Roll up those taxi windows, drag your bags through security… this only comes every ten years. Beijing’s bitter wind welcomed 2270 delegates yesterday to shine their shoes and take their seats in a room booked for the “18th National Congress”. While the U.S. lets out its breath to enjoy another four years under Obama’s leadership, China prepares itself for a new president and premier (7 of the 9 current Politburo Standing Committee members are retiring this year). Xi Jinping, the likely candidate to replace President Hu Jintao, emphasized four main questions to be addressed at this year’s conference, namely: What flag will we wave? What path will we follow? And in what state of mind? To continue advancing towards what kind of goals? (我们党将举什么旗、走什么路、以什么样的精神状态、朝着什么样的目标继续前进) Specific, I know. Citizens wait eagerly to see what solutions the committee generates for problems like insufficient health care, inflated real estate, and the growing gap between the rich and poor. As news stations flash snippets of animated discussions over round mahogany tables, the mysterious lure of the national government grows in the eyes of the people. Local and provincial governments may be corrupt or unfair, but loyalty towards the national government is a tradition that stretches back thousands of years, born from the people’s innocent dependency and undying hope in a power that remains faceless. Just as religion presses followers to have faith in what they cannot see, a government too can round up millions of supporters if only by providing a mirage of hope.
I sit on my bed at around 8:30 pm, wondering why, after devouring my nightly dark chocolate, there is still a nagging restlessness tugging somewhere deep within my stomach. And then it hits me— that old blog I used to write.
The thing is, this post was meant to be published right after the Mid-Autumn Festival last week, when I took a stroll from my apartment down to the oceanfront to snap a few photographs of the full moon. The walk turned out to be much longer than expected, and on the way, I had plenty of time to ponder just how ridiculous China would appear in the eyes of sane aliens. I say aliens because well, humans are exposed to far too many headlines related to China’s “booming economy and development” that we are essentially numb to the idea that construction in China is at all noteworthy. Yet perhaps the following account will cause some to stop and see the reality that is currently striking China as we speak, and striking hard.
Alright, this first photo’s no big deal, right, just more construction of a building that will soon block my once heavenly-like view of the Hong Kong mountains. Every morning at 6 am, the buzz from this construction project reminds me that all good things must slowly come to an end, level by level, beam by beam. It’s actually been one of the slowest, most dramatic experiences I can remember, but moving on…
Three BMWs sitting in a row; would be more, but my camera lack flo’. Truth is, this whole complex is wealthier than one can fathom. If not BMW then we have Rolls-Royce or Mercedes-Benz. Toyotas put their tails between their legs and called it a day long ago in this town. Saving on gas? Pshhh, c’mon, it’s showtime.
Here is a lovely real estate advertisement for a property in this area. 11,500,000 Chinese Yuan for a four bedroom, two living room, 176 square meter apartment. That’s one million, 800 thousand US dollars. (1,879,330.00 USD)
Here it is, folks: the waterway leading to the ocean that lures all the big shots into wasting their money on mounds of concrete in exchange for a place to call home. Something like an Erie Canal equivalent, but here, it’s worth more than gold.
A’ight. So modern China is all about liberal economic policies and “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (a phrase that is so overused and misunderstood it makes me sick). Front page news today was that Shanghai announced plans of allowing Facebook access in the hope of “making foreigners feel more at home”. Well that’s nice. One thing China can’t seem to give up, however, is its obsession with “be-good” signs. I invented this term while writing the previous sentence, but I think it’s a great catch-all translation. See, since the founding of the PRC on October 1st, 1949 (remember to celebrate National Day next Tuesday!) promotional, inspirational, and instructional slogans or banners have worked to unify and harmonize the 56 ethnic groups that make up the enormous, diverse country of China. Hung in schools, offices, dance studios, construction sites, subways, bus stops, and even on crumbling brick walls in the middle of God-knows-where (like what I saw in Ningxia), these colorful “be-good” signs are relentless. Whenever I raise my head above my personal headphone-cell phone-thought consumed bubble to read the signs and actually register their meanings, I’m struck with immense guilt at my failure to, well, “be-good”. The phrases on the signs relate to everything: one’s study habits, family relationship, personal hygiene, work ethic, moral behavior, citizenship, and even environmentally-friendly habits, which I’ll get to in a moment. The sign in the photograph above reads, “劳动” or “labor”. The side characters translate: “Chinese energy; Chinese image, Chinese culture; Chinese expression”. The bottom line, “最美的旋律” translates “the most beautiful melody”. In a sense, China is encouraging its people to believe that “labor” is a uniquely Chinese cultural element to be proud of. As I walked by the sign, situated perfectly in front of a massive construction site, I couldn’t help but wonder how labor could make China proud when most citizens I speak with can’t wait for factories to move OUT of China— to less-developed countries with even lower costs of labor. Sure, China’s 劳动力 or “labor power” is huge because of its large population, making it difficult for the country to progress from a primarily industrial economy to a service-oriented economy, yet apparently, Chinese should be proud of this fact… or at least learn to accept the reality while it’s happening.
“A drop of sweat is worth a piece of grain.” There is also a short poem by the bottom right, written by someone with the same name as one of my coworkers: “一日不吃饿得慌, 一季不收饿断肠。手拍胸膛想一想，节约粮食理应当。” The poem in Chinese rhymes quite cleverly, but the English is intriguing enough without rhyme: “Don’t eat for a day and you’ll be nervously hungry; don’t harvest for a season and you’ll be devastated by hunger. Beat your chest and think for a moment; economize food as you should.”
And the last one (well, last “be-good” sign featured here, there are over 20 different slogans along that particular road): “地球只有一个：There is only one Earth.” The bottom part reads: “Protect the environment; it starts with me”. I really like this sign. I think it’s great that China tries to spread positive behavior via reminders on large billboard-like signs. It’s better than private advertising, right? Just a bit contradictory, again, given all the construction in the background.
The above is a photograph of construction workers’ temporary dorms set up during the duration of a project. Most are required to live in close proximity to construction sites, as the work day usually spans from 6am-10pm and doesn’t pay well enough to enable workers to afford transportation for a daily commute. These workers toil under the hot Shenzhen sun every single day (save the holiday last week, though I did catch one man climbing the rafters in the afternoon). I sometimes watch them from my window, moving back and forth like little lemmings on a mission. During my morning runs, I always find a group of construction workers having breakfast together on the street— fried egg tortillas and cartons of soy milk. They chat happily, and I always look forward to running past that corner, letting the rich aroma of freshly-cooked eggs and hot sauce overwhelm my morning senses.
On my walk to the ocean shore during the Mid-Autumn Festival, I noticed some construction workers walking along too, sharing the night with coworkers and friends, unable to make a trip home.
“Expect Sunny Seaside”. Still under construction, one shouldn’t only expect sun but should look forward to apartments sold for over 2 million US dollars. I really wonder what the construction workers think when they walk by Shenzhen’s real estate price advertisements. I mean, an Ivy-League college grad is doing well to buy a house for $300,000, right? But 2 million? What the hell is the world coming to? These are not mansions, these are 175 square-meter APARTMENTS. This is a world that seems functional only in dream.
The next photos show the “irresistible” oceanfront view that is supposedly the cause of such high housing prices— I’ll let readers decide whether China’s facing a real-estate bubble or not.
Whew, finally made it to the full moon pics. Here’s Shenzhen Bay Park at dusk, when dozens of families came to enjoy the night together under the round, warm light of the moon. The bridge in the photo above leads straight to Hong Kong, and the view of the mountains (not visible in this photo) is incredible.
That night, walking back home, everything felt a bit jumbled. The full moon seemed to be creating a kind of “eye of the storm” optical illusion, in which the pure insanity of China’s development stopped for 24 hours while everyone enjoyed the holiday break together. At Shenzhen Bay Park, I watched as the families living in million-dollar high-rises stood side by side with construction workers under one full moon, looking up. The tradition weaved into a country hanging by the threads of a unifying nationalism may be fading under the spotlights of construction sites while modernity, materialism, and money flash like disco lights on the horizon, but on that night by the waterfront, watching a sea of dark heads bob together in unified awe, it sure felt like the moon shone brightest of all.