Random observations on China

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Warning: This is mostly a personal travelogue, with some generalizations and conjectures thrown in for good measure. A colleague of mine was so kind to comment on a draft and nonchalantly suggested that the title of the piece ought to be “Clueless Westerner hops off a plane and makes many random observations”. So there, I warned you.

This was my first visit to China and these are indeed very first impressions but …

it is a fascinating and intriguing country. Certainly, Shanghai and Beijing are. I will be back.

I was there mostly for professional purposes, gave a couple of talks and worked with a former student — now assistant professor at ShanghaiTech University — on a couple of manuscripts. It’s publish or perish there, too.

I stayed at the Hope Hotel in Shanghai – somewhere in the west of the city, near the downtown campus of ShanghaiTech U — where, it seems, I was for a while the only foreigner among all Chinese guests. But these Chinese were clearly middle class or maybe even higher up.

Food was plenty and often excellent. Curious and exotic, too.  Spicy chicken feet for breakfast? Well, maybe not. And frog at lunch in a fine eating establishment next door? Thank you but no, here, too.  Also, scorpions, spiders, and snakes are just not my thing. Even fried or grilled. I did try the salted eggs and the ginger threads and the lotus roots and the various mushroom delicatessen and other fascinating food stuff. The fish in chilli peppers was fabulous both times I had it. Also, it is amazing in how many ways you can prepare bean curd and I really liked the black rice cake. But I am digressing.

I made an excursion to the Hope Hotel neighborhood on the second day, just strolling through a few streets off the main traffic artery (about half a dozen lanes in each direction). While spending the weekend in Beijing  I likewise strolled through several neighborhoods there, mostly off the beaten tracks and with the help of a fabulous guide born in Beijing. A very different picture emerged in these excursions (a couple of them through hutong neighborhoods that the government has the good sense to preserve in their original building substance.) Hundreds of little shops, often literal holes in the wall (struggle town right there), offering an astonishing amount of riches at rather reasonable prices. Just for the record, the next time you are in Beijing, try Grandma Creative Kitchen, a little unconventional gem off the beaten track. You can thank me later.

Whatever legitimate gripes people might have about the system (and there are some such as pollution, restricted access to information, and corruption that seem very justified), it is remarkable that China, or at least Shanghai and Beijing, are the functioning metropoles that they are. Much of this remarkable development — remember, just a couple of decades back the country had trouble feeding its citizens — seems to be driven by entrepreneurial activities in the large and small. In particular the latter, as exemplified by the numerous eating places, many of them so small that it is hard to imagine how they can make ends meet. In any case, many people seem to do very well although it is also clear that the wealth and income distribution is rather unequal. This is communism? Or at least real existing socialism? I wonder what good ole Kalle would have to say about it. Or for that matter Chairman Mao.

For the most part, I did not dare to eat street-food although some of it looked rather yummy.

I did buy local beer (excellent) and wine (better than expected, in fact quite enjoyable). Also, the coffee is often much better than its reputation and I am not talking about coffee at a Starbucks which seems to have many outlets in particular in Shanghai. Outlets that are crowded indeed. Goldmines, surely. A regular skim latte with two extrashots? That’d be … 38 yuan (almost 10 Aussie dollars). Wow. (For comparison, four times that amount buys you a delightful lunch, for two, at the Grandma Creative Kitchen.)

I arrived on Sunday evening (December 6) in Shanghai and the next day read in the news sites that I could access (yahoo, Spiegel, SMH, no google or gmail or facebook there lest one goes VPN) that the authorities in Beijing had issued the highest environmental alert ever for Tuesday through Thursday. As it is, pollution in Shanghai was about ten times what it typically is in Sydney when I arrived but then, after some rain Wednesday and Thursday, reduced to three times that benchmark. None of it seemed to faze my local friends much (although allegedly pollution has gotten to the point where some expats are getting really concerned). My head, in any case, noticed the improvement. And on the day when I left, it also noticed – having been pampered for several days in Shanghai and Beijing by pollution levels classified as green or yellow (i.e., acceptable) – the sudden worsening in pollution from two / three times the Sydney standard to ten times, a worsening that happened within a couple of hours. It was remarkable: In the late morning good visibility and blue skies and even sun and then a couple of hours later clearly reduced visibility, grey skies, and if there was a sun it was well hidden behind a haze that got stronger with the minute.

The worsening environmental pollution seems the biggest threat to the welfare and productivity of the country and also to the pre-eminence of the party. (As in Vietnam, one keeps forgetting  that this is a “communist” country because on the individual level, entrepreneurialism is alive and well, and one sees little in the streets in terms of police, or other manifestations of state power, or what not.)

When I read about the Red Alert in Beijing, and in light of the threat that pollution poses for the government, I found it interesting that the authorities would allow some such alert: the worsening environmental pollution seems so obviously a systemic failure and hence to reflect on the party that runs the country.

Not really, my friends said. It is considered a failure of everyone and most Chinese seem to be able to relate to that because self-regarding preferences and a lack of concern for the commons, or for that matter, for externalities that one’s own behavior produce, are constituents of life in China. That’s similar to what I noticed in Moscow, or for that matter in Prague a decade or two back (and even now), or during numerous visits in what was then East Germany. Real existing socialism seems to bring out some pretty nasty sides in people. China, of course, is a very strange variant of real existing socialism: The planners in the state party that think they know best economically and socially and otherwise are at the top but at the bottom unrestrained Darwinian competition seems to carry the day. Even in its daily manifestations: Queueing anyone? Also, why worry about litter? Them pesky cigarette stubs – away with them on the side-walk.

I had been warned that in China I would face a hard test of my addiction to facebook (and google for that matter). Well, all true. But I survived it and it is easy to access many sites that you would normally google via bling or equivalent. Plus VPNs are on offer everywhere if your fb addiction were to get the better of you. I did just fine. Life without facebook is possible.

It seems that the Chinese authorities block some sites – such as facebook — religiously and you wonder why. Really. Everyone can access whatever they want if they really want. And what threat to the system does a 25-year old beauty queen really pose? Its’ puzzling. Likewise, allegedly the authorities seem to currently – again – be going after some young feminists. Someone somewhere high up in the state party hierarchy seems to have problems with their priorities. Did I mention air pollution? And ground and water pollution for that matter? Also, it is simply stupid from a public relations point of view. Anastasia Lin and Li Tingting clearly know how to work (social) media and the authorities seem woefully out of their depth in understanding the dynamics of it all.

As mentioned, one does not really notice much of state power in the streets; for someone visiting major cities it seems to show up mostly in odious reporting requirements (if one does not stay at a hotel), the restrictions on certain foreign sites, and access to free wifi in cafes that requires a working mobile phone in China. (So much for free wifi at the airport.)

I mentioned the occasional nastiness, or maybe I should better say unfettered self-regarding behavior, of some of the people I saw/encountered. There is a couple of notable exceptions.

First, everyone I met professionally was unfailingly polite and concerned to various degrees.

Second, children. The Chinese adore children in a way that I have yet to see in any other culture. They dote on them and I wonder what it does to these kiddos – overwhelmingly now sole children – down the road. (Yes, I am aware of the work of some my Australian colleagues, and also of Gigerenzer and his colleagues, about little emperors but also the dispute that it generated.) At the same time, everyone is worried about the future of their children and whether they can make the grade. The expectations are high and many kids are being pushed hard to perform.  I am not sure that is the way people get educated in ways that serves a society well. In fact, I am pretty sure it is not. A friend who I discussed this observation with explained it in terms of an intergenerational social contract: She thinks that the way how parents and grand-parents treat (their) children is related to the idea of parents bringing up children for the purpose of being looked  after well in their old age. When there is no well established financial / banking system and social security, people rely on children and may value the investment in children as insurance againist longevity. Chinese people thus  emphasize or value the filial responsibility as the most important value. Children have the obligation to pay the “loan” back to parents and grand=parents. That strikes me as a credible explanation.

Finally, corruption. When you visit a country for a few days it is hard to see many manifestations of it but corruption is clearly a problem for China; the authorities would otherwise not engage in high-visibility campaigns of various forms against it. I saw one striking example of likely corruption in the small: At the Shanghai hi-speed train station a mafia-like, well-organized mob was aggressively trying to persuade those arriving to take private and presumably unlicensed cabs  rather than to progress through an extraordinarily long queue that it took about half an hour to clear. The aggressiveness of the mobsters was disconcerting and it is astonishing that the city and train station administrations allow for it to happen. Likewise, taxi services in Shanghai seem to cost about twice as much. Apparently the mafia-like mob at the trainstation has considerable clout with these administrations. I’d be surprised if it did not come at a price.

Feel free to comment on my observations, generalizations, and conjectures above, especially if you know the country first-hand and better than I do. I am eager to learn more about it.

3 Responses to "Random observations on China"
  1. Too brief – a complex place. One thing I notice is the diversity of views among Chinese about modernization. Not ants. A rich and varied culture. Local Chinese top people.

    BTW why the stupid sign in procedure for this site? A Gans innovation?

    • Agree on length, Harry. Could have written much more. And, yes, of course a rich and varied culture. As I said, a fascinating and intriguing place … you might want to check the foto album I posted on fb.

      I think the sign-in procedure has been in place for a while. And I suspect if there were changes they were rather of WordPress’s than Joshua’s doing. I booked= marked and chrome remembers. No problem …

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