Monday 17 September 2012

Carmarthenshire and China

Today's Western Mail reports on the enthusiasm with which Carmarthenshire County Council and Phil Grice, Labour Mayor of Carmarthen, are pursuing closer links with China in order to promote the county as a place to do business.

Tempting though it is to draw satirical parallels between the authoritarian regime in China and our own county council, there are serious questions which need to be asked before we snuggle up to the Chinese government in the hope of attracting more tourists to West Wales.

As it happens, one of Cneifiwr's children decided to take a gap year before going to college. One morning, a couple of months before she was due to become a student, she announced that she had applied for a job as a teaching assistant in a kindergarten and been accepted. In China. The kindergarten was in a large industrial city and catered for the children of wealthy foreign workers.

Off she went, just a couple of weeks before her 18th birthday, and she ended up staying in China for the next seven years. After the kindergarten job, she studied Mandarin for a year, and then started teaching English as a foreign language. She also moved around the country a bit, living and working in large cities that most of us here in the West have never heard of, and while all that was going on, she married a young man from a city about 300 miles to the west of Beijing. For some reason, she forgot to mention this to her parents for about a year.

Although she was very well paid by Chinese standards, and was in a good and loving relationship, she became increasingly disenchanted with life in China, and a couple of years ago she returned, with her husband, to live in Europe.

Prior to that, she had come home once a year every summer for a few weeks. Her clothes smelled of coal tar and diesel fumes, and my wife reckoned it took several washes to get rid of that and the drab grey of her white tops. Her skin was also restored to a healthier colour by the time she headed back after each holiday.

Like a lot of people in her generation, my daughter (let's call her Jenny) has absolutely no interest in politics, although she is very keen on animal welfare. It took her quite a while before she realised that her movements were being watched, and she got to know the difference between the various kinds of police and non-uniformed observers. After a couple of years, she knew which ones you need to be afraid of, and her boyfriend, and then husband, would be called in for questioning every few weeks.

The Chinese are used to this, of course. They know that every time you visit a friend or acquaintance, your movements will be noted and written down by the man or woman who sits in the entrance to every residential block.

Being questioned was quite nerve racking for John, my son-in-law, because his parents had broken the one child policy. That meant that they had been unable to register him legally when he was born, and so he grew up with dodgy papers that made him a year younger than he really is. Things got really difficult when he married and applied for a visa. In China there are millions of people like John.

Jenny was, as we know, not the slightest bit interested in politics, but she did notice that there were crackdowns every so often. People would whisper that there were bad things happening in Tibet, for example, or it was just in preparation for the Beijing Olympics. Jenny knew that you had to be specially careful then, not so much for your own sake as a Westerner, but for the safety of those around you.

Jenny became a vegetarian while she was in China, and stopped consuming dairy products because of all of the food contamination scares, but she was still quite seriously ill with what looked like food poisoning several times.

In the socialist paradise that is China, there is no free medical care for most ordinary people, and rather worryingly for us, Jenny discovered that she could go to a pharmacy and buy anything she thought she needed without a prescription.

There is no free education for most people either, and if you want a decent secondary education for your child, you have to pay for it. Outside the cities, where many people live in extreme poverty, they simply cannot afford the school fees.

Jenny led what most Chinese would consider a very privileged life, and she found it distressing that people who had so little insisted on treating her, either in restaurants or in their homes. 

At work she eventually also came to understand that corruption is rife. In the language schools where she worked, she had to sign two contracts. The first was the "official" one, which set out terms and conditions, such as holiday entitlement. The second document was the real contract, and needless to say it was a lot less generous.

One or twice Jenny glimpsed the more brutal side of Chinese life, when people were turned out of their homes and whole blocks were bulldozed. She had also heard about peasants from the countryside who could be dispossessed by officials acting on a whim or, more likely, because of corruption.

She came to realise that there was quite a difference between the official version and reality, and that even if you kept your head down, you could still be very unlucky.

Quite a few years before Jenny went to China, Cneifiwr worked with a young woman from Shanghai who was on a management training scheme. Her father was from a bourgeois family which had been quite wealthy before the Revolution, and her mother was a fervent Communist. In the Cultural Revolution, her father's mother was hauled up before a tribunal and denounced. She had been a gifted concert pianist, and part of her punishment for her "crimes" was to have her fingers broken. The old lady was then sent to live in a public toilet, which she had to keep clean, and she lived there for almost ten years.

When Mao died and the Cultural Revolution was over, the old lady went to live with her son, but by this time she had lost her sanity, and my colleague recounted how difficult it had been growing up with an old lady who screamed and ranted all through the night in a small apartment.

The Cultural Revolution is now history, but fear of arbitrary arrest and dispossession is still a feature of life in China, where the law is whatever the state or corrupt officials decide it is. The number of people executed in China is a state secret, but it is generally accepted that China carries out the death penalty on more people than all other countries in the world put together.

When you think about that and see footage of Tibetan monks burning themselves to death in the streets, reading passages like this is disturbing (and I'm not talking about the dodgy grammar):

Officers of Carmarthenshire County Council have met with three different areas of China in the last two years to establish tourism opportunities as we look to be in a decent position to maximise the UK and Wales’ increased promotion to the 1.3 billion Chinese residents. (Western Mail, 17 September 2012).

One final thought, not that it would bother our council in the slightest. As we rush to grab Chinese money, the Welsh have more reason than most to think about the plight of the Tibetan people.


Anonymous said...

not sure which is the right wording after reading that. humbling, heart rendering, stomach churning. i remember reading about chinese culture in the late 80s, the four cornerstones of life...and came across similar stories to the one child rule, and came across why chinese women had small feet and hobbled because they were shackled for years.

makes my blood boil. and to think the uk is looking at china for it's commercial interests.
If i stop buying a shirt from say next or another store (most likely it is now), does that mean someone suffers because i stop? similar to something like when it was found out how sports companies operate in india back in the 90s when manufacturing footballs for example for 10p, which fed them for a day. If i stopped buying, the worker doesn't eat. Things have got a bit better since they got exposed, but the principle is the same.

If i stop buying carmarthenshire products, that would harm someone here. If i buy it from glamorgan, they might have some chinese connections so i'll end up going around in circles not knowing where my money is eventually going (a2)

Anonymous said...

To suggest that Welsh people have anything in common with Tibetans is downright daft! Here in Wales we live completely at the largesse of the English. They provide for our every need, including jobs, health and welfare. They organise and protect us. They allow us to travel throughout the world using their right of passage and privilege. And they even allow us to share in their history, as and when it suits our needs.

And what do they ask for in return? Nothing.

Anonymous said...

I have spent some time in China. One of the things which stands out for me is that most of the Chinese people I met.....and they were usually extremely friendly is that they viewed Tibet as being part of China. My friend (who had never been out of China) told me that Tibetans also thought of themselves as Chinese and it was westerners who were stirring trouble there. This is what she had been told and genuinely believed. However, I met quite a lot of Tibetans too. There are many in Chengdu which is in Chinese terms.....'close' to Tibet and they would all tell be another story.

Life is pretty tough there for most people. In Chengdu, because it's below a certain latitude....they don't have communal heating systems. It was bitterly cold in winter and everywhere you went basically had no heating.....colleges, libraries, restaurants.

Property there is at absurd levels in terms of expense and there are 20 + million males who have no hopes of finding a partner due to more males than females. Female pregnancies were often terminated because a baby boy was more prized and of course....there is a one child policy. The girls have a choice of males and they insist (it is common knowledge although there are girls not like this) on a car and an apartment before a relationship. I used to joke with my male friends "No way...go away!". They would laugh but they were under so much pressure to achieve and get a wife and child. It was expected of them by the wider society.

The final thing I'll say although I could go on is that they were so proud of China and very nationalistic. You can see this now with attacks on Japanese companies because of the disputed island ownership with Japan. I really liked the Chinese but there are so many problems there.....both within China itself with the corruption and wealth imbalances and also it appears with Japan and I believe the Philippines too. They are beginning to flex their muscles internationally.

This move by Carmarthen CC will though probably entail a full expenses paid trip for a few officials so it will be worth it in the end.

Cneifiwr said...

Thank you for sharing that. It is a vast country, and I know that my daughter spent most of her time away from the glitzier places we tend to see on TV.

Anonymous said...

Anon 21:16

Our history in Wales is very similar to that of the Tibetans ie colonised by a larger neighbour.

Anonymous said...

Colonised or civilised?

I think the history of Wales is more akin to that of the Balkans.

Lucky for you that you got the English!

Anonymous said...

I think that 11.52 is talking about something he or she knows nothing about.

Cneifiwr said...

I think you are right!

Anonymous said...

And maybe anon 11.52 should read the following:

Anonymous said...

Sorry, but like many I have little interest in the aboriginal of this land. Live as you wish, and live happily off my taxes.

But please don't expect me to share in your customs, language and culture.

Cneifiwr said...

I believe very strongly in freedom of expression, which is why I published that last obnoxious comment.

One of the dangers of not giving a platform to racists, bigots and the rest is that we are lulled into believing that it no longer really exists.

On the other hand, the problem with comments like the one above on blogs like this is that they tend to spark rows which have nothing to do with the subject they are supposedly commenting on.

From now on, this blog will not publish comments that are irrelevant to the subject.

Anonymous said...

Apologies, I had no intention to offend, just to proffer my opinion and view point.

Racist or bigoted, I think not. And I hope not. I am merely a product of my country, a free country where freedom of expression is both encouraged and welcomed.

Rather, I would suggest that criticisms of Wales and Welshness are, these days, regarded in the same manner as attacks on Muslims and Islam.

No wonder the vast majority in Wales will have nothing to do with such nonsense.

Anonymous said...

The really sad thing about 'KP' or whatever his name is, and no you haven't fooled us by posting 'anon' is that he genuinely seems to think that he's witty and insightful.