China Unlimited: the dragon’s long and winding road

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This article was written for the Sting by Mrs Claudia Ribeiro, one of the winners of the China Unlimited competition. Mrs Ribeiro took part in the China Unlimited trip from 22 July to 02 August 2016.

Claudia China Unlimited.jpg

Mrs Claudia Ribeiro is a winner of the China Unlimited Competition

When the Portuguese seafarers opened the sea route to India, and then to Ming Dynasty China, thus opening the world to global trade, China was a world power. It broke all world records. It was a land submerged in merchandise that was produced and consumed in an unprecedented scale. It was also a unified, centralized state with a colossal bureaucratic machine of highly educated officials. This system had been extremely successful, lasting since the times of Qin Shi Huangdi, The First Emperor.

 

During the Qing, who came after the Ming, the Celestial Empire, “the only civilization under Heaven”, doubled its territorial extension and tripled the number of its inhabitants. Emperor Qianlong’s China was the biggest empire ever known. Its “barbarian” vassals, who “aspired to civilization” and should pay China a tribute, occupied territories from Burma to Korea; and India, Philippines, Java were traditional clients. China was not a client to anyone. It produced everything it needed and wanted nothing from others. Chinese soft power was felt from the Caspian Sea to the Liuqiu islands, from the Baikal Lake to the bays of Bengal and Siam.

But China’s fate was going to change. After centuries of extreme pride, the Celestial Empire would know the bitter taste of extreme humiliation. China’s resistance to accept the Western countries proposal of global free trade; the subsequent debilitating Opium War which forced China to accept that trade, not as a productive power, but as a drug addict; and the use of superior military power by the West and, later, Japan, led to a defragmentation of the country.

The long humiliation of China lasted till 1949. Written in 1921, Yu Dafu’s short story Sinking (Chenlun) testifies the despair of China. Its main character, a troubled young man, sighs in agony: “China, O my China! Why don’t you grow rich and strong? I cannot bear your shame in silence any longer!”

Since 1949, Mao and his acolytes managed to make China its own self again, a centralized unity with an important strategic role in the world political affairs. But terrible excesses were committed with the Great Leap Forward and subsequent Great Famine. Moreover, the Cultural Revolution paralyzed China’s economy for a decade. Worse than that, the Red Guards formed an anti-cultural movement which actually aimed at self-destruction, the destruction their venerable and highly sophisticated legacy and their historical relics. China was not becoming richer or stronger.

The Cultural Revolution was put to an end only in 1976, when Mao died. In the late eighties, I managed to go to China to study Chinese. Deng Xiaoping’s ‘open door’ policy and the Four Modernizations had all been implemented. Despite the new open policy, China was still very much a country isolated from the world where we could go backwards in time: bicycles, not cars; abacus, not computers. Travelling was very dangerous due to the terrible condition of roads. There were still many people in blue or green so-called ‘Mao suits’. Western products could be purchased but in some international hotels or the Friendship Store and only by those who possessed FEC (Foreign Exchange Certificate, currency for foreigners). The common people, with their renminbi, the people’s currency, could not afford to get in. There was a very open black market to change dollars and FEC into renminbi. The dealers would shout aloud to every foreigner in every corner: Chainjee mani! Chainjee mani! (Change money!). State owned shops largely outnumbered private owned ones. Foreigners (laowai) were the object of enormous curiosity. The Chinese would unmercifully stare at them and follow them in the streets as if they were aliens from outer space. In case foreigners could speak Chinese, they would submit them to an endless interrogation: they wanted to know their country (and how delighted they would be if the answer was USA!), age, marital status, wage, if they owned a fridge (a luxury good back then), the inches of their TV set screen, etc.… They could also ask if we had trains in our country. Peasant manners dominated everywhere. People from all walks of life spat on the ground, blew their nose with their fingers, threw garbage everywhere, and did not bother to close the door when they used the toilet. But the Chinese were not a miserable people. They lived with dignity, though in a humble way.

I went back in 1997 for a twenty day trip. Dramatic changes had taken place. People’s clothes were more up to date; modern buildings, viaducts, bridges and long new roads popped up everywhere. But perhaps because my trip was too short or because I was mainly visiting mingshengguji (famous scenic spots and historical sites) I kind of sensed the future, but it was still not there. The truth is I missed China’s big change years.

I have very recently visited China again. Apart from the obvious and much acclaimed economic growth, I must stress that the change in manners was what impressed me most. There is a new urbanity in manners and attitude amongst the people. In big cities, at least, they don’t stare at foreigners anymore. Nowadays Chinese don’t spit on the ground or throw garbage randomly.

Their appearance also changed, not necessarily for the better. After the uniformity of Maoist fashion, they adopted the uniformity of Western fashion that took over the world. And they are not uniformly lean anymore; I found them much fatter, since now they have American style fast food chains all around.

What immediately strikes the newcomer is an almost tangible dynamic vibe, a drive to attain something the people know they have been missing. The Chinese seem to be extremely dedicated to their homeland and committed to improve it in every way. They build, they change, they experiment, and they create. Ningxia, for instance, once one of the most poverty-stricken provinces of China, and once a desert, has been transformed into a series of green fields and lakes. Its cities are modern, pleasant and spacious, very clean and not overcrowded at all. We could testify the satisfaction of its inhabitants. China is finally becoming rich and strong again.

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