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  Dispatch: China: Asian Enigma or Time Bomb?

China is weird, Americans in China are weird, making it difficult for sensible people to understand what is weird and what is real -- or if the real is weird.
By Stewart Nusbaumer

Beijing, China -- The media says everything is just peachy in China. Thomas Friedman, columnist for The New York Times, flew into Beijing and in 5 minutes declared there is a green revolution here. Strange. I've been here for two weeks and I declare there is not a spec of blue in the sky.

"Who cares what color the sky is," a Chinese businessman grumbled, fed up with my incessant moaning about the heavy gray blanket, "as long as there is a sky."

First China gave the modern world "capitalism with Chinese characteristics," then "democracy with Chinese characteristics," now "green revolution with Chinese characteristics." That is a very strange phrase, " with Chinese characteristics." 

The Chinese news agency Xinhua reports 70 percent of the country's lakes and rivers are well on their way to becoming stagnant cesspools and slugging sewers. In Harbin, a city of 3.8 million Chinese, and in other cities and towns in the northeast, the tap water was recently turned off because 100 tons of carcinogenic chemical ended up in the Songhua River, producing a 50-mile-long slick of toxic river water. On the other hand, who cares what color the water is?

I have been reading that numerous European journalists believe economic development in China is bringing prosperity to the entire world. But I'm wondering why economic development means a half billion Chinese must live on $2 or less a day. And what is prosperous about salaries in the developed world falling? Maybe I don't understand economics.

The British Economist headlines: "How China runs the world economy." That got me to pondering who runs those young girls prostituting themselves on Tiananmen Square, the sacred heart of China. And if China runs the world, what is now for sale at the Washington Monument?

The longer I am in China, the less I seem to understand. Maybe that's my fault. It takes hard work to understand a people who get all jacked up over badminton.

Our Man At The Mongolian Front

"Jim Smith is my name!" He nearly rips off my right hand. With beaming face and colorfully stained shirt -- ketchup or blood? -- flaming blue eyes and Nazi leather coat reaching to his ankles, Jim Smith is one of those glowing Americans prowling the globe in search of something weird. Anything weird!

At first I thought he was a free-lance writer, this is often the case. Soon I suspected he was a spook, but you never find out about those things. Then I concluded he was a lunatic. Later I would think he was all three: writer, spook, and lunatic. That often happens too.

"I'm on my way to Mongolia," writer-spook-lunatic tells me over dinner, insisting I share his roasted dog. "I'm going to learn the language. You know," he leans forward and lowers his voice as if he is about to tell a state secret, "not many people know Mongolian?"

True, but maybe there is a reason why not many people know Mongolian. I let that thought slip, preferring to hear what he has to say about China. My operating logic is simple: if this place is a nut house, then a lunatic can give me valuable insights.

"Basically, China is on one outrageous trip, everything is here: great women, wealth roaring in -- things are looking better and better."

There is that phrase again, better and better. It’s becoming annoying.

"They just have a few wrinkles to work out," writer-spook-lunatic says with a mouth full of dog meat. "Come on," he says cheerfully, "eat more Fluffy!"

"Like what wrinkles?" I ask as my stomach growls. At least I think it's my stomach.

"Like killing off the remaining Tibetans and sweeping the Muslims out of the northwest, and, uhm, feeding a billion starving Chinese peasants in the countryside. And teach these girls some decent English!"

My face turns sour looking, which he immediately interrupts as disapproval for what he just said. "Hey, no country is perfect."

It occurred to me writer-spook-lunatic aspires to be a satirist. But I never got the chance to ask, my stomach turned violent, a real dog fight erupted, and I quickly excused myself to hobble to the toilet.

Americans in Asia

Americans in Asia get so twisted and weird they say all kinds of crazy things. Like that war-whipped soldier who said, "We had to destroy the village to save it." A Protestant missionary told me in Catholic Philippines, "Only when Buddha accepts God can we save the Philippines." It can be hard to understand Americans in Asia. Not only what they say, but who they are. And who were we in Vietnam? We were fighting evil communism, that is what we were told. But today communism in China is fine. How is this explained to the families of 58,000 dead U.S. soldiers?

There is no doubt that writer-spook-lunatic-satirist had some good understandings. He understood China has rocketing wealth and stagnating poverty, and this combination required Big Dog’s heavy paw: censorship, lies, force, all the nasties the Bush Administration is fond of. Big Dog can be used by any ideology to keep any sleaze balls in power, but even Big Dog grows old.

Writer-spook-lunatic-satirist understood things that parachute journalists in town for brief landings -- interview high government official, talk to rich businessman, grab quote on street, no time to look at the sky -- never do see. The problem is he saw too much, and ended up whacking understanding horribly. He saw a dark cloud rising in China, much darker than the polluted gray sky, then he veered off into Mongolian native medicine. He made me dizzy.

Mongolia for writer-spook-lunatic-satirist was more a symptom of a disease than a travel destination, a desperate fantasy to deal with a world gone mad. Learning Mongolian makes sense, but not to save the world. I wanted to know more about that "dark cloud," he wanted to know more about eating Mongolian grass for health.

Splintered and mangled understandings won't do for the Internet Journalist. Without expense accounts to zip us in-and-out, we're stranded in those far-away countries. That gives doubt time to gnaw on the mind and for confusion to move into full bloom. Then we need to see the solid beams of truth that run through a country, nothing else is acceptable.

The mainstream media says China is on the hyper-track to Shangri-La and everyone seems to insist the country is getting "better and better." Yet, this country seems so whacked out it could crash any day. But my perspective is rather screwed up, my thinking is confused. Maybe it would help if I learned to speak Mongolian -- I mean Chinese!

Stewart Nusbaumer is editor of Intervention Magazine. You can email Stewart at

Posted Monday, November, 28, 2005


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  Live from China

By Stewart Nusbaumer


Astounded in China
China’s development is stunning and its power is growing quickly; will America become a lapdog for the Asian dragon?

Bombed in Beijing
Yes China’s development is stunning, but not as stunning as the Goddess of Tiananmen Square.

Enigma or Bomb?
It's a weird world with weird Americans making it hard to tell what is really real.

Tongue-Tied & Stomach Pumped
While their language tells us about Chinese society, their cuisine tells us about a very dirty political secret.

Drinking & Driving
Driving in China teaches you to appreciate airplanes; drinking the booze will probably turn you into a tea drinker.

Sexpots Galore
When sex merges with politics, the Big Dog authorities never win.




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