Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Outsider's View from the Inside

The outsider's view from the inside – hazy reflections on China today

”No man can justly censure or condemn another, because indeed no man truly knows another”
(Thomas Browne)

Arriving China for the first time, in western media described as a nation still concealed by the darkness of communism, we all know what to expect. A demoralized people ruled by a despotic government who governs the country as they like. No opportunity for the individuals to decide for themselves. A dull life where serving the country is the only thing that keeps you from dying of boredom. Or, do we really?

Exiting Beijing Capital airport and taking your first steps on Chinese soil, apart from the polluted air and the crowded streets, what is your first impression of China? Is it Censorship? Unless the first thing you do is to shout out something obscure about free Tibet, this is very unlikely. Maybe it’s just me, a narrow-minded student whose perception of this country differ greatly from that of others, but believe it or not, my first thought was freedom.
Woe unto those who think that this interpretation has anything to do with a fascination for capital punishment, forced labour or censorship. To believe this is making a small, nevertheless fatal error. My point is merely a matter of observing the obvious presence of positive aspects in this society. In any case, let’s return to the topic.
In the morning, in the evening, what’s most delightful?
Personally, I truly enjoy the freedom of living in Beijing. To most westerners, the freedom provided in China is a new kind of freedom. When it comes to everyday life, Beijing is a society of great breadth and wisdom with people distinguished by the largeness and scopes of their views. Despite the size of the city (some say that including its suburbs Beijing is larger than Holland) within most neighbourhoods you will find everything you need during a normal week. A bank, a local grocery store and tons of restaurants, all within the range a five minutes walk. If you’re hungry, no matter where you are in Beijing you don’t have to walk more than a block to get tasty and inexpensive food at all hours of the night. More important though, you can eat it in the restaurant, on the sidewalk or just wrap it up and bring it home. If you think fast food and take away was invented in the United States, you are sadly mistaken. I don’t think I’ve ever waited more than ten minutes for my food, regardless of what time it is. And close to half of all the places that sell food are just stands, hence the take away.
This is not revolutionary city planning, but what is remarkable is that after ten p.m. Beijing is quiet, even though you’ll still be able to get a snack, a beer and a haircut. Most metropolitan areas around the world are all known for one aspect: the never ending street noises. Beijing, on the contrary, actually goes to sleep. Beijing not only provides the Beijinger with an extraordinary chance to save time by utilizing the means at hand, but also to relax and get a good night’s sleep. Freedom of having a choice, as the Americans would say.
Individuality vs. Commitment
Okay, the Beijing life is many ways convenient. What else? Well, what I would like to focus on is how people live their lives here. The quintessence of human life is to survive. When you are able to do so, you are presented with a choice, for whom do you keep living for? Back home we very much live for ourselves. Your interests become studies, then work and somewhere in between you find a partner. No man is completely free, but this is at least the way we like to see ourselves. As pure and free individuals.
If not being the Western counterpart, Chinese society does indeed represent something very different. To me it seems like Chinese people not only live for a greater cause, but they accept that it limits their individual freedom. In other words, just like us, they want to accomplish their goals, they want success. But it doesn’t have to be individual. They have a devotion of time and wealth to their families.
I acknowledge that I could never really live in a society that denies the existence of true individuals in the way Chinese society does. I will gladly confess an inability to understand this. But there is a significant part of me that admires this virtue. I want to scream about suppression of feelings, dreams, and opinions, but as a matter of fact I envy these people for understanding something I don’t. Like this old man having a cigarette on the sidewalk, smiling like he grasped something, something that the rest of us didn’t understand. The way he will stand completely still, while the people just walk on by.
Happiness is a warm gun
During the weeks following the recent developments in Tibet, people all over the world have criticized the Chinese government for their handling of the situation. As the Beijing Olympics get closer, the criticism increases. Constructive criticism is always appreciated, and I am not denying the errors committed in China. Still there is something terribly wrong about the attitude of most people writing about China.
The Western media’s view represents a consensus of opinion that China has nothing to offer our society. The core of the accusations is usually that the wrongs committed by the Chinese, which we seek to condemn and punish, have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate them being ignored. But if China would become a democratic nation according to Western standards then it will all change, right?
Many Western scholars have said that democracy and only democracy will lead to economic development. China has proved them wrong. So, when we now preach democracy as the ultimate goal for a society, isn’t there a chance that we are wrong again? Thoughts and ideas have never been improved on the basis of ignorance. Of course we are obligated to preserve our liberties as free citizens, but by stating that our way of thinking is flawless, we are not only acting terribly arrogant, we are also denying ourselves the opportunity of progress.
One could say that the Western imperialistic arrogance and the Chinese obstinate thought that no one can teach them anything combined is the worst possible starting point for dialogue. I see people trying to put out the Olympic torch in London, and on the other side angry counterdemonstrations in front of foreign enterprises in China, and I can’t help but shake my head. It’s like this young couple meeting for the first time; she is too young to fall in love, and he is too young to know.
André Holthe, Beijing April, 2008

No comments: