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Back from Beijing – Loving China even More

It is more than twenty years since I fell in love with China. Being a lazy lover, I didn’t go there until the 11th of this month (September 2013).

I thought I would be able to update Free Haifa fresh with my impressions from the spot. But it appears that China is more efficient than I thought with blocking imperialist tools like WordPress. Though we were well connected, we were out of touch with Facebook, and our only connection to the outside world was by email.

You may blame the Chinese state for not having anything new on Free Haifa for three weeks – the longest interruption since the blog was launched. Your consolation may be that instead of immediate superficial impressions I may write more thoughtful and balanced reports. One of them may be about China’s policy toward the internet…

Why I love China?

Being educated as western socialists, we used to see the Soviet Union, love it or not, as the main example of implementation of socialism. After the privileged bureaucracy of the Soviet Union decided that it can live better in a capitalist system, where its privilege may be legitimized and multiply as capitalist exploitation of “added value”, many people declared that there is socialism no more. I started following in detail those 3rd world countries that sticked to socialism.

Soon I concentrated on China, by far the biggest and most dynamic of current day socialist experiences. I was regularly reading different sources, mostly The Economist, the BBC and China Daily. I tried to follow small stories from both sides to really understand where things are going and why.

One example is the issue of deadly accidents in China’s coal mines. China relies for most of its energy consumption on locally mined coal. As economic development and standards of living were racing in full speed, energy demand was increasing by double digit percentage yearly and coal production had to follow suit. To meet the demand the coal sector was “liberalized” with “free for all” development and many small mines opened, unsafe and lightly supervised. Wikipedia speaks of China producing 40% of the world’s coal in 2007, employing 5 million workers to mine it, with up to 20,000 miners dying in accidents yearly.

For some time I was following in detail the measures that the Chinese authorities were implementing to reduce the death toll in the mines. Thousands of small mines were closed due to sub-standard safety conditions. As there were complaints about lenient enforcement of safety regulations by officials with self interest in the mining industry, there came a special regulation preventing state and party officials from holding private stakes in coal. When all these steps seemed not to be enough, the authorities adopted an innovating approach: a new regulation demanded that a member of the management team will go down the mine with the workers on every shift, so he will have the time and motivation to care personally that everybody goes up.

There are still too many miners dying in accidents in China, but, as in many other fields, there is huge and systematic progress, starting from a very hard spot. Writing this article I searched for the statistics again and found that Wikipedia now reports coal mine accidents death toll declining from a peak of 7,000 in 2002 to 2,000 in 2011, while production greatly increased. Other reports speak of farther fall in mining accidents in 2012.

Another example was the issue of worker’s organization. Walmart, America’s giant retail multinational, the biggest private employer worldwide, prevents its more than 2 million workers from their right to organize in trade unions. In 2004, when workers in one Walmart store in Jonquière, Quebec (Canada) organized in a union, the management closed the branch. The pressure to organize the workers is cited as one reason why Walmart retreated from Germany. As Walmart was expanding to China, it was warned by the government that the Chinese constitution guarantees the right of the workers to organize in trade unions. China is too important to avoid. Walmart made an exception and, by August 2006, recognized the right of its Chinese workers to organize. It was leaked to the papers that Comrade Hu, China’s president at the time, was personally behind the letter that made the difference.

By many small and big details, I was persuaded that not only that the development of China is in the interest of China’s working masses, but the legitimacy of the Chinese government is still connected to its serving the interests of the workers and peasants. Capitalism is allowed to some degree, but it still doesn’t control the economy and is not holding the political power. China’s miraculous economic development was achieved not due to the pursuit of capitalist self gains but due to the harnessing of all productive forces (capitalism included) to the common good. Corruption surely exists everywhere, but it is still persecuted and prevented from wrecking the boat. And, of course, far beyond my “sectarian ideological partisanship”, I was happily following the results of China’s rise, pulling hundreds of millions out of poverty in China itself and giving new hopes and opportunities for billions all over the worlds.

What I‘ve seen in Beijing?

There is a famous “Anti Socialist” joke: In a meeting of the communist party some time after the victory over the Nazis in the great patriotic war, the leader was telling the comrades about the great achievements, citing Pravda that all the buildings that were destroyed in the war were already fully reconstructed. One comrade had a comment:

–         “I was walking yesterday around the city and it is still half destroyed.”

–         “Comrade Ivanov”, was the leaders reply, “good communists are reading the papers and not wandering in the streets!”

Wandering for ten days in Beijing’s streets, and few more days on some small villages around it, I found that what I was reading (and thinking) materializes in the concrete of roads and buildings and in the endless stream of busy and life loving people everywhere.

First impression, coming from small Haifa on the west coast of Asia, you feel that Beijing is a big city, just as the Pacific Ocean is bigger than the Mediterranean. Beijing has a lot of history to show – I hope to write about it and its significance in a separate post. But the real big thing in Beijing is its future. The whisper of the city is not saying “here we are” but “we are coming”. Everywhere you see repairs at work and new buildings compounds being built, rising 10 to 30 stories.

You can see the city is planned to grow. The wide streets at the center of the city, as well as the six highway rings, keep the traffic moving most of the time, even as more and more people now own private cars. The metro is new and sleek. It is the 3rd longest in the world but still too small on the city and new lines are being built. (It is even “foreigners friendly” by having everything in English alongside the unreadable Chinese.) And it is growing in quality of life as well as in size. Many trees are planted along the streets. New and old parks serve the people, some with small lakes, child’s activity centers and sport facilities.

While other cities have most high-rise buildings in the center, emphasizing the power of Capital, Beijing’s center is kept low with historic palaces, public buildings, old markets and slams turned tourist attractions. Even as (almost) every big corporate in the world must have a glass covered corporate building in Beijing, there are more office buildings with only Chinese names and much more high-rise residential buildings, spreading between the rings and far away from the center.

Beijing’s People

You might find it strange, but I was happy to see poor Chinese people everywhere. I knew that they are there: the minimum wage in Beijing is only about 1400 Yuan (233 US$), and if you wouldn’t see the poor people it would mean that they are hidden somewhere.

I loved Beijing because it doesn’t seem to be a segregated city. You may see in the same street new amazing high rise buildings and just over the corners a collection of older building where people are clearly poor – but even as we were wandering into those poor neighborhoods we saw gardens, electricity, air condition, cultural centers, etc.

The metro is clean but swamped. On many entrance there is a thriving market, obviously unregulated and directed to serve the needs and tastes of poor people coming back from work. Wandering out in the streets again you may pass by headquarters of big firms and see hundreds of more stalls serving every kind of cheap popular food to the Chinese masses. Even near the entrance to the imperial palace, the touristic center of the city, most shops are small and are clearly designed to serve the poor. The odd KFC or Macdonald is lost in the endless stream of local shops.

Women are everywhere, driving buses and taxis, working in construction and gardening, selling everything in the streets, serving in the police, selling or managing different shops. Women and men mostly wear modern, simple and elegant T-shirts, jeans and sneakers. You can see iPhones all around, so much so that some Chinese describe the invasion of Apple as a repetition of the Opium Wars that Britain waged against China (and won) in 1839-42 and 1856-60.

Children clearly come one-by-one. Wandering in the parks in the Autumn Holiday and weekends we saw the Chinese princes and princesses surrounded by caring fathers, mothers and grandparents, all so much cared to.

We saw ordinary Chinese people meeting to play music, sing and dance in the parks – to have good time together and not to beg for money. Some of the music was clearly revolutionary songs – we recognized some famous Russian tunes and others from the Spanish civil war and could join the Chinese lyrics with Arabic and Hebrew.

We discussed Beijing’s poverty with our western friends that live in China, all idealistic and very concerned citizens. They said that Beijing 20 million residents are composed of some 15 million registered citizens with full social rights and some 5 million “migrant workers”. Of the migrant workers about half have some legal residency status which allows them some access to social services. The “illegal” 2 or 3 millions mostly live somewhere near the 6th ring, sometimes in really poor conditions. They speak of the local authorities’ relations o the migrant workers – some try to be more liberal and inclusive but others are openly hostile.

This reminds us of the inescapable contradictions that haunt the Chinese quest for development. You simply can’t allow everybody to come to live in Beijing – but preventing it clearly obstructs personal freedom and many poor people still have really hard times. Coming back from China, I don’t have detailed answers for my questions but I’m more confident that the great and tireless Chinese People will find the way to overcome these difficulties.