China United

There is no one China.  That, without question, is the most important lesson I have learned this last month and a half.  China is like a bipolar, very confused, identity-shifting teenager who one moment wants to be one thing, and the second seeks a completely different path.  The most apparent examples of this dichotomy lie in the very fabric of Shanghai and Beijing.  The cities, both deemed critical to the economy and both with the treasured status of municipalities, are the polar opposites of one another: One clings nostalgically to the past, and the other ignores the past altogether.  What is most ironic is that within these surface differences, there is a singular, underlying identity that one must dig deep and search high and low to find: this identity is one of continual strive for a better tomorrow, or as the Shanghai Expo slogan so aptly states, “Better city, Better Life”.  This underlying driver is what unites China and makes it into the formidable powerhouse it is today.

What is Beijing?

As the capital of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing is one of the darlings of the country.  We arrived a couple of days prior to the celebration of the People’s Republic of China’s 60th anniversary, and, as to be expected, Beijing was teeming with energy and pride.  Nothing was going to prevent the day from being glorious: Tourists were tested for fever at various checkpoints, security personnel were dispatched throughout the city, and the mad scientists conjured a little silver nitrate to nullify the forecasted rainy weather.  Everything was perfect.  Too perfect. 

My hopes of joining the celebration first-hand were dashed when I learned that the only select individuals, offered the prized golden tickets were allowed into the celebration.  Government officials and other elite were the eager recipients.  For the rest of us, the event was structured to be “MADE FOR TV”, meaning that the majority of the Chinese, despite their proximity to the event were cautioned to remain indoors, to stay away from the parade trail, and to enjoy the event from the comfort of a glass screen.  While most of the group was disinterested in watching the event on television—something we could easily done from the comfort of home in United States, the experience of viewing the event amidst a sea of Bei-Wai students proved invaluable.  The students easily occupied every single seat within the auditorium, and even spilled over into the outdoor patio where a screen and floor mats were provided for the surplus guests. 

The laughter, scant phrases, and hushed whispers silenced as soon as the program began—as thunderous applause and cheers erupted throughout the auditorium.  On the screen we watched as one by one, the government officials filed out into their reserved viewing area.  Using applause as an empowering metric of political satisfaction, the students said what they dare not speak– with their hands, clapping vehemently for those offering real change and achievement and offering polite pitter-patters for those they deemed less effective.  It was like getting a play-by-play: Instead of viewing themselves as being a behind a curtain as a stoic audience, the students were highly interactive, oohing and ahhing as the visuals of China’s power and might flashed across the big screen.  The most moving moment of the entire two hour program was the singing of the National Anthem.  The Chinese students, as though being summoned by the government in person, rose with great pride, belting every line of the song with tremendous passion.  It was beautiful. 

Beijing is a living testament of China’s rich past.  Alongside the nondescript buildings and bustling streets live the ancient reminders of life before globalization, life prior to China’s open-economy.  Temples and palaces take precedence in Beijing, serving as stately placeholders of the country’s rich legacy.  Over our course of the time in Beijing we visited the Summer Palace, the Forbidden City, and multiple temples, each presenting a living testament of China’s history, making the dull dense pages of the books jump alive before our eyes.  My personal favorite was the Forbidden City.  Laced with the traditional-scaled rooftops in bright, brilliant colors, the once-restricted area of the Emperor’s palace seethed with the mystique that embodies Western perceptions of the Orient.  This region, filled by awe-struck tourists of both domestic and foreign-origin alike, offers a glimpse of into the glory coupling the Mandate of Heaven: huge expanses, massive parks, and stately statues of qilings mark the territory as royal.  Of course, after viewing temple after temple and palace after palace, the initial amazement associated with these structures became eroded and less inspirational.  What remains is a glimmer of the magic, just enough to let me remember an inkling of how incredible it all was.

 What is Shanghai?

Unlike Beijing, Shanghai’s glory lies not in its temples, but its skyscrapers.     Some call it the “Paris of the East,” while those more venomous deem it the “Whore of the East.”  Perspective is the determinant.  Boasting of the world’s third and fourth tallest buildings, the bustling city feels oddly familiar—it feels oddly like home.  I must admit, when I first arrived at Shanghai, the sea of nondescript buildings, though overwhelming and somewhat impressive, lacked the allure of Beijing’s ancient edifices.  I was incredibly disillusioned, and even depressed by the oppressive structures encircling about me.  What was even more disturbing is the complete disregard within the urban metropolis for culture: According to an anthropologist, many of the buildings linking Shanghai to its Chinese culture were gleefully destroyed as developers sought to give Shanghai an identity completely separate from the rest of the country. 

After a few lectures that explored the city port’s unique history as an extraterritoriality for most of the world’s western powers, one can begin to understand Shanghai’s identity disorder.  As a result of the Nanjing Treaty, the Chinese government had absolutely no sovereignty over the foreign settlements.  One of the speakers detailed how foreigners that would break Chinese law would simply flee to these settlements for protection: The Shanghainese and Chinese government were helpless.  Another quite chilling image is one of the sign in People’s Park declaring “No Dogs and No Chinese Allowed”.  One can only imagine the humiliation.  166 years later, the roles have changed.  The settlements are long gone, though one can see their remnants in the architecture of the French Concessions.  Perhaps this is what drives Shanghai sense of hyper-urbanism.  They desire to show the world that Shanghai, the city was once held by the reins of the Western powers, is once again a great city—except this time the molders of the city’s decidedly Western society are Chinese.    

A primary example of such is the Thames Housing Development.  Created after the model of Thames in the UK, the gated community has all English signs, English infrastructure, and even London’s legendary red phone booths.  Despite retailing at 20,000 rmb a month, every single townhouse in the 200 house gated community was sold: None was vacant.  Growth and development and construction seem to be perpetual themes in this city.  Consider the upcoming arrival of the Shanghai Expo in 2010.  The government is building a skyscraper that it hopes to take the title of the second-largest building in the world.  About 150 new hotels will be built for the event, which plans to see 70 billion tourists over the course of six months.  It seems that most Shanghainese are comfortable or even proud of their unique city despite snipes from both other Chinese and foreigners. 

The most important lesson I learned during my time in China is the foolishness of dumping the country boasting of the world’s largest population into one homogeneous category.  Though one may question the ethnic diversity the People’s Republic of China artificially-created and shamelessly-marketed both domestically and abroad, the notion of a diverse China is not false.  An examination of the average Beijinger and Shanghainese person is suffice evidence.  Holding within its arms both the world’s poorest and richest, holding the farmer and the city worker alike, the uniting factor is the optimism, genuine hope for a better tomorrow, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to make that dream of a “Better Life” a reality.  China inspired me with its robust passion for improvement and ceaseless quest for progress.  There is no one China, but the combined dreams and hopes of the billions of China’s inhabitants dreaming, working, and pushing for a better day unite the vast land. 

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