Pudong – China’s Financial District
China almost needs no introduction as a fascinating fast-changing country. With unprecedented growth in the past couple of years stories of miraculous development have been hitting the front pages of the Financial Times and other media outlets in the UK and across the western world. The world’s most populous country (containing more than 1.3 billion people) is soon to overtake USA as the world’s largest economy although GDP per capita remains 94th in global rankings. A communist state created in 1949 it is hard to believe China is a powerhouse of the world economy. But rather than read all about it, I took a plane to China, the world’s next superpower to find out for myself what all the hype was about.
In this blog I will be documenting my experiences – the sights and sounds – of a country on centre stage. It will be a discovery of the Chinese as much as a reflection of the media, inter-dispersed with anecdotal tales of personal interactions, searching for evidence of development and cultural showcasing. My journey will begin in Shanghai, with visits to Xi’an and Guilin, culminating with an internship at a Chinese company in Beijing.
Business on the Bund
As I took my seat at the very back of a Jumbo airline from Amsterdam, I was already eyeing up the co-travellers, all too aware of the party of children on some kind of football tour of Europe. Lamenting my fate, I took my seat with a reluctant slump into the cushioned armchair, while chest-height youths dropped footballs on unsuspecting passengers.
It was going to be one of those flights – I thought – the only problem was that it was to last 11 hours, racing towards the sun, cutting out time for much needed sleep. But today was my lucky day. A Chinese-looking attendant explained I was to give my seat up for a family of four, to be upgraded to Business class. Without a word of questioning I took my bag and marched to the front of the plane, quietly hiding any doubt that I was meant to be sitting in business class in the first place while concealing joy at the prospect of sleeping to the hum the massage-lounger chairs. As it turned out most of the people sitting in this area were transferred from economy class for myriad reasons, but I was not going to let that take away from the experience.
Perhaps it should have, but it didn’t surprise me that the Chinese girl sitting beside me had the Financial Times in her hand, and adorned an expensive looking coat. She was a student of International Business on her way home to Shanghai after completing an undergraduate degree at Coventry. She immediately introduced herself as Nancy, clearly an Anglicised version of her Chinese name, upon which I asked what my Chinese name would be. She said it was a brand name “Phillips” Great, I thought, I will be associated with a microwave or a fridge-freezer while living in this country. Perhaps “Phil” is how I will introduce myself from now on I thought. We discussed the front page of the Salmon-coloured broadsheet, and I joked that China was buying the West, purchasing Euro-bonds and holding trillions of dollars, while Obama was having difficulty raising the debt ceiling. She didn’t laugh but excused the programme – explaining it would bring more opportunity to us (although we would owe the Chinese big time in the future for borrowing so much money.) So there I was on a plane, escaping from economic woe to the prosperous East, discussing the demise of the Western economies as we knew them.
Yuyan Gardens as night approaches
Shanghai is a city of the night. The attention of any visitor is drawn vertically to neon lights, giant glass buildings separated by leafy streets and a light smog illuminated by red and white tree-lanterns. In China it is not uncommon for a westerner to immediately feel taller yet more conspicuous, looking down in the air-cooled tube, trying to decipher unintelligible characters on the TV screens. Each station reminds me of Canary Wharf in London, glass barriers and shiny floors separating commuter with the outside world. The tarmac is freshly laid, Huanhai street is illuminated with brand names, fancy shoe stores and shop attendants armed with fashion-dog helpers. Revellers can be heard on street corners preparing for a night out, while older couples waltz in the open air to a ghetto-blaster rendition of classical tunes.
Donghu road in downtown Shanghai
In the morning I come across a standard problem for the Western traveller while getting measured for a tailored-suit – the heat. There are various ways of preventing a deluge of bodily cooling liquids, or at least concealing them. Unfortunate as it may sound, not even the Chinese are immune to humid atmospheres. I try to emulate the male tactic of wearing a light cotton t-shirt with shorts and open trainers, but this does little to close the glands. I suspect I am the butt of jokes while getting fitted for a navy suit, as a sweaty white-man unable to fend off nature’s affront. The picture of Rafael Nadal on show in the front window does nothing to dispel momentary embarrassment either. But I walk out of the shop with my pride intact. Meanwhile I have seen many women carrying sun-umbrellas, fans and light tops, while few men go topless, wear sandals and walk slowly. Ok – It’s not London – so walking more slowly should not be a problem.
Back outside, the streets testify to a seemingly dichotomous atmosphere. As in any city poverty is a fabric of Shanghai, but it is well hidden as far as I have seen so far. The gleaming towers of Pudong look out over the Huangpu river carrying industrial shipping vessels, and stares at tourists and locals lining the Bund. Tourist trap shops are well concealed in contemporary commercial units fashioned out of traditional-chinese architectural structures – as roof lights illuminate the sky above the Yuyan Gardens.
After spending only one day in the cosmopolitan capital of China, I almost feel at home. Even with little understanding of the language – it is straight-forward enough to navigate the streets with English signs, and order a coffee with ready-made English menus.
As I finish this piece, the TV is showing a talk show in English about the rich Chinese youth, making their fortunes in shipping and discussing their fast cars. Their American accents are not matched with american enthusiasm, but a blasé explanation of their purchases. Other channels are showing highlights of the diving Championships in Shanghai, while the swimming contest was waters reach up to 30’c, just under the limit for competitions. Films, trivial talent shows and soaps remind me that most of the channels in my hotel room are part of CCTV – China Central Television, a state controlled broadcaster operating since 1958 and is headed by Jiao Li who was formerly the vice minister of the publicity department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Great Firewall of China
And I write with the realisation – that I can’t access Faceook, twitter, youtube and Google + – some of the many sites blocked in China – so I hope you will still be with me tomorrow.