Thursday, July 18, 2013

Some glimpses of China



Our plane in San Francisco to Beijing rolled by the wreckage of the flight from South Korea that crashed 10 days ago. It was like a ship with its bottom ripped out, the halved body, nose poking forward, on the blackened earth that it had dug. 2 Chinese students were killed. Every thing was stalled at the airport.

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I and my wife are both going to teach in China. We arrived from Denver at 8:30 for a 2:30 flight. Before noon came the crash. The airport proceeded as if everything was normal (one could see the smoke from some of the upstairs windows). But New York Times and CNN.org brought news and pictures of the crash…

Government-ordered “secrets” – which are no secret…

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Airport “disaster protocol” which is…a disaster.

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We were delayed for a day.

And the next day, Air China called us in for 11 AN, got our long line rushing to board, and had us sit for 5 hours on the plane before we taxied by the crash.

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In the course of the long wait for a ticket, I met Jerry, a physicist and solar energy entrepreneur in China who has taught at Case Western.

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We were talking about what I will teach, about China and democracy, and Jerry thought, given prosperity for the last 40 years, that the Chinese people (4/5ths Han) are mainly satisfied.

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His father, he said, was a farmer making 3 yuan a month. 40 years ago, his father’s child having gone through University could have made 10 yuan, 30 years ago 100 20 years ago several hundred, 10 years ago a thousand, now 8-9 thousand. The progress across education and generations here is marked (it is not for everyone, many live poorly in China, though there is – I have noticed now on being here - a deep spirit of equanimity and happiness, and a amazing willingness to work hard).

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There are a billion people in China very differently situated (the Uighurs, Mongolians, Tibetans inter alia) and some fiercely oppressed. There are also great collective traditions in China, Confucian ones about the family, which yield a powerful sense, along with the remnants of the spirit that made the great Revolution of 1949, that everyone is in it together. There is no American tradition of the Bill of Rights, a determined sense of the basic liberties of each individual. It is thus hard for people to experience themselves as individuals, for example in the way Americans do, or, in some ways, be treated significantly in this way. But the Chinese seem connected each other, and at times, helpful and even compassionate in unusual ways.

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Ironically, the Horatio Alger story, no longer realized in the United States, has been realized for many by the Chinese revolution and its capitalist but very statist aftermath. Capitalism has often flourished with state monitoring as we can see in the prevention of financial collapse by Glass-Steagall from the Great Depression to 2008, cancelled disastrously by President Clinton (American “capitalism” is, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the extreme of predatory capitalism, as the drunken revels of AIG executives during the “bail out” and government failure to deal with foreclosures on poor people highlighted). China did not allow speculative banking and came through the downturn quickly and relatively unscathed.

***

Jerry’s father, he said, was like many other poor people, happy in his line of work. But most of those who have “made” it, lead lives constrained by striving for money – an alienated life, always running ahead of oneself, never quite being present, in which one does what one does ”for the money’s” or for status’s sake.” But this has not yet quite overwhelmed people in China.

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As we waited for our flight, my wife saw an “ethnic” woman – the Han Chinese phrase for minorities - at the airport. She was sleeping across two seats, avoiding the bar which juts between them. She had clothes woven with wonderful designs. She drifted up to the balconies to watch others below, unbeknownst to them.

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The urban life in China (I can see it now, having arrived in Shenyang) is still in touch with a rural and inner peacefulness, the modern not yet merely uprooted, unsettled, connected still to the countryside.

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In Shenyang (the fourth largest city in China; population 8 million), there are KFCs, McDonald’s, Starbucks, all the detritus of American fast food. And young people, often studying English from early on, are fascinated with them.

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But people still eat a traditional diet. There are no fat people. One of my students tells me about eating happily at McDonald’s as a treat (people in China as in India often celebrate this), but then feeling unwell, and not going back.

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The city is being thrown together before our eyes (hundreds of new gray apartment buildings, a heritage of dull Soviet architecture, crowd the skies, cranes are everywhere. Ten years ago, there were few cars, now the streets are crowded, and there are 600 new cars every day. A subway is expanding (two lines are in) and within two years, they are laying two more (crisscrossing the city, relieving some of the traffic). Nobody drives in lanes or even on their side of the street, individuals wander through the traffic, bikes and motorbikes, now a minority, maneuver through the cars. It is a throng…

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Right near the University, we can go to big modern stores to shop. But the sidewalks and trees are just being built (actually, twice – some officials didn’t like the first effort) for a countrywide athletic meet which is scheduled for later in the year near Liaoning University where I am teaching. Athletic meets are great opportunities to modernize for the society as the marvels of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing illustrated.

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An extra dizziness in the midst of rapid modernization (Shenyang was a steel and coal town and has now moved on; the government stepping in intelligently - the United States elite has no concern about the wellbeing of ordinary people or the health of society, no longer bothers - is funding some energy and high tech industry.

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The crash stands out in my mind. It delayed our coming (we had another day’s lay over in Beijing, because our connecting flight to Shenyang was cancelled by storms and rebooking until the evening of the day after we arrived).

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The world moves too quickly. This morning the electricity and water are shut off throughout this section of Shenyang where the new University is (this is the suburban branch of Liaoning University which has 3 campuses) to be poured into the construction (a less developed country and a country driving forward rapidly, the picture a bit jittery…). And yet there is a quality of hope and strength and dedication and commonality among many here which works through and despite disasters.

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