November 30, 1999

If it's Friday, then this must be China....

What a cultural shock! I'm about to start on my way back to the USA after eight hectic but fantastic days in China. My last visit there was eleven years ago, and I've honestly found it difficult to believe that I'm in the same country again. No question about it -- capitalism is on its way in, for the 1.2 billion citizens of China.

The new international airport at Beijing is huge, bright, clean, slick, efficient, and modern. The domestic airports we used during our visit were just as good, and certainly can rank with any others I've seen -- and I see a lot of airports in any given year. Beijing, a really huge city, has discovered neon and is taking on a Vegas-look, with multi-story shopping malls, streets closed to traffic but open to strollers, and every major designer, merchant, fast-food emporium, and brand- name represented. Domino's Pizza, KFC, MacDonald's, and TGIF are side-by-side with Burberry's, Dior, St. Laurent, Sony, Compaq, Tommy Hilfiger, and Volkswagen. Billboards, which in 1988 featured only political slogans and cigarette ads, are loaded with cascading lights and scrolling marquees extolling products and services that were only whispered about when I first experienced this fascinating part of the world.

Private entrepreneurs, absolutely forbidden a decade ago, are everywhere. Pause anywhere in the street, and someone will extol the virtues of their postcards or urge you to climb into the bicycle version of a rickshaw. Religious charms, haircuts, exotic goodies on sticks, scrolls, very well-faked fossils, cloisonne, pearls of doubtful origin, and paper products of every sort all goods previously sold only in government-run stores, are abundant. Private enterprise is very, very, popular.

After the first three days I was there on this trip, it dawned on me that I'd not seen a single Mao jacket on anyone. In 1988, that garb was everywhere I looked. But, as I also observed many years ago in just-post-war Japan, the younger generation have over-embraced what they perceive as Western culture, and there are some pierced noses, lips, and tongues topped by bright blood-red hair, over studded jackets and platform shoes. I'm somewhat alarmed at what I saw, and I only hope that this generation won't look upon the Great Wall as only a string of bricks running over the mountains, and lose their appreciation of the incredible heritage they possess and could throw away. I can only imagine how I'd have been mobbed if I revealed that I'd once worked onstage with Alice Cooper.....!

Some aspects of Chinese behavior still take some tolerance from visitors. It's hard to get used to being approached, right up close, and examined as if you were a statue or a growth on a post -- by some rural folks. Set up a camera on a tripod and passers-by will literally nudge you aside to look through the view-finder or will step right into your shot to stare at the camera lens as if it had been set up as a sidewalk attraction. Sit at a sidewalk snack-bar and you can find a crowd elbowing one another aside to ogle you right against your table, as you eat. It's all very innocent, and on the one occasion when I felt offended as a passing young woman held her hand out to block a camera shot, I saw that others nearby were embarrassed at her effrontery.

Eat? You don't do that in China. You feast. The humblest shack offering the simplest fare is run by culinary masters. Yesterday we went to a public park near to the diplomatic compound where I was staying, and took breakfast at a two-table set-up on a side street. I savored a tofu-laced soup with scraps of green cabbage and a broth base, along with two soft white dumplings stuffed with vegetables and ground pork, and my system sang hymns to the civilization could produce such delights, and also build an emperor's tomb that has yielded -- so far -- over 9,000 life-size ceramic figures, each one different from any other. Sad to say, the cultural leap forward that calls for non-smoking areas in restaurants has still escaped them. Smoking is everywhere, in this country.

Americans have a very limited notion of Chinese cuisine. Western versions of Chinese restaurants feature mostly Cantonese style dishes and only a very limited range of those. In some thirty or so meals I consumed on this trip, each with a minimum of ten or so dishes, I never once sat down to a dish I'd already encountered. In another aspect, we probably have a similarly poor idea of the variety of Chinese experience and philosophy. I cannot claim to be well informed on these matters, but I find that I learn more and more every time I open myself to cultural views with which I'm unfamiliar. The Chinese are people with a long and distinguished history of innovative approaches to life and its mysteries, but they still are as naive as anyone else when it comes to paranormal or supernatural claims. That's what took me there.

I went to China by invitation, mainly to attend a huge press conference held by a cultural group there. It was also my first opportunity to meet Sima Nan, a 43-year-old journalist who is sponsored by a major Chinese pharmaceutical company and endorsed by the government, and who is well-known there for having adopted the JREF million-dollar challenge offer to all Chinese qi gong masters and/or psychics. His offer is for 10,000,000 yuan, the equivalent of about 1.2 million US dollars. Sima Nan is a stocky, crew-cut, ebullient chap who for seventeen years now, has received a lot of press in his country for confronting the fakers and he has performed a number of their stunts in public. With great gusto, he breaks bamboo chopsticks with the edge of a banknote, shatters a ceramic soupspoon with two fingers, chews up and eats scraps of a broken drinking glass, and performs calligraphy of Chinese characters merely thought of by the audience -- while blindfolded.

The major concern in China that is related to JREF work, is the powerful Falun Gong religious sect who are being bamboozled by a guru who claims he's a god. This man, Li Hongzhi, preaches an anti-science, antisocial, mystical philosophy to an estimated two million persons in China. Though only active for a few years, Li has attracted these fanatical followers through claims that he can move objects, become invisible, walk through walls, and levitate among other miracles. The government of China, in July of this year, declared Falun Gong to be illegal, and put out an arrest warrant for Li with Interpol. He is said to be presently living in the USA. It is believed that over 1400 persons have died as a direct result of following Falun Gong, either by refusing medical care or by committing suicide, which Li's disciples refer to as "achieving merit." A book titled, "Li Hongzhi & His Falun Gong Deceiving the Public and Ruining Lives," outlines simply atrocious acts carried out by members of the cult, on themselves and on their families. Asked my opinion on how the group should be treated, and knowing that the government had pursued and jailed some of the more active members, I said that I much preferred education over legislation. It was a difficult situation to be in, since I could not take a political stance on behalf of JREF, and in any case would not do so lest I offend my hosts.

Sima Nan and I issued a joint statement agreeing that anyone who wins the JREF million- dollar prize, will automatically win his $10,000,000 prize, as well, a prize which is backed by the pharmaceutical firm that sponsors him. And, should anyone win Sima Nan's prize, we at JREF agree that it will serve as the accomplishment of the required preliminary test for our prize.

My trip to China was a total delight, and I'd like to go back, at the earliest opportunity. I made new friends there, renewed old friendships, saw wondrous things, and gained at least a pound or two despite my very full schedule. I know there's so much more for me to experience. And Sima Nan, who is an accomplished calligrapher -- whether blindfolded or not! -- presented me with a beautiful example of this art from his own hand, along with copies of several his books. The first Chinese edition of my book Flim-Flam is in preparation, and I have that to look forward to, as well.

And now I'm off to Colorado. Can I stay off an airplane for more than a week? It seems unlikely that I can....