OUR MAN IN CHINA

 Mr. X, our insider in Iraq, has recently kept silent. But since his views were very popular with our readers, we have found someone in another political and economic hotspot: The People's Republic of China. UK citizen Antony Peyton has been living in China since September 2003, working as a writer and editor for JIN magazine in Tianjin. Here's an introduction into his world.

Here is a partial picture of everyday life taken from my experience in Tianjin, a large but otherwise non-descript city in the northeast of China.

When you think of China, you probably think of mystery, communism, problems in Tibet & Taiwan, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the shining metropolises of Hong Kong and Shanghai, jade, dragons, and temples. But day-to-day life continues in a manner we are familiar with. First and foremost, people want to make money; they struggle against the swathe of humanity that defines this country. With 1.2 billion souls competing for existence, the fight for survival is magnified many times over.

While the country is communist in name, you wouldn't know it if you came here. It is quite simply pure and undistilled capitalism on a huge scale. Practically every street and every corner has some form of shopping establishment, be it a kiosk selling cigarettes and drinks as the aged owner attempts to eke out some extra pennies for his/her retirement, or be it the sprawling shopping arcades selling the same goods you would find back home. McDonald's, KFC, Pizza Hut, are all common sights on the high street. If you were expecting rundown shops with empty shelves, those days are long gone.

I work here as an English teacher and writer for a local magazine for expatriates. It is in this writing profession where the communist aspect is revealed. The articles that I write are all strictly controlled, no controversial issues can be discussed, and there is essentially no freedom of speech. My articles are dry in content and occasionally sarcastic, but creativity is and sometimes has to be held back. This stifling of ambition is also evident in my other profession. My students tell me that invention is taken out of them at school; they are instructed to listen and learn, but not ask questions. The challenge as a teacher is to revitalize this ability and encourage them to create and speak their ideas and thoughts.

But I'm not here on a mission of propaganda or political change. I'm a pragmatist, not an idealist. However, I am honest with my students and tell them my opinions... up to a point. They are genuinely interested in what the west has to offer, with many students now aiming for new lives abroad, so perhaps not all desire was stamped out at school. I don't discuss politics or religion, it's frowned upon by schools, and even if it wasn't, I still wouldn't do it. Mao Ze Dong was a tyrant in my eyes, but I am not here to insult national leaders. It's a question of manners and respect.

All media is predictably shackled, the result being an excruciatingly dull selection of TV channels and newspapers. TV stations churn out historical dramas, news depicting how awful it is outside of China, and the usual mix of sport, game shows and comedies. Newspapers toe the party line; the English version of the China Daily contains a never-ending stream of tedious anti-Japanese and American articles and cartoons. Media of the most medium variety.

A language is probably the best representative of a culture's mentality. While English is concise, pragmatic and lends itself well to invention, Chinese is complicated, extremely difficult to learn and with a long history almost free of external influences. This is where you begin to realize how little you know. In my short time here, I mastered the basics of restaurant etiquette, the handling of business cards, and a rudimentary grasp of the Chinese language; though when you dig deeper into the complicated structure, it still retains an air of mystique. The Chinese pride themselves on their intelligence and their undoubted and impressive wisdom, but they know very little of the outside world. This air of insularity has been prevalent throughout their long history, and there is still little mutual understanding between east and west.

A writer once remarked that whilst here, we have the opportunity to witness one of the world's greatest social revolutions. That's true, but we only see it in small increments and physical manifestations. Concrete edifices are springing up in the name of modernization, gradually eradicating the traditional character and culture of the city. Around and inside my inexpensive apartment, there have been slow and steady improvements in plumbing, heating, paving, but greater changes will only occur when the problem of widespread corruption has been tackled.

A person could not talk about China without mentioning corruption. It permeates every strata of society and has been around since the beginning of recorded history--which is a long time here. Passing your exams or driving test requires a payment to the right person; bribery of any official is an absolute necessity and guarantees results. Everybody knows it exists and just accepts it as the status quo, and yet nobody really likes it, except the very wealthy who have profited from this insidious cancer. Hu Jintao, China's President, aspires to remove this curse on development, but most people have little faith in change.

Tianjin and its environs incorporate ten million individuals, who are all too busy to spend much time noticing another new foreigner. The city is phenomenally polluted but, aside from the homicidal traffic, one of the safest places to live. Gone is the tension or aggression I found so commonplace on many streets of a European city.

You might feel the picture presented is rather mundane and humdrum, and that's true when you are working Monday through Friday in a regular job, but in the course of a year I have seen some wonders that will always provide outstanding memories and images. The splendor of the Forbidden City and Summer Palace in Beijing, Hong Kong's Londonesque appearance with skyscrapers populating the hillsides, Inner Mongolia where wild horses roam across rolling grasslands, and the Gobi desert that, for some bizarre reason, was cooler than the city I currently live in.

A person may sacrifice the easy life by coming here, but for what he gains in terms of experience, challenges and knowledge, the rewards outweigh the risks.

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Posted 03-28-2005 5:15 PM by Doug Casey