The Traveling Economist, Part 2

by Carol on August 15th, 2010

At the time of our 1986 interview, Michael had just completed his third trip by rail around China. He had traveled mostly third class, or “hard seat,” which usually means enduring almost unimaginable overcrowding. The hard seat cars were filled with people standing, trying to work themselves onto your seat, chewing and spitting out sugarcane, vomiting from motion sickness and throwing litter everywhere. The employees’ frequent attempts to bring drinking water, to mop up and to clean the toilets, which made first and second class quite presentable, barely seemed to make a difference in third class. But if you wanted to mean the average Chinese, the real “masses,” this was probably the best way to do it.

In addition to the physical hardships, in those days you had to endure the constant frustration of dealing with the Chinese bureaucracy. For example, you could only buy tickets for the various sections of your journey one at a time. You had to stop at each place and buy a ticket and seat or berth assignments just for the next place, usually with difficulty. The Chinese way is to use guanxi, special connections, by getting friends to buy tickets. Without special connections, travel could be maddening. You find yourself becoming very passive in some situations and very aggressive in others.

Pigs packed for the market

Pigs packed for the market

It’s hard to tell how much my impressions this trip were different than on previous visits because I got a different quality of picture. This time a lot more people were willing to talk to me a lot more openly, and I got quite a good picture of what the more educated people think, the people who come up to you and want to practice their English. I got the sense of some fear and great frustration, real impatience with the pace at which China’s changing—not fast enough. They were very aware of the outside world through listening to English broadcasts and reading foreign books, and they were really aware of China’s backwardness.

Often they would say straightaway, “China’s a very backward place, isn’t it?”

I found that a very difficult and embarrassing question to answer because frequently at that particular moment I was just thinking the same thing. So immediately I would switch to another gear and say “No no no no—not at all. You’ve got so many advantages, so many things you can do. You must take a more optimistic view.” Often I felt I had to say things I didn’t quite feel.

There is a great deal of inertia in China. Most people, although they may wear new clothes and listen to Western music, still plan very little. Buildings often seem to have been built with no forethought. I mentioned this to a Chinese friend, and he said, “Well, in China, to think is no good. To act is no good.” Then he paused a moment, and he said, “Often to think is dangerous.” I thought that was a very interesting comment because he was a well-traveled, thoughtful person.

A traditional market in Guangxi Province

A traditional market in Guangxi Province

There’s a real division arising between the generation that went through the Cultural Revolution and the one that can’t imagine what it was like. I spoke to a group of Chinese students who were holding English language sessions about politics. They were led by an English teacher who the Red Guards had locked up in a room by himself for five years during the Cultural Revolution. This English teacher told the assembled group about his experiences, and one of the young kids there just said out loud, “I can’t believe that.” The teacher just threw up his hands and said, “Ah, well, this is youth for you.”

There were times when I felt that I was speaking to someone who really understood what I was saying and I understood what he was saying and we got on great. I found that really stimulating. Those people were keen to find out about things. They could explain to you lucidly what a given situation was, so they had obviously thought about what was going on. When that happened I felt really comfortable speaking to them and quite optimistic.

I had other conversations which caused me to think a bit. I spoke to some older intellectuals, people who were politicians but not members of the communist party and therefore in a bit of a delicate situation.  Besides, they were probably in their early sixties, late fifties and had experienced all that generation went through. They were obviously supporters of Deng Xiaoping, and they were really keen on the new policies of economic reform. Yet when I was speaking to them they’d sometimes really drift off. They could understand what we were saying in a very concrete sense, there was no linguistic problem, and yet sometimes I would ask them a question, and they would just completely go blank. They’d just start up and say something like “The weather’s pretty nice this time of year.”


The first couple of times this happened I thought, “Maybe they’re trying to evade the questions.” Later I thought, “Maybe they really have been programmed—not just during the Cultural Revolution, since 1949—not to think about certain questions.  Most of what they talked about was trivia, apart from occasional flashes of enthusiasm for the present direction of Chinese policies. You couldn’t ask them a concrete question about matters of fact which they surely must know. They just switched off, which was chilling.

The only way I could come to terms with the problem of no privacy was to set my own standards and decide that no one else was going to invade them. So, for instance, I was staying in one place in Shanghai where I wanted to have a shower. I went in the bathroom and just as I was going through the door a Chinese guy pushed his way past me, went to the lavatory, dropped his trousers and began to carry on his performance. I was embarrassed at this, and I washed my hands and so on, but after a time it became obvious that he wasn’t going to leave. He was going to wash himself all over in my presence. So I then had to decide whether to allow him to do this without making any kind of objection at all or whether I should demonstrate to him that I wasn’t pleased. I just stood in the corner of the bathroom looking at the wall whilst he went about washing himself. Intrusions are sometimes very difficult.

I’m not sure that you should knock down the cultural barriers, you see. If you don’t maintain this individual attitude, if you don’t carry a bit of your own culture and your predispositions around with you, then you’ve got no way of reconciling your irritations, which are quite natural reactions. You can’t explain them, and you also can’t express them. So I just said, “Well, OK, I’m British, that’s fine, there’s no problem about that. I don’t need to pretend that I’m Chinese.”

You can’t in any case because you’re so painfully obviously not Chinese. You walk around the cities and you sort of think you’re normal, but everyone else thinks you’re not. It’s like chimpanzees with humans. If chimpanzees live long enough with a human family, they pattern themselves on the humans, but all the humans know they’re chimpanzees, and they behave with them accordingly.

I realized, when I went round a zoo with a Chinese person, that he was treating the monkeys just like I’d been treated for some time previously. People will poke you, either physically or metaphorically, to see what the monkey does. Their delight when you say something in Chinese is rather charming, but there are lots of less pleasant and less polite ways in which they do it—constantly, day in, day out. It’s a petty irritation all the time. Youths on the street will pass you and make funny noises at you. They’ll all laugh at you, and if you react they’ll all think they’re fantastically clever. You know they don’t want to talk with you. They’re just interested in showing their mates how clever they are in seeing if they can get some kind of reaction out of the waiguoren [foreigner].

I did become more irritable as the trip went on. The most severe reaction was during an encounter with a trishaw driver in Nanshan. [A trishaw is a bicycle with a platform, seat and extra wheel attached.] In that place as soon as they saw a foreigner going past they would shout for you to take one of their tricycles. They would bark at you in an insultingly crude, subhuman fashion as if to say you would never understand anything else. “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn. uhn!” I just got really tired of them tugging at my sleeve and pulling me and pushing me and refusing to talk to me. So I just turned round and I started barking at the guy, “Uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn, uhn!” It got something out of my system.

I didn’t go to China just as an academic to let the thing wash over me. I wanted to enter into some kind of dialogue. I also went there partly with the idea of seeing whether I would want to work there. So I felt these things quite strongly. I decided I wouldn’t want to stay. I missed too much about Europe, intellectually and physically. Chinese food—ordinary people’s Chinese food—is terrible. Really. I don’t care what people say. I’ve eaten Chinese food in the best restaurants, and I’ve had really nice Chinese meals both in China and in Europe. But the Chinese usually really eat badly, and I eat badly when I’m in China.

Apart from that, in Europe I’m part of the political structure, if you like. I have a say in what goes on there. I feel that I’m valued. I can influence things, and in China I can’t. I just receive. I just sit. I just suffer, and the Chinese can do what they like to me. I don’t like being in that situation.

So I feel more reconciled now to being a European than was the case before. It comes home to you how lucky you are in many ways to be a Westerner. Chinese people frequently will tell you how lucky you are to be able to do the things that you do in China, how lucky you are to be able to travel from here to there, how lucky you are to have so much money. So I think that when you put it all together, it’s not something that’s worth despising.