Tuesday, 17 November 2015

I’ve seen the future, and I don’t like it very much – Elizabeth Kay

If you like setting fiction in the near future you try very hard to imagine what it will be like - but you have no idea how accurate your dystopia may be. No one predicts a utopia any more.
           I’ve recently returned from China. Don’t get me wrong – I liked the place a lot, and I have developed a considerable respect for the Chinese. There’s so much they’ve got right – and so much they’ve got wrong, too.
            I was surprised to learn that the population of China was already 400,000,000 in 1904. It’s nearly 1,400,000,000 today. If you’re familiar with the work of Malthus you’ll know that an unchecked population increases exponentially, whilst food production increases arithmetically. It ought to be quite clear to everyone that something has to be done before we breed our way into oblivion, but the Chinese seem to be the only people who have tried to address this issue, and they’ve been vilified for it. Their one-child policy has had its drawbacks, in that an imbalance has been created with too many elderly people, and the recent announcement that this is to be changed to a two-child policy has had an interesting reception, worldwide. Overpopulation is a problem that has no easy answer. Do we really want a world where every inch is given over to food production for human beings, and wilderness is an archaism? China is the only distant country I’ve ever visited with no badly-behaved children, no temper tantrums in the street, no snotty bare-footed baby beggars. The kids are, in the main, well-dressed, well-housed, well-educated and well-loved. The Chinese have tried, with tower block after tower block, to give each person a roof over their head and enough to eat.
But the consequences are soul-destroying. City after city with millions of inhabitants, the tops of their harmonious and inventive sky-scrapers disappearing into the mists of industrial pollution. Crowds of people stretching as far as they eye can see, queueing to see the embalmed body of Chairman Mao, the Giant Buddha, the Terracotta Warriors. Most tourists in China are Chinese – they’re the ones taking photographs of us, rather than the other way round, and the lack of personal space results in a lot of pushing and shoving, although somehow none of it is aggressive. It’s the difference between growing up as an only child, or one of a large family. It’s a paradox that isn’t lost on me.
            The building projects they have tackled in this enterprise are immense. Because the tower blocks are crammed together no one has a garden. Instead, they have a number of People’s Parks, with trees and grassy areas and playgrounds for children. There are spaces for adult handball, badminton, table-tennis – as well as the regular sessions of tai chi. Seventy-year-olds do the splits with ease; they’re supple and fit and clearly enjoy the socialisation each morning brings. There’s no sense of the isolation of the elderly that we have in our big cities.
The biggest dam in the world spans the Yangtze River at a renowned beauty spot, the Three Gorges. This dam has saved millions of lives from the impact of seasonal flooding, but its impact on the eco-system has been profound. What was once a fast-flowing river has been stilled into a vast reservoir providing drinking water, whilst the dam generates hydro-electric power. And the wildlife has died from the bottom up. Virtually no birds, no fish, no dragonflies; instead, sheets of poisonously bright green algae. A stunning landscape of Devonian simplicity, devoid of everything except vegetation.

            Teaching a generation to treasure its wildlife when it has little experience of it other than as a component of Chinese medicine is a big ask. It’s been said that the giant panda is a dead-end animal, ripe for extinction with its troublesome diet of bamboo grown only at high altitudes and its slow rate of reproduction. But it is a species unique to China, unique in appearance, unique in cuddle-appeal. It’s the creature that may teach those who inherit it to take an interest in other less commercial animals, for the breeding sanctuary at Chengdu brings in the crowds just as much as the immense Forbidden City or the weird landscape of the karst mountains - or the amazing limestone interiors of them, with their stalagmites and stalactites.

So much to admire. And so much that is hidden, too. You only see what you’re meant to see. But when our reporting of population issues is so biased (heaven forbid that any country lose its trading opportunities by praising a policy that leads to a declining customer base) it’s hard to know what’s true and what isn’t. I try to go on the evidence of my senses – the slash and burn devastation behind the fringes of trees on the main roads in Borneo, the bush meat for sale by the side of the road in the Ivory Coast – but China is a hard nut to crack. The Great Chinese Firewall that filters the internet keeps out negative reporting of internal matters, but it keeps out the violence and the pornography as well. Young people haven’t heard of Viagra, have no idea what it is. Don’t get their inboxes full of explicit sex and advertisements that promise the impossible as well as the downright distasteful and horrific.
            It’s a strange country. Its cities feel safe. There’s an emphasis on harmony and much that is beautiful, both ancient and modern. It’s clean. The streets are rubbish-free and washed each night, the public toilets are clean, there’s no graffiti. But my abiding memories are of a generation of men hawking and spitting because they smoke so much (considerable tax revenue), miles and miles of geometric concrete and glass and steel, wreathed in smog, and people. Millions and millions and millions of people, wearing pollution masks. Relics of the past, such as cormorant fishing, turned into tourist attractions. Unless we obliterate ourselves some other way, this is the future for our descendants.
And I’m afraid I don’t like it very much. 


Bill Kirton said...

What a great post, Elizabeth - clear, interesting, conveying so much information, posing such profound questions. You've illuminated many of the preconceptions one has about China and set up contradictions which might not have otherwise occurred to dummies such as me. Thanks for the enlightenment.

Jan Needle said...

fascinating. thank you.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks for this post. China has never been a country that attracted me much, so it's useful to hear the good things about their society - as well as the less-good facts about deforestation hidden from tourists elsewhere.

Susan Price said...

I don't like the sound of it either, Elizabeth - but what a powerful post!

Dennis Hamley said...

Great blog, Elizabeth - vivid, perceptive and wise. I'm pessimistic enough to think that, the way we're going, our children,their children - and theirs as well - may be lucky to get a future as good as even that disturbing vision. At least the rulers show some care for the ruled, whatever we may think of the result. On present form, will ours?

Katherine Roberts said...

Those mountains look beautiful! Whenever I think of China, I think of films like 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'... but it sounds as if the modern cities are very different from the countryside? I find that one-child policy interesting. It must really change the culture if there's a whole generation (or two?) with no brothers or sisters.

Debbie Bennett said...

I'm 1/4 Cantonese. Only been to Hong Kong once - and taken the Star Ferry to Kowloon. I'd love to see more and maybe find out about my grandfather's (apparently very wealthy) family. So China has always held a huge air of mystery for me. One day when I retire, maybe!

Umberto Tosi said...

Thank you for giving us this vivid tour with so many meaningful take-aways to contemplate. I see that there have been many changes since my trips to China in the 1980s and 1990s, mostly along the lines already visible then. Westerners have looked at China as a modernized but nevertheless exotic and ancient exotic civilization. You're insightful post makes us look at China as the world's future as well.

Enid Richemont said...

Fascinating and terrifying. And Debbie - have you read DRAGONCAT? I did the research for it in a small Chinese supermarket in North London via my very close, Chinese-speaking, Malaysian artist friend, Mei-Yim Low (and there was, indeed, a cat).

Elizabeth Kay said...

Thank you all for your lovely comments regarding my post. Brazil next year, with any luck!

Bob Newman said...

I was with Liz on this trip. Here's my extra two penn'orth: The Chinese people were very polite. Almost the only Chinese phrase I managed to learn was the one for "thank you", and there were plenty of opportunities to use it.
They also seem to still be proud of their large population, despite the attempts to curb its growth. One of our local guides described Xi'an (population 10 million) as a small city by Chinese standards. When she heard that we came from a town with a population of about 10 thousand, she clearly thought this was pitiful - while politely trying not to show it!
Apart from where we came from, the question we were asked most often was how old we were. Perhaps they find it hard to judge the age of non-Chinese.
The part of Liz's post I'd like to reinforce is the one about the People's Parks. If we in Britain were to start using our public parks in the same way, it would be a massive social change, and hugely beneficial, particularly for the elderly.