When I was a boy and I used to dig in our backyard, half mimicking my dog and half pretending to be an explorer, I used to say I was digging to China. I don’t really know why, except that “China” had a certain ring to it; it seemed to be the farthest and most mystical place I could imagine. And it wasn’t only me. China seemed to be the digging destination of choice in the neighbourhood – the magical far away place where sorcerers cast spells and men talked funny. Even today there’s something about China, though I cannot quite put my finger on it.
Then I made it there, taking a slow boat from Korea with a friend. Stepping into port and the up-and-coming city of Dalian, I was shivering with awe. It wasn’t the beautiful skyline or the carefully groomed squares either. It was simply “China,” and it was an idea that had been growing in my mind for years. I was anxious to get to Beijing, despite Dalian’s beauty.
A fifteen-hour overnight night train ride and we were in the country’s great northern capital. Immediately we hopped on a public bus, a sure-fire way to see a city on a budget. Little did we know what we were getting ourselves into.
Riding on a Beijing bus is a feeling to which perhaps only cooped-up chickens can relate, though you can put a nice spin on it; you literally feel more loved squishing close with a fat old lady on her way home from the markets. If you have the luxury of cuddling up to a man with bad breath or a bag of carrots, well, that’s just getting more bang for your bus fare.
Down Beijing’s hutongs – the alleyways that are so famous in China, where hawkers yell: “Hey foreign-man, come and look at my slums! I’ll take you in this rustic carriage! Only ten dollars!” – and off down the market streets, where litter is everywhere: Green onion remains, yogurt cups, broken tea kettles, even a man pouring old cooking oil into the gutter. One gets the impression that the Chinese are content breaking down the city during the day and cleaning it up the next morning. In the world’s most populous country the feeling seems to be: It’s just going to get dirty again, so what’s the use?
In the Chinese countryside, riding in verdant mountains overlooking a Sichaun province river basin, tributaries snake down ravines to their next journey. What awaits the clear mountain water is a brown murky sludge to join with, a dirty old father with whom to float to the sea. On the riverbanks of the fast moving sewer, coal steeples and brick pillars billow smoke the colour of sulfur – dark orange. Other factories vomit pollutants too but of the usual, rather worriless colour of white. The China of today looks like 18th-century England in history textbooks, and it would be difficult not to conclude that China’s overpopulation has taken its toll.
Coal is king and grey skies never break here, the murky rivers fight the ever-persistent greenery, and they often win. Despite man’s best (worst?) efforts, nature always comes back. But in China, it’s having a very hard time.
In another country, I’d be outside the train window breathing fresh air, instead of cooped up in a cabin the size of a microwave. I love watching it all go by, but participation is better than observation. In China, for the first time, that sentiment had changed. The disgust rendered by these post-atomic landscapes made me feel powerless, weak, melancholy.
I spent a month drawing a “C” in China’s landscape, beginning in the northeast in Dalian, then travelling southwest as far as Chengdu before heading southeast for Hong Kong. After a brief stint in Macau, watching people gamble away their disposable income, I took a ferry to Kowloon.
A lot could be said about the legacies of Portuguese in Macau (they brought a deep love of casinos) and the British (they brought a deep love of commerce and the Queen) in Hong Kong, but it seemed to me to come down to this: Compared to their Chinese brethren on the mainland, colonialism brought a higher standard of living to Hong Kong, but it was colonialism nonetheless, and thus lacked proper consent for sovereignty.
And this freedom-cum-prosperity divide had not changed much, despite the political handovers of Hong Kong in 1997 and Macau in 1999. Thinking back on the hutongs in Beijing and then the wide, Silicon Valley-esque commercial parks of Zhuhai near Macau, the difference was still striking. Mainland China was certainly developing quickly, but it would take years before it caught up to Hong Kong or Macau. A “Looking Back” section in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post said that in 1970, the latest technological craze was a Phillips radio installed in Hong Kong taxis. In almost a month in China – October 2004 – I’d never seen such a thing. We were lucky if our cabbie used the meter.
Technology comes and goes, but China’s 10,000 yuan question, and a question no one seemed to be asking, was so what? So what if China was far behind Hong Kong and Macau? Was it really essential that they catch up to their coastal friends? And at what cost?
A free market in China had, and would, bring the poverty line up, but what of environmental considerations? Pollution was the only thing that I saw everywhere I went in China, the melancholy offspring of rampant, unsustainable and thoughtless industrialization. I saw piles of rubbish on almost every street, as if a thick layer of litter had replaced every family’s front lawn. If Western NGOs really want to help China develop, they ought to send Waste Management Consultants.
One could not escape the chaos in China, perhaps an inevitability in a developing, overpopulated country. But it seemed to me to be a chaos without end, a sort of endemic routine that had slowly become indoctrinated in the heart and mind of every Chinese person. You’d be a fool to live in China for any period of time and not expect the unexpected – this country simply had too many metaphoric volcanoes, ready to burst.
Nor should that be surprising to anyone familiar with China’s story, a story of thousands of years and thousands more to come, a story that humbles the stories of all other nations and men themselves. It is a story of change, the story of China’s transition from one way of life to the next, exemplified in political systems and economic choices and technology booms.
And though only the Chinese themselves can say for sure, they seem at relative peace in dealing with this change, even if it is, as I suspect, the greatest cause of China’s characteristic chaos. They seem to know that, despite the acid rain today, the sun will probably shine tomorrow. They seem to know that, while food may be scarce and even toxic today, it may be plentiful and pure tomorrow. Certainly there was Communism yesterday and Capitalism today, so why not some other scheme tomorrow? If change is feared here, you wouldn’t be able to tell by the look on their faces; their Sunday choruses in the park and their friendly smiles on the street seem to say, “We’ve been here before, foreign-friend. This happens all the time.”
From the window of the train to Hong Kong, I can see the efforts of an enormous nation carving up ground beneath itself. The Chinese have induced the earth into vomiting of various kinds: chalk, coal, pebbles, clay, and they haven’t had the good sense to clean up after themselves. You name it: the Chinese are disinterring it, and one day, just maybe, if the Chinese keep digging, they’ll meet a small explorer just like me, dreaming of another world in his peaceful backyard. Boy will he be surprised.