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Letter from China

By Tim Potier

I am in China, in Chongqing, in the south-west of the country. It is my first time in China. I have friends that have visited. I had noticed, before leaving, that they had spoken much about the food; and yes, I can confirm it is quite different from the typical fare offered in Chinese restaurants in the West. Indeed, I must confess to having sampled things which if I had not been told what they were I would not have the faintest idea about.

Never mind, however unfamiliar, at least to my mind, Chinese cuisine remains delicious. Naturally, I had also been told much about the smog. Truthfully, it is hard for me to make an evaluation here in Chongqing: the city is set beautifully in a range of hills and I am not sure how much of the observable atmosphere is polluted air and how much low cloud cover. From what I have been told, I suspect that much of it is the latter, but, even so, I have to report that in the 10 days since I arrived, I have yet to see the sun.

I have always been struck by the politeness of both the Chinese and Japanese. I am staying in a newly-opened hotel, of probably four-star quality. It consists of 15 floors, appears to be full every night and I am almost certainly the only Westerner staying here. It is a hotel catering very much for the local (Chinese) market. Consequently, I have encountered only one very helpful young lady (with a junior management position) who speaks any English. It is really quite surprising, I must confess, to meet young staff members who literally do not know a single word of English. Despite the ordeal (for them) in having to serve me, I am struck by their patience, grace and courtesy. How such nations of people, like the Chinese, put us Westerners to shame.

In our corner of the globe, we like to regard ourselves as being so advanced and superior. We still continue to park our backsides in the remaining corners, belching out our values to peoples we regard as little more than our inferiors. We feel the incessant urge to teach them things we believe they might not know, although, in my experience, usually they do. These attitudes of ours fill me with embarrassment and bewilderment. After all, we choose to forget that whilst, once upon a time, many nations were in the intellectual and technological ascendant, much of the Western world was backward. I get the impression (here in China) that the streets are safe to walk in and that there is relatively little crime. I had been warned that, in cities like Chongqing, Westerners are a novelty and I can confirm that I do, from time to time, get stared at.

China is, of course, a one-party state. By now, it is Communist probably in name only. Religious adherence in public is tolerated, but closely monitored. It is probably not a good idea for anyone from the West to advertise their own political sympathies too much. Nevertheless, the people here do not appear to be unduly concerned. Naturally, I have no doubt that they have their grievances, including towards the authorities, air-quality being principal among them; but I do not sense any tension here. The one thing I have observed is the long hours and long working weeks that most people appear to be subject to. The weekend does not have the same sanctity that it does in the West, and I do feel, from what I have read in the past, that not enough emphasis is placed on the value and importance of downtime.

I have avoided talking politics to the locals here, but it is clear that they are concerned by the levels of corruption in the country. I have been aware for some time that the government is doing its best to tackle the problem, but it appears to be fairly widespread and well-established. In this respect, I would regard this as one of the leading priorities of this ever-successfully- developing nation in the coming decades. I rather suspect, though, that the Communist Party will maintain singular control for some years yet and, indeed, I wonder whether Western-style liberal democracy will ever lay down solid roots here. Many of you will read this column on my birthday (St Patrick’s Day). I fly back to London on the 18th. I very much hope I will return soon. I like it here.


Dr. Tim Potier is Principal Lecturer in Law at Coventry University

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