Electric China – Part I
Grand monuments of steel and concrete and herringbone wooden flooring don’t scare me. Those who have sanctioned them do!
Air China flight 948 touches down at the Beijing International airport and it’s easy to understand that this here is a different sort of Communism. In fact, it is Capitalism, only that the cap on the splurge is determined by a politburo honcho. Lately, there is no cap, hasn’t been for a decade or more, and the evidence is everywhere.
In developing societies the airport is there for a reason: to cast the first impression on a visitor. In China, it is there to awe you beyond measure, to make you feel small and insignificant, to raise the level of airport-envy in you to unimaginable heights. It is there to tell you that Socialism is dead, that the two ideologies, Capitalism and Communism, are in truth bedfellows, joined at the hip.
The Beijing airport is like the boiler room of a vast ship, with hundreds of workers busy polishing its every working part – and this is a strange analogy, for the visitor has been escalatored straight down into the profundity of China’s soul, to see the inner workings of its body, its knotted intestines, to admire the glisten of this sweat, and to think that this ship, this miraculous ship, that will carry the weight of the world for the foreseeable future, this ship will never sink.
China is the new Titanic, and at least for now, there ain’t no iceberg for miles in every direction.
But where are the people? This is supposed to be the world’s most populous country, for heaven’s sake! Are they all entombed comfortably in the climate-controlled ambience of their Audis and Porsches? Are they all playing Nintendo and Xbox inside their newly-acquired plush houses? Was state-sponsored prosperity a wicked trick to keep them busy indoors and avoid the unwelcome sight of citizens collecting in public squares? Today they do Tai Chi, tomorrow they may clamour for their rights and freedom. No, no, we aren’t having that!
The absence of crowds has made me forget the overwhelming presence of bling. I’m sure there’s something else more assaulting to the senses just round the corner, something that’ll make me forget even the Chinese crowd puzzle. Ah yes, here it is! The bus journey – Beijing to Tianjin: non-stop, fast, smooth, uneventful.
Ever stared at a blank wall for two continuous hours? Ever watched the paint dry? That’s what this bus journey seems like to an Indian.
Seeing this new China through the window of a taxi (an Audi A6 naturally) makes you realise why folks affix “great” in front of objects and nations when they do. The outskirts of Tianjin resemble the African savannah where thousands of steel giraffes have come for their evening thirst-quenching. The giant cranes move their necks up and down, this way and that, and hundreds of men in yellow helmets work the earth to gold. They aren’t digging for it, though. Instead, brick by brick, steel girder by steel girder, they are forging it, for future Chinese generations to reap the harvest.
Economists and business tycoons have written tomes on the Chinese miracle, on her mind-numbing growth statistics. But only when you tour this savannah do you realise what all is happening in the world beyond coalition politics and Coalgate. Imagine a 100 Rockefellers tilling the earth, contemplate a 1000 Ambanis pacing about the dusty construction sites, and you get close. And then you realise that, somewhere in the recesses of this wealth, this comfort, this planning for the future, a Chinese Steve Jobs has just been born. The doctor has held him up for show and smacked his bottom and he’s wailed out a 100 new game-changing ideas. The Communist Bloc has transformed into a glass and concrete block, and all that money, all those trillions that China has been feeding her insatiable pet, a poodle called infrastructure, has finally paid off. The next stage is here and now.
Once inside the room of my hotel, and the contents of the mini-fridge examined with a keen eye, I relax and turn on the TV, only to scamper immediately for the nearest towel. The logo on the top left corner of the screen reads “CCTV” and it takes a while for my mind to register that the images being played out on the screen of a handsome man are not of me but a news presenter of CCTV, or China Central Television, their Doordarshan counterpart. Phew! This means that the eye of the little sparrow in the painting by the wardrobe is indeed the eye of the little sparrow. Still, I undress watchfully – there’s no knowing if the Moroccan mirrors all around me are two-way or not.
CCTV is as state-controlled as DD, and I cannot comment more on this subject for the simple reason that I can’t understand a word of what is being said. If it’s any consolation, whatever is being said is being said very forcefully, more than what Shammi Narang ever managed in all the years that he read his two-page news handouts. The CCTV studio, though, is incomparably plusher than the DD one. Their sports presenter – I know he is a sports presenter because a badminton racket and a shuttle have appeared mysteriously to the right of this man – looks a teenager compared to Dr Narottam Puri, who is in two minds currently as to whether he should retire or pop off. I press the remote and find three more CCTV channels, none of them thankfully of the closed-circuit variety. People are talking incredibly fast, and animatedly, which can sometimes happen when you are explaining the finer principles of Higgs Field, but not badminton, please. Worse, there is no BBC to put a friendly arm round my shoulder.
Just when I think it’s all hopeless, my attention is drawn towards China Daily, the English edition newspaper that is arranged on the “working desk” next to my gift – a scary-looking letter opener. For those who wouldn’t have guessed, China Daily, too, is state-controlled, which begs the question why we don’t have a Doordarshan Newspaper. Is it because most of our newspapers are in any case state-controlled?! Here at least, one isn’t assaulted with birth and death anniversary centre-spreads. The state control is much more overt, in fact entirely so. The newspaper is brimming with the sort of language a four-star army general and not a dishevelled editor would employ.
The issue concerns the Diaoyu Islands that Japan has “purchased” cheekily and now owns “officially”. China insists the islands have “always” been their property. Here is the editorial (China Daily, September 11, 2012) or bits of it that would make Shekhar Gupta roll down his kurta sleeves and bow in admiration:
“The Japanese Government has thrown down the gauntlet before China.”
Good. That’s pleasantries over and done with.
“China should take it up with an iron resolve and crush any Japanese act of aggression…If being reasonable is no longer the right way to deal with the Japanese, we must prepare for a worse, and perhaps the worst scenario, no matter how reluctant we are to do so.”
Clearly, this is one of those editorials that get better with every disbelieving scan, where each new sentence is perhaps a code for the infantry to place the next field gun into position and crank up the barrel.
“…Concrete actions are needed to show we won’t retreat an inch…”
“…A thief is never a legitimate owner of stolen property…”
And here is the war cry the jaws-drawn soldiers on the frontline are waiting for:
“…Japan should prepare to face the consequences of its actions.”
The rest of the Daily is full of Op-ed pieces extolling the virtues of the Chinese foreign policy. It would be a brave man or woman who’d lampoon the editor of a Chinese newspaper like we do ours. Keep walking Shekhar!
I have one whole day before the start of the conference wherein arrested-adolescents will lecture arrested-adolescents on how best to save the world. Always fun. Meanwhile, I come down to the hotel lobby and confront Albert. He is one of the Chinese managers on duty – the others being George and Cathy – and his mannerisms certainly suggest the inheritance of a royal name has rubbed off on him. He nods and bows and shakes his head like a prince alright. I am transfixed, waiting for the performance to end and the dandruff to fleece his shoulders, when he points to my phone and says: “No Google. Very slow. No Facebook. Very very slow”. It’s true: google.com.hk is at best, shall we say, leisurely. Sometimes it is slow, then suddenly turns very slow, and then back to slow again – like a bullock cart negotiating a potholed village road. The hotel website warns that “due to regulations Facebook connections will be very slow.” Albert is merely putting to speech what he’s learnt by heart from the hotel website.
I bow a touch and decide to risk Tianjin without the comforting and guiding hand of my Google map. It can’t be all that difficult. The city is, after all, first world now. Once you’ve narrowly avoided death while crossing the road – traffic runs in the “wrong” direction here – a whole new world is waiting.
The Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s fine documentary Chung Kuo – Cina (1972), that gives a glimpse of China, its art and culture, its people, its cities and collectives, now seems like the “before” pic in a hair-gain advert. What I see before me is definitely the “after”. The transformation is mind-boggling. The bicycles on the streets in Chung Kuo have been replaced with BMWs, the dirt roads with perfectly banked tarred ones, and goodness knows how many millions of trees have been hacked to make way for the unending vista of twinkling skyscrapers. I feel like an alien that’s landed in an alien land.
In the great open space nearby, hundreds of people are undertaking synchronised dancing. I am sure the peculiar dance-form has a Chinese name but the clockwork gyrations make me suspicious and I fear Prabhudeva might leap out any moment from his hideout and lead the formations to further limb-mangling. Days later, an Indian chef working at nearby Hyatt informs me that this is the latest rage: elderly Chinese dancing to Bollywood numbers. So it’s true: Prabhudeva’s out and about in Tianjin!
I spend a good few hours wandering around. It is approaching late evening but families are out in their droves. They are all dancing or roller-skating or shopping. Soon it’ll be night time but no one’s in a hurry to head back home – they don’t seem to be addicted to TV debates here. New-found wealth has truly numbed the population into the trappings of the upper middle class. Even the smallest shopping mall is bigger than Delhi’s Emporio, where shop floors are little more than overflowing warehouses, and the workers of the world seem to have united under the hammer and the sickle and gone shopping.
Walking around Tianjin, its hotel lobbies, its massive open spaces, and another facet of this new China is revealed to me. No one here understands a word of English! Not one word. This has come as quite a shock. I was expecting – seasoned with all those documentaries of how the Chinese are learning English faster than we are forgetting Sanskrit, of how all our BPO jobs will be at risk come 2020 – I was expecting the people here to blurt quaint English phrases like “Goodness me – turned out nice and warm today, hasn’t it, dear?” at unsuspecting tourists – but nothing of the kind. Far from it, in fact. The McDonald’s staff – and they have all formed a helpful ring around me – doesn’t know what a “burger” is (I’m sure they know what it’s called in Mandarin). Worse, they are all laughing and giggling at me when I repeat the word “vegetarian” three times, each time with losing hope.
A few days later, I finally get the answer to why the Chinese don’t know a word of English. It’s because they don’t want to. Every factory, every cutting edge scientific institute or ultra-modern university I am ferried to, the signs are ominous. Metaphorically. Literally, they are all in Mandarin. The Chinese, I realise, now want the world to learn their language and not the other way round. It has finally dawned on them, the reason why the world learnt English, or French. Language is the first weapon; it’s the first of the many arrows that are let loose against unsuspecting people under the garb of global camaraderie and unity. Before you know it we have all become Macaulay’s children. The Chinese understand this like the English or the French did before them. And they know this, too, that as surely as the sun rises and sets, the world will have to learn Mandarin, that they only have to endure a few more years of a befuddled visitor trying to make them understand with hand gestures what a burger is. They know that in the very near future this same visitor will walk confidently inside McDonald’s and thump the counter with his fist – like in the old Moods condom advert – and demand a “han bao”.
They are happy to wait.
Continues in Part II
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