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China from the inside out

By Brian Hennessy - posted Wednesday, 15 February 2012


I hesitate to write about some of my observations of life in China. The boundary between my own culture and Chinese culture has become blurred. For example: when I arrived here in 2003 everything was new and exciting, and it was easy to spot the differences. Nowadays everything is normal and commonplace and it is not so easy to step back and describe day-to-day life.

Nevertheless, this is what I will attempt to do here. This is important because the China that I read about in the western media does not always match the reality.

For example, during the global financial crisis, when international agencies were predicting that China's GDP would fall to 6% and that consequently there would be social and political instability, my eyes were telling me a different story. The China I was reading about in the international media was not the China I was living in.

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The big-picture observers had got it wrong. Yet the same analysts who had failed to predict a financial meltdown in their own backyard in 2008 were predicting that China would be next. Wrong again. Now they are predicting a hard-landing for 2012. We'll see.

My point is that although a top-down, big-picture approach is necessary for understanding China, it is not sufficient for the task. You need a bottom-up approach as well, and that is where expatriates like me can make a contribution.

I live in Chongqing, a huge municipality on the Yangtze River upstream from the Three Gorges Dam, 1600 kms west of Shanghai. This is the heartland of China where, 'heaven is high, and the emperor is far away.' It's a long way from the politics of Beijing, the commerce of Shanghai, and the professional China-watchers in Hong Kong. Very few foreigners live here.

Yet Chongqing is a microcosm of what is happening all around China today. Urbanisation: the migration of millions of people from the countryside to the city. Government policy aimed at improving the welfare of dirt-poor peasants who until now have never had a chance to alter their fate. And rapid economic development: the transformation of a stagnant old river town into a state-of-the-art metropolis with a population of 6.5 million and infrastructure and services to match.

This is one part of the real China. And if we really want to understand this complex society, we should make the effort to view it and the outside world through Chinese eyes. Chinese culture runs deep, and if we hope to unravel its mysteries (seen and unseen) we need to change our perspective.

A note for the top-down analysts: If you don't live in the provinces and mix it with the locals, you cannot claim to know China and the Chinese. This is where you will find all of those independent variables which should have been included in your big-picture modelling. I've lived in and travelled around the provinces for eight years and I'm still learning what makes this country tick. I wouldn't dare write a book about China from a top-down perspective. Not yet, anyway.

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Some good news to build on: Chinese people seem to like Australians. I believe that the more my countrymen get to know the Chinese, the more they will like them in return. For one thing we share a similar sense of humour, and that's a good place to start. It's easy to get to know laobaixing (the ordinary Chinese people) once you get a handle on a few simple cultural rules.

Just like us, Chinese people enjoy a drink, a yarn, and a good gossip. Particularly if the latter involves a high ranking government officer. Did you know that the previous president, Zhang Zemin, had a lover called Song Zuying? She is a famous singer, and the stories, although irreverent, are witty and hilarious. In contrast, nobody gossips about the current president Hu Jintau because he's too clean and boring. Vice-president Wen Jia Bao has a lover though, but because everybody likes him, they leave him alone

.Anyway, I have taken it upon myself to build a little bridge between both cultures. I do this via my daily life here in Chongqing, and my articles on life in China which are published on my website and in this online journal.

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About the Author

Brian is an Australian author, educator, and psychologist who lived in China for ten years. These days he divides his time between both countries.

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