I should probably be careful what I write: in the future when the Chinese rule the world, anything I say may be used in evidence against me. So with a view to my future employability …
Hi there Officer Chang! I hope you’re having fun reading this in 2032, vetting me for that new job I’ve applied for. I like your country! Please don’t blacklist me!
China: the focus of my trip. A fifth of the world’s population, a fifteenth of its land area and a government paranoid enough to spy on everyone the whole time. The visa process had been tortuous, the writing was impenetrable and my phone might go the way of my former boss’s handset: he’d forever muttered that it had never been the same again after he’d come back from a business trip, the probable carrier of who-knew-what new firmware. So yes, in case you’re wondering, it was with just a little trepidation that I lined up at the border checkpoint in Macau.
I’d been staying with a friend in Hong Kong, the historic British treaty port where the Anglican cathedral nestled up to the Bank of China and a memorial to a Canadian soldier stood hidden among the skyscrapers. Though now Chinese, Hong Kong was ruled under the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement, which meant that I still had to pass through border control to enter mainland China. The simplest way proved to be through Macau, a former Portuguese possession that was now a kind of Chinese Las Vegas, from which I could cross on foot into China itself. A few hours later, bewildered, relieved and clutching a genuine entry stamp in my passport, I blinked out into a huge square with thousands of the world’s largest population pushing me by. How was I ever going to cycle through this lot? I needed some comfort food – it’s a good job China now had Pizza Hut.
My destination: my friends’ flat in Guiyang, capital of Guizhou province. This is one of China’s poorest provinces; the very poorest if you exclude the Wild West of Tibet and Xinjiang, where mountains are big, people are scarce and nobody really wants to be Chinese anyway. When they learned my destination, people’s reactions ranged over a predictable spectrum, from “Why do you want to go to Guiyang?” to “Guiya … where?”, to a quizzical look and a shrug that said it all: “Guiyang? This westerner’s even crazier than the rest of them”. Nevertheless, Guiyang was my goal; to get there I’d ride away from the industry, smog and congestion of the coast and across three provinces of rural China, then after a break for Christmas I’d take a sharp left and head directly south for Vietnam.
At the coast, it took a full 400 kilometres before I left the smog behind, as the mountains rose up and I entered a rural China quite apart from the major cities I’d left just two or three days before. Many people here couldn’t grasp that I didn’t speak Chinese, or that I couldn’t read it – because according to older teaching methods, Chinese characters don’t convey the spoken language but represent meaning itself. Crossing these provinces I met some of the remaining few percent of Chinese society who were illiterate, shivered in the doorways of shops that were open to the elements all year round, and swore as supposedly major roads disintegrated into rubble – but on that last point, Chinese construction deserves a whole new section to itself.
Building on Inequality
“Don’t use the G roads” I’d been warned, “They’re motorways”. The reality turned out to be not nearly so simple. Most of my ride ended up being on G roads which were nonetheless reduced to rubble, left behind by progress as their new replacements strode into the distance across the valleys on huge multi-span bridges. The new roads would not take bikes of course, and neither would they be accessible for the local towns and villages. The city-dwellers could now roar past at effortless high speed from megacity to megacity, while these locals received none of the benefits but were left to get on as before, on inadequate and crumbling infrastructure as modern China passed them by. Even the maps might forget these people’s existence: there used to be accusations that the government made deliberately inaccurate maps in order to confuse foreigners. These days it was more likely due to the speed of the construction drive but the cause was moot; roads, bridges and whole villages would disappear into the cartographers’ abyss, leaving a western cyclist confused, disoriented and increasingly annoyed. “A lot of the older city folk want to retire out here” my friend told me, “To them, this is living dream. Many of them don’t want to let their children go abroad in case they never come back to look after them”. I sympathised with the kids.
Arriving in Guiyang was a revelation: coffee shops, clothes shops and burger joints competed for space between the tower blocks; I hadn’t felt this western for weeks! If you were middle class you could afford a very good life here, said my hosts, probably better than in the west. This was a result of China’s inequality: despite the country’s rapid growth, there were still a lot of poor people who would still work for very low wages, so it didn’t take much to afford a cleaning lady. This was the reality in modern-day communist China, where pictures of Mao are still to be seen in pride of place across the country. Or at least, it was half the reality: it was a long way from the town where I’d run out of cash, been unable to access any form of money with my non-Chinese bank cards, spent my last 3 yuan on food for the night and then ridden 75 km the next morning along rerouted, unmapped roads to find the next place to withdraw cash and eat.
Second Best is Always Best
Much of Guiyang was made up of grimy tower blocks, parts of the exteriors dislodged, looking like a neglected 1960s council estate that was destined for demolition. “No no” I was told, “Those probably date from the 1990s. Most of what you see wasn’t here 25 years ago.” Right, so was someone going to repair them soon? “Oh no, they’ll just rip them down and build new ones. In a few years those will look like this too.”
Building work was happening everywhere I looked, from when I entered China to when I left. Quality control, product standards and regulation though – they never quite edged in where they might impede progress. ‘Build it fast, let it break, start again’ seemed to be the Chinese mindset – evident in everything from the buildings and roads, to the huge array of cheap wares in the shops, to the Settlers of Catan game my host got for Christmas. “This is a really good fake!” he was heard to exclaim, “The pieces very nearly fit together properly!” After Japan, a nation of perfectionists where the pursuit of the just-so could verge on the oppressive, this was endearing in a way, a kind of British wartime spirit, let’s-muddle-through-and-we’ll-get-there-somehow mentality. When some shop mechanics left my bike in an unrideable state though, I ceased to see the funny side. I’d been troubled for a while about the number of fakes I saw: common brands included Susuki, Isuzuki and Hongdu, and together they represented what was probably a trillion dollar intellectual property theft from the Japanese. Now I started cheering whenever I saw a genuine Yamaha shop: Yes, it’s Japanese, it’s something that actually works!
I’d been reading some other cyclists’ touring blog: riding home to America from their jobs in Japan, one couple given up and got the train to the border, worn down by China’s noise, bustle and state of never being quite as it said it would be. I wasn’t surprised: coming straight from the quiet politeness and immaculate clockwork of its neighbour to the east, China would have been a big shock and a world apart. As for me, I could feel myself becoming more of a perfectionist week by week as I inwardly repented of every slipshod cock-up I’d made in my former life, and hoped – prayed, for something, anything that for once would just work.
I’d started my trip in a country that used to rule the world, and most of my journey had been across the planet’s current mature power. Now I was in a country that was on the rise, taking over, the future in its sights. When I’d crossed America I’d been startled by the number of people who never looked beyond their own shores, who were sure the US was the greatest nation on Earth but who had not the slightest desire to find out if this was really true by going somewhere else. At the time I’d mused that China would probably be the same, worse even, but that the language barrier would mean I’d experience it less.
Apart from the reading and writing, there was a noticeable Chinese perspective on world affairs, and a lack of acknowledgement that another perspective might exist. “It is important that people know their history” one person told me, “It is amazing how many people do not know their history,” hmm, okay … “and Taiwan is definitely a part of China, it has always been a part of China. All people should know that.” Yeah … discuss.
I was reminded of a previous Chinese acquaintance’s angry retort back in England, blustering in the face of our ignorant Western ideas about Tibetan land grabs: “Tibet is a part of China, we didn’t invade, we just helped the people out a bit because they were being ruled by the monks!”
(Those poor people – monks!)
… or there were the Chinese students at my university, and their reaction when I mentioned that here, the University of York, was where Jung Chang became the first Chinese person to do her degree overseas after the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t so much that my coursemates didn’t know what the Cultural Revolution was – I’d heard about their government’s erasure of history and I was prepared for that – it was the lack of interest, of desire to find out about China’s past now they were overseas, outside the bubble and could question freely. “Cultural Revo … whatever Greg, get back to work.”
It was frustrating, but hard to blame them. The values I cherished, of individualism, liberality and reasoned enquiry – these were not Chinese values. How much of the communal, herd mentality was due to government repression over the last century and how much was a longer standing feature of Chinese culture, I could not possibly tell. An expatriate English teacher vented his spleen at me: “These students, can’t they stop giving the rote answer and have an original thought for once?!” It all rang so true.
On the way from the coast to Guiyang, I passed through the autonomous region of the Miao people. It turned out that Tibet and Xinjiang might be the most publicized and the most repressed but they weren’t the only minorities: these ethnic groups were all over the country – or rather, the empire. China is hardly a country in our own sense of the word, it is too big and too diverse for that; ‘empire’ fits it better. At its heart, Beijing thinks of the whole of the empire as Chinese, and controls it when it has the power to do so. For decades now, Han Chinese from the coast and the north have been sent to far-off provinces to populate out the locals, spreading the gospel of One China. As one western expat put it to me “When Beijing is weak these people are autonomous, when it is strong they are Chinese. Right now Beijing is very strong.”
I enjoyed China, I really did. I enjoyed the food, the culture, the people and the cycling. On that last point, there are several routes I’d like to go back and ride, though that’s for another post. Most of all though, I valued the way it held a mirror up to my own civilization. China is a separate world, where the leaders jealously guard their own culture and are liable to view anything they don’t like – such as the rise of Christianity – as an outside attack to be resisted. Their foreign policy is well documented and they want to expand China into the world, but they are much more wary of letting the world into China.
I’m not wholly unsympathetic to that view, even if I do think they go rather over the top with their implementation of it. However, I now definitely appreciate British politics more. Sure, the Chinese way of life has improved over the last seventy years, but it would be nice to see a government committed to bringing the rest of the population with them. Sure, we in the West might think our politicians are greedy, illiberal and self-serving, but my trip has convinced me that Britain really does have one of the best democracies in the world. And finally, if this really is the new world order and China really are going to take over, I have one dear hope: can they please lose the addiction to junk and let the Japanese manage their product standards?