A first-hand report on the glaring social contradictions in modern-day China
Travelling around China over the past three years the signs of environmental degeneration were clear. Although there are almost certainly worse examples, I saw urban devastation in the centre of the country in a region that stretched for about 100 kilometres, near Xingtai, just north of the Yellow river.
When I was there it was a cloudless day but the sun was obscured, transformed into a fuzzy brown colour by the pollution, and the smell and taste of the chemicals and coal dust penetrated everywhere. It was an area of coal mines with huge slag heaps that looked like small mountains, rusty steelworks and other chemical plant, belching out fumes, derelict factories and an enormous coal fired power station with ten cooling towers.
What was striking was the vast size of the polluted regions, compared to the former industrial and mining areas in the north of England. There was very little vegetation or trees and what was left was weedy and dying, although in the area just south of Beijing a significant number of new trees had been planted to prevent further encroachment of the Gobi desert, itself a probable symptom of global warming.
Unlike in Mumbai (Bombay) in India when I was there, which is in many ways comparable, there were no sprawling, shanty-type developments in the big cities of Beijing, Shanghai or Shenzhen.
Pockets of squalor did exist but they were isolated, indeed in some places such as Shenzhen or Shanghai you could easily think you were in a concrete and glass high-rise US city like Chicago or Los Angeles. Though there are millions of poor migrant workers, known as mingong, in the big cities, they tend to be hidden, often living and working on the thousands of building sites.
One reason there were few obvious ’third world’-type slums in the cities I visited, could have been that the authorities strictly enforce a residence permit system to control the migration of unemployed landless peasants into the cities. This meant however, that the contrast to the impoverished conditions in rural areas was even more stark, although south of Tiananmen Square in Beijing there were still a couple of old districts of narrow lanes, teeming with people, chickens roaming around etc, but these are rapidly being pulled down in preparation for the Olympic Games.
Since the crackdown on the Falun Gong religious movement eight years ago, internet cafes have been difficult to find in Beijing, particularly in the centre. At the one I used at the main railway station, it was necessary to hand in your ID papers to the staff, they then took your details and monitored which computer was being used and presumably they could also check your web traffic.
Despite this sign of authoritarianism, on the streets of the large cities there was no obvious big police presence; it was quite unusual to see significant numbers of them on a day-to-day basis.
One afternoon though, as I walked through Tiananmen Square which is the geographical and political centre of the city, there were several police vans parked behind trees at the far end and large numbers of men in sharp suits and dark glasses hanging around.
I found out later that that morning a protester from the Muslim region of Xinjiang in the far north-west, had fire-bombed the huge portrait of Mao which hangs over the entrance to the Forbidden City, the former emperor’s residence, at the north end of the square. By the time I got there though another identical portrait was already in place, maybe indicating that this was not an unusual occurrence.
Walking southwards along the square I took a turn down a street not marked on the map, where, as it turned out, the secret police HQ was located.
The street is very interesting architecturally since it is in what was formally known as the Foreign Legation area, where the nineteenth century Great Powers that tried to carve up China had their embassies and was famous for being besieged during the anti-imperialist Boxer uprising in 1900.
However I noticed that the road was lined with unmarked 4x4s, occupied by men in dark glasses looking edgy, who jumped from their vehicles when I took my camera out. I decided to change my plans.
A couple of years ago when visiting, there was provocative nationalistic propaganda about Taiwan and Japan, even in the (state controlled) English language press and on the English radio and TV channels.
A typical press quote I noted at the time was: ’the Taiwanese secessionists, who are again hiding behind the Japanese destroyers, will be dealt a sharp rebuff’, the ’again’ I assumed was a reference to world war two. The people I was working with, who were not overtly political, had been infected by this nationalist propaganda and saw Japanese expansionism and imperial ambitions as a major threat to China.
Significantly, shortly after this there were mass anti-Japanese protests led by students at Beijing University. A year later though the atmosphere had altered, there was little mention of Japanese aggression in the media, perhaps because the authorities had taken fright at the student demos, which historically had often begun as protests against foreign oppressors, but quickly turned into anti-government movements.
Town and country
Travelling thousands of kilometres. across rural China revealed a sharp contrast to the modern impression given by the big cities. Agriculture was largely un-mechanised, with ox-driven ploughs still in use.
In northern and central China I saw only one tractor, which maybe was not surprising since the plots of land were so tiny it would have been difficult to use them. Someone told me that tractor ownership was more widespread than it appeared, but they were used for personal transportation rather than for cultivating the fields.
The rural workers typically lived in brick built one-storey dwellings with maybe two or three rooms. Some of the better ones had glass in the windows and there was a smattering of more up-market two-storey houses with gardens in most villages. The major roads were generally good, and the main street through the village was usually paved.
Rural areas in the south in Guangdong province appeared to be the most prosperous, with better quality housing, roads, etc, and modern agricultural machinery was being used, but it was miniaturised, so it could fit onto the small plots of land. There were squads of soldiers working in the fields, who appeared to be doing infrastructure work such as drains and irrigation, rather than planting or harvesting crops.
The contradictions between the third world conditions in the countryside and the situation in some cities were shown most starkly in Shanghai.
Approaching through the Yangtze river delta, there was an urban sprawl stretching maybe 100 kilometres which culminated in the ultra-modernism of the new high-rise business district of Pudong, east of the Huangpu river in the city centre, where the scale of the buildings (and their unplanned, jarring design) was easily a match for New York or Chicago. Shanghai also has the world’s first operational ultra high-speed maglev train that links the city to the airport, running at over 400km/hr.
Some districts that had been largely untouched by development were the areas of the city centre that were occupied by the foreign imperialist powers before the 1949 revolution.
The biggest of these was the British controlled ’International Settlement’, whose main street called then the Bund, ran along the west bank of the Huangpu river. Here the big banks such as Standard Chartered or HSBC had their imposing headquarters and were a symbol of the domination of foreign capital, whose profits were originally based on the opium trade.
In a sign of the times, HSBC has returned to the Bund, but the highly symbolic demand for the return of its original HQ was too much for the Chinese ’Communist’ Party, despite its rush to welcome western capital back.
The area just to the west of the International Settlement was known as the French Concession and as the name implies was occupied by France, whose administrators designed the buildings and streets to look like 19th century Paris. Most of the area still survives with a pleasant atmosphere of the Grand Boulevards and consequently has become a favoured location for retired top bureaucrats.
Chou En Lai, the right-hand man of Mao lived here as still does the former President Jang Zemin. Wandering in this area one day I noticed large crowds outside a nondescript house, who were corralled by police behind crash barriers. Although I wasn’t looking for it, it turned out to be the building where the founding congress of the Communist Party was held in the early 1920s and is now a museum.
It was ironic and a bit surprising to find such big crowds there, in a city that is the symbol of resurgent capitalism in China. Although judging by their short stature, ruddy complexions and poor quality clothing the visitors were probably from rural districts, it was I thought, still a symbol of the enduring influence of the revolution that overthrew capitalism nearly 60 years ago.