Peter Hough

Peter Hough
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Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Shangaied in China - did Judith Chalmers and I witness the end of Communism?

We met Judith Chalmers at dinner
Four internal flights, one over-night train journey, a four day cruise on the Yangtze River and hundreds of miles by coach saw us travelling across a good chunk of China in a month long tour. We travelled from Beijing in the north, to Dali near the Tibetan border in the south west, and Shanghai in the east. We experienced the sights, smells and sounds, and met and talked to a number of Chinese along the way - oh, and then there was UK travel icon, Judith Chalmers...

It was only a few years ago that Katie Melua sang 'there are nine million bicycles in Beijing', but most of them are gone now, replaced by motorcycles and ten million cars, contributing to the debilitating veil of pollution that hangs over the city. The thing that impressed me the most wasn't The Great Wall, or the Terracotta Warriors (impressive though they are) but the economical, social and political speed of change that threatens to render any comments and observations as out-of-date as soon as they are recorded.

Street outside our hotel in Beijing
We arrived in Beijing and were taken on a sight-seeing tour of Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. This was the only time I felt we were deliberately fed Government propaganda. Our local guide sought to white-wash the Tienanmen Square Massacre where hundreds if not thousands of protesting students were killed by the army in 1989. He suggested the number of deaths was much smaller, and that no one actually saw who carried out the attacks. Was it white-wash or in denial through national shame? Another guide told us that since the massacre, the police and the army are no longer armed on the streets of Beijing, to help prevent a similar atrocity, suggesting that the eight different factions that make up the Communist Party aren't always in tune.

Our Beijing guide was also supportive of the unelected regime that rules China. He likened it to a board of directors running a powerful company. "Directors aren't elected," he told me smugly, "they are appointed."
"Yes," I countered, "and the share-holders here can't call for the directors to stand down when they've made a mistake!"
Other Chinese people we spoke to made it very clear: China is no longer a communist country, it's a capitalist dictatorship.
We were photographed here days before the bomb went off

A photograph was taken of our group across from the entrance to the Forbidden City in front of Chairman Mao's portrait. Days later at this same spot, a Muslim family of suicide bombers from the western region of Xinjiang detonated a bomb in their car, killing two tourists and injuring around forty more. More bombs followed in other parts of China. Apparently the Muslims are complaining of suppression - as are the Tibetans. The view from the West is that the main Chinese Han population don't like their ethnic minorities. But our local guide in the ancient town of Dali told us how they and other minorities were not limited by the single child policy, and that girls could marry at thirteen, and boys at fifteen - an ancient tradition, although it would be a criminal offence in the West! She felt they were being treated fairly by the majority Han.


The new China - a demonstration takes place as we passed
Despite the control freakery of the Chinese dictatorship, things have loosened up quite a bit over the last few years. Another of our guides described how, just six years ago, a Communist Party official would sit at the back of the coach, making notes of what he told tourists. "Even three years ago," he explained, If some of the things I've said today had been reported to the authorities, I would have been replaced with a new guide. Now, no one cares. You can say what you like, criticise the government, officials, even the President, Xi Jinping - as long as you don't start a revolution!"

Face Book is blocked in China, as are other parts of the world wide web - including this blog site! This doesn't stop many citizens from finding a way around it. Everyone we met revered the BBC. The authorities have created their own social networking site, and as one guide gleefully told us, it has been used to great effect to nail corrupt officials and get them behind bars.

Young people are keen to emulate the West - not always following the best traditions. Reading some preparatory literature before we left for China, we were told that shorts must be below the knee, and dresses down to the ankles. Imagine our surprise then on going out into the streets of Beijing, Xian, Shanghai and other major cities, to see young women wearing very short skirts and tall stiletto heels. It was almost like Liverpool on a Saturday night! That's how quickly social change is happening in China.

Despite a degree of freedom of speech on the streets and online - the media is still in the grip of the State. Chinese Communist Television (CCTV) seemed obsessed with two topics. One was endless war dramas that seemed to depict fighting between the Chinese and the Japanese (still enemy number one) - these inevitably involved someone strapped to a table being tortured - and the other were cloned versions of The X Factor, The Voice and China's Got Talent! No one on these shows - including the judges, was over thirty. Carl Marx said that religion was the opiate of the people, but I think the Chinese authorities have hit on a new opiate - The X Factor.


I've never seen so many iPads on the street! There is a huge cultural gap between the under thirty-fives and their parents. The younger generation, many of whom are university educated - almost despise their uneducated parents. They have little in common with them. East has met West, and the youngsters like it, but their parents don't understand it. Generally, the younger generation are polite, while the older ones spit on the streets and push past to get ahead in the queue. There is no word in Mandarin for 'please'.

Our national guide apologised for the behaviour of the older Chinese. "It's not in our culture to consider other people, to give way to others like you do from the West. We are different because we've had lessons in manners, and how to behave towards others."

The young Chinese were on the whole courteous, allowing us out of lifts first, stepping aside etc. However, on a bus I did see one elderly Chinese gentleman offer to give up his seat to an English woman who was standing.

Education doesn't come cheap even in China - students have to pay tuition fees. They can't go on to university either unless they've attained a high grade in English. The young Chinese have also adopted a Western name along with their own. I thought this was for the tourists, but our guide said it was necessary as part of the Chinese people's integration with the West! He told me with pride that his daughter had just chosen her Western name at nursery school. Studying the history of the British democratic system and that of the USA is mandatory too - what are the Chinese authorities up to?


The Terracotta Warriors could have been destroyed by the Red Army

There's no argument in China about the so-called 'Cultural Revolution' - everyone is in agreement that it was one of the worst things inflicted on the country. Schools were closed, opponents murdered and much of the country's cultural heritage was vandalised and destroyed by the Red Army. Yet they don't blame the architect of the communist state, Mao Tse Tung. Mao was led astray, they told us, he was ill advised and suffering from Parkinson's disease.

Apart from the human cost, the terrible legacy is that most of the Buddhist temples and pagodas that we were taken to view have been restored, or rebuilt after Mao's death in 1975. When we visited the Terracotta Warriors our guide told us they were discovered in 1974 towards the end of the Cultural Revolution. A professor who examined the initial find contacted the President directly, telling him that it was highly significant. He sent the regular army to guard the site, knowing that the Red Army would destroy it if it was left unprotected.


Linda and I walked a section of The Great Wall
The worst thing is the pollution. The authorities do recognise the problem, and say they are starting to tackle it. We were besieged in some provinces by it, and were never sure whether it was just autumn mist or the pollution from coal fired power stations. Also the march of urbanisation with the unbridled rise of skyscrapers, rising up overnight like fields of mushrooms. Every where we went huge cranes clad the skyline. On the five hour drive from Shanghai to Suzhou we saw no countryside, just urban sprawl linking the two places. Another thing we didn't like was the huge crowds of people everywhere. With Beijing having the same population as Australia - you can see why there is a problem.

One of the best things is that we hardly saw or heard any dogs, because they virtually don't exist in China. One reason is because they end up on the dinner table, and the other is that before you own a dog you have to apply for a licence - which costs around £30 a year, on wages much lower than in the UK.

We really did enjoy the cruise on the Yangtze River, passing through the picturesque Three Gorges, and the Terracotta Warriors were fascinating. We even managed a three kilometre walk up and down a part of the Great Wall. We loved the old part of Dali (no high rise buildings), with its wonderful streets filled with restaurants and traders. Then there was Suzhou - known as the 'Venice of the East'. We had a lovely evening wandering along the old waterfront and sitting outside a bar with a couple of pals from our group.

Shanghai shines while other cities suffer power cuts
Shanghai was all posing with its very impressive light displays (costing a £100,000 in electricity every night - in a country that routinely suffers power cuts), the old architecture of the Bund (modelled from the buildings on Liverpool's water front), and the maglev train that moves on a cushion of electromagnetism (a British invention that our Government was not interested in developing!). We reached a speed of 431 kilometres an hour, and hardly felt a thing! Similarly we went up in the world's fastest lift - 83 storeys in 12 seconds - and didn't even feel it braking...


The largest LCD screen in the world (probably)
It was when we were in the city of Xian, having dinner, that we noticed Judith Chalmers on the next table. She was with a group from the same tour company, and afterwards we all went to view the fabulous lights, statues and water features in the city, along with the largest aerial LCD screen in the world, making night turn to day, with visions of birds and aeroplanes 'flying' overhead! Judith, apparently was here to write some travel features.

We went with Wendy Wu, and the tour ran like clockwork, all the guides were extremely knowledgeable, and the staff in the hotels were very professional. Not always in the breakfast room however, which seemed to have clapped-out toasters and a line of command which was hard to follow if you wanted more bread or orange juice. We weren't always enamoured with the banquets when eating out either - although we had some very good meals too.

All in all we had a fascinating time, but when you're sometimes getting up at six in the morning to catch a flight - it was more an experience than a holiday!

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