In China, there are so many bad ideas going on at once, even the very worst ones don't merit more than a four-paragraph brief on page A-6 of the China Daily. Among the headlines from Monday, Jan. 10, just to give you a taste: "Man sold 1-year-old to pay off gambling debts." "Son seeks to rent girlfriend to appease anxious parents." "Rapist sought to alter the course of destiny."
For the sake of accuracy, an optional standard on this blog, I should also mention that China produces many, many good ideas. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, a lot of visitors commented on the architecture, as athletic events took place in venues that looked like birds nests, Rubik’s cubes, underwater tanks and Pringles jars. In fact only one of the 27 stadiums actually resembled a stadium. If the Olympics craze has faded after two years, the architecture craze has not. Beijing's downtown now showcases buildings that look like Ts, Js, inverted Ls; anything but Is. The I is out. It's my sense that about half the buildings in Beijing are wider at the top than they are at the bottom. A lot of Beijing's newest buildings are so daring, they look like they're about to fall down and kill somebody. This would probably be a front-page story, but who can be sure.
I went to China as a fill-in for Keith Richburg, the Wash Post's China correspondent, who took a quick vacation to Thailand. But Keith and I spent two days together before he took off, and during that time he tried his best to show me his inexplicable country. First night we went for Mexican food, then found a smoky bar with a Filipino cover band playing Janis Joplin and Stone Temple Pilots songs. Next night we hung out with a wider group of Keith's pals, and we ended up at one of those Chinese restaurants that looked so Chinese, you figured it was in the basement of a shopping mall in Rockville, Md. The tables were huge, and the entranceway had one of those Buddha statues that somehow incorporated rippling water. But this restaurant’s menu was not from Rockville. I noticed there was stinky tofu on the menu. And abalone. And lots of fermented little delights that were consumed and enjoyed without even being identified. We also drank hot wine flavored with fermented prunes, and it was almost undrinkable, so I have a clear recollection of the taxi ride home. Keith was still talking about China, giving me the low-down, and at some point he noted that our apartments were probably bugged and monitored, this being China and all.
"Maybe they're bugged," I said, "but who on earth would actually be listening in?"
"One-point-four billion," Keith simply said, laughing, and that was his full explanation.
The Washington Post Beijing bureau office is actually located in a compound. The compound is a base for diplomats and foreigners, an anachronism of the 1970s, when let's just say the architects took their inspiration from rectangles and nothing else. The compound consists of 20 buildings, barricaded by gates. The buildings are noteworthy primarily because even at the most beautiful times of late afternoon they succeed in looking pale gray. The compound has a playground and a basketball court. You can buy coffee and snacks and past-the-date milk inside the compound. On cold days, one has very few reasons to wander beyond the gates. Most especially because the Post also has two apartments inside the complex — and one of them was mine to borrow. Thus, during my time in Beijing, I’d wake up in building 4-1, buy coffee in building 4-2 and head to work in building 7-2. The whole thing required a 20-second walk, past a red and yellow sign that read, “No Fireworks Or Firecrackers In The Compound.”
The Post’s bureau in China is far more substantial than its bureau in Tokyo, which more or less consists of my futon and laptop. There are two full-time researchers in Beijing; another in Shanghai. There’s also a full-time driver, an affable middle-aged man named Xie Shifu, who drives every day the way most men drive when their wives are going into labor. During the time I was in Beijing Xie Shifu came down with a brutal cold, and as a result he was coughing and wheezing, making noises of pure agony; in fact it sounded like he’d swallowed a cat — and then she’d had kittens. But China is full of surprises, and it turns out that Xie Shifu is also quite the talented tennis player, and he often takes matches with the Ambassador to China from Maldives. Evidently Xie Shifu and the Ambassador are well-matched opponents. These are the strange relationships that develop at the Diplomatic Compound.
For two days, I was far away from the compound. I went with one of our translator/researchers, Liu Liu (very sweet), to Dandong, a frigid northeastern city that is probably like Flint, Mich., but without as much charm. But Dandong does have something going for it. Only the tiny Yalu River stands between Dandong and North Korea. Our hotel in Dandong boasted of “attentive service and extraordinary views of North Korea.” One morning, I used the hotel’s second-floor fitness center and cranked out a few miles on the treadmill while listening to the latest Bill Simmons’ podcast on my iPhone; I felt fortunate to be on the right side of the river.
But indeed, you can get really close to North Korea. Its shoreline offers a depressing vista — nothing but brown low-slung buildings; everything denuded and sad, and it’s hard to imagine any working farm machinery there, let alone Life Fitness treadmills. At night, Dandong is a riot of lights. A few bridges connect Dandong with North Korea, and these, too, are lit with ridiculous rainbow patterns. But the shoreline of North Korea is pitch black, and at nighttime it appears as if Dandong’s bridges lead only into an abyss.
I’ve sort of developed a North Korea fascination in these last months, so of course I wanted to get as close as possible. Just minutes after arriving in Dandong Liu Liu and I met a Chinese woman who offered to take us on a boat tour. She pulled from her jacket a crinkled pamphlet showing the tour highlights, so off we went — what the heck — and soon Liu Liu and I were following this woman to her house, which was more like a hut… and then we were climbing into her boat… and then, a few minutes later, we were about 30 yards from North Korea, and we could see cattle and workers and female military officers giving us wary stares. The tour ended after 30 minutes, which was way shorter than promised, and the tour guide picked this moment to clarify that her quoted 1-1/2-hour tour included the taxi ride to get here. Oh, naturally. That’s China for ya.
It’s probably foolish to conclude with any broad thoughts. Last night, my final one in China, I had dinner with a few other Compoundites — mostly NGO sorts and fellow correspondents. (Including the great Barbara Demick; yes, I’m name-dropping. Apologies. If a Class AA ballplayer had dinner with Joe DiMaggio, he’d name-drop, too.) Anyway, Demick mentioned that the longer she’s lived in China, the less she actually knows. And that sounded pretty insightful, because when a place has 1.4 billion people, it tends to defy generalization. For me, it’s hard to be sentimental about China. But it’s easy to be in awe. The country is filled with traffic and pollution and new money and naked ambition. The country is full of surprises. Suffice to say it was a fun trip, ending as it did with some tame adventures and absolutely zero headlines for page A-6. There’s a reason you don’t criticize the Party when the phones are bugged, and there’s a reason you don’t carry firecrackers when the Maldivian ambassador is around.