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Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Past as the Future


 Paris, shot taken from atop the Arc de Triomphe
I am writing this from one of the countless numbers of cafes in Paris. This is my first time in Europe. I waited a long time. 44 years to be precise. For the past 11 years I have been living in Asia, the economic hot zone of the world. Asia is often seen as the future of the world economy, while Europe is increasingly being seen as the past by many, especially in light of the world economic crisis. In his book Mind Set, Futurist John Naisbitt devoted a single chapter to Europe, dismissing its future as being guaranteed mediocrity. He thinks Europe, with its heavy socialism, reduced work ethic, and heavy labour costs will find it impossible to compete with Asia, and even the USA.
Naisbitt spends a lot of his time in China these days. In his latest book, China’s Megatrends, Naisbitt lavishes praise on China’s economic and social achievements, and  outlines why China is the future of the world. He states that China has developed a new kind of economic and political system which is challenging the West and its assumptions about the superiority of democracy. The book, strangely, is almost completely free of any analysis of China’s authoritarian system of governance, including the lack of freedom of speech and rule of law and it spoor human rights record.
Naisbitt is right though to point out the importance of China. It’s synthesis of authoritarianism and capitalism has worked miracles for the Chinese economy. In 1976 when Mao Ze Dong died, the median Chinese salary was 42 RMB a month. I’m not sure what the exchange rate was back then, but in today’s currency that’s not much more than five American bucks. A month! Today the Chinese GDP is growing at around 10 percent, the average income is heading towards 3000RMB a month; and in the big cities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, the middle class are probably closer to 10 000 RMB. Although there are probably about 100 million Chinese people living below the poverty line, there are an awful lot of Chinese people who are unbelievably rich. These new rich have more money than they know what to do with. You might find some of them buying property near you sometime soon, as the recession really kicks in. In Australia the boom in the housing market has been kept afloat by cashed up Chinese buyers coming into the market. 
I remember reading a comment by a rather arrogant American on the Yahoo! comments section just a couple of years ago, under an article about China. He wrote.
“I love the Chinese. They do great laundry.”
Sadly for that chap, it could well be that his children will be doing laundry for the Chinese.
I’m not going to get into0 the economic forecasting here. However, being in Europe is a great chance to compare aspects of the Chinese/Asian world and the old West.
Let me just comment on one or two first impressions.
When I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, the first thing I thought was, “Is this what the West has become?” To say that the airport is unimpressive would be an understatement. It is rather old. The baggage retrieval area is small, and looks positively ancient. It took over an hour for the bags to arrive. In contrast, the airports in Hong Kong and Beijing are sparkling new, huge and efficient. They glitter like Chinese gems. There is a barely detectable odour in the air – the smell of freshly printed cash. The Chinese are unusually concerned about first impressions. They would never allow the port of entry to their country to look like the airport at Paris. And even if there was a recession, they’d be spraying the scent of RMB notes around the place, just to keep your spirits afloat; and all the more important, to keep your hands digging into your pockets to retrieve the stuff of life. Money, that is.
After grabbing my bag I walked out of the terminal, and towards the subway to get the train to my destination. It took about ten minutes to get to the platform.
For a moment I thought I’d walked onto the set of the Batman – the 1960s TV version, that is. There was a definite cave-like vibe to the station. It was dark, dank and slightly yellowing with age.
Thirty minutes later the train to arrived, apparently also beamed through from about 1960. I dragged my bag aboard, and sat down in the cramped, dilapidated seats. The litter of old tickets and food wrappers dotted the floor. There were a few other in the carriage. Like the airport, they looked just a little old and jaded too.
Where to now, Batman? Soon we rattled off into the darkness of the Parisian underground.
In Hong Kong newly arrived visitors have to walk no more than two minutes to the super-modern fast-train, and it whisks wide-eyed visitors away every ten minutes. So I have to say my first impression of Paris was poor. The decay of western civilisation was brought before my eyes. Apparently.
Yet things are not always as they seem. Whereas the Chinese excel at form, the French excel at substance. The next morning I wandered out of my friend’s apartment, and took the subway to the Eiffel Tower. I have to say, I didn’t expect it to be much. Boy, was  I wrong. The images on TV, cinema and magazines do not do it justice. It is HUGE! 
 No introduction required
The tower is surrounded by lovely parks and walkways. Families, friends, and caressing lovers sat about leisurely. There were young women in bikinis sunbathing upon towels. I was deeply offended. My complaint to the management is currently being processed.
I am something of a fitness buff, as are many greying men in the midst of a mid-life crisis. So I decided to walk up the stairs of the Eiffel Tower. It was not quite as demanding as I thought. The winding stairs go only about half way up. Then one is required to take the elevator to the viewing platform at the top.
It was at the top, where one is granted perfect view of the magnificence of Paris, that I truly saw the beauty of the city. The Parisians have retained so much of their history in their architecture. There are simply so many historical buildings, and they look simply magnificent.
 The cathedral at Notre Dame
 Near Notre Dame
There is nothing in China which can compare, certainly not on the same scale. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao Ze Dong ordered the destruction of much of China’s history and culture, because he thought they represented the past. That included many of its grand old buildings. He was particularly adamant about destroying any relics of the colonial era. In what is referred to as the Century of Humiliation, China was overrun by Western powers from the mid-eighteenth till mid-nineteenth centuries. (Yes, that includes Britain, the USA and the French). Nowadays it is very difficult to find any historical buildings in major Chinese cities. It is all glimmering steel, grass, and that old-time Hong Kong favourite, concrete. It is in its own way very impressive, especially in terms of the brief time it has taken to construct. Yet it lacks something. Perhaps it might best be termed “the spirit of place”. In my mind it is the consciousness which lies behind so much of the urban landscapes that lies at the heart of the problem. I can’t really provide any definitive evidence, but there is a definite sense of greed, for want of a better word. It is not simply greed for money, but a desperation for a more prosperous future.
An all-too-common scenario in mainland China is the tearing down of old houses and streets by developers hungry for money. In an authoritarian society, where local officials and the legal system are intimately connected, there is little hope for residents to fight the authorities. Money talks, and it talks big time in modern China. In Hong Kong too, big business and government are in close collusion, and too little thought has been given for creating a beautiful and livable environment for the people. In the former Portuguese colony of Macau, just an hour away from Hong Kong by ferry, developers and policy makers have utterly raped the town and turned it into a giant casino. Less than a decade ago it was a quaint small city with a European atmosphere. Now it is overrun with money, casinos, neon signs and prostitutes.
At the risk of repeating myself, human futures are not merely about more money, entertainment and gadgets for everyone. In China, an Orwellian Big Brother society has, wisely, been largely left behind (although there are remnants). The danger, though, is that authorities are creating another kind of dystopia – a Huxlian Brave New World, where the meaning of life is reduced to the lust for immediate gratification, and a bloody-minded dash for cash.
Chinese people are travelling the world in ever greater numbers now. No doubt they will witness the good and the not-so-good things about other societies. There is little doubt also, that when they travel to places like Paris they will appreciate that the future is not merely about tearing down the past and implementing the modern. The past grounds us in our roots, our history, our humanity. Money and Machines are not enough.

8 comments:

  1. Great points, Marcus - and I'm sure that with time Chinese tourists will learn to appreciate the respect for tradition. And to be fair to Paris, the public transportation is actually very efficient; it reaches everywhere, the trains are frequent and not expensive etc. I think they've brilliantly succeeded in maintaining the physical and cultural fabric of the city, while keeping it up-to-date (e.g. free wi-fi in public parks). But this comes from an attitude to work, money and success which is radically different from the dominant American/Asian concept that everything must be swept away which doesn't serve profit. (I'm going to touch on the same topic in my next post, about Italy)

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  2. I enjoyed reading your article, Marcus - thank you.

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  3. Simon, that comment about the subway was only for the link from the airport to the station where I got off (I can't recall the name now). The rest seemed fine to me, in daylight!

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  4. Thanks Karl, glad you enjoyed it. There's plenty in there that could offend, though!

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  5. I agree, Marcus - as long as there's resonance within.
    Something to 'be with' when that happens.
    It's all good.

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