It is -7 degrees Celsius in Beijing. I am tired from the 21-hour journey. When I get out at the Dongzhimen station, it feels like -50. I take a guess and go right. I can be under a warm blanket in 20 min. I pray to get this right! Just like Google Maps, God does not work in China. When I get to the hostel 40 minutes later, I can’t even articulate words. Cold was the first discomfort in China, but not the last.
The hostel had seven malls in its neighbourhood, and malls and coffeehouses is all I visited in my first six days. Gloria Jeans was my favourite.
After six days of self-confinement in front of the laptop, I hit publish and go explore. I was not going to visit any organization here. For now, the thirty I visited in the US are enough. I decide to reverse the pattern and spend some time alone, reading, writing and reflecting. It is time to dive into my quest for the big picture. Out of the three intentions that I have for this year-long journey around the world, the “big picture” got no attention yet. I picked a book that would give me an overview of the country: Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got Here and Where It Is heading. I was roaming the streets with the kindle in my pocket, weaving the narrative of the book with my observations and the conversations I had with both expats and chinese people.
When I got to Tiananmen Square area, in the center of Beijing, I knew that was the place. It will serve as a background for my reading about China and my reflection beyond. I am the opposite of the tourist with a list. When I find one place that inspires something in me, I will not go see the next one. Instead, I prefer to go back and spend more time there. I read about it, I absorb its details and use it as a spark to reflect and imagine – the people, the context, the ideas, the meaning.
I spent half of day in the National Museum of China, visiting the permanent gallery about China’s history from ancient times to the last emperor.
Then I went to see the Road to Rejuvenation, explaining the last century when chinese people finally emerged victorious after a century of “semi-colonialism and humiliation”. The Communist Party of China was responsible.
I skipped the Great Wall for going back the second day and the third day to Tiananmen to have long walks and spend time reading in the museum. The grandiose building feels appropriate to host hundreds of thousands of years of human history. The time at the museum was the most inspiring and meaningful for my bigger quest.
Although I did not visit the Great Wall, I experienced equally impressive walls: the great firewall that I endured for 6 days before installing a VPN and the language barrier that was significantly higher that in any other country. Finding vegetarian food was a treasure hunt.
Going back from Tiananmen Square to my hostel, I was walking with my head at 45 degrees up and wondered at one building after another. They were mostly headquarters of banks I never heard of. The buildings and the infrastructure are impressive. The huge screens in the malls and on the street, the metro, the airports, the bridges. It seems “bigger and shinier”.
Sometimes, I used the subway to go back. After visiting India, I expected to see many people dressed in some kind of chinese distinct style, wearing the equivalent of sari, salwar, kurta or dastar. Everybody was wearing stylish western clothes. I also expected lots of poor people. Everybody had huge smartphones and used them intensely. The China I experienced in the subway seems to have embraced the material culture of the west to the full.
“There is a new religion in China: it is called Money” – my hungarian roomie Andras used to repeat often as a conclusion to his stories and examples. He works in the beauty industry, himself concentrating on making money. Other expats told me that they feel the influence to become more “pragmatic”. The myth goes that it is not uncommon for a girl to ask a guy on their first date how much money he makes and what car he’s driving. Maybe that story is exaggerated, but China surely feels materialistic.
Energized by this new religion, coordinated by the Communist party, China moves at an impressive speed and scale. Looking through one gigantic bridge in Shanghai, you can see the cranes with the smog in the background. I took this picture as a metaphor to hold about China. In economic terms, you feel this is where the action is. There are many reports of corner cutting but they sure move fast.
The masks that many people wear in Beijing bear testimony that there is a price to be paid for the speed. As the Paris Climate Summit was underway, I witnessed this apocalyptic sky. The picture does not capture the intense yellow that made it even spookier.
The smog and the masks, the luxury, the huge screens, the smartphones, the impressive buildings and the censorship remind me in many ways of the science-fiction dystopias from Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World or Hunger Games.
The Communist Party of China is ruling this mammoth of a country without the show of free elections. They use a different story and that also works. They use force more brutally to protect their power. The control of the media is not so sophisticated. But beyond the elements of style, the essence seems to me the same in China as in Romania or US: people accept the power system, suffer from it and get on with their lives. They make the most of playing in the game whose rules are not of their making. Sometimes they fight back but they do it inside the game. The rules of power don’t get touched. Normal people get the scraps. The game is rigged. Like in a casino, the house always wins.
China was a revealing mirror to look into as a world citizen. It lacks the sophisticated cosmetics that dress up the “development model” sold to or imposed on humanity by the West. China embraces this model and pushes it to its limits. Here you can see the absurdity of sacrificing the environment, people’s health and social justice for greedy growth. They don’t use the democracy story so it becomes clear that whatever the story – the power asymmetry is the same. Looking from China district, the whole world resembles the Panem dystopia.
Before getting depressed about world’s current politics and power distribution, I will take another step back to look at humanity’s trajectory over time. You can read about that in my next article: Big History (coming soon).