Final impressions of China: Land of contradictions

Blogger Steve Kelman is fascinated by the contradictory images that people have of China.

China is an amazing, fascinating country, but as I leave from my most recent trip, I am again impressed by contradictory images one gets of the country.

My final reminder came on my flight out of China, on Air China. The movie selection consisted of everything from Disney movies to “The East is Red,” the Mao Zedong era “opera.” I tried to watch “The Birth of the Republic,” a big-budget extravaganza about the final years of the Chinese civil war and the proclamation of Communist rule in 1949, made on the sixtieth anniversary of the event in 2009. But before the movie, a paean to Chairman Mao, began, there was an ad for…Mercedes Benz cars. (Incidentally, I say I “tried” to watch the movie because, although the airline magazine said the flick had English subtitles, in fact it didn’t. So I ended up watching a fun, mindless Chinese entertainment movie, called “Sophie’s Revenge,” about a girl’s effort to take revenge on the boyfriend who dumped her –with the characters all clearly inhabitants of a young, hip, wealthy Chinese world. I would be curious to hear from Chinese readers about the Chinese-language name of the sixtieth-anniversary movie, rendered into harmless English as birth of “the republic”; I am guessing the Chinese version refers to birth of the “People’s Republic.”)

The materialism of Chinese society in general and the wealthy in particular is a big theme in China. China Daily featured an op-ed while I was there, “The Gold-Digging Game,” which attacked TV shows in which bachelors are paraded to talk about themselves in front of 24 female contestants (the contestants turn off a light if they decide they aren’t interested in the guy; the guy then gets to choose one of the girls who leave the lights on). What the article found deplorable was the crass materialism of these shows. On one show, a guy showed his apartment ownership certificate, keys to a Lamborghini, and a diamond ring; on another show, a woman said, “I’d rather be miserable sitting in a BMW than be happy riding a bicycle.” The article wistfully noted that in U.S. dating shows – in our land of materialism and capitalism -- contestants are forbidden from mentioning salary or profession.

This raises the issue of the other big contradictory image one receives of China: Is it a powerful country about to take over the world, or a poor, developing country rife with social problems? It is difficult to know whether the humbler image is one designed more for western consumption (and that Chinese actually believe that their ancient civilization, after a bad patch that lasted several centuries, is going back to its traditional position of being the most important country in the world). But the impression I get from talking with academics and some officials, and from reading the English-language media, is closer to the second image than the first.

China’s economic boom – led by factory and infrastructure investment – has left lots of people, even in the big cities, with stagnant incomes and facing skyrocketing housing prices, as the share of national income going to wages and salaries has plummeted to a rate well below that of any other major country in the world. Chinese now talk about an “ant tribe” of young white-collar workers in the big cities, living in tiny apartments and hardly able to make ends meet. And of course the situation of people in the rural villages, and in the factories recently rocked by strikes over low wages, is far worse. The pollution remains terrible – during my week in China, a disgusting, and cough-inducing, pea soup enveloped the three cities I saw, and I didn’t see the sun once. So there seems to be an emerging consensus that China needs to pay people better, and move to higher-value added (and less-polluting) service industries. Both of these changes will involve major stresses for the Chinese economy and society (for a good article on Chinese economic issues, read “Economic Weather Getting Stormy” by Pang Zhongying).

P.S. Some blog readers may remember that I am studying the Chinese language. I am a firm believer in the linguistic equivalent to “no pain, no gain” – just try to speak and say things in the foreign language, even at the risk of making mistakes. The possible consequences of this were revealed at a going-away dinner with faculty and students at Xi’an’s Jiaotong University, when I was trying to discuss (in Chinese) how Americans don’t have the same aversion to eating alone as Chinese do. I wanted to say, “When I am in China and eat alone…” However, by putting the phrase “alone” (yi ge ren) after the verb instead of before, what I said became, “When I am in China and eat a person…” Oh, well.