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China V: hunting the border

This is one of my favourite walks: along the Yalu riverfront on a clear day, trying to assess the state of things over the border in North Korea. I’ve known this extraordinary border for 18 years now: this side of the water was looking shiny and go-ahead by comparison in 1993, but has since transformed itself several times over and is now a forest of tall buildings; indeed even as the demolition of what remained of Old Dandong is completed, an entirely New Dandong is being constructed several miles to the south. What this means to those over the water is anyone’s guess. They can’t even make the excuse that we’re not Communists. In any case, almost nothing has changed since I wrote about it for the LRB: <a href=”http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n15/jon-cannon/diary”>http://www.lrb.co.uk/v22/n15/jon-cannon/diary</a&gt;. Thirty smokestacks, not a single one emitting any smoke. An abandoned riverside park with a big wheel. A few isolated figures moving around slowly. Hulk-like fishing boats draw up, doubling up as some kind of public transport, their decks so rammed with standing people that if someone scratched an itch half would fall off. Tourists in speedboats from the Chinese side still strafe their waterfront with spray; every restaurant (and many private homes) keeps a little telescope to spy on the drabness, a cheap peak at someone else’s misery. Sometimes, now,  a rather retro-looking boat comes over from the other side for a gawp, its decks full of North Koreans in upmarket suits, each with their little red badge of the Leader, each smiling and waving enthusiastically as sweet music plays. A handful of small buildings have gone up over there in the last five years or so, too, keeping up with the Jones’s; most appear to be offices, restaurants or guesthouses, one-or-two storey things with reflective windows; one is a warehouse of some kind,conspicious for being four stories high. That’s it: the rest looks like 50s concrete. There are no other buildings above two stories; here 20 or more is the norm and everything is neon. During the day, over there, open unpolluted countryside and low mountains spread around Sinuiju; at night it is utter blackness. Not a bedside light or guttering candle can be seen anywhere: when its dark, people must simply go to bed, a thousand familys chattering in the blackness. With two exceptions: that pool of light is the statue of the Great Leader in the main square. Those thin neon strips pick out the edges of one of the new riverfront buildings, though there never seem to be lights on inside it. The whole thing is a theme park of China’s past, but also a kind of vast unmentioned subconscious to its present,  an unconsciousness that And the Welder is always there, labouring day and night among the hulks on the riverbank, perhaps paid by some black-humoured tourist authority to look suitably industrious and Cold War bleak. One day I’ll cross that border and shake his hand.
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