I came to China with the expectation that I would encounter a new and rapidly changing society, but I was also secretly hoping to see real communists going about the business of repressing people. I decided to visit Shanghai first, thinking that I would find some confluence there between the static images we have of China in the West and the new world that seems to be awakening in the East. Walking along the Bund, the old European quarter of Shanghai, I noticed that the patriotic masses were way too busy yapping on their cell phones, shopping, and making money to pay little more than lip service to the present political system under which they restlessly live. As I gaped at the modern metropolis across the river, in the Pudong New Area, I was struck by the strange dichotomy between past and present. Did so much blood have to be shed to arrive at just this point in history?
The Walker Report, commissioned by the U.S. Congress decades ago, estimated that as many as forty million people may have died in China during the various cycles of chaos engendered by Mao. As I mused upon the history of Communism, I realized that the pre-communist Shanghai of the 1920s and 30s, with its Russian prostitutes and traders from nearly every nation on the planet, has now come full circle. What was once considered the most corrupt city in the Far East is on its way to recovering its former glory. The Oriental Pearl Tower, with its space needle and revolving restaurant, and China’s recent launch of an astronaut into orbit, suggest that despite their recent tumultuous history, the Chinese will be a major player in space. Their application and use of technology is evident everywhere from the modern highways to the computerized services that are now beginning to benefit millions of people. Some might argue that this explosion of economic growth, estimated by some to be as high as eighteen percent a year, came about precisely because of Communism. If anything, it came about because Communism was and is boring and everyone got tired of it. The deeper process that has been at work, I began to intuit, is evolution via natural selection. Let me explain this curious insight.
The principle of natural selection applies to the social and political process as well as it does to the natural world. Evolution moves forward by sometimes killing off weak or unsuccessful members of a species. In the same way, what doesn’t work economically in the most efficient and effective manner will sooner or later wither and pass into disuse, unless artificially sustained by government. The vast avenues of Shanghai’s shopping districts attest to the new vitality of private enterprise. Gucci and Versace operate among a plethora of Chinese imitators that did not exist even ten years ago. The logo of Sunbucks Coffee with its hearty sun seemed to me to indicate, once again, that imitation is the surest form of praise. Capitalism, with its “only the strong and successful survive” mantra, operates much like natural selection and you see this process at work all over China. What actually works is becoming, as it should be, more important than the idealized mental constructs of Communism that say how economic enterprise should be conducted. Our own Western society is finding that our highly structured and dogmatic form of capitalism is not answering the needs of the people as well as it might. The American liberal versus conservative dynamic also tends to exclude what might work outside of its own definitions. Where we sometimes might say, “we can’t do that,” the Chinese say, “why not?” So there is much to be learned by watching evolution at work in communist and capitalist societies. No one can deny that the vast container ships leaving Chinese ports daily laden with goods for the harbors of the world are not evidence that something extraordinary is going on in China.
One of my uncles, a Catholic Columban missionary, was imprisoned in China in the early 1950s. He was accused, among other things, of killing the foundlings that turned up weekly on the church’s doorsteps and of “bottling babies eyes.” I grew up appalled at the thought that communists could kill or imprison whomever disagreed with or resisted them—performing what became known cynically in Soviet circles as “surgery on the body of history.” No doubt those who were surgically removed from life in this way may not have had such a cavalier attitude as they faced the bullet. Needless to say, the frightening prospect of a yellow, godless horde invading the world and removing a way of life that in part consisted of eating like pigs, driving large gas guzzling cars, engaging in serial monogamy, and worshipping the Gods of choice did much to spur American defense spending. And it was a good thing, too. We won. My uncle, the Reverend Seumas O’Reilly, himself an arch conservative, returned to China in 1998, forty-six years after he had been ceremoniously booted out via a mock trial and proclaimed: “Nobody believes in Communism over there, they believe in the almighty dollar,” and he was right. The present and ongoing fusion of central power and private economic enterprise is producing for China what we once had with greater vigor in America: Capitalism with a capital “C.”
I wandered off the Bund into the back alleys, the Hutongs or old neighborhoods of Shanghai. The scent of commerce washed over me as I came upon one alleyway of wall-to-wall vendors. As you might see all over Asia, a wide variety of consumer goods were on display: Rolex watches, Luis Vuitton luggage, Prada, skiwear, swimwear, underwear, shirts, suits, swords, toys, lighters that spit flames out crotches and nipples, watches with Chou Enlai and Mao waving hands—you name it, it was for sale—and the prices! I had to pinch myself to make sure that the prices being quoted to me were real. Twelve dollars for a Rolex with a Swiss movement (I later discovered that the Chinese import the movements unassembled from Switzerland and assemble them for extra profit as they build high quality duplicate merchandise.) I purchased Gortex rainwear for a quarter of the price it would have cost in the States. I also armed myself with a Rolex to fend off the ubiquitous watch salesmen, who, much like hustlers in New York selling watches and quick sexual favors, approach you in the street, extolling the quality of their products and services.
I went back to that alleyway three times in one day and was greeted as a conquering hero by the merchants who literally pulled me into their shops to show me their wares. I love to bargain so there was much good natured mock horror over prices, exchanged back and forth via the ubiquitous calculators, much faux walking out of establishments after dropping “my last price” and enjoying the resigned respect of the merchants at the foreigner who enjoyed the banter and the lies as much as they did. I was reminded of the time when my wife was approached by a merchant in Mexico who was selling large resin carvings he claimed were made of bone. My wife asked him incredulously, “What kind of bone?” and he responded without blinking an eye, “Chihuahua.” The same love of the deal, getting away with a bit of nonsense over the romancing of tawdry merchandise and the eager exchange of shekels that you find practiced by free spirits the world over—it is all there—all over Shanghai, and wherever I went in China.
My most priceless moment on the Bund occurred after walking into a local sex shop. As the author of a book on human sexuality, I had to see what the current state of Chinese thinking was in regard to the public display of sexual aides. It was exactly the same as any other sex shop in the U.S.: male and female rubber body parts of all sizes and colors, and other exotic paraphernalia to facilitate the sexuality of jaded appetites and disappointed hearts. What I loved, though, was that the attendants wore white doctor’s lab coats as if they were administering some sort of beneficial medicine. Like their equally serious counterparts in the U.S., they did not appreciate my uproarious laughter. Where, I thought, was the thinking of Chairman Mao in all of this?
Where are the communists these days—the true believers? Clearly they are in the military and various ministries but I didn’t want to find them in the obvious places. I wanted to catch them spying on the locals or me. I thought that I would see some plainclothes secret police skulking around the Cathedral of St. Ignatius, at the western end of what is called Frenchtown, but not only was the Cathedral packed with worshippers with no secret police in view, it had something I’ve not seen in any other Catholic Church. There were thirty-inch TV monitors every two or three pews on both sides of the church for close-up viewing of the proceedings. The government’s sanitized and controlled version of the Catholic Church run through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association is more than likely being subverted by the believers who intuitively know that no matter what the priests believe the Catholic system operates ex opere operato, or outside the operator. So what the priest believes—even if he is a government stooge—little affects their enjoyment of the service. For the Chinese, having labored under centuries of emperor-mandated civil service, bureaucracy of any kind is merely an obstacle to be either endured or ignored whenever possible. As Chinese writer and social commentator Lin Yutang observed in the 1940s, the Chinese and the Americans have one thing in common: they love to break the rules.
I took a taxi to the famous Yu Gardens at the northern end of the oldest section of Shanghai. The Pan family, rich Ming dynasty officials, founded the gardens much in the same way that we build summer homes today. Built over a period of eighteen years, from 1559 to 1577 AD, and restored after being partially demolished during the Opium War of 1842, the gardens exude a marvelous tranquility. I rested among the timeless pavilions and allowed old China to sink into my bones. I left invigorated and ready to tackle the Yu Gardens Bazaar just outside, which is a partially enclosed shopping mall. The prices here were nowhere near as good as I found in my wonderful alley near the Bund.
After a long day of shopping and walking, the many advertisements for foot massage finally had their way with me. A hostess, modestly dressed, greeted me at the door of a modern storefront and brought me downstairs to a red-lacquered waiting room that hinted at massages available for body parts other than the feet. Discreet negotiating established that I did indeed want only my feet massaged. Further haggling was entailed as to whether I would have an hour-long massage or half hour. At approximately eight dollars for an hour-long foot massage, the choice was obvious. I was ushered into a dark underground room with a projection screen showing children engaged in various forms of dance and gymnastics to the rhythmic tunes of Canto Pop. An attractive young woman was selected by the matron in charge of the establishment to massage the white man’s feet. As her blouse bulged and her jeans revealed a trim backside, I invoked Chairman Mao (an unlikely patron) to protect me from the lascivious thoughts that were licking at the edges of my consciousness.
After a pleasant hour spent falling asleep during an excellent foot massage, I walked out into the dusk to further explore the streets of Shanghai. I was astonished and delighted to find wonderful, tree-lined boulevards and shops and bars of an astounding variety that seemed to radiate in all directions. I came upon two Irish pubs in the space of an hour, and walking into one, plunked myself down in front of a giant television showing American basketball pumped in via satellite, and raised a pint to the ingenuity and future of China.
Sean Joseph O’Reilly is the editor of many award-winning travel books, including The Road Within, Testosterone Planet, The Ultimate Journey, Pilgrimage, and The Spiritual Gifts of Travel. An active member of the Society of American Travel Writers, he is also the author of the shocking and controversial new book How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Spiritually Enlightened, Evolved Self. He lives with his wife, Brenda, and their six children in Arizona.