I find a visit to any country ignites an interest and a curiosity to know more.
I’ve read more about modern China since returning home than I have in the months prior to departing. My interest piqued, I’m trying to make sense of what I’ve experienced; it is counterintuitive, I should have done my homework before my visit not after.
Observations by tourists ought to be viewed skeptically; deep down, our insights are pretty shallow. This is especially true for China, since even superlatives do not seem to adequately describe this country and it’s complexity cannot be explained in a blogpost. Having said that…
China must be taken seriously, much more seriously.
China is the second largest economy in the world. The introduction of the “Socialist market economy” in the late 70‘s initiated annual economic growth of some 8-9%. Chinese GNP rose from US$150 billion to US$1.6 trillion.
China’s 1.4 billion people have experienced this economic miracle first hand; more than 500 million people, ten times the population of Canada, have been lifted out of poverty. Growth continues at about 6% annually, twice what it is in the West.
The evidence of this economic revolution is everywhere.
The Chinese have developed a love affair with cement. Apartment buildings sprout like mushrooms after a rain – ten towers each of 20 some stories sprout everywhere. The accusation that some of these instant cities are ghost towns misses the point – they are huge, modern and a step up from the sprawling slums that exist outside most international urban areas. We know that the biggest mass exodus in modern times is the movement of people from rural to urban centers; the Chinese can mostly be accused of anticipating the inevitable and preparing for it.
Modern trains take us places at 300 KM/hr, more high-speed rail tracks are being laid than in the rest of the world combined. Recently built roads are modern and efficient; a bus-ride in India is an endurance test of the vehicle and my spinal system; in China, it’s smooth and quiet.
Bike sharing in China has amazing technology, a robust app for payments, location tracking and usage; far superior to our system in Vancouver.
Infrastructure construction has transformed commerce, exports and the efficient movement of goods, and people. Trains, subways, freeways, apartment towers, futuristic skyscrapers; all this infrastructure is new and technologically up-to-date.
The most profound change unleashed is at the individual level. I see entrepreneurs and business operators everywhere; energy and enthusiasm for making money, for taking charge of one’s destiny, for growth, for MONEY is palpable. Overnight, millions of Chinese have successfully embraced the market economy and the freedom it engenders. They have cash in their jeans and they are spending it; internal tourism, a new phenomenon, is evidence of disposable income.
On our arrival in Mt. Emei for our stay at the buddhist temple at Baoguo, we were met by Patrick (his ‘western’ name). Six years ago, Kristen and Chris had also met Patrick; back then, he was the local agent for the monastery, helped them get settled, rented them a towel, sold some sandwiches and snacks, gave some advice on how to spend their day near this religious site and puttered about trying to be useful.
Now, he is major domo. He’s our local guide, organizes tours, has a fleet of part-time drivers, and ferries us out for our special hot-pot dinner. He’s a human dynamo, his tiny empire has grown; he’s a small business entrepreneur!
He now owns a restaurant where his wife and mother serve up great food and, more importantly, fast wifi! It becomes our semi-official HQ.
His two children are away in private schools, already being prepared to move up the social and economic ladder, a driving aspiration of all parents everywhere. I expect he’s successful beyond his wildest imagination.
We see such examples wherever we go;
my cooking school instructor,
an elderly lady who grinds Sichuan pepper from her front door,
the Chinese ‘wine‘ maker (it is awful hootch that knocks your head off) who hosts an impromptu ‘wine-tasting‘ for us in the street in front of his store,
the elderly tea plantation owner whose son now runs the place, with modern equipment and expanded acreage.
Hustling entrepreneurs are everywhere; they look remarkably like hustling American small business capitalists.
China’s exponential growth has come at a cost; the unintended consequences.
Air pollution is palpable. The sky is brown in every major city, mainly the result of coal-fired electricity generation. Water supply and pollution problems loom, land use and desertification issues are faced daily, inadequate disposal of poisonous wastes turn rivers into sewers, the list goes on. A whole generation of Chinese urban dwellers is likely to suffer the health consequences.
Another poison leaching into the system is corruption on a massive scale; millions have already been punished. Xi Jinping has promised further crackdowns.
Finally, the most serious affliction, the more and more obvious inequitable distribution of wealth; a recent study suggest that the top 1% of Chinese controlled 25% of China’s assets, a concentration that mirrors the problem in the West.
Overarching all this is the challenge of redefining what it is to be a Chinese communist in 2017 and what the Party needs to do to determine the destiny of 1.4 billion people. There seems to be a concern that the freedom genie has been let out of the bottle; the future is not clear.
Xi Jinping, at the recent Chinese Communist Party Congress, set future policy; “socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era” now officially enshrined in the Chinese Constitution. How this evolves will be interesting, to them and to us.
This may be particularly western of me, but I cannot imagine taking away the freedom of the newly developed entrepreneurs. Once we have tasted market capitalism and have some money as a result, we like it. Tighter controls on the market economy and small entrepreneurs may not be well received.
The mood is buoyant, people have jobs, small businesses, money and hope; we saw an outpouring of pride on National Day, 500 million people have escaped grinding poverty and tasted the good life, they will inevitably want more.
The challenge is as daunting as the challenge of western governments who face low growth, poisonous inequities of income and wealth distribution and volatile polarization of subgroups in an increasingly restive civil society. We all face the impact of the self-inflicted degradation of the global environment.
What is clear to me is that China has joined the world, their problems are our problems, the messiness of life is now theirs to manage as we seek to manage our messiness. As one of the largest, if not THE largest economy in the world, what happens in China matters to us all.
The joy of travel, of adventures, is simple. I see things, I am forced to revise my view of the world. My images, however previously assembled, are shattered. I am forced to reconcile what I see in front of me, try to make sense of it and open myself to a more complicated view of this messy world.
My children promised this trip would change the way I view the world. It did.
I have read them all now and have enjoyed reliving recent memories.
Bob, thanks for the insightful recap. Me too, images SHATTERED!
Have been having trouble putting my feelings and impressions of the China adventure we all shared. So many of my “notions ” of China were shattered and replaced with emotions and images that have yet to settle in my consciousness. This trip did change me…. time will tell what come of this all. But my strongest feelings revolve around my fellow travelers and how their presence on this trip made all of it worth it
Bob you have captured well what for me has been the largest gap between expectations and reality in my travels