One Week in Mainland China: Communist Regime Has a Few Positives
Communist regime in China may be stifling, but has ensured good governance, writes Siddharth Srivastava.
After spending more than a week in Shanghai and Beijing, I came to the conclusion that the Chinese are friendly and gracious, though a little inscrutable due to the language barrier. Also, India is far behind China on any of the benchmarks of progress: infrastructure, cleanliness, public transport and managing urban spaces, especially the cities.
It does make one wonder whether democracy and development can ever co-exist. It also raises the question whether democracy and basic civic sense are compatible. One advantage that the Indians have over the Chinese is ability to converse in English that makes the country better placed to provide services to the world, though President Donald Trump is trying to make this as difficult as possible.
Bollywood Is a Common Thread
The Chinese were cordial and affable even when I happened to be on my own, sometimes, in fact, a little too friendly. At the pedestrian-friendly shopping paradise Nanjing Road, Shanghai, I was accosted on several occasions by pimps who seem to have picked up relevant English sentences to ply their business. Overseas visitors, perhaps, are the preferred clients, as I did not notice locals being solicited.
“Massage, sex with young Chinese girl. Can send to your hotel room,” the pimps offered. On another occasion, a young Chinese girl clutched my arm and insisted on massaging my body at her shop nearby or the hotel. “Next time for sure, this time with my wife and kids,” I told her, but she would not believe me. Luckily, my children were in the vicinity exploring a M&M store. I pointed them out to the girl, who quickly departed, but only after making sure the two kids were indeed Indian and mine, by glancing at us several times to compare features and establish nationality.
To be fair, popular shopping areas like the Nanjing Road in Shanghai and Wangfujing Street in Beijing are pedestrianised, safe and child-friendly due to the absence of traffic and fumes. Street markets around the Yuyuan Garden located in the Old City Shanghai is a reformed version of Chandni Chowk. It’s a good place to pick up local artefacts, that can otherwise be expensive, at throwaway prices.
Food is great too. China can be expensive and cheap. One can exercise the choice of paying 100 RMB for a pizza or 10 RMB for a big bucket of meat dipped in soup. Either can serve as a full meal. Entry to Disneyland, like everywhere else in the world, is expensive.
While Starbucks, McDonald’s, Zara or H&M may be the common capitalist themes around the globalised world, Bollywood is pervasive as well. My elder daughter struck up a conversation at the all-weather hotel pool in Shanghai with a Chinese girl her age, who had a passion for Hindi movies, with subtitles of course. A big fan of Shah Rukh Khan, she was effusive about Dangal, a big hit in China.
Language can be a barrier in China, especially with taxi drivers and at small mom and pop stores. Though most folks don’t understand English, they try to communicate to the best of their ability, apologising at the same time for their failure to do better.
At a well-stocked convenience store in Shanghai, my wife requested a young gentleman, who seemed like an executive on his way back home from office, to translate a few prices labelled in Mandarin. “My English not too good,” he apologised profusely, while unsuccessfully trying to locate the translation online.
Just to be on the safe side and after watching a few YouTube videos, I did download an app for translating English to Chinese. The only occasion I tried using it, the taxi driver luckily understood English words and we managed to have a fruitful conversation. I said, “hao” and he said, “okay.” To avoid confusion, it is useful to ask the concierge to write in Mandarin the destination one is headed for as none of the taxi drivers we interacted with, except one, knew English.
Actually, it is not so difficult to navigate through cities such as Beijing and Shanghai as it is shown in some of YouTube videos I watched. Information related to directions at airports and railway stations are in English too. Menus have a translated version. Shopping is not a problem as most products at branded stores display an English price tag.
Payment counters are equipped with large calculators to display the amount due in English numeral. The local stores can be a problem, but manageable. The innumerable ATMs and automated money changers offer a choice of multiple languages. Accessing the local RMB currency anywhere is not an issue. Surprisingly, the best rate for forex was at the hotel, which is usually not the case in other countries. The worst deal we got was at the Shanghai airport.
Grievances of a Chinese Man
I got talking to an English-speaking Chinese co-passenger, a rarity, during the domestic Beijing-Shanghai flight; the gentleman was reading a translated version of Dominique Lapierre’s O Jerusalem! I never asked his name which I would have not recalled I am sure. For convenience of this piece I am calling him Wong for no special reason.
“Chinese companies are interested in India which is a funny country. Urinating and spitting in public are very shocking. Why don’t people use toilet? Such a thing never happens in China,” he smirked.
Wong was not entirely happy with his country’s rulers. “They play with clouds to create artificial rain in order to curb pollution. When foreign visitors leave, Beijing sky will be back to polluted state. You are lucky to have visited at a time when the Beijing air is all clean and weather is nice in May.”
“No government is perfect. There are problems with ours too, like the way the issue of cow slaughter has been politicised,” I said.
After the flight landed, we parted with a tight hug. “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai,” I said to myself.
Google Doesn’t Work
The communist rulers of China have always been very touchy about any negative news emanating from foreign TV channels or print media, including the online space.
Strict control over information seeks to insulate the local population against any adverse publicity related to the government.
The VPN at our Shanghai hotel allowed speedy access to Google, Facebook and Gmail, though this was not the case at Beijing. Wong told me that crackdowns on VPNs happen so that the service providers know that the authorities are not fools who’re unaware of their misdemeanours. But that does not mean that the Chinese are not on social media. WeChat is extremely popular.
During our four-and-a-half-hour bullet train ride from Shanghai to Beijing, three young girls sitting next to us were mostly engrossed in shooting and uploading videos of what seemed to be a local version of Snapchat with similar filters and special effects.
World Class Trains
Let me add here that unlike trains, air services in China are not of the same standard. We were told by our Indian friends that planes are invariably late. And they were right.
We missed our connecting flight during return and were routed through Singapore that turned our journey into a 24-hour voyage. Security at the Beijing airport was unnecessarily obtrusive. Young girls manning the X-Ray machines could not figure out that multiple medicine options are necessary when traveling with kids. They sniffed the various bottles and asked us to sip a few.
The train services, on the other hand, are superb, comfortable, punctual and world class. We opted for the Maglev from the Shanghai airport and bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing.
With a speed over 300 km/h, the distance to Beijing was covered in less than five hours. A similar journey from Delhi to Mumbai by the Rajdhani Express is an overnight trip.
Another Tiananmen Unlikely
Based on feedback of a couple of Indians who have been based in China for a while, it is not as if the authorities are not sensitive to the needs of the people. The communist party is run like a corporate entity, with local office holders responsible for the well-being and upkeep of their area. There are confidential forms filled by local residents based on which governance is regularly assessed.
Though voting rights and freedom of expression do not exist, the establishment has delivered on good quality of life and the rule of law. This is very important. Or else, there is no stopping another Tiananmen Square from happening, with students at the forefront. Such an uprising seems unlikely, though.
(Siddharth Srivastava is a Gurgaon-based journalist and author of two novels ‘Blogging the 40s’ and ‘An Offbeat Story’. He can be reached @SiddharthWriter. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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