Judging in Hong Kong, Foshan, and Beijing, China
“Into the jaws of the dragon and into the valley of Death flew the sexagenarian,” to take liberties with Tennyson. And like the great winged darkness that soared in Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” the menace of SARS was to threaten me in April of 2003. Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, the latest viral killer to come out of eastern Asia, was closing or quarantining more and more schools, apartment buildings, hospitals, and businesses in Hong Kong. By the time I left China, the same thing was happening in Beijing much farther north. I may have got out just in time to avoid being locked in somewhere. On my way to the Orient, I heard of an American plane being held in quarantine on the tarmac in San Jose, California, and that was in the very beginning of the epidemic’s explosion. I was told later that my flight was the last one to leave before China grounded all flights leaving the country (for several days until they could get a handle on the epidemic).
As is usual, after I got on the scene and talked with the locals, I found that the situation was a lot worse than the U.S. news media were reporting. In the last week I was in China, the reports given by at least one Beijing doctor to the Wall Street Journal and other western press could no longer be hidden by the Communist Party governing the country and its media. At the end, the mayor of Beijing and a couple highly placed Party officials lost their jobs because of the cover-up. But you might not have heard what I found out while on site: the doctor who broke the news of the subterfuge and the greater danger was also placed under “surveillance”, which is a euphemism the Reds use for “Watch out, bud — if you so much as blink, we’ll throw you in prison”. And prison in China is not a friendly environment!
While China has become one of the most capitalist countries in the world, it is still very much a ruthless (officially Communist) dictatorship. Countless examples of this are noticeable when you are right in the swim of things. Just one strange example: one of the young people told me that premarital sex or even adultery are not illegal, but living together unmarried is illegal, and anything illegal almost certainly brings harsh punishment. One-night stands and lovers’ rendezvous are called “night feelings.” Some hotels list cohabitation as a rules violation that will be penalized by the government. Christianity is illegal, and the central government fears that most people might practice it, but they ignore anything that makes fun of it or uses its symbols without significance. The night before I started home, my hosts took me to a night club in Shenzhen that had Christian symbolism as the theme: Posters outside showed classical pictures of the Last Supper, crucifixion, and other familiar art, while hostesses dress as nuns handed out passes and advertising. Inside, the waiters and staff wore battery-powered crosses with flashing neon-like lights, and pretty girls with cross necklaces sat with most customers to encourage them to buy more drinks and encourage prostitution. As long as it is presented as entertainment or a gimmick, and is not taken seriously, such symbolism is not offensive to the Party. But hand out tracts or meet for worship in anything other than the scarce government-supervised church buildings, and you are asking for severe penalties. I am always very careful when I distribute tracts in that country or in Muslim lands.
China has about 1.3 billion inhabitants, 13 million of them in Beijing, 7 million in Hong Kong, and similar though smaller populations in other crowded cities. You are not allowed to live just anywhere you want, which is a culture shock to Americans used to freedom of movement. If you wanted to move to Beijing, for example, you would have to prove that you had an apartment and a job waiting for you (extremely difficult) and then wait in line for permission from the city and central governments. Everyone must have an I.D. book, including proof of marital status. We are so used to not having to show policemen our “papers” at their whim, and to not having to prove we are single or married, that such intrusion into privacy is hard for most Americans to imagine.
There are countless other signs of repression, but most of them are subtle or unnoticed until some rule is broken. Meanwhile, China’s other face is friendly and welcoming. After all, the country seems to be the main supplier of goods for American and other consumers. They are trying to build up the tourist trade, but other than in the former British colony of Hong Kong in the south and the Great Wall at Badaling in the north, mine was almost always the only Caucasian face in the seas of millions of people. Few people seem to speak or read English, so it was difficult to impossible to share my opinions and values with but a handful.
Still, I found a great friendliness exhibited once my translator explained what I was doing there. I see much interest by Chinese in anything Western, despite their government-controlled media lying to them or purposely withholding information. Rapport was easy to build when there was something of mutual interest. That’s why it is so easy to make friends when I judge dog shows in exotic lands—dog people have this sport in common.
Another way to bring people together and overcome barriers is to eat together. Wherever I go in the world, I “go native” and adapt to the customs of the locals, especially in regard to food. In China, it is customary for from three to eight people to sit at a table with a large “lazy susan” in the middle, and everyone reaches into the various bowls and plates with their chopsticks. If you have a mother like I had, who would starve before eating from the same peanut butter jar or plate of food that others were dipping into without serving spoons, you’d better not bring her to China. Even the epidemic of SARS seems not likely to change this custom. In India and other places, people do the same, but use their fingers or scoop up food with torn-off pieces of flat bread. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, or you’d be happier staying home.
I have mentioned before about judging in “the war zones,” with bombs in Karachi, guerillas in Colombia, border skirmishes near Lahore, threats of warships and other hostility escalation between Red China and Taiwan. Recently I had to cancel an assignment in Pakistan because of threats by pro-terrorist Islamic extremists at the time we were preparing to take action against Saddam. This time, I was flying into the face of a different kind of enemy: an airborne army of virus particles that was killing hundreds of people, mostly in Hong Kong and Beijing, two places where I was headed. My arrival would be in Hong Kong, the first show would be just outside Beijing, and the second show weekend in Foshan, where the first SARS incident occurred. I only wore my facemask on trains, buses, airports, malls, and in crowded lines. But even that was probably of no help. The only real benefit to a mask is to keep the droplets from spreading when a sick person coughs or sneezes; the facemask on the healthy recipient of such a spray is not going to filter out virus particles, which can go through pores that would block even the tiny water molecules.
In spite of the danger, I was glad to get another chance to visit the headquarters of Wal-Mart (and I don’t mean Bentonville Arkansas!) and collect a tiny bit of the money that I have sent their way. Actually, China seems to be where most retailers that pose as American companies get their goods, and I have just about given up trying to tell pimply-faced sales clerks why some old curmudgeons like me did not want to buy everything from the regime that in 1989 shot to death or crushed their own unarmed students beneath the treads of tanks in Tiananmen Square.
One of the few times I was able to get an English-language TV channel, I watched a program on China’s history from the 1911 Revolution (actually predated Lenin’s 1918 takeover of Russia) to the present. It was in 1911 that “Tian’anmen” Square was opened to the public; before then, it was called “The Heavenly Road” and reserved for the imperial families of the dynasties and dictators of the past. In 1952, the “People’s Monument to Freedom and Democracy” was erected there and described as the “Symbol of the Spirit of the Chinese People.” The TV history program referred to the “freedom” gained by the people after getting rid of “The Gang of Four” around 1978, which was one of the Stalin-type purges. But not a mumblin’ word about 1989! I later sat on the square for a photograph, and imagined the blood stains beneath me where peaceful demonstrators for democracy were gunned and run down that year. Soldiers looked with suspicion, but either they were reluctant to do anything unless I were to drop flowers or otherwise make a public demonstration, or they were so young as to not connect my symbolic action of unity with the slain. I did not sit there any longer than it took to get a photo taken by my friend. Chinese TV programs and papers frequently criticize Japan for not apologizing for the atrocities it committed on the Mainland before and during World War II, but they never breathe a word about Tiananmen, or Mao’s massacres.
On a news broadcast during the trip there, I heard Donald Rumsfeld say that Saddam Hussein has taken his place in the pantheon of brutal dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, and Ceausescu, but he left out Mao, who slaughtered as many as 100 million of his own people. So I felt a little twinge of revenge because I was actually getting paid instead of financially supporting China. By the way, Mao is still everywhere—on nearly all the currency, on posters and pins, and on the lips of young people whose official version of “history” that has been spooned into them is so horribly far from the truth. And those who lived through it are afraid to say anything about the lies.
Since I cannot sleep on airplanes, the more than 24 hours getting there and the 30-hour trip home were exhausting. But the trip probably was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. The planes between California and Japan were full, but those 747s going between Tokyo and Hong Kong were nearly empty. The trip was full of activity, confirmation, and revelation, but my space in this article is limited, so I cannot tell you today of the incredibly shoddy workmanship, the incredibly delicious seafood, or the other discoveries of these weeks in China. You’ll have to be satisfied with this brief glimpse and perspective for now.
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