Author: Keith Cowell
Date of Trip: October 2012
Reflections on China
We in the West need to be very concerned about the economic transformation of this nation; it truly is the Asian century. There seems to be a spirit and an energy in China that is lacking in much of North America. Despite the enormous have/have not gap, the Chinese people appear to be well nourished and in good spirits. We did not see any beggars or lay-a-bouts, everyone seemed to be doing something of value. Outside all the cities we visited (Beijing, Xian, Guilin and Shanghai) the expressways were beautifully groomed and plantings of shrubs were everywhere. Dozens of Chinese were meticulously trimming the verges by hand…everyone working at jobs of some kind.
The air quality in Beijing, Xian and Shanghai was very poor, lots of coal still being burned to produce power. The three large cities we visited (Beijing 18,000,000, Xian 8,000,000 and Shanghai 22,000,000) were all like Toronto on steroids. All the top fashion houses are there, every luxury vehicle in the Western market is available for purchase, the streets were constantly being cleaned by labourers in blue ‘suits’, electric and gas scooters everywhere and incredible traffic congestion. Red lights seemed to be an option as a means to control traffic flow and pedestrians do not have the right of way anywhere.
Every morning I ventured out early to seek out those in the parks exercising, and I was not disappointed. Everywhere, Chinese were moving their bodies, either performing taiji and qigong exercises, line dancing in groups, running, swimming in rivers…exercising. I had an opportunity to exercise with two taiji masters and in one case almost wrapped a bull whip around my own neck.
There still is a lot of government control, but for the tourist, it is not evident. In the five star hotels, we could watch CNN and BBC, but these channels are not available for the Chinese viewers in their own homes, only state controlled stations are available. On the expressways, cameras note your license plate and speed – photo radar – and anyone exceeding the speed limit is automatically issued a ticket that arrives in the mail. Students at the secondary level -history – receive no information about the Great Leap Forward and little about the Cultural Revolution or anything for that matter that paints a dark picture of 20th Century Chinese history. The cult of Mao is alive and well. The Chinese are a very proud and determined people who really want to continue to improve their standard of living. Seventy per cent of China is still at the peasant stage of development and health care isn’t as universal as it was twenty years back. Urban areas have much better opportunities to receive the funding for hospitals and clinics. I noticed in Shanghai alone hospitals dedicated to organ transplants, respiratory ailments, even a diarrhea hospital. Most surgical units operate using Western medicine, but there are many hospitals that practice only traditional Chinese medicine.
As there were only four of us in Shanghai, we were able to visit a museum of poster propaganda in the basement of an apartment building. There was no evidence, no signage that this museum exists. Only westerners through Trip Advisor might be aware of this place. It was an amazing display of Maoist propaganda, from posters promoting the ideal world of communism and the victory of the workers over the proletariat to denunciation posters that were acted upon by the Red Guard…a bit surreal actually.
Some of the descriptors for the trip might include: overwhelming numbers of people, air pollution like I’ve never seen it, no bodies larger than nature had intended, cigarette smoking, immense beauty in the karst region near Guilin, pastoral rural areas with the land being cultivated to the max., upscale and vibrant cities, everyone seemed to have some kind of job, no whiners or complainers going on about what they don’t have, traffic congestion, complete lack of respect for pedestrians, historical sights well preserved (Great Wall etc.), pride in the accomplishments of the nation, people taking responsibility for their own physical fitness – mainly those over 40 -, and respect for the government leaders and lights of every colour (especially red).
I felt much safer in China than in any European city…other than the chance of being whacked by a bus, car, motorbike, electric bike, bicycle or pull cart. The list goes on. It is interesting that with the 18th Congress of the National Assembly coming up in a few weeks, there are more restrictions on movement, a greater military presence near government facilities, western channels are being blocked in the hotels, and you cannot buy a knife any longer to peel an apple in a store. The government of China is still in control.