Chinese Capitalism

If you haven’t watched the international news this week, or kept up with events coming out of China over the last year, you might not be aware of the path of politician and businessman, Bo Xilai.  Bo is on trial for extensive corruption as both a local and a national politician.  Despite only claiming to receive a civil servants’ salary, he and his wife have lived like millionaires for years, and somehow had the money to send their child to an exclusive boarding school in Europe.  Things began to fall apart for Bo, last year, when his wife was convicted of arranging the murder of a British businessman over a deal that went sour.  After the public outrage that followed, the government brought charges against Bo for corruption.  He wasn’t the exception to the rule, though, his side business of accepting huge bribes, is actually pretty common in China.

Capitalism is a relatively new phenomena in China, and as with all new things, there is a steep learning curve.  Corruption has regularly been a part of Chinese culture, unfortunately, and when certain allowances were made to create a  middle class, corruption and capitalism became terribly intertwined.  It seems that no matter where you go, what you do, or who you talk to, you always get the sense that there’s a scam afoot.

I learned this when I was there, through two run-ins with people that were funny, at first, but then, upon reflection were more sad than anything.  I was in China during late summer. It was blazing hot, and so humid that I was forced to admit defeat, and let my hair do its natural Nancy Reagan, brown football helmet thing.  One afternoon, my friends and I ventured into the hutongs, the traditional neighborhoods that exist in Beijing around the Forbidden City.  They are made up of low-slung gray stone houses with narrow streets.  Some of them are hundreds of years old, and often the homes don’t have indoor pluming.  People muddled about, talking and moving up and down the streets.  Others sat at small tables playing cards or occasionally a group would be playing traditional instruments.

As we strolled along in the throng of people, a young man walked up next to us and said, “Hello,” with a thick accent.  Being polite Americans (and from the South, no less) we responded with a friendly, “Hi.”

“Where are you from?” he asked.

“The United States,” we answered without stopping, and continuing down the narrow street.

“Ahhhh,” he replied, walking with us, “America is great country.  I very much want to go to America.  This is why I take learn English.”

“Oh!  It is a great country, “ I responded.  “Maybe you’ll get to go one day.”

“Maybe I practice my English with you, please.”

With that, he had gotten my interest.  In my mind I was representing all Americans and the USA, and I graciously agreed to stand and talk to him for a few minutes.  If nothing else, I thought, it would be an interesting experience, and I’d leave him thinking highly of Americans.  Almost instantly my spidey-sense began to tell me something wasn’t right, when he made his next comment.

“Americans are very rich.”

“No, we aren’t and I’m certainly not.”

He nodded and smiled, as though I had told him a joke.  “I am going to a party at my friend’s.  She, too, is an English student. Will you join me?’

Standing in the middle of a grungy neighborhood that dated to the Middle Ages, full of dead ends, narrow streets, and chaos, heading off with a stranger to an “English language party,” didn’t strike me a very good offer.  “No, we need to move on,” I said, pointing to my friends.

“No, no, she has many nice things to sell.  I will take you to her for small price.”

This was the point at which the truth finally sank into my thick skull.  He wasn’t a student, but rather a barker in disguise.  His job was to round up the naïve tourist and bring them to the store that wasn’t on the main street.  The whole entire “I’m an eager young student thing” was an act, and I had fallen into his net hook, line, and sinker.  Admittedly it was a smooth act, but one that proved to be the opening salvo to what followed.

We all laughed off the experience, and I thought it was more odd than anything.  Then we traveled to Xi’an.  The city of Xi’an is famous for the thousands of terra cotta warriors discovered by a farmer while digging in his field.  They were built to stand guard for all eternity around the tomb of a Chinese emperor.  Along with the statutes, numerous other, smaller artifacts have been discovered in the area.  Many of these have been placed into a museum not far from the ongoing excavation of the soldiers.  In my mind, in my eternally optimistic, slow witted mind, these items were priceless.

We walked through the museum, looking at the jade and various other artifacts.  Slowly, I became separated from my two friends, and found myself wondering into a center atrium.  It had a large glass roof that diffused the sunlight into the room, and the walls were tall, and off white in color.  It was a stark contrast from the rest of the black marbled museum.  A special exhibit of historic scrolls was on display.  Most of these had the same general style; long white or yellowish paper, decorated with a primitive cherry blossom drawn on them and elegant calligraphy in Chinese script.  I was the only person in the room, and I was truly in awe of their simple beauty.  It was at that moment that I began to really feel as though I was, for the first time, enthralled with China and its art.

That was when I became aware that a small man had walked up to me, with a lab coat on, complete with an official museum credentials badge.  He asked if I liked Chinese calligraphy, and I told him that I did very much.  He began to tell me about the history of the scrolls, and pointed out that each of the labels under the scrolls contained a number, one that I had incorrectly interpreted as the ID number, but instead was the year in which it was created.  Some were from the 1800s, but others were much, much older.  I was simply amazed, and I could tell that he was happy to have such and an eager audience.

“How much do you believe the value of these to be?” he asked me.

I grimaced.  “I couldn’t begin to say. I’m sure they’re priceless.”  This was the point at which I knew something was odd.  I’ve been in a lot of museums, I mean A LOT of museums, and I’ve never had an employee come up to me and play “Antiques Road Show.”  I pretended I had lost interest in the conversation and began to quickly, and not so subtly, move away from the lab coat and the man wearing it.

He came up next to me again, this time, a bit too close for comfort, and lowered his head.  In a voice just above a whisper said, “You buy for $200,” and pointed to the scroll hanging in front of me, marked “1830.”  Suddenly, I envisioned myself being stopped at customs for trying to smuggle antiquities out of the country, and a panic flooded over me when I thought about having to do time in a Chinese jail.  Would I be able to make it in an Asian remake of “Midnight Runner?”  Probably not, but then again, I am scrappy.  What about the guards?  The insane inmates, or and the Turkish boarder guards, and….

I snapped out of it, and came back to reality.  I firmly said, “NO,” and moved away again.

The Coat smiled and said, “$140,” waved his hand, nodded at me and reached up and pulled the scroll down off the wall, as though we had agreed on something.

       I’m going to jail.  I’m going to jail. I am going to jail. Run. Run. RUN!

     Again, and angrily this time, I said “NO!” and I left the atrium and quickly found my friends.  I stayed with them as they meandered through the rest of the museum, but quickly I saw that to get out, we would have to walk back past the atrium.  When we did, he was there again, this time with a long tube, wrapped up in white paper.  He walked up to me, and said, “$100.”  He smiled and pushed the tube towards me and extended his other palm up, as though I would make it rain dolla’ bills in da club.

I turned to my friends, and told them that we needed to leave.  Now.  Confused, they followed me as we moved towards the doors, complete with the little man following us.

Afterwards, I told them the entire story, but I never could really explain what was going on.  Had I wondered into a strange Chinese equivalent of a museum gift shop?  Was the museum employee a total crook, willing to sell of the museum’s property to make a quick buck?  Were the scrolls even authentic?  I might have even sarcastically wondered if they were made in China?

I never got any answers to my questions, of course.  Trying to get ahead in the world through behavior that isn’t ethical isn’t a Chinese problem.  It isn’t even an Asian, or third world problem.  It’s a universal issue, that seems to have tourists dead in its sights.  In India, tour guides constantly take you places that happen to have shops owned by family members.  In Europe, every historic site exits through a gift shop full of overpriced junk.  In the States, the number of stores selling foreign made Americana to Americans can’t be counted.  Capitalism it seems, whether new or old, in a Communist country, a third world country, or even down the street, means someone is always going to be making a buck off of the tourist trade.

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