29) Notes on 21st Century China

I’m leaving China this evening on an overnight train from Nanning to Hanoi, Vietnam.  I’ve crossed China from north to east to south, and I’ve had an amazing urban adventure. 

Here are some thoughts on 21st Century China:

  • You already know that with a population of 1.4 billion, China is the most populous country on the planet. 20% of the world’s people live in China.  Beijing has a population of 21 million, Shanghai has 24 million.  By contrast, little Nanning has only 7 million.
  • When you look out across the skyline of a modern Chinese city, you realize that their plan to house these 1.4B folks is to go vertical- the Chinese people in the 21st century will live in really tall high rise apartment buildings. Today, every Chinese town and city has dozens or hundreds or thousands of skyscraping apartment buildings. There is so much residential development going on that they are now worried about a housing bubble of over development.
  • The Chinese government is very tightly controlled & operated by the Communist Party. But China’s economy is by no means a communist economy, or even a socialist economy. It is a very capitalist economy, and a booming one. This is the compromise that the Communist Party has settled on: since communist economies don’t work (no growth), and since capitalist economies work marginally some better (because they grow), the Communist Party is satisfied to offer the Chinese people a bonifide capitalist economy, so that the average Chinaman’s fortunes will be based (mostly) on his own merit and ability.  In return, the Communist Party gets to operate a one party government, that supports China’s booming capitalist economy.  All this with a large measure of corruption thrown in.
  • The unemployment rate in China averages around 4.1%, compared to 5% in the USA and the UK.
  • Interesting fact: China has had the world’s largest economy for 28 of the last 30 centuries (3000 years). Only in the 19th & 20th centuries did they lose their top ranking to the Brits and the Americans. However, they expect to regain their traditional place during this 21st Century.
  • Government censorship is a big problem here, and it’s been a pain in my ass during this 2 week crossing. This government is paranoid of any opposition, especially since the 1989 democracy uprising (and the subsequent Tienanmen Square Massacre).  You can experience the censorship directly by trying to surf the internet.  Google Mail, Youtube, Twitter, and lots of other sites that we use regularly around the world are blocked in China.  The solution for travelers in China is the have a VPN (virtual private network) on your computer that allows you to access your censored websites while inside China.  I’ve got my ExpressVPN app turned on right now.
  • It’s hot here in August, and the further south you go the more humid it gets. Beijing is on about the same latitude as New York City, but Nanning, where I am today, is nearer the latitude of Mexico City.  Today’s forecast for Nanning is a high of 91, with 100% humidity.
  • Down among the common folks in the lower economic class (where I spend most of my time) men don’t feel obliged to where shirts, or they will pull their shirts up over their big bellies to try to catch some breeze.
  • Apparently, it is also perfectly acceptable to walk the streets in your pajamas.
  • By contrast, Chinese women generally have a modern, sophisticated fashion sense that their men are clearly lacking.
  • Shopping for groceries is fun. Most markets are small mom & pop outfits, but in each city there will be some really large and well stocked supermarkets from which the average westerner will find plenty to select from. One early morning, when I went to the large Tesco supermarket because I was out of coffee, I witnessed a crowd of shoppers massing at the entry waiting for the store to be opened.  When the doors opened, dozens shoppers rushed hectically into the store, while other late comers came dashing down the escalator afraid that they were too late.  Within 5 minutes of opening there was a long line of a couple hundred people snaking down the isles of the store. Waiting for what?  Eggs!  Limit 15 per customer.
  • Air pollution in Beijing was not nearly as bad as I was led to believe. In fact, I enjoyed blues skies every day in Beijing.  By contrast, several other cities looked to be engulfed in fog.  Though the humidity was high- that wasn’t fog.  It was super heavy smog.
  • I witnessed 2 policemen stealing food from a local small shop. The merchants protested like hell, but to no avail.  Corruption is rampant.
  • Chinese TV is fun, even with the language barrier. The shopping networks are much like ours, but they put on a really hard sale. There was an astrology network, which apparently was deadly serious business for a lot of folks.  There were the soap operas, which were identical to ours.  The sports channels tended to focus on Olympic style sports.  The news channels were posting a lot of coverage of the flooding in Houston, with unflattering analysis.

This is the most interesting country I’ve ever been to.  It’s a complicated place, with a fascinatingly complicated people.  We’d better get to know them.

One thought on “29) Notes on 21st Century China”

  1. Interesting hearing how you broke down China vs American ways. I’m excited to catch up on your travels, this is extremely fascinating.

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