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.