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China, where everything is big

Webdiary columnist Phil Uebergang has just returned from China. Phil's last piece for Webdiary asked How healthy is Australia's secularism?

by Phil Uebergang

Two months ago my partner started a 3 month work contract in rural China, so rather than flying home for her mid contract break we reversed the travel arrangements and I met her over there.

My trip started in Shanghai, then I flew Beijing to make our rendezvous. From there we did a tour of the incredible Great Wall and caught a train south to the historic village of Pingyao, then on to Xian and the terracotta warriors. We finished the journey back in Shanghai for shopping and luxury.

Three weeks is both a very short and very long time for a first visit to this huge and enigmatic country. Once the initial shock of China is dealt with, a process of trying to generalise the country begins. But as each generalisation seems to contradict every other, the realisation sets in that there are far too many layers of complexity to Chinese culture for generalisations to mean anything. But if I had to sum up China in one sentence it would be this: What will happen next?

It is a chaotic nation in which everything seems to be happening at once. The immense building projects underway, the masses of factories and power stations pumping out unbelievable smog, the huge coal fields and endless villages - you can't help but wonder, constantly, where China is going with all this.

The Cultural Revolution did not so much create a clean slate upon which to build a new China as it left a pile of smoking ruins requiring a lifetime of rehabilitation. It is not yet an international standard holiday destination because China is still fundamentally utilitarian, and can be quite an unattractive and difficult country. It lacks the romance of Europe and doesn't quite have the sense of adventure of Africa. For my money, if you're after that once in a lifetime experience then the African safari wins hands down. But China is a safe place to travel, if you can somehow stay off the roads, and it presents unparalleled intellectual challenges for the visitor.

The Chinese are tough beyond words and they work constantly, with that ever burning desire to put food on the table, maintain face, and give their kids half a chance at a better life. Productivity levels tend to be low, since capital is tight and imagination quashed. While there is an obvious improvement in outlook and even physical appearance in the younger generations, there is still too much work carried out in rather poor fashion. Will this situation change? China will only really move ahead if it does. Or perhaps it will be a result of progress. It is for this reason that we must be wary of Chinese investment in Australia, since they seem to have little empathy for the benefits of quality investment in knowledge, safety or capital infrastructure.

Similarly, there is a marked difference between the huge amount of new construction going on as compared with the level of civil maintenance. New buildings soon look old. It has the potential to drive a Westerner to the point of despair, especially when combined with a generally poor understanding of hygiene, a poor sense of social cooperation, and the lack of ability to clean and tidy properly. There is not much in the way of genuine pride in presentation, apart from that necessary to show face. But this might also change, because the Chinese are nothing if not determined.

It is in the exciting, burgeoning megopolis of Shanghai that such change is most obvious and/or possible. Shanghai is leading China into the future both economically and culturally, as it opens its doors to reality and re-becomes one of the world's great cities. We had the fortune to be introduced to Shanghai by one of Australia's accomplished expats - she was a foreign student in Peking during the dark years of the early 80's which began a relationship with China that reached Ministerial level, she is fluent in Mandarin and is now one of the first foreigners to have started a private investment bank there. It was a privilege to experience the city through the eyes of someone for whom the drastic changes taking place have real meaning.

The Australian relationship with China may be subtle, but it is strong and runs deep. Australia was there first, and our statesmen are taken seriously. Our friend pointed out some of the surface indications of this relationship - an inordinate amount of Aussie produce on the supermarket shelf, our wine in the cellars, and a disproportionate number of Australian owned quality restaurants.

While Shanghai, as of old, represents seemingly limitless foreign opportunity in China, the rites of entry are fraught. Breaking into China for business is a gruelling war of attrition against institutionalised nepotistic corruption and bureaucratic incompetence. But for the eventual winners there is no doubt that the rewards are great. China's growing middle class is several times the size of Australia's population, yet currently is only a fraction of its potential.

There is a growing divide between the rich and poor, as the rich have been gaining their wealth at an alarming rate. But the Chinese have an extremely clever, intrinsic understanding of money. Consequently their economic management has been superb and there is a stated commitment to address the necessity to control the rapid growth of the past two decades in favour of effective infrastructure development.

At least this is what the commentaries in the highly readable English language newspapers claim which, although tending strongly towards a positive outlook, offer great insights into China for the uninitiated. But if Shanghai is anything to go by then there is strong evidence that there is some truth in these opinions.

So where is China going? The current leadership seems capable, relatively liberal and forward reaching. I can envisage two scenarios for China's future. One is to suffer yet another failure of leadership resulting in chaotic stagnation. But the other is to follow its current path of relentless change, which will lead to a future of question marks for the entire world.

This path has issues that require negotiation. The environmental problems are grotesque. Coal is China's second currency, but with structured growth this should change to a reliable grid energy network, for everyone. Despite the protestations of many over Australia's position regarding Kyoto, the more high quality thermal coal we can deliver to China's furnaces, the better it will be for the world.

There is still an absurd adherence to the cult of Mao. His portrait needs to be torn from the gate of the Forbidden City and the mausoleum recreated as a monument to the suffering of the people before any nation can consider China to be politically or culturally mature.

Nepotistic corruption and incompetence is endemic, indeed almost cultural. To solve this problem may well be China's greatest challenge. In an issue close to home for me, most of the coal mining deaths in China are caused by blatantly corrupt management. While there is talk of addressing these issues, and many others, the proof will be in results.

This issue also raises a question mark as to the intrinsic value of individual life in China. I witnessed two overt examples of repression during my short stint. The first was in attending church in Shanghai. While religion is now supposedly legal in China, the reality is a little different. Churches are extremely rare, although there are a growing number of Chinese language congregations. I went to one of the few English speaking services in Shanghai and it was packed to the rafters with expats - it is still illegal for locals to attend these services. The denial of religious freedom to 1.4 billion people for so long is a staggering concept.

The other example was a conversation we had with an English speaking Chinese engineer. This young chap had worked internationally and spoke reasonable English. He was reading a book on Chinese history, and was quite shocked and emotional to be learning for the first time of the centuries of suffering of ordinary Chinese people. He compared this history with the political climate of today, praising the West for its freedom of speech. Apart from his obvious sense of repression, we were intrigued by the fact that Chinese history is still so effectively censored in their education system.

The last word goes to my quietly courageous girlfriend, living and working patiently in the reality of China, surrounded by avian flu and unremitting poverty.  Life for the majority of Chinese today is still very different to what we are used to.

She writes:

"The little roads here are noisy again due to the great rush to finish harvesting. Ancient loud three-wheeler trucks for the 'wealthy' farmers are piled high with corn, millet, soya beans, apples, sticks or hay. For the poor farmers a small cart, also heavily loaded, is pulled by either the son or the old farmer himself!

A few rice paddies are dotted around but the climate and water availability aren't suitable. They can only plant one rice crop a year in comparison to the South West where up to 3 crops are planted per year. The various grains are thrashed by hand on the roads and also laid out so that the cars and trucks can drive over them and separate the wheat etc from the chaff. All the cows, goats, geese and chickens walk over it as well, so one gets a nice mixture of manure, rubber from the tyres and various other pollutants in your steamed bread for breakfast.

When I go for my short afternoon walks up to the mountains I often encounter farmers both male and female carrying huge sacks of corn on their backs, negotiating the steep slopes and stony paths with great agility. On some tricky spots they've realigned the stones on the path to make it a little easier. Each farmer has been given a plot of land by the government and it's nearly impossible for them to move to another area as there's no land available and they probably wouldn't be able to afford it even if there was.

After school the children also help in the fields. One particular noticeable difference between China and both South America and Africa is the lack of kids running around and for that matter dogs and cats as well. In this particular area they can't afford to feed a dog or cat, especially not as a pet although they do breed dogs for their meat, big huge ones!

Interestingly there are many satellite dishes perched precariously on balconies and roofs. Mobile phone towers are also abundant - so are mobile phones, particularly for the young people. So even in these poor rural areas people are connected to the world and most people have mobile phones and TV sets rather than running water or books in their houses.

Are the people happy here? This is a very difficult question, and I believe that particularly the farmers don't have the time or the energy to ponder this. Most of their work is still all done manually - even the plough is pulled by one or two men. If you have an ox to pull it you are very fortunate. Everything is hauled up and down the mountains on foot, not many mules or donkeys are to be seen. This also leads me to wonder why we are served donkey meat when you hardly see any donkeys. Has the donkey died of old age or disease, or is it even donkey meat at all? It is best not to ask too many questions about the food being served.

For the labourers building those bridges and the miners shovelling everything out by hand, they consider themselves lucky not to have to earn a meagre living by the vagaries of farming."

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re: China, where everything is big

Hi Kerri, thanks (and Russell).

I would disagree with the final sentence in your quote. I don't think these poor miners are being 'officially' regarded as expendable since the government does openly acknowledge that it is a huge problem.

A lot of mines have been closed by officials, but there are many problems. One is that many closed mines are worked by peasants anyway, since coal is such a valuable commodity for them. Another is the issue of corruption on a local scale, in which local officials are bribed to keep unsafe mines operating. I think it is the latter that is the biggest headache for the central government, which on the face of it seems relatively reformist.

Of course this is on top of possibly widespread poor engineering practices in the first place.

There are over 28,000 coal mines in China, and probably a couple of hundred in Australia, to give some idea of the scale of the problem.

re: China, where everything is big

Nice post Phil, indeed a land of many forces and potential change. To see some of that against the world backdrop some readers might like to see the basic UNFPA data sheet here. [Requires Adobe Reader].

If you do look at the info sheet do check the column for Population now versus for 2050 (projected) and notice the percentage growth rate column. In China's case the growth is slow but still massive numbers who will need food, water and other basics.

re: China, where everything is big

Interesting read Phil. One wonders if or how the drive for industrialisation and development will accomodate human rights, especially in relation to the coal industry. The ABC's Asia Pacific Focus program last Sunday reported on Mining a deadly game in China:

Robin Munroe, China Labour Bulletin: The overriding priority of the government is to boost energy production - coal production - at all costs and miners' lives are being sacrificed in the process.

John Taylor: Robin Munroe works for the 'China Labour Bulletin', a small Hong Kong-based labour rights group. This year China officially recorded 4,369 coal mining deaths to October, 268 more than in the same period last year. Robin Munroe believes there are far more.

Robin Munroe: The figures are far from complete. We've had reports from Chinese officials off the record in meetings we've had with them in Geneva, where they have said that actually the real figure is closer to 20,000.

John Taylor: The shiny new China needs a lot of energy to maintain its economic success. Demand for power is surging and coal is being produced at record levels to meet the bulk of that need. There are big profits to be made and it helps that independent trade unions don't exist and government oversight is haphazard at best.

Robin Munroe: When you have conditions like that, you can forget about effective coal mining safety. The bottom line is that Chinese miners are being regarded officially as an expendable production cost.

re: China, where everything is big

Hi Phil, so what is new? Tell us something we don't already know. I assume that this is your first trip to China and the experience has been overwhelming. I am sure for someone who is making his or her first trip to the USA, a similar tone piece can be written.

China today is free from hunger, free from the warlords and landlords and free from feudalism. That is some achievement. As to your question of "where China is going with all this," like the tide, China will go where she is destined to go. Has been like that for thousands of years.

re: China, where everything is big

Anybody got any thoughts (odds ... may be more applicable) as to how long planet Earth is going to survive if China attains "Our / US / Western" "standards" (to which China and any others are certainly entitled!)

As it is we "need" 3.5 Earths now just to keep the status quo going for the time being! ... Where and more importantly WHEN are the "other" Earths going to "arrive" ...

Can someone explain why humanity is "striving" with such "force" towards assured extinction?

re: China, where everything is big

What next? Soon, hopefully, some democratic reform. A country that size can't be governed successfully by a plutocratic central government, the answer is a constitutional federation of states, just like ours. Let the bells of freedom ring! Then, at least, we won't have to worry about any future Sino-Japanese conflict, because democracies almost never attack each other.

re: China, where everything is big

Where is China going? A few factors to consider are:

(i) the effects of an ageing population compounded/brought about by a male-favouring one-child policy;

(ii) a terrible public health system;

(iii) the effects of the one-child policy on many males children in the burgeoning middle class who are now in their 20s and should be starting to be productive - there are many, many lazy only sons who live off the wealth of their grandparents and parents who, after 2-3 generations of the one child policy, funnel all their wealth to the one son (who has no uncles, no aunts, no cousins to share the wealth) who sits around and does bugger all;

(iv) the effects of urbanisation - many people refer to China's history, which is largely based on an axiom of a proportionately overwhelming rural population. This has changed radically in the last two decades and a lot of presumptions about Chinese culture/history playing themselves out in its future don't seem to take this into account;

(v) Beijing no longer has totalitarian control. Hu Jintao is no Deng Xiaoping and certaintly no Mao. Beijing is now facing massive frustrations in enforcing its will across China, as local governments and party members fail to implement policy.

These factors point in more or less a bad general direction, but of course there are many other factors pointing in different directions. But I can't see China's current speed of growth etc sustaining itself.

There's also external factors to consider, like the increasing likelihood that Japan will try to dump Article 9 of its constitution (note the recent Cabinet changes) and establish true armed forces, which will send China into a chest-beating, teeth-gnashing frenzy (and probably Korea too), not just because that would change the whole Taiwan equation, but because it would inflame already existing tension over who is the Asian regional superpower.

In my view, we're looking at a war between China and Japan this century. If it's a conventional war, China has got the sheer numbers to win, while I have doubts that the dyed-haired youth of Japan have the same spirit as the Japanese "Nanjing Incident" Army.

Perhaps you gweilos can sit this one out.

Margo: Hi Tiu Fu. Our Asia columnist PF Journey, who's also on Webdiary's management team, raised this possibility in Pride and Prejudice: is the third Sino-Japanese war inevitable? Fascinating.

re: China, where everything is big

PF Journey, it's been a while. Yes it was intended to be a mood piece and no, there is nothing new here. But for many Westerners, like myself, China is a huge enigma and to meet it face to face is a big experience. So I thought I would share the experience with all the other Westerners out there who haven't had the opportunity. Anything to help people gain a little more insight into that complicated country.

Tiu Fu Fong, although China is becoming urbanised surely the percentages are still tiny? I think your point (v) is particularly interesting, but Oscar Werring is on the right track for a solution.

re: China, where everything is big

PF Journey, the Singapre model you describe sounds (to me) somewhat like John Howard's dream for Australia.

re: China, where everything is big

Hi Phil, it was a mood response from me as well. So we are even. Let me give you my answers to your question as to ”where China is going with all this?”

How does Lee Kuan Yew’s Singapore model strikes you? There has been a mutual admiration society going on between Singapore and the Mainland for a while. Harry Lee has been back and forth and widely consulted by the Mainland. Consider these points:

* Singapore looks from outside is pro-western and progressive, but it is still very Chinese and conservative.

* The people are well fed and prosperous. What else do they want?

* A little bit of freedom is all they need and want. Singapore has what the dear old Bung Karno (President Sukarno) of Indonesia use to call “Guided Democracy”. Yes they have elections, as long as candidates from the PAP (People Action Party) are elected. So basically, a one party State.

Singapore has a Dynasty going, the Lee Dynasty in both politics, legal, investment and business. Harry Lee, his wife, sons and daughter-in-laws. Very Chinese. They can't help it.

The State controls everything yet gives the appearance of freedom to the people. Very sophisticated.

The State involves in everything, including social engineering. It reminds me of a social experiment conducted not long ago in Singapore. The Government setup a Social Development Unit (SDU) to do match making for the professionals who are still single. The rationale was that the professionals are not producing enough quality babies. It was a total flop because the locals dubbed it as a Unit for the “Single, Desperate and Ugly”.

Like ABBA said: “Money, money, money, must be funny, in the rich man’s world” – again very Chinese.

They still shoot horses, I mean people, don’t they? in Singapore and on the Mainland.

So all in all, Singapore is not a bad model to aim at for the Mainland. I have no doubt, the State and the people in the Mainland will be happy with the Singapore model. The question is, will the West be happy with China as the much bigger version of Singapore? What do you think?

re: China, where everything is big

PF, your description of Singapore makes it sound very much like a monarchy. I can relate to your vision of the mainland central government looking towards it - very much in Chinese character I would think. And yes, I think most Chinese of today would be comfortable with that, should they benefit from it.

But China is very different to Singapore which to me seems like a city state, whereas China is a huge copmlexity of localities. All these local areas have their own agendas, and Chinese history seems to be all about these confliciting agendas. How could a monarchial central government ever effectively manage all these diverse interests and small corruptions?

I really think that an Australian model of democracy would be the most efficient way for China to manage its complexity and nepotism. I don't think it is out of the question either, because as you know the Chinese individual is impressively sophisticated, all spitting aside. Combine this sophistication with globalisation, improved education and increased international exposure, and I wonder if the Chinese people will settle for anything less in the future.

My knowledge of affairs in Asia is not what it should be (so keep on writing please...), and this is largely due to the non progressive nature of our education system. I went to Lutheran schools which had pretty good standards, but archaic curriculums. German was the only language taught, whereas even back then Asian languages should have been predominant, but I guess there were just no teachers available. Everything was very Eurocentric, and I hope that is belatedly changing.

re: China, where everything is big

Tiu Fu Fong, very interesting comment. Regarding the sense of nationalism etc, my friend in Shanghai was often sniggering at derogatory comments muttered by the Chinese such as 'stupid Westerners', thinking none of us could understand them. There does seem to be an undercurrent of misplaced cultural superiority there.

I'll certainly be keeping an eye on events this weekend. All the best with the marches.

re: China, where everything is big

As for democratic reform, watch HK this Sunday as we march for a better democractic deal than the one we are currently being offered/told we will get by Chief Executive Donald Tsang. Police numbers will be estimated by the number of people rallying at Victoria Park and hence will not include those who join the rally in Causeway Bay or Wanchai, which will probably be a significant number.

Currently Mainland Chinese don't think that democracy is even possible, so they don't hold any hope of getting it. However, if the HK people can get the universal suffrage that most of them want and it continues to be prosperous, then Mainlanders might start thinking that some sort of PRC democratic reform is possible. This is what Beijing is terrified of at the moment.

If the PRC gets democracy, my guess is that fracture lines between the rich eastern seaboard states and the dirt poor western states will increase. A big fear is that, as the masses are still in the poor country notwithstanding urbanisation (as Phil points out), truly democratic election results would produce a government expropriating the wealth of the rich areas to the poorer areas. This is probably one of the biggest brakes on democratisation as, at the end of the day, modern mainland Chinese culture has a strong element of self-interest and greed, far stronger than my experiences with Westerners. When I talk to Mainland colleagues and friends about possible democratisation, this is the first issue they raise in about 90% of cases.

The second usually is "and who would they vote for? Can you really trust them with the vote?". The second question explains in part the fear of Fa Lun Gong. It's a crack pot cult, sure, but if China had free elections on the basis of universal suffrage today, it's one of the few non-CCP networks that could harness its members to obtain democratic-based power. This is also why the CCP fears and tightly controls other networks, like the churches.

The poor vs rich I mentioned earlier fracturing will arise in any case, whether manifesting itself in the election results in the event of gradual democratisation or, regardless of whether democratisation occurs or not, in continuous riots like the Taishi incident or thousands of other village 'disturbances' which have been on the increase in the last 10 years. How many land seizures and polluted rivers can the peasants take?

Raising the banner of nationalistic sentiment in aggression vs Japan would be one way of plastering over the fractures. Nationalism on the mainland been drilled into Mainlanders for a long time, combined with a millenia old view that China is the center of civilization, the centre of the world and that all other Asian cultures derive from Chinese culture. It has an amazing ability to shut down critical facilities in a manner far exceeding nationalism in places like the US. Chinese people travelling outside of China and getting exposure to foreign ideas through the internet is diluting this a bit (particularly as they realise it is not all what they were taught in school), but not all that much.

re: China, where everything is big

This comment is not meant to be as flippant as it might sound, when I say that it is all so very, very far from "The World of Suzie Wong".

Who can confidently predict what will happen next?

re: China, where everything is big

Margo, looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks, but it's definetly not a duck...

I've always been impressed by the Chinese ability to indulge in denial on a truly heroic scale.

re: China, where everything is big

G'day. See China Confronts Contradictions Between Marxism and arkets, Campaign Seeks to Modernize Ideology, Given Capitalist Trends by Edward Cody in The Washington Post:

"BEIJING, Dec. 4 -- The Communist Party has launched a campaign among political leaders and senior academics to modernize Chinese Marxism, seeking to reconcile increasingly obvious contradictions between the government's founding ideology and its broad free-market reforms.

"The campaign involves the allocation of millions of dollars to produce new translations of Marxist literature and to update texts for secondary school and university students obliged to study the official philosophy, officials said. In addition, the campaign will promote more research on how Marxism can be redefined to inform China's policies even as private enterprise increasingly becomes the basis of its economy, they explained..."

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