The ultra modern Shanghai skyline, virtually entirely built in the last 25 years

Impressions of China

Helga and I have just returned from a 23-day trip through China. Neither of us had ever visited mainland China before and we arrived with lots of pre-conceived ideas and impressions. Many of them turned out to be misconceptions. This essay will try to present our impressions of China today, based on our first-hand experience.

A brief bit of history … China, of course, was one of the world’s earliest civilizations and from 221 BC until 1912 AD was ruled by emperors. Most recent were the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) and the Qing dynasty (1644-1912).

For the last hundred years, however, China has been a Republic, ruled first by the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang or KMT), started by Sun Yat-Sen, and from the late 1920s led by Chiang Kai-shek.

As from 1927, however, the Communist People’s Liberation Army (PLA) contested the KMT’s primacy. The KMT was on the verge of victory when the PLA, led by Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, escaped in what became known as “The Long March” (October 1934 – October 1935).

The civil war was interrupted by the Sino-Japanese war (1937-45), during which the two factions had to form an uneasy alliance. As many as 20 million Chinese civilians died during the Japanese invasion and occupation. With the end of WWII, the two sides resumed their civil war. This ended in 1979, with the Communists in control of the mainland and the nationalists relegated to Taiwan. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) was born.

Mao’s ill-conceived “Great Leap Forward”, a large scale economic and social reform project between 1958 and 1961, resulted in an estimated 45 million deaths, mainly from starvation. In 1966, the “Cultural Revolution” was launched and marked a decade of political recrimination and social upheaval which ended with Mao’s death in 1976. The two decades 1958-1976 were a complete disaster for China.

In 1978, Deng Xiaoping took power and instituted significant economic reforms. China transitioned from a planned economy to a mixed economy with an increasingly open market environment. Deng’s very significant contributions were marred by the violent suppression of student protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, but Deng’s successors continued his policies and modern China can be said to have begun in 1980.

In the less than 40 years since then China has grown and developed rapidly, raising living standards dramatically but severely impacting the country’s resources and environment and causing significant social displacement. The current President, General Secretary of the Communist Party and Chairman of the Central Military Commission is Xi Jinping. He came to power in 2012 and began large-scale efforts to reform China’s economy.

Make no mistake, China is still a one-party state and, in certain areas, tightly controlled from the top. For example, although the internet is ubiquitous and the Chinese are very IT savvy, the state blocks Google (as a gmail user I was incommunicado while in China) and Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have real problems. But wherever we were, we did not feel the heavy hand of authority at all – in fact, quite the opposite. Step by step China seems to be loosening up.

We found a China that is, in fact, very capitalist (the Chinese call their system “socialism with a Chinese character”). While it can’t be said to be a truly free market economy, it is clear that “making a profit” dominates everyone’s thinking.

The construction that has taken place in just the past 15-20 years is amazing, and it continues. Office buildings in the major cities, built with private initiative, are architecturally outstanding – Shanghai’s skyline is a modern wonder, but Beijing and other large cities offer similar beauty. Unfortunately, China’s construction of urban apartment blocks doesn’t follow suit, perhaps because they are government built. Every urban area sports literally masses of “cookie cutter” high-rise blocks of 35-40 storeys that, frankly, are a blight on the landscape.

China has a current population of about 1.4 billion people, half of which still live in rural areas. It is a stated government objective to move another 300-350 million of these farmers into urban areas. The apartment blocks are being built and the infrastructure (metros, etc) developed apace. However, for all of China’s relentless push forward, it is still not possible to drink the tap water anywhere, even in a five-star Shanghai hotel.

It is said that China has 160 cities of a million or more inhabitants. It is also said that China has about 300 US dollar billionaires – more than any other country, and that the top 1% hold more than 25% of China’s wealth. It was our impression that the average worker is poorly paid and that the “middle class”, which typically should include well over half the working population, is still very small. However, almost every Chinese (even the farmers) has a modern cell phone/camera and a TV.

Cars are everywhere and mostly very new – Japanese and German models (particularly VW) dominate, but they are all made in China in joint ventures. Traffic is chaotic, made much worse by the large number of scooters, bikes and pedestrians all vying for right of way. Intersections are a real adventure.

Virtually all Chinese are better off now than they were 10 or 20 years ago. This is evident by the masses of Chinese tourists visiting their own country (not to mention travelling abroad). I would estimate that, in all the places we were, Chinese tourists made up at least 95% of the milling throng. And, judging by their clothes and general demeanour, many of these tourists were from the countryside.

In fact, “westerners” are still such a novelty that we were quite often stopped by a Chinese asking to have their photo taken with us. Very few Chinese, including hotel service personnel and guides, speak good English, although virtually all signage is in English along with the Chinese characters. Although the typical Chinese facial expression is dour, they will light up if you smile at them and are actually very friendly. This doesn’t prevent them from pushing and shoving with gusto in the ever-present crowds.

We saw no overweight Chinese, but we saw a large number of American fast food outlets (McDonalds and Starbucks leading the onslaught) and we suspect it is only a matter of time before obesity starts rearing its ugly head.

We were very impressed by the country’s efforts to combat pollution. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 seem to have been a turning point. Since then Beijing alone has planted a million trees a year. Although the Beijing weather was glorious, and the air very clear, while we were there I would guess that 20% of the Chinese on the streets wore face masks (perhaps just out of habit). We didn’t see this elsewhere.

Almost all petrol motorcycles have been outlawed, and been replaced by electric scooters which, aside from not emitting fumes, are completely quiet (making them quite hazardous for the unsuspecting pedestrian). Bicycles, once ubiquitous and then almost non-existent, have made a big come-back, and there are three or four huge bike sharing schemes in most cities.

The country is absolutely litter free. This is not because the Chinese are conscientious about litter disposal. They’re not. It is because there is literally a vast army of litter picker-uppers, with their twig brooms and dust pans, constantly on the prowl for the smallest cigarette end. In Tiananmen Square, they were even motorised. Perhaps this is how the government tackles unemployment. And by the way, all litter bins are divided into “recyclable” and “other”.

By Larry Hampton

A typical group of Chinese tourists, lined up to gain entrance to Tiananmen Square in Beijing
A motorised litter seeker on duty in Tiananmen Square
A very typical “nest” of ugly high-rise apartment blocks, this one on the outskirts of Shanghai
The ultra modern Shanghai skyline, virtually entirely built in the last 25 years
A school group of Chinese kids wanting to have their photo taken with us, on the Shanghai Bund
Old, low-rise apartments in the foreground in Hangzhou ready to be demolished, with their high-rise replacements under construction behind
A commercial building complex under construction in Chongquin – count the number of cranes being used!
Six young girls in Yangshuo wanting their photo taken with a pretty western woman (Loes Vooijs from the Algarve)