Monday, April 14, 2008

"Face" and the Dali Lama

China is a country of stark contrasts. From peasants hand-farming postage stamp sized vegetable patches to billionaires relaxing in chauffer driven Rolls-Royce sedans. Even villages with putrid communal outhouses have satellite dishes parked in front of the shaky wooden shacks. China is a “capitalist” country, a ‘boom like the 1980’s in the USA,’ one analyst said; but the heavy hand of the party can still be felt manipulating nearly everything, with the passive consent of the citizenry.

The television might broadcast 11 CCTV channels, but four will be propaganda, usually at least one will be a TV drama with the Chinese fighting the Japanese (whom the Chinese still despise) during WWII, or another aspect of the glorious days of Communist victory over the Nationalists, and one or two featuring a TV series based on a Kung Fu legend. To round out the picture one channel, CCTV 3, features opera and choruses, sometimes Chinese, sometimes Western, but always with Chinese performers.

Chinese news broadcasts cover some selected international events, but focus on the positive, at least to the casual observer who doesn’t speak Chinese. Reports on new irrigation techniques, or some breakthrough in fish breeding in hi-tech ponds; or the opening of a new lock in the impressive Three Gorges Dam project, the third largest dam in the world, and a source of national pride. In fact the dam is an amazing accomplishment..

CCTV channel 9 is in English, with skilled readers in smooth English reporting on who the Premier met with, who the President met with, what new businesses have succeeded, and then how the Western press is biased against China and supporting the Dali Lama.

This line is echoed in the English Language newspapers as well. Both the China Daily and the China News carry reports of Western bias. Specifically how CNN took a photograph of a Chinese policeman beating a Tibetan protester but neglected to include the wider angle of the shot that showed other protesters pelting the police with stones. The press also criticizes the West for siding with the Dali Lama, who if you can believe the descriptions is some place between Jack the Ripper and John Dillinger.

Touring the Lama Temple in Beijing one is told of a historic meeting in the 1950’s between Chairman Mao and the Dali Lama that took place in the Lama Temple, with both men shaking hands and smiling at the camera. According to a tour guide the Dali Lama lived and studied in the Lama Temple until he fled to India in 1954.

On the tour of the Lama Temple one is shown the main prayer hall where the Dali Lama gave his talks from a stately elegantly cushioned wooden chair. To his left was the Buddha shrine, and then another wooden chair for the administrator of the Temple. Around the shrine and the chairs were cushions and desks where the monks prayed and studied when the tourists weren’t around. The Temple had set hours for tourist visits.

But the room with the photograph of Chairman Mao shaking hands with the Dali Lama was “closed for repairs” although no one was working on it and it appeared to be in good shape. In the Temple area a large framed photograph of the Temple administrator rested in his hair, leaning against the tall wooden back. But the photograph of the Dali Lama was missing, according to the guide.

Another guide had questions of the Western visitors. These questions rose after visiting Mt. Emei, and the Buddhist temple 10,000 feet above sea level, and literally above the clouds. Back on the ground, the driver, dodging potholes the size of craters, started in on how the Dali Lama was a criminal out to destroy China. This was the line pitched on TV and in the press. With fifty-five ethnic minorities spread over 26 provinces, the risk of China breaking apart like the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia is very real. Also, Tibet is a huge mineral-rich province important to China's economy. Some say the Beijing-Lhasa train was recently built not for tourists but to extract raw materials from Tibet.

Actually, there may be something to this. A report in the International Herald Tribune specified a concerted public relations campaign begun by a group of American, not Chinese and not Tibetan, “students” (one organizer was named Mendoza) in San Francisco shortly after it was announced that the Chinese had been granted the venue for the Olympics. The protests that have erupted since then were, according to the IHT, not spontaneous, but rather, part of a well orchestrated pr campaign, that included disruptions of the torch ceremony that crossed from country to country.

So, as Henry Kissenger is often quoted as saying, even if he didn’t, ‘just because your paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.’

The Chinese may be right. The Dali Lama denies any part in the demonstrations, and he may well not be involved, but there is a movement based in the USA that is trying to upset the Chinese participation in the Olympics.

These protests and disruptions are a major embarrassment for the Chinese. “Face” is as integral a part of China as rice. A technician for a foreign elevator company working in China said you couldn’t tell the Chinese foreman he’d done something wrong, you had to suggest to him that other ways are available, not as good as his, but other ways. You had to give him a peg to hang his hat on, or the embarrassment would kill him.

The same technician told a story of how, during the inspection of a new high-rise building’s elevators, he saw a man dangling from the roof by one hand, and then let go. The man was a “jumper.” Why had he jumped? In China migrant workers come in from the farms to make some money. They live in simple rooms, are given some food, but not paid a salary until the terms of their employment are over, sometimes a year or more, once the buildings are finished. In this case the contractor who built the building found himself with a white elephant on his hands. The office building market was oversupplied. More skyscrapers had gone up than there was need for offices or apartments; the contractor either didn’t have the money to pay, or didn’t want to. The worker committed suicide rather than return home broke after leaving his family for a year, leaving them to take up the slack of his absence and help supporting them. He couldn’t face the embarrassment. The loss of ‘face.’ Jumpers.

So ‘face’ was involved in the Olympics. The games are a source of national pride, we were told by almost everyone. This would put China on the map. “They’re insecure,” we were told by one businessman. “They feel as if the Olympics with justify their place in the world.” The protests and police action are a major source of trouble. The IHT article even pointed out that the Chinese are not good at PR, and have just started to realize that they have to play catch up with those who began the campaign against them a couple of years ago.

Everywhere you go in China you see a beautification program, as if the people who visit China for the Olympics will find themselves in every tourist spot in the country. One pundit postulated that the government was using the Olympics as a way to initiate changes in the country that otherwise would have been difficult. Spitting, for example. Spitting seems a Chinese tradition. Men cough up phlegm and let goblets fly, turning the sidewalk into a minefield, and turning the stomachs of foreign visitors. In Beijing and Shanghai, however, “no spitting” signs are posted in many locations, and in truth, the spitting is nearly non-existent..

And in China no one, even peasants, drink the water from the tap, unless it’s boiled. The more affluent and the foreigners drink mineral water. However, a new filtration system is reportedly going on-line in the Olympic village which some say is a pilot project that will be implemented in other cities, then the towns, and finally the villages.

And they need it. In the town of Lijian, in the mountains in the south of China, not far from the Tibetan border, nine-foot wide canals run through the quaint town. The water passes under picturesque stone bridges, and flows out of town. Local women do their laundry in the canals. They also use buckets of the water to wash down their stone floors, then they dump the dirty water back in the canal. One woman, who worked in a guest house along a canal, could be seen every morning bringing vegetables out to the river, separating the bad lettuce leaves from the stalk, tossing them in the canal, then rinsing the remaining lettuce off in the same canal she’d dumped her refuse. No wonder even the locals never ate the raw vegetables, but only stir-fried.

Still in this town, as in almost every other town visited, an official Olympic 2008 store existed, selling t-shirts, hats, medallions, sport bags, watches, rings, mugs, and other trinkets. The Olympics was a source of national pride.

But no one knew how much the Olympic games cost to mount? Ask the average Chinese and they shrugged their shoulders. The newspapers didn’t mention it. The TV didn’t report it. In fact, the Chinese populace didn’t even think about it. It just was, like the dirty gray polluted smog hovering over the country.

Climbing the path to the famous rice terraces outside of Da Zhai, with a local ethnic woman in an elaborate colorful costume, making a living carrying the suitcases and backpacks of tourists in a wicker basket held by leather straps on her back (20 yuan or about three dollars was the average for a bag on the two-hour hike up to the village. According to a Reuters news report, the poverty line in China is cut at $156 a year, and 80 million people fall below that!), one realized that these were peasants, people of the earth, simple people, until the stout middle-aged woman in the colorful clothing took out a mobile phone and began chattering away as if she were in a mall in Westchester. Or finally reaching the village, and seeing big silver satellite dishes on nearly every rooftop. No heat, outhouses, but satellite dishes and mobile phones.

For these people, the simple people, who made up eighty per cent of the population, the Olympics was something that only important countries could host, and since China was hosting them, China was important. These people didn’t see the new Buicks, and Toyotas, and Hondas, since the village up in the rice terraces had no roads. They saw donkeys and mules hauling building supplies, not trucks and jeeps. They probably didn’t know that the Chinese were partners with these multi-national car companies, building the cars in Shanghai factories. They didn’t know, unless the TV showed them, that Shanghai had buildings nearly 100 stories high. But they did know about the Olympics. They did know the Olympics were important. And they were proud of it.