Part II – Red, White and Blue, minus the White and Blue
Red, White and Blue are usually associated with the USA, but those three colors also find themselves on the British and French flags and together, the three countries are at the origin of the international language, the capitalist free-market system, freedom of press, modern day entertainment, industrialization, democracy, and so on. While they are not right in many of the things they do and have a long history of mistakes and exploitation, they are the undeniable source of the way the world is shaped today. Yet, China is the oldest country in the world, with a rich history dating back to 1000 BC and we are seeing a renewal of Chinese heritage. They invented most things before the west and up until the mid 15th century, were the most powerful nation in the world. That being said, today, nearly everything new is from the west. That is not to say that there is no modern Chinese culture, there is. Art Galleries are more prominent in Beijing than in most cities in the world, modern Chinese literature is abundant and many ‘new’ Chinese appreciate traditional Chinese practices with a modern twist.
To me, what remains most disconcerting about modern China is their inability to learn from the mistakes of others, namely the west. In the first half of 2005, two thousand seven hundred miners have died in China (and that number is most likely, much higher), rapid degradation of the environment is found around the country, serious outbreaks of disease are occurring more and more frequently and 16 Chinese cities are found on the list of the 20 most polluted cities in the world. Sound doomy and gloomy? Well, in a way, it is. Does China have the will, resources and power to change the situation? Undeniably. The main impediment to any motion regarding these issues is a lack of information and education, unlike in the West, it still remains difficult to obtain clear and un-contorted reports on such issues. These examples are not the basis of the article, but simply illustrations of New China’s disregard for the mistakes that come hand in hand with industrialization and modernization of a society.
People do not seem to value human life here as much as back home, which is not surprising considering there are 1.35 billion people in this country. In China, there are 30 000 deaths per year due to car accidents (and this is rapidly rising). In Australia, where there are approximately the same number of cars, there are 3 000 deaths. Anyone who has traveled in China will know that the problem lies in the huge discrepancy of the quality of trucks and vehicles and the lack of strict guidelines regarding what can go on the road (or at least, their enforcement). China seems to be adopting many of the Western policies that benefit them best and leaving the troublesome ones like environmental regulations, human rights and transparency behind.
I will try to get back on course and address the state of western culture in China, which was the original purpose of this piece. On the surface, and what I first thought, was that the same generic rap is blasted at clubs, the young dress the same as their western counterparts, behave the same, eat at the same fast food restaurants, aimlessly peruse shopping malls, and drink the same carbonated beverages. While this is definitely true of part of the new wealthy class is China it overlooks the vast majority of society which can only dream of such privileges. But, even in the lower classes, there is more and more westernization; they drink more beer and less tea, watch American movies, and wear Nike t-shirts. Is this a bad thing? Rather, as with most of the world it seems inevitable. From Cairo to Bangkok to Johanesburg, Americanization is rampant and growing. The question becomes what remains of essence to a culture? And, therefore, requires protecting. While there is no risk of the Chinese language going the way of the dodo, it is curious to see that most ABCs (American Born Chinese) or CBCs do not speak Chinese. I commonly meet North American Chinese who are here to learn Chinese, which is demonstrative of the renewed pride in their heritage and recognition of the importance of knowing Chinese. In terms of protecting culture, the most evident example to me are the language laws in Québec. (For those unaware, there are strict laws in the Canadian province of Québec dictating that all signs must be in French and that children must attend French school.) These laws, to many, seem excessive, but it is clear that they have prevented the French language from being wiped out of North America and have undoubtly contributed to the rich culture found in the urban centres of Montréal and Québec City. Take for comparison the amount of French currently spoken in New Orleans. In terms of Americanization, clothing is usually the first thing to go, then perhaps an encroachment on diet, and next we see a standardization of mass media. So, to preserve and promote the history, traditions, and culture of a country like China is of growing importance. But, Chinese people have a very peculiar perception of what historical conservation and preservation is.
Chinese value the appearance of the object rather than its authenticity, and I am not talking about the fake Rolexes, lacoste shirts and puma shoes. Historical monuments are commonly rebuilt and while they are usually accurate reproductions, they are no longer historic, simply historic looking. The Badaling section of the Great Wall of China (the closest part to Beijing) has been completely rebuilt and it seems quite fair to consider it a modern construction that bears no authenticity to the original wall except location. I have traveled through cities that are being built from scratch to look like an old Chinese city to attract tourism and compliment an authentic historical site that may be found near by. Fake antiques are so common that it is becoming increasingly rare to find anything ‘real’ and dealers usually pass of ‘old-looking’ as simply old to the unwitting tourist. When most of your monuments and antiques were destroyed (90% during the cultural revolution), it seems natural to rebuild them and to honor them as though they were authentic. Yet, in many cases where the item was not completely destroyed, there is a very fine line between restoration and reconstruction. I highly recommend an article by Ron Gluckman about fakes in China (http://www.gluckman.com/ChinaFraud.html). (Look at his other articles as he has some really great ones about China.)
I have seen a good deal of high quality modern artwork in Beijing. Chinese painters are becoming more and more famous on the international stage and the works are starting to go for similar prices to their western counterparts. I have posted some photos from a recent sculpture exhibition, which featured the work of China’s best modern artists. There are numerous enclaves of studios and galleries in and around Beijing where modern art is flourishing. Namely, an old factory district called simply 798 that has been converter into galleries and studios is the hippest place in town and anyone who is anyone is living up there. What seems to plague a lot of the work is a recurrent theme of political protest by mocking communist posters, figures, and slogans. From what I have seen, and apart from photographs, most art is anti-party rather than anti-poverty or anti-exploitation. But, obviously this is my personal opinion and probably incorrect. This resurgence of Chinese artists is concurrent with the country’s growing wealth and the populations Americanization.
Americanization is synonymous with conspicuous consumption. The rapid development of China has meant that advertisement regulations are non-existent. The subway is plastered with ads, people are handing out millions of flyers,
cigarettes are devoid of warnings and false advertisement is rampant. The concurrent lack of copyright laws and enforcement in China is well known and any brand name item can easily be acquired on the streets of Beijing. More than the poor saps at Louis Vuitton losing some cash that they probably never get, we should look at this as a social phenomenon. What it really show is a lack of originality. They prefer to copy, rather than create. When you go to markets (or shopping malls, airports…) in china you will have 50 shops selling the exact same thing all next door to each other. The only difference between the stalls is the people running them. What, in my opinion, this points to, is a lack of education of the people. They do not lack technical education (language skills, math skills…), but rather a form of education that is only acquired by seeing and experiencing things in an open society, I stress the word open. It is quite common to see a westerner performing a job that a Chinese person should be technically capable of doing, but they often lack the dynamism, flexibility and social skills to do it.
The younger generation that has grown up with Deng Xiaoping’s reforms is more and more capable of taking up these challenges, and in many ways that makes them more western. There remains a large gap to overcome, especially considering that all schooling costs money including elementary school and consequently, the poor are much more likely to remain poor. The true modernization of the country, meaning the modernization of its people, will not happen overnight and it will not happen on a large scale until the government relaxes its grip on media and education curriculum. On the same page it should be noted that current university students are still brainwashed, though much less, by government propaganda. A simple example is that they still think that South Korea started the Korean War, which is completely incorrect. Modern students tend to toe the party line, and from what I can tell, the possibility of another mass protest as in 1989 is extremely remote. This is due to various reasons, but the point remains that the current student generation is more content to buy a fake polo shirt, eat at McDonalds, and listen to 50 cent than to stand in front of a tank.
Part I – Growing Wealth, Growing Inequities
It is undeniable that the economy is developing rapidly and that many peoples incomes have dramatically increased in recent years. However, the truth remains that the vast majority of the population are as poor as ever. But, the lives of an important part of Chinese society have dramatically improved in recent years. Yet, outside the wealthy areas of Beijing, infrastructure is years behind. Venture 10 minutes away from the wealthiest part of Beijing (Chaoyang Business District) and toilets remain outhouses, water is not sanitary, electricity lines are carelessly strewn, dirt floors abound, garbage strewn about, little heating and poorly constructed housing. The gap between western cities and Chinese cities is so large it is hard to describe and the fact that China is so populous only adds to the burden of raising the basic standards of living. Traveling in smaller Chinese towns re-emphasizes the situation. We can see a Porsche Cayenne (125000$ car) parked next to a beggar who lives on 1$ a day. Many people, namely the Chinese Authorities, industrialists and the new middle class claim these are the necessary and temporary inequities required to develop the country. Just as we saw during the industrial revolution in the West, inequities go hand in hand with rapid growth. While inequity is unlikely necessary, it may well be inevitable.
These problems are said to be of concern to the Chinese Government, but in reality, little has been done. There have been increasing demonstrations and unrest by countryside peasants against the governments seizure of farm-land for development and the careless regard for the environment and the safety of the poor (see IHT July 31, 2005). Small towns near steel or chemical plants are so polluted that I have difficulty imagining the health of the children growing up there come 20 years. On a personal note, poor people regularly ask me how much money I spend per day, how much my rent is and how much I earn. This is never a comfortable subject and I usually blatantly lie to them, telling them I spend about 30RMB (8 RMB = 1 US$) per day, in reality it is about 170RMB per day if you include rent and all that other stuff. While this sum is really not that much compared to the west, or to wealthy people in Beijing, it is enormous when compared to a peasant construction worker who earns 800 RMB per month at most. How can this be rectified? How can the differences be brought in line with those in found in western countries? Considering the size of the population, the difference in education, the corruption, and the attitude of the Chinese elite: I have no idea. Not the slightest. So lets turn to another aspect of this exploding society.
On an international level, China has the world by the balls. It is not in China’s interest to see the United States, and by extension the world’s, economy falter, but they could do it at the flick of a switch. They control so much American Treasury Bonds that selling 10% of them would send the US into a serious downturn (see August edition of The Economist). Most people associate China’s growth to the opening of its financial markets and the introduction of free market practices. This remains true in part, but overlooks the meat and bones. China’s policy is to develop large institutions as state controlled companies and allow them to breed smaller companies, which are not controlled directly by the government. This is contrast to India’s policy of allowing private companies to dominate sectors such as health, water, roads and to place the responsibility of development on them, and not the government. Indias’s growth is significantly less and anyone who has traveled there will agree that as poor as rural China is, India is much worse. As said by someone else, “The truth is, Chinese markets are as free as my kids: they can do whatever they want unless I say they can’t.” China will continue to grow and some rules will be loosened, while others will be tightened. Considering the number of half-finished and half-full apartment buildings in Beijing I cannot say that I am completely at ease with the situation here.
Corruption is still rampant and there are serious issues regarding the availability of cheap money from Banks. Laws regarding the banking system have been introduced and borrowing seems to be slowing down, along with the excessive real estate development in large cities. The steel industry, which is the driving force behind the entire economy, is expanding as fast as humanly possible, and sometimes faster. There are however obvious limitations: Raw Materials. As in the rest of Chinese society, the next big issue will be the availability of resources. Chinese plants, for the most part, are using poor quality coke, lime, and ore (basic ingredients for steel) as they are the only types available for a reasonable price. Which brings about another issue, a lot of what is done by Chinese is done fast and on the cheap.
Beijing’s lack of any type of urban planning has created a city, which is a hodgepodge of new glass towers, communist cement blocks, low poor housing, and every style of condominium known to mankind. The new buildings are going up so fast that they purchase mass-produced, low quality material that will not last long. I am not saying that all the buildings need to be made of marble and gold, but the disregard for quality is somewhat alarming. The engineering of the buildings is sound and I have yet to hear of any failures, but when you touch the appliances, the lamps, the desks, you just feel the cheapness. There are high quality products available here for very cheap prices in relation to the west. Heavy furniture, statues, and other household things are available for a bit more than the generic items that are usually used. The buildings that are built often cut corners and without coming across as more Eurocentric than I already am, Chinese architecture is bad and they generally Chinese people do not have that much taste (see next article). The rapid development of a city has traditionally created beautiful cities with some form of uniform style (i.e. Paris and New York), but Beijing has not forced constructors to follow any particular style. While there are many buildings that are interesting on their own as modern artwork and marvelous feats of engineering, the city lacks any sort of unifying style. Even the most high end buildings use poor interior architecture and cut corners.
As usual I use the steal industry as a general indicator and concrete example: the general motto for most Chinese steel plants is to push tonnage (or quantity) and not quality. Some plants, with lots of capital (namely Baosteel) buck this trend and follow western plant practices who have shifted to higher end steels, which are stronger, last longer and cost more. China has been better organized in the modernization of a society than any other large country in history, but there are still many short-comings. Of course, keeping a reign on 1.3 billion people who are hard working, creative, ambitious and biting at the bit is not easily accomplished. China is succeeding where many have failed, but they are no were near the finish line. Western living standards will not reach most of the population, in my opinion for at least another 30-40 years, if at all.
Much of Chinese historical artifacts were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (some estimate as much as 90 %), but China is losing more than just buildings and statues now; they are losing the intangible culture that makes a nation a civilization.
My next short article will be on the encroachment and enthusiasm that Western culture is making here. What is your culture when almost everything you use and do is centered o
n western technology and corporations?
I have now been in China for nearly three months, while this period is still quite short I feel it is sufficient to make certain observations about a society that is going full tilt. Ones’ impression of China from the west is often quite positive, a 9% GDP growth, improving quality of life, more and more openness, adoption of western attitudes, etc. Many people have identified China as the next great superpower that could rival and eventually overtake the United States in as little as 20 years, some say less. My time here has led me to be far more concerned about China’s prospects than I had ever been. I will post some brief, probably incoherent, articles on aspects of the New China. These are not meant as technical analysis of China and are more just my general impressions from reading and seeing things here. Please send me questions or comments, as I am interested in your experiences and views. Those of you who know me, realize that I come across as negative, pessimistic and euro-centric; so keep that in mind when reading these articles.Published on July 25, 2005
This past weekend, I went to Inner Mongolia with my friend David Gaucher and another friend, Antoine. Inner Mongolia is on the other side of the great wall and is the homeland of Gengis Khan, Mongolian Horses, Grasslands, and Yurts. We only had the weekend to travel since I had work on monday and both David and Antoine had school. We took an overnight train to a small (250 000 people) town north of Beijing, we opted to avoid any tourist agency and do the trip on our own to have a better experience and save some money. A quick note on the train: We originally bought hard seat tickets because that was all that is left. This means you are in a compartment on hard seats, with a lot of sweaty chinese people staring at you and you have about as much free space as a chicken in a tiger pen. With some swift negotiating and some intense running we managed to upgrade to hard sleepers, and by upgrade I mean that there is absolutly no comparison as hard sleepers are quite nice and you actually have room to breath.
Chinese tourists are truly mind boggling. They enjoy traveling in large groups and staying at inauthentic locations, never really venturing beyond the immediate surroundings of their base. We on the other hand, wanted to head out into the vast grasslands of Huitengxile on galloping mongolian horses, sleep in a small town, meet the locals and have an adventure.
After hiring a taxi for the 80 km ride from the town we arrived in to the departure point of the grasslands, which was a somewhat touristy area, but due to the proximity to beijing (800 km) we had little other choice. We negotiated with some locals to have an inclusive package of food, horses, guides, and lodging for 1500 RMB = 225 CND$ for the three of us for the weekend. We had to do this all in Chinese, which gave them the opportunity later on to say they did not understand us, which we know to be not true.
We ate a quick and rather poor brunch (the smoked salmon was of rather poor quality, and the croissants were under cooked) and we grabbed some horses and headed out. We felt very touristy for the first few hours, but eventually the guides took us beyond the touristy area and into the hills where there was absolutely no one in sight. The scenery was beautiful and the weather was perfect, on the cool side with a nice breeze. Although we had negotiated to stay in a hotel far away in the grasslands the guides took us back to our point of departure. We then had to argue with the manager to explain to him that we did not want to sleep there because of the garbage on the ground, the roaming pigs and the proximity to a windmill farm. He eventually ceded and escorted us my motorcycle to another location where we slept in a concrete block. And by concrete block, i mean, a conrete block with lots of insects, wooden beds and no heating. It gets pretty cold at night in Inner Mongolia.
After a lovely rest we ventured back out into the grasslands for another day of horse back riding. We were all a bit tired and rather sore, but we mustered our strength and mounted the horses. The guides took through a wind farm and out onto flatter, and less interesting grassland. When the guides decided to have lunch, they left us with the horses and told us to go do whatever we felt like. We had already dismounted from the horses and when the guides were gone we tried to get back on. However, my horse was not too keen on having a big white man get back on him, since mongolian horses are rather small and as I was to find out, somewhat tempermental. I made the mistake of touching his butt, whereupon he promptly swung around and kicked me in the knee. It hurt, but having the cat-like reflexes that I do, I avoided the brunt of the strike (though today, I do have a nice horseshoe bruise on my knee). After a little rest, I tried a few more times to get on him, but he was not having any of it. We walked around the grasslands until the guides got back and noticed that one of the horses was wandering towards home, we chased after him and regrouped. We then ventured farther out into the rolling hills and just spent some time under the sun. Being the clever, cautious person that I am, I was not wearing any sunscreen and by this time, despite the misleading wind, clouds and cool weather it was clear I was going to be nicely sunburned.
We eventually made out way back to the camp on our own. We had a mediocre dinner, but at least had some fresh lamb meat. Lamb constitutes about 90-95% of the mongolian diet, the other 5% is usually made up of wheat and potatoes. We actually had the privilege of watching the lamb get killed that morning during breakfeast. After dinner it was time to settle the price. Throughout the weekend, they were constantly trying to extricate more money out of us and to say the least, it was really grating on our nerves. They tried to charge us ridiculous prices for beer and extra food that was slightly more edible that what they originally gave us. After the boss guy (who did absolutely no work) started adding things to the original 1500 that should have been included, we told them that we had no intention of paying him what they were asking, let alone the 1500. We had already handsomely tipped our guides and given them nice LED headlamps, so we felt little need to pay this godfather of the village. We finally gave them a total of 1300, on which, I can assure you, they made a sizable profit. They did not want to let us leave and we had to tell the boss (who was the one that we, nor the guides, could not stand) that he was a capitalist pig and that he had better leave the three big white guys alone. After walking away, the car came out to get us and they surrounded the car and tried to prevent us from leaving. We were rather close to breaking out Wilbert Smith and Jack Johnson and treating them to the two gun show, but our driver eventually calmed him down and got us out of there without any injured or dead chinese people.
Besides the arguing with the boss, we had an amazing time and saw some beautiful landscape. It was a very nice change from the polluted centre of Beijing. We met many locals and everyone was very nice, save the head boss.
As this article is not long enough, a few more notes on Chinese people shall be provided. A few chinese people who are overly ambitious and concerned solely with money can be extremely greedy, deceitful and kniving. It is not that I am not prepared to overpay for things because I am white, I am. It’s when they are constantly trying to rip you off at every single chance they get despite the fact that we tell them we know the real price. They tried to charge us 10RMB for a can of beer which should cost 1RMB. Another thing of note is that chinese people seem to have no concern for sanitation or pollution.
The grasslands, which are a beautiful place are being polluted simply because they do not want to set up garbage cans around their campsites. They just throw bottles and wrappers on the ground and you can see plastic garbage for 300 m around any campsite. They fail to see that that they are killing the very thing that makes it worthwile to go there. I suppose they will learn, just like the west did, but if they cannot learn from our mistakes or if they make all the same ones we did, then we are all in a world of shit. From the outside (the west) China is viewed as the next superpower, that will soon overtake the United States. While many sectors of the country are developing extremely quickly, the underlying infrastructure and social patterns are so far behind, I fear the country may have to take a few steps back to move forwards in the long term. They do not put any emphasis on doing things that are not necessary for the immediate survival of the people. I will deveop more
on these ideas later as they deserve a great deal of attention, but for now I leave you in peace.