After a rather quick but certainly intense trip through China, I am in a position to certify what everybody knows: something huge is happening there. Not very original, but I had to say it.
I grew up in the Spain of the massive construction boom (and subsequent burst). Just let me show you a figure to illustrate the magnitude of it. In 2007, the last one of the happy boom years, one fifth of the whole European construction workforce was concentrated in Spain. We were building massively, at an unsustainable pace, and now we are paying it.
However, even I am used to landscapes of crane forests, what I have seen in China surpasses all my memories. Whole neighbourhoods of housing blocks emerge rapidly in the suburbs and new roads, bridges and railways are built everywhere. No matter where you look, there is something on construction. Nevertheless, the comparison with Spain’s bubble is not fair, as China is not only constructing but also manufacturing at a huge scale and Spain didn’t. And the scale is much larger. The richest person on earth, according to Forbes is already a Chinese who owns a construction firm.
In coastal prosperous regions, the Chinese jolly middle class fill the brand new shopping malls, art districts, restaurants and karaoke bars. They are living their heyday. However, observing their behaviour I was amazed by two things: first, by the fact that quite often they order plenty of dishes and leave them untouched on the table and second, by how horribly they sing. The former might be related to the (still) cheap prices for middle and high income households. For the latter I am unable to provide any rational explanation.
Someone told me that “The Chinese taken one by one are lovely people. In groups they are rather noisy, and in large amounts they are barely more than a horde of queue-jumpers.” I don’t know if I agree with this statement. I found Chinese people extraordinary friendly and charming but I also share the view of a quote I saw on a toilet wall in a Yangshuo youth hostel. It stated (in French): “Beaucoup de chinoise en Chine”. Yet obvious, it cannot be truer.
You are never alone in China. Buses are crowded, so are trains and even streets, roads and supermarkets. Yet the 1.3 billion people living in china are not evenly benefiting from Chinese economic boom. With inequality reaching USA levels, but with a much lower income per capita and in an undemocratic formally communist country, social tensions are likely to explode in the near future.
To simplify a much more complex debate, China’s rulers have traditionally debated between Taoist wúwei (non-action) and Confucian top-down harmonious order. To me, wúwei concept bears a significant resemblance to Adam Smith’s invisible hand, while order imposed from above legitimate state action for the sake of the interest of the common.
Even the Chinese government frequently talks about “harmonious growth” and undoubtedly is (and have been) controlling, monitoring and holding an authoritarian rule, I felt that things are not as straightforward. My traveller first impression is that this vast and populated empire, due to its size and diversity, is practically ungovernable in a top-down way. Even having the political will things might take their own pace.
I saw a girl, shredding chickens at the river bank and washing the knife in a barrel. She probably had no water supply in her house. She looked at me. She didn’t say anything. But what I understood from her eyes was something like: do I look like China’s boom is affecting me at all? Please, laowai, leave me alone.