“The mystery of China”


matt 120pxThe other night at dinner with Paul, we were mocking the commercials on China’s only English channel, CCTV-9. They’re all tourism commercials, so every commercial break is like a five minute tour of China, broken up into 30 second segments on each province. Every single province’s ad ends with a cheesy quote, one being “Come, experience the mystery that is China.” Paul remarked, “The mystery of China. C’mon, its China!” referring to its modernity. Of course, that’s true in one sense. BUT HIS COMMENT GOT ME THINKING ABOUT THE STATEMENT MORE IN DEPTH.  But in some ways, I feel that China is mysterious. There is definitely more that meets the eye.

One thing that is interesting to think about, but annoying to deal with, is the censorship. The inability to access my or others’ blogs, the blockage of certain websites, and the lack of free English-language media is frustrating to say the least. CCTV-9 and the China Daily are jokes, if not straight propaganda (but certainly not journalism). The only news is President Hu’s comments on this and that, the Olympic Torch, Tibetans and Uighur “terrorists,” earthquake survival stories. I miss the days when we were in HK and could read free press allowed to take critical views of the government. I remember articles critiquing Hu, exposing corruption in earthquake hit areas, and denouncing certain domestic policies. But mainland is totally different. Besides the censorship, you can feel the paranoid government’s presence. Its in the way they break up the crowds in Tiananmen after the flag lowering ceremony, you can feel it with the thousands of military and police everywhere, you experience it with the arcane tourism rules for foreigners.

Related to the strict censorship is the government’s authoritarianism. While China is modern and everything seems to be well in the country, there is more than meets the eye. Locals have told us stories of entire neighborhoods being displaced in the name of urban development. Most of the hutongs in Beijing have been destroyed to make way for wide boulevards and new buildings. There is no public debate about such things, as the government is the only authority. Additionally, we noticed Beijing has no beggars or homeless, something we’ve seen in other Chinese cities. Heck, and city of 15 million, even in the West, will have beggars, but Beijing is mysteriously void of them. This is because they were forcibly removed from the city so as to not blight China’s image during the Olympics. One night I wanted to go get noodles at one of the fancy noodle shops, but I was told that authorities had cracked down and deported many of the noodle cooks out of the city. While the government touts its successes, it is apparent from talking to most people that it is making a lot of bad decisions, if not failing in certain areas. The censorship keeps negative sentiment underground, as China wants to keep its failures hidden.

Another interesting thing about China is the juxtaposition of old and new. Throughout Asia, old and new is often side-by-side, but China seems unique in a few ways. One, it is more modern than most other places we’ve been. And while Chinese are a lot further along etiquette-wise than a lot of other nationalities, they seem pretty far behind compared to the development of their country. Snot rockets still fly, men walk around with their shirts off (or at least pulled over their pot bellies), and kids still dump and piss all over the place. I’ve already covered the bathroom situation, which seems like the oddest and most drastic juxtaposition. Fixed-price shops aren’t super prevalent and transportation is way overcrowded. And while technology is around, its not always used. I’m amazed at the number of high-end places that don’t accept credit cards. This goes along with my reading: although China is a huge and growing economic power, its financial systems are still young and fragile. There is so much about China that seems modern, but just below (and sometimes not below at all) the surface its totally different. It just goes to show that China is still developing and it’s come a long way in a short amount of time.

And so I think China still does hold some mystery at least to me. The paranoid government, the façade of modernity, and a handful of other smaller issues makes me wonder about this place.

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