Booming China

By Kollengode S Venkataraman (Published in July 2004)

From interior Japan, my next stop was in interior China. I landed in Qingdao airport (population 6 million, 2.3 million urban) in China Eastern airline flight from Fukuoka, Japan in mid May. The weather was mild, and it was bright and sunny. Qingdao, the coastal city of Shandong Province, located about 800 km southeast of Beijing, is on the rim of Yellow Sea overlooking the the Korean Peninsula. By Chinese standards, it is a small town, 25th or 26th largest city in population. Its relatively small international terminal, opened only two years ago, is impressively modern. It was clean, bright, roomy, and airy.

But there were reminders of Old China: Our Airbus 320 flight, with only 150 passengers, was the only flight landing at that time. Yet, our checked-in bags arrived full 60 minutes after we came to the baggage claiming area after clearing Chinese immigrations and customs.

The whole of China is a boomtown, with around 10% annual growth for more than a decade. The effect is palpable everywhere. Wherever you turn, you see construction. One finds more construction cranes building 10 and 20-storey housing and office complexes, roads, industrial structures than cranes perching in the nearby rice paddy fields. Taking a 360-degree panoramic view from the roof of my hotel, I myself counted over 80 construction cranes.

The steel price had risen by over 150 percent in the last 3 years, and with the overheated economy, inflation was feared. When the demand for steel goes up, so does the demand for cement, plastics, household durables, automobiles, mass transportation, and gas… …

China Times, the only English daily I saw in the hotel in Qingdao, happily reported that the construction high-fever was cooling down, and that the demand for steel in China, much to the relief of the government, was also coming down.

The government was slowing down the economy by raising the interest rates and asking for more down payment and higher collateral for bank loans. Prosperity, in its wake, brings its own problems. 

China has limited-access, 4-lane divided highways linking major cities, like other industrialized societies, or some parts of the West Asia. I traveled on one such toll road at 120 km/h (~70 mph) for about an hour to reach downtown Qingdao, with its impressive, but characterless skyline, from the plant where I was visiting.

I was in China for the first time, and it shattered some of the stereotypical images of China I had in mind.  But every now and then, I was reminded that China is still in transition. 

1. Traffic rules are violated with impunity, particularly in urban and suburban roads. In 6-lane divided suburban roads (not highways), the driver who took me around had no problem driving on the side facing oncoming traffic. As a matter of fact, he was quite confident. 

2. People, exclusively men, smoked like crazy in all places — hotel lobbies, restaurants, airport lounges, even banks. But the woman who smokes is too fast or is of ill repute.

3. The fatality in accidents is the highest in the world. 104,000 deaths per year in a country with only 20 million automobiles. In the US, for a population of 260 million, has 136 million private automobiles (excluding trucks), and the number of fatalities in accidents is around 43,000 per year. 

4. Styrofoam debris from ships and boats were floating in the beautiful waterfront of Qingdao downtown. But this was not anywhere close to the blight I saw on the sandy beaches in Chennai, India.

The engineer at the plant where I was visiting told me, ten years ago there were lots of bicycles in Qingdao, a beautiful fishing town on the Pacific Coast. Five years ago, it was motorized two wheelers. Now too many cars. In terms of cars per 100,000 population, China is not anywhere close to industrialized nations, but it will be going in that direction in the coming years. 

Consumerism is booming in the nominally “Communist” China.  Wal-Mart-style supermarkets and fashion stores are becoming popular.  It is a remarkable transformation for country in whose currency is the profile of Communist leader Mao Tse Dung, who declared, “Power comes through the barrel of guns.”  Now power seems to arrive not through the barrel of guns, but through the millions of barrels of oil that China imports every month, and the cheap merchandise that China exports (or “dumps” as some characterize it) all over the world in tens of thousands of shipping containers.

People looked well clothed and well-fed by and large, at least in urban towns. Rural China may be another story. The prosperity is palpable. If the trend continues, as it sure will, in the coming years, Chinese will have all the health problems on account of over-eating, junk food, sedentary lifestyle, and air- and water pollution.

Each time I tried to settle down thinking that China has indeed
 made the transition into a  “developed” society, I was reminded that it is still in transition, as it happened when I tried to cash travelers checks. The hotel where I stayed bought dollars bills, but they would not buy AAA travelers check.  So, I went to the bank. It took nearly 20 minutes for me to cash my traveler’s check for $200. In spite of having a high-speed computer terminal with a flat panel screen, the bank clerk made two documents, each with multiple copies, asking me to sign in each. Then, with a rubberstamp, whose impressions were so worn out with over use, he stamped each of the multiple copies.  Thud, thud, thud, thud…

The transformation of China is here to stay.  Its consequences will be felt in countries touching the Indian and Pacific Oceans for sure. It will be felt well beyond, even in countries on the two Atlantic coasts.

In the hotel where I stayed in China, cable TV channels fed uncensored news from TV stations from Korea, Japan, Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany and France, in addition to the ubiquitous BBC and CNN.

Simply channel surfing even without understanding the languages and looking at the video feed told me that on Iraq invasion, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld have succeeded remarkably in unifying the rest of the world against the US. 

Another point glaring to me was the contrast in the way the festering Israeli-Palestinian problem is presented in the American TV and in the TVs in rest of the world. American TV has a reflexively pro-Israeli slant. Even as the US TV channels present the Palestinian side of the story in bulleted texts and voiceovers, visually, the US TV channels have a self-imposed censorship in muting the suffering Palestinians. The rest of the world presents the Palestinian sufferings on TV in film clips having great visual impact, even as they are balanced in voiceovers in presenting issues from both sides. 

The differences in the visual presentation between the TV news in US and the rest of the world have led to world population and the US population looking at the issue from opposite ends. My Chinese companion familiar with the US political setup told me something that one hears commonly in the middle east: Israel is the 51st state of the Union.  

Other big players (China, Japan, EU, for example) will catch up with the US as they eventually will, in terms of military muscle, economic might, and technological advances. When this happens, it may be possible that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be resolved, and the two will learn to live as neighbors.

If we can take for granted the personal integrity in Japan, the lack of it in China (and in India) was too obvious. Every room, even in the five-star hotel where I stayed, had a safe-deposit vault anchored to the floor with digital keys for keeping one’s valuables safe. 

The society is so open that in a public park where I went for a stroll with Mr. Chen, my companion, men and women of all ages (between 20 and 50) were practicing a social dance that looked like square dance, with the loudspeakers blaring Western tunes.

China and Japan are so very different, and they have historical
reasons to be uncomfortable with each other. Decades ago, they hated each other. But economic objectives have made their relations more manageable at the political level.

Japan wants new markets for its developed technological base, and China’s burgeoning middle class is an infinite market for Japan’s top-end products for the foreseeable future. China wants newer technology and newer capital for its development, which it is able to get easily now, with its surging economy. As a mater of fact, the industrialized nations in Western Europe, North America and elsewhere are standing in line to get their share of the Chinese economic dumplings.

China wants to be a superpower — the phrase for China in the Chinese language is Zhong Guo, which literally means “the Central Nation.”  China wants to wipe from its collective memory the indignities it suffered under European and Japanese colonial occupation in the last two centuries, and wants to reclaim its glorious days of the Empire. 

But strong nations, if they want to be recognized as empires by smaller nation states, cannot brandish their military muscle without compelling reasons. It is the title conferred, not usurped. So, China is careful in exercising its political power, and more so its military power. 

Maybe there is a lesson here for the US. After the Cold War, if someone does a statistics on the number of times the term “Sole Super Power” was used in describing the US in the world audiovisual and print media, it is likely that the US media would have used it more brazenly more often than the rest of the world, much like the sheriff brandishing the gun in the Wild West.

What struck me the most in talking to the educated people in
interior China and Japan is their cynicism at the US, particularly, president George W. Bush, vice president Dick Cheney and  defense secretary Don Rumsfeld. Bush’s attempt to thrust democracy by flexing the US military muscle only to end up in Abu Ghraib prison atrocities has done enormous damage to US credibility even among people who have an envious admiration of the US.

President George W. Bush, by his increasingly I-don’t-give-a-damn unilateral approach to political, diplomatic, economic, and military matters on the world stage, has unwittingly helped in sowing the seeds for the germination of power blocks to counter the US might, one in Europe, and maybe one or two in Asia, among nations who were historically friendly to the US.

If and when these seeds germinate and grow, it will give rise to new economic, political, and military alliances whose consequences will be felt for decades. That will be the unintended post-Cold War New World Order, which may not be in the US global interests. END


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