China is a beautiful and astonishing country and as everyone should be aware by now going through an incredible period of modernisation and change.
On a superficial level we have all seen the Bond movie scene in Shanghai the massive glass and steel skyscrapers that define to many of us the change in the economic and political role that modern China inhabits. More significantly China has the second most powerful economy in the world with a GDP of $8.888bn second only to the USA, it also has one of the biggest rates of consistent economic growth approaching 6% and this is predicted to continue through to 2025. Compare this with the 1% to 2% growth we are experiencing in of the UK economy and the negative growth still being experienced in some EU member states. Because of its great population though China is still ranked about 118th in the world for income per capita at just over $9000 about a quarter of the UK equivalent 0f $36.000 per capita.
China also has one of the fastest growing education systems in the world producing more graduates every year than we have children, the vast majority of these graduates are in STEM subjects.
While the numbers can inform us about the facts of change in China the level of social and cultural change has to be experienced to be believed I didn’t really expect to be supermarket shopping in a French Carrefour supermarket for instance or walking around a giant Jinan version of Westfield.
The determined drive towards modernisation is bringing about the an obliteration of the past much the way development in some parts of the UK in the 60’s and earlier that brought into being organisations like the Victorian Society and before that The National Trust.
A lack of interest in parochial, post colonial architecture means that in mega cities like Beijing and Shanghai the only evidence of the remarkable history of China is reflected in grand Imperial and religious buildings, ironically the peoples past has almost ceased to exist. A growing realisation that is the case has seen some areas being labelled as conservation areas so that tourists can visit a traditional home
What I found really interesting was that this rush towards the future seems to be allowing a blurring of the immediate or relatively recent past which is being reinterpreted or lost altogether in a blend of modern Confucius and Party thought. Although as I am writing this a section of the army is preparing a new edition of Chairman Mao’s ” Little Red Book” out of print for more than 20 years and this is seen as a testing of the waters by a group opposed to the modernisation or at least the pace of moderation.
Chairman Mao once the great and glorious leader is know the respected founder of modern China, almost the only image I saw of him was the giant painting above the entrance to the Forbidden City and on the back of bank notes and on a nostalgia stall in Qifu.
In discussion with people the “cultural revolution” and red guard are seen as misguided iconoclasts who tried to destroy large elements of Chinese cultural heritage. Quietly the demonstrators of Tiananmen Square have gone from being dissidents to be spoken of with some respect as harbingers of modernisation. While the its not obvious as you travel around the role of the Chinese Communist Party is all encompassing and generally almost unseen (not hidden) In general the educated middle and professional class will all be party members, it is essential for your career but I also felt that it was almost seen as a duty to be seen to be contributing to society. Where a more centralised influence could be felt was in discussion about the pace of change and the destruction and the redevelopment of the cities and all the issues that go with that in terms of the environmental such as pollution, smog, power generation and water supply, there followed a well trodden path along the lines that China is still a poor country with many people and its most important task is to continue to improve the lives of ordinary people, this still requires lots of development.
People are quite open about the problems that still exist in the poor rural and sparsely populated west of China which accounts for almost 64% of the China land mass but less than 4% of the population. The attraction of the megalopolis of Beijing with 20 million population, hundreds of square miles, Giant French Supermarkets, local shops, schools and universities add to that 80% of Beijing high school students go on to university and to poor western Chinese it must seem that the streets of Beijing are if not paved with Gold then with Yuan and you can see the that it becomes an almost impossible task to stop the drift to the cities.
I do feel incredibly lucky to have been able to visit China and particularly at this point in its development which is so exciting and full of energy. I had a great time and people were really friendly often curious and wanting their photograph taken with you which was great fun. In fact probably the memory that will live longest is people having fun, laughter and determined to enjoy themselves.