Life in China: From Fusion Cuisine to Live Snakes

Life in China: From Fusion Cuisine to Live Snakes

Cars and Bikes Share the Roads in China. (Photo by Ann Ragland/NNPA)

Cars and Bikes Share the Roads in China. (Photo by Ann Ragland/NNPA) 

by George E. Curry
NNPA Editor-in-Chief

BEIJING (NNPA) – When Julia Wilson visited China for the first time in 2002,  no one had to tell the former Los Angeles television reporter why China was  known as “the Kingdom of Bikes.”

Wilson, who is CEO of Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Global Communications,  said:  “It was so different, especially with the bicycles. Imagine rush  hour traffic – with bicycles. All of the bicycles would stop at the traffic  light. It was a thing to behold. The cars were to the side because there were  not many cars. Today, it’s the reverse and the cars have replaced the  bikes.”

China is the world’s largest market for automobiles, making it “the Kingdom  of Bikes” and “the Kingdom of Cars.”  General Motors, despite entering the  market after Volkswagen, is the best-selling foreign automaker.

Bicycles coexisting with automobiles, especially in urban areas, is just one  aspect of life in China.

Lynne Coleman, who spent nine years as an administrator at international  schools that cater to American expatriates in Beijing and Shanghai, gets excited  when she reflects on her time in China.

“It is a place where I can dine on delicate fusion cuisine prepared by  world-class French and American chefs, or choose a live snake for dinner and  watch it killed, bloodied and cooked in front of me,” she said.

Her husband, Craig Trygstad, prefers reflecting on China’s rich history  rather than its rich – and sometimes exotic – food.

“What I enjoyed most was getting to know the people,” said the former  teacher. “And since I love history, it was great to be able to walk through so  many of the sites I have read about –the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta  Soldiers, the harbor in Shanghai where Chiang Kai-shek’s army escaped to Taiwan  as Mao’s forces chased them down.”

Carl Murphy, a 31-year-old Black businessman from Atlanta, speaks fluent  Mandarin, is co-owner of a Shanghai nightclub, and operates a business with a  close friend from Atlanta that assists U.S. entrepreneurs looking to do business  in China.

“In major cities, you can eat foreign food every day, if you wish, live in  the same areas as other foreigners, go to all English-speaking venues, and watch  international news,” he said. “There are some foreigners I know who have been in  China for almost 10 years and don’t speak the local language. Yet, many of their  children are fluent. Some of them prefer to live in local housing, go to local  Chinese restaurants every day and even befriend and date or marry Shanghai  residents. It’s definitely a personal decision.”

Miles away from Shanghai, rural communities reflect another world.

“In 2006, it took about 40 minutes traveling by car beyond the Mu Tian Yu  Great Wall visiting site west of Beijing to find yourself back a hundred years  to a time and place where crops are harvested by hand and milled with a donkey,”  said Lynne Coleman, a native of Lewiston, Idaho. “People have no indoor  plumbing, the whole family sleeps on one kong (a concrete, horizontal chimney  that provides some heat in the very cold winters) and three-room houses are  heated with wood fires fueled by sticks gathered by hand and carried on the  backs of residents.”

Cars and Bikes Share the Roads in China. (Photo by Ann Ragland/NNPA)

Exodus from the rural areas has created more demands for housing and automobiles. (Photo by Ann Ragland/NNPA)

Many Chinese are moving away from such rural trappings to relocate to the  city, where the per capita disposable income is more than four times that of rural communities.

“There are so many construction sites in Beijing, Shanghai and all over than  when I was here before,” said Julia Wilson, whose company organizes tours to  China, Brazil and other countries to help improve the image of African Americans  abroad. “They are building so many apartments because you have so many rural  people moving to the city for jobs. They have no place for these people to  live.”

To slow China’s burgeoning population, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has  adopted a one-child policy that restricts the right of parents to determine how  many children they can have. In urban areas, couples are permitted to have one  child and can apply to have a second if each parent was an only child. The  policy is more relaxed in rural areas where couples can have a second child if  the first one was a girl. Each person in a couple who violates China’s  population control policy must pay a “social compensation fee,” which can be as  high as 10 times a person’s annual income.

Some provinces have regulations that require women who violate the  family-planning policy to abort their pregnancies. The other provinces insist on  unspecified “remedial measures,” which in most cases leads to an abortion. Even  with its strict population control, China is expected to grow to 1.4 billion  people by 2020.

Of China’s current 1.3 billion people, 91.51 percent are Han. There are 55  ethnic minorities that total 110 million or 8.49 percent of the population,  according to the State Ethnic Affairs Commission. A book titled, The Ethnic  Groups of China by Wu Shimin listed 18 ethnic minority groups with a  population exceeding 1 million: Mongolian, Hui, Tibetan, Uyghur, Miao, Yi,  Zhuang, Bouyei, Korean, Manchu, Dong, Yao, Bai, Tujia, Hani, Kazak, Dai and  Li.

Government officials note with pride that in an effort to integrate ethnic  minorities into Chinese society, they have what amounts to an affirmative action  program. But the 2011 State Department annual report on human rights notes,  “Most minority groups resided in areas they traditionally inhabited. Government  policy calls for members of recognized minorities to receive preferential  treatment in birth planning, university admissions, access to loans, and  employment. However, the substance and implementation of ethnic minority  policies remained poor, and discrimination against minorities remained  widespread.”

Although a communist country, laws on the books in China provide a remarkable  array of individual and group freedoms, including freedom of speech, freedom of  association, operation of a free press and the right to a public trial before an  independent judiciary.

In practice, however, those “freedoms” quickly disappear when the state makes  a broad claim of “subversion of state power” or contend an action goes against  “the interests of the state,” according to the U.S. State Department.

Construction is Booming as Cities in China Accommodate New Arrivals. (Photo by Ann Ragland/NNPA)

Construction is Booming as Cities in China Accommodate New Arrivals. (Photo by Ann Ragland/NNPA)

By definition, communist and democratic systems of government are  fundamentally different.  And there is also sharp difference in how  citizens in China and the U.S. view theirrespective governments.

Chen Xuelian, director of the Social Survey Research Office at the China  Center for Comparative Politics and Economics, said: “According to surveys, the  U.S. people believe more or trust their local government more than the central  government. In China, the public trusts the central government more than the  local government.”

Jiang Haishan, vice president of the China Executive Leadership Academy  Pudong in Shanghai, said: “In your politics, in western philosophy, government  is absolutely evil. You keep watch on that necessary evil. In China, for over  2,000 years, government has the responsibility to take care of the people –  government is good. Traditionally in China, government is like parents. Parents  have the responsibility to take care of their children. But at the same time,  parents have the authority to discipline them.”

In addition to a reverence for the central government, Chinese have an  unshakable respect for the family, a carefully structured unit where children  learn their role and are taught respect for authority and where the father’s  word is final and not subject to challenge.

“China is where family-level decisions and sacrifices are made, based on the  good of the family and not what is best for the individual,” explained Lynne  Coleman, the American educator who spent nearly a decade in China. “The worst  crime for ordinary people is bringing shame on the family.”

Children are taught at an early age that they must care for their parents  when they grow old. Government officials invariably dye their hair black because  of the widespread belief that people with white hair should be cared for in the  sunset of their life and not do heavy work.

The government does the heavy and intrusive work of closely monitoring its  citizens..

“Authorities monitored telephone conversations, fax transmissions, e-mail,  text messaging, and Internet communications,” the U.S. State Department human  rights report stated. “Authorities opened and censored domestic and  international mail. Security services routinely monitored and entered residences  and offices to gain access to computers, telephones, and fax machines.”

A.J. Liebling, the caustic press critic, is famous for saying, “Freedom of  the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”In China, all print and  broadcast media is state-owned. Consequently, the State Department says, Chinese  media is used “to propagate government views and [Communist Party]  ideology.”

Zhu Yinghuang, former editor-in-chief of the English-language China  Daily, disagrees.

“The philosophical thinking is different between Chinese and people in the  U.S.,” he said. “Chinese don’t believe in absolute press freedom. All media has  to be responsible. We have our boss and we listen to our boss. That doesn’t mean  that the boss intervenes in the daily operation of the newspaper.”

Sometimes that’s exactly what happens.

World-Class Chefs in China Prepare Everything from Peking Duck to Beijing Snakes. (Photo by Ann Ragland/NNPA)

The “boss” boldly intervened when the Southern Weekly, a newspaper in  Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, ran a New Year’s editorial calling  for greater respect for constitutional rights in China, which was quickly  rewritten by Tuo Zhen, the Communist Party’s top propaganda official in the  province. The replacement editorial in the newspaper, also known as Southern  Weekend, praised the party’s policies. The censorship touched off a  newsroom strike and rare public protests in China.

Even foreign publications can’t escape the government’s watchful eye.

When the New York Times ran a story last October disclosing that  Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s family had amassed $2.7 billion, Internet access to  the story in China was quickly blocked. Social media, including Facebook and  Twitter, are blocked in China for various reasons, including the ability to be  used as anti-government organizing tools.

Despite media censorship and ironclad government control, some foreigners  sending email to China have been able to slip content critical of the government  past the legions of censors. And despite a reluctance to speak out publicly,  citizens often criticize their government in small, private settings.

Chinese are quick to note some positive aspects of their government.

“This country reserves seats for certain minorities at all levels of  government,” said Alexander Tzang, former deputy president of The Hong Kong  Polytechnic University and special adviser to the China-United States Exchange  Foundation. “We have reserved seats for non-Communists, for females, for  minorities and so on. They are guaranteed seats. They don’t come by elections.  That’s not really democracy. But if you look at it from another angle, is it  better to have minority voices being heard more vividly? It is much more  equitable representation.”

Many are hoping that Xi Jimping, the new general secretary of the CPC Central  Committee, will keep his pledge to promote a more open society, including  following China’s 1982 Constitution.

Xi, who was elevated several months ago along with six new members of the  Standing Committee of the Central Committee Political Bureau, said: “The CPC  should be able to put up with sharp criticism, correct mistakes if it has  committed them and avoid them if it has not.”

Until that becomes a reality in China, as long as citizens and foreigners  stay away from the sensitive topics of Taiwan, Tibet, the Falun Gong religious  sect and criticism of the Communist Party of China, they can live what is  considered a normal life in China.

“What I enjoy most about China is the open-mindedness of people,” said Carl  Murphy, the Atlanta native now living in Shanghai. “The ironic thing is Chinese  people are portrayed as a bit robotic and not being free-thinkers. The funny  thing is that after living here, I can say the same thing about Americans, which  was displayed worldwide for everyone to see during the presidential  election.”

Craig Trygstad said, “In cities like Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin or  Chongqing, there is an energy and work ethic that is hard to miss. I sometimes  felt like that energy – which you see in small furniture factories, in tailor  shops and felt in bustling markets – is how you define capitalism. And that is  when I would forget that we were in a Communist country.”

(This 4-part series is the outgrowth of a week-long African American  Media Leaders Mission to China sponsored by the China-United States Exchange  Foundation, a non-profit organization whose goal is to foster a better understanding between the people of China and the United States. Neither the  foundation nor government officials in China had any imput in these stories or saw them prior to publication. The 7-member U.S. media delegation was led by  Cloves Campbell, Jr., publisher of the Arizona Informant and chairman of the  National Newspaper Publishers Association. The trip included visits to Beijing,  Xi’an and Shanghai.)