Tuesday, October 06, 2009

[Travelogue] Not in Kansas any more

Today we reached China, and for the first time in my life I set foot in an actual communist country. We were in Russia earlier on the trip, but Russia isn't communist any more. China is. We were in Dalian for all of six hours, which is a ridiculously short amount of time. Tomorrow we're in Tianjin (near Beijing) for three days, which is not quite so ridiculous. Even so, we're on a whirlwind tour of the Great Wall and Beijing proper. Not much blogging for the next few days.

The difference between China and Korea/Japan is palpable. Korea is clean and Japan is immaculate. Both countries are thoroughly modern and westernized. China, by contrast, feels very much like a third-world country. Parts of Dalian are clean and modern, but big chunks are dirty and run down. We took a "Dalian highlights" tour, which took us, among other places, to the local fish market. Tsukiji it ain't. It wasn't quite as bad as some fish markets I've seen in Mumbai and a few other places, where the fish is not even refrigerated. Here at least most of the stock was on ice. But the floor was littered with fish bits, and it smelled very fishy. Still, next door at the meat market, the chickens (with heads and feet still attached of course) and other dead critters were at room temperature.

The most remarkable part of the tour was a visit to an actual Chinese family's "house", by which is meant in China "apartment". It was one of the smallest apartments I've ever seen, maybe 300 square feet or so, and I'm sure this is one of the nicer places in town. Twenty or so tourists squeezed into this place and spoke for half an hour, via an interpreter, to the seventy year old woman who lives there. It was mostly smalltalk. Nobody was willing to broach touchy subjects like how much the government controls their lives. I did get a chance to ask our interpreter, a 19-year-old student from a nearby university (studying English) if Chinese people still need permission from the government to travel outside the country. I honestly didn't know. I thought that some of the recent economic reforms may have included easing restrictions on travel, but apparently they haven't. Her answer was, "Of course." When I told her that we American's don't need permission from our government to travel outside the U.S. she seemed genuinely surprised. I wonder how many Chinese people don't know that needing permission from your government to travel is not necessarily part of the natural order of things.

I really wonder what would happen if I brought up the events in Tiananmen Square in 1989. If you never hear from me again it may well be because I decided to conduct this experiment.

(I wonder, is anyone from China reading this blog? Could you admit it without putting yourself in danger? As far as I can tell I have not been banned by the Great Firewall, but that's probably only because I haven't registered on the Chinese government radar. Yet.)


peter said...

Where are you posting from? Blogspot is generally banned in China. I have never been able to reach it from a residential internet connection.

The Chinese government controls whether you can travel outside the country through the issuance of passports. Same fundamental mechanism as the United States.

Then there's border control: they check you on the way out, as well as the way in (this is the international norm, I think--America is the exception for only checking your papers on the way in). So, someone could still decide that they don't want you traveling, and deny your passage out.

So, having a passport represents permission to travel, with the possibility that said permission may be revoked as you try to exit the country.

I suppose a US government agency could also apprehend you as you leave the country, through cooperation w/ the airlines & TSA. No?

Tiananmen square is largely forgotten, to be honest. Maybe 5% of the population cares about it. Maybe....

People are happy to have a little money, comfort and stability. Democracy, well, it would be nice at the local level, so that officials weren't so corrupt. Beyond that? National Greatness! If they tried democracy tomorrow, and it made the country weaker, or less stable, every one would want to go back to the old system.

Just look at Russia. No one wants that.

Ron said...

> Where are you posting from? Blogspot is generally banned in China.

I'm posting from the ship, which has its own satellite link.

> they check you on the way out, as well as the way in (this is the international norm, I think--America is the exception for only checking your papers on the way in)

I don't think that's true, but I have no actual data. Can readers in other countries confirm or deny this?

Actually, it just occurred to me that the U.S. prevents its citizens from traveling to Cuba. So I guess it is really only a difference of degree.

> Tiananmen square is largely forgotten

I wonder what would happen if I went out wearing a T-shirt that said "5 June 1989".

> Just look at Russia. No one wants that.

A very good point.

Dennis Gorelik said...

From what I've heard about freedom of speech in China -- you may criticize Chinese Government as much as you want until your talks get popular.
Only then you would have problems.

Jeremy said...

Too bad I didn't know you were traveling in China. I've been living in Beijing for five years now, so I think I'm somewhat qualified to answer some of the questions you posted. I think the last poster answered your question quite well: as long as you are not drawing much attention, you'll be fine. June-4th is an event that most old people (born before the 80s) try to forget and most young people (post 80s) aren't even aware of! I think "5% of the population cares" is an overstatement. China is really an odd combination of control and freedom right now. Some people believe that these 2 forces will clash eventually.