Progress in China

No, I thought as I puffed through the small ornamental park, I couldn’t see one of them behind me. I chugged on past the Gate to the Forbidden City and the warty visage of Chairman Mao, thought to have been responsible for the deaths of up to 70 million people.

I ducked under the subway and — puff, puff, puff — I was waved on by some soldiers, on past the Great Hall of the People and Mao’s Mausoleum. I looked back again. There was no doubt about it. I was not being tailed.

My early-morning run was evidently a subject of supreme indifference on the part of the Chinese secret service — of course it was. Why should they give a monkey’s? The Chinese are themselves addicted to morning exercise rituals.

Their parks are full of tai-chi exponents and people doing fascinating keepy-uppy routines with oversized shuttlecocks, and Beijing is positively bursting with hungover Westerners out for jogs.

Never in the millennia of the great city’s history has the Chinese capital been so open to foreign influence, for good or ill, and never has there been so dizzying a rate of change. On my supposedly censored hotel television, I had watched, the previous evening, an excellent BBC documentary about the massacre in this same Tiananmen Square.

Would the Chinese have allowed that to be shown five years ago, in their own city?

This is a country powering through the credit crunch with a growth rate of 12 per cent. There are more Bentleys on the streets of Beijing than there are in London, and the very bendy buses have flatscreen television sets.

The Chinese are in the grip of a consumerism so rampant that more than 60 million of them are now classified as obese and their appetites for beef, grain, steel and other commodities are now so great that they are causing inflation in Britain.

Such is the lunar pull of the Chinese economy that my own brother has spent the past nine months here in Beijing, learning Mandarin, and he now speaks it so fluently that he was able to knock hundreds of renmimbi off the price of my new suits.

Would I have dreamed of learning Mandarin 20 years ago, when I was his age? I would not, and I was wrong. When you look at the Chinese achievement, at the funky post-modern shapes of the office blocks, at the hotels with their walk-in humidors and their glistening pyramids of fine French wine, you can’t help wondering whether this is it, whether this is the shape of the China to come.

With clubs sprouting up called things such as “The World of Suzy Wong”, with more and more Western tourists threatening to profane the Forbidden City with their jogging shorts, you can’t help feeling sad that something may be about to be lost and that the old China is at risk of being gradually homogenised, Westernised, Americanised, pasteurised.

I felt it particularly keenly yesterday afternoon, when a small group of us went to the Great Wall. It was just magical. We looked out at the silent ranges of improbably angular mountains, covered with chestnuts and oaks, with buzzards wheeling overhead, and at the silver-grey ribbon of stone winding from peak to peak.

We saw how the colour of the mountains receded from dark green to pale blue, while the wall went marching on. It is 2,200 years old and it stretches 3,000 miles, east to west, along the border between China and Inner Mongolia.

It is one of the great sights of the world, worth coming to China to see; and yet for two hours there was only a handful of Western tourists on the site. It could not last, I felt, as we tobogganed down a winding metal chute that takes you back to the foot of the mountain.

In another five years, the package holidays would be here and the toboggan would be closed for some namby-pamby health and safety reasons.

When we found a fantastic fish restaurant in the foothills, one of my companions became almost despondent as he looked into the future. A dozen local delicacies were brought, quite unlike what we know as Chinese food, and fish yanked before our eyes from a big stone tank. There were no other tourists, no ready translated menus, and he was filled with foreboding.

“I remember going to the Sporades 30 years ago,” he said, “and how wonderful it was before the tourists came.” We turned to our Chinese guide and mentor. You’ve got to stop them ruining this place, we pleaded. Don’t let them develop it. Don’t let them put in McDonald’s.

Then I looked at our table again and I wondered if our fears were overdone. These things I was holding so clumsily in my hand, what were they? They were a pair of chopsticks. Now it may seem blindingly obvious to you that chopsticks are less efficient than a fork, but that is not how it seems to the Chinese, and who is to say they are wrong?

It may seem to you that English is the master language, destined to be the lingua franca of the global economy, but I am not sure that is how it seems to the Chinese, many of whose most distinguished leaders seem no better at English than I am at Chinese.

The bourgeoisie of China shows plenty of interest in money, but not much in multi-party democracy and the joys of a free press. And there are cities in China with many millions of people, whose names you would barely recognise, where you would certainly not see Western joggers in the morning.

China is changing, but in some ways there are still walls against the influence of the West, ancient walls that seem to stretch on forever.

[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 26 August 2008 under the heading, “China is changing but the walls against the West are still there.”

51 thoughts on “Progress in China”

  1. So Boris, you mean that when we saw you leaving the stadium after receiving the Olympic flag, and you spoke to the Mayor of Beijing, you weren’t speaking in Mandarin?

  2. Boris is absolutely right about the westerninsation of developing nations. Having spent some time doing charitable work in Nepal, I find the thought of KFC / Burger King / Starbucks infesting the streets of Kathmandu truly horrifying. Thank goodness, the only Pizza Hut I know of in the city is a little home-grown eaterie unconnected with the American chain.

    Quite the worst thing we can do is attempt to impose western values on those with a completely different culture and belief system. Dominated by Macdonalds, what kind of a world would we be left with?

  3. Sophisticated observation.

    McDonald’s probably won’t be put in there so soon. The government would of course allow the documentary to be shown in its own city, considering almost no Chinese will be watching. ; )

  4. Life is full of contradictions.

    Boris bewails the potential arrival of McDonalds at the Great Wall, whilst all the while extolling the virtues of the free market economy.

    Meanwhile, the Chinese are now officially top nation, economically speaking. And they’re Communists.

    Go figure. I can’t make head nor tail of it.

  5. Mark, that was a good laugh, thanks.

    Wouldn’t you think Ronald McD would have figured out by now that blending with the background and refusing to serve hedgerow littering packaging would be a sensible move? Yet another ‘MackyDoh’ (if in France, of all places)is just misery to many but there is no doubt people still want oddly spongy bread wrapped round precision-sliced factory cheese and red sauce and something. McD in standard format at any major site anywhere outside the US (and some within) would be appalling. McD somewhere in the tourist towns near the Great Wall but with local shop fronts – that’s different.

  6. Dear Boris,

    I would like to see you reject Conservative ideology and help set up a new party called the British Unionist Revolutionary Party BURP. We want free Table tennis in as many places as possible and we reckon that you will become the Prime Minister faster than with those Con’s.

    Stuart J Nicklin

  7. DearMr.Johnson

    As Mayor of London surely you realise that you are supposed to represent London and Londoners?

    So why don’t you represent us and our traditions by having a suit made in London, wearing it proudly, and properly? I am afraid your display in Beijing did nothing for the reputation of London as being a fashion capital.

    Then you have the gall to write that you are buying suits in China. Words fail me. You are paid to represent London – so what are you doing buying suits in China, and actually writing about this?

    As someone who represented Britain and its fashion export trade, I wonder when you will learn that you must have pride in your city – pride in its workmen – and if you decide you want to save money by buying suits in China, you learn to keep quiet about it.

    The funding we pay for the Olympics has been ‘sold’ to us as helping to promote Britain and tourism (our second biggest invisible exports earner).

    I am sure you weren’t thinking – but PLEASE think in future – London needs income from tourism, and every suit bought in London helps keep our fashion industry alive.

    I am quiote certain that Savile Row would do a deal to lend you suits when needed. Can I suggest publicly donating the Chinese suits to the nearest kid’s Guy Fawkes, and representing London’s proud tailoring tradition by wearing British? The salary you are paid by us would cover actually buying a suit – so use it.

  8. Adela, the suit wasn’t exactly haute couture but how much harm did it really do? Take a look at the 400+ comments under this YouTube clip of Boris’s speech. Practically everyone is raving about him – not least those from overseas.

    How about… “I wish Vancouver had a cool mayor like that”

    And… “Our wonderful Mayor. He is adorable.”

    You take Boris as you find him – an eccentric genius who’s batting hard for Britain. Going by those comments, most people saw a wonderfully refreshing change from the robotic stuffed shirts who dominate these events. A couple in particular caught my eye:

    That is the best presentation of Britain we could have hoped for. The sense of humour and the intelligence are unparalleled the world over. What a star. Come on Boris.


    What would Ken’s speech have been like, I wonder? I bow the head to minorities, cultural groups and the like? Probably a sorrowful comment or two on the history of British colonialism. A bit of stuff about how everyone else in the world (especially if they’re from the Middle East) can teach Britain a thing or two. And finally an apology for Britain even existing. Hey, I’m Australian with no pommie blood in me, but blokes like Ken seem to hate their own county – so Boris is a nice change.

  9. Boris me old china you need to get the podcast of lbc’s ‘Nick Abbot’ show for 26th August. He was slanting you something rotten. Apparently, when you appeared in Bei-jing you were not representing Londoners, you were representing the world’s ‘tramps’. Not to worry me old cocker, I’ve got it sorted. I’m going to give this Nick Abbot fella a right damping.

  10. It was embarrassing to see Boris walking along side the mayor of Beijing at the closing ceremony. Does he think he represents London or the UK when he saunters alongside his counterpart with his jacket open and his hand stuck in his pocket. When the mayor of Beijing turned to talk with him, did Boris take his hand out of his pocket – hell, no … why should he – he is a slob and thinks that it is clever to be a slob. Luckily I live in France where persons show more respect to their hosts.

  11. My mum was a bit upset about the suit, now I come to think of it.

    Me, I’m rather glad he left his jacket undone. It sort of went with the flag that wouldn’t unfurl.

  12. However closed-minded I may seem in saying so, English is here to stay. You can convince a whole bus load of tourists and pseudo-restauranteurs (I count myself among them!) that chop-sticks are “quaint” but you’ll never have us let go of our English. Looks like it’s time to come home Bo.

    P.S. When are we getting the flat screens installed?

  13. Re my above, the YouTube link doesn’t show up very well. Here it is again: CLICK HERE

    Watch it, read the comments. If you’re still “embarrassed” you’ll find a lot of people out there who are just the opposite – they’re immensely proud of him.

  14. From opening a cycling venue in London to all the official ceremonies in Beijing area, then back to London for more official engagements and somehow filing a balanced, issue-aware and well-crafted, discussion-feeding article in the meantime – that’s a sign of stamina as well as brain. With his genuine ability to speak and read other languages as well, I wonder just how much Mandarin Boris now speaks and how much Chinese writing he can decipher? He’ll do it from interest as much as the dawning political and commercial reality that is slowly rising from a more open and rights-aware China.

  15. “On my supposedly censored hotel television, I had watched, the previous evening, an excellent BBC documentary …..
    Would the Chinese have allowed that to be shown five years ago, in their own city?”

    i am a chinese, now i am living in Nanjing, Jiangsu.
    i can watch CNN and BBC World.
    Welcome to China. u will know much more information about this country.

  16. I believe that the role of the elderly in the society is the most important part of Chinese society. When you see so many elderly people exercising in the street in the morning, sitting by the side of the street during the day, you know it is a safe and friendly society. They keep an eye on what’s going on in the community. They are deeply involved in their grand children’s up-bringing. They are rarely marginalised and highly respected. There is not many uniformed policy patrol in the residential neighbourhoods in Beijing. (The public space is of course a different scene. )People do not ask for it either.

    The key to improve London’s security is not to plant as many police as possible in the neighbourhoods. Helping elderly people playing a bigger role in the community affairs is the key. Bringing up young people to understand that attacking elderly means that he/she is the most uncool person in the world and would be spit on by passersby is the key.

    If you pay attention, the volunteers standing behind the swimmers during the Beijing Olympic games were all elderly people. They were not the powder wearing girls in the opening ceremony. To involve and respect elderly is the true nature of the Chinese culture. It is very different from the official line and different from the Western view of China.

    Olympics has so far been a world of the young people and failed to celebrate elderly people’s health and longevity. It is a shame. I would call for World Olympics for the Elderly. What’s the point of taking drugs to run faster? Living longer and healthily is a much more inspiring goal for human society. Planting more elderly in the street is much better than planting more policemen!

  17. 此文章好棒! ( great article)

    你是一个有趣的家伙. (You are a funny guy.)

    I do hope China will take a big break from Big McDs and KFCs.

  18. Oh no! “Funny guy” in chinese doesn’t show up…. Well you know what how it is in Chinese I’m sure.

  19. Boris, people will always moan about something, if you’d done up the jacket people would probably have asked why you were being so straight-laced! I thought it was a refreshing change. I think it is about time that Britain did Not appear as the whining sidekick of whichever country leader in whatever country. I thought you did the UK very proud at the olympics closing ceremony. Its clear from Youtube that people in other countries feel the same!
    Changing the subject slightly, I thoroughly enjoyed the ‘Who do you think you are’ you were in, a very interesting and inspiring family tree you have there, possibly your Great grandfather more than the fact you can trace the line back to King George.
    Keep up the great job.

    Sarah x

  20. I don’t know why people go on and on about BoJo’s hair and clothing – if he was bald and naked he’d still make an excellent Mayor. The trouble with todays politics is that most new-in-post are all shine and no substance.

    Boris for PM.

    (and Stanley Kemal belongs on the Tory ‘A’ list)

  21. I absolutely love your irreverent bold and self-mocking humour,Boris. Sorry, still have not worked out whether B. is your first name or not for the letter I am writing you.

  22. Why all the fuss over what Boris wore at the closing ceremony? Does the cut of his suit really matter? Incidentally, whether in China or Britain it is hard nowadays to find clothes that are not made in China. Personally I would like to have seen Boris in a duffle coat a’la former Labour leader Michael Foot. I was listening to Ken Livingstone on Any Questions last night in which he criticised Boris for not bowing to the men in black suits at the closing ceremony. Well, of course Ken is now oh so conventional and New Labour that that is the sort of thing he would say, and he probably would have bowed and scraped had he still been Mayor. I don’t support all that Boris stands for, but I like his bumbling eccentricity, his support for civil liberties, and his lack of regard for the conventional niceties of modern politics.

  23. Oh yes, and I also support bringing back the Routemaster buses. When I lived in London they were quicker than the one-man crew buses and fun to get on while moving. Bollocks to health and safety!

  24. Peter K. Scott – Boris is not his first name but it is appropriate to address him as such in your correspondance. Hope that helps.

  25. China is opening itself up to foreign customs, so maybe in time the Chinese will appreciate that other countries have their own customs. Boris did follow protocol as far as it was explained to him, so hopefully the Chinese who complained on blogs and people here who complained on blogs will come to accept that he has a perfect right to wear what he wants how he wants, as long as it is within the bounds of convention and decency.

  26. I notice the Dalai Lama was wearing neither jacket nor tie when he met the Prime Minister, and the same old bedsheet when he met Prince Charles. Disgraceful.
    Pic 1
    Pic 2

  27. Everyone, leave Boris alone?! I think he’s the best thing since sliced bread! I support him 100% and am so, so glad that that simpering, bottom-kissing sprat Ken is out, out, out! Long may Boris reign over London, as what a victory he is for a bit of long overdue common-sense in this city. He doesn’t bow to all this PC nonsense, as so he shouldn’t as it’s all far too suffocating these days. What an eloquent speaker and interesting man he is. Boris for PM!

  28. Em, you’re talking bulbarians. Boris for PM, I beg your pardon? If he unseats David, I’ll do something nasty to him. Interesting? I could even find drying paint more interesting than Boris! Honestly. And if he doesn’t soon learn to keep his hands out of his trouser pockets in public, I might tell him that I find that rather rude. And he needs to speak more clearly sometimes. I couldn’t understand much of what he said at our anniversary this year. A shame he faced the other way, but anyway, he could/should have spoken more clearly. Also, he’s gonna have to keep his back straight, or he might well wind up suffering backpain when he’s older. I do massages and often try and convince people to hold their backs straight, they’re mostly tall people, like Boris. I would also advise him to use a assage cushion from Casada ( as I am using one and think that they are very good. And eating his ID card sprinkled over his cornflakes – I would strongly advise him to refrain from doing so. Plastic cannot be digested, he would have to receive urgent treatment incl. having his stomach emptied and maybe worse, and then he would most likely end up in the ward where my sister works. She is a psychiatrist at Springfield Hospital and does a very good job. I hope Boris will get by alright, but I would secretly like Labour back in charge of London.

  29. Peter French – I also support the idea of returning the routemaster, and recently – as I predicted weeks earlier – a bendy bus went on fire and nearly injured the firemen? Crikey! I told people that that was going to happen! I said the bendy buses would just go on fire. And when my niece posted an entry in here saying that, someone just took away her comment so nobody may know, Boris must have thought she meant to attack him but she only wanted to warn him that the bendy buses would catch fire. She knows a bit about buses, she would have noticed something wasn’t right there, she’s the one that told me. Bring back the routemaster, Boris, QUICK!!!!!!

  30. It was embarrassing to see Boris walking along side the mayor of Beijing at the closing ceremony.George Simpson

    Who are you to judge the proper behaviour – Boris was original and did the right thing walking along side of tyrannic rulers.

    There are still a lot that china needs to learn from democracies such as Britain to be worthy of such respect …

  31. In a miserable carping politically correct and hypocritical world, Boris is a total breath of fresh air. He is not ashamed to be British like many socialists who regard the Britain which developed all that we now benefit from as the wicked cradle of capitalism. I though he was quite right to achieve that little bit of differentiation from the Chinese hosts by leaving his jacket undone. Just a little reminder, perhaps that we still have to be a bit cautious in our enthusiasm. And he has that totally wonderful characteristic, a sense of humour – how many lefties have one of those. I am a true fan.

  32. I love massageing any people, preferrably ladies, of course. It’s all just rock’n’roll whenI play the guitar after work. How would Boris fancy a Pink Floyd song, like, Wish you were here, or Shine On You Crazy Diamond (which kinda addresses him, I mean, the crazy diamond bit)

  33. Boris for PM!!!!
    I have never ever see any politician like Boris, so down to earth, so ‘what you see is what you’ve got!’
    Politicians like Boris is what people need!

  34. Politicians like Stuart King is what people need. Downto earth, honest and realistic about things in general (not only about politics but many other things as well) Stuart King for MP in Putney!

  35. Amanda, I had lost my faith in politicians, until now. No-one could be as honest as Boris and not be the real thing.

  36. I never thought I would get excited over something like the Olympics, but I felt so hugely proud of Britain. Sport has to be the catalyst that gives our kids something positive to focus on, competition is obviously vital for the healthy development of our youngsters.

  37. Our athletes have made us hugely proud and have managed to lift our spirits, a miracle considering the state of the government. Boris Johnson also brought a smile to everyone’s face, Boris don’t forget, you have that charity rugby match to play in, please don’t cancel it, because to quote Lord Nelson, ENGLAND EXPECTS!

    DC please play in it as well, it would be huge fun.

  38. Just the time will tell. From Dixie to Yankee, patriots to colonial Brit, Jack barbarian to Roman patrician, falling Empire to Christian. The history will repeat it self. We, the human being are so insignificant compare with the universaity. May we all humble ourself, befor our great grand children have to pay the price – because of our sin.

  39. No worries. They have already rejected a contract to retain a Starbucks in the Forbidden City. That’s one small step for Beijing towards blockading the influence of Westernization.

    On the other hand, if it’s a positive influence, why not learn from it, analyze it and reshape it to benefit China? It all makes sense that way.

  40. Jordan wants to compete in the Olympics. I just wanted that to share that with everybody. She is goal oriented and has had her chest reduced to facilitate her entry.

    There is a woman after my own heart. Goal orientated to the nth degree. She is actually a bruising rider, has ridden since childhood, and adores horses and ponies so much she has written several books on the subject.

    She is going to force the insults of the Cartier event right down their throats and prove to them she is as good a rider as the best in the land, and I hope she does it. If not, I can only applaud her fortitude and determination.

  41. So, PaulD, we must never impose our Western values on other countries? Fine. Let’s abandon the 1.2 billion Chinese people trapped to their fate in a monstrous totalitarian tyranny responsible for 70 million murders, a state in which the government forbids people from speaking freely or reading what they want, a state that even intrudes into the marital bed to determine how many children people can have. How much do you have to hate your own values to become such a defeatist little appeaser of tyranny, you repellent Marxist reptile ?

  42. Second Stone on Left
    The Bog
    12 Sept 2008

    Well thanks, Tony. Reptiles can be quite intelligent but I never knew they had evolved so far as to have political leanings.

    You misunderstand, Sir. That I would hate to see Nepali culture destroyed by a Macdonalds / Starbucks on every street corner in Kathmandu does not mean I am a Marxist, reptilian or otherwise.

    This has nothing to do with totalitarian tyranny in China. A tyranny can co-exist with Macdonalds; a hamburger does not make it go away. In the same way, democracy can exist without Macdonalds.

    France and Italy have managed to fend off a takeover by multinational chains thanks to their fiercely guarded tradition of owner-managed restaurants, bars and hotels. And they are all the better for it.

    The “Western value” I had in mind was mindless consumerism of uniform products supplied by a commercial system that is, in its own way, as totalitarian as any government once its tentacles take hold.

    Do I believe in free markets? Yes. Do I believe we should warn emerging nations of the risks of being seduced by the instantly gratifying, anodyne, soul-less products of western society, and take great care before forcing them upon them? Yes.

    Boris summed it up perfectly: “You can’t help feeling sad that something may be about to be lost and that the old China is at risk of being gradually homogenised, Westernised, Americanised, pasteurised.”

    How Marxist is that?

  43. hi,boris,i am so high when i read you article about China because i am a Chinese girl.i like your description about China. She is changing every time i think specially Beijing city.right?so colorful, so wonderful and so nice,right?welcome to Beijing boris~~

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