China, My Thoughts, and Memory Loss

Dear Reader:

One of the questions I posed a lot in my blog before I left for China was: why was the central theme in so much of the Chinese literature I was reading “oppression”?  From having visited before, I did not get the sense that people were walking around feeling deeply frustrated and oppressed.  Granted, I spent very little time in Chinese homes, talking with Chinese intellectuals, artists, writers, poets, and I mostly was at a resort with predominantly trips out to see tourist sights and visit government offices.

I suppose there is no reason that any of this would show me Chinese frustration.  But I’ve also known many Chinese quite well as students and colleagues and friends who lived in the US.  And this topic did not come up that much, even in our frank discussions of Chinese politics.  Concerns about corruption did.  But I believe I understood them to mean “petty” corruption that one expects in the developing world or former Soviet bloc (which, combined make up most of the world, I guess).  I thought people were talking about slipping someone a few dollars to get a document stamped, avoid a ticket, or get some kind of service.

What I didn’t realize, and it now seems bizarre to me that I missed it in all my reading about China, is that what people actually meant is very high level corruption.  Corruption at the levels of the top of government and the most powerful businesses in China (which are still all state-owned or foreign-owned).  As it was explained to me, this corruption is about – five people want to build a building (regardless whether it is needed or not or how many people it displaces) – the person who pays the biggest bribe(s) to the government official(s) with the ability to make the decision about who gets the building permit gets to build the building.  And also, probably that person had the most “guanxi” – that all powerful Chinese term for connections.

As you may know, in China, guanxi is EVERYTHING and I mean it.  This is not like in the US where connections might get someone to take your call or read your book manuscript.  This is about whether you get to go to college or go to jail for a minor infraction or are able to get a job at all.  I’ll give you an example.  My friend (who didn’t think her guanxi was all that great) had a friend in one of the cities we were visiting.  That friend is an official (as is, in a sort of a way, my friend) – they are officials in the same area of government.

So, because of my friend’s friend: we got our hotel at 1/3 the rate (about $70 instead of $210/night – it was a fancy hotel) – OK, you could say we got the government rate.  (an awfully nice one)  But it didn’t stop there.  My friend called her friend to buy our tickets to the next city (because this official could make this happen on short notice).  My friend called her friend when we could not use those tickets because there was a flood and we needed new tickets.  My friend called her friend when we needed to check out of the hotel late.  My friend called her friend when we needed a ride to the airport (government driver).  And on and on.

When I remarked about my friend’s guanxi which was obviously making our lives a lot easier, she said her guanxi was very weak, if it had been better, her friend would have paid our hotel bill, our restaurant bill, had us driven everywhere, shown VIP tours of sights, etc.  Guanxi.  I’m a government worker (after a fashion) and I can guarantee you that I couldn’t call an airline, restaurant, hotel – what have you, even locally, and get them to do something for me in this way (such as charge 1/3 the price).  I can’t wave my hand and arrange VIP tours.  Is this corruption?  I’m not sure and my friend says no, because everyone knows about it.

When one of my students wanted to interview a certain type of person in China, every single person she was able to interview came about through guanxi — a family friend of a friend of a friend etc. etc.  I do a lot of interviewing and surveying as part of my job.  Sometimes we use snowballing to interview people – you find a few people in a community you talk to first and then you can chain to the next person from them and the next person.  But I have never had to call my uncle and ask him to call his neighbor down the street and ask his daughter who used to work at XYZ to make a call in order to do a research interview.  But that’s exactly the way it is done in China.

OK, is that corruption?  Probably not, in many aspects – but when you operate at high levels, it can be.  And I think it could be corruption if that friend of a friend who arranged all that cheap and convenient stuff for us expected the same thing of me, or probably even more clearly, if they then (and I’m absolutely certain this is the way it works) expected me to hire their child or take them on as a student because they showed me a good time in X city.  And it is clearly corruption when top level government officials are becoming wealthy from payments to make certain decisions.  And that is what is happening.

Everywhere I went when I felt someone would feel comfortable talking freely (mostly friends of trusted friends – or really, friends who trusted me) I asked “What is China’s future?”  “What is the biggest problem in China?”  I’ll start with the second question.  I think to many Americans China’s biggest political problems are a lack of human rights.  A lack of free speech (my wordpress blog dashboard that I use to write posts being blocked), some lack of religious freedom – the Falun Gong’s religious (cult, probably) repression, etc.  But every single person I asked said the problem is this high level corruption.  We in the West are extremely conscious of China’s incredible economic growth.  But what people told me is that on a fraction of the wealth being created is actually going to the middle or working classes.  90% of it is making government officials (corruption) and business owners (not something new to us in the West) rich.  And that the system is set up to make ordinary Chinese think that they have a hope of someday successfully negotiating this convoluted, corrupt system.  So, there is a level of stability – but I was also told it is quite tenuous – that there is a lot of simmering frustration (like a bomb was the metaphor).  It is incredible for the New York Times to report about 10,000 farmer protests EVERY YEAR in China due to them losing their land rights.  These are people with no real rights (there is no real “rule of law” – the law goes to the person with money and/or guanxi) who could be thrown in jail for protesting, with no real hope of redress – and still they protest.

I had been thinking – OK, China is rising, clearly, and all signs are – things are loosening up politically – maybe slowly, but surely… so, I thought, yes, 10 and 20 years ago everyone with any hope for their children would try to get them to West to live a successful life, but no more – now the Chinese middle and intellectual class will be saying, things are getting better all the time, we have more money, things are fairer, more open, now my child and their children can stay in China.

Yet of all the people whom I asked “What is China’s future?” – NOBODY said anything positive.  They said – a lot of problems (corruption, HORRENDOUS pollution, horrible poverty – some of which I saw as I watched the worst slums I’ve ever seen being torn down – while people were still living in them – to build another high rise apartment building) that will not be solved.  Every single one of them is spending as much money as they can on extra English and math and science weekend classes so that they can get their kids OUT.  Maybe I’m naive, but I was so shocked and saddened.

And I was also told that, at least for intellectuals, writers, artists, the reality is constant oppression.  So the sense is of a huge, madly rushing, mass of people, under the very firm (but arbitrary) thumb of a government that could jail (or execute) you for saying the wrong thing.  There are world famous Chinese writers who have been jailed or are under house arrest (I just googled “chinese writer house arrest” and immediately found a long list of different writers under house arrest) right now.

You may be wondering now why I described this trip as magical and amazing.  It sounds awful and depressing, right?  Well, some of it was.  I’m not a city person – Beijing, Shanghai, and Xi’an are huge cities (Shanghai is spatially seven times the size of New York City proper).  The air pollution is horrible (except in Beijing where the fall winds of the Gobi had pushed it out but made your throat dry).  Anybody driving or riding anything with wheels is INSANE.  Chinese drivers make what was designed as four lanes eight lanes.

To drive (or ride) in anything (bus, taxi, car, truck, bike, motorcycle, rickshaw (yes there are lots of them – bike or motorbike based) or to try to cross a street (or enter a subway) is to engage in an absolutely constant game of chicken.  Will you or won’t you dare to hit me?  So people push their way in with a car, gambling that the other car won’t dare hit them.  Here’s how you make a left turn on a street with four lanes of oncoming traffic – you drive into the four lanes of oncoming traffic and guess who won’t dare to hit you.  I rode in a lot of taxis in China. I rode shotgun because it was the only place with a damn functional seatbelt.  So you can imagine me sitting there – the first to be hit if one of these cars chose to do so.

And you’re saying – of course, they did not hit you.  These were taxi drivers – they know what they are doing.  Except, we did hit someone.  We ran into an elderly woman crossing a street.  I’d gotten used to covering my eyes on various occassions – and this is the time when I knew we were hitting someone and we did.  And I saw a bike knock a young woman off her feet into the air.  And I saw accidents and the aftermath of accidents.  And one of the reasons people told me for getting their kids out of China is that there are so many car accidents (never mind that my argument that they therefore ought to make their child and themselves wear their seatbelts in their personal cars – which I personally witnessed them NOT doing was blown off – I was told you really don’t need to wear a seatbelt in the city – right.  China needs a Ralph Nader).  I also had one taxi driver tell me I didn’t need to wear my seatbelt – meaning I was not legally required to do so.  Hmmmm, as those four lanes of oncoming traffic came at me.  After crossing our last Beijing street – my last street crossing before leaving China, I raised my arms in triumph and did a little Rocky thing, I was so truly relieved.

I guess I still haven’t said the good part, have I?  The good part was all the people – who were so fun and kind and fascinating and generous.  It was the amazing 1000 different types of food I ate.  The wonderful museums.  The art.  The neolithic village (which we got a VIP tour of and many other VIP things because another friend had very strong guanxi – but it was “good” guanxi where someone knows a lot of wonderful artists who take you to museums, and give you gifts, and take you out for wonderful meals…just because your friend is an amazing person and your friend says you are an amazing person – not because I’m ever going to be able to do a political favor…).  It was seeing the countryside (which is where I want to go to and stay next time).  It was my wonderful friend who took me everywhere and her wonderful child and husband.  And the amazing night river boat tour down the Huangpo River in Shanghai with all the lights.  And Xi’an at night, driving around with amazing lights.  And walking in the Tang Dynasty (618-907) park in Xi’an that made you feel as if you were in the countryside.  So, I guess what you end up with is: I have great fortune to have such good and generous friends who could show me a China I could never otherwise have seen and who talked openly and, at some risk to themselves, about China’s problems.

And an awful lot of China is absolutely wretched.  Every time you wanted to go anywhere you – literally – risked your life whether walking or riding in a car (or even taking a super train).  But, that is what it is like in an awful lot of the world.  I saw a piece today on the world’s 10 great megacities – I expected most to be in China – not nearly!  Shanghai was the only one.  The rest are in India, Pakistan, the Congo, Nigeria (surprising that none were in South America or other parts of Asia).  And I looked at the pictures and I thought – that’s what Beijing, and Shanghai, and Xi’an are like – but this is even worse – those cities are even poorer.  And people are living in a crush of humanity, poverty, garbage, pollution, with maybe a little bit more opportunity than before.  Maybe.

And so I suppose that I also learned just how lucky I am to be an upper middle class American, living in a rural area, owning my own home, with lots of books, a bunch of pets, the freedom to say what I want, to cross the street safely, to drive safely (thank you, Ralph Nader!).  And I knew all that, but now I know it on a deeper level.


OK, this is a book blog, remember!  So, here’s one of the books I took to China and read:

That’s a cool little ceramic tea bag holder in one of those fancy hotels.  #85 Where Did I Leave My Glasses? by Martha Weinman Lear.  Having passed 50 (and spending a fair amount of my time lecturing or giving other presentations) – I’ve noticed more little memory lapses, more struggling to remember a word like… pencil. car. dog. (OK, it isn’t quite that bad, but it isn’t that far off – I find it hard sometimes to remember very basic words) I thought I’d get this book (I had it before I did my 20 book pledge).  So, I took it with me and read it.

I enjoyed it – it was interesting and you learn a lot of neuroscience and basic medical information from it.  I learned two things from it: 1) No way am I 10% as bad off as the author.  To hear her tell it, she can barely get out a sentence coherently, now that she’s over 60. and 2) basically – if you’re worried about your memory lapses, you’re fine – not dementia or alzheimers.  When other people are worried about your memory lapses while you are busy denying you have a problem, then you are sunk.  Good book, I liked it and I left it in a Chinese hotel room.  You can choose to believe that some hard working Chinese student whose parents are dying to get them to America to study is reading it right now to practice their English.  Or you can choose to believe it added to China’s garbage problem.  Your choice.  🙂

Happy Reading, Ruby



  1. Fantastic entry — very interesting to hear more about the levels of corruption, power and influence. I think it explains a lot about what you were noticing in your reading before you left.

    I like to think someone is enjoying tthe decadent Western book you left in the hotel room 😉

    • Hi Christy: Thanks for writing! Mary’s comment (after yours) suggests that some of the books that have been on my wish list might resonate particularly well with me now, Ruby

  2. Mary

    What shines through the stories of westerners who have lived in China for a period of time is the same thing that you felt—how wonderful the Chinese people are—curious, generous and giving. You get this in Peter Heller’s books about China and Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang (who is married to Heller). Then there is always the dichotomy of the corruption, and the rigidity of the government. One wonders how they will sort it all out.

    • Hi Mary: Good to hear from you! That’s a really interesting insight about Heller’s and Chang’s books. I thought I had bought one of Heller’s, but I only have them as kindle samples (the first couple chapters) – I’ll have to check out Factory Girls (it is on my wish list), at least a sample, – and prioritize buying one of them as one of my 20 books this year – it sounds like they would be even more meaningful now. I think you recommended Louise Penny or Penney awhile ago (as one of your favorite mystery writers) – I did buy one of her books recently when it went on kindle sale and I look forward to reading it. Thanks, Kathy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: