Friday, December 23, 2005

What Lies Beneath

By the time I met up with Hoo for lunch today, I was exhausted by the interview in the morning. Hoo had helped me identify candidates for my documentary on “gay marriage” in China. After we met, he suggested having lunch at Party World, an upscale KTV chain, which is close to his office and offers free buffet lunch.

My interview was actually not about gay and marriage in China. This morning I interviewed Gao Zhi Sheng, a famous dissident lawyer in Beijing. When I read the New York Times article on his struggle with the government on December 13th, I was fascinated by his guts and thought his ongoing litigations against the government’s violation of the citizens’ rights a natural and engaging story arc for a documentary. I saved the article and contemplated contacting the reporter for Gao’s contact. But I decided not to in the end. I didn’t want to get me or my family into trouble with the government.

This past weekend, at a Christmas party organized by an expat reporter friend of mine, I bumped into him. I bumped into him right after conversing for an hour with a qigong master who claimed to possess super-natural power and was working on a cure for the bird flu for the entire world. Gao was extremely open to my idea of a documentary. I considered our meeting an omen; my party-host friend considered me flaky - “everyone I introduced you to you want to do a documentary about them”.

So this morning I hauled my filming gear to his office which was mostly empty now after the government took away his permit and shut down his practice. For two hours he told me cases after cases of the government totally disregarding the laws it had written itself, cases after cases of the powerless being stamped on. There were some statements which I even wondered whether were fit for print for the New York Times.

When I got my gear together to leave, he invited me to go to an underground Christian service with him on Christmas day. It suddenly dawned on me – to continue filming him would drag me into a very political situation which could lead into real trouble. But not to continue meant all my previous emoting over the poor and the less fortunate had been just empty mental exercise over Starbucks lattes.

And the battle of the thoughts exhausted me. I had and have no plan to be political. But how can I maintain an apolitical state of mind in the presence of Gao?

After we returned to our KTV room from the first trip to the buffet table, I told Hoo about my interview. “Do you still hold Chinese passport?” He asked. When I gave him the affirmative answer, he immediately asked me to stop. “We all know China is a mess. But how can we small persons change the huge system? Chinese have learned to adapt to the system for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Gao’s fight will lead no where. And what you are doing will probably get you into more trouble than him, since he’s already a celebrity and police can’t touch him that easily.”

Just two days ago, I received a scathing report on China’s development from my friend Dale. Dale developed that report with a think tank in San Francisco. She presented that report in Hong Kong during the WTO meeting. The same day newspapers came out with the report that China’s economy had been under-stated for 17% due to inaccurate reporting. Now China is posed to surpass the UK and become the 4th largest economy in the world.

When I read the news, I thought what unfortunate timing for Dale’s report; now everyone in the West will focus even more on the China economic miracle; more students will come to China for foreign studies; and more businessmen will fly over in planeloads to dig gold.

I had known Dale for a long time. She had always been critical of China’s development with its problems of wealth gap, sweat shop and environmental collapse. Consequently I wondered when I glimpsed through her report – how much of it was just due to different perspectives?

So today in that KTV room, I asked Hoo, a self-made entrepreneur, “is China really as corrupt as Gao accused of?”

Hoo’s answer was “no, but”. The communist party does not have an “evil” intention, but 98% of the government officials he had dealt with were corrupt. They frequented prostitutes, asked for bribes, and took judicial procedures into their own hands.

“China’s economy probably is still under-stated for another 10-20% because of not counting the rampant sex industry.” He joked. He had frequently bribed the officials with thousands of RMB in “massage” gift certificates.

I slumped into a depression in the black leather sofa. The giant TV screen in our room was flashing beautiful pop stars with their fancy hairdos and simple happy tunes. We could hear loud off-key singing, or more accurately, howling, from the neighboring KTV rooms. Even at 1pm, the place was buzzing with entertainment.

Hoo, in the low lighting in the KTV room, looked almost philosophical. “Nobody likes the system. But we have to make money. So we make do.” He commented without the slightest trace of distress.

How I wanted to retreat back to my apolitical well-kept apartment in my well-protected complex then. China, beneath the veneer of glamour, is busting with rotten flesh. And the sad part is that, as long as the people can keep on making money, they wouldn’t care; and that if and once we get over this phase of rotten flesh, the injustices, the voices of despair and indignation, all of them will be forgotten.

We went out to the buffet table for our second round. The speaker system was forcing a never-ending version of the Jingle Bells on us. Waiters moved about under red joker hats. Young patrons checked the food trays in their nice clothes. Everything looked rosy. Everything looked prosperous. Everything looked hopeful.

In that cozy Christmas atmosphere, I wondered if we could be apolitical without having to close our eyes.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if this Dale ever had to endure any hardship in her life. I increasingly find that the ultra-liberal elite residing in New York or California are the most selfish at its core. They are against virtually any kind of development, mostly because they already have everything that they could ask for.

Anonymous said...

Another well done story. I am also confused by the moral issue in China. There is silver bullet for the cure, but hopefully things can improve - eventually.

Beijing Loafer said...

Dale grew up in China, like me. She has a husband working in academia and she doesn't make any money herself at all.

To lump her into the "elite" pack is unfair, so is branding thus any American liberals who care about the problems in America. Their opinions may be too extreme sometimes. But for anyone who cares beyond their immediate group/family, China and America both have many social and development problems.

If anything, I think we need more people to get angry at the status quo.

Anonymous said...

Before all this development China was a destitute country with a de facto emperor, eight movies, and one billion brainwashed people that couldn't buy train tickets without approval. Today almost everyone is better off in most aspects of life. Even the unfortunate people who lost their jobs, work in sweatshops, or othewise slipped in their relative socially standings, have far more resources/freedom/choices/opportunities than they use to.

Yet with most of these well-meaning reports, one usually comes away with the impression that a utopia full of innocent people, has turned into hell filled with souls corrupted by capitalist ideas such as the WTO. And if development is stopped all these problems will just melt away. So there lies my problem.

Beijing Loafer said...

I agree with your sentiment - that development has been good to China, and that Chinese people definitely have much more freedom now.

But I think being "better off" in absolute and aggregate terms aside, there're more issues for a society to ponder - justice, faireness, sustainability, etc. I don't think these "well meaning" reports are advocating stopping development, but rather development in a sustainable and more fair way.

Yet still, there are many reports out there and we all read the reports in different ways...

Austin Arensberg said...

Hey man, admittedly I didn't read your whole post, but be careful. There are far too many examples of enterprising journalists/documentary film makers getting into trouble on seemingly innocent material. Best of luck.

Beijing Loafer said...

Thanks Austin for the reminder.