"The Chinese. A great bunch of lads." Father Ted
BBC documentaries exude gravitas like Natasha Kaplinksy exudes ruthless, glass-eyed careerism. No matter what the subject, within seconds you find yourself nodding silently, going "hmmm" and feeling like you should read more. Or even at all. Sustained by a patrician desire to inform and educate the masses, they go about their business with a missionary zeal that makes you seriously considering buying a TV licence one day.
"BBC2 documentaries exude gravitas like Natasha Kaplinksy exudes ruthless, glass-eyed careerism."
China, BBC2‘s exploration of the emerging superpower is no different. As ting-tong music builds moodily in the background we see construction workers on the 2008 Olympic Stadium site in Beijing. No builders’ ass crack and sexual harassment for the Chinese navvy. No, for he is quite a different class of brick monkey who wields his sickle with pride for his family and The Party. Possibly. They never spoke to them so I’m reading between the lines.
But it is true to say that the BBC have been granted remarkable access to a number of remarkably boring Chinese citizens – mainly party officials who travel to the countryside to bully the peasants with fatuous edicts.
"China is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, wrapped inside Yuk Sung with a side helping of prawn toast."
China is a riddle wrapped in a mystery, wrapped inside Yuk Sung with a side helping of prawn toast. With 1.3 billion citizens from 56 ethnic groups, we in the West know little about our celestial counterparts. They look funny, talk funny and are on the other side of the planet – why on earth would we care?
Well, Stalin once said that one death is a tragedy and one million deaths a statistic and there is a real sense in which the sheer volume of people in China diminishes their humanity in our eyes. They appear to us as one big homogenous mass of cycling peasants. They’ve never had a proper democracy in their history and the wishes of the individual are forever subjugated to the greater good: the will of the state. This is true of all Eastern cultures to some extent – the individual experiences himself more as a vital cell in the organism than as a discrete entity.
"It’s become a quasi-racist cliche to ponder Chinese inscrutability like they were some alien species that hatched from a gigantic egg one day"
It’s become a quasi-racist cliche to ponder Chinese inscrutability like they were some alien species that hatched from a gigantic egg one day, catching us by surprise as we went about our shallow Western business. But a combination of our fundamental differences and Chinese state secrecy has made such pondering practically irresistible. No one disagrees that China is changing but no one can decisively say in which direction.
The Communist Party is flirting with market economics and the indications are that this has gone way beyond second base. They rationalise this by saying they must first achieve socialism before they achieve true communism. But like any good drug, capitalism is driven by fundamental human needs and once you gave people a taste of enterprise, competition and prosperity can you really snatch it away? The worldwide move away from giant statist final solutions seems difficult to resist.
"He doesn’t actually answer those questions leading me to suspect that he agrees with them."
How far democracy has replaced diktat is debatable – 94% turnout in rural areas for elections at least suggests a thirst for political participation. The genesis of authentic politics is slow and boring and, as a result, so are large parts of this documentary.
Professor Kang Xiaoguang from the Chinese Academy of Social Science says "a lot of foreigners say: ‘You Chinese, are you all insane? Your country’s so crappy – what makes you think you should be, will be, number one?’. He doesn’t actually answer those questions leading me to suspect that he agrees with them.
The best thing about it: Pissy academics getting pissy.
The worst thing about it: Many questions, few answers.
The verdict on China: I’ll try the duck next time
Marks out of 10: 5