Every time I return to China, there are some interesting and new findings, even though this is where I originally grew up. This time I have spent about a week in Shanghai, with the following points worth reporting:
To start with, I think the so called worry about a jasmine-like revolution to take place in China is grossly misjudged. Yes there are complaints about the current government regarding corruption, unfair or low efficiency. But these are exactly like all the complaints in every country towards their government. In my view there are two key fundamental differences between today’s China and Libya or Egypt:
Firstly, the unemployment rate is low in China. In fact, for sectors such as manufacturing, there is a shortage of labor in most coastal provinces in China. The government has successfully maintained a fast growing economy that requires the employment of large amounts of labor (ie., through construction works). As a result of being employed, people’s income increases (though at different rates). Today most people’s complaints focus on the income gap rather than on poverty. For those who haven’t got rich as quickly as those lucky or resourceful, at least their own wealth has increased rapidly as well compared to 10 years ago – it is just that the growth has not been as fast as those who have done well.
Another misconception is that in fact, China, overall, has an open attitude toward the world rather than a closed one as if often imagined. The Western media has spent a lot of time talking about site blockage of facebook and youtube in China or google’s exit from China. To a certain extent it does reflect the Chinese government’s desire to enforce control on information flow. On the other hand, however, China’s government is also very keen to push internationalization and English education in the country. For example, when I was waiting to draw some cash in a bank, they call the ticket numbers in both English and Chinese. All tubes and buses have English signs for stations and remind stops bilingually. To get into a college, a student has to go through at least 12 years of English education and complete a comprehensive test of English. In a way, the Communist party is muddling through with sometimes self-conflicting strategies: they encourage the educated people to be well informed and internationalized, and on the other hand, they try to curb control if they see threat. Overall however, such a system is determined to be imperfect: you can’t stop English-educated people from understanding what is going on in the world, leaving the country, or coming back.
So back to the domestic economy: the great thing that strikes me is the capability of the economy to produce a large variety of products at a super low cost. For example, as you go to the supermarket, the big malls are filled with so many different types of products from all over the place (naturally all made in China). One often argues that Chinese product is cheap because of an undervalued currency. However, I feel that these products are cheap even in RMB. A well printed Chinese dictionary costs 50 yuan (less than 5 pound) and a football costs 30 yuan. My point is that due to whatever reason, chinese manufacturers have achieved competence by supplying good quality goods at competitive price – that is a strong edge difficult to emulate.
On the other hand, the by product of an investment driven economy is also obvious. Shanghai is one of the least polluted cities in China (Beijing, Guangzhou, etc even worse). Yet if one wanders around outdoors for a day, you get back with a full nose and face of dusts. Construction works seem to be going on forever in different parts of the city, followed by dusts and noise. People seem to be used to an intense competitive relationship even on the street level. For example, there are a lot of cars on the street. Yet the road system has not developed fast enough to cope with so many vehicles. Therefore every driver competes to survive on the road. You have to be fast enough to make a turn or change the lane – otherwise you will never make it. If you wait for others to pass by, those behind you will be so impatient to start horning at you, and you might have to wait long for the next kind driver to give way to you.
A lot of things that can’t be possibly imagined in the West happen here, making life less than simple. For example, one of my friends’ car was hit by a motorbike on the road, so he stops his car and tried to talk to the motorbike driver. The bike driver was fully drunk and kicked my friend and then ran away. Then you go to the police station and are told that the motorbike was probably stolen and they couldn’t find the driver anymore. In another incident my friend and I got food poisoning from a restaurant and got very sick, and then when we went back to the restaurant to complain they don’t give a shit (the restaurant has a good reputation with a big picture of a movie star hanging in front of the door).
So this is China – a land with excitement and danger, and with hope and disappointments. Guess all depends on how you see it.