What Can China Teach London About a "Harmonious Society"?

Tonight, at PowerHouse Arena, it is the Brooklyn Launch Party for Tom Scocca’s Beijing Welcomes You, a nonfiction chronicle of what Beijing has so recently become. As China is now (well, as usual) so much in the news, we asked him some questions!

Choire Sicha: Tom Scocca, as you have written a book called Beijing Welcomes You: Unveiling the Capital City of the Future, which is brand new and good and also a book I have read, you are the only expert on China.* (*That I personally know.) Is this a great week for China or what?

Tom Scocca: If you set aside the fact that all the American debt China owns is turning into junk bonds, then, yes, it’s a happy time for the People’s Republic. London, which did not have the foresight to strangle Twitter and Facebook, is being torn apart by riots, only a year before it is supposed to host the Olympics. The 50 Cent Army of China’s government-backed Internet commenters is apparently having a parade to celebrate.

Choire: Today the “Wen Wei Paper” (sort of “News of the World” but with extra party cronyism) seems to be loudly saying that the U.S. owes every Chinese citizen 5700 yuan. (That would be $886.) Is this true? Do we???

Tom: Seems plausible. I’ve still got a few hundred yuan kicking around my desk drawer. That may turn out to be my most prudent investment holding.

Choire: You’re an entry-level currency trader! Right, so not only is China making fun of our “downgrade,” they are also making fun of the current “lawlessness” of London. Now, obviously, you were there in Beijing before the last Olympics. Were there chavs looting all the time?

Tom: There most emphatically were not. There was one person who stabbed an American to death at the Drum Tower, an event that was ascribed to insanity and quickly buried in the press, thanks to a total lack of information. And there was some sort of protester or streaker at the closing ceremony, likewise crazy, according to the best (only) available information. And the Free Tibet people climbed a flagpole early on. But beyond that, it was Harmonious Society 24/7. What’s more: after the stabbing, they outlawed the sale of all kitchen knives throughout the city. We went to the newly opened upscale-kitchen-implements store, where they had like all the All-Clad equivalent cookware and silicone basting brushes a First World cook could hope to see, to get poultry shears to cut up food for the growing child, and the sharp-objects section had been swept clean.

Choire: That’s the kind of harmony that countries like England and the U.S. have a hard time making happen. For instance, mandating alternate driving days with even and odd license plate numbers, as China did. But it seems to me that there is a very China-specific relationship to law and order. Let me quote from your book!

My first trip to the inner sanctum was for a press conference on forestry. On the way, we hit a traffic jam on the Second Ring. The left lane had closed to regular traffic, as one of the reserved Olympics lanes, and through some sort of traffic-engineering algebra, half as many private cars driving in two-thirds as many lanes worked out to much worse traffic than usual. When he saw me looking at my watch, the cabbie began fighting his way around the traffic, tapping his horn with his thumb. To keep demonstrating his concern, he continued tooting along the Third Ring when we got there, even though there was no Olympic lane and the traffic was fine.

“The Olympic things are only convenient for the Olympics,” I said, in a flash of Mandarin competence. “For everyone else, they’re annoying.” The driver clapped a hand over his mouth and held it there theatrically. Then he put it back on the steering wheel. “Understand?” he said.

Choire: In America and in London, we’d just be loudly and grandly beefing about such things.

Tom: Would we really, though?

Choire: Hmm! Well we do not make jokes in airports, true.

Tom: Four years before those Olympics, you and I had the pleasure of seeing the Republican National Convention in New York, did we not?

Choire: I recall it well! Okay, I recall it hazily.

Tom: It might have been more memorable if the mayor had not locked up a few hundred would-be protesters before the whole event began.

Choire: Yes, the preemptive and illegal incarceration! That was not very “American.” In which 1800 people were arrested, almost all of whom had charges dropped. (And charges of “resisting arrest” were fabricated.) Lawsuits, etc. Much, much more.

Tom: So these major made-for-TV events share a certain logic, all around the world.

Choire: And I can’t imagine that London will be any less “vigilant,” given that it is a near-total surveillance society, and that the 7/7 bombings were only six years ago.

Tom: Yes. The West sold China a lot of facial-recognition and crowd-behavior-processing surveillance software to help guarantee a peaceful Olympics.

Choire: That’s nice of us! And in fact, you write, China also had designated protest zones: “During the games, an official announced, there would be official protest zones in three city parks. Reporters huddled up afterward to figure out where the third of the parks, World Park, which nobody had heard of, was located — halfway out to Hebei Province, it seemed. But the other two, Purple Bamboo Park and the Altar of the Sun Park, weren’t bad.”

Tom: Yes. And then the people who applied to use them were arrested.

Choire: Well that does have a certain logic.

Tom: It does. It is tidy. Ultimately, the I.O.C. endorsed that logic.

Choire: The IOC takes the Olympics max seriously. As a “China Expert,” you have been doing things like TV and radio all over the fine United States of America. What sort of questions do you get asked? Are they… dumb?

Tom: Not at all.

Choire: I am shocked.

Tom: Many of the questions exist in a realm beyond “smart” or “dumb”; they are simply the questions that are out there being asked: “Is China really going to surpass the United States?”

Choire: Is China going to surpass the United States?

Tom: In what? Total surface area? We’re tied, basically, depending on some tricky issues about how to count bodies of water.

Choire: Haha.

Tom: Population? China is already far ahead. Money? We’re still ahead, there. There were, in fact, echoes of this in the Olympic medal count.

Choire: Oh right. There was much to-do.

Tom: China won! Also the United States won. China won 51 gold medals to the United States’ 36. The United States won 110 medals to China’s 100.

Choire: That’s a lot of medals. And everyone gets to go home happy!

Tom: Yes. The Olympics doesn’t specify how many “points” a medal is worth. If gold-silver-bronze gets scored 3–2–1, the United States gets more Medal Points and is the Olympic Winner.

Choire: USA! USA!

Tom: If it gets scored 5–3–1, China gets more Medal Points. 中国, 加油!

Choire: One of my favorite parts in the book is the press honcho lady for the Beijing Olympics talking about China’s place in the world. Sort of viewing China as like, the world’s younger adopted sibling, complete with the usual resentments and hurt feelings, and then getting all this attention. She said:

“The world is like a village and there are some rich residents, for example the United States, the UK, Germany, and China is… a poor villager, a poor villager in that village. And the Olympic Games is like a party, and many rich residents hosted these nice parties for the whole village, but China had never had a chance to do so, because China is not developed so well and has so many children, so many people to feed. And later China grew and the economy is better, and finally the rich residents said, ‘OK, now we can ask China to host this party for us,’ and China is very happy to have this opportunity, and we ask all the neighbors and all these relatives to come to help. We built a bigger house and we planted all the grasses and some people say, ‘You are using chopsticks, and we are not used to it,’ so we bought knives and forks, and we have also learned these languages, foreign languages, that our neighbors use… and we prepared many nice food and we welcome, we sincerely welcome all these villagers to come, but when they come they ignore all the nice things, the nice food that we put out, put on the table. They go to the… restroom, they go to the garbage bins, and they ignore all these nice preparations that we had put up….”

Tom: Yes. Why are we so negative all the time? So it’s always diverting when China gets to flip the script, as it has this week, and deplore the Americans’ reckless and incompetent government and the Britons’ seething unhappiness and societal instability.

Choire: I have to say this is a great time for me to be rereading this book because America really is tearing itself apart in silly ways, like a teenager at its first therapy session, and North London is pretty much actually tearing itself apart. And China is like “mmm hmmmm.”

Tom: China is like a very un-fuzzy therapist. It has absolutely no sympathy for our good intentions. “We are glad to see that you, too, appreciate the value of indefinite detention and torture in preserving your national security.” “Surely you won’t begrudge us the chance to use the same tools you do, to promote our own national interests.”

Choire: Boris Johnson and Mike Bloomberg share this one world one dream!

Tom: Exactly. That was one of the central themes of this book, the more I watched the New Beijing present itself to the world. This belief that the spread of prosperity brings liberalization with it — well, does it? The notion that staging an Olympics makes you a member of the community of Good Nations is one small facet of this larger Pollyanna-internationalist ideology (or religion).

Choire: Right. SEE YOU IN LONDON!

Tom: Quite so. The Security State — now that’s a value that all sorts of different governments can get behind.

Choire: And finally, on more meta questions: have you, now that you’re an Author, found any way to deal with the problem of public readings?

Tom: Which… aspect of the problem?

Choire: Well, for the reader himself, maybe.

Tom: Standing up and reading the book in public is maybe less frightening than the prospect of other people reading the book in private.

Choire: Oh, I’d never thought of that! Great, new phobias for all.

Tom: At least you can hear the people chuckling or see them sneaking out the door.

Choire: Oof. But you can’t see them throwing the book across the room at home.

Tom: Or reading it over and over and laughing out loud. You just do not know.

Choire: Not that your book is anything but engrossing and thrilling! “A VERY GOOD BOOK,” says the Washington Post! Could a review be more concrete? Is the book good? Yes. How good? VERY.

Tom: And the Post shared lots of quotes, which is nice. If you enjoyed the text in this review, you can buy 100,000 more words of it!

Choire: Gosh that’s a lot of words.

Tom: Beijing is a big city! But an endlessly diverting one. So maybe I was trying to be mimetic. I’ll ask my publisher to add a scratch-and-sniff smog sample to the next printing. So everybody please hurry up and buy out this printing!

Choire: That would be incredibly… tasty?

Tom: But it is a very good book even without any interactive olfactory element. One odd thing about being an Author is that I find myself being less self-deprecatory than usual.

Choire: Oh! That’s interesting. I always thought publishing a book would send a reasonable person into a deep shame spiral.

Tom: The shame spiral is maybe a bit of a luxury. I mean, we’d all love to be the early Jesus and Mary Chain, turning our backs on the audience, making 20 minutes of terrorizing feedback, and then skulking away. Or maybe the first-person plural is inaccurate there.

Choire: Ha! Well many of us would like to be that.

Tom: “Whatever! I wrote this. Like it, don’t, fine with me, fuck you.” But while a book is NOT AT ALL LIKE A BABY — I know this — one does feel responsible toward it, and protective.

Choire: Right. Babies are more expensive.

Tom: I did spend years working on this thing. And a publishing house got behind it, and many talented and rigorous editors and proofreaders went over the text, and the designer made a really great cover.


Tom: So being like, “Oh gosh, so awkward, no big deal, it’s just some stuff I typed” — that feels a little cheap and bogus. I’d be kind of a jackass if I’d taken the money and spent this amount of time and I decided to be too shy or self-protective or whatever to say that I think it’s good and I want people to buy it. I’m a writer, not a salesperson, but there isn’t any more writing to be done on the book. And there is selling.

Tom: So, dear readers of The Awl, if you have gone this far through this dialogue, please do buy and read my book: BEIJING WELCOMES YOU: UNVEILING THE CAPITAL CITY OF THE FUTURE.

Choire: Well-played. Yes, as we said: the book tour goes to Brooklyn tonight! At 7 p.m. at the PowerHouse Arena, 37 Main Street, in Dumbo. Then tomorrow, August 10, at Politics & Prose, the party goes to Washington D.C., also at 7 p.m.