Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Visiting China 3 - population, ethnicity and governance in modern China

Photo: The Bund at night. Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank and Customs House.

Our hotel in Shanghai was near the Huangpu River in Pudong, the new business section of Shanghai built on reclaimed land. This is a very modern area full of an ever-increasing number of skyscrapers.

As soon as we had unpacked, we walked down to the river so that I could look across to the Bund, something that I had really wanted to do.

It was a holiday, and the walk-way was absolutely packed with locals. Both of us felt something odd, and it took us a few minutes to work out what it was. There were very few obvious foreigners. Now here our thinking was conditioned by Sydney in ways that we had not realised.

If you go to Darling Harbour or any of the popular tourist spots in Sydney, you expect to see a very ethnically diverse group of people, locals as well as tourists. Here in Shanghai's equivalent we had expected the same, and it simply wasn't the case. Later in Beijing we were to find many more tourists because of the Olympics, but the impression of ethnic homogeneity remained.

I make this point for two reasons.

The first is that despite sometimes tensions, modern Australians take ethnic diversity for granted. It just is. By contrast, while China's large population means that the number of non-Han Chinese is large in absolute terms, the Han Chinese dominate.

I was asked a number of times about the Chinese in Australia. I answered in terms of history, geography and numbers. People were interested in this, but it took me a little while to work out that they seemed to be asking in fact whether Australian Chinese were still Chinese or had they really become Europeans in Chinese skin. Yes, I do know the slang term for this, but have chosen not to use it because I think that it will distract from the point I am trying to make.

There are close linkages between the concepts "China" and "Chinese" and the Han Chinese, linkages influenced by history and ways of thinking. The Cantonese term Gweilo, white ghost sometimes translated as foreign devil, may have fallen out of fashion, but has historical as well as ethnic antecedents.

The Chinese face is circular and smooth, the European face square and angular. The Chinese have black hair, the Europeans brown, blond or even red. To a degree, and as I understand it, Chinese perceptions of the world link in some way to their own appearance - the circle represents heaven, the square the earth.

During the more recent colonial period, the Chinese sense of self-identity, their powerful sense of pride in their own history, took heavy blows. The Empire that had seen itself as the centre of the universe was forced to bow.

During the Olympics, many Australians struggled to come to grips with the Chinese sense of pride, including the demonstrations by Chinese residents in Australia in response to the pro-Tibet rallies. As a country, Australia has its own insecurities. It pays us to remember that the modern Chinese state, while communist, is in fact the inheritor of the Chinese imperial tradition, that China's very success is in some ways a salve to previous rebuffs. The importance of national Han Chinese pride should not be underestimated.

During the trip we were often asked what we thought of China, especially by people in Beijing streets wanting to practice their English. It was easy to say how impressed we were. People beamed.

My second reason for mentioning ethnic homogeneity is that it leads into the importance of regionalism in China. We can think of this in terms of diversity and control.

Ethnic homogeneity conceals great diversity in language and culture across China. At a very superficial level, you can see this by comparing Shanghai and Beijing. Food, architecture, language and manners are all different. We have the rice people of the south, the noodles in the north.

Perhaps the best analogy is to think of China in terms of a Europe with a common script that everyone can read. This leads directly into problems of central control.

As I understand it, conflict between regional autonomy vs the need for central control has been central to Chinese history, with periods of strong central Government alternating with weak central control. Even today with all the advances in communications technology, it is simply not possible to run a country as big, diverse and complex as China through central fiat.

I do not pretend to understand the Chinese system of Government. We have a three tier system system of national, provincial and municipal governments. Then we have a parallel system through the Party that also reflects the three tiers.

I do not know how all this actually fits together in practice. However, what I do know is that the complexity, the need to balance central control with different regional and local influences, makes for difficult governance and helps explain both the sometimes authoritarianism of central control with frequent failures in that control.

The tainted milk scandal broke while we were in China. This involved the addition of the industrial chemical melamine to build up the protein content in milk, thus concealing watering. However, sustained consumption of melamine tainted milk creates kidney problems, especially in children.

The scandal began with Sanlu, 43 per cent owned by New Zealand dairy company Fonterra, where the melamine was first found in baby formula. As an aside, I saw one report that the contamination was actually picked up first in New Zealand tests, not in China.

With subsequent testing, melamine was found in samples from one company after another and in a wide range of milk products. The contamination was also found in exported product. Well over 6,000 children were affected, with the last death count I saw at six children.

This was a scandal of huge proportions, forcing milk products off the shelves and creating difficulties for the Chinese Government at the highest level. It was obviously of interest to us as well, because we were there and using milk and milk products.

To my mind, the significance of the melamine scandal lay not so much in the Government response, I thought the Chinese Government responded in much the same way as any Government would have, but in what it said about the continuing difficulties in modernisation in a very large country.

The Chinese dairy pipe-line starts at the farm. While there are some large dairy farms, many producers are very small indeed. This creates supply chain problems in collecting milk and preserving quality, including avoidance of watered milk.

The exact chain of events that led to the adulteration is unclear, but appears to have begun in north China's Hebei Province. According to one larger farmer quoted in the paper, he was told to add the chemical because the fat content in his milk was down. He had no idea that it might cause harm - it was simply an additive. Usage then spread as more people became aware that the chemical could improve returns. Finally, the scale and duration of use led to health problems among children of sufficient scale to attract attention.

One thing that was noticeable during the scandal was the scale and speed of the press response, at least in the English language dailies. The press responded very quickly in much the same way the Australian media would have. The issue was also picked up quickly through the blogging world - the papers often quote Chinese blog conversations on a variety of topics.

Australian discussions on the role of the internet in China generally focus on human rights issues. In doing so, they ignore other implications of the technology. They also often ignore the importance of the now ubiquitous mobile phone.

Application of the new computing and communications technology actually makes central administration possible in ways that have not been possible in China before, shifting the balance between the centre and regions. China is still an authoritarian state - in our short travel through China every step we took was recorded in some way. Computing and communications technology makes this possible in ways not possible with paper records.

Conversely, the combination of the mobile with the internet makes for greater communication among people, in turn forcing modification of state positions. Here I am not talking about civil rights in the Western sense, simply the fact that any Government has to respond in some way to concerns among its people.

Take the melamine case. Six thousand affected kids means twelve thousand parents, perhaps thirty thousand family members, perhaps three hundred thousand immediate friends. Each child that is affected leads to phone calls. These rapidly spread. After a certain point, any form of central censorship becomes impossible.

In saying this, I am not saying that the Chinese Government tried in any way to censor the scandal. I know of no evidence to suggest this. In fact, in some ways China is more transparent than NSW! What I am saying is that the significance of the new technology is that it creates a new balance between state power on one side, citizen response on the other.


According to the Shanghai Daily (23 September) quoting the Ministry of Health, about 13,000 babies remain in hospital after falling ill from melamine-tainted milk powder, and nearly 40,000 others were also sickened but had been cured.

Li Changjiang, China's chief quality supervisor, has resigned, while Wu Xianguo, the Communist Party chief of Shijiazhuang City, the center of the scandal in northern China's Hebei Province, has been sacked.

The paper suggests that the Sanlu Group began receiving complaints about sick infants as far back as December 2007.

Wang Yuanping from Taishun City of Zhejiang Province reportedly lodged a complaint to Sanlu in May, suspecting that his 13-year-old daughter developed a kidney stone after drinking its milk powder. The Health Department in Gansu Province admitted having received a hospital report in July that 16 infants suffered from kidney stones after drinking the same baby formula.

Sanlu didn't do tests until June when it discovered melamine was being added to milk to make it appear higher in protein.The company did not report the matter to the Shijiazhuang government until August 2. According to a report on Australia's SBS news, this was the date of the Sanlu Board Meeting at which New Zealand's Fontera first found out about the problem.

The government of Shijiazhuang then reportedly delayed reporting the contamination to authorities at provincial and state levels until September 9. Again according to the report on SBS Television, this was also the date on which New Zealand authorities advised the Chinese Government independently of the problem. On September 11, Sanlu admitted its products were toxic and recalled baby formula manufactured on and before August 6.

In all, a mammoth mess.


Anonymous said...

There would have been more foreigners on the Bund side of the river.

And yes, I agree with you that the sheer number of people is the single fact[/or] which, especially coming from Australia, strikes one about China and explains so many apparent differences between the two societies.

Anonymous said...

Keep them coming, Jim! Marcellous has the advantage of having been to China several times, something I haven't done despite being around Chinese people for close on 20 years!

Had an interesting discussion with M about the milk adulteration; he thinks it is a typical case of pretending for a while there is no problem to avoid trouble or unpleasantness, plus a rather unfortunate interpretation of "to get rich is glorious."

He is now in Shanghai, and has been back a number of times since leaving in 1989, so has noted the changes both physical and in the standard of living of his own family.

BTW, while we know about "gweilo" (or "gui lao" -- literally "old ghost" in Mandarin) I rather like "da bizi" -- "big nose" -- I have to say.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Marcellous. You had some great posts while I was away! We did go over to the Bund itself a little later at night. The pattern was the same, except in the Australian owned M on the Bund where there were lots of expats.

Thanks for your comments, Neil.

I am writing these posts with a degree of trepidation because I am reporting on a short visit to a country that many others know far better. I also do not want to tread on the courtesy I experienced from the Chinese people in general, our hosts in Beijing in particular.

Still, I do want to get the material down because it consolidates my ideas while exposing them to broader comment.

M may be right. Still, in this case the response time of the authorities appears to have been quite short.