Chinese Miracles

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-from Fresh Air Fiend, by Paul Theroux



There is a quaint Chinese expression for turning capitalist or starting a business. ‘Xia lai,’ a person might say, meaning ‘Down ocean!’ Into the sea, or Take the Plunge. An American friend of mine was at a dinner with a high-level Chinese diplomat, and they were chatting about their next assignments, when the diplomat said enthusiastically, ‘Xia lai!’


He was about to leave the Foreign Ministry, where the pay is poor and prospects dim, even for an ambassador, and he was entering into a joint-venture with a foreign partner. What makes the story especially interesting is that in June, 1989 he made his name by denouncing students. Never mind! Take the plunge! Everyone else is doing it – or trying to.


I penetrated farther into Guangdong, beyond the red hills and paddy fields and the stands of bamboos, the muddy ditches and hot boulders, the haunts of snakes and eels and lizards and frogs, popular in the restaurants in those parts.


In spite of the new wealth, some things in China never change. The small side roads made by hand, squatting people pounding the asphalt flat with mallets. The rice-growing process – women scooping water into the terraces using large wooden ladles, others bent double planting the rice shoots, the men plowing with buffaloes, up to their knees in water. Cyclists transporting squealing pigs or lengths of steel reinforcing rods on their bike racks. The edge-of –town dump pickers, usually a man and a aboy, studiously sorting junk into piles – glass, metal, rags, paper.


The barefoot men kneeling by the side of the road welding metal without masks or eye protection, sparks flying. On the highest and most ambitious building, men erecting a scaffolding of poles and tying them together with string or split cane strands instead of using metal clips. The gardeners lugging heavy buckets on yokes and watering their beautiful vegetable gardens. The men fishing for tiddlers in canals. ‘The principle of diligence and frugality should be observed in everything,’ Mao said, though it hardly needed saying.


We came to a town. What was its name?


‘I don’t know,’ the driver said.


We asked. It was Bou Lou.


‘It was just a small place last year.’


It would be a city next year.


The strangest place I saw was like a movie set, all bamboo scaffolding and rising buildings, another city-in-the-making in the middle of nowhere, with an archway lettered ‘Welcome to Zhang Mou Tou.’


‘So this Zhang Mou Tou,’ I said as we drove through the flying dust, in this city of unfinished buildings. ‘It’s not on the map.’


‘It is new.’


Last year it existed as a mud-and-buffalo rice-growing village of ten huts. The ric e fields have been filled in, the buildings are rising, and to fill in the rice fields they have had to pull down all the surrounding hills – an amazing sight, just like the Maoist fable, quoted in The Little Red Book, of ‘The Foolish Old Man Who Removed the Mountains.’


It was on the way to Dongguan that I had a vision of the new strangeness of China. Perhaps it was he late afternoon light, perhaps it was the dust, or the detour. Whatever, it was the apparition of a city-in-the-making. I had been seeing them for days, but they were additions, enlargements, new subdivisions and districts. This was something else, the sort of thing the stranger sees in horror movies rising from the wisps of fog – a vision of the weird city, weirdly lit.


It was skeletal, unfinished, all of it brown with blown dust and dried mud. Everything was being built at once – the roads, the pedestrian bridges, the apartment houses, the factories, the stores. The buildings were thirty or forty stories high, and still clad in spindly scaffolding. Because of the time of day – twilight 0 no one was working; and only workers were involved in this. No one lived here. Except for the detour arrows, there were no signs. There was no color, Nothing alert or alive.


I had never seen anything like it in China, or the world, a whole city under construction, and what made it strangest of all was that no heavy machinery was in evidence – no bulldozers, no cranes, just the odd wheelbarrow or ladder, and the stitched-together scaffolding covering every structure and making the city seem fragile.


We drove through looking for someone to ask about it – perhaps its name? But there was no one around. Then it was behind us. But this was south China. In a short time – months, maybe – it would be inhabited and brightly lit.


Dongguan could not have started very differently from this nameless place. Dongguan had been little more than a village when it declared itself an Economic Development Zone. It was not on any railway line. Now it was full of factories producing the sort of light industrial products I had seen at the Trade Fair. It had eight large hotels and many restaurants and it was the only place in the province where I saw large numbers of infants and small children.


Barbie lived in Dongguan and so did Ken – they were produced in vast quantities in the Mattel plant there. K-Mart imported Batman electronic games from Dongguan, too. There were Mattel plants outside Guangzhou, as well, but in a profound sense Dongguan was toyland, and I knew that later I would not be able to see a Barbie doll or a Batman item and not think of the muddy streets and dreary tenements of Dongguan.


The morning news from the BBC (I was listening on my short-wave radio) reported that inflation in China in the first quarter of 1993 had risen to 15.7 percent. I had so far spent my time in factories and shops. I decided in Dongguan, and again in Shenzhen, to look at the food markets and ask people about inflation.


All the shoppers agreed that the quality of fruits and vegetables in the markets was much higher than before the reforms, because now the farmers were growing what they wanted, in their own way. There was a greater selection, and this competition had resulted in better food items.


Chinese in the south subsist on bowel-shriveling meals of oily greens and boiled rice and sticky portions of sinister-looking meat.


At a spinach-stall, I asked a woman, ‘How long have you been running this business?’


‘Five years.’


‘How much did greens cost five years ago?’


‘How am I supposed to remember that?’


The market at Shenzhen was fifty miles away, across a bridle path, through a ten-mile-wide building site, down a race track, behind a checkpoint. You needed an official pass, a sort of internal visa, to be admitted to this Special Economic Zone.


This was another aspect of old China, the high walls surrounding the city that gave each city a forbidding and fortress-like look. There are remnants of walls in Beijing and Xian and some other cities, through most of the walls were torn down during the Mao era and the bricks recycled.


It made little difference now that the crenelated walls and battlements were now chain-link fences, and the archers and spear carriers now members of public security. It came to the same thing. There was even a district in Shenzhen with the name Dong Men – East Gate – which was a resonant name if ever there was one.Certain cities were sealed, off–imits to outsiders. The proof of it was the woman in tears, being physically pushed through the turnstile, because her papers were not in order.



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