Surprised by China: Chinese Police, One-Child Policy, Communist Party Members, Investing in China, and More
Barry and I experienced many surprises by being in China. Keep in mind that we were there only from the end of August 2010 to July 10, 2011, we do not speak or read Mandarin, our sources are mainly Chinese students who are smart enough and have families who are wealthy enough to send them to college, and Zhejiang Province, the site of Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University—our school — is one of the richest in China.
Given those caveats, we can answer–
Are people starving? When I was little, I was told to clean my plate because children were starving in China; the message I got was to appreciate all I had. So when I first came to China, I expected to see suffering, but those we’ve seen seem to be doing o.k.; some even exceptionally well. People certainly aren’t starving. Zhejiang Province has good agricultural land. China has little more than ten percent arable land, mostly in the eastern third of the country (to feed its 1,340,000, 000 people. This fact contrasts to more than 20% arable land in the U.S., which is about the same size as China but with our one billion fewer people).
In fact, Bill, a finance teacher at our university, says that at least in this province farmers tend to be relatively wealthy because they have their land on which to build, and labor is very cheap especially if they do the building themselves. Many farmers just outside the ZAFU gates have built three-story homes (one floor for each generation in the family).
Most of the land in China belongs to the government, which gives 70-year leases to developers. Those who are not farmers need to buy housing especially now that the social expectation is that any male wanting to marry needs to buy a house or an apartment before a woman will consent to marry him. One of my students told me that he is very worried about his mother who has put herself last in everything and has been working extremely hard for years in order that he would have enough money to buy an apartment and so be able to get married. Now she is very sick.
Just in the time we were there, the Chinese government has implemented free public primary education for all students for at least nine years. The most recent Five-Year-Plan focuses on support for the elderly and improving education and health benefits for all.
Are the young people fashionable? Beauty salons and designer shops line the streets in cities like Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing. We’ve read that Chinese tourists spend on the average of $378 a day when they travel. The Chinese now spend more than even Japanese travelers.
The wealthy in China – a quickly growing group–want to buy high-end goods. Dealers of expensive cars are in Hangzhou, Beijing, Shanghai, but also in Lin’an.
Who joins the Chinese Communist Party? The Communist Party members are often the best of China’s citizens. To become a member through the university, each class elects one Community Party aspirant. The classmates and the student’s teachers must agree and the potential party member must be nominated all four years in order to qualify for the Communist Party. Members who qualify must be socially and academically excellent. The ones we have met feel honored to be involved in leadership; they want to help their country. Most of the students we’ve met are proud of China and the changes that are being made.
Is it better to be a girl or a boy in China? As I wrote in an earlier blog, according even to the Chinese girls, it is usually better to be a Chinese girl than a boy. The males are expected to take care of everyone: parents, grandparents, wife, her family, and their child. He is to buy a house before he marries and a car (an expensive one is best) before his new family has a child. The males have much responsibility. In general, not much is expected of the girls. Parents of the girls feel their job of supporting their daughter is over when she marries. Also, some parents now see not only is it less of a long-term financial burden to have a girl, but also girls tend to keep in touch better with their parents than boys do. However, the economic pressures that equate material goods to happiness are likely to drive Chinese girls as well as the boys into the Western model of working 60 hours or more a week.
How bad are the Chinese police? The Chinese police we met seemed professional and well-trained. I’d had grave doubts about the Chinese police. I do know that corruption is a big problem in China. One of the reasons of poor building construction and tainted food scandals is because of graft. Also before we went to China, we had seen the Body Exhibit, the fascinating display that shows the real muscles on real bodies (including a black lung of a smoker). The rumor we had heard was that those bodies were Chinese prisoners killed to be used for the project. And of course, we remember the 1989 Tian’anmen Square situation.
So although the Chinese police had caught the guy who broke into our faculty housing apartment and stole our computer soon after we first arrived and we got reimbursed for our loss, I still didn’t trust other Chinese police.
In our end of the term break when Barry and I were in Běijīng, we became wary as we walked the shaded streets beyond the Forbidden City. There we saw a group of about 20 Chinese people who seemed to be protesting. The group was rallying around a guy who was calling out and getting responses from the listening group. (I certainly wished I could understand Mandarin).
The 1989 Tian’anmen Square protests began with just a few students. The inspiring documentary, Moving the Mountain, traces the story of what happened to the Chinese leaders of the mainly student movement Therefore, I certainly noticed when a police paddy wagon passed by the rallying group. A few seconds later, a police car pulled up, stopped by the group, and a police officer got out of the squad car. He approached the group.
I suspected the worst. Standing across the street behind a big tree, I had my camera ready. I was certain I would be able to record evidence of some police brutality. I tried asking passing people about what was going on, but no one seemed to know–and they didn’t seem to care.
What happened? Well, everyone talked. The police officer listened.
No other police cars showed up. After about 15 minutes, the police officer got into his squad car and drove away. The group milled around and talked a bit more and then people started walking away.
So where was the brutality? I didn’t see any. Could the Chinese police actually be better trained than they were in 1989? Do the Chinese now let people congregate and grumble? At least in this incident, it seemed so.
Do Chinese people protest? What my ZAFU students told me is that they don’t protest–they seldom complain. They reason (or have been told) that protests would lead to chaos. There are just too many people in China the students say — and things are changing. If I were a Chinese student (or at least one who had experienced the U.S. first), I would start with organizing protests about the lack of heat and hot water in the dorms during the winter when the temperatures fall below freezing. During our short summer term, our classrooms were over 100 degrees in the afternoons. Students moan about the situation, but no one takes action.
So why didn’t I do something? I’m American. I’ve done my share of petitioning, writing letters, and protesting. It’s fun and sometimes gets results. 🙂 Before our winter break, I told students I was going to complain about the Lin’an city buses letting everyone out at night in the dark on a street undergoing construction. Trying to avoid speeding cars, open sewer holes, and other obstacles, we had to trudge in the cold and dark (with no street, house, or shop lights) for about four blocks to the ZAFU West Gate. The situation was dangerous and unacceptable. I’m used to complaining and as an American, I think if we point out problems, we can get things to improve. In fact, all we have to do is look at any U.S. newspaper or see news T.V. to know of numerous complaints.
The Chinese students say they could complain. However, the Chinese students told me that the authorities don’t really care. One student even explained that it was too dangerous for the buses to go up the dark road (as though it’s safer for students to be walking on the road at night)! However, if they do complain, their names are listed. It‘s already hard enough to get a good job with millions of Chinese competing, so being listed as a complainer would not help their futures.
This reluctance to voice complains involves the adults too. The 8/14/11 The New York Times article “Change in China” notes:
“Once-rebellious artists, like the director Zhao Liang have been showered with largess after agreeing to work within the system they once distained. . .
His documentary film Petition [is] considered by many of its viewers to be a fearless work of art. Shot over 12 years, it shows how the authorities muzzle and brutalize Chinese who, following an age-old tradition, travel to Beijing seeking redress for wrongdoing by local officials. . . . The film was banned in China.
His most recent documentary Together … avoids mentioning the government’s long cover-up of H.I.V. and AIDs in China” (1).
Can you trust the Chinese news? Our experience of being in China in 2003 made us not trust Chinese news.
In one incident happened in March 2003 when we were visiting our friends Liz and Doug, who were teaching at Schezwan T.V. and Radio University. We’d gotten a school van to take the four of us and our two kids into the mountains outside Chengdu, which is in Schezwan Province, an area that used to be known as East Tibet. For hours, our van was traveling on empty roads — except for hundreds of Chinese military trucks, the kind with the canvas flaps that cover the back so no one can see how many men are inside. Was there unrest among the ethnic minority East Tibetans? What were all those army personnel doing there? Why were we the only other vehicle on the road? Our Chinese driver couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell us. When we got back to Chengdu, we asked; we looked in the newspapers. We never did find out.
Then when we left Chengdu, after five weeks, in April 2003, we were shocked when we got to the airport, a young French guy offered us masks that John and I took, and then the Thai stewardesses wore masks and plastic gloves to welcome us on the plane. We were told that there was some terrible disease, a virulently infectious disease–SARS–in China. The mask precaution seemed ridiculous since everyone took off the masks to eat (yes, we actually got meals on airlines then). The Thai’s certainly were taking SARS seriously. When we landed in Bangkok, we were all scanned for temperatures and asked about our health. Anyone with questionable health was put into quarantine. The Thais knew about the SARS epidemic in China. However, although we had been watching the Chinese news in English every day, we had no idea.
But now we are back in China, eight years later. We know much has changed. We know that part of our great impression of China now is that we read The China Daily and watch the English speaking Chinese news. But can we trust that news? Skepticism is a good quality to cultivate in looking at any news sources. The view of what is going on in the U.S. that comes from Mother Jones is quite different from that of Fox News.
So what happened to my issue of the Lin’an busses dumping us out onto the dark, treacherous streets? I thought my voice as a foreign teacher would carry weight and not get any students in trouble. But the students said the authorities don’t care about us either. Although Barry and I feel we were well-cared for, we are just transitory, part of the many, many foreign teachers who come and go in China. In fact, foreign teachers are not supposed to stay at a Chinese school longer than five years. So instead of writing a letter and going to the head of the college, I got busy doing other things, and Barry and I went to Bali for our winter break.
When I came back four weeks later, without me having to do a thing, the road was completed and the busses took us right to West Gate.
Part of not protesting in China is that things are changing quickly anyway. Most Chinese seem to have confidence that their government is working to improve life for all of them. (At least, they hope their lives will improve and the consequences for protesting are often not good for the individuals who protest).
However, protests do happen. A few weeks ago, Chinese did protest the planned toxic medical waste incinerator to be built in Beishan, China, above their town’s water supply. According to Epoch Times, “About 10,000 people in China’s Hunan province took to the streets on Aug. 4 to protest the construction of a toxic waste incinerator near their town’s watersupply. Several protesters were beaten bloody by police, while irate villagers beat up the vice mayor” (Fang Xiao).
I wonder what will happen to those who protested, especially the leaders. Will they have jobs? I know that it is still much better to protest in the U.S. than in China.
What about smoking in China? Barry and I were surprised that we didn’t see more smoking. When we first arrived in Shanghai during the 2010 Expo, we were amazed to see blue skies. The Chinese government had restricted smoking at the Expo and banned food carts from within a mile of the Expo. The result, at least for that time, was much better air quality. The government did the same for the Beijing Olympics. However, we’ve read that one in three of the young men alive in China today will die of cigarette related diseases and illnesses. (In the U.S. now, one in five people die from smoking related diseases). As of May 1, 2011, the Chinese government banned cigarette smoking from public places. However, even after that date, we saw many people smoking in restaurants. The students say that no one really enforces the ban. Smoking and drinking are part of the business culture. They also say alcoholism is not a problem in their country.
Whereas Americans complain about almost everything, the Chinese seem unable or unwilling to say anything is bad.
Are there clean restrooms in China? Overall, the answer is yes!
The restrooms often don’t have western toilets except in bigger cities. So that can be an issue until you get used to the Asian toilets. Be sure to bring your own toilet tissue, and the water to wash your hands is likely to be cold, but the public toilets we saw have full-time attendants who are regularly cleaning things up. I wish that were true everywhere for us in the U.S. — That awful public toilet at the wayside between Kahului and Hana on Maui really comes to mind.
What about spitting in China? Are the streets filthy? The law now is no spitting. Overall, people are not spitting or blowing their noses onto the pavement as we saw in 2003. Street sweepers are everywhere too. Shanghai and Beijing, cities of multi-millions, the streets are impressively clean.
How’s the public transportation? In the big cities we saw, the transportation is fast, efficient, cheap, and often signs and announcements in both Mandarin and English. The trains and buses are new. We were impressed. We learned not to travel during the rush hours, however, with the crushing crowds.
What about aesthetics? The truth is the miles and miles of newly built concrete high-rises are ugly and poorly constructed. One of the reasons that 10,000 people died in the 2008 Chengdu, China, earthquake is the poor construction caused buildings to crumple. (Don’t get in a doorway or under tables if an earthquake happens there, you will likely be crushed). However, the landscaping we saw was beautiful and ever changing. Labor costs are cheap, so wilting flowers are quickly replaced. We were impressed.
Why is the one-child policy good? Most Chinese agree with the one-child policy. Some families can have more than one child: ethnic minorities; farmers whose child is a girl can wait four years and then have another child; or if each of the new couple is an only child, some provinces now allow a second child. Many of my students had a brother or sister. But the students say that there are just too many people for the resources available.
Abortion is available on demand, and it is sometimes demanded, a quite different approach from that in the U.S. where some people demand that every pregnancy come to term no matter what. However, the result I saw is that in China each child is the most valued treasure in his or her family. Each child has a married mother and father who needed to get permission from the government before conception was allowed.
In the U.S., we see such a policy as government intrusion to the max, but there each child is cherished and born into a family that can take care of the child—and wants to have the child. Not only does each child have married parents to take care of him or her, each is likely to have two sets of grandparents and perhaps great-grandparents doting on that child. Such attention may lead to some problems, but the child is not likely to be neglected or abused as so many are where there is no oversight or qualifications needed of those getting pregnant.
Just getting government permission to have a child is not enough. That child needs to be healthy and have a good chance for survival. There are few Herculean efforts to save a child with birth defects. In fact, just before we left Lin’an this summer, a young woman in the English Department was pregnant. She, her husband, (and her mother-in-law) were extremely happy since she had had miscarriages in earlier pregnancies. At five months, it seemed likely the fetus would come to term. However, during a regular checkup, the fetus was found to have a heart problem, so it was aborted. From our U.S. perspective and likely the family’s, that was too cruel. But in a country of about a billion and a half people, aborting a fetus is practical since it would require much medical attention and would not likely survive if it were allowed to come to term. The couple will try again and hopefully will have a healthy baby. We know that baby is wanted and will be well care for.
Do Chinese children have happy childhoods? Yes! I heard only one student out of the hundreds I taught during the year say something negative about his or her childhood. The student said her grandparents wouldn’t take care of her when she was small since she is a girl. Instead, she had to go with her parents to work. She also told a story about what her mother did to teach her responsibility when the she didn’t take good care of her pet bird—you don’t want to hear. Otherwise, the rest of the students said they had wonderful childhoods and shared good stories about the love and experiences they’ve had.
Are the Chinese healthy? I’m worried about them based on what I’ve seen at the school where I taught. From the time they are in elementary school, students have grueling study schedules in order to have a chance at a university education; most don’t grow up having play or exercise a priority. Some of the boys do play basketball; some students play ping pong or badminton. The Chinese government does require that students pass timed running tests to graduate from college: 800 meters for the girls and 1000 meters for the boys, so the government realizes fitness is important. Many of the students, however, complain about having to walk 20 minutes to class.
Also the grocery stores are crammed with prepared noodles (the ones that just require added hot water), sugary drinks, and salty snacks. The cafeteria selections involve lots of white rice and oily food. In the winter, the metal serving plates immediately become cold. Right now, most Chinese young people are slim. But they like to go to Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonalds, and Pizza Hut. They like snacks. In my belly dancing class (don’t laugh too hard), the teacher stopped our class after the first 20 minutes to let us rest for about 10 minutes!! This was for an hour class, and everyone there was at least 20 years younger than I am!!
There is a lack of health information. Sex education, for instance, isn’t shared with young people; they usually have to wait until they are married and then get information from a doctor. However, one of my female students was able to take a class on sexuality at the university this past spring. Although drinking is a big part of the business culture—as in drinking to make everyone drunk, and smoking is acceptable and even encouraged especially for the males, there doesn’t seem to be a realization about how much harm they cause. Students have told me that cigarettes are good because their production provides jobs. Even dental health is way behind what we routinely take for granted. Our dental hygienist on Maui says you have to floss only the teeth you want to keep, but people need to know about flossing in order to practice that easy habit to prevent tooth decay and loss. One of my students expressed amazement that I have all my own teeth. There is much opportunity to share in China what we know (although we don’t always apply it) in the U.S. And we can certainly learn from the Chinese too.
How are animals treated? You can still find animals for sale for meat in the markets—ones we would count as pets (and make me glad I’m vegetarian). However, with the rise of the middle class, there are some seriously spoiled and loved pets in China.
Jane, one of my great students, had a job in Shanghai over the winter break selling jelly fish as pets. These jelly fish were not poisonous (not the Will Smith 7 pounds type of jelly fish). These jelly fish make wonderful, beautiful, quiet, low-care pets for the growing middle class in China who live in high-rise apartments but want pets. The tank, water filter, lights, four jelly fish, and jelly fish food cost about $100 to get started. It’s a great business idea and representative of the changes in China.
Who comes to ZAFU? Besides the 22,000 Chinese students who attend ZAFU for a variety of majors from tea culture to medicine, economics, forestry, and more, there is a Mandarin department for foreign students. Actually, attending ZAFU to learn Mandarin is an economical and practical way to learn this challenging language. I was surprised to see many students from Ukraine. Others were from Italy, Belgium, Switzerland, Indonesia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Japan.
The students see learning Mandarin as a great way to be able to do business in China.
Do I have any investing tips? Some U.S. companies are everywhere. China has Coke, but not Pepsi (although we’ve learned that Pepsico has bought up a huge Russian dairy and may be trying to get into the Chinese bubble tea and milk drink market in China. Starbucks, Kentucky Fried Chicken, McDonald and others have a growing market in China. So if you are thinking of investing in China, I’d suggest you buy U.S. stocks of companies that are in China. That would be much safer than investing in a Chinese company.
What about investing in Chinese real estate? NO!! Remember I’m an English major, so consider the source, but many Chinese are speculating in real estate. When we first got to Lin’an, I wrote a blog about the numerous new high-rise buildings that are empty. I thought the units had not been sold. But stranger than that, the units have been sold and the owners are counting on the appreciation of the units. Most are not even rented, but the prices are so high that most Chinese cannot buy them. There seems to be a bubble, but the Chinese we’ve talked to think that the government will prevent a housing recession as we’ve experienced in the U.S.
Barry and I had an interesting and wonderful time in China and look forward to going back in the spring. We are sure to have new experiences and insights–and be surprised in new ways.
You could go to China too.
“The world is full of wonders and fun, so why stay at home all the time?” say the young Chinese couple who spent two months recently driving from Shanghai to London (CCTV 6/23/11). We agree.
Zài Jiàn and Aloha, Renée