Kidney Stones and fireworks rounded out my first Spring Festival in China more than three years ago. I wrote the first draft of a novel while staying in Dalian my second time around. Xiao Ming and I brought in the year of the Horse in Cambodia my third festival. The fourth time I 过年了(guo nian le), or passed the New Year, I celebrated it married to Xiao Ming and eating meals with her family (and finishing another novel).
I remember looking out my apartment window on Tong Niu hill that first year and comparing the scene to a war zone. With explosions of lights and noise erupting all across the city’s skyline, fireworks going off within apartment complexes, out in the intersections, and right in front of stores with people still walking by, that seemed an apt description. I kept thinking that in America you can’t light off a bottle rocket without your neighbors calling the fuz. They’re so afraid of any number of accidents that could transpire—burnt grass, burnt tree, burnt forest, and, you know, standing in the ashes that used to be their house. Well, I wasn’t in America.
The Chinese live with the fear that everything around them could blow up at any time, for a straight week. And they smile and have a hell of a time doing it. I might be exaggerating.
The clouds of smoke and sulfur eventually clear, the street cleaners in their neon orange and yellow suits bring out their tree-branch brooms, and the smoldering debris gets swept away, ushering in the lunar calendar’s New Year.
Some fingers get claimed, announcements are made denouncing the wanton use of fireworks, and each year a new animal controls the world—er, I mean uses his magical guanxi to bring prosperity to his devout followers. No, that can’t be right, either.
Traditionally, this week for Chinese people is a BIG DEAL. Students, adult children and their families, and even migrant workers all make a mad dash to their hometowns—no matter how far away it is, the Chun Yun (wrote about that last year, HERE). I had a friend need to get all the way from Dalian to Lhasa one year. I’ve done that trip by train. It takes a long time! She was a poor college kid, so she took buses and trains. It took her more than three days, and all of her savings for the year. Well, most. The rest she spent buying gifts for every person in her family, including stuffing as many Hong Bao, Red Envelopes, as possible.
It’s tradition, though. The magic word that makes people break their backs to follow its mandates. Any straying from the course that’s been set in the terra-cotta stone gets you branded as un-filial child—the mark of Cain for the Chinese.
The problem is China’s national identity is threaded together by traditions that families can trace back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, and yet their cities and economy are growing based on principles they adopted back in ’79—1979. The last few decades have definitely pushed Chinese citizens up against the traditional ropes.
Young Chinese are increasingly at odds with the older generations. I’ve read handfuls of articles about how much stress the Hong Bao causes between family members and co-workers, what the pressure to marry young does to the profession-oriented young adult (apparently it leads to attempted ABDUCTION , or RENTING a DATE for others), but most valuable to me has just been living with and making friends with Chinese people dealing with these trials of tradition.
Definitions are important. My students keep notebooks filled with definitions they need to know for high stakes tests, and understanding the terms in a treaty keeps countries happy. The way a nation defines itself is largely based on the past and the traditions that make up its culture. When those traditions are being challenged by a change that happens to also make a large portion of your people richer, values can also shift.
The Logo Love (just TM’d that on my own) that so many wealthy Chinese share for foreign brand names, the extravagant spending that borders on and often crosses into corruption, and the constant drive for more, more, more is chipping away at some of those traditions—carving a new idol for the masses to get behind. Move over Mao.
The tried and true of family first still seems to be strong, but it’s getting nuanced, too. I wonder how the next few decades will shape the modern family of China.
THAT, was a huge digression. I just wanted to throw up some pics from the last few weeks and make a few jokes.
After a few months of twice-a-week classes in Mandarin, I would spend my free time thinking up short (really, really short) stories that I could translate into Chinese and share with the staff during lunch. This impressed everyone, and convinced them that I was some sort of language prodigy, not just someone who had manically tried to memorize just the words written. Somehow, listening to an American recount a three minute story made the Chinese teachers incredibly excited. It gave my teacher—which ever of the staff taught me that particular month—a lot of face, and, in China, that’s a big deal. And everyone loved the story about the wolf and the dog.
At Jayland, the English training school I worked that first year in China, we had an AYi, an older woman who cooked, cleaned, and seemed to spend a lot of her time fretting over the state of the young female Chinese teachers’ marital statuses. We called her Dajie, big sister. She smacked my shoulder the first week I met her when, at lunch, I placed my chopsticks directly into the rice, leaving them standing up in the air. It was quickly revealed to me that chopsticks placed like that symbolized death, and I never did that again (but to this day think about it every time I have a small bowl of rice). She was also one of the most enthusiastic about my Chinese story-telling, and months later, I heard her repeating the final line of the story about the wolf who chose freedom over being made a pet.
The story I told about the wolf and the dog came from a Native American myth, but many similar stories can be found from all over the world. Essentially, a tired and hungry wolf meets an energetic and well-fed dog one day. The two get to talking, and before long, the dog convinces the wolf to come home with him and live in his house with his master. The wolf loves the idea of never going hungry again, and agrees happily. As the two march off, the wolf catches a glimpse of the dog’s neck. “What’s that there, brother dog,” he asks. The dog turns a bit dour and remarks that his master ties him up every day so that he can’t run away. This startles the wolf, who then howls in anger and shock, “I would rather die free then live fat and a slave,” before dashing off back into the woods.
Dajie loved this story, and I’m not sure quite why, but lately I’ve been thinking about what the wolf said to the dog. Freedom versus slavery is a no-brainer, but what about slavery is so scary? Having no right to change, living by someone else’s rules, not being able to do what you want—these are easily on the tip of the tongue, right? I agree to all of these, but I am sort of surprised by the odd arbitrary nature of this idea of slavery.
Calling slavery captivity works when you visit a zoo, or when the species is near extinction, but isn’t the captive in a cell from which he cannot escape? Doesn’t he get meals and free time at the discretion of another? When the crowds call, isn’t there sometimes a trainer there coaxing him from his hiding place? True, he’ll get medical care when he needs it, not need to fend off vicious attacks from predators, and probably live a longer life than he would in the wild. The wild is where he belongs, though.
Humans, many have argued, are in a similar boat. Our cultures and laws, taboos and norms, and even our religions tell us stories that, in many cases, place bars firmly around an invisible perimeter no one is supposed to cross. Traveling is a great way to get a superficial look at these boundary lines, but being a tourist doesn’t make you a captive of the cultures you visit. At most, the traveler is on a day pass from the prison, but is expected to return to his cell eventually.
I’m too tired to bring this argument subtly to the point I’m trying to make, but the bottom line is we are subject to the wolf’s dilemma every day of our lives. At eighteen who isn’t hit with a near unbelievably strong urge to hit the open road, to just rip the fabric of their daily reality in two and step through the torn canvas of their life, out into something different, into something new? I remember driving home at night down Genoa, a back road that led to my parents’ house, window down and my hand slicing through the air with my fingers spread apart. A lot of the time my Intrepid would be the only thing out there, and I’d have the open sky and 97.5’s classic rock keeping me company as I cruised along. There were times I’d wish that road just kept going, that it could run straight out passed all the boundary markers I knew, all the barriers I still needed break through.
I’d turn into the neighborhood at Mollane, never really giving the road the chance to be what I knew it never could.
There were other times, when I was even younger, when I’d fantasize about running away. These whims didn’t spring from traumatic experiences or family troubles—no, I just wanted to wander around with a backpack slung over my shoulders, stomping through the small woods behind our neighborhood, and maybe I even thought I could hop a freighter or something as it passed behind the middle and high school buildings, ride it out to a new city. A few times I even packed a sorry little bag and stashed it around my bedroom. Once or twice I even climbed out my window and hung out in the woods for a few hours. I’d always return because it’d occur to me that I hadn’t finished my homework or that I’d forgotten to pack underwear. Once back inside, no one even batted an eye once they saw me. Apparently being outside for a few hours during the summer afternoon doesn’t really constitute a full-scale Amber Alert.
This idea of slavery vs liberty, or freedom vs civilization, has been around since one proto-human looked at the other and said, “This cave mine. You want in, do as I tell.” And, since it was raining outside, the other guy said, “That sounds just fine by me. As long as I get to stay warm and dry, I’ll follow the guidelines you’ve outlined.” The other proto-human studied at proto-university, evidently.
We live this compromise when we buy Roth IRAs, open lines of credit, or even restrain ourselves from rear-ending the idiot in front of us. We’ve been schooled in the subtle intricacies of this covenant with others in our human society, and we in turn educate the succeeding generations year after year. Fear of the rain may have prompted the first deal that paved the way for the rest of the civilization pact, but each one of us also makes a private accord with the world, and that accord ends with us relinquishing parts of our freedoms in return for the benefits of captivity. In short, one could say we are afraid of going hungry, just like the wolf.
Without a doubt, the benefits of civilization are far-reaching and just about innumerable, but there is still something alluring, almost provocative about the idea of an almost feral freedom that answers to no one, heeds no man-made border or boundary. Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Paulson, Quinn, Conrad, Kerouac and the Beat Generation writers, and countless others all analyzed these prison bars. In fact, just about every age and era of literature has a group of writers that peel back the veneer I’m rambling about and take a good look at what’s behind it. They wonder what it’d be like to leave the world of the bimonthly paycheck and the alarm clock wake-ups. They preach and prattle about the power of the road and the pull of the wild prairies left undiscovered…but they, like all of us, almost always eventually subscribe, at least in part, to some sort of civilization membership plan. Thoreau camped out on his friend’s property and routinely went into town when supplies dwindled, Jack drank himself into an early grave, and some of the other greats ended their stories by their own hands while others just sort of went mad in their own private ways.
We don’t ever really escape. The most we can do is walk the perimeters and toss stones over the fences we see. Honestly, if I were feral or “free,” I have no clue what I’d do. My life would not be what it is today, wouldn’t even have the values that it has now, so who’s to say that it’d be a “better” existence? If I want to say, “screw it, I’m going to Australia,” I suppose I could. It would cost me money, and I’d probably lose my current job, but I could be in Australia tomorrow if I so chose…But I don’t. Because I don’t have money to burn, an expendable job, and a solitary life. It’s almost as if being able to rail against the “bars of civilization,” is a fringe benefit of actually following that civilization’s rules. If I were to step out of its confines I’d have no way to know who I would become. And that is scary because I more or less like the Jordan I am. The wolf has always lived his way, but when he saw the leash marks on the dog’s neck he refused that life. We—I—have always had the leash, and as I’ve grown, the slack in the line has increased, giving me the chance to globe trot a bit, but the thought of throwing off the collar all together scares the living daylights out of me.
Did I just ramble myself into a circle, or, as they say in a Chinese idiom, “wu bing shen yin,” moan about an imaginary illness?
Either way, it’s Sunday night, and I’m going to get ready for another work week.
Along the Kai Fa Qu shoreline, just a short five or eight minute drive east of the center of the Development Area, there is a modern, artistic white bridge. If you sit out there at night you can see the stars over the harbor, and listen to the fishing boats rock back and forth on the waves as they rest for the evening anchored close to land. Even the ambient light of the city recognizes this is no place to invade, leaving the light and noise pollution off to the horizon along the peripherals. Very few people are there during these quiet hours, and if you sit still long enough, you can forget you’re sitting in China, circa 2014.
The effect is not necessarily magical so much as it is mystifying. Just a short ways up the road is the Da Yao Bay where the Dalian PX plant sits alongside a few other factories. This plant exploded a few years ago, leaking tons of oil into the water, polluting the bay as far up as the Golden Pebble Beach. Though the scene in front of the bridge is beautiful, the land around these businesses is scarred and rough. When you get up to leave the bridge, though, you may catch a glimpse of some construction going on behind it. When you look closer you see that old, derelict homes are being demolished by bulldozers and bobcats. Looking even closer, you notice that a few of the homes have clothes still hanging out to dry. The small remnant of some village is being destroyed, and the people haven’t even all left.
Kai Fa Qu, or the Development Zone, was touted as China’s largest, and there were high expectations for the area. The reality of the last twenty years has shown that those ambitions were rooted too much in fantasy. KFQ has become a residential zone, more or less used by citizens of downtown Dalian to escape the din that makes up all Chinese cities, not a haven for businesses to set up shop and bring in the big bucks. Sure there are businesses here, but not enough to keep KFQ in the limelight.
During the last few years, the construction bubble that made so many filthy rich in China has definitely popped, or at least began to fizzle. Empty rectangular complexes stand outlined against the smoggy skies like enormous playing cards that bluff the people, promising expansion and enhancement, but unable to do anything but loiter where their foundations were laid. Construction company owners and those willing to play high-stakes poker with their money bought, built, and sold these vacant goliaths for years, loving every minute of it as the gambles paid off and the money rolled in. However, now the Chinese government is getting a bit miffed about all these hollow homes, and they’re beginning to tax people with similar empty deeds. Better late than never, eh?
But the mad construction bubble is just a symptom, isn’t it? It is just one element of a much grander paradigm of thought. Yu Hua discusses at length how the ideas of copy cat products have infiltrated every stratosphere of Chinese economics, and how grassroots millionaires can be made over night in his book, “China in Ten Words.” He doesn’t come out and point a finger, but it’s pretty obvious what the culprit is: an addiction to money and the conveniences it can provide.
China is at the top of the world in the consumption of luxury goods, surpassing even the US in this ranking (Chang, chinadaily.com). In an article published just over a week ago it’s also made abundantly clear that knockoffs aren’t good enough for many consumers. Lyu Chang says, “Chinese appetite for luxury is the reason why all major European designers, such as Chanel, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, have a large presence in China.” It’s difficult for me to pronounce some of these brands let alone entertain the notion of purchasing one of their outrageously priced products, but large groups of Chinese men and women are driven to fork over their cash in order to get their hands on these logos. From chic cosmetics to classy cars, consumers in the Middle Kingdom can’t get enough. However, this need to get the latest in Western fashion doesn’t end with products you buy on a shelf, but rather escalates to purchases made in acreage. The 2014 Annual Report on Chinese International Migration revealed that many Chinese are racing to buy up real estate abroad. America and Canada have seen large numbers of Chinese investors since 2011, when China became the second-largest foreign property buyer in the United States (chinadaily.com). Population numbers certainly have a role in these statistics, but so too does the prevalent belief in the power and intoxication of money.
Where did this manic desire for Western products come from in the East? For crying out loud, before the 1800s England and other countries west of India were generally viewed through the lens of suspicion by the Chinese and Japanese. Then, after the First and Second Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, and the forced signing of what became known as the Unequal Treaties, this suspicion basically became fiery hatred. How the hell do we go from unwelcome “Yang Gui zi,” foreign devils, to the trend-setting idols of the modern Asian world?
The Foreign Devil
English is fashionable here. Kids and adults throw random English words and phrases into their daily life to spice up their lexicon, and people walk around with misspelled brand names and shoddy logos on their clothing. American TV shows are downloaded and streamed by teens. Friends is watched and analyzed as though it is some sort of cultural Rosetta Stone that will magically help the viewer absorb all that is Red, White, and Blue. English, and the culture that uses this language, has become a symbol of success to many parents who force their four year olds to chant and sing songs in this foreign language before they even master their own mother tongue. How did the two cultures, at their heart so vastly different from each other, become so intertwined in today’s world?
I think it had something to do with a few bombs that were dropped, the fact that during WWII the US had almost no damage done to her country, and because, for a short time, America did behave as several countries’ righteous big brother, not the spoiled only child that she’s become today. Because the US infrastructure suffered no damage, the economy kept pumping along after the war. Bullets became ball bearings, missiles turned into microwaves, and atomic bombs made way for automobiles. These products helped shape a new world that needed to pull itself out from the rubble left over from a world war, and in the process, became the first heralds of a new culture, the American Cultural Monopoly.
The consequences of this cultural imperialism can easily be seen today around the world, and many travelers who eat at Pizza Huts in Egypt, Dunkin’ Donuts in Shenyang, China, Seven Elevens in Thailand, or Dairy Queens in Cambodia can see this clearly. Just last night we had dinner with a group of friends, all from different parts of the world, and Malaysia got brought up. Billed as the “real Asia,” Malaysia left two of my friends shaking their heads and thoroughly disappointed. Segregated and culturally bland, the country did not live up to the hype, they said. Too much division and no actual blending of cultures left them feeling like they had visited a set on some stage, not a rich nexus of culture. Another Canadian friend mentioned that many of the cities in her country were all the same. Whether she was in Toronto or southern Ontario, it all looked the same. Then Xiao Ming mentioned that most Chinese cities had this very quality as well. From Luoyang to Beijing or Tianjin to Xiamen, it all blurs because there is no diversity.
It’s this lack of diversity that is alarming. Within one country the diversity may not be as pronounced, but when you begin to see a waning of it internationally, the hairs on the back of your neck better be standing on end. Are cultures really being obliterated, consumed by one encroaching, smothering mass of ideas, entertainment, and convenience being paraded around as culture? Yes.
Let’s go back to the bridge. Remember that construction going on behind it? Well, that small pocket of homes is the last of an old fishing village that had been there for centuries. In fact, all of Kai Fa Qu and most of Jinshitan was a fishing community up until a few decades ago, but now only a few houses here and there would hint at this past. Instead, Jinshitan is promoted as a scenic spot that, “…aims to become an all-round resort that integrates tourism with entertainment. Many projects are still under constructions, such as Theme Parks, Hi-tech Agriculture Sightseeing and Demonstration Park and Golden Pebble Valley Country, etc,” (travelchinaguide.com). There already is one theme park, a few golf courses, a hunting range, and even a wax museum.
These promotional endeavors are surrounded by architecture inspired by neither rich Chinese history nor by the Russian influences of the area’s hectic modern history, but by what appears to be an American southwestern style reminiscent of Arizonian or Californian suburbs. Having traveled throughout China the last few years, I can’t describe to you the amount of souvenirs that are identical all across this country. Mass-produced, faux ancient relics with no meaning are sold along every alleyway and street from here in Dalian all the way to Lhasa, Tibet. Those 56 minorities that the Han majority is so smitten with right now barely managed to keep the tatters of their cultural identities throughout China’s often prejudiced dynastic eras. Today they are regarded as Chinese gems, banners that the government likes to wave around at international audiences as a way of saying, “look at us, we still have more culture left!” Sadly, when you visit these minorities in their homelands the truth is made clear. They are oddities to many, attractions that need to stay on the stages provided for the entertainment of the masses. Much like the Native Americans living on the reservations, these minorities in China have their culture dictated to them. You can do your dances and wear your quaint clothing, but just don’t leave the fenced in area.
Lack of assimilating has always been a way some cultures have been spared destruction, at least for a while, but then natural curiosities abound in the minds of the majority group. That curiosity doesn’t always bode well for those being observed. Who are they? Why are they wearing those? Why do they always do that on this day of the week? No, son, you can’t date that girl because she’s one of them. I didn’t make enough last month, and it’s because those people keep taking the jobs. They always have money while the rest of us have to tough it out. Maybe they are the ones to blame. Yea, let’s blame them. But blame is not enough. They have to pay for their crimes. Our leader also blames them, but he knows how to deal with them. Soon they will be all gone and we will finally have what we deserve. Yes, son, you can kick that girl. She’s one of them.
Cultures get blotted out due to human atrocities all the time, but that’s not what is so startling right now. It’s the willing annihilation of some cultures that freaks me out. In China, even old Han villages are demolished, and along with them their folk traditions and way of life. In an article published in the American Conservative last month China’s on-going bulldozing of villages is explored:
Why are villages so important? What makes them distinct and culturally significant compared to cities? Villages support subsidiarity and diversity, whereas cities usually promote mass movement and centralization. Of course, the village’s specificity has downsides: it can foster clannishness and biases toward “outsiders.” Nonetheless, without the village, we would lack the kaleidoscopic culture that makes art and life so rich.
Without the village, we’d likely forget valuable traditions. Villages tend to have a longer memory than cities, due to their permanency. Landowners and families are generally more stayed, often remaining in the same area for generations. In contrast, cities often inspire new enterprise and “the next big thing.” They foster pop culture, not folk culture. In the small community, neighbors, family, and friends are almost inescapable. Whether gathering at the city hall, church, or merely visiting the grocery store, familiar faces abound. One must learn to live in communion with others. In cities, it is easier to live alone—and easier to be lost in the clamor and crowd.
The forgetting of valuable traditions is what I fear, and I’m not alone. Addictive consumerism and this race for urbanization have costs that many never saw coming. Quoting Gordon G. Chang, who wrote an article in the Times, Gracy Olmstead’s article last June says, “…the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress was planning to build a city of 260 million people, in an effort to propagate economic growth and consumption. This mammoth enterprise would require moving 250 million people from farm to city in the next dozen years,” (theamericanconservative.com). These people making these migrations are giving up more than their homes and generations of memories that are tied to the land. By adapting to city life they unwittingly let their traditions slip by the way side.
In the daily lives of young men and women, this has real side-effects. I often have conversations with Chinese people about the differences between the West and the East, and it’s amazing how conflicted they are. Values and traditions once held sacred are now sources of confusion as they navigate a world so saturated with mixed meanings, innuendo, and relativism. Role-playing, stereotypes, skewed assumptions—these are words that define the actions and thoughts of many adolescents today, but when you place a nebulous cultural identity that is constantly assaulted in the mix, you may not get just an angsty teen.
Just two weeks ago I wrote about the recent Lantern Festival, and I joked about the people hanging out in front of a McDonalds as they lit their lanterns and about the Chinese couples who cuddled and exchanged flowers because of it also being Valentines Day. A shift in thought the last few years has given rise to wide-spread acceptance of Western holidays in China. Despite most people here not caring one bit about the values and traditions of these holidays, they seem to celebrate them nonetheless. This is a byproduct or consequence of the commercialism Li Yang writes about in her China Daily article Lantern Festival Losing its Luster. She complains about how the lanterns today have sold out and are no longer handmade, but mass-produced and lack any originality. She reminisces about the detail and wonder of the Lantern Festival from her childhood, and laments the way the tides have changed the traditional Chinese holiday into a commercial event. Her complaint is very similar to my mother’s annual irritation at the faux Christmas cheer that gets shoved down our throats by the stores just so they can make their money. This is not a Chinese thing, and that’s my point. But since I live in China and this blog is about China, I’m writing about…China.
It’s this commercialism that is the weapon of the cultural imperialism I mentioned earlier. Left unchecked, international consumerism leads to cultural atrophy, or an ignorant variation of a suicide pact in which everyone is bleeding their values and traditions dry in order to get the next big thing. It’s always the commerce, the trade, the exchange of one thing for another that gets a product from point A to point B. In the case of Chinese buyers, they want the image, prestige, and convenience of Western products, but they have no clue that with each swipe of their credit card more is being bartered than they agreed to.
By the time they realize their folly the damage has been done. In China this has played out dramatically ever since the Cultural Revolution. Spurred on by Mao’s battle cry of, “Destroy the Old World; Forge the New,” entire collections of paintings and relics were destroyed, temples and ancient structures were ransacked and burned, and nearly every shred of literature was hunted down and tossed onto bonfires. Then, right after this monumental gaff, China opens itself up commercially and the gap left in the psyche of the Chinese from that cultural lobotomy got filled—by Western products.
People around the world know this. There are institutes fighting this tidal wave, but their voices are nearly drowned out by the rushing tides. In 2010 the Goethe-Institute’s president, Klaus Dieter-Lehmann talked to DW about how his group fights against this very cultural atrophy. His group works to educate and spread the German culture, but they also help keep other countries’ culture alive in their own borders. He talks about China in a part of the interview he did with Aya Bach:
When it comes to such a big power like China, couldn’t it be that the country says, we don’t really want to have anything to do with the European Enlightenment, we want to defend our own values?
All I want is for people to reflect on their values. Right now, people are only thinking about money. And that’s disastrous for a society. Because as soon as money stops rolling in, the society will break down and look critically at its behavior. That’s when thinking about values will clearly take on importance. But the process of reflection can be about great Chinese traditions and philosophers; after all, there’s also a concept of the Chinese Enlightenment.
Do we end up then in a kind of cultural relativism, where certain values become questionable because they’d be viewed differently in another culture?
I’m in favor of a compromise. I don’t believe in cultural universalism because it reduces our world to something less rich than it is. Insofar as cultural relativism enables dialogue, sharing and reflection, then I support it. But, for much too long, cultural relativism had the effect of partitioning cultures off from each other. That doesn’t work. We have a globalized world. We also have wealth in the world, but that only becomes clear to those who are able to take part in it.
I’m not a stone-thrower. I am not demonizing globalization and capitalism, but I do not think they exist together in our world without dangerous and negative consequences. They are not the enemy; it is our tendency toward forgetfulness that is to blame. Make your millions. Become a grassroots success story. Just do it without forsaking what makes this world diverse.
If evolution has shown us anything it’s that diversity equals success. Single-celled to complexity beyond the human imagination, that’s the story of our world. Creating a one-world culture will have disastrous results, I swear it.
Back on the bridge, where these ideas seem to be tossed back and forth on the wind, it’s obvious that right now in China the momentum is pushing toward a willful forgetfulness. There are factions here that fight for that cultural identity they see slipping away, but with this invisible, but very real, race for power on the world stage never slowing, villages and their way of life will continue to be bulldozed.
Weibo, China’s answer for its American counterpart, Twitter, is largely comprised of Chinese language speakers. In 2012 there were more than 500 million users on the site and about 100 million messages posted daily (Josh Ong, TWN). Today they got one more to add to the stats, a goofy American.
The Chinese version of the site isn’t exactly easy to navigate, even with the additional support of Google Chrome’s attempt at translating the pages, but I figure why not look into it anyways. Though I’m not necessarily a tech-savvy individual, the goings-on in the Chinese blog/web-o-sphere fascinate me.
This change in the registration process was supposed to take place last March, but if you checked out the linked article, you’ll see that foreigners with our damn foreign names were in somewhat of a Weibo purgatory, a Weiburgatory, if you will. And even now there are still stirrings saying the policy could take place. Will my profile be frozen or blocked? Will I—Intrepid_Nomad (my Weibo Nickname)—be another of the site’s statistical burps? Or will I be able to hang around the site and play a while?
It’s not like I’m planning to spread dissent throughout the ranks of the microbloging netizens or anything fancy like that. Since joining a few days ago, I’ve only made a few innocuous posts about beginning work again, and I posted a few photos from trips in China I’ve taken. Within minutes the posts were viewed about a hundred times each, and the numbers keep changing, but I doubt any of the thousands or so full-time Censors are counted among those views. Most likely the posts didn’t even illicit a beep from the keyword software Weibo and the Great Chinese Firewall use to monitor searches and the publishing of sensitive content. Well, one of the tags I have is “American,” so…Yeah, maybe they’ve started their dossier.
Keyword recognition software being used for censorship isn’t new, and isn’t even particularly Chinese, but it is used quite a bit here. As anyone in China can attest, most Western social networking sites are blocked. Facebook and WordPress, Twitter and Tublr—you ain’t surfin’ them unless you’ve got yourself a VPN. But of course it isn’t just these sites that are blocked. No, as Econsultancy writer Ben Davis points out, on any given day in China you can’t freely peruse topics that pertain to:
…Chinese politics (human rights etc), socially sensitive content (pornography, gambling etc), people (dissidents), sensitive events, technology (spyware, URLs etc) and other miscellaneous topics.
As you can see, these are pretty general topics that most Americans or web users routinely look up. In China, though, looking up any political leader can get you a slap on the wrist. Checking in on Tibetan protests might do more than slow your internet connection speed. Claiming affiliation with a known activist group or promoting religious views—total no nos.
That being said, people are crafty. Chinese netizens are sly and still do talk about all of these topics, just not in obvious ways. The Grass mud horse (Cao ni Ma—in pin yin) is a great icon for the Chinese blogger who wants complete freedom of speech. A homophone for “mother fucker,” the meme became the animal of the Censorship Fighter on the Chinese net a few years ago. It’s still around, too.
Using the Chinese characters for 6 and 4, people have been able to write and search for info on the June fourth Tiananmen incident. Using euphemisms so veiled that even fluent Mandarin speakers aren’t always sure of their meaning, ideas are passed around and the Great Fire Wall is hopped over like a backyard fence.
Even with censors, in 2011 Weibo was used in a way that even Wikileaks would be proud of. When a high-speed train collision in Wenzhou that killed 40 people was being swept under the rug Weibo users took to the net and lambasted the government for the cover-up. People were criticizing the government’s actions on a scale never before seen in China, and people realized it. Information was spread.
Weibo didn’t remain so open, though. It has been, like all of the Chinese Internet, subject to severe and speedy censorship. Even after the “Real Name” policy got put on hold due to the outpouring of user (domestic and international) criticism, the censors didn’t go away. In recent months, though, that censorship is changing. According to Jason Q. Ng at Tea Leaf Nation, “Through the testing of searches of key “sensitive” terms on the site, it has become clear that some previously-blocked search terms now return results.”
He goes on to squash the celebration by saying that the strategy has changed, not the end goals. These “results” are heavily filtered, sanitized, and censored. Now you can pull up info on June 4th, Xi Jingping, and a few other “sensitive issues,” but what you’re getting isn’t objective answers. Jason Q. Ng sums it up nicely by saying,
Before, Chinese users knew when their results were extra sensitive (most, if not all, Chinese users are aware that censors routinely work behind the scenes to delete sensitive posts), yet the new changes – combined with other tactics documented by GreatFire like only showing search results from verified users for certain terms and delaying posts from appearing in search results – create even more uncertainty as to the boundaries of discourse online, perhaps encouraging greater self-censorship by users. What is and is not off-limits has now become slightly harder to determine – another step in making censorship invisible and all-pervasive.
In a country with the insane population numbers of China, the uneducated are a large demographic. Rumors that start on the net can spread and cause serious damage if not monitored. Those who have no way of forming their own views can be guided to think and believe just about anything. It’s happened all around the world before, and it’ll probably happen again. I suppose I get that, to an extent. A country does have to have the ability to be objective, and if that means admitting to itself that your citizens are too incompetent to make informed decisions, than that’s one thing. Some of the censorship in China is up this alley.
But not all, or even most of it. When you take away objective, educated journalism or news, that’s when the fit hits the shan. Now they’re taking it further and doing a form of “reeducation” by allowing searches that produce authorized results. People notice these things. They’re treated like sheep, but not all of them follow the shepherd so closely.
And the truth is: people here are curious. Hell, they’re more than curious. I’ve spoken to Masters students who have aired the issues they have with Chinese censorship, and I’ve seen the looks my Business Education students have given one another when the conversation has strayed into territory that is not supposed to be discussed openly.
The government knows its people are restless, too. In 2004-2006 a talent show called with the English name Super Girl allowed people to call in a vote for their favorite contestant. The show was a lot like American Idol, and it had viewers tuning in in the hundreds of millions. The democratic one-call, one-vote platform was too much, though. Chinese officials cancelled the show, and even its second reincarnation, Happy Girls. The official reasons were due to timing issues and the “risqué” nature of some of the episodes, but it was pretty obvious when it got the axe that seeing such a large percentage of its citizens taking part in something so democratic was not what China wanted (China Cancels Talent Show ‘Happy Girl’ For Being Too Democratic, Business Insider).
Linette Lopez’s article for Business Insider had another great quote, too, “Some people sight that if only we could vote in Chinese elections, as we do in ‘Happy Girl’, then we’d lock horns and join the contest…This is the truly sensitive issue.”
The people know all the faults in their system, and people in other countries are foolish if they think otherwise.
That’s just it, though: it’s their system.
Living in China for a few years does not make me any closer to being Chinese. Learning the language will not grant me the Golden Ticket into this culture. Joining Sino Weibo and having a WeiXin account does not give me any sort of street cred. It does, however, give me a more scenic seat.
In her recent book, “People’s Pornography: Sex and Surveillance on the Chinese Internet” Katrien Jacobs sheds a lot of light on the interesting worlds surviving and thriving behind the Great Fire Wall on the net. The Chinese people may seem docile and complacent in the face of an oppressive, secretive, and Big government, but that is only what they appear to be. They are quite a bit more. Their lot has forced them into challenging the system in unique and unorthodox ways, and, yes, many have taken large gulps of the Mao Era Cool-Aid, but there 300 million bloggers (about the population of the entire US) out there trying to find something of an individual identity. Some are whispering and others shouting. There are the voyeurs and the voices, the loners and the leaders, and they are pushing against the boundaries that have been placed around them.
It’s going to be interesting to see how much pressure the “Great Fire Wall” can take when the people inside it are pressing against it, trying to get out. Will it stand the test of time like The Great Wall, or come tumbling down like the one in Berlin?
I’m just hoping that doing research for this entry without my VPN doesn’t get me deported and my new Weibo account deleted.
It’s been more than two years since I’ve been home, and with my imminent return to the States for a holiday visit, I find myself trying to recall American life in its most minute details. I’ve fielded so many culture questions, answered the most absurd inquiries regarding social aspects of life for Westerners, and debated the validity of either nations being more open or conservative than the other with college students, drunk Asian businessmen, colleagues, and my girlfriend that I actually think I can’t remain objective any longer.
The fault is my own, not China’s, though there are many days I feel blaming this place is the easier route. Expats here have a tendency to be viewed as vast information repositories of the culture from which they come. People routinely ask questions and then whatever answer you provide is considered Gospel, not a biased opinion. I’d like to think I’ve never let myself be pulled in by that sort of perceived power and authority, but I have been.
I’m sure I’ve told someone things like, “We don’t ever worry about our reputation,” in response to the topic of mianzi, or “In America workplaces never have a problem with nepotism,” only to later realize I care a great deal how I’m viewed, and that classmates of mine have walked into cake jobs because of daddy’s help.
And then, when I’m on the receiving end of deep guanxi, I don’t bat my eyes at all, just smile and make a joke and accept the offered service or gift. As a rule, it is hard for someone like me to gain meaningful guanxi, but when you have close Chinese friends or a girlfriend whose uncle happens to be some sort of industrial leader, there are certain perks you can take advantage of.
Cut lines, forged documents, lowered prices—parts of China I can’t be bothered to form objective thoughts about any longer. Does that say something about me?
It’s not like I’ve been here that long—just under two and a half years.
Just when I begin to feel that China can’t faze me anymore, a ridiculous driver will decide the left lane is a good place to park, a worker will refuse to do something that fits their job description because he doesn’t know you, or a man with no scruples will make a move on a girl fully aware of his friend being her boyfriend, and I lose it. I lambast China with the worst vitriol I can conjure (which is usually a statement of comparison between it and the US, where China is degraded to a nation of imbeciles and chaos).
When I take a step back from that, I can see that I am the one who has taken all that culture and understanding I’ve gained these past few years and thrown them out the flippin’ window. The cathartic release is quite satisfying at times, but then I listen to another stubborn foreigner griping about the Chinese having no manners or traditions of nonsense and I feel like a heel.
There was one older guy I met, from Liverpool, who actually choked a man when he was cut in line. Another Englishman who’s been here for about six years—a bar fly everyone knows—routinely yells foul Chinese obscenities to people. Others come and go on 3-6 month contracts and use every opportunity they have to tell others that they know China. Some of the stories are amusing and, as far as I’ve been able to tell, true, but others are complete bull. From Chinese economics to bedding the locals, I’ve heard just about every piece of crap adage and advice the Expat community here has to offer, and I still know jack-all about the place I’ve called home since 2011.
If there is anything I’ve learned, and by extension, the point to this rant, it’s that I will never reach a moment of complete clarity or catch that concrete understanding of Chinese culture. Ever. It will bend, wiggle, snap, and break, but it will never just occur to me conclusively that I can say, with authority: I know China.