Saturday, December 24, 2011

Big Trouble In Little China

Over the course of this and previous trips I have spent about four and a half months in China. A long time perhaps for a single country, but not that long when you consider its size, history, and the fact that it is home to one sixth of the world's population. In my time there I have mastered the use of chopsticks (well, perhaps not mastered, but I certainly won't go hungry), picked up a smattering of Mandarin, speaking as well as reading, developed a liking for red bean ice-cream (and red beans in general) and learnt a good deal about it. I now feel pretty comfortable travelling in China, which has a surprisingly comprehensive rail and bus network, finding accommodation, buying food and generally being a tourist. I can even ask some basic questions, although I will rarely understand the replies unless they are accompanied by hand gestures. I have come to really enjoy the (street) food and find it hard to let a day go by without satisfying my hunger for baozi. All in all my impression of China is very positive, yet there are some things that grate on me and (I feel) are intricately linked together.

In China's breakneck growth many have seen their quality of life vastly improve, but there are also many that have been left behind.

Talk to any expat living in China and there will be a shortlist of a half-dozen or so tics and mannerisms of the Chinese that will make them see red to varying degrees. Although at first seemingly disparate I believe that they all have the same basic roots which perhaps go a little to explaining China today. So what is it that the Chinese do that grates so much? They spit. Everywhere. Not a minute will go by in a busy city when you will not hear a loud expectoration. It is so conspicuous that it was the first thing I wrote about when I arrived in the country over six years ago. Things are just as bad now as they were back then. Alongside the spitting are the gratuitous and wilful dropping of litter and widespread smoking everywhere, even where there are obvious no smoking signs. They are loud - shouting at each other from across the room even when it would be so easy to move closer. They drive recklessly, endangering not only themselves but other road users and pedestrians and any rules of the road are blithely ignored. And then there is the constant pushing and shoving to get ahead, in queues, on the road, in shops. For someone of a nervous disposition, or who values their peace and quiet, then China is not the place for them.

Throughout China in its myriad national parks and historic tourist sites there are innumerable signs exhorting people to behave properly and with decorum. I can't say it's having much effect.

I may have just listed a half-dozen different things, but in fact they are all facets of a single, underlying malaise that permeates Chinese society: people don't care about others. This is not to say that the Chinese are a hateful, uncaring, miserly and deceitful bunch; they are not. I can rattle off a long list of times when I've been helped out by friendly locals who have gone out of their way to help me, been given back the correct money when I have overpaid, or been boisterously welcomed into a family gathering. No, the Chinese lack of care is more abstract, and in some ways the exact opposite of the western European approach to others. We care a lot for society in general: we obey the law, give way in traffic, queue up in an orderly fashion, put our litter in a bin, sort recycling, and so on. And yet we may be completely unsympathetic to our next door neighbours, the beggar on the street or even our own families. The Chinese, when you are face to face with them are generally lovely people, but they have no time, or patience, for people in general. In the great societal rat-race it is every man for himself as they try and get ahead and make their fortune before somebody steps on them on their own way to the top.

The Chinese government is doing its best to try and alter peoples' behaviour with innumerable advertising campaigns, signs, stickers, notices and educational pamphlets to help redress its population's errant ways. My favourite was a sign in Wulingyuan national park that had a long list of behaviour that was deemed undesirable such as: not spitting, dropping litter, smoking, yelling or shouting, picking flowers, throwing stones at (wild) animals, scrawling graffiti, damaging public property, wasting water, taking pictures of foreigners without their consent, sneezing in peoples' faces (these two I found particularly amusing), etc, etc. But what made this sign priceless was that it was addressed specifically to Chinese tourists. It is part of strange superiority-inferiority complex that is unique to China. It feels superior in its growing world economic and political clout as well as its rich cultural and historical legacy, and yet at the same time it feels inferior. afraid that foreigners will laugh at the uncouth and uncivilised behaviour of its citizens.

List of park etiquette rules for Chinese tourists in Wulingyuan national park. It's a long list!

Despite the valiant efforts of the government attitudes and behaviour are not changing. It's impossible to say exactly why this is but I have a theory (and I ran it past several Chinese who said it sounded reasonable). I think the biggest hindrance is the government itself. The arbitrary nature of laws and their enforcement, the rise of of a rich class that can get away with anything and, perhaps most importantly, the unaccountability of the system. People have little or no say in the way their country, or their towns, or villages, are run and therefore feel a disconnect. "Why should I make an effort when it doesn't benefit me and corrupt kleptocrats get away with blue murder?" Further compounding matters are the societal upheavals of the past 40 years or so. Not only the Cultural Revolution, which uprooted people from their traditional beliefs and codes, but also the mad rush towards Capitalism that lurched the country in completely the opposite direction. As a whole society's age-old moral compass has been replaced by consumerism and a mad scramble for the top.

The first time I was in China there seemed to be a genuine contentment and appreciation for what the Party had achieved, but this time around there were a number who confided in me that they were not happy by the lack of freedoms. But these are the minority, who know what it's like on the outside, know that their access to information is being manipulated, and know how to get around it. General awareness of world current affairs is patchy at best; popular websites where content is user-generated are blocked (blogs, Twitter, Youtube, Facebook and other social networks). Only state-controlled, intra-China, social sites are permitted. And at internet cafes a Chinese ID is required to access the internet (I got turned away at many, but there are some that keep a stash of ID cards - usually from parents and grandparents - that allow foreigners to actually get online). Big Brother is well and truly watching.

Changing the wealth, economics, infrastructure and development of a country is pretty straightforward. Changing societal habits and political systems? now that takes some doing. I'm curious to see how things evolve in China. Whatever happens it will affect us all.

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