Sunday, April 27, 2008

Spring Outside Chongqing: Part 2

Dawning of the second day, we were awakened by blue skies and sunshine--two materials in very short supply in the smoggy-foggy city. After a quick breakfast of leftovers, we headed down the mountainside to find this mysterious 'fairy maiden' that the locals had spoken of.

Once again, down the windy mountain we went, past shaggy ponies and unkempt fields. The shape of the mountain itself was strange: large, flat, and hilly, its edge suddenly fell away onto precipitous cliffs. Farms could be seen, hundreds of feet below.

It was at this edge that we found the fairy maiden, forlorn and petrified. We should have known her regal presence long before we reached her: the trees upslope bowed to her, a bent given to them by winds some years past--so I imagined--when they had refused to bend their proud heads and give the petrified lass her due.
Inching out onto the precipice that formed her throne, Cherry and I gave the otherworldly woman our obeisance and abject trembling. Well, perhaps it was the fear of heights that caused trembling, not fear of a rain-worn karstic statue. However, the view her royal fairyness commanded was indeed magnificent and well worth the trembling. The trail itself ventured tremulously upon limestone cracked and worn like ancient fangs. A slab of concrete had been placed helpfully across a final chasm for those wanderers--such as us--too frightened of the bone-crunching drop to leap across.

The rest of Fairy Maiden mountain, unfortunately, is not so exciting. I think that the main product on offer there was peace, and plenty of it as long as one avoids the desperate staff of the ghost town of crumbling tourist traps, over-built resort hotels, and closed-up shops. There are prairies aplenty as well as dark forests of hemlock to wander in for hours... and not much else.

I did however discover a natural limestone cave, having followed a goat path down into an old sinkhole. Here is a view of the interior which I'm happy to bring you, having cut my bare feet on the floor of my newly-discovered cave (a creek flows out the entrance, making soaked shoes a likelihood, thus the bare feet).
The last stop on our itinerary was the famed tian keng san qiao, or 'Three Natural Bridges' National Geopark, also a UNESCO World Heritage Preserve. Can words describe the freaky wonder of that place?

We rode to the natural bridges on the back of a motorcycle taxi, sweeping down hills and around bends through a hilly, pastoral scene. Tickets were grabbed at the clean, modern visitor's center and then we scrambled downhill to come upon an unexpected vista. A vast gorge tore away from sight through the forested hills, caves etched into its flanks. A glass elevator took us down to the floor of the gorge, and then we realized: the road into the park, the parkinglot, the visitor's center were all built upon the back of the first natural bridge, a limestone slab with an entire forest growing from its back. (For size comparison, in second picture look for the small building at the lower right hand side.)
In the previous installment we mentioned karst (a type of limestone formation). Now I should explain what a tian keng is. The tian keng literally translates as a "heavenly pit", but figuratively might mean "a hole as great as the sky". Essentially, it is a sinkhole. In karst areas, sometimes great caverns crawl beneath the land, many kilometers in length and often several hundred feet in height and width. In some places the cavern collapses, leaving deep canyons gouged from the earth. This was one such place, but in three places along the tian keng, the ceiling had remained. Thus natural bridges were created across new chasms.
(Note Cherry washing her feet in the creek, as well as the traditional house, for size comparison of the Tian Keng.)

In the previous two pictures, a traditional-style Chinese courtyard comes into view. This is not, unfortunately, an ancient monastery of the days of yore. Rather, it is a movie prop built for the Jiang Yimou movie: "Curse of the Golden Flower". While I don't quite understand the idea of letting movie studios built permanent sets inside of national parks, I do have to admit that the structure is more tasteful (if badly maintained, as you can see by the grass growing on the roof and cracks in the cement) than most modern structures to be found in this country.

This first (of three) bridges is named Tian Long, or Sky Dragon. The original cavern had three outlets, so it is a double bridge.

Further along the tian keng canyon, through the bamboo thickets surrounding the pathway and past waterfalls that jet from small cave fissures in the cliffside, we came to the second bridge which is several hundred meters high (and supposedly the highest natural bridge in the world, but not only can I not find confirmation of this claim elsewhere, but multiple other natural bridges and arches in China and around the world seem to make the same claim). This second bridge is named Qing Long or "Green Dragon".
Finally we came to Hei Long, or "Black Dragon" bridge, a long, dark passage that cries tears... that is, several waterfalls spray down from orifices high on the chasm wall.

Although we had greatly enjoyed the phenomenal natural beauty of the national park, there was a train to catch... back to the smog and fog of Chongqing. I could have spent an entire day hiking up the cliffs and through canyons, as well as through the traditional farms and woodlands up above. Most fascinating of all, as we began our ascent from the canyon floor, we followed a stream, its rapids and waterfalls, up through a maze of rocks. Just at the beginning of a long flight of stairs carved into the wall of the canyon, there seemed to be another bridge. But this was no bridge, but the entrance of an uncollapsed, intact cavern system. Probably eighty feet across, the ceiling was at least two hundred feet above. Just at the point where the trail ended in darkness, an information plaque informed us that this cavern system continued for a further 7 kilometers and hundreds of meters deeper under the earth. A British caving team known as 'Hong Meigui' or Red Rose, had explored it. Promises of subterranean lakes, steep drops, and unexplored passages below the water table beckoned. This park holds further adventures within its bowels for the intrepid explorer, this is certain.
Are you that person?

Friday, April 25, 2008

Spring Outside Chongqing: Part 1

When I describe where I live, within the vastness of Chinese territory, I describe a sprawling metropolis of mist and man-made spires. I describe a city of bang-bang men and tongue-numbing hotpot. But this city only comprises about 8 of the 33 million people who live within the larger city-state of Chongqing, a mini-province approximately the size of Scotland.

I recently realized that I hadn't seen very much of that diverse and largely green territory which surrounds the Changjiang (Yangtze River). Even though the tour books--I'm thinking of the Lonely Planet China, or 'Blue Bible'--don't have much to say beyond a short mention of the Dazu Buddhist Grottoes, I would imagine that there must be more to find and see in this still-living heart of China.

Cherry and I cleared two days from our schedules and planned an excursion. We would take train first east to Fulin (of 'Rivertown' fame) and then south into the karst escarpments of Wolong town. I believe I will encapsulate the journey by saying just that the traveler may see far more interesting vistas from the window of the train than he or she will see in half the temples and other tourist traps marked for development and consumption. It is precisely because the majority of this landscape cannot be developed that it is so fascinating. Among the bamboo curtains of the river's edge, the old architecture and culture of China still clings... if barely. There too, you will see the behemoth, derelict remains of weapons factories Mao hoped to hide from foreign aggressors in the depths of the Chinese countryside. Newer, even uglier factories (even brick has its charm when compared to a sloppy application of concrete) are joining the older ones, I noticed. I suddenly recalled that my Chinese friends often blamed pollution on factories in the surrounding countryside, more than ones within the urban jungle.

Wolong is perhaps a garbling of wu long, the name of the river that runs through its middle. Ancient legend says that five dragons (hence the name) occupied that river, but I imagine the saurians have long since buried themselves in the silt to await less muddied waters. For a rural hamlet of 300,000 or so, Wolong seems to have great ambitions for itself. Not to be left behind by the distant city, many high-rise apartments are going up in town, and quite a few high-end resort communities were being hacked out of the karstic landscape outside town.

For those not already familiar with it, I should explain 'karst'. I'll be using the term a lot. Karst refers to a type of limestone geology that is easily eroded over the centuries to form weirdly-shaped pillars, peaks, canyons, and caves. If you have in your head an idea of what mountains in China should look like, you are thinking of the Karst formations of the Southern Chinese provinces.
After a quick bite to eat, Cherry and I headed to our first destination: Furong Dong (dong = cave). The mini-bus wended its way into the mountains above a blue-green tributary of the muddy Wulong river. The clouds which had rained on our train were lifting to reveal forested peaks. Outside the caves themselves, the bored national park staff had arranged an impromptu feeding time for ravenous forest monkeys, dumping leftovers over the side of the lookout. Fights ensued, and snarls could be heard from peak to peak.
I'm an avid caver of the touristic rather than spelunking sort--but not for lack of dreaming--and have visited many caverns in my short life. Carlsbad and Mammoth (the biggest and longest in the US) as well as Zhijin Dong (the biggest in China) I have visited. Surfing online before our departure from the city revealed that the deepest, and some of the longest, caves in China were located around Wolong. For that matter, the biggest wasn't very far away from here as the crow flies.

I'll skip the standard lecture on the rude and obnoxious lack of cave etiquette among the Chinese tourists whom we shared our tour with. Let's just say that even the tour guide grew exasperated with their lack of manners or consideration for a Chinese national treasure. Luckily, Cherry and I could hang back from the tour and enjoy the cave more-or-less on our own. You can ignore my fanciful descriptions if you are reading this post on the original blogsite, and skip to the pictures if you life: Gypsum sprang like silent explosions from the walls, stalagmites and stalactites (can you remember the difference?) drew blood from the bowels of the earth, a blood that spilled and flowed over precipices, congealing into gelid icicles and fanged orifices. Mineral-saturated water became encrusted with a floating carpet of calcite pearls and blanched nails sprouted from one gallery of stalactites like sharpened thorns from a stake. Echoes and other overweight tourists were consumed by the darkness, and the cavern was sated.

Down the windy mountain, and up the rushy glen we hurried once more. Now onwards to the Fairy Maiden Peak, a dread wilderness known for its empty, mouldering tourist traps and the fey petrified statue hewed by wind and rain from the mountainside to give it its name.

Up and up, is the main idea I'd like to convey for this mini-journey. Jagged bits of karstic stone peeped up from farmers fields like the rotten toes of buried giants. The main attraction at Fairy Maiden Peak is a large prairie, and you may have to be high to get any novelty from it. In the winter, tour groups like to ski down the shallow slopes of the prairie, apparently, but those ingenious Chinese have decided to try and popularize skiing on grass in order to bring in tourist dollars during the other nine months of the year--I'm not joking. Grass skiing aside, there were literally no other people up on top of the mountain: besides us, farmers, and a few bored resort workers. After avoiding an unpleasant ghost town of hotels, Cherry and I made our way to a pleasant 'farmer's cottage' kitted out for tourists to stay at. Keeping ourselves occupied til sunset, we chased the wild horses, I found a cave where fresh spring water spilled from the mountainside, and explored the untamed hills.
When darkness descended, a meal of cured pork with garlic shoots, smoked bamboo shoots, a dish of unidentifiable roots, and soup of tofu and local greenery was waiting for us at the farmer's lodge. Just the right way to end a long and tiring day.

Monday, April 21, 2008

French, Reviled

I remember a time not long past, in America, when the French were the butt of almost every joke, even removed from the title of a popular form of junk food. "Surrenderers" and "whiners", were the two most common insults leveled against our Gallic rivals. Why? Because they had the temerity to protest the US invasion of Iraq, as well as the American government's general unwillingness to sit down and negotiate with its (in the case of Iraq, chosen) enemies. They often played devil's advocate in the world court of opinions to American propositions. Many a red-blooded American patriot was wishing a pox upon France, and only for an opinion. I remember thinking how silly all that posturing and hurt pride was.

These days I imagine that France (and its bubbly liquor) must once again be the toast of Washington. With Sarkozy--a conservative and pro-American president--leading the fifth republic there should be much reduced tension across the Atlantic and an end to hyper-nationalist stunts along the lines of 'freedom fries'.

So imagine my astonishment to once again become mired in the midst of a lot of very similarly silly, and somewhat scary, anti-French furor.

But then again, I'm not living in America, am I?

What do the Chinese have against France? The answer is that the pro-Tibetan protests during the Olympic torch's journey through Paris were perhaps the most harrowing thus far. Of particular value as a symbol to stir up nationalist zeal was the video of French protesters attempting to wrest the torch from the grip of a Chinese paralympian in a wheelchair--which I will agree was not in the best of taste. But protests were equally dramatic in London, or even at the lighting of the torch in Greece, and protests in San Francisco probably would have beat them all in melodrama (here's my own patriotic spirit speaking) if only the torch and its organizers hadn't been running away/hiding from their own crowd.

But is this offense, Parisians to blame as usual, really enough to hang a whole country on? Well, there is also the matter of Sarkozy hinting at not attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.

For Chinese college students--and other nationalists--apparently these reasons are all that is needed to cause a rampage of rumors and rabid rhetoric. For the last week or two, the big gossip going around amongst some Chinese teachers, staff, and students at my school has been the alleged crimes of Carrefour. For those who don't know it, Carrefour is the French answer to Wal-Mart, now with hyper-marts hyper-expanding across China.

I'll be clear on my Carrefour bias before we go further: I was once a fan of the store when they had a good selection of cheeses (and thus was my trusty Cheese depot in my long march across China in Fall 2006), but the chain has fallen on disfavor with the House of Bruce since it axed the line of Mainland brand cheeses, leaving me with more expensive/smaller portions/lower-quality Land 'o Lakes as the only option. (Chinese brand cheese, not content with the horrors perpetrated upon cheese-kind by the American processed cheese, has come upon the new low of 'Chocolate-flavored' processed cheese. Yuck!)

Alright, good, I feel better for getting that off my chest. So, disapproval of cheeses aside, Carrefour is a pretty good super-store with a decent selection of products fit for both Chinese and international tastes. This is also a big, multi-national corporation that largely eschews both politics and humanitarian worries. I see little reason why it would be caught involving itself with Tibetans given that there is no percentage in that with either its French customers or its Chinese customers. So why attack Carrefour?

Because it is within easy reach. With stores (or multiple stores) in every major Chinese city, the average Chinese net-patriot and his friends can easily organize a protest without having to run very far from their favorite wangba (internet bar). There are only a few French embassies/consulates, after all, but many, many hyper-markets. The newest capitalist playground demands plenty of consumer shrines, after all.

That's the simple explanation (and my best guess). The more convoluted reasoning relies on a lot of conspiracy theory and sixth-hand sources. I've probably only heard the tip of the iceberg, but it goes something like this: A major shareholder in Carrefour gave money to support the Dalai Lama. Carrefour is going to plan a huge sale to coincide with Chinese anti-pro-Tibet protests and then secretly photograph Chinese people attending the sale instead of protests. Carrefour is a French company, France's president wants the CCP to hold talks with the Dalai Lama, therefore....

Yeah, a bit silly. I mean, let us consider that Carrefour was planning a huge sale, not randomly, but during a major Chinese national holiday when every major store in China holds major sales. Is this unreasonable for a profit-seeking company?

But like I say, Carrefour provides a convenient target through which to condemn a distant and faceless enemy, the same as Walmart provides back in the States. For young patriots with their blood riled, need there be more reasonable arguments for boycott?

I don't know about Carrefour branches nation-wide, but the local outlet really doesn't need this kind of excitement. Last summer, this Carrefour attempted to hold a sale on cooking oil in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Seven people were trampled to death, and more than twenty were badly injured in the mad rush to obtain that golden liquid.

Like it or not, however, excitement is coming this way. Yesterday, as Jon and I strolled back through the walking-mall to our apartment (which is sited in a tower directly above the Carrefour) after a long day at work, we encountered a protest march--also on its way to Carrefour.

Giant crimson flags of the PRC were waved by the vanguard, and we could hear the chanting: "Jiayou Zhongguo! Jiayou Zhongguo!" (this translates either figuratively as, "Go China! Go China!" or literally and somewhat erotically as "Oil-up China! Oil-up China." Yes, perhaps the Sino-Gallic feud could be solved by an oily, homo-erotic Greco-Roman wrestling match.)

I'll admit, I felt tension running through me, for the first time witnessing an open display of the nationalist fury I've been hearing via the internet for some time. I can understand as well what it must feel like for Chinese students in other countries to see protests which are (or which they would consider to be) anti-Chinese. There is a very unsettled feeling in one's stomach, knowing that your surroundings bear this sometimes subtle, sometimes outright, hostility towards you.

The emotion aside, the boycotting protest was actually fairly small, mostly composed of students--young people who were small children or didn't yet exist during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre--many of whom looked not particularly upset or even emotional, just going along for the fun. There were also a few policemen in black uniforms, stoic expressions on their faces, just going along to make sure things didn't get out of hand. The march was little different, or more threatening, than the many protests of the Iraq war held on/near my own university campus when I was there. In fact, I would say that students in other countries probably have more opportunities to march, protest, boycott--and often more violently--than this pale comparison I beheld. And unlike the march protesting 'raised government taxes' held by local small-shopkeepers that I had witnessed upon the exact same ground last year, there was no immediate and violent police attack on the protest.

Having marched all the way around the apartment block--in the basement of which Carrefour crouches--the protesters settled upon a small plaza and began to wave flags with the zealotry of those who have nothing better to do. Jon and I stopped for a minute to converse with a doleful, young university lecturer who had been filming the protest. His first comment, "It is good you weren't wearing Tibetan flags on your t-shirts or this would be a bad place for you!" (We were wearing shirts with the Aston School logo.) It turns out that not only was he very concerned about the dangers of 'angry young men' who protest, but also quite concerned that these angry young men weren't good representatives of China to the world. I guess if I plan to stay any longer in this often difficult, often hostile country, it is good to know that there are some Chinese (and he's not the only one I've met) who have a gentle nature and more interest in solving China's humanitarian problems than saving face.

Neither Jon nor I had our cameras, so we raced back to the apartment to grab them. The first thing we wished to demonstrate, was that despite the protest, the vast majority of people were indeed more interested in shopping for snacks and 'Hello-Kitty' knickknacks than defending the injured pride of the motherland.

I guess the older Chinese--those that survived civil war, the Great Leap Forward famine, the Cultural Revolution, and the many riots accompanying 1989 Tiananmen, the less-wise ones having perished--have learned an eternal truth of life in China: It is wiser to shop for trivialities than to involve yourself in politics and revolution. I know that one of my adult students, for example, whose friend was shot by the police in the 1989 protests, is deeply concerned about the rising tide of 'angry young men' and their inability to consider the Tibetan perspective.

Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at the protests with Jon's camera in hand (my camera battery was not charged), the police had arrived and put an end to the day's entertainment. More protests had been planned for today, actually, but rain (and the police, I imagine) have put a stop to that.

Unfortunately, the protests did take a toll: Carrefour was closed for the rest of the day. It was a good thing indeed, that I had bought my peanut-butter and jelly sandwich materials earlier in the day, or I would have been right pissed. However, the store was open again when I went there today, so no harm-no foul.

There are other tolls, less obvious, that also result from the rising tide of chauvinism. One is that foreigners (businessmen, teachers, and tourists) are likely to feel less welcome here. Already, myself and the other foreign teachers at my school have made our plans for a quick escape from China if the situation worsens. Flight is first option--being the speediest, with direct flights to Bangkok from Chongqing--but busing across Yunnan would be lovely as well. The local minorities are unlikely to have any concern for the wounded pride of Han Chinese, and in a pinch I believe they may aid foreigners in distress.

Tony, one of our teachers, is feeling particularly discomfited. Having been in Thailand during last year's military coup, not speaking any Chinese, and not being familiar with China, I can understand how it is a distressing situation for him. It probably doesn't help that one of our Chinese teachers is wrapped up in the chauvinist furor, and continually brings the matter up in class or in the teacher's lounge--neither place is really appropriate for haggling over such emotional viewpoints.

As for Carrefour, let us hope for the best. True, I was ready to join the protest myself... with a placard demanding a wider selection of cheese! But let us not forget that the real issue here is not France. They may be world-class whiners and agitators, but that hardly makes them uncommon human beings much less monsters. Boycotting Carrefour also does not accomplish anything worthwhile. A boycott does not significantly hurt the economy of France--a country filled with people of diverse opinions; it does nothing to increase world respect for China, nor its (in my opinion) irresponsible and unresponsive governing party, the CCP; it does not make Sarkozy or any other world leaders more likely to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics; it does not pressure CNN to apologize for mislabeled photographs or to fire Jack Cafferty (whose insulting words for China were rather unprofessional and childish, I must say); most importantly a boycott of Carrefour does absolutely nothing to resolve the Tibetan problems that have not been solved, nor even addressed, during 50 years of rule by the CCP. The inherent problem that has caused protests in Paris, and thus reactionary protests in China, has nothing to do with the average Chinese person nor the average Western person.

The problem lies squarely in the deceitful and exploitive relationship between the CCP (Chinese Communist Pary) and the Tibetan people. Any action, or argument, that does not lead towards resolution of this fundamental problem is a useless and self-satisfying act. To be fair, I aim this remark at Western protesters as well--as often as not they are more concerned with outsourced jobs or Chinese military expansion than the plight of Tibetan Buddhists.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

A Tale of Two Cities

I sometimes wonder if civil war is in essence a political-scientist's wet-dream. Where else does one get the chance for a culture-controlled experiment on how the outcomes of political decisions affect entire countries.

The Republic of China (ROC, Taiwan) and the People's Republic of China represent
just such a case.

Two governments of what is culturally and historically the same people. Both governments begin as autocratic, one-party domains. Their initial difference is more or less limited to economic policy (free market to the former, communist to the latter) and their backers: US and Soviet. Recently, however, the ROC begins adoption of democratic institutions while the PRC just adopts economic reforms--'Socialism with Chinese Characteristics', a euphemism for capitalism coexisting within a massive, corrupt bureaucracy. Wealth begins to accrue to both. Does this present a perfect duo with which to study the long term durability of a wealthy, authoritarian system?

Whether in Taipei or Beijng, the rising towers of materialism mushroom to the sky. Both Asian Tiger economies follow largely in the footsteps of Japan's post-war boom, with state-guided private enterprise, and Confucian-style hierarchy as the norm. Seeing the results of the Japanese top-out, however, one wonders how long such rapid growth can be maintained, at what costs, and with what results when the boom ends. Will citizens continue to believe--as I so frequently hear--that corruption and the direction of government policy are not their business to worry about?

I often wonder what Taiwan actually is like. Having resided in the PRC for almost two years, now, I can only approach Taiwan as hearsay and myth. Is it true, as they say, that traditional Chinese religion and culture still ekes out an existence there? I've heard that Budhist and Taoist temples are actually treated with reverence and relevance to lifestyle, rather than as ostentatious tourist traps. A very strange place indeed. My father was there in the 1970's, I believe, when the mainland was still very much off limits to the outside world, and Taiwan was a capitalist paradise on the doorstep of hell, waiting to be gobbled up.

As far as I can determine, there are two narratives developing in Taiwan. One says--in tune to screeches from Beijing--there is only one China and eventually China must be reunited. In order for this day to come, however, the mainland must accept economic and political liberalization such that Taiwanese citizens and politicians can imagine thriving there. That day being seen as a long way off, however--the mainland politicians are in no hurry for transparency or universal suffrage--the security of Taiwanese economic and personal freedoms rests in peaceful dialog, business ties, and bland symbolic gestures with the mainland.

The second narrative, depending on how relations with the mainland play out, may be fleeting or may come to represent the main populist and nativist position for Taiwan:that the PRC has no intention of ever reforming its civil liberties, despite vast market reforms, and thus Taiwan preserves a rare and fragile version of China that can only survive in separation.

As successful political narrative usually does, both speak to the heart. The hearts of many on both sides of the straits would eventually like to see a united, strong China. This I do not doubt. But the ROC hasn't survived this long by being idealistic, and the PRC hasn't survived this long by being soft on dissenting viewpoints. I think that probably that if the second narrative (the DPP's) remains one of separation and eventual isolation, it is doomed.

In recent elections, the DPP decreased its share of parliament (actually more related to a change in how electoral victories are calculated than decreased public support) and lost the presidential election. How will this political party adapt? Already it appears to be moderating its China policy to grab a larger share of a largely pragmatic electorate. I suspect that soon their narrative will become more like the standard populist/social democratic platform found in many other democratic countries. Political parties are amorphous creatures, after all. Witness the strange identity crises of a communist party that advocates full-on free market capitalism, or the party of Lincoln embracing the racism of Strom Thurmand and his ilk. I will admit, the final metamorphoses that allow CCP, KMT, and DPP (or successor parties) to reunite across the straits should be quite interesting.

In future I hope that Taipei, like Hong Kong before it, can transform the mainland through its own absorption. Capitalism and democracy are highly contagious diseases, after all, and the leadership in Beijing should be careful what it wishes for. Like SARS spreading through an unhygienic populace, the rebellious frontier provinces of China have valuable, viral lessons that the 'motherland' cannot avoid forever.

Monday, April 7, 2008

An Afternoon Stroll

Today was a lovely day so unusual for Chongqing--blue skies, not too cold, too hot, or too humid--so I thought I'd take a walk and do some sketching.

Our apartments are in a sea of tranquility... if you ignore the buses honking like Canada geese in the streets below. Golden towers, a potted park, and a ring of minor stores and restaurants molder away bit by bit. Below the haven of the upper-middle class, slick marbled streets carry gabbling pedestrians from mall to mall while bangbang porters and motorcycle taxis await them.

Further from the mall epicenter of the district, I jostle with students newly freed from the clutches of school, and I dodge the many--oh so slow--madams and misses and grandmas, migrant workers dressed as soldiers and dressy policewomen, high school girls making fashion statements and high school boys slouching off to play world of warcraft in the wangba (net cafe).

Why do I ever feel nervous to perforate that unseen wall between the public boulevard and the quiet residential neighborhoods beyond? I know from experience that most of the interesting subjects for thought, sketching, or photography are somewhere beyond the sanitized and advert-saturated facades. Probably because tension pulls us all towards clearly public spaces and pushes us away from quiet neighborhoods where there is not a coke, a KTV, or a mall to be found.

I walked down a street past a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I've eaten some of the most delicious fish, killed on the spot and roasted in garlic and spice over open coals. No fish on my mind today. The street continues downhill, becoming a blind alley between high brick-cement walls. I wondered what wondrous gardens might lie on the other side of these blank ellipses to either side of me. Bonsai topiaries? Vicious dogs?

Beyond the labyrinth, the hillside fell sharply away revealing the mighty Jialing Jiang river far below. On the bluffs themselves, a Dr. Seuss/M.C. Escher profusion of stairways crawled, linking ancient brick apartment warrens, squatter's shacks, and remnant farming cottages with the behemoth skeletons of new hi-rise condos. A long hike--or a quick fall--downhill would bring one from Chongqing's agrarian past, through the factory communes, to a blade-runner dystopia.

I saw people emerge from the foundations of one of the Skeletor condos and braved the waves of excrement stench to see what I could see. Migrant workers, hired to climb rickety bamboo walkways along the face of the tower, lived down here in the foundation. A thick strew of trash attested to their length of stay, and plywood had been put down to form rudimentary doors, walls, and gangways to facilitate this impromptu dormitory.

At last I reached the littoral highway--a stilted automobile shelf looming over the river's shore. The highway itself had been built up with pleasant gardens and statuary, and was almost deserted of cars. One sculpture along the sidewalk was named "perfect symmetry". This had originally been an upright yin-yang, one half made of hardened red plastic, the other a negative space hatched with steel bars... or at least it had been. Seems that some young entrepreneur had come along and hacked off the 'yin' steel bars for scrap. For use in that monstrosity of a condo-complex back the way I'd come? Or was it a latter day interpretation of Mao's famous 'Great Leap Forward', an attempt to cannibalize metal not 'usefully' employed and feed it to a backyard furnace? We'll never know, but that sculpture now symbolized something different than originally intended: how both communism and capitalism have taken their toll on this country; how both had pawned natural beauty and an ancient culture for world prominence and economic growth.

Further down the road, I noticed a decaying collection of farmhouses and terraced fields caught in a thin nearly-vertical strip of land between the highway and the urban jungle perched above. Families toiled in the fields without benefit of modern equipment, just as they would in the deep countryside, but this was some twenty minutes walk from the glitzy center of the district. Were my salad vegetables coming to my table from this polluted bit of land?

Along a stretch of cliff, the farmers had built cubby-holes, shrines to Budhist/Taoist deities perhaps. I intend to investigate this at a later date.

Further yet, I noticed a section of empty 'communist-era' factories, abandoned, hollowed of usefulness and relevance. I wondered whether illegal migrants from the countryside make use of those dilapidated buildings, squatters claiming their piece of Maoist legacy and perhaps charging fees to newcomers for a squalid scrap of ground where machines once thundered. Migrants streaming into the city in their millions had to live somewhere after all, and perhaps vampires too! That last is a consideration I'm making for a story idea.

The empty factories, deprived of purpose, now have a sad sort of beauty. Perhaps it is the progression of history, that perpetually replaces the eyesores of yesterday with even worse eyesores. By comparison to the blank future, the gritty past is a miasma of nostalgia we actually begin to seek out and treasure. No wonder that in Beijing these relics of bygone idealism are now retrofitted as trendy art galleries.

The long elevated highway ends by swooping in on the new-ancient neighborhood of Ciqikou (ts chee ko). Ciqikou is Chongqing's premier bit of nostalgia, actually. An old port town where barges from distant Shanghai and loggers coming downriver stopped to have a swallow of spicy hotpot, the old flagstone streets now twist and turn between restaurants and souvenir shops. Since every Chinese city now sports a new 'ancient town', it won't likely catch a traveler's eye, but one has to admit that it at least has more topography and a few more unique treats than Chengdu's ancient towns do. Take that Chengdu!

I didn't stop for mahua (a local delicacy: twisted, deep-fried dough strands), but headed back up the hill and inland. Unfortunately, the road uphill is not nearly as pleasant as the sterile parkway I'd come in on. Buses belch, motorcycle taxis lunge through gaps between pedestrians, and of course numerous brothels and gambling dens beckon tourists to either side--night hadn't fallen yet, however, so the whore shops were still shuttered. Not a pleasant path, but my mind's eye had just conceived the ingredients of a burger I intended to create when I got home.

Just another afternoon stroll in Chongqing.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Chauvinism with Chinese Characteristics

As mentioned below, Chauvinist or hyper-nationalist sentiment has been doing the rounds in China lately, what with Tibetans engaged in violent opposition to Chinese rule and the foreign media and governments stepping up criticism of the Beijing regime.

My father sent me an article from the Seattle Times concerning this potential problem:

So much for the 'Great Firewall of China' blockading emails and blogs that concern Tibet, eh?

What do I think about the article?

I find it accurate, as far as depicting how the nationalistic views of most of my Chinese friends, students, and colleagues are voiced. One student, who himself is a minority (but very Han-assimilated one), views Tibet as integral to China. Passing on some of the arguments I'm sure he's heard going around in both official media and private conversation:

1. Western ideas of what is right and wrong don't apply to China, or to Non-Western countries in general. Due to core philosophical differences (Confucian ideas rather than those of Locke, for example) democratic notions and indigenous rights don't fit their society.

My response to this claim is that while there are philosophical differences east/west, there are also philosophical and cultural divides between Tibet and the PRC thus far unresolved, a main reason why there continues to be a strong separatist movement in Tibet. The claim also fails to note that the West contains plenty of examples of expansionist empires as well, and imperialist powers the world around go through boom-bust cycles (think Ottoman, British, Roman, and yes, Chinese dynasties that all gave way to chaos and feuding warlord fiefdoms) neither making this the most stable philosophy of state-building, nor one worth emulating.

2. A prime example of Soviet style "but-what-about" arguments similar to the comment attributed to Christ as "look to the plank in thine own eye". I.e. "But what about Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Ireland, Scotland, etc, all examples of Western conquest and imperialism." A very fair point. I know that my friend Alana, from Hawaii, noted that some tension over the issue of American incorporation of the islands still exists.

The rather brittle answer to that one is that Hawaiians and Alaskans don't require a massive armed presence to keep them from seceding, more or less proof that the US is seen as a legitimate government in those places. However, most imperial excesses of the west are past-tense, and in general there has been a world-wide trend towards federalism, ethnic autonomous homelands, etc. I mean, it looks like Scotland could actually separate from the UK in our lifetimes, a possibility fought tooth and nail by British chauvinists for ages. The point being that past imperialism aside, places like Russia and China, even little Georgia, are attempting to buck a trend towards greater local autonomy.

3. The usual argument about China subsidizing, building infrastructure, and developing Tibetan economy, thus justifying its presence.

This is probably the most common argument, and I usually reply by noting that (a) Han Chinese immigrants have probably benefited more than the local ethnic populaces of Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia, and (b) the differences between Han and Tibetans are not primarily based on economic issues, but rather cultural issues. Initially, the Dalai Lama accepted union with China, and massive resistance (and the Dalai Lama fleeing the country) only happened when China began instituting draconian controls over Tibetan traditions and religion. The cultural difference of perspective between Tibetans and the Han occupiers isn't limited to religious traditions, however. The casual and wasteful way that Han companies (and imported Han laborers) treat the environment has also been a friction point. The fact that the Dalai Lama is now only asking for factual SAR status comparable to Hong Kong certainly points to the fact that the main disagreement leading Tibetans to seek separate determination is over cultural matters rather than economic or even military matters (both of which would pretty much remain the same if Tibet were granted HK-like status).

An additional counter-argument to the "but we're bringing them prosperity!" point, is that it validates European and Japanese governance of the undeveloped and developing world. Are there any Chinese who fondly reminisce about the days when Japan and Great Britain attempted to "civilize" them? No, I'm fairly sure there are next to none who would like to make that argument.

4. My student brought up a point I haven't heard before, perhaps a new post-Kosovo argument, against the forces of Balkanization. He sees (perhaps without much understanding of European perspectives) the gradual unification of regional blocs such as the EU, ASEAN, etc, as a rectification of historical splits. In his words, "people sometimes want autonomy, and then they change their minds and try to unify". His point being that we should just simplify the process by frustrating attempts at autonomy in the here and now.

I think the whole argument is extremely simplistic, however, and ignores the fact that EU countries still all have cultural determination, foreign policy (and most other aspects of government) firmly in their own hands, and only subject themselves to Brussels in matters of trade, standardizing measures, and as an aid in preventing and solving disputes between members. This is not an alliance meant to become a United States, but rather to strengthen the EU economy and negotiating position. This statement, however, is probably a good example (indirectly) of the anti-separatist/anti-Balkanization rhetoric coming out of Beijing and Moscow right about now.

As mentioned below, none of this rhetoric would be particularly frightening (in fact, could be very enjoyably debated back and forth) if not for a certain rabid streak starting to demonstrate itself, not much differently than it has in innumerable other countries with weak rule of law and/or governments taking full advantage.

In any case, China will undergo massive flight of both foreign investment and tourist dollars if nationalists get any more violent. I mean, look at Tibet. The young Tibetans (note similarity to 'Young Turks' movement) weren't concerned about the economic impact of their actions on Tibet itself, because the Tibetan prime concerns at the moment (contrary to propaganda) aren't economic. I suppose the materialistic lowlanders have difficulty with the concept. But the Han probably will be concerned when it begins to hit them in the pocketbooks. I hope they moderate before it's too late.

Textbook Case

I've been reading a comparative poli-sci book I picked up from a book club. As I read about British, French, German, and Russian political development, I'm always thinking foremost about the tumultuous country I'm currently engulfed in, China. Important points:

*Great Britain's gradual (and partial, even now) democratization proved much stabler than attempts made in France, Germany, and Russia (Iraq and most of Africa, for that matter) to first delay then rush the process. There's a natural societal progression in economics, culture, and philosophy required before democratic accountability can enter the picture. Did the nobles of England demand universal suffrage along with the Magna Carta? No, merely an expanded balance of power that eventually grew to include wealthy landowners, then urbanites, then farmers, and finally women. Am I saying anything new here? No, but most Americans don't seem to have absorbed the lesson, *cough* Iraq *cough* that a country without a large, well-educated middle class, wide-spread philosophies of self-sufficiency, healthy economy and institutions, probably isn't ready to be thrust straight into a governance of self-accountability. There are always exceptions of course, but most new-minted democracies seem to land somewhere between the semi-authoritarian (sweep-the-Kurds-under-the-rug) cleanliness of a Turkiye or the failed-state chaos of a Zimbabwe.

So, the leaders of China's CCP do actually have a point when they say that China isn't ready for democracy now, and they'll worry about governmental reforms after economic reforms. A strong middle class--and the future technocrats that lead them--with exposure to both traditional and non-traditional philosophies are much better-equipped than today's bureaucratic dinosaurs to handle the difficulties of expanding the power franchise. Of course, this doesn't mean that there isn't plenty of work to be done, and plenty of painful losses of face to endure before that point can be reached.

But even for failed states, democracy can be reached. Just look at Germany, a country that like China historically wavered between autocracy and fractured fiefdoms. Sure, Germany had to endure the deathly Weimar Republic, the horrors of the Nazis, and foreign occupation before reaching that point, but the deed is done and done well.

*Second key point: don't wait too long before making those gradual reforms! The Imperial government of the Qing Dynasty, the French Kings, the Russian Tsars, and other autocracies inevitably waited for too long before attempting reforms. Of course, centralized military might make that seem the easy course, but... with a restive rural populace, feisty university students whose heads brimmed with revolutionary ideas, and a costly high-stakes competition for global resources among the great powers, these governments came quickly tumbling down.

*Times of economic growth are more volatile, more likely to create revolution than times of economic stability, stagnancy or even decline. Given the mass changes to Chinese society wrought by one of the world's fastest growing economies, not to mention the move from communist policies of equality in poverty to the reassertion of massive class divisions (but without Confucian respect for those divisions), the system could implode with limited provocation.

*A heavy police/army internal presence denotes a government that lacks popular legitimacy. The dichotomy in China, however, is more easily understood by US citizens (for example) if they examine the difference between the disappointment they feel when their government doesn't represent their wishes and the pride and anger they feel when foreigners/foreign institutions criticize it. Anyone remember "Freedom Fries"? The same is true in China: most Chinese I've interviewed profess disinterest in government affairs, and most students equate political matters with boredom. Most are disinterested, anyway, as long as they have hope of improving their standing in the rat race. A video I recall seeing on a bus in Xinjiang, for example, showed a man who was obsessed with obtaining a cell-phone with musical ring-tones. On the other hand, the people who are dispossessed of their lands, their basic rights as citizens, their basic culture or religious preferences, are not terribly distracted by the allure of materialism or Hu Jintao's so-called "Harmony" policy. They've been given every reason to dissent rather than blindly consume because no amount of economic development is likely to change their status in society. Mao once said that "Revolution is like a prairie fire". Suffice to say that these days the tinder on the high prairie is very dry.

*Chauvinism, which I also sometimes term 'hyper-nationalism' is a force rampant in a great many countries. I've seen it in America, I've seen it in Turkiye, I've seen it in China. You'll be reading more and more about this trend in the news articles about China, because the authorities have used nationalism to replace Marxist/Leninist/Maoist doctrine as their claim to legitimate rule of China. In many cases, hyper-nationalism among the young has been encouraged (as I've said, young and materialistic Chinese tend to view socialist theory with extreme boredom) as a way to outlet their youthful energy and discontent on foreign, rather than domestic targets. Japan is probably the most frequent target, of course. Consumer boycotts, urban legends about dangerously faulty Japanese cars purposefully sold in the China market, internet flame-wars, and even the occasional riot are all mysteriously allowed, despite the government's otherwise iron-fisted response to such forms of populist fury. Lately, foreign agencies (especially newspapers) have been the targets of death-threats, prank phone calls, and inflamed rhetoric online. I expect that if the Olympics don't go as planned (boycotts for instance), we could be looking at a very explosive situation in China, certainly dangerous for "foreign friends/foreign devils". Likewise, if the economy experiences a slump or a recession, the CCP is probably looking at the end of its regime. In either case, myself and my expat friends have recently been looking at the fastest routes out of China in case of emergency. The Chinese, historically, aren't exactly known for their aplomb during times of catastrophe.