December 27, 2002

Merry Christmas from China

The past two days have been (yet another) excuse for Chinese to flood the streets, discos, karaoke bars, Western style bars and various plazas with Santa hats atop their heads and – for some reason – plastic hammers which are used to emphasize a "Merry Christmas."

True, most Chinese know little about the whys and wheres of Christmas, but buying and selling and having a party is easily understood from New York to Urumqi. All of the supermarkets were draped in lights and baubles and twine and Christmas trees with styrofoam nativity scenes and gingerbread houses out front, and perhaps the odd Santa.

Hair dressers, Sichuan investment corporations, Siemens subsidiaries, English schools – all took part in the festivities in some way or another. A Christmas party with tea, sunflower seed cookies and Elvis was the usual fare, along with a guest appearance by the local foreigner.

The western-style bars moved me. They stand empty day in and day out, with somewhat legible English signs advertising pizza and coffee catching the eyes of the random traveler. The staff stand out in the cold and shiver out a Merry Christmas as their colleagues work feverishly to erect the white cottage and whitewash the windows. All to boost business, mostly in vain.

English teachers across the nation were treated to mountains of Christmas cards carrying wishes of a "dreamily christmas" with "peace and gork for all." I have the cards to prove it.

Everybody can sing jingle bells – especially in the hotels offering a special Christmas buffet of fried shrimp and sushi and other assorted foods from across the globe.

It's a night for fun – for foreigners it's a night to be lonely amidst millions of well-wishers. China seems to be the safest place for a Westerner to be, what with the plodding, cautious approach to international relations that China prefers. With crises brewing on every border, the average Chinese remains focused as always on the money and the lifestyle of the nouveau riche: cigars, art shows, flights to Shanghai and horse rides in Yunnan. If it's from the west, it means money and status, so the new rich will be all over it while the old poor will be gathering in dozens to watch and comment.

Both the explosion of rich Chinese in the past 20 years and a policy of "neutrality" while analyzing every move will be swept away like the old neighborhoods of Chendgu with the growing tension across the globe following 9/11 and the growing tension amongst the millions of borderline poor in China’s cities.

North Korea is scared to death now that the US has made it clear that rogue after rogue will be dealt with according to US wishes. Unfortunately for Little Bush and his Band of Warrior-Scholars, the rogues of the world refuse to stand in line to get knocked out. North Korea sees its best chances in forcing a confrontation now while the US is harnessing support of another decimation of Babylon.

What really gets me is the hypocrisy of a nation that will say or do anything to get the world to support war in the Middle East, while ignoring a true threat in the Far East. Kim is not much nicer than Saddam to his people and he has admitted to having nukes and seems "brave" enough to use them if the US forces a confrontation.

The Washington Post advocates regime change in North Korea. What a wonderful idea. If only Japan and South Korea had NMDs that worked to counteract the nukes that the North would definitely use in such a situation. And of course one must look a little bit to the west to China.

China has no interest whatsoever in a confrontation on the peninsula but is moving like a turtle in response to North Korea’s words and the US’s warnings. Statements regarding North Korea’s adventurism, an arrest or two and more hand wringing is all we see.

Of course the WTO will bring transparency to China’s processes, so we can just wait until those regulations take effect. Then we’ll know what the Chinese are thinking and doing about wars to the west and rumors of war to the east.

The taxi drivers are getting more and more morose about the rich-poor gap. Every time a cop screams at them to pull over for some ridiculous violation while a 777 or 666 license plate with tinted windows goes honking past, I can see the rage in their eyes.

Chances are few and far between in China, and those that do exist are reserved for those with the right pedigree – actual merit-based promotion is still a rarity. The sweat of a million peasants swarming all over the ruins of yet another old neighborhood runs for about 1000 rmb a month. A serious wage for peasants – but the Party member running the construction project, with his black bag under his arm, his black China-businessman-shoes on and a cigarette in his mouth makes 100x that amount for ... standing around and taking someone out to dinner.

In a country that celebrates Christmas with increasing gusto every year, this situation can stand for only so long. Not necessarily due to religious or moral awakenings – spending money and drinking all night is fun – but the children of today’s migrant workers will demand that opportunity.

–Sascha Matuszak

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Sascha Matuszak is a teacher living and working in China. His articles have appeared in the South China Morning Post, the Minnesota Daily, and elsewhere. His exclusive column (usually) appears Fridays.

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