China Environmental News Digest

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Tuesday, January 06, 2009

You just don't dance at a Communist Party congress

Moving from safe, crowded Beijing to dangerous, bright Johannesburg leaves The Globe's correspondent with mixed reactions

JOHANNESBURG -- When a Chinese doctor was X-raying my chest for a recent medical exam, she pointed to a couple of small spots on my lungs. "Are you a smoker?" she asked.

I have never been a smoker. I asked the doctor whether my lungs could have been affected by nearly seven years of living in Beijing's legendary smog. She agreed that pollution was the likely cause.

It was a dismal reminder of the unhealthiness of life in Beijing. The smog is probably what I'll miss the least about the Chinese capital, a vibrant and fascinating city, fuelled by the restlessness of a rising superpower.

This month, I'm moving to The Globe and Mail bureau in Johannesburg, where the skies are sunny almost every day. Instead of the haze of Chinese cities, I'll be breathing in clean air for the first time in many years.

It's just one of the culture shocks I'm encountering in my move from Asia to Africa. And not all of the changes will be positive.

The biggest difference between the two cities is personal security. Beijing is one of the safest big cities in the world. I've never worried about safety in any neighbourhood of Beijing, even the darkest alleys in the post-midnight hours.

It's also one of the most honest cities in the world. Once I lost a blank cheque in an underpass beneath a busy Beijing street. Two blocks later, a citizen came running up to me to return it.

Johannesburg, on the other hand, has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The Globe's house there is surrounded by four-metre-high walls, topped with an electric fence. Inside is a heavy-duty alarm system, including motion detectors in every room and steel gates to protect the bedrooms at night. It seems excessive, yet this is the norm for many middle-class residents here.

In Beijing, there are crowds everywhere, and you don't feel relaxed unless you are surrounded by jostling pedestrians or noisy diners at a restaurant. Johannesburg, by contrast, seems like a ghost town - albeit a leafy and sunny one. The suburbs are strung quietly along empty streets, with only the purple splotches of the jacaranda trees to add some colour.

Compared with China, a foreign correspondent in Johannesburg definitely feels a sense of Africa as a political backwater, ignored by much of the world's media. Press conferences here are smaller and more intimate. Media events in Beijing are often crowded and hectic affairs, filled with hundreds of journalists from China and around the world.

The news in China can rattle the financial markets and shift the world price of commodities. There is a gravity in the government's careful pronouncements in Beijing, followed by the rush of financial journalists phoning their wire services to send out the bulletins. Little in Africa is monitored so closely by the international media.

Yet there is an emotional heartbeat to the political scene in Africa that is rarely seen in China. Over the past seven years, I've covered China's biggest political events: the annual rubber-stamp meeting of the National People's Congress, and the less frequent congresses of the Chinese Communist Party. These are always held in the pompous and solemn Great Hall of the People, a grandiose edifice on Tiananmen Square. The speeches are marathon recitals from prepared texts. Nobody smiles. Nobody shouts. Everyone wears nearly identical dark suits - except on the first day of the People's Congress, when ethnic costumes are mandatory for minorities. Everything is decided in advance. Votes are orderly and near-unanimous. The atmosphere is deadly dull.

Contrast that with the latest political event in Johannesburg - the founding convention of a breakaway group of dissidents from the African National Congress. Yes, it was held in a suburban convention centre. But the atmosphere was buoyant, spirited, spontaneous, even joyous. Speeches were punctuated by outbursts of singing and dancing. Liberation songs filled the air.

If anyone attempted to sing or dance at a congress of the Chinese Communist Party, I'm sure he would be immediately escorted out of the building and taken away for severe questioning.


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