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Trip to China – September 2003

I came to China too late. McDonalds, KFC, VW, Boeing, international hotel chains, return on equity, over-investment and rampant construction had beaten me to it. I had hoped to find a culture, ethos and architecture that squared with my notions of things Chinese, that is, a space radically different from mine. But I’m a Marco Polo manqué. Instead – the parts I saw at least – could have passed for any large western city. The great truth espoused by Jean Boivin, ex-director of my Parisian laboratory and now professor at the Ecole Polytechnique springs to mind. “We French, like say Gaugin, travel to the far ends of the earth, to, say Taihiti, in search of the exotic, without realizing that it exists right here, here, on our doorstep, on the other side of the English Channel.”

Great Wall of China at Badeling

Great Wall of China at Badeling

Excepting of course for the scale. The outskirts of Shanghai is a veritable forest of 30 storey apartment blocks, mile upon mile of it. The feverish demolition of old houses and the construction of new trees is evident everywhere. Shanghai is putting up 2880 skyscrapers at last count. In its haste to modernize, this 8%+ -growth economy devours materials from all ends of the earth, which find expression in another 5-star hotel, another apartment block, another conduit for its expanding stock of motor vehicles. I imagined myself a denizen of one of these trees, the view from my cubicle extending to the trees in front and on the sides. In Shanghai, your insignificance in the universe hits home.

Skyscrapers in ChinaMy first business meeting comes to mind. As a member of the group being introduced to Dr. Chen, a passably good look-alike of The Chairman, his eyes elongating even more narrowly as he smilingly introduced himself and the Development Research Centre of the State Council of the People’s Republic of China, I realized with a degree of self-consciousness that, notwithstanding the seriousness of our encounter, and with circumspect regard for his status, I nonetheless had to suppress a fascinating curiosity for his features, and a bewilderment at the acute plosives, glides and hisses of his stately Mandarin. It was the first time I had sat in a formal business setting across the table from a Chinese person, looking at him intently, having to listen as opposed to overhear, in full knowledge that understanding would elude. These sounds could not possibly issue in meaning, I thought. Yet somehow they did. Somehow, Dr. Chen’s emissions, some drawn from the very deep recesses of his clearing throat, some cut short by a sharp jerk of the diaphragm, others having the timbre of rumbling growls, were mapped onto English by the interpreter after a benign nod from him. Like a slow-motion cut from a film, my mind would wander while he spoke, and I would come to focus on Dr. Chen the person, the slowness of his speech, his avuncular bearing, dress-sense, and classical Chinese features. Don’t be fooled, for Dr. Chen speaks good English although not resorting to it.

”So, Dr. Chen, are the economic recommendations of the Development Research Centre heeded and implemented by the Chinese government?” I asked. He answered cautiously, citing an example where this had indeed been the case, but not wanting to leave us with the impression that his organization in any way imposed economic direction – or for that matter any threat whatsoever – to the formal power structure.

For despite a seemingly rampant capitalism on the surface, the authorities are still very much in control. In Chairman Mao’s time, every commune had a state informant who spied on people. I was told that with the outbreak of SARS earlier in the year, this informer network was re-activated after lying dormant for years. Any person seen coughing or looking weak was reported and quarantined. Perhaps it was just as well SARS broke out there, for had it taken root where people have a more entrenched sense of personal rights, the globe may have replayed scenes from the Black Death.

In such a populous country, the emphasis of policy and the concept of “rights”, whatever that may mean, falls entirely on the collective. Somehow the individual gets lost in the numbers. It is said that the Asian educational system is focused on enforcing compliance. How could it be otherwise? Creativity gets sacrificed for social cohesion, producing economies that excel at commoditizing. Shanghai with its 16 million inhabitants, or Beijing with its 13, or even Hangzhou with its 6 made me understand the authorities’ answer of “better for whom” when told that the western legal system would rather have a hundred guilty go free than to hang one innocent. Hegel’s notion that matters of quantity become matters of quality applies here with great force.

Rapid economic growth comes at a price. The number of cars on Beijing’s roads has increased by 40% over the past year (I recall Dr. Chen’s definition of a rich person in China as one who can afford a car). It being the marginal car that entrains a bottleneck, all of a sudden there are traffic jams – and Chinese consumerism has only just started. An unhealthy smog envelops Beijing – worse in Winter I am told – when the populace burn coal heaters. Clearly, something must be done. I happened across an interview on Chinese TV with David Anderson, the visiting Canadian minister for the environment. Anderson showed concern for the athletes during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. As a former Olympic silver medalist himself, he held that top performances could not be achieved in Beijing’s air. He hoped that the authorities would implement longer term solutions to the pollution problem, and not e.g. decree that all motoring be stopped two weeks prior to the Olympics. A lot could be done. Technological measures implemented in Canada will result in dangerous car emissions in 2005 being 5% of what they were in 2000.

In his wisdom, the Canadian minister took care to avoid prescription or threat. He offered Canada’s co-operation and stuck to facts. This is the way to interact with the Chinese. The authorities are still very much in control, and must be seen to be strong. To lose face by bowing to Western pressure is not countenanced; neither will they adopt concocted ideas seen to benefit the West. For example, the IMF prescribed painful reforms as a cure for the 1997 Asian crisis, viz. the raising of interest rates, cutting back on expenditure etc. This actually exacerbated the situation and led to widespread antipathy towards the IMF as a result. US Treasury Secretary John Snow’s recent trip to China and pronouncements on the managed weak Chinese currency will have little effect on Chinese resolve.

Despite “Confucius say” and all that, I was advised to avoid philosophical questions in my dealings with the Chinese. When I asked China’s richest man, Liu Yongxing of the Hope Group his attitude towards debt and risk, he essentially answered “efficiency”. Jim Lennon (the facilitator of my trip who has been traveling to China since the early 1980s) advised me afterwards to stick to factual questions – numbers, figures, etc. The Chinese will only venture opinion once trust is established.

Having said that, let me tell you about China. It is my firmest conviction that China will take over global leadership from the USA in two generations’ time. They are an intelligent, forward looking people, with a strong will to succeed, and a history of contribution to invention. Like other nations, they too have baggage, but seem to have jettisoned this and are shifting their gaze to the future. I could not believe the proficiency of the assistant front office manager Li Hwang. After arriving at 16h00 on a Sunday afternoon, I requested a battery to restart my watch, local currency, our trip convener’s room number and details on some officialese. My watch was returned 45 minutes later, set to local time, and the other tasks performed. A bit later three juicy Beijing peaches were delivered to my room, as well as a complementary bottle of Australian wine. The latter is not standard practice. I had insisted on giving Li a tip for her excellent service, which instead of refusing, she transmuted into wine.

The food was exotic. Fortunately I’m not squeamish and am possessive of a strong constitution. I tried everything. And if you’ve eaten Chinese in the West, well you simply haven’t eaten Chinese. Food being scarce, they tend to eat the animal from snout to tail – no form of nourishment can be allowed to waste. Thus, you can have duck’s blood, ox throat (highly recommended), hen’s feet, snake liquor and the like. For those who don’t travel well, there’s always McDonalds.

Mandarin is impossibly different from English, even in gesture. My usually dependable signing got me nowhere. I used this disadvantage to experience a dare. In an off-limits restaurant where not a soul spoke English, I pointed to an entry costing 39 RMB from a list of specials entirely in Chinese characters with the firm resolve to eat whatever was presented. I took the chance that I may have been choosing shredded chicken head or monkey brain. Out came the most wonderful eel covered in chilies. It was splendiferous.

And then there’s the Great Wall, where I emoted – emoted. I saw the stretch of it at Badeling. There it was, this vast structure that had captured my imagination since the age of five. The wall was purportedly built to keep out the Mongols, but how could a disjointed structure built piecemeal over 500 years provide impenetrability from the outset? Franz Kafka, the great Czech writer, pondered this question, and posited two reasons for its construction in his “Great Wall of China”. The first was a ruse of the imperial court to instill a sense of nationalism across its vast dominion. Gangs of workers would be recruited from all over the country and sent off with a fanfare to the Wall, amidst public celebrations. The second was the relief of unemployment, that is, imperialist stimulatory fiscal policy. If ever you go, spend a day there. Feel its stones; gaze into distance and see how it snakes across the eastern landscape. Take a picnic basket, walk away from the crowds and enjoy this wondrous slice of human heritage.

Entrepreneurship is in evidence everywhere, especially in the markets. A keen sense of bargaining reigns. Bargaining technique follows a distinct pattern. They open with an offer something like four times the clearing price. You have to counter with 20% of this. Bargaining continues until one settles at say 25% of their opening price. Prices have colourful names; “first customer of the morning price”, “opening price”, favourite customer price”, “best price”, “last price”, “no-joking price” etc. In Beijing’s Silk Lane, one waif-like saleswoman with the power of the Roc’s talons in her grip, literally dragged me by the wrist to her kiosk. I bought.

Apart from traditional Chinese clothing, pirated DVD’s are a big hit with Western tourists. The latest films are sold on the street for something like US1$50. A member of our group, a bearded yarmulka-wearing American who had recently converted to orthodox Judaism, had a conscience pang before buying a few, so he contacted his rabbi to clear up the matter. He subsequently bought. Yours truly shamelessly bought without consultation, hesitation, deviation or repetition.

Chinese writing and its beguiling characters is most intriguing. In the West, Chinese characters on a neon sign invariably suggest a restaurant. Not here, as I had to remind a hungry colleague who wanted to head off towards a distant neon sign in search of food.
3000 characters cover something like 99% of all communication. It is a cumbersome system, with its fair quota of precisions and vagaries I’m sure. Designers have discovered an aesthetic in Chinese writing, and one finds garments, pillowcases and cloth covered in characters of varied design.

There are two forms of transliteration of Chinese characters into Roman script (Romanisation), viz. the Wade-Giles system (1859) and the more modern Pinyin (1958). These two are different, with Pinyin gaining the ascendancy today. Thus, Mao Tse-Tsung (Wade-Giles) becomes Mao Zedong (Pinyin), and Peking (Wade-Giles), Beijing (Pinyin). The characters are understood by everyone across China, even in those parts where Mandarin is not spoken. Thus, Cantonese, spoken around Hong Kong, is not audibly intelligible to a Mandarin speaker, but both speakers can read the characters. I got a feeling of what it must be like to be illiterate when looking at neon lights, the marks on which made no sense. The characters are drawn according to strict sequential rules (e.g. vertical strokes before horizontal), and it amazed me to see the staff at the reception areas at hotels draw out characters at speed. My inexpert understanding is that each word (which is not an easy concept in Chinese, as all characters are written without spaces) consists of at least two characters, one with meaning, the other a signifier. Thus, “entrance” in English = the character for “way” (the shape of which resembles a square) plus the character for “in” (the shape of which resembles the Greek “lambda”). So, “way” + ‘in” = the concept “entrance” = entrance. The same goes for “exit”; a combination of “way” plus “out”. These were the only bits of Chinese I managed to decipher in China.

I am left with many images of China. Even a hopelessly amateur photographer like me realizes the intrusiveness of the lens. I have always felt that to capture someone’s image on film is taking something from them, which should only be done with permission. People in some parts of the world make money from trafficking their images (no, not only models; London purple-haired punks, indigenous people spoilt by free-handed tourists etc.). In China I encountered no such thing. People are intensely private and do not want their picture taken. In a Shanghai market my eye caught (the rare and vanishing sight of) a petite fruit vendor propping up a thick bamboo rod from which were suspended two melon-laden pans on thongs, a picture straight out of my mental pages of Chinese water-carriers on crockery. My most endearing entreaties could not get her to consent to be photographed. With all the resolve that her small frame could muster, she held up her palm from her outstretched hand, debarring my camera. Thus, an image I would treasure was forever lost. Not that I’d ever offer, but I got the feeling that they would not depart with their image for ready money, even a poor fruit vendor. Nobody did. Exotique schmesgotique; a sense of pride shines through. The only person I managed to entice into being photographed was Qi Hong, a 184cm tall ex-model who stood a few standard deviations above the crowd, beautiful, elegant and lovely. She became a friend, and took me to a local restaurant where I had the most memorable meal of my life.

This pride of the individual resonates in the national character. Like a promising player hoping to get into the premier league, China wants to prove itself to the world, to showcase its achievements and potential. The Beijing 2008 Olympics will provide the perfect forum for it to do so, and the State is placing intense focus on it. China has achieved in the past. It lists among its contributions the inventions of papermaking, gunpowder, printing, and the compass to name a few. Its space program has just put its first taikonaut (Chinese astronaut), Yang Liwei, into space (October 16 2003). That’s the People’s Liberation Army’s Lt. Col. Yang Liwei, fighter pilot, 38, hero of the people, who reportedly earns just over $USD1000 p.m., less than even Chinese pilots do. As befitting great words by space travelers, Yang Liwei added a patriotic twist to his. “It is a splendid moment in the history of my motherland – and also the greatest day of my life”. The Great Leap Skyward has started.

This is China, a re-awakening giant, a dragon that will spit fire once again. Be ready for its affirmation.

And now, with Chinese industrial demand driving commodity prices and the Baltic dry freight index skywards, I greet you from a windy, but no less striking Cape Town.

P.S. I regret not having had the time to see the Giant Panda in Beijing.