Friday, June 6, 2008

Reflections on China

As usual, communication was really difficult in China. On my last long trip across southern China in 2000 I pretty much gave up on spoken communication, as even the work for green tea ('tsa' / 'ocha' / '???') seemed to change every 50km.

This time I also found extremely few people who could understand ANY English - just a handful of students. Then there were a few border police who spoke a bit of Russian. On the long train trip one young businessman communicated with his digital dictionary: 'Chinese people hate Dalai Lama'. Hmmm. Of course I threw the word 'Tibet' around a bit, being naughty, but that was OK, because nobody understood it - not even most of the English speaking students! I guess if Tibet is China, it doesn't really exist.
I had an interesting exchange with a student who spoke very good English (up near the Tien Shan glacier). When I asked her about the violence in Tibet, she told me, 'Don't worry, they are not all like that.' I beg your pardon? She meant the TIBETANS!!! Those poor Han Chinese, being picked on all the time.
When Karsten told her about all the road blocks in Xinjiang and Tibet, and that local non-Chinese couldn't get through, she put on her Chinese Government Foreign Affairs press secretary hat and literally tried to make up reasons as to why this might be the case or (more likely) why we were mistaken.

Everybody was friendly and helpful, but somehow I got the impression that many wanted to be 'good ambassadors for China' and wanted to convey pride and admiration. Whenever I suggested some kind of criticism (eg. 'the air is bad here') people just got embarrassed, looked away, and shook their heads emphatically. I never had the feeling that there was a willingness to consider or tolerate various different points of view. I never experienced any kind of critical thinking. There seemed to be some kind of secular, universal truth which dominated life.

Despite the fact that virtually nobody can get into China right now (it seems) I was not approached/stopped by police once in China. I barely even saw police on the streets (in stark contrast to Central Asia).

The TV was running with two themes: earthquake and Olympics. There was almost nothing else on. It was strange to sight Edwin Maher from the ABC as occasional newsreader, with his wry smile but no spontaneous, off hand comments at all.

The earthquake coverage was crammed with facts and figures, and gave great weight to all the condolences from abroad, as well as the exact donations of each country, which were quite large. The Spanish contribution was '80 tents' - pretty modest, and funny they mentioned it - to shame them???
One dramatic scene on the English language channel showed a rescue team trying to get into some rubble, with the team leader reaching into a gap and yelling back (this in English subtitles):

'Pass me a cooking knife!' Very impressive improvisation.
Despite this the main point of the coverage was to thrash just how magnificently the government was dealing with the issue. There were press conferences at which Chinese journalists asked questions like, 'Will profits fall for such-and-such companies in Sichuan province?' The only critical question came from an English speaking Reuters journalist who asked about whether government building contractors who were found to have built substandard buildings which collapsed would be prosecuted. The brief silence after that one was deafening.
Premier Wen visited the victims and said at a school, 'Hardship makes a country stronger. I believe that after the earthquake you will study harder'. Cut to a boy saying, 'When I grow up I want to study and then return to help my town.' One little boy who was hurt particularly distinguished himself by saluting soldiers, despite his injuries.

As for the Olympic coverage, well, I could only think Berlin 1936, though my friend Karsten said, 'The Germans did it better.'
Apart from constant repeating news, the English language CCTV channel had mostly documentaries about China's glorious past.

Not only could I find no documentaries whatsoever about the outside world, non-Chinese are almost completely invisible and absent from all CCTV channels, from my short taste (not spending EVERY night in a hotel in front of crap telly!). These were my only two sightings:

-one of the 'scientists' in a 'Head and Shoulders' shampoo ad, in an underling research assistant role
-one of the 'engineers' or draftsmen in a great ad for a pseudo-German automotive marque called 'Roewe' (or a ripoff of 'Rover'?) full of Chinese couples going to glamorous functions. I can't remember but I bet he was consulting a Chinese colleague in suitably servile fashion on a design issue...

That was it.

In Xinjiang, though, there were some cute local Uyghur channels which had quite a lot of local Turkic content.

On my second last day I decided to give 'global warming' a whirl. The kids in the restaurant understood CO2 (in written form!) Then they seemed to get my diagrams of the world and its atmosphere, and all the power stations in China... but I left it at that.
I saw no evidence of recycling/reusing plastic bags anywhere. When I tried to reuse bags I got extremely confused looks - 'What the hell are you doing?' I don't think they had any idea at all. Devastating. Very occasionally I saw down-and-out characters collecting bottles. Not a very prestigious activity and one best undertaken after dark.

In the English language magazines global warming did rate a mention - exclusively due to its economic implications - but this is a society which seems to believe utterly in its ability to create a man made 'utopia'. Well - in Xian almost every apartment block did have solar hot water heaters on the roof....

Anybody who cares about global warming might as well start studying Mandarin right now and get over here (on bikes?) and start teaching English and proselytising. Xinjiang is pretty remote but even there I had moments of despair. Why bother riding a bike when anybody who can afford it is driving?

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