As another poster pointed out, visiting China is a facscinating experience. The history and sense of scale when you stand on the (far too 20th-21st century) Great Wall or walk through the Forbidden City is amazing.
However, as most posters who seem to have lived there, as I did, have pointed out, the longer you are there, the more unbearable it becomes, if you have even an inkling of a deisre for a free-thinking, stimulating environment. Granted, I was in Beijing, so my impressions are probably of a place far more close-minded than Shanghai or possibly even Guangzhou with its western influences.
People who were otherwise highly intelligent and well-educated suffered such malnutrition in terms curiosity, and reason, it was tragic to witness. I happened to live there during the invasion of Iraq and SARS (my district was the worst affected area of all globally- the Haidian District - what an achievement), and seeing the ease with which the government managed to squeeze out of the noose with regard to their covering up of the SARS epidemic was frightening. And the way support among the people (even the educated ones) was galvanised in support of “fighting the enemy - SARS” once the propaganda machine swung into action, was sickening.
I even presented my students with two articles in our writing class. One they needed to put in point form summary, the other in prose. Both were articles on the number of SARS patients in Beijing. The China Daily said 33, the Washington Post said 300-odd. Even after having them summarise the articles, and with the government finally acknowledging far higher numbers than first claimed, they failed to see the point. And meanwhile, they stepped into line to help their government be rid of the scourge with a whopping dose of ill-founded nationalistic fervour.
The build-up to the Olympics, and the related step-up in censorship etc is par for the course. For an insight into Chinese thinking on the whole Olympics thing, I have attached a “sci-fi story” doing the rounds in Chinese forums (in Chinese of course). I apologise for the length, but I don’t have alink for it.
"Olympic Dream: A Sci-Fi Short Story
July in Beijing is the hottest time of the year; Old Zhao’s heart was pained as if baked to scorching.
“Chairman Zhang, didn’t you say that we could do it this week? We’ve waited for twelve days.” Old Zhao asked. Before the doctor in charge of his father, he tried very hard to control his emotions; but he held the doctor’s hand forcefully, as if in a moment of inattention the doctor would turn to smoke and float away.
“Hear me out, don’t be emotional, ” Chairman Zhang explained as he tried to pull open Old Zhao’s fingers. He had been a doctor for over twenty years, seen difficult and complicated conditions, seen medical accidents, and seen enough of unreasonable patient family. But never had a family member’s question given him such a headache, even made him feel a little ashamed to answer.
Old Zhao let go, but he still stood in front of Chairman Zhang, his mind made up to bring the truth of this matter to light.
“Please don’t be emotional, don’t be emotional,” Chairman Zhang repeated this sentence, working to clear his mind. “I’m very clear about your father’s situation. If we do it a month later, there will be absolutely no problem. Believe me. I promise, on August 26th, once the Olympic Games are over, I will schedule the operation for him.”
“What does doing an operation have to do with the Olympic Games?” This was what Old Zhao simply could not figure out.
“They’re not originally related. But, but they made these rules higher up, so hospitals have to follow them. During the Olympic period, all non-emergency operations must be postponed, the goal is to ensure an adequate supply of medical resources. You’re a resident of Beijing too – everything is for the Olympics, right? ” Dr. Zhang patted Old Zhao’s arm, squeezed past and walked away.
Yes, everything was for the Olympics. Since the day Beijing had succeeded in its bid seven years ago, the Olympics had been top priority. Born and raised in Beijing, Old Zhao knew that the Olympic Games had been the Chinese people’s dream for a hundred years, and he sincerely hoped the Games would be a total success. But for the success of the Olympics, did his father’s operation really have to be delayed? There seemed to be some relation between the two; but he thought carefully, and again there seemed to be nothing.
He came out of the hospital; rush hour had already passed. Scarce cars passed on the street, far fewer than last week. As the Olympics approached, the government had ordered that according to odd or even license number, only half of the city’s vehicles were allowed on the road each day. Air quality had improved quite a bit; who knew that when the International Olympic Committee’s people came to test it and said it still wasn’t up to standard, the government would promptly add restrictions, allowing only a tenth of all vehicles on the street each day according to the last digit of the license number?
Old Zhao had a Chery QQ, the last digit of his license number was 4; he had driven two days ago and now had to wait over a week. His neighbor Old Zhou‘s last digit was 1; he could drive July 31st and August 1st, two days in a row. Old Zhou was so pleased he mentioned it to everyone he met, as if he had foreseen today’s trouble years ago when he was getting his license plate.
Old Zhao’s house was a dozen stops from the hospital; he sweated from every pore as he biked home. It was not just the heat; every time he went through an intersection he was stopped for an ID check. He knew this was to ensure the security of the Games; it had gone on for several days. He pinned his ID on his collar with a clip, but the print on the card was really too small, and so he had to get down every time and come close before they could make it out.
The neighborhood where he lived was much clearer; no people yelling, no dogs barking; on the normally boisterous lawn it was quiet. People from outside the city had probably all gone home. But a few old neighbors of more than ten years had disappeared for no reason, as if dissolved by the fervent Olympic atmosphere.
Dinner was ready in the house, the kidney beans with pork that he loved. His wife’s skills were trained to perfection, but after a few bites he realized the beans were particularly small; they were dry to the bite and on closer inspection had dark specks on them.
“Why didn’t you buy better ones? We can’t always put others first!” Old Zhao felt that nothing in the world would go his way again.
“I went all over the market, they only have these. They say they’re restricting vehicles from outside from coming into Beijing, they can’t bring the vegetables in. In a few days we might not even be able to get something like this, ” his wife replied unpleasantly.
“Come on. We can’t even eat because of the Olympics?” In Old Zhao’s chest a nameless fire of anger shot up, but he was not sure where he could vent it. “Those foreigners who are coming here for the Games, do they get food, do they get vegetables?”
“I heard the vegetables for foreign athletes are all specially provided, after they’re planted, they don’t get water; they water them with milk or soy milk.”
On hearing this sentence, Old Zhao seemed to choke, a mouthful of rice in his mouth; he neither chewed nor swallowed. It seemed that the five Olympic rings had become five hoops, hung around his neck.
At this point the news started on the television. The top story was about Beijing residents happily welcoming the Olympics. Hearing the joyful banging of all the gongs and drums, Old Zhao could take a another breath after all; he reluctantly swallowed the rice in his mouth. He threw down his chopsticks and went in to watch television.
The next story said that movie star Xu Dong’e had arranged to leave Beijing for a month to avoid causing inconvenience during the Olympics, earning the united praise of the citizenry. In Every one of the interviewed masses stated: the Olympics are the biggest issue in China right now, all else must make way. Xu Dong’e could understand the country’s situation, expressing support for the Olympics through concrete action and helping Beijing’s citizens.
This time Old Zhao understood. So the government wanted everyone to leave Beijing. He thought about it: so many people lived in Beijing, there was every kind, who could say that something unexpected wouldn’t happen during the Games? To ensure the security of the games, it was certainly the fewer people, the better. If all the people in the city were pulled out, leaving only workers on the Olympic staff, wouldn’t that solve all the problems?
Having thought this far, he loudly asked, “Boss! Let’s answer the call of the nation, how about leaving the city and going around? The vegetables out there can’t come into the city, they must be cheap. ” He regretted it as soon as it was out of his mouth, and indeed he heard his wife sneer, “We can tour the world if you have the money. Your work unit is on holiday for three months to clear the air. They might even give you a double salary bonus at the end of the year, right?” she said.
“Forget I said it, forget I said it,” Old Zhao sighed. No matter what, the most frightening thing in the world was not the Olympic Games, it was when his wife was right. Just as he was caught between these two difficulties, the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Zhou from the neighborhood committee.
“Good evening, Mrs. Zhou, you’ve come at just the right time.”
“Hello, have you eaten? What did you eat? Old Zhao, you’re too kind.”
“Such a virtuous and respectable person is welcome anywhere, ” Old Zhao said. He hurriedly invited Mrs. Zhou to sit and poured tea.
Mrs. Zhou asked a few questions about Old Zhao’s father’s health, and then got to the real point.
“The Olympics are getting closer each day. This a symbol of our country’s rising again, of the washing away of a hundred years of shame. So I’ve come to ask you what you think,” Mrs. Zhou said.
“You need to ask? As Beijing residents of the new era, we resolutely support them, we sincerely wish for the Games to be a complete success. Mrs. Zhou, don’t you know, on the night we won the bid, Old Zhou and I were so excited we downed three bottles of erguotou, we were drunk for three days before we went to bed."
“All right, all right, you needn’t mention your heroic exploits. I came to ask if you have any difficulties.”
“Ai… Honestly, although the Olympics are good, it makes ordinary people’s lives harder,” Old Zhao finally had a chance to let the bitter water out of his stomach. From his father’s operation, to the factory shutting down, to driving restrictions, to not being able to buy vegetables, he became more and more emotional and couldn’t help standing up. “Everything has stopped for the Olympics, it looks to me like the earth could stop turning, people could stop living, I can’t say that after the Olympics there will be a new beginning."
“What you’ve said is quite reasonable, ” Mrs. Zhou laughed and took out a medicine bottle. “Look, I came just to bring this medicine for you.”
Old Zhao was so frightened he nearly sat down on the floor. “Mrs. Zhou, I haven’t lived long enough, you can’t do this. How can you toy with human life?"
“What are you thinking?” Ms. Zhou kept smiling. “Read the instructions, it’s not poison. This is called a hibernation pill, newly developed by the Academy of Sciences. Take one and you sleep for a month, like a bear hibernating for the winter. You don’t need to eat or drink. After sleeping for a month, you’ll wake up, the Olympics will be over, cars will be able to go out, factories will be operating, vegetables will be fresh, and your father will be able to do his operation; isn’t that great?”
Old Zhao stood there, astonished. He felt vaguely that something was not right, but on second thought, it was suitable and rational, there was no problem with it at all.
“Don’t worry. The medicine has been distributed for two days, most people in this building have already taken pills and gone to hibernate. Our Old Zhou took it two days ago and now he’s enjoying a sound sleep.”
“Can my father take this medication?” This was his only question.
“He can. And during hibernation his condition will absolutely not get worse. Look at the instructions. Even the Ministry of Health has approved it.”
It seemed that this was the thing he needed. He saw Mrs. Zhou off. He took the medication to the hospital and made a point of asking Chairman Zhang about it, and Chairman Zhang said the same thing as Mrs. Zhou. So he gave his sick father a “hibernation pill” and watched him fall asleep. He hurried home, he and his wife lay in bed and each took one; within half a minute he felt woozy and lost consciousness.
The next thing he knew, it seemed that just a moment had passed; but from the hunger in his stomach he understood that he had not been sleeping for a short time. He turned on the TV, and they were already broadcasting the news for Aug. 25th. The news was about flood relief; already there was nothing related to the Olympics. His wife woke up too. She looked at the television and asked, “Are these Olympics over?”
“I guess it’s over, ” Old Zhao couldn’t say for sure. He switched a few channels but couldn’t find even a little information about the Olympics. The Olympic dream that the Chinese people had had for a hundred years seemed to have vanished like smoke on waking.
He made a call to the hospital and learned that his father had already woken up; the operation was confirmed for tomorrow, not even thunder would move it. A weight fell from his heart and he said to his wife, “Cook some noodles. I’ll go buy vegetables, and a chicken to make soup for my old man. I’m sure he’s hungry too.”
The vegetable market was just downstairs. There still weren’t as many people as usual, but there was every kind of fresh vegetable. As Old Zhao chose his vegetables, he saw a neighbor he knew and rushed to ask her: “Auntie, are the Olympics over?”
The neighbor Auntie answered: “I heard it’s over, I just woke up yesterday myself.”
Another Auntie said: “I heard it’s over. I heard it was quite successful."
A vegetable vendor said: “I heard that China was first in gold medals.”
Another person nearby said: “Yes, I heard that too, I heard it was more than forty.”
“I heard during the Olympics everything was quiet, there wasn’t even a tiny incident."
“I heard those days the air quality was excellent the whole time.”
“I heard the Chinese team took all the gold medals in ping pong and diving. ”
“I heard the Chinese men’s soccer team didn’t get a single goal, again.”
“I heard Liu Xiang broke a world record.”
“I heard there was algae in the sea at Qingdao, and the sailing events were moved to Kunming Lake.”
“I heard that Sa- what, Samaranch, … he’s not called Samaranch anymore, the guy who used to be called Samaranch, he said the Beijing Olympics were the most successful in history.”
“Yes, this time we Chinese really put on a show. I heard the laowai were all in awe. The Olympics have never been so successful.”
Old Zhao brought the vegetables home; the noodles were already done. His wife hadn’t waited and was bent over eating away; she saw red rings around his eyes and asked: “What wrong did you suffer? There’s still some in the pot.”
Old Zhao put down the vegetables and wiped his nose, his voice trembling a little: “Boss, when you’re done, take a walk outside. I heard, I heard … that now our country is strong!”"