Friday, October 14, 2011

Bikes, cycles, and automobiles

DSC06696 Stitch

China moves with a greater variety of vehicles than anywhere else I’ve been.   While subways and airports (left and right, below)  are modern and crowded (just like major cities worldwide), people generally make their way on more placid and personal conveyances for surface travel.


A lot of folks ride bicycles, similar to the Netherlands.  There are designated lanes, but they often abut busy streets and occasionally vanish along major thoroughfares. Still, on a quieter road (or along a city wall), it’s a pleasant (if rattling) ride.


Most working bicycles are three-wheeled, like the Dutch Bakfiets (left) but with the load in the back and lots more space and versatility.  Often, they serve as both haulage and storefront for vendors.



Another step up adds a motor, generally electric.  Motorbikes are the biggest hazard going on Chinese streets: they are dead silent, douse their lights after sundown, and obey no line or law.  Check the baby in the center position in the lower picture.


Cars and busses occupy the top of the food chain on Chinese streets.  They are large, late model, impeccably maintained.  Trucks, in contrast, are large, ramshackle, and occasionally missing front cowling (maybe it keeps the engine cooler.   

And, when everything plays together, the symphony looks like this (there are corpuscular flow groups who spend a lifetime modeling veins that come together like this).  I especially like the lone policeman trying to whip things into order off to the right.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Signage in China: Be Careful Tumble

Signs are the tools that we use to navigate, to stay safe, to understand the society around us.  Symbols and words in North America and Western Europe are pretty well standardized these days – there may be the occasional double-take, but seldom a need to stand and think.

Not so in the Far East. 

Numbers:  Convention dictates that numbers on keypads arrange differently; feng shui  means some numbers don’t appear at all.


Maps:  Sometimes maddeningly complex, other times strikingly artistic.  And place names are always evocative.  “Use your imagination”, our guides always suggested.


Symbols:  Much more varied than in the West, I grew especially fond of the Fred Astaire kick to signify a moving line.


Prose:  Its surprising that in a globalized and connected world, translation accuracy still lags so far behind in China.  The mistakes say a lot about Chinese grammar and syntax, though, so there are lessons even amidst the noise.  The sign at the right appeared on mountain peaks to discourage visitors from walking over the cliffs.



Celebrity culture:  More than any US president, Bill Clinton was ubiquitous,.  I would have expected Nixon. And King and Buffet trump Trump in bookstores.  There’s also the irony of selling “Blog Weekly” where blogs are absolutely not allowed.


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Where’s the Party?

I expected the government to be a constant and pervasive presence throughout my visit to China – from Western media, we build up an image of an institution that is always watching, always listening, always controlling: heavy-handed and coarse.  My initial encounter with the great Firewall was exactly in-line with those expectations, opportunities to share ideas and publish opinions were severely restricted and search was less effective at finding information.

A friend sent me an overall advisory on Chinese government internet monitoring: I’m not sure how true it is, but I took the overall point and didn’t access bank accounts or confidential records while in Asia.

That said, there were few other signs of the government during my stay.

Every city had a central government building, set apart from the city center and all of the style we might associate with banks. A high fence, wide concrete apron with a tall flagpole, surrounding a square, solid 5-story building with the Party symbol at the top.  There never seemed to be much activity, no cars through the gate or people talking in the yard, but it was always gleaming, neat-as-a-pin, radiating authority and efficiency.  No explosion of signs, billboards, mottos, or loudspeakers, either in the vicinity or anywhere that I went.

Police and uniformed security were more common that in Western society, although it was impossible to understand what the rainbow of uniforms meant without being able to read the shoulder patches.  Most of the police that I saw were in intersections, managing traffic, and in airports.  One night, a 20-something on a scooter grazed a pedestrian: the police drove in, stood him next to his motorcycle, took a snapshot with a cellphone, then hustled him into a patrol car without hesitation or discussion. Efficient, silent, surprisingly subtle.

The army was more evident around national monuments.  A phalanx of soldiers stepped in unison through an exhibit hall before distributing themselves around the doorways.  A soldier stood at attention inside the Forbidden City, body motionless, eyes constantly flicking over the crowd.  New recruits drilled in parade grounds alongside a police station.  Some of it may have been in anticipation of the October 1 national holiday, public squares and parks were being decorated all week.  But it was consistent with the security I’d find in most US cities, post-9/11 environment: something you notice but that only causes minor inconvenience.

Our speakers and guides were boosterish, but open: they easily acknowledged both the advantages and shortcomings of living and doing business in China, and had specific examples of how corruption and social failures were being addressed.  China Daily was surprisingly blunt in it’s assessments.  I don’t buy the assurances that things have changed, but didn’t expect hearing both sides either.  People were curious and open in conversations: discussions of local health care systems were very self-critical, acknowledging that too few people get care and the system is too slow and expensive compared to Western standards.

Still, there is always the feeling that the Party is hidden just beneath the surface.  There were many plainclothes officers in Beijing (right), and others in our group told stories of how security would melt from out of crowds when dissent emerged in city squares.

In a way, I liken it to US casinos.  Twenty years ago, we did a clinical study in Las Vegas: I was always struck by how fast (and how many) “ordinary people” would emerge as security guards when the cameras captured a medical incident.  I think that China is likely the same – although there are few outward signs of Party involvement in, or control of, everyday life, the network is widespread and effective just beneath the social surface.