Copyright The International Herald Tribune
LETTER FROM CHINA
By Howard French
Published: November 9, 2007
SHANGHAI: It won’t be long before there are so many China-related Olympic Games stories in the news that anyone but the most devoted sports fan will be pining for the end of the Beijing Games.
Each time I land at the Beijing airport and am bombarded with Games promotions as I stand in a long taxi line, I spare a sympathetic thought for any residents of the capital who may already feel that way.
Those who do must do so all but clandestinely, since the unsubtle message from on high about the Games is “enjoy them, be proud of your country, don’t embarrass your country and especially don’t dare cause an incident.” Under the circumstances, there isn’t much room, publicly, for even a slightly jaundiced view of the big fun.
This is China’s coming out party, and, as countless others will note in due course, the equivalent of the Tokyo Olympics in 1964, when Japan announced its return to vigor after the devastation of the war along with its arrival as a first-rank economic power.
China, like Japan, which had rolled out its bullet trains for the occasion, is eager to create new associations for its national “brand.” The watchwords may not be announced, per se, but they can be easily intuited: modern, technologically advanced, forward looking.
For all that, it must be said that there is something very old fashioned about this whole business. I am talking about both the mass inculcation about how to behave and how to feel and the corralling of a nation behind a single, prestige oriented goal.
At the same time, China is putting astronauts in orbit, sending rockets to the moon and talking about building its own space station. I mean not to raise strenuous objections, even if environmental, scientific and even social questions deserve being posed, such as budgetary priorities in a land where despite extraordinary economic growth, the housing, health care and education needs of many still go largely unmet.
Such issues won’t be aired, of course, because public questioning of national priorities for the most part doesn’t exist yet in China. The people’s goals are still very much determined for them, and to the extent they are solicited at all, it is to get with the program.
I note the old dâˆšÂ©jâˆšâ€ vu quality of the Games and the space program in passing to highlight the utter conventionality of the government’s thinking about what it means to be modern and about what will reflect best on this country’s image.
One detects the conventionality in the massive architecture that is transforming China’s cities. Between the faceless and imposing skyscrapers shooting up left and right to the glittering gadget buildings, the outright prestige projects that are proliferating, there is scant room left for real neighborhoods, for life on an intimate human scale, and most ironic of all in a country of 5,000 years of proud history, even for celebration of the past.
Yet more of this conventional thinking is evident in the various behavior campaigns in the run-up to the Games, and to Shanghai’s World Expo, act two in China’s global coming out party, which will be held in 2010.
Chinese people are being urged to be “civilized,” that being a word plucked directly from many of the slogans and banners. China’s nanny state implores them to stop spitting, to form lines, to respect traffic signals when crossing the street, and on and on.
Fine ideas, but there is something touching about the sudden rush to drum these messages home in time for the massive arrival of foreigners: It leaves one with the feeling that face and image matter more than substance in such things. After all, rampant grubby behavior had been just fine up until now.
If making the right impression is paramount, however, I would like to contribute another suggestion that could go a long way. Living in Shanghai, China’s most cosmopolitan city, for the last four years I have been continually struck by the vast gulf that seems to exist in people’s minds between Chinese and foreigners.
I first discovered this through my hobby, photography, which led me to wander through the city’s working class neighborhoods, where at every turn I hear cries of “lao wai.”
The words constitute a slightly uncouth slang for foreigner. Literally, they mean “old outsider.”
Quite often, these murmurings are accompanied by a mocking, sing-song uttering of the English greeting “hello.” The tone is unmistakable, and it is not friendly. This is not to say that it is hostile, either, rather it is said in a way that suggests that foreigners are not merely an object of novelty here, which should certainly no longer be the case by now, but also of slight ridicule.
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Copyright The International Herald Tribune