Wednesday 8 June 2011

Impressions of China 2011

I have just returned from traveling with my wife and her parents and sister for two weeks in China and Hong Kong.

It was an interesting experience. It's easy to see why so many people say that this century will be China's century.

My impressions of China are below. No doubt some people will disagree with them. Constructive comments welcome.
  • The Chinese plan long term. They're building infrastructure that they'll need in 20 years. The leadership doesn't need to worry about long term projects appearing to their electorate that they're not achieving results. They don't need to borrow money in order to pay for the overly generous election promises required to get them elected. This seems to me to be one of the primary strengths of the Chinese communist system, and one of the failings of democracy. I am not implying that either system is necessarily superior.

  • All housing is leasehold. When you buy a house, you buy a 30 year lease for a residential city title, and longer leases are available for rural and commercial building (IIRC). If the government wants the land to build a road or whatever, they take the land back, the road gets built, and you go somewhere else.
  • As a corollary of my previous point, the Chinese get things done. They don't go through rounds of resource consent spanning years when they want to build something. Some engineer draws a line on a map, and it happens.
  • Communism works in China. Gone are the bad old days of the revolution and the madness contained therein. The Chinese have embraced a form of capitalism and made it work with their system. Numerous Chinese ex-pats have told me that people who don't rock the boat can live pretty free and happy lives. The people who rock the boat may not...
  • The top echelons of Chinese Government are engineers, and it shows. They build physical things and encourage the manufacture of physical products. They don't wrangle over IP laws designed to plug the leaks in dying business models. They build stuff. Then they sell it, and everyone benefits.

  • Intellectual property is not respected. They plagiarise and copy blatantly. I suspect this is part of their recent rapid rise; they didn't have to invent or start from scratch the same way the west did when it developed, the Chinese just copied what the west had done. Once they've caught up across the board, it will be interesting to see how lax intellectual property law/enforcement affects their economy and how they do business in future
  • Everything is cheap. Food is cheap (and may be subject to government price controls now or in future to ensure it remains cheap). This means the base cost of living is low, so wages can also be low, and manufactured (exported) goods are cheap. The price of good quality food in China was easily one fifth of what you pay in New Zealand.
  • Perhaps as a corollary or my previous point, the quality of workmanship in China is in general very low, and they don't seem to put very much emphasis on stream-lining many of their processes (store check outs, even in department stores are slow; why make it hard for customers to give you their money?).
  • There are [fun] police everywhere (at least in the tourist traps and the popular areas I visited). Plenty of stern faced young men in uniform patrol the streets with often-used whistles to keep people off the grass, to keep bikes off designated areas, to keep people from sitting on walls, and in general to keep people in line. Though one of their main duties seems to be to giving directions to people.
  • They have electric bicycles where the battery charges while you pedal. They're everywhere, and very quiet - so they can sneak up on you. Seems a great and environmentally friendly way to get around flat cities.

  • The Chinese can be "a but rough around the edges". Spitting on the ground is common practice (and may be a consequence of the bad air, and the prevalence of smoking). If they were kiwi, I'd describe them as "unashamedly blokey".
  • The Chinese do things at scale. When we crossed from Hong Kong to Shenzhen by bus, we crossed a long bridge over Shenzhen bay. There were rafts supporting an oyster farm spanning Shenzhen bay there, which stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction (the air was hazy/polluted, which reduced visibility to about 3km or so, but still. Impressive.
  • The "Maorish Village" in the "Wonders of the World" theme park in Shenzhen was hilariously inaccurate. The "Maori" people were not Maori (probably of south-western Chinese descent), and they performed a ramshackle show which was a fusion of a dozen different Pacific cultures. They repeatedly shouted "Aloha" (which is Hawaiian, they should at least say "kia ora" for a Maori greeting), and danced around in Cook Island costumes, claiming it was Maori. As a Pākehā, I'm offended on behalf of my Maori countrymen.

  • You couldn't see the sun most of the time in the big cities due to the pollution. The air tastes vile.
  • Traffic in Shanghai borders on being civilized. Other parts of China, less so.
  • White people are treated well, but prone to being overcharged. If you're a struggling dancer, move to China! White people are in demand in this area.
  • Mandatory kit for all white people in China should be a t-shirt that says "No buy DVD. No buy T-Shirt. No buy Bag." Bonus points if it's written in Chinese.
  • There are plenty of white people in Shanghai. Elsewhere, less so.
  • Shanghai is cool. There's lots of sci-fi-esque buildings all over the place. Star fleet head quarters should be built there.

  • They never miss an opportunity to ruin a perfectly good event/tour/attraction by trying to sell you stuff. We went on a day-trip guided tour, and after lunch we were taken into a fish oil factory and subjected to a 30 minute power point presentation trying to scare us into buying their products. I could barely believe it was happening!
  • We took the MagLev train in Shanghai to the airport. It went 434km/h. It was seriously cool. We should totally get one of those.
  • My wife's family is involved with an English school in Chongqing, China. If you're interested in teaching English in China, let me know, they're hiring. They're looking to hire English-speaking white people, English doesn't need to be your native language. Yes, I know many people of other ethnicities with excellent English, but the locals feel it's more prestigious to learn English from white skinned people.


Robert said...

Interesting post!

China is "communist" in name only. It's just a one-party state with a mixture of capitalism and central planning. So saying "communism works" is misleading.

One downside of central planning is corruption, and that is affecting some of those infrastructure projects, such as the high-speed trains. See for example.

Another downside is that sometimes the central planners get things very wrong. One example of this is the one-child policy, which is leading China into a demographic crisis: see for example. (Although I don't think a sudden change in policy now would have much effect, even over the long term; for example Singapore is finding it difficult to turn their birth rate around.)

However, I share your admiration for much of what the Chinese government is achieving.

Chris Pearce said...

@Robert: I'm no expert in communist philosophy, but I'm sure Deng Xiaoping would disagree with you! But in principle, I agree with you that modern communism in China is a far cry from the original communism espoused by Mao.

I didn't mean to imply that "communism works" in general. Clearly it didn't in the USSR. I said that "communism works in China", i.e. the particular brand of government in China which the Chinese call communism is successful there.

The demographic shift in populations is something that developed countries are going to have to come to terms with as well; it's the elephant in the room in New Zealand politics. The problem democracies face is that the baby boomers are a significant chunk of the voting population, meaning that making hard the choices is a political fast track to opposition for any government.

Robert said...

Communism has a meaning; see e.g.
China's government calling themselves communist doesn't make them so, any more than calling themselves a democracy would make it so.

Lots of countries are dealing with aging populations, but New Zealand's birth rate is a lot higher than China's so the effects should be less severe.

netcrash said...

"You couldn't see the sun most of the time in the big cities due to the pollution. The air tastes vile."

Probably living there isn't that good has visiting, everything looks like it works, but living there may give you a different perspective.

Chris Pearce said...

@netcrash: You're stating the obvious; living in a country certainly give you a more detailed perspective. However several of the points I outlined above are reason why I wouldn't want to live there, at least not permanently.

Although skepticism is healthy, I think your underlying assertion that communist China is going to collapse under the weight of its own inferiority is inaccurate. Yes, there are flaws in every system, our respective systems and theirs included. I imagine that the Chinese system will change dramatically over the coming years, but I doubt it's going to implode like the USSR did.