Thursday, May 01, 2008

Beijing and the Farmer

Beijing is not a city one takes lightly. The boundaries of the city were drawn seemingly arbitrarily. One can drive for hours, be in the middle of farmland, and still be in Beijing. But at the epicenter is the Forbidden City which houses the Imperial Palace, and other buildings of the ancient empires. Anyone who has seen “The Last Emperor” has seen the Forbidden City.

City ordinance during the time of the emperors prohibited anyone from constructing a building higher than the two-story palace. The buildings in neighborhoods around the palace kept to that plan for generations. The quaint ‘houtongs’ that dot the city are a reminder of the way the Chinese lived during those times.

Now what is more important than past glory is the Great Hall Of The People, built in 1959. This is the People’s National Council building, a massive structure that spreads out across a city block that appears to put the Forbidden City in its shadow. Guards patrol the perimeter. Cameras peer out at the pedestrians gathered across the street in Tianamen Square.

Inside the PNC building the 4,000 members of the committee, when they meet, decide on the way the government is run, the way the land is ruled. Ostensibly, the opulence and splendor of the emperors has gone. Left in its place are the technocrats and bureaucrats who administer the affairs of state.

Tianamen square is the size of the PNC building, but without a building. A seemingly endless courtyard, once occupied by imperial offices, now flanked on the east side by the China National Museum a drab government building opened in 2003, flying the red flag with the yellow star. This museum holds a combination of the Chinese History Museum and the Chinese revolutionary Museum. According to the government’s webiste, “The Chinese History Museum shows a large number of cultural relics illustrating the long history and glorious culture of China from 1,700,000 years ago to 1921 when the last emperor left the throne.”

At the north end of the Square is Tiananmen Tower. Initially built in 1417 during the Ming Dynasty (1368 A.D.- 1644 A.D.), the Square was the front door of the Forbidden City. The most important use of it in the past was to declare in a big ceremony to the common people who became the emperor and who became the empress. Until 1911 when the last feudal kingdom was over, no one could enter the Tower except for the royal family and aristocrats. Today tourists from all classes stroll through the gates taking pictures which no one will probably ever look at.

A mausoleum building haunts the square. It is in the stolid gray granite building that Mao Zedong is entombed. While the majority of Chinese cities forbid burial and legislate cremation, Mao decreed he would be an exception. What’s power for if you don’t use it.

According to the website “Mao Zedong Memorial Hall is at the south side of the Square. This Hall is divided into three halls and our dear Chairman Mao's body lies in a crystal coffin in one of the halls surrounded by fresh bouquets of various famous flowers and grasses.”

While the countryside is littered with graves planted by the relatives like patches of willows on hillocks in the midst of a family’s field, the larger cities have crematoriums set so discreetly one never sees them.

Tianamen Square is heavily guarded. Soldiers patrol, weapons on their shoulders. Cameras scan the area from pillars and high towers. Plain-clothes policemen move about or linger like tourists. A demonstration of any type is quickly quashed.

The much-anticipated Beijing Olympics has a solid presence. On a stage beneath the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a small group of teenaged Chinese athletes held a vigil, standing at attention in their white gym clothes, others sitting on the steps of the monument awaiting their turn. Should anyone get the wrong idea and decide to spring a protest on those gathered, the police jeeps nearby would surely be called in to scoot them away. A huge electronic stopwatch counts the days hours and minutes until the Olympics, clicking off seconds until the big day. For the Chinese, the Olympics are huge.

As the morning wore on more and more tourists arrived until the square was teeming with people, all sorts of people, mostly oriental. Some European groups were evident, but few. By and large it was people from the hinterlands, some in ethnic costumes, in town to see the sights.

The crown Jewels are on display at the Imperial Treasury, solid gold bowls and ruby embedded goblets, elaborate crowns filled with precious jewels and golden ritual objects laden with emeralds. It was quite a display. That and the palaces and the Buddhist temple, and other buildings making up the compound that held approximately 40,000 administrators and servants, created an impression of vast wealth and power.

Of course the peasants starved, and paid for the largesse with what little they could scrape together. It was no wonder there was a revolution. But have things improved? Mao was once told that the people revered him like a God. “They need a God,” he reportedly answered them. Is it true? Do they? With 56 ethnic minorities, each vying for recognition and power, some even for independence, like the Yugars and the Tibetians, it is no wonder the guards are on a nervous vigil in Tianamen Square.

One wonders about Mao, and Stalin, and Tito, and Saddam, and other despotic dictators who ruled by fear and terror. One wonders if Democracy isn’t something like an acquired taste, like good whiskey, or beer, or even Tequila with a dead worm in it. One wonders if people have to grow accustomed to the idea of Democracy before it is thrust upon them in a sink or swim style. Toss a youngster in the water and he’ll learn to swim, one is told. But if you’ve ever done it you’ll discover the trick only works with infants. Toss a six-month old in the water and you’ll have to jump in and pull them out. Democracy is like that, too. You can’t toss a population accustomed to being ruled by a strong hand into the sea of Democracy and expect anything other than what’s happening in Iraq. First the soil must be prepared, then the seeds planted, nurtured, coaxed, protected, pruned, spayed for bugs, and even then it may take seasons before a crop is ready.

China is like that too. Democracy in dollops, carefully administered. The NPC has credibility and respect. The Chinese admire the leaders who can keep a country of 1.3 billion people from going hungry, on roads, on trains, on buses, in jobs, building spectacular dams, and now the Olympics: The pinnacle of recognition. No longer a third world but a country of the first order. Ah, respectability, like a call girl married to a millionaire living in the suburbs hoping to erase her past.

But then, as the bard said, comes the rub. In today’s China it is hard to separate the phony from the real, the knock-offs from the original. One can imagine the hard-line communists smirking in their tea at the thought of a woman in a two-thousand dollar designer dress running into a secretary in an identical garment and hearing the cost was barely twenty-dollars. The proud successful businessman shows off his ten-thousand Rolex only to see some street-urchin selling one that looks just like it for six-dollars. This is the equality one sees in China, the rich showing off, the poor showing them that, at least from a distance, success is superficial.

A two-floor supermarket in Xian, replete with shopping carts and scales to weigh the produce, and computerized check-out is a far cry from the crowded dingy food markets with slabs of beef hanging from hooks in the open air one finds across China. But one section of shiny clean glass countertops holds another reality. Watches of every design and shape and color, from Rolex to Piaget, all for less than $40 each. Blatant fakes in the open in a respectable store in the center of town.

Every town has things like this. From supermarkets to tourist-oriented streets lined on either side with shops selling Timberland, Gortex, Burberry, Hillfinger, at legitimate asking prices that quickly plummet once the sales person realizes the buyer knows the stuff is a fake.

In Beijing an entire building called the Silk Market is five or six floors of merchandise; pearls, jade, diamonds, watches, Ipods, Iphones, designer jeans, name-brand shirts and suits and luggage, almost all fake. Some of the merchandise is strong, built to last, perhaps as long as a real Samsonite, but it ain’t Samsonite, and costs a fraction of an original bag.

This blatant fakery leads one to wonder about all those lawmen who make sure protests don’t occur on Tianamen Square, but do little or nothing to stop the big business in knock-offs. A huge business, judging from the plethora of merchandise available.

Then one wonders what is the government thinking? Is it that graft is so pervasive that no one is willing to stop the production of the knock-offs? Or is it that the entire country finds knock-offs a sort of way to spoof the capitalists, show them that the good old name brand merchandise is more durable, but that the cheap stuff with a counterfeit label sewn on it covers the body just as well Is it some joke by the socialists, spoofing wealth and materialism? Or is it just the way China is, today. Face?. Image?. Pride on display? Is everything an illusion of superiority with a phony label on it?

The Chinese are superb at copying, one is told, but lack the ‘big idea’. Communism, after all, was thought up by Marx, improved by Engel, honed by Lenin imposed and exported by Stalin, even to China.

One wonders if once China feels comfortable in its own skin that the big ideas won’t come out. They are a very intelligent people. For the most part, friendly, helpful, and kind to strangers. What happens when these folks have enough expendable cash, or material comfort to fund leisure time aimed at creating something new? Remember Newton wasn’t working on an assembly line when he discovered gravity, he was sitting under a tree probably snoozing.

Art and ideas are functions of leisure time, and one can only imagine the wonders the Chinese will think up once they have a chance to do more than just survive. And of course the last question is, once the Chinese have reached parity with the developed nations, have achieved everything they set out to achieve, if they’ll be satisfied with their success or want to see how far they can really go? If parity itself isn’t just a way station. If talk of coexistence isn’t just one more fake concept sold to the public?

Oh, and when one goes shopping in China, the tour guides recommend one shops at the government stores, to ensure that one gets the real thing; real silk, real jade, real leather. But what if the administrator of the store is on the take?. Not unheard of. Recently two bureaucrats were sentenced to death for taking bribes. One okayed tainted heparin solutions that killed people. He was executed. The other guy is still awaiting trial.

What happens if one day someone decides to go into that fabled imperial treasury room, and check out the merchandise? A creative clerk might have swapped it for a fake. Maybe that’s how all those folks driving the Land Rovers and Jaguars, and Buicks got their money. Or maybe they made it the hard way, working the angles.

If matter can be neither created nor destroyed, according to Einstein (who by the way is much respected in China. ‘Ah, you’re Jewish? Very clever, like Einstein! Very clever!) than if China is getting richer, giving jobs to the poor Chinese farmers who migrate to the city, then someone is getting poorer. That somebody is the schlub in the West. The saps. Someone is outsourcing their jobs so the manufacturers can make higher profits, providing cheaper goods to the consumer. But guess what? The consumers don’t have jobs anymore. All the jobs were “outsourced.” The consumers don’t have money anymore, it all wound up in the hands of the manufacturers and the government officials, and the Chinese (or Indian, or Malaysian, or Mexican, etc.) workers. So the matter is shifting, from the West to the East. And unless someone figures out how to stop this flow, the consumer better figure out how to plant crops, because sooner or later, the citizens in the West will sink back into the mud of their fields, and they’ll be the ones walking behind the water buffalo plowing for the spring planting.