I’ve had a few conversations in the past weeks that have given a small window onto the China Rising psyche. The overall impression I was left with was muted, bordering on somewhat depressed. It’s not that my fellow conversationalists feel China has been unsuccessful but the price it has paid for that success is beginning to be questioned. Obviously there has been a lot of press about the environmental cost, since that is quantifiable, but the cultural cost is what seems to be most mourned by the people I speak to.
Beijing itself came in for a lot of flack from one guy I met. A Beijinger himself he said the city no longer has any Chinese social culture; mainland cities in general don’t have Chinese inhabitants any longer, in the cultural sense. “Why do you think that is?” I asked. He mentioned the unmentionable 60s experience and how that had successfully eradicated traditions – actually he went so far as to say it had destroyed the mainlander’s understanding of what it is to be Chinese. To get an idea of orthodox traditions one does better to go to Taiwan or even Japan. Money is now the only god in China.
Unusually he was also sad about the loss of Tibetan culture through Sinification. With so little culture remaining here it seemed he would have been happy to see one of the regions retain something authentic and undiluted. The centre’s vice like grip on power is the only thing holding the country together and this geographical continuity from the founding dynasties is what legitimises the Party rule. No territorial loss could be withstood therefore separatism is crushed by whatever means. It’s an argument I’ve seen in a few works by international scholars lately but it was surprising to have it openly mentioned by someone Chinese since it’s not really a topic for debate, even at one of the elite universities.
As I’ve mentioned our coursework also covers a lot of material on the changing face of society from family values to the homogenisation of large cities in the quest for growth and real estate income. We recently read a piece on the wanton destruction and rebuilding of cities that dates back to 2005 but with all the vested local interests in real estate it will take either mighty effort from the centre or some kind of financial disaster to change this.
I think it is said that culture and other seemingly idle interests such as the flourishing of the arts are the preserve of the wealthy. Now that so many have reached a certain level of material comfort a quest for something more may not be too surprising. The dilemma was always going to be that allowing the populace to climb the ladder to material comfort in order to buy continued acquiescence to the system might ultimately create more problems in the long run. Take those whose material needs have now been adequately provided for but whose civil needs are unmet and add the frustrations of those waiting to make it to comfort but whose path is now blocked by economic imbalances and you have a troubling mix. There is a feeling that we are at a bit of a tipping point, albeit you could have said that at any point in the last 20 years from one angle or another.
Given that I only ever studied Chinese because I was drawn to the history and culture it has been disappointing to me quite how much has been wiped away even in the years that I’ve been visiting. However, since I am here and in large part investing my future in China I told a friend in the law faculty that I have to be optimistic that the country and its people will find a more multi-faceted way forward. He, however, said he cannot be. He will go to America and read for the bar. He can’t be totally pessimistic though: he wants to come back and help draft regulation once he’s made his nest egg.
I took a trip to pay my respects to Buddha in the Fragrant Hills at the end of Chinese New Year, as tradition demands. There was a respectable number of people tying their red wish-covered plaques to the provided boards, along with those presenting their incense sticks to the various buddhas. Hard to know how many had been through since the staff were clearing away all incense – and probably wish boards – as the visitors departed. It certainly wasn’t nearly as busy as HK’s Wishing Tree which I visited in 2011 but some indication of traditional spiritual activity was quite heartening. I will take that as a step in a healthy direction.