Living in a Topsy Turvy World
I've just returned from nine days in the magical old town of Lijiang, China.
It was a respite made in heaven. After a couple of months in Chongqing, a major industrial city of 33 million, the sight and smell of clean, clear air was, well, "like a breath of fresh air"!
Lijiang is a traveller's mecca. A wonderful old town riddled with crystal clear waterways - a sort of Asian Venice. It's full of art and craft shops selling wares to the constant flow of visitors.
Although there were quite a few foreigners there (mostly of European origin, especially French) the vast majority were Chinese.
I can imagine, in the future, that this place will become a a major tourist destination for Westerners, so I am glad I've seen it before it becomes inundated with "foreigners".
The other thing I enjoyed was the opportunity to take a break from Chinese food. Unlike most of us Westerners, who like to try different ethnic foods, the Chinese are happy to constantly eat their own. So it was both a relief and a culinary joy to partake of some chilli con carne, lasagne, Thai green curry - and in particular, to eat at a great little cafe called "Don Papa" - run by an expat French chef, who has lived in Lijiang for 10 years.
I was interested to learn of his experience and his reasons for abandoning France for this little corner of China. He said that for him, Lijiang was a paradise and that he wished he'd moved there 10 years earlier. He loved the clean air, fresh produce and laid back atmosphere. I could tell he was a man at peace with himself.
Yes, Lijiang was certainly laid back. In fact, even in an empty cafe I had to wait up to 25 minutes for a simple meal. But all is forgiven, for the opportunity to unwind. Besides, being able to sample the great local beers, drawn from a basket submerged in an icy mountain stream, was a treat worth waiting for.
In many ways, Lijiang has a "Bohemian" feel, sort of arty and alternative. The streets are brimming with artists and craftsmen of every description - all working right there in their various shops. The cafes are places of rest and recuperation, with free internet access, libraries of foreign books and magazines, and classical, jazz and modern music drifting out of the windows.
The local, native people are Naxi (pronounced Nashi), who wear bright coloured clothes, and obviously live to ripe old ages - judging by the many crusty, weathered faces I saw. They have ready smiles, a friendly demeanour - and an apparent endless energy for dancing!
While there, I also had the opportunity to "jam" with a talented young Chinese band in a local bar - which, as a long-retired drummer, was yet another highlight of my brief visit. It reminded me of my travels as a musician when I was much younger - and how music broke down assumed cultural barriers.
All this got me thinking about China, and our perception of it in the West. I've had plenty of opportunity to witness real Chinese life, and to get a feel for what type of society it is.
Here I am, living in "Communist" China, so why do I feel so free?
Is it because in Lijiang I never saw a policeman? Is it because everyone seems to be enjoying themselves, and doing exactly what pleases them? Is it because of the obvious entrepreneurial spirit that seems infuse Chinese culture? Is it because China is vastly more capitalist, in many respects, than most other western countries?
All I know, is that labels like "communism", "totalitarianism" and the like seem to be completely misplaced when applied to the actual experience of living in China.
China is NOT like the old Soviet Union - with its state-owned stores, where shoes or toilet paper were forever in short supply. China is NOT like North Korea, where people are literally living in a time warp - and brainwashed to believe they live in a paradise. In fact, China is more like Hong Kong, or Singapore in the making.
I've met scores of Chinese. I've witnessed their lives. These are not people truly suffering under any totalitarian yoke. If they are "slaves", then their serfdom is in many ways better than what we put up with in the West.
Sure there are vast differences between rich and poor. Yes, there is a lot of pollution in the big cities. And yes, I cannot access the BBC.com world news web site!
I can't publish criticism of the Communist Party in the local papers - but I can easily do it on the internet, and in person, talking with other Chinese. I can keep most of the money I earn. I can aspire to riches and achieve it. I can build a life of my own design. In fact, if I'm honest, I'd have to say that middle class Chinese have all the opportunities we assume are reserved for people in "free" countries.
There are some "downsides" of course.
I would have to take care of my own health - as there is no social welfare to speak of in China. Even a visitor can quickly realise this by noticing the plethora of advertising on TV for various hospitals! I'd have to get used to paying tolls on all the highways, as the Chinese are big on "user-pays". And of course, I would have to look after my own old age.
The truth is, in China there is virtually no welfarism - something most Westerners are now addicted to. So, yes, there is the hardship that comes with self-responsibility.
This got me thinking about the nature of practical freedom - of what is really important in leading life according to one's own wishes.
Is it more important to be able to write a letter criticising the government and have it published? Or is it more important to be able to live your life with the minimum of intrusion? Is it more important to live in a country with effectively just two political parties, and a system called democracy - or a country with just one party, and a system called communism?
Looked at from the perspective of an anarchist, both the "democratic" west and "communist" China share the same fundamental mechanism of the all-powerful state. So the real issue is, where can I live my life according to my own design and wishes - with the minimum of bureaucratic interference?
None of the Chinese people I have met seem overly-burdened by "Big Brother". They do not have their income siphoned off by the state, to the point of impoverishment. They are not watched from every street corner, as in London. They are not bullied on the roads by revenue-collecting traffic cops. They are not stopped from making a buck. They are not hounded by the politically correct do-gooder brigade.
Of course, the Communist Party does crack down on political dissent. So dissent moves "underground" - or should I say above ground, on the internet. Yes, the government is what we'd call "authoritarian" - and seeks to manage a free enterprise system.
If I was a Falun Gong practitioner, I wouldn't be happy in China. On the other hand, if I was a Christian, there would be no infringement on my religious beliefs or practice.
However, for a business-minded person, or someone (like the artisans of Lijiang) who just wants to mind his own business, China does offer quite remarkable opportunities. And life in modern China is certainly light years away from what life was like under Mao.
But there's more to it than that.
Why do I fear entering the USA more than China? Why do I feel safer walking down the streets of this city of 33 million than most other large western cities? Why do I feel the energy of entrepreneurship and opportunity in China, compared with the lethargy and dead-weight of dealing with bureaucratic and tax hurdles in most western countries? Why do I feel less watched, less listened to? Why does China feel on the move, while many western countries feel stagnant?
These are important questions, because they point to a disturbing fact regarding our western countries - the direction they are headed.
We are used to calling ourselves the "free world" - a badge of honour earned in a bygone age. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we are still free.
What is both fascinating and disturbing to me, is the DIRECTION different countries are taking.
China is a previously impoverished Communist country which is moving decisively in the direction of more practical freedom. In matters economic, it is proving to be a powerhouse of capitalism - where the inherent business talents of the Chinese are being liberated to create a massive growth in productivity and wealth.
This surge in prosperity and accompanying education will change the face of China in the future. And as Chinese people have said to me repeatedly, they expect their transition to more political freedom to be just a matter of time.
On the other hand, we in the West are experiencing movement in a completely opposite direction. More socialism, more fascism, more stagnation and continual infringements of the freedoms we say we hold so dear.
Should things get so bad that I need to escape to a bolt hole of "freedom", I would consider life in a place like Lijiang to be immensely preferable to some big western city on the verge of descent into disorder and violence - with the accompanying fascist crackdown by the state. In such a stark scenario, I know where my freedom would be best served.
And as my favourite French chef in Lijiang said, "There are no terrorists here!"
The world is not what it appears to be from a casual glance, or a moment's thought. Don't rely on what you read in the papers, or what your political leaders have to say. Their agenda is not yours. You have to go out in the world and look for yourself. And, like me, you may be surprised to find practical freedom in the most unlikely places.
Yours in Freedom