The Weather in China

By Tim Mak on May 1, 2008

Having just returned from a visit to China, I could regale you with anecdotes about my antics abroad. Alternatively, I could unload a bit of my more politically oriented reflections. With the eyes of the world on China, the Olympics, and Tibet, my preference is for the latter. Over the course of my trip, I visited the cities of Hong Kong and Beijing. Since they speak different languages and pursue almost entirely different policies, one might be forgiven for wondering if they belong to the same country at all.

Hong Kong is a shining example of what capitalism can bring to an area focused on economic openness. Hong Kong is like New York's famed Times Square, but everywhere around you. Even residential areas are lit up like trees on Christmas Eve in response to the relative prosperity and buoyancy. Downtown Hong Kong is like a fit of effulgence and one can't help but be excited by this port's unbridled optimism. In the jurisdiction that the Fraser Institute labeled the most economically free in the world, it absolutely felt that way. It seems to me that in Hong Kong, individuals could seize their destinies, grab hold of their natural innovative capabilities and fulfill their inventive potential. I watched the exuberant skyline and realized that in this city, you can make your own decisions - even the bad ones. The air is clear, and friendlier people I have never met.

One feels a seismic shift in the atmosphere when one arrives in Beijing. Smog clogs the lungs while dust coats the tongue, and one finds little to do for fun in a city of state-controlled morality. Police officers stand at major crosswalks and soldiers march by in formation constantly, but this rarely prevents the locals from cheating any and all they perceive to be foreigners. In the city, the sun is but a distant memory of those who sought better conditions in a larger city now wrecked by environmental havoc. There is no sunrise or sunset in Beijing, only fog and cloud and overcast skies for today and tomorrow and the day after that. A Canadian in Beijing must begin to think that even when such despicable weather collides with a Canadian city, one can be reassured that the vegetation is in dialogue with the shrouded skies and hope that the negotiations will end soon. Residents just don’t think this way in Beijing, and simply accept the foul colour of the heavens. The lack of dialogue in the air mirrors the nature of the dialogue on the ground.

Communism here is not a bit conflagrant, lacks excitement and is left presenting nothing but weathered and battered old ideas. There is no variety and there exists no surprises in life - only silence, nationalized order and, for the most part, darkness, both in liberty and in imagination.

It seems to me for the most part that Beijing is a city locked behind something more porous than an iron curtain, something that lets the light in (after all, there's a hole in everything if you look close enough). But the holes are small, and the appetite for political change in the minds of those who hold real power is anything but voracious. While in Beijing, one notices that the homogeneity and suppression of human freedom seems doomed to continue. There’s no mechanism through which people can push for change. It seems that that is why we see the international community so frustrated, and that is why protests broke out across the Western world. Those for a free Tibet can’t get a word in while in China, so they holler themselves coarse on the streets of London, on the boulevards of Paris, and on the slopes of San Francisco.

The world is raining down its demands for the freedom of the oppressed in China. It is disappointing to see, then, that the Chinese have developed a way to control the weather. It's saddening, almost maddeningly so, to see the lost opportunity in what could have been a liberating Olympic Games. But what should one expect from a quasi-police state? Perhaps I’m someone who looks with far too tinted lenses. Maybe I seek out the nooks and crannies devoid of democracy because I value freedom so highly. It’s possible that because of this, my mind exaggerates in both delight and dismay the cities I've seen in the past month. After all, mainland China is not the worst, nor is it the most democratically depraved country in the world. On the other hand, conditions in China should not be acceptable to any of us.

In China, a hit on Wikipedia is an act of dissent, and I saw firsthand what a censored media writes. It embellishes Communist Party successes, and plays down its failures. It ignores those who protest, and misleads if the dissent cannot be hidden behind the printing presses any longer. It is pouring in China, but the newspapers make a suitable shelter from the rain. As I left China for the cover of the West, I found myself pondering the plight of the country where my mother and father were born. I cannot predict the future of those in China, but as my plane hit the tarmac at Chicago’s O’Hare, I realized what needs to be the solution. “Thanks for flying with us today, folks,” the pilot droned. “In Chicago, the time is now 2:54. The forecast—clear and sunny skies, sixty eight degrees.”

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