There was so much more we could have done in China and I would have liked to have stayed longer. For all its frustrations, China is a fascinating country with its own unique culture and way of looking at things. It challenges you to re-examine what you take from granted as ‘how things are done’ perhaps more than anywhere else in the world. I find it gruelling but incredibly interesting from a sociological point of view. Of course, there is much to dislike from a western standpoint, and the human rights situation is abhorrent. But with such a huge population and the deep psychological trauma of mass starvation within living history, plus hundreds of years of trying to keep the country together, it feels almost like the population as a whole has decided that it is willing to sacrifice freedom for stability.
Indeed, students of mine 14 years ago when I taught English for 6 months, told me that this is all tied up with Confucian approach to discipline and respect for hierarchy and sacrifice of the individual good for the collective. Not sure how true this is, and whether your average Chinese youth if given the choice would choose this way of living, but there you go. They aren’t given the choice.
Beijing, more than any other Chinese city I’ve been to, seems built to intimidate. The architecture itself seems deliberately massive and imposing. The roads are wide, the buildings tall and long and quite bare, open spaces enormous. Maybe I am projecting, but it feels like the city itself is designed to make sure you know your (lowly) place and that you, as an individual, are not important.
What could I possibly know after less than 3 weeks in the country, especially such a huge, varied and complex country where I don’t even speak the language. But it seems to me that the Chinese people have (in large part) been fobbed off with the latest brands and western goods (also, helpfully allowing the Chinese government to create a massive trade surplus with the west and stockpile dollars) giving a veneer of ‘freedom’ while real state control remains firmly in place. Walking down Beijing’s main shopping street there is every western brand available. People are better dressed and more fashionable (in the big cities, those with money) than in Paris or London or New York. There are Range Rovers and sports cars everywhere. A woman can dress in Gucci, drive a Porsche and carry the latest iphone. But the state still dictates how many children she can have, and when, and still blocks her access to most of the internet. It feels like the party has gone “hey, look, you can have all this lovely shiny stuff” and distracted those possibly most likely to rebel (young, urban, earning well) from demanding more than ‘stuff’. The buying frenzy seems strangely joyless… people are buying thousand dollar dresses with the same grim determination they elbow themselves onto the metro.
The conformism, the lack of outward displays of emotion, the seeming self-absorption, the feeling that the whole country is built for crowd control. I can’t say I like it, but I do find it fascinating. Maybe if I stayed longer I would see beneath this façade…. Or I’d get arrested!
Perhaps luckily, we are now under time pressure to get to Europe for the start of Lauren’s school year, so after Beijing we jumped on the train for the first leg of our mammoth train journey to Moscow.