On the long flight back from China to New Zealand recently, one of the films I watched was Elysium. The sci-fi thriller probably won’t make my top-10 list, but some of the content felt disturbingly close to home.
Although earth in Elysium was depicted as a polluted and overpopulated Los Angeles in 2154, it had elements of the way China is going right now, as the air and water pollution seem to be getting worse every year. The luxurious space habitat that the earthlings wanted to escape to, reminded me a little bit of New Zealand – although with slightly better looking inhabitants and a far superior health system.
One of the most fascinating things about living in China over the past few years has been observing how the Internet is changing everything from shopping, to communication, to the way Chinese people think.
For generations, Chinese were heavily influenced by what the Government said in their state-controlled media, determining what is shown on television, the newspapers, radio, books and almost everything in China. It was an incredibly powerful channel to spread the propaganda, and in a way, helped control what 1.3 billion Chinese thought and felt, contributing to much of China’s swift rise into the economic powerhouse it is today.
A few years ago, things started to change. Soaring Internet and social media connections reached critical mass. Whereas the Government controlled virtually all of the country’s mass-communication channels before, the Internet finally gave the average Zhou a voice, and they took full advantage of it.
There are an infinite amount of staggering China statistics. One of my favourites is the quantity of meat. Over a billion pigs are in China, more than every other country combined, and 12 million of them are eaten every week. On average, a small Chinese village eats more hog than Egypt’s entire population living along the Nile. But to think that China is just about animals that oink would be unnecessarily underselling that other well-known white meat, the chicken.
While most of the world’s major economies splutter along, China’s blistering economic growth has businesses everywhere salivating for a piece of China’s increasingly wealthy middle class.
Everyone peddling something from adventures down the Nile River to skin-whitening face cream are redefining their strategies to get a piece of the Chinese pie. Even Porsche chose Shanghai for their world debut of the 4-door family wagon Porsche Panamera – its biggest launch in years.
But it seems ads with backdrops of Chinese skylines are for beginners, when you see the lengths the world’s biggest auto manufacturer is going to get their cars on Chinese roads…
Their mansion cellars are chock-full of the finest burgundies. Their gift cupboards, packed with luxury European goods. As they play real-life monopoly with central London property, their offspring purr around the cities in orange Lamborghinis. In this land of China, where the authorities have traditionally strived for a classless society with common property ownership, the number of US$ billionaires are growing like Jack’s beanstalk.
As much of the world suffers through their financial crises, China’s rampant economic growth continues to pump out billionaires. Between 2009 and 2010, the number of Chinese billionaires grew 45% from 130 to 189, from 2010 to 2011, 43% to 271. China’s tally is now second only to the United State’s 413 mega-wealthy.
In less than 20 days, New Zealand will be overrun with striped jerseys and empty beer vessels as the rugby world converges for the third largest sporting event on the planet, the Rugby World Cup
20 nations will be competing for rugby supremacy in the Nile River of rugby tournaments. Yet in China, the world’s most populous nation, the dedicated following of the rugby will be limited to a few smoky expat bars and a handful of committed Chinese rugby heads (most of whom will be supporting the All Blacks)
Imagine you were a young girl in a small Chinese village. One day exploring the market, you discover a tatty newspaper announcing the development of a shiny new bullet train that will eventually link Beijing to Shanghai in less than five hours. You look up to the sky and take a deep breath: some day you will work as a stewardess on that glistening train. But being partial to stuffed pork buns meant you were slightly tubby in 2011, when applications were called to work on that train. You are the smiley type, and pleasant to be around, but weighing in at 66kg meant you weren’t even considered for an interview.
I’ve never been a fan of shopping malls, that was before I went to Yiwu China Commodity City.
Yiwu City, about two hours by fast train from Shanghai, has the largest small commodity market in the world. In laymen’s terms that’s a massive mall where you buy large quantities of all the Chinese-made stuff you see in shops and markets all over the world.
And massive it is. 4.3 million square metres of floor space containing 62,000 booths representing factories and suppliers producing everything from 2011 Rugby World Cup balls to Hello Kitty socks.
The Great Wall of China rightfully earns a place on every Top-20 must-see lists of world sites. Its scale is simply jaw-dropping, straddling jagged mountain ridges and deserts 6,259.6 kilometres (3889.5 miles) across China. What strikes me is the stark contrast of its humble design versus flashy modern Chinese bling architecture.
The simplicity of the Great Wall, like much of China’s ancient and medieveal architecture, is representative of the endearing humbleness of Chinese culture. Similar periods of architecture from other parts of world are much more ornate and grandiose. But as China rediscovers itself, it’s creating the most showy, shiny and shameless buildings on the planet. Some are simply beautiful examples of how far engineering has come such as the Bird’s Nest Stadium, Opera House and modern-day cryptic Arche de Triomphe CCTV buildings in Beijing, the Shanghai Financial Centre and under-construction Shanghai Tower, but there are also many shiny, pillared, faux gold monstrosities and countless constructions straight from a Jetsons cartoon. It makes for interesting cityscapes.
The fascinating metamorphosis of Chinese architecture had me wondering just how the Great Wall of China might look if it was constructed in 2011.
The first sections of China’s Great Wall date back to the fifth century BC, with various dynasties adding to and maintaining it until the 16th century. Over that time, tens of millons of workers moved 240 million cubic metres (8.5 billion cubic feet) of compacted rocks and soil, then bricks and stone slabs, mostly by the Chinese-invented wheel barrow. Much of The Wall was held together by mortar made from rice flour, and some say, the bones of some of the million workers estimated to have died building it.
In days gone by, talk of China would conjure up sepia images of streets crowded with men on bicycles. Times have changed.
During the swinging 60’s and 70’s, the must-have items for a marriage in China were a wrist watch, sewing machine and bicycle. Now there are cheap rip-off watches everywhere, someone else does the sewing and almost everyone wants an automobile. Yes, the monarchy of the ‘Kingdom of Bicycles’ has been overthrown.
Back in 1949 when The People’s Republic of China was formed, the party in Beijing opted for the bicycle as the people’s vehicle and started a massive production drive, making two wheels and a chain a big part of their first Five-Year plan. Pedal power took off.
When I was a youngster, China really scared me. I’d been told if everyone in China all jumped at the same time, the whole world would wobble. Although there hasn’t been a coordinated hop, China is without doubt, shaking up the balance of the world.
Curiosity has drawn Ellen and me to get in amongst China during this fascinating time in history. I was lucky enough to be working for an Internet company in North America during the dot-com boom, Ireland when the Celtic Tiger was roaring and New Zealand when microwave ovens were introduced, but nowhere has the rate of change been more apparent than in the Middle Kingdom. This is the biggest boom in history.
The rate of change for almost everything in China is staggering; incomes (almost 300% since 2000), car sales (32% last year), the market for art (25% last year), number of billionaires (57% last year). Even more impressive is the scale of it all – the rates are measured across 1.3 billion people! And although developing countries have a low starting point to measure growth from, significant tracts of China are long past the ‘developing’ stage. Shanghai, for example, now has a higher average GDP than parts of southern Europe.