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Back to Deep China

I lived in Asia for almost a decade. During that time I visited China a lot – usually once every month or so. In the course of which I traveled not only to the mega-cities, but also to many 2nd and 3rd tier Chinese cities, and to a lot of off-the-beaten-path spots as well, like Inner Mongolia, and China’s far west.

While there I got to meet politicians and party officials (see my prior posts on being bag-carrier for ex-Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating – here and here), experience business “Chinese-style” (see previous posts here and here), and eat lots of weird food (read about it here). But I never learnt any Chinese language; I never aspired to live there; I never even remotely got bitten by the China bug. Still, I did undoubtedly get to see a lot of the country – more so than most Westerners ever will.

Then my circumstances changed, I left Asia, and my last visit to China was in 2011. Until this past week that is, when I visited Nanjing, a mid-size Chinese city about an hour’s flight west from Shanghai (if you can call a place with 9 million inhabitants “mid-size”). I was travelling from Australia to Los Angeles and detoured via Nanjing to attend the opening ceremony of a new factory that I happen to be a part-owner of. Although the factory itself is actually in the town of Gaochun (population 500,000), about 70 kilometers south of Nanjing, so I got to spend a bit of time in China’s “provincial backwater”, too.

It was eye-opening. Even in the short-time (a mere 7 years) since I was last in China, the place has leaped forward more than I ever imagined would be possible. And I am not talking about those cities that are the poster-children for “the new China”, like Shanghai and Beijing. No, I am talking about “Deep China” – the countless Chinese cities and towns you have never heard of, where hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese folks live, where foreigners don’t much venture, and which we all implicitly assume are smoke-belching, low-cost manufacturing cesspools, polluted, grey, and undeveloped.

All of which just goes to show how arrogant we Westerners can be sometimes. So here is a list of Seven Things You Might Want to Know about Deep China. Some of which you may have heard before, but some of which may come as a bit of a surprise, and which may perhaps even challenge your preconceptions.

  1. Deep China is a giant construction site.

The first thing you notice driving around Anywhere, China, is that everything – and by everything, I really do mean everything – seems to be under construction. The scale of the Chinese building project is quite hard to comprehend unless you see it for yourself. Every skyline is dominated by cranes, and wherever you look buildings of all sorts are sprouting up from the earth like mushrooms – office tower, factories, and apartments. I suppose this is what happens when you try to move, oh, say, 1 billion people from a rural to urban lifestyle in the span of one generation.

The result can be rather grim in places – mile after mile of drab, uniform high-rise apartment blocks on the outskirts of every town. But also pretty incredible in other places, with towering, architecturally designed skyscrapers and public buildings creating stunning 21st century skylines. Or, as a colleague put it: “If you are an architect and you have a crazy idea for a building, you could go around Europe and the US and get laughed out of every town. Or you can come to China, and some city you’ve never heard of will happily let you build your fantasy. That’s China.”

  1. Deep China has the BEST transport infrastructure in the world.

China’s central planners figured out 20 years ago that one of the pillars of long-term national wellbeing is good transport infrastructure. Unconstrained by pesky little things like elections and individual rights, they set about executing on those plans. And, if Nanjing and Gaochun are anything to go by, they have been pretty damned successful in doing just that, in the process leapfrogging right over the rest of us.

You see it the minute you get off the plane. Nanjing may be a 2nd Tier Chinese city, but it has a massive, shiny, super-efficient, and utterly fabulous airport that hands-down buries the ones I am most familiar with (Sydney, Los Angeles, New York, anywhere in Europe). At Chinese airports flights are on time, everything works, and there are seldom any queues, traffic jams, or lost bags.

Then there are high-speed train lines crisscrossing China that can whip you from central Nanjing to downtown Shanghai, for example, in less than 2 hours. And there are just as clean, efficient, and orderly public transport networks to zip you around every city – a far cry from the decrepit subways that most major Western cities rely on.

Not to mention China’s roads, which are without question the best roads you will find anywhere on the planet. They tend to be pristine and pot-hole free, those in the towns well-signed and well-maintained, and those between towns creating a national network of four, six and eight lane super highways, that put our crumbling 1950s vintage “expressways” to shame.

Although there is one thing that no amount of planning and development seems able to have changed – in China, they still drive like crazy people. Thank God for that.

  1. In Deep China, pollution is being aggressively tackled.

A popular Western stereotype of China is that it is a generally dirty kind of place –gray, industrialized and heavily polluted. And whilst I am sure this remains true in many respects (Beijing, for example, is notorious for days with such incredibly poor air quality the schools get shut and kids need to stay indoors), in Deep China it looks like these things are being aggressively tackled, for the better.

So the air in Nanjing was unpolluted, and the streets were meticulous, with no litter, rubbish or graffiti of any sort. Downtown Nanjing was incredible to see – people going about their business in a core of wonderfully car-free pedestrianized streets that rivalled any European city, and so clean you could have eaten off of the pavement.

Gaochun was even better, a planned town of wide, well laid-out roads, freshly planted on either side with rows of trees and shrubs. Neat gardens have been laid out on just about every corner, and there were shaded walking paths, cycle lanes everywhere, and the town’s pride and joy, a huge complex of parks and artificial lakes on its outskirts – the “Slow City”, as the locals call it.

Basically, I was shocked. Where I had expected grit, grime and chaos, I got planning, order, clean air, sunshine and trees. If I didn’t know better, I could have been in Singapore.

  1. Smoking is being aggressively tackled too, well sort of (but definitely not drinking).

One of my most enduring memories of my time in China was the smoking, with men (for some reason, only men seem to smoke in China) lighting up wherever they liked, be it in a closed boardroom during a meeting, inside of a restaurant, or on a crowded bus.

Today, people still smoke a lot in China. I still got annoyed by cigarette fumes being blown in my face way too often. And I still got to meet a healthy smattering of blokes with teeth so horribly yellow from tobacco stains I had to work hard not to stare.

But, for the first time, I also got to see the beginnings of an anti-smoking movement in China. Like when I attended a banquet in a room with 1,000 guests, and where smoking was completely banned by the venue, much to the chagrin of the many blue-collar workers there. Or like when visiting a Government building in Gaochun – again, to my pleasant surprise (and completely different to the last time I was in China) smoking was strictly verboten.

Drinking, however, is another story. There is an old Chinese saying that, roughly translated, is: “the more you drink, the deeper your friendship is”. And as I have written about previously, Chinese business culture involves banquets with endless rounds of toasting, at which everyone is repeatedly required to slam down shots of maotai (Chinese fermented sorghum liquor that is a lot like drinking diesel petrol mixed with formaldehyde). It is not uncommon to see people literally passed out under the table by the end of a dinner. Certainly, at just about every event I attended over the four days in was in China, massive amounts of alcohol were consumed by all present: beer, maotai, and increasingly, wine.

Fortunately, one thing hasn’t changed– the loophole in Chinese drinking culture that allows you to bring in a pinch hitter. You see, whilst it is considered rude not to participate in the toasting, and although the use of water or juice as a substitute can be looked down on as rather sad and pathetic, it is also perfectly acceptable to bring someone along to a banquet to drink on your behalf. So you can fill your glass, raise it, shout ganbei at the top of your voice, and then as everyone else drains their glass simply hand yours over to a designated drinker. Let him take the shot for you, as it were.

  1. Technology is EVERYWHERE.

Another popular Western stereotype is that China is low-tech and a teeny-weeny bit primitive – “we” are leading the world in the technology game, and “they” are playing catch-up. Until you actually get to China, where you soon realize that this stereotype is, well, just plain old wrong.

Remember the massive investment in infrastructure I mentioned earlier? That also included cell phone towers and internet services, which in China are second to none. Just about everyone in China now has a smart phone device. And while my mobile phone frequently doesn’t work in my bedroom at home in central Sydney, speeding down a rural Chinese highway I always had perfect, crystal-clear reception.

There is also high-speed access available in every city, park, store, and corner kiosk in China. Which is absolutely necessary, because what really catches your attention is how heavily reliant on mobile tech modern China has become. Examples: China has its own version of uber, and the service is available everywhere (I don’t think I took a regular cab once in four days). Ditto with wechat (the local equivalent of WhatsApp), and the Chinese versions of everything else, from search to maps to emails to online music – although often those local Chinese versions dwarfing their Western equivalents in terms of users and revenues.

Even language is a barrier being ruthlessly flattened by technology in China. Thus in almost every store or restaurant I went into in Nanjing and Gaochun, the person helping me out spoke not a word of English. Instead they simply spoke into their phones, and nifty translation software then spoke back to me in English. On one occasion, after the store assistant learned I was from Down Under, her phone even spoke back to me in Australian-accented English, which was pretty fucking impressive if you ask me – Douglas Adams’ Babel Fish, brought to life.

And then there is Alibaba (the Chinese version of Amazon) and its family of related web-based services, which absolutely everyone in China uses, every day, for everything. Like, for example, Alipay, one of several mobile based payment platforms that are now ubiquitous in China – physical cash fast becoming an increasingly rare commodity, with most purchases a case of the merchant simply scanning the customer’s mobile phone, and away you go.

And by most merchants, I kind of mean all merchants. Like when I was walking in the street with a friend, and stopped to purchase a roasted sweet potato from a food cart operated by a wizened old bloke in a traditional Mao suit. Imagine my surprise when my friend whipped out his mobile phone, and paid the old feller 30 cents by tapping their phones together. Seriously – if even street food can be bought electronically, you know you are living in a brave new world…

  1. The (New) Great Wall of China.

Lest you think it is all sweetness and light, there is also a much darker side to the Chinese technology revolution. Something you find out about it when you try to use your laptop or mobile phone and discover that, strangely, while you can access a whole universe of Chinese online services (see above) you can’t access Facebook, or Instagram, or YouTube, or almost all of your favorite apps. And, depending on the day, you also can’t view content from any number of popular Western media outlets (even my daily New York Times Crossword was blocked, the heartless savages…).

That’s the (New) Great Wall of China in action for you, the Chinese Government actively monitoring and restricting access to information and social media from outside. Something that of course I’d heard about, although experiencing it first-hand was another matter entirely – disconcerting, and also a little bit terrifying. We have all become so ridiculously dependent on our online tools, that not having instant access to them left me feeling oddly violated. A bit like someone had temporarily amputated one of limbs.

  1. Thankfully, they still love firecrackers.

Not everything in China has felt the impact of change though, and many things remained resolutely familiar. As I mentioned, I found the drinking culture to be alive and well. Also Chinese food culture, which isn’t just noodles and stir-fry. In four short days I got to consume my fill of wonderful and weird Chinese edibles: from duck blood soup to assorted dumplings; and from crispy bits of fried mystery meat at a roadside stall to the most incredible Peking (Beijing) duck on the 40th floor of a high-rise hotel, looking out over the twinkling lights of Nanjing. Where I was reminded of something else I long ago learned about China – don’t be a vegetarian. In China, even dishes advertised on menus as being “vegetarian” are often laced with animal (think steamed broccoli, only topped with a sauce of crab and fried pork nuggets – “Oh, you really meant no meat or fish at all? What kind of weirdo would ask for such a thing?”).

Another thing that hasn’t changed: despite the strong socialist overtones to Chinese life, unimaginable private wealth continues to accumulate, fast. Like driving around downtown Nanjing, where I saw not one, not two, but four chauffeur-driven Maybach cars in the space of an hour (you know, those high-end Mercedes’ that have a starting price tag of $200,000, for the basic model). Oh, and also a bright red McLaren, and a good number of Lamborghinis.

Or like when walking around a pleasant “middle-class” gated suburb on the outskirts of Nanjing with a friend. Where, so he told me, an average 3-bedroom apartment will now sell for about US$900,000 (still apparently “a bargain” compared to apartment prices in central Beijing), and where a prime lakefront house recently traded hands for a mind-boggling 35 million RMB (US$5.5 million), in cash. That’s real money anywhere in the world, and not at all the “poor China” we often like to imagine.

And one other thing: in China they always have, and always will love firecrackers. For whatever reason, the Chinese seem to have a national obsession with these things, and like to set them off at every opportunity. If you ever get to spend a Chinese New Year holiday in any Chinese town, you will see what I mean – for three nights you won’t be able to sleep what with the constant explosions of fireworks. Even on this recent trip, I wasn’t immune: at the opening ceremony of the new factory, a posse of helpful Government officials shut down a street adjacent to the factory building. Firecrackers were arranged up and down along it, and once the ceremonial ribbon was cut, they were set off. It was like being in a war zone, but I still smiled when I heard them. Thank goodness, I thought to myself, no matter what, at least some things will never change.

There you have them – my brief observations from a recent trip to Nanjing and Gaochun, China.

Which, if you can bear with me for a few moments longer, are kind of topical at the moment, given The Orange Man’s fairly crude recent threat to kick off a trade war pitting China vs The World.

So perhaps think of it in these terms: imagine you are watching a football game on TV. Only it is a game of football that never ends. Rather, it goes on and on forever, with the score – and the winner – accumulating over time. And also, there is no referee to the game, with players and teams honor-bound to follow the rules.

The Blue Team is widely regarded as the best in the world. It has 11 players on the field. The team hasn’t really been refreshed in quite some time, so the line-up is pretty much the same as it has been for as long as anyone can remember, and there are no obvious plans for change. Also the Blue’s training facilities are old and outdated. Each individual Blue player is undoubtedly very talented, but they are also all prima donnas who like to do their own thing. And the head coach of the Blue Team is a pretty erratic fellow, with the players generally free to agree or disagree with his instructions as they like. They all still follow the rules of the game though – abiding by rules means a lot to the Blues.

The Red Team, by contrast, has 44 players on it, young and energetic. All of their players are on the field at the same time, so they outnumber the Blues 4:1. Whilst none of the individual Red players are nearly as talented as the Blue players, as a team the Reds are highly disciplined, and follow their authoritarian head coach’s orders to the letter. This often includes breaking the rules of the game, which they’ll do happily if it secures an advantage – it never seems to matter anyway, because the game has no referee. The Reds have also invested heavily in themselves, and now have at their disposal the best training facilities in the world, far better than anything the Blues possess, even though the Blues like to think theirs are better. But the proof is in the pudding – a few years ago no-one had even heard of the Red Team, but they have since rocketed up through the ranks, getting better and stronger all the time.

So, which team are you going to back for the win? I’ll tell you one thing – if what I saw in Deep China is representative of where things are headed, you’d be a pretty brave person to bet it all on Blue.


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