Thoughts on China

We have spent the last six weeks travelling through this amazing country and have collected countless memories. We also spoke to many, many locals and always tried to understand as much as possible about each place. In this post we want to summarize a few of our thoughts. Bear in mind though that this is not all based on objectively researched facts and sources, this is rather how we experienced China. Our main observations center around the following themes:

  • The Chinese Communist Party is everywhere
  • There are cameras everywhere and you always need your ID
  • China is always under construction
  • The Chinese are a very friendly nation!
  • China is a smartphone country
  • The city and the countryside are quite different

The Chinese Communist Party is everywhere

When we talked with locals we often heard the words “yes, but the government will…”. Usually it was connected to a problem where we were told that the (local) government already has come up with a solution. One example is air pollution where locals cited efforts of the government to e.g. subsidise non-coal based heating. The propaganda machine seems to be working outstandingly well…

We also learned about several cases where the government simply took over a profitable business and then allowed people to work for them for a fixed rate. One example of this practice is guiding bamboo rafts on a river in Yangshuo near Guilin, Guangxi (see image below). In the past, people could freely offer to guide tourists down the river with a bamboo raft (a wonderfully idyllic experience btw). However, recently the government took control of the business. Now guides need a license, have a standardised raft and route, and they get a meager fixed rate (60 yuan, about 8€) for each strenuous ride with no insurance. While this might facilitate the hiring of a guide for tourists, it also greatly decreases the freedom and income of the guides.

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Another, internationally known, example of the power of the Party in China is the massive undertaking of the relocation of about 1.3m people due to the building of the big Yangtse River Dam. It is hard to imagine another country where the government decides to move so many people because they want to build a damn. In this case the official reasoning was power generation, better navigation on the river as well as improved flood control.

Although it is seen as problematic that the government gets away with most of its plans fairly unopposed, several people have rather pragmatically told us that on the upside huge projects actually get realised rather efficiently in China. They kept emphasizing that projects like dams and highways are a lot trickier to negotiate when you have the rights of several different landowners, various environmental groups and other stakeholders to consider. Whereas in China the government simply moves the people out of the way.

Another interesting example of the omnipresence of the government was the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party. In the most random places we saw red signs like the one below (which hung on top of a theatre). They all read something like this:

“We enthusiastically wish the 19th Party Congress a positive outcome…”

Now, more than a month after the congress, we still discover similar signs all over the country. We are wondering when they’ll get taken down… 🙂

There are cameras everywhere and you always need your ID

If you travel to China as a foreigner, make sure you hold on to your passport! You will need it every single day, e.g., for checking into hotels, booking train or bus tickets and entering main tourist attractions. Combined with the fact that there are surveillance cameras everywhere, it feels very much that Big Chinese Brother is watching you… The picture below was taken during a hiking trip and was by no means an exception. Given Chinese government’s ability to control every aspect of life in China, it is not hard to image that it is capable of collecting and analyzing all the data that is being generated by the ID-checks and all those cameras…

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China is always under construction

The rate of change in China is simply mind-blowing. No matter where you are in China, if a small village or a major city, there is always some kind of construction going on.

One amazing construction project we observed in close detail is the new high speed railway connection between Lijiang and Shangri-la in Yunnan – see below. We saw this major construction site of a new highway and train bridge across the spectacular Tiger Leaping Gorge, which was carved by a Yangtse river tributary, while we were hiking through the gorge. Locals told us the whole project takes 8 years. This railway will extend to the north and connect with the railway lines of Lhasa to make up the Yunnan-Tibet Railway. To put the amazing expansion of high speed trains in China into numbers and perspective: The first high speed train started to operate only in 2007. Today in 2017, the country’s high-speed train network extended to 29 of the country’s 33 provincial-level administrative divisions and exceeded 22,000 km (!) in total length, accounting for about two-thirds of the world’s high-speed rail tracks in commercial service.

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Below is a picture of another example – the new development of the harbour front in Chongqing. Construction in China usually goes on 24/7…

The Chinese are a very friendly nation

If I (Christoph) am completely honest with myself then I have to admit that in the past I often thought that many Chinese are in fact not really polite and sometimes even unfriendly. Maybe I was influenced by some of my Japanese friends, most of whom do not really like the Chinese. However, there are complicated political and historic reasons why the relationship between Japan and China is not really positive at the moment.

If I (Tanja) am completely honest, I did not remember the Shanghainese people from 10 years ago as the friendliest of folks. People were always jumping the queue, pushing you around or trying to sell you way, way overpriced stuff. What I learned from talking to different people on this trip is that Shanghai is one of China’s most competitive places. If you want to be successful you try your luck there or in Beijing. So I guess in hindsight judging an entire country on experiences made in one big stressful mega city was a bit silly of me.

In any case, we have met sooo many amazingly nice locals during the last six weeks we spent in China! So many people we spoke to helped us out and went to great lenghts to make our stay a positive experience. It probably helped a lot that Tanja speaks Mandarin fluently and that also allowed us to ask many, many questions… 🙂 But even if you do not speak Mandarin we highly recommend you to visit this beautiful country! There are always ways to communicate and usually you also find people who can speak (some to sometimes very good) English.

Below are a few of the friendly faces we met here in China! 🙂

China is a smart country

Everybody has a smartphone in China! And you can do everything you can imagine with it… In many ways smartphone use is much more advanced here than in Europe, see our post on cashless China. We also saw ads and shops of the upstart Chinese smartphone stars such as Oppo and Vivo in various remote places, see the image below. We guess it will only be a matter of time when we will see these phones in Europe too.

Other ways of using your phone in China include renting bikes such as the yellow Ofo bikes (image below; and already used in Vienna) similar to car sharing systems like CarToGo in Europe. (See an interesting article on this in the Economist).

Below a picture of a random street scene in Xizhou, a small village in Yunnan. Even in the remotest places you find shops from the local Chinese phone brands such as Vivo and Oppo…

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The divide between cities and countryside is an enormous problem

China has a lot of social problems to tackle. One of the visible ones when you travel is the difference in development between rural and urban areas. You can see the difference in wealth when you travel outside the major cities. The income and economic growth not only varies greatly across provinces (the Easter coastal ones being the richest) but also between cities and the countryside. While a lot of infrastructure is very modern in most major cities, more rural areas have poor cellphone reception, and much less health and social infrastructure coverage and scarce job opportunities. Thus people migrate to improve their chances for economic success.

As a consequence, many rural areas lack young people. Cities in contrast, like i.e. Beijing, are very crowded and polluted. (We got lucky and enjoyed an almost blue sky.) There are initiatives to evict migrants in order to curb urban growth, see this interesting article on Beijing.

We have asked several people in Beijing and Chongqing how many people lived there, only to get a different number from each one with the interesting admission that no one seems to know for sure, because the Chinese census only counts where people belong according to the dated hukou or household registration system and not where they actually live. So to answer the question how many people live in Beijing? You best pick your own number between 20 and 30 million people. The answer we heard most often was: too many.

The overcrowding and resulting pollution creates another form of migration. Affluent Chinese are moving to less polluted areas. In Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, for example real estate prices are rising dramatically because people from Shanghai and other crowded cities are buying apartments to escape the smog and congestion there.

In any case this shows another divide: better living standards are expensive and not everyone can afford them. It will be interesting to see how far and wide the “Chinese dream” the Communist party speaks of can be spread out to reach more people.

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