Happy and Unhappy in China

Laughing through the airpocalypse, no longer laughing at a familiar joke
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This new video by Stephy Chung, shot over the past few days of worse-than-ever airpocalypse in Beijing, is worth noticing for several reasons:

- If you've spent any time in Beijing, you'll recognize many of the scenes and even more of the details and moves. A high proportion of the people shown are foreigners, along with young Chinese dancing the way people would in any country. But the stretch from 1:10 to 1:20 is a little distillation of Chinese-style public dance and movement. On walks in Beijing I have stopped to watch the very people shown in this passage, and I've talked with the elegant woman who pops in at 1:15 (just before the pink-haired girl with Mickey Mouse sweater). Plus, where else do you see such enjoyment of haw-on-a-stick? (The red things starting at 0:47) And the heavy tarpaulins at subway and store entrances, and the little ceramic pots of yogurt, and lots more.

- The clip also shows the hunkered-down nature of winter in big city China -- the bulky coats, the hats and gloves, the general discomfort. And of course the air, which I won't belabor except to say that all the messages I've received from friends in Beijing this week center on the unendurable new level of pollution. And the willed denial of those circumstances that is necessary to get through the day.

         ++ Bonus policy point: In the largest sense, "sustainability" is obviously the challenge for any society or economic system. But in a very immediate way, environmental sustainability is by far the largest and most urgent challenge for China. The country's blackened skies, poisoned lands and waters, and untrustworthy food are a public health menace; they are an emerging political threat to the government; they are the main challenge that China's rise creates for the world as a whole. ++

- The video is obviously a planned and staged production, but it both portrays on purpose and captures by accident some of the individualistic spontaneity and chaos of Chinese life, which for me is an enormous part of the appeal of the place and its people.*

- It's also a complement to the Pomplamoose version of the same song I mentioned recently. If you didn't see that before, you should see it now: it's embedded once more down below.

On the other hand: yesterday the latest offering from the state-controlled China Daily arrived inside the WaPo at our house. The pages look a little wrinkled here due to exposure to yet another dose of the unending polar-vortex snow:

I've always joked that the China Daily was my favorite newspaper, because it so often rivals The Onion in the earnest preposterousness of its views. 

The joke is wearing off for me, because of the crackdown on international and domestic reporters underway this past year in China. It's harder and harder for outsiders even to get visas there. (On my latest trip three months ago, I got no word about my visa until literally the day before departure, and this for a gathering that the Chinese government itself had authorized. The visa was for a single entry only, and ten days' stay.) It's riskier for domestic reporters to look into "sensitive" matters, above all involving the personal fortunes of the rulers' families. Last month, civil-society advocates in Hong Kong were alarmed when the editor of a leading independent newspaper there, Kevin Lau of Ming Pao, was fired after his paper had undertaken some muckraking investigations of the mainland leadership. A few days ago in Hong Kong he was stabbed, in a still-unexplained but ominous attack.  (I discussed this yesterday on Here and Now, along with Shirley Yam of Hong Kong.)

So drollery about "my favorite newspaper" doesn't seem as droll any more. And although I understand all the logical reasons why China Daily should be able to piggyback on the Washington Post -- it's a free country, the material is marked as a special supplement, closing down info is never a good answer, the WaPo needs the money --  the contrast is grating. At a time when China is trying to keep foreign reporters from even entering its country, it's injecting a direct shot of Chinese-government perspective into our capital-city papers. This is not "dangerous" in any way, but it's annoying.


Bonus point one, the Pomplamoose cover of Pharrell Williams's Happy. 

*Bonus point two, a passage from China Airborne that is relevant in weighing the always-mixed news out of that country.

The plainest fact about modern China for most people on the scene often seems the hardest to grasp from afar. That is simply how varied, diverse, contradictory, and quickly changing conditions within the country are.

Any large country is diverse and contradictory, but China’s variations are of a scale demanding special note. What is true in one province is false in the next. What was the exception last week is the rule today. A policy that is applied strictly in Beijing may be ignored or completely unknown in Kunming or Changsha. Millions of Chinese people are now very rich, and hundreds of millions are still very poor. Their country is a success and a failure, an opportunity and a threat, an inspiring model to the world and a nightmarish cautionary example. It is tightly controlled and it is out of control; it is futuristic and it is backward; its system is both robust and shaky.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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