Guangzhou gives me hope about China

This opinion is purely based on my own stint in Guangzhou; I did no background research to write it; it is merely an impression — albeit, a very good one.

I’ve been all over China. I’ve seen the modern cave dwellings in Shanxi and the peacock-capped houses in Xishuangbanna. I’ve drank with the underground folk musicians in Beijing’s hutongs  and debated political theory with Nanjing University’s best professors. I’ve been devoured by the crowds in Mong Kok and blessed by the crisp air of Tiger Leaping Gorge.

Every issue I read or hear about in China almost always stems from a lack of a stable and enforced constitutional legal system. This is the ugly result of many factors which I will not get into here, but suffice it to say many government officials do not have traffic safety or gutter oil at the tops of their priority lists.  The longer I’ve been in China, the more skeptical I have become that China’s democratization is the inevitable eventual step in the rise of this nation.

In Guangzhou now, I have encountered several wonderful bits of information that give me hope.

1. Seatbelts. The taxis’ recordings exhort the front passenger to buckle up. It’s required! Not here will you have a taxi driver who waves a hand at you when you try to fasten your seat belt, saying “You don’t need that.”

2. No Smoking in Restaurants. I know this one has plenty of exceptions, but the dim sum restaurant I went to the other day was the first restaurant in China I’ve ever been in where they enforce this rule (as of May 1, 2011, smoking is “banned” in all public areas in China). Nice to see.

3. Local democracies? I am in no position to confirm this, but one Chinese friend in Guangzhou had just come back from spending the New Year in her home town of Pingyao, Shanxi. She said that the county was gearing up for its first democratic election — as were the majority of local governments across the country. Another friend said that he say campaign posters in his apartment.  Local elections have been set up in thousands of counties since the 80s, but to varying degrees of non-corruption. My Pingyao friend’s excitement about her own local election was palpable — a refreshing change from the usual disinterest or disbelief in the efficacy of local democracy.

4. Treat people the same. I know this definitely has exceptions, but again, this is a rarely-encountered anecdote. An old man came into the dumpling restaurant, bee-lined for my table, and rattled his pan at me. I looked over at the boss, who then got into an argument with him about harassing foreigners. “They’re Westerners!” he cackled, “They have money! What’s the problem?” — “Because you aren’t harassing any of the Chinese customers. People are all the same. If you’re going to be treating foreigners like that, you can go somewhere else.” I’ve never been defended for being a foreigner before — especially not in public and in this manner. Granted, she knew I spoke Chinese and may have been putting on a bit of a show. She also had no interest in appealing to this man, who was just a local beggar. Nonetheless, she said it so that everyone in the restaurant could hear, and I was grateful for not being “foreignized.”

In my short time in Guangzhou, I have enjoyed many pleasant encounters, and these few have left an impression on me. Yes, Guangdong is the richest province. Yes, it has long been influenced by international cultures. It is not like the other provinces in many ways. Either way, it has been a pleasure, and I hope that other cities follow in the footsteps of enforcing basic health and safety laws, to start.

This entry was published on January 30, 2012 at 1:14 pm and is filed under China. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “Guangzhou gives me hope about China

  1. Richard on said:

    Interesting to read your perspective from your visit. For what it’s worth, Guangzhou/Guangdong has always felt more distinctly “Cantonese” than “Chinese” to me, although it’s admittedly hard to put one’s finger on what that means. Obviously there is a language difference, but there is also a long legacy of political and economic autonomy in Guangdong. Canton was a major center of international trade for centuries and was cosmopolitan long before Shanghai or Hong Kong began to develop–Guangzhou was the starting point of the Maritime Silk Road and the locus of much of Indian Ocean inter-Asian trade. In addition, the foundations of the ROC run deep in Guangzhou, and the KMT consolidated their power base in Guangdong before joining the United Front. Deng Xiaoping certainly recognized the unique history and status of Guangdong when he launched his Southern Tour, harnessing Guangdong’s advantages to push for broader, faster economic reform across the country.

    At the same time, the CCP realized that Guangzhou (and then brand-new Shenzhen), with it’s distinct language, proximity to British Hong Kong, history as a base of policy innovation, and (physical and cultural) distance from Beijing, could not be firmly trusted to toe the party line and thus was not suitable as China’s flagship economic center. Assuming the Party’s interests would be better served by annointing a directly-governed municipality as China’s economic alpha city, the Party launched plans for the revitalization of Shanghai, centered on the development of Pudong as an SEZ and financial center. To some extent, then, Shanghai’s ascendancy is a byproduct of the fact that Guangdong was “not Chinese enough;” the province was clearly useful for its economic contributions but not politically reliable. It’s still not, and Guangdong’s officials have maintained a streak of independence.

    There certainly remains a level of freewheeling capitalism in Guangdong (especially in Shenzhen, which was created out of thin air and created a stock exchange without central government approval) that is possibly unrivaled in China, or maybe unrivaled anywhere in the world for the last 20 years, save for Silicon Valley. All that is to say that I’m not so sure that what happens in Guangzhou will or can spread to the rest of the country. The city and the province are outliars and I think Guangdong people look to Hong Kong and the rest of the world before looking to Beijing.

    You also forgot to mention Guangzhou’s brilliant and fascinating expat population. Cheers.

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