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Authoritarian? China’s not a patch on Britain

The People’s Republic of China seems to be morphing into a New Labour-style nanny state, says Brendan O’Neill. But at least the Chinese stand up to their regime

7 October 2009

12:00 AM

7 October 2009

12:00 AM

The People’s Republic of China seems to be morphing into a New Labour-style nanny state, says Brendan O’Neill. But at least the Chinese stand up to their regime

The 60th birthday celebrations of the People’s Republic of China seemed to confirm that, for all its embrace of Western-style capitalism, China remains a faraway place where they do things differently. Can you imagine young female soldiers in powder-blue mini-skirts and go-go boots goose-stepping through the streets of London? Or 8,000 soldiers marching in military precision followed by 500 tanks and 18 vehicles showcasing brand-new giant nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles? Poor Brown can barely raise a smile among delegates at his annual party conference. Yet as China’s 60th birthday celebrations began, there was President Hu Jintao speaking authoritatively to 200,000 of his fawning citizens in Tiananmen Square. The message to the world seemed to be not so much ‘Wish us happy birthday’, as ‘Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’. For many Western observers, such garish, North Korea-style displays of military might confirm that, while China may have become a land of big cities, banking, Coca-Cola and consumerism, it remains, at heart, an old-style Evil Regime. We saw China’s ‘true colours’, said one British commentator.

Really? Having recently returned from Beijing, I say don’t be fooled by the red-tinged razzmatazz. Behind the 1970s displays of big guns and bombs, behind the girlish, go-go militarism, modern China is actually not that different from Western nations — and from Britain in particular. Indeed, as she turns 60, the People’s Republic of China seems to be morphing into modern Britain, developing a spookily similar nanny-state outlook that seeks myopically to monitor and control people’s ‘bad habits’. Today, Chinese authoritarianism springs not from Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, but from Chairman Brown and Chairman Blair’s ‘Little Miserabilist Book of Behaviour Modification’, giving rise to a new nation that actually feels a lot like New Labour’s New Britain. But with one important difference: where a majority of us Brits have tended to roll over and allow New Labour to police our personal antics, people in China have been far more sceptical and rebellious, even forcing the mighty Communist Party of China to backtrack on some of its nanny-state ambitions. We might learn from them.

I felt ‘at home’ in Beijing as soon as I got into a taxi, where the driver was complaining vociferously (through my translator) about two things: the city’s new smoking ban and its proposal to introduce a congestion charge. The ban on smoking in public places is ‘unworkable’, he said. ‘It’s a mark of friendship to give someone a cigarette.’ And any suggestion that car-drivers should be taxed for the privilege of driving their cars was ‘unreasonable’, he boomed. A cab driver complaining about smoking bans and congestion taxes? If it wasn’t for the fact that I was being driven in the shadow of gleaming new skyscrapers and that none of us was wearing a seat-belt (well, if the driver hasn’t buckled up, why should I?), then I could just as easily have been in a black cab in Piccadilly Circus. If ranting cabbies really are a barometer of popular public attitudes, then people in China seem far more concerned about being nannied than they are about the menacing machine-guns.


For all their nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missiles, the powers-that-be in Beijing have had a far harder time implementing a smoking ban than New Labour had. Inspired, in the words of Beijing’s chief of anti-smoking Zhang Peili, by ‘Western nations’, Beijing announced early last year that it would outlaw smoking in public places on 1 May 2008. In order to clean up the city’s image in time for the Olympic Games in August 2008, smoking would be forbidden in government offices, sports venues, hospitals, schools, museums, bars and restaurants. But the authorities didn’t reckon with Chinese smokers’ rebellious streak. Following what the Chinese state media described as a ‘backlash’ — in which bar and restaurant owners complained that their takings would fall following a smoking ban, and smokers told pollsters that they would carry on smoking in public places regardless — the Beijing authorities watered down their ban, exempting bars, restaurants and internet cafes. ‘It’s difficult for us to control smoking,’ admitted Zhang Peili. ‘It’s just part of the culture.’

There was even what might be described as pro-smoking direct action. When Meizhou Dongpo, a popular chain of restaurants in Beijing, tried to implement its own smoking ban, customers at one of its branches barricaded themselves inside the dining rooms and refused to let the staff in until they had finished their post-dinner cigarettes. On Qianmen Street, a shopping street which has recently had a massive makeover to make it look exactly as it did in the 1920s, Quon, a young duck cook, told me ‘It is impossible to stop Chinese people from smoking’, as he puffed on a cigarette on his way to work. ‘How could you ban smoking in bars?’ he asked. ‘Who wants to have a beer without having a cigarette?’ Indeed, when he announced the watering down of the smoking ban, Zhang Peili said: ‘There is a Chinese saying that tobacco and alcohol always go together. It’s part of the culture.’

There also used to be a British saying about enjoying a pint and a fag at the end of a hard day, but that didn’t count for much among New Labour’s authoritarian apparatchiks, who seem to respect bar culture even less than their CPC counterparts. In the same week that Quon and others told me they will continue smoking in bars — ‘I love it’, said Quon, ‘I won’t stop’ — the health commissioner of New York City announced that he would seek to ban smoking outdoors, in parks and on beaches, following NYC’s already existing ban on smoking in bars and restaurants. Where the CPC has thus far failed to conquer all smoky bars and restaurants, governments in the West are already hungrily moving on to outdoor venues, seeking to colonise every inch of public space with their smoke-free tyranny. It is striking that the CPC, noted across the globe for its authoritarianism, has failed to institute the kind of smoking bans that were whizzed through in New York, the UK, France and even Ireland for the love of God, where it also used to be the case that ‘tobacco and alcohol always go together’.

Partly it is just impractical for Beijing to ban smoking in public. Smoking is to the Chinese what chewing gum is to New Yorkers: an uncontroversial, everyday habit. Some 350 million Chinese smoke. That means that roughly one third of the world’s smokers live in China. Every year the Chinese puff on 1.7 trillion cigarettes. Even those who would presumably be at the forefront of promoting a public smoking ban — health officials — enjoy lighting up: 23 per cent of Chinese doctors smoke every day. But it’s not just the impracticalities. China doesn’t yet have the ‘tyranny of health’, as the author and GP Dr Michael Fitzpatrick has described it, that is dominant in Britain, where, in Fitzpatrick’s words, ‘individual freedom is undermined by the authoritarian dynamic of the government’s health policies’. Indeed, Daoming, one of China’s growing population of 20 million female smokers, told me in a smoky bar: ‘I don’t care about my health.’ She quickly corrected herself: ‘I mean, I don’t care about it now. I’m only 19. I care more about doing what I want to do.’

Beijing is having another stab at introduci
ng a blanket ban later this year, with plans to curb smoking in all bars and restaurants and introduce tougher fines for transgressors. Second time lucky? Probably not.

Another thing the Beijing authorities have borrowed from Britain is the congestion charge. A gobsmacking 1,300 new vehicles come on to the roads of Beijing every day; in the first three months of 2008 alone, 120,000 new cars were added to Beijing’s already existing vehicle population of 3.35 million. In a desperate bid to deal with the consequent congestion, and pollution, Beijing has already introduced a kind of Wacky Races solution. Depending on whether your registration number ends in an even number or an odd number, you can drive on some days but not on others. Now, Beijing and other cities in China are hoping to introduce UK-style congestion charges.

But car-drivers aren’t happy. In a nation where, until relatively recently, slogging it by push-bike was the only transport option available to most people, the new car-owning classes aren’t about to give up the feeling of freedom and choice that comes with having your own four wheels. ‘The government needs to build more roads, not ask me for more money,’ said a Beijing hotelier who drives in from the suburbs every day. This sentiment is fairly widespread across the country. Even China Daily, the state-funded English-language newspaper, recently admitted that many motorists consider talk of a congestion charge ‘unreasonable’. In Guangzhou in South China, both academics and motorists have publicly denounced plans for a congestion charge as an ‘unfair extra burden’ on drivers. China, well known for its dearth of democracy and lack of serious public debate, seems to have had a more upfront, testier discussion about congestion charging than we did in London.

Then there are the CCTV cameras, the things that made me feel most at home. Ubiquitous in the UK, they’re now popping up everywhere in Beijing. But where Britain has been filming the public’s every sneeze since the early 1990s, China only got really serious about CCTV from 2003 onwards. Once again, Britain beat the CPC to this authoritarian punch.

On Chang’an Avenue, the vast road that runs past Tiananmen Square, CCTV cameras are dotted on lampposts, peering down on the families, students and young lovers who stream through the square every evening to relax, suck on ice-pops and take photos in front of the big portrait of a miserable-looking Mao. Most people seem unaware of the cameras. ‘I hadn’t noticed them,’ says one young man. Others describe them as ‘unnecessary’. ‘People are only here to hang out,’ says a female student. But China has a long way to go to catch up with Britain, the international pioneer of the use of CCTV cameras to monitor and reprimand the public’s behaviour. There are an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain, or one for every 14 people — in China there are around 2.75 million cameras, or one for every 472,000 of its citizens. Human rights groups were alarmed when China announced this summer that it plans to introduce face-recognition cameras — that is, spycams with special software that can ‘recognise’ individuals and alert the authorities if a fugitive or other dodgy individual is spotted. What kept them? Britain introduced face-recognition cams in 1998. It has since introduced suspicious-behaviour recognition cameras (which pick up ‘behavioural oddities’) and even gait-recognition cameras (which can tell if someone is walking or running in an unusual manner). And as of 2006, there are even speaking CCTV cameras in Britain, through which booming voices tell people to stop loitering or to pick up their litter. One Chinese woman thought I was joking when I told her this.

Visiting Beijing is an eye-opener. It is the capital of a country that is becoming more like Britain with each passing day, but whose people, far from being the brainwashed automatons of too many media depictions of China, could teach us a thing or two about standing up to the nanny state.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked magazine (www.spiked-online.com).


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