cultural smog

I am in Tianjin where the smog is thick. It creates grey on grey cityscapes and irritates eyes and throats. My niece, a lovely and talented young woman jokes that, “Chinese people have iron lungs,” instantly showing up the dystopian anxieties that animate cyberpunk and urban fantasy (as popular literary genres, not simply as lifestyle choices).

I remember similarly edged jokes from my mother’s relatives and friends when we went back to the UP, where iron mining and tree harvesting for the paper mills had reshaped the wild north. “That,” they said with a half apologetic laugh when they glimpsed our pinched noses, “that is the smell of money.”

One of the consequences of industrialization, smog becomes meaningful through the stories we tell about it. My understanding of the relationship between smog and stories jives with Laclau and Mouffe’s elegant reformulation of the opposition between realism and idealism. To paraphrase from Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, a rock exists outside human thought. However, what we do with that rock (place it in a garden or throw it at our neighbor, for example) only becomes meaningful through what they call — following a string of literary minded postmarxist philosophers — discourse.

I take the term discourse to overlap with what anthropologists (especially after Geertz) have understood by the term culture. Culture comprises the patterns through which we “make sense” out of all we encounter. Was it a wink or a blink? Culture tells us that that flick of the eyelid was a message (oo la la), while another was just the body doing its thing (keeping the cornea moist). The critical edge to discourse analysis or critical ethnography lies in acknowledging that there is stuff undulating beyond and lapping against the beaches of coherence, stuff which can only be recognized and acted upon through the stories we tell about the world (his eye started twitching after he went to war; that flick of the eyelid is neither a flirt nor a natural function, but a symptom of post traumatic stress disorder).

So back to smog stories.

One smog story is the price of doing business. Industrial manufacturing produces smog, along with paper, toys, and smart phones. This smog story tells us that pollution is the inevitable outcome of modernization and modernization benefits society as a whole. However, when we talk about Chinese iron lungs, we are accepting smog as the inevitable consequence of industrialization. And perhaps in a one to one trade this would make some kind of equitable sense, if for example the people breathing in the smog actually could purchase relatively cheap paper, toys, and smart phones. But those high-quality cheap goods are shipped overseas. Instead, in Tianjin we are left with smog, shoddy goods and overpriced, possibly counterfeit products. This explains why those residents who can make shopping trips to Hong Kong and South Korea do so.

Consequently, another smog story alludes to the resentment that Hong Kong residents feel for the numbers of Mainland visitors who have reshaped the SAR’s tourist and commercial landscapes. These visitors are used to spending a lot for dodgy goods; paying the same price for certified products (or can be trusted products as they are known in Mandarin) is a no-brainier. The result, however, has been to drive up local prices, making it more expensive for Hong Kong people to purchase items. Hong Kong people who aren’t benefitting from this cross-border trade understandably don’t like a process which lowers their quality of life. Meanwhile, those who are getting richer from the process go shopping in the US, Canada, and Europe. In this sense, Mainland cross border tourism to Hong Kong is like Tianjin smog stories. A few people are enjoying the profits and everybody else is sucking up the carcinogens.

But people are not carcinogens and so this is where the story gets complicated, why why why inquiring mind want to know do we put up with systems that run on carcinogens and distrust?

Most smog stories split the narrative along cultural lines. I have heard Hong Kong people complain that “they” let children pee off a train in public spaces. And I have heard Mainlanders say scornfully, “they” were colonial slaves and didn’t do anything about it then, so what’s the fuss now? But in fact these stories are interwoven. Many Hong Kong people I’ve spoken with don’t understand the extent to which ordinary Mainland people have paid the physical price for the SAR’s prosperity and relatively clean environment. Similarly, many Mainland friends don’t know that there were protests in Hong Kong during the 1960s and are only vaguely aware that Hong Kong people have kept the memory of Tiananmen politically alive.

Breathing smog hurts. Today, I’m wondering how we might clear the air both here and there when we’re telling different smog stories.

Update: impressions of Tianjin Smog and the City’s colonial architecture, October 19, 2014.

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7 thoughts on “cultural smog

  1. A) the people in China aren’t forced to pursue industrialization at cost of the environment.
    B) protests in 1960s HK are caused by communists trying to screw the British.
    C) mainland censors the media, so mainland ppl’s thoughts are partial at best, very cloudy at worse.
    D) Ppl in HK are fighting for their freedoms, quality of life and their lives that will benefit the mainland chinese.
    E) what happens to “When in Rome, do what the Romans do” instead we have “in Rome, do the same as you were at home?”

    • Nulle, the fact is that the majority of foreign investment in China, especially after Tiananmen came from Hong Kong and that the majority of factories in Guangdong has been if not owned then operated by Hong Kong companies. For a good comparison of the differences between how Hong Kong companies operated in Shenzhen and how they operated in Hong Kong please read, Ching-Kwan Lee’s book, Gender and the South China Miracle: Two World’s of Factory Women.

      Hong Kong investors and factory managers have used Mainland environments and people, especially rural women to become rich. Until Hong Kong people see how much their entire economy depends on taking advantage of the Mainland, I believe that it will be difficult for meaningful dialogue to take place.

      So in the Mainland I have seen many Hong Kong men take advantage of young women. In the worst cases, after impregnating a woman, many Hong Kong men have run back across the border and ignored these responsibilities.

      Finally, when you make generalizing statements about “Mainlanders” and “Hong Kong people” I hear so much prejudice in your language that it is difficult to take your complaints seriously because not all Hong Kong people are fighting to make the Mainland a better place. In fact, from the structure of the economy most Hong Kong people are exploiting young Mainland women.

  2. actually I hear the exact reverse in Hong Kong, a lot of women in mainland china seduce HK men so they can acquire a permanent residence in HK (hence its benefits, incl. welfare.) I have heard countless cases where mainland women seduces HK business only to extort them for money[one of my uncles got caught in one of those scams, losing money, his home and his restaurant in the mainland], sometimes millions by having a ‘brother’ (more like husband.) There are public service announcement by HK Police telling people not to caught in prevalent scams by those from Shenzhen in HK (ie snake oil salesman, fortune scams, medicine scams, relative in distress-wire money scams) generally using Mandarin with different mainland dialects.

    True, a lot of businesses are started and ran by HK businessman. But CCP party members almost always exhort a bribe or else shutting down the HK SME. This stuff I hear from businessman from themselves on multiple occasions. That’s on top of rampant employee theft and employee embezzement of HK businesses.

    Your view suggested to me that your experience in China have been sugarcoated and you probably see what your chinese friends wants you to see while in China (try recording them when you are not around.) I recall accounts of HK people hauling just about everything (from fridges, to oil/rice/salt) to mainland China in 1960-1980s. I also recall accounts of HK donating millions (usually via concerts) everytime China have a natural disaster. Sadly, mainland chinese doesn’t know that fact.

    More recent case, someone I know went to Shenzhen with a bunch of friends doing naughty stuff. Got robbed and ID-less and required rescue from HK.

    • Hello Nulle, welcome back.

      Of course you hear the opposite in Hong Kong, that’s the point I have been making. Mainland people generally believe that Hong Kong people have an easy life. Hong Kong people generally believe that Mainland people are low class. I encounter these two kinds of prejudice everyday.

      About your friends’ problems while doing “naughty(?!)” stuff in Shenzhen. I don’t know what to make of that comment. If they crossed the border for sex or drugs — hello, that’s illegal and by definition risky. Moreover, if you are sympathizing with someone who crossed the border to take advantage of sex workers in Shenzhen, again I don’t understand why you are surprised that it didn’t go well because these activities are illegal (and therefore risky). If you want safe and naughty petition the government to legalize prostitution and recreational drug use.

      Mostly however I’m disappointed that your comments ignore and refuse to acknowledge the human suffering on the Mainland side of the border. Until you do, I will continue to disagree with you because your vision of poor Hong Kong people suffering at the hands of all Mainland people is a stereotype. It is also an example of how easy it is to confuse one’s prejudices with the truth.

  3. These cultural prejudices (“misunderstandings”) are often associated with capitalist industrialization and the way different communities are exploited in different ways: sweatshops in Hong Kong, assembly lines in Shenzhen. Compare nineteenth century London cockneys “doing the business”, Irish navvies digging the railways, and women working as “hands” in the filthy polluted mills and potteries of the Industrial Revolution. As they say in Yorkshire, “where there’s muck there’s brass”.

  4. Pingback: tianjin smog update « Shenzhen Noted

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