More on China

Posted on June 20, 2012

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 We have during the last 20 days or so driven almost 5000 km from the south west of China to the Pakistani border in the north west visiting Kashgar as our last bigger Chinese town on our itinerary. We have had opportunities to observing how fast and to which extent this country and its society are changing. I have already commented on mindboggling infrastructural changes (including thousands of kilometers of first class highways, railway tracks and millions of new apartments), but also nearly “everything else” is in the state of fluid change. China is already powerful and when Beijing is flexing its muscles, it is noted everywhere both domestically and abroad.

ImageChina in construction (note construction cranes in the background)

 We have as much as possible talked to people along the way, well assisted by our competent, officially certified as well as assigned, English-speaking guide

ImageOur Han Chinese guide

According to current regulations, it is not possible to cross China in your own vehicle unless accompanied 24 hours a day by a Chinese guide. In spite of the guide, however, the language-barriers are huge and making travels outside of big cities and touristic areas a real challenge. Actually, most of the rural China we encountered on our way, well beyond linguistic barriers, is not prepared for international tourism – at least not yet. We were charged a small fortune on each “touristic” site we visited, which in most places did not offer an English translation of maps or explanation of exhibitions. Also, customer attention (for instance simple things like a friendly smile) has still not reached public touristic sights in most of rural China.

I have already commented on how our permits to travel through Tibet and Nepal suddenlty were redrawn by Chinese authorities due to “stones on the road” and more news from abroad has certainly later shed additional light on the reasons for redrawing our permits. The fact is that, in addition to arrange for all travel permits and function as a translater, our guide also very cleverly relayed the official Chinese version of history, politics and trends and carefully did his best to avoid all political discussions by simply making it clear that he did not want to discuss what he considered “official business”. This, of course, forced us to avoid almost entirely, discussions of regional politics and human rights, for example China´s policy in Tibet or other ethnic tensions in the border areas with Pakistan. Sensing latent conflict in Kashgar, we were not only due to language barriers, sheltered from close contact and conversations with the locals, though knowing that this area also is tangled with problems related to Beijing´s ethnic policies and promotion of Han Chinese language and culture (including immigration from Central China). In spite of substantial Beijing-financed renovations and investments in infrastructure and shopping centers, the locals are not too happy. Actually, throughout the tour, we also carefully had to avoid discussions of China´s position on international geopolitical issues (for example its relationships to the Philiphines or Singapore) and social policies (for instance the one female child only policy).

Bridging the language gap

Enjoying the company of locals

Now, however, after having crossed the border from China to Pakistan,

Our last hours in China on the Karakoram Highway linking China and Pakistan

I feel more comfortable in commenting freely on some of our observations along our route. While crossing parts of China, I have with interest and curiosity read “The China Wave – the rise of a civilization state” by Zhang Weiwei1  . Weiwei, a well recognized Chinese academic with international experience, outlines the Chinese model of social development and outlines how well the Chinese society has developed compared to most western democracies during the last 15 years. Weiwei argues and compares the Chinese version of “democracy” with western democratic states, and emphasizes how deeply the vast and diverse Chinese society, with 56 ethnic groups, after all is rooted in a common long history (longer than any other country) and in a synergy of cultures of “hundred of states”. Here, 5-15 years planning horizons are still common and decision-making is, according to Weiwei, a collective process where the decision-makers taking part are promoted as decision-makers not only based on meritocracy, but also based on “winning or loosing the hearts and minds of the people”. The social- and economic development during the last decade truly is impressive, not least in perspective of the current economic crisis in much of the western world. While many western countries are suffering from a leadership crisis and are challenged by a lack of confidence in politicians, most Chinese (including our guide) would not even dream of questioning or even second guess the leadership-team in BeijingA!

An example of long term planning announcing the renovation of Kashgar within 2030

Tearing down old Kashgar

2011 monument of Mao Zedong in the People’s Square of Kashgar

While the Chinese model, in general, seems to be working very well, we nevertheless became ever so little concerned about the mere speed of social change and development. For instance, restaurants and cafeterias in most small towns, as well as, many highway gas-stations do not have toilets and while driving Mercedes, BMW and Lotus, and having the latest digital tools, many newly rich Chinese still do not yet have access to sanitary facilities on par with what we have found in economically much less advanced countries. …….The middle class is, however, growing rapidly and, knowing the Chinese, sanitation will catch up very soon.

10.00 pm in the Old Town of Lijiang: the middle and upper class consuming

Also, through our guide, we perceived a certain desire to control our route (cancellation of our permit to Tibet is a good example) and experienced a lack of access to international news. Our access to the internet was limited and we were warned against commenting on Chinese public policy as long as we were in China. Well, I guess, this is just an example of the Chinese version of democracy, and as our guide responded so frequently, political issues are not to be discussed. After all, the meritocrats in Beijing is supposed to know best.

Nevertheless, Zhang Weiwei´s book offers provocative food for thought. He admits and paraphrazes Winston Churchill by describing the China-model as  “the least bad model”, which means that it has its weaknesses, but that it nevertheless has performed better than other western models during the last 15 years or so. Of course, I realize that Weiwei´s analysis may be considered to be somewhat biased, and that his story must be triangulated with reference to other sources, but nevertheless China is on the move and will probably take over the role as the world´s largest economy within maybe only 10 years. Thus the rest of the world should be prepared!

Oyvin – Islamabad

(1) The China Wave – Rise of a civilizational state, Zhang Weiwei, 2011, Wold Century Publishing Corporation, NJ, USA

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