Difference is greater than ever: politics and weddings in China

A couple getting married in Changsha, China

Politics and weddings aren’t necessarily two words that you would put together. Though, as of last year, local officials in China hit the headlines as they were fined for hosting lavish wedding banquets – a Beijing village official’s position was removed after hosting a wedding banquet that cost 1.6m Yuan. This comes at a time where fighting corruption is at the core of Xi’s strategy. ‘He has vowed to crack down on both “tigers” and “flies” – powerful leaders and lowly bureaucrats’. His campaign involves banning extravagant displays of wealth, such as expensive flower arrangements, and elaborate red-carpet ceremonies for local officials .

This debate over the public display of wealth in wedding ceremonies is not new. During the Maoist era, lavish weddings held as big family affairs were viewed as wasteful, greedy and immoral. The union of two individuals should not be bound by money – as it functioned as a measurement which allowed for inequality, and ultimately had to be removed. The irony  is that social distinction could not be removed completely, and now Xi is dealing with the excesses caused by Deng Xiaoping’s’ conviction that ‘to get rich is glorious’.

In a collective society like China, attending wedding banquets is a must, to give face (mianzi) and pay respect to those in your social circle. These are large social affairs, in which the bride and groom come together for the ‘collective’ (dajia) to witness their union. It is this performance that constitutes the cultural recognition of marriage, as opposed to the process of obtaining a marriage certificate.  For the rising middle class, and newly rich, these are important events for networking and ‘pulling’ social connections (la guanxi). Guests offer red pockets (hongbao) of money to the couple, and at many high-profile weddings such gifts amount to bribes. The guests can number up to a thousand at these kinds of weddings, and they look forward to a programme of lively entertainment and luxurious food.  These weddings are more like shows in which families flaunt their wealth and power. And for this reason, Xi is restricting the number of guests that are invited, allowing 30 tables maximum . These lavish performances offer a glimpse of how the rising middle class and rich are bonding in China.

But take a trip back roughly sixty years to the Maoist era, and weddings would present a completely different picture. Weddings were all the same – equality was the guiding principle. Brides and grooms acted as models for socialist change. During my anthropology master’s fieldwork, I spent five weeks in Changsha last May observing wedding ceremonies and interviewing wedding photographers, planners, and presenters. One my informants, a wedding planner, told me about her grandparents’ wedding, and the only gifts offered were peanuts and sweets. In her perception this was because China had  a two thousand-year history of being poor. No gifts of money were offered, because it was believed that this would produce social distinctions. However, this equality was an illusion, and social distinctions did exist, the leaders of the party living glamorous lives whilst millions through many years of poverty and scarcity.

The memory of poverty and scarcity still remains, and many Chinese place great importance on gathering and maintaining wealth. Deng Xiaoping’s reign encouraged the ‘get rich mentality’, he stated that those who get rich first should be models to be emulated, the first to experience future prosperity and not targets of class resentment. They were the sign of the prosperity to come. But as people are getting richer, they do not know what to do with their money other than spend, consume, and publicly display their wealth. This is presented clearly through wedding consumption.

The wedding industry in China, only established over ten years, is growing rapidly. Walk down the streets of Changsha in the summer and you see a line of wedding stalls of promoting their services. Couples place the fate of their wedding day in the hands of wedding planning companies – they promise to secure you the venue, filming, and wedding presenters. Their aim is to make the couple’s wedding ceremony as much of a show as possible. The trend for the rising middle class is to be as extravagant as possible, and personalising your wedding banquet to tell the audience a story of how you met is popular too. One particular example stands out; a leading wedding planner in Changsha told me about how one of her customers requested  that the bride fly down like an angel onto the stage, apparently inspired by an American TV show.

The commodities presented at wedding ceremonies – the dress, jewellery, and food and drink – tell the audience who you are and what kind of lifestyle you lead. A young chatty wedding photographer I met told me he regularly dealt with rich clients who spent huge sums of money on wedding photography. On this subject he informed me ‘there is no such thing as a class system in China  – it’s not like what you have in the West.’ Though he later explained that in China, there are different strata (jieceng) and that these are dependent on wealth as opposed to culture. There is a notable difference in the quality and type of commodities offered at different types of wedding banquets. A local wedding I attended in a town outside Changsha was a very public affair in which anyone could participate. An array of treats was laid out for guests, including assorted locally-produced chocolates  and a bottle of sherry written in a peculiar mixture of Spanish and Italian, clearly attempting to disguise itself as an expensive luxury product. On the other hand, the high-profile wedding I attended in Changsha from an invite from the wedding photographer was a private affair- it was ticket entry only. Rather embarrassingly they were wary of foreigners and extra observers in the current political climate and I got kicked out. Expensive flower decorations dangled from the ceiling, and prestigious Western commodities like Ferrero Roches and luxury wine were served at the tables.

Many Chinese look to the West as a place of economic abundance, and the popularity of Western wedding traditions reflects this. A ‘Western’ wedding is favoured over a traditional Chinese one, which is a more expensive option involving lengthy rituals requiring a high number of staff. Wedding photography is popular, a trend that took off in Taiwan first, and has since made it  way to the Mainland China. Photos are taken in in the far-flung corners of China in an attempt to create a backdrop similar to a European landscape, something which the photographer informed me involves considerable technical and logistical challenges. Couples make an extra effort bearing the heat to have these photographs taken.  Wedding albums are ordered to show to the couple’s parent’s relatives and friends, part of the displaying of wealth to others. This contrasts with the experience of older generations who lived under scarcity, and did not have anything like this to show to others. This act of emulating the West can seem a bit over-the-top; one wedding ceremony I attended had a projection of a Church altar at the centre of the stage for decoration. This was very strange indeed, combined with the upbeat Taylor Swift song playing in the background. It seems that anything will do, as long as it is Western. The artificial nature of these practices reflects a greater issue: a loss of tradition and subsequently admiration of the West.

Weddings offers us an interesting lens through which to observe the political changes of the last 60 years, particularly in terms of how individuals in China choose to reveal an aspect of their lives to their circle. Consumption is growing in China, and is shaping every aspect of people’s lives,and people have an ever-greater choice of products and services. Marx had never predicted that so many people would enjoy the fruits of capitalism – that people would love the activites of shopping for, indulging in, and fetishizing commodities. Wedding consumption in China demonstrates this, as couples express their individuality by tailoring their wedding ceremonies to suit themselves. At the same time, it is the rising middle class and rich that can afford to spend lavishly, and wedding banquets in rural areas may well present a different picture. China’s next challenge is to deal with its huge social inequality, and the public eye is watching closely.

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Miliband and Gove and the future of British education

Do Miliband’s ideas have the power to change Britain? His speech at the Hugo Young Lecture is part a debate about social inequality in Britain, the core theme of Miliband’s speech is devolution; power should be decentralised from Whitehall and the given to the people – the creation of a people-powered public service is the new way forward. Parents will have the autonomy to sack headteachers if schools are performing poorly, and patients will able to make changes to their local NHS – these are just two of his ideas. Miliband has got a bit carried away with this; it sounds great on paper, giving autonomy to the people, but, realistically, will taxpayers want to spend their time playing the role of government? Will this solve problems in the NHS and schools?  As a measure it is limited, as only certain groups in society will exercise their rights. It is more of a side measure than a central one.

Miliband is right about equality and tolerance should be the guiding principles of our society. The awful thing is that in Britain we are used to this inequality, and it is hard to imagine what it would feel like without it. We all witness it day in, day out. A few years ago, working at a youth charity, I visited a high number of schools across Birmingham. I was shocked to see the difference in each neighbourhood; in the middle-class white areas, students were privileged and had plenty of opportunities, whereas in ghettoised predominantly Muslim-populated areas, schools were in bad condition and students were disengaged. This is largely due to economic reasons, such as poverty and lack of employment. The young people in these areas face different life-chances which will ultimately shape their future income and employment opportunities, and hence their quality of life. It’s important to note that difference is inevitable, as there will always be richer and poorer classes. But what can we do to make people’s life chances fairer?

Education is the greatest tool for creating social change. Miliband’s proposal to introduce emergency call-in powers for parents is radical, but the problem of failing schools cannot be greatly helped by the intervention of parents. Even if this policy is implemented, it will be more favourable for middle class parents as there is generally a stronger emphasis on education within the middle classes. They are more likely to be well-educated, more likely to invest in their child’s education with private tuition and extra-curricular activities, and more likely to challenge schools if they are dissatisfied. For this reason, I do not think Miliband’s idea of a people-powered education system is going to make a significant impact on all groups across society.

The deeper social and cultural problems need to be understood first in our education system: the teacher quality, the school management and pupil engagement.  Gove recognises these problems, but his policies are far too extreme. He is obsessed with global comparisons of education systems and chasing league tables and his definition of a good education is flawed.

I agree, higher standards are needed, but looking to East Asian education systems and adopting rote-learning methods is harmful. Several friends I have spoken to in China tell me how pressuring it is, and how they hated reciting and learning endless pieces of information, by the end of which they have learned little other than isolated ‘facts’. This system treats individuals like mindless robots absorbing information that is put in front of them. Sadly our brains don’t work in this way. And, Gove is planning to remove one of the greatest things about our education system: creativity. By doing this he is going to damage a future generation of thinkers, writers and artists who are important for change in Britain today.  What is more important is to have better quality teachers, who are intelligent, inspiring models who can teach the younger generation to dream and hope.

Miliband and Gove are keen to shape the future of Britain, but both swing too far to extremes. Perhaps they can learn from one another, and realise that a large part of this problem is to do with, as Adam Curtis sees as the lack of connectedness in the world we are living in – the lack of innovation, an increasing sense of isolation, and the pervasive sense of not knowing what is going on in the world. Communities need to engage with one another, and education should inspire us to be whole beings, rich of life and meaning.

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Cultural Amnesia – Where does Hong Kong belong?

Cultural amnesia: a condition where one loses a sense of one’s past. A summer visit to the Hong Kong History museum provoked this idea: it presented a strikingly different view of Hong Kong-China relations from what I had known before. The island’s history was painted as a series of events that saw its destiny as being reunited with its motherland. The exhibition ended with the glorious 1997 handover to mainland China that saw ‘falling leaves return to their roots’ (luo ye gui gen). The black and white footage playing in another section of the museum showed the fear and sense of helplessness local people felt as Japanese troops took control of the island. Hong Kong had been conquered by Japan in the bitter winter of 1941 and remained under its rule for three years and eight months. It was a politically turbulent time in which Hong Kong felt like a vulnerable child forcefully separated from its mother. Most shocking were protests for help from locals who wished to be reunified with mainland China, emphasising its shared destiny. It was a powerful moment in history.

The mother and child were no longer one; the umbilical cord was cut and a new individual was formed. Is there an innate sense of longing for motherly love, and desire to be at one again?

This version of history contests the opinions of many Hong Kong locals I spoke to about Hong Kong- China relations. Most expressed their dislike of the influx of mainlanders settling on the island; the increasing number of mainlander mothers-to-be taking up hospital beds has burdened state resources, and the milk power incident, for example, has infuriated local people. Shocking statistics feature in Shanghaiist’s recent article: ‘a recent survey conducted in November by the Hong Kong University showed that 31.8 percent of Hong Kong residents harbour ‘negative’ feelings towards people from mainland China, while sentiment about Japanese people remains relatively warm in comparison.’ The anti-China sentiment is growing; Alex Lo from South China Morning Post writes:

‘Across the border, it is bad land. And it is leaking badness and contaminating Hong Kong with corrupt officials and “locust” visitors, sometimes literally, urinating and defecating in public, or spreading a potential flu pandemic.’

There appears to be a simple solution: remove the mainlanders and Hong Kong will be a better place. Undeniably there is a problem: the island is small, crowded, and unable to sustain a high population of migrants. But what stands out is the extreme contempt that some Hong Kong people feel towards mainlanders. This paranoia is growing rapidly and infesting the minds of some Hong Kong people, and a clear divide is forming between locals and mainlanders. Locals see mainlanders as rude and ‘uncivilised’, from a place where politics is corrupt and ‘totalitarian’. Hong Kong, on the other hand, is a wealthy, progressive, and liberal democratic society; its people benefit from a high standard of living on average.  It was hailed as the jewel of Asia, was one of the four East Asian Tiger economies in the 1980s, along with South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan, and became one of the world’s most important financial capitals.

The topic of Hong Kong-China relations is complex. Hong Kong is going through an important and pressing phase of identity politics; as mainland China’s economy is growing at a rapid rate it faces increasing pressure to submit to Beijing. It holds an ambivalent attitude towards the mainland, on the one hand viewing it as backward and inferior, and on the other as a place of investment and growth. This is not surprising; Hong Kong island was adopted by another mother, Britain, in 1842 as a prize in the Opium Wars. Though it is surprising it did not form a stronger attachment towards mainland China after its long separation. It was in fact only recently, in 1997, that it was returned to mainland China. It currently falls under the ‘One CountryTwo Systems’ policy as a SAR (Special Administrative Region), like its neighbour Macau. Its political position is like no other, which makes the situation more complex than it appears.

It formed its distinctive identity during the time of British rule. A positively-viewed period, this was a time of growing economic stability, in which living standards and employment rose. It was an exciting time for Hong Kong and the start of its global success story. The manufacturing industry expanded. A glimpse of this is shown in the museum’s 1960s section, in which a display of iconic items such as Camel flasks, watches, and crockery are showcased – items which were mass produced and sold across the world as Hong Kong products. The famous, upbeat, ‘We Love Hong Kong’ song played repeatedly in the background, symbolising a time in which Hong Kong was lifting itself out of poverty, a sign that the ‘good times’ were approaching. This economic success partly was due to the mass cheap labour available; ironically this is how mainland China has since made its riches – take a look at the number of items that have a ‘Made in China’ label, for example.

An influx of mainlanders arrived in Hong Kong in the 1980s to find work; many swam across the sea illegally to reach the island. The journeys these migrants took have shaped the island’s fate; they form an important part of Hong Kong today. A high number of Hong Kong people are descended from mainland China, and have relatives across the border whom they frequently visit. Even many famous celebrities who have made their names in Hong Kong are from the mainland, for example Carina Lau and Siu Fong Fong. Hong Kong and mainland China’s pasts and destinies are interwoven, and are inseparable in many ways. The contempt towards mainlanders is clearly contradictory, as many locals have strong blood connections with the mainland. As Hong Kong and mainland China forge closer relations, there will be an increasing need to recognise their shared pasts. Why can’t their pasts be celebrated?

A cultural amnesia has pervaded the island, obscuring its long-lost connection with its motherland. Local screenwriter Ivy Ho commented at a Hong Kong’s International Literary Festival debate that ‘Hong Kong people have not looked back; there has been a loss of Hong Kong heritage, and local people do not fetishise memory or sentiment. People only look forward to the constantly moving narrative of wealth.’ This overemphasis on wealth has brought a lack of appreciation for arts and local history, which is sad and detrimental for the creation of future creative talent. The economic success of the island has masked its once-vulnerable past, and produced a new identity. Although there has been a recent attempt to revive its artistic heritage, with the West Kowloon arts centre and its aim to make arts for all, it falls short as there is little local interest. So has cultural amnesia severed the link between Hong Kong and mainland China?

As a child grows, it becomes independent, develops its own voice, and begins to stand on its own two feet.

The language of democracy, rights, and law is used by Hong Kong people as a way to distinguish themselves from their motherland. ‘Hong Kong has never been a democracy in the traditional sense’ (Slate); it was Chris Patten, the last British governor, who brought democracy to the island. It is currently working towards its 2017 goal for universal suffrage, and is at a critical point in discussing the future of its political system. It is more important to ask what exactly democracy means to Hong Kong. To Anson Chan, a former member of Legco (Legislative Council of Hong Kong), its rights and freedoms are its distinctive edge. It does not want to become another Chinese city, follow a Communist regime, and be swallowed by Beijing. Democracy here is clearly a weapon to defend Hong Kong in its power-with the mainland. Would Hong Kong be able to maintain its strengths if it were no longer democratic, but rather under the rule of Beijing? It is at present not fully democratic; its niche is its laissez-faire economy, and this is what attracts global investment. Chan adds that the island cannot compete with the mainland in terms of resources; therefore it needs to find a way to maintain its ‘unique’ identity in the future for it to continue to play a significant role in the world. If something else other than democracy allowed the island to keep this uniqueness, would it still be so insistent on democracy?

It is clear the issue is not as simple as it appears to be. There is an actual problem with the mainlander population flooding into Hong Kong, and there are practical solutions to resolve this if the island is to sustain itself. There is an obvious paranoia that some Hong Kong people are attached to, but the bigger picture is that Hong Kong and China share an interwoven and complicated past. Hong Kong is not simply a fountain of goodness and mainlanders are not just polluting the island.

Memory is a powerful thing. The past serves to remind us of why things are the way they are. Cultural amnesia has constructed a brick wall between Hong Kong and mainland China. It has taken over the minds of many, washing away the island’s fragile past.

 Mother and child reunited, both express different opinions, but both care about the same thing.

Can both take a step back, in the presence of each other, to remember the past they once shared? Can Hong Kong and mainland China find ways to move beyond this brick wall?

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