR) became CIS.

At midnight on Dec. 25, 1991, the red Soviet flag was lowered for one last time and the flag of pre-Soviet Russia (the Soviet-era Russian flag is a version of the red flag) was raised.

What’s up with Gorbachev now?

Mikhail Gorbachev founded the Gorbachev Foundation upon the end of USSR. The foundation is still active. During the past quarter century, he has been on-and-off active politically, as a social democrat. He is 85 years old today and mostly stays home in Moscow. Gorbachev is a strong critic of current Russian president Vladimir Putin.

He has supported the Earth Charter, as well as a variety of environmental causes as the founder of the Green Cross International.

Historical videos and documents

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Categories history, geography

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Earlier this month (December 2016), the U.S. president-elect Donald J. Trump caused a stir when he had a phone conversation with the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ying-wen (蔡英文).

But why?

To answer this question, we have to look into history as well as the difficult subjects of diplomacy and protocol.

During Cold War, that is, the time between the end of World War II (1945) and the collapse of the Soviet Union two superpowers competed for global power. On one side was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) — better known as the Soviet Union — leading the socialist ideology (or, the Eastern Bloc). On the other hand was the United States of America, at the time a strong critic of socialism and advocate for capitalism (more so than it advocated for democracy). While they appear to be two different options in political theory, actually they were rather an issue of economics. Socialism believed in centralized, state-planned economy, hoping that such an economy would better meet the needs of everyone and eliminate the gap between the rich and the poor. On the contrary, American politicians and diplomats sold the idea that free market economics in which the government only provided basic rules but not engaged in the actual management of the economy — and let private businesses and investors grow the economy instead.

Since the late 1940s, many countries, most of them connected to the Soviet Union by land borders, decided to become socialist (usually with help and under pressure from the Soviet government and military). Most Eastern European countries that were invaded by the USSR in prior to the end of World War II became socialist, and so did Mongolia. As the Soviet influence grew internationally, other countries such as Laos, Cambodia, and Cuba also experienced a revolution and adopted a socialist system.

In some countries, this split their lands and people into two. Germany, Korea, Vietnam, and China were four such countries. Korea is still divided into two and is technically still at war.

Before 1949, China was devastated by the aftermath of war. A large parts of the country, including some major cities such as Nanjing and Dalian, were occupied by Japan until 1945. The northeastern region of what is now China used to be a separate country called Manchuria, or Manzhouguo/Manchukuo) nominally ruled by the former Qing emperor Aisin-Gioro Puyi (made famous in the West through the movie Last Emperor) but in reality under Japanese control. As the Japanese troops were forced out, the Soviet and American forces came in. Manchuria came under a Soviet control.

The rest of China was in disarray as two rivalling forces fought for control. The Nationalist Party of China (or, KMT — 国民党/國民黨 Guomindang/Kuo-min-tang in Chinese) and the Communist Party of China 中国共产党/中國共產黨 (CPC) engaged in a civil war for years. In 1949, the CPC won the control of China and declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China 中華人民共和國/中华人民共和国 in Beijing, installing Chairman Mao Zedong 毛泽东/毛澤東 as its leader.

The KMT officials, military, and civilians fled the continental China fearing for their lives and freedom, and landed on the island of Taiwan. General Chiang Kai-Shek 蔣介石 of the KMT armed forces set up his government-in-exile in the city of Taipei. Taiwan called itself the Republic of China (中华民国/中華民國 Zhonghua Minguo/Chung-hua Min-kuo). The United States, Great Britain, Japan, and much of the world took the stance that General Chiang’s government is the only legitimate Chinese government and that Chairman Mao was illegally squatting over most of China by force. The Republic of China was even a member of the United Nations since its founding.

Was Taiwan a free, democratic country? Not at all. General Chiang declared martial law in Taiwan and there were no real free elections, until 1987. But it was a capitalist country and its economy grew as an exporter of cheap bicycles (today we recognize brands such as Giant, and many bicycle parts are still made in Taiwan) and electronics (Acer and ASUS are based in Taiwan, though these days even they make computers in mainland China).

In the 1970s, the world’s attitude towards Taiwan and China began to change. The United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan decided to switch recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Many other countries followed. President Richard Nixon (a Republican) even travelled to Beijing and met the leaders of the CPC.

In 1971, the United Nations voted to remove the KMT government from the UN membership and give the China seat to the CPC.

Both Beijing and Taipei claimed that they were the only legitimate government for all China, and there is only one China.

International community mostly maintained diplomatic relations with both sides of the split Germany. Many countries maintained an embassy in both East Germany (The German Democratic Republic, Berlin) and West Germany (The Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn). But China insisted on and still insists on One China Policy, which means any country that wishes to establish a formal diplomatic relationship with and establish its embassy in Beijing, must cut off all ties to Taiwan. Since China is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council (the others are the UK, the USA, France, and Russia — all winners of World War II), it is an extremely powerful country unlike Germany. It is able to intimidate other smaller countries into submission to its will.

For the last several decades, Taiwan and its former allies took a pragmatic approach by modifying protocols so as not to anger the Communist Party of China.

The Taiwanese (Republic of China) embassies were reorganized into a non-profit organization and renamed the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, or TECRO. The Taiwanese consulates became known as the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO). They are deliberately called Taipei (the name of the capital city) instead of Taiwan so as not to give an impression that Taiwan is a country different from China. Taiwanese ambassadors are now called representatives of TECRO and consuls are called directors of TECO. While legally they cannot be considered foreign diplomats under international law, a law called Taiwan Relations Act gives them a status comparable to ambassadors while in the United States. The United States embassy in Taipei was closed when the Nixon government recognized the Maoist government; however, under Taiwan Relations Act, a 501©(3) non-profit organization American Institute in Taiwan was incorporated in the Commonwealth of Virginia and AIT operates offices in Taipei and Kaohsiung to handle businesses that American consulates would normally do (U.S. visas issued at AIT however state that they were issued at the U.S. Consulate-General in Hong Kong).

In the past, Taiwanese passports were not accepted by countries such as Japan. People in Taiwan who wanted to visit Japan had to apply for a travel permit from the Interchange Association Japan, which then could be used in place of Taiwan’s Republic of China passport. Today, most countries accept passports issued by Taiwan and many give them a visa-free privilege. Acceptance of passports is a separate matter from recognition of independence: for example, many countries, including Arab nations, do not recognize Palestine but Palestinians travel with a Palestinian Authority passport and not with an Israeli passport. Also, non-independent territories like Hong Kong, Macau, and several British overseas territories issue their own passports that are widely accepted internationally.

Taiwan is excluded from most international organizations in addition to the United Nations. However, it is a member of organizations such as the International Olympic Committee (IOC), World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). These organizations admit the Taiwanese government delegates as long as they called themselves Chinese Taipei (or 中华台北/中華台北 Zhonghua Taibei/Chung-hua Tai-pei in Chinese).

Taiwan is not permitted to use its national flag or national anthem in most of international events such as the Olympics. Instead, they are required to participate as Chinese Taipei, use a substitute flag (such as the Flag of the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee) and the Chinese Taipei Flag Anthem 中华台北升旗歌/中華台北升旗歌, the de facto second national anthem.

Beijing does not recognize the existence of a Taiwanese government. Chinese newspaper and media are forbidden from referring to Tsai Ing-wen as a president, but instead are to call her a leader or a chief executive of China’s Taiwan. For many decades during Cold War, these two governments had no contact and people were forbidden from travelling to or communicating with the other side. Today, Taiwanese businesses are allowed to invest in mainland China, and tourists visit in both directions.

Because neither side likes the idea of giving the other side a sense of legitimacy, diplomacy is handled by a non-profit organization set up by the respective government: the Straits Exchange Foundation 两岸交流基金会/兩岸交流基金會 for Taipei and the Association for Relationship Across Taiwan Strait 海峡两岸关系协会/海峽兩岸關係協會 for Beijing. In reality however, as such is case with the TECRO and TECO, these non-profits are camouflages set up by their governments and are staffed by career diplomats who have experiences working as consuls or ambassadors. To avoid the implication that someone is travelling internationally when they visit between Mainland China and Taiwan, they are required to use a special passport-like travel permit instead of a passport.

These are all compromises built into diplomatic protocols to keep both Beijing and Taipei reasonably happy for a long time and to avoid diplomatic rows.

When Trump and Tsai had a phone conversation, it was a decisive departure from the tradition of diplomacy established since the Nixon era. Many wondered if Trump will do away with One China Policy and upset the power balance at a time when the Chinese military spending has grown dramatically in recent years. China is the world’s second largest economy and is a major trading partner of the United States and much of the world. Almost all the electronics, computers, smartphones, and inexpensive household goods are made in China rather than in Taiwan. Some were concerned that Trump is setting America up for a major conflict that could hurt the American economy and its ability to influence Asia.

The added reason for concern was that President Tsai is a member of the Democratic Progressive Party 民进党/民進黨 (DPP), the left-wing party that has long called for Taiwan’s full independence and membership in the United Nations on its own right (instead of being a China). The rival party KMT, of which the ex-president Ma Ying-jeou was a member, maintains that Taiwan should eventually unite back into China in some ways.

Note: 22 countries decided not to pursue relationship with Beijing’s CPC government. Palau, Nauru, and Paraguay are some of the examples. In addition, self-claimed Islamic State just to provoke China, declared that it extends formal diplomatic recognition to Taiwan. In these countries, Chinese Embassy means an embassy of Taiwan. Their embassies are in Taipei, not in Beijing. Number of such countries are diminishing over time, leaving Taiwan with only few allies.

The national anthem of the Republic of China (Taiwan)

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The flag anthem of Chinese Taipei (for international events)

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Five things to know about President Tsai Ing-Wen

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Categories geography, controversies

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The U.S. Highway 20 is the longest continuous road in the United States, with the length of 3,365 miles or 5,415 km.

The eastern terminus of the road is the Kenmore Square in downtown Boston (Commonwealth Avenue at Deerfield Street), and the western end is Newport, Oregon at the intersection of Highway 101 (Oregon Coast Highway and East Olive Street). It takes about 48 hours to drive all the way through non-stop. The road travels through Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon.

Categories geography, transportation

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Chinese music: the Naxi Orchestra, in Lijiang
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This is still a new blog (though the idea of starting it has been around for over a year) but I thought of making Mondays the world music days here on Know Your Planet Earth!

Here is Katy Perry’s song Roar played by the Chinese National Orchestra 中国民族乐团 using all traditional Chinese musical instruments.

Like many other cultures around the world, there are several types of musical instruments:

  • chordophone: string instruments
  • membranophone: drums
  • aerophone: wind instruments
  • idiophone: certain non-membrane percussion instruments
  • electrophone: electronic musical instruments (of course this is a relatively new category!)

(These are classifications of musical instruments used by ethnomusicologist, scholars who study world music of different ethnic groups.)

Common Chinese traditional instruments (By Chinese, I am referring to the Han people, the largest ethnic group of the People’s Republic of China. There are over 50 official recognized ethnic groups in the PRC and each of them has different musical instruments and styles) include:

  • Erxian 二弦: A fiddle with two strings.
  • Guqin 古琴: A form of zither with seven strings.
  • Pipa 琵琶: A banjo-like instrument that is pear-shaped. Also found in Korea and Japan (Japanese pronunciation is biwa).
  • Sanxian 三弦: Literally, three strings, played like a guitar. Also found in Japan (called shamisen 三味线 in Japanese) and Ryukyu Islands (Okinawan pronunciation is sanshin).
  • Dizi 笛子: A flute made of bamboo.
  • Sheng 笙: A think of a pipe organ in a church, and imagine it is miniaturized to a size you can hold it with your two hands. It is basically a mini pipe organ made of several small bamboo pipes.
  • Dagu 大鼓: Literally, a big drum. You may be familiar with this by its Japanese pronunciation of the same word, taiko.
  • Yaogu 腰鼓: A two-sided small drum worn by your waist.
  • Luo 锣: Metal gongs. There are many different kinds and sizes of gongs in China.
  • Muyu 木鱼: Wooden fish. A hollowed and carved wood block that is shaped like a little whale. Play it with a mallet. Called mokugyo in Japanese and mog-eo in Korean, it is widely used as part of the Mahayana Buddhist chanting practice throughout East Asia.

Learn more about Chinese musical instruments

Categories arts, cultures

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Dutch-Belgian border
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One of the first things you may notice when looking at a globe or a world map is how a country is shaped. Italy looks like a boot. France looks like a deformed hexagon. A country is shaped by both natural features (such as coastlines) and by artificial lines called international boundaries. Often the border between two countries is something natural: rivers separate China from North Korea ; mountains separate Chile from Argentina. But sometimes it is entirely artificial: look at the long, straight line between Canada and the United States. The 1,260 mile-long (2,028 km) straight line stretching from Northwestern Minnesota to Western Washington (and Manitoba to Lower Mainland British Columbia) is the world’s longest straight border. It is the 49th parallel North, the line agreed upon between the United States and Great Britain (Canada was a British territory then) drawn in the year 1846.

The problem of such an arbitrary border becomes clear when we get out of looking at an old map (remember: in the 19th century there were no satellites or even aerial photos) and go outside to take a walk.

In Canada’s Metro Vancouver region, there are several suburban cities around Vancouver. Much of them are developed as residential communities. Driving about an hour south of Vancouver, there is a town called Delta. It was once a flat land that was largely industrial and agricultural, but urban sprawl has reached Delta over time, as well. But at the end of the English Bluff neighbourhood, the suburbs suddenly stop. Streets are cut off. Beyond there, you can see a green forest and a quiet country road, which you can easily walk over to reach. But it is the United States. There’s no fence or Trump wall, there’s only a worn-out sign saying you’re in the United States.

Point Roberts is part of Whatcom County, Washington — same county as Bellingham and the Western Washington University — but it is completely separated from the rest of the U.S. Middle school and high school students ride a school bus every day, crossing into Canada, crossing into the U.S. again, to attend a school in Blaine, Washington. There is no police there, so the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office must either reach there by boat or by driving through Canada. There is a small volunteer rural fire department in Point Roberts, but in major emergencies, fire trucks and ambulances come from Delta, British Columbia. Until the 1980s, Point Roberts had Canadian telephone numbers with the 604 area code (now it is 360, same as most of Western Washington outside the Seattle-Tacoma metro area). (Next to Point Roberts is a long causeway that reaches a few feet short of the U.S. border. It is the Tsawwassen B.C. Ferries terminal to Victoria. While travellers do not have to clear U.S. customs, the ferry boat navigates the U.S. territorial water for a few miles.)

All this seem pretty absurd. There are three other places like this: the Northwest Angle in Minnesota, Estcourt Station, Maine (home of the famous Gaz Bar Maine gas station), and Hyder, Alaska, these are little pieces of U.S. only connected to Canada. Both happened to be that way because the people who drew borders back then did not have a really good idea of what these lands were actually like. Then there is a town called Derby Line/Stanstead, where old houses were built before the U.S. and Canada sent surveyors to mark the border: the main tourist attraction and local community space is the Haskell Free Library, which is an independent public library (and also an opera house) that is physically in both Quebec and Vermont.

Despite the sheer impracticality, the border has not changed between these two countries.

Usually, borders change because of war. But sometimes, they change under a peaceful circumstance.

This past Monday, Dec. 5, 2015, the Netherlands and Belgium signed a treaty to redraw the boundaries between these two countries . The section of the border in question was in place before a river was rerouted to make it easier for ships to go through. But the border did not follow the change. So a small section of both shores ended up in the other country’s territory.

In ordinary lives, this did not cause too many problems. Nobody lived in those places, and people are free to come and go between Belgium and the Netherlands under the Schengen Agreement (in most of Western Europe, there are no border fences, customs, or immigration between member countries of Schengen). But criminals knew that Belgian police cannot go to the Dutch section of the river shore, and the Dutch police cannot go to the Belgian section of the river shore, even though ordinary citizens can just walk over there without anyone noticing. Over time, these places became the place for drug-dealing and prostitution. So both governments agreed to redraw the border, in a mutually agreeable way.

The treaty will still have to be ratified by the parliaments of both countries, and if they do, the border will change next month.

Categories geography, history

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