This is an incomplete, work-in-progress description of my travels from 1990-2009 in the China-Tibet borderlands, following in the footsteps of botanist Joseph Rock. Will be adding chapters and pics when they are ready - expected completion date November 2009. Contact me on mutikonka [AT] gmail,com

Friday, March 6, 2009

Chapter 22: MEETING AN ACTIVIST

In Jinghong I sold my almost-new mountain hike for 200rmb less than I paid for it, to the rent-a-bike man at the Banna Hotel, and bought bus ticket to Dali. But before I handed the bike over I went for one last spin, down Manting Road to see the cabaret restaurants at dusk. Outside the gates of the many Dai restaurants were troupes of dancing girls and heavily rouged young men squatting with their drums and cymbals, waiting to begin their performance to entice the evening's customers.

I returned to Chuchu's, to watch the world go by on my last evening. Jinghong was now filling up with Chinese tourists for the water-splashing festival. They walked in family and factory groups past the outside tables of Chuchu's, staring at the westerners eating their hamburgers and chips. The westerners didn't notice. The Chinese men wore white shirts rolled up to expose their stomachs, and they turned up their grey trousers to the knee, showing off their pale, hairless legs and the translucent nylon socks that they wore inside their plastic sandals. The men also carried plastic handbags or carrier hags for their belongings. The Chinese women tourists were all dressed up in cheap imitations of flouncy Hong Kong fashions: all frilly necks and lacy sleeves.

Robert, the Taiwanese businessman, was still lazing around at Chuchu's. He laughed at my failed attempt to cycle to Dali, and bought me an ice cream. 'Now you can stay for the festival.' he said. 'No thanks.' I felt I'd seen enough of 'Banna. and didn't fancy the idea of being drenched by a bunch of Hong Kongers and German tourists, That night, as I pored over my dog-eared maps, a young Chinese man with an earnest, handsome face appeared at my table. He introduced himself in English as Michael, from Kunming, and asked if he could he join me. This was quite unusual.

Michael said he had come to Xisuanbanna on his honeymoon. I congratulated him and his wife who came over to join us. She was a small, coquettish woman, smartly dressed as if just going out for some karaoke. She didn't speak English, and sat quietly sipping her pineapple milkshake all night as Michael told me his story. Unlike most Chinese, Michael was willing to talk about politics. He had been a student leader in the democracy movement in Kunming during 1989. After the Tiananmen Square shootings, he had been arrested, but thanks to his family's high connections in the Party he was not jailed. Instead, he was kicked out of the research institute where he worked as biologist, and declared 'persona non grata' in Kunming.

xishuanbanna china 1994

He had spent the last three years working at an electronics factory in Shenzhen. 'But I got sick of being treated as a second-class citizen by the Hong Kong and Taiwanese bosses there,' he said. 'Even the Cantonese people treated us inlanders as second class. I wanted to come home.' But when he returned to Kunming he still got the official cold shoulder. 'In private, my old friends and colleagues were pleased to see me, but in public they did not want to be seen with me, and had to criticise me,' he said. 'So I thought I'd come down here and start a new life. This is both a honeymoon and a research trip,' he laughed.

A friend of his was starting a new tourist 'beach' development or the banks of the Mekong, and haul invited Michael to be a manager there. 'Banna is a rapidly developing tourist and business area. There are lots of opportunities to make money here. You can see all the nice cars.' said Michael. His wife looked bored. 'What do you do?' I asked. 'I'm a nurse,' she said, uninterested, slurping her straw. They seemed an odd match, this young activist and his doll-like wife. Michael wanted to tell me all about his democracy movement experiences, but his new wife looked like she'd heard it all before, and started to sulk. 'I'd do it all again if! had the chance.' said Michael. 'Otherwise I would regret it all my life.'

What had they hoped to achieve in the 1989 movement, I asked? 'We just warned the government to talk to us. to be more open. We wanted to discuss things like corruption and the bad food in the university. In the 1980s the media had become more open, and ail these things were coming out. The government didn't like it,' he said. 'Now, of course, the government is very strict with the media. They are very smart, they know what they have to do to prevent another movement. They also improved the food for the students: these are the two most important things!' he laughed. 'And now we have economic openness. People just want to make money. Everyone has forgotten about politics,' he said sadly.

'I talked to some of my old friends from the 1989 days. Now they are not interested in talking about that kind of thing any more,' he said. I asked Michael his opinion of the present Chinese government. 'The government actually now allows very loose control so long as people show respect to the government,' he said. 'Like here in 'Banna, they leave the Dai people alone to do their own things.'

I asked him what he thought would happen to Hong Kung after 1997. 'The Chinese government will leave Hong Kong alone, I think. But the government will have to be respected.' And Tibet? 'I think the west discriminates against China on Tibet. China has put a lot of investment into Tibet, much more than they are taking out in wood or minerals. But there is a lot of damage to the environment.'

I changed the subject because I wanted to know how easy it was to set up a small business in China. How about starting up a cafe like Chuchu's, for example? Quite easy, said Michael. It would need about 10,000rmb at most, plus health and trading licenses and tax inspections. 'This means you have to give these people a lot of face, give them good dinners and show them respect. Especially the tax inspectors, otherwise they could make life very difficult,' he said. The tax inspectors made their 'on-the-spot' judgments on how much tax was due: small businesses didn't keep accounts, and there were no fixed tax rates. Taxation was arbitrary.

'And how do state employees on fixed salaries survive with inflation running at 30-50%?' I asked. 'A lot of them use their position to obstruct things, to get a tip. Especially from businessmen. If they know you have money, they will expect a tip to make things work more quickly." Michael, the same age as me, was not worried about preparing for retirement; ('You don't need much in China,*) or about housing. But he was concerned about the cost of healthcare. 'If I had to go to hospital for one month it would cost me thousands of renminbi, and I couldn't afford it,' he said.

At the end of a long evening, I did a favour for the cafe owner,' Wang, by copying out some new English menus for him. Then he called me over with a friendly wave and I thought he was going to give me a free drink or piece of watermelon, but it was just the bill: and no discount. In China, friendship and business were never far apart - and it was hard to tell one from the other.

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Medical writer, user of Rolleiflex and Leica film cameras, China-phile and Brompton bike rider. Editor of http://www.chinesemedicalnews.com  Originally from Yorkshire.

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