Christmas in China

Well, by sheer coincidence of timing you’re going to get back-to-back twofers.

I’ll start with Christmas since unlike most foreigners I spent it in China this year and have received a lot of questions about what that’s like.

The Chinese do celebrate Christmas with more and more vigor each year but they do so ‘with Chinese characteristics.’ There are Christmas trees and decorations in most public buildings and the malls rival the best of New York with the extent of their decorations and blaring Christmas carols – all in English, of course, since no Chinese person has ever had a reason to write a Christmas carol.

Sometimes it's Happy Christmas but it's more a function of translation than political correctness.
Sometimes it’s Happy Christmas but that’s more a function of translation than political correctness.

You won’t hear any of the debate about Merry Christmas versus Happy Holidays – it’s Merry Christmas. But you won’t see any nativity scenes and it is, of course, a normal workday and school day although there has been a ruckus in the Western press about the fact that a few schools have formerly banned Christmas celebrations in the classroom. It’s less a debate about religion, frankly, than it is a debate about how far China should go in embracing Western culture and what that could mean in terms of lost traditions.

There is a vigorous and growing debate, in fact, about just how far China should go in Westernizing its culture. The young people of Japan, Korea, and the Philippines have largely embraced Western culture and there is a belief, even among many young Chinese, that China should not do the same.

Remember that the Chinese name for China is Zhong Guo, which literally translate to the Middle Kingdom. The middle, the thinking goes, does not transform itself to the outside – it is the middle. I honestly don’t believe this perspective is a function of arrogance in any way. It’s more of a Confucian perspective. Remember that in Confucian society everyone has their role and their place and a fundamental social obligation to maintain it. China’s role is the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese, many believe, have an ancestral obligation to uphold that, not to become The New America.

In a  mood to shop?
In a mood to shop?

When it comes to Christmas, however, the commercial trappings are everywhere, although I have yet to personally see a Christmas tree or any Christmas decoration in a Chinese home. The fact that the cashiers at the supermarket wear elf hats, therefore, tells me that the commitment is strictly commercial – the chance to put people in a good mood so they will spend more money, although I am unaware of any Chinese family that actually swaps presents. That is a custom strictly reserved for Spring Festival.

China is a communist country, of course, but religion is sanctioned and openly practiced. There are government bureaus to regulate religion. There’s one for the Catholic religion and one for the Protestants. Regulation is regulation, of course, but their main purpose seems to be to insure that religion in China is not overly influenced by foreign interests.

And there is considerable historical justification for that caution. Foreign trading companies often used missionaries to further their political and trade agendas, often at the expense of Chinese interests.

Some foreign activists have estimated that there may be as many as 100 million Christians in China, a number that would mean there are more Christians than members of the Communist Party of China.

But be careful. The CPC, as I’ve noted before, is not really a political party in the Western sense. It is the chosen mechanism for advancing the country. Unless you want to have a career in government there really is no reason to join the party. I remind you that in a recent survey conducted by Harvard Kennedy School’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation President Xi Jinping enjoyed a 95% approval rating among Chinese – the highest of any of the 30 countries surveyed, despite the fact that only 6% of the population is a registered member of his own political party.

Restaurant workers line up to receive their daily instructions.  Hopefully the decorations will bring good luck and more patrons.
Restaurant workers line up to receive their daily instructions. Hopefully the decorations will bring good luck and more patrons.

You must always interpret China in context. Simple facts will often get you into trouble in understanding China if you don’t put them in a Chinese context.

You might be surprised to know, for example, that the largest Bible producer in the world is a Chinese company in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, not far from Shanghai. The Amity printing company last year produced 13.22 million Bibles in more than 100 languages. In a communist country.

Pretty stunning, don’t you think? Which is where this week’s twofer comes in.

You may recall that just prior to the Summer Olympics of 2008 Beijing opened Terminal 3 – the largest airport terminal in the world – at the Beijing Capital International Airport. And it truly is stunning. It’s one of the nicest airport terminals I’ve seen, and I’ve been through more than a few.

The Beijing Capital airport now serves 83.7 million passengers and 582,000 flights per year. And it’s bursting at the seams. Most domestic flights now have to park on the tarmac and bus passengers to the terminal due to a shortage of gate capacity.

So today, Friday, January 2, 2015 Beijing will begin construction of a new, even larger airport. Expected to be operational in 5 years it will boast 4 runways, 174 parking aprons, and have the capacity to process 72 million passengers, 2 million metric tons of cargo, and 620,000 flights per year. The terminal building has a floor area of 700,000 square meters – that’s 7.5 million sq. ft.

Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson International Airport will remain the busiest single airport in the world processing about 250,000 passengers per day.

Often the workers who assemble the public Christmas trees seem to believe its really a contest to see who can get the most lights on one tree.
Often the workers who assemble the public Christmas trees seem to believe its really a contest to see who can get the most lights on one tree.

But they aren’t closing down the current Beijing Capital Airport. It will focus on international and long haul flights while the new Beijing Airport, just south of the city, will focus on domestic traffic. Together they will have the capacity to service 150 million passengers and more than one million flights, dwarfing the airport capacity of any other city in the world.

Oh, and did I mention that it will take less than 30 minutes to get to the new airport from the center of Beijing. Where else in the world could they organize that much land so close to an urban metropolis of 22 million people without decades of legal wrangling and protests?

It is, in fact, the thousands of people who will be relocated to make way for the project that will be the most enthusiastic. Each will be compensated handsomely by the government and may even be provided newer and better housing. Most, I suspect, can’t believe their good luck.

It is those Chinese characteristics again. Westerners simply find it impossible to fathom how a government with that much unilateral authority could enjoy such strong support among its citizens. But this is China. Remember the straight line and the circle that I keep coming back to. It is results, not process or ideology, which the Chinese care about.

A luxury shopping mall in the heart of Beijing, the capital of China and home to the Communist Party of China.  Photo credit: Yuangeng Zhang / Shutterstock.com
A luxury shopping mall in the heart of Beijing, the capital of China and home to the Communist Party of China. Photo credit: Yuangeng Zhang / Shutterstock.com

Copyright © 2015 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.