Dong Fang Hong

I’m about six hours away from take-off, sipping lù chá in Capital Airport’s Terminal 3. Possibly the longest layover I’ve ever had.

I flew down from Wei Hai early this morning, after spending the week in a small town called Rongsheng. Last time I was there, eleven years ago, it had two hundred thousand people, and the nearby bay was wall-to-wall aquaculture—one hundred forty thousand metric tons of it, growing everything from sea cucumber to abalone.

Nowadays, the Wei Hai area is still small, with a population of two and a half million—not big by Chinese standards. In the five years since I last visited, the country has flourished. All my lao peng you—old friends—own cars, and all the young Chinese have driver’s licenses—it’s rare to see a bicycle, even out in the sticks.

And the aquaculture is still there, about thirty percent less than in the old days, but a beautiful sight, with long lines of colored buoys arranged into squares, black for one company, yellow for another, white for the next.

Gone are the days of smallholdings and farmers’ cooperatives, and when you go into a meeting room no one smokes. These are modern, Western-style firms, concerned about the environment, traceability, and product certification, with production levels of twenty thousand tonnes or more—big business.

I did all my favorite things: catching the cold wind from the Yellow Sea on the flat rooftop of a diesel workboat, looking out at the traffic passing by—wooden boats laden with seaweeds, scallops, and oysters, the red flag of the People’s Republic fluttering on makeshift lanyards.

Modern rural China manifests itself in a thousand different ways: good roads, twice as wide and four times emptier than anything in the West, clean toilets, cappucino—and tourism.

Chinese tourists are everywhere, a sure sign of disposable income. It always amazes me how communism and capitalism co-exist in harmony here—a political yin and yang you cannot find elsewhere.

I flew in the day Fidel Castro died, or at least the day it was communicated—communist regimes are notoriously tight-lipped about the death of the dear leader. When I got to Beijing, the China Daily oozed praise for their man in Havana, exalting his friendship with the Chinese proletariat.  Around me, stores displayed Gucci, Armani, gold, and jade.

The tourists have created a whole new sector, and introduced a fresh set of conflicts to the coastal zone. Western issues concerning use of space, recreational beachfronts, litter, and water pollution, mean that the ‘eco’ word is everywhere—and when China goes eco, it hurtles like a runaway train. They’ve pushed the oyster ropes off the coastline, banned smoking in public places, and the drinking culture’s gone.

Feeding the people, Chinese style.

Feeding the people, Chinese style.

Of course, you can still hear hawking in stereo in the male (never men’s) restroom, and the English signs remain delightful. One eco warning in Beijing instructs us to ‘do not disturb, tiny grass is dreaming!’—I speak enough Chinese to get by now, and for the first time I felt less than totally helpless in the Middle Kingdom—I’d never tested my training in China, and it’s wonderful to see the faces light up!

Speaking Chinese is like any other learning process, it goes in steps, rather than a ramp. I can easily see now why the translations are flowery pieces of poetry—a sign at Capital Airport proclaims: Be careful! No leaving residue! The characters that make up this wonderful recommendation are likely to have seven or eight meanings each—not synonyms.

The character fang, for instance, in the flat tone, means square, upright, power, direction, party, and prescription—among other things. If you broaden that out to other tones, it could be protect, house, mill, inquire, release, and animal fat.

In the title of today’s article, the flat tone fang would mean ‘is’. Dong Fang Hong translates literally as The East Is Red, a song from Shaan’xi province that became an emblem of Maoism.

You can find it on Youku, the Chinese YouTube. If you search on Baidu, the Chinese Google. Everything is digital now, but some things are still a no-no. Google has caused offense to the Chinese government, and it’s blocked on the mainland. As is Google Maps, gMail, and presumably anything else that hits the G spot.

As long as the dispute remains unresolved, Google has no access to a market of 1.6 billion avid consumers, one quarter of the earth’s population—in this zero-sum game, Bing is the big winner.

Never mind the old joke that the initials stand for ‘but it’s not Google’, Microsoft has landed a coup in China—I haven’t crunched the numbers, but it probably makes up for the lower market share in the West.

Along with Baidu and all the rest, WeChat is another Chinese digital success—billed as Chinese Facebook, it can be used to pay bills—even in a massage parlor.

The Chinese dichotomy between social left and economic right is something Europe is presently contending with. A senior Western diplomat gave me some interesting insights into the present European quandary: electorates that vote right on immigration but left on economics, and vice-versa. Socialists with left-wing social policies and public-private partnerships. Right-wing nationalists who support blue-collar economics. Brexit coalminers. Maybe that’s what screwed up the polls—the model of the working-class labor voter no longer works.

And in a blast of ping pang diplomacy, Kissinger’s back in town. He’s only ninety-three, and old guys rule. I’ve been completely shut off from Western news, but I gather the Donald saw fit to request a trip to China from Nixon’s elder statesman, no doubt hoping his grass-roots electorate will pardon the president-elect for reneging on yet another of his campaign promises.

Some weeks ago, Salena Zito produced one of the most quoted (sometimes sans source) aphorisms of the campaign. She said that the media took Trump literally but not seriously, whereas his supporters took him seriously but not literally.

That certainly seems true when trumpists defend the great man’s options of not building walls, not repealing the Affordable Heathcare Act, and not sending ‘Crooked Hillary’ to chookie. It seems fairly obvious that Trump’s main game is not doing what he said he would do—unsurprising, since after all, he’s a real estate salesman. What remains to be seen is whether he will do what he said he would not do, and square the circle of populism.

This different new China makes me happy for the people, who now live in much better conditions, although you still see dire poverty. You can talk politics, albeit in a subdued fashion—the locals told me they struggle to understand how decisions get made in the West—too much talking, and things take years to decide.

In China, someone proudly informed me, the arguments are put on the table, and the decision is made in five minutes.

But I miss the old China, like a part of my life that’s gone forever. I miss the hedonism, the hotels where the phone rings with a soft ni hao as the night begins, the banquets and the karaoke.

Since the drive against corruption began, the very Chinese ‘tigers and flies’ purge, banquets are a no-no, and many restaurants have gone bust. “We get great deals in Beijing these days,” my diplomat friend said. As I snapped a picture, a young lady turned around to me, a concerned look on her face. “Don’t put on internet. Very dangerous.”

I smiled. “Don’t worry. What happens in Rongsheng, stays in Rongsheng.”

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, and Clear Eyes. QR links for smartphones and tablets.


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