An Orwellian Bus Tour from Shanghai to Beijing
The savannah has been drained of life. Its blooming grasslands have shrivelled and are bleached. The great beast pants, searching for the blanketing comforts of an acacia tree, but is rewarded only with the monolithic ceiling looming above. Where once beams of light would filter through emerald shrubbery, now three singular strands wiggle their way through narrow pockets. Granite boulders have been sanded down, every crag and crease flattened into three impenetrable walls. The fourth is the result of heating a million granules that the creature and its pride once strode across.
The super-heated sand forms a window for the patrons of Beijing Zoo; the thin strip of glass separates the predator and prey and subsequently reverses their roles. The onlookers watch. My tour guide says nothing. I guess that means this is normal, or at least accepted.
And yet, the animals are not the only ones being watched. Nestled in every corner of the zoo’s halls lie smaller pockets of glass shielding beady, unflinching eyes. These are the eyes of Big Brother: forewarned by many a fictional dystopia, they now exist unchecked.
These same eyes lie in wait in the chips of the phones tucked in each and every pocket, sifting through messages and chunks of data, searching for disagreeable ideas. These ideas are marked against the names of those who dare to think them and tabulated into a social rating system that will be public enforced as early as this year.
As I stand before the sealed enclosure, I cannot help but wonder if those who fall at the lower tiers of this new moral hierarchy may find a cage akin to the lion’s awaiting them.
I landed in Shanghai two weeks prior. After squarely marching through gate after gate of customs, avoiding eye contact with the security detail boasting high-powered rifles gripped against their chest and having my visa meticulously scanned by the unflinching eyes of the immigration officials, I instantly fell into my tour group.
I was fresh-faced and excited for a trip that had been all too affordable: a two-for-one deal encompassing flights, nice hotels and a coach trip across the country with plenty of included activities. Too good to be true, and yet it was. Or that’s what they would they continually try and impress upon us while letting it slip a few times that funding and subsidies from the Chinese government were apparently what made the trip so affordable.
I’ll be clear: it wasn’t a scam. There were no lies in terms of what was offered, but I still wouldn’t describe the tour itself as truthful.
After being introduced to our local guide, 30 or so fellow Australian travellers and I made a mad dash out of the airport doors and through the icy cold to the coach bus. Puffy jackets were removed and placed in luggage racks above as we drove into Shanghai. The impressive cityscape opened itself up for us, and the tour guide sung the praises of Chinese innovation and forward-thinking. It was certainly something to marvel at.
The journey afterwards was less glamorous. The cities we passed through contained none of the vibrance we’d just witnessed in Shanghai – they were utterly barren and desolate. These were ghost towns that’d been constructed quickly and simultaneously, but severely lacked enough people who could afford to move in and so remained, for the most part, eerily empty.
We were fed the same lines of Chinese innovation, but these were harder to swallow. The stretches of identical lifeless concrete bodies laid out before us were clear attempts to tackle overpopulation with little regard for the creation of affordable living spaces, let alone vibrant cities with any sense of culture or individuality. It’s worth noting too that even the houses that had been claimed did not truly belong to their inhabitants; they would forever be owned by the State and leased out to buyers on contracts capping out at 70 years. Our tour guide divulged this factoid with gritted teeth, making me question how much of his speech he had been indoctrinated into believing and how much he disagreed with but felt compelled to accept and speak the praise of.
We passed through Suzhou next, the ‘Venice of the East’. From our cushioned seats we gazed at the sides of the canals disproportionately littered with clustered houses. Towels hung to dry atop air conditioning units that precariously clung to uneven brick, hovering above their owners who soaked articles of clothing in the murky water. The tour guide revealed to us that he’d grown up here, but then fell silent. I wondered how it must’ve felt to lead a tour through the city that your job as a tour guide had helped you to escape. We drove on.
En route to Beijing, we made several factory tour pit stops, supposedly being given an inside look into the production of silk and jewellery. It was unsettling walking through the pristine buildings, looking at machinery that had been specifically put up for demonstration purposes and being told about the wondrous process by “workers” that would proceed to sell us the products minutes later. It seemed that these were polished alternative versions to the infamously inhumane factories where China’s mass output of material goods are exported from, but it was certainly a nice story that Westerners could absorb and make them feel better about their purchasing habits.
A few days later, there I was. Grimacing at the lion’s grotesquely exposed ribs laying atop the sole patch of dirt and grass in the corner of its cell, I came to realise that it was just one of many facades I had born witness to. This was considered acceptable treatment, and I’d been allowed – invited, even –to see this and much more in the context of what was essentially a propaganda tour. If this was what they wanted me to see, what else was considered acceptable that I hadn’t been shown? And what did that mean for the citizens here in the years to come, especially when any and all dissent can be surveilled?
Regardless, it was apparent to me that the People’s Republic had been taking notes on propaganda and false representation out of the book of its North Korean allies. China is vying to be the new global superpower, and while they are well on their way economically, their PR department is… lacking, to say the least. In seeking to correct this, their measures thus far have been as desperate as they are transparent. Whether it be through the recent example of their attempts to keep critical voices silent in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak or by funding these inexpensive tours that can be found advertised across the internet, the State hopes to brighten China’s global image. Some of these tactics may end up working, but most end up only further exposing what they’re hoping to cover up.
If you’ve got a bit of time, money and trust in governmental power to spare once borders open up again, you can take one of these trips and find out for yourself.
Cover by Pablo Toledo; inset by the author