This week I have mainly been in Delhi and have, consequently been musing on the nature of travel writing. The great cliché of which is to deem a city, a country or even a whole continent as a place of Great Contrasts. As with all great cliches there is a kernelette of truth to it, quite frequently at the very least.
India is the “I” in BRIC, the international brotherhood of emerging regions – the others, from memory, being China, Brazil and Rusholme. Despite – or perhaps because of –this, India is, quite obligingly, clearly a country of considerable contrasts. Although I lived in China for five years, I have never seen the proximity of poverty and privilege that there is in Delhi.
While the city boasts five 5-star hotels and the biggest BMW showroom I’ve ever driven past, it is also riddled with a myriad of make-shift shanty towns. It is also commonplace to see women, often in full religious garb, picking across one of the city’s huge piles of drifting crap. Fetchingly, they usually bring their kids along.
This, then, is the curse of the emerging nations. They are obliged, often for sound economic and political resaons, to ape the countries of the west, putting forward a veneer of prosperity, while uneducated kids die in ditches.
The investment that could have saved them has gone on giving a free mall to incoming luxury brand owners or to building a shiny new stadium. They are, in fact, little more than kids themselves, playing dress-up in mum and dad’s cast-offs, while their little brother drowns in the bath.
Of all these emerging nations, though, it is China that has the greatest PR problem. This is for two reasons – it is a country that is crap at doing it’s own PR and it’s also the one that America hates the most.
Anyway you look at it, China is the New Russia. Whether it’s in terms of the Olympics, the space race or investment in arms, there’s a new cold war going on. True, China is not the military threat to the West that Russia was. Nor is it offering, despite its communist posturings, any true ideological alternative. It does, however, pose an economic threat in a way that the Moscow boys never could.
With the US hugely in debt to the PRC, with Chinese imports undermining the American economy and with Beijing’s “soft power” ever growing, Washinton rightly senses its role as the world’s solus super power is all but over.
Hence, the US misses out on no chance to knock China, subtly and not so subtly, seeking to undermine its standing in the world. Some recent events in China have, undoubtedly, been masterminded in some CIA anti-PRC PR laboratory somewhere.
What of the miraculous flight of a blind dissident who, acording to the New York Times, “ despite his lack of sight, scaled the walls around his house, sneaked past his guards” and escaped to the US embassy several hundred miles away? All on exactly the same day that Big Hilary arrives in the Jing. Fuck me, what a coincidence.
Then there was the same US embassy that was releasing Beijing smog figures contradicting the official ones. And what about the US coach that led the chorus of condemnation of the Olympic swimming success of Ye Shiwen, the Chinese 400m gold medallist?
The problem, though, is that China makes it easy. It does imprison dissidents, it probably does cheat at swimming and it does have huge environmental issues. There is, however, a huge degree of self-interest and more than a smidgeon of hubris in the negative PR campaign being orchestrated by the US.
China, however, compounds it all with its complete lack of understanding of PR. It is, to its very core, the ultimate piss-poor client.
It expects the media to pick up on only what it deems of interest, regardless of intrinsic merit. At the same time, it is genuinely outraged when any anti-China stories, no matter how firm the bases, are given any coverage whatsoever.
It was for this very reason that it set up the China Daily, it’s wholly government-owned english language newspaper. The “good old CD”, as it is known internally, has now spent 31 years “rectifying the distorted news values of the West”, while intermittenly slagging off the Dalai Lama.
It’s a practice that has caught on with local councils across the UK. Many of which now produce China-Dailyised monthly publications rectifying the distorted news values of the once-critical regional press. In a no-doubt satysfying double-whammy, many of these largely unread publications are subsidised by the funds once used to run public appointment jobs ads in said regionals. Fair play, though, they don’t often slag off Tibetan spiritual leaders.
Returning to China, though, I suspect what the US truly fears are the genuine contrasts highlighted by our friends in the East. It is, after all, a communist country that is out-performing the world’s mightiest bastion of capitalism. It is also an avowed non-democracy, where – a few skirmishes aside – the general populace show no real inclination to cast off their unappointed overlords.
What many observers forget is that, barely a generation and a half ago, many Chinese were on the verge of starvation. Today they have plasma screens and iphones. It’s not the stuff of revolution, at least not any time soon.
Lest we become a tad smug about our own greater consistency more locally, pray let us remember – for every Wilmslow, there’s a Wythensawe, for every Bowdon Vale, there’s a Benchill and for every Johnny Marr, there’s seemingly at least half a dozen Jason Oranges.
Manchester, too, has so much to answer for as, at the very least, a city of oft unfortunate contrasts
I thank you.
Tony Murray is Managing Editor of Gafencu Men in Hong Kong. He was previously editor of Adline and group managing editor of the Carnyx Group, publishers of The Drum and former publishers of The Marketeer. You can contact him at tonymurray37ATgmailDOTcom