Tuesday, June 13, 2006

From Behind the Red Curtain

Ni hao!

China tends to support, oh, what is the word, "censorship," so my access to blogging has been circumscribed thus far. Nonetheless, where there is a will there is a way, and so this may just get through the red wall of secrecy to all of you.

I, on the other hand, may end up in a Chinese prison with electrodes attached to my nether regions.

I kid! I kid!

I arrived in Beijing on Sunday night after an uneventful flight from misty, foggy Hong Kong. This is not you father's Red China. The first thing one notices upon arrival is the advertisements. Neon, gaudy, offering an array of goods and services, representing the apogee of consumerist competition, the airport at Beijing happily hopes you will part weith your Yuan. In between the adverts, spread every couple of hundred yards, stand young women in blue outfits at little kiosks trying to sell you Sim cards, which they chattily offer in between sentences of their own conversation. China may stil be in the thrall of an autocratic Communist party. It is not a communist country in any meaningful way.

In between sessions of our seminars we have tea breaks (The Chinese, who came up with the idea, are even more devoted to their tea than are the denizens of Commonwelth countries). Our tea bags? Lipton. Our bottled water? Brought to you by the same folks who provide our soda -- Coca Cola. Alongside Chinese biscuits and fresh fruit are Ritz crackers and Oreos. On our seminar table sits microphones from Philips. Our speaker today was using a Sony Vaio. Whatever else you might think about China, it has long since entered the world of capitalism, competition, something resembling free markets, and goods and services.

I am here as part of as Chautauqua Short Course on China's Security issues. My work is in no way connected to China or to Asian history, but I was slotted to go to Pakistan until that fell apart. When given the opportunity to come to China instead, I jumped, figuring my comparativist bent and the question of security would be applicable to my interest and work in the area of global terrorism. Thus far the program has been enlightening, challenging, fascinating, and useful. I am learning a great deal and fine that I am able to contribute based on comparison, intuition, a capacity to frame good questions and a frisson of bs.

My colleagues are great both in the seminar room and outside. Last night we went out for beers -- big bottles, probably 30 ounces or so, for the equivalent of 40 cents. At that price, we felt we had to have a lot of them. The conversation was flowing -- I had no idea there were Aussies who did not like sports, or that you were even allowed to be a vegetarian Down Under. Or that there are people who can argue a case for why Mao was not as bad as commonly thought. Or that those same people are trying to convince me that this is not a totalitarian country. And I now am able to order a round of three beers or a single beer. I do not yet know "2," "4" or any other numbers. But I became really good at saying "San ping pee jao." I also became quite adept at peeing in the little individual porcelain troughs that sit in the middle of the bathroom stall.

I can also sort of say "Thank you," (something like "shea shea").

In any case, my adventures continue. This afternoon we are hearing from a Senior Colonel in the Army who will be speaking about "Chinese PLA's Perspectives on Global and Regional Security." Our previous speakers have covered political theory and Chinese foreign policy (an interesting, if flawed, argument about "geogravitaional centersd" that engendered serious discussion); "Sino-US relations and the Taiwan Issue," and "Strategic Culture and International security." We are getting to hear froma host of really heavy hitters in Beijing's intellectual, academic and policy community. Our hosts, China Foreign Affaird University, has been great thus far. And I have been really impressed with the openness, honesty, and candor of our speakers, and even moreso by the give and take in conversations.

As I wrote, this is not your father's Red China.

I'll weigh in as I can. Zaizian! (Now to see if this will publish -- I won't be able to look at the actual site.)

1 comment:

Rich said...

Try to find Jack Bauer while you are over there.