Jason Lee Steorts recently spent a month traveling in China and has recounted his experiences in a fascinating series at National Review Online:
If you have any interest in China, its people, or its future, you should read all five pieces.
In Part One, he offers a possible explanation for the general political apathy that you often find among Chinese:
The economic reforms begun under Deng Xiaoping, meanwhile, produced a system which the party has quaintly christened "socialism with Chinese characteristics." In practice this means capitalism within a vexing regulatory framework (you can, thankfully, bribe your way around it), and imperfect but improving property rights. Owing to these reforms, significant social mobility is now possible for the first time in Chinese history. The twenty- and thirtysomething crowd on China's eastern seaboard lives essentially as most young New Yorkers do, even if at a slightly lower material standard. They work hard, party on weekends, drink too much, sleep around, and try to get rich. The Communist party plays no part in their thoughts and lives; certainly it does not and cannot hold that absolute dominion over the private realm which characterizes totalitarian states (cf. Mao Tse-tung, Cultural Revolution, related psychotics and psychoses). In this light, it is easy to understand, if not excuse, the political complacency of most Chinese: Had you lived through Mao, or grown up hearing stories about his China, you too might conclude that the situation today was pretty damn good.
In Part Four, he visits Shanghai:
Shanghai is sleazy, sleazy, sleazy. If you are a single white man walking along the Bund or Canton Road by night, you will be propositioned roughly every ten steps. (I offer this as a literal truth.) Most often you are approached by a pimp, who offers "beautiful girl sexy massage." (They say this in English, of a sort.) Sometimes the aforementioned beauty makes the approach herself. Not infrequently, you will receive phone calls late at night from your hotel's "massage center." (This is true all over China, not just in Shanghai.)
I've been to Shanghai three times. On at least one occasion I have walked along the Bund at night alone. And the only propositioning I've ever experienced is for DVDs, watches, shoes, and cheap souvenirs. I feel a bit like George on Seinfeld when the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners didn't attempt to lure him into their crazy religious cult.
GEORGE: (incredulity) Him you brainwashed! (angry shout) What's he got that I don't have?!
What kind of a snobby, stuck-up, prostitution is this?!
There's also an excellent overview of China from Part Four:
Every time I visit China, I find myself thinking that, in its modern guise, it is a marriage of the worst in Western and Eastern cultures. From the East, it retains structures of political and moral thought in which the individual plays no part, his welfare being entirely subordinated to that of society. The concept of a right has no place in Chinese history, and little place in China today. Moreover, the agnosticism of Chinese philosophy (including Confucianism, which is called a religion only by abusing that word) has left a great many modern Chinese with no belief in, or even longing for, transcendent meaning.
At the same time, China has partaken of the West's most bitter fruits. Marxism is Exhibit A, but today the West manifests itself mainly in capitalistic flavor. Though I am a devoted free-marketeer, it seems obvious to me that the highest ends in life are not material. I do not even mean this claim religiously: I say only that such things as love, beauty, intellectual inquiry, and breadth of experience matter more to me (and to most people I know) than does wealth. I suspect most young, urban Chinese would say they agree; and yet such ends seem to exert little influence on their actions. I have probably never encountered a more materialistic group of people than Chinese middle-class youths; and I have never seen a place where the pursuit of wealth was less mitigated by nonmaterial values than in urban China.
After my second visit to China, I realized that while the Chinese aren't really Godless Commies anymore, they for the most part are still quite Godless.
In the last installment, Steorts notes a contradiction between the macro and micro:
Such experiences are among the great joys of traveling in China. Of course, they only complicate my feelings toward the Middle Kingdom: for while almost every Chinese person I have met has given me powerful reasons to like him, I recoil from the chauvinism of the Chinese taken collectively. Perhaps this contradiction between the people and the persons shows that their chauvinism is broad but shallow, my own biases too, and both tend to dissolve upon contact with human beings.
And a wish for a more honest future:
What I should most like to see in China, and for China, is a day of reckoning. I should like to see a day for the telling of truth.
I should like to see China's leaders publicly reverse (or more) Deng's assessment of Mao as having been 30 percent bad and 70 percent good. I should like to visit Id Kah Square in Kashgar and find a plaque which tells me not only when the city's mosque was placed on China's cultural registry, but when it was trashed by the Red Guards. I should like to see the ruins of Jyekundo Monastery rebuilt with government funds.
China's political and economic journey since the death of Mao has been something approximating a miracle. And yet its latter-day mandarins perpetuate a ludicrous salvation myth about themselves in order to obscure their endless sins. It is this dishonesty--or, more precisely, this highly selective truth-telling--that most infuriates me every time I go to China. It infuriates me all the more because I love China. I do not know when a day for the telling of truth will come. But when it does, if it does, the Chinese Communist party will not long survive.