A slightly belated post for Whose World Order? This time looking at the preparations for the Year of the Rabbit. Happy Chinese New Year all!
Date: 1st February 2011 | Author: Raffaello Pantucci,
Someone recently told me that with China, you have to add a zero to everything to get the proportions right. Major cities like Beijing or Shanghai are the same, or larger, in population than many European nations. The online population of netizens is now estimated to be around 400 million, more than there are US citizens. Similarly, this time of year, Chunjie (Spring Festival or Chinese New Year), somewhere in the region of 230 million people will make train journeys to get home for the festival. It is a well-worn cliché, but these mind-boggling scales are important to bear in mind when one makes any consideration about why China acts in the way that it does.
Long queues are already forming at train stations and ticket offices as people wait to buy tickets for trains home: in an attempt to stop scalping (which of course still takes place) you can only buy tickets ten days ahead of time, but this means that on days when everyone wants to travel, like clockwork, 10 days out you have a long queue. In Beijing the other day it was reported that all tickets from the city sold out in half an hour. Given the fact that at this time of year everyone tries to get back home to see family (and in Shanghai alone it is estimated there are some 3 million migrant workers), you can imagine how hectic these queues can get. In one incident doing the rounds, an infuriated migrant worker named Chen Weiwei stripped naked and ran into the station controllers office in Jinhua, East Zhejiang, after he waited for 14 hours on two consecutive days to get tickets to go home.
Marketplaces are full of red rabbit stuff. Red is the color of prosperity and happiness, and we are about to enter the year of the rabbit (fyi, we are just leaving the year of the tiger). Strings of faux silk lanterns, chili’s, zodiac characters, large pieces of cardboard with Chinese characters emblazoned on them in gold, and all manner of small red envelopes in which you put money to give to people to say thanks fill market stalls and doorways. The intense red masks the low quality of the items, which I discovered are apparently mass-produced in Guangzhou.
But there is a darker side to this time of year too: friends have told me that they have encountered a growing number of pickpockets. This is common at this time of year as people start to get desperate and realize that they might not have the money to get back home and they do stupid things in an attempt to raise money. It is seen as a great humiliation to not be able to make the family migration for Chinese New Year and as a result there is a usually a spike in petty theft at this time of year as people make one last desperate pitch to raise cash.
Police are also kept busy with an increasing number of drunk drivers. Similar to Christmas time, this time of year is full of heavy drink laden meals resulting in inebriated individuals deciding a drive home is a sensible idea. And of course fireworks become ubiquitous, resulting in invariable fires. In 2009 188 people were killed in explosions related to fireworks at around this time, though this was down on an average of 400 per year between 1986 and 2005.
The authorities are aware of all of this and in response have launched an anti-crime campaign nationally to address these issues, “as the spring festival approaches, mass activities, traffic, fire control and other agencies are adding more security measures for our society.” And while this can be dismissed as the usual government-speak, the CCP is acutely aware of the importance of this holiday to the public. In 2008 when heavy snows brought parts of the rail network to a standstill as people were making their annual pilgrimages home, Premier Wen Jiaobao went to train station platforms in Hunan and Guangzhou to apologize and reassure people that the government was doing as much as it could. Given the bad weather we have already had this year, it is possible that he and Mr Hu will have to do this again this year. The alternative would be the possible wrath of the many thousands who would be directly affected, and the further sympathetic anger expressed by the many millions of others who would scold the government (either openly, online or in conversation amongst each other) for failing to provide adequate services for the public. In Chinese officialdom’s mind, who knows what this might escalate in to?
Chinese officials regularly berate foreigners for pressuring them to do too much too fast, complaining that they are still a “developing country” with domestic priorities which are more important than any foreign entanglements. It can be a frustrating perspective to encounter, but at the same time, at this time of year, it is a bit easier to understand what they mean.