Published: January 31st 2011January 2nd 2011
This was my first visit to mainland China. On the basis of what I had read about the great changes going on in the country, I was curious to see whether I was just in time to see any of the "Old China" before it disappeared under the steamroller of modernisation, industrialisation, westernisation, commercialisation, whatever-isation. Perhaps in a relatively small provincial capital like Kunming, in an outlying and still ethnically diverse province like Yunnan, there would still be something old or traditional to see? Maybe wide elegant tree-lined boulevards crowded with vendors' handcarts and pyjama-clad cyclists? Yeah, right, in your dreams!
My first impressions were disappointing. Tall skyscrapers, streets jammed with cars, big shopping malls, pop music blasting out of the countless clothes shops, blinking neon signs, giant billboards advertising familiar international brands. McDonalds, Pizza Hut, KFC. Oh well, too late I guess. Should have come 20 years ago. The tsunami of globalisation has hit Kunming all right. Did I really expect any different? - how naive is that?
In the centre of town there are very few buildings older than a couple of decades. I heard somewhere that Chinese people prefer to build new, because old buildings might be haunted. No ghosts here then. All the population wear western-style dress. Youths with just-out-of-bed hairstyles, dressed in baggy blue jeans and T-shirts emblazoned with meaningless english texts, hang around on street corners, gazing longingly at all the gadgets and gizmo's in the shop windows, or yelling into their mobile phones. Young women in miniskirts or hotpants totter precariously on their high-heeled boots from shop to shop, like fragile porcelain dolls, clutching their latest purchases in designer bags. "Shop till you drop" is the new ideology.
After walking around the centre of Kunming for a few hours, it became clear to me that China has not merely, as the saying goes, "embraced capitalism". It has positively fornicated with capitalism, stimulating the old whore to new heights of ectasy and delight. The god of conspicuous consumption is even more rampant here than in the West. Conspicuous, ostentatious, and probably unsustainable. This is new, young, vital, dynamic, brash, vulgar, in-yer-face. This is capitalism on steroids.
Marxist-Leninism? The Long March? The Great Leap Forward? The Little Red Book? Cultural Revolution? Red Guards? No, they never happened - that was just a bad dream, forget about it. But...one small irony remains....
The most potent symbol of this neo-capitalist bonanza is the mighty yuan, the Chinese currency that continues to rise remorsely on the global money markets, racing ahead of the dollar and the euro, pushed ever onwards and upwards by a never-ending economic boom, by China's trillion-dollar trade surplus with the West. But on every yuan, on every single banknote, on millions of banknotes of every denomination, there is a picture of a man's face. And this man's face is now incongruous but still strangely, disturbingly, familiar. Back in the good old 1960's, before Reaganomics, before Thatcherism, before the Fall of the Wall, before Globalisation, before the New World Order, that face was everywhere, not just in China, but also in the West. On wall posters, on T-shirts, on placards waved at political street demonstrations in cities throughout the world. This was the face that was going to destroy capitalism, to sweep it away into the dustbin of history, with grim impartial inevitability, just as Marx had predicted. Chairman Mao himself. What exquisite irony is that?
Today, on the Chinese banknotes, that face is as calm, as impassive, as knowing, as inscrutable as ever. There is, without doubt, the faintest hint of a Mona Lisa smile: tantalising, alluring, ambiguous. As I stare now at this face, this puzzling smile, something doesn't quite add up. Is this the mournful avenging ghost at the celebration banquet, the strange dark cloud come - in spite of everything - to rain on our parade? That mysterious Mona Lisa smile: it is almost as though he knows something that we don't.