Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Fires of Changzhou

I was taking a walk today when I came to a big field filled with rocks and some very new looking farming. I've noticed in China that even in cities if there is a little space people will set up some small scale farming. This field looked like it had held a number of houses in the recent past due to the bricks and large stones mixed into the top soil. Besides farming there were some big piles of trash in a few places. But what really got my attention was that all these piles of trash were on fire. I'm not talking about a little fire either the flames seemed to be going five or six feet high at some points. I could smell it even around 200 yards away. The biggest fires were for the trash but there were other smaller fires that seemed to be used to clear away small patches of brush. The air recently has been much more hazy than normal and while I know part of that is due to the really incredible humidity DC has very high humidity in the summer without covering the whole city in a cloud. The pollution in China comes from a number of sources but all I'm asking is if people would just stop burning garbage in the middle of a city.

Monday, June 14, 2010

I Need a Vacation

I need a vacation. Not from work, I don't really do much that could be accurately described as work, but just from China. I'm just tired of how things work here. I'm tired of things that should be easy being incredibly difficult and complex. I'm tired of having conversations where I have no idea what the other person is trying to say and I have to ask them about 15 times to repeat themselves. I'm tired of everything involving 10 layers of bureaucracy. I'm tired of not being able to see the horizon. I'm tired of looking at something I'm eating and going, "what the hell is that?" I'm tired of the weather which is hot one day and cold the next but always intensely humid. I'm tired of the students who don't want to even try to answer some pretty straight forward questions. I'm tired of the internet not working in random and confusing ways. I just need a break from China. I'm not saying I'm done with China, I don't regret my decision to come back for another year, but I just need a break. A few days ago some old guy spit almost right on my shoes and I barley even noticed. I just sort of have China fatigue at the moment. I'm glad the semester is almost over because I really need to go back to a place where things make sense to me even if just for a little while.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Steve's Three Phones

I think the only people who have three phones in America are drug dealers. Hell I can't even really say I know anyone with two phones unless you count old ones that just sit in a drawers. But in China its actually pretty common for people to have more than one cell phone. The main reason is because the rates are a lot cheaper, though from my point of view the phone is free compared to what I pay in America, if you have a local number. This means that people will often have one sim card for the place they live and another for the place they are from, so they can talk to people in both places while paying the lower rate. They even make some phones specifically for this with more than one sim card slot. But that's not enough for a lot of the message happy people in China. With two phones you never need to switch out the sim cards you can message with your friends in two different cities simultaneously, which explains what students are doing in my class when they're not paying attention. But this still doesn't explain how Steve got up to three. Well it turns out that between his Changzhou and Nantong cell phones neither or them is on the right network to get text messages from the school. So now Steve is up to three cell phones. And here he is in a picture sporting two of them.

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Two Chinas

Well it's the anniversary again of what the Chinese call the "June 4th Incident," and innocuous name for the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I posted about that last year so this year I want to talk about something that I feel is related. It seems to me that there are two possible future for China and after living here for a while I can't tell which will happen but I think a lot of people in the US don't really understand the situation. The first possibility is that as China becomes more and more wealthy it will become more and more open. Not just in a economic sense but in terms of government and rights as well. There is some evidence for this. China today remain incredibly oppressive but compared to the purges and the rule though fear that characterized so much of modern Chinese history things are much more relaxed. Yes the government still arrests, and often tortures, anyone they even perceive as a dissident, but they no longer go combing through society looking for people to persecute the way they did in the past. There is also the fact that there really are no developed countries in the world that aren't fairly liberal democracies. That makes a lot of people think that being a democracy is somehow invariably connected with economic growth.

Again there is some evidence for this as when a country becomes richer the new middle class that is created is no longer only happy with economic prosperity but often struggles for more social liberty as well. On top of this the transparency necessary to combat widespread corruption also can be connected to calls for more transparency at all levels of government. Finally people point out that countries like South Korean and Taiwan are good examples of countries that started as one party dictatorships and then as they became richer transformed into real democracies. Not only that but both countries have a similar culture to China. This theory that China will inevitably be transformed into a democracy is really popular today in the West where it seems that a lot of governments are essentially biding their time waiting for China to become more open. It's something always brought up when ever people talk about trade deals that trade may somehow push China to be more open. After living in China I'm no longer so sure at all that this is the case.

If one possible future for China is that trade will transform them into a Western style democracy then the other possible future is that they will essentially remain as they are a autocratic one party dictatorship with a semi-open economy but no real political liberties. First I believe people really underestimate the Communist party. The Communists know how the rest of the world views them and they actually take the time to carefully study the history of places like Taiwan and South Korea to see where their dictators went wrong. In fact they look at basically any democratic revolution in the world to see how they can avoid a similar fate. Also a lot of the recent so called liberalization in China is illusory. Yes they now have courts and a written constitution but they don't really have the rule of law, instead they have rule by law where the law is simply interpreted to mean whatever the Communist Party wants it to mean. Also every time someone tries to assert some new right that they have been theoretically given they are shot down by the government.

Also if the West is betting that economic growth leads to democracy than China has staked all its chips on the idea that those two ideas aren't really related. As they see it running a successful business really doesn't require people to criticize the government. Moreover they believe that people in China will be happy as long as they get more growth. The idea that going with the flow is a virtue and that obedience to the government is a duty didn't start with the Communist take over. These are ideas that are almost as old as China. The Communist party believes that their key to power is keeping most people sedated with good jobs. They think that while there may be a few troublemakers most people will go along with whatever they want so long as they give them opportunity. That the reason the state nearly collapsed after Mao had more to do with stagnant growth than with repression. They would note that while there are definitly some states that liberalized with growth the so far China has grown hugely and there is really little or no more liberty today in China then there was 20 years ago.

I think that the biggest mistake people make is assuming that the power of the Communist Party is hallow. They have survive far more than most repressive states and are will to go much farther to spy on and control their citizens than almost any other government on earth. It may be that in the end the growing power of the middle class will be more than they can handle but it's far from a sure thing. The depressing lesson on this real memorial day is that oppression in China may be here to stay at least for a long time.