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December 29, 1997


Cabbages, coal, and the Siberian chill

by Sarah Beran
   One moment it was a typical autumn day and the next, the howling Siberian wind swirled into Beijing with stinging pieces of ice. The face of the city changed over night. The flatbed bikes that first carried grapes, then oranges and apples have given way to the slightly less tempting fare of cabbages and coal. The cabbage is everywhere--stacked in front of restaurants, piled on rooftops and tucked in the corners of stores. The cold weather has given the outdoors an endless capacity for refrigeration. The locals have dubbed it "the patriotic vegetable" and with typical Chinese stoicism they show their love of the Motherland with each cabbage they consume. The dining hall on campus has perfected the art of hiding the less than appetizing vegetable in all manner of innocent looking dishes. Every truck and bicycle from the country adds to the never ending supply, and the vegetables have to be disposed of somewhere or they would bury the city. I have my doubts whether this particular form of patriotism actually helps the economy as it is purported to do, but it does prevent Beijing from disappearing under a giant mound of cabbage.
   The calm days leave me wishing for the cold wind, for the coal smoke hangs in the still air, seeping into every pore. With the leaves long gone from the trees, the skeletal remains are but another shade of brown in the palette of brown and gray from which the whole city is painted. The wind stirs up clouds of dust and saps all moisture from the air. However, the occasional snowfall lends a distinction and sharpens the edges of every half dead tree and bush, turning Beijing into a pure white city over night.
   The bitter weather has brought out the countless vendors of the unique Beijing "xiao chi," literally meaning small eats. They are the snacks that keep the citizens of the North moving in the dark days of winter. The Beijing penchant for oil and grease extends to this category of food. The fried sticky rice balls with red bean paste, spicy lamb skewers, and egg pancakes all are saturated with the stuff. Yet, the tantalizing smell drifts through the air and tempts the passerby. Candied fruit sticks, still dripping with hot caramelized sugar and hot buns filled with molasses are prepared on the side of the road, each stand attracting yearning glances.
   With the onslaught of winter, Beijing has withdrawn into itself. The people wrap their standard issue People's Liberation Army greatcoats around their shivering bodies and continue going about their daily routine. The once friendly market people have subsided into silence and focus all their attention on keeping warm, a formidable task in the windswept streets. The whole city moves sluggishly along, its actions slowed by the weather, like molasses in February. Even the blaring sound of car and truck horns has somehow lessened. Beijing appears much closer to its past history of hard Communism on these grim winter days.
   Economic reforms have been part of Chinese life since 1978, yet the government, although it has evolved, has not been reformed. Now that my Chinese has improved and I have been able to talk to friends about the political state of the nation, I can see that the government still holds sway over their lives. The newspapers, being state owned, have monitored the information given to the Chinese people since the founding of the Communist state in 1949, or "Liberation" as it is known to the indoctrinated. Never having been given the benefit of accurate journalism, the population has to form its opinions using the false information. My friend asked me how I can know for sure that the books and magazines in the United States are not fabrications. It is difficult even to explain the existence of an independent press over which the government has absolutely no control. The Chinese people have no concept of it.
   My tutor, after our agreeing that the Chinese newspapers act as the voice of the government, went on to say that not many people really know that the Tiananmen Square Incident of 1989 was initiated by people from Taiwan that came over to foment a revolution in China. We in the West know that the incident was begun by dissatisfied Chinese students and workers who were then dispersed with tanks and automatic weapon fire. Beijing people found out after the rest of the world that there had even been an incident, or "accident" as it is called in China, and the facts still remain murky.
   An American educated, Chinese born economics professor who has taken on the task of educating us ignorant Americans has a tendency to skim over facts in class. In 1973, Chairman Mao's successor and would-be assassin attempted escape to Russia via airplane in order to avoid retribution. His plane "crashed" somewhere in Mongolia. China watchers have concluded that his plane was shot down by Mao's orders. This professor trailed off midsentence when talking about the crash. After class, he looked me straight in the eye and said that Mao was very upset when he heard about the accident.
   Many Chinese people have propounded on the munificent way that China has treated her minorities and brought modernization to the furthest reaches of the country. In fact, many if not most minorities chafe under Chinese rule. The Mongolians were forced from their nomadic life into one of farming. The Tibetan's plight is more well known. Their population is slowly dwindling and Han Chinese have been moved into Tibet to replace the Tibetans. One Chinese friend said that the Dalai Lama was an evil man who had initiated riots and murders. Most of the Tibetans did not want him to return, he claimed. When I visited the Tibetan town of Xiahe, every home had a picture of the Nobel Peace Prize winning Dalai Lama. Yet without any concrete information that I can pick up to back up my statements, it is easy to see why propaganda works so well. I have nothing to prove that what I am saying is right; it could just as easily be the West that is spreading propaganda. It is easy to fall under the spell of the positive headlines and persuasive rhetoric, especially when the penalty for not believing has been harsh "reeducation through forced labor" in the past.
   Despite all the suffering and political persecution that the Chinese people have endured, their love of country is an unquenchable emotion. Common taxi cab drivers are moved to eloquence when speaking of the Motherland. In one student's words, "No matter what the government does or what hardships come our way, we have our Motherland. China has a history of 5000 years, we can depend on her. And she will not be complete until Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan have rejoined." Every Chinese born person I have spoken to has expressed unquestioned certainty that Taiwan will eventually return to China. The Chinese people are willing to wait for this to happen, but if Taiwan expresses any overt motions of independence, then every one of the Chinese people to whom I have spoken have declared that they will not hesitate to fight. With the largest standing army in the world, that is a threat worth thinking about.
   The remains of hard Communism are still present in China. In spite of the many problems, the Chinese are by and large willing to overlook the propaganda, the human rights violations, and the lack of personal freedom because their goal right now is economic progress. Once the majority of the population has enough to eat and a place to live, then attention can be turned to other matters. However, the one thing the Chinese people seem to resent the most is the United States' assumption that she can solve China's internal problems, that China is incapable of handling them herself. The trials China has yet to undergo are immense, but through the sheer perseverance of her people, I have no doubt that great things will be accomplished. The Chinese love their country with an emotion that will outlast any regime put into power.