Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Faces of China

Faces of China

Most foreigners who live in China say that Hong Kong is one of the most pleasant places to go to. You can sit in the park, drink your latte and read the Herald Tribune of today. In the afternoon you can go to Times Square and protest for the Falun Gong and before going to bed you can browse through the latest anti-Mao biography, that you bought legally and with a slight touch of pride. Even more people who live in China, once they set foot on Hong Kong, have the tendency to say bad things about Mainland China. It is very easy to criticise the Mainland, because the differences with Hong Kong are so obvious. Not only the apparent freedom but also the smells, the air quality, the traffic, the service, everything is just a little more advanced, modern or pleasant (that’s twice that I use that word in one introduction). What makes Hong Kong so different?

No one can appreciate Hong Kong like we can, the international students, expatriates and globetrotters who are fortunate enough to live in China for sometime. On the other hand, I know people like us, who live in Hong Kong but have never been to the Mainland. Their understanding of China is limited to what they have experienced in Hong Kong, that strange and obscure place that really doesn’t fit in with the rest of China. In fact, the whole selling point of Hong Kong is just that: it is not China. China knows this, and the Communist Party uses this for their own purposes. The investment that is fuelling the Chinese economy mostly comes through Hong Kong. The HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) government does the same thing. They manifest themselves as the alternative to the CCP, as something special.
But in the end the “one country, two systems”-concept is still the bottom line. Hong Kong is organising the equestrian event of the Olympics, just so everyone knows that it is part of China. Even, or even more, outside of politics, Hong Kong is China. The people speak Chinese, they eat noodles, pray to Buddha and make money. They light fireworks during the Spring festival and write in Chinese characters. Traditional characters, so you could even say that Hong Kong is more Chinese than the Mainland. A lot of Chinese culture was erased during the Cultural Revolution, and the current leaders of the CCP really don’t seem to be that eager to bring Confucius and Daoism back to the grassroots. The fact that Chinese culture survives a century of British colonial rule, more than it resists a couple of decades of enraged Maoists, says something about the impact of Maoism.
While I am sitting on the crossing of Canton Road and Peking Road, drinking my obligatory Starbucks-latte, I can’t help but wonder why the difference in feeling or vibe as you will, between the Mainland and Hong Kong is so evident. What was it that made this atmosphere so completely incomparable? Is it the Communist Party? Or the British? Is it merely the difference in development (Hong Kong is richer than most European countries, where as most people on the mainland live without running water or electric heating)? Or is it all because of the impact of Mao Zedong?
It is not about what is the real China, or what China should be like. We live here, we study Chinese and we try to understand the situation. This part of the world will determine the history of the 21st century. It is for all of us that we need to understand “China”, not just the PRC or the HKSAR. For future references, it is probably more interesting to underline the things these two administrative entities and their respective peoples have in common. You will find that the common ground between the PRC, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau is what makes Chinese culture.
My latte is enjoyably warm and the atmosphere feels like home, like a big city in the West. But then I see the news on the television. A tragedy is unfolding in the south of Mainland China. Millions of people, mostly migrant workers and students who plan to spend their only free time in the year to help their families in the countryside, are trying to get home for the Spring festival. But for the first time in fifty years snow is falling on Guangdong and Yunan. Electric cables break, roads are blocked, trains stop working, airports are closed. The whole country falls to a meltdown. ‘The collapse of the infrastructure is worrying for the future’, writes The New York Times. ‘The snow has surprised us all’, says The China Daily. But no one writes about what I am looking at. Images that make you shiver, images that are hard to forget. Thousands of people, tired and cold, hungry and stressed. Waiting in the blistering cold for days, outside in front of the train station. They are being told that there will not be any trains to their hometown, not this week. Authorities are saying they should go back to where they came from. Back to the big city where they work. Or spend the New Year on the street in front of the station. Carrying a year’s collection of stuff to bring to their families, they don’t seem to be considering the options the government is giving them. This week is the only free time they have. They haven’t seen their loved ones for a year. They deserve to go home. What strikes me most is the greyness, their faces full of desperation. If there is one thing I will remember of my time in the PRC it is the face of an ordinary Chinese guy. Panic breaks out. The mass of tired and overloaded people is too big for the square. A stampede starts. People have to fight to survive, as always in this country. People die, get swallowed by the stampede that once it moves is unstoppable. There are no official numbers but the images don’t look good. How do you explain to them, that they will not make it home this year? Why did this happen? Why, in a country where the Olympics are supposed to mark a new era for China, where the 2010 World-Expo is supposed to emphasize its economic hegemony? Why do the ordinary people have to suffer so much?
A week later I spent a night in a train with some young people who had been stuck on that square in Guangzhou. They had waited five days on the streets. They had lost their luggage in the stampede. They had to wait for thirty hours for some drinking water and some instant noodles. They hadn’t showered the whole week. But they smiled, because they were on a train now. At two thirty in the morning, the train suddenly stopped. Three boys of seven were spotted in the headlights of the train. The police went out to check if they were killed or if they were just hurt. Three young and completely exhausted boys were carried onto the train. One of them had broken his foot when they tried to jump on our moving train. Why? They were walking from Nanning to Wuzhou, about 500 kilometres, to get home to their families. They didn’t have money for a train ticket. So they decided to jump on one. Lucky as they were to have survived such a stunt, they looked as miserable as I have ever seen anyone. For me, these are the incidents that give this summer’s Olympics a bitter taste. It is one of the reasons why I will not cheer during the opening ceremony.
Looking at the images of people stuck in the snow or waiting for a train, in a coffee place in Hong Kong is ironic for two reasons. First of all, if I hadn’t been in Hong Kong I would have never seen these images, because the CCP didn’t think it would be suitable for the Chinese citizens to see these terrible scenes. So the images never made it to the television or the newspaper on the Mainland. Second of all, seeing the People’s Republic from a lazy chair in a warm bar in Hong Kong makes you realise something very fundamental. The misery and suffering is exactly what is missing in Hong Kong. Or the other way around, the hardships people endure on the Mainland is what makes it such a different experience. Despite my anger at what I was seeing on the news, I had a crying urge to get back to the Mainland. I got sick of Hong Kong after three days. I wanted to go back to those people, who are always curious and warm hearted. Driving on the super modern and air-conditioned and fully automatic subway from Central back to Tsim Sha Tsui-station, I couldn’t wait to be back in those smelly old trains where people spit on the floor and shout at each other.

Thomas de Groot, Beijing, February, 2008

1 comment:

Birgitta said...


Utrolig spennende side!
Jeg skal følge med!

Hilsen Birgitta