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It's a fine line between living for the moment and being a sociopath.

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Wednesday, October 09, 2002

Shang High Life, #15

Shang High Life, #15
October 9, 2002

What My (Big) Brother Taught Me About Communism

The other day, I was on the phone with a friend in the States. She took a mid-conversation pause and asked, somewhat earnestly, “So, what’s it like?”

This question is a problem for me. A lot of people ask and I never know how to answer. I’ve been working on a standard response, trying to encapsulate Shanghai: the place, the experience, the normalness and nuttiness of it all.

In fact, just that morning, I had been contemplating that very challenge while standing in Starbuck’s listening to Alex Chilton’s “September Girls”. My attention was split between the old women doing their daily sword dances on the plaza, outside, and the newspaper headline, “Local warehouse owner arrested for selling industrial waste disguised as premium shampoo.” A context like that just isn’t easy to sum up.

Without anything concise handy, I spilled some words to my friend down the phone about the style and energy of Shanghai, and compared it with various cities in the US. It was clear, however, that she wasn’t getting what she wanted.

“No, I mean what’s it like to live in a communist country?”

The question caught me completely off guard. There’s a Ferrari dealer not far from my house. Everybody has DVD players and cell phones. Big, swish highrise apartments are being bought as quickly as they are built---which is unbelievably quickly. Shanghai is a hive of commercial activity. The fast buck rules. It’s New York with noodles. With communists like these, who needs capitalists?

On the other hand, my phone has been tapped, the house next door is an army barracks, and the one-child policy is enforced, shall we say, firmly.

Living here is full of contradictions. Paradox is so normal for the Chinese that it’s futile trying to explain to local friends why certain things seem at odds. I remember being gape-mouthed when a young, distractingly beautiful entrepreneur who owns a thriving modeling agency mentioned she had to go to a Party meeting. All my images of crusty old Communist cadres---chain-smoking men with dark thoughts and bad suits---shattered. But my surprise befuddled her. Why wouldn’t a sexy 25-year old keen on wealth and a flashy early retirement be a Communist? This is, apparently, her version of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. She’s young enough that it’s the only version she’s ever known.

This take on Chinese communism doesn’t sit well with our preconceptions, does it? In the West, our anti-communism has been nourished on stories of hypocrisy: lip-service economic equality, while fat Party members govern starving people. And some of these stories are true. But they’re also not surprising to the Chinese. It is strange to no one that the people’s revolution became, in every recognizable way, a monarchy and, then, after Mao’s death, one-party capitalism. . .with Chinese characteristics.

So, this isn’t really communism, but China certainly is Communist. Living in a paradox like this makes it hard to form simple, pat answers to questions about what China is like. At first, it just seems like a blatant two-faced lie told repeatedly and forcefully to a duped nation. Finally, however, it is much simpler.

These people just aren’t hung up on ideology nearly as much as White Boy is. But this, in itself, is hardly a comfortable explanation. What about all the red flag waving and the red book reading and the red army cheering? It began to occur to me that, while I was hung up on the Chinese being hung up on communism, they had quietly left it behind, for the most part, having traded it for simple nationalism and gotten on with life. Our Western preconceptions are simply out of date.

It was an uncomfortable discovery. Much of the key that decrypts the paradox of Chinese communism has little to do with the Chinese, and more to do with White Boy’s own ideological prejudice. In other words, what we call “communism” isn’t, really. When we think “communist”, and bring to mind the flagships of China and the former Soviet Union, our first thoughts aren’t of collective farming. We think dictatorship, oppression, thought control, propaganda, censorship, secret police, and militarism.

That version of communism doesn’t sound terribly ideological, does it? It isn’t about economic and political philosophy. We have used “communism” as shorthand. The Chinese have done much the same, but in the opposite direction. To us, the word is shorthand for a laundry list of heinous things. The Chinese equate it with good things: relative stability and prosperity. The word “communism” lost its real meaning for all of us long ago.

During the Cultural Revolution in the late 60s, when the concepts of communism and capitalism really were at war, you could be killed as a “capitalist roader” for no greater commercial endeavor than selling firewood. But what once was a battle between real, meaningfully lived ideologies has become a battle between two words. The actual systems made an uncomfortable peace years ago. Communism surrendered. Now, the Chinese want to make money.

Few in China are concerned with counter-revolutionaries anymore. But for White Boy, it has been a struggle to make peace with the difference between what I thought I knew about communism and the reality of China. My struggle with these ideas makes no more sense to a Chinese person, however, than it does for you or I to see someone struggling with the fact that there’s no dog in a hotdog. The latter struggle becomes more vivid when one realizes that, in many Chinese towns, hot dog is a perfectly reasonable meal.

Some of the darker aspects of what we call communism are still apparent. The Party still has absolute power. Art galleries are raided and shut down without cause. Many books and films are banned. The Falun Gong are persecuted. The media are very, very careful. But all these things sit within the most blatantly commercial place I’ve ever lived.

But what is it like to live under this Communist regime? How is it different from living in the US? It would be naïve to say the long reach of the Party doesn’t affect life, here. It does. But, day to day, it is ignored. The big issues---censorship, lack of real democracy and on and on---are profoundly important, and they have real victims. Daily life, however, is lived in a smaller sphere, just as most Americans live their daily lives distant from Enron and WorldCom, or Dubya’s desire to finish his father’s job on Iraq.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I ogled fake breasts and fancy cars. I took long bike rides along the beach and ate a lot of cheap Mexican food. Similarly, in Shanghai, I am mostly unburdened by worries about communism and “the Taiwan issue.” I take long walks down ancient streets, look for good noodle shops and laugh at creative English translations.

Perhaps my friend on the phone would have been interested in the great communist paradox. Yet, while that is a big part of any experience, here, it also isn’t. I wanted to refocus her curiosity. What I really wanted to tell her about was the fun to be had in the stupid, giddy discovery of much smaller paradoxes:

. . .that beer is cheaper than water and that, while a margarita can set you back ten bucks, lunch is 25 cents.

. . .that the Chinese have some of the most beautiful names in the world, but choose the stupidest English names you can imagine, like Duke Dong, Shiny Sun and Fairy Feng, Hitler Wong, and Froggy Wu.

. . .that, contrary to conventional Western wisdom, the Chinese are fiercely individualistic and fail miserably at collective action.

. . .that, for the price of three CDs in the US, you can spend a sweaty night in the carnal embrace of one of the most beautiful women you’ve ever seen but, then, the latest American CD will only set you back about fifty cents on the street.

. . .that traffic is chaos but, as a result, these are the best defensive drivers on the planet.

. . .that women in long, elegant dresses ride the backs of bicycles sidesaddle, doing their nails.

. . .that men in fine suits will think nothing of hoiking up half a lung mid-conversation.

. . .that women with no breasts to speak of wouldn’t be caught dead without a bra.

. . .that, in a country with the some of the most drab architecture possible, Shanghai’s commercial towers are improbably stunning flights of futuristic fancy.

Mostly, these things aren’t paradoxical, of course; they just seem strange, to an outsider, anyway. This far away from familiar places, one sees contradictions all around. Anything that seems normal is found side-be-side with things that seem odd, flat-out weird or just striking: the expected juxtaposed with the astonishing.

So, when someone asks what it’s like, here, it isn’t the communist paradox that I want to offer. Nothing about “the Taiwan issue” or the unwavering official defense of the Tiananmen Square massacre. What I want to share is the fun of discovery.

But how do I get that across in a phone call?