TRAVEL DIARY: My 2001 Visit to Southern China

Posted on May 4, 2012 by


BY FRANK McCLELLAND.

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Thoughts on China prior to my trip.

My knowledge of China until now has been a disjointed plethora of vignettes gained over the last fifty years. My first memory was of my father introducing me to one of the many Chinese families he had sponsored to migrate to Australia in the nineteen forties. He was the Chief Inspector of Melbourne’s ‘Victoria Market’ for many years and was impressed by the way the Chinese conducted themselves in business and in their relationships with the many other nationalities, which made up the unique community of the Melbourne market.

Moving to North Western Victoria I became aware of the history of the treatment of the Chinese during the gold rush and observed the departure of the last Chinese market gardeners from rural Victoria.

China became much more of a political issue here in the early sixties, with the debate over whether Australia should supply wheat to China, a Communist country, and therefore considered hostile. Subsequently, with considerable misgivings by many Australians, diplomatic relations were established with China and one of the first missions to China comprised Government officials involved in agriculture. As an expert in dryland agronomy I was nominated to join the group but was rejected by the Chinese government as not holding a sufficiently senior position in what was then the Department of Agriculture. I thought this reasoning was absurd and my view of China took a turn for the worst.

In the following years what little news of China that I saw or read, seemed depressing. Items included the collectivisation of farms (an anathema to the free holding land owners here), the senseless destruction during the Cultural Revolution and the various tensions of the cold war. Impressions by colleagues and friends who variously worked or travelled in China during the early eighties painted an unappealing picture of Chinese life and it’s people.

Four things rekindled my interest in China, my wife (not without protest) having to study the history of China as a subject in her degree course and her subsequent fascination for that country. The second was the impact of working in India for two years and wondering about the comparison between the relatively freewheeling Indian style approach to government and the regimented programs in China, particularly in relation to population control.

Next was the answer to a question I posed to a senior officer in the former Office of Ethnic Affairs in Victoria. The question was, “Which is the most difficult language to translate and interpret into English? His answer was, “Mandarin, and it may take 50 to 100 years to achieve a complete understanding”. The final influence: the fascinating films emanating from China such as ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ and ‘The Yellow River’, and the first personal account I read of family life in China in the beautifully written book, ‘The Wild Swans’.

More recently, most media reports coming out of China convey nothing really inspiring. My impression is that news of China has been concerned mainly with controversies relating to Human Rights, the American spy-plane episode and the Olympic games for Beijing.

I have recently retired as Director of the Office of Rural Affairs in Victoria and now operate a consulting service on rural affairs, which I hope will again include some overseas work. I wanted to know if I could still stand up to the rigors of an overseas consultant’s life and thought of China. I was fortunate enough to have a long standing friend who has lived and worked in China and was willing to have me accompany him for two weeks while he was working in South East China.

My impressions of China from a rural affairs prospective.

I flew from Melbourne to Hong Kong and thence straight to the city of Nanchang in the Jiangxi province. This is my analysis of what I saw and heard while resident, principally in the city of Nanchang with a few days’ travelling – first, south to Chen Ren, then north to the city of Juijiang on the Yangtze River and to the hill resort of Lushan. I left China (after a 17 hour train journey from Nanchang) via Guangzhou and Hong Kong.

This writing is not a travelogue, contains no political comment and is not presented in any historical context. It is an attempt to distil some personal observations of the unique features of the Chinese people whom I encountered, the issues they face and their attempts to deal with them at this moment in time.

Demographics

At present the demographics of the population of Victoria, (and most other States and Territories), record approximately 75% living in urban areas, with the remaining 25% based in rural areas. Concern is often expressed about the continuing movement of people from the country areas to the cities.

In China the situation is almost the reverse, with 35% of people being urban based while 65% live in rural areas. However, the 10th Five Year Plan recently announced by the Chinese Government, projects that by the year 2020, these numbers will almost have reversed, with 10 million people expected to leave rural areas to move to urban centres each year. In one area alone with the rising waters of the Yangtze River behind the massive Three Gorges Dam, some 1 to 2 million people need to move to urban centres in the next few years.

The Chinese Government is actively encouraging such movements to the urban areas to move excess labour from the rural areas to the urban areas in order, they say, to speed up economic growth. Such a policy seems almost ‘command economics’ with all it’s attendant risks, but does mirror the existing situation of a movement from rural areas to urban centres.

It is anticipated that jobs for these internal migrants will develop as a result of a massive increase in private enterprise development, following an edict from the Central Government that ‘it is good to be rich’. There is also clear evidence of massive Government spending to replace public infrastructure and to provide housing for incoming migrants from rural areas. In Juijung the city visited on the Yangtze, some 200,000 new residents are expected.

 Managing issues of such gigantic scale is a mind-boggling thought and successfully implementing such programs would seem to require a miracle. The Central Government in the capital city Beijing is centred in a country 5000 kilometres in length and 5000 kilometres in breadth with a current population variously estimated at between 1.2 and 1.3 billion people. The question, which immediately arises, is how to exercise control over the processes involved to effect such changes? How is it done? The Communist Party, which has a membership of only 4% of the population, is the Government in control. Representatives present at four other levels, that is, at Provincial level, and then County, Township and finally Village level to publicize government policies and implement government programs. So there is a cascading effect of control, which ensures that decisions of Government are carried out at the grassroots level.

It is interesting that the Chinese farmers face a somewhat similar situation to some of the grain-growers here in Australia with their main crop, rice, returning insufficient profit. As a result some farmers are opting to leave the land, others are deriving the bulk of their income off-farm, while others strive to improve the production and value of their crops and pursue diversification options. Those who work off-farm (frequently far from home) are usually able-bodied men and the younger family members; this leaves women to shoulder an increased burden of the farm work.

There is considerable evidence of diversification on farms and it was fascinating to watch an extension officer set up and demonstrate to villagers the process of preparing rami to be sold on to weavers for clothing manufacture.

A sign proclaiming the county of ‘Chen Ren – the home of the Mar chicken’ further emphasises the importance of the need to develop profitable agricultural ventures. This small bantam-like bird is raised, free range, in seemingly unproductive forest areas in flocks which number in the thousands. The grasses and herbs in the forest give the meat a pleasant, delicate flavour much enjoyed in China, (and by me). Again the scale of production was staggering, with the Governor of the county quoting 40 million birds currently produced per year but with a potential market of 100 million birds. A vast array of aquaculture ventures with numerous fish species is also being researched and expanded.

The landmass of China is also described as being one-third degraded and regulations preventing cropping on slopes greater than 25 degrees have been enforced.

China has become the largest recipient of aid money to undertake improvement to its irrigation infrastructure, farm productivity and marketing activities.

It’s reputation as meeting its responsibilities in terms of loan repayments has resulted in many large-scale projects in recent years. The project I was assisting with involved sourcing a World Bank loan of US $ 200 million to carry out such works in 15 counties in Jiangxi province.

 People

I had expected a rather dour, grim-faced people but nothing was further from the truth. A smile always begot a smile and frequently a request to speak to a passer-by in English. On several occasions, while travelling or dining with Government officials, I was seated with their charming young daughters or nieces so that these young people could practice their English.

The hospitality and eagerness of Chinese people to provide assistance was almost overwhelming at times. I was also delighted to learn that they could not distinguish between my age and that of my travelling companion who is 10 years younger than myself. At 100 kg and with a beautiful, full, red face I was also proclaimed to be much healthier than my pale-faced friend.

Our conversations frequently moved to the subject of the disciplining of children. The question was often asked, “Do you beat your children?” The genesis of the remark became clearer as I observed the antics of the only-child syndrome; ‘very naughty’, as they put it, but I suspect these children are lonely and long for the companionship of a sibling. I must also point out that the older adolescent children I met were lovely young people so that the problem mentioned above must sort itself out.

The one child family policy is strongly enforced by means of loss of a job if employed in the Government sector, or heavy fines if in the private sector. The impact of this policy is yet to be seen as the population is still rising, but it is expected to plateau at 1.5 to 1.6 billion in the next ten years. Again, the impact of social engineering on this scale on the population dynamics of the future is yet to be seen.

I had thought that in terms of architecture the Cultural Revolution would have left China completely devoid of historical buildings but much has been done to restore the damage. In fact many Chinese seem to possess a particular interest in the restoration and the building of new Taoist and Buddhist temples and shrines. They appear to have an inherent spirituality, which they make light of at times, but their interest in religious teachings and stories is thinly disguised.

In this vast populace, information is available on certain well-known centres but in other areas does not exist. Chinese people frequently seek solutions for information on business, how to travel, where to stay, where to eat and have arrangements made for them through connections, in their language called ‘Guanxi’ (pronounced gwan-shee). These connections may be through family, based on student relations or other, but they are solid, unquestionable ties, stronger than any form of kinship I have ever witnessed.

Guanxi is the passport to successful relationships in China, and between China and foreigners to China.

Infrastructure

As befits this population base, the infrastructure in terms of housing, transport and communications, is massive, mind-boggling and on a scale I have never seen before.

Unlike capital cities such as Delhi, Cairo and others in developing countries where housing requirements result in city sprawl, China is housed in the sky with one city apartment seen in Guangzhou (formerly Canton) 83 stories high. However the apartments I was invited into were relatively spacious and comfortable, but with the only view being of high-rise developments as far as the eye could see in any direction, not my cup of tea. At the other end of the scale the villages I saw were a vast improvement on any I have seen in other countries, better built although often poorly maintained. I was told this was the result of older villages being removed and that the new structures were a feature of the collective era.

The journey to Guangzhou from Nanchang on the way home was a 17-hour journey by train. The train was modern and our carriage comfortable, with soft sleepers (four to a compartment), but it also included carriages where passengers with less money were sitting on hard seats for the entire journey. The condition of the tracks was such that I felt a lot safer travelling at high-speed than I do travelling on the sprinter trains from Ballarat to Melbourne. At the end of this journey, when the occupants of the train alighted, I estimated that there were about 1400 people aboard as opposed to the 100 or so who normally alight in Melbourne from the Ballarat train.

The major highways through China are of the same standard as the railways, but with much less traffic than I imagined; however, once off these well constructed roads the connecting arterials were terrible. In the event of heavy traffic, driver education and traffic control needs improvement as some sort of face-saving culture seems to prevent drivers from exercising their judgement to deal with the situation without heavy police intervention.

At one such incident, despite my misgivings, I assisted a lone policeman in untangling a traffic jam, which, because no one would give way, had lasted for over 2 hours and, I was informed, would possibly persist for a further 10 hours. Taking up a position relative to the sole policeman, with hand and arm signals I indicated to the various motorised rickshaws, cars and trucks where they should drive, but felt it wise to adopt the face-saving approach of not making eye-contact with the drivers,

I must mention water transport. Because of some primeval urge to travel by boat on the Yangtze River, I arranged a trip but then cancelled it. The dream, did not match the reality, for, despite the romance I had attached to it, where I crossed the famous river at Juijung on a very tired, old ferry, it was just a very large, sluggish, expanse of water.

Dining out

The first meals we had were in our five-star Lake View Hotel in Nanchang ($90 per night inc breakfast) and neither the hotel nor the meals were any different to the most prestigious hotels in Melbourne.

I noticed variously, between 2 and 15 couples from abroad at any one time in the hotel and was told that they were there for the purpose of adopting Chinese babies, some for a second time. The children (not all were babies) were almost exclusively girls, although boys much older, or those with disabilities, could be adopted. These people told me that the Chinese adoption procedures, although tedious and time-consuming (often taking 18 months to 2 years), were the fairest and least corrupt in the world. The expense involved was solely related to the process, which included at least two trips by the adoptive parents to China.

The first meal we had outside our hotel was at the behest of the Principal Project Manager’s Office wherein we were escorted to a banquet room with gold, not silver, service. The meal was exquisite with so many courses, each beautifully presented. Unfortunately my table manners, with my ineptitude with chopsticks, were a concern for my travelling companion but none so much as using my handkerchief to blow my nose at the dining table. He had forgotten to tell me just how odious this habit is to the Chinese. However, I must say that the habit of some of the less sophisticated spitting on the floor, and the state of many of the toilets did nothing for me either.

It took me sometime to realise that dining is a ritual based on a drinking culture. That suited me ok until I tasted the white spirit called bai jiu; never mind the alcohol content; the smell was sufficient for me to immediately return to brandy and beer (pijiu). The meal includes a constant round of toasts (ganbei) in which all are involved or just those people you are having warm thoughts of at the time. Out in the rural areas no glass is supplied to drink from, only the one bowl from which both drink and food is taken until someone requests the last dish, rice, and the drinking stops.

The Chinese people are said to eat anything with a backbone; I’m not sure that is correct but I certainly ate things I had never eaten before, specifically – snake, whole frogs, tortoise, mar chicken, pigeon, tiny baby eels and a variety of vegetables I cannot name. With very few exceptions the meals were excellent and the service better than most I have experienced in Australia. The most embarrassing aspect was their absolute refusal to let us pay for a meal to the extent that, on one occasion, I refused to eat unless I paid.

Lushan

My major tourist type activity was a journey back in history to the most beautiful hilltop resort of Lushan. . I believe Lushan is on the World Heritage List and so it should be, as it one of the most spectacular and beautiful spots I have ever seen.

It took one and a half hours to walk up and down thousands of steps along a ridge with breathtaking views (Reid’s Lookout in the Grampians multiplied by 10) occasionally obscured by clouds below you. Five peaks above the ridge are named after five old men revered in China and the tourist explanation in both Chinese and English was fascinating. The notice gave the names of the five old men and pointed out that one of the most famous Chinese poets Li Bai came to this site to write and was buried alive here. I was amazed at his treatment and asked my translator what he had done wrong. After studying the Chinese text for sometime she started to laugh. They got it wrong she said ‘it means that the poet removed himself from public attention to concentrate on his poetry’. So there it was again this great difficulty in translating from one language to the other.

It was here in Lushan that some of the most momentous decisions of the Communist Government were taken including the squabbling over the failure of the Great Leap Forward and the infamous decision to launch the Cultural Revolution. It was a little eerie to sit in the same hall in the same chairs as the Communist Party leaders and watch a video of Mao Zedong and Chou En-lai presiding over these discussions in 1959.

Post script

Since returning home I have sat and read the history of China from 2000 BC to the present day. While I realise my understanding of that history is imperfect, I detect that China has been very much more sinned against by other nations than she herself has ever sinned. Some of the nations who continue to criticise China have little to be proud of in their own history in their relation to that country.

My experience of China is brief, based only on a couple of weeks in Southeast China and I am unable to determine whether there is balanced development across that continent. However my experience is recent and I am a trained observer with no axes to grind. My overall assessment is that China is trying to do the best it can in developing the country and improving the lot of its people.

Frank Mc Clelland, Sept 2001

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Bio: Frank McClelland has a Masters Degree in Agricultural Science and has worked on rural development projects in Egypt, India, Vietnam, China and South Africa.  During his early career he worked in Victoria’s Wimmera and Mallee regions as a research scientist, an agronomist and as a Regional Director in the former Victorian Department of Agriculture. Frank has training in mediation in public disputes and in crisis management.  In 1986, when the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs created the Office of Rural Affairs, he was appointed as its first Director. In that position he provided advice to Government Ministers with major portfolio responsibilities in ruralVictoria.  He also initiated Community Cabinet Meetings whereby Ministers regularly travelled to rural centres to meet in person with their constituents. A number of programs resulting from that interface have achieved national significance and international recognition. These include the raising of the profile of rural women (Rural Women’s Network), the establishment of the Rural Counselling Service, and Business Advice for Rural Areas.  Frank retired from the public service in 1999 and was awarded a Senior Agribusiness Award from the National Bank and the Centenary Medal from the Federal Government for his work with rural communities. He was awarded the Victorian Public Service Medal in the Australia Day Honours in 2000, for his service to rural communities.  Since then, as well as operating a private consulting business, he has served on a number of Boards, including the Grampians Wimmera Mallee Water Board which has just completed one of the largest pipeline projects in Australia. Frank completed the Australian Institute of Company Directors course in 2003.  He now works privately and recently completed two studies on volunteerism in small rural communities for the State Government.

The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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