On the Ways of the New China
author: Pedro Guimarães guest author

On the Ways of the New China

Hong-Kong, 19 pm local time, 8th of July, 2004. I have just landed in the International airport, where immediately I am forced to pass through the scanners, which record my thermic image. I recall that we live in the days of diseases that appear suddenly, coming from nowhere, suddenly threatening millions of human beings. The thermical image of the passengers will be useful to determine, who are those, which walk feverishly. The ones that are "hot" will have to be subject to medical examinations. Asia is fighting with new outbreaks of "bird's fever" and "atypical pneumonia". The bluish on my face, represented in the infrared monitor, indicates that I must be ok. I continue.

I arrive then at the heart of this other China, to which the Chinese of Hong-Kong proudly insist to refer like "S.A.R." or Special Administrative Area. In a few words: an independent country inside another one. Chinese territory, local government, independent. At least for the moment. For somebody like me, Portuguese, genuine European, used to the relative provincialism from small cities in the old continent, the visual shock is immediate and inevitable. Skyscrapers so compact that from a dived point of view almost eclipse the sky above me. Pollution and moisture are such that oblige me to relieve the handle's pressure of the back bag to be able to breath.

Crushed by the chaotic scenario, I feel the need to sit down a little. I choose the closer staircases, where I immobilize myself and try to guide me: repeat the reasons that made me come here. The previous day the world was radically different to me. Before my brain mislead by the jet lag tries to arrive at some conclusion, already a being in uniform politely informed me that I could not remain there. I was in the building's hall of a very important bank, for very rich and aseptic people, and I could not stain the landscape. I turn a few meters aside, invading the garden's bench of a bank "still more important", by which an almost equal uniform, of an almost different blue, gave me equal treatment. Tired, confused, I decide to rest on foot, leaned on a post that seemed to me like the only urban piece of furniture. Only later I discovered than in the heart of HK the place for the pedestrians is not in the sidewalks by the streets, but rather in the infinite corridors and air passages which inter-connect the abundant institutional buildings, shopping?s and plazas of this small piece of ground. I breathe deeply and I think that I'm not the only foreigner in this city. I move to a taxi and I show him in the map of my guide the place where I hope to find a bed to rest a body in a state of confusion. During the short night walk I'm astonished with the groups of old people that practise Tai-Chi in the middle of an oppressive concrete sea, creating an ironically comic image. At the race end I meet luck, which is always beside travellers without hotel reservation. I find a bed at a bargain price, with top sight to the impressive bush of skyscrapers, fishing boats and cargo-boats that surround the island.

A few days before, in the colossal building from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs from RPC I obtain the tourist visa that will allow me to enter the People's Republic of China and remain there during 30 days. In this same building, placed in one of the principal arteries of HK, I see by chance something that only later I understood. In two stages with malls dimensions, are on sale, in a mixture of store and museum, objects originated from several dynasties. Among pieces of luxurious furniture, colossal ivory sculptures and silk clothing of first quality, are true treasures on sale. By prices that can be considered ridiculous any mortal can buy the filling of this supposed "museum". Why was China dishabituate itself, from the treasures of its past? And which are the customers for this business? While looking around and speaking with the museum workers, the answer is simple: China wants to enrich at all costs and the Western collectors and owners of the largest local hotels do not waste this occasion. To sell at bargain price the testimony of the past can be a way but, as I observed later, it's mainly with the environmental destruction that China fattens its economy with a yearly 8% average.

Already with the visa in my hands, I enter China, through Macao. During my two days stay in this land, which was once Lusitanian, leaves me disappointed. I was not hoping to find a semi Portuguese China, nor people speaking Portuguese in the streets. Nevertheless what I saw was excessively deprived of identity. The large reflected buildings and the game houses advance in the landscape and give place to the inevitable one: a sea of concrete and declining districts. Hong-Kong already had left me the feeling that its habitants do not show unspecified interest in the cultural and architectural heritage. I believe that Macao is not an exception. Here the marks of the colonial occupation are demolished, like a person that makes a lobotomy. Some catholic churches (or what remains from them), a Portuguese bookshop, some Portuguese restaurants and some governmental and associative buildings seem to be what was left from the Lusitanian landscape. Nevertheless, the Portuguese idiom, that nobody seems to speak or understand, is still the official one. The shop-windows exhibit the name of the business in two idioms. In the streets, the traffic signs are the same as in Portugal, with indications in Portuguese and translation in Chinese. The names of the streets also appear in bilingual inscriptions, although, in this case, the Chinese name does not result from translation. And the police cars have written in their doors... "Polícia".

Certainly the Portuguese travellers who already went a little further than the border of Spain with France have noticed that our biggest ambassador in this planet gives by the name of Figo, more known in these corners by "Pigu". Here Mr. Luís Figo competes in popularity with cod, the better-known dish of several and "exotic" Portuguese restaurants. And by what I read in the press, cream pastry aspires to the same statute. In the middle of all this I imagine how it will be to live in a city that gives shelter to a language that almost nobody understands. A Chinese university teacher, from which I did not remember the name by heart, talks about the subject in the RTP macaiste channel explaining that it's like freezing a dialect, that it's kept there and can be suitable when China decides to approach the gigantic Brazilian and African market. Being Portuguese one of the most spoken languages in the world.

I decided to go to China with undefined objectives. I did not do it by leisure. Perhaps by curiosity. I believe that the Chinese are passing by something historical, a gigantic revolution and curiously silent, almost without face. The absurd economic growth, which already removed 20% of the 1.3 billion of Chinese from the tiny threshold of poverty, resembles itself to a miracle with malign outlines. The question that until now nobody knows the answer is to know which is the future of this new China. An ecological and human catastrophe without History precedents will be the other side of the story? I believe that until now no other people carried out to this extreme the question of the bearable development. With no doubt the economic rapid opening made possible that many Chinese aspire to a life style materially superfluous. It's curious to make the exercise suggested by the May edition of the National Geographic magazine, where the reader tries to imagine how it would be the world if it was possible to Chinese people to adopt an equivalent life style to the United States citizens. According to the same magazine it would be necessary the resources of three planets. To understand the Chinese phenomenon seems to be an important stage to better understand humanity in itself.

The opening of China to foreign capital and to private initiative contributed for an increasing tolerance concerning the questions of personal freedom. Nevertheless it seems obvious to me that still much is to happen, if we take as reference the Western world. The first direct contact with this reality occurred when I was forced to call upon the services of a riquexó driver, in the Xi'An town. While he pedalated, the sad man told me in an almost perfect English the time when he was an assistant teacher at the University of Peijing. For one prosperous period of his life, in which he worked to "enrol" in the reduced Chinese middle class, his wife saw herself accidentally pregnant of their second child. By refusing the chance that the government offered to abortion, the punishments in insist to have more than one child was not delayed: both have to abdicate their professional careers definitively. Without financial means to pay the high rates take make possible to pay the punishment, the family saw itself suddenly forced to survive in the streets, without access to a legal employment. Very common, this dramatic case reflects one of the deep differences concerning the Western culture: the use, purely pragmatic, of the abortion like a tool to population control.

Regarding the access to information, the panorama is not also the best. The totality of the social communication agencies remains under the supervision and the orientation from the state. The television chains still function like a gigantic system for national education. Seeing the daily television programmes, it's easy to have the feeling that the spectator is treated like a child. Infinite programs show as the silkworms reproduce, almost at their own speed. TV Soaps of doubtful quality reproduce an ancestral artificial China. In the TV news the rest of the world seems not to exist, with exception of the covering of subjects impossible to go round, like the war in Iraq or 11th of September. And perhaps an attack here or there. The journalistic press seems to work not very far from the maintenance of this collective blindness, where only the internal product is consumed. The magazine shops only show titles that can, in no way, let grow personal ideas. Fashion, armament, automobile tunning and other futilities are the subjects. In the bookseller market, all that is not a novel seems to be signed by a General, for what I saw and was able to deduce by the photographs of the authors in the books. Curiously, the Chinese reading practices go through subjects related to military and political life. The foreign press, as would it would be expected, or does not exist or is extremely inaccessible.

Another curious phenomenon is the Internet one. China has already a widely and complete network access to the Internet. Cybercoffes are everywhere from small towns to big cities, with perfectly accessible prices. Nevertheless, the several young Chinese who use them still not seem to have discovered another function in them beyond network games. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between a game house and a cybercoffe. Although sites as the BBC online are with blocked access, it did not seem to me difficult to find alternative accesses to several other sources of information, with no censured contents. The Chinese, at least those of the young generation, can't justify any more their ignorance concerning the external world by the inaccessibility of information. Nevertheless, in spite of the quickly development of the situation, the lack of knowledge about English idiom and the familiarisation with the Roman characters seems to represent the largest obstacles in the access to information, even more than unspecified censure.

Who think that belongs to a system of more favourable policies, there would be too much more to say. The environmental crimes and the total disrespect towards ecological balance would give interminable debate subjects. The Chinese cities are easily confused with gigantic shipyards of works, in permanent construction. "When I see on the TV news images from Europe, the sky is always blue" - says to me an accidental Chinese travelling companion. I answer him that when one lives permanently below a heavy smog curtain, under the obsession to create richness, our more than imperfect Occident can be seem like paradise. "Laundry", as he liked to be called, 19 years old, son of a banker and a marketing agent in a tobacco-pouch, confessed me that he had left walking through his country to be able to find western travellers with whom he could practise English and try to know something about other ways of thinking, As one seeks orientation for his own life. The 2000 Yens (approximately 200 Euros) that each of his parents gains per month, allow him to have this luxury during the university holidays. "Laundry" is one of the several Chinese of the new generation that assumed himself as an individual, wanting to know his place in the middle of the crowd. Its search, in spite of blind, can be a first step.

The progressive slacken of the "reins" by the government on its people and the economic crescent capacity is allowing the emergence of a reluctant generation, capable of exhibit some dissatisfaction. Nevertheless, this same nonconformism mixes with an almost total ignorance concerning the external world. Without references, good or bad examples, some young Chinese hopelessly try to find a way whose direction is, for the moment, obscure. Many times they approached me on the street, with an almost constrained curiosity, questioning me about this unimaginable freedom of travelling without destination, with a back bag on the back and a camera on neck. And what distant country was mine, which nobody was able to imagine how it was? As a simple traveller and starting my career as a photojournalist I only could give them almost empty answers. Several times, in vain, I offered the hospitality of my country.

Text: Pedro Guimarães July 2004
Translation: Sofia Quintas