New Year’s Day in Kunming, 9:00 AM, and the downtown was dead. There wasn’t a lot left to see or do but head to Changshui Airport to catch my flight to Hangzhou, where I had a 7-hour layover.
After several days I finally realized what it was that made this city sometimes feel like a big prison camp. It was the gates, walls, fences, grates, barriers, and bars that were everywhere. The point of all this design was of course to continuously break people down into their most basic, controllable unit, that is, the individual. A billion-point-three people could do some damage if they ever decided that the mandate from heaven had passed from the Party to someone else.
The streets? Divided not by paint stripes but physical barriers in the middle of the road. Bike/scooter lanes? Walled off. Walkways in subway stations? Divided by aluminum separators. The sidewalks were completely barred off from apartments and living areas with gates, locks, fences, and walls. Every unit, instead of having an open balcony, was enclosed by iron grating exactly like in a prison.
Nothing plays into the hands of control on a person-by-person basis, however, like the data aggregator/tracking device, which is so completely a part of existence that hardly anyone ever looks up. The devices allow the public to be pacified not with threats or generic propaganda but with customized eye and brain candy that is plugged into the purchase-consumption machine. People can’t act en masse without commonality of thought, and it’s hard to say the Party is wrong when you look at their docile charges, channeled and caged, and compare them to ours, who have made a complete mess of the freedoms they once had.
People don’t crave freedom, they crave a painless and brainless way to fill the horrible, aching, empty, yawning chasm of free time. The Party doesn’t tell them they’re free, it fills their time by telling them to work hard so they can afford the things that prove, once you have them, that you are happy.
The American Crudocracy, however, screams that you’re free, or that you would be if it weren’t for all the poor, black, and foreign people who have stolen your freedom from you by kneeling at your football game. The rage and laziness and ignorance are crystallized in the kleptocracy at the top, which insists that you’ll get your freedom back if you just allow a little more, okay, a lot more, kleptocracy and rage. And please don’t bother to vote.
The Party does its job with a lot more honesty, a lot less rage and theft, and with an eye towards helping the many rather than only a privileged few. Like the steel barricades that carefully channel pedestrians, China allows a lot of motion, and even some dissent, as long as you don’t try to hop the barricade. The control is gentle but firm and unresting, like the video cameras that track your every step.
So rather than saying it’s a New Year, it would be closer to the mark to say that it’s a not especially Brave, not especially New World.
Of the many great things that happened since my departure on the evening of December 25, one of the greatest was being cut off from everyone I know. No person is an island, but seven days in China without a data aggregator/tracking device sure makes you feel like one. I saw an American woman walking by, talking with a friend, and it was all I could do to stop from grabbing her arm and striking up a conversation. Luckily I refrained; the only thing that would likely have been struck is me.
Pretty soon it was time for me to take my leave of Kunming and I knew I’d be back, especially since I now had a tour guidebook that included the city’s most interesting destinations not next to a freeway. It’s funny how quickly a city goes from being scarily foreign to morning-after familiar. On the way to the station I even saw my disgusted street vendor lady who had been so mad at me for overypaying at the other vendor for the worthless stamps.
“Hey!” she said as we made eye contact. “I have more stamps! Cheap!”
“Next time!” I promised; she laughing at what she thought was a lie, me laughing because I meant it.
The train to the airport was full, but I was the only identifiable non-Chinese aboard. In a short two-hour flight I was back in Hangzhou, contemplating the miseries of a 7-hour layover and a 14-hour flight departing just before midnight.
Almost seven full days of a technological detox had been incredible. I wondered what had happened back home. How was everyone? Was there still air in my tires?
These long spells of nothing to do had made me appreciate being alone and filling my time with writing, reading, struggling with Chinese, and thinking my own thoughts with no one to bounce them off, no one to share them with, rocks skipping across a pond that left no ripple. The rest of China and the world were hooked on one huge algorithm syringe, and when you take the blue pill it’s astonishing what you see.
Part of China’s drive to become the lone superpower is its new policy of “civilization,” or “wenming.” Wenming is the philosophical vehicle to promote behavior and values that have made China a peer, and ultimately the global master.
For example, spitting. China had a terrible national habit of spitting. Young, old, male, female, toothless, toothy, the Chinese loved a good spit, and they did not GAF where the loogie landed. Somewhere along the way the Party realized that you couldn’t be a cultured superpower, respected by, say, France, if your citizens were covering the Champs-Elysees with a thick layer of yellow spatter.
Of course a lot of the spitting came from the chain smoking and the horrible air pollution, both of which result in throat/lung/respiratory diseases, but no great nation has ever simultaneously been a public spitting nation.
Spitting was just one obstacle to global greatness, but the Party decided that if it were going to send millions of tourist-ambassadors to Paris, Berlin, New York, and Decatur, it would need to also provide some basic cotillion for its spitting, pushing, hollering charges.
Enter the “Traveler Wenming,” or “Civilized Traveler,” a nationally distributed handbook available for free at every airport, in Chinese only. Here is a short list of things that the Civilized Traveler needs to keep in mind when he sashays abroad:
- No spitting!
- Say “Please,” “Thanks,” “I’m sorry,” and “Excuse me.”
- No spitting!
- No grabbing sale items, no shoving to do No. 1 and No. 2, no blowing your nose in other people’s faces, no shoving in line, and NO SPITTING!
- Don’t throw down fruit peels, used tissues, or trash.
- Don’t smoke in the non-smoking section!
- Don’t take pictures where prohibited. Don’t take flash photos in people’s faces by surprise.
- Don’t spend all day in the public toilet!
- Respect old things and keep your hands to yourself.
- Stop yelling and hollering.
- Don’t eat and smoke in church, and no spitting there, either.
- Obey the tour conductor and flight attendant.
- Respect other nationalities and customs.
- Wear clothing!
- No drunkenness!
- Where it’s a custom, tip and don’t be a cheapskate.
The Civilized Traveler guide goes on to list a total of 30 civilized “wenming” behaviors to exhibit, and many more uncivilized behaviors to avoid, primary among them, of course, spitting.
But this list is only a quick reference. The guide goes into much greater detail and is 46 pages long, with exhaustive breakdowns of specific situations that require “wenming” behavior, for example on airplanes. The airplane section is broken down into:
- Boarding passes
- Airplane toilets (no spitting!)
- Airplane equipment
- Eating on the plane
- Carry-on baggage
As odd as it seems, these booklets are working, because I saw zero spitting, zero pushing and shoving, zero hollering, and probably not much sitting in the public toilet all day, although I didn’t time anyone. To the contrary, if anyone could benefit from a Wenming for Travelers it would be the classy American tourist whose comment in the Kunming Starbucks guest book was, “Maggie likes dick!”
Traveling American behaviors, like American foreign policy ones, are essentially irrelevant to China, though. Get over it, and then get used to it. The New Year is upon us with a vengeance.
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