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Impressions of China

I recently spent seven weeks traveling from Tibet to Beijing, and through Shanghai, Hong Kong, and nine other cities, traveling and staying with locals.

I observed many admirable things in China, things scarcely found here. And some awful things also scarcely found here. Daily I went from admiration to outrage, disgust to fascination, constipation to diarrhea. How different China is from the West! While I really liked the individual Chinese I got to know, and there were many, the negative stereotypes Chinese and Americans have about each other do seem to be based on the actual characteristics of each, the Chinese half of which I observed on my trip, and the American failings, of course, I brought with me.

I saw the famous Chinese industriousness, diligence, efficiency, their high degree of organization, their self-assurance, their practicality, and their reserve. It’s no surprise their civilization has survived for thousands of years. Today it’s in full gear on the way up to full global power status, leading me to think that if China and the US were to compete on a level playing field, the US is unlikely to come out ahead. Perhaps a mutually destructive and painful stalemate might be the best we could hope for. I also suspect that if China were to become the number one power in the world (which they want and expect to be), it might also become globally infamous for the lack of compassion and mercantile ruthlessness one can’t help but see as endemic.

The ordinary people I got to know were very nice; the worst people I encountered were the entrepreneurs, the get rich quick people; they seemed capable of literally anything.

We don’t look so good to them either — we are really silly about our overweening individualism, and have pretty much earned the title of barbarians.


My wife’s uncle invited us to a restaurant renowned for its seafood. (My wife is Chinese.) It is a plain-looking complex of converted warehouses on the banks of the Pearl River in Guangzhou (formerly Canton). Seven of us sat around a table of excellent seafood in a barracks-style room containing some 50 diners, the men mostly chain-smoking. Large open windows allowed the pleasant autumn breeze to clear the room of the billowing cigarette smoke. But the Chinese like really cold air conditioning. So the waiter, apparently at the request of some of the diners, closed all the windows and turned the air conditioner, which was right next to us, to an Arctic-quality frigid.

The air conditioning sucked all the cigarette smoke over our table and blew it back into the now smoke-filled room, a fact obvious to anyone who cared to look. I pointed out to my wife that it had been more comfortable when the windows were open and the room was smoke-free. But she would lose face if her white foreigner husband disturbed the harmony of the room by requesting relief from the suffocating smoke in restaurants and public places from China’s 400 million smokers, even though she and the women at our table also hated the cigarette smoke bathing us and our otherwise memorably delicious meal.

Later, I excused myself to get some fresh air, walking past the main hall of hundreds of diners through the patio to the river’s edge where a 25-foot high movie screen completely blocked the view of the river from the restaurant. On the wall played an action movie, a Hong Kong-made epic with an audience of one — the projectionist — sitting in the patio. No one in the restaurant was paying any attention to the movie; I squeezed around the screen so I could view the spectacularly illuminated city skyline and the riverboat traffic plying back and forth in the night, the autumn breeze wafting in over the movie’s interminable car crashes.

An American businessman I know told me about a grisly accident he’d witnessed. It was raining. The businessman asked his driver to stop. Maybe he and his driver could be of assistance. The driver didn’t want to stop saying, “We don’t stop for things like this in China.” But the businessman insisted. A young couple had been riding, tandem, a motorcycle in a narrow street. A passing truck hit the motorcycle’s handle bars, dumping the couple, and running directly over the man’s head, decapitating him.. The dead man’s tiny wife was trying to drag her husband, as he turned out to be, out of the road by herself because no one among the onlookers volunteered to help her, and only the American among the passing vehicle traffic had so much as paused.

In Chinese-occupied Tibet, where I spent my first week, a Tibetan monk struck up a conversation; his Mandarin was poor, my friend’s translations slow. As we were attempting to stumble through a basic conversational exchange, plainclothes policemen appeared out of nowhere and, by menacing gestures that made it clear they would beat the monk if he didn’t immediately get on his way, the monk scurried off. Also in Tibet we came in on the tail end of an arrest of a Tibetan. He was tossed into the back of a police van as a squad of uniformed Chinese soldiers silently menaced onlookers with their fingers on the triggers of their automatic weapons. A young woman who’d been with the arrested Tibetan angrily, boldly slapped a soldier on his arm. She was ignored.

A female assistant to an American businessman, a friend of mine, was unlucky in love. Her husband had left her and the couple’s 11-year-old son for another woman. Her desertion did not diminish her love for the man. He soon told her that he wanted to return to their marriage, although his true motive was to gain full custody of the boy. (Male children are much desired in China; female children much less so.) The couple returned to the marital bed and the jilted woman was soon pregnant.

Every apartment building, every residential block in China, has a “watcher,” typically an older woman who reports directly to the government on everything from crime to un-reported pregnancies. Women are required by law to report pregnancies because China strictly enforces birth control, so strictly that the government subjects women to forcible abortions. Work sites are also required to report pregnancies.

The “watcher” in this case tipped the pregnant, deserted wife that the police were about to arrest her for not reporting her pregnancy. Her American employer hid her out. The police did not dare break into the American’s home to carry the woman off because foreign businessmen, like Pandas and free enterprise in “communist” China, are protected species. The child was born “un-registered,” meaning the woman will have to pay the equivalent of $10,000 in American money to persuade a doctor to phony up a birth certificate so the child would be a legal Chinese citizen, entitled to schooling and the other benefits of official existence.

While ordinary citizens can be quite pleasant, they can also be quite unpleasant. We were at the Beijing airport waiting in line for our tickets. A Chinese man thrust himself into the front of the line, jostling a German tourist out of his way, then signaling a companion to bring his luggage up. My friend, an American who speaks fluent Mandarin, and has total mastery of Chinese insults, put up a huge fuss, demanding that the airport police grab “Mr. Dog Fart,” as the American called the crasher, and place him at the rear of the line where he rightfully belonged. The American prevailed. Dog Fart became number 16 in a 15-person queue.

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