Thursday, June 04, 2009

Freedom: India vs China

I have been meaning to write this entry for a long time. On the 20th anniversary of June 4, I should no longer put this off.

During our earlier 1997 India trip, we were so busy getting over culture shock, fending off scams, and keeping our wits about us, that the fact that India was largest democracy in the world eluded us. Being older and wiser and having lived China, this time the clues were everywhere.
  • I had already covered TV in an earlier post.
  • Every city, at least the ones you have heard of, but not even able to place on a map, has at least one English language newspaper, in addition to all the papers in the various Indian languages. We would get those papers at the door of our hotel rooms, in hotel lobbies, and castoff on the train, which is pretty much the same as when we travel in the US. In China there are not nearly as many papers, let alone the English ones, which I can probably count on one hand.
  • Those Indian papers are very entertaining to read. In addition to their quaint usage of the English language, the content is interesting, though the format is the pretty much the same as in the US. There is a lot more news and commentary, ranging from International (e.g. presidential elections in US), Regional (e.g. how to deal with Pakistan), National (e.g. bashing politicians and political parties), Local (e.g. elephant stampede at a temple festival). Sports must be 80% cricket, 10% soccer, and 10% other. Bollywood stars get loads of attention. Every paper we came across had at least one piece on the movie Slumdog Millionaire.
  • We left before the recent big Indian elections, but there were pretty many billboards. Since these are typically in the local language, is hard for me to tell what they are pitching. I had thought some were gurus looking to increase disciples. Yes!
In China, there is none of this press freedom. Don't even think about full fledged political parties or elections. There are plenty of temples and a few churches for the appearance of religious freedom. They all really report to Beijing. I would not be surprised that the abbot of a Buddhist Temple is a card-carrying Communist party member, much like the president of Bank of China. There are gatherings, but no organized clubs of any kind, unless it's about making money. The persecution of Falun Gong pretty much saw an end to that. 杀鸡给猴看 (Kill the chicken to show the monkey).

Most Chinese simply do not associate the word "freedom" to political freedom as there is plenty of personal freedom. For example, one of John's coworker's reported that he bought a car for the "freedom" to drive where he wanted.

There are four vices in the Chinese tradition, 吃喝嫖赌 (dining, wining, whoring, gambling).
  • Dining: Today, people gorge themselves with every kind of food. In the past, by necessity or culture, Chinese pretty much ate anything that was eatable. The tradition continues even though there is a excess amount of protein, medical technology, etc., while the natural supply of certain "foods" are diminishing or extinct. I don't really want to get into that here. In India, Hindus do not eat beef and most are lacto-vegans. Muslims do not eat pigs. The two countries stand at the very opposite ends of the spectrum.
  • Wining: In most states in India, the alcohol tax is pretty high. Not many people smoke to start with and no smoking signs are strictly observed. In China on the other hand, alcohol is widely available and cheap, though not to our taste. The effects of alcohol are not easily observed publicly, unlike smoking. This is how John puts it, Chinese men smoke everywhere, as Indian men pee everywhere. The only "No Smoking" signs that are observed are those on airplanes. No smoking hotel rooms are unheard of. In fact, you can easily smell your neighbors smoking through the walls? or electrical outlets?
  • Whoring: In China, houses of ill repute can be anywhere, like next to a daycare, since there are no zoning regulations to speak of. If you are not careful, you may walk into one thinking you are getting a haircut - I once did that in Saigon, Vietnam. I learned to spot them, but did not spot any in India.
  • Gambling: Mahjong and card games are all over China, in shops, parks, sidewalks, courtyards.... At first I had naively thought people were just killing time. Then someone said to me during our travels, "everyone in this town is either gambling or owns their own business. Those are the only two ways to prosper."
One of the favorite things we liked about India is the MRP, Maximum Retail Price. It is printed on all the packaged goods. This is very useful, especially for us travelers. In China, businesses feel free to charge whatever they want, whatever the market will bear. You are free to do anything to make money like polluting rivers, enslaving underage miners, and adulterating baby food until something bad happens.

An oppressive regime must allow excessive personal freedom, since the hold on the people is tenuous to start with, otherwise there may be uprisings to deal with.

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