Monday, August 25, 2014

When in China, never ask 'why'?

Aug 24, 2014

By Rachel Chang

Something has been in the air in Beijing recently. Or more accurately, not.

For the past two weeks, the air quality index has hovered below 100 - "moderate" - and sometimes even dipped below 50 to "good" territory, a reading as rare as a polite taxi driver in Beijing.

The broad, blithe explanation for this delightful state of affairs among Beijingers has been the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit that China is hosting.

But that's in November. More importantly, if the government can make the air good at whim, why isn't it just good all the time?

Here, I suspect the answer has something to do with the ecological and likely unhappy side-effects of shooting silver iodide into the sky, which is how they make it rain so that the air is clear. Is it one of those awful trade-offs where every unit of silver iodide equals one dead bat somewhere far away?

At this point, as you can imagine, my interlocutor has angled his body away from me in the hope of starting a conversation with someone else, or his eyes are projected yearningly in the general direction of his mobile phone screen.

I start such conversations in Beijing all the time and get the same reception. The way that sudden, unexplained changes which affect so many people just happen with no official explanation or advance notice flummoxes me. A credit card that I used just last week is no longer accepted at the supermarket. The trains change direction. The water triples in price.

"But why?" I ask over and over again, and the responses range from "I just work here" to "This is China".

Take for instance the recent drug busts in Beijing that ensnared Jackie Chan's son last week. The police have been heavy-handed on non-celebrities too, storming into bars and clubs and making everyone take urine tests on the spot. Foreigners who test positive are deported the following week.

Yes, the police are just doing their job. But recreational drug-taking has been an open secret of Beijing's nightlife for years. There hasn't been a sudden rise in drug- related crime. The sudden blitz on people just feels so arbitrary, like someone has flicked a switch and Beijing's entire police force poured into the streets with little urine-collecting test tubes. But who? And why?

Then there's the China Central TV headquarters in downtown Beijing, the "big pants" building designed by famous Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.

It has been standing empty for three years. CCTV staff report that every once in a while, "rehearsals" for the move to the new billion-dollar headquarters are carried out, amping up to the actual move - and then nothing happens.

Theories abound to explain why the move has not taken place, from insurance problems after a 2009 fire damaged an uncompleted auxiliary building, to the fact that senior CCTV staff have properties near the old headquarters and the whole organisation is just waiting for them to get good selling prices.

But some sections of CCTV, such as the support staff, are already working out of the new building, so the insurance problems can't be true. And the other explanation just goes against everything a Singaporean has been brought up to believe in so I can't even engage with it sincerely.

People wonder why I need to know and I wonder why they don't. Perhaps I am too used to a super-communicative government which issues lengthy official responses to Facebook posts.

Life in China, I've come to realise, is more like living in a constantly changing obstacle course governed by the laws of randomness and chance.

Someone, somewhere, made a decision with entirely logical reasons in that moment. But the mountains are high and the emperor is far away, and there's just no point even thinking about him and his thought process. That's just wasting time that should be devoted to adapting to and profiting from the new circumstances.

Asking about the air quality is just wasting time that could be spent at a swimming pool, for example.

One day you're Jaycee Chan, and the next day you're well, Jaycee Chan facing three years in prison for smoking a joint. Random credit and random punishment are two sides of the same spinning coin. This is China.

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