Posts Tagged ‘countryside’

After reading about the chaos at tourist destinations and the impossibility of getting train tickets during the recent National Day holiday, I straddled my traveling bicycle even more smugly than usual as I rode around the Shandong countryside.  I try to take these bike trips any time there’s a holiday. It’s partly to avoid crowds, but more because it gives the reality check that anyone who does commentary on China should have periodically.

Two things were especially reinforced on this trip. The first was the second-class feeling that farmers have, and seem to mostly accept.

It’s a bit cliché now to talk about “the diversity of China” but when you spend even a little bit of time in the countryside – which still comprises about half the country’s population – you get a feel for how there really are (at least) two Chinas. This isn’t simply a natural cultural occurrence. It’s cemented into law.

Every Chinese citizen must have a Hukou (household registration) that ties them to their place of birth. It affects opportunities in everything from education and healthcare to employment and it’s divided into two distinct categories: urban and rural. Obviously, those with urban Hukou are at a much greater advantage.

Traveling around these villages, it was apparent that there’s often an inferiority complex among rural farmers when meeting urban dwellers. At one point my (Chinese) girlfriend and I stopped to rest alongside a group of farmers harvesting corn. We heard someone say, “Ah, look at their skin. They must be urban citizens.” (They then debated as to whether I was urban Chinese or foreign. They eventually came to the correct consensus).

In conversations, the farmers were very deferential to both of us, sometimes almost in awe. One young woman told my girlfriend how smart she must be. She lamented that she didn’t know anything.  In several instances, even when I wasn’t with my girlfriend, she’d ask people where the cheapest hotel was. They’d tell her things like, “The hotels here are really too poor for you. You should go to [the nearest city].”

The obvious gap in urban-rural incomes is of course a big part of this. But the mere existence of separate rural and urban hukou wreaks of the “separate but equal” American segregation policies of the early 20th century. The 1954 Supreme Court decision abolishing it correctly stated that “separate but equal” is inherently unequal. When one group is obviously disadvantaged compared to the other, separating them through law resigns them to a self-fulfilling expectation of social inferiority.

The second thing I felt on the trip is how separated these rural farmers tend to be from the items that typically dominate the news cycle about China. I met several who had either faint ideas or no idea about things like Bo Xilai and the Diaoyu Island dispute.

This was the height of corn harvesting season, so farmers were especially busy, but I got the sense that the average rural farmer’s daily schedule goes something like this:

Sunrise-noon: Farm work
Noon-2:00: Afternoon Siesta
2:00-Sunset: Farm work
6:00: Dinner
7:00: Watch provincial dance/singing/dating program
8:00: Bed

You’ll notice nowhere on that schedule is anything like “debate one another on the merits of Communist Party rule” or “scour Weibo for juicy tales of official corruption.” Most have simple lives that focus on extracting the most they can from their two-acres of land. Political developments outside those two-acres are non-issues.

Most young people in their 20s and 30s go out to do migrant work and undoubtedly have more complex lives than that. What I found interesting about this trip was that there were a lot more of these people helping with farm work than I’d seen in the past. I’m not sure how much that has to do with it being the holiday and peak harvest season and how much is a result of the economic slowdown.

We made a point of talking to several of these young people, but none expressed too much concern. Even if the economy stagnates and jobs are hard to find, eventually something will come along. They can help out their older parents with the farm work until then. At least that’s what they seem to believe.

These are just some simple observations from one rural corner of Shandong. I don’t mean to generalize them completely to all of rural China, but they come from the type of area foreigners don’t tend to go to. When pondering China’s social/political/economic future, it’s important to remember that nearly half of China lives in areas very similar to this.

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After I visited Yellow Mountain a few years ago and had the worst day of my China life, I swore to myself I would never endure another tourist trap again. Never again would I stand in line all day and pay hundreds of yuan for the privilege. Never again would I go to a “historical” site, only to be surrounded by droves of flag-wielding guides herding around groups in matching hats. So two years ago my girlfriend and I bought some long-distance bikes in order to access places you’d never think to buy a train ticket to. It was the best investment we ever made.

For our last trip, I brought along a video camera and have put together this short documentary with the footage. So watch as we ride through Shandong’s countryside, meet old farmers, chat with Catholic peasants, and get an up close look at China’s housing bubble:

Phoenix, China

When trying to do any kind of reporting in China, being ethnically foreign automatically closes a lot of doors. But then sometimes it opens doors you weren’t even looking for.

Over the New Year’s holiday, my girlfriend and I went to visit an old student in Anhui. One day we hopped on a bus to the countryside to see the nearby village of Phoenix (“Fenghuacun” in Chinese), which has a population of 6,000. On the way there another passenger started asking my friend about his foreign acquaintance (me) and offered to show us around.

When we arrived, he grabbed a friend/business associate from a nearby house who happened to be the communist party secretary of the village. In Chinese cities there’s a mayor and a party secretary at the top of the government apparatus. But since the CCP oversees the government, the party secretary is the one with the real power.

As we started walking toward the village, the secretary yelled to the driver of a nearby Buick, telling him to drive us all to the town center.  He complied.

Phoenix lies in a small nook surrounded by mountains. Like most villages that size, it consists entirely of one or two story homes and is largely self-sufficient – using every open patch of land for agriculture. Nearly everyone under 40 has left in search of higher paying work in the cities. However, the local economy has done pretty well for itself. A few years ago the village decided to devote a large chunk of land to growing flowers instead of vegetables. This brought in more money and had the unexpected side-effect of bringing in thousands of tourists to see the flowers blossom in spring.

As we walked around we passed a woman washing clothes in a creek. The secretary told her to go make lunch for all of us. “Ah ok,” she replied. “I’ll prepare several dishes.” And she ran off, set on her mission.

The two men explained how the village remains somewhat of a collective with the government owning all the farmland. Villagers are paid by a manager to tend to the flowers and other crops. Many of the villagers also grow a type of tree that’s used as Chinese medicine to help blood circulation. The medicine is exported, mostly to Russia, but the financial crisis has put a damper on sales the last few years. To continue development, the village currently has ambitious plans to build an enormous Buddhist temple and two lakes – which it hopes will boost tourism further.

While we were touring, several people came outside, offering the party secretary tea, cigarettes or lunch. I was kind of surprised that they seemed more enamored with him than me.

My friend, me, the businessman, the party secretary

When we went for lunch at the home of the woman we’d met earlier, baijiu (white liquor) started flowing and political discussion commenced. “The US and China are like a young couple,” the secretary told me. “They quarrel a lot but they can’t leave each other.”

He asked about the US’s local government structure and pointed out how similar the Chinese system is.  He said he himself had been elected to his position with 3,500 out of 5,000 votes and serves in 3-year terms. He’s now 57 and in his eighth year as party secretary.

We tried to get deeper into comparing political systems, but neither of the men could quite grasp how the American two-party system worked. The businessman asked, “Which party controls the political education?”

It’s the kind of question you would only hear in the countryside – where the party secretary regularly holds meetings to educate villagers on how to safeguard “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and carry out new directives from higher government organs. Even with a foreigner, much of the way the secretary spoke was in archaic ideological language that only a government official would use. And in typical fashion, he had nothing but self-congratulatory remarks to make about his village.

“The US is the most developed country in the world,” he said. “But we say our living conditions are very good – no worse than America’s.”

“Just look at the food we eat,” he said as he pointed to the lamb on the table.

My friend challenged him, pointing out that there are still many poor people in the village.“They gamble,” the businessman chimed in. “Yes, it’s their personal problem,” the secretary added. “They themselves are to blame. They’re poor because they’re lazy.”

When it came up that I’m a journalism student, the secretary had a suggestion for me. “You should start your own media company in America,” he said. “Then you can write positive stories about China.”

While I’m not sure he would win my vote, he certainly seemed to have the adoration of the villagers. The driver and the cook looked happy to help when he told them what to do. And others around the village jumped up in excitement when he rounded the corner.   Of course it’s still possible that, like many officials, he dabbles in some sort of corruption. But he already commands the respect of the whole village and I imagine almost anything he needs is comp’d by insistent constituents. To engage in overt or coercive corruption would be exceedingly greedy and self-defeating on his part.

In reality the town’s improving living standards probably have less to do with his policies than with the state simply getting out of the way and allowing greater private enterprise. But I doubt many see it that way. Given the town’s relative seclusion, all politics is local. So crediting the highest government official in the village for development makes sense.

But I imagine life in Phoenix is still pretty similar to what it was in Mao’s time; and the time before that. People now have enough disposable income to buy satellite dishes, hot water heaters and any number of other personal conveniences, but life is still very collective and laid back. In a sense, Phoenix is enjoying the best of capitalism and socialism. It’s been fortunate to be able to support itself economically without resorting to real estate deals. But what percentage of China’s countryside looks like this and what percentage looks like Wukan is hard to say.

There may be some slumps in the future and eventually the party secretary will be replaced by another – perhaps from a totally different political body. But regardless of what happens on the outside, I suspect places like Phoenix will go on more-or-less the way they have for centuries: as quiet farming communities separated from the outside world by geography and a lack of any real interest.

For the National Day holiday I went on a week-long bike trip from Beijing to my girlfriend’s hometown in Shandong, which I’ll be covering over several posts. The thing that stuck out most during the trip was actually a recurring incident I’ve noticed since I arrived in China that’s always fascinated me. It’s when local Chinese manifest things in their mind that their eyes and ears should contradict…and it almost always has to do with foreigners.

One night my (Chinese) girlfriend and I tried to go into a park to camp. A guard ran over to us and stood in my path while my girlfriend stood several meters behind. I started speaking to him in Chinese.

Guard: (looking at my girlfriend) You guys can’t go in.

Me: Why not?

Guard: (Doesn’t reply, continues to look to my girlfriend for help)

Me: What’s the problem? You can tell me directly.

Guard: (Looks to my girlfriend again) Can you translate what I said?

Me: She doesn’t need to translate, I heard you. I’m asking you why we can’t go in.

Guard: (Eyes dart back and forth between me and my girlfriend, still doesn’t talk)

Me: (Raise my voice) Are you able to speak?!

Guard: (Starts to speak, but hesitates. Looks to girlfriend yet again.)

Me: (Raise my voice almost to a yell and slowly pronounce each word) ARE YOU ABLE TO SPEAK?!

Guard: Yes

Me: Then please tell me why we can’t go in!

Guard: (Tells my girlfriend) No bicycles allowed in the park.

Another time we were eating at a restaurant and a nearby customer looked at me and laughed. “It seems he’s not accustomed to using chopsticks,” he said to my girlfriend. I was using chopsticks flawlessly as I have for the past four years at nearly every meal. My girlfriend assured me that my Chinese was flawless when speaking with the guard as well. But the customer simply believed that foreigners can’t use chopsticks. And the guard might as well have met a Chinese-speaking dog. Nothing about the situation made sense to him and his belief that foreigners can’t speak Chinese. Seeing or hearing things that directly contradicted their beliefs wasn’t enough to change either of their minds.

This was most prevalent in cities of about 50,000-200,000; pretty small towns by Chinese standards. While my girlfriend was inquiring about bus tickets in one of these towns called Qingyun in Shandong, some locals gathered around me and my bike – which is a run-of-the-mill 21-speed that you see anywhere in China, including in that particular town.

Local 1: The foreigner rides one of those professional bikes.  It must cost at least 5,000 yuan, probably more like 10,000.

Local 2: Yes, he must have brought it with him from Europe.

Qingyun foreign experts

Me: I bought it for 650 yuan in China.

Local 1: (Completely ignores what I just said) They can go as fast as a motorcycle you know.

Me: Believe me, it’s just a normal Chinese bike that cost 650 yuan.

Local 1: Impossible.

Illegal taxi driver: (talking to me) You know you won’t get any bus tickets. I’ll take you where you want to go.

Me: How much?

Taxi driver: 800 yuan. (The trip would never cost more than 400 for Chinese)

Me: Haha, don’t joke.

Taxi Driver: No joke, for you that’s not very much.

Me: Are you kidding me? I’m a student. I can’t spend that kind of money. It’s twice what we’ve spent this entire trip.

Local 3: You should just charge him 2,000 yuan. Foreigners don’t care about money.

[Conversation condensed slightly for brevity sake.]

In the countryside farming communities the people knew nothing about foreigners, and they recognized it. They were simply full of curious questions.  In the small cities however, the people still knew nothing about foreigners, but most regarded themselves as cosmopolitan international experts. I was just fodder for them to inform one another about the habits of foreigners. They’d never encountered a foreigner, but they had encountered plenty of TV shows and teachers that play up every conceivable stereotype. My white skin immediately made me a walking incarnation of their lifetime’s accumulation of stereotypes. What I actually did or said was of little consequence. My all time favorite instance of this happened on a bus once:

Girl I’ve never met: Nice to meet you. Where are you from?

Me: USA

Girl: Hehe, I like you. You are very humorous.

[Not condensed in any way]

I’ve seen foreigners visiting China just as prone to letting their preconceptions totally alter what their senses tell them. Kids walking home in army fatigue become veritable Hitler’s Youth enforcing marshal law in the Chinese police state. I also heard once about a foreigner who toured a computer chip factory and noticed the workers were grounded to their tables with Velcro bracelets to prevent static. The foreigner reported though that it was a sweatshop which tied its workers to their stations so they couldn’t escape.

These are just some of the funny little every day occurrences that happen when living in China…or any foreign country I suppose.  But over time it gets pretty annoying and makes you seriously wonder how long it will take the world to understand one another and function as a truly global community.