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The International Writers Magazine: China

Five years in China
Sam Merry

China is now my home. The innocently romantic images of Cathay I once contemplated in far away England - the length of the Great Wall, the mystery of Forbidden City, the beauty of Summer Palace; the wealth of Hong Kong’s sea front; Zhuhai’s promise of mythical Macau beyond; the punchy impact of Shanghai’s adventurous architecture - now seem tourist shells behind a more complex reality.

My China is an everyday place of ordinary people pursuing extraordinary lives. The Chinese face, once full of mystery, is now everyday: those high cheek bones, jet-black hair and beautifully drawn eyes do not distract. I have penetrated their character and found ordinary people beneath, just as I did the Yorkshire people in 1964. And you cannot get more inscrutable than a Yorkshireman!

I no longer romanticise the imagined differences between Confucian mentality and Western individualism; rather, these homogeneous stereotypes have shattered - more promisingly - into a thousand shards of humanity in all shapes and forms, each pursuing its own dream. Human character has revealed itself as one and the same – with some little local differences. As Shylock says, if you prick us will we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?

I has been told the Chinese are a cruel, inscrutable race – if such a thing exists outside the human one; that they are impossible to understand, rapacious and, while at the same time, mendacious and superficial; that you cannot believe a word they say; that to understand I must read Confucius; study the extant mental remains of Mao’s hidden legacy and its invisible scars; that, according to Jung Chang and the novelist Ha Jin(both living abroad), the Chinese have endured unspeakable physical hardships and suffered virtual brain death in the 20th century; that since Deng’s Capitalism with a Socialist face turned its back on classical communism, the Chinese have lost all sense of what to believe and turned to materialism. The context is the same the world over – suffering and disappointed Utopian hope mixed with a little progress.

Nowhere sums up better this present predicament of Chinese socialism than queuing in my local China Bank. There are orderly lines behind tape barriers but only two tellers and I have to wait over half an hour. I raise my eyes and see signs on the wall: if you have an account of more than 50,000 Yuan you may enter the office next door reserved for foreign exchanges and get quicker service. Wealth (and Market Capitalism) now trumps socialist equality. It is rather sickening that 55 years of communism should have led to this: an orderly queue for indifferent service: the improvement is in this, that previously it was a disorderly queue for indifferent service.

Outside, the ATM is a different matter. A young man has walked nonchalently up to the front of the queue. Nothing annoys an Englishman more than disruption to the rules of queuing. I step forward and growl, gesticulating with my fist and thumb. He gets the message and slinks off with no more feeling than a man who finds his milk has not been delivered on time. I continue to swear at him in English, as if I have the right - poor deluded child that I am.

Being a serious man, I have occasional in-depth conversations with my wife about politics, which run something like this: she says, "This American President, is he an illiterate little shit, or what?" In the past, the Chinese never talked politics: they were told what to say. In 2006 they are only as cynical and sceptical as their Western counterparts. They shrug and say, "What’s the point, they’re all corrupt, anyway." The difference is that whereas we all believe that somewhere there are good politicians, they don’t. A good politician is, by definition, apolitical – a man who gets beaten up because he complains that the Party has stolen land to build a chemical factory that contaminates the village.

The urban population in miserable homes watch as their land is swallowed up to build the latest high rise flats, wondering how much was paid in the bribes to the men who are going to evict them from their homes to build an Olympic stadium, a condominium, or a business complex. There is little money in politics outside the proceeds of corruption and this is what makes it such an idealist’s paradox. The bureaucrat who complains that he is poor has not yet got high enough to attract graft. We do not know whether to admire him for his probity or pity him his poverty; for he is totally ineffective till he is worth a bribe.

I watch at the traffic lights as a poor policeman attempts to enforce a new law which says that citizens shall not walk the road when the traffic lights are at red – presumably the result of the thinking of the same tidy-minded individual(no doubt with a relation in Germany) who thought up the idea of banning all motorbikes in Guangdong because they were bad for pollution. Let them all buy cars, he said hopefully, like Marie Antoinette’s famous (alleged) 'let them eat cake' during the worst days of starvation in the French Revolution.

The policemen stops her in the middle of the crossroad and tells her to pay a fine of 20 Yuan (1.50 pounds). Then, to reinforce his authority, he tells her he is confiscating her bike as security until she pays this princely sum.
She looks at him and says, "Keep the bloody bike then, what do I care?" (I translate roughly). Then she walks off leaving him, as it were, holding her baby. Clearly there is little point in playing the fiddle of authority when the Roman civis is burning. China is getting richer; Dongguan is getting very much richer. But, the point is, that many people remain poor and get relatively poorer. To the realist – or cynic - this means that a fine is worth more than twice as much as a bike and bikes are two a penny to those who know where to steal them.

Clearly, Mao is dead and something has changed. But nothing is new. The Chinese have middle class morality now – but they always did. Before it was called Confucianism, ubiquitously normality. Chinese people may be just as aghast at long hair as my mother during the Beatles Revolution of the sixties; as shocked as my father when he turned off 'Top of the Pops' in disgust – when an Englishman thinks he is being moral, he is only uncomfortable(GBS); and more Victorian than Victorian sexual propriety about pre-marital "goings on". Depending on whether or not, you are in Gin lane you will find, too, equal turns of both disgust and levity at the thought of imbibing large amounts of alcohol: for some a sin; for others enjoyable social competition.

I judged a speech competition at the university in the company of the professor. His Party chauffeur drives us back to Dongguan and I ask him: "what shall I say if the students ask me about Tiananmen?" He half turns and smiles. "Westerners do not understand China: twenty years ago we were not even allowed to talk to you." He says this as if it clinches the argument, rather than begs more questions. Then he begins talking about his Christmas light factory and the orders that flood in every year from Scandinavia. This pragmatic, pseudo ideologue divides his time between business and academia and cannot be gainsaid.

The more I learn, the less I find differences are different. The poet Plutarch wrote, Nothing is new under the sun.
But then, he probably wasn’t the first.

© Sam Merry November 2008

Dr Merry is studying for his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Portsmouth

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