I have been left on my own for the morning. The breezy arrangement of my hotel room is by now sealed tight like a tin can, offering nothing. Perhaps this is how those big droopy cats feel, in their glass tanks in Beijing Zoo; that languid panther, long melted into a still pool of indifference, regarding his visitors with eyes of sad, fathomless blankness. The civilization which has defeated him, he knows, cannot be perfect – eventually it will make a small mistake, leave a door unlocked or a keeper exposed, and then his heart can begin to beat again. It is just a question of waiting. I traipse around my own enclosure. I can stand the television for about five minutes at a time. The “news” is remorselessly cheerful. The government makes sensible policy suggestions and everybody agrees with them. The economy advances further and everybody agrees that this is very fine.
It seems that everybody in China is sickeningly dutiful and well behaved, as if the country was a gigantic Sunday school. Is it China or only my ken of it which is incomplete? Everywhere banality seems triumphant. The film Avatar has just been released in Beijing and the television is now reporting that a leading Chinese filmmaker has come out and announced that Avatar makes him ashamed of the entire Chinese film industry. China, he despairs, has never produced anything as profound or as beautiful as Avatar. The poor devils.
The maids are coming to clean my room. This is very embarrassing, because I never know quite what to do whilst they are cleaning. I instinctively stop what I am doing and stand to attention, but after a while, as I do not know how to talk to them, I end up staring helplessly, as if they were bailiffs carrying off all my possessions. The maids arrive in pairs, like T.V. detectives, and, sometimes, when they are subjecting me to their mysterious questions – possibly about the weak cistern on the toilet – and I am nodding and saying xie-xie – it may be that I am really being interrogated about a strangling in the vicarage. Today I sit down and pretend to read a book, but this is not very convincing. When the maids look off-guard, I imagine the panther soaring to freedom with his claws outstretched. I tell myself that I should have gone for a walk before the maids arrived, and stayed out of their way until they were finished.
Away the maids go, to hose out another enclosure. I fetch the ashtray and my cigarettes. I pop my head out of the window – the room no longer exists – and there is only a panorama of skyscrapers. The sky is a stunning blue. There is not a cloud in the heavens and, indeed, there has not been a drop of rain during all my time in Beijing. The city has a desert climate during the winter, the surrounding countryside is reduced to the colour and consistency of ash, one is bombarded everywhere with the dazzling hues of a British July, but one needs several layers to keep out the season’s icicle fangs.
My head floats above the city. In Beijing, a cheap packet of cigarettes costs about forty pence and the hotel will only request that one does not smoke in bed. It seems so easy, so innocent. China or Britain: is it better to have a government which goes about shooting people but leaves rights like smoking untouched; or a government which cannot run the country but eternally interferes with our tobacco consumption? It would be an irony if the revolution which remains outstanding in China arrived only after they had kicked all the smokers out of their bars.
The city smiles invitingly and I reflect upon what I can do on my own. I can drift around the big Wu-Mart supermarket on the corner, idly filling a basket, and if I am lucky I can pay for the items without a breakdown. This eventuality will occur if I am asked a question which I cannot answer – any question, pretty much – whereupon I will pack in like a fish pulled out of the lake. As I gasp helplessly, the cashier will beam expectantly at me, or squint, or shrug with despair at her friend. The world has stopped – will it ever begin again? This is why I cannot use the buses. They are loaded and unloaded in seconds, with military efficiency, whilst a sort of sergeant-major in a blue and yellow uniform sits in a raised chair and barks commands at everybody. If I blundered or went too slowly, I could be taken aside and disciplined.
I can walk aimlessly around the streets, detached from everything. I can go to KFC and negotiate the purchase of a coffee (in challenging the supremacy of tea, KFC is an organisation of radical dissent in Beijing). I cannot go to a pub or a bar because these are largely as rare as Scientologist churches. Perhaps the British embassy could double up as a pub, with the ambassador pulling pints of ale under a ceiling of oaken beams. Even if I could get there on a bus, I could not walk around one of Beijing’s monumental shopping malls, which are today the greatest achievement of Chinese civilisation, as grand and populous as sovereign states, and where everybody attains the mind and morality of a teenaged girl. The heat would exhaust me, the stallholders would eat me up, the endless pageantry of merchandise would go to my head and, my mind swimming with a Beijing fever of zany tee-shirts and novelty cigarette lighters, I would lose my reason and empty my wallet on these beautiful spangled treasures.
I pop my head in again. I want to open a beer but it is scarcely eleven o’clock. There is only the company of the television and, yes, the economy is still advancing, the leadership is still making sensible suggestions, and banality, at least seemingly, remains the dragon rampant.