Tuesday, 21 September 2010

China - Interesting Times

Shortly before we left for our holiday in China, I was asked why I was going. I was a little flummoxed. Why would you not want to go to China? It's the world's oldest continuous civilisation. Third largest country. Second biggest economy. The next superpower, with one fifth of the humanity as citizens.

Roofing end in the Forbidden City
But I can understand the question. For a long time I wasn't terribly keen on China. I pictured a few sites surrounded by wasteland of concrete, watched over by polluted skies and Big Brother. And there's more than a little truth in that image.

The Chairman: even after the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, he's still a national icon

But the China that locks up dissidents, cuddles up to North Korea and Sudan, levelled much of its history to make way for motorways and apartment blocks, and sulks about the Dalai Lama is only part of the picture. The China we saw was a dynamic, often beautiful and always fascinating place.  We'll do a bunch of entries on where we went, but I'll start with a few thoughts on China in general.

You can see the tightrope the Chinese government walks when you visit the country. The Communist Party doesn't have two of the major advantages that a government in a democracy has - the legitimacy that comes with being elected and the pressure valve for public discontent that elections provide.

To get legitimacy it essentially has two tactics - emphasise how strong it has made China and keep the economic good times going. That's why Mao is still idolised (he's on all the notes).  He was a megalomaniac whose policies killed millions, but at least he made China a great power again - and the Party emphasies that they are his heirs. Of course, China has long since been Communist in name only - you can't move without running into Western consumer brands.  But the government has done an done an amazing job of keeping the economy growing and providing the jobs that allow people to buy their Audis and Lacoste shirts.

Huge LED screen at a new Beijing Mall. The image is (appropriately) a phoenix, one of China's favourite mythical creatures.
It deals with public grumpiness in differnet ways - allow it (to an extent) at a local level, stomp on it when it opposes national policies (e.g. Tibet). The media I saw was fascinating,  Coverage of other nations and local issues such as traffic jams is much like in the West, but all stories at a national level - such as a disputes over territory with Japan and with America the value of China's currency - are basically government press releases with an expert thrown in to back up the official view.

The economic boom is one of the reasons why China is such a terrific country to visit. The amount of construction is staggering - coming in to Xi'an, I counted about 30 cranes putting up skyscrapers. Contrasts are everywhere - there's Developed World roads with Developing World give way (ie non-existent) rules, and ancient temples nestle beside towering apartment and office blocks.

Temple of the Eight Immortals in Xi'an

Much of the old China has been demolished, but you can still see it in places like the surviving hutongs of Beijing, the Old Town of Shanghai or the wonderfully preserved town of Pingyao.

Street in Shangahi Old Town
Chinese tourists love seeing their heritage - 95% of the tourists in almost everywhere we went were Chinese - but there's also a real sense of pride in their recent accomplishments, like the Beijing Olympics or the enormous Shanghai expo.  Shanghai and Beijing are like showyards for incredible modern architecture, from the Bird's Nest stadium to skyscrapers like these.

It's like China is saying "seen all these cool old things, from when we were one of the greatest and most advanced states on the planet? Well, we're back."

They sure are.  There's a famous Chinese curse: "may you live in interesting times".  Well, the times are certainly interesting in the Middle Kingdom.

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