HONG KONG DIARY
A Case of You
Just before our love got lost you said:
‘I am as constant as a northern star’
And I said: ‘Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar’
From Joni Mitchell, ‘A Case of You’.
Sometimes, to assess a relationship and one’s place in it, one needs to get away from it all for a while. Or maybe forever. Now, now, dear reader, ‘twas nothing personal, and besides, it wasn’t you: it was me who needed to get away. In any case I refer, of course, to my own specific ties to Hong Kong and China, and to the larger dysfunctional relationship between China and the West.
Is it even possible, once mired in such a disastrous mashup, to see who needs what? So how could I see those dark clouds gathering up ahead, lengthening my profiteer’s shadow and darkening the once-sunny bed of roses shared by China and the U.S?
Oh, would that those clouds were actually over China’s great hinterland, for drought has several inland provinces by the throat, leaving Chinese engineers scrambling to come up with plans to divert water north from the mighty Yangtze River, itself already challenged by the socio-economic and ecological debacle that is Three Gorges.
But China has always been willing to break a few hundred-year eggs to cook up its hybrid economy. And diverting water from a needy farmer to a power plant – and then back to different needy farmer – is just another example of how the government shifts favor, focus and resources: from export trade to domestic demand; from development of the urban coasts to the vast rural interior; from courtship of international investment to punishment of those very investors; from promoting the most labor-intensive industries for maximum employment to a headlong pursuit of micro-technologies.
So China – in full flower and outwardly flushed with success – keeps its vogue on, changing its hairstyle so many times now that it doesn’t know what it looks like to the outside world. Or care.
Ah, but its courtiers are left with the same refrain: ‘Don’t go changing’. The big multinational corporations and their home ‘democracies’ would love nothing better than for China to bat aside any petty concerns about human rights, ecological degradation and commodities monopolization to maintain its dogged race to the bottom of the global economy and emerge the subterranean victor. Now that’s bringing it all back home.
So where, inquiring minds may want to know, does that leave their Professor?
Let’s face it: Global profiteering just ain’t what it used to be, what with currency wars, increased labor regulations, galloping commodities prices and natural disasters including drought. Oh, and that darned internet thingy keeps bringing the global marketplace closer to buyers of even the smallest scale, rendering the veteran profiteer’s all-seeing-eye redundant. Redundant, I say.
Not all the magic is lost between these star-crossed trading partners. No other developing country has yet come up with the right combination of (relatively) low labor costs, functional infrastructure, business-friendly regulations and the inherent social work ethic needed to woo Western buyers away from China altogether, try as we profiteers might to find alternative suppliers.
It is true that inroads are being made by some Asian neighbors in certain manufacturing categories, but China – and the China price for anything – remains the first option, and the West is stuck with it, like a besotted roue’ too lazy to kick an old paramour out of bed.
Likewise is China stuck with its consumer-goods export industries. Despite massive government stimulus programs and quantum growth in demand, China’s consumer economy still dwarfs the West.
China without exports would quickly begin to resemble some of its biggest customers: virtual client states that have forsaken their own home industries in favor of foreign domination. In other words, like China in the late 19th century drowning in imported opium courtesy of the British East India Company.
The Emperor – sorry, the Premier – won’t allow that to happen again. So we lie together in the same bed, if for different reasons, afraid to roll the dice on constructive change.
To be sure, despite its many flaws China’s hybrid economic plan has benefited the masses in ways that other emerging Asian economies cannot match. Hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted from crushing rural poverty during the past two decades, just as Detroit’s post-WW11 assembly lines elevated millions of Americans lured away from Appalachia into a new hybrid middle class, but with hardcore capitalists leading the way instead of hybrid communists.
Indeed, as GM’s then-chairman Charles Wilson modestly put it to Congress: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the USA”. Wilson would later be skewered by humorist Al Capp with his cartoon character General Bullmoose, whose hare-brained schemes kept L’il Abner and the entire hillbilly town of Dogpatch buzzing.
Okay, okay, I hear the grumblings: socialist, capitalist, communist, commonist. In fact, I have only met one avowed devotee of the Party’s original Maoist ethos in all my overseas postings. He – let’s call him Bruce – was a young zealot (another redundancy – sorry) working for a graphic arts production company in the historic city of Hangzhou, site of the famous West Lake.
I first met Bruce when he picked me up at the spanking-new Hangzhou airport. At my behest Bruce directed our driver into the teeth of rush hour traffic, just so I could catch a glimpse of the sun setting over the famous West Lake of Hangzhou (yes, it is quite famous). It was, truth be told, an underwhelming experience. Bruce seized the moment to denounce all the decadent bourgeois Chinese and their (duh) western fellow travelers who would pay homage to the apparent charms of the (famous) lake yet ignore any lesser-known achievements by the Chinese people and culture.
Bruce was also eager to impress an old hand with glowing reports of his firm’s attributes, but not so much as to stop him from making some well-struck jabs at the West’s decaying economic model and the inevitable cultural ramifications.
Finally I got a word in, edgewise. Bruce, I offered, why bother to work in business if you are so committed to the peoples’ cause? Why not work for the Party?
‘Oh, but that is why our new economy was created and why my company exists. The Party always has the peoples’ interests at heart. The business of the Party is in the best interest of the people, and when the people work in business they support the Party, which means supporting the people.’
Somewhere in the interstices of my mind a chorus was singing: ‘What’s good for General Bullmoose is good for the USA’.
And somewhere a corrupt Party official was repeating the good General’s mantra: ‘Don’t do anything crooked unless it’s legal.’
We have come to a strange bend in the global river: Americans have begun to yearn for the good old days when they rolled up their sleeves and actually manufactured something – anything. And the Chinese would love to free themselves from reliance on exports in favor of turning inward to their own economy, and indeed to other, loftier pursuits entirely, like their navel-gazing customers.
Consider – if I may be so bold – a past devastating personal experience of my own: Both sides frustrated with each other, and themselves; both sides casting wistful glances over the fence to the greener side; both sides knowing they can do better; both sides knowing that somehow, someway, it is their own fault. Except, perhaps, for those pure of heart, like Bruce.
So America longs to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the US was the world’s workshop, never mind the niggling detail of who would operate the factory presses and lathes (Our grandkids? No way!). And in China, something stirs amid the rubble of discarded family values and obliterated natural landscapes, something that neither drought nor smog nor crushing labor can suppress.
I think of another of my Chinese friends – let’s call him Jack. Over the past 15 years, Jack has built a small sculpting studio in Shanghai into an international business, producing exquisite statuary for buyers in the US, UK and Europe. He built his business on sheer will and 18-hour days, thousands of miles away from his home and family.
Finally, on a return home for Chinese New Year he begged his wife to live at the factory, to save him from the depredations of karaoke and sauna. Since then Jack, now well in his fifties, works no less hard but parties less and his business has grown, with factories in the north and south export zones.
On my most recent trip Jack and I dined together with clients, in the western restaurant of a western hotel in Hangzhou, near the (did I ever mention?) famous West Lake. As we sat in a private dining area of ‘Le Paris’, replete with an all-Aussie wine list, Jack became suddenly evasive about near-term production schedules and longer range development plans.
When pressed, Jack allowed that he was growing weary of the grind and was considering retirement, a word I had never before heard uttered by any Chinese contact.
But Jack, I asked, incredulous, whatever would you do with yourself?
Oh, he sighed, I will go back to my home village. I will be a lonely painter.
But Jack, I wanted to shout, You will live in a box of paints?
I didn’t, of course, but from then until the remainder of our dinner the words of Canadian poet R.J. Anderson rattled around my head, “frightened, as I am, by the devil but drawn to those that ain’t afraid.” That is, between visions of replicating Jack’s factory in my beloved Philadelphia and a generation of Chinese businessmen getting in touch with their inner child.
As it happened, Jack was eventually coaxed out of his box – for the time being. I snapped out of my manufacturing reverie, and we all went back to working our own sides of the global street. The world reset back onto its axis, and the avatars of China and America fell back into the loving embrace of our dysfunctional relationship, recidivist lovers that we are – so bitter and so sweet.
Oh I am a lonely painter
I live in a box of paints
I’m frightened by the devil
And I’m drawn to those ones that ain’t afraid
From Joni Mitchell, A Case of You, 1970
The Professor, as he is known to legions of business contacts throughout Asia, has been traveling to Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region since late in the last millennium. He is a native of Philadelphia, PA and maintains his permanent residence there. His poetry, fiction, interviews, and articles have been published by Philadelphia-area newspapers, magazines and anthologies, and he is currently planning another trip abroad. He is shown here at left, about to join the Maclehose Trail in Sai Kung.
Articles by the Professor
Column: Hong Kong Diary