McDonald’s and Starbucks are everywhere. What happened to the regime?
I spent New Year in Beijing, searching for Communism in post-Olympic China. I couldn’t really find it…
When darkness falls and the cold winds pick up in bad part of Beijing, one could be forgiven for thinking China is a nation of over one billion cheap hustlers and hookers with hearts of fake Olympic gold. They seem united by lies and delusions of superiority, or maybe these are not delusions at all. China is huge in every sense. It is overwhelming. And it is nothing, nothing like you can imagine until you’ve been there.
Yet, until recently that wasn’t really the done thing. China is indeed a brutal communist dictatorship with horrendous human rights records and a legacy of what can only be described, even by a non-religious and open-minded person like myself, as evil deeds. I may be a history graduate but a quick Google of the Cultural Revolution tells you all you need to know about the country’s sins.
I was surprised. Like I said, I’m a history graduate, and that means that my knowledge of China comes from the period up until around 1990. From then on I’ve not really cared. My interest was the Cold War, the Korean War, the Great Wars… I don’t know much about China in the last twenty years. If I had to guess, I’d have guessed that Communism was still going strong, and that the government was as brutally repressive as always.
When I arrived in Beijing airport to find lots of white people walking about, speaking various languages and looking happy and free, I was kind of put off. Where were the soldiers? Where were the guns and cameras and Communist propaganda? Where were the monuments to evil and the reminders of consequences faced for questioning the savage government? Beijing airport is a lot easier and friendlier to deal with than LAX. But saying that, so are Balkan mine fields.
My first thought was one of regret. I’d once again been brainwashed by the American propaganda machine. Every time I go somewhere I expect people to be running around with guns, shouting politically and religiously controversial sentiments from positions of power, and yet the only fucking place this happens is in America…
But maybe this was indeed an illusion. It wasn’t just the post-Cold War Americans that spoke of China’s legacy of torture and murder. These were facts, weren’t they? We (and I guess I mean the West) are trying to coax China into our realm for hope they won’t one day enslave us as we would them, given the chance. We gave them the Olympics and overlook every shame and violation that would send US troops into any smaller country. We let them join in all our games, like an all-red Rudolph.
So it stands to reason that China would play ball, putting on a show like the Olympics and then realising the wealth to be found in tourism. Everyone likes money, right? Even the commies… They joined the modern capitalist world for a little while and figured we weren’t so bad. They loved the dumbass yankee tourists with fat wallets, flooding hotels and paying anything to see Mao’s body or the Forbidden City. Why not open everything at a cost?
I soon discovered a city that was cleaner and with a far better infrastructure than any I’d ever seen. Beijing was clean and pretty, and not black and white and grainy, with tanks and bombs and awful Communist messages everywhere. It was just another part of the modern world. In fact, having arrived from Korea, Beijing was a real step up on the ladder of civilisation – from a nation struggling to transition from the third world to the first, into one suddenly on the brink of leading the world. Beijing had no trash on the streets and all the buildings looked like they’d been built by architects, and not from a Soviet cookie cutter.
The people were nicer, too. Koreans are unaccustomed to Western sensibilities, and still retain their age old prejudices about black and white people. Chinese people, at least in Beijing, are open, friendly and polite. They might all be trying to somehow make money from you, but at least they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and don’t stare at foreigners. They hold doors open for one another and line up when a queue is required. Before the Olympics, all businesses in Beijing were required to Westernise and train staff to treat foreigners with respect, or at least without abject racism. It was a huge shock to my system to walk about and not be treated as a second class citizen.
But what surprised me the most was the fact that most businesses seemed to be American. There was a McDonalds on every street, and numerous Dominos, Burger Kings, KFCs, 7-Elevens and even a giant Wal-Mart. Wasn’t this a nation ideologically opposed to capitalism and American business ‘ethics’? Wasn’t this a nation that loathed the idea of individual wealth? Apparently not. The nation that once was a virtually fortress even had a Starbucks in the Forbidden City for a few years.
There, too, were a cluster of religious icons. Don’t get me wrong, I assume these are simply for the benefit of foreigners and for the justification of the city’s Olympic bid, but I thought China was against religion… That’s what we’re told in our anti-Communist newspapers and magazines. An attack on religion is supposedly an attack on freedom, and therefore China is bad. Forget that America funds modern Crusades in the Middle East on the basis of religious hatred…
But according to my propaganda-laden guide book, China accepts and respects all religions equally, and I even got to see a church in the city centre. And there I was, thinking maybe I could go somewhere and not be confronted by a torture device atop an unnecessarily ornate building. Well, sorry China, but I’m not buying it. I still believe you stamp out the majority of offenders. There weren’t many churches, and certainly the night was not lit up by neon crosses, but rather by the usual selection of advertisements and hotels that made the skyline indistinguishable from any Western city.
All the mystique was gone, too. I thought I’d have to hunt out the China I wanted to see, but it was all there in the guide book, and taxis and subways toured millions of Russians and Americans from sight to sight to sight. It seemed not much was hidden. Sure, there were no references to the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989 or the millions of deaths caused by that ubiquitous figure, Mao, but Beijing seemed to offer more of a look at Chinese history than I thought would ever be possible. There was the pretext of openness.
At every tourist spot there were the thousands of shite-hawking vendors. They all sold the same crap – Mao’s face on cards, magnets, books, t-shirts and bags. There were Olympic knock-offs, too, and soldiers and police walked among it all, seemingly oblivious to the harassment of these street people. It seemed to me that everyone was addicted to this new cult of tourism. We dumb foreigners could be taken for all our money with little effort. We all wanted something unbelievable to take home, like a t-shirt with the face of a man responsible for millions of tortured and dead innocent people. We wouldn’t walk around with Hitler on our chests, but Mao is cool, man!
It’s strange how a place adapts to being dragged into the Western way of thinking. Japan fell for it straight away and became a beautiful example of the possibilities of capitalism. Korea went for it and made off financially, but was left culturally dead. China’s been at it a few years, and is terribly interesting to watch. The people seem to love it, and the country is prospering more and more, but what will happen? Can this all be stable? Will China really stick by McDonalds and tolerate Starbucks in their treasured antiquities? I was amazed watching a country so entrenched in its isolationist revolutionary politics so quickly fall into being just another part of the world. Maybe now there’s no reason to be afraid. It doesn’t matter who has the nukes now, as long was we all shop at the same few places and we don’t give up on trying to stab each other in the back for a few cheap yuan.