Two years ago I visited a military hospital in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang province in northern China. While it was supposed to be an educational tour, the experience was more akin to a surreal amusement park ride. The hospital was the standard hospital green, but to liven up the walls, decorators had hung photographs of goiters, rashes, birth defects, and close up shots of swollen … never mind. In front of a particularly lunch-ruining display, a grandmother helped her grandson urinate on the floor.
Two years later, I was waiting at the Shanghai Pudong airport for a friend to arrive from France. While it usually takes an hour or less to clear customs, this time she was held for nearly three hours. One hour on the plane being inspected by people in chemical warfare suits, and then another hour or so to wait for the luggage to come out – each bag had to be opened and somehow sterilized, and given that my friend had just spent the week backpacking without access to a laundromat, I’m surprised her luggage wasn’t simply incinerated.
Yes, China is learning Western-style hygiene. It has also learned something from the most paranoid of all nations, the US, about how to go overboard when it comes to safety. In its drive to be seen as a responsible protector of the national health, China is alienating much of Latin America and scaring people out of their wits. Draw your parallels to the Bush administration here. Fortunately, swine flu is no where near as lethal as SARS was; unfortunately, Beijing is wasting a lot of money and energy protecting people from a disease which is, in fact, simply an intense form of the flu that is only really dangerous to those with weak immune systems. The nation that once bragged to the US that it had enough population to spare to survive a nuclear war is now freaking out over a disease that is dangerous, yes, but a Black Plague? No.
In fact, I have seen a wider adoption of American-style control-freak behavior of the least efficient sort. In Chengdu, for example, once a free-wheeling feeding frenzy of bicycle mania, cross walk guards have begun forcing bicyclists to cross intersections counter-clockwise, which means that one must wait for three light changes to make a u-turn. At the same time, cars continue to drive down sidewalks like they are in a chase scene in a movie. Of all the American practices to adopt, this sort of niggling pointless enforcement is the worst. Next thing you know, you won’t be able to drink in public any more – there’s already a campaign against wearing pajamas in public, and as far as CER staff are concerned, the two are inseparable. Better environmental protections and manufacturing quality standards? By all means, copy the West. But when it comes to social mores, I hope China intelligently avoids adopting the worst the US has to offer. People get sick, people die, people ride bicycles the wrong way up the street. Sometimes in pajamas. In the US, people may believe that any and all of these things are errors to be corrected by tort claims and SWAT teams, but I hope China goes its own way.