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June 9, 2007

Pride and Prejudice in Chengdu


by Sascha Matuszak

The South Korean reporter Cha Han-phil stirred up a hornet's nest with a post on his personal blog about "Shameless Chinese People." In the post he describes a scene on a train ride through Henan province that leads him to conclude Chinese people "lack public morality." For his comments, Cha was labeled a racist. He has since removed the post from his blog.

All accusations of racism aside, anyone who has traveled on a hard-seat train in China can attest to the kernel of truth in Cha's description. The ride is indeed a chaotic affair. Peasants lean back, take their shoes and socks off, and make themselves as comfortable as possible, which includes spitting shells and rinds onto the floor, putting their calloused feet up on tables, and leaning out of the windows hollering and smoking.

Although Cha's sketches may be spot-on, his conclusions lack depth, and for this he was lambasted by his readers. As his blog is a personal one, his lack of analysis might be forgiven. In an interview with the Asia Times, Cha expressed his hope that China would "embrace his criticisms generously."

One of the replies to Cha's post argued that the description of China would also be an apt description of Korea 15 to 20 years ago, and this is the crux of the whole story.

China is in the midst of a modernizing process that began 100 years ago during the last days of the Qing Dynasty. One of the dynasty's last-ditch efforts to adapt to the changing world around it were the New Policies, issued in the first decade of the 20th century. These policies had a variety of aims, chiefly to forge tighter links between the tottering empire and its subjects through a professional police force, a modernized bureaucracy more attuned to the needs of the people, and campaigns to improve education, the economy, and public morality.

Kristin Stapleton's book Civilizing Chengdu: Chinese Urban Reform 1895-1937 investigates how the New Policies affected this provincial capital deep in the interior of China. One of the main figures in Stapleton's book is Zhou Shanpei, a high level bureaucrat and reformer of the early 20th century. Zhou's hope was to transform Chengdu into a city such as Tokyo, the model East Asian city at the time: clean, orderly, productive, modern.

Some of Zhou's reforms included the regulation of beggars and prostitutes, the creation of a professional police force, installation of street lamps and public latrines, the establishment of public economic and cultural associations under the supervision of the government, and the establishment of training institutes and colleges.

All Zhou's work came to naught with the fall of the Qing, following the Railway Protection movement, which started in Chengdu in 1911. The reforms were put on hold as China battled itself and Japanese invaders for 20 years. Then came Mao for another 40 years.

Under Mao's leadership, China went on a journey into another dimension, completely removed from its past and veering sharply off course from its future. Modernization in the four decades of Mao's rule was megalomaniacal insanity.

Since then, China has breathed a huge sigh of relief and re-embarked on the modernization course that began 100 years ago.

Here in Chengdu, Zhou's reforms have been reincarnated. The district of Xiao Jia He in the southwest of the city was once one large, tremendous brothel. In the Strike Hard campaigns of 2002-2004, the red-light districts were shut down and moved out of the city limits. Beggars and itinerant workers were shoved out of the Second Ring Road or put to work. Rickshaws, a luxury item in Zhou's Chengdu, were put under police supervision. Land was reclaimed and developed. An exhibition center was built, an underground is under construction, factories in the east side of the city have been shut down, schools shoot up left and right… the list is endless. Since the Develop the West forum in 2000, Chengdu has shaken off the doldrums of provincial life and the Communist era and begun to modernize itself.

Naturally, hot-pot restaurants in Chengdu are still filthy, greasy, boisterous places. Public bathrooms, though greatly improved, are still rather putrid. But one must keep in mind that Chengdu is roughly 10 years into a reform movement with the goal of transforming this provincial capital into a modern East Asian city like Singapore or Tokyo.

Most of East Asia, with the exception of Myanmar and North Korea (both still wallowing in Mao-like lunacy), has long since modernized. Of course, those countries had the luxuries of an unbroken development process and manageable population levels. China, one of the last of the great nations to modernize, has a 50-year gap in its development and a population of more than 1.3 billion.

Today's leaders do have one lesson to take from the Mao era: do not neglect the peasantry. And they don't. Many of Chengdu's rich and powerful mandarins focus much of their attention on the development of the municipality as a whole and the surrounding second-tier cities. In another 10 years, Chengdu will be as modern as Shanghai is now. Taken together with the New Policies era, then, Chengdu has taken roughly 35 years to modernize: quite exceptional, when compared to other modern nations.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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