March 13, 2014
It had to happen. Rain is upon us. We are docked at Shibaozhai. We are around 200 kilometers below our Chungking destination. The town tourism centers on a Ming Dynasty pagoda that was built to provide an easier access to a Buddhist temple on top of a rock in the middle of the Yangtze. A village once surrounded the temple. Today a concrete coffer dam replaces the village whose villagers have been relocated to higher ground.
The Buddhist temple is a four star tourist attraction and is empty of Monks and any sort of religious activity. The place is a spiritual ghost town. In many ways it represents modern China.
Our group thinned out a little because of the rain. Not too bad actually. We wound our way through the trinket and souvenir stands that line the way to the Pagoda. We needed to cross a suspension bridge over part of the Yangtze. It bounced a bit. We then climbed the 100 stairs inside the pagoda to the temple on top. The scary statues looked like some of my neighbors. The place lacked any sense of spirituality. I guess it is tough with tourists and no Monks.
The following is a bit pedantic but I needed to have my say. It summarizes observations about contemporary Chinese society – at least from my perspective.
While China today is on the surface prosperous and booming. Nothing is allowed to stand in the way of industrialization. The Chinese government with single-minded determination steam rolls over opposition or any open discussion. The Three Gorges Dam project is exhibit A. The village and people of Shibaozhai were moved and replaced by concrete as a result of the dam. In the same way much of the Chinese soul has been hollowed out. Buddhism has similarly emptied of meaning for most Chinese. Empty temples are so many museums.
The Chinese freely complain about many conditions in China. They do not complain about the government. Clearly life is better in China today than for much of its history. Living in a high rise tenement is certainly preferable to a shanty slum. I guess it is the only real practical way to deal with run away growth in the cities. Not my choice.
While it is described as “Chinese Socialism”, it is more accurately to be described as runaway Capitalism. The government has clearly adopted trickle down economics as their solution to advancing China. There are the small group of the very rich who are the developers and the large business owners. There is also a significant group of government employees that benefit from the system in many ways. Then there is everybody else. There seems to be no Middle Class. You are either rich or work for the government or a struggling working class. This lower class includes many highly educated folks that lack connections.
I had assumed that there would be a certain degree of benevolence in the system. I was wrong. Government employees are the subject of much ire. Their salaries are fixed right below the point where you pay income taxes. They receive free or subsidized housing in the better neighborhoods, transportation, health care, good pensions and education for their children. The non-rich in the cities get NONE of these and are quite bitter. I had always thought that they would at least receive health care. There is health care for the elderly but everyone else needs to buy their own. They could use Obamacare.
The government has started to modify the one child policy. We have heard several different explanations. They need to do something because the male-female imbalance is 180 to 100 for school age children.
The government has stated its new goal of eliminating coal as a source of electricity. It is unclear what the time line will be. One thing is certain, they do not care much about coal industry lobbyists. I hope they move quickly as many Chinese cities verge on ecological disaster.
People also complain that they just have to work too hard and too long to make ends meet. We have seen well educated young people on board the cruise ship napping because of long hours. You see the same thing at museums on the weekend. The elderly with pensions enjoy tai chi in the parks. The young no longer receive pensions and really have nothing to look forward to other than work and maybe a spouse.
There appears to be no widespread spiritual life. Our guide Chris was clearly soured on this new economic miracle and found some solace in Taoism. Christianity is growing rapidly with as many as 100 million adherents in “illegal house churches” and government approved established churches that render unto Caesar in a correct manner.
We listened to well-intentioned lectures on Chinese society. They discuss the results of Mao’s mistakes like the Great Leap Forward and the Great Cultural Revolution. They admit that the decisions led to bad results but miss the crucial issue. You cannot have a society where 10 old men make unquestioned decisions. The impact of the bad moves are acknowledged and critiqued but not the process that led to the mistake. Now our country is not without the same problem. We can be steamrolled into stupidity and needless wars. Fortunately, a free press and an irritating media usually keep our options open.
The Chinese officialdom is finally beginning to recognize the environmental impact of this no holds barred industrialization. You know this to be the case when you read published essays by businessmen arguing for a redirection in industrial policy to deal with pollution. The cities of China are quickly becoming uninhabitable with choking air. The Chinese know it but debate is limited. There can be no critique of the ten old men who have the power to do something.
Even more important than the ecological disaster is the hollowing out of the Chinese spirit. The Chinese have always been hard working and willing to sacrifice for the future. An unfortunate by product is corruption and an acceptance of the soulless. The endless high rise flats have replaced the funky old houses with outdoor plumbing. The replacement housing along the Yangtze is uniform in its ugliness. It is land of little tenements made of ticky tacky. OK this is better than homelessness. Life in parts of the states is certainly worse but the trade offs have been huge.
To get ahead and survive, work is endless. While wages are increasing the cost of living is rising faster. The schooling necessary to get a good job is not free. Parents mortgage their homes to an even greater degree than in the US to help their kids. Even with education good jobs are not always available. What is worse is that people are expected to constantly work themselves to exhaustion. You see young people napping on the job or on benches in the parks or at the museum.
Despite what in my eyes are negatives, the Chinese remain optimistic about the future. They seem to take the long view and are ready to sacrifice in the short term. I do admit that their willingness to confront big issues allows them to tackle issues like infrastructure and housing head on. Their leaders are able to garner resources and manpower to make decisive actions. The old axiom about democracy not being efficient as a dictatorship is demonstrated every day in China.