08 May 2004

Random Musings on China and Korea (or rather Beijing and Seoul)

The big deal in China these days is the return of the Chinese wounded in Pakistan, plus, of course, the Iraqi prison torture photos, with talk of the impact being similar to My Lai massacre in Vietnam – devastating for the U.S. government’s reputation at home (it cant get much worse abroad, they argue). SARS raised no concerns over here this time around among the average Beijinger (only the street sweepers and the occasional foreigner wear masks), they were very clear in the media about it all being isolated and connected to that lab. The big news has been the lifting of the quarantine of folks possibly exposed to SARS, with the emphasis on containment and recovery.

Wen Jiabao’s travels have been top news as well. Among the regular college age or just graduated population, there is a general sense of apathy with politics in general – all they care about is finding a job, something rather difficult here too for college grads. On the economy, they wonder why the U.S. is concerned about the Chinese economy, because they say despite a growing amount of money in China, the vast population means there isn’t really all that much wealth to go around (not that you need much, three dollar pants and one dollar shirts seem the norm over here, unless you go down to the fashion districts, in which case it is every international brand name or knock-offs thereof).

This place makes Korea seem expensive. But they are always ready to overcharge the foreigners, who have little real understanding of the true cheapness of the items up for sale. When someone can turn a profit selling souvenir trinkets for one yuan (about 13 cents), then the materials and labor going into those trinkets must be substantially less, so a little money can go a long way.

In general, the young are concerned with fashion and dating, there hasn’t really been any sense of disillusionment with the Chinese Communist/market system (though that could just be because it isn’t really a safe topic), except that it is difficult to travel abroad, and they all want to travel abroad to see new places, meet new people and most important buy new stuff. In general there is a basic sense of apathy when it comes to politics, though economics gets some response.

This is very different from the youth of South Korea, who are apathetic AND disillusioned with their government, and basically consider any and every government corrupt and therefore untrustworthy. That is a repeated sentiment over there.

While the South Koreans talk about their brethren in North Korea (basically they are all Korean, and the North regime isn’t so bad, just a little misguided), in China it is all about pity for the hardships in North Korea. Interesting difference in mindset.

Both capitals are busy tearing down all the buildings to build new buildings, little “new cities” of apartment complexes, shopping and restaurants. On CCTV they make sure to show relocated folks from reconstruction projects (Three Gorges, Beijing hutongs) being grateful for their new digs in the high-rises. The Beijing government is desperate to get people to stop littering (folks toss garbage into the street to see passing busses run it over) and to stop spitting (“In Order to Keep Fit, No Spitting Please”) as part of the buildup to the Olympics.

Their biggest challenge, however, will be to find some way to clean up the air. The sun never seems to really shine, it just sort of mushes its way through the haze – a mix of yellow dust and some sort of oily acrid particulate that pervades every pore and orifice, eating away at the nasal linings and esophagus (which, of course, explains the frequent expectorating).

But in general this is just another busy metropolis, a city of Audis and Volkswagens, with the Chinese cars primarily being the ubiquitous red taxis. If it weren’t for the width of the spacious boulevards around Tiananmen an the frequent red flags (much more frequent back in among the hutongs – and, interestingly, extremely frequent around the back alley “barber shops” (ask Bill) – one would think they were in any other major city around the world. Everyone has cell-phones (there are more cell-phones in China than anywhere else in the world), they drive, take the bus (well, there ARE a lot more bikes still), go to work, go to school, go shopping. Heck, they have to close Mao’s mausoleum for like 21 hours a day so the great helmsman can roll over in his crystal coffin as, just through Tiananmen Gate, row after row of red stands sell cheap Mao trinkets along side bottles of coke and Kodak film.

Outside the city, it is a little more laidback, but that is the case in any country. Of course being limited top Beijing on this trip will certainly limit my exposure and observation of the “national mood,” if there is such a thing in a country as large and diverse as China. But I have talked to students in Beijing from eastern provinces as well as such outlying places as Inner Mongolia, and it all seems about the same – how to get a job, politics is for others, money matters.

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