Our weeks of ‘ethnic-‘ or ‘eco-‘ tourism have me thinking about China’s build-out. Beyond our treasure hunts for un-razed old Beijing, I mean something much bigger. We seem to exclusively pursue the preciously pre-industrial. As if that’s all “Chinese” means–in a human sense, and re: the built environment.
Ethan spit a phrase back at me during our 2 weeks in Yunnan and Guanxi (provinces bordering Vietnam and Burma), a wake-up to how much we chase the quaintly scenic, the un-“spoiled.” In China, the building is happening so fast and all at once, I think it’s part of the knee-jerk anti-China senftiment prevalent now. I think the build-out scares Americans far more than our own (slower, older) devastation of nature.
One day, on mountain bikes, after a long hard climb escaping Lijiang’s city limits, on reaching dirt paths around Lashi Lake–and even there, after crossing giant highway construction–we reached peace, lake, horses, corn fields, big birds (could it be the rare white-necked Tibetan crane?!?).
And Ethan asked, “Are we off the beaten track now?”
Mr. Livingstone, I presume?
I think many Chinese tourists regard, and experience, ethnic minority areas the way many Americans do the Amish. We wrap our fears about modernity, our sense of loss and helplessness, up in a sort of ‘love’ for their ‘natural,’ ‘noble savagery.’ I don’t mean to insult. These narratives are bigger than we are, unconscious.
China is building, everywhere. Yet until now we have hardly posted pictures of this. Our photos are, to some extent, lies. Wish fulfillment. (Fear, idealization, ‘love,’ big narratives, as above.)
In Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart’s classic How to Read Donald Duck , two Chilean radicals’ scathing, landmark 1971 booklet (now a collectors’ item) on imperial relations, framed as an attack on Disney comics, it’s a bullseye when they describe “the historical nostalgia of the bourgeoisie…[for] lost paradise”:
“A Wigwam Motel and a souvenir shop are opened, excursions are arranged. The Indians are immobilized against their national background and served up for tourist consumption. …Stereotypes become a channel of distorted knowledge. …[The] principle [is] … sensationalism, which conceals reality by means of novelty, which not incidentally, also serves to promote sales…”
So here we are ‘consuming’ China–not ours, actually, but someone else’s empire. Ostensibly looking for “reality,” “authenticity,” yet taking so few pictures of the changes underway, the infrastructure rising everywhere. Favoring instead quaint (powerless minorities), color, sensation.
Overpasses cross lakes and soar above villages. Towering dams cement cliffsides. Massive bridges span the Yangtze and tunnels bore through (near Lijiang in Yunnan) mountains. (Same deal in Western Sichuan, now sealed off due to more Tibetan self-immolations and unrest).
In one minority area we visited, near Dali, a fresh village mural educated people about electrification (how not to get electrocuted).
The building is part Keynesian stimulation, keeping the economy percolating (so we read) to avoid a slowdown that could provoke big social unrest. (Vs. the ‘small’ and medium-sized unrest, already occurring, involving hundreds rather than, say, millions.)
Maybe it looked like this in the Eisenhower era when America built out infrastructure.
Kids can study at night in electrified homes. Educated kids won’t need to wade knee-deep all day in cold rice paddies. At that level there’s no righteousness in chasing the “lost paradise.” Hats off to China’s retiring technocratic generation, soon to be replaced.
Yet. What if the build-out is truly ill-conceived? If Party leaders (central and provincial) are so close to the elites who run the state-owned conglomerates, they’ve got hands in eachother’s pockets. If the governing elite simply hired the enterprise-running elite — the state owns the biggest engineering firms, cement manufacturers, transport and energy conglomerates. If they’re investing the nation’s wealth not in education or healthcare, but roads to nowhere, tunnels through mountains, out of nepotism, favoritism, intra-elite self-dealing?
If ethnic tourism is inherently suspect, so is the despoilation we ecotourists are trying to escape, if it’s without checks or balances. So is one-party rule without media watchdogs. All sides of the equation are troubling.