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Beaches, BRICS and a touch of dissidence

Barack Obama held his G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Hu Jintao stuck the BRICS summit in Sanya, on the tropical island of Hainan. The idea is to promote the local economy or, in Hainan's case, sell it to international tourists. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri reports

world Updated: Apr 19, 2011 03:01 IST
Pramit Pal Chaudhuri

Trend: hold economic summits in non-metropolitan cities. Barack Obama held his G-20 summit in Pittsburgh. Hu Jintao stuck the BRICS summit in Sanya, on the tropical island of Hainan. The idea is to promote the local economy or, in Hainan's case, sell it to international tourists.

The real estate sector, a third of Hainan's GDP, is busy trying to convert the island into Hawaii East. This is evident in Yalong Bay, site of the BRICS summit. But Hainan seems likely to remain primarily a destination for affluent Chinese. My Marriott had large numbers of foreigners - but the remotes in the room were all in Chinese.

Visitors from the smoogy polluted mainland see Hainan - beaches, palm trees, clear skies and blue waters - as another-worldly experience. "Not like China. Very special," one of interpreters, said a boy from Hunan who had once studied in Hainan.

Buddhism in cement
A popular site is the awkwardly-named Nanshan Buddhist Cultural Tourism Zone, where spirituality, commercialism and Beijing's social engineering combine to produce a sociological experience. A religious SEZ.

Everything, temples, deities and whatnot don't date beyond 1988. Middle class Chinese come, eat ice cream, buy souvenirs and a few, largely elderly women, buy incense sticks and bow three times to the 108-metre tall statue of Guanyin, goddess of mercy.

The guide speaks of Tang idols, but the brochures are more honest: they are all replicas with superlatives like "the largest gold and jade Buddha to be built since the creation of the People's Republic in south China". A genuine set of Ming bells is sadly lost amid all the concrete.

Haikou poem
Making a determined effort to break the BRICS bubble, I took a bullet train from Sanya to Hainan's capital Haikou. The train was circled nearly a third of the island in less than 90 minutes for about 12 dollars, touching 250 km/h. A BRICS badge, I was surprised to find, meant you could jump the ticket queue and were given free coffee.

Haikou, especially in midday, is a drowsy city just starting to undergo the glitzy transformation that is taking over even tertiary Chinese cities today.

This means it's still rundown, the locals informal and the atmosphere authentic.

The discerning Sinologist would also notice the slight ethnic shift: southern Sanya is where Li tribals dominate, northern Haikou is the home of Han-related Min.

Dissidence on rails
Hainan should be the ultimate opiate: Forever Tropical Paradise - the provincial government's slogan; ersatz religion; international diplomatic glory and one of China's fastest growing local economies. But even this train ride gave a glimpse of why my hotel's wi-fi doesn't recognize

A middle-aged Chinese man next to me asked, "Are you Indian?" He was a professional from Xinjiang, the Muslim-dominated province in China's northwest. A Han Chinese whose ancestors had settled there centuries ago, he talked about how Chinese, based on Bollywood films, believed Indians were "truly love". Romantic, I think.

His family had many Muslim friends and he had found them to be "good people," the Quran a book whose principles would probably make China a better country. Then why the unrest? "Chinese have racial bias. Muslims cannot find jobs," he said, shaking his head. "Problem is Beijing. Beijing oppresses, doesn't understand Xinjiang." Since I presumed I was being trailed, I worried he would suffer for his frankness. I steered back to the apolitical. But he persisted,

"Better Xinjiang not be ruled by Beijing." (An Indian diplomat later said, "That's why he spoke in English so the police wouldn't understand.")

Temples of honesty
Among Haikou's few tourist sites is Five Officials' Temple, a motley collection of five shrines to honour a group of mandarins exiled to Hainan for defying the Tang and Song emperors. The museum was open but devoid of people. The temple guide was enthusiastic with zero English skills and minimal knowledge.

It is interesting how many Chinese shrines are dedicated to honest or dissident officials. Hainan has more than most because, in ancient times, it was a mix of Botany Bay and the Bastille. Beijing should, in theory, worry.

Like other such sites, the Five Officials' Temple had a Buddha were one could burn a few joss sticks and put yuan into a box. The money probably ended up in the hands of the tourism officials. The Five Officials would have disapproved.

Cratered land
If beaches bore, Hainan also has a less well-known natural wonder in the Leiqiong Global Geopark that embraces some 40 volcanic craters.

In theory, these are active volcanoes because somewhere deep underground the magma is still around. But they haven't blown for ten millennia and the smaller craters are now surrounded with paddyfields.

If my Xinjiang man was anything to go by, the geopark could be a metaphor for China. It could blow, or it could be a nice place to visit for years to come.