In every single post I try to slip in small diversions from the “been there done that” narrative – be it a reference to a book I’ve read, a movie I’ve seen, a story I know or some other fact. I do it for my own pleasure and for the pleasure of anyone who’s had enough of reading travellers’ accounts. But every now and then comes a post that is best described as straing away from the travelogue style completely. Like now. So, what do I have to say about China?
”It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is […] national interest.” Who said it? British politician Winston Churchill did. The country he meant was, of course, the Soviet Union. Back in 1939 people in the West knew next to nothing about the moving and shaking happening inside the USSR. To me this quote seems strangely suitable to describe the West’s perception of 21st century China.
Unless one has some specific interest on China, one only learns about China from the news. And when I hear conversations about China, those are all too often a) short and b) predictable.
“Oh, don’t tell me about it. They don’t have democracy there [like we do, presumably].”
“Yep. And they make cheap stuff too.”
“Quality’s so bad it breaks down immediately. Why people bother buying it is beyond me.”
“Yeah. And the Communist party does not allow freedom of speech.”
…etc, etc, etc. Of course, conversations of this kind are not actually meant to dig deep. Rather it is person A and person B seek to confirm that they are “on the same page” about China. Factory of the world, non-democratic, Communist, cheap products of dubious quality, Tibet, etc…
I envisioned this trip to Asia with China in mind from the very start. My interest in China can be traced back to the days when a stupid little boy enjoyed watching Chinese kung-fu movies. In a way China was never a core interest, but for a number of reasons I’ve been watching its progress in the last six or seven years on the sidelines.
A quick check in my home library yields twenty titles on China that I’ve accumulated over time. Of those five are classic Chinese texts (such as The Art of War, ancient legends, aphorisms, Chinese stories from XVI-XVII century, etc.), a couple of short-story books from contemporary Chinese authors, two books on Chinese history, five related to World War II and the creation of the People’s Republic, two recent travellers’ accounts on China, a couple of socio-economic analyses (e.g. “When China Changes the World” by Erik Izraelewicz). Omitted from this list are gems like the fantasy/science-fiction books set in [an imaginary] China (e.g. Barry Hughart’s beautiful book “The Story of the Stone” or David Wingrove’s “Chung Kuo” cycle).
Of course, above all I follow the news – the only difference being that in addition to the usual suspects, I also check some Chinese English-language news outlets (including the Hong Kong-based Asia Times, which I highly regard). All this knowledge makes me feel like
I’ve become a top expert I’ve only just begun scratching the surface. At least I know it’s been a long time since China moved away from producing (only) cheap snickers and stuff that easily breaks. But many people haven’t even noticed yet how far things have moved.
And now, let me first get some media favorites out of my way, because I do not intend to be getting back to these in the next posts.
China pollutes. It is currently the number one polluter, having overtaken the all-time leader USA in 2010. If you complain that China pollutes, look who’s talking first. You probably pollute more. If you look at pollution per capita – which is the only fair way to compute it (or else, let’s just break a country in ten and the “pollution” problem goes away), China is not even among the first fifty countries in the world. Check your own country’s standing here.
But that’s not all. While not counted this way just yet, pollution should ultimately be split between a product’s makers and a product’s consumers. China is making most of the stuff that you are buying. Not giving those factors due consideration when talking about China’s pollution is, frankly, the mother of all double standards.
A Chinese once told me “The West preaching to China about Tibet is like China occupying Portugal and Wales, ruling those two for a hundred years, while in the meantime preaching to Britain about Northern Ireland and to Spain about the Basque country.”
OK, a Chinese did not say that. I did.
The history of Tibet stretches a long way back in time. So much so, that I’ve seldom seen anyone mentioning Tibet demonstrating any clue about it. Pity, because it makes for a very interesting read. And it is inseparably linked to events such as the two Opium wars that Britain and the other world powers forced on the Chinese. Overpowered and humiliated, China allowed the sale of opium to its people by the British (the refusal to do so had been the reason for the first war), lost its economic independence, and if that was not enough it also lost Chinese territory – Hong Kong and Macau being two of the better known examples.
The British spotted another good opportunity with the Chinese revolution of 1911 which caused the Chinese emperor to step down, but also threw the weak country into an ever-growing turmoil (eventually allowing the late comers to the game – the Japanese – to carve out Chinese Manchuria for themselves). At that time (1911) Britain ruled over neighboring India (which consisted of modern-day India, Pakistan and Bangladesh). And since India borders Tibet, it became the base for the further British infiltration into the area. Naturally, an empire that already ruled huge areas of Asia (including another yet another Chinese neighbor – Burma) and had only recently carved out Hong Kong from China would not have any nefarious intentions in Tibet, would it?
Apparently when the People’s Republic was established, its government did not think so. History had shown it time and again that any innocent moves of any world power on its territory had cost dearly. It decided to take action, and fast.
Made in China = Poor quality?
Cheap T-shirts that wear off quickly, cheap shoes that don’t last a month, all kinds of stuff that breaks easily, etc… OK, let’s start with shirts. Take a look at yours and see where they were made. It’s unlikely that you’ll find a single T-shirt made in China. A lot of really cheap stuff which used to be made in China has moved out to places such as Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, etc. More production is headed in that direction. The Chinese government never fancied the country being the cheapest place to produce stuff. It wants a higher share of the added value and has acted accordingly.
Perhaps here is the place to mention some other domestic Chinese projects: Beidou (the Chinese satellite navigation system as an alternative to GPS, already in operation), the manned space flight program (which moved past the ‘man in space’ part and is now targeting the Moon), the high-speed train network (already longest in the world), along with the newest generation of domestically engineered bullet trains), the highways network (longest in the world, built from scratch in ten years), or the currently undergoing “green tech revolution” with its intermediate results – China is already the world leader in photovoltaics, solar panels and wind turbine manufacturing.
I will not even talk about global brands from China like Huawei, Haier, Lenovo. Instead, let’s talk something fun. Like environmentally friendly buildings made the Chinese way.
A Chinese told me this about democracy. “Imagine that you lived in a country that is among the last in the world in everything, including health care. But you decide to make the best health service system. First, you need well-trained doctors. But you do not have a single decent medical school. So you set up to make a medical school, but also hospitals, but also roads that lead to the hospitals – not one, but hundreds. But you do not have the construction materials needed. So you need to create a construction industry. But to create this industry, you need to secure machines and steel production. But to make that you need well trained engineers who can build and operate such machines. But to do so you need…
And then I interrupted him – “What about democracy?” the answer was “What about it?”
Alright, it is another story that never really happened. But just to give you a clue from where China started, I think a small poem comes handy.
The big flood
Is as high as the sky
Out of ten years
Nine are underwater
Let go of your son
For a handful of rice
Sell your daughter
And pay your taxes
Slaughter your dog
Your cow is long dead
Pack your travel bag
Of rags and shreds
And roam, roam
Towards where sky and earth meet
I did not write this poem (although I crafted this English translation). It comes from a book called “China Winning”, written in 1939 by the Austrian physician Fritz Jensen who went to China as part if a three-men medical team. He did not write the poem, either. The poem was originally written by a Chinese Red Army soldier and Fritz read it in a newspaper.
A final note on democracy. The way I see it, democracy has a lot to do with opportunity. And if there is one thing that has steadily improved in China (in addition to the living standards, world standing and just about anything else) it’s it. Opportunity.
Before anyone begins to suspect that my China stories will be all praises, let me add some remarks to keep the picture in focus. If the Communist ideology was “Show me the money!” then indeed many in China, and just about everyone in its young generation would be a hard-core communist indeed. The “Let’s get rich and buy cool stuff” view has become an obsession – an inevitable consequence from China’s strategic decision of opening up (back in the seventies). The negative side effects of exploitation, consumerism and greed are too many to list here. One way to look at it is to remind yourself of the fact that what took other countries a couple of hundred years, the Chinese have set to do in a couple of generations. The role of the Communist party in this process? Same as it’s always been – to deliver. That is to guide the process and keep it under control. Luckily, this job is the Chinese responsibility, and not yours. I say luckily, because I would trust few people outside of China to have the abilities needed for handling a country of 1.3 billion on the path to becoming the #1 world power.
“So far, so good” said the person who fell from the tenth floor while passing by the fifth. But question is – now that I’d finally entered China… would it shake, break or reassure my perceptions? Well…