China Over the Past 15 Years

China Over the Past 15 Years
Sinobear Dec 25, 2013 13:10

Paulberger asked me on a thread in the Questions Forum “How has China changed over the years?”

To answer this requires more than just an “off-the-cuff” answer, hence this Blog post.

Preamble: I’m not rich, I didn’t come to China on a whim, I wasn’t running from anything or anyone, not trying to “find” myself or otherwise hiding behind a cliché as to why I came to China or why I stay.

In order to categorize my thoughts, I thought it best to go with “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” approach.

The Good

In the time that I’ve been here I’ve seen:

  • The return of Hong Kong and Macau to Chinese rule

  • The Beijing Olympics

  • The celebration of the 50th and 60th Anniversary of the ‘New’ China

  • Students going from having pagers (BPs) to having a mobile phone (some today even having multiple Iphones!). China Mobile has just introduced its 4G service. Wow!

  • The Internet going from ISDN to T1 and beyond

  • Less intimidating military and police presence – in certain areas. What I’m getting at is that I don’t see so many random police checks, or intimidation…er, it’s hard to explain…still a good point in my books.

  • Less restrictions on foreigners living areas and investment

  • Chinese women excelling in business, wealth accumulation and having a much more independent say in their own lives and futures

  • The boom in air travel, rail technology and other forms of public transport

  • The ability for more Chinese students to study abroad AND those who are returning

  • The relaxing of restrictions of what is taught in classrooms (hell, I remember having “the authorities” photocopy the first page of every text we used…now they photocopy every page because they want to use it themselves)

  • The genuine friendliness and warm-heartedness of the average Chinese person – not since my trips to Jamaica have I encountered  such warm and welcoming people. Note: I said “average” not “collective.”

  • Oddly enough, every city I’ve lived in or visited has sidewalk tiles for the blind (never mind the actual conditions of the sidewalk or the fact that I’ve yet to see a blind person in China).

  • Students are more outwardly respectable to their teachers. Now, there’s horror stories on both sides, but in 15 years in China – 14 of them teaching, I can honestly say that I’ve only encountered two (yes, TWO) problem students (and neither of the pair could possibly claim Asperger’s, ADD, ADHD or whichever pseudo-psychological title is en vogue today).

  • Most signs include English (or Chinglish)…but it’s still an amazing thing considering what a minority English readers/speakers are here.

  • English is going to be de-emphasized in the Gaokao which I think is a good thing. I’d rather have 10 students who are dedicated and committed to learning the language rather than 60 bored and unmotivated students.

  • I’ve grown more patient and tolerant. I was a “Type A” in Canada…stressed, impatient and heading for a heart-attack. I’ve learned to calm down and take things as they go in China.

  • Finally, and the most contentious issue – the lack of political correctness. A little backstory – once upon a time, there was an evil King in Canada called Brian Mulroney. Brian was a rich and successful lawyer who never had to want for anything in his life. Brian wanted to be Prime Minister of Canada but didn’t have the looks, talent or charisma to do it. He needed the votes of the naïve and ignorant of Canada. He knew that the minorities were the way to go. As he was elected, he forgave $500 in loans to Africa whilst putting more pressure on Canadian students to repay loans (which his own sons certainly didn’t have to worry about). He also implemented “Affirmative Action” which meant that white males basically couldn’t get jobs that they traditionally worked in. So, when you see a lot of white males in China and you think, “Losers! Can’t even get jobs back in their home countries!”…chances are there may be a reason for that.

The Bad

  • Minimum wages increased across the country. Why’s that bad? A lot of factories haven’t modernized and still rely on human labor. The increases have resulted in a lot of factories shutting down and putting a lot of poor people out of work. Another side effect of this is the return to a six-day workweek. Their salaries have increased but so has the amount of hours and unpaid overtime.

  • Wages for foreigners have remained stagnant whilst the cost of living has increased greatly. Supply and demand has a lot to do with that but when your main selling point, your cash-cow, your goose that lays the golden eggs, is a highly-skilled foreign teacher, you should darn well pay them accordingly and not resort to the old standard of, “Well, you make x times more than a local teacher.” We are not party to the benefits of local teachers nor do we partake of the huge amounts of “gray money” that they extort from students and their parents.

  • The constant posturing of the central government in S.E. Asia. My students spend a lot of time worrying that war is imminent because they only get fed the nationalist line and sadly think that it’s every other country’s entire fault.

  • Speaking of nationalism, it’s another bad thing that everything is so polarized into China and Chinese = honest, good, and pure whilst everything foreign (which can’t be stolen, copied or profited from) = dishonest, bad and ‘hurting the feelings of the Chinese people.’ Talk about being like a petulant child!

  • And speaking of appropriation: I don’t mind that the Chinese want to celebrate foreign customs and traditions, but at least keep the spirit of them. Valentine’s Day and Christmas are the two big ones. Valentine’s Day is no more than an excuse for hotels and restaurants to jack up their prices while advertisers do their best to guilt men into buying expensive and meaningless gifts for wives, girlfriends and mistresses. Christmas has been appropriated without the religious aspect (understandable) but entirely focusing on the commercial and missing the family/community aspect that even non-religious people in the west understand.

The Ugly

  • The constant crack-down on foreigners (which motivated me to move from Guangzhou after seven years). I understand the need to ensure that foreigners are legal and obeying the vague clause of “Chinese laws, regulations and social order,” but when you are legally employed, legally registered and paying taxes, one should not have to endure weekly visits from the police, PSB, wanna-be police/PSB, and tax officials. It used to be random spot-checks in bars known for drugs and prostitution that netted the miscreants and undesirables, but now the constant specter of arbitrary visa rules and threat of deportation (having a “rat-line” whereby Chinese can anonymously report a foreigner) is just wrong.

  • The pollution! When I first moved to Beijing in 1998, there was a small but visible cloud of smog that I saw on my way to work. Over a couple of years, that disappeared. The traffic on the Third Ring Road was horrendous, but they opened the Fourth, then the Fifth Ring Roads and all was right again…until they also allowed a disproportionate number of new cars on the roads. A bunch of us foreign teachers used to share a taxi to and from work. I rarely see anything that resembles car-pooling today. Hundreds of vehicles (a lot of SUVs and 6-litre engines) with only a sole occupant. Mass transit, too, can be a joke. A lot of busses are in such poor condition that they belch a constant stream of black smoke everywhere they go.

  • Housing prices. As housing prices rose, the gov’t stepped in and mandated that a certain percentage of new developments had to be 70m2 or less in order to offer new home buyers a more affordable choice. Nice idea huh? Except that prices rose accordingly also and so those same people cannot even afford the shoeboxes being built.

  • The erosion of traditional family values. When I first came to China, I was amazed at how the bulk of the programming on TV was family and/or community oriented. Lei Feng was still a hero to be emulated. Today, one can see that there’s a spike in family violence during Spring Festival – two main issues: money and property. The one child policy has seen a disproportionate number of male to females. I can foresee that female babies will be a hot commodity in the not-too-distant future as the chance to sell females into marriage at birth will provide cash-strapped families a short-term financial windfall (spent on iPhones and other baubles). Even poor old Lei Feng (who was purportedly run over by a truck driven by his comrades, not once but twice), is a subject of derision by the younger crowd today as being naïve and too selfless (!!!). Last time I paid attention to a Hong Kong soap opera on TV, there was a secretary of a business who not only had her own car, but lived in a three-bedroom house (not apartment…an actual house) by herself. These are the kinds of things people are seeing and shaping the new “traditions” of China. Need further proof? The Bride Fee is supposed to be the dowry that a bridegroom pays to the bride’s family. The money is supposed to be to compensate the bride’s family for the cost of raising the girl. In return, the bridegroom would obtain a virgin who would bring face to his family. She would be the “property” of his family from that time onwards. Today, the bridegroom is supposed to have a car and an apartment (unheard of twenty years ago) in order to be deemed worthy of marriage. Well, obviously a recent graduate won’t have his own money to buy an apartment or a car and thus his family must pay. Today, the female still expects to continue contributing financially to her own family. So, a “tradition” was suddenly borne out of…rampant consumerism?

  • Broken promises and kowtowing.  Remember the 2008 Olympics? Forget the lip-synching, CGI fireworks and capital expenditures. Think of all the promises that were made to guarantee Beijing’s acceptance – freedom of the press, unrestricted access, relaxation of Internet censorship, freedom of public demonstrations…are your sides still hurting from laughing? As a teacher, I rely on the Internet to put together my lessons. What should be a 20 minute precision exercise turns into a two-hour plus decent into hell. “Page not available,” “Page not Found,” “This Page cannot be displayed…” I can understand certain keywords triggering a blockage…banana, mangoes, melons, as they may well be euphemisms of naughty bits of the human anatomy, but doing an image search for “Airline meals” should not get me blocked from every search on every search engine for hours on end. It seems that the “wumaos” have been largely replaced with blanket blockage. As little people, we can also see our respective governments lining up to make deals with China. The major powers are all acting like fawning courtiers to get “favored” status – but at what cost? Which country that is trying to curry favor with China is also taking China to task for these broken promises? I’m certainly not holding my breath waiting. As an aside, I often wonder what would happen if I returned to my home country and got into politics on a platform that would treat Chinese immigrants the way that the Chinese treat foreigners here. Of course, I would be branded a racist and the two laughable words “human rights” would be thrown in my face before I was tarred and feathered and run out of town.

In conclusion, the changes that I’ve witnessed in 15 years here are commendable for the Chinese people and are a wonder to behold – but the underlying current behind these changes remains the same, the very essence that I imparted to my first students 15 years ago, “China is for the Chinese.” China will never become a cosmopolitan country. Never will the Chinese people, in China, perceive non-Chinese as equals. We can all bear witness to these and other changes, partake of what China has to offer and admire and respect this great country, its people and its culture – but we will truly never belong here.

And! A special shout-out to the “China, love it or leave it!” Pandoras who will respond to this Blog post. You are my very special people. I’ve seen more of you come and go (most with their tails between their legs) than any other type of foreigner in China. You have no clue what it is like to live in China as a “normal” person. I have a Chinese wife and two children. I bear witness daily to the hypocrisy, the lies, the subterfuge and idiosyncrasies of what is said and what is done. There’s no harsher words in the English language than, “I told you so,” and no greater feeling than seeing someone who thought they have China “All figured out”, the boot-lickers and pseudo-Sinophiles,  who ultimately get taken advantage of and get so disillusioned that they’re forced to take the first available flight back home because their rose-colored glasses got shattered. There’s no shame in having a BCD (Bad China Day). There’s nothing wrong with venting, with reaching out to other members of the expat community for solace. There is something wrong with genuinely hating China and her people, just as there is something inherently wrong with a blinding infatuation with it. Tolerance is the key and a sense of humor will always save you from life (and yourself).

Tags:General Language & Culture Expat Rants & Advice Expat Tales


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Interesting read...thanks for sharing!

Jan 10, 2014 21:33 Report Abuse



I liked the post because it has a balanced view point. I am Canadian and remember the "Mulruny" years. I white guy couldn't even get a job being a mountie. You had to be female and/or non-caucasian. The post brought many things into perspective. At this time I find it advantageous to live in China. There are far worse places. But being Canadian I can still go home. China has become my second home. I can make this country better by pointing out the good things, and not disparing about the bad things.

Jan 09, 2014 10:41 Report Abuse



Maybe police isn't the best example. Police jobs are similarly loaded with positive discrimination policy in the Netherlands, too. I applied once, but they refused me for being white, male, and too highly educated to match their job openings. The last one was what struck me as most objectionable. It's because most policemen are white males, and there is something to be said for a bit of diversity. Would you approach officers grinning at the girls passing by, or ranting about ethnic minorities that make their jobs difficult?

Jan 09, 2014 12:44 Report Abuse



“Losers! Can’t even get jobs back in their home countries!” Next time someone says this to me, I'll politely respond with: "But that loser can get any job he likes in your country, for a salary you can only dream of." I'll be cautious, though. Chinese don't like it when you burst their bubble - what would happen if said bubble splatters in their face?

Jan 08, 2014 17:03 Report Abuse



as always, your blog was great fun to read, even when discussing more risky subject matter. you left the most profound statement to the last sentence. i've also found that it's much easier to cope with china if i don't take everything so seriousky. myself or this country.

Jan 07, 2014 12:38 Report Abuse



This is all good......I too respect China and Chinese for "what it is". I too left Canada and am happy for it. I too married a Chinese woman. I hope to spend as many years here as you already have.....certainly have no plans of leaving any time soon or ever for that matter. I do, however, have a hope to go on a holiday outside of China, to some English, at least once every couple years. Every year maybe. Next month for sure, it's booked. I live in a "small town" in southern Guangdong and absolutely love it!!!

Jan 07, 2014 11:47 Report Abuse



Very nicely put! I like the tongue in cheek and in your face fashion of writing, particularly about the internet censorship part. Very thought provoking read I must say.

Jan 07, 2014 00:45 Report Abuse