A section about the Chinese people – a first for me to write a whole section only about a people. I love most people because of their diversity and their individual life stories, but there are so many things I find strange and/or unappealing about Chinese people, that I decided to write a special section instead of mixing it in with the travel texts. It is of course completely unfair and prejudiced to state an opinion on 1.4 billion people of which I have met only a fraction and gotten to know very few. In fact, I always use the Chinese people to ensure perspective when I feel strongly about a certain behaviour – “if we took a vote the Chinese would always be right, so who am I to judge”. I’m therefore not pretending to be right - this is just my perception based on my experiences on this trip, past travels and working 2½ months in China in 2003.
I admit part of my perception is due to the huge language barrier, because some of the few people I did get to know were very nice e.g. my hosts in Xi’an though to me they are atypical Chinese having travelled the world, speaking English and inviting foreigners into their home. If you have experience with Chinese people that can help me understand please let me know, as I’d like to broaden my perspective and possibly change my perception.
Lack of independent and critical thinking
I guess it’s logical after almost 67 years of oppression under the current regime and thousands more under others (have they ever been truly free, I wonder). An old saying states that “everything in China is illegal but at the same time everything is possible” – it depends who you know. Like all dictatorships, China has an endless number of rules and nobody at a lower level will ever take responsibility for challenging/bending the rules or allow anything they don’t already know about – the reason being that there is no praise if a success but strong repercussions if a failure. Working in former and current public companies/organisations in Denmark, I often had the same experience but in China, it’s more significant because it’s very hierarchical and the government de facto runs everything in the country. Even more frustrating than the rules themselves, was that nobody knows, considered or ever questioned why they are there, so coming from a society where we are critical about everything was extremely frustrating. In general, Chinese people seem incapable of understanding and coping with questions like why, where, what, who and how – instead they just repeat the rule as if it’s an explanation in itself. The positive aspect of this is, that Chinese people very much live in the present – a kind of “happy go lucky” state of mind where they take things as they come since they can’t change anything anyway.
In many ways an admirable way of life but frustrating for foreigners with different cultures, values and social norms. The mindset influence everything the Chinese do – not able to plan or anticipate the future even a few seconds away e.g. in traffic. It’s ingrained in people and I experienced it countless times every day e.g. when I was buying petrol for my stove. One time a girl sold petrol to two guys before me. No problem pouring petrol into an old battered tea pot and a similar watering can, both open and with small holes in them (I later discovered this is how it works at all petrol stations). However, when it was my turn, she refused to sell me petrol despite my container being made for it, written signs approving it and having leftover petrol in it. It looked different and therefore it was not allowed while the tea pot guy came on a regular basis so that was okay – scary there was not a split second of hesitation or independent thinking. A similar example was when I wanted to store my bike inside hotels. The hotels were most often so dirty that a bike would make no difference but because it was unknown/unusual many refused and the rest hesitated despite my offer to flip it upside down resting on the handlebar and saddle.
The mindset also entails that Chinese people have a childish approach to lying/pretending. When they parked ahead on the shoulder to stare at me (see section below), they pretended to be looking at their phone or fixing the car, and incidentally they finished just as I passed, so they could drive by and stare one more time. Or when a hotel owner told me the police wanted me to leave and stay at a more expensive hotel, he didn’t expect me to challenge/question him, getting him to admit he was the one having problems with the police.
It might sound conspiratorial, but I’m convinced the people in power deliberately educate (indoctrinate) people not to be independent and critical – and rightly so as it’s probably the only way to keep the huge and very diverse nation together. However, it comes with the flipside that China will never be a world leading nation as there is no creativity, innovation or new thinking; just copying what others have already invented and produce it at a cheaper price. When China is no longer cheapest (and that is already happening in certain sectors), production will move somewhere else and China will lose its international influence/power based on sale of goods and acquiring huge amounts of commodities. I therefore foresee the country at some point in the not too distant future will experience a (somewhat rapid) decline - maybe even followed by its demise if the standard of living drops dramatically and the people rebel against the regime.
In 1949, Mao created The People’s Republic of China becoming the new dictator overthrowing Chiang Kai-shek after 30 years of civil war with his peasant army. It was supposed to be a communist regime where everybody was equal sharing the burdens and joys. However, it never worked out like that – there was always a ruling elite and different classes based on ethnicity, geography, background, etc. The fact that over 30 million Chinese people died under Mao’s regime says a lot. But at least things have changed now that China is more prosperous – the answer is no. There is still a huge inequality and it’s growing day by day. Everybody is responsible for their own happiness and there’s no sense of common responsibility and taking care of the less fortunate in life - de facto no social welfare, poor quality schools and hospitals unless you can pay for private solutions, terrible town roads because they can’t be toll roads paying for the pavement, etc. etc. etc.
I’m not a fan of communism as I’m not a fan of pure capitalism or any pure “ism” (except maybe Buddhism). However, I dislike double standards and referring to modern China as communist is ridiculous. In many ways, China is as capitalistic or more than most western countries (in the sense that money rules – not a free market), so why keep up the charade? I believe it’s to stay in power and not have to explain/admit mistaken historical beliefs and wrong doings. A great current example was the 50-year “anniversary” for the Cultural Revolution on 16 May 2016 hardly being mentioned in the Chinese newspapers. The Cultural Revolution was a process of ridding the country of liberalism and capitalism by letting industrial and agricultural communities make China a world power in no time – around two million people were killed and over 30 million died (mostly of starvation) and the country was thrown into chaos. It’s still taboo and not taught in school (neither is Mao’s Little Red Book) so only the old people know about it – young people only know from older family members and generally see Mao as a historical figure more than a brutal tyrant. The regime manage to bury history as long as people are indoctrinated (no independent thinking) combined with fierce repercussions for questioning/criticising the regime - at worst capital punishment or they simply vanish.
Authorities including the police
During my two months in China (and several visa application attempts before), I’ve had many encounters with Chinese officials – mostly with the police as Xinjiang Province had police checkpoints in outside even the smallest village, I passed by. I never understood why and what could have happened since I passed the last checkpoint the day before (most often only one road). Nevertheless, most of the checks took a long time (½-1 hour) though I had the feeling that most of the time was curiosity looking at stamps (it takes time when 8-10 people have to check all stamps individually). One morning I passed a checkpoint and continued into the desert. An hour and 25k later, a police car with 5 (!) people caught up and wanted to check my passport – I told them it shouldn’t be necessary as their colleagues already checked me but they insisted. They looked at stamps but didn’t check anything via phone or computer being more interested in looking at the bike – afterwards they returned to where they came from. What happened was obviously that they heard about me from their colleagues and wanted to see me for themselves, so they decided to do an excursion and made up the passport excuse – harmless but a ridiculous waste of time and money.
A more disconcerting incident happened in small town Lenghu – the first police checkpoint entering Xinjiang Province. First, I was told to wait without an explanation (never a good sign as it usually means no) and over the coming hour more and more curious police and military showed up. I tried to create a friendly atmosphere convinced I would need their positive impression of me later. After an hour, I was told I couldn’t continue as it was an illegal area for foreigners – they told me to go back and even tried to get me on a randomly passing bus back to Dunhuang. I stuck to the above mentioned rule – “everything is illegal and everything is possible” and argued my case; just came over the high mountains and desert, no time to go back because of visa time limitations and (lying about) friends biking this way before me. It softened them but didn’t change their position, so I began asking what area was illegal and if I could somehow get transportation to the other side of the illegal area an continue from there. As mentioned above they didn’t understand the questions and just repeated that it was illegal - on their side they didn’t understand why I didn’t just accept this. I kept asking more detailed questions in different ways and after an hour of discussions beck and forth (np English spoken so all via inadequate and possibly incorrect phone translations), it turned out that the main road I would bike was no problem – it was some sideroads that were illegal. Two hours and much concern for nothing just because it’s easier to say no.
Hotel police was almost always a bad experience. Foreigners can only stay in approved (typically very expensive) hotels but nobody knows which, so it’s an almost impossible task to find them; not that I would pay so much anyway. I only met the hotel police a few times but many hotel owners called them to ask for advice having a foreigner staying. Except a few times, the answer was always no and one time a police officer even angrily kicked me out of a small homestay 10 minutes after I arrived. Either somebody called him or he took initiative to check all cheap places in town after being called by the first hotel I asked at. Sometimes the owner had accepted me, but (10 minutes to 3 hours) later told me to leave after checking with the police – so I learned never to unpack before they had called the police and/or registered me in the national hotel IT-system (or decided not to).
Hotels were a challenge all the way but Xinjiang Province was the worst – despite all the trouble in the province, the police saw it as their most important task to keep a stranger from saving a few yuan staying at a cheap hotel. I doubt this police “dedication” was because of the law. My guess is that’s it requires a police bribe to get a hotel permit and even bigger bribes/fines should you be caught cheating e.g. with a foreigner, so most hotel owners were scared to death having a foreigner staying illegally – especially in a region where there are no foreigners so everybody in town knew I was there. Once the police just told the owner it was fine just to take a photocopy of my passport and another time two officers spent an 1½ hour coming to the small hotel making the IT-registration and scanning my passport at the station – tedious but what a service.
Without comparison, my best police experience was in small mountain town Yitunbulake where an officer volunteered to be my assistant for over an hour. First, he found me a cheap hotel that I declined because they had no electricity and water (!) and afterwards he was my personal shopper for 45 minutes taking me around to different stores – he would have stayed longer had I not dismissed him several times. Another good experience was applying for visa extension in Jiayuguan where English-speaking Rosy was very kind and helpful (the reason why I had picked this town).
Lack of integrity and honesty
Integrity and honesty are some of the most important values in my life, so it’s impossible not to reflect upon them especially in China, constantly being rated as one of the most corrupt countries in the world according to Transparency International.
Doing business in China, it’s important first getting to know each other (like e.g. Japan). And when you know each other, it should not be necessary to make a contract – after all we are partners. When working in China, I experienced that contracts were not respected – what matters was who you knew and/or who you bribed. And since we knew few important local people and were against bribes, we were at a severe disadvantage compared to our local partners.
When travelling in China, I often feel a scepticism of foreigners – the lack of greetings, the walking away when I approach people, etc. They might be shy or it might be the language barrier (few people know more than “hello” despite two years of English in school), but I think it mainly relates to their upbringing where I’m sure westerners have been portrayed as the enemy for many years. This was confirmed just recently when the government launched a campaign warning Chinese women from having relations with beautiful foreign men as they were likely spies. Other examples was a woman in a park concerned that I would smash a beer bottle after finishing it and hotel payments required before I even entered my room (while they on the other hand always provided a note instead of change).
All that said my everyday trading with Chinese people was fairly hassle free. They offered the local price and when agreeing to a price they kept their word. Unlike the Arabs who always tried to cheat me – we often agreed a kilo price but they put another price on the scale. Worst was Kashgar, but it is of course a tourist destination.
Selfish, impolite and ungrateful
The Chinese are very selfish in everyday life e.g. in traffic where nobody cares about others – “get out of the way so I can move on”. Combine selfishness with the inability to position and orientate themselves and you have the answer to most of the traffic jams and accidents in China. No ability to position themselves while driving but even more disturbing walking and parking on the road despite wide sidewalks and big areas to pull off and park. The main reason, I particularly hate riding in Chinese cities is that it’s always with my life (or serious injury) at stake e.g. when people drove from a side road onto the main road without looking or worse, when someone actually saw me coming and decided to continue so I had to emergency brake or go around in front of them hoping they would stop and not run me over. In that respect, the Chinese people are as stupid as the cows I encountered crossing roads in Southeast Asia.
Selfishness is also demonstrated by lack of empathy and care for others by society e.g. lack of social welfare and no public emotion or affection allowed – as I recall reading in several biographies, this is also a consequence of Mao’s regime. But how does selfishness fit a communist regime? Well, it doesn’t. My guess is that during past oppression, survival was the main agenda for most Chinese people and living under various oppressive regimes, each individual had to focus on themselves leaving their neighbour to suffer or maybe even starve to death (survival of the fittest).
I know it’s just another culture but nevertheless I find it difficult coping with the selfish and inconsiderate Chinese people. For instance in hotels where people at all hours very loudly coughed (the unnecessary Chinese way), talked and watched TV, had their ring tones on full blast as well as smoked – everything with an open door. Getting my own room was therefore necessary to reduce smoke – it could never be avoided coming under the door and because there are no non-smoking rooms. With the thin walls noise was only reduced slightly as it travelled everywhere also between floors.
On top of all that, it’s a very impolite and ungrateful people assessed by western cultural standards. As mentioned very few people ever greeted me, which meant lack of recognition and acknowledgement. Neither did they appreciate my polite and helpful behaviour e.g. when stepping aside so somebody could pass by, holding a door for someone or help carrying somebody’s bags. Once I spent 5 minutes helping a fruit seller pick up half his load that had fallen of his trolley because he hit a curb – he just waved me off without a simple thanks or nod of appreciation. Certainly not a behaviour that encouraged me to help somebody else another time.
Curiosity and staring
Even in regions with many foreigners, Chinese people never stop being curious of Caucasians (“da bizi” meaning big nose), what we do, say, look at, etc. Many times when I stopped to look at my gps or took photos, people came over to see what was on my screen as they were always curious what was in my trolley in the supermarket. And when biking it happened at least 40-50 times per day that somebody drove slowly behind, beside or in front of me just watching (and probably taking pictures). In itself annoying but worse it created countless dangerous situations suddenly braking next to me on the busy roads, almost falling over (motorbikes) or driving into ditches, going slow (parking) on the shoulder in front of me so I had to go around them on the busy road, etc. Looking is fine, but staring for many minutes from a vehicle is a (national) compulsory disorder. In supermarkets, people followed me around to see what I bought and in restaurants, some people were so occupied staring that they forgot eating their own food. And talking about eating, I never get used to their loud munching as a sign that the food is delicious (as they likely don’t do people who are quiet).
As mentioned countless times on this blog, I mostly travel to meet friendly and interesting people and unfortunately, this didn’t happen in China. The first weeks of biking I smiled, greeted, nodded, waved at thousands of people and got incredibly few responses – people just stood there staring with a blank expression on their face. Where I come from this is rude behaviour and though we are all different, it made me lose interest in the Chinese people. So the last month of China, I focused on my biking and stopped looking at people – an unfortunate necessity to prevent negative energy. Only people who greeted me I greeted back.
Honking is mandatory for drivers – the common belief seem to be “when I honk I have the right of way” even when I’m driving against traffic. It was quite tedious being honked at thousands of times every day particularly because there was no reason. Most of the way, I rode on a wide shoulder so why honk unless you intend to drive on the shoulder. The answer is of course that Chinese people don’t know how to behave in traffic and might spontaneously cross the road without first orientating themselves. Again I lacked independent thinking – surely my bike doesn’t look normal and certainly not local, so a quick analysis would be: he came from somewhere else so he must have biked a long way and must be an experienced bicyclist.
I’m sure some of the honking is meant in a friendly way but it’s hard to acknowledge when it’s either 10 long honks or one 10 second long honk. Also many people honked to get in touch with me e.g. at a petrol station where a guy drove his bug SUV over and honked 10 times right in my face while I was eating lunch. I of course ignored his idiocy so he repeated the 10 honks and finally drove off when I still didn’t react. Independent thinking would have helped him realise that after the first 10 honks I either deliberately ignored him or was deaf.
I like the Chinese lack of modesty e.g. the open toilets - to me everything related to our bodies is natural. Though I suspect in China it’s more of a historical practicality than actual lack of modesty as it’s only within the same gender.
What I’m less impressed with is Chinese hygiene – and this comes from somebody who’s not picky and far from a cleaning maniac. At best they clean the surfaces and what you might see, but everywhere else there are years of dust and dirt. Toilets are almost always very dirty with shit on the floor and week old toilet paper in the baskets. And the toilet cleaner always leaves the dirty water for later re-use so sometimes a less disgusting surface becomes more dirty when “cleaned” including railings, tables, etc. So keep a high personal hygiene, and if you are allergic or picky, reconsider travelling the Chinese countryside or by public transport.
Even though it seems less frequent than 15-20 years ago, it’s quite annoying with the loud “coughing” noise coming all the way from the stomach followed by spitting (if you have been to China, you know what I’m talking about). Many people (only men) do it all day, but it’s most annoying early morning and late evenings in hotels, where some people repeat it over 50 times sounding as if they are dying. They also blow their noses (without tissue) everywhere which is fine outside but disgusting inside. And then of course the smoking everywhere (buses, shops, hotel rooms, restaurants, etc.) though it also seems somewhat less than years ago.
Chinese are happy to jump a line, run for a bus or (hysterically) push the door-closing button in elevators to save a few seconds. At the same time, they can sleep all day at work or watch somebody else wash their car for ½ hour. There seem to be little consistency in priorities and importance.
Many Chinese – especially old - people like to exercise though mostly it’s quite different from what westerners call exercise. As I recall from several documentaries, a lot of the exercises come from Mao e.g. walking backwards and slapping yourself. A very different concept from my upbringing, where key elements were getting the pulse up to 80% of maximum and using weight to exercise different muscle groups, etc.