Thoughts on a visit to China

The company was paying, so I could simply have flown into Guangzhou, stayed in a nice hotel, attended the flower show they were sending me to and flown back. But I decided I wanted to get a feel for the country – at least that part of it. So I flew into Hong Kong and took the bus from the airport to Guangzhou. I thought I’d see some countryside, farmers working their (even small) fields, perhaps farm animals grazing. What I got was a taste of lower middle class travelling in China, and five hours of industrial scenery – espresso strength.

For a mere South African (ok, fairly well travelled, but selectively) it is impressive. Make no error: The place is humming; as efficiently as most I’ve seen on my (selective) travels anywhere – perhaps better than some hitherto admired models of efficiency. Certainly better than the present versions of the old western civilisations around the Mediterranean; A LOT better than South Africa or any of the other members of the so-called BRICS and others like them, not to even speak of Africa.

Road network is expansive. Everything seems to be working as it should. Engineering is sound. No gold plating. Just functional. The stuff will last. Even maintenance seems to be good – reasonable in even the obviously poorer areas. And people are busy and disciplined and courteous and friendly and law abiding, even though I noticed hardly any policemen.  Can’t remember seeing anyone hanging around, waiting for the day to pass – maybe five bums in three days of travelling the industrial underbelly, where you’d expect them.

And the scale! 5 hours of driving along the east bank of the Zhujiang river estuary with no let-up in packed humanity and their doings – no telling how far westwards and eastwards it stretches – oh, I drove down the west bank of the Zhujiang on the way back, and here there were patches of agriculture; looked like small-sc ale farming of vegetables, rice and bananas. But for the rest, especially Hong Kong and in Guangzhou it’s head to tail, like sardines in a tin, stacked into, I dunno, twenty, thirty , forty stories of high-risers. From the outside most look fairly new (or maybe rather not too old); soaring towers latticed into minute pigeon holes with minute balconies, almost without exception decorated with washing hung to dry. And here, there’s some gold plating – spaces and shapes with no function other than to impress – very high up, very expensive to build, no utility. In the Guangzhou area there seems to be several clusters of these immoderations, dotted over hundreds, no thousands of acres.

At ground zero, where all this soaring humanity must inevitably touch down, it’s a thronging mass of cars and busses and lorries and people and mopeds with load bins and just mopeds and bicycles, mostly filed as “Blue collar” to “Lower middle class”, collectively under “Workers and their Tools”.

The main routes are wide-islanded boulevards, and the city management is doing reasonably well with trees and gardens and several nice parks. The presence of Nature is nowhere near overwhelming, but it’s not dead, like in Istanbul.

One or two blocks away from them the backstreets become a warren of one-car-wide tunnels. Here the gardening efforts peter out. It becomes water-pooled (but not dirty) and lined with a haphazard array of shoe-box-sized restaurants, shops, repair joints, barbers, bakeries, cafes, dives from which bare-torsoed Chinese with short back-and-sides haircuts and lots of tattoos on their meaty chests and arms spill out onto narrow pavements, shooting pool after work. Many seem to somehow double up as living quarters. The whole scene carries a whiff of tacky garishness, but without being revolting.

It’s crowded, except the shopping centres along the main streets. They are, well, not as busy as one would have expected – doesn’t mean the Guangzhou-ese are not spending – there are thousands of little shops to choose from… But the crowds don’t get on one’s nerves. It’s probably because people are serious and basically courteous and disciplined – but not to the point of distress, like Holland or Switzerland.

Back to the people: mostly filed as “Blue collar” to “Lower middle class”, collectively under “Workers and their Tools” and busy and disciplined and courteous and friendly and law abiding, I had said. There are the hip youngsters with their slick mobile phones (it’s big here) and earphones and coifs, but they are nowhere near extravagant. They’re more sombre, at a deeper level, it seems. In fact the whole crowd gives one the impression of reserved sombreness – their dress, their manner, what they seem to keep themselves busy with – one sees very few entertainment joints. These are the people that are straining in the service of the miracle. Each and every one, it seems, emerge from their lofty pigeon holes when it gets light and keep their eyes on the ground and keep quiet and get the job done till it’s time to spill into the streets again and head home.

I couldn’t help wondering what they dream and aspire to. One thing’s almost certain: Ninety-nine percent will never be more than filed as “Blue collar” to “Lower middle class”, collectively under “Workers and their Tools” – but then, how many in this depressing world of ours ever will?

A LOT of money is being generated in our world, but it is not finding its way to the people at the coal face of the economy. It is channelled into equities, other investments, share buybacks, obscene executive salaries and incentive schemes and even kickbacks, if we take Samsung as an example.

I am no socialist, make no mistake, but the present system of wealth distribution makes no sense. It concentrates it into too few (already unproductively rich) hands, and into non-productive investments and financial gymnastics, and it is creating a imbalance that is not only dangerous, but makes no sense. Just think of how much more spending power would be in the hands of people if some of that money was channelled back to them, and what that could do for growth and the virtuous cycle of growth leading to growth?

 

2 Comments

  1. Tragic, terrifying…truthful. Beautifully written! Something for the mind to chew on for a while…

    “These are the people that are straining in the service of the miracle. Each and every one, it seems, emerge from their lofty pigeon holes when it gets light and keep their eyes on the ground and keep quiet and get the job done till it’s time to spill into the streets again and head home.

    I couldn’t help wondering what they dream and aspire to. One thing’s almost certain: Ninety-nine percent will never be more than filed as “Blue collar” to “Lower middle class”, collectively under “Workers and their Tools” – but then, how many in this depressing world of ours ever will?”

  2. Tragic, terrifying…truthful. Terrifyingly tragic. Beautifully written! Something for the mind to chew on for a while…

    “These are the people that are straining in the service of the miracle. Each and every one, it seems, emerge from their lofty pigeon holes when it gets light and keep their eyes on the ground and keep quiet and get the job done till it’s time to spill into the streets again and head home.

    I couldn’t help wondering what they dream and aspire to. One thing’s almost certain: Ninety-nine percent will never be more than filed as “Blue collar” to “Lower middle class”, collectively under “Workers and their Tools” – but then, how many in this depressing world of ours ever will?”

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