October 1 marked the 65th anniversary of the birth of the People’s Republic of China. Officially, it is a 3-day national holiday but by making Sunday, September 28, and Saturday, October 11, official workdays the government turns it into a Golden Week holiday, wherein most employees get 7 continuous days off.
There is, of course, some amount of official pageantry, but other than the 60th anniversary celebration marked in 2009 I have found the government to be fairly modest in its official political celebration.
Mostly it is a time for family, as are all holidays in China. And because of the time of the year and the beautiful weather that typically accompanies the holiday it is a time to get outside. The parks are filled with extended families out for a family picnic or just a simple walk.
For such an urban culture the people of Beijing, and other large urban areas of China, I presume, love to be outside. Even once they are too feeble to do much of anything athletic it is still common to see groups of elderly people sitting in groups by the roadside or in a neighborhood park on a pleasant afternoon.
The thing that is most striking to me as an American on these occasions is the number of 3-generation families enjoying their holiday together. Grandma and Grandpa are very much a part of the modern Chinese family and often take responsibility for childcare while the adult parents put in the grueling hours necessary to advance their careers.
And what were the everyday citizens of Beijing talking about this National Day? The normal stuff: the economy, the children, the weather.
And what about Hong Kong? Not a peep. Which, of course, the critics will attribute to ignorance from censorship. But that is simply mis-leading. I have followed Western coverage of events in Hong Kong from Reuters, CNN, and USA Today throughout the last week without even having to resort to the use of a VPN. And while it is true that the government-owned media did not offer a lot of coverage, the government-owned media doesn’t send reporters out to stand in the middle of a hurricane to report that it’s windy, either. It’s just not their style or their mission.
As I’ve noted many times, moreover, Chinese culture turns on relationships and all relationships are personal. Which is why the Chinese online retail market, reported to be the largest in the world, works very differently here than in the West. Amazon is here, of course, but they are a distant laggard to Alibaba and JD.com, in part because the latter recognize that it is peer review, not corporate brands, that drive Chinese e-tail and their platforms are set up accordingly.
The same goes for news. Of course people watch the news broadcasts from the state-owned television outlets. But where they go for the real news is to their social network of family and friends. And while it is true, I’m sure, that some posts to some social media outlets were censored during recent events in Hong Kong the news was out there and the government surely knew it.
I have specifically asked, “Do you know what’s going on in Hong Kong right now?” and the answer is a quizzical, “Of course.”
I saw one Western editorial during the last few days that blamed the largely media-created tension between Hong Kong and the Mainland on a cultural divide between the sophisticated Hong Kongese and nouveau Mainlanders who sometimes stress – through volume alone – the public infrastructure of Hong Kong, create some perceived inconvenience, and, yes, spit. (As noted before, this is a rural habit in sharp decline as a result of government education efforts but still visible nonetheless. Remember, it is a health, not an etiquette issue, to many Chinese.)
It reminded me, frankly, of how the native New Yorkers of my youth talked about tourists from anywhere west of the Hudson. The fact is that those Mainlanders, as the parents of the current demonstrators know well, accounted for 75% of Hong Kong’s tourism last year – 41 million visitors from the Mainland alone to a city of 7 million residents that relies on tourism and luxury retail for much of its economy.
Another Western media outlet tried to tie current events to those which occurred in Beijing itself in 1989 with an American reporter gravely noting, on camera, that the Hong Kong mourned in the aftermath of those events and that “memories are still raw” among the current demonstrators. As a writer, ‘raw’ is a strong word and it’s hard to imagine that any memory could be ‘raw’ among demonstrators who, in most cases, weren’t even born yet. (One Western news reporter was interviewing a 15 year-old demonstrator for insight into what it all meant. Huh? He’s 15.)
Perhaps the most telling commentary I read throughout the week, however, came from a leading American media outlet which noted that, “Beijing often provides conflicting messages to communicate its real intent”, to explain a clear discrepancy in facts that it was desperately attempting to link but which, on the surface, clearly contradicted each other.
Really? Is it even possible to use conflicting messages to sharpen your real message? This is a trick that I, as a writer, would love to learn.
But the result they refer to is, indeed, true. They are simply attributing it to the polar opposite reason for its existence. Beijing, in my three decades of experience in China, is, if nothing else, universally consistent and clear in its communication. The inconsistency and contradiction comes not from the communicator, but the receiver. What Beijing has said has been consistent. It is what the Western media has ‘heard’ that has been contradictory.
Part of it flows, of course, from the Western media’s need to make a story, or at least make it more colorful. They live in a brutally competitive world. Boring news is, well, boring.
And part of it flows from the fact that modern news reporting seldom provides the time or the resources to explore complex issues except in the most superficial terms.
But a lot of it stems from a simple lack of understanding of Chinese culture and Chinese politics. As my faithful readers know this blog is built on the belief that it is not enough to understand the differences between Chinese and Western cultures. You must understand the reason for the differences if you want to be pro-active in your understanding.
Which, of course, is what modern media attempts to do. It doesn’t just want to report the news, as was its mission a couple of decades ago. Now it wants to tell us what it all means. And you can’t do that until you understand the why’s behind the what’s. And having an Asian face, as many of the Western media reporters now working out of Asia have, is no guarantee that you do.
Did you know, after all of this coverage during the past week, that the people of Hong Kong have NEVER enjoyed the freedom of democratic elections? The Governor of Hong Kong, the predecessor to the current office of Chief Executive, was appointed by the British Crown. There were no elections in Hong Kong. Local advisory committees, which carried no legal authority, were only put in place once Britain had already committed to return Hong Kong to China.
So what do the Mainlanders think about all this and what are they talking about this National Day Golden Week? They think about their families. They think about their aging parents to whom they owe so much. And they think about their child, to whom they want to give an even better life.
And where do China and Hong Kong go from here? The answer, I’m sure Confucius would say, is simple: They move on to the future.
Of course if it’s a holiday there is food involved. And that often means barbecue at this time of year. Of what? I’m not entirely sure.
Copyright © 2014 Glassmaker in China
Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.