HEROES? I DON’T THINK SO! ‘A response to ‘The Real Heroes’ by Fr Pat O’Beirne

18th August 2011 - by Pat O'Beirne

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Having read Fr. Eamonn O’Brien’s moving reflection on the people who are transforming the landscape of Beijing and China in general,’The Real Heroes’, I couldn’t help feeling that there was something missing. The following sentence hit me like a brick – “These families, ripped apart from each other are providing the comfortable world where the rising middle class of China live, while they, alas, will never be able to afford it”. I just felt terribly sad. A sense I get from the reflection is of a society drunk on so-called progress and development, ‘with its Olympic feast of building’, demolishing the old buildings and hutongs, uprooting and scattering communities of people across the land. And speaking of the Olympics, I have recently read somewhere that the now world famous Bird’s Nest of the Olympic Village is a massive white elephant that is underused and costing a fortune to maintain.

Perhaps it’s the sparks rising from the welders’ tools or is it the twinkle in Mr. Wang’s, 85-year-old eye that are blinding us to the real pain and sorrow of the story to be told behind all this insane burst of human activity. I think of the workers mentioned who will, as Eamonn acknowledged, always be poor. I think of future generations of Chinese who are being drawn into a consumer economy, where profit is king and where continuous growth in consumption of goods – which they often don’t need – is required to keep this economic train moving. The Western world’s economic collapse of recent years has proven this model of development to be utterly bankrupt. One glance at the recent riots all across England will give us an idea of how the future dispossessed youth of China might behave when they discover they cannot have access to the products they see on the television ads and the glossy magazines, not to mention the ‘sweeping yuppie suburbs with underground car parks and massive malls where every western luxury brand item can be bought, even diamonds’. I think of the irreparable destruction of ecosystems in Africa, Brazil, Myanmar, the Philippines and the consequent extinction of many species of life only to satiate the voracious appetite of this beast called ‘progress’. I think of the communities of people who are forced to disperse because they can’t drink the local water or farm the land due to extensive mining for metals and minerals destined for China.

The question Eamonn asked indicates the price to be paid for this untrammeled progress, – ‘where is the vibrant community and the marvelous market they had?’ Unfortunately, the dream of the grannies and the granddads, that their grandchildren will have a better life, will not be realised. They too are victims – victims of a lie being told. If their children are sowing their dreams in the cities, we know that they will not ‘fully reap what they sow’ nor enjoy the fruits of what their ‘human hand have made’ not in the very near future, not ever. A hero is usually someone with courage, strength and nobility who is recognised by others for having accomplished an extraordinary task at great personal cost for the benefit of others. They are held up by us as models to be emulated. What these poor workers have accomplished in China may mesmerise us and leave us awestruck when we look at the soaring buildings, the highways and railways etched across the countryside and the land transformed. We may ‘with the international press marvel at the buildings, and praise all their foreign designers’. We may liken these constructions to ‘a kind of coliseum’ of old, or to ‘the cathedrals of Europe’. We may glory in the fact that ‘China will be the first economy in our globalised world in about fifteen years from now’. But in a globalised and fast changing world that pedestal might be toppled very swiftly.

Ultimately, questions need to be asked about who these buildings benefit and at what cost to humanity and to our Earth with its limited resources, edging more and more precariously to a global warming tipping point. No, these people are not heroes of anything, they are the unwitting victims of exploitation by a system based on greed and controlled by a few wealthy people. The old who are left at home in the villages may be heroic in the way they are coping with a young generation, but they are not heroes. Their dreams for a better life for their children are admirable. The question to be asked might be – is it a better life when the only people remaining villages are grannies and granddads and the children. Is it a better life when they are left with deep feelings of loss in their community – thus turning on its head one of the core values of Chinese society that has sustained it since the time of Confucius – respect for the elderly?

Make no mistake about it; this trend will not be reversed. In the new rising China migration is here to stay, because that is one of the pillars of modern capitalism. Work moves to where it can find cheap labour and the masses follow thus ripping families, apart as Eamonn acknowledged. He wrote movingly of the poignant experience of sharing photographs of loved children, wives and parents. It is interesting to note that some of the reasons being given for the recent 2011 riots in England have to do with the breakdown of natural bonds of family and community – and the authority that is part of those bonds – and the constant bombardment of adverts encouraging young people to buy and the absence of the wherewithal to buy creating frustration and alienation.

An unquenchable will, resilience and an indomitable spirit: these qualities are truly the backbone of any community if it is to survive in difficult times. But the people Eamonn talks about in his article are the first victims of the new world that is being fashioned in China – they are excluded from the Chinese dream. There are and will be many more victims.