Sunday, October 14, 2012

Politics on Chongqing's Streets

I'm in Chongqing again. It rains every morning, and stops in the afternoon. The roads and ground stay wet.  I take my parents, who are in their mid-80s with deteriorating health, to walk after the rain, and work on my memoir in the evening.

Yesterday was Saturday and I went with my sister to Jiangbei's "Pedestrian Boulevard" in the afternoon. A friend who had visited Chongqing in the summer told me that she saw men gathered there debating current affairs. Apparently it is a lasting phenomenon, as I’d heard the same thing from someone else during this visit. I was curious.

Jiangbei Pedestrian Boulevard, October 13, 2012

The "Pedestrian Boulevard" was so crowded, "not even a drop of water could trickle through" (水泄不通), to quote a Chinese cliché. Eventually, in front of the New Century apartment store, I found several circles of men.  In each circle, one man stood in the center speaking loudly and excitedly, and others surrounding him listening attentively, chirping in now and then.

They were all men, most looking to be of retirement age. No women in the talkers' circles, though I saw a couple sitting under a tree nearby, not paying attention. My appearance thus caused a small disturbance. A few men approached me, and I asked them what they were talking about. I'm not sure what they thought I was – a journalist perhaps? – but they immediately started to voice their opinions, nearly shouting: "We want a multi-party system!" "We want democracy!"

"Don't you worry about the police?"  I said.

"Why, as long as we are not overshooting the mark," one said.

"You think asking for democracy is excessive?  Your thoughts are so backward!" another man sneered.

"Did you dare to talk like this when Bo Xilai was in power?"

A pause. Then an old man said, "We still did, just a lot less." 

"I heard that many Chongqing residents supported Bo Xilai?" I said.

"Those are just housewives!  We men care about current affairs and know better!  Women have long hair, short sight!" The first man said.

I touched my shoulder-length hair and smiled, "Is my hair long?"

The man replied, "I'm not talking about you!"

I squeezed into a circle and listened a bit. The speaker was saying that one crime of Bo Xilai's has yet to be exposed: selling human organs. "One organ can sell for millions of dollars in America," he said. His audience smacked their lips.

It appeared to me that the listeners were thirsty for information, and the speakers were satisfying them with hearsay.

My sister stood behind the audience of another circle.  She told me later that the speaker was talking about grave problems with China's medical system.

It's comic that, during the National Day holidays in early October, Beijing's central television aired a program titled "Are You Happy?" Its reporters travelled all over the country to ask citizens the question, and on the screen everyone said yes. Not a single person said no. The program got lots of boos on the internet.  It's just hard to believe that CCTV, or whoever was behind the program, would be so dim.  "It's like asking for a slap on its face," one netizen commented.

So, arguably, a case can be made that information from any source is no more flawed than what comes from the official media.

My friend He Shu, a Chongqing historian, tells me that spontaneous gatherings like the one I saw have appeared in several areas of Chongqing.  On Yangjiaping's Pedestrian Boulevard, he says, there are some regular speakers making intelligent remarks on current affairs and have attracted quite some audience. Again, most of the men are retired, and aging seems to instill a more urgent need in them to see a change in their country while there's still time.