Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Tom Watkins: Great teachers - open eyes to China/Tibet

February 22, 2008

Novi News, MI
21 February 2008

Great teachers plant seeds that you can harvest for a lifetime. My
fourth grade teacher planted seeds about the people, culture and
history of China and forty-four years later I am still enjoying the

My fascination with all things China has enabled me to continue
learning throughout my life and to be present as history was unfolding
within its borders. My first trip to China coincided with the buildup
to the massacre in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.

I recall vividly, standing in the square with hundreds of thousands of
students and other protesters in late May 1989, when a student asked
me in his halting English to "describe freedom, to describe
democracy." Explaining freedom and democracy to someone who has never
experienced it is like trying to explain how you get up and start to
breathe in the morning.

What happened that day as the lives of protesters were snuffed out is
seared into my memory. At that time I wrote for an American/Chinese
magazine: "Perhaps we should expect a country that was struggling to
overcome the horrors of the cultural revolution to be convulsive as it
transforms itself - but it should not be repulsive and repressive.
What happened that day was repulsive and repressive. It is something
that I nor the world should forget. Yet, I believe as strongly that we
should not abandon the cultural, academic and professional exchanges
that have flourished since the reopening of China. It is through the
open exchange of ideas that democracy and change flourish. If we do
not stay involved with the people of China, the young man who asked me
in Tiananmen Square to 'describe democracy, describe freedom,' will
never have his question answered."

I have worked hard since that day, and in memory of the student
seeking knowledge about freedom and democracy and the great teacher
who inspired my formative years, to continue to build academic,
cultural and economic bridges with China for the benefit of Americans
and Chinese.

I am most proud of helping to persuade Oakland County Executive, L.
Brooks Patterson to call on Oakland Schools to offer Chinese in all 28
school districts, hence better preparing the children of Oakland
County for the hyper-competitive, transformational, global, knowledge
economy and making Oakland County a magnet for Chinese Investment in
the future.
It's A Small World After All

Nearly 20 years later, aircraft wheels were up once again for my
more-than-a baker's dozen trip to the People's Republic of China. This
was my first trip there since completing the CBS-Detroit TV special
"Building Bridges From the Great Lakes to the Great Wall,"
( - click on Building Bridges) a groundbreaking
three-part series that examines how our economic future could be tied
to China. You can also read my blog from China during this recent trip
on the same Web site.

Today, since the opening of China to the world by Deng Xiaoping, the
leader who followed Mao Zedong, China is a rising economic superpower.
Their economy has grown by double digits for the past twenty years. I
often feel like a kid in a candy shop each time I return. There is so
much to absorb as you enter the ancient Chinese culture.
Tibetan Pilgrimage

This trip was extra special because it included an excursion that
dissected China, taking the 2006 inaugural Beijing-to-Lhasa, Tibet
train. This 48-hour trek became an endurance test, as I did not want
to blink, let alone sleep, for fear of missing a new experience. From
our picture window in the train we could see the lives of ordinary
Tibetans flash by.

We saw the winter-brown Plateau dotted with countless black yaks as
the train lumbered down the track. As morning broke after the
overnight slumbering, I immediately noticed that the charcoal polluted
sky of Beijing had given way to one of royal blue. The mountains were
soaring and soaking in the sunshine.

The train was full of Tibetan college students returning home for the
Chinese New years as well as Monks and ordinary Tibetan and Chinese

After 48 hours of chugging along we entered Lhasa, capitol of Tibet
Autonomous Region. It is a Buddhist kingdom on the rooftop of the
world at 12,000 feet above sea level. I felt as if I had completed the
lesson my fourth grade teacher gave me many years ago as I entered
Lhasa on this knowledge-seeking pilgrimage that had begun so many
years earlier.

For Tibetans, pilgrimage refers to the journey from ignorance to
enlightenment, from self-centeredness and materialistic focus to a
deep sense of the interconnectedness of all life. The Tibetan word for
pilgrimage, neykhor, means "to circle around a sacred place." I
circled around the Potala, or Palace, whose construction began in
1645. It was home to the successive Dalai Lamas until 1959, when the
Dalai Lama fled to India.

Many Tibetans spun the prayer wheels that circle the Potala, reciting
the mantra on the prayer wheels: "Om Mani Padme Hum." Tibetan
Buddhists believe that saying the mantra (prayer) "Om" invokes the
powerful, benevolent attention and blessings of Chenrezig, the
embodiment of compassion. It is said that all the teachings of the
Buddha are contained in this mantra.

As I climbed the steps of the Potala, I recited "Om Mani Padme Hum" in
thanks to a great teacher who opened my eyes and mind to continue to
harvest the knowledge of the world.

In the 21st century, knowledge is power. There is so much to learn.

Tom Watkins is an education and business consultant. He served as
Michigan's State Superintendent of Schools from 2001-2005. He can be
reached at:
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665
Developed by plank