Today's date:
Winter 2007

China’s Open Underground ; Taiwan’s Aperture

Nathan Gardels is editor of NPQ.

Shanghai — I hadn’t been to Shanghai in 20 years, but by all accounts it had changed dramatically. first impression: When I arrived at the super-modern hi-tech airport from Tokyo, it made LAX and JFK look, in a phrase Tom Friedman used about the New Delhi airport, like seedy bus stations. The maglev train that whisked travelers from the terminal to downtown Shanghai definitely made me feel I was in the 21st century. The skyline of the new Pudong development zone along the Huangpu River, with its trademark television tower tackily lit up in Christmas-light colors, confirmed my futuristic expectations. Boats cruising across the harbor flashed advertisements for cars and electronics on giant plasma screens as they floated by.

Second impression: After settling in at the Art Deco Peace Hotel near the old Bund, where the International Opium Commission met in the early 1900s, I set out for a 10-block walk looking for an Italian restaurant I had been told about. A heavy haze hung over the city. The air had that familiar choking Third World stench of burning fields. The first couple of blocks along Nanking Road cast a neon, Bladerunnerish hue in the night and there was the mandatory McDonald’s, but when I turned off the main drag I thought I had gone back 20 years. Bicycles whooshed down darkened streets, the low-rise buildings were crumbling in unabashed disrepair. (In succeeding days, in different parts of Shanghai, I felt as if I had traveled back to the 19th century trying to inch my car through the narrow lanes of ramshackle shanties crowded with push carts and laborers carrying coal in baskets over their shoulders.)

Suddenly that first night turned bright as day under the towering glow of the Shanghai Westin, where the Italian restaurant was. Inside, I was back in the future. The decor was as chic as anyplace on the West Side of LA. The food and wine were top notch. The waitresses and the customers sported the most fashionable glasses and latest haircuts.

Third impression: Over the next week I poked around all over the city, noting the spread of high rises to the horizon, freeways just as in California and sprawling suburbs or “bedroom cities” stretching far out into the countryside. At Xiantiandi, a restored bourgeois enclave, local “fashion girls” hung out with hordes of Westerners, hopping from hip club to sushi bar to The Coffee Bean.

In short, Shanghai, no less the whole of China, is developing at a wildly uneven pace. The future and the past, the poor and the rich, the ragged and chic mingle side by side just as in the wicked, anything-goes days before Mao.

One evening I was feted at a banquet by the editor of Xinmin Evening News, Shanghai’s largest newspaper, in the paper’s 42nd-floor dining room that looked out across a sea of illuminated skyscrapers, muted in the haze. Having just been in Taipei where a corruption scandal threatened to topple the president there, it occured to me to raise the topic of the recent purge of Shanghai’s top official for kickbacks and misusing the municipal pension funds in development schemes. Provocatively, I suggested that in the United States or Taiwan, where there is a free press, media exposés usually lead to political scandal. In China, the opposite happens: Once the party decides to purge someone, only then does the media pile on and spill all the beans. Unconvincingly, my host insisted this was not the case. But, by all accounts, reportage does seem to be getting better and bolder.

The topic then turned to what American television shows the journalists around the table and their friends watched. An older scribe immediately offered that he wasn’t interested in TV because there wasn’t much to watch, and his children were far too busy studying in order to catch up with the West to get near the infernal box. Then the younger, female journalists chimed in: They loved 24, Desperate Housewives, CSI and, yes, Friends, and Monk. Some bought whole episodes of pirated DVDs at street stalls for about 80 cents. Others just downloaded the shows from the Internet.

One item on my agenda was to further explore the whole intellectual property problem which Hollywood as well as US and European trade officials consistently raise. It is clear from my conversations with the young journalists that anyone can get any American film, TV show or software package they want without much difficulty, and cheaply. Movie theaters are too expensive.

At first, I had asked my friends at the paper where I could buy a fake Gucci purse. One woman was irate: “You Americans! You trash China for pirating and then come here in search of cheap deals!”

Failing to secure any cooperation, I set out one night on my own to determine whether China was really cracking down, as they say. Indeed, in the summer the Shanghai Municipal Government had ostentatiously closed a famous outdoor market where fake goods were abundantly available.

But, for now at least, that seems to only have pushed the fake dealers into a kind of open underground. An obvious tourist need only step out the door of his or her hotel before lurking figures—looking like seasoned hustlers or peasants fresh from the countryside—emerge from the shadows. “Beer girls, watches, handbags, T-shirts?” they beseech you in English. I say, “No beer girls.” Then they whip out crumpled, folded-up catalogs with pictures of Gucci, Coach, Louis Vuitton bags, watches and more. “OK?” they ask, using the only other English word they know, and indicate that I should follow.

I do—down this side street, then that, progressively darker. An insistent, broad-faced woman in this case takes me to a tiny shop with the usual tourist fare—silk pajamas, his and hers, or robes. The proprietor, sitting out front smoking, takes over. She leads me across the shop through a back door, up creaky steps to a large storeroom. On the far end of the storeroom, she pushes at the wall. Voila! The wall bounces back and a concealed door opens into a space three or four times larger than the shop itself, indeed it is almost a warehouse. There, lining one whole wall are rows upon rows of the handbags I was promised—Gucci included. Along another wall a gaggle of tourists examines golf clubs, others are looking over a large table groaning with watches—all knockoffs of Rolex and the rest.

The proprietor, who also speaks only a little pidgen English, whips out a calculator. She punches in an outrageous price (for fakes). I balk. She immediately drops it more than a third and then the bargaining begins. A good fake Gucci purse will probably cost you 40 or 50 bucks.

The whole atmosphere is so straightforward in the open underground that your trust stretches. Normally, I would not follow anybody in a strange city down a shadowy, garbage-strewn alleyway in search of anything, no less something fake, with a wallet full of cash and credit cards. Yet, I did just that one night, in search of the right item. This time, I entered what appeared to be a combination dormitory for the “floating population” from the countryside and a storage unit of pirated wares. There was a kitchen, beds, tables and people all over eating out of bowls with chopsticks as I shuffled around examining the quality of the Gucci ripoffs. Clearly I, and those who would follow, were more valuable as customers than dupes to be mugged.

My translator and fixer in Shanghai was a 30-ish woman whose parents had been diplomats. Her husband, a recent physics graduate, works for a big Japanese firm manufacturing flat screen televisions. One Saturday she took me out past miles of suburbs, including new “bedroom cities” with golf courses, to visit the old Qing Dynasty “watery town” of Suzhou, a picturesque villages built along canals. The swarm of middle-class families out for a day in the country surely was one measure of Chinese prosperity, as was the parking lot full of cars (mostly Japanese) and tour buses and the jam-packed KFC near the entrance gate, which was notably cleaner than any other restaurant I was to encounter that day.

After taking a boat ride around the canals, my friend and I decided to lunch on the local specialty, slow-roasted pork wrapped in the leaves of plants that grow at the water’s edge. It was then she entered the personal terrain, asking if I was loyal to my wife and if I went out to clubs at night while she stayed home. A bit taken aback, I assured her I was loyal and, at least in my sociological cohort of upper middle-class professional couples, it was rare for husbands to go clubbing without their wives. This seemed to surprise her. “That’s not the idea I got from Desperate Housewives,” she said, “which I watch to understand what America is really like. It seems to me that infidelity is a normal thing in the US. Everyone is always betraying everyone else.”

Later, when we got back to our car, the battery was dead because the driver had left on the radio. No need to panic, I contributed assuringly, even if there was no Chinese version of AAA yet, surely someone among the hundreds who had driven their cars here and parked them in this lot would help us out with jumper cables. “Oh, no,” my friend replied, “strangers never help each other out. Since the Cultural Revolution, no one trusts anyone outside their own family.” Sure enough, though surrounded by a sea of cars arriving and leaving, it took about 45 minutes for the driver to find a gas station, finally returning on a motor scooter with a young man who had jumper cables.

One official purpose of my visit to China was to touch base with key experts on North Korea and Chinese international relations. To that end, I met with several scholars from the government-linked Shanghai Institute for International Studies as well as the prestigious Fudan University.

In Washington and Tokyo, everyone was talking about how important it was to make China a “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs and how it was now the key to solving “the North Korean issue.”

I got a different view in Shanghai. Kim Jong Il had been warned repeatedly by the Chinese leadership not to test his nuclear weapons. He ignored them and did it anyway. Roundly I was told that the Chinese leadership had been “humiliated,” especially since they had promised the US and the rest they could deliver. This made China’s leaders furious at Kim. But, just as in South Korea and the US, pushing the regime to the limit was too great a risk for China. Clearly Kim Jong Il is no idiot: He has everyone over a barrel.

If China cut off oil and food supplies, North Korea could collapse, spreading chaos in the region, disrupting China’s single-minded concerted strategy to achieve three-fourths of US GDP (in purchasing-power parity) by 2015. Only at that point of prosperity, in its view, would China’s real might kick in and it could deal as a near equal with the US as an established power, not a rising one. Further, any disruption now over North Korea would embolden the Taiwanese to declare independence.

There is no doubt in the minds of Chinese strategists that a North Korean bomb is not in their interests—though they fully understand Kim Jong Il’s own logic: For centuries, Korea has been squeezed by Russia, China or Japan. Its future independence thus depends on nuclear weapons. And the Chinese fear, probably rightly, that this same logic will apply once Korea is unified down the road. That, of course, means that Japan, whatever it says today, will one day also go nuclear. And that is a threat to China—another complication in the already complicated geopolitical dance in which, for the first time in history, both China and Japan are major powers at the same time.

Thus, it is unrealistic to expect North Korea to “roll back” its nuclear program. For now, all that is realistic is to try to prevent the rogue state from weaponizing its nuclear capacity or selling it to others.

As far as the so-called six-party talks go, the Chinese experts all pretty much agreed, North Korea would drag them out for at least two years until a new Democratic president comes in, from whom they expect they can get a better deal than under Bush.

Everything about China is big. A state consumer agency reported that the Chinese used 15 billion plastic bags in 2005 at markets and street stalls. Nokia’s chairman, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, noted on a trip to Shanghai in November that in the first nine months of 2005, 49.7 million new mobile phone subscribers were added in China, more than the entire population of South Korea, bringing the cell phone total in China to 443.2 million.

Taiwan’s Aperture | Most of us are used to thinking of Taiwan as that small economic miracle off the coast of China that is the key producer of microchips for the information age. It only erupts into our awareness whenever one of its leaders threatens “independence” or seeks to purchase destroyers from the United States to patrol the troubled seas that separate it from the mainland, provoking Beijing into anachronistic fits over sovereignty.

We may even remember the dramatic reports from our parents about Madame Chiang Kai-Shek coming to the US to plead for aid to help Western-style modernization, expel the Japanese and halt Mao, albeit under the dark cloud of authoritarianism and corruption. Some even know Taiwan provides a third of the orchids to the US.

But Taiwan is much more; a small island with lots of soft power. Above all, it is a hybrid culture, in many respects even liberal with gay rights to boot, that successfully mixes the civilizational attributes of America, China and Japan, which occupied it for 50 years. Indeed, it is the only country in the Asian region not consumed with anxiety over Japan rewriting its constitution, still doing massive business with China and sticking with America all at the same time.

After many weeks of huge, raucous demonstrations (called the “color revolution” because of its use of red) demanding that President Chen Shui-bian step down because of corruption, the state prosecutor recently indicted the president’s wife and some close colleagues, promising to indict the president as well once the immunity of office expires. Whether or not this forces Chen Shui Ban out of power, it marks a sharp contrast with the top-down, back-door anti-corruption purges across the straits in Shanghai that have as much to do with power plays as with cleaning up government.

In short, Taiwan is a true tale of the kind of cultural cross-fertilization that 21st-century globalization promises to bring. For now, Hong Kong, though under China’s clumsy thumb, is still too Western to do what Taiwan has. Singapore is too authoritarian. South Korea is too nationalist, despite the presence of tens of thousands of US troops. Japan is just too different. As powerful as the allure of the West may be to China’s urban coastal elites, the pull of hundreds of millions of peasants weighs down its cultural evolution. Meddling cultural commissars who still distrust what they can’t control further hold back the imagination.

In all of Asia, only Taiwan could produce an Ang Lee, director of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” a globally-appealing movie which combines Asian sensibility, following traditional myths, with Hollywood production values. Ang Lee’s brother, Zhan Lee, the director of Zeus Pictures, an indy studio in Taipei, is blunt about the future fusion of film in Asia: “Hollywood is a dinosaur that has destroyed and occupied our minds for too long,” he says, “The world if full of new stories waiting to be told, and new audiences waiting to hear them, even if we use Hollywood’s template to do so.”

No doubt this soft power is far more important to Taiwan than a seat at the United Nations, which it endlessly pursues but will never materialize given China’s immense weight in the formal institutions of global governance. But, so what?

If ever we were to lift our gaze from the clash of civilizations between the West and the Muslim world, we could get a different glimpse of the future looking at Taiwan. It is a window, or, in more cinematic terms, an aperture, to the new Asia which blends East and West like in Ang Lee’s films.

When we finally tire of focusing our efforts and attention on the bloody Middle East, a glance West across the Pacific affirms a different future. We shouldn’t ignore what Taiwan has accomplished.