A week or so ago as I got bogged down in trying to protect this site from a malware attack – no easy task, I can tell you, for this computer illiterate fool – I did pay attention to the fact that a reasonable amount of content has been added here during the last three years, now over a 100 Notes. So, for my own simple pleasure, and as I have not given myself much time to write recently, I will pick a few Notes that I have liked for whatever reason and put them up in two parts – 5 Notes in each. The 5 below all come from the first year of this site. The second 5 can be found here, and were written during the last two years.
1. Ode To Xi’an 2. Some Habits Best Kept, Others Maybe Not 3. National Day Is Upon Us Here In Xi’an 4. Barack Obama, the Great Wall, a Shanghai Hall and the Importance of Tone 5. Copenhagen, Indignation and a Neo-Naturalistic Chinese Landscape
Ode to Xi’an
Xi’an. Modern city, city of the ancients, city of technology, science and education, city of a city wall, city of the Buddha’s finger, city of emperors, city of conquest, city of contradiction.
An ancient city of culture without culture, a contemporary culture sublimating a culture, a city finding balance in a future culture. The bright lights of a night city pagoda’s entertainment mall, wide freeways and san lun ches (三轮车s). Warmth, hospitality, overpricing, free drinks, lao wai (老外), differences and not a few similarities. Simplicity, clarity, haziness and pollution. Sixty in a class, extra curricula classes, never enough classes, I like my classes, I like my classmates, I like my school, I like my country. My country likes me.
River people, widowed people, homeless people, newly-housed people, proud people, loud people, peaceful people, people of a time, people of a place. Xi’an’s people. Silent people, singing people, walled-in people, self-determined people, educated people, un-educated people, realistic people, hopeful people. Different people.
Free will, no will. Expansion, development, disrepair, has been repaired, still needs to be repaired. Newly built, not really built, needs to be rebuilt. Does matter, doesn’t matter. What matters? Food matters. This food, that food, what food, whose food? Our food. Have much, don’t have much, don’t want much, want what I haven’t got, got what I haven’t got. Warriors, borrowers, investors, debtors, jokers, jesters, trustees, trust hers, trust whose? Winning smiles, legs for miles, public trials and McDonalds selling freedom fries.
Working life, lived life, living life, life of the past, life of the present, I like life. Xi’an’s life. Xi’an’s people. Zhong Lou, Nan Da Jie, Xiao Zhai, Bai Hui, Gao Xin, Chang’ An Lu. Happy people, sad people, living people. Xi’an’s people. We are those people.
Some Habits Best Kept, Others Maybe Not
A couple of things that stood out on the Chinese culture front last week. The first, was listening to a Chinese colleague outline her lunchtime ritual. She noted how she goes from school to her car across the road, which she pays to park, then drives straight down the street to her daughters school, also where her husband works. This whole process takes under 10 minutes. Her and her husband then have lunch with their daughter, before retiring to a school provided dormitory for a siesta. She then drives back here for afternoon classes before returning again to meet her daughter after she finishes school. They wait at the school while their daughter does her homework and plays in the pleasant surroundings of the near-by university campus. They then drive home, about 5-10 minutes by car.
Why do I note this? Maybe back in Britain or in the States this scenario seems oh so normal. But, this is a nation of cyclists, bus catchers and walkers. No longer.
One of the great things about living in China, and particularly here in Xi’an, as it is less developed than Beijing for example, is that it places many of the norms of our own societies in sharp contrast. The society here maybe in the process of going down the same route we took, but by doing so from a different starting point or time period, it sharpens the focus from which we view not only the changes here, but our own norms of behaviour.
Just weeks ago this lady cycled down the road at lunch time and then home in the evening, with her daughter on the back of her bike. Now, she makes 5 journeys a day in her VW Golf. I suppose this is all-good for the economy and is being increasingly supported by many major nations, particularly here and in the United States. These are the realities of the principles that underpin our societies. It is just that they seem to me a little crazy really, and that is without taking into account the environmental costs.
Secondly, I was sitting in a small fast-food restaurant doing a bit of studying when a young lad, your average looking student, sat down at the table just across from me. He began to chomp and slurp his way through his lunch, as if oblivious to any of the evolutionary etiquette that has emerged over the last however many centuries, in various parts of our various societies.
Now, I am quite used to this really, living on the street I live, which is not inhabited by the wealthiest of people and has an abundance of hole-in-the-wall restaurants. I have also stayed a number of times in rural village communities where the old noodle suck and slurp is going strong. I can actually manage a good noodle slurp myself and even recognise the benefit when the noodles are piping hot. However, there are levels, it doesn’t matter how you cut it, listening to this guy eat was no different from listening to an animal munching, noisily at its trough, every open mouth(ful) chomped, sucked and slurped over. Quite amazing.
This, of course, may well not be a bad thing, certain levels of etiquette go far too far and I particularly enjoyed eating with my right hand in India, but…
…I wished this bloke would just shut the —- up!
National Day Is Upon Us Here In Xi’an
So, National Day is upon us and the geese have gotten fat. The roads have been rebuilt, shop frontiers have been homogenised in gray, buildings; whether old, new, run-down, falling down or in the process of being built, have been painted and we are all being told to wear gray pants, shirts and a cap. Ok, the last point strays slightly from the truth but maybe not too far from the essence of life here at the moment. In fact, the Chinese teachers at my school have, after practicing for weeks, just put on a public performance singing two passionate anthems dressed as a China Work Unit from a period past. During these days the past has been impacting on the present but I suppose, more so, the present is influencing the past- the Party of Mao Ze Dong being justified by the results of today.
There has been debate circling around for months about the reasoning behind the re-developing, upgrading and most certainly improving of the main trunk roads in Xi’an, particularly Chang’an Lu. First, it seemed a consequence of the subway construction process, then I was told it was part of the 60th anniversary celebrations, and with the work only now coming to a close that seems about right. However, I had assumed there must be some huge procession going to take place, maybe something similar to the military/ firework extravaganza about to take place in Beijing.
Not so. There is nothing planned to take place on the streets of Xi’an. Thus, it seems that these recent upgrades of main route shop frontiers, building face lifts and of course the huge main road re-construction process have all been in the name of psychological well being: of a nation, for a nation, by the love of the people, for the love of the people – or something like that.
When I was questioning my teacher about all these recent developments and how some seemed a touch superficial and homogenising, she was about to respond with something but did not, explaining that she could not tell me. Of course, I now felt she possessed some interesting secret or insight and I certainly wanted to know what, so I pointed out that she cannot dangle such a statement in front of me and then not come through with it. In the end she pointed out that she should not be saying this to a foreigner – at which point I became concerned that I was to be bearing a state secret or two and things may never be the same again – we continued anyway. She told me, slowly and not particularly directly, that Chinese people are very concerned about maintaining face and that all this money invested, arguably wasted on superficial projects (my point not hers and which didn’t include the road re-development), was actually to do with this maintenance of face. Now, I am not sure what was more worrying: the reality, the symbolism, the known, the unknown, the secrets or the not so secret secrets?
However, we have a new road and it is Great and China is Great and I love China. So, that’s all alright then. Happy National Day.
Barack Obama, the Great Wall, a Shanghai Hall and the Importance of Tone
I will begin these China news notes by acknowledging that my default mechanism is one of relative non-engagement with and ignorance of contemporary affairs. I tend to take a general sweeping look at life and its processes as I wander through my days and not engage with the minutiae of political matters and relationships. So, because of that, I will begin with a quote from President Obama atop the Great Wall in Beijing. Obama noted: “It’s magical. It reminds you of the sweep of history… It gives you a good perspective on a lot of the day-to-day things. They don’t amount to much in the scope of history.”
This is, generally, how I feel about a lot of the news that bombards us on a daily or, now I suppose, hourly and even minutely basis. This is not to say that these issues are not important, a lot certainly are, though of course a great deal are not. It is just that in the great scheme of things they don’t always mean that much and can, I believe, also obscure a wider perspective on our lives and the processes that underpin them. That said, I am going to use these China News notes to keep myself a little more informed, on a weekly basis, of what is going on with things Chinese on a so-called wider news front and not just the everyday way of life that I am a part of here in Xi’an.
The Obama visit seemed to be, as had to be expected, something of a balancing act between on the one hand, the wish to express deep held beliefs, and on the other, the recognition that those same beliefs are not actually shared in some quarters of the world. In a town hall in Shanghai he touched upon an issue surrounding freedom of speech, or more precisely “non-censorship” with regard to Internet access, an issue that the Chinese government were not that keen to hear or be let heard. Then there was a US led desire to make progress with discussions over the re-evaluation of the RMB, so to, amongst other goals, ease the huge trade deficit the United States has with China. It was, however, met by an equally strong desire from the Chinese not to do so, or at least not in the short term. State sovereignty and national priorities are still having their day.
This continued with a recognition of Chinese sovereignty over Tibet but which included a pleasant sentiment, that it would be nice if the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama enter into some kind of dialogue. Maybe, I suggest, to discuss some of the more picturesque views in Tibet and where the best place might be to view them from. The US President went on to acknowledge that the US acknowledges China’s position on Taiwan while staying quiet on the issue of US arms sales to the island.
Just to note from my experience of living here in Xi’an for a few years, the so-called Taiwan/ Tibet issues are absolutely, categorically not issues as far as nearly every single Chinese person I have ever come into contact with is concerned. There is, on this topic, a disbelief and incomprehension about why any such questions would even be asked. This is not a comment on the rights and wrongs but on the fact, as it is here amongst the vast majority of people. It is dwelling upon this fact that one could contemplate the US arm sales to Taiwan.
On a lighter note, China wants all its Art Treasures returned, China and Vietnam have signed a land boundary demarcation agreement, India expressed concerns about America’s close inter-relationship with China, and according to the China Expat, Chinese grammar isn’t too difficult, while learning the tones of each word are of most importance. The latter point I am now finding to my own cost. Only last week I signed up to a school, specializing in 1-1 tuition who have promised to take no prisoners when it comes to drilling into me the tones of the words I have already learnt. Or more correctly, the words I haven’t actually learnt because I can’t quite remember the tones and thus often pronounce the word incorrectly, which to the Chinese means misunderstanding and incomprehension. Oh well! 慢慢来。
Finally, to end my first weekly sojourn into the China news, if the so-called firewall is hindering your efforts to engage in inter-continental dialogue or access certain sites and information, the not so non-censored internet, then the Virtual Private Network (VPN) has arrived. It may well have arrived some time ago but I only heard about it this week. As I have managed to mention the old DL and the two big T’s in my first weekly China news note I may well soon be in need of one myself. Though, that may just be me descending into an expat paranoia, engendered during a mis-spent youth and induced by a government not quite letting people do what they want to do, and who keep an eye on those who try to do it anyway.
Copenhagen, Indignation and a Neo-Naturalistic Chinese Landscape
Two days ago in Xi’an, while workmen were planting pine trees into the central reservation of the new upgraded Chang’an Road, I could hardly make out the tall television tower a short distance behind them for the polluted air that surrounded it. However, while today the workmen were still planting trees, the TV tower, itself recently refurbished, was sparkling white and clear in a beautiful blue sky. And there was I, led to believe that those Copenhagen talks were “at best flawed, at worst chaotic” or even worse a “climate crime scene”. Not so, by the looks of the results on the ground here in happy, naturalistic China.
Now, maybe there is no call for the use of such a jocular tone towards what is obviously a very serious issue. An issue with an agenda that, in recent weeks, has drawn much brow beating and finger pointing from members of government and civil society alike. However, I have also attempted to consider these issues a little from the perspective of having lived in China for a few years.
The first thing to note, that pollution in China, for the Chinese, is aserious issue. (Documentary Photography: Pollution in China). Second, the recognition, that the processes adopted and the new relationships involved in the decisions taken at an inter-state level are of fundamental importance going deeper into the 21st century. Third, it would be better for all concerned in such inter-state processes, such as those that took place in Copenhagen, if the participants were able to recognise their own personal/cultural perspectives, attitudes and circumstances, and the context that defines them and that the same situation with different sets of conditions exist for others. Finally, it is good to see so many trees regularly being planted around this sprawling urban centre of Western China!
Pollution in China for the Chinese
So, the first thing to note is that although the scale of China’s carbon emissions is a world problem, it is still first and foremost a Chinese problem, for the Chinese people. It is due to centuries of development and historical levels of emissions across the globe, that China’s present position has been placed into such sharp relief. There are at least a couple of strands to this. The first is that in taking into account China’s historical sense of isolationism and self-determination, any debate and dialogue is perhaps best understood within the context of responsibility, for and by the Chinese people. This might not be liked by some but is maybe a necessary perspective to recognise. This may explain why such an emphasis is placed by Chinese negotiators on “domestic statistical, monitoring and evaluation”, and is not in fact a de facto form of dis-responsibility.
Secondly, that the security of China’s Developing Economy, especially in this unclear and unstable economic time, will be seen to be of great short-medium term importance and not something to be guided by a global summit agenda, especially one hammered out through sleeves-rolled up, back slapping, back room agreements. Wen Jia Bao expressed this tricky dichotomy between Economic Development and Environmental Salvation, when he noted that: “China is now at an important stage of accelerated industrialisation and urbanization, and, given the predominant role of coal in our energy mix, we are confronted with a special difficulty in emissions reduction…we have set the new target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions per unit of GDP by 40-45 percent by 2020 from the 2005 level.”
It must be noted that the jump we are expecting these developing nations to take, is not a small step, as alluded to, again by Wen Jia Bao: “To reduce carbon dioxide emissions on such a large scale and over such an extended period of time will require tremendous efforts on our part.” It is also not a process that we had to face in our own development, or certainly not one we had the foresight to recognise or, as is more likely, were willing to address. It is easy to take the moral high ground on the basis of scientific data and impending planetary/ humanitarian doom; it is another to actually be those in power who have to make those decisions. It might seem clear to some but they carry different cultural, social and political baggage. Like it or not, disappointment and indignationwill not get you very far, though of course natural reactions.
Global Groupings and the Maintenance of State Sovereignty
If the United Nations wasn’t discredited enough during the shenanigans leading to the conflict in Iraq, then Copenhagen may shine a brighter light upon how we are going to be able to decide globally significant issues between existing sovereign states. Especially states like China, that have such a strong sense of national identity and autonomy. We also need to consider what would be defined as “legally binding” in this context. Remember that Kyoto has been held up in recent days as a legally binding Climate Agreement but that it was comprehensively written off at the time by environmentalists as not going far enough and was not even signed by the US. Legally binding it might have been but it doesn’t seem to have carried much weight.
Going forward, there of course needs to be what existed in Copenhagen: the main players getting around the table or teleconferencing suites and discussing these issues further. Politicians can talk of being held to ransom and not letting agreements be dominated by minority members, but if those members are the US or the Chinese then there is not a lot that can be done: they need to be onside and that needs to be remembered when the bitter lessons, drawn from the recognition of impotence, are learnt. Like it or not, vis-à-vis Climate Change the US has never really come on board; we may just find, in the time we still have, that the Chinese are more willing.
Contextualisation, Indignation and Tree Planting
Perhaps, only by understanding the Chinese context and attitude and giving space and room for understanding and dialogue, will the greatest polluter the planet may well ever know, continue to sit at the table. Though I suggest there is a greater sense of responsibility there than Copenhagen suggests. This is not simply a doffed cap approach to diplomacy but a recognition of reality. It seems to me that by allowing ourselvestoissue ‘Demands’ and letting our own indignation get the better of us, we do nothing but antagonise those we are appealing to. Life isn’t what we expect or even what we desire and very rarely is it or should it be made up of demands made on others, even if those demands are made from our own earnest sense of responsibility. Life, or one that takes a peaceful, harmonious path, tends to be made from holding a light to ourselves, as well as to others.
Finally, I am jolly happy to regularly see new parks appearing, tree lined avenues created and sometimes even prime real estate land becoming wooded city centre oases. Now, by no means is China about to be defined as a neo-naturalistic landscape but if we can but see the light or the potential for photosynthesising light at least, in the polluted darkness that often shrouds the street scapes of down-town Chinese cities, we can see the light elsewhere and we can move forward.
Belief And What’s Left
Maybe time isn’t on our planet’s side but indignation, insults and socio-cultural subjectivity aren’t going to keep the Chinese at the table, and they need to be there. If the European Union nations and the US had shown more of the selflessness that, in reality, is now being expected to some degree from the Chinese, then we wouldn’t be here worrying so much. And please, don’t kid yourselves that a turn to democracy in China would make these issues and decisions any easier, at least in the short-term, I don’t believe it would. This is not a case against reform just a note that it would, one, not necessarily be the all seeing and doing saviour that we might like it to be, and two, such political reform here, in my opinion, is a very long way off, maybe even something for another world or life- time. If I have become anything since living in China it is a realist, though, with a still hard to extinguish belief in humanity. And from my own anecdotal and generalising experience, a belief in the Chinese people, at least as much as I have in humanity generally. As many Evangelical- Missionary Christians here might tell you, belief is all we have, but as I might add, the rest is up to us. The Chinese, I might proffer, recognise that more than most.