Do you “look Chinese”? Well, if Beijing’s taxi drivers don’t think so, you’ll find it much harder to hail a taxi than the locals.
Beijing taxi drivers avoid foreigners
I’ve heard various explanations – non-Mandarin speakers are difficult to understand, and apparently it causes a ‘loss of face’ for a taxi driver to admit that he/she doesn’t speak English. More likely, though, is that us non-Mandarin speakers are hard work – we sing Mandarin words repeatedly trying to find the right tone, and we often don’t know where we’re going, or at least, how to pronounce where we’re going in Chinese
Attempting to hail a post-dinner cab with a few Australian friends, the “Don’t look Chinese? I don’t drive people who don’t look Chinese” taxi policy appeared to be in full swing. As the minutes (and empty cabs) passed us by, our frustration was noted by a local (read: Chinese) man who introduced himself as Mark. He offered to help us hail taxis, and soon we were in business.
Let’s have a beer with Mark
As our group numbers diminished, it became obvious that Mark – a young, Chinese student with perfect English, was actually a great find, and it would be a shame to speed off in a taxi away from our new local friend. “Hey Mark,” I enthused, “How about we go and have a beer?”. For whatever reason, Mark didn’t feel comfortable going to a bar with us, but he advised us he would buy beers and bring them back to our corner.
I’ve read that Beijing Chinese are famed for their generosity, and fights over the bill are common. When I insisted that Mark take my 10 quai ($1.50 – there would be change…) to buy the beers, an argument ensued, which I won, reasoning that transportation of said beers to the street corner was hospitality enough. Having my money in his shirt pocket, Mark offered his mobile phone as collateral – to be collected on his return. We dismissed his gesture and off he rode to get those beers. When he returned with three Tsing Tao ‘longnecks’ (I don’t know what the locals call them, that’s an Aussie term for ridiculously large beer) he gave me the 4 quai change, meaning the 3 beers cost just under a dollar, total.
Mark is enrolled in Japanese studies at university. He is working at a Japanese restaurant in a Western 5 star hotel, and speaks perfect English. He told us he learned English by singing Richard Marx songs and watching American movies, neither of which explained his slightly Danish accent.
I didn’t ask our host to sing a Richard Marx song, which upon reflection was either a gross oversight or a demonstration of good judgment on my part – I have little doubt Mark would have sung for us had we insisted.
The media in China and other topics foreigners like to raise
We talked politics for a while, with me asking about how Mark feels about the media in China. “In Australia, we have all sorts of media from all over the world… Journalists can report on what they like, but my feeling is that that isn’t the case in China – does that bother you?”. “To be frank,” Mark began sternly, “We like our media the way it is.” End of discussion, at least on that topic…
As we sat on the curb of the footpath, watching the midnight parade of a Beijing street pass us by. Over there, a man in his 40s sits, shirtless, trying to cool himself in the frustratingly warm breeze. Here, a family of a father, mother and small daughter meander past in their pajamas – perhaps they didn’t have air conditioning, and couldn’t sleep in the heat? Cyclists spin past with baskets laden with shopping. A man lobbing a large hessian bag full of plastic bottles reaches into the nearby bins to collect his bounty.
Although ‘media’ was clearly not on the agenda, Mark was still keen to talk politics, particularly about Mao and the various government decisions that have led to what Mark described as China’s growing prosperity. Chairman Mao’s picture is at the geographic heart of Beijing – looking down on Tienanmen Square from the Southern wall of the Forbidden City. It is interesting to hear someone born in 1987 speak of the Government with such enthusiasm and interest. It’s not common in Australia to hear 21-year-olds sing the Federal Government’s praises – or for them to even have an opinion.
Australia’s Prime Minister has a Chinese name… Luke Erwin
Speaking of the Australian government, I was curious as to whether Australia’s Mandarin-speaking Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, was the Chinese-household name Australians believe he is. Well, from my sample of one, yes he is. Turns out the Chinese have a name for Kevin – it sounds like Lu-ker-wen… Here’s me trying to learn the pronunciation:
We talked for a while about life in Australia, and I talked about how the sky was blue almost every day. Clouds pass and it’s blue. I expressed to Mark my frustration that he and his Chinese compatriots didn’t enjoy clean, clear air like me and my friends in Australia. “The way I see it,” I began, “Almost everything I own is made in China: my clothes, my computer, my bike, my car. I get a lot of benefits from these things, but the costs of producing them – the environmental costs, are paid for by people in China. The pollution in the air, soil and water is from factories making things – in part – for me. I get the gain, China gets the pain. I don’t think that’s fair.” Mark listened, but he liked me talking about the pollution about as much as he liked me asking about the media, so that conversation didn’t go too far, either
I’ve traveled fairly widely, and I’ve talked politics with Canadians, Brits, Kiwi’s, Indians, Americans, French and Germans… All those nations are democracies… When we talk about the policies of our own governments, even though we have a stake in our governments through the voting/lobbying processes, I’ve never experienced the kind of ownership/responsibility/defensiveness displayed by our host.
We actually talked and joked about lots of topics, but I’ve chosen to focus on the ‘diplomatic talks’ feeling of the conversation, because I’ve read an article in today’s Herald that goes some way to explain my experience, and offers some interesting ideas about the rise of China.
In John Garnaut and Hamish Macdonald’s article, China’s Strong March, the journalists outline their perspective on China’s media and economy, and prospects for the future. The article explains that Mark’s enthusiasm for the government isn’t uncommon – according to the US-based Pew Research Centre quoted in the story, 86% of Chinese respondents believe their country is heading in the right direction, up from 48% in 2002. That figure is explained by describing the way the propaganda office in China has been using Western-style PR to manage perceptions in the Chinese people.
In what makes this my longest ever blog post, I have taken the most salient quotes from “China’s Strong March” and included them below. It’s worth reading the whole article, but here’s the brief version:
Propaganda/PR driving popular opinion
“[In 1989] Deng Xiaoping instructed the post-Tiananmen leaders to also make one crucial departure from the previous years of reform. From that moment they would place as much importance on propaganda as they did on the economy.”
“The party elevated its propaganda chief to the inner cabinet and extended his reach to each tier of government and every realm of public communication.”
“As the Communist Party moved beyond the ideals of revolution to the imperatives of staying in power. After the Soviet Bloc collapse, the public was educated on the perils of premature democracy. The news media were guided to incessantly show the chaos that followed the collapse of Soviet communism and ethnic bloodshed after the break-up of Yugoslavia.”
“China has rebuilt its propaganda apparatus with tools and methods based as much on Western public relations theory as Marxist-Leninist dogma, censorship and coercion. “In the 1960s people weren’t necessarily convinced, they were just terrorised into submission,” says [Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand] who this year published a forensic account of China’s propaganda system, Marketing Dictatorship. “Now they stress management rather than control because they understand that persuasion is more effective than force.”
China’s PR in action
“[Within weeks of the Sechwan Earthquake] Sheng Si, Bu Li (Alive or Dead, Never Apart). The song, hastily composed by an official disaster committee in Beijing and sung by the martial arts movie star Jackie Chan, was broadcast nationwide. It was a sentiment that drowned out the anger from the bereaved parents of children killed in shoddy school buildings.”
It’s us vs. the world – the Chinese perspective
“Incidents such as the clash of Chinese and American military aircraft, the Tibetan riots, the Olympic torch relay and even the Sichuan earthquake were immediately framed in the nationalist narrative of a resurgent China defending itself against a hostile world.”
-China’s tense determination to host a “successful” Olympics and its clinical campaign to top the gold medal tally are part of the new narrative about redressing past humiliation. “We have to have a good Olympics,” said the Vice-Premier, Wang Qishan, when he was mayor of Beijing last year. “Otherwise not only will our generation lose face but also our ancestors.”
China’s booming economy
“So where is China headed? Chinese officials don’t like talking about how big their country’s going to be – the world is wary enough already about “China Rising” – but the Chinese economy looks set to power on much as it has for three decades, at a time when the West appears set for a few tough years. Geo-political power will shift accordingly.”
“The West has no direct lever to force China to change domestic policies. It could close its wallets today and China would hardly notice. China, on the other hand, has become the single biggest lender to the US Government, as Beijing works out what to do with the $US2 billion ($2.2 billion) in foreign exchange reserves it accumulates each day… If China pulled those investments, American and world interest rates would soar and the financial crisis would become a global catastrophe… Thankfully, that’s not going to happen. To analysts such as Richard Rigby – the director of the Australian National University’s China Institute, a former senior China analyst at the Office of National Assessments and a former consul-general in Shanghai – it’s a financial version of the Mutually Assured Destruction doctrine that kept the nuclear superpowers, the US and the Soviet Union, at arms’ length for so long.”
Taiwan as a tipping point
“If there’s a “tipping point” to worry about, it’s when China’s military feels it can control the seas around Taiwan for the five days or so before the US can send massive reinforcements. At this point the Chinese leaders – aware American public opinion cares little for Taiwan’s fate – might expect Washington to rethink, and US allies such as Japan and Australia to waver. A report to the US Congress in April said this “anti-access” capability could be reached as early as 2010.