Chinese Overseas: The “Harmonious Population”

Posted by on Aug 29, 2015 in China, Switzerland | No Comments

Chinese tourists in central Switzerland

Think of it any way you wish, but I’m pretty sure that China’s policy advocating a harmonious society came pretty much on the toes of the US, UK, and the like, launching yet another war in Iraq. In 1991 (back in the previous war), Dad’s warning was to “play it safe” in Switzerland. “You’re a student. There is a war happening somewhere on the planet. I think your number one priority is to do well in school. Don’t worry about anything else. And stay safe.”

That I did — a few years after that sage advice, I unexpectedly won big by having my poem (about exaggerated dimensions of human behaviour) published in — if I can remember it right (to jog back in your head for 20 years isn’t as easy as you think!) — an ECIS magazine of, well, “kid’s poems”. (Let’s hope I still have this with me in Beijing.) So Dad’s advice went heeded. But whilst it was peaceful my end, Iraq underwent through yet another war beginning in 2003. Being in Beijing, it was no surprise official policy was to build a “harmonious society”. It was Beijing’s way of saying — even if the rest of the planet was interested in doing wars, at least here in China, we’re focused on peace, not wars; results, not turmoil.

This was never a novel policy. The true “inventor” of “harmonious-ness” wasn’t Hu Jintao; going right back through the millennia, it was Confucius. Indeed, if you launch the Mandarin Chinese version of Siri and applied George Carlin language upon it (if you’re at a loss to do so, just bring it to a football match at Beijing’s notorious Workers Stadium), one of its “rebukes” would be to cite Confucius in scolding you for potty-mouth language: 礼之用,和为贵, in essence meaning Harmony is to prized when being courteous, is its chide to you.

Chinese culture has long advocated peace and harmony over everything. It is actually possible to belittle someone without resorting to any kind of inflammatory language in Chinese. (South Park with Chinese characteristics, anyone?) I tend to regard “our own” as too involved in their own personal Ps and Qs, both inside and outside the home, than to “let it out on the streets”. Here in Harrow, suburban London, the Chinese are known to dot bits and bobs of town near the High Street with restaurants that are nearly always full — than anything else. We’re a peaceful lot (and our food is great — or that’s what you guys think, anyway!).

I am aware, though, that some of own our, overseas, whilst appearing harmonious, aren’t being that. I’ve seen this in action, when a First Class compartment of a train going from Flüelen, central Switzerland, to Bellinzona, Ticino, southern Switzerland, became like a Chinese “green train” carriage after tourists from mainland China almost stormed onto it, occupying nearly all the seats (they were allowed to, by the way; they all had booked tickets!). To our fellow Swiss citizens, my only bit of advice is: If you can’t stand these volumes on trains, don’t ever go into a Chinese KTV place.

Before it closed (too few corrupt officials now, maybe?), the Partyworld KTV centre less than half a mile from my Beijing home was one of the weirder parts of town to be in, music-wise. It felt surreal: upon reaching the upper level, Tracy and I would often go past private “boxes” where people were just singing madly out of tune. This changed with every inch you moved. This was like a huge music party gone completely wrong. The fact it was all amplified (microphones for all!) made it far worse.

Putting our own (rather “loud” / “noisy”) folk in their own compartment as the Swiss train heads up the mountain, apparently, might sound like the ultimate solution. (Get enough microphones installed and make them yodel on the way up, if you want more Swissness.) But something in me says it’s not the ultimate solution. Quiet Cars are popular because it gives those who want peace and quiet a place to do so. It is positive thinking; we encourage you to be respectful and quiet once you’re there. Designating a carriage as a “loud Chinese carriage” seems to send the “right message”, but has done more harm than good. The “for loud Chinese” vehicle is too stereotyped and negative to reach any (easy / comfy) results.

The Swiss may not have flown their planes over the South China Sea, nor sent an emissary to Glastonbury to meet figures Beijing considers “sensitive”, but I heard a high-ranking official visit in 1999, well, “could have been smoother”, as I found out on Swiss TV. The expression of “critical parody” (I think that’s my Venti Cappuccino acting up; what’s all that academic language doing on this rainy Saturday late-afternoon in London?) is sacrosanct to Bern and its citizens; but then there’s also a way not to tick a visiting dignitary off. Yet the Chinese are almost never mentioned in the Swiss media as “a problem” (especially when it comes to Chinese expats abroad).

I know this too well. I’m Chinese by birth and ethnicity; my wife is “fully Chinese” (ID-wise as well). Both of us have years in Beijing and Europe. Our first and foremost priorities is to get our house in order. (Chinese thinking is a firm believer in that you can only govern the world well if your home’s in order.) We’ve our bit of accolades and awards, are always on our best behaviour (especially outside the home), and live our own savings and income — to us, “living off government benefits” are completely alien concepts. I think that’s the case with almost all overseas Chinese. The thing is for the media to de-sensationalise. (It can’t but help, I realise: that story of the piranha busting the fish tank, ruining it for all fish — including the majority of innocent fish — comes up too often, and yet is too easy to “monetise upon”.)

There are rules that exist both in China and Switzerland. Increasingly, China wants its population to be more genteel and refined; a new campaign is aimed at “quieter restaurants” (they’re especially after those that get drunk and disorderly — these guys, whilst intoxicated, will stop at nothing — even stepping onto the table!). Quiet, law, and order “comes to” both countries; in China, many a potential fight is quickly dispersed with people coming between the hostile parties and getting them away from one other, to defuse tensions. And a new rule will actually name and shame serious offenders who are PRC by passport who have done stupid things whilst abroad.

The Jing is aware of its at-times-rather-loud overseas population (whether as visitors or permanent residents). Bern can reciprocate by giving all more time and understanding one other better. The goal now is to turn those extra carriages, once reserved for “loud Chinese”, as Quiet Coaches. (For what it’s worth, I’ve (over)heard super-loud conversations involving a foreigner with a US accent that nearly shook all the windows, at the Starbucks at Beijing South station.) And for the Jing to prepare “pre-departure” info courses politely and positively advising “its own” what to expect — north of Erlian, east of Tumen, south of Friendship Pass (by Guangxi / Vietnam), and west of Kaxgar.

If teachers around the People’s Republic are writing to their heads, requesting time off to explore the world, they could easily do it in more style. There’s also a thing about sticking a UnionPay sticker in a shop in Luzern, and actually trying to understand the culture of the cardholder. All of this leaves incredibly little room left for the wrong carriages on the wrong tracks — be that one that involves the Chinese, Americans, or Swiss.