The photos he showed me suggest a city of spreading banyan trees along the streets, dilapidated government buildings, and vendors who do not have to run at rumors of the approach of chengguan (“urban management”) officials.
I feel enchanted by the pictures, though some modern Chinese would immediately pronounce such a place “backward,” shabby, definitely unsuitable as a tourist destination.
Strangely, when our landscape becomes dominated by high-rises, boulevards, expansive squares, landmarks, manicured lawns and neon lights, we become a bit nostalgic for the unpretentious old city where children could safely mingle in the neighborhood, vendors could hawk their wares loud and clear in the side lanes, and streets were shaded by the canopy of plane trees.
Today our city consists more of theatricals, props, steady “improvements” better admired by out-of-town tourists, best admired from an air-conditioned limousine.
We have attained nearly all the attributes expected of an international metropolis, but many find something lacking in the over-sanitized landscape.
It has been reported that the Ji’nan City government is housed in a 4 billion yuan (US$640 million) edifice, where the main corridor extends for one kilometer. The government complex, completed in 2007, is the biggest of its kind in China and globally second only to the Pentagon. It is served by 48 elevators.
We are close to another world record, but how many of our readers would prefer to work there?
We now live in a country where constant pursuit of superlatives seldom allows a tree to mature to old age.
Don’t worry, we still have some “underdeveloped” regions that are more than willing to export their huge trees for a sum of money.
The sun and the alignment of constellations used to instill fear in us, so nearly all historic annals kept meticulous records of solar and lunar eclipses and other unusual celestial phenomena as a warning of misrule in the Middle Kingdom, or portents of imminent calamity.
Today we are more or less fearless, though we still get alarmed by the unusual levels of GDP, PPI, or PMI, as spun by the economists, the new age priests. As we know, these figures, subject to the whims of our economists, can trigger feelings of happiness or depression.
We have to resort to these external indices to confirm our inner feelings. And the predictability of our inner feeling is very important for the smooth operation of the social machine.
CCTV recently sponsored a program on “happiness,” by randomly asking people on the street, “Are you happy?”
Before they had time to ask the question, a pedestrian – knowing what they wanted to ask – blurted out: “I am very happy, very happy indeed.”
At a recent forum in Stockholm, newly anointed Nobel Prize laureate in literature Mo Yan was also asked, “Are you happy?” by a young Chinese man, and Mo’s response: “Are you from CCTV?”
In a sense, Mo’s happiness has been firmly confirmed by a panel of overseas art arbitrators. Globalized metrics or awards can immensely flatter our perception of our inner bliss.
Even thoughtful people have to decide about their feelings in reference to standard metrics.
For instance, last Tuesday’s ranking of most clicked articles on caixin.com was: (1) “China’s urban jobless rate is 8.05 percent, for the first six months.” (2) “Survey finds the income gap in China for 2010 well in excess of global average,” and (3) “China’s inflation will spike over 5 percent by the end of next year: Nomura Securities.”
Here our personal feelings are delicately constrained by the global average in employment rate, income, and price level.