29 March 2006

Considerations of Inconsiderate China

Los Angeles

There was a lot of time to think about China on the flight home. We left our hotel in Beijing at about 7am on Monday morning and arrived home at about 3pm the same day. In all, it was nearly 24 hours in transit. One of the books I read on the plane was Stick Out Your Tongue by Ma Jian. It's banned in China, as is so much else that's worth reading.

The thin volume is a group of somewhat linked short stories based on the facts of the author's travels in Tibet in the mid-1980s. The stories portray the Tibetans and their Han Chinese masters as both brutal and brutalized. Ma Jian had gone to Tibet to get in touch with his Buddhist faith. He came away having lost that faith. He'd already had any of his faith in China drummed out of him.

China's a very hard place to keep your faith; in anything. It calls itself a communist country, but that's just a sick joke. The guys in power in Beijing lay claim to whatever dubious legitimacy they have through the lineage of the Communist Party - which has become no more than a state religion. They don't really believe a word of the rhetoric anymore, but if they ever say so publically they'll just be pulling down their own house of cards. In reality China is still ruled by emperors: the Ming Dynasty gave way to the Ching which gave way to the Manchu, then to a Nationalist Dynasty which was supplanted by the Chairman Mao Dynasty then a short period of turmoil before the Deng Dynasty. Now China seems to be firmly ruled by a Dull Technocrat Dynasty that is turning it into the kind of old-fashioned, exploitive capitalist country that much of the rest of the world has evolved beyond.

One day in Beijing we walked through a park that was being restored. The workers, imported from villages in the countryside - a lot cheaper than hiring city dwellers - live in a big tent and eat communal meals. They're in Beijing on a one year contract. So as to ensure they will stick around for the whole year, they're not paid until their term is completed. In the case of the park it's the government that's employing them, so their money might be safe. All too often at the end of the year, if they're working for a private company, the company will declare financial hardship and pay them less than they're entitled to, or nothing more than a bus ride home. There is almost nothing they can do about it.

The old, traditional neighborhoods in Beijing are called hutongs and they're disappearing fast; torn down to make way for nondescript blocks of high-rise apartments. The people who are displaced are compensated, slightly. But not nearly enough to afford the new apartments. They move to the outskirts of the city, or to someplace else altogether, breaking up communities that have been together for generations.

Nearly 800 million Chinese live in "rural" areas. They are the "peasents" who were the backbone of China's revolution. Communism was supposed to be on their behalf. That didn't work out so well. They got as screwed by the Mao Dynasty as they had been by the other dyansties before it.

In the Deng Dynasty they were somewhat freed. They still couldn't own their land - a promise that was broken by the Emperor Mao - but they could grow whatever they wanted on it and let a free market sort it out. From 1983 to 1991 their incomes rose significantly. They've stagnated, or even declined, since. There were nearly a hundred thousand rural protests last year in China. It's hard to get an exact figure on anything in the country, but the government itself admits to around 74,000. None of them had any real impact. Many of them were brutally suppressed.

And many of them are losing the land that they don't own anyhow. The government owns agricultural land. People can buy, sell and speculate on residential, commercial and industrial property and that's a whole lot more lucrative than farming. So local governments all over China have been selling off huge chunks of agricultural land to developers from the cities - and from other countries. They boot the farmers off to make way for housing developments, industrial parks and shopping malls. In some cases the farmers are compensated at the very low "agricultural use value" of the land. In many cases they are just shoved aside and told to go find work elsewhere. (Living in tents in the city and not getting paid for a year, for instance.)

China is no worker's paradise. It is the most unbridled, raucous, venal capitalist society I have ever seen. By comparison, the U.S. is much further down the road to socialist utopia. By every measure, (even those where the U.S. does a piss poor job)- education, healthcare, poverty levels and social welfare, social services, legal protections for minorities and women, infrastructure, privacy from government intrusion into daily life, cultural and arts funding, honest law enforcement, rights of individuals, free and open access to information, even that old Marxist goal of labor and public ownership of the means of production, etc. - the U.S. - and for that matter practically every other "non-socialist" country in Asia - kicks China's ass.

I did meet one person in China who has kept the faith. As a young nuclear physicist, Joan Hinton worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. She witnessed the explosion of the first bomb at Trinity Site, New Mexico. With her own hands she helped to build the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki. She freaked out when she heard how many people her handiwork had helped to kill. She became a lifelong communist. She defected to China in 1948 and has lived there ever since. Now, living on a dairy farm outside of Beijing, she still thinks Chairman Mao did almost nothing, if anything, wrong. The 30 to 40 million people who most reputable historians say died during China's Great Leap Forward in the early 1960s are simply a "gross exaggeration." If Chairman Mao hadn't died, and had been able to complete his Cultural Revolution, it would have been his greatest achievement. It is still something that China ought to be proud of. Deng Xiaoping and his cronies were horribly corrupt "capitalist roaders." She's a smart, warm, strong, fascinating woman and a true believer.

And maybe she's got at least part of a point. A whole lot fewer people are being killed these days by the design and mismanagement of China's government than were slaughtered by Emperor Mao. (Although a country that executes as many as twenty thousand people a year and allows many tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands to die in industrial accidents, can scarcely be cited for humanitarianism.) But still, parts of the Chinese economy seem to be reverting to feudalism. Sooner or later the country is going to have to reform real quick, split apart, or face another revolution.

All of this seems more apparent in Beijing than elsewhere. Even without open public discourse, politics is one of the most common topics in private conversations. In the drab, colorless, dust and pollution choked capital city, it's a whole lot harder to see evidence of the very real progress that China is making than it is in glitzy, glamorous, 24-hour-a-day, high-speed crackling Shanghai. And in the South, in Guangdong and Fujian provinces, in Hong Kong and Macau, I was regularly reminded of a favorite old Cantonese saying: "Close to my heart, and far from Beijing."

Part Two: A Short List of the Best of the Eric Stone Book Tour of China 2006

Enough China bashing for one blog. Here's some of the things I liked best on the tour.

Hong Kong & Macau

Colin Cotterill. I knew he was a wonderful writer before I met him and now I know he's a great, fun, interesting guy in person too. Read The Coroner's Lunch and Thirty-Three Teeth. You'll like them. If you don't, it could only be because you have bad taste in books. Here's a picture of Colin, (he's a lot more photogenic than I am), his girlfriend Jessi and my girlfriend Eva:

Here we are chatting with some of our legions of fans following a triumphant - well, amusing at least - panel that we both appeared on at the Man Hong Kong Literary Festival:

Fernando's. One of the world's greatest restaurants. It's on Hac Sa beach on Coloane Island in Macau. It's informal and relaxing and the spicy clams, crab casserole, bbq chicken, grilled fish and even plain green salad are utter perfection. Especially washed down with a pitcher of sangrilla or a bottle or three of Portuguese Vinho Verde. (There's a scene that takes place in it in The Living Room of the Dead.)

The Star Ferry. A much shorter ride than it used to be due to the reclaiming of land in the harbor, but still one of the great scenic bargains on the planet.

Hee Kee Fried Crab Expert. And I don't even like crab all that much. Astounding, overwhelming flavors of garlic, pepper, chili and crab. A funky little place (be warned, it isn't cheap though) that is jam packed at all hours in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong.

The Train from HK to Shanghai. It takes about 25 hours, a very comfortable private sleeper compartment for two costs about the same or less than flying, the scenery is interesting and the dining car has tasty - if greasy - food. Here's Eva, snug on the train:


Where to start. I fell in love with Shanghai. It's one of the most exciting cities I've ever been in. Just walking around in almost any part of the city is interesting and fun. Go to the Photos section of the website to see pictures. They ought to be up sometime later today. But, here's some few recommendations:

Xiao long bau - juicy pork dumplings. You'll find them all over town, but the very best ones we had, the very height of dumpling perfection, were at a tiny little storefront on Ningbo Road West, just north of Central Henan Road (not too far from Nanjing Lu - the main shopping street). The place is next door to the Apple Garden Bakery and the name is only in Chinese. Be very careful when you bite into the dumplings. The utterly perfect, thin but strong and pliant wrapper holds in a large amount of scalding hot pork juice. They only steam a couple of baskets at a time so that they can serve them hot, very hot. Go there and eat. It's ridiculously cheap and one of the truly great food experiences you will ever have. Even if you're a vegetarian - give it up for a meal. Here's a picture of the front of the place:

Shanghai MOCA. A great space in a nice park surrounded by strange looking buildings. The show we saw wasn't great, but the contemporary art was quirky and political in ways that I didn't expect to see in China.

Officer Emily, Shanghai PD. Eva had her wallet stolen. After an hour and a half of street cops arguing over who was going to get stuck with the jurisdiction - it happened right on the border between two precincts - and have to cope with non-Chinese speaking tourists, they took us to the station and handed us over to Emily, the low person on the totem pole. She spoke great English and had a very nice, easy way about her that made us comfortable and almost made a pleasant experience of the whole thing. Chairman Mao once said: "Women hold up half the sky." That day, Emily was holding up a whole lot more than her half. Here she and Eva are in the rather run down station house:

Terrace Bars at M on the Bund and New Heights. Mind-boggling views and strong drinks, perfect for dusk as the sun goes down and the lights come up.

Xiao Nan Guo restaurant. Superb Shanghainese food, somewhat off the tourist beaten path, big for weddings on weekends so either book ahead or go on a weekday. We had crab, shrimp, snake (really delicious snake), some sort of loofah like vegetable that was great and some sort of local pancake thing that was also great.


We really didn't much like Beijing. It's ugly, flat, dull, spread out and filthy. (Then again, that could describe Los Angeles - although I think it's less of those things - and I love this place, so go figure.) Everyone told us that the people in Beijing were much less aggressive and unpleasant, and more couth than they are in Shanghai. We found the opposite to be true. Still, there were things we really liked about the place.

798 Arts District. A whole bunch of contemporary galleries built into the sprawling complex of what used to be an industrial cable factory. A lot of the art we saw was rather predictable and derivative, but there were some gems in the mix. (Chinese artists still have a long way to go before they work Chairman Mao and communism out of their esthetic systems.) Still, the complex itself is great and it's surprising how free the visual arts are in an otherwise pretty strict totalitarian state.

Liqun Roast Duck Restaurant. A great, family run place down a somewhat confusing set of alleys in an old - although rapidly being torn down - neighborhood just south and east of Tienanmen Square. There are plenty of big, garish, popular tourist palaces for Peking Duck. Eat here instead.

The Bookworm. An island of calm and intellectual sensibility. A combination bookstore, lending library, cafe, bar and event venue run by the extremely personable and smart Alex Pearson. If you're pining away for actual, fresh, raw greens - a regular occurance for Westerners travelling in Asia - they have really good salads. Every city ought to have a place like this.

The Great Wall from Jinshanling to Simatai. See the photos section. This is a tough 10 km hike, but worth every last panting, groaning, knee quaking step of it.

The Weekend Flea Market. Kitsch, kitsch and more kitsch. Here's where the Cultural Revolution really went to die.

1 comment:

Babelfisch said...

Joan Hinton is an activist with the Beijing international Peace Vigil.