Thor's China Diary


Foreign Experts Plant Trees

As usual, there was hardly any warning. Cancel your Monday class, said the Foreign Affairs Office; you're going to Huangshi to plant trees. Really. My poor Monday group has lost about four classes like this. Oh well, time to be diplomatic.

I bolted my breakfast to be down in the lobby by 7.15am for the pickup. Not a soul in sight. Ah, the lady meant 7.50am; another case for oral English practice. Our old Foreign Affairs shadow, DV has been disappeared in disgrace for applying for a passport. Removed from our contaminating influence. HB has been borrowed from the International Student Section to ride shotgun on events like this. He's a tall, squarely built young man who takes a while to communicate freely, but he doesn't seem to regard the foreigners -- their word -- as a kind of high priced agent on lease from the CIA, like some others here.

I'm a small prickly object to be handled with care. HT, my Australian compatriot, galumphs along grumbling, about six feet of untidy sandy hair and freckled skin, like an aging teenager in perpetual jeans and denim jacket, inseparable from his video camera. Strange maybe, but he worries them less than I do. And now we have MB, a large-boned New Yorker, once blonde, creased with sixty years of memories, but remarkably fit for her vintage. She's a surprise packet -- the first FAO story said she was a nutritionist; then she told me that she'd been working in immigration. Today it emerges that she's been living in Taiwan for 18 years, but not teaching. Very mysterious.

A bit after 8.50 the FAO chauffeur arrived in his black limo' and we crowded into the back seat for the short trip to another campus near Zhongnan, where a motley collection of foreigners and hangers on straggled about in small clumps. It was a grey, featureless day with a little rain in the air. One striking thing about the foreigners was that few showed much interest in talking to any of the others; after all, they'd gone into exile for the sake of talking, after a fashion, to Chinese. I sidled up to one malnourished twenty-something girl. Her almost white hair was slashed into a crewcut, her pink ears and bony eyebrows were pierced with repulsive metal studs. "Hi", I suggested cautiously, "from the States?" "Irish" she snapped, her hollow eyes glowering at me with a cold enmity that said all men were bastards. Mm. Well, the Chinese want exposure to the West. Maybe she's a better representative of her culture than I am...

The three buses really were, well, genuine tour coaches with intimations of luxury. The first I've seen here. Your normal Wuhan bus is pretty agricultural. After all the excitement of the floods, the Hubei government must have been suffering post-heroic depression and in need of some ready-made VIPs. Two police cars swung in front of our cavalcade, lights flashing, and a motor cycle escort made up the rear. We proceeded to terrorize the city traffic, crashing red lights, swinging to whatever side of the road happened to be empty, but on no account stopping. Only plebs wait their turn.  Out of the city limits we hit a toll-way, for which of course no toll was paid.

The trip to Huangshi takes about two hours through low-lying land that is starting to show a bit of colour with the imminent arrival of spring. Lots of stagnant ponds and muddy fields. Occasional we saw sprawling, tumble-down buildings of coarse bricks with narrow window openings and small kiln chimneys; muddy holes next door where the clay is dug for these rural brickworks. Every slight rise is terraced, and bleak clusters of rough brick houses dot the landscape like overbuilt islands. In nicely a framed photograph with filtered tones they could perhaps look romantic, but the reality is cold, dirty and devoid of public amenity or personal tender-loving-care. From the comfort of the bus we could frame our send-away photographs, and the browns, deep greens and blazing yellow sashes of rapeseed blooms in a misty landscape will make some pretty lies.

About five kilometres outside of Huangshi we crossed an invisible border, known only to the competing regional warlords (prefectural empires). Our Wuhan police greeted the waiting Huangshi forces with elaborate diplomatic courtesy, and we acquired a double VIP escort. To ensure that our status was impressed on the local yokels, from this five kilometre point at every hundred meters stood a police trooper, spick-and-span in his pressed uniform, white gloves, rigidly at attention and  -- wait for it -- saluting us as we swept past. Have to admit that I've never before been saluted by dozens of cops. A few seasons of this foreign expert caper and a man would be in danger of getting delusions of grandeur, even if the taxi drivers make double his salary.

Huangshi is a small, rust-belt city to the south-east of Wuhan, where the Yangtze River passes through some hills that have rich seams of copper and iron. They must be rich seams, for we were to learn that they have been mined for at least three thousand years, and the town had been home to bronze and iron age smelters. This probably made it a useful strategic prize. The present day reality is large mullock heaps, grimy buildings and hillsides with gashes of blasted stone. From time to time there is the dull thud of dynamite lifting the topsoil off another slope. ...  Well, I'm not being quite fair. You approach the city on a promenade which skirts several lakes, their far shores crowded with the ubiquitous tower blocks of apartments. Quite nice really. A couple of the lakes have been drained, maybe to collect the plastic bags, or maybe to fill in for more apartments. Downtown has a few passable tree-lined streets with the usual collection of Chinese shops, and by lowering your gaze you can almost fail to notice the gaunt backdrop of the old steelworks.

They took us first to some Chinese gardens built into a steep gully that was having problems with soil slippage. The mouth of the gully was dotted with exactly the right quantity of carefully numbered camphor laurel trees. They must have been dumped in their holes with a crane, and bedded just enough to stay upright. Convenient piles of dirt with long handled shovels surrounded each tree, so, just as the great crimson and yellow banners across the city streets had proclaimed, the foreign experts set to work and saved Huangshi from deforestation, while the television cameras rolled. Someone in a backroom had justified the whole shindig by noticing that it was also "International Women's Day". We therefore had a token woman in fashionable black, with a revolutionary red scarf at her throat, making appropriate noises. Something about the glory of women's labour (I don't know if they pun in Chinese). Then some gents in dark blue suits pounced on an astonished old Ukrainian lady, a music teacher I think, and persuaded her to pull the wrapping off a commemorative stainless steel plaque. My galumphing colleague, HT, caused a diplomatic incident by telling the head bottle-washer that camphor laurel trees had just been declared a weed in Queensland because their shallow, spreading root structure held little, killed the grass, and actually made the soil less stable.

Getting THE official photograph was quite a performance too. This was the photograph that would be put in the Provincial Governor's office to show to his grandchildren and the President of the Republic when he dropped by for a maotai. They had set up this long wooden tier of trestles, so the men in blue suits hustled and harried the contrary herd of foreigners into precarious order while the photographer's assistant, a serious looking man in a khaki suit, suddenly went ape, flailing his arms and legs and pulling funny faces. The idea seemed to be to make everyone smile. Unluckily, the maestro with the camera was having troubles. His machine was a huge thing of the kind that you see in historical exhibitions. It took single photographic plates, and had decided to be cantankerous. Everyone smiled or gaped at the ape man while nothing happened. He took a deep breath and wound up for a second try. Our smiles were tinged with pity. The court jester began to get bags under his eyes and look slightly shifty. Ready, signalled the photo man. "OiEeHeeHaHa" shrieked the jester. We struggled to stretch the skin around our teeth. The camera worked.

Honour satisfied, it was time for a trip to the banquet hall. Reputedly an attachment to the flashiest hotel in town, it nestled behind a quarried embankment on a reach of the Yangtze River. Following a clear strategic plan as we emerged from the buses, our guides made energetic gestures in one direction and shouted "you can wash your hands", then pointed in the opposite direction and shouted "there is the bathroom". We took a punt on what direction the euphemism lay in. Chinese toilets are legendary, but at least the male version of this lot was clean, and planned for a military invasion. There were serried rows of concrete urinals, swept by a somewhat alarming torrent of water every minute or so. The real "hand washing place", five minutes walk in the other direction, even had fresh white hand-towels. Actually, the banquet hall was rather like a large school gymnasium with a concrete floor, but we weren't complaining. In the centre of the room was a battle square of hot and cold buffet dishes, fussed over by slender young ladies in golden silk slit dresses (qipai), who also offered disposable cups half full of warm beer or coca cola. The tucker was pretty good by Chinese standards, and a welcome substitute for the usual banquet of a zillion courses that hardly get eaten.

Our table was joined by Mr ZXx  whose card announced him as "Foreign Affairs Office of Hubei Province Division Director, Hubei Bureau of Foreign Exerpts {sic} Deputy Director". Well, at least if this had been Indonesia, he would have been announced by an acronym like FAOHPDDHBBFE with some random vowels stuck in the tricky bits. If you can decode the Chinese characters here, things tend to be spelled out in naked detail. As a senior "foreign exerpt" I was apparently a suitable candidate for the game called "meeting foreign friends to exchange heartfelt greetings." Mr ZXx was a robust gentleman with a handshake like a bolt cutter. His real business I suppose was public relations. Yesterday I bought a wicked little book in English & Chinese (anonymous author, like most books here) called "Bluff Your Way in Public Relations". I quote: "Public relations is ALL bluff. It is bluffery elevated to the status of a profession ... Public relations is the Happiness Business. Grand Openings. Royal Visits. Knighthoods. Scientific Breakthroughs. Record Financial Results ..." You get the picture. Mr ZXx was a skilled exponent of his trade. He let it be known that he was a frequent (?!) visitor to Sydney, New York, Tokyo, and all those other places you find in Chanel No5 perfume and Calvin Klein fashion advertisements. For a Chinese apparatchik this was (one hopes) a bit like claiming to be a frequent visitor to the moon, but since he was supplying the nosh we were happy to humour him.

After we had progressed from the chicken legs to the mandarins and strawberries, Mr Zhang sprang his coup de grace. Each foreign expert received a red velvet box containing a bronze replica of "Matafeiyan", a galloping horse on the back of a flying swallow "implying an active transcending spirit", as the notes said. The horse was from heaven, and the swallow the legendary Wind God in disguise. The original Matafeiyan sculpture came out of 3000 year-old tombs not far from Huangshi.

Manufacturing "relics" is a major industry here, right down to instant aging, like the verdigris on the bronze. With only a handful of exceptions, the "ancient temples" etc etc that 56 million tourists a year (their numbers !!) flock to in mysterious and timeless China --- are recently manufactured with that ubiquitous communist genius for bad craftsmanship. Thus Wuhan's pride & joy, the Yellow Crane Tower, was actually made in 1984. I have yet to find anyone who has the faintest idea of what the original, 1700 years ago, really looked like. Maybe because they realize young that all the "history" they learn is an ersatz Party-line concoction, most Chinese have zero genuine interest in real history or archaeology. In tourist bazaars and museums they will go for the plastic kitsch every time. When I showed my students the Matafeiyan later their lips curled. "Fake" they sneered. Well yeah. But China is a fake country (that, their self-respect won't quite let them understand). Everything from tooth fillings to door locks have been borrowed from elsewhere. Fakes have their uses. I now wear a fake Citizen Watch that cost $8 but works fine, and fake Raebock running shoes. As souvenirs go, my fake Matafeiyan is rather tasteful. I'm pleased with it.

All proper Chinese midday banquets are followed by a siesta of at least two hours. It is recognized that foreign friends have a different biology, so the Committee Plan compromised and conceded us an hour of "free time". Huangshi is HB's home "village" (everyone comes from a home village), and he wanted to show us the river. Therefore a couple of us dutifully climbed some narrow concrete steps to the top of the embankment and found ourselves on a high cliff face above a bend of the Yangtze River. A freezing wind chilled us to the bone, but at least it had whipped away the coal dust and factory smog; (from W.H.O. statistics, breathing in an average Chinese city is equivalent to smoking two packets of cigarettes a day..). The water was choppy; half a dozen big grey barges below tugged restlessly at their moorings, and a steady stream of working boats played slalom between the navigation buoys down the middle of the river. Six months ago this river was washing away whole cities, but today it is so low that larger ships have to run a relay down to Shanghai, swapping their cargoes of people and goods at choke points where the channels are silted up. We stood at a railing for five minutes, turning up our collars against the wind and diplomatically admiring the cardboard cut-out skyline of apartment blocks, factory chimneys and eroded hill faces. HB went looking for more scenery admirers; I scurried back down the steps to shelter in the bus parking area.

China is an extraordinarily schizophrenic place in these times. Everyone knows that communism is a corpse; Party members nowadays work hard to polish their rhetoric into the doublespeak of international market economics (perhaps not such a huge transition ..), but the whole apparatus of a "planned" economy, with it's obligatory security paraphernalia, hangs like a smog over all activities. Chinese provinces are effectively countries, even if they are obliged to send gold to the emperor in Beijing. Hubei, with 55 million people, is the size of the United Kingdom, or the Ukraine. The shadowy impressions of its government that I've built up suggest a sort of Ruritanian self-importance, warrens of obscure committees and departments, impenetrable layers of intrigue, and attitudes to public policy that Jo Bjelke Petersen (a right wing Queensland premier who presided over amazing corruption) would have understood immediately. Parachuted into this vortex, a troop of foreign experts excites both a 21 gun salute (or at least, saluting policemen!), and a huge career chance for all the gents in trench coats who normally have nobody to watch but each other. In our little outing to plant trees, I have no doubt that our movements and utterances were watched in intimate detail, videoed, tape recorded and later analysed in smoky backroom offices.

Looking wistful and alone amongst the buses I was soon approached by a gentleman from the press. The press, he hastened to explain as he presented his card from the Hubei Daily, was not really the Press. The Hubei Daily, like all of the hundreds of other newspapers, was a policy arm of government. Mr ZG let it be known that he would really like to be a member of the Press, and thought something along those lines might happen someday. I wish him luck. With his bona fides established as a closet real-journalist, Mr ZG searched for ways to make me say something newsworthy, or at least worthy grist for the gents in trench coats. He himself wore a slightly rumpled light brown suit that made him appear worldly, if not world-weary. My gaze progressed from his bulbous nose, a very middle-aged appendage, to a pair of rather young eyes. Mr ZG turned out to be twenty-two years old. I said something nice about the bronze horse gifts in red velvet boxes, and that led somehow to T'ang poetry (618-907AD).

Every T'ang politician, he explained, had had to quote verse before he could get on with the real business of a peasant uprising in Zhejiang or a suitable marriage for his youngest daughter. European courts in the Middle Ages were not so different, and generated cartloads of bad poetry that sank without a trace. It also sounded a bit like every official in the People's Paradise quoting Marx, I suggested. Ah, no no no. Foreign friends had completely the wrong ideas about modern China. Nowadays Marx was the last person they quoted. Hmm. Maybe George Soros is more in vogue here too..

The last item on our agenda was a visit to the hot-rolling mill of Daye Steel Company. An in-house guide boarded the bus and spat out some factoids. Just to make sure we got the statistics right each foreign friend was also given a glossy A4 sized publication that must have cost half the annual company deficit to produce. Daye Steel is the latest incarnation of an enterprise which was founded in 1890. Today it has expanded to need (or is burdened with?) twenty thousand employees + families, which means housing them, schooling them, providing hospitals, welfare, and all the attachments of the "iron rice bowl" as they say in local parlance.

Our buses wound in through a grimy city within a city, with denizens gathering in small groups to gaze at the police escort and gatekeepers doing the salute thing. We were then led at a fast trot into the cavernous interior of the rolling mill, up steel ladders and along gangways above the behemoth presses and rollers. Every few minutes a thick ribbon of white hot steel emerged from the clanking furnace, snaked busily into a big box where a kind of cross-cut saw shrieked, spat streams of sparks, and sliced it into sections of 10 meters or so, then pushed the pieces into a set of rollers. These spat out pencils of steel like telegraph poles, by now cherry red and perhaps cooling into something saleable.

Director ZXx nobly volunteered to flash-photograph me standing by a computer screen in the control room. As an ex-resident of Newcastle (NSW), I'm no stranger to steel mills. The glossy Daye publication and a few hot steel rods couldn't conceal a slightly sad, ghost-like quality about the place. There could not have been more than twenty workers in the whole rolling mill. That is, by Chinese standards it was a caretaker operation, and other huge buildings dotting the site were black, deserted. Back in the bus I asked HB a direct question: "does this place make money or lose money?" He hesitated a moment, then confided, "I have a friend who works here. Last month he was only paid sixty percent of his salary."

It was late afternoon, already getting dark. Light rain spattered the bus windows as we came to the outskirts of Huangshi. The local police escort wheeled off and saluted briskly in farewell. We roared down the motorway behind the flashing red roof lights of our Wuhan police minders, looked out on the lonely islands of farm villages, wondered about some gravestones on a hill, napped a little, then gradually edged into the sea of stained concrete walls that announce the city of Wuhan.

"Foreign Experts Plant Trees" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 8 March 1999