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Schools, caves and executuions

CHINA | Thursday, 24 December 2009 | Views [568]

Schools, caves and executions.

I had a touch of reality the other day and it was a bit shocking. There was a crowd in the square outside of where I live and work. I asked my colleague what was going on. 'Its the criminals', she said 'but its finished now'. I had a vision of some punishment being meted out by a mob and suddenly thought, I don't want to be here.

It wasn't that dramatic, fortunately. The police had brought a load of 'criminals' to be paraded in front of the people of the town to demonstrate that crime doesn't pay. This didn't seem too bad until my colleague said 'and now they're all going to be shot'. I watched as two open backed lorries, full of armed soldiers and 'criminals' dressed in orange, drove off. Those guys were having their very last look at the world – they were all going to be executed that afternoon.

There are 68 offences that carry the death penalty in China including tax evasion and theft. I knew this and of course I knew about China's appalling human rights record but, like most travellers, I put those thoughts to one side when I had the opportunity to work here for a while. But that morning, I had a real feeling of shock as I stood and watched the lorries drive away. I have, like most of us who grew up in the West, had a very sheltered life when it comes to things like executions. Again like many people, I actively seek out new and exciting places to visit. But we should never forget what goes on beneath the surface of countries like China. By the time I had finished my lunch that day, all of those guys would have been shot. Lest we forget.

I had to go to a Government office in another area the other day to sort out my long stay visa. It was like a Chinese Milton Keynes. Purpose built, shiny and new, wide flat roads with no traffic – very weird. I had to go into some kind of police building and all along the corridor were photos of police with guns, usually wearing balaclavas, standing around loads of bodies. There’s nothing covert about police activity here! Actually there’s nothing covert about the police at all – I’ve never been in a place with so much police presence. I’m sitting upstairs in a coffee shop right now and out of the window I can see 3 police cars and four more have just driven past. Its not exactly threatening, they’re just there. Wearing uniforms of any kind, seems to be a hobby and a passion – I have no idea what most of them are – police, army, security??? but what they all have in common is that they don’t seem to fit! They all look too big across the shoulders and with sleeves that are way too long.

On another note, lots of people live in caves around here. I read a fact once that about 5 million people in China live in caves and I had visions of something very basic and uncomfortable. Tongchuan, where I'm living right now, is a town built along the bottom of a steep sided valley. The houses at the bottom are modern and mostly apartment blocks but one day I walked up one of the very steep paths going above the town. The houses all had ornate gates, mostly painted red with statues of lions and dragons but it wasn't until I was above the houses that I realised that these gates were almost up to the wall of the hillside. The actual living part of the house could only be inside the hill – in a cave.

I had a friend in India who lived in a cave – it was half way up a mountainside in the Himalayas and I didn't actually know it was a cave until I touched the walls inside – rock. I haven't been inside one of the cave here but I'm on the lookout for a suitable acquaintance. The hills, by the way are made of fairly soft sandstone so I guess its quite easy to dig yourself a cave.

The children I work with range in age from 5 to 18 but one thing they all have in common is that they have no social life. Someone said to me the other day that the children learn music or dance 'in their free time' – a bit of a contradiction in terms. School takes up all of their time. After a full day, they go back for 3 hours in the evening to do 'homework' and they often go in at the weekend too. Classes are usually around 80 students and the pressure on these students to achieve is enormous. The expectation is that they'll get 100%. One girl put it into a perspective for me when she pointed out that will 1.5billion people, there is so much competition for everything, you have to be the best.

But it's very much a 'fill the bucket' approach to education rather than lighting any spark. I was talking about Shakespeare with a teacher who told me that he never had time to discuss anything about the man and his contribution to literature or whatever, he only spent time learning sonnets.

I'm not a Christian but I was brought up in a Christian house and country so I do actually know what Christmas is all about. I now have to go to a Christmas party and tell the nativity story to about 200 children and sing a load of carols – thank goodness for my old fashioned girls school education where we has religious assembly every morning. I never realised that I knew so many carols. Happy Christmas.

Tags: caves, china, execution, houses, human rights, police, school


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