By Charles Haddad
A towering stone statute of Chairman Mao greets all visitors to the sprawling, fortress like campus of China Juli Group, one of China’s premier private companies. Asked about why a private company would honor a man who persecuted businessmen, Guanjun Liu, the company’s executive vice president shrugged and said with a sly smile, “We want to honor our heritage.”
Not want but have to, is more like it. In China, no company or person is allowed to become so rich or powerful that it would be able to challenge the central government or the Communist Party. The more successful a private company becomes, the more it must kowtow to the party, bending over backward to show it represents no threat to its supremacy.
China Juli’s dilemma is just one of the endless contradictions that confront and confound any visitor to China these days. This vast, endlessly varied country always leaves me scratching my head, even though I’ve visited China at least a dozen times in the past five years, sometimes for up to a month at a time. The best I can figure is that China is a living Zen Coan, the sum of its endless contradictions.
Here are but a few recent examples of contradictions I gathered in a recent trip, in which I led a group of study abroad students from Stony Brook University to the Beijing region and Southwestern Guizhou Province.
In Baoding, a city about 90 miles south of Beijing, China Juli invited my students to come and see what a successful Chinese company looked like. Traded on the Shenzhen stock exchange, where most of China’s private company’s prefer to be listed, Juli is a vast conglomerate with holdings ranging from steel cable to film studios to rice wine. Its sprawling campus is typical of big private companies, including not only a factory and distillery but a hotel and worker dormitories. Yet the company treated my students and myself as visiting dignitaries. We were escorted to Juli by local police and communist party representatives. The first thing a visitor sees entering the campus is the towering statute of a Mao saluting the people in his famous army trench coat.
Behind the statute stood a cavernous glass pavilion that would have made the founder of Communist China red with anger. This visitor center was decked out to resemble the Forbidden City, the palace of the Ming and Qing emperors. Inside the center there was a marble replica of the long, low step staircase that visitors to the Forbidden City were required to climb to gain an imperial audience. Prominently displayed, too, was a gold replica of the Forbidden City’s famous Nine Dragon mural.
China likes to trumpet its lead in the adoption of solar power. But again all is not how it appears. Our visit to Baoding is representative. My environmentally conscious students were at first impressed with the solar panels that topped most of the street lamps. But a source inside the local power company told us that the panels were largely for show. The lights were really powered by underground electric lines just like in the United States.
Solar power – or at least the illusion of it – is just one of the many trappings that distinguish China as a modern country. Yet despite all its soaring glass and marble office towers, iPhones and smog, the Chinese still cling to many ancient superstitions. Here’s a recent example I witnessed firsthand.
A rumor spread throughout the campus Baoding’s Hebei University and the surrounding city that an ancient Buddhist temple had fallen down. Many students and residents feared the temple’s collapse would release an angry flock of ghosts who would avenge themselves by stealing babies. To ward off these ghosts, people began setting off fireworks from dawn until late into the night. This lasted for a week.
And here’s the biggest irony of all. Never mind that the Chinese government severely limits and controls what its students can learn and know, even blocking access to Google, Twitter and Facebook (although most students elude such restrictions). Yet Chinese students continually amaze me with how much more they know about American and world history, geography and literature than most of my own U.S. students. Ask many an American student about Walt Whitman, Marcel Proust or Antietam and he’ll stare at you blankly. This, even though an American student is free and able, thanks to Google and the Internet, to find out anything, anytime and anywhere.
Chinese students who recite Whitman and Mark Twain. Fireworks to ward off ghosts. Private companies donning the trappings of imperial China. Poor old Mao. Entombed inside his Tiananmen Square mausoleum, he must surely be scratching his head in bewilderment at the country he left behind.