I’ve had time this week to reflect on the occasional indignities of life in China, especially as I just spent the last couple days in Sanya (三亚) which despite being billed as the “Hawaii” of China, is far from it.
I came to Sanya with low expectations but high hopes. I am aware of the overwhelming trend in China to over-develop, transforming what was once beautiful naturally into gaudy and artificial disney-style theme parks. But I came with high hopes that if I stray from the beaten path, escape some of the tourist hell holes (aka “tourist zones”) that I may be able to find unspoiled, isolated pockets of Hainan’s southern coast with some remnants of local culture and laid-back surfer scene.
Alas, in the last three days I have not had much luck. What I have seen so far is all of my worst nightmares of unsustainable tourism come alive. There is a “American dream park” currently in the process of construction which is a combo sea world/universal theme park/carnival/horror-house knock-off. Trash ranging from straws, chicken bones, packaging and the occasional shoe strewn the beaches every morning as trash pickers work steadily to clear it all before the onslaught of new tourists. Price gauging, petty theft, and scams run rampant, and massive foreign-run resorts completely devoid of culture dominate entire stretches of the best beaches.
And I do not say this with some sort of snotty foreigner attitude – I point these things as a reflective of ALL unsustainable tourism which manifests around the world, NOT unique to China. Some Chinese tourists I’ve encountered share my distaste with these aspects of Sanya.
My initial bout of disillusionment was crippling. I’ve had a sense of mounting depression in the last week driven mostly by loneliness. Moving to Hainan has not been easy and as is the case with moving to any new place, I struggled to build a new community of friends and locate conveniences which make a place more like home. On top of this I miss my family, friends, and Luke intensely. Finally, it seemed, all the small indignities of living in China had caught up with me.
So I spent a good portion of today brooding in my hostel and wallowing in my sadness instead of taking the risk to venture out, lacking the emotional capacity to handle more disillusionment. I brooded over why Sanya has become this way and like the proper poli/econ-nerd that I am, reflected on the minor forms of corruption (腐败) that often lie at the base of misguided government-driven development.
There are many examples of corruption in China (as is in most developing countries), but some are more insidious than others. Some 腐败s are petty thefts, minor nuisances which once encountered leave a vague unpleasant taste in your mouth as you move on with your life. For example, when I first arrived in Hainan I had to obtain various medical exams and other certifying paperwork for my visa. At the medical examiners, I paid 463 RMB, but my official receipt billed me 300 RMB for the actual medical clearance and 100 RMB for the “Hainan local” processing fee, leaving a mysterious 63 RMB unaccounted for. On the other hand, likely to prevent this kind of mysterious fee charging, at the National Security Bureau which handles visa processing, I was not even given an option to pay with cash – only cards are accepted.
Other forms of 腐败 are thuggish, and while not damaging to the a large swath of citizens can prove to be cumbersome for individuals. These sorts of corruption happen most often at the local level and affect private business owners, like the owner of my hostel who was visited by not one, not two, but a group of 7 local-inspection officers who casually sat in his smoke-free lobby puffing cigarettes and demanding to see his operation license. I asked the owner later about this visit, and he waved it off, saying something vaguely about how in the high-season, inspectors will come unannounced to ensure that all hotels were operating legally. I noticed, however, that the officers did not visit any of the other 5 hotels on the block….
Finally, there is institutionalized corruption, 腐败 which manifests at the very core of China’s development model. This sort is the hardest to identify but its effects will uproot entire villages, level entire forests, and drain entire lakes…. all in the name of economic development. This institutional 腐败 lies at the heart of China’s drive towards unsustainable tourism. Take Yalong Bay, for example – booked as the go-to spot for “luxury tourism”, huge gaudy brand name resorts have been constructed in a Atlantic City style strip renting out rooms at prices that 99% of the Chinese population would never afford. OR even more audacious, the BoAo resorts further up the eastern coast about 2 hrs drive from Sanya. This little town was literally constructed out of no-where because the favorite ex-mistress of a certain official was dying, and her dying wish was to direct funding to a piece of land her grandson owned in Hainan. So ten years ago Beijing designated BoAo as the location for its “BoAo Forum” which is China’s version of the World Economic Forum. Sofitel, a German luxury hotel conglomerate, was convinced to build a hotel/ conference center at a huge loss because they were “gently” informed that if they did not, they would not get the license to build any resorts in China anywhere. A few years later Sofitel finally cut its losses on the BoAo resort. The resort, which I visited last year, is beautiful but isolated; it is not even near the ocean. Besides the annual BoAo forum, it sees very little traffic except for the occasional company retreats of large state-owned companies who I highly doubt pay the listed asking price of 4000 rmb/room/night.
Sometimes I wonder how Chinese citizens, faced with these constant reminders of the indignities of life and the injustice of the system stand it all. I do not purport that life in the US is devoid of these things but I do feel that our indignities and injustices pale in comparison. I find however, that if I reexamine my experiences the last couple days and focus on the life of the Chinese individual, there are many joys and humorous things to celebrate.
For one, the Sanya sunrise is truly beautiful:
And who can resist a man in a speedo?
Tomorrow is another day and this ugly pony isn’t done yet.