In recent months, stories about China seem to appear in the papers virtually every day. I am no old China Hand, but I do write and teach about contemporary American foreign policy and, consequently, am familiar with China’s political history. But I was not prepared for my visit to China this past summer.
After a standard 12 day American charter tour (Shanghai, Yangtze cruise, Chongqing, Sian, Beijing), I am still trying to process the startling things I experienced as I moved back and forth between the eighteenth and twenty-second centuries.
For example, after eating a Sino-American buffet lunch featuring bagels and pastrami on board a cruise ship between Yichang and Chongqing, we moved into the bar for a lecture on the flooding of the Yangtze to facilitate the massive Three Gorges power project. In this one-party dictatorship, the lecturer, who like most of our guides had majored in tourism (!) at his university, spent a good deal of time analyzing the serious political, environmental, and social criticisms of the project. Through a window, we could see farmers with simple implements working on terraced fields soon to be inundated. Above them we could make out through the pollution and haze the outlines of a new skyscraper city that some of the two million dispossessed will inhabit. Above the ship’s window was a large flat-screen television tuned to the NBA finals, which I watched with one eye as I nursed the drink special of the day, a black Russian made with Smirnoff vodka. As another Smirnoff, Yakov, used to exclaim, “What a country!”
CNN and ESPN were available wherever we stayed, as was internet access to email, Western magazines and newspapers, and we could buy the International Herald Tribune in our hotels, although never in the airports, which, of course, Chinese citizens frequented. I did not, however, visit the sites that Google has agreed to restrict in China. I was surprised to see in the English language China Daily and on Chinese television stations investigative reporting about the kidnapping of children who were turned into slave laborers at a brick factory—apparently with the knowledge of local party officials.
Human Rights Watch and other international civil-rights advocacy groups continue to assail Beijing for its repressive policies. Ordinary tourists, however, have little contact with dissidents and their fate. In the seventies, I traveled as a tourist in both fascist Spain and the communist Soviet Union. From the outside, China today struck me as a superficially freer society, perhaps because its language and culture were more impenetrable than in those other dictatorships. At the least, our guides talked about things that would have had them thrown into prison in the other dictatorships.
Our tour guide in Shanghai was proud that 470 of the Fortune 500 do business in his home town of 18 million, a futuristic city that is building a glassy high rise on virtually every block and where the crane has become the country’s national bird. When I asked him how China’s Communist Party, which is still committed to the tenets of Karl Marx, can tolerate an unbridled capitalism that looks like the United States ca. 1890, he responded “we had socialism and it didn’t work.” He continued, in phrases that would have thrilled George W. Bush, that people don’t work hard unless they have incentives available under capitalism. Leaders like the late Deng Xiaoping contended that Marx was primarily concerned about creating a “harmonious society” and how one got there was not that important-- “no matter if it is a white or a black cat, if it can catch mice it is a good cat.”
A docent at the Chongjing museum devoted to the wartime exploits of America’s General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell and Flying Tiger commander Claire Chennault, both of whom helped the Chinese Nationalists fight the Japanese during World War II, told us that had the non-communist father of his country, Sun Yat-sen, not died prematurely in 1925 ,the entire history of China might have been different. Does that mean no Mao? What sort of Marxism is that?
Moreover, as Japan has replaced the United States and the old Soviet Union as the main target of Chinese hostility, tourists as well as Chinese students are hearing more about the patriotic efforts made by that former running dog of capitalism, Chiang Kai-shek, to defeat the Japanese.
The museum is just across the river from a growing section of Chongjing, one of the smaller major Chinese cities boasting a population of only 5 million. Standing in the courtyard admiring the statue of General Stillwell, I could barely make out the high rises one-quarter of a mile away. Recently the Yangtze port “won” the laurels as the fifth most polluted city in the world. During our 12 days in China we experienced no rain but also never saw a clear blue sky. Our guides told us the authorities plan to close Beijing’s coal-fired factories for up to a month during the Olympics, something they tried quite successfully when the Olympic selection committee paid its visit.
Wherever we went, whether on the Yangtze or in quite luxurious hotels, we were warned not only not to drink the tap water but to brush our teeth with bottled water. I doubt whether this problem will be solved by next summer for China’s coming-out party. The Olympic symbol and theme “One World, One Dream” is omnipresent. A giant clock ticks off the time to the event on the front wall of the Beijing Historical Museum across from Tienanmen Square and the theme is emblazoned in “HOLLYWOOD” size English letters across a mountain top at one of the more popular sections of the Great Wall.
I imagine that the homeless in this proletarian paradise will be shipped out beyond the tourist areas come Olympic time next summer. On one early morning run through a park a few blocks from the seat of government in Beijing, I saw six people sleeping on the benches within the first 200 feet. With their coats for blankets and worldly goods bundled up in plastic bags, they would be at home in any major U.S. city. They were not necessarily drug addicts or drunks. As the government and businesses woo millions of workers in from the countryside to build these massive cities of the future, there is simply not enough affordable housing for them.
Photos of Mao still appear on buildings and in museums but now the party admits he was correct only 70 percent of the time. Few, however, have the courage to ask what he would think of China today.
The first question friends asked on our return was not about politics, pollution, or the police. They wanted to know about the food. It was interesting but I had to report that the best meal we had was the night in Beijing when we escaped from our group to dine at Maxim’s of Paris. There we devoured French food in amid Belle Epoch furnishings while a Chinese performer sang Edith Piaf. What a country!