It seemed like a good idea at the time. A factory visit with the foreign students; Friday afternoon; mini bus pickup. The co-ordinator seemed a little nonplused when I asked to tag along, but I'd had the wit to put it to the International Office director first.
The place where I live doubles as a "College of Chinese Language & Culture" for overseas students. In fact the denizens are a small rag-tag collection of about twenty individuals from the most diverse imaginable nations. Last semester we had a couple of French speaking Africans, but they were expelled for trying to twist the nose off a tubby Cambodian who has lived for years by picking up scholarships (through guanxi) to various donor countries; (his next planned port of call is Australia). There are a couple of gaunt fellows from North Korea, one of whom seems to play table tennis full time. A couple more skinny, exuberant larrikins come from some emerging central Asian state like Khazakstan, together with a slightly more subdued female of the species. Throw in a petite South Korean teacher (rather pretty), a bemused young Japanese man studying tourism, a puffy fellow from Taiwan, a friendly, ballooning young woman from Cuba, a spindly young Frenchman, a retired French language teacher in a floppy white hat, two spare looking young women with wire rimmed glasses from Belgium and Germany (already looking like school ma'ams), and a quietly insistent young American man who talks relentlessly to the teacher in broken Chinese...
The purpose of their residence is to learn Chinese, and of course to receive some Chinese enculturation. The quality of that experience is outside of my purview, though excepting the ones on Chinese scholarships (maybe half of them), they pay dearly for the privilege. Certainly more than I'd pay after seeing the ma ma hu hu style of Chinese universities... But that's their choice.
So we were off to see the great Chinese industrial engine at work. The students were each stung Y15 for this, but the lady's eyes slid sideways when I offered my contribution. OK, free then... It is quite a long way to Hanyang, Wuhan's third city and reputed home of factories. I'd been there a number of times seeking out Carrefour, a French joint venture supermarket, and the only place that olive oil can be had. But our destination turned out to be well past that, way out down a road to the south, along the western bank of the Yangtze River, where the inner city concrete jungle slowly fell away, to be replaced by overgrown vacant allotments, old factories abandoned, new apartments abandoned, half-filled swamps promising great real estate opportunities.. From time to time Citroen car showrooms appeared, incongruously isolated, like sentinels waiting to remind us of our destination.
I had heard vague rumours of Wuhan's enterprise zone(s). Every self-respecting Chinese city has enterprise zones, dedicated to the imitation of Shenzen (on the Hong Kong border), and created in a blaze of political speeches, and bottomless non-performing loans wrung from that four headed government imitation of a bank (the Bank of China, the Agricultural Bank, the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, and the Construction Bank). Indeed, the first and most glorious building to appear in such places is usually a new green glass palace, another emerald tooth in the four-headed bank dragon's mouth. These emerald teeth also dot every other part of the Chinese landscape, although some of them are a little chipped, and few of them ever get to chew much.
Well, although I had heard rumours of the enterprise zone, nothing had prepared me for the reality of the Zhuankou district. We glanced out the window expecting more of the same urban anonymity, then looked again, disoriented. For suddenly we had stepped inside of a computer modeling game. Serried rows of apartment tower blocks, strangely without washing, babies or other markers of the human animal. Here were wide boulevards, spacious sidewalks, a mouthful of green glass dragon's teeth, nicely painted factory buildings set back in spacious grounds behind security fences. Yes, and there was the car factory we were going to with an impressive electric barrier that could concertina to admit the chosen few.
"Few" was the operative word here. Zhuankou must have been hit by a neutron bomb. Etched in the grey light, if you looked carefully, a human silhouette could occasionally be glimpsed. Maybe it was a trick of the light; maybe the silhouettes were merely shadows that looked human.. Now understand that Wuhan is a human ant heap. Bodies crawl, spit, sleep, die, by the millions. Nowhere can a man find a quiet place to blow his nose or hitch up his trousers in a Chinese city like Wuhan. Except, it seemed, in the enterprise zone, where even the cockroaches had given all this computer generated perfection up as a hungry mistake.
Our little bus backed and turned several times around a central intersection of the ghost city, until we decided that the driver was lost. At last it pulled over outside a towering, empty bank to ask directions, it seemed, from a young woman in a black coat, the only living creature within sight. Then the driver parked fifty meters further on and disappeared with our teacher co-ordinator, and the girl in the black coat. The bank swallowed them up, for a long time. We got out to stretch our legs. Was this it, the destination? We kicked at the pavement and looked around cautiously.
After banks, the other big ticket item in Chinese settlements is the grand restaurant. No self-respecting suburb can hold up its head without a clutch of these elaborate establishments. Each must support a warren of intimate private dining parlours with karaoke machines. There will be an imposing entrance of crimson and gilt, glass and marble, watched over by dragons and door girls in body-hugging dresses slit to the thigh.. So where were they, the nosh houses? Wind whistled through the security fences. Surreal.
After fifteen mysterious minutes our leaders emerged from the bank, still with the girl in the black coat. She climbed aboard the bus too, suddenly assuming the position of tour guide. Since the tourists here were students of the Chinese language, whatever was said to them was said in Chinese. I struggled to understand (so did they!), but having tossed a few half-hearted factoids into the mist, our lady in black remained pensively quiet for the rest of the afternoon. She did negotiate our passage past the clever concertina barrier of Dong Feng Citroen. Maybe the gate man was lonely. Like the public road outside, the car plant was home to ghosts.
In one of my varied lives, I have taught technical English to hundreds of overseas trained mechanics; (even written a book about it, English for Mechanics). Part of the routine involved visiting Australian car plants several times a year, so it is a very familiar scene. I tried hard to frame some cutting questions for our dainty guide, but the three thousand odd parts that go into a modern automobile were not in her lexicon. The word for "engine" was pushing her limits. Indeed, what could she say, for we were touring a museum. We were each handed a small pocket knife with the Dong Feng logo on it, then they let into the great hangar where a car body assembly line snaked back and forth across the floor space. Up onto the catwalk where imaginary supervisors stalked, watching imaginary workers toil below. This ghostly crew had been unable to trip the switch that set the line rolling, so half assembled cars sat waiting in patient queues. It was a pristine scene, no rubbish on the ground (very un-Chinese), the machinery gleamed, the silence was spacious.
This afternoon, the plant was closed down for maintenance, we were blandly told. Impolitely, I looked our guide in the eye and said I didn't believe her. No response. Maintenance .. and pigs can fly. There are over two hundred vehicle assembly plants in China. Most of them are losing money, but they fit the old understanding of "industrial development". Nice, concrete things that can be turned to making armoured vehicles come World War III .. It sounds weird, but less than a generation ago China was almost bankrupted by moving twenty million people westwards, with heavy industry factories sited in mountain valleys or far inland to survive the coming nuclear holocaust. In the same era as Mao Tse Tung's ruinous mountain-industry program, I was in my twenties. I and many of my generation were also convinced that human survival rested on a madman's nuclear hair-trigger. While my Western contemporaries have mostly mellowed, China is still paying the price for that paranoia, and is still under the guiding hands of fearful tribal elders.
The Dong Feng plant is not entirely petrified. To the best of my knowledge (which is scanty enough), it still works a few days a week. It is, after all, one of Hubei's icons, like the cigarette factory. Some things are guaranteed. Every taxi in Hubei is a Dong Feng Citroen, by local law, and all the toilet paper comes from the cigarette factory. Rural teachers in some districts have also been paid in cigarettes, though I haven't heard of any of them being offered an automobile!
So we cantered through the auto museum without seeing a living soul, out the door at the other end, back into the bus. Was that the end? C'mon, was that fifteen yuan's worth? Nope. Seems we had a couple of bottling plants to do too. Down the road we found a Coca Cola plant which from the outside also looked moribund. The happy facts about bottling sugared water though are a) that you have to be really dumb to lose money, and b) you can do just about the whole gig untouched by messy human hands. It was clear immediately that with a century of experience to draw on, the Coca Cola mob have reduced manufacturing to a well regulated afterthought. A bit like breathing really. Their big excitement is in marketing. We entered a polished marble atrium, and mounted a sweeping staircase that would have done any five star hotel proud.
Our first duty was to admire the gallery of VIP photographs - a beaming Coca Cola manager shaking hands with squadrons of Chinese politicians. There was also the framed badge collection, a dizzy string of enameled national flags. They celebrated America's sugar coated subversion of world taste buds, but he boy from Khazakstan noisily protested his country's absence. The seeds of a diplomatic incident here. The gallery seamlessly became a marble catwalk with glass walls. On either side, in a silent diorama, we could see big stainless steel tanks wound about with thick stainless steel pipes. Just an occasional figure in a dustcoat. A little further on, cans and bottles jostled soundlessly on steel roller belts, until coming to a whirring pump each was kissed for an instant with it's injection of liquid. At the very end of the gallery, the glass wall looked down into smaller enclosure. Something different here. Humans, a half dozen middle aged women in white dust coats. They were unpacking and assembling cartons. One of those stainless steel machines could have done that too. I wickedly imagined the provincial politician reporting on his dinner's work. The Coca Cola Corporation had agreed to his demand for local labour input ...
It had to happen, the finale, the freebie. How would they do it for the visitors? We were ushered into a lush polygonal room. Acres of carpet, deep, luxurious lounge chairs around the wall. I was reminded of one of those throne rooms for blessed provinces that lead off from The Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Nothing so crass as a boardroom table here, but in the corner there was, of course, the ubiquitous Coca Cola drink fridge. What would you like ladies and gentlemen? Coke (be sentimental..), Fanta, Sprite ..
Next door was the Flower Milk Company. Later one of my Chinese friends told me that this was a Taiwanese operation. In any case, it seemed to lack some of the glass-plated self-assurance of the Coca Cola operation. Again, from the outside nothing seemed to be moving. We entered the polished atrium, also with a winding staircase to ethereal management regions above. At the foot of the stairs some departing visitors were grubbing in a plastic milk box for their free 250 ml carton of flavoured milk. A slim girl with bobbed hair led us up the windy stairs (wonder if they hold weddings here; it would be great for the bride's entrance). This time instead of framed politicians we got to admire framed photos of dairy cows, a definite improvement. Through one doorway I glimpsed signs of an office staff, and a couple of anxious looking gents in suits came out to eyeball us from time to time, without introducing themselves.
The Flower Milk Company's glass walled diorama was smaller than Coca Cola's. Still lots of stainless steel, but there was a bit of human untidiness about it, and towards the end of the factory some men were standing around on the tiled floor in a manner that definitely said it was Friday afternoon. Our kiss of departure here did spread us around a big horseshoe of polished tables with a large poster behind where the chairman might have sat. In tiny paper cups, half filled, they gave us a taste of yoghourt. Mercifully, no speeches. Maybe the procession of rubberneckers is too relentless. Down the stairs, grab your carton of milk, out to the bus.. Almost.
The American hung back, trying in funny Chinese to ask the slim dark girl about how it all happened. Milk is not quite as antiseptically chemical as bottled sugar-water. Well, they had a herd of 5,000 dairy cows in Guangzhou. Good grief. That's a lot of cow shit. I commented mildly that I had a few Australian uncles in the dairy farm racket. That seemed to hit the young lady like a cattle prod. The American was forgotten. She fixed onto me with a slightly desperate intensity, and switched to English. Well, as it happened, they were just about to open a farm along the road in Hubei with 2,000 cows from Australia. And their, um, quality control wasn't quite up to scratch. Did I by any chance have a business card? My racket is plugging English language, I protested, handing over the card. But I'm expecting a phone call any night.