Wallflower Dispatches

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The Charming Mountain Goat…is looking for the People’s Republic of China

April 20th, 2010 · No Comments · Charming Mountain Goat, Travel Writing

It is hard to remember that we are in the People’s Republic of China, the largest communist country in the world.

There are no obvious signs. To all intends and purposes we might actually be in a rather generously sprawling part of Chinatown in New York or Chicago or London.

Fact is, Shanghai is a business town. The reason most of the western visitors have ventured into the world’s last great bastion of an ideology that is considered the enemy the other side of St. Petersburg is simple: money.

That and the pioneer opportunities that develop each time there is a momentary void in the changing landscape of a country’s history. It made people rich in the American gold rush. It attracted people to Berlin when the Wall came down; it has created the world’s greatest number of millionaires in Russia. The setting might be different, the motivation is the same.

And they are all welcome; the adventurers, the dilettantes, the hard workers, the economic refugees, the lovers, the fakes and the real thing, those who couldn’t cut it back home. They blend in with the rest of this vast herd of people.

Amongst the Chinese you can clearly the define the old guard and the new. Just like the cliché panorama down at the Bund where the colonial old faces the sky rise new on either side of the river.

The old guard is still sweetly curious about things foreign, unguarded and unspoilt.  They stop and stare unashamedly at Piglet 2 and the 100.000 freckles in his face. The old is not “old” in age, just in innocence.

The new has lived or studied abroad, speaks fluent English and is the first wave of a new type of middle class that can be found anywhere around the world. The type of middle class that eats out each night, travels abroad, knows the latest designer trends and can compete with any professional in the West.

In the blandness of our hotel room I connect to the Internet, not because I want to make a point, but because I expect people to ask me when I return. My browser is set to “google.co.uk” and I am redirected to the Google server that is located in Hong Kong. When I key in “Tiananmen Square” it throws up a long list of results in Chinese, which I can’t read. But I do notice the You Tube video of the famous incident of “man against tank” is the first film you can view.

“Well, they wouldn’t block it for Western viewers, would they?” I can hear some cry, but I don’t think so.

The visible signs of communism that the visitor notices are the occassonical building that boasts red star spires, men in uniform and red armbands. I can’t judge the criticism hurled at China abroad regarding their human rights violations.

All I know the same fuss is absent when it comes to subjects such as Guantanamo Bay, the invasion of Iraq, the Turkish government’s policy on the Kurds, Israel’s disregard for human rights on its doorstep or visits by the Arab Saudi Royal family to Washington.

Westerner who have lived here for a number of years recount stories of corruption to avoid hospital waiting times and name functionaries who abuse the system successfully.

Sounds like amateur efforts by comparison to some of the more cold-blooded initiatives by the honourable members of the House of Commons, the oily efforts amongst members of the last US administration or the Comedia dell’Arte played out by Berlusconi in Italy.

The communist party’s largest English speaking paper “China Daily” is carefully shoved under our door every morning. Some articles are written with a heavy hand, but the points they make bear the same hallmarks of idealism of the “old”. The editorial clearly presents the government’s point of view on state policy, but at the same time the spirit betrays a belief that through open discussion issues can be worked on and resolved.

USA Today that is pushed under hotel doors on the other side of the world is a more biased read and everyone who reads it and understands it for what it is knows that being open to agreements is not a marked characteristic of established democracy.

In Russia the communists ran and grabbed as much as they could and defend it violently to this day. Here in China, the state appears to have successfully avoided this strategy instead making the access to wealth possible for a larger majority.

Call it communism, call it capitalism, call it democracy, call it anything you like; it’s no better or worse than other civilizations around the world, but for the time being more charming.

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