Friday, January 29, 2010

Notes from China

traditional houses struggling to survive in a fast modernized city, Kunming

During my visit to China at the turn of the year, I had some interesting observations as well as experiences, and decided to document some of them.

Something New

The first time I finished a degree in the US and returned to China to find work, people in Beijing mostly showed admiration of my American education. I did get pretty good jobs and felt good of myself. That was in 2004. This time around, however, things were very different.

It seems like the ego of Chinese people has grown bigger over the years. They no longer look at people returning from overseas with high regard. On the contrary, they are more into reminding America-educated people that “not everything in the US is right.”

While visiting different cities and talking to different people, for a few times when I tried to comment situation in China by comparing with the US, I sensed resistance from the person I was talking to. So I started to avoid talking about America, unless I was asked about it, which also happened less frequently than five years ago. And frankly, to me, it was more interesting to hear people talking about what they were doing and what was happening in their life in China, than me telling them how things were in the States.

Something Unexpected

I have a few friends in Kunming who have been pretty well established: having decent jobs, getting promoted, and owning houses and cars. All in their thirties and college educated, they’re promising professionals: physician, court clerk, engineer, and accountant. Some of them work for government-related companies. They don’t deny that the single party ruling system has problems, but agree with each other that American-style democracy will not make things better in China.

“We all support the Communist Party,” they say. Millions of people who work directly or indirectly for the government feel the same way, they say. China is doing just fine, despite criticism from other countries, and they don’t want things to change too much.

What about human rights? What about corruption? Well, China is not perfect, they say, but neither is any country in the world. Besides, Chinese people are living a better life than people in many countries such as India or North Korea, in their view.

Having read a lot of news in western media, I’ve got the impression that China is full of crisis. But looking at and talking with people there made me realize that the CCP still has very strong appeal among Chinese people. Young professionals like my friends don’t like everything the party does, but certainly don’t want political overhaul in China.

After all, under the party’s rule, they have established their career, family and a good life. They don’t have that much demand for democracy, at least for now.

Something Impressive

two new houses built right next to each other, Xichuan

vendor-packed street in Xichuan

At least two things impressed me during this trip.

Supermarkets in Kunming, Yunnan no longer provide plastic bags for shoppers. People either have to purchase reusable bags, or bring their own. This is part of the effort pushed by the Kunming government to turn the city into an environment-friendly city. I’m impressed by the decisiveness and effectiveness of the government’s initiative.

Another thing impressed me was the chaos in a small town in Henan. Home to nearly 200,000 people, the rural town of Xichuan was a mess. Increasing number of cars packed in the streets, not stopping for pedestrians, not even for red lights. Everybody fought their way to move ahead, regardless of the traffic rules, as long as they didn’t kill each other. Multi-floor buildings were being built wherever they could set a foot on. They stood only an arm’s distance to each other, made already narrow allies even narrower, and turned the town into a dirt covered ghetto.

But what really impressed me was not the mess of this place, but its dynamics. Despite lack of order, this place was full of energy of growth. People were eager to make more money and enjoy better material life. More than once while I was walking in the streets, a door opened beside me and l saw a few women sitting in a narrow room weaving rugs, which was one of the newly developed business in the town. Stores of all kinds were everywhere, mostly individual owned. Many of them selling all kinds of household stuff for just 2 yuan each (30 US cents).

People were complaining about the chaos and the dirtiness, but continuing to do their business and make their living, full of enthusiasm, full of hope.

Something Astonishing

The sky-high real estate price in China is insane. In Beijing, everybody was telling me how housing price has doubled, tripled, or gone tenfold over the past decade. When I was working in Beijing in the early years of the 21st century, the price of 3000 yuan (US$440) per square meter sounded pretty high already. And today, one can barely find any property that’s below 10000 yuan (US$1470) per square meter.

I heard similar story in Chongqing and Kunming. Some people say there is huge bubble in China’s real estate market and the market will collapse some day, others believe the price could only go higher.

For people like me who are still studying overseas, such high housing price could well scare us away from returning to China to work after completing education. Like one lady recently returned to Beijing from the US told me: “a city like Beijing is no longer livable” because of the appalling real estate price.

Something Unchanged

a popular restaurant packed with eaters in Kunming

People. I mean, the amount of people. Having lived in the States for a few years, I have grown used to doing everything by myself: adding gas, filling out forms at the bank, throwing away trash when finish eating in a fast food restaurant. But in China, where there is always a labor surplus, there is always someone there to do things for me as a customer.

At the bank, despite the fact that I do read Chinese and understand how the number vending machine works, which is really simple, there is a clerk standing right beside the machine to press the button for me and hand me my waiting number. Similarly, in pretty much every fast food restaurant, McDonald’s included, there is someone collecting trash after a meal is finished.

It has always been like this, and I think it will continue to be this way. For better or for worse, average Chinese consumers receive more service on a daily basis than American consumers.