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a middle way
singapore sunset
amw
The other day i received an email from my mom with a long spiel about her opinion on China. It follows her email from a couple months ago where she said there was a lot she wanted to talk to me about but she was afraid it might cause problems for me. Like this country of 1.5 billion people is some kind of Orwellian dystopia itching to disappear any random laowai who receives a private email that doesn't toe the party line. I told her to just speak her mind.

Although i have been living here almost 5 months now, i know my mom has a broader insight into the country than i do. In a previous job she worked very closely with Chinese organizations and clients. She has visited the country many times over the course of a decade or so, and has spent far more time being wined and dined by the middle and upper classes than i have. But when she ended her mail with some modern spin on those inscrutable Orientals it made me want to scream.

I am lucky enough to have relatively "woke" parents. My father is a hardcore greenie, and is extremely passionate about indigenous rights and environmentalist causes. My mother is less idealistic, something like a green technocrat. Both of them have their own prejudices. They are both upper-middle class and will never truly try to deconstruct that privilege. I have plenty of prejudices and privileges of my own, but i still think it's important to challenge my family when i have the chance. Since they are the only people in my life i am (culturally) forced to stay in touch with, i think it's my responsibility to make sure my continued influence on them has a net benefit to society.

Last time i saw dad he came out with some white knight nonsense while proclaiming to be a feminist, and i clapped back hard enough he said i reminded him of his wife. I will take that as a win. When mom was in Berlin i defended the punks, squatters and anti-capitalist protestors whose direct action tends to make middle-class lefties feel uncomfortable. I think our conversations helped her to understand their thinking. But i am not sure how to challenge her opinion of China, which - aside from the valid list of human rights complaints - included a line about "not being able to trust the smile".

I guess i should reply by reiterating the point that the government is not the people. Since my mother has spent the last two decades living in a country where there is bipartisan support for holding migrants in concentration camps, i would hope she can see that difference. Though given Australia's recent breathless reporting on Chinese sneaks and spies - not to mention Turnbull spouting more polite Sinophobia in parliament this week - i am not sure she will be particularly receptive. Distrust of people who look different can run very deep.

-o-

As my grasp of the Chinese language increases, i have been more comfortable tackling the topics that most interest me about this place - urbanization, environmentalism and politics. Still, i am barely kindergarten level. I am sure to adult Chinese i sound like Trump when i try to discuss issues of consequence. But there is one interesting side-effect of being forced to shoehorn nuanced political thought into such a meager vocabulary - it can hone in on some fundamental truths and values.

Often when the Chinese talk to foreigners about how great their country is, they talk about 文化 (wén huà) - culture. They are proud that they have a relatively unbroken chain of cultural heritage and consider that rich history a major international drawcard. Who knows, perhaps it is? I guess there are lots of white people who are drawn to China because they read the Art of War or the Tao Te Ching and want to learn acupuncture or kung fu. I often surprise locals when i tell them my interest in that stuff is not particularly more or less than my interest in any other historic culture.

What interests me about China is how it is today. I am interested in 社会 (shè huì) - society. In superficial ways China is following the rise of Japan in the 80s and South Korea in the 90s. This is cool to me, because as a kid i grew up with images of The East as being a cyberpunk wonderland. But China has the added peculiarity of being a country still ruled by a Marxist regime - one of the few that not only survived the collapse of the Soviet Union but went on to prosper. Although day-to-day China feels as capitalist as any other country, the fact there is still a party at the top that proclaims to be working toward a communist utopia is fascinating to me. How has all that propaganda influenced today's young people? How will the society they build be different to Japan and South Korea? How will it be different to America and other western democracies? The new wealth and optimism here combined with an authoritarian government enables unparalleled opportunity for urban experimentation and social development. For a science fiction nerd and a political nut like me, it's thoroughly exciting.

Of course, most Chinese themselves don't see it. Why would they? Most of them were brought up in extreme poverty - or certainly their parents were - and their biggest focus is trying to build a life where they can enjoy the conveniences people in developed countries have known for decades. This is why a country with the second biggest GDP in the world still needs its president to announce a "toilet revolution"; hundreds of millions continue to live without access to basic sanitation. I am quite sure some of these kids who grew up barefoot in a village without electricity are utterly bemused by my talk of why the rapid prototyping in Chinese New Areas may unlock urban development ideas that will influence the rest of the world.

An interesting exchange happened in a recent Chinese lesson where i went off on a rant about white flight, suburbanization, gentrification and nimbyism. Spinning off recent headlines, i said that at least in China the government can kick people off a block when they see a better use for it. Granted, this week's destruction of Beijing tenements is actually evicting poor migrant workers and the only impact on the rich is that there are no longer any couriers in the city to deliver their hot lunches and Taobao purchases, but my point at the time was about America. I tried to explain that even though everyone knows American lifestyle and urban planning is massively harmful, their government is so brainwashed by colonial-era ideas of land ownership that they would never even consider steamrolling it all and starting again. Unfortunately my attempt at a nuanced summary boiled down to "a fair society is more important than rich people's houses and cars". Rendered that simply, it occurred to me that i sounded a lot like a Mao-era sloganeer.

That got me thinking. Do i really value society over property? Well, yes. Yes i do. My feeble vocabulary also led me to the simple realization that i value society over culture too. It isn't that i don't think individual property is important, or that we shouldn't respect different cultural traditions, but i very much feel they all should take a back seat to the improvement of society. And that, my dear comrades, sounds exactly like a CPC slogan.

I want to protect our planet and lift fellow humans out of poverty and progress out to the stars. Once upon a time i thought everyone wanted that. They don't. Immediate personal happiness trumps everything for most people. My dream is a classless society, but i don't have much faith in people to self-organize and cooperate to get there. So what? Is authoritarian rule a necessarily imperfect step? Well, probably not, given that so many authoritarian governments are full of kleptocrats. Then again, many capitalist democracies are thinly-disguised plutocracies, so what difference does it make? Well, that's the sixty four thousand dollar question, isn't it? That's why i want to spend some more time here, to gain perspective. There has to be a better way, a middle way.