She came to me first complaining of sleeplessness, depression, lack of appetite alternating with eating binges during which she stuffed her face and ended up crying, sometimes for hours on end. She was meek but seething with repressed rage. Once, during analysis, I was afraid she would harm herself, go flying over a railing or ramming her car into the side of a train – which has been known to happen, although not among my patients.
I had to prescribe a sedative and find someone to drive her to and from work. She could barely get out of bed in the mornings and would sleep all weekend long. It seemed every time she came for an appointment, she looked more haggard. Her hair would be disheveled, her skin anemic, her fingernails dirty and eyes blood shot. I prescribed anti-depressants and suggested she join one of my therapy groups for the bereaved, but she said she was too ashamed to do so. I mention this case of a woman I shall call Cecilia, to illustrate what the loss of a loved one can be like and what might be done about it, if anything.
A woman of fifty, Cecilia was refereed to me about two years ago. It was autumn, a melancholy time with winds increasingly cold and a sense of decline in the air. The season must have defeated her for she said I was her last resort. She had slit both wrists (she showed me the scars, like a little girl displaying a rash) but, clearly, not along the artery, which would have been fatal. So I knew she still had hope. Anyway, I let her talk. She told me that her husband, a paragon of fitness who rode a bike to work even during snow storms, had died on the family couch after a lengthy, debilitating illness. He just fell asleep and never woke up. It came as a shock to her and the kids. She was knitting a sweater when she noticed he’d fallen asleep, but then saw that he was dead. That’s when her world fell apart.
The situation with Cecilia was that she had become too dependent on her husband. It was he who decided where to live and what to do. He had the entire household on an exercise regime, walking instead of driving, eating chemical-free vegetables and fruits, going camping in the great outdoors and, despite all that effort, the man died early in life. Once he was gone, there was a huge vacuum in Cecilia’s life. The children became uncontrollable, blaming her or themselves for their father’s death, or blaming him for abandoning them. It was complicated, and there was no one to help sort out the emotional mess.
The daughter started getting tattoos on her arms and legs – motifs that recalled her childhood. She would cocoon herself in the basement next to the central heating system, sleeping on a mattress on the floor, the walls covered with posters, books and clothes everywhere. She quit school, took to wearing black lipstick, and had her hair dyed green. She claimed to be a vampire. She left home, got jobs waitressing. The son had more self-control but, as soon as he was old enough to earn some money, he began to amass an arsenal of guns: rifles, handguns, equipment to make bullets. Of course, this worried the mother. The last thing she wanted was a mass-murderer in the family and, given the amount of firepower in the home, an atrocity was not out of the question.
All of this emerged from our hourly sessions over weeks and months, during which I thought we were making some progress. Cecilia had begun to look better, had joined one of those online dating sites, even though she never reported going on dates. Her weight was reduced through a diet, and I had hopes for her. But then the backsliding began. She started missing appointment so I went around to her house to see what was going on. I found her sitting on the couch with a package of potato chips and several cans of Coke. She had gained weight, had trouble getting out of her upholstered chair, and had a guilty demeanor as though she’d been a child caught misbehaving. I encouraged her to come into the office for a session. I told her it was too early to be giving up. But she didn’t come. I contacted her doctor to see if she’d been to see him, but he hadn’t heard from her either. Well, we therapists are well-intentioned, but we can’t make people come to us for help.
I had all but forgotten about Cecilia when I got a call from her neighbor. She asked me to come by as soon as possible. Cecilia had run amok. As soon as my session with a patient was over, I got into the car and drove to Cecilia’s house. The front door was ajar. Inside, the living room was in a state of chaos: the coffee table was on its side, vases were broken, pictures smashed, the sofa was cut open so that stuffing permeated the place and, on the wall…well on the wall Cecilia had scribbled “UFO COME BACK!” in large, red letters. When I saw that, I knew I had a real challenge on my hands.
I had Cecilia committed. That is, I had her admitted to a psycho ward in a local hospital where the nurses immediately sedated her. For those of you who don’t know the effect of this, imagine people sleep walking. That’s what a psycho ward looks like: everyone is wandering around tamed, with their demons put on a leash. But, that’s only a temporary solution intended to keep order on the ward. There is no cure for what ails most disturbed patients, and that is the problem. When I told Cecilia’s family I had to put her into a clinic, they expressed relief, but I could tell Cecilia was upset. Entry into the hospital was a blow to her self-esteem. It seemed to underscore how critical her situation had become. But I got her to talk about what had happened.
She told me she had been depressed for days, hadn’t gone to work and, on the preceding Sunday, she had gotten up early to take a shower. She happened to look out the window when she saw – to her astonishment – a gigantic UFO silently drifting a few hundred meters above her house. The sight threw her off her feet. She thought she was hallucinating but then ran into the backyard. And there it was – immediately overhead – with pulsating lights and what appeared to be a set of windows. It was shiny, metallic, and absolutely silent. It drifted at an even pace over her building and then out of sight. She was so stunned, she sat on the grass in utter shock. Then she went inside and broke down weeping. That’s when she lost it. She smashed everything in sight and then scribbled the note on the wall as though begging for grace. She wanted to be taken away from everything and everyone – to be abducted.
I convinced her to remain in the hospital for a couple of weeks while her house was being fixed up, and I made her promise to resume therapy. Which she did. I noted she wore makeup; she went on a diet, and she returned to work. But in our sessions she clammed up. She wasn’t revealing anything new. When she talked about how she felt, you would think that nothing significant had happened at all, as though everything were normal. I knew she was shamming, but I didn’t know why.
Then, one day I happened to have a moment free to read the want ads in the local paper. I found an ad reading: Anyone who saw something unusual in the sky in the neighborhood of …. on Sunday, 13 of May, please contact ….The ad gave Cecilia’s telephone number.
At our next session, I asked her about the ad in the paper. She admitted posting it. Three people had responded. Each had seen the UFO that day.
Cecilia decided not to attend any more therapy sessions. She said she felt fine after having seen the UFO. Not only that, but two other women had seen it; they supported her story. It hadn’t been a hallucination or a vision; it was real. The UFO had flown over her building, maybe to show her that there was another intelligent life form on the planet. Maybe it would come back for her.
“Eh Minou,” she said to her cat. “Eh. We’re not alone in the universe, and I’m not nuts.”
Her five-year old cat regarded her, turning her little head inquisitively as though asking “What?”
“Do you want to go out for a little walk? A little wee-wee maybe?” Cecilia asked sweetly.
It was that time in the evening when she let Minou out to do its thing and then settle down for the night. The cat began to move towards the door, but then a curious thing happened. The cat turned just before it got to the door and it said: “I’ll just be a minute. How’s about getting me some more water for my bowl? I’ll be back….”
“Oh, sure,” began Cecilia in response but then halted abruptly. “Did you say something Minou? Did I just hear you say something?”
“More water s’il vous plait” Minou replied. “Do I have to ask in French?”
“No. Oh no. I am nuts!” whined Cecilia as she sank to her knees. “Oh noooooo….”
“You’re not nuts, woman. Just let me out before I piss on the carpet.”
“You can’t be talking. Cat’s can’t talk. My mind is going. My mind….”
“You’re mind is fine. Now open the friggin’ door ferchrissake. My bladder is gonna blow.”
Cecilia did as she was bidden but sat with her back to the wall as the cat swaggered out. Then it returned. “Don’t forget to lock the door. You wouldn’t want the neighbors to see you like this, would you?” said the cat.
“You’re not Minou,” she began. “My Minou wouldn’t be talking to me that way. If she could talk at all. Who are you?”
“Very perceptive, woman. Very perceptive. No, I’m not your cat. I’m just taking over its brain. Not that there is much of one, but it will have to do since you don’t have a dolphin or a chimpanzee or a pig. A pig has more brain cells than this feline.”
“Ah. Ah. Ah…. What do you want? Why are you inside my cat? Are you the devil? Did you possess my cat? You fiend!”
“Fiend. Fiend? What fiend? I’m from the ship you saw recently. Remember? The good ship lollipop.
Look at your wall? What does it say? ‘UFO come back’. Well, here I am. I’m not the ship but I’m a member of the crew.”
“Jesus Christ Almighty. Save me! Save Minou,” began Cecilia, searching her memory for a prayer she had once learned in Sunday school.
“Knock it off woman. You called. I came. Now I’m here. Deal with it. Where’s the water I ordered? Can’t I get anything done around here? Are all of you so inefficient?”
The cat wandered towards its bowl in the kitchen. Terrified, Cecilia crawled after it but at a safe distance.
“I’ll get you water…,” she began. “I’ll get you whatever you want, but don’t hurt my little pussy cat. She doesn’t deserve to be possessed by…whatever you are. An ill-mannered extraterrestrial.”
“If my manners offend, it’s because of where I learned my behaviour. Beaming up all those street people. Took ages to make sense of them. Their brains were essentially fried. Drugs and lack of vitamins. A real mess. How could people do that to themselves? We got our language skills from them. So, cut the crap and serve up the water.”
With shaking hands, Cecilia got water from the tap and filled the cat’s bowl as the cat began slacking its thirst.
“You people put all kinds of chemical shit into the water. Pfui! No wonder you’re all batty.”
“What? I’m not responsible for what’s in the water,” Cecilia responded.
“Course not. You’re not responsible for anything, are you? Not for smog or fog or dog or bog or grog. In time I can rhyme on a dime which is mine. Ok bitch. How’s about some chow? Chow for now and no bow-wow. Got it?”
“I don’t believe it. Holy Mother of God, now in my moment of need….”
“Cut the shit. Get the grub, sister. And now!”
Hands shaking violently, Cecilia opened a cupboard and got a box of kitty snacks. She shook out some crispy bits onto the carpet.
“Mess up your carpet, but what do you care, eh?” the cat said. “Whole house is a mess…. Like the rest of the planet.”
Cecilia was too petrified to respond. She hardly heard what the cat said. It seemed to be muttering about “pollution” and “waste,” but nothing Cecilia could make sense of. Finally, gathering the few wits she still had, she managed a question: “Why are you here? Did you single me out?”
The cat licked its jaws and replied: “Of course. We usually pick people who are on the edge. You’re more open to suggestion. Also, no one really believes you because you’re already partly bananas. I’ve visited the other two. No need to worry about them, though. They’re safe aboard the ship – being dissected. Ha. Ha. Ha.”
“Yes. No. Yes. YES!” said the cat. “Ha. Ha. Of course we dissect you people. We’ve collected the dead off the battlefields for ages. Dissect. Study. Discuss. In the last few decades, we’ve started beaming them up alive. Sometimes we return them, but then they’re declared insane and end up tucked away in some hospital. No one believes them anyway and, even if someone did, what would they do about it? We’re miles ahead of you kiddo.”
Cecilia sobbed, sank to the floor, and covered her face with her hands.
“Wimp,” said the cat. “Just a wimp.”
That night Cecilia slept in a sitting position after the cat had gone looking for a place to sleep. When dawn’s early light swept over the land, promising a beautiful day, Cecilia awoke, wondering where she was. “On the floor? What am I doing here?” she wondered, unsteady on her feet. She made her way into the kitchen. She prepared coffee. Then she noticed Minou in the doorway.
“What? What do you want?” asked Cecilia. “What do you want from me?”
The cat made no reply but came to rub itself against Cecilia’s ankle, the sign for “good morning” and “feed me.”
“Say something! Talk to me!” Cecilia demanded. But the cat merely regarded its bowl as though wishing it to be filled by magic. It glanced up at Cecilia in an inquiring manner.
“Why don’t you say what you want, you monster?” began Cecilia, but then it occurred to her that maybe Minou was just Minou again. The strange creature had left her body.
“Thank the Lord,” Cecilia began. “You’re back. My little kitty is back. I am so glad.”
Cecilia fed her cat. Then she decided to call the two other women who had witnessed the UFO. She called several times without a reply. Answering machines cut in, but no one picked up the phone.
Did I believe this woman? No. Absolutely not. I’m a scientist. I need proof. Give me proof, and I will formulate a theory. No proof, no belief, no theory. She did sound credible, though, and I’m sure she believed herself. She believed in her experience. But, it was all stress-induced hallucination. Hysteria. I did check on the other two women, and it’s true, they did disappear. Even their neighbors said so, but what that has to do with aliens and UFOs, I don’t know. The two witnesses could have gone on holiday. No one reported them missing. They never showed up again, although that could just have been coincidental. No?
Cecilia came for therapy again. I worked with her on alternate interpretations of her symptoms: hearing her cat speaking and seeing things that are not there. I got her on psycho-drugs as well. Tranquilizers. Anti-hallucinogens. A cocktail of pills three times a day. And, she seemed to stabilize. That harried look left her face. She no longer heard her cat. No visions. A success, as far as I was concerned.
But then came a call. It was Cecilia bordering on hysteria, begging me to come over to her place. “Just come. Please! Please!” she wailed. I got to her home as quickly as possible. The front door was open. I found her cowering on the floor of the kitchen.
“Cecilia,” I said. “What is it? What’s happened?”
“There!” she replied, pointing frantically. “There!”
I looked to see her cat. “Is that Minou?” I queried.
“Cat? No cat. A monster!” she wailed.
Minou regarded me inquiringly. I expected her to begin purring any moment; she looked so charming, so friendly. “You the shrink?” said Minou. “You the pill pusher?”
Well, I hardly remember anything after that. I must have fainted. I found myself in a public park the next day, wet with morning dew, my tie crumpled, my shoes soaked. Very uncomfortable. I was totally perplexed. Where had I been? And I had a funny feeling– like something was missing. So I went to see my old pal, Dr. Merriweather, who did an ultrasound. And do you know what? He asked me why I had only one kidney.
From time to time, I post impressions of books I read about various interests, China during the 20th century being one of these. Here is one about a man who went to China to participate in the revolution.
Book review of The Man Who Stayed Behind, by Sydney Rittenberg and Amanda Bennett (2001).
This is an often spellbinding account of Sydney Rittenberg’s thirty-five years in revolutionary China, a time when the Communists and the Nationalists (KMT) were fighting for the future of over a half-billion people in one of the oldest civilizations on the planet. Rittenberg had already joined the American Communist party while at college and had been active in attempts at unionizing black Americans in the deep South when he was inducted into the US Army. As he had learned Chinese, he was give the task of delivering a pittance compensation for a wrong done to a rickshaw puller’s family, an event which allowed him to get a sense of the hardships facing the ordinary Chinese. He decided that China was way more interesting than America, and that he might have a chance at being relevant.
After his discharge from the military, Rittenberg stayed on in China, even then the land with a romantic sense about it. Sydney fell under its spell. Like many others, he believed he could help righting wrongs; he could champion the poor in their struggle for a better life. As a communist, he longed to be useful and accepted by his Chinese fellow believers. He wanted his life to matter in a much broader context than the unfair system he was born into, a capitalism thought to be on its way onto the scrapheap of history. With this attitude, he headed for Yanan where Mao Tsetung and a few thousand followers were hole up in the caves dotting the hilly region, gathering their resources and recruiting members for the eventual showdown with the Nationalist forces.
Of Yanan, Rittenberg recalls feeling at home among like-minded souls devoted to the building of a communal society. He met with Mao and luminaries like Zhou Enlai, at the time already world-famous revolutionaries. To them, Rittenberg was useful but too individualistic and opinionated, lacking humility and discipline, the true believer’s willingness to sacrifice. For Rittenberg, meeting Mao and Zhou was a career highlight. He soon found himself working in the English department of a propaganda arm of the party, both in the caves and in the cities, post-liberation. His hope was always to be accepted as an equal Chinese communist party member, one of the inner circle, privileged to insider knowledge, instrumental in deciding the direction the country was going in. He saw China as a project to devote his life to. However, he made errors that got him in trouble. He landed in prison twice for spying, a euphemism for misconstruing Mao Tsetung Thought. (For those readers wanting to know what happens to the mind while in solitary confinement, this book is a good resource.)
Where some people blame their oppressors for their punishment, Rittenberg believed he had not been able to measure up to what a true communist had to be. He assumed the fault was his own, that other communists were able to sacrifice themselves where he was not. He believed he needed to put the party and the interests of the masses above everything, including his own family. Twice he was pardoned after long stints in solitary confinement; the party admitted its mistakes. Twice he was released into better circumstances, was given more responsibilities and a higher status. He became a star during the Cultural Revolution, appealing to the old as well as the young (Red Guard) revolutionaries. His name became known all over China, and he enjoyed being proven correct in disputes within the party ranks. Yet, it took ages for him to realize that Mao was not a god, and that the party was comprised of fallible people like himself. After thirty-five years of revolution and personal trauma to himself and to his wife and children, Rittenberg moved back to the United States, the most capitalistic bastion. He and the wife became consultants to companies wanting to do business in China. If there is irony in this, Rittenberg may have noticed it. Or maybe not.
To his credit, Rittenberg does not whitewash his naivety while in China. He was young and idealistic, devoted to an idea that evaded realization. Like many of his contemporaries, he closed his mind to atrocities committed by Stalin and Mao, wanting at all costs for the egalitarianism they advocated to be historically correct. The ends would justify the means. A new world would excuse all excesses. His blindness was that of a “zealot,” as he says in the book, enchanted by the kind of zeal that drives the fans of the Islamic State today. As believers from all over the world who now stream to the Middle East and Afghanistan, hoping to get in on the action while it lasts, or those who participated in the Spanish Civil War and in the Nazi cause, Rittenberg was a product of his times — one who could not settle for a bourgeois existence when adventure beckoned.
Revolutions provide a venue for heroic self-affirmation and importance in the eyes of others. They offer opportunities to shine, to be useful to a cause surpassing the narrow confines of the self. You can become a somebody during an upheaval. The unemployed picture-painter, Adolf Schicklgruber, became Adolf Hitler, Führer of Germany. In China, Mao Tsetung, the peasant librarian with a talent for talk and military strategy, became the Great Helmsman for millions. It may seem a travesty to put Rittenberg into the same category but, whether one is on the left or the right is only a matter of predilection.
Fate decides the role one will play. History will applaud or condemn one accordingly. Rittenberg remained a communist devotee to the end. He is on the roster of foreign adventurers who threw their lot in with the Chinese revolution. Perhaps he was not as consequential as Edgar Snow, George Hatem, Norman Bethune, or Rewi Alley, but he is worth knowing about all the same. He describes many of the idiosyncrasies of the party, the relationships that bound believers to each other, and the uncertain fates that waited for many. Where Rittenberg was in error was in his mistaken impression that Mao could be wrong. Orwell had seen through Stalinism while in Barcelona (1937); Arthur Koestler denounced communism in 1940. Rittenberg seems not to have read any of them, or he dismissed them as reactionaries. Perhaps he couldn’t face the situation he was in. Maybe the closer one gets to power, the less one sees objectively. If so, this book is a confession of personal failings, a plea for understanding and forgiveness and, as such, it is worth reading.
A layer of guilt and blame lies over the whole culture like a fog.
— Douglas Murray, speaking of Germany
… the shame of German history is greater than any cultural achievement ….
— Theodore Dalrymple
The lax strategy that EU governments and the media have adopted in the migrant crisis is now raising concerns about European democracy. In response to public anxieties, governments and their ideological partners in the media have been conducting massive campaigns to delegitimize all “right-wing” opposition as “Neo-Nazi,” “intolerant,” “Islamophobic,” or “racist” as if tolerance at-any-price were a sacred dogma – which it may well be.
The media assault on critics of mass immigration amounts to a Gleichschaltung (making uniform) of political attitudes common in totalitarian states. This is to say, in Europe, there is a “correct” interpretation of what is happening against which any deviation is heretical. The official version of reality results from generations of European self-loathing, of oikophobia, to which there seems to be no end. This is most true of the transformation of Europe due to mass immigration, a process largely not discussed with the public lest it unleash nationalist sentiments. This applies particularly in Germany where society has been rapidly transforming with little or no public input.
Emphasizing politically-correct interpretations of events is not new. For instance, the German media’s hand-in-glove promotion of negative attitudes towards national pride or patriotism has been ideologically-determined. What are Germans allowed to be proud of? Winning the World Cup in soccer? Yes. But only if the national flags are back in the closet the next day. The fear of nationalist sentiments, the existence of war-guilt and shame, run deep in post-war Germany’s Erinnerungskultur (culture of remembering), although much more in the Western region than in the former East Germany. For ages, the German media have been debunking or deconstructing any icons that could possibly evoke pride in being German.
Take, for instance, a ZDF.de History program (May 2019) that examined the legendary women who worked in clearing the ruins of post-war German cites. Called the Trümmerfrauen, some four million German women, of which many were war widows, laboured in the ruins of cities like Berlin, Frankfurt, and Hamburg in a great effort to dig the country out of the rubble. Until recently, these women had been upheld in post-war folk-mythology as examples of virtue. They were Germans that the public could be proud of. However, the public is now being told they had it all wrong. According to the ZDF program, these women were merely motivated by double food-rations granted to physical labourers. Meanwhile, according to the documentary, women in communist East Germany “volunteered” to work on building projects, receiving only the praise of the Communist Party for their efforts. In other words: forget about even the possibility of heroism in the capitalist West.
This is typical post-war, leftist propaganda that debases any possible source of national pride out of a fear of stirring up nationalism. Virtue and national pride do not jive with liberals. On the contrary, it is politically correct to indulge in shame and guilt as part of a Vergangenheitsaufarbeitung process. In contrast to a small statue in Berlin commemorating the Trümmerfrauen, the German capital has over 400 monuments to the victims of Nazi fascism. Guilt and self-contempt are kept alive as an expiation of sins. It allows Germans a “penitent” image of themselves – as befits good Protestants atoning for their sins. German liberals are unsettled by anything that could engender the patriotism found in Poland and Hungary, and so propaganda mills are busy making nationalism taboo and mass-immigration acceptable in Western Europe by keeping collective war guilt and shame alive.
Not only is there a frenzied information campaign to remind people of concentration camps, for which elderly members of society are blamed, but German media constantly draw parallels between movements in the Weimar republic that led to Hitler’s dictatorship and today’s Neo-nationalism. In other words, as far as the Left is concerned, patriotic sentiments or even the expression of concern are illegitimate in post-war German life. By keeping the lid on discussions of how the country is being transformed, the government can continue its immigration policy even though there is opposition to it.
All expressions of national pride constitute a danger to the United Europe project and to the eventual rehabilitation of the German conscience. Rejecting collective guilt is not an option for Germans as their governments have made a point of indoctrinating citizens into accepting culpability. Personal and collective feelings of guilt and shame facilitate delegitimizing conservative trends in the political landscape. Where the Japanese have managed to create a narrative of victimhood for their suffering in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Germans have only themselves to blame for their nation’s disaster. Relatively little attention is paid to German victims of Soviet post-war pogroms and mass-deaths in Allied POW camps. This would disturb the image of public complicity in Nazi crimes that has been promoted over the last seventy years.
The implications of this policy is that suppression of national pride and support for immigration are necessary to keep Nazism at bay. It is reasoned that only a multicoloured ethnic-mix will save Germans from themselves. As Dresler-Hawke & Liu conclude: “the concept of collective shame is extremely important in understanding German identity …. The political and moral choices that Germans continue to make in response to the identity positioning of their historical legacy has become one of the great unfolding stories of our time.” Echoing this, psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple writes that Germans are the most enthusiastic Europeans because they have nothing they value in their own culture. He says Beethoven and Bach cannot be celebrated as “Germans” because they would be “tainted.” This is an interesting observation, to say the least.
Along with defaming any possible icons that might inspire pride, German television has introduced (immigrant) ethnic characters to normalize the multikulti status quo. These days, it is not unusual to see a coloured weatherman or woman telling Germans to don their raincoats or get their winter woollies ready. Popular programs like Tatort, and similar detective series, have Turkish (or other ethnic) characters in support roles. For instance, one program had an African-German female (rather unconvincingly) giving orders to German police detectives. The message here is successful integration is a fact. This is supposed to be the world to come. Conversely, when right-wingers make it onto TV screens, they are typically racist and morally corrupt, reminding the public of their worst selves and reinforcing the collective guilt the citizenry must carry. A broadcast on YouTube exemplifies the politically correct society.
The Stralsund 11 police detective episode titled “Kein Weg Zurück” (“No Way Back”) mirrors German social reality. The plot: police are hunting a rapist/murderer involved in a two-man supermarket robbery in which a female clerk was killed and another violently raped. Two immigrants are identified as suspects. German nationalist vigilantes get to them before the police do, beat them up, and hang one of them with a sign around his neck, reminiscent of photographs of Jews lynched by the Brown Shirts (SA). Until the end of the program, it looks like the immigrants were the culprits, but then the switch: the foreigners were falsely suspected while the (masked) rapist/killer was a young German infatuated with the woman he murdered in the store robbery. (Who would have thought that?) The immigrant had merely been the getaway car driver, falsely suspected and abused by racists who were trying to protect one of their own. One of the vigilantes is shot by the police, while the rapist is arrested through a heroic act performed by an Arab-immigrant police officer. If it were not so pathetic, this propaganda would be laughable. A critical eye should be able to realize the viewer’s intelligence is being insulted. Yet, there are many among the Welcome Culture who swallow such fare uncritically.
In another television film, “Eis Kalt wie der Tod,” in the Mankells Wallander series, a detective discovers revenge was the trigger behind gruesome execution of Swedish ex-military men who had raped and killed Arabs while on manoeuvres in Algeria, ages ago. Three Algerians, relatives of the victims, are in Sweden torturing and executing guilty Swedes, all of whom had become bourgeois family men – not unlike the Nazis living normal lives after the war. However, to add a twist to the plot, the Algerian avengers are mild in comparison to one of the depraved Swedes who has systematically been murdering his ex-comrades. It turns out the Muslim avengers get killed before the real baddies are discovered, but the truth triumphs anyway. The audience is disavowed of its original biases against the (righteous) Algerians who had been wrongly suspected. The lesson is to not judge a book by its cover, or some such thing, but the entire film comes across as foolish and reinforces the idea that all Right-wingers are racists.
From a liberal perspective, multiculturalism is a fact, not an option, and programs featuring minority characters are promoting what can no longer be changed. Fine. But stop taking the audience for idiots. We know what is going on, so let everyone in on the debate – if ever there is one. Many programs actively promote the official multikulti policy, ignoring alternate social options. European television’s purpose is less to entertain than to indoctrinate the public into a prescribed moral stance which often finds extenuating circumstances for migrant misbehaviour and criminality. As far as migrant crime is concerned, there are excuses like trauma, illiteracy, poverty, and righteous revenge – deficits of all kinds – to explain misdeeds committed by Muslims. Rapes and murders carried out by migrant youths are not approved topics of documentaries. When attacks on Jews in Europe became news, they were only loosely linked to Muslim migration. It appears that only Neo-Nazis attack Jews – no matter what the reality is. This is Euro television’s attempt to justify a failed multiculturalism. But let us get back to the taboo on German pride.
In addition to not being able to feel proud of their achievements, Germans have been denied the chance to mourn their own war dead. Post-1945, the Western part of the country was immediately put to work rebuilding and strengthening opposition to Soviet Communism, just across the border. This meant that, while horrific images of Auschwitz were seared into the minds of millions of West Germans, their own losses in terms of fathers and brothers sacrificed, sisters raped, remained unacknowledged. The millions of ethnic Germans who were driven out of the East are hardly considered victims of injustice. Their rights to life and property have been denied. They constitute collateral damage, an inconvenient memory. The country prefers to forget as it is too busy reminding itself of its own crimes against humanity. Germans-as-victims is not a viable concept. Germans can only be perpetrators.
Dalrymple observed that, while there can be no moral equivalence between the suffering of the Jews of the Holocaust and that of the German people, ignoring the pain in human souls leaves a lingering, unacknowledged emptiness. He detected in Germany a lack of books and documentaries about Germans who were bombed out of their houses and evicted from homes in the East. He noted “hardly a memoir or novel” recording the suffering involved. This is neither healthy nor fair, but typical of those anxious not to offend the neighbours. Depriving them of pride in their history, piling on the guilt when it is expedient to do so, disavowing suffering and loss, Germans have been left vulnerable to political manipulation, which will bring unwanted results. To varying extents, habitual self-flagellation extends far beyond German borders to include all of Western Europe.
Political Correctness is driven by “an ethic of indignation,” according to French philosopher Chantal Delsol. She argues that, since Western society jettisoned its “anchor” to Christian morality, nothing like God and divine moral principles remain to guide Europeans. Delsol argues that Westerners have invented their own shallow sense of right and wrong according to what feels good, in opposition to what feels “revolting or scandalous.” She says modern morality is based on nothing rational or solid but merely on feeling. When people encounter an opponent to their ostensibly “open” worldview, they see a “deviant” who would have been locked up in a totalitarian society or ostracized in a religious one. But, says Delsol, “In contemporary society, the deviant is simply regarded as something grotesque – a sure way of moving him out of the way without argument.” We have seen this tactic in German television shows. Denunciation and dismissal have become the preferred strategy against any opposition. Where people once could discuss issues, they now simply yell at each other. Contrary views are too feared to be considered.
Michael Rasch, of the Neue Zuericher Zeitung, confirms a persistent left-leaning bias in reporting on a variety of contentious issues, including immigration. The conclusion of the studies is that objective journalism in many EU countries, in Rasch’s estimation, is an “illusion.” Journalists present the news according to personal bias or the politics of their employers. This includes major networks like the ZDF and ARD radio and television, all committed to PC. Hence, Angela Merkel’s decision to open the door to mass immigration in 2015-16 was greeted enthusiastically by the press, despite deep reservation of some opposition parties and the public. Similarly, the Otto Brenner Institute found that German media reports have been one-sided in order to convince the public into unconditionally accepting refugees and economic migrants. As for critics of mass immigration, the media treated them “as suspect and potentially racist,” to cite the report. The views of experts, the populace, and migrants themselves were ignored. This bias has become noticeable and has contributed to a popular distrust of politicians and journalists.
Suspicion of the press is confirmed by statistics provided by the Statista (2019) website that cites only 46% of Europeans trust their print media. The highest trust rating comes from the Netherlands at 73% while the lowest is from the UK at a mere 15%. German faith in the printed news is 60%, while France is at 48% and Spain at 33%. Other findings are that overall levels of confidence in the media have declined. This applies not only to contentious issues like immigration but to the fight against the Corona19 virus. In an earlier survey reported in a 2015 Deutsche Welle article by Wolfgang Dick, some 44% of Germans polled said they suspected the German media of misrepresenting the migrant situation. The media have been accused of showing only “well-adjusted immigrants” without including less-flattering impressions. This includes examples of highly-motivated individuals who manage to graduate from European universities, enter careers and make a success of themselves. This is deceptively rare and not supported by statistics.
There is a disturbing similarity between Political Correctness and the totalitarian Gleichschaltung policy of the Nazis, something Leftists are loathe to consider. Following R. J. Lifton’s analysis of what he calls totalism, political factions who insist everyone conform to their view of reality are not unlike attempts to institutionalize the “newspeak” George Orwell warned of. This is evident in the liberal use of cliché labels like “racist,” “intolerant,” “fascist,” “deplorables,” “far Right,” “neo-Nazi” and, everyone’s favourite, “Islamophobe,” to forestall any probing into migration. The intention is to silence those who have escaped ideological control. As Lifton found in his study of Maoists, “totalist language” constricts thought and deprives people of the “capacity for thinking and feeling.” Lifton says PC language is sterile; it paints reality in black & white, following a logic that replaces actual experience. This ought to worry progressives interested in freedom of the mind, but it does not appear to. On the contrary, liberals and conservatives alike push their uncompromising visions on all issues, increasingly dividing the public into hostile camps – which opens spaces for much meaner ideologies like Islamism.
PC Gleichschaltung has its own acceptable and unacceptable categories of thought and expression, wholly at odds with objective truth. Its rigid values and codes of behaviour steer thoughts about religion and political ideology (Lifton). As in Islam, PC maintains an aura of a sacred moral vision that cannot be questioned. It demands reverence for those who hold the “correct” views and condemns those who do not. It plays on emotions to move people in whichever direction deemed appropriate. The Nazis and Bolsheviks resorted to such tactics, as did the Maoists and Stalinists; Chinese Communists still do, with renewed dedication. Now it plagues democratic society as well. And we have liberalism to thank for it.
Steven Pinker – someone with a mind open to new research – sees the prevailing liberal position as having turned anti-intellectual, with PC dogma burying truth. Logic and evidence, writes Pinker, are being dismissed in order to keep in step with the ideological status quo. Similarly, Pinker notices a two-faced attitude among intellectuals who say what the public seems to want to hear. Anyone valuing the role of a free society should give this disturbing tendency some thought for there are, in Europe, intolerant groups who hope to stifle all criticism against them so that they may spread their influence all the quicker.
A Muslim-turned-atheist, Ali A. Rizvi notes that Western liberals habitually denounce criticism against Islam while advocating for traditional Islamic practices – no matter how illiberal. However well-intended progressives may be, writes Rizvi, uncritical acceptance of Islam ends up supporting measures used against Muslim liberals in states where fundamentalists use far-Left narratives to justify oppression. Ironically, liberal criticism is not merely levelled against “racists” but includes Muslims trying to reform their own religion. In knee-jerk fashion, liberals accuse Muslim reformers of making Islam “look bad” as, for instance, when apologists claim that terrorism is “not Islamic,” or that the Quo’ran has been “misinterpreted” by terrorists. Yet, as Rizvi admits, the Quo’ran does advocate violence, and terrorists do constantly justify themselves with reference to the Quo’ran. He contends that, while the rights of minorities need to be protected, progressive Muslims need to be recognized as well, especially when they are at odds with repressive practices and beliefs. Bad ideas, he says, do not deserve respect. It is worth considering Rizvi’s words on what helpful criticism ought to be: “Liberalism is not just about tolerance of dissent. It is also about an intolerance of those that do not tolerate dissent.” Well, that is what liberalism ought to be, but has been only insofar Right-wing European are concerned. Salafists and similar fundamentalist fanatics have been given a free pass.
Many liberal apologists paint an image of an accommodating, peaceful Islam by citing suras of the Meccan period when Mohammed’s group needed to keep their own militancy in check. The problem with this, argues Ali Sina, is that the “peaceful” verses of the Quo’ran are invalidated by the later (Medinan) verses originating when Islam became a strident warrior religion. Sina says, by now, all scholars should understand abrogation in Islam: only the latter version of Allah’s missives count. Hazelton points out that violence entered Islam after the razzia at Nakhla, January 624 CE, where some of Mohammed’s followers launched an unapproved raid on a caravan, killing a Meccan guard. To justify the taking of life during the raid, Mohammed had a “vision” in which the killing was deemed “defensive” – a divine ruling which thereafter allowed slaughter during raids. Says Hazelton: “Where the Quranic voice had formerly been insistent or eschewing violence, it now at least conditionally endorsed it.” The rest is history. Islam is not more “peaceful” than any other religion. It has never been and may never be, and to keep insisting on a false understanding of Islam is to stick one’s head in the sand.
Additionally, there are those who try to reassure Westerners that political Islam (Islamism) has failed to establish itself fully in the past – implying it can be controlled by the secular state. Olivier Roy, a master of words that befuddle as only a French writer can, reassures us that Sharia has never fully been applied, that it has always served as an ideal or a “political slogan” more than a workable dogma. He writes that Islam was actually “secularized” during various periods – without saying how this was so. Elsewhere, Roy maintains Sharia was less regarded as law than as a guide to values for Muslims. This is supposed to be comforting. Roy also suggests that Islam is compatible with the modern state. He claims that, since there is no hierarchical structure as in the Catholic Church, Islam can be controlled through secular institutions. In a soothing tone, he assures readers “there can be a liberal Muslim theology”; similarly: “Islam will appear as the solution for most of the people.” Really?
More plausibly, Roy maintains that the appearance of Islam signals the dissolution of the state, although insisting Islam is not the cause. Roy is not merely optimistic about Islam; he seems to promote it as the ruling ideology for Europe and wants readers to accept this as inevitable. Need I add that ISIS and other Salafist Muslims are working overtime for the dissolution of nations and the establishment of One Islam, the ummah? Islam is compatible with the nation state only as long as it serves its purpose: to attain the power which will allow it to spread its brand universally.
The state, the media, and various intellectuals have been attempting to assure people that what they see in the streets of Europe is not to be feared, and that Muslims will accommodate themselves to European life. This message may have found acceptance once, but not since New Year’s Eve, 2015, when hundreds of young Muslim migrants groped (raped, in some instances) European girls and women in Cologne and other major cities. At that point, the Welcome Culture backfired, and the trance of Wir schaffen das was broken. The public began questioning the lack of immigration quotas, the failure to control who is admitted to Europe, and the direction the continent has been taking. The intimidation practised by the state and its media faltered once people reasserted their right to express personal concerns. This may prolong European democracy, and it may bring new players into the political arena. Where that leads is anyone’s guess. If indifference cripples Europeans, they will lose what they have accomplished at great expense. And they will deserve what they end up with.
As for German patriotism, it seems to need spelling out that citizens can be proud of their heritage and contributions to civilized life, without being afraid of being labelled “Nazis.” One can be liberal and patriotic. This is a point that Yuval Noah Harari made in a discussion of the prospects of Germany boosting its defence spending in the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He said: “I want to say to the Germans …. We know you are not Nazis. You don’t need to prove it again and again. What we need from Germany now is to stand up and be a leader, to be at the forefront of the struggle for freedom ….. We need the Germans. They are now the leaders of Europe …. We need them to let go of the past and be in the present.” Well, coming from an Israeli historian, that says it all.
It is time to put aside the cultural wars in Europe to focus on democratic discussions of where Germany and Europe are going. Will Europeans accept a disillusion of their cultural identities under Islamic influence? What would a future EU look like if such trends continue? Should multiculturalism give way to a comprehensive European identity that includes Islam, or should individual European ethnic identities be continued or strengthened? Should the goal be assimilation or separation? If assimilated, into what identity? Discussing immigration behind closed doors and pandering to the industrial elites at the expense of the citizenry infantilizes Europeans and discredits democratic traditions.
Dalrymple, T. (2008). The Spectres Haunting Dresden. Not With a Bang But a Whimper. The Politics and Culture of Decline. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee. pp. 71-82.
Delsol, C. (2003). Icarus Fallen. The Search for Meaning In An Uncertain World. (R. Dick, Trans.) Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books.
Dresler-Hawke, J. & J. H. Liu (2006, May) Collective Shame and the Positioning of German National Identity. Psicologia Politica, No. 32, pp. 131-153.
Harari, Y. N. Et al. The War in Ukraine & the Future of the World – Yuval Noah Harari & Timothy Snyder. Online Conversation, YouTube. March 2, 2022.
Hazleton, L. (2013). The First Muslim. The Story of Muhammad. New York: Riverhead Books.
Lifton, R. J. (1961). Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism. A Study of “Brainwashing” in China. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: the modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking
Rasch, M. (2018, November 08). Das Herz des deutschen Journalisten schlaegt links. Neue Zuericher Zeitung.
Rizvi, A. A. (2016). The Atheist Muslim. A Journey from Religion to Reason. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Roy, O. (2007). Secularism Confronts Islam. (G. Holoch Trans.). New York: Columbia University Press.
Sina, A. (2006) Can Islam be Reformed? In Shienbaum, K. E. & J. Hasan (Eds.) Beyond Jihad. Critical Voices from Inside Islam. (pp. 105-111). Academica Press.
In the waiting room of the world’s conscience, millions of afflicted people trample and jostle
each other in the hope of being heard and helped. — Bruckner
There is much talk these days of “altruism,” “being kind,” “helping others in need,” and “empathy” that doing good warrants a closer examination. This is what Pascal Bruckner (2000) does. Bruckner is one of France’s “new philosophers” who dig into society’s assumptions about itself, its practices which are not reflected on, its lives conducted without thinking. Bruckner suspects the motives behind the woke culture. He believes a lot of it is hypocritical, and he explains how this is so.
Bruckner calls our contemporary obsession with the disadvantaged (or “victims”) a “religion of sympathy,” catering to anyone who can get our attention and arouse our pity. As long as they seem to be victims, we feel sorry for them, shell out some cash, but as soon as they rebel, turn into terrorists, or fail to express gratitude, we feel cheated and start to hate them. This is what Bruckner says is happening to the hordes of refugees and migrants who transgress our borders and access our welfare systems. Meanwhile, like bees, we buzz from one catastrophe to the next, sniffing out opportunities to demonstrate how very virtuous we are (pp. 288-289).
Bruckner’s observations are hard to accept as they suggest something false about our motives; something more self-serving than brotherly love. “Why,” asks Bruckner rhetorically, “this everyday compassion?” He responds, saying that expressing sympathy “[certifies] a sense of cohesion” in a world that we feel is crumbling. Emotion is our only real link with others and makes it possible to keep rebuilding a pretense of community…. [It is] a kind of superficial communication with the desperate from the comfort of our own armchairs” (pp. 289-290). In other words, we sympathize at a distance and do not really want refugees in our own homes or camping in our yards. We also enjoy a subconscious Schadenfreude in that it is not we who suffer. Bruckner writes: “There is a sadism of pity and we end up making a pleasure out of other people’s tragedies….” (p. 290). Again, this is not what we want to hear but which, nevertheless, may hit the nail on the head.
The secret self-satisfaction of altruism lies in the inequality between those who give and those who receive largess. It is not a relationship of equals. Our charity is self-serving as much as it helps others, but real giving should be about raising up the Other to a position of self-actualization. Having the disadvantaged on perpetual life-support is not ennobling them or us. Rather, it is a failure of altruism. Taking Afghanistan as an example, the West did well to empower the young women of the country, making it possible for young men and women to attend school, graduate from college, and the like. It brought dignity and progress to many. But at some point, those who receive sympathy and support need to stand on their own feet and prove themselves worthy of respect. The fact that so many young Afghan soldiers fled when they ought to be have made a stand against the Taliban is disappointing. Others headed for Europe, leaving their sisters and brothers behind to face the music. Afghanistan seems a failure of Western altruism, twenty years and trillions of dollars sunk in the sand. This is not to say Afghans do not deserve respect but that, as a project based on Western altruism, there is little to show for it.
Bruckner notes that even the best of intentions eventually wane. At some point, empathy becomes tiresome. We become unable to choose whose moans to pay attention to as we constantly hear new voices demanding assistance. We turn off. It will be interesting to see how long we pay attention to Afghanistan now that the we have abandoned it to fate. We expected a positive pay-off to decades of blood and treasure spent, and we feel cheated not to see our efforts rewarded. A film that suggests as much refers to the same sentiment.
Styx☻is a movie which, metaphorically, reflects on the moral and practical dilemma Europe is in. Billed as a “moral thriller set in the deep blue sea,” it involves a female first-responder, a German ambulance doctor who takes a break to sail for an island on which Charles Darwin had planted a jungle – a symbolic reference to the survival of the fittest thesis which he put forth. This theme structures the film.
The doctor sails solo from Gibraltar, southwards off the coast of Africa. (Gibraltar is where the Muslim invasion of Spain began in 711CE; Africa is the cradle of the human race.) Following a trial-by-storm, as heroes typically must endure, the woman is in the doldrums with a mysterious ship immobile off her starboard bow.♦ Through binoculars, she sees the boat is grossly overloaded with refugees. She radios for help and is warned not to approach the vessel as those on board are desperate enough to overload her yacht; even her presence will tempt some to swim towards her and drown in the process. Best to wait. Help is being organized. Except it isn’t. This becomes apparent after repeated Mayday calls to authorities who are aware of the emergency but do not respond. A nearby container ship, too, is reluctant to intervene as it is against company policy, having learned from experience how much time and money this would cost. It seems empathy has become a fickle sentiment.
The doctor manages to drag aboard a 14-year old black boy. She saves his life. Once he recovers, he wants her to motor over to the ship so he might save his sister, but she is against this, knowing the risk involved. He pushes the woman overboard and starts the motor, apparently ready to sacrifice her to the sea, but she manages to climb back on board. She still has hopes the coast guard will come to the rescue. (It is not clear whose coastguard she managed to contact, but the voice answering the call has an English accent.) But, no one shows up. At night, she moves her sailboat close to the ship and goes aboard to find most of the refugees dead.
Come daylight, she gets a response from the coast guard. She tells them that her own vessel is going under. Now she needs help. But this isn’t true. Her call brings a cutter onto the scene but not in time to save more than a few of the original three-hundred refugees.
The moral of the story is in line with the survival of the fittest although, in this instance, it is those with modern technology who survive. The African ship, a creaking coffin of a vessel, would never make it to safety, while the yacht and the cutter have all the modern means of navigation and survival. The coast guard, all white men, responded to a white female in distress. They no longer bothered with what must have become a tiresome exercise rescuing the desperate of the Third World. The realization of this leaves the female doctor in shock.
I doubt the audience did not realize all along that it would be impossible to “save everyone” — even as the West will be unable to. The 14-year old was ready to leave the white woman to her fate in order to save his sister, even as the whites responded to their own kind. This is a bleak message of a failed humanism originating in Europe centuries ago. It seems to announce a return to tribalism and genetic selection. Darwin wins. But in the moral conundrum of Styx, everyone loses.
The film touches on a primordial angst of the thousands of strangers who attempt to reach Western shores in their flimsy boats. The ultimate nightmare for citizens of the EU and their politicians is a massive wave of sub-Saharan Africans arriving on the shores of Spain, France, Italy, or Greece, an invasion that would threaten the continent by its sheer volume of bodies to house and feed. The millions already arrived are having a hard time making a go of life in the EU, even as some of their youngsters rebel and threaten host populations.
We seem to be in a historic transition involving a reassessment of what is and what is no longer possible. Immigration, the right of all to whatever the Earth offers, and our own compassion are up for reassessment. We are overloaded with events that demand attention: climate change, epidemics, pollution, crime, drugs, regional wars, shifts in the power of nations, etc. Lost in all of this is the ability to focus. Empathy for humans competes with empathy for animals, the creatures of the oceans, bees … you name it. Everyone and everything needs “fixing,” although we sense it is too late in the overall picture to act effectively. Saving the Third World is not a challenge; it is a nightmare. Like the doctor’s boat, Europe is already floundering. Europe is full, and it is almost impossible to remain afloat given the demand for the “better life” it is supposed to offer.
☻Styx,Germany/Austria, 2018, directed by Wolfgang Fischer, starring Susanne Wolff. Styx is one of the rivers of the Greek underworld. It is also the fifth circle of Dante’s hell.
♦The situation reminds film buffs of Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water (1962) and Dead Calm (1989) starring Sam Neill, Billy Zane, and Nicole Kidman. Both warn against approaching stranded boats at sea.
WE have paradigms or narrative patterns in our minds into which events are slotted. A paradigm “explains” events like the loss of Vietnam as a failure of sorts but with (redeeming?) modest successes as well. To illustrate, recall any American-made film production – Hollywood or other – which features a “band of brothers” (Marines usually) who experience the bonding of young men under fire, with blood, sweat, and tears involved – the stuff of the battle field, a male rite of passage. Everyone knows America lost Vietnam’s civil war, but how do we understand it? What do we tell ourselves about it? In the popular imagination, Vietnam was a victory of the (American) manly spirit. Soldiers discovered themselves, tested their own metal, experienced tribal teamwork, and took part in a noble cause opposing evil. In other words, they lost, but not really.
Switch to another venue, Afghanistan, August of 2021. After a twenty-year effort at bringing a medieval civilization into the 20th century, a process which Western media audiences had already tired of when it rudely interrupted the evening news. NATO and America were pulling out. Bit by bit, the country was quickly being retaken by a younger breed of religious fanatics, a new Taliban. The Good Guys, well-meaning Western troops, were being recalled by politicians (stab-in-the-back style) who hadn’t a clue as to what was really going on in the remote mountainous country, having ignored intelligence reports in favour of what they wanted to believe: that the massive Afghan military and police would hold the ground. How could Afghans not resist the Taliban after receiving twenty years of training and billions in military hardware? Oddly enough, the US had the same expectations of South Vietnamese soldiers. Both Afghan and South Vietnamese were overestimated, and local politicians were corrupt. And both wars came to a rapid conclusion with dramatic scenes of panic-stricken refugees. There were the famous images of helicopter airlifts to waiting US navy ships, crowds attempting to scale the walls of the US embassy in Saigon, American troops trying to keep order, women handing babies over walls, young men climbing into the embassy compound: a prelude to Kabul 2021 and, in both cases, the question: Who could have predicted it? These are the images and the questions being asked.
In the case of Afghanistan, the NATO/American presence allowed a local version of a middle-class to emerge. Girls went to school, mature females attended university, became media broadcasters, yoga instructors, artists, business people, and Internet “influencers.” They painted their faces and rouged their lips, keeping on the hair-covering scarves as a token to tradition, but in all respects looking and sounding Western. They were “just like us.” Roads and schools and hospitals were built — at least in the cities. As for the vast, impoverished mountain areas, well, they were too infested with Taliban to waste resources on. That was the good part of the last 20 years that – somehow – redeems two-trillion dollars of investment and loss of over 175,000 lives.
In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, the locals’ morale and ability to fight the invaders were overestimated. Intelligence – that is, information – was said to be lacking. Upper military and political echelons had not assessed the situation correctly. Many mistakes were made. In both cases, the enemy was presented in similar, easily recognizable, stereotypical terms. The Vietcong were highly motivated (fanatical), brainwashed, uncivilized, heartless automatons, willing to sacrifice their mothers to conquer the freedom-loving south. The defenders of south Vietnam were more like “us,” Christian (or almost so), democratic people defending civilization against the atheistic, communist north. Of course, there was a lot of corruption. Money is a temptation. America was generous, and the natives took advantage. Those who suffered were “ordinary people,” families, women and children, the aged, the defenceless. The big shots took early leave of the chaos with suitcases filled with millions of US Dollars. They always do. The script was standard, as were the perceptions.
This pattern of interpretation – memes and memeplexes – operated during and after other conflicts like WWI and WWII. It was a paradigm that allowed for no nuanced perspectives. It was Good versus Evil, the Manichean view of reality, one which was first accepted as true by those who put together the ancient holy books in the Abrahamic tradition. It became the way we interpret the world, and the way Muslims (the Taliban) interpret it as well, although with different heroes. The images we are being shown on TV and in the Internet serve to reinforce this dualistic conception. Camera operators and cell phone photographers select images collaborating this impression of What is happening to build a familiar narrative. We seem unable to do anything other than to see the world this way. But, could there be another version of the “story?”
Seen from the Taliban perspective, of course there is. (There are multiple versions of reality.) From their side, the Taliban are restoring a just system that they are duty bound as true believers to establish in order for Prophecy to fulfill itself. The Taliban believe in the End of Days, perhaps more firmly than Christian fundamentalists do. They believe they are called upon to establish a true Islamic State – the last one in Syria having failed – and this time, they will get it right. They will mould society more patiently than before (haste makes waste), gradually replacing existing institutions with the Islamic system, as Islamists tend to call the Caliphate-to-come. This will take time, but then, the West is sinking into decadence and decay, unable to spread its ideology. Time and Allah are on the side of the patient and the just. The problem with this, of course, is that the West no longer has a counter-narrative to the one shared by all Muslims to varying degrees. The West cannot claim it is more just (look at the homeless, the poverty and undernourishment, the crime, in the USA). Nor is the West as powerful as it presents itself. The freedom accorded secular women has dissolved the family and made men effeminate. (They can’t even grow decent beards anymore.) The West celebrates aberrant forms of sexuality. Clearly, from the Taliban perspective, Western civilization is in decline. Westerners admit it. Therefore, fundamentalist Islam is the answer. Its success in Afghanistan will spread throughout the region and into Europe – given time. To the Taliban and their sympathizers, it seems foreordained.
I present this hypothesis in an attempt to demonstrate the limitations of interpretation. The Question What is going on? is answered by culturally-defined, stock answers following familiar scripts. These are of extreme opposites incorporated in Biblical story-patterns passed on in our films and television series. Good conquers evil but, from the other guy’s perspective, the roles are reversed. The forces of light battle the forces of darkness, with our cultures telling us which is which in any conflict. Our media, and we ourselves in conversation, reinforce the narratives we inherit from previous generations. From an extraterrestrial perspective, of course, none of our stories would make sense. The ET would have their own account of what they observe.
Can we get beyond this? Not any time soon. A scientific detachment could render a more balanced picture, but narratives are not science. They provide simple answers to complex situations charged with emotion, best explained in psychological terms but, even then, whose (cultural) psychology shall we employ?
Now that Canada has something to be ashamed of, namely the yet unexamined deaths of hundreds of children once attending residential schools, it is time for some old-fashioned introspection and contrition. Europeans have already discovered the secret satisfaction inherent in reflection, confession, and (hoped for) absolution. Even when it takes generations to achieve a laundered conscience, it is felt to be worth the self-humiliation of self-purging of real or perceived transgressions against a civilization’s values. The Soviets went through it during the purges of the 50s with sentences to the gulag or firing squad. The Germans, similarly, have been cleansing themselves for generations, punishing those who had not been strong enough to follow their conscience or those holding the wrong political attitudes. The British are wringing their hands over crimes committed during their Empire days. A global system they had been proud of has turned into a crime against humanity, if not against God. Racism, colonialism, civilizational arrogance, you name it, Europeans and their cohorts in the New World are being led into the bitter-sweet sentiment of Guilt. They wallow in it like some animals do in sh…
The people are reminded in media that there is a deep layer of dirt covering their national consciousness: their leaders have been criminals comparable to those of Auschwitz, that racism has always existed and is making inroads once again, that diabolical Right-wing forces are on the march to take hold of the national soul. At risk are ethnic and national minorities, indigenous peoples (“nations”), refugees, and migrants of all kinds. Responsible for everything is … (wait for it) … that paragon of privilege, the White Anglo-Saxon male, suppressor of women, sexist, rapist, patriarch: the guiltiest of souls – if he can be said to possess one.
Historic crimes demand inquisition and expiation, a cleansing of the national soul. Canada Day, usually a time of celebration of the good things the country has (supposedly) achieved – but which are being unmasked as the products of sinful Pride – has been exposed as a delusion. Universal health care, long life expectancy, free public education, relatively low crime rates, decent public washrooms, all the benefits of a modern welfare state, have been exposed as fraudulent. The public is now being told of skeletons in the national closet, of moral failures, of outright lying and cheating on historic agreements. These, and the harm society has done to the environment, are unforgivable in the eyes of those needing to do penance for their nagging sense of unearned privilege. Times have been good to many who can see how well off they are compared to the rest of humanity. Now it is time to do penance for it. But self-mortification requires guilt that needs to be forgiven. And guilt, these days, is hard political currency. It circulates widely throughout the Western world (but not in the East). It is used as a weapon by any and everyone with a grudge, a humiliation that demands pain on the part of the offender – payback, the harder the better.
It is not that moral wrongs were not committed: the history of the world is the record of exploitation – tribal, national, ethnic, gender. Life has always been survival of the fittest and damn the rest. So what has changed? Why does the Western soul need to confess? Why do white people want to punish themselves? Is it because they are being reduced in numbers, demographically? They feel they are on the way out, being superseded by Asians and others? Is a latent Christian conscience plaguing them? Or failed attempts at Utopia? Christianity, Communism, fascism, democratic capitalism all have come up short of expectations? Has God abandoned the West? (Worse still, have we killed Him?) Whatever it is, it is suicidal on a grand scale, and it is to the advantage of those on the rise to prominence.
There is something called civilizational fatigue. This is evident when societies have reached a peak, when they doubt where they are going and the righteousness of their cause, or even their right to exist. The West, and Canada, seem to be at such a point. And now they want to destroy what they have built.
For some, there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a house of worship going up in flames, especially when it is not your own. Revenge is sweet, they say, but they also says it begins with synagogues, then it is books, then it is people. But who cares what they say? Revenge is too satisfactory to forego. Justice is denied too often, so best take justice into your own hands. When shaming does not produce the desired effects, resort to the can of kerosene, the Molotov cocktail, the stick of dynamite, the rocket launcher. All are equally rewarding.
A modest proposal: July 1st could become Atonement Day for Canadian penitents. For those smarting from offence, it could be the day to tear down statues, burn books, run politicians out of town, and set churches ablaze – an annual Kristallnacht, a new holiday to be emulated the world over. Globally, the mood is there. It is now up to Canada to set the example for others.
In China all appearances are deceptive. – Paul Theroux
It’s possible to live among the Chinese for years without understanding anything
about the way they live. – Michel Houellebecq
This is a record of four years in the People’s Republic of China, beginning in Tianjin, at the time a city of some seven million, just an hour-and-a-half by train south of Beijing, and later, time spent in Harbin, the ice capital of the far north. Harbin is in what was once called Manchuria, occupied by the Japanese. It is now called Heilongjiang province.
In the fall of 2004, I was met at the old Beijing international airport by a delegation of students assigned to take me to their campus in Tianjin, my home for the immediate future. Driving southwards on an unremarkable, two-lane highway through monotonously flat, misty farmland, I was tired from my flight. There was an awful lot of truck traffic on the motorway, going in either direction. Some vehicles looked as though their huge burdens, precariously bound onto them, would tip over at any moment. Our driver was a young daredevil who enjoyed weaving in between such vehicles, horn blasting and gas pedal to the floor. Within an hour and a half, we arrived in Tianjin.
The university I worked at greeted visitors coming through a tall gate. There were tall, aging birch trees on either side of a paved road leading to a central administration building with pseudo-Greek pillars and large wooden doors. If the style seemed incongruous in China, this building stemmed from the early 1900s when Europeans were still in the Middle Kingdom. The college was originally an academy for training textile workers, established by a businessman who needed engineers and skilled workers.
The first things that impressed me were a couple of Bauhaus buildings of concrete and glass, erected in the 1920s. I had not seen anything like them in Europe, probably because most such structures had been destroyed in the last war. But Tianjin has these and many others which were a pleasure to find. Similarly impressive was a single line of insulated heating pipe running the length of the institution, some twenty feet above the pavement. It emanated from a central heating plant, adding to the vintage industrial charm of the place.
The university had all the essentials so that students did not have to venture out the front gates which were locked after 11PM. There were a couple of small grocery stores, street food vendors, several good cafeterias, sundries shops, a privately-operated hotel, adjacent to a small, man-made lake. In one of the teaching buildings, there was a TV room for students who wanted to watch live CNN, BBC, German, French, or Spanish television. Students had to sign in for these, and there were no private television sets in any of the residences.
There was also an indoor swimming pool, several outdoor basketball courts, small sitting areas around the lake for lovers, and an ancient, dilapidated red-brick residence for teachers and retired professors. It was a world all its own. And it was typical of Chinese universities, although our campus was older than many.
A colleague told me that, when he had arrived the previous year, the college wanted him to share a room with three other foreign teachers, as was common with Chinese instructors. (It was clear that the Chinese were not yet aware of western expectations.) The colleague protested until they gave him an apartment of his own. Normally, in China people do not get their own way. More than likely, the Chinese officials saw his behavior as juvenile and insubordinate. Unfortunately, they would soon have similar impressions of the rest of us.
The little apartment assigned to me in the “Foreign Experts Residences” was convenient and comfortable, with the only drawback next to it a railway line carrying some 70 freight trains per day, pulling endless caravans of heavy cargo to the Tianjin seaport. The rolling stock made the residences tremble. At first, the rumble kept me awake at night; yet I got used to this, as to much more.
My neighbors in the six-story residence were an odd mix. On the floors below, there was a contingent of Mongolian students training to become fashion models. Several of them were over six feet tall and the girls were remarkably attractive. Individually, they could be quite polite and charming, but as a group they were rowdy drunkards who slammed their doors at one o’clock in the morning. They also seemed to be in and out of each other’s rooms a lot, emerging in their bathrobes sleepy-eyed in the mornings. They pretty much kept to themselves, so I heard them more than I saw them.
Like most mega-cities, Tianjin is polluted, but it has its redeeming features among which are several downtown streets adorned with art nouveau-style buildings. Built by European families who had left China by the time of the Communist victory in 1948, some have “sunrise” designs on their exteriors, while others show off Romanesque columns and huge, fortified doors, some of which were being restored to their former glory.
One of my favorite homes in this district was a small villa with squared and rounded shapes, looking like a structure that could be in pre-war Berlin. But in 2004, this beauty had a chaotic mess of electrical wires entangling her, as though she had been netted by poachers. Her garden was in a trashy state, plaster falling off the walls and paint peeling off window frames. The building had been left to suffocate because, until recently, the authorities saw no value in maintaining buildings of foreign interlopers in China.
A few, better-maintained, European villas had historic plaques on the fences around them, but these gave no indication of their original owners or designers. They just said general, or colonel So-and-so of the People’s Liberation Army, once stayed there. This suggests Europe’s imperialistic intrusion into China was (and still is) resented. But the city is realizing the tourist potential of these remarkable buildings and is restoring many.
One cool winter’s day, a colleague and I went to the “English Corner” at renowned Nankai University (where Zhou Enlai once was a student). An “English Corner” is a designated meeting place where everyone is supposed to practice English. These “corners” are inside or outside, depending on the institution. Arriving at Nankai by taxi, we were immediately surrounded by students whose standard questions were: “Where are you from?” and “What do you think of George Bush?” Or, more commonly: “What do you think of China?”
No matter what our answers were, from the students we usually got knee-jerk responses straight out of some official policy: “China will be the world leader soon,” to which I once replied: “You’ll have to run pretty hard to catch up to the United States.” In most such interchanges, though, I detected a naivety, not to mention xenophobic resentment. Students wanted confirmation of what they had been led to believe (not least by the West), but I had my doubts. I thought that many students in China lived rather sheltered lives. I also wondered how long this innocence would last.
After a year in Tianjin, I moved north to Harbin where I stayed for three years. But later, in 2008, I returned to Tianjin for a pleasant surprise. The city was all fixed up. There were new bridges across the river. On one of them there were bare-breasted water sprites draped over a shield announcing the name of the bridge – rather tacky, but very Chinese in aesthetics. Everything was cleaner than I remembered it. The sidewalks outside my university freshly newly tiled and sparkling new eating places had been established. You could now get a peppercorn steak at “Jacky’s” just up the street – no need to go all the way downtown. And the gleaming buses were just out of the factory. Some of them were even air conditioned. Wherever I looked, I saw new overpasses, flashy office towers, and apartment blocks. There was even a shiny new airport. All of this was created within three years. I was impressed, but at the same time I doubted there had been a radical shift in the people’s thinking.
In the fall of my first year, we foreign teachers were told to take part in the university’s Sports Day. To get us ready, a female drill-instructor came to our residence. We each received a white sweat shirt and a little national flag, some corresponding to our nationalities, others not. Then we were shown how to march: “Ey, Ar, San, Sze… One, two, three four! All in step please,” as our drill sergeant ordered. But try as we might, we couldn’t get it right. Marching was so strange to us. We laughed and cracked jokes, and we remained a bunch of anarchists.
Next day, we were shepherded onto the university’s running track where the bleachers were jammed with dignitaries and senior students. Mustered the field, there were dozens of student gymnastic teams and professors in uniformed outfits. The math professors, the physics teachers, and the engineers were dressed in their own distinguished colors, but then there was our Foreign Legion — smiling foolishly, waving our little flags, but in a hopelessly disorganized mishmash. To the consternation of our minders, to the blare of marshal music, we strolled past the reviewing stand when we ought to have been goose-stepping. Even though I could not stop laughing, all the while I was wondering how we would explain our lack of discipline to our hosts. I also wondered how the audience interpreted our apparently insubordinate behavior. Someone must have been disappointed because the following year we were not asked to march. We got to sit in the bleachers instead.
Part of China’s attempts at catching up to the modern world is the country’s massive drive to learn English. On a CCTV military channel, I watched a woman soldier in a splendid uniform, eloquently speak of what she would like to do for her country if she were able to. It reminded me of the kinds of speech-training promoted in the 1950s when Americans were trying to “win friends and influence people.” Now, as then, the intention was to win a contest and be fast-tracked into a career, preferably with the opportunity to travel.
In China, eloquence in English is considered a ticket to opportunity. Even taxi drivers are supposed to learn English phrases, although I never met one who could say more than “Bye Bye” and this included Beijing drivers who were supposed to prepare for international guests to the Olympics.
In December of that year, a couple of us from the English program were asked to adjudicate a speech contest. Typically, we were invited at the last minute and had minimal instructions. I was on a panel of four; two of us were Westerners, two were Chinese English-language teachers. We were in a dimly lit, decrepit classroom consisting of a board, a lectern, and rows of tables and chairs facing a podium. The candidates, like sacrificial victims, were called up one at a time. All launched into their spiel without hesitation, seemingly eager to get it over with. Many faltered as they forgot lines memorized morning after morning on the foggy campus grounds.
The contestants were predominantly young men with nerves tied up in knots. Some bellowed their speeches as though they were addressing the masses in Tienanmen Square. Others did a bit of gesturing to get their point across — a technique learned out of a text book on oratory, no doubt. I could not understand half of them. I thought one speech was about going camping, but I had my doubts. Another was a poem on love. The young man delivered it like a goldfish gobbling air. (I had to suppress a laugh.) To my surprise, someone said something complimentary about America, but then ruined it with the cliché: “America has a war-mongering leadership” although, he conceded, the US population was “peace-loving.” Such clichés about the USA were rampant among university-educated people, so it was no surprise to hear this coming from the podium.
One unfortunate fellow got up and simply stated that he had not prepared adequately and would have to miss this great opportunity. He reminded me of a penitent flogging himself in front of the Inquisition. I don’t recall if any of these candidates made it to the finals, but later I adjudicated a Tianjin-CCTV preliminary contest at our university and did not see any of them.
During those heady first months in Tianjin, we foreign teachers wanted to reward our students with a film night, so we decided to show an action flick called Independence Day. However, about half way through the film it dawned on me what monumental American propaganda this was. Briefly put, the film is about the President of the United States, an Anglo who, along with a Jewish nerd (aptly named David), and a daredevil African-American pilot (Will Smith), together save the entire human race from evil-minded aliens. I was afraid there might be complaints; perhaps, we would be reported to the Office of the Party Secretary, the commissar on campus.
I need not have worried. To my surprise (or dismay) when the trio of heroes cleverly defeated the aliens, our audience of over a hundred 19-year old Chinese boys and girls shot to their feet, applauded, whooped, and cheered. I was caught off guard. Later, in my class, when I tried to say a few words about the “propaganda” slant of the film, my observations were met with total disinterest. I probably came across as one of those intellectuals who were forced to wear a dunce cap during the Cultural Revolution.
The subject of Chinese women dating foreign men is a favorite with male expats, many of whom wouldn’t merit a glance from females in the West. But, in the Far East, even plain-looking foreigners can be hot stuff. The reason is novelty and money, twin aphrodisiacs. Still, for the foreigner, hanging out with Chinese women is not as risk-free as it might seem.
I met one young adventurer whose Chinese girlfriend moved in with him in the expectation of getting married. However, he got nervous about the arrangement and asked her to move out, after which she hysterically threatened to kill herself. But she eventually did leave. Yet when I saw him six months later, the two of them were still dating.
Another young foreigner in Harbin, a rather tough town, picked up a Chinese girl he shouldn’t have and took her home. When the girl claimed he “raped” her, her Chinese boyfriend whacked him in the head with a machete and left him to die in the snow. He survived to tell the tale, but barely.
I met several mixed-race couples who had shacked up or married. Usually, the women had kids and were divorced, while the foreign men were older and divorced. The couples seemed happy enough, sort of like refugees getting a second life, but in every case the woman held the power. She spoke the language; she understood the rules of Chinese society; she kept house, ordered flight tickets, arranged for the child’s education, handled the man’s pay, and even got him a driver’s license by filling out the driver’s test for him. As far as I’m aware few of these relationships lasted.
I could never make up my mind whether Chinese girls were as naive as they seemed, or they were deliberately playing a role that was expected of them. They could be cute and childlike at any age (I’ve met grown women who engaged in baby talk), but they could also act like prudes. At first, I found their “little girl” personas annoying but then got used to it and even found it disarming. It seemed to be a strategy to get what they wanted without arousing resistance. I will say more about this when I discuss cuteness in Chinese culture.
No matter what the attitude of the Chinese towards foreigners, regarding their attitudes towards the Japanese, feelings remain bitter. The Chinese government’s position via-à-vis Japan is often hostile despite massive Japanese economic investments in China. The Chinese suspect Japanese intentions. From conversations with students, I learned that many think the Japanese are profiteering from cheap Chinese labor, even while they are “plotting” a repeat-colonization. Just what this “colonization” consists of was never explained to me, but it seems such ideas circulate as part of an ingrained anti-Japanese bias stemming from the last war.
During my first year in China, there were anti-Japanese riots in Shanghai and Beijing. Mobs of angry students chanted “Kill Japanese!” as they smashed Japanese-owned shops and cars. Ostensibly, these protests were against Japan’s official interpretation of the invasion of China during the Second World War. A new Japanese history text did not adequately attribute blame to the imperial Japanese army for atrocities committed, so this had the Chinese up in arms. But, according to Western commentators, hostile anti-Japanese demonstrations are frequently orchestrated by the Chinese government for its own objectives.
I speculated that the failure by the Japanese to fully acknowledge their war-guilt was a matter of avoiding legal responsibility. There could also be a great loss of face and national self-confidence within Japan itself. In the year I refer to, 2004, the Japanese were not doing well economically, and the Chinese elite seemed eager to rub Tokyo’s nose in the ground to elevate China’s prestige among regional victims of Japanese imperialism. Acknowledging national guilt would have burdened Japan with a sense of responsibility that, psychologically, could politically cripple it in any future contest with its gigantic neighbor. Japan only need look at Germany to see how well such a guilt-strategy has worked.
Still, foreign commentators noted that by allowing anti-Japanese demonstrations, the Beijing politicos might be shooting themselves in the foot. Investors could think the mainland was not as stable as they had thought. Also, this kind of political hate mongering could have harmful consequences leading up to the Olympics of 2008. Sure enough, anti-Japanese demonstrations ceased before the Games when the government had other matters to worry about.
The collective Chinese psyche is characterized by a sense of humiliation inflicted by imperial powers over a hundred years ago. But, the self-perception as “victim” is also officially cultivated. When there is a need to divert the populace’s attention from domestic problems, the government can always resurrect grievances against foreigners. For instance, they used the Japanese history textbook issue at a time when Chinese farmers were protesting official land seizures and food price increases; parents were complaining about the one-child policy; and corruption in officialdom was making the news daily. Anti-Japanese drum-beating always garners sympathy for the genuine suffering that the Chinese underwent at the hands of Imperial Japan, and it does momentarily point the spotlight away from the Communist Party. So, it has become a handy political tool.
The guilt card has been used in international trade disputes as well. When China complained about being discriminated against through American or European trade tariffs, there was no mention of the fact that China had been ripping off Western companies for decades, illegally copying thousands of products that were supposed to be patent protected. Nor did it acknowledge that it had been dumping cheap goods on foreign markets, thereby ruining low-tech industries in the developing world. It seems the average Chinese still responds to the image of the little guy who is standing up to big bullies, but he himself remains blameless. It will be interesting to see if the Chinese mandarins still play the victim once history has put them firmly inside the winner’s circle.
The underdog psychology goes some ways toward explaining the need to put on not just a good show but a fantastic one for the 2008 Games. The opening ceremonies, as I will describe later, had to be superlative. The quality of the athletes needed to be top-notch. Everything had to go perfectly in order to demonstrate, well …. What? That China is as good as the United States? This seems to have been the intention. China most readily compares itself to the USA, though you must ask why, considering the Chinese are supposedly communists while the Americans are arch-capitalists. But then these labels hardly apply today.
What does China want? I think this question is really a matter of what does China’s elite want? They want what Hegel called Anerkennung — recognition, respect, affirmation. And, implied in this, they want a confirmation that the Chinese are a culture or race superior to those who once colonized China. It’s all part of regaining face, compromised during foreign incursions into the Middle Kingdom.
Compared to Western societies, sex is noticeable absent in Chinese public life, but it is creeping in. Television ads often feature sexy girls selling bust-enlargement products, face creams, or shampoos. And sometimes very “soft” erotica is present in sports programs: trapeze artists in circuses; sexy oriental girls doing gymnastic contortions. It isn’t blatant “sexploitation” as in the West, but it is there. However, when you do see partial nudity, big boobs or buns, as in outdoor or subway advertisements, they usually are on Western women. If a couple is shown embracing or kissing in the media, they most likely are Westerners. This is to imply: Chinese do not do this in public. Still, such displays attract attention and invite emulation.
Kissing seems to be making its way into Chinese culture. That is, the Hollywood “deep kiss” is more often seen in locally-made films and soap operas. But with the Chinese, kissing looks frantic, rather as if the kissers were desperately sucking the life out of each other. You also see young couples hugging in public places, but this looks more like they are propping each other up or practicing the Russian bear hug. And, contrary to what you see in the West, Chinese girls often hold hands and hug each other, but this is less common between the sexes.
The problem that liberal attitudes has brought to China is unwanted pregnancies. Despite efforts to educate young people, some are not cautious enough to avoiding the fruits of their passion. Consequently, couples are offered a solution in abortion, which has become a substitute for protected sex. According to one study of single women, a third of respondents had terminated pregnancies and, increasingly, migrant workers, students, and prostitutes are the ones who resort to abortion as birth-control. The shame and stigma of premarital pregnancy in China persists, hence women are often desperate for a quick solution.
As part of the regime’s anti-AIDS drive, condoms are now sold openly in pharmacies and supermarkets. Still, I noted shoppers wandering by condom displays with eyes averted, the way we did back in the 1960s when rubbers first became consumer items. So, while there seems to be more openness towards sex, and topics like AIDS are discussed, embarrassment remains.
Another attitude that is rapidly changing concerns pets. In Harbin, I once had dog stew, just to see what it tasted like. I did not know what type of dog I was eating, and did not want to know, as I would have been troubled had I been devouring some cute dachshund. The meat was lean but otherwise unremarkable and I soon had my curiosity satisfied. But, over time, I noted dog less on the menus and more on the leash. I observed elderly women with small, fluffy canines taking their “best friends” for walks in public parks.
Pets seemed fashionable. I heard that dogs under 35cm in height were officially permitted in apartments as pets while larger dogs would be problematic as Chinese homes tend to be cramped. So, in addition to people keeping caged birds, they were adopting dogs as approved companions. (In the Mao years, keeping dogs was denounced as a “bourgeois waste of time.”) Moreover, to note, during the weeks of the Olympics, dogs were taken off the menus in restaurants. It seems some foreigners were squeamish when it came to pets in hot pots.
There were cats about too, but they were in pretty bad shape. Many were flea-ridden strays surviving on garbage, along with rats and other vermin that are common in urban areas. Quite possibly, there were cat pets in apartments, but I did not see any. Dogs seemed to have charmed people into being merciful and so were promoted from culinary delicacies to friends, but cats were never on menus to begin with and remained out in the cold, quite literally.
Although, in China’s cities, the one-child policy has been in effect since the 1980s, this is not the official stance in rural areas. In 2007, there were reports carried on BBC television (broadcast in China) of townspeople resorting to cheap, Shanghai-produced, fertility drugs that resulted in multiple pregnancies. Women were giving birth to twins, triplets, and even to quadruplets, all under what supposedly was a “one-pregnancy policy.” In some rural areas, the Party tried to enforce the one-child laws with fines, but this resulted in violent backlashes against regional officials. So, when it comes to who gets to reproduce, and in what numbers, the image we commonly have of China is not accurate. The national government has had to be flexible on the policy in many instances.
Still, the policy has largely been successful in slowing population growth to 1.4 billion, as of 2016. However, the people are still increasing by an annual ten million. Many couples grumble about not having brothers or sisters for their precious little “emperor” or “empress,” so there is public pressure to modify the rules. Moreover, due to the preference for boy-children, female infanticide has resulted in a surplus of males compared to females, creating new problems for a government already coping with many headaches.
Because women are in short supply in some areas of China (1.7 million girl babies are missing annually from birth statistics), some men have taken to abducting young women for marriage. Girls are also smuggled into the country from North Korea. Wealthy people resort to bribing local officials to turn a blind eye to registering a second child,1 while some parents claim their first offspring is “handicapped” in order to receive permission to have a second child. Still others pay heavy fines to have a second kid. However, less well known is the fact that members of China’s ethnic minorities (including Muslims) are wholly exempt from the one-child law. These groups keep pumping the kids out, regardless of population pressures.
The one-child policy has had consequences for an aging population. In China, only some 30% of seniors receive a government or company pension (according to 1998 statistics). This means that 70% of the elderly rely on their children to support them. It also means a lot of pressure placed on single children in terms of getting good grades, getting into well-paying jobs, and earning enough to meet all the responsibilities placed on them. Life is tough for the average Chinese.
I noted this in my own students, especially those not from the upper echelons of society. In the drawings they were asked to do for an assignment, all of them placed themselves smack in the middle of a family group consisting of themselves, two parents, and two grandparents. In effect, the offspring is the darling of two sets of elders. But once parents and grandparents are no longer able to work, this golden childhood can become a nightmare for the kids who must support the lot of them. Time after time, when I inquired of students what their goals were, they replied “to take care of my parents.” Just how they will fulfill this obligation remains problematic.
It is often a bit of a puzzle how the Chinese regard foreigners. Here, I think we need to separate the official position from the attitudes of many ordinary Chinese. On the surface, most of the people I encountered were polite and welcoming. Some were very curious about the West; others were more interested to know what we were learning in China. All seemed pleased to hear some of us were acquiring the language. Others were happy if we said we liked Chinese food. But all seemed eager to know our impressions of them.
The official position is more complicated. The official idea is that China will take from the West what is useful and dump the rest. However, it’s not always possible to be selective. To put the problem in Deng Xiaoping’s words: “Opening the window inevitably lets in the flies.” Officially, foreigners are considered a necessary evil. The country will learn from foreigners in order to surpass the West. This was made apparent to me by an old Communist from America who had been working in Beijing for decades. Amused, he told me that greedy Western capitalists were building up China, while the Communists were gaining strength from the great inflow of Western capital and know-how. The aim of the Party, he said, had not changed: China would gradually realize the communist society, while capitalism would spend itself to death. To him, this seemed historically inevitable. He may be correct.
During modernization, traditional Chinese (Confucian) cultural values are expected to prevail, and China will end up teaching the rest of the world a thing or two. However, it seems the country is trying to develop a new civilization without any plan or guidelines, ideological or practical. They are playing it by ear primarily because there is no viable intelligentsia that can lead the country spiritually and intellectually. Marxism can only take the nation so far because Marx did not envision the sudden turn to state-capitalism that Deng Xiaoping introduced. And, what there is no traditional Chinese philosophy to guide people in the 21st century as philosophies were denigrated during the Cultural Revolution. All this adds up to a lack of ideas as to where to take the ship into the future. But perhaps this is being too critical of a country that has already changed so much while the West seems no better off in terms of direction or purpose.
It is difficult to say who the current thinkers in China are, or if they are being listened to. I noted a hodgepodge of ideas in the great bookstores in Tianjin, Beijing, and Harbin where it is not unusual to find works about, or by, members of the Party, or works on history and Western classics displayed next to Hitler’s Mein Kampf. There are tons of self-help books, especially those promising to teach people the path to riches and books on meditation, art, and Western philosophy. But, to my knowledge, there is no shared vision or philosophy that people can follow into the future. Instead, there is a potpourri of ideas, Eastern and Western imagery and values mingle in a perplexing torrent, making it impossible to tell what China really is about. So, it is safest to say the country remains a work in progress.
Chinese Women’s Expectations
One of the “flies” let in through the open window has stung Chinese women who see that their Western sisters are more “liberated,” have careers, and are not saddled with kids and kitchen duties. This awareness has influenced the expectations of career-minded ladies so that more of them are entering universities, graduating, and going into professions. Others are gaining the knack of capitalism, establishing their own businesses or working in white-collar jobs. Official Chinese figures put women in government and private corporate positions at 30% of employees, while women make up 37% of the overall workforce. Still, the government admits more is needed to reach a satisfactory level of female economic participation.
From my own impressions, young Chinese women typically want a good job that will earn them enough to support their parents. They want a clean environment to live in, a family of their own, and the satisfaction of knowing they are useful to society. However, many young females remain in low-paid jobs at which they work long hours that leave little time for a social life. They know they are being exploited; hence they constantly keep an eye out for a better job with a bit more pay.
Another metaphorical “fly” in Deng’s cultural window has bitten the young of China. Today, a youth culture is developing that goes contrary to the values and expectations of older generations. Now there are boyfriends and girlfriends, dating, premarital sex, and the financial demands that this places on people. Men and women are getting married later; they expect more out of life, and idealism is waning, as materialism is making its mark. Those who still espouse the official ideology do so because it benefits their careers, while others flirt with one religion after another in the hope of getting something after death, if not in life. But, most likely, many mainland Chinese believe in striving for “a colorful life,” as they like to put it: to travel, own a car, have a full stomach, and to have a bit more stuff than the couple next door. Quite simply, they have modern consumer aspirations.
I met a man whom I consider “typical” of contemporary China. Mister M chatted to me on a busy Tianjin street one day. He was an office worker and a tourist guide, in his 40s, living with his wife in an older, but comfortable, apartment within a gated complex, for lack of a better term. He had a TV set, a fridge and a stove, and all things a contemporary Western family has; only the quality of the products and the size of the dwelling were more modest. He got to and from work on public transport or on his bicycle.
Mister M was eager to make my acquaintance in order to keep up his English. He asked me if I would like to meet a divorced lady, somewhat younger than I. We agreed to meet in a coffee shop around the corner from where M lived. I arrived early to fully appreciate the candidate’s grand entrance. When M and the woman appeared, she was decked out formally in black, wearing dark sunglasses. (Why was I reminded of Jackie Kennedy at the president’s funeral?) This woman certainly knew how to move gracefully. The problem with the whole situation was that she spoke no English. There wasn’t a question I posed to her that did not have to go through M. I pictured a life with the three of us – Mr. M in a separate little room of our flat, awaiting the call to translate – and I knew it wouldn’t work. However, the woman seemed desperate. When I said I would be moving to Harbin soon, she said she would follow me there. She asked what would happen if she did follow? “Nothing,” I replied. And that was the end of it. I did not see M or the woman after I moved onto the plains below the Chinese border with Siberia.
Another home I visited in Tianjin belonged to a young secretary at the university. Diana lived in a new one-bedroom, a very clean apartment, within a compound that had its own sports hall, grocery store, and maintenance department. It was a comfortable place, but affordable only because she qualified for a state housing subsidy. She commuted to work by bicycle or bus and worked eight hours a day — in an endless routine. Since her parents had insisted that she get married, at twenty-eight Diana was rather desperate to fulfill her obligation. It was rumored she had had an affair with an office mate, but things had turned out badly, and now she could not tolerate the guy. When I paid a visit to her small office, she was at a desk in one corner while her former lover was at his desk in another. They barely spoke to each other but tried to present a front of normalcy to their colleagues.
Diana was very kind in many ways. First, she bought me a book with which I was supposed to learn Chinese. In the winter, she got me a silk scarf; in return, I bought her a present. One day, she invited me to her place for dinner. She had gone to some lengths to prepare various small dishes. Also present was her former roommate, a woman around twenty-eight. While we conversed in English, I was surprised to note Diana holding the woman’s hand while we joked and had a good time. (What was that all about? I still wonder.)
Finally, I took Diana out to a restaurant only to discover that we barely had anything say. She talked a little about the food while I talked shop; otherwise, there seemed nothing to say. I didn’t see her for months thereafter but, one day, I heard that a young man was regularly giving her rides home on the back of his bicycle, a sure sign of romantic interest. I was happy for her. Later, I learned that the romance did not last, and Diana was alone again. Over time, I got the impression that in China there are quite a lot of women in Diana’s unenviable position.
Life in China is a hustle. Many people work 15-hour days, six days a week, or even seven. This frantic pace has brought a degree of family disintegration with absent fathers, troubled youngsters, and increasing divorce rates. My students spoke of a “generation gap,” that scourge of modern civilization. In the old days, three generations of a family would share common dwellings but, nowadays, urban couples are alone with their single child, while the grandparents live elsewhere. Only in rural areas is the extended family somewhat intact; but even there, millions of younger people are leaving for the cities in search of jobs, higher education, or a more satisfactory life style.
What has all this bustle and change produced? During a conversation, a student told me that he and his friends were totally befuddled. They wanted money, power, and “a colorful life,” but felt everything was out of reach. I got the impression that many of today’s young Chinese are culturally adrift, ideologically lost, waiting for a direction in which to set their sails. We can speak of a lost generation, or perhaps lost generations, for many Chinese are alienated from their cultural heritage. I sensed this whenever I had conversations on the topic of what China is and what “Chinese culture” means. I found the current mood of many young people articulated by a Chinese writer, Wang Shuo:
If by culture you mean a spiritual fount or a shared sense of values, then I have to say that this is something I can’t see in China — past or present. Here in Beijing I’ve got to shove others out of the way just to make it across the street. I stare suspiciously at any stranger who gets too close to my briefcase. I don’t lend money to friends. I never buy history books written by Chinese because I don’t believe them …. Looking into the future I often slip into a sense of dread, yet I don’t know where to turn for support. I’m like a savage in a benighted age, alone and helpless in a land with no culture. (Wang Shuo, The Wasteland, translated by John Crespi. Cited in Time, Saturday, March 24, 2007.)
Of course, Wang’s estrangement might be extreme, but it articulates the feelings of hundreds of millions of young people in search of identity. They are experiencing the kind of alienation that young Western youth went through during the 1920s and 1960s. However, it is certain that for the young, traditional Chinese culture is not a day to day reality. It hasn’t been for half a century, so there is an anomie typical of modern life.
All pressures exerted on the young have consequences. I was told of an incident in the university residences involving some of our students. Triggered by name calling, four girls beat up a roommate to the extent that she had to be hospitalized. Police were called in to investigate. Consequently, several of the instigators were expelled from our college. In another incident, I was just coming off our campus shuttle bus when I noted a woman and two men beating a larger fellow who was raising his arms to shield himself from their blows. At first, I thought they were clowning around, but it became evident the blows to his head were vicious. What I found interesting was the vehemence with which the young woman hit the big guy until he ran off. I had no clue as to what was going on but noted that the other passengers from the bus ignored it all. They just kept walking. This seems to be the universal response to trouble in China: don’t look; don’t get involved; keep moving.
I came to know several students who landed good jobs upon graduation, but the English majors seemed to be the worst off in many cases. If you can speak English in China you can get work, but the perception remains that only foreigners speak “real” English. Yet I knew Chinese people whose command of English grammar was superior to that of most Westerners. They spoke the language more “correctly” than the normal American, but they were the last hired to teach the language. In China, I met Russians, Pakistanis, Africans, and Filipinos who held decent positions in language schools while recently-graduated Chinese English majors went a begging. This was one of the ironies of the People’s Republic.
When students graduate with a bachelor’s degree, they typically can earn between one and two thousand RMB (at 8 RMB to the USD) per month in the private sector (2006 figures). One 23-year old friend of mine took a job as a translator in a boiler-making factory. She would sit around in the company offices waiting for foreign clients to show up; then she would spring into action. But she would typically be on the job nine to ten hours per day and for this she made 1,000 RMB, or about $130 USD per month, barely enough to live on. (Today, this same friend in living in the USA making over a hundred thousand dollars selling real estate to Chinese.) She shared a shabby bedroom and a kitchenette with a roommate in an apartment block that would have been condemned in any Western country. This cost a tenth of her monthly income, but she had some ten thousand RMB in loans to repay, not to mention the cost of living which rose drastically in 2007 when inflation was 6.5 percent.
From conversations I had with young Chinese, their aspirations are normal, even modest: to own an apartment and have kids. When asked where their ideas for what they want came from, students often cited American films. One young woman of 26 said she wanted a life like the family she saw in “Growing Pains.” Another woman of 23 said she wanted to live in a quiet rural house with her parents and “lots of cats.” All young people I asked wanted to travel, with America and Australia as the most frequently mentioned destinations. But money was always a problem. Some young people told me that even the newly rich in China worry about maintaining their social status, and everyone was concerned about being able to support their aging parents. Yet everyone seemed certain that the country’s economic advancement would continue for a long time, and everyone’s lives would improve as socialism became more affordable.
To my dismay, at times I found that the mentality of my twenty-year old students was more like a fourteen-year old’s in the West. I often got the impression that Chinese young adults knew very little about anything other than basketball or computer games. Certainly not many took an interest in reading for pleasure. Mostly my students were into games, movies downloaded from the Net and, of course, telephoning and text-messaging as though they had pressing matters to discuss. Yet when I asked them when the Second World War ended, or when the Japanese invaded Manchuria, they could only give me a blank look.
Most had not heard of any –isms except Communism, and most could not tell me what that was about. Nor did watching the news seem to be on their agenda. They were too absorbed in online games. I also didn’t get the impression they were encouraged to learn about the world at large, despite satellite TV, the Discovery Channel, and BBC World – all freely available on college campuses. Overall, my impression of Chinese youth was of arrested development. They seemed reluctant to become adults but were encouraged by the culture to remain in a state of infantilism. With the girls I noted this in their “little-girl” behavior: giggling constantly like kids shuffling off to the toilet, text messaging, and bringing stuffed toys to class.
In commercials and in TV programs, young women put on cute and hapless singsong falsettos, as though to ward off adulthood and its responsibilities. They seemed to be asking to be taken care of. When I asked some of them what they wanted in life, often the answer was a “handsome, rich husband.” Boys, on the other hand, wanted a “beautiful wife,” and a “highly paid job” that demanded little in the way of actual work. I concluded life in China was a hustle for which these kids were completely unprepared.
At my college, all the boys showed up with brand-name sneakers, new tee-shirts, and expensive jeans. I found this perplexing at times because, as one of the girls wrote in a short essay, her family made merely four thousand RMB per month, which meant that the parents spent a lot on their child. A cell phone was mandatory, as was a laptop for students in our rather expensive courses. The girls wore new, high-heeled shoes (sometimes a different pair every day), and they sported hairstyles with which to catch that allusive “boyfriend” (another craze). Everything had to look like the parents had m-o-n-e-y. In fact, to me this was what life in China was all about: to look rich no matter what the reality of the situation. At times I thought the country, with its new middle-class, was one big illusion that could burst at the first financial crisis.
Then there was my first weekend in Beijing. I don’t recall what I expected, but I was in a contemporary shopping mall called the Oriental Plaza, the type you find in any American city: all glitz and glamour; expensive stores carrying clothes, ice cream, Volkswagen and Mercedes Benz cars. There were the ubiquitous Starbucks, and lesser known Blenz, coffee shops, and an X-mas tree made entirely of Heineken beer cans. People were milling around it with their cameras flashing. And everywhere there were security guards in snazzy uniforms who represented the power of the state or private enterprise – or maybe they were one and the same. It all smelled of money. Yet, I noted that most people wandering in the mall had no purchases in hand; they just seemed to be window shopping or hanging out.
The Oriental Plaza contrasts sharply with what remains of the traditional hutong neighborhoods a little further up the road, on three sides of Tienanmen Square. These are one or two-story dwellings built around central courtyards. In the past, they used to house affluent families, but after the revolution of 1948, they became multiple family dwellings, workers’ compounds that gradually fell into neglect. It remains a pleasure to wander through these ancient lane ways, or to take a bike and ride through them, much like going through a maze. People still live there, although hutong are being replaced by the anonymous high-rise apartments that you find the world over.
When I strolled through one old neighborhood, I enjoyed seeing how people lived day to day: some folks were selling farm produce in the lanes; others were doing tai chi; older ladies were doing their dance-exercises to music; and an elderly man was scratching his back against a lamppost. One woman was waving her hands while walking backwards. It seemed that the hutong dwellers still had a sense of tradition and community that the massive apartment complexes could eventually make a thing of the past. I felt privileged to witness this way of life and had a sense of regret that this community might disappear.
Three years later, in 2008, I again went to Beijing just prior to the Olympics. The city’s core had been transformed. New buses cruised the streets; drivers of private cars seemed better behaved, although there were more of them. Trees, bushes, and flowers had been planted, and there were many more office complexes lining the broad avenues. The Beijing Central Railway Station was enshrouded in green netting under which men sandblasted decades of soot off the facade. Shiny new “bullet trains” pulled into the station. (You would think you were in Japan.) And – could this be true? – here were fewer gobs of spit on the sidewalks. However, in the subway system I still found long lines of commuters queuing up for tickets (at least they lined up) and, reassuringly, the ticket vending machines were out of order. On the subway trains, too, people were still crammed body to body, studiously ignoring each other. In other words, as in most modern cities of the world, the subway situation remained congested.
In the hostel where I usually stayed, workers were tearing out the toilets and showers, putting in new ones, although I couldn’t recall there being anything wrong with the facilities. In the men’s toilet, I found one fellow in a suit and tie, a cigarette in one hand and a cell phone in the other, having a conversation while squatting over the crap hole. He had left his stall door open. (Nothing unusual about that either.) And, deposited in an adjacent toilet stall, in a ceramic “Eastern” squat-toilet, there was a lone turd curled up like a softie ice cream. A “Please Flush Out” sign hung on the inside of the stall door. Nothing new there either.
During my wanderings around a stylish, renovated part of BJ, outside a Hooter’s restaurant I noted a rail-thin, old woman bent over at a ninety-degree angle, spitting out phlegm, as her equally emaciated husband gently rubbed her back. This consequence of air pollution hadn’t changed either. In the same area of town, I noted rows of black Mercedes Benz with youthful drivers lounging behind the wheels, waiting for their bosses to finish lunch in flashy eateries. BJ was as ever.
On the fences surrounding new construction projects, “VIP” apartments and “Lofts” were advertised. I wondered who could afford these, but there were plenty of foreign and rich Chinese managers in Beijing, and the city’s expansion was going to continue no matter what. The city had a dynamic of its own as billions of dollars of capital went into the full-scale transformation of not just the city but of the entire nation. It boggled the mind to behold.
Art was something new in BJ. I went to the Meng Luding Art Exhibit at the Poly Plaza, a place that hadn’t existed three years earlier. Meng produces supernova-like paintings on large canvasses, creating an impression of things exploding — perhaps a fitting metaphor for China. (Chinese modern art was becoming hot in Europe and America.) A sign on the wall told visitors that Meng “emigrated to the Untied [sic] States” — another assurance that not all things had changed.
Three new subway lines had been added to the Beijing system since I last took the underground. Number Five line had smart-looking stations, ready for the summer Olympics. Still, when I asked directions, none of the attendants understood me. When I asked for the “train station,” a woman sent me north instead of south, probably having misunderstood. However, I did note that people were more helpful and friendly than during my previous visits. One old man on a trolley bus nudged a youngster to surrender his seat to me (I walked with a cane) and, later, a student helped me pay my bus fare, much to my surprise. Were they always like this, or was this part of the “We Are Ready” Olympics campaign?
In Beijing I had dinner with a female friend who was working for a foreign company. The restaurant was a dump, but the food was good, as it can only be in China. All the time my friend was talking to me, I was aware of being monitored by two men at a nearby table. They were probably wondering about the “rich” white man “seducing” the innocent (or not so) Chinese flower. It wouldn’t have occurred to them I might be her teacher. In all of this, there remains in China a degree of suspicion of foreigners. I surmised this was not part of the “We Are Ready” spirit.
Overall, I have always had mixed feelings about Beijing. On the one hand, it is the center of China, the place where the future is happening right before your eyes. Buildings are sprouting up everywhere; there are more cars than in other Chinese cities, more buses, most of them shiny and new, and the subway is efficient and comfortable. There are thousands of restaurants to choose from, lots of entertainment, beautiful public parks, imperial palaces, and neat hutong to explore. BJ is a world-class city in that sense. But it is also a den for thieves and scam artists.
I encountered my first scam a few months into my first year in the country. During a few days off work, a colleague and I went to Beijing to see the attractions. We were walking in Tienanmen Square, when a young woman asked us where we were from. I immediately wondered what she was trying to sell. Anna, as she called herself, explained she was an “art student,” and it happened to be the last day of a show her “professor” had going in a nearby building. Would we be interested in seeing it? The works were for sale (of course). We declined the offer but suggested that if she showed us a place to eat, we would buy her lunch.
Fair enough. Anna took us down narrow lane ways of the vast hutong, West of the Square. We had traditional hot pot and enjoyed talking to her. When we told her we were teachers, not tourists, she confessed that her job was to lure foreigners into an art show where everything was terribly overpriced. The art was not produced by students but in a factory employing hundreds of young painters copying any and everything without a thought to copyrights. The trade included replica of well-known work by Chinese artists. A hundred and fifty RMB was a normal going price for an A-4 sized watercolor, but it wasn’t worth anything near that. Still, plenty of foreigners considered this price chicken scratch and readily forked out the bucks. Somebody was making money.
The second scam I encountered involved another girl. She zeroed in on me in one of the large bookstores in downtown BJ. A colleague and I were perusing English-language editions when she sidled up to us, saying: “Hi. Where are you from?” (This is the normal line.) My immediate thought was that she was a prostitute, as there are plenty of these in every tourist hot spot. But she wasn’t. She claimed her name was Cindy (first an Anna; now a Cindy), and she was from Inner Mongolia. Her “tired parents” were asleep in a hotel recovering from the first leg of a “flight to Sanya.” Ostensibly, Cindy had left the hotel room to look around the big town, and that’s how she found us. Could we recommend any books to read so she could improve her “poor” English? Although we suspected something, we couldn’t quite guess what the scam was, so we played along. She asked if we could go somewhere for tea. Tea? Where had I heard that before?
Cindy took us down gray lane ways through a hutong. We entered one tea shop, but she didn’t want to stay. Then we went straight to another, less flashy place where she set us at a table and promptly marched into the kitchen. Not a good sign, I thought. Who is she to be able to go right into the kitchen?
She emerged a moment later to cheerfully announce that tea was being made. It was “not expensive,” she assured us with a smile. We talked and had a pleasant time. Then, after at least two refills of water into the tea pot, she said she had to leave for the toilet. It was down the lane, but she would be right back. That’s when the bill came. Sixty RMB for tea! Now, for the uninitiated, in terms of buying power in China, at that time, this would have paid for lunch for two, or the equivalent of sixty US Dollars in purchasing power. But, because it was peanuts to us, we paid. Still, I had had enough of Cindy, so I decided to go back to the hotel. My colleague, however, was smitten with the girl and decided to see what else she would offer, so off he went with her to some bars. Later, I learned she had steered him into a club where he had spent a considerable sum on drinks. She had also tried to get him to buy her presents. But, once it became evident that she wasn’t offering anything in return, he said goodnight and left.
We got off lightly compared to a fellow from Australia who had encountered not one Cindy, but two lovelies, both well-versed in English. He ended up in a tea house where he was presented with a bill for two-thousand RMB (about $260 USD), a ridiculous sum for a pot of tea. He was pressured into paying up but fumed all the way home, cursing his own stupidity. How did these scammers make him pay? The manager brought out his meanest-looking heavies, then disappeared into the sanctuary of his office. The brutes stood around the Australian with their arms folded, intimidating him until the cash materialized. Then they escorted the sucker to the door. The girls, of course, were nowhere in sight. The moral of the story is buyer beware. You can count on being fleeced unless you are careful.
A variation on the tea scam is the beer scam. Foreigners will be in a bar, ordering drink after drink without being aware of what they cost. End of the evening, the tab arrives, and the foreigners hit the roof: “Three-hundred Dollars! What!” “Yes,” the waiter insists. “Three hundred dollars. I asked you if it’s OK to charge you triple and you agreed. I have witnesses. Now pay up!” He says all of this in Mandarin, of course, insisting that this is what the guests had agreed to, and now it’s time to pay. The foreigners are outraged, resist, but know they have no recourse as they do not speak the language. They don’t even know how much they drank or what beer costs. Moral of the story: pay-as-you-go, know the price of things and, if possible, invite someone along who speaks Chinese.
A dentist’s office is probably the last place you would expect to be scammed, but in China, this (and more) is possible. If you look at price lists for various dental procedures, note the ordinary prices compared to the “International Standard” figures. This carries the implication that a higher quality service is available for those who can pay. In some instances, this may be so, but when I went to the dentist to have my teeth cleaned, the normal rate was a mere 80 RMB, yet I was charged 260.
If these had been the only rip-offs I encountered in China, I would not dwell on the topic. However, “fooling the foreigners” is a national sport played on all levels of the economy. Allow me to recall another instance. Across the road from the university, where I worked in Harbin, there was a hot pot restaurant. A group of ten of us instructors went there for dinner. Since we had trouble reading the menu, we asked our smiling waiter (possibly the manager) to suggest some dishes. He indicated we should leave it up to him. Soon dish after dish — pork, beef, green vegetables — arrived on plates held aloft by quick-footed waiters. Then came more beef, fish, shavings of ham, shavings of mutton, mushrooms, shrimp … Whatever the human imagination could cook up in the kitchen ended up on our table. The trouble was the stream of food never ended.
For lack of space, dishes began piling up on the sideboards and on the window sills. The table was covered in stacks of empty plates. The beer kept arriving too. Then the hard liquor came. Some of us became too plastered to notice anything, but I finally asked why we had so much food. We’d never be able to eat even half of it. That’s when someone asked for the bill. When it arrived, we collectively had a fit. It was astronomical. After expressing indignation, we paid it. However, we never returned to the place, so they lost ten potential repeat-customers. Did they mind? I doubt it. The temptation to make a quick buck overrides all other considerations in China today. Forget about tomorrow. Only today counts. Life is unpredictable.
China would leave a better impression on foreigners if some people weren’t so greedy. “It is glorious to be rich” seems have come with the addenda: “So get rich any way you can.” The most serious incidents of this mentality have been scandals with world-wide implications. For instance, in June of 2007, Chinese-made toothpaste containing ingredients used in antifreeze made headlines around the world. Then illegal dyes were found in candies, crackers, pickles, and sea products. A chemical called melamine was found in dog and cat food that killed dozens of pets in America. (Later it would be killing babies in China.) Other chemicals killed over a hundred people in Panama. All of this would not have raised an eyebrow in the land of 1.3 billion people had it not been for international condemnation and concern. What’s a few hundred dead in the great march of progress? However, the threat of banning imports from the PRC did cause the leadership to worry about China’s international image.
That same year, several drug scandals shook the Chinese pharmaceutical industry. The first one was when a former State Food and Drug Administration official was found guilty of granting licenses for substandard products that caused injury and death. Apparently, the man’s wife and son had gotten used to receiving expensive gifts from pharmaceutical companies. They were enjoying a million-dollar lifestyle, having set up a consulting company through which bribes were collected. The upshot of the scandal was that the agency, originally set up to protect the People, was riddled with bad eggs. According to one industry analyst, “If the head of the drug agency is corrupt, you can imagine how corrupt the whole system is.” In short, the Chinese FDA official was sentenced to a bullet-in-the-back-of-the-head, a common Chinese solution. And that was the end of that.
When I first met my class in Tianjin, what struck me most poignantly was the disorder and filthiness of my designated classroom. The floor was littered with wrappers, plastic bottles, and it was coated in chalk dust. I had never encountered anything like it. Ironically, a mop stood next to a large sink at the back of the room. I gathered from this that we were supposed to clean up our own room, but when I asked my students about this, no one seemed to understand English. At the time, I knew nothing about class monitors who were supposed to organize cleaning, provide chalk, and wipe the board. I assumed there was a cleaning staff that would put things ship shape. But several days into my assignment, it became apparent that no such people would arrive even if they did exist. At that point, I let the program administrator know how I felt about the working environment.
The next day, I entered a clean classroom. The floor was scrubbed, the board was washed, and there was new chalk in the tray. I learned that some of the students had stayed behind the previous day and had cleaned the place up. This overwhelmed me emotionally. Chocking with gratitude, I told my darling students I had not seen such respect for teachers in my own country. I loved being in China. I was ready to forgive them anything. As a reward that day, I let them out early. However, later I ran into the administrator who assured me it was she who had ordered the lazy little shits to perform their duties. This came as a reality check for me, the kind I get occasionally when things appear too good to be true. But I would receive many more of these during my years in China.
As I got to know my charges, I learned that none of them had gained access to university the usual way – that is, on good grades. All of them had bad study habits or were just not smart enough to cut the mustard. Still, their parents or extended families had enough money to get them into what was a very expensive private program with a foreign college-curriculum and qualified instructors, not to mention glossy, imported textbooks. Because the program was on a university campus, the students had the illusion of being “in university” without this really being the case. They carried library cards like normal college students, went to the cafeterias, and lived in dormitories like genuine students. But it soon became apparent that I was part of a grand illusion. The program I had signed on for was a profit-generating, joint-venture between a foreign college and a Chinese businessman. They merely rented facilities from a Chinese university strapped for funds. Still, they were paying me, and I was in China, so I stayed.
In Tianjin, as in all of China, retired and working professors lived in housing some of which would be condemned as unfit in a Western city. Their on-campus residences consisted of two small rooms in a long, two-story, brick edifice with filthy windows and badly-lit stairwells. Outside the doors to their building stood primitive shanties where migrants from the countryside made food of all sorts — fried noodles, greasy vegetables, soups, and paddies — mainly for a student clientele. At first, this little “slum” seemed too unhygienic for me, but once I got used to the human condition in China, I ended up eating there too. And the food was delicious – most likely because it was smothered in mono-sodium glutamate (MSG).
During my stay in the PRC, I had only a few opportunities to have frank discussions with Chinese professors as most academics were too busy to pay attention to foreign guests. One conversation that I did have, with a professor of philosophy, was interesting for the glimpse into her mind it afforded. We were on the subject of America when she noted “Americans always need an enemy.” Gee. Where had I heard that one before? Pursuant to this remark came stereotypical observations that only those who were not even remotely aware of American history and culture could make. I had heard similar stuff from anti-American bigots in Europe and in the Middle East. I was disappointed to hear such trite from a professor.
Another shocker came during a conversation with a retired engineering prof’. We were talking about conflicts when I mentioned the German invasion of Russia during the Second World War. “Germany invaded Russia?” he asked in surprise. This threw me for a loop. At that point, I began to wonder exactly what people in China had been studying all these years. Granted, these incidents are not enough to judge a system of education, but the students and professors I encountered in China were not the most informed. This could be because, not long ago, under Chairman Mao, intellectuals were denounced as “the stinking ninth category;” academics and intellectuals were much abused, and learning was denounced as “bourgeois.” The Red Guards literally destroyed their own teachers with great enthusiasm, a fact I pondered occasionally while watching over my own charges.
I found that students lacked basic reading and writing skills, spent far too much time playing computer games, and never asked questions. They plagiarized excessively, did not know how to do research, although data banks were available on library computers and, generally, they exhibited little intellectual curiosity about anything. But perhaps I was expecting too much. Given the pressures the kids are under, it must be enough to toe the line and produce what is demanded rather than display any kind of innovative thought or curiosity. Education in China, as in most countries, remains a tool of socialization, not for the liberation of individual minds.
To be fair, I had a job interview at a university outside of Shanghai where I found more able and motivated students, and professors who had studied in the West. All teachers and students were technologists; none were in the Humanities. But they did impress me as being more informed than the faculty and students I had previously met. So, I suppose there is hope for the Chinese educational system.
The people in China I came to admire most were the retired. Older people are usually found on public walkways and in parks, playing chess or sitting around, some in their revolutionary blue outfits, myopically watching progress all around them. They may be wondering: “Where did the revolution go?”
I saw elderly people in Tianjin, Harbin, and Beijing who were remarkably active and flexible. In any city of China, seniors can be seen exercising, dancing, or stretching themselves in little neighborhood parks. I watched with envy as one old man raised his leg way over his head against a tree. All I could do was limp away in shame.
But there are many citizens who are not well off physically or financially. One day, in freezing temperatures, I was in downtown Tianjin with a group of my students when we came across some beggars. One of them, an old man, wore a filthy, padded army coat. He was on his hands and knees, holding out a little pan. I noted that one of his arms was just a stump. The other three beggars were a man, a woman, and a child of about four, all on their knees, faces cast down, huddled together against the bitter wind like a family of sparrows. The oldest man was wearing an worn-out suit and tie, apparently in a bid to look respectable.
As I bent down to give the family some money, one of my students admonished me, saying they were not “real beggars” — he claimed they begged as a profession and even made a small fortune at it. I found this preposterous and said that even if it were true, the fact that it was so tough making a few bucks on the sidewalk in winter qualified this as a form of work. I heard so many excuses for not giving to the poor that I concluded many middle-class Chinese had simply become cold-hearted.
I saw other beggars during my years in China. Memorable among them was a man and a boy outside a department store in Xian, again in the cold of winter. Both were on their knees, the boy bent over a bowl with a few coins in it, while the man was repeated bashing his forehead against the concrete sidewalk (!) in an agonizing show of desperation. (If these were actors, they were brilliant.) This scene seemed not to impress anyone but astonished foreigners. I noticed that few people gave more than a passing glance, and even fewer donated anything for this pitiful performance.
In Beijing, I saw many poor people in the pedestrian underpasses leading to Tienanmen Square (before they were evicted for the Olympics), hawking trinkets, selling gloves, combs, junk of all kinds, day in and day out. One old man, who ought to have been in a retirement home playing mahjong with his friends, sold little Chinese flags. Others were huddling in sleeping bags next to their luggage — presumably country people who had come to the big city in search of work.
Elsewhere, I saw old men telling fortunes along the sidewalks or on pedestrian overpasses while others measured people’s weight on scales for a few pennies. One man drew traditional gods and goddesses with colored pencils, doing a very poor job of it, but seeming to prefer this work to straight out begging. Old women sometimes sold a few carrots or onions, some dirty potatoes or fruit. In general, my impression was that the old and the maimed bore the brunt of China’s leaping progress, but they did their utmost to retain a measure of self-respect – and for that they got mine.
At the university in Tianjin one day, there was a flurry of activity that, again, gave me an insight into China’s cultural legacy. The president of the university was expected to make an annual visit to the departments, so we were asked to be in our offices for a tour of inspection. Several of us wanted to meet the man and tried to comply with the request. But when the time came, there was no sight of the man.
All the Chinese university staff had been cleaning their rooms that morning. New binders, pens and pads of paper were issued to the Chinese professors — probably to make the administration look less miserly than it was. Balloons decorated the 6th floor where he was meeting with the bigwigs. I happened to glance into the board room where he was addressing spell-bound administrators. There was a video-recording machine to catch his every word, and everyone was dressed in respectful, black attire. But he was too busy to shake our hands. He never showed up on our floor at all.
For all its collectivism, China has never abandoned its top-down management or authoritarian leadership model. The boss is the Boss; managers are called “leaders,” especially in universities; figuratively and literally, the masses are still in uniforms and red bandannas. You see this in staff being drilled outside larger restaurants and in hundreds of department store employees marching to work places early in the morning. All are in uniforms. Clearly, China remains an authoritarian society.
At school, the managerial role is given to the teachers who boss the students around; teachers are presided over by principals who boss the teachers, and so on up the ladder of authority. I saw this in action where I later worked at a university in Harbin. The Big Boss was the “Dragon Lady” whom we seldom saw and rarely spoke to unless it was a perfunctory “Hi Dr. Z.” (She was addressed as “Doctor” although she held no advanced degree.) She had a spacious 9th floor office, the only étage with adequate heating in the winter. Her underlings were all in offices around her, a support staff of a dozen people, most of whom had nothing to do unless it was enrolment or graduation time. They spent the days playing computer games or the stock market or gawking at porn.
All these people were supposed to support twenty of us foreign teachers, but what we mostly got from them was abuse. We constituted the front-line troops in the college’s mad scramble to make money. We were expected to be in our offices even when we had no work to do and were expected to “pass as many students as possible,” regardless of merit or ability. Western academic standards were unheeded even though the bachelor’s degrees would come from a western college. We were also expected to go out in subzero temperatures, to run back to the office at the call of our “leaders.” Not surprisingly, given our liberal upbringing, this rubbed many of us the wrong way. Where the Chinese staff jumped when given orders, we bristled, resisted, and at times nearly came to blows with our masters.
One image I still relish is of several foreign colleagues yelling abuse at our Chinese dean, a particularly inept fellow who spent hours online scanning the stock market for bargains. He never visited any classes and had no idea of what we were teaching, but he lorded it over us with unreasonable demands and massive workloads. That day, after some foreign instructors hadn’t been paid for weeks, the shit hit the fan. The disaffected group marched up to the dean’s office where a yelling match ensued with threats and counter-threats that left all participants shaken. The dean threatened not to pay the faculty at all; in turn, the instructors threatened to withhold student grades. Fortunately for all concerned, a last-minute compromise was reached.
What usually happened after such an incident was that someone’s teaching contract would not be renewed as punishment to impress everyone else. (“Kill the chicken to scare the monkey,” as the saying goes.) However, the office staff was never called to task for anything. They were all Party members and had their “iron rice bowls” for life, while the rest of us lived uneasily from one contract to the next. All of us were uninsured contractors and would receive no retirement pensions or benefits. This did not concern our Chinese employers in the least. For their part, we were considered over-paid foreigners to be scorned and envied.
Following this incident, one colleague put in for a transfer to a Beijing sister-college. The rest of us were amused at first, but then we were kept waiting and waiting for extensions to our own contracts. The office always wanted all our grades and exam papers safely in filing cabinets before offering us future work; hence, we had no bargaining chips. All power remained in the management’s hands, while we were left in suspense. This is part of the Chinese negotiation style, and more widespread than I had realized.
An incident that occurred in July 2007, in Guangdong province, caught my attention. Chinese migrant workers had gone on strike at a Fuyuan Hydro-power construction project after they had not been paid for four months. According to the workers, strike leaders were singled out by company thugs, beaten with shovels, steel rods, and axes. One man was killed. The police treated the incident as a “group fight” to whitewash the company. The same news report mentioned some 200 million migrant workers were facing increasing levels of violence from employers who meted out collective and individual punishment as they saw fit. From my experience of Chinese managers, I was not surprised at this, but it made me wonder how we would have been treated had we not been foreigners.
Rebellion — or Not
Still, despite such draconian measures, there were signs of rebellion among the people. For instance, vandalism was on the rise, more at universities than elsewhere. Many Chinese cities at that time were so dilapidated it would have been difficult to vandalize anything, but on campuses you often saw demolished trash cans and abused classroom walls. Our college was no exception. Brand new surfaces were besmirched with footprints, desks were scratched, and chair covers were torn with a vengeance. Classrooms that had been clean and new looked worn out within weeks of use.
Some young people also attempted to make rebellious statements with outrageous dress, but this quickly became fashionable, so that soon everyone under 25 looked outrageous. As in America, with whom the Chinese constantly compare themselves, youthful rebellion is instantly neutralized once it becomes the material for TV shows. If anything, Chinese young people are frustrated not because they are denied the opportunity to be “different,” but because the opportunities for joining the system and enriching themselves have become more limited. They want in, not out.
It remained trendy for Chinese people to seem “Western” although few spoke any foreign language, and very few had ever been out of the country. Students often wore T-shirts with slogans in English that made no sense: “Rabbi” (instead of “Rabbit”?), or little hearts and flowers around slogans like “Love for ever.” One girl I saw wore blue jeans with “Juicy” embossed on her bottom. A middle-aged woman’s shirt said: “Get drunk;” others said, “Can’t stop to dream,” “free love,” or “live like this,” and “touch the fitness life.” Such slogans gave me the impression that Chinese young people were rather innocent in contrast to us battle-hardened realists from the West. Or maybe they simply had no idea what absurd messages their shirts were sending out.
But, after a time, I interpreted the way young people dressed as a desire to catch up to what they thought life outside China was like. They closely followed South Korean fashions, watched Japanese cartoons, and American films on pirated DVDs. I suppose this was part of their quest for identity given the lack of any in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
Occasionally, when high American officials paid a visit to Beijing, raids on DVD sellers were conducted in major cities to demonstrate how seriously the government took intellectual property rights. Such razzias were shown on TV news, but within days things were business as usual. In market stalls, you easily found not only American, but French and German films with Chinese subtitles or dubbed voices. For most Chinese, these films were as close as they would ever get to seeing life abroad, hence their enduring popularity. However, when English subscripts were included in English-language films, the scripts tended to be ludicrous. For instance, a character in a film who said, “That was a grenade” had his words transcribed as “That was a goodnight.” Or, “We only report victories” became “Were you getting a piece of egg on mine?” If nothing else, these blunders were great for a laugh.
English phrase-dropping was becoming common too, especially in Shanghai where I heard “Call me tonight” at the end of a conversation in Mandarin. Television news (“World Update”), regular TV shows, commercials, and serials all announced themselves on screen in English script, although not a word of English was spoken on the shows. On Saturday night, one state-owned channel broadcast American and European movies dubbed into Chinese. To me, most of this was cultivating an image of cosmopolitanism rather than an accurate reflection of cultural reality.
Racism and Class Status
The emerging middle-class in China is growing in numbers but exactly whom it includes and what the criteria for membership are is disputed. In an edition of the China Daily (November 13, 2006), the National Bureau of Statistics defined middle-class membership as anyone making more than 2,000 Yuan (then $300 USD) per month. In less developed cities, this criterion was lowered to 1,500 Yuan. The professions included in this “middle-ness” included accountants, entertainers, freelancers, teachers, medical workers and, surprisingly, unpaid housewives. Typically, these people had an education to the Bachelor’s level, aimed at owning a car, wanted to travel, and had personal finances. My own students predominantly belonged to this section and hardly differed in their values and tastes from my own country’s middle-class.
On television, there seemed to be a campaign to mold the public’s consciousness of China’s role in the contemporary world. For instance, one series was filmed in an African country. It featured a lovely young Chinese woman married to a black African. Episodes followed her discovery of her husband’s culture, presumably, to make Chinese audiences aware that their country had interests in Africa – oil, minerals, and other raw materials, in exchange for Chinese engineering and foreign aid. The show did not last very long, and I wondered to what extent it had broadened minds normally focused inwards rather than outwards to the world.
People are generally aware of the Han Chinese as a tribe unto themselves who do not normally marry cross-culturally or inter-racially. Indeed, the Han can be said to have strong conceptions of being a superior type of Asian. Even so, Chinese racism goes unnoticed except when things flare up, as in the 1980s when students in Beijing rioted in response to African students going out with Chinese coeds.
A more recent incident that made news in the Guardian (UK) involved public attitudes expressed on the internet towards Condoleezza Rice, then President Bush’s Secretary of State. In unambiguously racist terms, in China she was referred to as a “black bitch,” “black ghost,” “a really low form of life,” and similarly repugnant characterizations. The occasion was Dr. Rice’s state visit to China. (Martin Jacques, “The Middle Kingdom Mentality,” Saturday, April 16, 2005, edition of the Guardian.) The writer of the article noted that China had ignored dealing with its own racist sense of superiority, especially over black people. In contrast to Western racism, said the journalist, what was missing in China was “a culture of anti-racism.” Apparently, such chauvinist attitudes are virtually unopposed in the Middle Kingdom even as they are in Hong Kong. And, from this we can conclude there will be trouble as China makes deeper inroads into Africa, for nothing can disguise someone’s racial arrogance.
China and Africa
One day on TV, I watched a song-and-dance show featuring singers and acrobats, Chinese and African. The program celebrated an international deal that had been signed in Beijing: African resources in exchange for medical and technical assistance. I noted that the Chinese acrobats outdid the Africans at every trick: jumping, leaping, juggling dishes, riding monocycles — a point that could not have been lost on an audience of hundreds of millions. The Africans looked primitive in their grass skirts and voodoo makeup, whooping and hollering — reinforcing the stereotypical image that the average Chinese probably holds of the “dark” continental.
But how involved is China in Africa to warrant televised extravaganzas? After some research, I found that China is very much focused on the African continent. In Chad, for instance, the Chinese purchased the exploration rights to a vast territory of land. They have engineers searching for oil, and they plan to build a refinery and cement production facility. In the Sudan they have invested some 40 billion US Dollars in port and pipeline construction to ship oil back to the Motherland. From Angola they are pumping a half million barrels of crude per day, some 18% of China’s oil imports. In Guinea they are also looking for the black stuff, while in Namibia they are prospecting for uranium. From South Africa they import manganese, gold, and iron ore.
In Zambia, there are some 80,000 Chinese workers, many of them convicts working in the copper mining industry. From the same country, the Chinese import cobalt. In Guinea, Gabon, and the Congo, the Chinese are busy harvesting lumber for the Chinese market. In Nigeria, they are repairing the railway system that brings oil to the ports. Elsewhere, they are improving roads over which they ship raw materials and bring in Chinese-made goods which, in 2006, already had 6.8% of the African market share. China’s trade with Africa reached $200 billion USD in 2014, more than any other trading partner.
Politically too, China is making friends as fast as it can in order to assure a steady supply of raw materials. It has a “hands off” policy towards the “internal affairs” of its trading partners, leaving African oligarchs to do as they please with the capital gained from the sale of resources. China is also handing out cheap loans and forgiving debts, sending doctors and nurses, engineers, and experts of all kinds in its bid to keep the leaders (if not the people) of Africa happy. So, this was behind the song and dance extravaganza I saw on Chinese television.
Other shows that I watched on TV were less about making friends internationally than with providing a stream of entertainment to keep 1.3 billion citizens entertained. There were very few documentaries unless they were about endangered Tibetan prairie dogs. Typically, shows featured young people bouncing around to music with strobe lights and mini fireworks popping off. The girls and boys did rap numbers, and they gyrated on the floor. They were dressed in black leather (or imitation leather); some girls wore provocatively short skirts and thigh-high boots. Sometimes the “top 10” songs were listed on the screen, along with lyrics translated into English. Occasionally, blonde, white women came on as guest stars. Then phone numbers were displayed for those who wanted to order the music on CDs.
Television commercials were about Softskin creams and anti-dandruff shampoos, or restaurants that had novelties like coffee and expensive wines. An interesting ad was the “Dolly Wrinkle Eraser,” supposedly “made in the USA,” that paragon of modernity. It came with a phony-looking guarantee certificate. Then there was the ad that had a white man speaking Chinese, selling special pillows and mattresses that promised to do wonders for aging spines. An 800-number appeared so that people could get rid of their excess cash immediately. This ad ran over a minute in length, repeatedly hammering its message into hundreds of millions of brains.
Another product was an electronic dictionary. This was for ambitious youngsters struggling with the English language. A studious-looking white guy (again!) promoted this toy for 998 RMB. But the weirdest ad I saw had to be the contraption flaunted by white people speaking English and German. This was a mail-ordered rack that literally stretched people as in medieval times. This contraption was supposed to make people taller. It was surely forbidden in the West; but then, anything goes in China. All ads featured happy, healthy looking couples, young and old, and the ubiquitous parents with their single spoiled brat — the “cool” Chinese family.
Another ad flaunted a huge “family sauna” in which you could sit sweating out the impurities of your body while reading a magazine or making cellphone calls, undoubtedly to friends who wondered why you were in your living room stuck in a huge plastic bag. You could throw away that old-fashioned hot water bottle for your sore back while losing the pounds of fat you put on at KFC and McDonald’s. The ad makers had learned well from American hucksters.
Next on TV came black and white footage of President de Gaul, followed by images of French dignitaries visiting Beijing during the Cold War. This was to remind the audience just who their friends had been over the years. But then this was the build up for the French president’s first China visit. (This love affair would last almost two years until the next president, Sarkozy, intimated he would not be attending the opening of the Olympic Games out to protest Beijing’s handling of Tibetan protesters. At that point all things French became rubbish in China.)
A few nights later on television, there was the French contribution to the Sino-Franco love affair. A group called Equinox attempted to impress the Chinese with high-tech music. Broadcast simultaneously to audiences in Paris and Beijing, the electronic tunes essentially said nothing. (But then, perhaps music has nothing to say these days.) The techno beat was industrial and, eventually, annoying. During the program, a Chinese musician played a traditional string instrument, its haunting tunes kindling images of foggy mountains, cool lakes and rivers — but this was mixed with a grating, electronic beat. Perhaps this was to say that France was offering China a glimpse into the future, bland and meaningless as it may well turn out to be.
Finally, there was the New Year’s Day program on CCTV 1. When I tuned in, there were Chinese belly dancers gyrating against a backdrop of Egyptian pyramids. A moustached Chinese wearing a turban performed in front of a chorus of thirty “harem girls,” but then he was transformed into a singer wearing a Mao suit embroidered with silver. The belly dancers disappeared, then reappeared as 1950s girls wearing red and white silk pants and blouses. With friendly smiles, they unfolded fans to traditional Chinese opera music. Snowflakes fell as they twirled and gyrated. Cut to the hammer and sickle, and the national songstress came on to sing a patriotic song. On screen, behind her, were images of Chinese doctors in white lab coats and construction workers wearing hard hats; policemen and women; farmers; a military man tossing the national flag into the breeze. All cliches for the masses.
Foreigners and Annoyances
My own white-skinned novelty was a handicap at times. As I come from a multicultural country, where you can see every human type from every part of the globe, race was not an issue for me. Back home, no one would stare at a black, yellow, or brown person any more than they would stare at a white one. But in China, this was not the case. There were not many “foreign” faces on the streets of Tianjin or Harbin. Hence, strangers would stop and stare or call out “Hello,” or send over their children to try out their floundering English. Students and adults alike would make my acquaintance solely to practice English, probably without seeing me as a person at all. I was a species: a “foreigner.”
The political correctness in China is not as it is in the West. Apparently, many Chinese do not feel wrong in commenting on the whiteness (or blackness) of one’s skin, or in saying things like “Man, you are fat!” They can be offensive without meaning to be or even noticing it. But they can also be complimentary for no apparent reason at all. It can be rather confusing.
Such issues aside, there were habits of the ordinary Chinese that annoyed me no matter how long I was in the country. For instance, men spat in public places (in department stores and in hospitals they spit into ashtrays). Achhhhhh…sput! I was in a taxi once when the driver opened his door, leaned out and Achhhh… let one fly. Other people did it out of bus windows. Once on a plane, from the seat behind me, I heard Achhhhhh…sput! I just hoped he put it into a barf bag. I found out later that many people had lung disease, thanks to endless volumes of coal dust emanating from hundreds of thousands of chimneys used in industry and domestic heating. Alternatives to coal are only now being explored, but the damage to human health has been done.
Winter sidewalks were commonly spotted with frozen spit – not a comforting thought considering that spring would come. At first, this behavior irked me for I did not see a reason for it, but high levels of air pollution also began to effect me to the point that, now and then, I too had to spit into my handkerchief to clear my sinuses. Then I understood.
The spitting issue made news when the Spiritual Civilization Steering Committee of the Chinese Communist Party decided to get tough before the Olympics. The committee had decided to re-educate uncouth tourists by making travel agencies and tour guides responsible for the bad behavior of their charges. The tour leaders would have to correct the embarrassing behavior of those in their groups lest the nation lose face. When thousands of international visitors arrived for the Olympics, no one wanted to hear Achhhhhh…sput! However, teaching people not to spit is only treating the symptoms of ills that are far more serious. But, more of this later.
Another annoyance was people in crowds who would come up close to listen in on my conversations or to see what I was doing. In stores like Wal-Mart, some shoppers would stare into my cart to see what I was buying. Maybe I knew something they didn’t? When I once had to go to a hospital for a knee problem, I found myself in a room with six guys in white coats examining some dozen people, and as many visitors milling around. When I got the look-over by a “doctor,” every one of them formed a crowd around me to leer as though I were a rare bug caught by a collector. It was Kafkaesque.
All in all, in the first three years, I saw no fewer than five doctors in China for a problem I had with my leg. Only one of them offered a diagnosis but none suggested a remedy. This led me to conclude most of the practitioners in China are ill-trained; others are just quacks out to make a buck. As for traditional Chinese medicine, it has never done me any good, and I conclude it is part of a tradition of taking people to the cleaners – except, I should add, for the pain-relieving effects of acupuncture which I underwent for months on end. It seemed to ease the pain although it did not heal me.
I came down with strange illnesses, perplexing pains in one foot and knee. There was a hospital I visited that, for me, came to represent all Chinese public hospitals. In the old Number 2 Hospital in Harbin, barely lit hallways were crowded with patients coming and going while others were packed up against wickets where patients paid to see a normal practitioner or, alternately, as signs above some doors indicated in English, to see a “famous doctor,” presumably a specialist. Prices varied according to whom patients could afford to see. I chose to see a “famous” one.
The examination rooms were small, with sooty walls that had not seen paint in decades. Doctors sat quietly in their rooms, enjoying a cigarette between seeing patients, but they all wore clean, white coats and looked authoritative. When I had to have a blood sample taken, I joined a line before three wickets with a nurse attending each. It reminded me of a war situation, as one after another patient rolled up his sleeve, stuck his arm through a wicket, and had a needle jabbed into a vein. (I assumed I got a new needle.) Blood samples were carefully labelled, and patients could pick up their test results that same day. It all ran quite smoothly, as it should in a country used to servicing hundreds of millions of people per day.
Not satisfied with the public clinics, I went for an x-ray at a military hospital. This was an impressive, new high-rise tower which, to my surprise, was largely empty. I got to see a friendly young doctor who spoke English. Doctor W wore a white coat but had his military uniform on a peg on the wall. When I commented on the splendid design of Chinese military uniforms, he said: “I’ll get you one.” (Since I didn’t take him up on his offer, I don’t know whether he was serious.) He had served in Africa as part of a UN mission and was quite pleased to show me the citations and medals he had received. It was a privilege for him to have travelled to such an exotic place. Interestingly, this doctor finally gave me a credible diagnosis of my leg problem, but he was not able to prescribe a remedy for it. Graciously, he didn’t charge me for his services.
Before I saw Dr. W, I had been treated by several acupuncturists. Of these, “Doctor Pain,” as I called him, turned out to be the most effective. I had been having pains in the muscles around my knee for over a year, making it impossible to walk normally or carry anything as heavy as groceries. For several months, Dr. Pain and his sister-in-law came daily to inject me with ossotides and other mysterious fluids. Frequently, I screamed as I was jabbed with dozens of acupuncture needles, to which he used to give a twist to make sure they went in deep, and then hooked them up to a gadget that released a stream of electrical impulses. I would be sitting in bed, my leg twitching like some poor frog being electrocuted, while everyone else watched television. Often, Dr. Pain and his sister-in-law would go into my kitchen to prepare supper for me and my Chinese friends. We sat like a family around a hot pot with an array of dishes my care-givers had prepared. These remain among my favorite memories of China.
However, overall, I can’t say I was impressed by the quality of the doctors or the health care in the PRC. Typically, a practitioner receives four years of training in medicine before he joins a hospital or becomes “famous” as a specialist (compared to ten years of study in my country). The Chinese themselves are distrustful of doctors, so I am not alone in my conclusion. However, having said this, I found a similar incompetence and lack of concern in Western medical practitioners. Today, everyone seems out to make a buck, and getting people when they are at their most desperate has become quite a racket everywhere.
Beginning March 2008, visitors flew into Beijing’s ultramodern Terminal III, then the largest and most impressive airline terminal in the world. As everything else being built in China these days, it invites superlatives, having been constructed by some 50 thousand workers going at it 24 hours per day. The structure was designed by Sir Norman Foster, one of the preeminent architects of our time, a fact that seems to have been forgotten by the Chinese officials at the opening ceremonies. (Indeed, most Chinese seem unaware that foreigners are involved in the ultra-modern constructions in the country.)
I walked through the new building, having been dropped off by an airport bus. The driver didn’t know if I was at the correct terminal, and neither did any of the attendants at the airline check-in counters. They sent me to Terminal II, but when I got there, the airline people there said “No, no, Terminal I.” I had to walk ten minutes along a corridor connecting Terminal I and II, arriving just in time for my flight. Considering the wonderful structures going up all over Beijing, it’s a pity more wasn’t invested in training personnel. Few could speak English, and even those who did sent me off in the wrong direction whether it was in a train station or in an airport.
On the positive side, some service in China is great. On trains, for instance, an attendant comes by to sell drinks and food; you can read or look out the window, enjoy the ride while eating at your seat. In restaurants, waitresses perform their duties attentively, without the pseudo-friendly banter you get from service personnel in North America. The Chinese do their jobs conscientiously, demand no tips, and work long hours.
Having said this, there are exceptions. True enough, restaurant personnel in China work hard and generally give efficient service, but this was not as true for supermarket cashiers. One day, I was in a Carrefour where I encountered a young cashier who worked only a fraction as fast as the others. She leisurely passed each customer’s goods through the scanner and avoided looking at anyone in the lengthy lineup. To top it off, she carelessly tossed plastic bags to people, telling them to pack their own stuff. When it came my turn, I just said: “If you don’t like working here why don’t you look for work someplace else?” To my further annoyance, she beamed at me like a dumb cow, perhaps pleased that she had been noticed. I glanced at the passive shoppers in line, as it occurred to me that they were used to this. They had that dazed look as if to say: “This is life.” It was then that I decided that people lacked the standards of a modern society; they expected too little respect and consideration. But then, this was Harbin, a comparatively underdeveloped part of China.
A colleague of mine told me an anecdote which I eventually equated with my own experience in the supermarket. He said he had seen several street fights in Harbin, and they always took the form of one guy beating on another guy who, as the underdog, hardly offered resistance. It was as though the victim thought he deserved the pounding he was getting. Like the shoppers at Carrefour, perhaps he believed that it was his fate to be abused.
Something an engineer from Germany told me hit a chord as well. The German worked for a manufacturer of tools – clamps, wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers – all sorts of expensive, elegant tools that in the West are prized for saving time and energy. His company had given a set of these to a Chinese corporation. On a second trip to this company, the engineer inquired how they liked the tools, only to be told they were locked up in a glass display case. Then he noticed, on the shop floor, a worker with a meat cleaver, that all-purpose Chinese kitchen utensil. He was using the clever instead of an Allen wrench to tighten bolts on office chairs. Apparently, the modern tools were a “gift” too valuable to use. I concluded that, despite advances, cultural attitudes take a lot of time to change.
Earlier I mentioned the new class of rich who like to drive black cars with tinted windows. Just who are they? At first, I thought they were bureaucrats, but then I concluded while some were, others were new capitalists, those who knew how to take advantage of money-making opportunities. They seemed rather sinister as I could see no reason for the darkened windows unless the nouveau-riche sought anonymity or hoped to intimidate ordinary people who would never be able to afford an automobile. The men behind the shaded windows somehow did not jive with my impression of China’s avowed aim of an egalitarian society. However, gradually I came to realize there is little egalitarian about the PRC these days. The newly rich form an elite class that is becoming quite arrogant.
Some people in China resented this caste. In a story I came across in the China Daily, the February 2nd, 2007, (online) edition, it was reported that a driver of a luxury sedan had physically assaulted an old street cleaner, blaming her for a scratch on his car’s side mirror. According to the report, the driver “blatantly used violence to humiliate [the worker]”. Moreover, the man then attempted to silence the media that had gotten wind of the incident. This news triggered outrage in China, not just because of the way this poor woman had been treated, but because it is believed that many of the newly rich have amassed their wealth through bribery, tax evasion, and market manipulation. So, it is little wonder the wealthy hide behind tinted windows.
Our university in Harbin had several computers stolen from classrooms, possibly with the connivance of the night watchmen. Days later, bars were installed up to the seventh-story windows and fire-escape doors were padlocked. However, that did not prevent thieves from getting onto campus.
A Japanese teacher had her handbag snatched just outside the foreigners’ residences. A friend of mine had two motorcycle batteries and a bicycle stolen. Eventually, someone stole the motorcycle too. A child’s pram disappeared from outside our residences within minutes of being left at the foot of a staircase. Two mopeds went missing. A digital camera vanished off someone’s desk. Small stuff regularly went missing from teacher’s offices. Two female students from Russia were raped on the campus jogging track. Another three Chinese coeds were brutally raped by workers on a campus construction project. All this occurred within three years.
The list of petty and serious crimes is long, but it took the university months before any action whatsoever was undertaken. After sticking their heads in the sand, the administration hired two rent-a-cops who reminded me of Laurel and Hardy waddling around campus but, after two weeks, I did not see them anymore. That was the extent of campus security.
Then, in the hot summer, with dust-raising construction all around us, we experienced a series of burglaries. Because of the heat, people left their windows open, oblivious to the presence of a thief who managed to climb a security gate. He first entered the premises of one of our instructors and managed to leave with a couple hundred RMB that had been sitting on a dresser. Thereafter, the management installed a motion-sensor alarm that would be tripped by anyone coming up over the gate. The watchman himself was equipped with a stun gun that could zap an intruder. Security seemed improved.
However, a few days later, despite increased vigilance, the burglar returned in the depth of night, climbed the gate, moved along a ledge, and opened what the victim later swore was a locked patio window. Somehow, the thief made his way in and found a stash of ten-thousand RMB, the down payment for an apartment. When the crime was investigated by the police, typically they blamed the victim, wanting to know why he had such a large sum at home. No one talked about the fact that the new security alarm had never been turned on.
We foreign teachers were dogged not just by crime but by bad luck. In the same year as the robberies, a television set in a colleague’s apartment caught fire. As there were no smoke detectors or fire-extinguishers in the building, the set burned rapidly, sending thick, acidic smoke into the halls. Fortunately, our colleague woke in time to see the TV burst into flames. She managed to get out of the place. Within minutes, tenants were coughing as thick smoke seeped into their apartments; then several fire trucks arrived. During the ensuing battle to extinguish the fire, most of the apartment was flooded and made uninhabitable.
The place was sealed by the police and our colleague fled in haste to her home country, without her belongings. The police said they would suspend their investigation until she came back to China. To us, this meant she had better stay away, as the cops would probably attribute blame to her, no matter how the fire might have started.
It seemed that a month did not go by without some coal miners being buried alive somewhere in China. This reminded me of England in the early 1900s, when coal miners labored in abusive conditions to scrape out fuel for the nation. In China, this is reality today, and it is no exaggeration to say the Chinese miner works under very dangerous conditions. Going on statistics, an average of a thousand miners are killed in China per year, but many also contract serious lung diseases. The average coal miner in China remains less productive than the average American miner and suffers many times the number of fatalities. Although the government has invested heavily in mine safety, the Chinese miner’s lot isn’t expected to improve any time soon as the demand for coal keeps growing.
My sympathies naturally went out to Chinese workers. In Harbin, the “bon-bon” drivers were out in their three-wheeled taxis taking passengers to and from work in subzero temperatures and punishing winds. They worked in unheated cabs, some of them wearing green Army-surplus coats and hats so that their faces were barely visible. There were also many elderly street vendors who, in Western countries, would be pensioned off, safe at home drinking beer and watching football games. But in China, street sellers included seniors hawking pencils and school supplies, telling fortunes by reading palms, or tossing joss sticks. In all of China’s major cities, there are so many elderly street vendors that they often impede pedestrian traffic. Daily existence for the ordinary man and woman in China remains hard.
In the middle of winter, I saw men and women on construction sites without hard hats or safety shoes, wearing old suit jackets, carrying burdens up and down planks that would have been condemned as unsafe in the West. If they made a thousand RMB per month (then $150 USD), they were lucky. They slept on construction sites even in below-freezing temperatures and worked in filthy conditions. When a new library on our campus was being built, a construction worker died on the job. I was assured that this was not something to get upset about. It was part of any worker’s risk.
Another problem that workers face in China comes from their employers. A year before the Olympics, a disturbing scandal hit TV screens and front pages of newspapers all over the world. In the province of Shanxi, police rescued laborers who had been held as slaves in a brick kiln operation. One man had been beaten to death; others were half starved and scarred with burns from blazing hot bricks they had to carry. According to Reuters, over 500 workers were rescued from an operator who embodied the worst of the get-rich-quick mentality. Not surprisingly, the culprit in this case was the son of the mayor of the district.
Frequently, the victims of such abuse are those least able to defend themselves, the migrant workers. These are some 200 million of China’s 800 million peasants who come to the big cities to undertake back-breaking labor in the country’s massive building projects. Often, when an employer runs short of payroll funds, such laborers remain unpaid for months. If workers protest, the employer, often with collusion from the police and local officials, sends in thugs to beat labor leaders to a pulp. Many such incidents have come to public attention, but the scale of the problem has yet to sink into the minds of politicians.
But some cases did shock the Chinese enough for action to be taken. In June of 2007, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacted a law to give workers more say in wage negotiations and benefits. Chinese employees and factory workers do have a government-controlled union, but it has tended to side with employers to keep labor costs at a minimum. Strikes are still not allowed, nor can workers form independent unions. Such is the national interest.
Appearances and Attitudes
At first glance, Chinese cities seem state-of-the-art. You see the facades of new apartment blocks, glitzy office towers, gigantic hotels, and department stores, and you think “Wow!” But when you go inside, you find everything is ill-designed, cramped, with elevators that are too small for groups of people. In apartments, which are not cheap by anyone’s standards, the toilets are Western in design, but few things in them work. For instance, when I would take a shower in my place, the entire washroom floor flooded because no one had thought to slant the floor in the direction of the drain. Not only that, but several large tiles fell off my bathroom walls. Apparently, to save money, workers had applied only enough adhesive to stick them temporarily onto the wall.
In the toilet, there was only one electrical socket for a single electrical device – the water heater. When I needed the washing machine, I had to disconnect the heater while standing on a wet floor. (Sometimes I wondered if this had not been arranged to electrocute as many foreign devils as possible.) And, occasionally, there was a vile smell from the drains. Yet this was an apartment building only five-years old, and these conditions were not at all unusual.
In the teaching building where I had an office, entire ceilings fell in. A colleague was sitting at his desk when a barrage of plaster came crashing down, narrowly missing his head. There was dust all over and a neon light dangled by a wire from the ceiling. The same thing happened in several hallways of the building. Only when the ceiling of the Party Secretary fell in was anything done: all ceilings were hastily re-plastered.
Halfway through my stay in Harbin, our program moved to a new high-rise, half of which was still under construction. The building was not a year old, before windows did not close properly, allowing cold air into our classrooms so that we taught with winter coats on while the students huddled in their seats like shivering birds. (They seemed to accept this as the norm.) When the spring rains came, seven hundred pairs of shoes brought in tons of mud from the construction dirt outside. Sand found its way into hallways, toilets, and classrooms. Students slid on the tiled floors, yet college managers didn’t bat an eyelid, and no one mopped up the mess.
Some students assumed the college was a dump which they could demolish. They set fire to notices hung on classroom walls, leaving large, sooty burn marks; others kicked in ventilation grills, and others left imprints of their dirty sneakers on walls. The place looked like it might be in an urban slum rather than on a modern university campus.
And, typical of Chinese management, all of this went unaddressed until someone sent digital photos to the big shots on the ninth floor. Only then did they come down to have a peek into the disaster zone where they found shredded paper scattered everywhere, a board filled with graffiti, bottles, plastic wrappers, and sand on the floors. I happened to be present when managers were inspecting a classroom. One leader’s immediate response was an angry: “Those responsible will be punished!” (The default response in China.) Surprisingly, thereafter cleaning ladies were hired to make the place look more respectable. But it had taken managers six months even to look.
In China, a casual disregard for quality extends to all areas of life, notably to the production of goods. I was teaching in a classroom when I happened to notice one of my students slowly sinking beneath her desk. Suspecting a joke was in progress, I went over to find her sitting on the floor, befuddled. The legs of her metal chair had simply collapsed.
A friend of mine bought one of those trendy, brightly colored mountain bikes. Within a week of purchase, a plastic brake-handle disintegrated; a foot pedal dropped off, and the chain repeatedly derailed. Each time something broke, he took the bike to a sidewalk repairman who patched it up. He ended up with a bike made almost totally of spare parts, a true hybrid. But then it was stolen.
Lousy quality was not just in building construction and maintenance. I bought several shirts that didn’t have a thread of cotton in them, although they were clearly labelled “100% cotton.” Lamps I purchased fell apart; a pair of shoes I acquired lasted a mere week before the upper part separated from the sole. I purchased a pair of Clark’s shoes, made in China. They fell apart after less than a year’s wear. After this, I stopped buying shoes and clothes in China, preferring to wait till I got to Europe, even though I would have to pay more.
My frustration with things “made in China” reached a peak while I was in a Beijing shopping plaza. An art-shop dealer, who spoke fluent English, had invited me into his gallery to inspect his many paintings and prints. I noted one so-called “watercolor,” exactly like one I had bought elsewhere years before. The dealer offered me the picture for half the price I had paid, but I angrily said: “I’m not buying anything more made in China if I can help it. The quality is shit; cotton shirts are not cotton, and Italian leather isn’t leather; not even expensive perfume is genuine. I’m tired of being swindled. People here think consumers are a bunch of fools!” This left him wide-eyed. As I stomped out of his shop, he trailed behind me, pleading: “But if you’re honest, you can’t make a profit in China.” I think that sums up Chinese enterprise today.
In China, professors are normally listened to but not challenged. Learning is by rote, in classrooms far too crowded for anything but a passive audience. As for free time, there is little for students to do outside of study. In my experience, most students do not “party” in the Western sense, although some of mine (who had the money) got plastered in karaoke bars. But many could not afford this. Instead, on Saturday afternoon, some students used to stroll through the so-called “Golden Mile” in Tianjin, two long streets of shops frequented more by people-watchers than genuine shoppers. When they could afford it, students would eat in a noisy restaurant, but their meals were modest.
However, when our wealthier students tried to curry favor, they wined and dined us teachers at their parents’ expense. They never allowed us to pay for meals, nor did they let us pay for the billiard games we occasionally played together. Overall, compared to their Western counterparts, Chinese students were unassuming, respectful, and drug-free – potentially wholesome, for a better word – although cheating on exams and casual bribery wasn’t anathema.
While Chinese students are well-behaved and a delight to teach most of the time, the government is evidently worried by declining discipline so that universities have mandatory “discipline training” every autumn. This involves drill sergeants coming to campuses to train hundreds of thousands of freshmen in the finer points of marching. On our campus, I would hear students at six in the morning, marching to the chant of “YI, ER, SEN, SI; YI, ER, SEN, SI…” (One, two, three, four…). They even did a Prussian goose-step designed to impress spectators on the reviewing stands. They learned to march very well.
The government has reason for concern because, in China, as in many countries today, more and more students are getting hooked on computer games. I often went to an Internet café to check my mail and, invariably, I saw the same youngsters, day after day, playing games and smoking up a storm. Perhaps there wasn’t anything else to do. No soccer fields? No basketball courts? Or maybe sports were too demanding for some.
When asked what their free-time activities were, my students responded with either “basketball” or “play computers,” meaning online games. The situation had become so serious that the government began to establish clinics where “addicts” could be weaned away from online gaming. Some of these centres were boot camps, an idea no doubt gleaned from more “advanced” (or degenerate) cultures. But I got the distinct impression that Chinese officials didn’t mind these afflictions all that much for didn’t this prove the country had become “modern?”
The Chinese are proud of their country. This may go without saying, but they also seem to be recovering a sense of themselves they had lost during two centuries of foreign military occupation. Some of this pride is due to the Chinese armed forces, the bedrock of the revolution, which is held in high esteem. I saw uniformed young men everywhere as the People’s Liberation Army numbered two-million men and women under arms. I also noted a constant flow of films on TV that showed the PLA in the best possible light, especially fighting against the much-disliked Japanese.
I came to appreciate the importance of the Army when the country celebrated its 80th anniversary. I happened to tune into CCTV 3 in time to witness one of those extravaganzas that are common on Chinese television. On a huge outdoor stage, in front of an audience of thousands of expressionless, uniformed men and women (some in combat gear), youngsters in Mao suits sang and danced. Romanesque dishes, spouting flames, graced the background as though modern China had been part of the Roman Empire. Ethnic Mongols twirled and chanted. The girls were dressed in vibrant red. Others, in splendid military uniforms, gave rhetorical flourishes about self-sacrifice and hardship endured in the battle for liberation. Then video footage of military convoys appeared on a huge screen. PLA truck drivers expertly negotiated perilous mountain roads in both summer and winter. After this, more dancing maidens appeared in Grecian dress with flowing garlands of plastic flowers around their heads.
The the program cut to ordinary soldiers talking about what they did in the lonely mountains of the Motherland. (Sudden applause from the audience that found something to smile about, as if on cue.) A girl in a Western wedding-dress came on stage, followed by bridesmaids in military fatigues; she shook hands with the program host and joined her fiancé, a soldier. Then came footage of the fiancé laughing, flanked by his toothless parents, somewhere in a vast frontier-terrain. Members of the audience looked pleased as one of their own received a huge paper flower pinned to his tunic. The couple bowed respectfully to their comrades who applauded enthusiastically; then the couple gave each other modest pecks on the cheeks. I wasn’t sure what this was all about, but perhaps they had just gotten married on stage.
Footage of fallen comrades in godforsaken places of the hinterland appeared; shots of foggy mountains and hot deserts with gravestones. Cut to a scene of soldiers repeating a sacred vow. (This reminded me of Adolf and the boys.) On stage appeared dancers cradling a fallen comrade within a dramatic pool of light – all three in a heroic pose, arms outstretched to their dying comrade. (At this a tear blurred my vision, and I had to turn the channel. Chinese directors certainly know how to elicit feeling from their audiences, foreigners included.)
CCTV 6 showed a film about a ragtag bunch of Chinese Communists who encountered hill tribesmen armed with spears, bows, and arrows. To avert strife, a volunteer from the People’s Liberation Army stepped forward to sing a patriotic tune to cool tensions. This won them over. Hostile resistance was prevented through song. The PLA and the hill tribe ended up feasting and dancing together around campfires. It was all a bit much for me. I had to go to bed.
It was an experience to be among so many humans. I used to think my home city of three million was crowded. But I didn’t know what crowded meant until I was in cities like Shanghai with 14 million inhabitants. For me, “crowded” in China meant not getting a seat on a bus unless I got on at a terminal. It meant a throng of humans shuffling along, bodies pressed against the backs of others, with more bodies on either side, inching down long, dark corridors onto cold railway platforms in the Beijing Central Station. Or, it meant waiting with a thousand others in cavernous railway halls for a gate to open. Crowded, too, was a parking lot crammed with little red taxis as far as you could see – all stuck in gridlock, spewing exhaust fumes, honking horns in exasperation.
Crowded also meant Saturday mornings in a Carrefour supermarket where I often shopped. There are many in China and they offer a level of service that few Europeans or Americans would tolerate. One morning, in a line designated an “express” lane, I waited for twenty-minutes with a basket of goods. “Express” meant it moved as slowly as any of the other thirty checkout lanes, but you could only have a shopping basket, no cart. As I was waiting my turn at the check out, I told myself to be “Buddhist” about this – be resigned like other customers waiting patiently in line. But then I heard a loud SCREECH as though some bird had caught its leg in a trap. It turned out to be a not-so-Buddhist customer in another lane. A young woman had attempted to push her cart into line, when an older woman’s nerves snapped, and she flew at the intruder. Screams and loud insults followed, but then the younger woman made a quick retreat.
I was amused, but I noted that all around me the Chinese remained blank-faced as though nothing had happened. They mentally went into a remote place of indifference. Such explosions of temper were not unusual in China. People did have long fuses, but when they blew the powder keg, you knew it.
Crowding also meant it was wise not to travel during holiday periods; at least not at the beginning and end of the lunar New Year, the month-long holiday of Spring Festival. A friend of mine once stood for twelve hours in the corridor of a train, holding onto a hand rail while all around him people sat on luggage or on the floor. Even though the railways put on extra trains to move the hundreds of millions who go home for the holidays, there is not enough transport for everyone at the same time. Hence, train stations are packed with people sleeping on their luggage, gigantic waiting halls are crammed with bodies; the air is filled with cigarette smoke and the stuffiness of humanity. Yet, sooner or later, everyone gets moved on to their destinations.
I attended a car show in Harbin. As I had never been to one, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Once I got through the turn-styles into a huge, new convention centre, my ears were assaulted with an exceedingly loud and steady musical beat, enough to drown out the faculty of reason. Each manufacturer had a display area with a few glistening automobiles, some of which were decorated with lanky women in evening gowns or miniskirts. The women wore huge smiles. One novice model was sitting on top of an SUV, grinning continuously, apparently oblivious to the fact that a half dozen young guys were busy photographing up her skirt. But even this could have been part of someone’s marketing strategy.
It was immediately clear how popular automobiles had become and how many brands there were to choose from. And, of course, how much disposable income there was available. It seemed to me that capitalism had arrived in its entire full splendor. But many people still could not afford a private car. They were still riding environmentally-friendly bicycles or mopeds.
Although there are the temptations of materialism, not all Chinese are into buying stuff. The get-rich-quick ethic is raising prices for people who are unable to cope. Consequently, some Chinese are looking for consolation in religion and traditional wisdom. In a Catholic church in Tianjin, I saw youngsters genuflecting uncertainly before an altar of the Virgin Mary. When I advised a friend of mine to get a boyfriend and “fall in love” to solve her loneliness, she answered that she was already in love – with God. It seems she was seeking solace for her mundane existence in the religion her grandfather had adopted decades before the revolution.
Similarly, another friend visited several Taoist and Buddhist shrines before heading out to look for a job. Although she was a professed atheist and member of the Communist Party, she chose to hedge her bets with prayers. Still another friend, who had just published his first academic paper, fantasized about migrating to Australia as a quick way of getting a car, a house, and a lot of money. He was hooked on the Chinese dream of success which, suspiciously, resembles the American Dream of owning stuff and having power over your own destiny.
The emphasis on appearances was made clear to me when I found an emblem for what I think China is all about. In Tianjin, at that time, across from the city’s water park, stood an impressive building in Greco-Roman style, all white columns and cornices. Beyond tall, glass doorways was a large, ornate lobby with chandelier. Parked outside were dozens of black automobiles, many with chauffeurs who were smoking cigarettes. However, when I saw the side of the building, I noticed that this was not an old hotel as I had thought but a brick warehouse with the façade of a hotel. That’s what I thought. But when I asked an old-Tianjin hand about the place, he assured me this was Tianjin’s biggest whorehouse. And so it is with much that one finds in China – a world of illusions.
I took a holiday in the Chinese resort city of Sanya on Hainan Island, just off the coast of Vietnam. This is the most southerly point in the geography of the PRC. It has a tropical climate that for northerners is only tolerable in the winter season.
I found the beach resorts east and west of Sanya to resemble the coasts of Florida. Indeed, I would not be surprised if American developers weren’t instrumental in designing the thousands of condos for all have an “American” look. There are gated communities and long, empty beaches with security guards to make sure only the privileged get to play in the sand, and “foreign” restaurants with impressive interiors and expensive meals. All is modern and pretentious but necessary for the local economy.
Sanya is determined to become the prime winter vacation retreat for Chinese mainlanders who can afford a holiday. And, at first, it looks like it will succeed. However, after a while, you begin to note the flaws in the place. For one, any and everything that is underwater, including the fish and the coral, has been eliminated or damaged. This is not apparent unless you go diving, of course, but fish vendors assure you they get their fish from far off places, not from the local waters because they are depleted and polluted.
The Miss World Pageant was held in Sanya for several years, but in 2007 it was moved to Poland. Sanya had hoped to provide a permanent venue for the international contest watched by over a billion people, world-wide. Local planners had built a twelve million-dollar convention center to stage the event, but Sanya could not live up to expectations. This may be for several reasons, first of which is that obvious poverty still exists within the city itself. With its many unemployed migrants, the overall look of the city remains Third World, with beggars and fraudsters galore, no matter how impressive the beaches are.
As everywhere in China, in Sanya you must bargain for everything, including your hotel room, unless you don’t mind being cheated. It begins with your taxi ride from the airport and ends with a lady overcharging you for a shoe shine. Visitors are considered wandering cash cows to be milked for all they are worth. In addition, anyone who has been to beaches elsewhere will not find the sand superior. Overall, you probably get much more for your money in Thailand.
Even in top Sanya hotels, a lack of English-speaking personnel is another reason why the city is failing as an international destination. For instance, what do you make of these signs found on a prime beach spot in Sanya: “The woman dilutes the room,” and “It is male to dilute the room”? These are notices on change rooms, female and male respectively. It is hard to find an English-language sign in Sanya that is correct, and this includes menus. So, while its aspirations might be grand Sanya, at that time, couldn’t be ready for international guests.
As for restaurants, no matter what is on the menu, if you have a look into the kitchen, you are likely to vomit. In one eating place, I noted fish being disembowelled on the kitchen floor; slime and guts were all over the place. I watched as fish organs were dumped into a large plastic bucket and fish remains were hosed out into the street where they joined years of blackened grime, run over by cars and carried off on the soles of shoes, probably into hotel rooms like mine.
Hoping to get a meal that was worth the price, I went to a cafeteria in an old Sanya mall. There I found vegetables, fish, and rice for a reasonable sum. Interesting in this establishment, which had recently opened, was its approach to the competition. In contrast to a similar place just a few paces down the hall, the owner of the cafeteria had installed a DVD player that showed an endless stream of soft-porn. This was interesting mainly because customers hardly paid any attention to it. The clients were mostly women.
Now that I have dumped on Sanya, let me add what I liked about it. I liked the fact that the place is trying hard: there are construction projects and tourist attractions going up all over the place. One of these is a gigantic statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy, located some 40 kilometers west of the city. It’s an impressive site even though most Chinese probably do not believe in Buddhism. Another mega project is a man-made island, the future location of many villas and docks for cruise ships. It is linked to Sanya by a curved bridge reminiscent of similar mega-projects in the Emirates.
But mostly I liked the fact that you can go inland and find normal cities where tourism hasn’t yet penetrated. There are authentic, bustling cities of ordinary people going about their daily tasks, places where bicycle taxis with sidecars run up and down ancient streets. So, on Hainan Island you can have the future and the past, the surreal and the authentic.
In 2007, I took a brief vacation in Qingdao, the short-lived German concession established in 1898 on the Pacific coast of China. Famous for its breweries, the old city has a lot of its original charm left. There are tree-lined avenues leading uphill to the German governor’s mansion, a rather confused looking structure built in the early 20th century. There are multi-storied Teutonic homes that at, one time, were prestigious and well tended. But these “foreign” places have been left to rot. Some homes have no windows, others have no doors; paint is peeling off, cement is coming undone, and roofs need to be repaired. Most likely though, there are initiatives to fix up the old city for Qingdao’s tourism potential has not gone unnoticed.
There are parts of the old city where Party cadres have retired and here all is neat and tidy. From the look of these areas, you might be in Heidelberg. The trees along the streets are a definite advantage for they weren’t planted a week ago; they are grand and stately, with many oriental pines, attractive in their volumes of green.
After the Japanese replaced the Germans in 1914, and in turn the Chinese kicked out the Japanese, the German governor’s mansion was turned into a guest house for Communist Party visitors. Guests included Chairman Mao and his wife and children who, in Mao’s latter years, liked to travel around the country. You can still see the modest bedroom the legendary helmsman inhabited. By today’s standards, it is rather small and insignificant looking. But what I recall most from the mansion is a framed, fuzzy black and white photograph of the imperial German governor and his wife with their children, all dressed in white, looking directly at the visitor – like ghosts.
While in Qingdao, I went to a spa in the old residential area. On the recommendation of a local, I sought out the Seashore Club which cost 50 quai to enter. This got me entrance to the pool and saunas where men and women were separated, except for the indoor and the outdoor salt water pools. The indoor pool was perhaps 15 meters, but it was worth visiting just for the ambience. Towels were provided on racks around the perimeter. You could hang onto the sides of the pool and listen to a live quintet of girls in traditional Chinese dress playing “Red River Valley” and “Old Lang Syne” on two-stringed instruments. I also appreciated the large, plastic palm tree that added to the oriental look.
The clientele consisted mostly of overweight business men who came to the club after work to be lulled into another time and place. The only thing that I found annoying was the eagerness of the young attendants in the locker room who insisted on drying my back with a towel, holding my shoes for me to slip into and otherwise making a nuisance of themselves. That was a bit overdone.
The other thing which made an impression was something I saw early one morning as I was getting ready to tour the town. Outside a four-star hotel, glum looking personnel were lined up, doing physical exercises in the form of pantomime. The uniformed young men and women had to mime “sleeping,” “getting up” – a choreographed routine describing the rituals of life in the hotel. It was a sort of Hawaiian “every-movement-has-a-meaning” routine set to music. Andre Breton would have loved Qingdao.
Flight to Shanghai
Coming out of the clouds over north-western Japan, descending over the Chinese coast, the Pacific waters gradually become shallower. Here and there are islands in a great expanse of peaceful sea. Every few minutes, though, you note underwater ridges that drop off suddenly from one plateau to another, from light to much darker realms. As you approach the mainland, long, endless strings of waves head towards a shore not yet defined. Then, once inside Chinese territorial waters, the seas assume a brown color – from millions of tons of silt carried by rivers emptying into the ocean. Still seen from high above, but gradually descending, there are hundreds of ships, like slivers pointing landwards or heading south-east. Some are longer, others shorter, ships that tell of busy ports and commerce. Finally, there is a thud as the plane lets down its wheels in preparation for landing.
Descending towards the mega-city of Shanghai, sea walls, like a giant grid, appear. These are meant to trap silt for an ambitious land-reclamation project only rivaled by projects in the Netherlands. If the tide is in, some sections of these barriers are swamped but, from the air, their delineations are clear. The plane swoops onto a section of land won back from the waters. You have arrived at Pudong International airport.
During the hot summer months, it is very humid in Shanghai so that the first thing I did on arrival is get a haircut to stop the sweat running down my neck. The youngster who washed my hair might have been handling fine china. He was apprenticed to a master hair stylist and was watching his every step. Once I was in the barber chair, facing the mirror, the stylist opened his tool case with a little flourish, sort of like a magician pulling a pigeon out of a hat. He surveyed his scissors and combs, neatly held in place by rubber restraints. Everything looked immaculate.
He began clip, clip, clipping and snipping with professional attention to detail. A hair out of place here and there got a quick snip. Then he changed cutting tools to thin out the top, clipping rapidly, sculpting my hair into shape. Meanwhile, the apprentice watched as though memorizing each of the master’s moves. But, somehow, the master had cut one of his own fingers. He barely whispered to the apprentice and a piece of toilet paper was applied to still the blood. At first, I thought I had been nicked, and that the blood on the paper was mine, but then I saw the truth and was relieved. In twenty minutes, the job was done, and I was enlightened.
However, some time later, I was less happy after a taxi ride. I had just come back from a job interview in a Shanghai suburb. The ride to the interview, on the Metro, had cost me only 9 RMB for a trip through half of the city. But on the way home, my taxi driver made sure that my luck would not last. When I got into the cab and asked him to take me to my hotel, he said: “Eighteen.” Just to make sure we understood each other, I drew “18” on the dashboard. “Ahhhhh,” he said, gesturing wildly. He was wedged between his seat and steering wheel but managed to root around in his pockets for a cell phone. On this he typed the number 80. “What! Eighty!” I cried, pretending astonishment. (I knew he was about to pull a fast one.) “No way! I will pay 50. Maximum.”
I drew a “50” on the dashboard to make sure he understood. I thought fifty was what a friend of mine had estimated it would cost. The driver seemed more than happy at my offer for he nodded vigorously and laughed. Then he spun the cab around, and we sped away. He left the meter off, as I had expected. I gloried in having bargained so successfully, thinking it would be at least a half an hour ride. But, within three minutes, the surroundings – the tall buildings, the shops, the little park on the corner with the Heineken beer signs – all seemed disturbingly familiar. In another moment, the driver pulled into the road where my hotel was located. We had just driven around the block.
“Oh no. Oh no. Thirty! I will pay you only Thirty,” I whined.
“Ha. Ha. Ha,” boomed the driver, triumphantly. “Ha. Ha. Ha.”
I gave him a couple of mock punches on his fat arm. “Gangster! This trip is worth only eleven quai, not fifty.” But he just laughed, his quivering bulk crushed against the steering wheel. I must have been his Foreign Fool of the Day, but the money wasn’t much considering what an entertaining character this guy was. I had to laugh at his audacity. I gave him a fifty RMB note. He was still laughing as he drove off, leaving me thinking I just got shanghaied.
Harbin to BJ
I took a flight from Harbin to Beijing, a mid-winter journey of an hour-and-a-half. Departing from Harbin’s then small, provincial airport, I had a window seat so I could see the topography for the entire flight. As far as I could make out, the land was monotonously flat and mostly bare of snow. Cultivated fields ran on an East-West axis; a few angular roads separated the fields, with villages dotting a forlorn landscape. In the distance, I saw a tall industrial chimney emitting a snaking arc of white smoke. There were a few small, frozen lakes but, otherwise, hardly any signs of water.
As the plane neared Beijing, snow was replaced by undulating folds of mountains and sandy valleys in all shades of grey. There was not a forest in sight. The terrain looked dry, dry, dry. Factories appeared, all facing the same direction; power-line towers; smoke stacks, and endless clusters of new high-rise apartment blocks. The big city insinuating itself deep into the farmland.
I had to wait in Beijing’s Terminal One for a while, so I took a seat in a coffee shop manned by waiters in black suits. On my small table, there was a live gold fish suspended in a round bowl to keep me company. But unlike the normal cup of coffee you get at Starbucks for two bucks, my airport cup of brew cost about six US dollars.
While I was enjoying my little cup of sweetened coffee, I happened to hear the following conversation by a young Western expat, in China to make that proverbial buck. I never did look around to see who was talking, but it was an American voice on a mobile phone: “What the Fuck you tell him?! I’m so fucking sick of this shit! You’re the one who pulled me into this bullshit…. So fucking sick of the whole thing! Fucking bullshit!” Looking at my goldfish, I wondered when we Westerners began talking this way.
From where I was sitting in the café, I noted a group of overdressed, vacuous Russian women, probably wondering whether their maids had packed the hairdryer. They were hugging huge shopping bags while pressing cell-phones to their ears, their fat assess wigging as they waddled. Trailing behind them, looking disinterested, were their fat-faced, pot-bellied, dressed-by-Woolworth’s men – signs of global affluence.
Back in Harbin, there was an interesting student strike. In principle, these are illegal. The student action occurred at the international college where I was working, and it happened, as such things commonly do, because of a screw up. It began when some students were told they needed to take a higher-level English course despite having been told, years before, that a lower-level would be all they needed to be admitted to a degree-program of studies.
At first, many of the students thought they could, after all, do the required work at the higher level and get on with what they really came for, the training that would give them access to the labor market. However, a week into the higher-level English course gave them the impression that few if any of them would ever pass. So, they took strike action. It was not clear who had organized the protest. However, the Chinese managers were interested in this more than in settling the students’ complaints. “Who are the leaders? Find out who they are!” they demanded. And so, people were named.
It turned out the students with the least chance of passing were organizing the strike. To get others to comply, the radical students took names of those who showed up for picket duty outside the teaching building. What they would do with the students who did not support them was not clear, nor was it clear what management would do with the leaders. From a classroom high above the quadrant, I noted that most of the strikers were girls, all neat and feminine in their dresses – some even sporting sun umbrellas – sitting in a long line, blocking access to the building. The atmosphere was tense.
We instructors met with our Chinese superiors. “This is illegal. It is against the law,” we were told. “We will find out who the leaders are.” When, in jest, I suggested that China’s future labor leaders might well be among the rabble-rousers, the Chinese official looked horrified. I noted the irony of the situation: the strikers were the sons and daughters mostly of Communist Party members, some even from the political elite. In other words, these were the kids of the same social class that was keeping workers at minimal pay in factories and sweat shops, not to mention suppressing dissidents.
Anyways, a few of the students trickled back to classes on the fourth day of the strike. They tended to be those who had been appointed as monitors by the administration. The rest followed a day later, but only after management had agreed to make the next English exam a “take-home” and not to penalize strike participants. When the students were back in their class rooms, they looked a glum bunch, to say the least. They felt defeated, but I also noted a defiant look in some. For the first time since we had come together, there was no laughter in the room.
A friend of mine married a Chinese woman. Their wedding feast was a traditional affair. About a hundred of her family and friends showed up, while the groom had a dozen of us colleagues for moral support. As is the norm at such functions, we were seated at large, round tables in predictable groups – her family and friends in clusters; we foreigners all herded together. Most of us spoke no Chinese and none of them spoke English, so it was the usual apartheid situation.
There was a great din with waiters coming and going, dishes held aloft, children running around, and two MCs announcing the rules of a game the bride and groom were to play. It was a contest of how many Chinese terms of endearment (“Honey Bunny, Sugar Cake, Darling…”) each could reel off to the other as quickly as possible. The one who ran out of endearments lost the game. This kind of thing went on for several minutes while guests were busy handling cameras and video recorders, taping things for posterity. Then a group of entertainers appeared.
These were the bride’s colleagues: nine female dancers moving in synchronized order, imitating swans or cranes, or autumn leaves tossed in the wind. After this came acrobats in skin tight outfits – trainees from a friend’s dance academy. They acted out some traditional narrative that all guests – except we foreigners – recognized. I was impressed at how many talented friends the bride had.
Meanwhile, cigarettes were being lit and chatter was flying all over the place; hard liquor was being tossed back; kids were racing about, and cameras kept flashing. The noise level was so great I couldn’t hear my neighbor commenting on the event, and the wine and smoke was giving me a headache. It was all too chaotic but very Chinese. At ten o’clock, everyone swarmed out into the freezing night, pronouncing the evening a success.
On May 12, 2008, at 2:28 PM, an earthquake on a scale of 8.0 struck South-Central China. Initial reports from Sichuan province were not too worrying, but then the scale of the disaster became evident. By the third day, 15 thousand people had been reported killed, with many more wounded awaiting rescue from under concrete slabs and rubble. This number gradually doubled and was expected to reach 50 thousand as the week went by. Three weeks later, the toll had reached 60 thousand dead.
Pictures in the media showed dazed mothers waiting anxiously in the rain for their children to be pulled out of collapsed school buildings. Hospitals had disintegrated; farm houses, made of bricks and concrete, were leveled; tarred roads crumbled like crackers, and the rain kept coming down. An entire town vanished under a landslide of mud. The valley in which it had been looked as though there had never been a human settlement at all.
I saw the after-effects of the quake on CCTV channels and on the BBC. From Wenchu, the quake’s epicentre, came images of streets cracked and split; people sleeping in makeshift tents; a collapsed chemical plant; apartment buildings mangled into pieces of concrete and steel rods; dazed survivors looking for loved ones or for belongings in the ruins. Kids on stretchers were attended to by nurses in white uniforms; blood infusions were being administered; babies were clutched by worried mothers; PLA soldiers hurriedly loaded relief supplies onto railway freight cars as citizens lined up to donate blankets, water bottles, clothes and money. Everyone was helping. The nation was united.
CCTV showed white frocked doctors lining up to board flights to the impacted areas. They stood behind a long, red banner with an inscription identifying their group. Ordinary citizens flew paper lanterns (powered by candles) into the night time skies in honor of the dead. “I Love China” tee-shirts appeared on television while emergency broadcasts appealed for financial donations. Men and women in orange overalls and yellow helmets moved quickly and professionally among mountains of rubble to pull a child to safety here, or to extract an old person there. One week into the rescue effort, some 60 thousand people had been rescued as the nation shared in the sorrow and the drama.
The rescue effort was undertaken on a grand scale. Chinese paratroopers had to jump into areas cut off by landslides. On television, you saw soldiers ejecting from transport planes, floating into rain-drenched, green mountainous valleys far below. The military played a very prominent role in the quake’s aftermath. PLA soldiers provided a heroic response that impressed the world and China itself.
Relief footage became sentimentalized as TV showed children’s hands reaching out from beneath slabs of concrete and rubble. Other kids were shown fearfully clutching teddy bears while recovering from their wounds in hospitals. Such images were frequently accompanied by choral singing or sweet music that moved viewers to tears. Everyone felt somehow personally involved in the national disaster; it was a tragedy that drew viewers in on an emotional level. I clearly recall a China Radio International host saying: “The flag is at half mast, but every Chinese person’s responsibility has risen.” The nation was unified by the disaster, but television threatened to turn it all into kitsch. I doubt many noticed.
Chinese and Western friends of mine reported spending entire days watching the drama on TV, tears streaming down their cheeks. In one televised report, a mother was said to have protected her child under her body as she was being crushed to death by a slab of concrete. On her cell phone she recorded final words of love for her offspring. How could people not be moved by stories like this? Also, on television, the President of China, “Grandpa” Hu, was shown comforting a young girl in a devastated town. In another video segment, he was actively inspiring rescuers to save lives. The tragic element of the disaster was heightened when two-hundred rescue workers were buried alive as a mountain side came sliding down on them. Nature has always given the Chinese people a hard time.
And rumors were making the rounds. One of these was that natural “signs” had preceded the quake but, foolishly, people had chosen to ignore them. Supposedly, thousands of toads had invaded the town of Mianzhu two days before the tremors hit. At the time, this was explained as a natural migration of toads, but the event was more commonly regarded as a harbinger of doom. Scientific explanations fell on deaf ears.
China Radio International reported examples of magnificent heroism. From under the rubble of a school came a child’s voice calling to his comrades: “After we are saved, we must study harder.” Another child insisted rescuers save colleagues first and leave her till last. Some teachers had been killed while rushing back into crumbling schools to save their pupils. As a teacher, I understood this impulse to save the young and wondered if, in similar circumstances, I could be as selfless. (I still choke up at the thought.) Echoing my students, people on TV were saying “Never give up.” The nation was flooded with sorrow and pride as everyone was pulling together in time of need.
I think the Chinese were surprised at their selflessness in a world that had become all too greedy. In the earthquake’s aftermath, China was able to show traditional values that cemented the country together. People took great comfort in this, and it showed me a face of China I had not seen before.
The official media basked in the congratulatory notes from governments abroad: the Canadian Secretary of State said the rescue operations in China had been “really remarkable, fast and efficient …. Obviously … the largest humanitarian relief operation in recent history.” China was extraordinary. Similarly, the British Prime Minister praised the Chinese government for its leadership, while President George Bush offered prayers (what else?). To quote China Radio International again, other nations “expressed deep sorrow to the quake victims, offered sincere sympathies to the Chinese government and people, and spoke highly of the effective rescue operation by the government and the unity among all the Chinese people.” China took comfort in the international recognition it was receiving.
At first, the praise, glory, and self-sacrifice seemed to suggest that mistakes of officialdom were forgiven and forgotten. The Party was on an unprecedented high, yet there were the parents of some 10,000 children who had died in the rubble of their schools. Emblematic of the buildings that had been destroyed by the quake was Xinjiang Primary in Sichuan Province. It had been flattened with most of its pupils inside while, astonishingly, a school building next to it remained standing with only a few cracks in its walls. This was explained later in that, like many schools in China, Xinjiang Primary was low on the official list of building priorities. Such structures ranked only a third where government buildings ranked first for construction expenditures. Speculation had it that this was because the children who attended Xinjian Primary had the misfortune of being the offspring of poor migrant workers. In a system that demanded tuition, the parents of these children just could not afford a safe building.
Two years before the earthquake, the Xinjiang Primary building had been found unsound, so funds had been allotted to its upgrading, yet the money was inadequate. When it was being constructed, the foundation had to be poured twice because the first was of such poor quality. Money had been saved on steel enforcement rods (rebars) normally used to support pillars, and sand was mixed in with concrete because there was not enough for the whole structure. Moreover, the workers on the site were lowly-paid farmers with inadequate experience in construction. Unfortunately, the unsafe condition of Xinjiang Primary reflects the situation of such buildings across China, especially those located in poorer regions where state funds are first allocated to things other than education or siphoned off by thieving officials. All these factors were behind the high death toll of children, and parents were understandably incensed.
Overall, the year 2008 took on the reputation of “bad luck.” It had begun with unprecedented chaos caused by snowstorms. There followed the international Olympic torch protests, touched off by riots in Tibet; then a viral epidemic in central China, and a train disaster. Such a sequence of ill fortune had people wondering whether the balance between man and nature had not been upset. Since such events commonly are believed to portend big political changes, Chinese officialdom was put on edge, which is one reason why the leadership was so concerned about how they were viewed by the population at large.
A Foreign Venture
Many international companies are flocking to China in the hope of making lots of money. However, those who have been in the Middle Kingdom for a while are still struggling to break even and often do so on frayed nerves. This is because some of China is modern, with officials and managers who think like Westerners, while most of the country remains entombed in a get-rich-quick peasant mentality. The foreign outfit I worked for illustrated the truth of this.
For the years I was employed by a Western college, which I shall not name (for reasons which will become apparent), the problem was that those involved had big dreams, but no one did his homework. The college offered diplomas and degrees mostly in Business studies. This was their “product.” But when they assured their Chinese partners that students would, indeed, receive bona fide college undergraduate degrees, they did not count on the kind of student we teachers would have to work with. They had expected the program would be attractive to youngsters with top high-school grades and rich parents. Instead, once the classrooms were filling up, they discovered that most students did come from affluent parents who could afford the hefty fees but, scholastically, the kids were disasters. Most of them had not at all qualified for entry into any Chinese university; their grades were that low. And so, the college was stuck with students whose English was insufficient for studies leading to a degree. The outcome could only be grief.
In the hope of upgrading the students’ English abilities, academic prep’ courses were added to the program. However, while some students rose to the challenge and improved marginally, most did not. Students would come to lectures late, without books or pens; they would sleep in class – all the charming things naughty students do. Consequently, we foreign teachers became frustrated and many students failed. But then, miraculously, they didn’t fail at all. Despite the foreign college’s strong objections, the Chinese management simply raised grades and sent failing students on to the next level to flounder.
At some point, the Chinese management decided qualified, experienced “foreign experts” were too expensive. They pressed for, and got, the right to replace seasoned English teachers with “cowboys,” inexperienced backpackers who were in China to see the country. Many of these amateurs spoke English well enough, but they had no training in methodology, grammar, or academic composition. The upshot of this policy change was that weak students hardly improved at all but were promoted anyway till they found themselves struggling with unfathomable material.
The problems that began with poorly-qualified students and weak faculty were exacerbated when the Chinese partner failed to pay the bills. At one point, a million dollars went unpaid until the few remaining foreign professors threatened to withdraw their services. Only then was half of the money transferred. Rumors circulated that a lot of tuition money had been used by the Chinese to purchase condominiums. One of the Chinese teachers told us his boss had paid for a South-East Asian vacation for thirty staff members – a little bonus at the expense of the foreign fools.
After five years of mayhem, our Western employer had enough. The college had sent officials to China time and again to solve problems that resurfaced moments after they departed. It was becoming expensive to fly back and forth, and it took up enormous amounts of time and energy to keep a venture going that was not worth the effort. Our managers figured if the college could minimize the damage to its reputation by “teaching out” to clear the students still in the system, they might still avoid becoming a laughing stock back home. But their proposal was unacceptable to the Chinese.
The Chinese partners accused the foreign institution of “embezzling” the students’ tuition; accused them of reneging on promises to grant degrees to students who had passed the required courses. There was talk of law suits, strikes, and protests. Students wrote letters to the college; in turn, the college wrote letters to the students. Relationships descended into acrimony and name calling. We expat teachers were caught in the middle, not knowing which way to turn or when to pack our bags.
Eventually, our bosses notified us that the gig was up; we should pack and look for new jobs. However, the Chinese did not believe the game was over. They were still withholding payment for a full semester, hoping to keep the whole scam going. They needed the foreign program because their students had no other possibility of getting a degree. But the Chinese partners could not just hand out degrees, although they would have loved to do so. The foreign program had been a heaven-sent for kids who, without the prestige of a college education, would end up driving delivery vehicles or shovelling dirt in the family business. Now the golden opportunity was quickly fading away.
I left China before the issue was resolved. The partners of the venture decided to extend their relationship for a year. But the problems remained, and many students transferred into Chinese programs which would lead to a mere diploma. The fiasco left a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth.
I often noted the Chinese love for saving money, so much so that, in November, when the temperature in the far north plummeted below freezing, the workers in the local heating plant did not turn on the heat. In my Harbin residence, we got a few hours of warmth in the morning when we rose shivering from bed, and then a stingy bit more at night so we could sit in front of the TV. I used to sit at my computer, wrapped in a sleeping bag. Buildings leaked heat as they were not designed to save energy. The windows let out precious warmth; doors also allowed it to escape, as did the roofs; the walls had no insulation, and stairwell doors to the outside were commonly left open, day and night, because none of their locks functioned. For a nation running out of resources, China was remarkably inefficient in energy conservation.
I did some research into the problems of energy wastage and pollution. I discovered that, for many top-ranking Chinese, saving money in the short term outweighs the risks of waste and environmental degradation. Apparently, in China there is little incentive to spend funds on saving energy, despite the obvious rewards of doing so. For instance, all over the country, energy-wasting buildings are going up as though the land had all the water and electricity it will ever need. Western-type homes, with expansive lawns that crave water, are being built, and every man must have a car that needs to be washed. In the university edifices where I worked, lights were often left on and windows were carelessly left open even in sub-zero temperatures.
Many windows did not seal properly despite looking like the latest in design. In contrast, in older homes the light bulbs were of very low wattage, and there were no showers; people wore long underwear and heavy sweaters because radiators were inefficient or just turned down very low. In my apartment, the windows allowed cold drafts to enter, and there was almost no heat in the radiators.
Seventy percent of China’s energy comes from coal. The country uses more of the black stuff than the USA, the UK, and Japan combined. This results in more sulfur dioxide emissions, increased levels of respiratory and digestive disorders. Twenty-five percent of Chinese territory receives coal fallout, which means thirty percent of the country’s agriculture is negatively impacted. Ten percent of Chinese farmland is deemed polluted while, annually, some 12 million tons of grain are contaminated with heavy metals.
It costs China 700% more than it does Japan to produce ten-thousand dollars worth of goods. This indicates tremendous inefficiency in production and energy conservation. It also causes severe levels of pollution. Seventy percent of China’s drinking water is believed tainted by hazardous wastes, pesticides, fertilizers, and human excrement. A survey found that only 23% of factories in some 509 cities in China treated their industrial sewage before sending it into rivers and lakes, the sources of drinking water. Sixty percent of untreated human waste water is disposed into water ways. The consequences are that some 190 million Chinese are ill from contaminated water. Upon learning this, I avoided river fish and remained suspicious of the bottled water that came delivered to my door, free of charge. But, finally, I had little control of what I ingested as restaurants cooked with tap water, and I had to breathe the same air as everyone else. It has taken its toll on me. I suffered from sinusitis and diarrhea, and unexplained maladies. I blamed some of this on the great amounts of mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) that went into everything we ate but, mostly, it was the grossly polluted environment. Years later, as I add this, China’s pollution has had its impact on my health.
There was a water scare in Harbin in November 2005. An explosion in a petrochemical plant, located upstream on the Songhua River, resulted in a hundred-ton, eight-kilometre long, benzene spill. As benzene can cause leukemia and other diseases, authorities shut off water supplies to over four-million residents of Harbin’s suburbs. Drinking-water had to be trucked in. People stood for hours in lines for their water rations, yet they took it in stride. They had become accustomed to such screw-ups.
We were safer on a campus that, fortunately, had its own well water. But, one day, I caught an airborne whiff of the river’s benzene and was nearly knocked off my feet. It was heady stuff. The emergency lasted several days, until the deadly slick passed downstream into Russian territory to become someone else’s problem.
This was not the only incident of its kind in China. Rather, it was outstanding only because of the number of people effected. However, chemical spills, and other forms of pollution, had become a part of life, and I wondered that people were not outraged at being poisoned. Occasionally, I saw women in cities wearing face masks, but these were for protection against the cold rather than against clouds of vehicle exhaust. I attributed the lack of outrage to a Chinese sense of futility, as though the ordinary citizen just brushed such problems aside, saying “What can you do?”
But not everyone was passive on pollution. In 2005, there were some 51,000 public protests against environmental degradation in China. These took the form of letters to newspapers, official hot-lines, and street demonstrations. The most dramatic of these was in Zhejiang Province where villagers swarmed thirteen chemical plants, overturned buses, set police cars ablaze, and destroyed government buildings. It took ten-thousand People’s Armed Police officers to quell the riot. The government’s response was to issue new degrees against pollution. However, laws in China are broken more often than they are observed, so the overall situation, even at this time, cannot be said to have improved much.
Winter in Harbin
During the Harbin winter, snow falls infrequently. But when it does fall, concrete surfaces become packed with solid ice that stays till spring. The ice turns black from the soot of thousands of coal-burning ovens. Cars and buses crawl over iced roads at five kilometers an hour, while pedestrians cross intersections in a skating mode – very carefully. The precarious nature of winter transport is made worse by sidewalks that are surfaced with ceramic tiles, a feature of Chinese public spaces I never did comprehend. And when the wind comes directly from the north-west, it bites the skin and tears up the eyes. No matter how many layers of underwear you have on, you feel the chill. At times, I would wake up at four in the morning, shivering under the bed covers. I would get up at six, make my way to the bus by seven, and get to my office by 7:20, all mummified from head to foot.
In Harbin, I usually took the bus, located just up the street from our housing complex. One winter morning, as usual, the bus was unheated, and the windows had iced up. The driver got the engine sputtering, then he tried to close the doors, but they had frozen in the open position. He attempted to pull them shut, yet they would not budge. His remedy for the problem was unique and typically Chinese. He took a sheet of newspaper, set it on fire, and pressed the burning mass into a little compartment above the door where the hydraulic mechanism was located. Moments later, the heat melted what had frozen, and he was able to close the door. And off we went. Where there is the will, the Chinese will find a way.
Long before the 2008 Olympic Games began, national hand wringing commenced. First there were the protests in Europe and America regarding political turmoil in Tibet. Dalai Lama fans all over the world kept disrupting the progress of the Olympic flame being carried through the streets of foreign lands. Some foreign politicos announced they would not attend the opening ceremonies in Beijing, and the US Congress tried to get President Bush to make an issue of freedom of religion. As a result, the Chinese government forbade the meeting Bush had hoped for with Chinese religious dissidents. A poster appeared on some internet sites showing five handcuffs forming the Olympic rings logo. Amnesty International made a great deal of what it called “repression” in China. All of this threatened to upset the Games.
I did not attend the Olympics, but I was in Tianjin, an hour’s distance where I followed proceedings on television. What I saw was this: a report on the Chinese Special Forces formed to safeguard the Olympics from start to finish. Film clips showed heavily armed soldiers in green camouflage running up mobile ramps like medieval warriors storming a castle, rifles ready to blast at terrorists. The report explained these were part of forty new squads, backed up by 100 thousand personnel in China’s defence against terrorism. The display was meant to reassure the public and foreign guests that the government was not taking any chances. (“We are ready,” they seemed to say.) Muslims. Buddhists, and others might attempt to make a mess of the sacred games, but they would pay dearly for it.
Already malcontents and dissidents of whatever stripe had been rounded up and sent out of Beijing to avoid embarrassing the government. Muslims from the far Western provinces were not allowed to travel to BJ. (Predictably, the foreign press trumpeted this as a further indication that China remained a “repressive state.”) It was also reported in the foreign media that Beijing neighborhood watch committees had been reactivated, and some 260 thousand closed-circuit cameras were installed in the capital city. The capital would be ready for anything.
Yet, despite all this control, in China I freely accessed the New York Times with the occasional interview with dissidents who denounced the Games as propaganda. It seemed the Party was responding to criticism that it was attempting to “stifle” unacceptable views, but the authorities were willing to accommodate their foreign guests. Still, the word “authoritarian” came up time and again in foreign reports meant to politicize the event by attacking the Chinese leadership. It appeared that no matter what concessions the government agreed to, the foreign press would keep denouncing it in knee-jerk fashion. In this atmosphere the Olympics began.
The Games were opened on the auspicious 8th day of the 8th month in 2008, at 8:00 PM. However, leading up to the moment, all day long, the television showed cavalcades of vans and cars heading towards the “Bird Nest” stadium in Beijing. Against a background of mist, entire freeways were closed by police as the cavalcades made their way to the great “One World; One Dream” spectacle.
The opening of the Olympics was an unprecedented event. Thousands of singers and dancers performed under the direction of the Chinese filmmaker, Zhang Yimou. Most impressive was the opening display of mass drumming: two-thousand-and-eight drummers pounded on square light-boxes that lit up with each beat. And, of course, all the drummers were in perfect synchronicity. It was reported that nine thousand of the participants in the show were PLA soldiers. Little wonder, then, that everything ran with clockwork discipline. There is no army like the People’s Liberation Army.
The enchantment of the grand opening lasted a few days; thereafter, criticism reappeared. In foreign media, it was revealed some things were not as they had seemed on television. For instance, one of the Chinese involved in organizing the fireworks displays confessed that not all the fireworks shown going off over Beijing during the celebrations were real. They had been prepared for digital insertion into the live TV feed many months before. In other words, there were fewer big bangs over the city than there seemed to be. In the Western press, this was interpreted as a form of dishonesty (as if the press in the West were totally honest). To me, the video insertion was Chinese practicality.
Another “dishonest” aspect of the show was that the cute kid, Lin Miaoke, who sang the “Ode to the Motherland,” wasn’t singing at all. She was lip-syncing because the real singer, Yang Peiyi, was deemed “not cute enough” to be put on stage. The decision had been made by a senior politburo member. The Party obviously wanted everything to look perfect. But this was also deemed dishonest. Again, the foreign press pushed these trivialities to the limit.
How was the opening viewed in the West? Clearly some European media thought it was all a bit much. It was over the top; an excessive “waste of money.” The mobilization of great masses of people always worries Europeans because it reminds them of the Nazi years – all that marching and synchronization, the dwarfing of the individual for a greater purpose. The opening of the Games reminded them of the China they are up against economically, militarily, and culturally. People had already seen the lines of Chinese workers marching to their workplaces; now here was a similar regimentation in sports. It all smacked of authority and ideology, with the Communist Party pulling the strings. And everyone had been told, ad infinitum, that once China was a “superpower,” it would challenge the United States for world supremacy. So here was further proof of this. But the spectacular show also countered many Western illusions of a purely “backward” China, even though, in many aspects, China really does lag far behind modern societies.
Back to the beginning
Just as I began my China adventure in Tianjin, so I ended it there. I stayed in the foreign guests’ residence on the campus where I had taught four years earlier. The campus had not changed at all. It still had that Bauhaus, industrial look, with heating pipes running across the campus past dusty, brown-brick buildings. Workmen happened to be yanking tons of weeds out of the shallow pond to save the few fish that had managed to survive oxygen deprivation. Workers atop floating oil drums were using long poles to drag up evil-looking weeds. These were heaped on the shore to be shovelled into handcarts, and taken to an unknown destination, perhaps to become fertilizer.
Also unchanged were the foreigners’ residences. A colleague, who had been staying there for the past few weeks, reported that not a night had gone by without a party in the building, a pack of dogs barking outside, or a goose or rooster crowing while he was desperately trying to sleep. When he had complained to the house management, he was met with shrugs and a “What can we do?” attitude. However, the colleague’s Chinese wife was not so passive. She called the police on several occasions. They seemed to solve the rooster problem, probably by cutting his shrieking head off; as for the dogs, they were more allusive and remained a nuisance. As for the party animals, mostly Koreans, they soon went home, to be replaced by similarly noisy pests from the Ukraine. The house was as charming as ever.
But Tianjin had undergone a remarkable transformation. Along the waterway, near the train station, embankments had been constructed to make it possible to stroll along the river on either side. A large Ferris wheel spanned the canal, and new bridges had been installed, some of them of beautiful, advanced designs. To recapture the 1920s, “European” atmosphere, along one quay, someone had installed Rodinesque statues of nude Caucasian couples engaged in sexual foreplay. (Meant to be in good taste, no doubt.) Where, years earlier, I had seen an old sampan being pushed by a boatman in murky autumn waters, tourist boats now patrolled up and down the river. In the old town, once inhabited by Europeans, villas had been renovated, Italianate plazas rebuilt, golden Art Nouveau doors, and fancy exteriors, were restored. It all looked nicer than it probably ever did. If you didn’t know any better, you might think you were in Europe.
I left China with mixed feelings. On the one hand, professionally, it had not been what I had hoped for. Some of my students met my expectations but most did not. This was not because they were Chinese, but because they were not good students. No matter what any of us teachers tried to do, the kids were intellectually and emotionally not ready. Having said this, some did impress me because they sincerely struggled with material which was over their heads, and they all were lovable.
During my years in China, I saw the country changing at a pace that can only be described in superlatives. I experienced the improvement in rail transportation, seen new buildings go up virtually overnight, noted the banking system improve, and new universities come into existence. I witnessed China coming together in the face of a natural disaster in a way that convinced me that this nation can weather any storm. The Chinese are ein Volk in every sense of the term.
China has a great potential for expanding its domestic economy, improving its health care and educational systems, and enhancing its agricultural sector. But its exposure to world markets is vulnerable to the vagaries of international economics. But, to remain competitive, China can also produce higher-quality goods and move its factories further inland to take advantage of yet lower labor costs. In other words, there is potential for growth beyond what has already been achieved, and that growth can come within the country itself, given appropriate policies. But China will remain challenged to respect copyrights, stop dumping products, and subsidizing production – all against the rules of trade. The average citizen seems full of hope, but many are cutting corners and otherwise embezzling funds – and emigrating.
In every sense, the Communist Party is still in charge, and there is no reason why it will not be in the future. The government has demonstrated keen political flexibility in response to domestic issues and international demands. It has demonstrated that it can mobilize millions of its people in times of emergency and retain the confidence of its citizens. It has also shown some increased tolerance for diverse opinions and seems to be listening to the people as well as issuing directives. In other words, the political system has adapted to the economic and social changes taking place at all levels of society. There is no reason to believe the Party is coming to an end any time soon. It can evolve and survive.
What the democratic West fears most about China is its global, ideological influence, an impact that is felt most in developing countries. China offers an authoritarian, yet responsive, system guided by a single political will that is more focused, can respond more quickly to changing conditions, and can realize political objectives quicker than any democratic state given to political bickering. This is borne out by the rapid growth that the country has achieved and its ability to respond effectively to global situations.
The downside, of course, is that the one-party system does not accommodate the individual beyond a certain degree. But then, mainland Chinese society is built on collectivist principles. Individuals need to subsume personal interests to safeguard society. Many countries in the world would agree with this principle, especially in the wake of the anti-social, corporate behavior that has reached shocking proportions in the capitalist West. In short, today China offers developing societies an alternative system that becomes ever more attractive as the West continues to discredit itself.
1 By 2018, many more women were allowed a second child in a revision of the child policy.
…clashes were always about identity: people fighting to maintain who they were and to reject what they were not. — L Simms (2018)
The Islamic revival is not occurring in isolation. People everywhere are harking back to ethno-religious chauvinism for a sense of who they are — or who they think they are. In America, we find a renewed interest in fundamentalist Christianity by those disillusioned with American pluralism, swamped as the US is by illegal immigration, gun violence, underemployment, social alienation, racism, neurotic consumerism and, currently, the corona virus pandemic. A similar Zeitgeist stalks Europe where poorly understood forces are causing disorientation and familiar worlds are being challenged by foreign cultural practices. In Europe, ethno-secularism, rather than religion, has been a defining pillar of cultural identity – at least until Islam made its debut. The problem with Muslims fitting into EU society is that Islamic revivalists advertise Islam publicly, at a time when Europe has all but rejected open displays of religiosity. This rubs many Europeans the wrong way.
It was not always so. In the 1920s, for instance, there was an interest in all things Oriental as European intellectuals found their own bourgeois existence boring. Lectures on Islam and Arabia were common, and Islamic missionaries were active in European capitals. Among converts to Islam, at the time, were Utopians like the father of spy Kim Philby (betrayal ran in the family) who saw the Muslim as a “new man,” kin to the idealized Communist or fascist man, depending on which side of the fence you were on. In the UK, Lord Headly converted and became a spokesperson for Islam, as did a few other Euro-intellectuals. European governments granted permission to build the first mosques, trying to woo Islamic support for their side during WWI. Muslims from French and British colonies fought the Axis powers in both world wars, receiving privileges of halal food and places to pray. However, the fad for all things Oriental faded after WWII when Muslims agitated for independence from empires. Today, there is renewed interest in Islam, but the ideology has an image problem to overcome.
A street-level study conducted by Ashref Hoque points to an emerging cultural hybridity among young Muslims who identify with the transnational concept of the ummah as opposed to the ethnic culture of their immigrant parents and/or their host nation’s culture. Hoque found that many young Muslim men in Europe, in particular, insisted on halal food, sex outside marriage (for men) , veiling of women, and (their own) drug peddling, even as they planned on attending the hajj in Mecca. For them, too, global Islam (the ummah) is an alternative to integration or assimilation. They see no contradictions in any of this.
According to Hoque, contemporary young Muslim identity is fluid, contradictory, and constantly responding to international and local events. He notes events like the Salman Rushdie (Satanic Verses) affair and the 9/11 terror attacks have influenced how young Muslims in the UK and EU see themselves vis-à-vis their hosts. Although immigrants may hold UK or French passports, they often don’t identify or sympathize with their host nation. This attitude underscores not only the difficulty of integrating Muslims but of the danger of parallel cultures forming within Europe.
When thinking of contemporary Europe, it is instructive to look back to a declining Ottoman Empire trying to redefine itself to stay afloat. In 1829, the Sultan introduced a common “look” by banning ethnic/religious clothing in favour of a modern fez and frock coat for state employees. As Berger (2014) recalls, minorities in the empire had been categorized into Armenians, Jews, Muslims, and Orthodox Christians, discernible by their attire. Although Muslims continued to dominate, the empire became increasingly fragmented as subjects self-identified by ethnicity and/or religious affiliation. They ceased to be members of a multicultural entity and became citizens of separate communities, a step toward the disintegration that followed.
Once the Ottoman empire weakened, “ethnic cleansing” commenced by groups herding their own people into territorial enclaves. As Berger describes it, “ethnic cleansing did not pertain just to people: religious monuments and buildings were torn down and houses and entire villages were destroyed to eradicate traces of another life and culture.” Shattering Ottoman unity produced diverse consciousnesses which eroded a shared sense of belonging. The ensuing cleansing, expulsions, and population exchanges reduced the non-Muslim presence in Turkey from 20% to 2%. The dismemberment of the Ottoman state was repeated later in the dissolution of Yugoslavia after Tito died. This was the consequence of identity politics, as we call it today. Beware of the myths of multiculturalism and diversity. You may get more than you bargained for.
In the 20th century, under Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, Turks first looked to secularism as a tool of reform and reunification. These days, they look to Islamic fundamentalism and the ummah (Caliphate) for a common definition of who they could be. In 2017, there was a referendum in Turkey that asked citizens to approve Erdogan’s motion to make himself president instead of prime minister, thus granting him vast autocratic powers. Turks living in Europe could also vote. According to DW.com, Turks in Germany voted in unexpected numbers. Sixty-three percent of ballots were in favour of Erdogan’s power grab. In Belgium, support for him was at 80%. This suggests a significant part of the Turkish diaspora is devoted to anti-democratic rule, and this has potential consequences for those living (and voting) in EU elections.
Similarly, in the 2018 Turkish elections, Turks living in the EU supported Erdogan’s AKP Islamist platform. This disturbing turnout has made it clear that many Turks are only marginally integrated and loyal to their democratic host nations, despite having been granted dual nationality and having benefited from living in Europe for several generations. Where Europeans had assumed Turks would become “like us,” such assumptions have been disappointed. The Turkish diaspora remains identified with the homeland and its strong-man leader. This fact raises the spectre of fifth-columnists working for Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, and draws attention to the weak identification of Muslim immigrants with their host EU nationals.
Today, dreams of an Islamic identity (the ummah) have crossed the traditional theological divide between Sunni and Shia — excluding the Saudis, who remain vehemently anti-Shia. President Erdogan and his AKP Islamist party have teamed up with revolutionary Iran to forge common policies in the Middle East. Together, they are promoting the ummah (to be led by Iran) as a Pan-Islamic empire. They finance Islamist groups operating in Syria and Libya and oppose European and American influence in the region. Turkey has aided Iran’s attempts to launder money and evade American sanctions, as well as allowing fighters passage into Syria to join ISIS. None of this bodes well for Europe.
In the Islamic experience, there have been many revivalist movements searching for a distinct identity. The Wahhabi revolution (1703-1792) in Saudi Arabia put into power an ultraconservative Islamist ideology that continues to radiate from the Gulf. Similarly, the Nigerian Fulani (1754-1814) and Libyan Sanusi revivalist movements (1787-1859) turned entire regions upside down. There have been similar periods of Muslim upheaval in Bengal, Indonesia, and India. The revivalist spirit has been busy. However, no Islamist revivalism has managed to push societies forward by incorporating progressive ideas. Where progress has been achieved, it has been restricted to an urban, educated class under secular leaders like the Shah of Iran and Kamal Ataturk. The masses have remained mostly unimpressed, longing for more, not less, Islam.
Even at the elite levels of Muslim societies, foreign ideas have been limited to institutions like the military, while the majority have shunned the gifts of colonialism. Most people have always continued in their traditional lifestyles and beliefs, avoiding contact with infidels, rejecting Western-style education and modernization. Many still consider cooperation with foreigners treasonous. When secularization took hold among Muslim elites, it produced a deep split in societies. Eventually, the Western educated, who could have provided much needed reform, were caught between apathetic populations, religious fanatics, and tyrannical rulers. Today, rejectionist attitudes are being duplicated as refugees from Islamist violence languish in Europe even as fellow migrants embrace radical forms of the faith and pursue pan-Islamic politics.
According to many analysts of the European malaise, the question of identity has aggravated fears and confusion. Apparently, people are losing sight of who they are. Some critics say that shared theistic concepts – a common metaphysics – is the key foundation of a sense of nationhood and personal identity. They claim humans can only have a sense of identity through shared faith in a god. This is the argument that both Cardinal Ratzinger and writer Luma Simms put forth, respectively for Christianity and Islam.
Simms argues that only a collective sense of a metaphysical reality can bind people together into a community or nation, and that secularism fails to satisfy this human need. As a Christian Iraqi living in America, Simms finds the many freedoms offered to Americans (and Westerners by extension) leave Believers unable to relate. Without a common faith in Allah/God, she maintains, there can be no satisfactory sense of identity on a personal, collective, or national level. She insists only a god can tell people who they are. Failing this, she claims people feel dehumanized and that only those who believe in a metaphysical reality can get along. (She seems to have forgotten the devastating wars of religion in European history.)
Simms’ view is that conflicts have always been about identity, that people fought, as she puts it, “to maintain who they were and to reject what they were not.” She accuses the West of having forgotten that we are not all created equal, but that race, religion, and ethnicity are “at the root of human identity.” Only when roots are shared, she says, do they define a nation or a people. She may have a point, but to assume that only shared religion can define humans collectively ignores the reality of multiple identities. Simms assumes people can be only one thing, exclusive of all the roles we play. And she forgets that a shared belief in Science and Humanism can bind humans as well although, perhaps, on an intellectually more sophisticated level. Religion may provide a degree of social cohesion, but it has also torn nations apart. Christians and Muslims have been at each other for 1,400 years. Catholics and Protestants slaughtered each other in thirty years of fratricidal war. When Abrahamic religions have cohabited, as in Andalusia, it has not been as equals, although they are quick to claim they “worship the same God.” Simms’ argument has obvious flaws.
“Banishing God from the public square,” as she thinks, does not disable public dialogue. It merely puts to rest an old source of conflict. Muslims do not recognize the validity of either Judaism or Christianity but consider these deviations from Islam — the only acceptable path. Until the Abrahamic religions grant each other validity, there can be no mutual respect, let alone recognition of Buddhism, Hinduism, or polytheism, paganism, etc. Unfortunately, there has always been a mania for homogenizing human experience, possibly out of fear of difference. These days, we seem to be in the old habit again.
The West is not the exclusive backyard of the so-called three “great religions.” There are atheists, secularists, polytheists, and others living in the West without conflict. It seems only monotheists believe they hold the truth of everything and the right to impose it on society, which is to say that when religion is all you’ve got, pride turns to hubris. Basing national identity on religion will ensure Europeans (and others) will never get along. This should be obvious from the experience of countries like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Turkey, Somalia, Lebanon — all more or less mono-religious states.
If we take Simms’ logic further, when Muslims and Christians insist a nation’s identity have a metaphysical foundation, secularism becomes the enemy. And it is not merely secularism but liberal humanism, the scientific search for truth, that become anathema. As I write, there are regressive forces at work in Turkey, once a progressive, secular state. Similarly, Pakistan began as a secular state. Today it is a locus of religious fanaticism. Islamists think they can keep science and economic progress going as religion reaffirms itself. However, history shows this to be false. It is either belief in science, progress, and secularization or metaphysics. The regression after the so-called Golden Age of Islam illustrates this fact. The return of political religion to Europe will have consequences, and they wont be good.
God-centred cultures could well produce political coalitions that promote family values, anti-abortion, anti-liberal, anti-personal freedoms, etc. to the detriment of the secular nation. In effect, as applied to Europe, Simms’ argument is asking progressive Europeans to accept metaphysical belief systems. Instead of going forwards, Europeans would take a leap back for the sake of accommodating newcomers. Often defended against foreign invasion generation after generation, national identities are to be surrendered until indigenous Europeans no longer recognize themselves in their own counties. When Europeans invaded exotic nations, locals boded their time until they could take back what was rightly theirs. Europe lost all of its colonies, as did the Arabs, Persians, Berbers, and the Ottomans. Indigenous people resisted by practicing their native cultures, despite traitorous elites among them. Yet, when Europeans react against a passive acceptance of Islam, they are denounced by their own countrymen.
Salafists have been building mosques at a record pace before Europeans realized that many migrants have not come to integrate or assimilate. Because they need religion as a foundation for their identity, being a part of the West can only be peripheral. To integrate, believers would need to leave the faith and redefine themselves. Returning Europeans to their religious identities, as Cardinal Ratzinger wanted, would also entail a drastic change of identity, and they would not return to the churches because trust in religious institutions has been seriously undermined. Deism (personal relations with a god) could well substitute for institutions. Life in Europe may feel “hollow,” but isn’t it better than going at each other as has been the historic case?
Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) believed the world needs a morality centred on God in order to assure human dignity. The “emancipated culture” of modern times, he writes, clashes with “historical culture” centred on the authority of a supreme deity – as in Islam and Christianity. Ratzinger argued that religious ethics must be at the core of any definition of Europe. He dismisses actions justified according to practicality or utility, seeing therein the path to the moral abyss. And, both Simms and Ratzinger claim that Muslims do not disagree with Christianity as a foundation to European identity. They merely object to God/Allah being left out of culture altogether. In short, promoters of a religious identity for Europe do not trust humankind to rule itself according to secular ethics. It seems they have little faith in human progress.
Ratzinger denied modern humans the maturity they claim, forgetting that, so far, God-centred ethics have yet to get things right either. If anything, the forceful subjugation of peoples in the name of religion has been the norm rather than the exception. Christianity is an example of this. Another is Islam. Both have underwritten imperial ventures that have eliminated or transformed many cultures. Neither has been able to refrain from infighting. Neither has provided equal opportunity, security, justice, honest government, and a decent standard of living – despite existing for over a thousand years. They have had their chance. Religion does not need to be at the centre of life. We can and we will do without it.
Berger, M. (2014). A Brief History of Islam in Europe: Thirteen Centuries of Creed, Conflict and Coexistence. Leiden University Press.
Hoque, A. (n.d.) Being Young, Male and Muslim in Luton. UCL Press. (JSTOR: j.ctv55c56.5)
Ozeren, S. et. al. (2020). Where Will Erdogan’s Revolution Stop? Current Trends in Islamist Ideology, 25, pp. 5-48.
Day of wrath, that day / Will dissolve the earth in ashes As David and the Sibyl bear witness. — Mozart’s Requiem
If the West is to go under, it will have had the pleasure of reading its own obituary …. And no Westerner can protest that he was not warned. — Kenneth Winetrout
On January 13, 2018, a missile streamed towards Hawaii, setting off alarm bells in watchtowers all over the Pacific. It could have been a nuclear-tipped rocket launched by that infamous bad boy of North Korea, Kim Il Un. But it wasn’t. There was no missile; there was no launch, and no attack. But an alarm system set Hawaiians scurrying underground, anxiously awaiting the doomsday blast that would send everyone to their ancestors. Ten minutes later, a false alarm was sounded. People felt duped but relieved it was all a joke of some kind. Few were laughing, though, except perhaps in North Korea.
Why are people so on edge? It is not just this bizarre incident. For the last few decades Westerners have been expecting disaster because, in occidental culture, they subconsciously expect the Big One of Biblical dimensions: a nuclear holocaust, a plague, a giant tsunami, an earthquake, a stadium-sized meteor come screaming out of the universe. This anxiety is cultural more than factual for we have been living with disasters for eons and have never really been free of angst. The West has a long history of local wars, civil wars, religious conflicts, and world wars. Currently there are bloody wars in the Yemen, Palestine, the Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Mali, Libya, Central Africa, the Southern Philippines, not to mention a War on Drugs in Mexico and a War on Terror, worldwide. In this atmosphere, who would not be just a mite nervous?
But there is not just one source of anxiety, ever. People have a nagging sense that the Internet, despite all its wonders, is being hijacked by malevolent forces that are cataloguing people’s political preferences in addition to data mining every byte of information which may be used against them. We know not where the future leads, as change is coming at us like an avalanche, but we suspect that it moves in cycles, and another turn for the worse is in store. Fears of political repression echo from history, not just from fascism, but from McCarthyism. Most recently, Political Correctness has shown itself to be an insidious form of Gleichschaltung that destroys reputations, torpedoes careers, and creates pariahs. We should reflect on PC being a form of herd induced terror which mirrors religious fanaticism, the very opposite of rational and independent opinion-formation.
We have been told that life will be tougher for those now training for a future than it was for their parents. The Baby Boomer generation had it good. They hogged all that society could provide, and they will bequeath left-over property to their offspring. But many Boomers will die broke; they’ve had such a good time spending it all. There may be no jobs for many Millennials, or mere part-time work at low pay. They will just have to make do. If that does not get you worried, there is always the fear that you are in the wrong profession, that you do not know what is best for you, that your marriage will fail – half of them do – and so on, endlessly.
And God is dead. He died some time ago, killed off by generations that wanted to be free of “miracle, mystery, and authority” (Dostoevsky). But now there is no ultimate arbiter of good and bad, right and wrong, so anything goes. All standards are uncertain, everything is relative, society is being divided and subdivided, pulverized into tribes that have little but confusion in common. Go to any large Western city to see ghettoization in progress: ethnic, economic, sexual, and social enclaves abound in the (much lauded) “diversity” of our cities which will fragment because, soon, every group will be pursuing its own interests, more than they already are. Allan Bloom accounts for this better than I can, but he’s not an easy read (The Closing of the American Mind).
Another silent worry plaguing people is their own human nature. Science maintains humans are an evolved animal species, not the divinely created, potentially angelic super-being created by a god. Like animals, humans can be kind and cooperative but also capable of bestiality of unspeakable proportions. There is evidence of this in the daily news as there is in the Bible. Civilization, it is feared, is just a surface condition, dependent on good economic times and responsible political management. Beneath the glossy surface, however, lurk diabolical forces as terrible as any depicted by Hieronymus Bosch or Francisco Goya. Humankind can be a monster, even to itself. This alone is enough to make one lose sleep.
To manage their many anxieties, people throw themselves into work for it is therapeutic. It diverts attention from real and imaginary threats and keeps people from thinking about what is or what could be. Keeping busy is salvation. But what happens when there is less work to be done, with robotics and computers performing the labor, leaving many people redundant? Then what? If this is a source of concern, no worries mate, for the system will keep you numb with television, or the internet, games, pornography, and cheap drugs of all sorts. As in Huxley’s Brave New World, people will learn to keep their mouths shut and brains open to pleasurable sensations provided by chemistry and games. Even now, feel-good drugs are being legalized and distribution networks established for, if there is one thing those in power need, it is to keep the masses off the streets. Hence, there will be welfare and drugs aplenty – and religion, of course, the ultimate drug.
Existential angst has always been with us and there has been genuine cause to fear. But human cunning has managed to create diversions from anxiety so that, the greater the perceived threat, the more diversions are created. Remember how fascism and communism led everyone down the garden path with promises of better times? Many went along, unthinkingly. Today, other seductive ideologies promise a more just, more spiritual, less burdensome future — and eternal bliss. All one needs to do is surrender one’s rational faculties and personal freedom. But, this begs the question: Should we, perhaps, not be more engaged with the matter of our own survival? Some are more optimistic than we in the West.
The Islamic world is rising with ideological self-assurance, determined to multiply and, eventually, supplant Westerners in their own domains. For Believers, life is not a mystery, and there is no doubt as to their duties which are endlessly drilled into their heads. Just what Muslims and converts to Islam might experience is found in so-called testimonials. Zachary Shore (2006) cites one Iranian woman’s experience during the hajj at Mecca. She ecstatically recalls feeling “humble” among the thousands circling the Kaaba, “supplicating … the One.” She could not stop crying, she says, as she “felt completely unworthy of such a responsibility” (p. 34). This sounds not unlike how young people at the Nuremberg rallies must have felt – immersed in the Aryan mass, freed from individual consciousness and moral responsibility, led in submission by a more powerful Will. This ecstasy has been called an “oceanic feeling,” a back-to-the-womb obliteration of individual agency and critical reflection. It is typical of religion that offers bliss experienced in mass activities or on one’s knees reiterating the credo. Which escape from responsibility you take is up to you.
Finally, we need to consider that we all inherit particular archetypical models of what reality is. Western culture is infected with Judeo-Christian-Islamic pessimism, emblematically expressed in the Apocalypse, with heaven as ersatz for a paradise that fallible humans failed to manage. This paradigm lies at the psychological center of the Western mind. Apocalyptic assumptions are embedded in our computer games, films, our myths of the universe. Modern technology continues to disseminate visions of destruction, often with a fantastic possibility of rebirth, the dogma of Hollywood.
The history of humankind is written in the blood of endless cosmic slaughter: Good versus Evil. This deeply ingrained, psychological gestalt remains despite the advances humanity has made. Doomsday thinking is part of the Abrahamic legacy, as it was in cultures like the Sind (East of Persia) where prophecies of catastrophe preceded the Arab invasion. Still, we have a choice. We can hasten The End or see it as an opportunity – as the Americans love to say.