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After: A box of paradoxes

By 4 July 2009 No Comment

At a briefing at the Fudan University School of Journalism, a professor of new media told us, “China is a bag of paradoxes. Its so full of contradictions.” During my four weeks of exploring this country in the midst of its massive transition, I have discovered that China is more complicated than I ever imagined, and less predictable than any place I’ve seen. For every stereotype the country lives up to, a conflicting alter-ego view exists as well – just waiting to challenge any Westerner who dares to proclaim,”Now I understand China.”

For a country with such atrocious pollution, people are truly concerned with their health. Seniors gather in droves to exercise in the early mornings under skies so grey with smog that you rarely see the sun. Shoppers and farmers at markets are concerned about organic food and what chemicals they consume, but smoking is so prevalent that ashtrays adorn train cars, restaurant tables, and coffee shops.

There is endless talk about the Netizen community and how influential their watchdog Internet tactics have been at exposing corruption in the government, yet the 20-year-old college students I met didn’t know the first thing about breaking through the Great Firewall to get access to basic information.

China as a whole has experienced a huge opening up in the past few decades with the transition to a more market-driven economy and the advent of the Internet, but newspapers can still not publish even the mildest mention of the Tiananmen Square anniversary without fear of reprisal from the government.

Skyscrapers, buildings and roads are perpetually under construction as the landscape of China is reformed and modernized, but the scaffolding holding up these statements of progress are bamboo poles bound with rope, just as they have been for centuries.

The streets of every major city we visited are kept immaculately clean, swept and washed daily by the many workers employed by the state, yet millions of people in this country do not have access to water that is clean enough to drink.

Signs of energy conservation are everywhere – hotel rooms that shut off power when you leave for the day, solar-powered water heaters adorning the roofs of apartment buildings, vegetable gardens planted in the smallest of spaces – and yet the country’s continued reliance on coal fills the skies with black soot and ensures that citizens cannot think about global issues of energy consumption until their basic needs for breathable air are met.

China doesn’t fit the mold that anyone has made for it – it’s far too complicated and dense for one month of exploration to even begin to break through. Though I haven’t come close to finding all the answers about this place, at least I will leave knowing how to ask the right questions.

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