Hello once again from the Orient where the weather is probably even colder than England which everyone moans about in the emails I received from home this Winter. Weather aside, to offer one bit of advice about traveling in China- avoid travellng around Chinese New Year (or Spring Festival) at ALL costs. Chinese trains normally have 4 classes (hard/soft seat and hard/soft sleeper) but in the last couple of weeks when I’ve got a ticket at all it’s been 5th class ie no seat. The worst journey I’ve done probably left mental scars as I spent 24hrs sharing the space between compartments with 22 other people. According to the news the other days 250m people travel in the run up to the holidays with up to 80m per day on the most popular days as the hordes of migrant workers return to their villages from the cities- it’s really not been fun trying to get around.
Before getting to Qingdao I was in the coastal province of Fujian where perhaps the highlight was seeing a red (the colour of marriage in China) wedding in one of the famous round houses. The round houses are these giant, several storied donut shaped dwellings made of compressed earth. The inhabitants will all be from the same clan and up to a thousand people can live in them so getting to sleep in one was a bit of a treat. As I passed by one in a neighboring village the family of the red dressed bride insisted I join them at the reception meal though I felt like I would have to be rude as I sat down to eat. In China vegetarianism is associated with poverty and on occasions like a wedding for ‘saving face’ sake amongst their peers a family wouldn’t serve many vegetables. On the table I was sat there were 21 dishes to be shared amongst 8 people, 1 rice, 2 dessert style sweet dumplings and no less than 18 meat dishes. So I ate lots of rice and drank plenty of the rice wine, rather than eating the dog offered to me.
Fujian is also one of the provinces with the highest emigration rates, aside from being the most populous race in the world the Chinese are also the most widely spread- and perhaps the most discriminated against. Aside from the big populations in places like Canada or Peru it's a testament to how widely and seemingly randomly spread they are that in places as diverse as Buenos Aires, a border town in Suriname and even rural villages in Tanzania I've seen them receiving some pretty heavy racist abuse from the locals. And whilst this is in part due to their slightly secretive, non-integrationist culture the main reason for that is that they're almost invariably much more successful than the locals- but their success shouldn't be begrudged.
Whilst China has one of the richest political and military historys of any country in the world it’s social and cultural history is equally fascinating. Whilst the so called Triad ‘Snakehead’ people smuggling rings have generated a lot of press in the last 10 years or so, people moving abroad and the growth of the diaspora has been around for a long time in China. When the North won the Civil War in the States and slavery had all but ceased to exist in Europe and its colonies, a great demand arose for menial laborers to whom the West could pay little more than survival wages, and so in stepped the Chinese. Drawn mainly from the Southern coastal states the Chinese were sent all around the world as ’coolies’ in promise of a better life and ended up doing much of the hard labor for the building up of overseas infrastructure in the form of North American railroads or South American mines for example. Of course the Chinese make exemplary employees, as in SE Asia the work ethic in China is quite astounding and by putting in so much extra time as laborers or more recently in factories eventually they could own their own capital and then by keeping their shops or restaurants open 15hrs+ a day, even in the most trying circumstances they seem to rise quicker financially than most of the natives in the countries they've moved to. Their focus on education is also really admirable, in England they came with few skills beyond cooking so opened restaurants but a couple of generations later they're closing down as their children do better at school than any other ethnic group and now become lawyers and engineers. Similarly in the States some of the most prestigious colleges in California are apparently trying to find ways to put a cap (negative discrimination?) on the number of Chinese origin students doing medicine as their academic records are so good that they're simply taking up too many of the spots relative to other races.
In many ways they’re pretty inspirational in their determination to succeed whatever their circumstances at birth and I found it’s an almost agreeably voyeuristic experience traveling in China once again and seeing the country booming as it has been for the last 20 years or so.
I find it deeply ironic that both China and Vietnam are both officially Communist countries, as without a doubt and by some distance material wealth has the greatest importance of any cultures I’ve been around. Whilst the Chinese don't seem to lie as much as their shamefully dishonest Southern neighbors, they certainly have the reputation of being incredibly canny with money or famously tight depending on how you see it. Credit cards have yet to take off in the country to any meaningful extent as people are so averse to getting in debt and a Chinamen in Borneo told me one of the rules they live by is that a man should never 'spend' more than 10% of their income beyond the staples like housing, food etc.
To illustrate this on the news the other day was a report saying that despite their increased wealth even when it’s snowing people in China don't turn the heating on- they just put on extra layers. That’s certainly been my experience this Winter, when you come inside after a day in the snow aside from a small foot heater they make no other effort to warm up other than getting under a duvet so the houses are freezing unsurprisingly! It was notable that on television people seemed to always pick prosperity rather than the usual banal options like good health and world peace for their New Year wishes and they just give money out to their relatives as presents, coming from a family where money is banned for Xmas presents I found that a bit sad. Furthermore showing off the bewildering attitude the Chinese have to religion Chairman Mao of all people has assumed a ‘Prosperity Saint’ status with his hometown of Shaoshan becoming a shrine for people to go to pray for prosperity for their family or business. It’s very weird and the importance placed on material wealth and it isn’t something I agree with or understand entirely about the culture.
Before reaching Fujian I spent barely any time in cities this month spending my time largely in the countryside; after leaving the booming southern coast of Guangdong I headed up into the states of Guanxi and then Hunan where the views come firmly out of the Chinese imaginations scrapbook. The landscapes are mainly formed by the beautiful and fairly incredible limestone karsts which shoot up majestically from the forests and rivers of Southern China. Whilst common in South East Asian seas eg Thailand or Halong Bay in Vietnam you don’t see them too often on land. Despite the cold, I’ve had some wonderful days cycling along the bucolically charming areas around Yangshuo or hiking around Guilin and to me the karsts represent a rural China from old Kung Fu films or ancient poetry and it made a really pleasant change from the modern, monocultural uniformity of the cities. I also got to climb China’s ‘favorite mountain’ Mount Huangshan which looked gorgeous covered in the snow although for me the best spot to view them was the incredible Wulingyuan national park. Quite a way from anywhere it apparently has a greater concentration of peaks and karsts than anywhere else in the world, with characteristically whimsical Chinese names (eg ‘Lovers Returning After Long Absence peak’) and covered in snow they would have to rank as some of the most memorable landscapes I’ve ever seen. I’ve climbed a couple of other mountains too and perhaps foolishly ignoring the danger factor I’ve found doing so much exercise in the snow really invigorating and the perfect way to keep myself motivated to do stuff every day in the cold weather.
Traveling in more rural provinces gives you a very different view of the country as they’re much less developed than other areas of China, and so whilst China definitely is booming it’s a slightly more uneven and complicated picture than is often presented in the Western media.
I think the most important quote in the post Mao era was Deng Xiaoping’s “To get rich is glorious” statement in 1978 and the rampant success of China’s economy since then has been one of the world’s biggest stories of the last 30 years or so. As when I was here before in 2003 there’s a strong feeling that you’re traveling during an exciting time in China’s history; the entire country feels like it’s being transformed, almost like a building site with cranes and constructions sites of roads, bridges and even entire new cities everywhere you look. China has become the worlds 3rd biggest economy by turning itself into the workshop of the world exporting some $1.5 trillion worth of products annually, its near endless supply of cheap, hardworking labour has made the country extremely attractive to foreign investors and is much of the reason why the price of consumer products have relatively come down in the West in the last few years. Whilst there are plenty of criticisms (lack of employment rights, currency manipulation etc.) you can make of the system which has enabled such rapid growth I can’t help but feel that ‘on the ground’ the population have put the work in over many years and richly deserve the higher quality of life which they’re now starting to enjoy.
The problem is that probably the second most important thing Deng said “It doesn’t matter if some areas get richer first” – in other words development hasn’t come evenly. There are various ways to geographically measure China’s inequality gap, East vs West or coastal vs interior areas for example but probably the most striking gap is between cities and the countryside. As recently as the mid ‘80’s China was one of the most equal countries in the world but now it’s one of the most unequal; for instance a resident of Shanghai has a GDP of nearly $5000 but a poorer Western province like Gansu will average less than a tenth of that. Major Chinese cities will have CBDs akin to those in the West where you can easily spend $100 on a shirt or a night out if you so choose but traveling in rural areas is a vastly different experience with far fewer amenities and an aging population. As hundreds of millions of young people migrate to the coastal cities to seek their fortune those left back in the countryside have almost become an economic underclass expected to do little more than feed their richer fellow countrymen in the cities at a very poor wage; whilst China now has plenty of entries on the world richest people lists at the same time 1 in 7 of its population still live on less than a dollar a day.
Overall though I think I agree with Mr Deng’s second statement and that inequality in China is a relative problem rather than an absolute one – which I didn’t feel was the case in other Asian countries. Aware of the threat of possible future political disturbances the government have made huge efforts in the last 7 or 8 years to try and address the issue by pumping huge amounts of money into the interior and certainly that I’ve seen poorer Western provinces like Yunnan have surprisingly good infrastructure thanks to government help. At the very least with the ongoing electrification of the country as well as nationwide clean water supplies the poor in China have access to far more than in almost all the countries it borders.
Having a system in China where the people can’t interfere in politics, only try to make money and most of the government’s aim is to simply foster an environment for an ever growing economy is seemingly a perfect setup, once they returned to a capitalist economy it was always going to work. I think the lack of democracy in China is something that is over written about in the West; under the firmly held belief in Confucianism it isn’t the place of the individual to question what decisions their seniors make. You simply respect your elders and their decisions unquestioningly, which is part of the reason why China has for a long time had something of a gerontocracy. The role of politicians is very different compared to the West; when something goes wrong they have a convention Michael Howard would agree with where it’s the lowest ranked person involved who’ll take the blame and the people see the top leaders as ‘good Emperor’ like figures who can come in and fix things very quickly even if it’s their fault something has gone wrong in the first place. Around 60% of British MPs have come from legal backgrounds and so are able to talk their way out of almost anything (and incidentally is much of the reason for the expenses scandal a couple of years ago), in contrast Chinese politicians tend to come from engineering or economic backgrounds so they’re good at making strong planning decisions but never have to justify their decisions to anyone except their bosses and so have very different skills to Western politicians. The ability to influence influential people behind the scenes is far more important than how you come across to the public and even at the top level politicians can be remarkably bad at public speaking and thinking on their feet. A couple of famous examples of this include a press conference on the controversial Three Gorges dam project when the minister in charge couldn’t answer questions on the negative aspects of the project from foreign journalists so simply repeated over a dozen times that it would create hydroelectric power. Lord Coe and Ken Livingstone also managed to humiliate the organizers of the Beijing Olympics when on an official visit in 2007 they started posing uncomfortable questions about the games legacy which their hosts simply had no answers for and had to abandon the meeting in diplomatic shame.
The worlds biggest Chinese minorities in Malaysia and Indonesia play no part in politics almost at all in exchange for the ability to trade freely and even in countries like the US or UK where they’re unlikely to receive too much discrimination they’ve collectively made few efforts to gain office of any sort. Even the other ‘Chinese countries’ of Singapore and Taiwan have been effectively one party states since they gained their independence and politics plays a very limited role in society in comparison to European countries.
Since starting to open the country up to the outside world in recent years aside from the occasional use of force (most famously Tianamen Square in ’89) the government seem to have had fewer problems maintaining power and that’s down to what has been termed by some writers as ‘The Deal’.
This is the name given to the unwritten agreement between the people and the government that provided the economy grows and their living standards continue to rise the people won’t argue too much with the political status quo. Backed up by terrific economic growth, rising living standards and heavy surveillance of any subversive activities (e.g. the country’s 30,000 censors who run ‘The Great Firewall’ on the internet) this agreement has worked extremely well for the last 20 years. The crunch will come when the meteoric rise of the economy starts to slow and logically the people might start to feel they should have more say over who governs them. The Communist leaders are well aware of this and took evasive action at the beginning of the current international economic crisis pumping billions of their cash reserves into the economy to support construction projects, create jobs and maintaining the double digit growth rates the country has officially enjoyed for some years now. As you’ve probably read this has created quite bad inflation however and the growth of asset bubbles particularly in the big cities, when the bubble eventually pops and the party finds it can no longer guarantee such visible improvements in peoples lives it will be very interesting to see what happens to the country.
Having made the point about the Chinese not being too political a race there have however been a few indications to the contrary in the last few years. The introduction of elected village councils have been greeted enthusiastically by the people though there are no plans to extend it beyond such local levels. More amusingly a couple of years ago the Chinese version of X Factor was opened to the public and within minutes all the internet servers had crashed as so many people tried to log on to vote. The government got so worried that the people would enjoy the voting experience too much and by the next week’s programme had instructed the producers to remove the public vote and just have judges!
Much to my surprise this month a couple of local guys have come up to me and told me how they want to see China have a democratic revolution, they cited the terrible corruption in the country as well as a general lack of freedom as the main reason for their desire for change.
It’s quite easy to see their point; Chinas justice system for example is non-existent – whilst crime is very low by world standards if you’re arrested you’re almost certainly going down guilty or not with no chance of appeal so unsurprisingly the people are fairly petrified of the police and have as little to do with them as possible. Any decision made by an official, however corrupt can’t be questioned and like Singapore and other places the media is so controlled that you literally can’t believe anything you read or view on the news, after Sky showed the events in Tianamen Square overseas channels are banned and even things like Facebook are off limits. However, a strong government does have benefits; as with Italy under Mussolini the trains do run ontime here and if the government orders it positive projects like new Metro systems will be built with no holdups or notably in the 1990s deforestation was stopped almost overnight once Beijing clamped down. The guys I spoke to seemed a bit naive thinking every democracy is like Europe and once I explained the problems with it in developing countries like India i.e. politicians just argue and don’t get things done they conceded there isn’t a one-size fits all policy. Certainly the ongoing progress of China makes it an endlessly exciting place to observe and study.
Despite transport issues it was quite cool seeing the New Year celebrations which is the equivalent of Christmas for the Chinese. Qingdao was a former German concession (akin to Macau or Hong Kong) but was lost along with WWI, nonetheless they left an interesting architectural legacy which along with the pleasing seaside setting makes it one of the more interesting cities to walk around in China. Whilst I enjoyed looking at the buildings undoubtedly my favorite street was ‘Beer Street’ as the Germans most famous legacy was teaching the Chinese how to brew Tsingtao. There are statues made of beer bottles, it’s sold everywhere in beer bags on the streets and even the hostel I was staying in gave you free beer every night J .
New Year was fairly quiet outside by day as although the buses were still running I had to live on pot noodles and the sweets everyone gives you as no restaurants were open. But in the evening things started getting livelier; fireworks are really cheap in China and an evening walk on the 2nd was like a fast track to getting post traumatic stress syndrome as I found myself constantly jumping out the way of the thousands and thousands of bangers and mini Catherine wheels the kids love to throw around. Great fun though.
From Qingdao I had to catch a flight out and after much Seoul searching chose South Korea. With The Orient still in the cup at the 5th round for the first time I genuinely did have thoughts about coming home- which hadn’t happened before on this trip. I guess I have quite distorted priorities in my life… Til next time