I had vowed never to go to China until my friend, the exiled poet Bei Dao, was able to travel freely there, but when I received a sudden invitation to the Century City First International Poetry Festival in Chengdu, he urged me on: ‘If you wait for me, you’ll be too old to enjoy it.’
The international dimension of the festival was to be limited to two Americans. Luckily, they asked me to choose my compatriot, and I had no trouble picking Forrest Gander – excellence and congeniality being a rare combination in American letters. Tracking him down in an artists’ retreat somewhere in the Texas desert, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of re-enacting Eric Newby’s famous telegram to his friend in Buenos Aires: ‘ARE YOU AVAILABLE NURISTAN JUNE.’ I had rehearsed the casual tone: ‘Hi Forrest, want to go to Sichuan Province next week?’
As we staggered off the plane and rode into the city, the young poets assigned to meet us evaded casual questions: ‘They’ll tell you at dinner.’ We were driven to a Las Vegas-style extravaganza, complete with rows of spouting dolphin fountains, called Hotel California – China, in the 1970s, having had a Cultural Revolution that evidently saved them from Top 40 radio. Ignoring the department store, multiplex cinema, ice-skating rink, opera house, ten banquet halls, Fisherman’s Wharf (‘old bar from San Francisco’), Seine River Left Bank Grill Room and Blue Danube Night Club, we were hurried into the basement to Chengdu Famous Snacks Town, a re-creation of a ‘street in Old China’ with oversize paper lanterns, soy sauce and rice wine in barrels, medicinal herb sellers, calligraphers and shadow puppeteers, where a large group of poets was waiting for us in the Authentic Tea House. As the endless delicacies spun around on the Lazy Susan, there were veiled allusions and exchanged glances, but only exhortations to eat more. Finally, our host, the poet Zhai Yongming (now 50, she was always known as the Most Beautiful Woman in Sichuan), with great embarrassment, broke the news: the police had cancelled the festival.
Government intervention in a provincial poetry event was the only thing that would turn out to match my expectations. I knew about China’s capitalist boom, but I had imagined the cities to look like those in the Third World, with high-rises and shopping malls around the corner from shantytowns. I also assumed I’d see a collage of New New China and Old New China: Calvin Klein here and Chairman Mao there. Instead, it appeared that the conversion to Calvinism was complete. ‘Boom’ does not begin to describe it. In the cities we visited, most of the old neighbourhoods had been torn down and replaced with buildings of a futuristic massiveness. Everything was new, or under construction; the streets were spotless, the air filthy from the factories and traffic; human energy and natural resources were being consumed at blast-furnace rates.
Since 1990, the average annual per capita growth in China has been 8.5 per cent. (In India, with which China is invariably compared, it is 4 per cent. In the US, averaging the 1990s boom with the Bush bust, it is 2 per cent.) It is the ultimate capitalist dream: 1.3 billion consumers who don’t yet own an iPod. Japan’s economic ‘miracle’ depended on exports, and became less miraculous when they had to go abroad for cheap labour. It is not difficult to imagine China thriving without having to export anything at all, the goods for its expanding middle class supplied by the bottomless pool of labour in the villages. As has been the case throughout most of its history, China barely needs the rest of the world.