The Other Side of China

Last week, I wrote about the sense of dynamism and opportunity in China that I felt during our Beijing Foo Camp earlier this month. All of the Chinese I met were wonderful to be with, and there wasn’t a single sour note in my own experiences in Beijing, except for the pollution that I noted in that story.

But I also wanted to share some comments from various expats I met on my trip talking about some of the dark side of their experiences. I’m leaving off names, since I’m not sure that the people concerned would want to be quoted. These quotes are from several different people, with very different positions in the China market. A few were at the foo camp; others were not. They are from memory, and may not be exact.

  • “It’s hard here. You get shoved, spit on. It’s very much a “me first” culture, and if you don’t fight for yourself, you get trampled. There are times I get back to the apartment from a long day outside, and I look in the refrigerator, and say ‘We’re out of milk.’ But then I say, ‘We don’t really need milk. We can get by.’ I just can’t face going back out.”

  • “I was riding my motorcycle one time when some kids ran out in the road. I swerved to a stop, just barely missing them. I was cussing and saying ‘Didn’t their mothers teach them to look before crossing the road?’ My Chinese friend said, ‘Isn’t that the government’s job?'” Wow — that’s a different sense of the responsibilities of family vs. government! And I will say that watching Chinese traffic is like watching a giant game of chicken, as bicycles routinely face down taxis and trucks. Everyone seems to have a deathwish — and in fact, I’m told that the accident rate is astronomical, as everyone just tries to push by the next guy, regardless of the consequences.

  • “There’s a tall building here with an observation deck. And on Sundays, the families come out to see the view. There are two types of family group: a group of three, and a group of seven. Remember there’s a one-child per family policy. The group of three is a little girl with her parents. The group of seven is a little boy with his parents and both sets of grandparents. Every little boy is a prince, and there’s this incredible pressure to perform. That’s why I’ve had so much more success hiring women here.”

I remember the last time the West had a love affair with China. Everyone was so idealistic about their turn towards the West and adoption of capitalism. And then the Tienanmen Square massacre happened. I’d just read Paul Theroux’s book Riding the Iron Rooster, which told some very grim stories about a deep disregard for human life in China, and so I wasn’t surprised.

And of course, it’s worth noting that one of our friends in China told us that the average Chinese citizen believes that the Tienanmen Square massacre never happened. If they’ve heard of it at all, they believe it’s western propaganda. And sources like the Wikipedia article about the event that I linked to above aren’t available — Wikipedia is blocked in China. (I also had frequent trouble getting to Google, though occasionally I got through — and yesterday, I saw a slashdot story suggesting that China was throttling traffic to various western sites in order to help the local competitors.)

But one of the O’Reilly folks who attended the camp brought up another perspective:

“I was struck by the fact that the ‘oppressed society’ we hear discussed in our media is not how the general population feels. There is a true nationalistic “I love China” mentality. While they know their media is not free, they do not engage with that concept as a battle, rather it is an accepted reality. They joke about news channels going dark for a few minutes in the middle of a telecast but when I pushed they seem to believe they are “protected by the state”.

In the grand scheme of things I have to admit I went to Beijing with preconceived notions based on our own media’s positioning and bias. Yes, there are real limitations to freedom in China that we in the west consider oppressive, but the people are not oppressed. I found them engaged, smart and willing to help make a difference for their beloved nation.

I agree. Seeing what appeared to be “spin” in the China Daily, the English language paper handed out in our hotel, I was mindful of how much of what we read in our own papers is spin as well.

And to return to the feeling of optimism that I wrote about in my previous post, there were these comments as well:

  • “I love Beijing. It’s the place to be right now. There’s such a vibrant youth culture and the potential of this sleeping giant is incredible.”

  • “There’s more happening here right now than any other city in the world.” (Spoken by a French art gallery owner now living in Beijing.)

  • “The training market is a huge opportunity waiting to happen. Government understands the need to educate and it’s at the top of their priority list.”

There’s a way that China feels very familiar to Americans. The Chinese are very like us–competitive, outgoing, full of fun–and also sometimes brash and pushy, like us. But it’s important to remember that they also have a different cultural history and values. There will be many surprises as the Chinese put their stamp on the world.