Mao Zedong and the Koch Brothers: Best Friends Forever
One hundred sixty years Chinese history, summarized
I am having my breakfast of pork baozi across the terminal from Burberry, Tumi, Gucci and Ferragamo, at Shanghai Hongqiao Feiji Chang. Like a small rodent, I nibble the pork from inside the bao, trying to avoid refined carbs. Charleze Theron stands for Dior (“j’adore Dior”, the text says) by my side, thrice my height, radiant in gold lame. I have two hours to kill before my flight. I realize I cannot afford 90% of what is for sale here in Hongqiao Airport. Or Pudong, Beijing Capital, Hong Kong or Guangzhou. Who can? But, I could have several tea cups full of Johnny Walker Blue, alongside my buns, right here in the Acting Cafe.
From the middle 1800’s until 1949, the French, the English, the Americans and others from the gentrified west dominated China, extracting tea, porcelain, silk and raw materials to enhance western lives, while leaving, in exchange, the scourge of opium and economic dependence in China, then repairing to the drawing rooms and salons of Paris, London and Boston. The House of Sassoon, Jardines and Matheson and Swire were major movers, and even Dr. Sun Yat Sen (Zhongshan) while uniting China in 1912, could not remove the foreign dope devils.
Mao ended the party in 1949 and the villas of the French Concession in Shanghai emptied of lao wai like the cheap seats after a Red Sox loss or a movie theater when someone shouts “Fire!”.
Mao set the Chinese people free of the waiguoren (foreigners) but killed forty to seventy millions in the process, and loosed the ideologically insane children of his revolution on the countryside, smashing what the westerners could never have imagined (or smashed) of the glorious Chinese culture. Language suffered, as did literature, religion, music, creative thought and family life.
China went dark thirty years, experimenting and failing with various forms of collectivism, hidden behind a curtain of mystery, leaping forward and falling flat, while my high school instructor taught us (with dead seriousness) that “those Red Chi-Coms” were eating their children over there. Many Chinese may have longed for as much nourishment as a tasty baby foot at the time. Leaders got purged and promoted. A few prevailed after the Great Helmsman’s demise. Jiang Qing (Madame Mao) and her Gang of Four met an untidy end. Zhou Enlai emerged as a leader for the age, somewhat less crazy than his mates from the Long March to Yan’an.
Deng Xiaoping was one who survived the purges, and turned The Middle Kingdom back outwards. He “reformed and opened” China in 1978, which loosely meant Deng was western-facing enough to understand China was getting the shit end of the stick economically, and decided they should get in on the profit-taking. At the time, what the Chinese masses were best at was working. Not so much managing money or coming up with new intellectual property or business models or IPO’s. Those came later. So work they did, and China became, as we have heard so often, “The World’s Factory”.
At the same time, they studied, and, more importantly, they studied us, hiring some of our best and brightest from the worlds of high finance, engineering and software development, with the profits they earned building cheaper tchotchkes for Walmart and restricting their currency.
Meanwhile, the west prospered and became an economy 75% based on consumption, but choked on its polluted air and water. As China manufacturing leapt forward and the Rust Belt rusted and the work moved to the newly industrialized cities of eastern and southern China, so too went much of the air and water pollution that derived from factories. Many among us thought we had actually made environmental headway. Instead, we merely shipped the pollution where the Bunkers and the Jeffersons couldn’t see it. Progress! Ten points for Earth First! Today, I cannot clearly make out my China Eastern aircraft, at Gate number two, for the brown soup in the air. I still don’t drink the water. Automobiles account for a lot of China’s poor air quality, but factories and the use of toxic ingredients in products dominate.
Beijing promises a “War On Pollution”, but as with America, this may as much mean shipping it to South Asia as eradicating it. We want our goods good and cheap, and green manufacturing adds cost. So I suspect they’ll clean up within the Ring Roads of Beijing, and twenty miles either side of the Huangpu in Shanghai, while trashing the Mekong.
The Chinese Tao of Manufacturing has spread to Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia, The Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and India. While the Chinese factories remain the most productive, they are getting to be too expensive, and Chinese kids no longer want to toil ten hours a day six days a week at an assembly line or sewing machine, cobbling together luxury and commodity goodies for you and me. They want to be you and me. Or Lady Gaga. Plus, the “one child policy” will create an enormous demographic elephant of social cost for the Chinese Dragon to swallow in a few years, increasing taxes and manufacturing costs, and ultimately making them uncompetitive. By then, their economy will have shifted further toward consumerism, like ours has.
Which brings us back to the 18,000 RMB (US$3,000) watch I am looking at in the case at the Mont Blanc shop near my gate. Someone must drop three grand on a watch on impulse on their way to Chengdu. The shop owners may be communists, but they must understand simple ROI. And the consumers may lip serve collectivism, but they surely know a status symbol when its alarm rings. So somebody buys this stuff.
Next door is KFC, ubiquitous across China: cheap, fast, fattening, and slowly sickening the Chinese people like we have done to ourselves. The Colonel still has that sinister grin, and looks oddly like Ho Chi Minh. The new slogans on the walls are designed by the best marketing and graphics shops: colorful, benign, with scenes of nature and smiling people, reading: “Natural Ingredients! Friendly! Relaxed! Freshness! Progressing!” Shades of the Cultural Revolution. There is an enticing image of half an orange behind the “natural ingredients” text, juicy, very orange in color, mouth watering. There are no oranges on the menu, but the orange juice is bottled courtesy of Tropicana.
The Red Guards would be envious of the scope and effect of this chicken propaganda.
The Chinese were oppressed by feudalism under warlords, for dynasties, then subjugated by western colonialists expanding empire and hegemony, then brainwashed, de-genderized, propagandized and collectivized by idealistic zealots smashing every vestige of the old in favor of the promise of a deliriously harmonious new world. And today, they (and we) are silently and slyly held hostage and fooled by a plutocracy equally at home in Beijing, Singapore or the Hamptons, loyal only to privilege and gain, devoid of any philosophy, national allegiance or ideals.
Maybe it is those guys who can buy this stuff?
But like Americans, the Chinese work hard, believe in the righteousness of wealth, (and the cult of celebrity that accompanies it…what did Paris ever actually do other than be wealthy?), nurse vigorously at the nipple of consumerism and pray their meager retirement investments hold value, having little idea the mechanics and machinists behind the ruse of the Federal Reserve or the People’s Bank of China. And they increasingly fear losing the small gains they enjoy. A piece in Shanghai Daily yesterday detailed how many Chinese, though earning five, ten, fifteen or more days paid vacation per year, avoid actually taking it, certain they will lose their place in the promotions queue.
Angelica Cheung, Editor of China Vogue, the country’s very own Anna Wintour, who leads China’s $65 billion fashion industry, like our own Prada-wearing devil, is quoted saying the modern Chinese woman needs to be fashionable, independent and happy. China Vogue has a readership of 640,000, a half percent of the total Chinese population and one percent of China’s 645 million women. Cheung says she wants to inspire a new generation of Chinese women by fueling a positive attitude among her readers. We know who she is talking about, and it’s not the lady pushing the mop in the airport, or any significant percentage of China’s women. This is blatant PR for China’s 1% class.
You are as likely to be laid off, foreclosed on or denied club membership by a Koch a Kwan, a Kim or a Khan. Rich and poor, privileged and not, in the club or relegated to parking the limos: these divisions have become fully international, crossing ethnic, racial, geographic and cultural lines. And few places accentuate this shift as graphically as China, where a new millionaire is created every day.
I need to run to catch my flight. I have to fly to Tianjin to see a man about some sleeping bags, sewn for you by ladies in a small town who ride to work on bicycles, over dusty roads, in what might pass as a movie set for the days before Mao set the people free.