Last June I applied through work to go on a British Council youth exchange trip to China. Over the past weeks I joined 85 other young creative and cultural innovators on a diplomatic visit to Shanghai and some of the Provinces. UK-China 400 was a fascinating experience, and this article is an attempt to clarify my thinking and make sense of the many disparate sights, thoughts, and emotions along the way. Part travelogue, part social commentary, part personal development exercise, what follows is, at best, a chronicle of the thoughts and feelings inspired by ten days spent living the life of luxury in China or, at worst, a self-indulgent pile of words of no use to anyone. But it is something I need to do to make sense of the trip, and what else are blogs for if not as a forum for self-indulgent pith?
In his 1983 travel biography Red Dust the Chinese author and painter Ma Jian wrote about the changes taking place in China:
“Everything is starting to change. China feels like an old tin of beans that having lain in the dark for forty years, is beginning to burst at the seems.”
Twenty five years later 'change' remains the buzzword around China. When I boarded the plane at Heathrow Terminal 3 early on Sunday 13th September, I carried with me a host of expectations and pre-conceptions about the nation I was to visit, all couched within this word 'change'. They encompassed not only the type of nation China is becoming, but the type of place it once was. I had read articles criticising China's Human Rights record and freedom of speech/information abuses. I had seen shows on Chinese economic development and listened to talks by the likes of Will Hutton on the impossibility of sustained long term growth. I had watched discussions surrounding the Olympics, been to talks by PEN on persecution of Chinese writers, and even had some experience of the difficulty in getting a visa for a Chinese author to attend our Worlds festival in Norwich last June. And all of this talk centred around the prevailing notion of progress, improvement, change. And yet, as soon as I landed at Shanghai Pudong Airport I realised that despite all of this I knew absolutely nothing of China for myself. I was intrigued by the dichotomy between China's Communist single party politics and its free-market economy but had no idea what that meant in practice. The briefing I attended before the trip presented China as a strict society where the slightest transgression of etiquette could have terrible repercussions, whether in causing great offence, or attracting unwanted police attention. We were told it would be unwise to go out on our own, or in groups of more than 5 as it would attract attention, were taught how to present a business card or gift, instructed not to sit with out legs crossed and foot pointing at anyone, reminded of the strict dress code. It was all very prescriptive. And rife with the impression of China as completely alien to anywhere I had been before.
How strange it was, therefore, to step off the plane in Shanghai and find myself in a place that felt entirely familiar. That is one of the strange things about flying to a far flung land – you step off the plane into an airport which is almost identical to the one you boarded the plane from 11 hours earlier. But it wasn't just the airport, the drive to the hotel, the hotel itself, the city skyline, the coach, the inflections, intonations and body language of the Chinese people welcoming us, the weather, colour of the sky, brand advertisements, roads...everything about Shanghai felt like the sort of major international conurbation I have been visiting my whole life. Even the language felt no greater barrier than it would in, say, Italy or Spain. There was neither a heavy police presence on the streets, nor political propaganda to be seen. Indeed, I have felt more closely scrutinised, watched and controlled in most major European and North American cities I have visited in the last 5 years than I did in Shanghai. Later in the trip, when we asked some of the university student volunteers about the customs we had been told to observe, their reaction verged on disdain. “It doesn't matter what you do,” was the typical response. Of course, these were young members of an increasingly socially mobile and confident generation and such groups are not generally prone to care for the finer points of social etiquette, but their reaction did convey something, I think, if only the scale of one kind of change taking place.
Shanghai itself is a city which has been almost entirely (re)constructed in the last ten years. Its population of more than 20 million people makes it the largest city in China and it already boasts more than 2000 buildings over eighteen stories high. Although its economic might remains on about one-seventh that of Hong Kong, the aim is to bridge the gap by 2020 and although this may be a little ambitious, there is little doubt that Shanghai will be one of the worlds foremost financial hubs in the future. It already is. The skyline is certainly already impressive. Three of the top twenty tallest buildings in the world are located in the new area of Pudong, and the Shanghai Tower which has just begun construction is slated to be the second tallest building in the world on completion. Just next door, the Jin Mao Tower, standing at 421 metres already contains one of the worlds highest hotels which begins on floor 54, and contains the world's highest swimming pool (floor 57) and the highest bar, aptly named Cloud 9, on floor 58. Shanghai also boasts an intriguingly designed road network with main highways raised off the ground and local roads running underneath. But before this turns into a tourist guide repetition of quantitative facts and figures (something the Chinese proved tremendously keen on) lets return to the personal experience itself.
After checking into the hotel and an amazing lunch, we went up the Pearl Tower for a panoramic view of the sprawling city, and paid a whistle-stop visit to the Shanghai Museum. All this through a haze of jet-lag. In the evening, growing ever less coherent, we attended a formal dinner in which people spoke of friendship and mutual understanding, themes which I always enjoy hearing in almost any context. Then it was free drinks in a wild west themed bar in the hotel, a ride on a Bucking Bronco and finally to bed for some much needed sleep.
The following days began to fall into a pattern: wake up at 7.15, breakfast at 8:00 before a quick email home. Sadly Facebook, Twitter, and Blogger were all inaccessible so travel updates in any form proved impossible, but at least BBC News was available so I was able to keep up to date with goings on across the world. Coaches departed the hotel at exactly 9:00am. The day would then consist of one visit in the morning, followed by a banquet lunch, then another in the afternoon followed by a banquet dinner. By the second or third day people were heaving from the weight of food and letting belts out a notch or two. Well, all but the vegetarians who were consigned to a 'Vegan Feast' table in the corner, and forced to watch meat dishes be laid one after the other on the table, all beautifully presented and utterly unwanted. We came to subsist primarily on steamed green vegetables, with the occasional soup or morsel of tofu. Often there wasn’t even rice or noodles at most meals, due, I presume, to the association of them with everyday peasant food rather than the fancy official banquet style of cuisine we were treated to. The only vegan on the trip subsisted those first few days on little but watermelon and little yellow bean-like things which turned out to be mountain yams. After a while we were all dreaming of carbohydrate and protein.
Still the visits were fascinating, even if sometimes they amounted to little more than a brief tour followed by a lecture on the virtues and successes of the institution in question. We visited the Shanghai Institute of Visual Art, saw the students sculpting and drawing, and were amazed by the vast greenhouse which they tended as part of their studies. We visited a former abattoir which has been transformed into a Creative Industry Centre and walked the winding concrete walkways, reminded all the while of the impossible art of M.C. Escher and the artistic beauty which can lurk in the most unlikely places. At the Shanghai Dramatic Art Centre we engaged in an enthralling discussion with the Assistant General Manager, Nick Yu, who was a producer, director and a playwright too, and whose social skills and open warmth kept us entertained for more than two hours. Through that discussion we learnt much about the prevailing climate in which theatre remains a minority art form but which, due to the rapidly increasing wealth of the country, is finding a new audience among young professionals. We also learned that street theatre is only possible with a permit which is difficult to get due to state dislike of people congregating in groups in public. (However, through the rest of the trip I saw at least two occasions in which a crowd of people was happily and safely gathered around watching a public performance. Perhaps this is another example of those changes which have been taking place in China over recent years, which have not yet been reflected in a change of law.)
This is pure speculation. One of the ways in which my political and social thinking has evolved over the past ten years is that I now recognise the vast distinction which must be made between the government of a country and the people themselves. Failure to recognise this distinction caused me to make some pretty banal comments about the United States prior to meeting Megan, and it is important to keep this in mind throughout this article. Ours was in no way a political trip – we neither met any politicians of any kind, nor discussed politics with our guests – and therefore any comments I pass on societal changes must be taken as personal viewpoints of what I observed, rather than any factual statements. Nor did I visit any rural areas, so again cannot comment on what life is like there. What this article seeks to do, essentially, is to present China as a country in which whatever political ills have and continue to be committed by the state, they are not ever present in the lives of the urban populations.
An example which comes to mind was recounted by those who visited Fujian Province on the south east coast of China. On returning they reported numerous examples when local people referred to warm trading and social relations with Taiwan which is situated less than 100 miles off the coast. While political rivalry may exist between the Communist Party of China and Taiwan, the distinction is perhaps not so significant to the average person on the street who owes his livelihood to trade with Taiwan.
After three days in Shanghai with all 85 delegates we then separated into four smaller groups and headed to different Provinces. My group went to Hunan Province, and the capital Changsha. Hunan has a population and area just above that of the United Kingdom, while Changsha's population of over 6 million makes it more than three times the size of the entire Birmingham conurbation. This is important context when trying to understand the profile and size of the different organisations we visited.
It was a great relief to break out of such an unwieldy and awkwardly big group and get to know people on a more personal level. Despite the incredible humidity in Changsha (over 80% on the first three days) our group gelled quickly, and looking back the times there rank as the most rewarding, both personally and professionally of the entire trip. On the first evening we went to a bar in the heart of Changsha, which turned out to be a massive neon wilderness akin to Piccadilly Circus if it extended for miles in every direction, Yet somehow, sitting outside a bar only metres from a very busy road in the evening warmth, we felt a million miles away from the hectic pressure of the first few days. Ordering drinks proved challenging with the menu all in Chinese so that the only way we could decode that we were on the cocktails page was because there was a B52 shooter listed just below. I decided to chose based on what the Chinese characters seemed to denote, so went for one which contained a skyscraper, cable car and someone playing snooker! It turned out to be a Long Island Green Tea which was very pleasant and as we sipped our cocktails and chatted serenely I began to relax for the first time on the trip, found my confidence increasing so that come the next day I was ready and eager to engage more actively in our visits.
The collegiate mood continued. The next morning began with a trip to the Sunchime Cartoon Group, a massive studio with more than five hundred employees where they designed and made educational cartoons for children. The vibrant colours of the cartoons was an early morning tonic and set the tone for another positive day. At a dialogue session on Creativity and Cultural Innovation later that afternoon I volunteered to give one of four presentations from the UK group. With only half an hour to write and prepare the ten minute presentation on the work of Writers' Centre Norwich and my own ideas on culture it was a frantic and terrifying proposition, and I was thankful to the provision of wet towels to help control my sweaty palms as I frantically sought to write and rewrite the speech, taking into consideration the need to build in pauses for translation and an urge to say something different to what we had already heard on the trip. I wanted to really promote the idea of art and creative thinking as valuable in and of themselves, rather than primarily as a tool for the advancement and development of creative industry. I toyed with the idea of paraphrasing Virginia Wolf, tried to remember the her actual words, and decided that no-one would know if I got it wrong.
All the stress paid off. Halfway through I had that moment of clarity where I knew I was conveying exactly what I wanted. The subsequent reaction from members of our group was incredibly positive. I was able to display my creative side as a writer in a way I hadn't previously been able to, and the warm reaction to this has definitely increased my determination to get back down to writing. It even turned out that one of the Chinese speakers was a published writer, and he generously gave me two of his books as a present. I can’t read them, but they will look beautiful on my bookshelves regardless. All in all it was an incredibly positive experience.
The day culminated in a shopping expedition through the bright lights of central Changsha. One of the student volunteers, whose ‘English name’ was Sweet, spent three hours accompanying myself and three others around shops in search of some jade jewellery to bring home. Her assistance with the language, generosity of spirit, and genuine enjoyment of our company was one of the highlights of the entire trip.
Since arriving in Changsha opportunities to contact the outside world had all but disappeared and so by this stage I was feeling a little homesick and guilty for not being in contact with Megan. Attempts to rectify the problem by purchasing a China Mobile SIM card proved futile and in the end I resorted to borrowing a fellow delegates phone and asking Megan to phone me back at the hotel. It was wonderful speaking to her after a week apart, particularly given our history of time zone separation. It felt like returning to the very beginning of our relationship, when I would stay up half the night talking on the phone, sometimes even falling asleep halfway through a conversation. It was lovely, comforting, and just what I needed.
But back to the trip. Everything we did on this trip was organised by the All China Youth Federation, one of the main pillars of the Chinese state. Our translator and sometime guide, the dedicated and talented Wang Yi, was a Program Officer at the ACYF, and in that sense much of what we did went through a potentially unreliable intermediary. It was also noticeable that the Dialogue on Youth Creativity and Cultural Innovation was chaired by the Vice President of the Hunan Provincial Youth Federation and that he personally answered the one question which bordered on the political, when someone touched on the individual versus society in artistic provision. The only actual visit he accompanied us on personally was to the Hunan Morning Herald, the biggest newspaper in Hunan. This was also the case in at least one other province. However, while this seemed at first sight like a subtle act of political pressure, his manner throughout denoted a man very happy to sit and listen, without any need to get involved. Even when we posed seemingly difficult questions on censorship of news and the media he sat and listened without any sign of undue fear, at one stage even leaving the room to answer a phone call. Indeed the Youth Federation involvement was further negated by the fact that the discussion was translated not by Wang Yi, but by the Deputy Editor of the newspaper, who spoke good English, supported Liverpool, and had once been the Sports Editor at the paper. The Editor in Chief answered all the questions openly, displaying what appeared to be genuine interest for discussion and debate. His answer to the question of censorship was also fascinating in its apparent frankness and I reproduce it here, largely verbatim though only as remembered later in the day.
'This is the question I am asked most frequently,’ he began. ‘Outside the political realm we can report whatever we like. There is no censorship. When it comes to politics there are some issues. We are not entirely free. However these are issues which cannot be overcome with dialogue and a positive attitude. Increasingly big media organisations in China are winning greater freedoms and change.'
That buzzword once again: ‘change’. The answer was clearly satisfactory to the HPYF as the Editor was later invited to join us for dinner.
Perhaps what this episode most demonstrates was our quiet distrust of everything which was taking place. On leaving the UK there had been a lot of delegates who were very wary of any form of engagement with China and such distrust remained, posing unanswerable questions about exactly what we were and weren’t being allowed to see. Whether this was valid or not, I cannot say. Certainly despite all the seeming openness of the Chinese, I am not so naïve as to believe everything was as smooth as it was presented to us. As befits the traditionally undemonstrative Chinese psyche, a lot of control is surely wrought through silent and insidious social pressure rather than over censorship and control. An example of this came in a discussion with a university lecturer during our family visit the next day in which she explained how the Family Planning Policy (one child policy) is enforced in practice. With her husband she already had one son, a twelve year old boy who enjoyed playing on-line computer games. Were they subsequently to have another she informed us that she would lose her job at the university and that everyone else in her department would have their wages cut. You can't really oppose that sort of interconnected social pressure. On the other side, we later came to the practical difficulty of the situation. When visiting the son’s school he told us that he shared classes with 56 other students and his mum added that twenty years ago it would have been in the late seventies. Such numbers really brought home the difficult population problem China faces.
A further, and I think reflective, anecdote about the subtle nature of Chinese society was reported by a fellow delegate from Norwich who stopped at a bookshop in X'ian and found an interesting picture book entitled The Little Zebra. Although he couldn't read the actual words, the gist of the pictures was clearly that of a zebra who didn't like being black and white and wanted to look like the red horses instead. So he dressed in a cape and distanced himself from the rest of the herd. But when a lion attacks, the little zebra stands out from the herd while everyone else is camouflaged. His uncle comes to persuade him to take off his cape which he does and is saved. The moral of the story clearly being that straying from the flock and being different is dangerous, it is safer just to fit in. I found this a fascinating anecdote, contrasting so much from the dominant western picture book idea of celebrating difference. Here, a character once maligned by society is often shown to save or help society in some way through their very difference. You can see this in films like Happy Feet, books like Tacky the Penguin and Mr. Big, and countless other examples across out media. It is such apparently minor distinctions which perhaps provide the most effective insight into China. Being in a supposedly communist country inspired lots of interesting debates on the nature of society, both their and at home, and one of the interesting aspects of the trip was in demonstrating the range of sympathies which existed for some of the perceived characteristics of Chinese society. The above is just one example of this.
After five days in Changsha we made our way back to Shanghai. The trip was coming to an end and we had just one day left for evaluation and a bit of free time. However, in the evaluation things came out which brought to light certain developments which I had not fully been aware of and which questioned my experience of the trip. Whether it was because I was already reticent about returning to Shanghai, or just emotionally drained from the long trip, these revelations hurt me quite deeply, and I spent an evening uncertainly trying to work out whether any of the friendships I had developed were as I had previously perceived them to be. The next day things sorted themselves out and that final day was taken up as much with relief as enjoyment. We walked for hours in search of gifts to bring home, enjoyed a wonderfully relaxing massage in a small spa next to the hotel (for only £8!), and spent the final evening drinking expensive cocktails high above Shanghai in Cloud 9, the bar on the 87th floor of the Jin Mao tower. It was a great way to wrap the trip up.
In hindsight, what the evaluation episode did for me was to provide an opportunity to learn something about myself, and going into it, that is what I expected this trip to be primarily about. Spending ten days away from home in a strange environment with a large group of strangers taught me a great deal about the person I am and have become. I am generally not very self aware so when these lessons come to me I really need to take note of them to ensure that I can improve myself in the future. What is perhaps most apparent is that I need to spend more time cultivating friends. It is not something I do naturally and when I am confronted with a situation big group such as this, it leaves me a little lacking in the requisite people skills to be the person I want to be. I tend to keep people at arms length, for they inspire strong emotions – uncertainty, vulnerability, self-questioning - which I prefer not to deal with. I am too uncertain around people, too fearful to commit myself for fear of rejection, or even worse, compelling people to accept my company out of politeness. I have also become quite emotionally needy in a way I had not realised before. I believed I was pretty independent and good at getting on with life on my own but perhaps a result of being married and spending so much time with one person is an inevitable reliance upon their company. I did not realise how much I would miss the safety and security of a cuddle in the evening, Megan’s smiling face in the morning.
On a positive note I found out that once again I can respond when put under pressure and express myself clearly and coherently. People's positive reactions to the presentation I gave provided a real personal highlight of the trip and has given me great confidence that public speaking is something I would like to do more of in the future. The support and positive reactions people gave me about my writing too has inspired me to really crack on again. Yes, I know I have these periods of inspiration at least twice a year and it probably wont last, but I think that sort of inspiration is probably good in and of itself, regardless of endurance.
Overall, the trip to China was an incredibly positive one, from which I have emerged with new friends whom I hope to keep in touch with, increased confidence in my professional capabilities, and a view of China not at all in keeping with the one I left with. If being treated like royalty for ten days has resulted in an embarrassing inability to cook any more, and a vague yearning to eat everything with chopsticks then so be it.
The stress I perceived to lie between communist dictatorial politics and free market economics did not appear to exist since the communist politics has been completely subsumed to the free market. One delegate reported an exchange with a member of the All China Youth Federation in which the later referred to a constituent youth organisation as 'a bit communist.' Gavin Anderson the Director of British Council in Shanghai summed it up well in his view of China as an autocracy, but one in which the leaders were not interested in feathering their own nest but rather their prime, or possible even sole interest, lay in making China great. This explanation made sense to me.
Despite its status as a hub of global manufacturing, China is not a cheap country. Indeed, with the exception of taxi fares, massage and some street food, many things seemed to be on the pricey side of average, even compared with inflated London prices. I visited only urban areas, but neither in any sense fitted the requisite of a developing country. Driving around them I saw no more poverty than I would driving through any urban area. It made me question the nature of how we classify the relative relationship between nations, and wonder when the last time a nation moved from the status of developing category to join the developed nations. How do such slippery concepts really reflect on the ground? Are they just learned concepts which ensure the continuance of a two-tiered international system, or do they have some relevance of which I am not aware? Clearly I don't know the answer to these complex questions, but this visit certainly posed them.
To anyone interested in working with any Chinese organisations or individuals I highly advise you to go for it. From my experience they were open, receptive, incredibly warm and very eager for dialogue. The students who volunteered to assist us were some of the most generous and friendly I have ever encountered. Whether China is the future of the world I don't know and don't really care. Whether Ma Jian's observation of change remains as relevant today again I don't know. To my eyes, twenty five years of change have led to a China which feels like a shiny steel can of beans with a flashy logo which is being sold in supermarkets around the world. What is inside that can I am not really sure. And of course I am in no way comparing my 10 day tourist visit to China with the experience of someone living there. More than most other countries I am certain that the real character of China is one which reveals itself covertly, in subtle nuances utterly imperceptible to the visiting eye. What I do know is that while in China we encountered adverts for a major new film celebrating the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China called Founding of the Republic. Since returning home I discovered coverage of its premier on NPR radio in the U.S. which describes it simultaneously as a propaganda epic for the MTV generation and a film which, at its core, is about democracy. These contradictions clearly remain at the heart of China and only time will tell whether it marks a clear indication that President Hu Jintao or other influential figures are pushing for more democracy inside the Communist Party or not. Change has already happened within China, every learned commentator around the world agrees with that. What it will mean for the future I really don’t know.
(Over the next few weeks, it is likely that I will edit and develop some strands of this post into further articles which I shall also post here. But for now, I hope this is some small insight into the amazing Chinese experience.)