China Update – 1

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Ciao guys :)

Merry Christmas and thank you so much for all the wishes. It’s been a bit of a mental few days. I’ve just woken up now after an insane Christmas eve party last night at the hostel. The guys here organised a big surprise in the middle of the celebrations – with a birthday cake, dumplings and 64% Chinese wine on the house. Surprisingly I’m feeling pretty chipper this morning. There’s cheesy festive music playing in the bar, kitsch sparkly decorations spinning above, and I’ve just sat down to attack a giant omelette. I figured it was a good time to take a beat, consolidate my thoughts and work, and finally give you guys that update.

So :) Initial impressions. The hostel’s great. It’s next to a subway station, quite central and the crowd here is fun and varied. It makes for a nice environment to come back to after a long day out, though the bed bugs have a nasty sting. I’ve changed and tightened my plans a lot. I more or less cut what I wanted to do in half, realising that if I want to get a some real sense of China and a substantive story, then rushing around to loads of places with their respective ‘cool’ things to see, covering as many bases as possible will just prove superficial and a perfect tourist trap. I’d rather invest more time in a few spots. And what with Beijing, being the real seat of national power and heart of the country it made sense to try to see and learn as much as possible here as an introduction. So I’ve tried to do as much as possible – from the forbidden palace, camping at the great wall, and big buddhist temples, to the muslim district, student and business areas, slums and outskirts.

The people seem really friendly on the whole. ‘Tea scams’, hustling hawkers and young army dogs aside, they’ve been genuinely helpful, curious and interesting. The city’s kind of laid out like a spider web, with six ring roads and designated areas for finance, tourism, universities, classes of residence etc Everything’s connected by a complex subway network and that’s where you first notice the sheer weight of population. It’s crammed with working masses, migrants, dolled up youths and the elderly alike, all amusingly engrossed in their phones watching the latest Chinese soap show. Most of the streets are vast and open planned. Distances are always just more than comfortable walking range, so bikes play a big role in the congested roads. A lot of buildings are huge, formal in style and the red flag’s up and waving on every corner. Maybe through collective belittlement or something, you definitely feel the presence of heavy, communist symbolism. Then there are the traditional, quaint little alleys or ‘hutongs’, with courtyard houses left over in areas that haven’t faced redevelopment.

Just off Tiananmen Square is the national city planning museum which I went to visit last week. I wanted to get shots of the miniature scaled models of how Beijing’s developed, including one of the whole central area. Winter’s a very low tourist season and I went early in the morning so I had the whole five story exhibition to myself. I was welcomed by the army of staff, from two to open one door, another four to perform a security check, one to guide me up the escalator and another to greet me at the top. Loud national-spirit-rousing music paraded away in the background with overlaid speeches by prominent politicians. Giant paintings of Mao and historic photos hung beside projections colourfully describing recent developmental achievements. A classic hijacking of over-inflated traditional ideals and figures with modern agendas: the whole place was a massive propaganda machine. So there I am – staring at this vast stretch of sprawling mini Beijing – lost in worrying comparisons to the Hunger Games, with it’s systemic districts, censorship and delusional propaganda – and a little worker man with a screwdriver in hand suddenly appears to climb out from under the Central Business District. Ha. The truth beneath surface. I smile, and realise this is going to be such an interesting trip.

I’ve been working with three students as fixers. They’re local individuals who help with interpreting, negotiating and facilitating parts of the story. Ginger Li is 21 and the most western; cutesy, bubbly, curious, loud and ambitious she comes from an affluent background, having studied in America before, and is studying to be a director. Then there’s Xiangyu or Lily – a very reserved, perceptive and strikingly beautiful documentary film maker who can somehow convince anyone to let me take photos of them. And finally Cui Chao or ‘Chill’ as he likes to refer to himself – a young, super enthusiastic, chubby guy with lots of ideas, an insatiable love for dumplings and great people skills. It’s amazing that they’ve all agreed to put in so much time working for free. Working with a westerner is a rare opportunity, they say, and that too on such an important topic. They’ve managed to get me a temporary journalist ID in case I run into any trouble. They bought me a huge basket of fresh fruits as a welcome gift that’s been keeping me going, and also all gave me birthday presents which I was really touched by. Matthew, David Green’s contact has also been kind and offered help wherever he can: we’ve had lunch a couple of times.

So the first really interesting experience I had was in the slums beyond the fourth ring road. I went with Ginger on Sunday. I think it’s really important to see as many aspects of people’s lives here, hear of their individual stories, struggles, aspirations – before I start trying to portray any general problems. So we just went in and started talking to people. In Beijing itself I knew it’d be difficult to pin-point the effects of pollution. Despite being sub-zero we’ve had an unusual spell of clear sunny skies. Official word is that all major polluting factories in the city have been closed over the past 5 years, following the Olympics. And, in fact China’s becoming very conscious of its environmental image problems and has more or less moved everything out of big urban centres and prying international eyes. Bringing it up in the public sphere is pretty contentious territory. But even here, in this randomly selected slum within city walls, a disused factory stood right behind, several families we met had members suffering from coal poisoning, and everyone felt the of effects burning coal inside their small shack houses to keep warm since electricity is too expensive. There was always a story against corporations, especially the government. They broke down our previous housing to construct a new subway line and displaced us to some remote out of town location. They destroyed our village coal mining operation to prevent competition with state backed companies in the area. Local government officials threatened us when we tried speaking out, we’ve been in jail and my husband’s been beaten several times without any judicial processes or trials. I came to the cities looking for opportunities, and all I’ve found is a harder struggle. This year’s taught me a fair bit about the darker stories of developing, or politically oppressive countries. This is my first time in a properly communist state though, and it’s been sad and motivating to see so many familiar forms of exploitation and injustice taking place. It’s communist in name only in so many ways; and this day seemed like a first decent glimpse at uncovering what seems to be a pretty grim underbelly to the famous rising dragon.

That evening it was Ginger’s birthday. She invited me to her party, and we got there straight after. It hit me like a ton. Champagne was flowing, ball gowns fluttering, entertainment dancers doing twirls, all as I stood there in my cargo trousers and notorious, crumpled red and white checker shirt. I was thrown from one extreme to the other: a shanty town to a penthouse. Ginger had forgot to mention that both her parents are high up in the army. Her father’s a three star general which means he has jurisdiction and authority over the neighbouring three provinces. It was an excessive, extravagant affair with all possible glitz and glamour. Thankfully, everyone more or less spoke English. And after stuffing out my emotional confusion with Peking duck, Kung Po chicken and a strange selection of international foods – including Burrata from Napoli (?!) I decided to say hello to the only two people who’d been sitting secluded at the open bar all night. I was surprised to find that they were both he very well known journalists and old friends. Feng Jie or Jane Feng – the editor of the very outspoken Southern Weekly publication, whose team had already helped me with location ideas for my story – and Luo Changping. He’d become super famous over the past year actually: one of the few big names to successfully go up against the government, and last year he exposed around a 100 officials and one heavy weight politician for corruption and misuse of state finances. It won him a bunch of international awards but as we started talking about my project, and what he’d been up to since he grew more and more serious. A year later, they said, things had only gotten worse and so much harder. Political smog, not atmospheric, was the true problem infecting China’s health. Luo had gone from being a lead editor of his news magazine with full editorial prerogative, to his board seizing the reigns and demoting him to a mid level position in the research arm. Now he faces constant monitoring, his family and personal life have suffered, and the invitation that night was only in part a request. Southern Weekly has been victim to public affairs torture, expensive libel cases and invented scandals from government associated organisations attempting to discredit them. We sat there and talked and talked. I suddenly felt so guilty about making so petty a comparison as to a film. This was a dark situation for the most basic of liberties – speech and expression. My environment story couldn’t just be about the environment; that would be far too one dimensional. China’s situation involves complex networks of corruption, exploitation, economic and social struggle – and my work has to operate within that context. Ideally, it has to be a trojan horse; one story, guised, prompting the deeper discussion about fundamental issues.

Anyway. Monday was a pretty good day for me. I’d been a bit down after that night. Also three people who run their own environmental NGOs who Matthew had set me up with, and who had initially welcomed being interviewed all backed out last minute because of trouble they’d been facing recently with the local officials and making public media statements. So I decided to forget the story a bit, and just go for a wonder. Back to travel basics. Dawn’s breaking, camera’s strapped on and you just go: my Zen mode. I took the subway line to the last stop in the East and started walking. It felt so good. It had been such a long time since doing that. I came across a group of construction workers who were building the newest subway line. After a few hand gestures of convincing, and shots, they insisted I stay and join them for breakfast. We had freshly steamed dumplings, rice and chicken from the local street vendor, and they got very excited when they saw the photos I’d been taking since coming here. Somewhere in the conversation they started mentioning IKEA, and my ears pricked up. I’d been meaning to cover something that dealt with the rise of middle-class consumerism and after agreeing on a shared pronunciation for IKEA they shook my hands warmly and set me off down the road. The blue and yellow warehouse was easy to spot from the distance. And I smiled at how random circumstances sometimes conspire to work in your favour. Inside, it was heaving with small restaurant owners stockpiling their plates, crockery and utensils; young wives browsing new Winter themed redecorations; and upstairs was everyone’s favourite, veritable meatballs galore. I got some of the shots I wanted, and headed back out.

I’d been following the highway for a while when I spotted a little entrance across the road. Now – one of the things I’d been looking for was what people used to call the ‘seventh ring road’. A local photographer got into loads of trouble for making this stunning documentary 7 years ago about the huge ring around Beijing of growing unofficial dumping grounds/land fill sites. But both Ginger and Matthew said it’d be more or less impossible to find one of those now because all the one’s mentioned in that documentary had been cleared up and closed down in the run up to the 2008 olympics. I hadn’t been able to contact him either and, big surprise, he had moved somewhere abroad. So – back to this corridor: it was along the side of the main carriageway, as a small, makeshift entrance in the wall. There was some hand written sign above it, and inside a broken mirror dangled and twisted on a thread, catching and throwing the sunlight like some kind of invitation. Beneath it lay a pile of broken furniture, disused vehicles and garbage. So across the road and in I went.

Inside, the alley trickled out into smaller tributaries running off in different directions. Bright tin houses with rickety, corrugated roofs collapsed onto each other; makeshift stairs and ladders connected windows to doors to balconies; and high above, black crows jettisoned through the clear sky. Two big asian baby eyes peered out of a door; there was a ripple of laughter and tiny footsteps running off. I found my way to an elevated point and saw the full expanse of this slum. Mountains of garbage stretched around and between the shacks, and beyond, three chimneys rose behind the high walls of a factory, dominating the horizon and churning out huge dark plumes. I spent the next few hours snapping away there, but I knew I had my shot :) So strange indeed how sometimes when you plan the least, random events sometimes align and take you to exactly where you wanted to be.

Wow. The hangover’s kicking in, my writing’s getting cheesy and I’m running out of time, but – ok – one more quick story.

Yesterday, I followed up a location that I’d seen in passing while on a train – it was a huge walled compound, in the distance beyond the city lines, with dozens of coal chimneys and reactor structures. I did some research and found out that it used to be china’s biggest steel factory – run by the giant Shougang group. After years of feeding the capital economy it was officially shut down almost 10 years ago as part of a state environmental clean-up initiative. Now everyone knows it to be closed off, abandoned, and in a state of disrepair: a ghost factory.

So I found my way in, and true enough, was met with broken windows, gargantuan rusting machines, a frozen over lake and crumbling buildings. I got eerie senses of grandeur and loss, power and some appropriation of identity; yet in it’s current state, bathed in the red light of a setting sun, it seemed pretty beautiful. All of a sudden I heard a gurgle of water, and the creaking of contracting and expanding pipes. I scanned around and spotted it tucked behind a broken brick wall. A small cloud of smoke pluming out from a heating vent. Obviously – that struck me as weird. This was an abandoned, boarded-up factory. Who the hell needs heating here.

Naturally, I start tracing the pipe along the wall, past a few alleys, and before I can react, something brushes out from my side: a little man dressed in a dirty blue jumpsuit and helmet scrambles past. He’s frantically yelling something in mandarin and pointing with blackened hands. I run behind him, down an alley and across to a courtyard where more workers suddenly appear. One step further and my eyes are hit by a heaving sea of dirty blue helmets, and that one little, screaming figure drowns within the wave. A hoard of weary looking bodies stumble towards the building to my right, which I now realise has more heating pipes and gas vents.

That’s when I heard it: the sound of metal clanging, sparks flying and the deep, deep, belly-hitting crash of machinery at work. Whaat the frick – are they still working here after having closed it down?! I slowly moved into the crowd. They seemed not to really mind, though some pointed at my camera looking worried. Very few people were talking. Obviously I didn’t blend in – a foot taller than most, brown skinned and all geared up – but I decided to go with it, trying not to attract too much attention. We went through a tunnel at the bottom of the building, through another courtyard, to an area which previously had seemed inaccessible from the main roads of the compound. We were now on a long alleyway with steel panels and structures stacked along the road with massive metal warehouses lining each side towards the horizon. The group split, and my cluster walked through a tiny entrance, plunging into darkness.

White. Sparks suddenly flew blinding me. Something crashed beside me. A roar of flames exploded from in front. For a few seconds I was completely stunned in disorientation. Slowly, slowly, my senses adjusted, and I began to see. Hundreds of figures, milling around, pushing trolleys of what looked like coal, pulling levers, hammering and bashing. This was a fully fledged operation. My camera was up, and I started getting frames. I only managed a few before someone shouted something pointing at me. More workers started peering around and I realised I was definitely attracting the wrong intention. It was time to bail. I made for the door, and jogged my way out just as the red ball of a sun sank under the haze of polluted smog that covers the horizon here. The cold set in.

I’d definitely seen something I wasn’t supposed to. I have no idea what yet. I’d have to speak to some people, ask questions and do some more research. The implications of covering up a huge steel operation next to a capital city suffering from pollution, following years of claiming credit for active environmental betterment, are pretty huge. And yet, going with what else I’ve seen and heard about government and corporate operations here, it wouldn’t be so surprising.

Ok. Enough writing. I need to drink some water, and that omelette definitely wasn’t enough. Maybe I’ll go get some duck :) Tomorrow or the day after I’ll be off to Xingtai. Then Shanghai for New Year’s. And the next stretch will be along Hangzhou, Shaoxing and Ningbo to cover water pollution and cancer villages with Chill.

I’ll try to write at least once more. Stay tuned!

One response to “China Update – 1

  1. Great stuff Souvid, very well written and interesting! Just make sure you stay out of too much trouble. Have a great birthday too!

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