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A View from the Altar / China: My itty bitty glimpse into Chinese political life
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China: My itty bitty glimpse into Chinese political life

The Chinese Empire

Americans express surprise when they’re told that China is by no means a unified country.  China is more like the old Soviet Union, a patchwork empire cobbled together from unwilling vassal states, no shared language, and no sense of shared national vision or loyalty.  People in the southern provinces where we visited seem to feel more conquered than included and thus show little allegiance to their overlords.  You already know this to be true of Tibet.  You should also include southeast China in that assessment.  The fact that discontent is widespread probably explains why the authorities are cracking down so hard on Tibetan aspirations for liberty.  They don’t want a contagion of freedom to get started.

Comparison:  I was sitting in a restaurant with my wife and we noted a guy wearing a patriotic tee-shirt.  In the parking lot there were cars with USMC bumper stickers, American flags, and such.  If there is any patriotism in southern China, it absolutely escaped our notice.  The only place you see the red flag of China is on an official building.  The common folk don’t fly that flag.

Nor is this a case of unrequited love.  The Communist overlords don’t seem terribly anxious to inspire loyalty in their subjects.  For example, the central government is trying to outlaw the use of the Cantonese language in the south and compel everyone to use Mandarin exclusively.   This is being viewed as Chinese northerners grinding the southerner’s faces in their subjugated status.   Imagine, if you can, the Mexican government taking over Texas and then outlawing the use of English.   For now, the Cantonese speakers scornfully ignore the law and conduct their affairs in Cantonese.   But if the central government makes a serious effort to enforce the Mandarin language rules, they risk getting a blowback, as Rambo said, like you won’t believe.

Ruled by idiots?

A second major factor in the political landscape is that many people in the subjugated provinces resent the Beijing establishment and consider them to be brutish, oppressive, and wasteful fools.  You’ve seen the “bird nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing, symbol of the new and powerful China.  Southern Chinese think the stadium looks perfectly ridiculous and sneer at it as a colossal waste of money.  When we visited a museum in Hefei, Anhui, a local person told us how the historical treasures of their people were preserved from the marauding Communists during the Cultural Revolution by hiding anything of value behind pictures of Chairman Mao.  The story had two messages. One, they despise their overlords.  Two, they see the Communists as such superstitious blockheads that you can ward them off by tacking a poster of Mao over something — like garlic keeping out the vampires.

I’m no political scientist, but it seems to me that one of the prerequisites for sustained legitimacy in government is a sense of basic respect for the ruling class.  The Chinese ruling class doesn’t have this.  That’s an important lesson for America.  Our ruling class has earned itself a richly-deserved reputation for selfishness, corruption, and cowardice in the face of the ongoing financial crisis.  At some point people begin to feel that the individuals occupying office are just not “legit.”  When this feeling coalesces into a movement, Really Bad Things begin to happen.  The recent actions of the Chinese government such as imprisoning dissidents and severely restricting the internet suggest they themselves fear they aren’t far from this.  If true, then they continue to rule only because they have all the guns.  And that, my friends, is why Madison and Jefferson gave us the Second Amendment.

Let’s all get together and hate Japan!

It weighs heavily on the Chinese people that Japanese atrocities committed in World War Two were never publicly redressed.  Asia had nothing like the Nuremburg trials even though the number of war dead in China dwarfs the casualties from European countries.  Only Russia claims more.  When it comes to nightmarish cruelty, the Nazi doctors get only a silver medal behind the gold standard of Japan’s demonic Unit 731.  Who can forget the siege of Nanking?   Yet Nanking (now called “Nanjing”) was just one of many Chinese cities where the enemy murdered all the men, raped all the women, then razed the place to the ground and set fire to the rubble.  Anti-Japanese feeling is strong, and it’s one of the few things the central government can exploit to help keep China unified.  As you know from Western history, uniting people around a shared hatred is like playing with matches in a gunpowder factory.

Nation of gray skies

One of the biggest hazards to the political establishment is the overwhelming level of pollution in China.  People don’t like it, and it’s hard to see anything the government is doing to clean things up.  That suggests to me that the ruling class is far enough removed from ordinary Chinese that they don’t really care about the environmental situation.  Next time you hear somebody say that the Chinese are leading the way on green energy, you have my hearty encouragement to laugh out loud.  Nobody who has ever been to China could possibly say something so dumb.

The air of Guangzhou is a uniform gray, the sun almost always obscured by thick blanket of pollution.  I was virtually always disoriented because the sun cannot be seen to tell east from west. The Pearl River is a turbid stream of brown and had trash floating in it.  In Hefei, nearby Lake Chaohu stank so badly that when we returned home and opened our suitcases, they puffed out a big stench like the lake.   We laundered the clothes but threw away the suitcases because the foul chemical smell could not be removed.

And don’t dare drink water from the tap. I can’t imagine the effort required to make Chinese tap water drinkable.   An even bigger effort would be needed to get Chinese people to believe it when the government says their water is safe.

I don’t mean to say that every single spot in China is Love Canal nor that every stream is ready to burn like the Cuyahoga River.  Nevertheless, the pollution there is drastic by American standards, and that degrades the quality of life when it doesn’t terminate life.  I’ve seen no studies on the rates of cancer and birth defects in China, but you’ve got to believe the incredible pollution is having profound effects on people.  Eventually the populace will demand this be fixed, and the cost of doing so will make America’s rogue EPA look like a penny-ante operation.

Still a very poor nation

A final thing we noticed is that the economic boom in China hasn’t reached everyone, and even the ones it has reached aren’t always happy with the outcome. Except for a few, well-tended public spaces, China mostly just looks shabby. There are multitudes of poor folks scraping out a living in little shops selling everything from dehydrated scorpions (used for shish-kabobs) to bags of fungus. The big factories operated by American companies like Apple don’t always have a good reputation among the locals. Our guide acknowledged that the wages were a mite better in the factories than in tending a shop, but, he said, they’re only a little better, and he found the working conditions inhuman and the numbers of suicides appalling. “Suicide,” he said grimly, “Eeze beek problem in China.”

A personal acquaintance who immigrated here from China tells us that poverty in rural China is dire.  The government gives farmers a stipend of 100 yuan per month — about $16 USD.  “What is that?” she said to me with a snort.  “Take your family out to eat one time!  It’s gone!”  This explains the mass migration from the countryside into the major cities which is developing into another world class headache for China’s ruling class.

So folks over there are generally not all that happy with their situation, and a significant percentage of 1.3 billion people being unhappy could swell into a big political problem for the Chinese political establishment.   The core premise of big government is that if you surrender your freedom to the central state, then the state must take on the responsibility of making you happy — a lie many degenerate Americans have come to believe.  If people let you have your big state but then they’re still not happy, you’re going to get the blame.   And the blame from that many people could bruise more than a tender ego.

otherbrothersteve@gmail.com

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your insights. You don’t say anything about the oppressive religious atmosphere but I wonder, did you encounter any problems adopting a child there, being a Christian family? Do they even ask about religion on applications?

    Posted on 12-Mar-11 at 14:04 pm | Permalink
  2. There’s more to come concerning China. Stay tuned!

    Posted on 12-Mar-11 at 15:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Ole Rocker

    Good commentary, Steve! I’m looking forward to your next installment …

    Do you think there will be civil war soon?

    Posted on 14-Mar-11 at 9:00 am | Permalink

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