Inside China, with Russell Watkins
After my request yesterday for inside information on China, and the protests ostensibly about the nationality of those rocks in the picture above, I spoke to Russell Watkins (right) who’s spent the last few years living there. Unlike others there who might be afraid to speak out, Russell doesn’t h0ld back. “I've discovered that criticism is okay,” he says, “as long as you don't do it with others in groups of more than the authorities consider dangerous.”
Here’s our interview:
Q: How long have you been there now?
I've been here almost two years. I came to see what all the fuss is about.
Q: Which area?
Being that cities here are much the same, it suffice to say that I live in a typical pile of bricks in the North East; on same parallel as the Korean DMZ (38th I think). Small city of 'only' two million.
Q: Where would you rank that area for prosperity compared to the rest of China? Compared to NZ, e.g., closer to Ruatoria or to Remuera?
Neither. The rich and poor live in the same place; well not the same buildings obviously, but a development over or two and things are pretty grim by our standards. To paint a picture for you, it is not uncommon to see A8 Audi's sitting at the traffic lights next to donkeys pulling trailer loads of bricks.
Street people tend to be more on the crippled side of things rather than alcoholics or glue sniffers like home. I mean seriously crippled.
Q: Main industries?
Oil, petro-chemical, and the light-heavy industry that goes with that. It's a dirty old (20years old, which is old for here) town.
Q: Do you feel welcome there as a foreigner?
Good question. I think so. I mean people are very inquisitive, stare a lot, but seem pretty genuine in there pleasantries. Interestingly there is a pragmatic value they tend to place on us too; in that they are pleased we are here to 'show them how', so to speak. Hmm, I'm never sure on their sincerity.
Q: What gave you your biggest feelings of ‘culture shock’ when you arrived?
Filth. Both at street level: constant spitting, kids (and drunk men) shitting and pissing in the street, and vomit inducing restaurant toilets. Oh, and toddlers up here wear pants with a slit in the back so they can do their business at will, anywhere it seems.
And. The environment: the sky is there from time to time, but it is acrid at times. In fact I've known days when it is 35degrees, and viability is 500 meters; - Imagine being in a giant sauna that smells like Janola.
Q: What’s changed most since you arrived there?
What I don't notice anymore. Oh, and how excited I am to be leaving.
Q: So just what the fuck is going on there?
China is one enormous construction site. 1000's and 1000's of apartment blocks that are badly built eye-sores that will never be occupied; I can see probably 80 high-rise cranes from my window where I'm writing this - that's just looking south on a smoggy day. The Chinese have, for the last ten years been building about 6 million square meters (per month) of excess floor space. I drove along 10km a stretch of highway that ran into the city of Yantai. In each direction for about 3km's (x 10 km's) there were empty and abandoned industrial units. Think of every industrial unit in South Auckland with not a sole around except the ubiquitous lone 'security guard', and remember this is just one edge of one town among 100's...if not 1000's of other cities in China.
Q: Tell us about the madness. What’s the maddest thing you think you’ve seen. In a good way….
Four fully grown ostriches walking through a fishing village I rode through; no one seemed to own them, nor did the locals seem to notice these very large chickens.
Oh, and a young Irish mate of mine squashed his cock up against a restaurant window, pressed-ham style. That was hard to forget as it led to a rather large brawl with some locals. Funny though.
Q: …in a bad way?
The driving here is simply nuts. It really is just brainless, and that's just the so-called cops. Belligerence towards everyone else; kinda like everyone is 16 years old, pissed and has a large black German sedan.
There is no regard for each other; and they most certainly will not render assistance to someone in peril or injured. This is the most foul trait of Chinese.
And, they don't trust each other, and with very good reason. They expect to be lied to, due to such cultural absurdities as 'saving face'. As an example: Ping tells Pong that he is good at his job, though Ping actually thinks he isn't. Now Pong believes that he is indeed good at his job but feigns humility and tells Ping he isn't; this goes back and forth "yes you are," "no I'm not" for as long as it takes for lunch time to come. The funny/sad thing is both Ping & Pong know that each other is engaged in this pantomime; but they consider this to be in keeping with a 'harmonious society'. It's bollocks on stilts.
There are many other such stupidities but that should give you a wee idea.
Q: Have you seen overt signs of nationalism? Protest? Bloodshed?
Yes, in a night club a goon with a microphone chanting (in Chinese) “Fuck Japan,” “Kill Japan”—and the crowd indulging him by chanting back.
More disturbingly, I asked a class of teenagers the other day to write down ten things that will be different about China in ten years. Eight of the ten had variations from ''Japan will be game over" to "Japan will be part of China" to "We will kill all Japanese and Americans" All nice thoughts from 14 year old kids don't you think?
It is worth noting that the Communist/fascist government made anti-Japan rhetoric part of the curriculum in 1990. If you look at the protests, aside from the local soldiers in civilian clothes that are trucked in, the faces are those of people in there 20's and early 30's at most. The government has backed themselves into a corner by peddling this line for so long, now young people are accusing the government of being cowards for not attacking the Japanese. The very thing the Communist/fascist thought would keep them safely ensconced in power, i.e., a population distracted by nationalism, may well, one day force them into doing something crazy like attacking Japan - I wouldn't put anything past them.
Q: What makes you most frightened?
In no particular order:
- Lack of perspective/information, actual history.
- Mindlessness adherence to tradition.
- The nationalism.
- That once they get the vote they'll vote for exactly the same thing.
- The Borg.
Q: Or most interested in hanging around?
Q: And what’s the most lurid food you’ve eaten?
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I’d love to hear other thoughts and observations from readers who’ve spent time in China, or who have friends and family there. Send them to me at organon at ihug dot co dot nz.
You might also like to check out Diana Hsieh’s fascinating interview with philosophy professor Robert Garmong (right) on teaching in China—and his blog about life and teaching there: Professor in Dalian.