Near Seven Stars Village, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,131 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,804 km
I was about 40 kilometers northeast of the river town Wushan, up on the mountains at about the 1,250-meter level, when I came upon four young boys dancing along the road, waving bouquets of flowers around as if they were ecstatic bridesmaids. They were shouting and laughing, thrusting the bunches of pink flowers into the air and grabbing at each other’s blooms.
As I caught up with them, they were striking poses before a traffic mirror on a sharp curve in the road, holding the flowers high and admiring themselves. All rather camp.
Then I noticed they were eating the petals. Or almost gobbling them up. I asked them for the name of the flower, and after some discussion they decided on “Ying Shan Hong” (Reflecting Mountain Red).
“Are you sure you can eat them?” I asked.
“Oh yes!” they shouted.
“They taste sour,” said one boy. I pulled a petal off one of the bouquets and nibbled at it. It tasted more tangy than sour, a sweetish tartness that was reminiscent of berries.
We walked together for a while, but they were not really paying attention to anything except for the flowers. Before we parted, they gave me a big sprig, and I continued to nibble on the petals throughout the day, enjoying the taste but getting none of the buzz they seemed to be experiencing.
As I passed a toll booth later in the day, still chewing on a petal, the guy in charge confirmed the name of the flower but added: “You can’t eat it.” Too late, I already had.
Close to the top of the ridge, I saw three guys, maybe late 20s, sitting in a doorway, and said hello. They invited me to sit with them, as does everyone in this hospitable region.
“What are you doing on this road?” asked one, who later gave his name as Mr Yuan.
“Walking,” I replied. “I have walked from Shanghai.”
“And where are you going?”
“Tibet, and then maybe Kashgar and Kazakhstan.”
“Tibet? Don’t you help the Tibetan independence people.”
“That is not my problem to solve,” I replied, with a smile. “The fate of Tibet is in your hands, not mine. But it is a problem that needs solving.”
“Tibet is part of China,” he proclaimed.
“I don’t think anyone is disputing that Tibet is now a part of China,” I replied. “From what I know, the people there are not asking for independence, they are asking for respect for their culture.”
“China is a powerful country,” he declared.
“I am sure everyone in Tibet today can feel that power,” I replied.
“Which country do you come from,” he asked.
“I was born in England.”
“England is a friendly country toward China,” he said, as if he was in training for a job with the Information Department of the Foreign Ministry.
“Is it? Okay,” I said. “That’s good.”
“China wants peace, but America always wants to go to war. Look at Iraq,” he said.
Now, I believe that the US made a terrible blunder in 2002 by not focusing on finding and killing bin Laden and thereby ensuring al Qaeda was headless before plunging into regime change in Iraq. But on the other hand, my instinct in these random political discussions in the countryside is to offer an alternative point of view wherever possible, to introduce the concept of pluralism and especially to challenge official mouthpiece pronouncements such as those offered by Mr Yuan.
“Well,” I said, “a key cause of the Iraq war was 9/11 and the ultimate goal of the US in the Middle East is stable oil supplies, which China needs as much as the US. China is now dependent on imported oil and needs a stable Middle East. So we all have to hope the US does not lose.”
“Taiwan,” he said, changing the subject. “That is our biggest problem.”
“Taiwan,” I replied, “is no longer a problem. The Kuomintang are back in power, they have renounced independence and everyone in Taiwan just wants the status quo.”
“But we must unify the motherland!”
I mentally rolled my eyes.
“The Communist Party right now absolutely does not want unification with Taiwan,” I said. “They also want the status quo. Unification could destabilize the mainland political situation in all sorts of ways.”
“Chairman Hu and Premier Wen love the people,” he said.
“Is it possible they would hate the people?” I asked. “But they do seem to be doing a pretty good job. China is more and more open and linked into the rest of the world, which is good. It was closed for so long.”
“You are English,” he said.
“The opium war …” he said.
“Well, the opium war was an act of exasperation by the West to open China,” I said, holding to my determination to challenge all clichés. “China was selling huge quantities of tea and porcelain to Europe but would buy nothing back. Finally, they found something the Chinese people wanted to buy.”
“Do you think the Olympics will be successful?” he asked.
“Should be. I hope so.”
“What happened in France to the Olympic torch was not right,” he said.
“Maybe, but that was one person, or a group of people. It was not France. For people in the West, a basic principle is freedom of speech. The sight of all those Chinese people stopping other people expressing their views – this is the Communist Party taking a short-term benefit for itself but sacrificing the long-term image of the Chinese people in the eyes of the world. Not good,” I said.
It was not an aggressive conversation, just an exchange of views on a rainy day, and we parted with an exchange of names and mobile numbers. Peaceful evolution, one person at a time. It was good to get it all off my chest, anyway.
My overall impression is that ordinary Chinese people are just beginning to think about politics again for the first time since 1989. The consequences of that reawakening could be huge, and will overall be positive, even if we don’t feel comfortable with some of the things we hear along the way.
The conversation had to start somewhere, and it could be that the Beijing Olympics will one day be viewed as the trigger for significant changes with the Chinese people not only standing up, but also speaking out.