China Diary – Underwear Politics


It’s just a measure of how things have changed. Forty minutes of doing the daily rounds at the Canton fair, I now found myself slouched on a chair, craving an extra dose of caffeine. That, however, wasn’t the stimulus that was on offer.

Now here I was, lazily spread out on a rickety chair, prepared to spend hours in underwear heaven. Oh, just how things have changed. Home seemed far off; the world of politics and journalism that I had once inhabited seemed like a distant, haunting memory.

So I did the best I could; there’s no better way to put politics out of your mind than discussing the intricacies of women’s undergarments. No, I am not a pervert; it’s just the job now.

From size, cut, style and print, we went on to prices, while I excitedly snapped up pictures. My love for the past had to be left aside, locked inside a dark room in the far ends of my brain.

Well, that was until I reached in and grabbed a fancy pair designed as military fatigues with the Union Jack plastered all over. The strap proudly read: “Help for Heroes!” Well, could that be seen as tacit Chinese support for the Western war on terror? I wondered.

Underwear for Heroes

‘Shoo, shoo, get rid of those thoughts,’ I chided myself, as my brother raised a fuss about the high prices of goods this year.

In response, our host offered a warm smile. Knotting her hair into a bun, she wrapped herself in a crisply ironed blazer. “Cotton prices are to blame,” she explained. “Cotton is very expensive now in China and so there’s nothing that factories can do.”

‘Ah, commodities and economics! Much better,’ I thought to myself, as my brother interrupted her. “But I’ve heard that cotton prices in India are expected to drop and that should make a difference here in China too,” he said.

Our host agreed wholeheartedly. Business apparently had not been great this year. From all the feedback that we’d received from different factories and traders, material prices, the economic stresses in the West, the prospect of the RMB appreciating and the flare-ups in the Middle East were breaking hearts in China.

“Oh in that case, the Chinese government will intervene soon; they will make sure that cotton will go down soon,” she responded.

‘Can we stay away from politics and policies and talk underwear,’ I prayed in vain. However, the next few minutes saw a spirited exchange between my brother and our host – both of them agreeing how the Chinese government would intervene soon, particularly if prices of cotton dip in India. Losing business is not a problem for the Chinese; it’s losing business to India that is a concern.

But then she went quiet; retreated into somber reflection. I wondered whether it was a sense of remorse or guilt at having accepted that her government does play global games, flexing its economic might.

For all those who wonder what the Chinese feel about their government, in my limited experience, while there may not be many public gatherings to discuss issues, people here tend to talk about governance freely but rather opaquely and generally believe that the Party knows best and is acting in their interest. There’s little criticism or analysis of policies; those are matters that they don’t seem to bother with, unless in very private gatherings. “It,” as one local put it, “is a matter for the government to decide and not for me to worry about.”

Yet, just the number of times that they mention their government in routine conversation, shows how the state’s shadow looms large over their lives – it’s probably impossible for them to not talk about it.

“Cotton can be a weapon,” she said abruptly – as I fiddled with more intriguing samples that had “happy,” “naughty,” “sad” printed on them. There was even a “Funderwear!” Hmmm, could there be a market for “wear your mood” undergarments, I wondered.

“In the last few years, there were protests by labourers and most factories had suffered due to a shortage of workers. Now workers are available, but business is still struggling because of fabric prices and the prospect of RMB appreciation. The government cannot allow this to continue and orders to shift; lesser the business, greater the social unrest. And that is something that the government cannot afford,” she continued.

Jesus Christ, give me a break, I thought, returning to the chair, craving caffeine. Scanning through the pictures that I had taken, I decided that it was best to ignore the discussion until they were both tired of it. Who wants to keep talking about democracy, governance, policies etc? So I left them to it and decided to take the time and enjoy cricket on my phone.

Right then, it beeped – an innocuous alert for a notification. BBC Breaking News: “Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden ‘dead’” God, there’s just no getting away, is there?

Come to think of it now, I guess it’s just a measure of how much ever change, some things always remain with you.


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