It’s now been a month since we moved to Beijing. Slowly but surely things are getting less weird and more familiar. I’m mostly looking the right way when I cross the road, the chopstick skills are coming along and I’ve enrolled in Mandarin classes three mornings a week.
Other things are also making themselves clearer: namely the way in which the domestic media reports and how issues are debated in public.
First, there is the subtle wording and the way in which modernity is automatically assumed to be the best option. For example, a report on how an ethnic minority group, previously nomads, are being moved into villages carried a comment from the local party official who stated it would be “less hassle” for the group to give up its ancient way of life.
Secondly, there is the radio silence around events the government considers in some way embarrassing. For example, the accidental destruction of Beijing’s Television Cultural Centre in February. Or the real number of schoolchildren who died in last year’s massive earthquake in Sichuan. Or the upcoming anniversary of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations (the BBC has a great articlehere).
I can already tell that watching how other foreigners deal with this, especially when it’s in an official capacity, is going to become a favourite sport for me.
A group from the US Congress impressively lost no opportunity to slip in references to God and democracy while discussing climate change at a conference last week. At the closing dinner US Senator John Kerry learnt to his cost that it does not do to ignore the Chinese way of doing things. Unable to resist the opportunity to lecture China on the need to act swiftly on clean energy, Kerry abandoned his prepared speech and spoke without notes for more than 40 minutes, way more than the alloted 15 minutes. His Chinese counter-part, not to be outdone and to keep face and maintain status as the natural superior to the American, spoke for an hour, also without notes. The outcome was that the audience, including Mr B and I, were reduced to a state of near coma from sheer boredom and had to subsist on bread and water until it was all over. Silence is golden indeed.