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

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Monday, June 30, 2003

Shang High Life, #16

Shang High Life, #16
June 30, 2003

Live Shanghai. Love Shanghai. Leave Shanghai.

It’s the rainy season in Shanghai. That means the days are more gray than usual, and the afternoons turn dark, a darkness that fools you into evening long before it is. The rain comes in a drenching gush. The hot air of summer ensures the effect is more sticky than cleansing, more sodden than shimmering. It is not my favorite time of year.

It is, however, an unmistakable transition. You *know* when spring ends and summer comes. You know there will be downpours to usher the former out and the latter in. The thick folds of rain are spring’s curtain call and summer’s overture.

This year, the transition seems as much metaphorical as meteorological. If ever the Shanghainese have felt their city needed a bath, they have felt it in the last several months. SARS has made this city feel dirty in the minds of its people. Their relief is readily apparent that the disease seems to be receding with the flash-flood waters of these rains.

Even if the two have little to do with each other, people here want to turn their backs on SARS like it was just a transient part of last winter. So, summer’s ascendance is as good an excuse to move on as any. Take off your coats. Take off your masks.

Even though Shanghai dodged the bullet of SARS more effectively than almost anywhere else the virus aimed, the Shanghainese are permanently changed. There had been a strengthening feeling that China’s growth, and Shanghai’s in particular, was an inevitability: unstoppable. That the great economic dragon coughed and spluttered at the hands of a bit of pneumonia chilled people here.

They want to forget about it. They’ve learned a lesson from the whole SARS experience, however, that they’re not likely to put behind them. And the lesson represents a profoundly new school of thought for all of China: You must earn the trust of the rest of the world. If nations don’t trust you, they will stay away. And their trust is something you need.

The Chinese are not so isolated from world opinion as to be unaware they have been fighting to regain international credibility ever since the massacre at Tiananmen Square. You can’t attempt to cover up shooting your own people and not suffer a setback in trust. The WTO and the Olympics are signs the world is giving China renewed benefit of the doubt. But it took ten years, and there’s still plenty of doubt.

SARS---or, more accurately, the Central Government’s initial response to it---very nearly wiped out a good portion of that progress. Being home to the first new deadly virus of the twenty-first century is scary enough to an international community that already finds Asians a little odd. When the World Health Organization caught China lying about the disease, it simply confirmed old suspicions: China is still dark, arrogant and untrustworthy. In a word, China is dangerous.

The initial denial that SARS posed a threat of any scale was followed by a moment of official insight unlike any other I have seen in my time in China. The Government came to this realization: SARS might thin the flow of foreigners and their investment for a short while, but a major recession in international trust could cut percentage points off economic growth for years.

The Government’s about-face was swift and unprecedented. Over a few days, China’s new generation of young leaders, led by President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, brandished the Government knife with ferocious zeal, stunning even Chinese observers. They cut through layers of willing ignorance and willful misinformation, sending armies to re-account for the real status of the disease, and embarking on a massive public health education drive. Even Shanghai, which turned out to be the least affected urban center, was plastered with posters and billboards, quite literally overnight. (The most evocative poster cartooned a thoughtless citizen spitting over his shoulder, the hocked saliva taking the shape of a sinister black bomb.)

They also turned the knife on their own. The surgical cure for the SARS problem---the international mistrust, not the disease---was to cut dramatically at the heart of an intransigent bureaucracy more intent on saving face than saving lives. The Minister of Health and the powerful Mayor of Beijing both fell under the knife. In living memory, no officials so senior had been fired for hiding the facts from the public. Hu and Wen then held the political carcasses up for the international community to see.

Almost as revolutionary, they ordered full cooperation with international bodies like the World Health Organization. Initial response in the middle ranks of officialdom was wary. For decades, the WHO had been viewed with suspicion and resentment. It soon became clear, however, that anyone in the health bureaucracy caught fiddling the stats would find themselves in the same pit as their former boss. Even the neighborhood-level Communist ladies’ auxiliaries were kicked into action to check on SARS door-to-door.

The disease statistics jumped. Along with the boom in masks and the bust in tourist flights, however, international opinion turned in favor of the Chinese, sympathetic rather than condemning. China was a struggling friend, not a diseased pariah.

Few believe the Government acted out of an altruistic duty of care for its people. China learned well the lesson about the economic cost of global distrust and ill will. It paid that cost for a decade after Tiananmen. It did not need to be taught again.

These events all took place while an even bigger news story streamed across global screens: the war in Iraq.

As the Chinese Government decided it needed the trust and goodwill of the international community to thrive, the United States appeared to take the opposite view. Indeed, it was becoming federal policy. The escalation toward war fell into a pattern set by the rejection of the Kyoto Protocol and the International Criminal Court: ie, “We don’t need you.” At least, that’s how it appeared in the eyes of both my Chinese and ex-pat colleagues in Shanghai. It seems emerging superpowers have to play by different rules than established ones. No great surprise, there.

What was surprising, however, was that a country so recently emerged from self-imposed international isolation would judge the United States for being unilateralist. Charitable observers would say the Chinese appeared more pragmatic than Americans about the economic value of international opinion. To the Chinese, the US administration, and George Bush in particular, didn’t look so much bull-headed as simply economically naïve. (Many might say no great surprise there, either.) But what confused the Chinese more was why the American public largely supported him.

In Asian eyes, the United States had worked for three decades since Vietnam rebuilding goodwill, and overcoming suspicion and mistrust. Nixon started. Carter didn’t hurt. Reagan and Bush Sr continued. Clinton finessed. People here wonder if the current administration knows about any of it. Bush Jr and his deputies seem unaware they are being judged by the company they keep---or, more accurately, by the friends they alienate. Or perhaps they are aware, but underestimate the cost.

This view in Shanghai could be put down to populist, jingo-istic, Chinese anti-Americanism. But my anecdotal data is steeply biased the opposite way. I’m a white-collar white guy. I’m hardly exposed to conversations with the average Chinese man on the street. The people I know well enough to talk with about the war in Iraq are all either well-educated Chinese, or Western ex-pats. They get the same CNN and Internet news you do.

But, then, what do I know? I work for a French company in a communist country.

It’s pretty clear that the whole lead-up to the war brought out the worst in everybody. The US engaged in what satirists at The Onion called “Operation Piss Off the Planet”, and most of Europe collectively forgot the lessons they should have learned from the League of Nations.

Which makes it all rather rich that, a few months ago, as masks bloomed across the faces of two very different groups---Chinese paranoid about real SARS, and US troops threatened by imagined chemical weapons ---I, a born American working for a French company, was asked to move to Paris to take up a new role in Alcatel’s headquarters. Geri and I will pack up and move in a couple of months, as Shanghai’s heat recedes and Autumn in Paris turns to hot chocolate weather.

Thanks to all who expressed concern for our health and well-being during the SARS crisis. I assure you that your local news made it look far worse than it really was.