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Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man's Attempt to Understand the World's Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squidby J Maarten Troost
There are two kinds of people roaming the far fringes of the world: Mormon missionaries and Chinese businessmen. I know this because for a long while I lived off the map, flitting from island to island in the South Pacific, and invariably, just as I arrived at what surely was the ends of the earth, I would soon find myself in the company of Elder Ryan and Elder Leviticus, twenty year old kids from suburban Provo, who faced the challenging task of convincing islanders that they were not native islanders at all, but lost Israelites. Not just lost Israelites mind you, but lost and wicked Israelites. One would think that this would be a hard thing to convince people of, but the Mormons are persistent and today they can be found on even the most remote of islands. On Onotoa, an atoll of trifling size in the southern Gilbert group, and about as far as one can be on this planet without quite leaving it, I was startled to discover two Mormon missionaries, wearing their customary black pants and white short-sleeved dress shirts, complete with name tags, biking up and down the island's lonesome dirt path, searching for wayward souls to rescue. I also found them in Tonga, on the arresting islets of Vava'u, and even in the rugged hills of Vanuatu. Whenever I encountered them, I immediately reached for a dose of caffeine, nicotine, or alcohol, something to demonstrate that conversion was a hopeless cause with me, and soon they were on their way, hustling errant Israelites.
Eventually, I grew accustomed to their presence. Missionaries, after all, have long been found in the world's most distant corners. Where else would one find a tribe of lost and forgotten Hebrews? But as one year on the far side of the world passed into another, and then another, and another, until it seemed likely that my time on the islands would outlast Robinson Crusoe's, I began to notice a different visitor--the Chinese businessman.
This, frankly, surprised me to no end, possibly because news travels slowly on the coconut wireless. No doubt in other parts of the world the presence of Chinese businessmen--Capitalists!--would elicit nary a reaction. Mao Zedong had been dead for thirty years. China had moved on, changed, adapted, and eventually become the world's factory. But if you live on an island where prices are still quoted in pigs, and where the news of the day is likely to involve two chiefs disputing each other's lineage, you might not know this. You might, in fact, still believe that the Chinese peddle ancient black bicycles to their designated work unit, which is part of a cadre, though you're not quite sure what a cadre is. When you envision China you might imagine factory workers, each waving a Little Red Book, marching in sync past enormous portraits of the Heroes of the Revolution. You can almost hear the loudspeakers, the voices exhorting the proletariat to strive ever further, so that the goals of the Five Year Plan are attained. You can imagine little children, all wearing red handkerchiefs around their necks, learning to despise imperialist dogs and debauched class enemies. This is what happens when you live in a place far, far away, thousands of miles from a continent. Nothing ever changes on an island, and you assume that the continental world too has resolved to cease spinning. But it hasn't, of course, and one day you discover that you're sharing an odd, faraway island with a businessman from China.
Consider Onotoa, an atoll in the southern Gilbert Islands. Go on. Take out the atlas. You can't find it, can you? This is because it is a mere speck of an island, not more than a hundred yards across. If you were a tribe of ancient, wicked Israelites with a pressing need to disappear, you could not do better than to set forth for Onotoa. It wasn't until a whaling ship alighted upon the island in 1826 that the outside world was made to learn of its existence, a fact that was quickly and thoroughly forgotten by all. The island exists as it always has, suspended in time, a world unto its own. It is devoid of electricity and running water. It is plagued by drought. There is nothing to eat except fish; thus the islanders have a well-deserved reputation for frugality. Periodically, a wheezing prop plane lands on a strip of coral and drops off a wandering missionary or government official. Rarer still, the plane returns to pick them up, often months later. On Onotoa, you could not be further from the world of commerce, and yet here was where I found Mr. Wu and Mr. Yang, two entrepreneurs from Guangdong Province in southeastern China. They had come all this way to establish a live reef fish trade operation. Every few months a Chinese vessel called upon Onotoa to gather a tank of live lagoon fish, which were then sent to up-market restaurants in Hong Kong, where diners could peer into an aquarium, select their meal, and promptly experience the first spasms of ciguatera poisoning, a disagreeable and periodically fatal condition. Apparently, Mr. Wu and Mr. Yang had failed to notice that for the good people of Onotoa, the lagoon was also the toilet, an omission of observation that I found baffling.
Nevertheless, I was more flabbergasted by their very presence on the island. Elder Ryan and Elder Leviticus I had come to expect. Not so Mr. Wu and Mr. Yang. At the time, I was living on Tarawa, a sliver of an island in the Republic of Kiribati notable for straddling that very wide chasm between cesspool and paradise. I had followed my girlfriend Sylvia to Tarawa because that is what I did--followed Sylvia around as she pursued a career in international development. In the peripatetic years that followed, we moved on from Kiribati to Vanuatu and onward to Fiji, and on every island we touched upon we were invariably struck by the presence of the Chinese. On Kosrae, in the Federated States of Micronesia, on a lonely windswept beach where herons plunged after crabs, I stumbled across Mr. Lu, an engineer from Beijing who had arrived on the island to bid on a building contract. In Vanuatu, where politics and graft are tightly coiled, entrepreneurs from China discovered that the country made for an excellent conduit to smuggle heroin. True, technically heroin smuggling is illegal, but it is most certainly a business. Even blighted Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, and officially the Worst Place in the World according to The Economist, was experiencing a boom in Chinese investors lured to the country by its natural resources.
More confounding--for me, in any case--was the scale of Chinese emigration to the islands. When I first alighted upon Suva, the capitol of Fiji, in the mid-1990s, Victoria Parade was a venerable, though dilapidated, boulevard of colonial-era buildings. Nothing much happened in Suva, except for the occasional coup. A few years later, Victoria Parade had become a veritable Chinatown, an avenue of Chinese shops, restaurants and nightclubs catering to mainland fishermen and garment workers. Other islands too experienced a surge of Chinese immigrants, lured to a region where market competition is non-existent. Sadly for them, they weren't particularly welcome. Rampaging mobs in Nuku'alofa, the balmy capital of the Kingdom of Tonga, burned down 30 Chinese owned shops. In Honiara, the blighted capital of the Solomon Islands, the Chinese navy had to rescue 300 of their citizens after locals set the predominantly Chinese business district ablaze.
Nevertheless, within a short decade, the South Pacific was well on its way to becoming a Chinese lake. The better hotels were often full of official delegations. Some were there to forge commercial links. Others had come with their checkbooks ready, doling out "foreign aid" to receptive governments, who in turn needed to do nothing more than acknowledge that despite appearances otherwise, Taiwan was not a country. By conceding that Taiwan was merely a quarrelsome province within the People's Republic of China, governments in the South Pacific soon found themselves in the possession of fleets of high-end SUVs, which they drove to their new and considerably more lavish offices, where they could ponder the work being done on their brand new stadiums. This was foreign aid, Chinese-style, and governments in the South Pacific discovered that they liked it very much.
It was the appearance of Chinese tourists in Fiji, however, that really got me thinking that something was afoot in China. Chinese tourists? In Fiji? I first came across some at low tide on a beach on the Coral Coast on the island of Viti Levu, where a group of mainland tourists was happily emptying the reef of its population of luminous starfish. Gently reminded by their tour guide that they could not in fact wander off with forty-some starfish, they deposited them in stacks atop the boulders that jutted above the reef.
"Did you notice that?" I said to my wife Sylvia as we set about returning the displaced starfish to the shallow water.
"You mean the interesting approach to wildlife?"
"Yes, that too. But that they were tourists from China. When exactly did tourists from China start coming to the South Pacific?"
I, frankly, had stopped paying attention to China sometime in 1989, that magical year when Communism dissolved elsewhere in the world. Then, in an historical blink of an eye, dissident shipyard workers and philosophers suddenly found themselves transformed into elected presidents. Democracy flourished and the Czechs, bless them, stumbled over themselves to join the Beer Drinkers Party. Borders were opened, and soon Hungarian tourists could be found camping in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, while westerners, myself included, settled in cities like Prague, where the women were beautiful, the beer cheap, and the times significant. For two generations, Eastern Europe had existed under the grey shroud of totalitarian rule, and suddenly they too were free to compete with campy bands from Liechtenstein and punk-monster groups from Finland for the awesome privilege of winning the Eurovision Song of the Year Competition. This was freedom.
1989 played out a little differently in China, of course. When thousands of students converged upon Tiananmen Square in Beijing to demand a little democracy--Hey hey, hey ho, Maosim has got to go--they were greeted with a decidedly old school response. Deng Xiaoping, the chain-smoking gnome with the twinkling eyes who then ruled China, simply reached for his totalitarian rulebook, flipped toward the index--Democracy protesters, suitable response--and followed directions. He shot them. And that was that.
Except, of course, it wasn't, and therein lay the dissonance I was feeling about China. Something was clearly happening there. The presence of Chinese tourists blithely frolicking on the beaches of Fiji suggested that China was no longer solely a nation of peasants, factory workers, and clipboard-toting political officers. And yet, as far as I could tell, China remained ruled by the very same clipboard-toting political officers who had brought forth the excitement of the Cultural Revolution, those last years of the Mao era when China went stark raving mad. In the early seventies, one pushed boundaries in the US by lighting up a joint and engaging in a sit-in at Berkeley. For the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution, a good day might be spent destroying a Ming era temple and torturing the teachers and intellectuals accused of possessing revanchist tendencies. When it came to pushing boundaries, the hippies had nothing on the Red Guards. Maybe Charles Manson did. But Charles Manson is in prison. The Red Guards simply faded away.
Once Sylvia and I returned to the United States, this sense of incongruity only deepened. Wading through the thunder and bombast of what passes for news programming today--Motto: All terror, all the time--I'd come across little nuggets of information such as the startling fact that IBM Computers is now owned by the Chinese company Lenova. Clearly, the creators of 2001: A Space Odyssey miscalled that one; HAL should have been speaking Mandarin. And then, sometime later, as the television news paused for a commercial--Coming up next: Are we all going to die Tomorrow?--I'd pick up the newspaper and learn that to combat a few cases of rabies, Chinese authorities had decided to club or electrocute or even bury alive, hundreds of thousands of pet dogs. Even for someone like me, who had long lived in a region where dogs are regarded as either a menacing nuisance or a good choice for lunch, the response seemed a tad barbaric. IBM had long represented the future--the American future--and now that particular future was in the hands of barbarous dog-killers.
Mostly, however, as I refreshed myself in the events of the day, I was struck by the gnawing sense that despite the best efforts of the freedom-hating Islamofascists, the bigger news seemed to be elsewhere. "Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world," Napoleon had famously remarked. China, clearly, had awoken. For some, this had been evident for some time. For others--say like those who had spent a good part of the past decade living on remote islands in the South Pacific--it was something of a surprise to learn just how big China had become. Officially, there were 1.3 billion people in China. Unofficially, there were 1.5 billion. It had become the industrial capital of the world. The 200 million migrants who had left the fields for the cities reflected the largest human migration in history. China had managed to achieve an annual economic growth rate of 9.5 percent or more for 28 years straight. It is presently the world's third largest economy after the US and Japan and it is expected to become the second in the foreseeable future. China currently exports more than a trillion dollars worth of goods annually and is soon expected to account for nearly 50 percent of world trade. There are now dozens of cities within its borders with populations above 5 million, most of which, to be perfectly honest, I had never heard of.
And yet, despite China having become one of the economic engines of the world, I had no sense of what China actually was. Not since Deng Xiaoping has China had a leader that reflected a personality, a sense of Chineseness that foreigners could latch on to. Say what you will about Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, but they are, in their own ways, America writ large. Watching those two, the charmer who exuded empathy and insatiable appetites, and the smirking bully whose very strut is enough to send otherwise reasonable people into an inchoate, apoplectic quiver of rage, it is clear that Bill and George could only be American. Hu Jintao, on the other hand, simply comes across as the guy in the office that you really need to watch out for.
Instead, all I could discern were contrasts. Beijing had been awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics and you'd think, okay, we're a long way now from the events of June 4th, 1989. In preparation, the authorities had decided to finally release the student who had hurled a paint bomb at the giant portrait of Chairman Mao that looms over Tiananmen Square. Well, good, you think. And then it emerges that after eighteen years of what we now soothingly call enhanced interrogation techniques, the student had been shattered, and today is free only to roam through his insanity. Yet, many of our most esteemed commentators--and how, exactly, does one become an esteemed commenter?--speak reassuringly about the newfound freedom in China. Maybe, but who wants to unfurl a Falun Gong banner in Tiananmen Square? You first, Mr. Commentator.
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