#39 - Western China
Willner - 4 May 2002
CHINA) – I think my impressions of China are heavily
influenced by my childhood in Africa, it would explain the difference
of opinion between Sally and Kathryn, and myself. Personally I am
quite impressed with the country. It certainly has its flaws, an
inefficient and obsolete form of government, corruption at many levels,
and a poor environmental track record. But the country has made incredible
strides forward and I see evidence everywhere of a great future.
Coming from Africa, a continent that seems trapped in a cycle of
self-destruction, I realize how precarious progress can be. For all
its shortcomings, in my opinion China is making remarkable progress.
Early in the trip Sally asked a fellow restaurant patron to explain the local
political system. "You are communist so the government must provide
jobs for you, right?"
"Not really," he said after a pause, "if you are lucky you can
get a job with the party, but most people must find their own work."
"But certainly there is housing?" Sally raised an eyebrow.
"Well that used to be the case, but today it is only through work that you
can get some support. Employers are encouraged to pay a housing subsidy to their
employees but if they don't want to they don't have to."
"Of course you get free healthcare though," she said almost as an aside.
"Ummm, not really. We must pay when we visit the hospital, although the
fee is not so high," he explained.
"Wait a minute! You are communist but you have no job, no house, and no
healthcare?" Sally was suprised.
"Actually communism is the dream," he stopped and then elaborated. "Under
communism everyone is equal and everyone is paid the same. But we have Chinese
Socialism where we are taxed 10% and we must look after our own jobs, houses,
and health. And people earn different amounts of money depending on their jobs."
you have all the burdens of capitalism without any choice of political representation!"
"Yes," he smiled, "because we are not capitalist! We are socialist."
"Well call it what you want, you are pretty close to our system - and I
would love to only pay 10% tax!" Sally laughed.
It is indeed an odd mixture of ideologies. The government is committed
to 'one country, two systems' for Hong Kong and Macao. There is speculation
that there would likely be more political change if those in power
were not so worried about the possibility of future prosecution for
Communism's more egregious sins - like Tiananmen. In the meantime the
country has gotten on with the task of getting competitive with the
rest of the world. They are tremendously proud of their WTO ascension
. Many inefficient government factories have been dramatically cut
back or even closed in order to comply with world trade requirements,
but most people seem philosophical about the short term hardships.
In a country that has seen ups and downs over several thousand years
they seem content that all will work out in the end and China will
once again have its day in the sun. That kind of patience and forward
thinking was quite impressive.
out wherever you are
There have been some surprises though. Like the lack of animals.
After several weeks of driving we started paying attention to the complete
absence of wildlife. It's not as though there were only domesticated
critters like squirrels and crows - there was nothing. We almost never
heard a bird call, only rats ran free in the city, and the countryside
was devoted to agriculture. I guess that's the downside of thousands
of years of constant human habitation. We visited a bird sanctuary
on Lake Qinghai in western China and I was struck by the dozens of
tour busses and hundreds of Chinese tourists - all to see some birds.
The kids were going crazy, pointing at the eggs littered across the
stony beach, throwing bread crumbs to circling geese, and parents were
shooting off rolls of film. All for some birds. Not that there
is anything wrong with that but, honestly, birds?
And China is uniform. I mean in the core provinces almost everyone
is ethnically Han. They share similar traditions, speak one of two
languages, and identify strongly with the same history. Sure there
are regional differences and rivalries, Beijing natives think Shanghaiese
are rude and greedy, people from Shanghai are sure that Beijingers
couldn't find their butt without a committee and central directive.
But still, that kind of consistency across several hundred million
people is almost unheard of anywhere else in the world. And it leads
to some challenges. Racism isn't a problem if you are from a wealthy
western country, but there have been incidents with black visitors
even from America. And the mainstream community doesn't have much respect
for the differences of the western provinces. Predominantly Muslim
with different traditions, dress, and cuisine, even our guide Allan
was uncomfortable once we left Shaanxi province. "This food is
very strange, and they don't know how to cook noodles!" he complained
as we were searching for a restaurant.
is a thorny problem that continues to plague China. Though the western
provinces receive much less attention that the Tibet issue, they are
also quite distinct from the Chinese mainstream and have long agitated
for secession and independent statehood. To it's credit, the central
government has changed tactics from the 'stick' to the 'carrot', investing
heavily in infrastructure and local industry during the last decade.
In the past the emphasis was on a heavy military presence to quell
local unrest. These days the brains in the politburo are realizing
that if people have something to lose they will be less likely to leave.
So during the course of our driving we passed massive highway and railroad
construction projects designed to connect the west with the rest of
China, reduce the price of consumer products, and make it easier to
develop mineral resources. And substantial mosques were under construction
in many cities. "The government has decided that religion must
be supported" said a man I spoke with. "Not only can we contribute
to our own churches but if there is a possibility of tourism we can
get government money." Quite an about-face for the propagators
of the cultural revolution.
In a Name
'Chinese government to re-forest area the size of Germany' read one headline
when I checked the news online last week. For all the things that have been
done wrong in the last fifty years there certainly seem to be a lot of sensible
decisions lately. From almost any perspective, economic, political, historical,
humanitarian, it is virtually impossible to defend the structure of the government
now in place. Central government without representation and without change
leads to abuse of power, inefficiency, and policies not in the best interest
of the many. But the tendency to vilify is a bit overdone in my opinion. What
is most important for any country is stability and predictability, not necessarily
the political structure under which it thrives.
In fact most political scientists would agree that the very best form
of government is a benevolent dictatorship. Unfortunately many African
experiments have proven that term to be an oxymoron, still, the idea
is to have a stable government with the best interest of the people
at heart making informed decisions. The benefit of this system is that
decisions can be made quickly, policies are implemented without delay,
and results are quick. Disastrous if the decisions are ill conceived,
but quite effective when progress is heading in the right direction.
It's ironic therefore that the Chinese government, a perceived weakness
from the outside, is actually proving to be a great strength in the
last decade. People are conditioned to obey in this country so when
the government says 'Jump!', people say 'how high?'.
recent National Geographic article gives a good example. In the eighties
rural poverty was a problem and the authorities decided that logging
was an excellent way to generate jobs. A decade later the loss of species,
increased flooding, and international outcry caused them to rethink
the policy. In an about face they decided to implement the largest
tree replanting project ever undertaken. And to substitute income for
the rural loggers who lost their jobs they issued a directive to the
middle class to get out and be tourists - visit your local forest,
enjoy the scenery. Voila. Several dozen national parks are now formed,
trees being replanted, water quality subject to stricter dumping rules,
rural folks are building guesthouses and restaurants to cope with the
boom of national tourists - and we found ourselves wading through a
sea of locals to see some birds at Lake Qinghai. That's another amazing
thing about the country, things can happen almost overnight.
I must say, I was not well informed when I first arrived here and
I have to admit that there is a lot more to admire about China than
just cheap labour and good food. Granted my expectations are probably
lower than most - I've seen a lot of pretty messed up countries in
my travels and have low expectations. But to those in the west I would
say, give it time and don't be so self righteous, it's likely we will
all be taking lessons from China in a couple of decades.