China-Me and the Dragon

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 4 (v.1) - Zhuhai

Submitted: December 30, 2008

Reads: 185

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Submitted: December 30, 2008

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Zhuhai
Zhuhai is not famous. Marco Polo didn’t bother to visit it, for example, perhaps because it didn’t exist at the time, and it’s quite difficult to visit places and see things that don’t exist. It’s not impossible, of course. I mean, the American army ‘visited’ Iraq looking for WMD’s that didn’t actually exist, but let’s not get distracted by politics.
Indeed, if I had gone to Zhuhai myself as a teenager, in the grim eighties, I would have found nothing more than a sleepy fishing village surrounded by paddy fields. In twenty years it had changed beyond recognition, like so much of China.
When I first saw it, three years ago, it was my first time in China. In fact, it was my first time out of the comfortable paddock of the European Union, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.
As the ferry approached mainland China, I wondered what had made me leave Europe in the first place, but I couldn’t really find an answer. Perhaps I was just propelled there by the mysterious forces that drives humans, and English language teachers in particular, to keep moving; always searching for El Dorado, always drawn to the greener grass on the other side of the fence.
I stayed in Zhuhai for a year, but it felt longer. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I just mean that because it was all so new and different that time ‘expanded’. The more new things we do, the more memories we build up; and the more memories we have, the longer something seems in our memories. Time only seems to speed up when you get older because you do fewer and fewer new things, so there and less and less memories and time seems shorter. Well, that’s my theory anyway.
The school I worked in treated me extremely well. In fact, I have never been treated so well anywhere in my life, before or since. I felt like a VIP, like I actually mattered.
It was all quite shocking coming from Spain, where schools have a hundred other teachers who will replace you at a moment’s notice, and you are of no consequence whatsoever. I do not intend any disrespect to the school I worked for in Spain, which always treated me fairly, and did their best to make me feel wanted and valued, but at the end of the day, you knew deep down that you were nothing special; just one more teacher chasing hours and trying to get next month’s rent together.
The economics of teaching in Western Europe, and Spain in particular, mean that the supply of English teachers is always greater than the demand for them, and this inevitably drives wages and job security downwards.
I was fortunate in that my school was one of the better ones, so I was not exploited, and indeed I wouldn’t have stayed there for five years if I was being exploited, regardless of the inimitable charms of Barcelona. But Spain was becoming very routine, and I did need a change.
And China was certainly a change. In Spain, from the moment you arrive, you are very much on your own and it’s a case of sink or swim and do it fast. Your employer will offer you no support in finding accommodation, health care, or dealing with the labyrinthine complexities of Spanish bureaucracy.
In China, in contrast, we were met on arrival, immediately brought to our luxurious free 100-metre apartment with a view of the South China Sea, and seemed to have the school admin staff at our constant beck and call. Our opinions were sought and listened to. People seemed genuinely keen to help us. We were, as the clichgoes, treated like royalty.
It was all quite intoxicating after Europe. In Europe, where the roots of democracy and egalitarianism grow deeper than we realise, we are all equal, and we are all nothing. We are all just trees in a forest of 350 million other trees. Finding myself back in Europe now, in 2008, it feels like a rather dark and claustrophobic forest.
Uprooted and washed up on the Chinese coast, as I was in 2002, I was suddenly something special. I was not a face in the crows-I stood out from the crowd. Forgive me, dear reader, for labouring this point, but it is hard to convey the strange mix of joy and paranoia that comes from suddenly being noticed after a lifetime of being ignored.
Firstly I was a white foreigner, which always confers status in Asia, and secondly I was a teacher, and teachers in China are still very respected.
In Europe and America, teachers have largely lost the status they once enjoyed in society at large, and even within the classrooms, they are not the authority figures they once were. New ‘student-centred’ philosophies of teaching mean that there is no such thing as a bad student anymore; there is now ‘an under-performing teacher’ who is ‘failing to maximise student potential.’
Teachers in Europe and America have even become scapegoats for many of the ills of society at large, from falling literacy standards to juvenile crime. I once heard them blamed for the ‘decline in the moral fabric of our society’, whatever that means.
However, in China, teachers are still respected; perhaps more so than they ever where in the West.
Sometimes this respect could actually get in the way. For example, in the classroom, Chinese students expect the teacher, the expert, to talk, and the students, the receptacles of knowledge, should listen to the teacher, the fountain of knowledge and wisdom. However, in order to actually learn a language, students need to speak, and since there is only one teacher and twenty students, they need to talk to each other and not just to the teacher. It was very difficult to get this message across, but once you did, students looked on you as a sage and a philosopher.
Now, in 2008, as I find myself once more facing recalcitrant and uncooperative European teenagers, living in fear of student complaints and wondering if I can make next month’s mortgage payment, I do really miss my school in China. I didn’t realise how much I missed it until I wrote this.
However, in spite of the charms of the place, I found my feet started itching to leave after about nine months. I don’t really know why. These itchy feet have never really left me, and follow me wherever I go.
Let’s move away from me and take a closer look at Zhuhai; one of China’s new model towns. Zhuhai is a Special Economic Zone (SEZ), not to be confused with a Special Administrative Region (SAR), like Hong Kong and Macao.
The SEZ’s were set up by Chairman Deng Zhou Ping in his last days to transform the moribund Chinese economy, truly wrecked after decades of Mao’s madness, and turn it into something more prosperous and vibrant.
“To get rich,” Deng proclaimed, “is glorious,” and the SEZ’s are where Chinese people come to get rich. Here, free of Central Planning and the stranglehold of bureaucratic interference, the capitalist economic model of free competition thrives and free markets reign. As a result, Zhuhai went from being a forgotten fishing village in the eighties to a rapidly expanding city of about 1.5 million today. This is still small by Chinese standards, but it’s growing daily.
Those Chinese fortunate to live in this new capitalist utopia must obtain permission to work here. In a way difficult to comprehend to Westerners, the Chinese are not free to move from one part of China to another in search of a better job.
The Party is keen to create an orderly urbanization in China, and fears the chaos that might ensue if China’s rural poor, who still make up 60 per cent of the population and often live on less than a dollar a day, were to suddenly up sticks and arrive en mass in the cities and the SEZ’s.
While one can bemoan the lack of personal freedom, it should be noted that Chinese cities do not suffer from the slums and shanty towns of other third world nations.
So, the people in Zhuhai are the lucky ones, and they have arrived at the land of opportunity, where fortunes are there for the taking and the streets are paved with free market gold, and everything has a price.
This is even more evident in nearby Shenzen, China’s number one SEZ boomtown. Shenzhen was also a fishing village in the eighties but now has over twelve million people and is one of the world’s fastest growing cities.It borders Hong Kong, and you can almost smell the frenetic energy there; you can practically feel the craving for wealth and power; you can sense the greed and avarice. While Shenzhen has been far more successful than Zhuhai, in terms of GDP and growth rates, it is all about money there, whereas in Zhuhai there was also a desire to create something beautiful, as well as something prosperous.
If you are fortunate enough to be allowed to live in one of the SEZs, you have opportunities and can afford a lifestyle the average Chinese peasant could only dream of. Nevertheless, by Western standards, even the SEZ inhabitants still lead a tough life, for the most part.
For every wealthy factory owner in a large chauffeur-driven black car with smoked windows, there must be a thousand factory workers, sleeping 10 to a dorm, and getting one day off a week. Their real working day is often 12 hours long, and their average salary would not tempt a work shy European dole bird out of bed. If they do not meet their targets, they will be dismissed.
The SEZs are an example of old-fashioned capitalism: brutal, ugly and ruthlessly efficient. I’m sure if the Neo-Cons and Thatcherites had their way, it is this type of capitalism that would return to Europe to help us ‘maintain our efficiency in a global market’. But I for one could not survive for long in this kind of environment.
I remember one day at work a couple of other English teachers and myself were being shown round a large industrial plant we were about to start teaching English in. What struck me most was that during their breaks the office workers took naps at their desks. I mean, they were so tired that during breaks they simply slept at their desk. If I was that tired, I’d stay in bed.
I wondered why workers would voluntarily subject themselves to this kind of toil. When the factories send their recruitment officers into the Chinese hinterland at job fairs, the jobs on offer are always massively oversubscribed. As I mentioned before, the problem with the SEZs is keeping workers out of them, not attracting people into them.
I suppose that in order to understand why anyone does anything apparently unpleasant, you should always consider the alternatives they have, and you should always remember that the alternatives they have are not the same as the alternatives you have.
A life of toil and drudgery on the factory floor is considerably better than a life of toil and drudgery in the paddy fields, both in terms of quality of life and financial gain.
It is even better, in many ways, than a dead-end job in one of the government-run factories, especially in the dying rust-belt cities of northern China. While these government factory jobs offer better job security, in the short term, there is always the possibility that the government will grow tired of subsidising an unprofitable company and close it down. They also pay quite badly, and are run by communist officials who are far more interested in rewarding political orthodoxy than efficiency.
The biggest attraction of all to the SEZs, I believe, is hope. A government-run company offers job security but little opportunity. The SEZs offer opportunity but little security. The SEZs will continue to thrive because humans are drawn to opportunity. It is an irresistible force for us, a throwback to our hunter-gatherer past. As a species, we are the ultimate opportunists.
Zhuhai is, as I have already said, a land of opportunity for the Chinese. Every lowly factory worker believes that with hard work, diligence and a little luck, they could become tomorrow’s factory owner. And even if they don’t, perhaps their children will.
In post-industrial societies, where growth rates tend to hover around 1-3%, and society is therefore relatively stable, it is difficult for us to imagine the instability, and the consequent opportunity, that exists in a country with growth rates near 10 per cent. Citizens of Zhuhai and the other SEZs are at the vanguard of that growth, and they know, or at least believe, things can only get better.
Zhuhai is known in China as ‘Zhuhai Piaoliang’ or ‘Beautiful Zhuhai’. It’s located on the coast of the South China Sea, and is famous for its immaculately manicured parks. In fact, it’s one of the greenest cities in China, and people often go there for their honeymoon, or holiday there, if they can afford it.
Having said that, the holiday brochures and the internet sites promoting ‘beautiful Zhuhai’ can be rather ‘creative’ sometimes. Digital photography makes ‘touching up’ photographs child’s play, and the Zhuhai tourist authorities do certainly play with some of the images of the city they dissemble.
For example, when they depict the crystal blue waters of the South China Sea, and the immaculate beaches, bathed in golden sunshine, they could be accused of being rather economical with the truth. The seawater is, in fact, almost invariably a muddy brown; contaminated by the silt and pollution of the mighty Pearl River and its enormous delta.
Even if you ignore the colour, the coast is home to an enormous amount of flotsam and detris from upstream, but this never appears on the publicity shots. I once saw a dead dog, for example, his bloated body bobbing among some plastic debris, but I admit this was exceptional, and most waste is usually non-organic.
However, you would most definitely not swim in the sea here. Indeed, it looks more like something a mutant sea monster might crawl out of. This doesn’t seem to worry the Chinese too much, who practically never swim in the sea, or even sunbathe on the beach, obsessed as they are with the whiteness of their skin.
There is a much darker side to Zhuhai, I believe, and I have heard it said that Hong Kong and Japanese tourists and businessmen are often drawn here by its relatively cheap and apparently abundant prostitutes. However, all of this completely passed me by when I was there. A lot of things simply pass me by, lost as I usually am in my own thoughts and petty neurosis; not traits that one normally looks for in a travel writer.
Turning towards the future, how might Zhuhai fare in the 21’ts century? The Communist Party has big plans for Zhuhai and Shenzen, and the Communist Party has become quite good at turning grand plans into reality.
Unfortunately, it has also shown itself to be quite good at bringing China to its knees, but that can perhaps be blamed more on the insanity of one man, Chairman Mao, than on the Communist Party itself. However, having said that, communism does create an environment in which homicidal megalomaniacs can easily come to power: Mao in China; Stalin in Russia, Pol Pot in Cambodia, Ceausescu in Romania, and so on. Without the checks and balances on power one finds in a democratic system, one man can easily create a culture of fear and hatred, a vortex of paranoia that can lead to the deaths of tens of millions.
But let’s assume that China is not brought down the road to self-destruction again-what is Zhuhai’s future? Might I return here in 20 years time to find myself in the biggest city on Earth; a metropolis almost too large to imagine? I have heard it said that there is a long-term plan is to link Guangzhou with Hong Kong, through a dramatically expanded Zhuhai and Shenzen.
This would create a massive conurbation on a scale the world has never seen before: an area the size of France with a 100-million strong population; a megacity like no other.
It sounds impossible, but so did a fishing village like Shenzhen turning into a city of ten million in less than thirty years. I think it could happen.
The Chinese, in my opinion, still see nature as something to be controlled and conquered; something to be subjugated to their ‘will’, and not something to live in harmony with. Witness for example, the Three Gorges Dam, which placed so much land under water that 1,240,000 people had to be relocated. Placing vast areas of farmland under concrete in order to create the world’s biggest megacity wouldn’t arouse the same feelings of dread and horror in China that it would inspire in the west. Even the idea of a city needing a ‘green belt’ around it was an idea my students didn’t really seem to understand, much less agree with.
The Han see it as their right to rule, and if becoming the world’s number one economy requires mega cities of 100 million, then so be it. Westerners may bemoan the environmental destruction and inhumanity of such colossal cities, but how many of us would volunteer to return to a life of toil in the fields, or wish such a life on our descendants, to protect something as ephemeral as the environment? It is far easier to be green in a post-industrial society than in a pre-industrial one.
The Party sees its main role as freeing people, not from dictatorship, but from poverty and want. Indeed, the Party has already freed more people from poverty in the last 20 years than all the NGO’s put together. If poverty is to be eliminated then it will not be through charity, but through commerce.
My only concern is that an increasingly fragile Planet Earth will find itself incapable of supporting a wealthy China and the inevitable pollution that will come with it; massive on a scale as yet unknown.
Our future, and perhaps even whether we have one at all, may be decided in China’s Special Economic Zones; the SEZ’s hold the key.
To move from the world at large to my own little part of it, on our last day in Zhuhai, we paid a visit to the school we used to work in.
Some of the Chinese staff from the school still worked there, and they seemed genuinely glad to see me again: much more than I had expected. Most people regard my reappearance in their lives in the same was that they react to the reappearance of cold sores, with weary resignation, but the school staff actually looked happy to see me.
Flattering my ego, they also said that many of my ex-students still asked after me, and that I had left a deep impression in the heads of many of our students, which sounds a bit like I had thumped them in the skull with a hammer, but I’m sure they meant something nicer. I was genuinely sad to say goodbye again, and it takes a lot to make a cynical misanthrope like me feel like that.
The non-Chinese teachers we had worked with had long since flown the coop, as teachers of English as a foreign language are a migratory species, and need to keep moving. Occasionally, they take a fancy to one place, or find a partner there, decide to build a nest and drop an egg or two, or they grow old and return home to die, but in general, they can’t resist the call of the wind, and keep moving.
The whole city of Zhuhai had been built on this deep-rooted need to move on; to look for something better; to find an El Dorado. If we could we would even travel to other planets in search of it.
My thoughts turned to more mundane matters when we tried to get out of Zhuhai. Travelling is China is rarely easy. It was undoubtedly more difficult for our hunter gatherer ancestors in the past, since cavemen could not avail of the services of travel agents and budget airlines, but travelling is nonetheless still a difficult business in modern China.
Matters are not helped by travel agency’s annoying tendency to hire people with little or no English, or any other foreign language, and a complete inability to understand foreigners when they try to speak Chinese. One or the other I could tolerate, but both together are insufferable.
Things are made worse by their ‘flexible truth system’, in which the truth becomes whatever is most profitable for the travel agent. No two travel agents in China ever told me the same thing.
I will stop myself mid-rant to point out that my wife, who I admit generally has a closer grasp on reality than I do, felt that the root of the ‘travel agent problem’ was my inability to communicate with others and my insufferable lack of patience.
But to return to my rant, I still maintain that you simply cannot trust a travel agent in China, and must remind yourself that there objective is not really to sell you what you want to buy, but to extract as much cash from you as possible. If this means being a little economical with the truth, then so be it.
In order to maximise profits, travel agents in China are also wont to try to change your holiday plans, and often keen to send you to an alternative destination to the one you had intended to go to; which coincidentally, they happen to have a tour of, and as luck would have it, the travel agency can off you a special discounted price.
The trick to actually going where you want to go in China, and not ending up where the Travel Agents wants you to go, is to pigheadedly go from travel agency to travel agency until you get a ticket for the destination you want.
You must then buy the ticket immediately, before the travel agent changes their mind. On no account should you believe a travel agent who tells you to come back tomorrow to pick up or pay for a ticket because this ticket will have become mysteriously unavailable.
Eventually, we managed to buy a ticket out of Zhuhai, but it also involved an unwanted three-hour bus ride to Guangzhou airport.
In the airport, a thunderstorm came out of nowhere, just to remind us we were still in the tropics, and the rain fell so heavily that you couldn’t see out of the airport window, which looked like a car window does in a car wash; except without the suds, of course. If you peered closely enough though, you could just about see that planes were still taking off and landing, apparently oblivious to the lightning forks in the night sky.
Guangzhou airport is incredibly modern, so modern it looks like it belongs in the future, rather than the present. It’s science-fiction modern: all gleaming glass, impossible high ceilings, and so much empty space that you feel like an ant in a football stadium.
It makes Heathrow look like a museum piece, but so much of modern China makes the west, and Europe in particular, look so hopelessly old-fashioned and out-dated; quaint and anachronistic, but ultimately irrelevant to the modern world.
Pacing around the cavernous halls of the Guangzhou’s Space-Gordon airport, I asked myself what was happening to the West.
Throughout the twentieth century China was eons behind the west, and then in the blink of an eye, it suddenly seemed to be leap-frogging us and become more modern. If this was a 21st century ‘hare and tortoise’ fable, we would be the hare, watching helplessly as the six-million dollar tortoise sprinted towards the finish line, wondering where it had all gone wrong; unable to understand how we had been so far ahead but had lost the race.
There is still an enormous amount of poverty and backwardness in China, of course, and development has been unequal. Even on the bus from Zhuhai SEZ to the metropolis of Guangzhou, the eight-lane motorways passed peasant farmers in straw hats, tilling the land by hand, with the occasional reluctant help of a water buffalo, much as they have done for centuries.
In today’s China, contrast is everywhere: Between the belching factories and the dehumanizing tower blocks, greyer than an Irish winter sky, giant oxen plough the lush green fields; banana plantation trees sway nonchalantly; bridges so long you can’t see the end of them until you are half way across span the endless Pearl River delta with ease, as tiny wooden fishing boats try to eek a living by finding what few fish can survive its muddied polluted waters.
These contrasts will be swept away as China modernises. Economic progress, the great leveller, will leave this place as it has left the West: standardised, homogenised, and equal. In a strange way, I felt privileged to see it before this happened, before everything becomes one.
As always, everything was covered in mist, but the nearer you got to Guangzhou, the more acrid and polluted the air became. It looked like the smog was yellowing the mist. I could almost feel it clogging my lungs, or at least, fighting with the cigarette tar for prime real estate.
Images of the soon-to-disappear paddy fields among the motorways flashed in and out of my mind, and mingled with the glass, steel and chrome of the airport.
The plane, to my surprise, ignored the raging storm, and took off on time into the worst turbulence I’ve ever encountered. The air hostess said something in appalling English, which I couldn’t really make out, but it sounded like, “We will be holding a Chinese funeral service shortly,” but I’m sure she actually said something else. They left the lights out for the entire flight, not just landing and take off, presumably following Nirvana’s sage advice in ‘Smells Like teen Spirit’:
“With the lights out
It’s less dangerous”
None of this seemed to remotely perturb the Chinese on the flight (everyone except Sandra and I) and they all slept like babies.
Although I had lived in China for a year before this trip, I had not travelled in it, at least not beyond the province of Guangdong. . Instead I had spent my holidays in Thailand. Now that I was living in Thailand, I was spending my holidays in China. It all made sense at the time.
In any case, I was about to go into uncharted waters. I was about to parts of China I had never seen before. I was heading away from the coast and into the hinterland, into the ‘real’ China. This, the shaking of the place in the storm, the flight attendant’s repeated references to Chinese funerals, left me feeling very excited. I had the sense of elation mixed with trepidation that one gets before one does something completely new.
China was mine. The Dragon had invited me into its lair and was showing me around.


© Copyright 2020 Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.

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