Cut loose at fifty: Chapter Seven – The calm before the storm
By Chris Clancy
I arrived in Wuhan in the first week of July 2005. The FAO met me and brought me to the place which would be my home for the next year. It was in a hotel on the campus.
Two rooms had been joined into one to make a self contained flat which was very clean and comfortable – nothing like DJK.
I was on the fourth floor. The only thing missing was a balcony. But I was very happy with it to begin with.
I had two months to kill before the semester began. I decided to spend the time finding my way around, preparing for teaching and learning the language.
Wuhan really has just two seasons – hot and cold. Spring and autumn obviously happen, but so quickly you hardly notice. The cold season is cold but not freezing. The hot season, at its height, is very hot – temperatures vary between thirty five and forty degrees centrigrade – for this reason Wuhan is known as one of China's "oven cities".
The city is divided by the Yangtze River. As I explored I learned that it had three distinct parts. West of the river were the industrial and business districts, Hanyang and Hankou respectively. East of the river was Wuchang which contained more than fifty universities - of which my university, Zhongnan University of Economics and Law (ZUEL), was one.
ZUEL was situated on the outskirts of the city.
Anything which came close to resembling Western nightlife went on in Hankou – quite a trek from where I would live.
To my great delight I found that I could buy Western food. It meant doing a bit of travelling but if I stocked up once a month it was worth it.
The campus itself really was beautiful and the teaching facilities, rooms and equipment rivaled any university in the world. Every teaching room was very well furnished, was clean, had air conditioning, lights that all worked, a microphone and speakers, and, best of all, each room had a computer - complete with PowerPoint projector and screen.
A teacher's dream really.
It was a far cry from what the students had to put up with in DJK.
The preparation for teaching went well - or so I thought at the time – more later - much,much more in fact.
Which brings me to the purpose of this chapter.
So far I have touched on a few of things and simply left them hanging or just said "more later".
This is a good opportunity to return to them.
Let's start with the language.
I remember saying to one class:
"Do you think in the future that everyone in the world will speak English?"
"No", a student replied rather abruptly, "in the future everyone will speak Chinese!"
I suppose I had that coming – I didn't phrase the question very well.
But, in reality, she was wrong. English is the international business language and this is not going to change any time soon, if ever. Even if you're a foreigner working in China for a Chinese company, and you happen to speak the most perfect Chinese, your Chinese friends and colleagues will still want to speak to you in English, both in and out of work.
I'm not saying don't learn the language. Learn it as means of getting by, as an interest, or as a hobby or even a challenge, but think carefully before shelling out on a four year degree course in Beijing or wherever.
The time and money taken to learn the language to a reasonable level, never mind fluently, may well be better spent doing something else.
Chinese is not, and in all liklihood never will be, a global language.
Enough said here.
Let's move on to something which has become a scourge in the West – political correctness (PC).
This was one of the big things I left behind in the UK. Indeed, were I asked to give just only one reason for not going back then this would probably be it.
What started under the banner of "equal opportunities" ballooned into an ideology.
People don't laugh anymore, there's no leg-pulling, no banter. Everyone is afraid. Phrases like "getting the gender balance right" and "diversity training and awareness" abound.
If anyone has the gall to offer positive criticism of such things they are in for a rough ride.
Underneath all the BS a great many people are heartily sick of it. But beware who you say it to. The charge of "racism" or "sexism" today carries the same weight as that of "heretic" in the Middle Ages. The accusation is enough. You won't risk losing your life but you'll be very lucky to save your career unless you prostrate yourself, admit your guilt and beg for mercy.
PC, as we understand it in the West, does not exist in China. Racism, sexism, ageism and plenty of other "-ism's" exist quite openly. However, this does not mean that people speak freely.
Far from it.
If you stick your head above the parapet, whether Chinese or foreigner, and say or behave in any way which is considered untoward, your home is likely to be bugged and your internet connections tracked.
I'm not telling tales out of school here – it's simply a fact.
If it was done "well" it would be one thing. But it's not. It's done so ineptly they almost make a point of telling you what's going on.
Of course the same happens in the West – they're just better at doing it.
Now, nobody is pretending that everything is perfect in China, but it is a very rare thing for a Chinese person to complain openly, especially to a foreigner, about a sensitive issue.
In my seven years in China I can only recall two occasions, just two, when this happened.
The first was when I was having coffee with some foreigners. One of them had brought a young Chinese man along with him – he was about twenty five years old and worked in a bank. He listened quietly as we chatted. When we got on to China's rapid economic growth he started to become more and more agitated. When someone mentioned China's rising prosperity he sort of exploded.
I can't remember his exact words but it went something like this:
"What prosperity? Where is it? I haven't got any – so tell me - where is it?"
This was a conversation stopper.
He was young, intelligent, highly educated and very very angry – and I doubt he was alone.
I've mentioned before the tremendous love which people in China have for their country. But everything has a breaking point. Yes, great prosperity has been generated in China but most of it goes into the hands of a few - and they're determined to keep it that way.
Income inequality is one of the great challenges which faces the Chinese government.
It's a time-bomb and the fuse is burning.
The fuel which feeds the fuse is corruption.
On the second occasion I remember what was said verbatim. This was because the words went in like a six inch nail!
I was having dinner with a Chinese woman. She was a high school English teacher – middle-aged and divorced – she had a grown up son. As we talked a man came into the restaurant and went to a table near us. He handed some documents to one of the diners. I had no idea what was going on. The diner casually examined the documents and then pulled an envelope fron his jacket and threw it on the table.
The man picked it up and left – no words were exchanged.
Then, out of the blue, the Chinese woman said to me:
"That's why people leave China."
"Why?" I asked.
"Corruption", she replied.
Her tone was even, unemotional – almost offhand.
I didn't pursue it any further. I didn't have to. She'd put it in a nutshell.
A few more pieces in the jigsaw came together for me at this point.
Corruption at the bottom can be sorted out quite quickly.
But when it starts at the top it infects everything below, right down to the grass roots. And it doesn't matter how absurdly obvious or open it gets - nobody speaks out – you never know who you may be messing with or what the knock-on effects will be.
Everyone gets sucked into it. It simply becomes part of the way of things – how it is - money and connections.
There's only one effective way to tackle it – a truly free press. Unless or until this happens no amount of fines, prison terms or even executions will stop it.
Again, enough said on this one.
Finally, let's move on to Intellectual Property Right (IPR) infringement.
IPRs try to protect the creativity of people and organizations from being copied and exploited by others. Specifically, IPRs are enforced using patents, trademarks and copyright laws.
Before coming to China I had never really given it much thought.
But living and working in China you are surrounded by IPR infringement. Everything from software, music, movies and digital products, through to clothing, sports equipment, household products, booze, cigarettes, perfumes, toys and pharmaceuticals, not to mention spare parts for all types of vehicles and machines and on and on it goes, not just in China, but all over Asia.
How serious a problem is this and can it be stopped?
As regards fake products which can and do cause harm to people it is a very serious problem and must be stopped.
But what about all the other stuff?
Given the sheer scale of the thing, not to mention the millions who earn a living churning it out, more and more people are now questioning the whole idea of IPR enforcement.
First, they argue that the internet has made copyright on things such as music, DVDs and books almost impossible to enforce.
Second, patent and trademark abuse can never be stopped: "If you want to keep an invention to yourself, don't put it on the market!" - Benjamin Tucker – (1854 – 1939).
However, if we think of fake goods as cheap free samples for the real thing, then what's the problem? Most of those who buy these goods would never buy the real thing anyway – they couldn't afford it. But, a significent minority will go on to do so.
One study found evidence that fake goods can actually help increase sales of the real thing.
Here's a very telling quote:
I'll leave it at that.
Shortly before the new semester began I returned to DJK for a couple of days. I had agreed to run a one day induction for the new foreign teachers. I wasn't paid for this – my only stipulation was that a car would be laid on to take me there and back – this was provided.
Once there it was as if I'd never left or had never been there in the first place – such was the indifference of the staff – once again it wasn't personal, just China.
I was reminded of the Chinese concept of "floating time". Outside the large towns and cities it's quite noticable. Things happen or don't happen, people come and people go, one day melds into another … and time passes.
My holiday had been a bit like this - I sort of drifted through July and August – and then it came to an end.
I didn't realise it at the time but this period was like a calm before a storm.
Someone was sent to escort me to my first class. I had been told that there would be about ninety students present.
As we neared the class the nerves began. Here we go again, I thought to myself, another leap into the unknown.
My escort opened the classroom door for me
I took a deep breath and entered.
Chris Clancy lived in China for seven years. Most of this time was spent as associate professor of financial accounting at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law in Wuhan City, Hubei Province. He now lives in Thailand where he spends his time reading, writing, lecturing and, whenever he gets the chance, doing his level best to spread Austrian economics.