Thor's China Diary

  Living With China 
Upside Down and Backwards

@13 June 1999
go to end / go to China Index .

The taps in my bathroom turn on backwards. Is this a metaphor, I wonder darkly, for the strange Chinese world-view? If it is, then the metaphor is by no means static. A week ago the taps were perfectly sensible, but some people in a committee somewhere decided to modernize them. My minder collapses in giggles when I complain about leaping out of the shower like a scalded cat, but then she's Chinese.

Life Is Cheap In Asia, Isn't It?

Western views of China have gyrated on a giddy pendulum for three hundred years now. Every decade or so we persuade ourselves that all those people bottled up inside the Chinese nation state are just like us, but eat rice and believe that red means happiness.

Our parents thought that communism wasn't nice, but maybe China needed some rough justice... The tens of millions who died in the mass-madness of the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward were numbers too hard for popular imagination to grasp. But when a bit of ghastliness like the Tianmen Square incident turned up on the TV screens, the accepted wisdom of the West flipped overnight. Everyone could mutter with disgust that life is cheap in Asia.

   go to top / go to end / go to China Index
The Big Mac And Global Civilization

No matter, the tour buses were soon back, and an annual fifty-seven million tourists (let's believe the China Daily's breathless statistics for 1997) take at least that many snapshots of a MacDonald's hamburger logo to prove that civilization is now global. Of course the Chinese people were upset when a dumb bomb took out three journalists in Belgrade. So would you be, Mrs. Murphy.

A resident alien in China is less instantly wise than the two-week package tourists. He too is hog-tied to the pendulum of his own cultural perceptions, but these gyrate wildly by the hour, rather than the decade. The Chinese he knows are indeed just like him, in so many ways. Well, maybe. They have been programmed though, with different information and different experience.

   go to top / go to end / go to China Index
Bicycle Tyres and Imperialist Plots

China's citizens have been told that NATO intervention in Kosovo was a dark imperialist plot. So much is predictable. Other things are more subtle. The writer queried over a hundred "technical" postgraduates, and was astounded to find that not one had ever fixed a bicycle tyre. They thought his question strange. Tinkering was not in their universe of ideas. A couple of kids inventing a computer system in a garage down the back-yard just couldn't happen here. Somehow this seemed more significant than a dozen Kosovos. Benjamin Franklin, where are you?

   go to top / go to end / go to China Index
For Whom The Trains Run

Fixing bicycle tyres might not be a middle class Chinese aspiration, but hustling amid the masses comes naturally. Pity the unknowing foreigner. Life in a strange culture is full of woolly mysteries. Then suddenly the clouds will part, a ray of light peeks through.

The senior logistics man from China Railways was a cloud killer. "Why", I asked warily, "is China one of the few countries in the world where you can't buy a return train ticket?" He pondered. State secrets were at stake here. It has to be said that China's vast rail network generally works pretty well. The trains aren't bad, and usually get where they are meant to go. Buying that magic ticket though can sometimes be a trial.

My companion decided to break the code of silence. Well, it was perfectly logical, he assured me. If a ticket were sold in Lanzhou, then the money belonged to Lanzhou station. If it were sold in Beijing, it belonged to Beijing station. Why would Beijing agree to give away one of its tickets to some crowd in Gansu, or Sichuan or Hunan? There was no cut in it for them.

Indeed, not only was each station a private fiefdom devoted to self-enrichment. Each train was gloriously dedicated to the New Socialism. Don't worry, he assured me, if the station says there are no tickets. There are always tickets. What you have to do is buy a platform ticket for one yuan, then stow away on the train. The ticket inspector on the train will then be absolutely delighted to sell you a seat. You see, he explained patiently, as to a child, money for a ticket sold on the train belonged to the train, not to the station. This was their cop, their perk, their little piece of birthday cake.

   go to top / go to end / go to China Index
The Hidden Empires Of New (and Old) China

Nationalism is strong in China. Well, it is loud. The entire education system has been devoted creating a race of zombies who spout the Party line and never ask questions. On the surface this is pretty successful. There are signs that younger children in some elite schools are being challenged to a more inquisitive world-view, but they are twenty years away from taking on authority.

Your average middle to upper class seventeen year-old (i.e. the emerging elite) has imbibed a potted history of the world that is full of  factual errors and dubious interpretations. His or her knowledge of geography is negligible, and understanding of other Asian states almost non-existent. He can probably do quadratic equations, but can't tie knots. He will offer to die for the motherland, but if cornered will confess that lots of people out there aren't actually worth dying for.

Your average thirty something person is verging on cynicism. Their "China" has become a rather vague and shifting idea. They have learned that there are millions of work units, trains, train stations, university departments, offices of every kind, bits of factories, buses, corners of department stores, groups of street sweepers, bank branches (what goes in at one branch often can't come out at another), collections of beggars, coveys of cops, all run by small-time hustlers ... warlords with their little group of followers who hatch schemes to extort a few bucks from this poor sucker or that.

   go to top / go to end / go to China Index
Is China Ungovernable, Or Just Ungoverned?

When Maoism descended into madness, and communism failed, China should have disintegrated as a political unit. That's Western logic, even Russian logic. The Soviet example has not been inspiring. Good and bad are more permeable notions to a Chinese mind. Deng Xiao Ping Thinking (the current catechism) is a giant fudge. That's Chinese logic, and it works, sort of. Passing exams in this culture is a fudge, getting promoted is a fudge, driving in the murderous traffic is fudging at high speed. And so it is with nation building.

That said, the big fudge of One China has come at a high price. Civil society is fragile. Public trust is almost absent. The provinces see Beijing as an insatiable vacuum cleaner, sucking wealth out of the rest of the country. What they can't challenge openly, they subvert by guile. This is the pattern all the way down the line to individuals; (individualism is a non-Chinese concept, you say? Nonsense). Nothing is what it seems.

Will the next revolution be anything more than a falling out among thieves? Study the rhetoric. Representative democracy is getting a bad local press  in China for the moment. That could turn around. Democracy though might only be another racket. Come to think of it, representative democracy in Washington lines a few pockets too.

My neighbour is getting a twitch. They have also modernized his bathroom. Half the taps turn on in the old way, and half turn on backwards. Yesterday he tried to rinse his mouth with boiling water. His minder is giggling hysterically. She says he has to study the Four Modernizations.

"Living with China, Upside Down and Backwards" copyrighted to Thor May 1999; all rights reserved
go to top
  • return to Thor's China Diary index
  • Links to China-related Sites
  • go to top
  • To e-mail the editor, Thor May: press here