I’ve visited more than a dozen countries over the years, some multiple times and over several weeks or months. And if I’ve learned anything it’s that you don’t get to know a country well as a tourist, but you might get a sense of a national mood and lifestyles, and how people conduct their daily lives.
I just spent a month in mainland China and Hong Kong and had the advantage over most American tourists of having a wife from Hong Kong who had spent months prior to the trip brushing up on Mandarin. Reflecting on that trip back in L.A. while Hong Kong explodes in protests, and just held municipal elections with more than 70 percent participation that repudiated the Beijing government, my feelings about China are more ambivalent than those I have had for any other country for reasons that I will try to explain.
First of all, I have to emphasize that I am no China expert.
Traveling from Beijing to Chengdu, Xian, the magnificent Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve and Shanghai one is struck by the very vastness of the country, from the hugely populated cities to the spectacular natural beauty of the countryside. But what one experiences very quickly, and can be surprising to Westerners who have sketchy knowledge about the country are two things: the warmth and welcoming attitude of the people and the conspicuous prosperity—particularly in the cities, where people spend money at pricey malls, restaurants and tourist attractions and in the ubiquitous Starbucks and home-grown coffee shops.
It’s just like home only more of it. I didn’t know what a Blancpain wristwatch was until I saw one in a shop window priced at $20,000 American dollars.
Beijing is certainly one of the world’s safest big cities. Day or night you can go anywhere unbothered—unless it’s by the occasional native who stares at you or asks to have his picture taken with him because he has a rarely seen a tall Caucasian walking the streets of the capital
During my visit in October throngs of tourists from all over the country converged to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the communist regime. Many of them, generally referred to as the mountain people, had had no previous contact with Westerners, nor had they seen a “foreign devil,” which is a common and not necessarily disparaging Chinese term for white foreigners
The safety of the city—and indeed all of China—is in part explained by two obvious phenomena: there are video cameras everywhere and there are police or civilian security guards posted wherever you go. And in more heavily trafficked areas, there are mobile police vans conspicuously parked in city squares and at busy intersections.
Order and control are the key principles in keeping 1.4 billion people organized. Everything is monitored. We took taxis to get around the sprawling cities and no cabbie ever overcharged us. In fact, cabs have a phone number behind the driver’s seat to call if you suspect that you are being gouged. We were told that if a driver cheats you, he would be found out and likely lose his license, or at least social points. (More about the social credit system later.)
On this visit, my wife and I both had purchased SIM cards for our phones and subscribed to a virtual private network under the impression that we would have access to phone calls and internet while in China. We were wrong. The VPN was blocked and except at odd times we were completely cut off electronically. We knew that Facebook and Google were banned, but what we didn’t know is that we would be entirely blacked out. There is a Great Firewall around China.
Chinese Internet companies started as small knock-offs of their Western counterparts but now have numbers of users that rival the originals. The Chinese use Baidu in place of Google. But you won’t find on it references to Tiananmen Square or anything revealing about Xi Jinping. We found that nearly everyone uses WeChat for purchases, whether it be for cab rides, restaurant meals, or entries to museums. In fact, paying with cash can be awkward. WeChat is also used for ride sharing and as a form of Facebook. I kind of liked the idea of such a multiple purpose app and not having to carry cash, until I read that the app also serves as a tool for the surveillance state.
When I arrive in a city one of the first things I do is look for a newspaper. This is a fruitless task in China (I should stipulate that on a recent Saturday morning in New York I scoured several blocks surrounding the offices of the Times and couldn’t find a copy of the paper). In Beijing and elsewhere there is scarcely a shop that sells printed matter in either Chinese or English. There are two English language papers when you can find them—the China Daily and Global Times, which are propaganda sheets.
If you are in a hotel with satellite TV you probably get only one English language channel, China Global Television Network, which is essentially a much more sophisticated version of Russian Television (RT). It programs panel discussions on world politics and economics with not so subtle slant that suggests that China is world power coequal to the U.S. and EU. You can find newspapers and magazines only in large bookstores.
I like to visits bookstores everywhere I go, and was saddened to hear that the quirky browser’s haven Acqua Alta that I visited last year in Venice was wiped out by the recent flooding. China has some major bookshops. Page One wasn’t far from where we stayed on the historical Qianmen pedestrian street near Tiananmen Square. Page One is a 24-hour bookstore that is also an architectural gem. There are fine woodwork bookshelves throughout its four floors, comfortable benches and windows positioned to look out at the square and historical buildings from all angles.
I had read that for the Singapore-based company to get permission to open in Beijing it had to eliminate a number of political and otherwise controversial books. But it has a terrific range of titles in English and I was surprised to find that it had all of Orwell’s works, which I assumed would be controversial in their depictions of authoritarianism that in some ways predicts the Chinese state.
A friend asked if I was watched in China. Yes, I replied, like everyone else. Though what I found particularly unique was the importance of having my passport always readily available. I don’t remember ever being asked to produce my passport in Europe except once by a surly conductor on train in Italy. During the month-long trip I probably produced my passport on average two or three times a day, as did the Chinese themselves.
We had to show our passport in entering Tiananmen Square, visiting the Forbidden City, and even to enter the Shanghai Public Library, which also required us to obtain library cards before entering. Clerks are very helpful in showing you how to use the machines that call for you to insert your passport, which also takes your picture, and somewhat magically ejects a plastic card with a photo that we were told was for permanent use. I’ll hold onto it for my next visit.
It is also necessary to place handbags on X ray belts when entering virtually all public places, including the Metro.
These are things I assume the Chinese get used to.
To get to from Xian where we saw the terra cotta soldiers that an ancient emperor had crafted to accompany him to his grave to Chengdu where we would see the pandas on route to the spectacular Jiuzhaigou Reserve we took a high speed train which left the station at precisely the scheduled time and traveled at nearly 300 miles over the smoothest tracks imaginable. It was in the train that we were reminded of the strict application of the social credit system. A voiceover in English and video warned “Dear passengers: People who travel without a ticket or behave disorderly or smoke in public areas will be punished according to regulations and the behavior will be recorded in the individual credit information system.”
Still in development, the individual credit system rewards exemplary behavior while deducting points for infractions large and small. We were sure it was the reason we didn’t see any drivers run red lights or a single highway accident during our trip. Bad scores can lead to banishment from trains and planes, keeping adults or their children from getting into the best schools and slowing down of internet speeds. Apparently, it can even lead to having your dog taken away. Yes, that’s what the rules say.
But here is something intriguing about the Chinese. After the train had been moving for a while and I sat reading a guidebook I was startled when another passenger walked by and in passing pushed my seat back. I asked my wife why he would have done that, and she said that was just trying to make me more comfortable. It wasn’t the only time we experienced random acts of kindness.
On our flight from Los Angeles to Beijing a young Chinese couple that had just spent two weeks touring the U.S.—incidentally, where they were appalled by the homelessness in L.A.—chatted mostly in Chinese with my wife. He was a computer technician and she taught music. She offered to take us to the Great Wall during our stay in Beijing, and in our third day in the city she picked us up and drove us two hours to the wall, waited for us while we walked the wall for three hours, then took us to dinner before dropping us back at our hotel. She had rescheduled her classes to spend the day with us. She had a late model Toyota Rav4 and was fashionably dressed. I asked my wife if she thought the couple were happy with the system, and she said they had completely bought into it. We invited them to stay with us if they came back to California.
Away from the cities law enforcement is less apparent, but even in the remotest areas cameras are mounted from power poles and light posts.
Shanghai is the most cosmopolitan city in China and from our Airbnb apartment in the French quarter we could walk to the library and many fine restaurants and coffee shops. Only in Shanghai did we see Westerners walking the streets, many of them apparently working or going to school in the city. There are several good bookstores in the city and we spent a couple of hours browsing in the Foreign Language Bookstore, which had a terrific English literature section.
Also in the city we spent two evenings at Jazz at Lincoln Center Shanghai—a branch of Wynton Marsalis’s Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Set in the popular Bund section of town, the club is in part managed by the terrific tenor saxophonist Walter Blanding, who has long worked with Marsalis.
From Shanghai we flew to Hong Kong where we rented an apartment in the bustling Mong Kok district. I soon found that I could buy the international edition of The New York Times at a nearby 7-Eleven. I was reconnected with the world. But what I also found, and returning home and have considered from a distance, is a certain disconnect between what is happening on the streets of Hong Kong and how it is reported in the West and is reflected by the recent resolution of support of the protests in the U.S. Congress.
Random violence has become a constant danger in the city. If you rely on public transportation, as we did, you may come against closed vandalized Metro station entrances or cancelled bus routes. It’s a nuisance for tourists but for working Hong Kongers it means not easily being able to get to work or home from work or school. The acts of violence were minimal when I was there, but stepped up considerably during mid-November and my wife, who was staying with her sister, had to cancel plans and for some days chose to stay indoors rather that risk running into rioters.
It’s unclear what the rioters want other than some vague notion of a democracy apart from the dictates of Beijing. Some apparently want total separation from China and don’t even refer to themselves as Chinese. This is unrealistic. Hong Kong is part of China and always has been, even though it was leased from China for 150 years. And though Britain ruled over much of the 20th Century with a velvet hand, it was never a democracy.
It’s uncertain how this will end, just as it is uncertain if China will become more democratic. But there is some worry that the gradual liberalization, at least in the realm of entrepreneurship, may be crumbling and that Xi may turning to greater authoritarianism. Certainly the repression of the Uighurs points that way.
One of the bookstores guidebooks have recommend and that I wanted to visit in Beijing was The Bookworm, which occupies the upper floors of an older building in the fashionable Chaoyang commercial district. It was six weeks ago now that we walked up the stairs on whose risers were painted names of authors and books including: George Orwell—1984, Aldous Huxley—Brave New World, Ray Bradbury—Fahrenheit 451. These are revealing titles. The shop opens to a large café occupied by only a couple young people at laptops when we visited. Through one door was another large room with walls of books that served as a lending library. Another door led to the retail bookstore that was surprisingly light on books for sale. Most of the books were popular works in English. I didn’t see any of the ones displayed on the stairs. We bought a few postcards and left wondering why the guidebooks that had referred to it as one of the largest bookstores in Beijing. It wasn’t.
No more than three weeks after our visit my wife saw on TV in Hong Kong that The Bookworm had closed under ambiguous circumstances. It was reported, however, that the shop had been a gathering place for authors and intellectuals where often controversial lectures where held.
The store’s website says: “It is with heavy hearts that we are forced to announce the pending closure of The Bookworm. ... Despite our best efforts, we appear to have fallen prey to the ongoing cleanup of ‘illegal structures’; and we have not be able to secure an extension of our lease. While we attempt to reorganize and find a new location, we wish to say what an honor and a pleasure it has been to have played a small part in fostering cultural exchange, promoting literature and an appreciation of the arts during an incredibly exciting era in Beijing, and indeed for China as a whole.”
It’s pretty clear what actually happened to The Bookworm. It fell on the wrong side of the state, which looks very skeptically at intellectual salons or at any large group of people meeting for discussions and lectures. And of course bookshops that flaunt authors such as Orwell and Huxley are automatically suspect
I think what I feel about China is that it is a land hope and promise coupled with an authoritarian rule that is nearly absolute. And the nature of that regime is a puzzlement to Westerners. The Chinese like to call it socialism with a Chinese face. But what it looks more like is capitalism with an authoritarian face. Many in the West have maintained that capitalism will bring democracy to China; some argue that capitalism and democracy are virtually synonymous. I wonder if China has defied this misconception just has it has defied Mark Zuckerberg’s and Thomas Friedman’s dream of the democratizing force of the internet.
I was struck by the hardworking and optimistic young people I encountered. The twenty something guide we had in the Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, Ma Qingying, said that outside the tourist season she worked back home in Chengdu as a social worker for older people and youth (I think helping them with school or in getting into schools). She demonstrated on our trip to the 10,000-foot peak where oxygen huts provide relief to sojourners, that she is a caring person. She said she liked working with children, she said, “they are our future.” I hope the future bodes well for her.
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