Human Potential in Beijing

By Bobak Tavangar

“The endowments which distinguish the human race from all other forms of life are summed up in what is known as the human spirit; the mind is its essential quality. These endowments have enabled humanity to build civilizations and to prosper materially. But such accomplishments alone have never satisfied the human spirit, whose mysterious nature inclines it towards transcendence…”

–The Promise of World Peace, Universal House of Justice, The Baha’i Faith

Walking the streets of Beijing, China. Photo: Bobak Tavangar

I’ve been thinking a lot about human potential. Who? How much? How do we know? Where does it come from? How can it be unlocked?

Here in Beijing I see so much potential inherent not just in the individual but in Chinese society as a whole. History has shown us how capable the Chinese are with significant contributions to science, governance, commerce, and social theory and it is proving no different now. This country is rediscovering what it means to harness the world around them for the sake of progress.

But is this all that matters? Is it sustainable? Does it necessarily lead to a society of rational and socially conscious citizens or could it possible widen the abyss between wealthy and poor while leaving both no better prepared to make moral decisions for themselves, their children, their countrymen, and ultimately their fellow world citizens?

I ran into a good friend last night in the Sanlitun area of Beijing while deciding which crepe I wanted to order. We got to talking and to my great joy the conversation quickly turned substantive. We found a couple of chairs and vented. Both she and I have been taking careful note of what we see around us here in the hub of China: the alarming social trends, the blistering pace of development, the stark difference between newly wealthy Chinese millionaires and the mud-soaked migrant laborers who build their movie theaters, apartments, and mega malls. Our conversation spanned energy, religion, governance, and numerous other topics relevant to this beautiful country’s emergence. Ultimately we decided this: material development alone will not lead to a happy China. I’m guessing we’re not alone.

I like to reference the sad case of Japan to underscore the importance of our conclusion. Japan is, without a doubt, one of the remarkable economic miracles in human history. In just short of a century the country achieved near universal poverty eradication and material success but has been left a mere shell of its former glory–mired in incipient political, economic, and social turmoil. Left to its own devices–in this case blind greed and an ego-driven desire to develop–Japan was able to recreate its reality as a nation but without the comprehensive sense of prosperity that we have been taught should come with increased access to material goods. Today it is the high suicide rate that most often comes up in a conversation about Japan, not the brilliance of their engineers or greatness of their achievements. I fear the same fate awaits China if they don’t learn from their neighbor.

The quote above was taken from a document prepared by the highest elected body of the Baha’i Faith, The Universal House of Justice. It contains stunningly poignant analysis of the ills afflicting the globe and the remedy needed not just to allay the pain it is currently feeling but also to usher in a new era of well being. There is indeed something very mystical about the human soul (I would argue the core of our being) and its need for more than raw material consumption; an activity also pursued incessantly by members of the animal kingdom. I think that humanity is quickly waking up to the reality that our true nature as human souls is not just characterized by the need to consume, but more importantly by the need to give. To give of our knowledge, our time, our love, our inspiration, our very being–it’s something profoundly different from the way we have been wired to think about our reality on this earthly plane but is, in my opinion, a necessary change in mindset if we envision an advanced global community united behind genuine feelings of equality and brotherhood.

This brings me back to China. I am of the opinion that the “post-unipolar” world will not be another jostling between a few great powers that leaves most of the population disenfranchised. It will be a system of great powers who will be forced to choose between collaboration to correct the chronic mismanagement of the world or crumble where they stand. China will be one of those great powers and in order to ensure that it chooses the former and not the latter, the Chinese people themselves will need to be guided by the same global consciousness I mentioned above. I make this specific to China not just because I am based in Beijing, but because I see limitless potential in the Chinese people themselves to realize the importance of this shift in mentality. As a people they have never shied away from a seemingly insurmountable challenge and I have no reason to view this time as being any different.

Bobak is a junior in the Elliott School of International Affairs, majoring in International Affairs with concentrations in International Economics and East Asia. In addition to being passionate about world unity and the Baha’i Faith, Bobak’s Persian heritage, American upbringing, and obsession with the People’s Republic of China lend him a unique perspective on what is unfolding around us. Duck and dumplings are currently on the menu as Bobak is in the midst of spending a full year in Beijing, China studying Mandarin and working for a Chinese environmental NGO.


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