Guangzhou, China: Chinacide - shop or die.
Fresh cup of plastic additive, anyone?
Circa 2008: Shopping for a bargain, China style.
Starbucks, Guangzhou. It’s a gui-lo gallery of caffeine hounds looking for their morning fix. The locals behind the counter know me, so it’s a speech-free transaction. Cash for caffeine. Shi shi, thank you very much. Perfect for a night owl like me...
I take a seat in the corner of the room and shield my face with the morning paper. Even though this is China, I might as well be at the Melbourne local. Odds are not good on making it through my latte unrecognized, for this is place is the unofficial AM embassy for every ex-pat in Guangzhou.
I skim over the morning paper with a degree of disinterest. I am expecting the usual pasteurized China headlines: Party does this, economy does that, chairman says this, the population loves that. Freedom of press in mainland China is relative. As long as you say what you should, you’ll be free to see your relatives. It is not abnormal to wake up and find there is no paper on a given day. Censors do stop supply when content becomes a political issue. Yet, when my eyes connect with this morning’s headlines, I almost drop the paper in surprise. There is news today. And they printed it in the paper!
“Melanine Poisoning in Milk Supply, Police Investigate”.
I sit there, reading in amazement as the Chinese media admit the tip of a scandalous iceberg that has lead to the deaths of many Chinese children and widespread poisoning of the population. No small story in one child China. As I read on, paper on the table, I ignore the waves of the ex-pats who recognize me. This is a moment in history. As it turns out, in order to increase profits, corporations involved in the milk trade in China had been watering down the milk to increase the supply. In order to bypass the tests for minimum protein content imposed by the regulatory watch dogs, they then decided to add Melamine (a chemical compound usually added to plastics) into the mix to mask the protein deficiency. Melamine is usually non-toxic, but here is the catch: when added to the milk, and then subsequently digested by humans, there is a reaction which leads to kidney stones and organ damage. Images of enraged parents are emblazoned across the front page, followed by denials of complicity by the government and assurances of quick action to address this social evil. I note that the story came from an international source, which explains the publication in China. The eyes of the world are watching.
I ponder the meaning of this while I finish my latte. After all, what is one more cup of Melamine between friends? :oP Yet I wonder… can anything be a question of profit here?
Later that afternoon, I accompany a friend to the markets. This is local’s territory, the source of many of the clothing and consumer products that are exported to Eastern Europe and the African markets. Whatever you want, it is here. No tourist prices, no white guys, no customer service. This is the coal face of Chinese capitalism in a communist nation that does business like no other. My friend speaks fluent Mandarin, so all I do is point at what I want and he does the dance to get the best price. We’re a novelty, which means that even though our quantities are small, we are given an audience by the merchants. Every angle is played out in these negotiations. Even though I cannot understand a word, I could narrate on the proceedings from listening to the tone alone - no matter if it is in English or Chinese, the proceedings rarely deviate. As it goes on, I can feel he is is approaching checkmate. I know he will be seeking some audience participation to make things move. I wait for it…
Keeping the markets honest. Well, sort of...
On cue, to support this ongoing commercial battle that he is waging for a very important pen he will probably never use, I lift up my left pant leg to reveal the cast that is holding my broken foot together. It is standard Sun-Tzu, using misdirection as a key to victory and I'm running with the torch. The shop keeper forgets his argument as the spectacle unfolds and my friend capitalises on the opening to begin this grandly spoken story in Mandarin as I nod my head and grimace in pain. By the end of the performance, the shop keeper approaches me and shakes my hand furiously. As he pumps my hand, he takes his moment to speak in a heightened tone to the crowd, who give a ‘Oooh’ and an ‘Aaaah’ in unison.
I’m a poster boy for international relations.
As the crowd disperse, the shop keeper is beaming. Obviously, the show was good for his reputation. As a thank you, we get the pen half price. On the way out, my friend grins as he explains to me that the shop keeper was most honored that a veteran of the Iraqi war who stood on a landmine in the service of freedom would come to his store for a Mont Blanc pen. I nod in agreement. After all, it is all sport and it could have been true… if Iraq was my gym and the landmine was my personal trainer.
Even image is for sale in this place. I’m a war vet. Do you want to be a rock star?