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After: It’s not you China, it’s me

By 8 July 2009 No Comment

“I have not before been anyplace that seemed simultaneously so controlled and so out of control. The control is from on high – and for most people in the cities, most of the time, it’s not something they bump into. What’s out of control is everything else.” – James Fallows, The Atlantic Monthly

China lived up to my inability to have expectations. My month-long visit introduced me to living stereotypes (the bright-eyed university student praising the government), true originals (the African businessman who envies Chinese thought control) and absolute enigmas (the surfer dude interpreter who slept through briefings that eviscerated his government.) In all cases I was disappointed, delighted and confused. Each challenged me to reshape the floating “China” image in my head.

In the US, I rarely get to know someone and immediately try to position them within a political framework, but in China it seemed inevitable to consider all aspects of new acquaintances in terms of the political hierarchy that defines their world (to an outsider’s eyes).

Sometimes, I imagined that the Chinese government was playing an extremely high stakes chess game with, well, everyone. With the young people they dangle entertainment and conspicuous consumption as a substitute for youthful rebellion. In the business world, they offer unfettered trade opportunities in exchange for blind acceptance of the political system, and journalists get a bucketful of unmarked bills for the lucky privilege of playing by the rules. In each case, their masterful moves maneuver their target into just the right position to sustain the CCP’s power.

At other times, my imagined monolithic Chinese “boss” was a bumbling idiot, trying to control the waterfall of modernity with an ornamental sword. The Intel chip that might be installed in all domestic Chinese computers that’s full of bugs; the biohazard bozos that boarded our planes on arrival, implementing questionably effective, if enthusiastic, quarantine measures; the university students who aren’t taught recent history, but can recite the ancient dynasties in chronological order. All of these made me feel a bit sorry for “China” – he really is trying to keep it all together, but it’s all just too much.

The reality, of course, is all over the map. The Chinese win some, they lose some, and the jury’s still out for most of it. But an underlying question I had throughout my visit was: Can anyone in China have principles? This might be an unfair question since recent US headlines  – Ponzi schemes, political sex scandals and hate crimes – haven’t exactly reeked of the ethical society I pretend to come from, but at least the idea of a principled life is plausible. In China, however, I don’t know how it would work.

If you’re Google, you have to allow the Chinese government to cherry pick search results if you want to get a corner of this market of 1.4 billion people. If you’re a school teacher, accepting bribes for helping students get admitted to schools or good grades to ensure their future seems almost written into school policy. If you’re a journalist, you can either write about food and festivals or “play the edge” -  a Chinese ping-pong metaphor that was mentioned several times by those in or watching the media – by entering into a (hopefully) infinite cycle of push and retreat, seeing how much political critique you can get away with.

In the end, I felt a bit suffocated, and I don’t think it was just the orangish hazy sky and lung-busting air. I got sick of not always being able to talk about what we were really talking about, of the diplomatic dance, circling and circling around the central theme, only rarely being able to call it by its name – and eventually I got sick of myself, of not being able to always patiently await the more nuanced truths that sometimes emerge through such indirect discussion.

This makes it sound all bad, which it wasn’t. There was much beauty, humor, kindness and familiar humanity – but that was all much easier to categorize. Maybe the best metaphor I can come up with to match Fallow’s apt description of the controlled out-of-control-ness is found in the farmland in central China. In Xi’an we got to visit the famed terracotta warriors warehoused in precise military configurations, with their thousands of varied, individual faces.  Though I still don’t know what all that means.

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