I spent the New Year holiday across the border suffering extreme thirst, in two ways. First was for fluids. It occurred to me around Day 3 that the problem was a shift in diet – being stuffed with endless rounds of greasy pork dumplings, oily goose organs, spiced tofu, mystery meat in chili-flour, pig pieces with pickles, fish with chili and preserved veg, and on and on and on, all laced with massive overdoses of soy sauce and salt. Biting into a clean, pure apple was an almost-divine sensation. My water-intake/peeing rhythm is just about back in balance.
Second was for word of what was happening on Planet Earth. There is no Internet to speak of up there. Instead, all you have is CCTV galas and talent shows featuring garish grinning performers singing about how the world is learning to speak Mandarin, how fortunate we are to have an aircraft carrier, how happy everyone is, and countless other variants of the Chinese Dream, interspersed with clips of mirthful audiences applauding slightly too ecstatically at slightly inappropriate moments. You can go out and see trees wrapped in gold, and join hordes of revelers all descending on exactly the same patch of peach blossoms to have their photos taken. And you can switch to the 24-hour Guangdong Real Estate channel – a perpetual cycle of advertorials for property developments for an audience unaware that the construction stretching as far as the eye can see from Shenzhen to Dongguan to Foshan to Guangzhou might be surplus to market demand. Then switch back to the China vs USA Dance Competition, with the US represented by a couple of hopelessly uncoordinated black guys doing some sort of clownish/thuggish hip-hop routine and doomed to lose as per the script. For something really heavy, there’s a never-ending war drama in which badly made-up but noble and fearless ordinary folks ambush and defeat incompetent yet evil Japanese soldiers. And you can eat more salty, fatty food. But there are no Tweets, no Google, no ideas from beyond, apart from some above-averagely mind-numbing bits of Hong Kong’s TVB that make it past the censors.
The scary bit is that after a while – in the absence of any information to the contrary – you start to get into the swing of it. Life really is quite good compared with just a few decades ago. Most people have everything they need. The future looks bright. Maybe there are things you don’t have to concern yourself with, but you don’t know what they are, so it doesn’t matter, or even register. There is no sign of anything untoward, like a property bubble or economic imbalances or pollution or bridges with cardboard foundations. No sign of any unfairness, injustice or cruelty (apart from the vague impression that some poor wretch is being forced to watch TVB and press a button if any current affairs come on). There’s no sign of any censorship. You are seeing everything there is to see, and it’s all comforting and pleasant. You don’t even need to wonder how or where this all ends.