Wednesday, April 16, 2008

There's a thousand variations / every witness has a smile


China is a huge and seductive practical joke which defeated the westerners who tried to modernise it, the Japanese who tried to conquer it, the Americans who tried to democratise and unify it…and Chiang and Mao John Paton Davies

It was a long slow trek from Hong Kong to Denpasar…some 12 hours including a four brunei hour stop-over in Brunei which we filled with a gratis tour of the city. Brunei seems  pleasant enough but less than exciting.

Our tour guide, after telling us that there is absolutely no alcohol there, smilingly let slip that many young people slip across the border on a Saturday night for a quick lager. He also showed us the massive Sultan’s place and gorgeous mosque as well as the brand new parliament building which seems to serve no purpose beyond window dressing given as the Sultan is one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchs in this rather dull, oil rich state.



mao2 And I thought of the double standards in the we tolerate political ugliness in Saudi Arabia but not in China. Then I guess Saudi Arabia plays a compliant game and offers no real threat to a US dominance. China on the other hand not only threatens but increasingly dominates and controls the game. And that is very obvious when you are there, or in Hong Kong, which, despite it’s friendly face is very much a part of the People’s Republic.

I may, to those that have been there many times, sound hopelessly naïve, but here are a few more thoughts and comments about China.

· Even for a resident of Indonesia, with some experience of mega cities like Jakarta, the vastness and enormity of the country when you are there really hits and almost overwhelms one but as much as that, as per John Davies above, ultimately seduces you.

· There is something about the stream of container trucks transporting goods along the six lane highway carved into the mountainsides into Hong Kong that is very Silk bannerRoad and that is accentuated by the fact that the three biggest container gateway ports in the work are in servicing South Eastern China.

· Simple numbers like the fact that I'm told that there are more PhD students in Chinese Universities than students in the whole US tertiary system, or that China consumes almost two billion pairs of jeans a year, before, it exports any. Or that there are allegedly some 200 million people in the country not listed in official census numbers by virtue of those that slipped through the system because of the one child policy

· I was surprised in Guangzhou as to how many non-Chinese looking residents I saw. My friend from Hong Kong who does extensive business in the city tells me these are as likely folk from the western provinces. The oft quoted restrictions on internal travel no longer exist, the only restriction is that one cannot take ones social benefits from province to province. In other words, if you need the dole you need to come home.

· The Shanghai to Ningbo sea bridge is the longest in the world, and has been built exclusively by Chinese companies and engineers. Whilst the west was smugly sitting around, China caught up. And nowhere was that more evident than in the Tianhe area of Guangzhou, where vast tree lined boulevards around massive modern structures, often architecturally inspiring, looking like some immense sci-fi set, sit where I’m told dirt roads existed ten years ago.

· Whilst the old central train station looks like a Mao-ist relic virtually every other public facility we entered was absolute state of the art, and mostly at least partially privately owned. Make no mistake this is a market driven economy

· Both Brigid and I agreed that the people we encountered in China were, as a generalisation, the most friendly, considerate and open we've encountered anywhere on our travels, west or east. We were repeatedly amazed at how helpful and polite complete strangers could be and there was none of the pushiness we'd been led to believe was the norm.

· The term ‘one party’ state is a subjective one. One could reasonably argue that there is perhaps a wider raft of opinions in a huge party such as exists in China than the current please-tell-me-the-difference between them UK Tory / Labour split.

· I abhor capital punishment in any form and don't believe any nation that kills it's own can claim to be civilized but several people pointed out to me that on a per capita basis China is way behind 'friendly' nations like Singapore and Saudi Arabia. And the family paying for the bullet thing is a long past thing.  That said, it still revolts me and I can find no excuses to justify it in any form. When there the former Shanghai head guy was convicted of substantial fraud and sentenced to life in jail. There was much comment that such a crime would have meant a needle (as that is how its done now) a year or three back.

· At the back of one’s mind the whole time of course you have Tiananmen Square, although that was 20 years ago, and a raft of other questions but you can only hope that China, which has had a truly horrific past century is coming out of something. I beijinglufound myself looking at old people over and over and wondering just what they had seen. The Chinese history I've been reading recently means something altogether more when you look at the faces. But, the simple fact that the modern urban China of today, and the wonder that is Hong Kong are happily tolerated speaks volumes about the future I would hope.


After close to a week in China, we then went to Hong Kong.

I’d not been to Hong Kong as an adult and it simply blew me away. We were lucky enough to be guided by good local friends so had a step up. But sitting in the legendary Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club drinking NZ wines felt rather good. As did dinner at the Peak may be a tourist trap, but it too had a hell of wine list.


I’d always imagined it was a little like Singapore, but, no, this city, even with a PLA regiment sitting on the island, has soul.

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James Yetman said...

As a Kiwi who is a (semi) long-time resident of Hong Kong (7 years and counting), I find your views on here and China very interesting. There's another side to every story, and the simple storylines so often published in the western media often fail to communicate that. Visiting a country makes it impossible not to appreciate the nuances and complexities...

CCS said...

Love the's like a still from Bladerunner