China so far….a preview of the future and a step into the past


Much has been written about the increasing influence China has in world affairs. From trade surplus and currency reserves (whatever they mean) to overseas investments in natural resources and key trade infrastructure, China’s place as a key player on the global stage is assured. Everybody wants to be China’s new BFF but you can’t help shake the feeling that’s fuelled by, if not quite fear, at least a certain amount of nervousness. Simple playground philosophy tells us that it always makes sense to keep on the right side of the biggest kid in the class.
So, if the reality is that we should all expect to be speaking Chinese within a generation (or two), does the China of today offer an insight into our own future? Will we be wearing jet-packs or instead travelling by rickshaw?
After almost a week into our trip to China that will take us from Shanghai province to Hunan province via Zheijang and Fujian provinces (in essence a loop of the south eastern seaboard with a hop into the interior) I’ve inevitably started to form an impression of the place.
It’s often the ironies and anomalies within a country’s culture that give an insight into the national psyche. Take for example the UK’s obsession with the weather when in fact we really only have one season; grey. Everyday can in fact be defined by different shades of the one colour.
“What shade of grey is it today, darling?”
“Dark grey”
“Better take my umbrella then”
“What shade of grey is it today, darling?”
“Light grey”
“OK, I may wear my short sleeved shirt then………………but better take the umbrella too, just in case”.
I think that captures a distinctly British sense of optimism and pessimism. Alternatively, and without getting overly political, take the USA’s obsession with freedom and the rights of the individual. Contrast that with orange jump-suits and “rendition”, the most benign sounding of human rights abuse. I think that similarly captures a certain hypocrisy and irony with a distinct American accent.
And so it is with China, where the clash of tradition and progress seem to be currently shaping the national identity. A country where the bullet trains connecting towns regularly reach speeds of nearly 300km/h but where what constitutes a public toilet often still consists of nothing more than a hole in the ground, and where row upon row of skyscraper flats are literally rocketing up to create a futuristic cityscape, but it’s hard to imagine these are the types of homes that suit Chinese family life. Perhaps though the greatest anomaly we have experienced so far is the fact that tea is more expensive than coffee. That’s like going to the North Pole and being charged more for ice in your drink than the entrance fee to an artificial beach full of sand air lifted in from the Sahara.
So what else can we expect? Well, if Michael Jackson was correct and children really are our future then Chinese children will surely lead the way. The big news in Chinese childwear is the trouser bum split; literally the seam of the child’s trousers from crotch round the back is open to allow easy passage of, well, whatever needs to be passed. Can’t see that trend catching on with the yummy mummy set. How about shoes for dogs then? Don’t believe me? Witnessed on more than one occasion and I have the photographic proof to back up such claims.
Don’t get me wrong, China is certainly flirting with Western pop-culture. The proliferation of Starbucks coffee shops is testament to that; Hangzhou even has a café which is an exact replica of the Central Perk coffee house from the Friends TV series with dishes such as the Joey Pizza and Jen’s Super Salad. However, the overwhelming sense I get is that, unlike in many other countries, Western culture and brands are not subsuming indigenous business or culture. And why should it? On every level China is outwardly demonstrating it is doing just fine without Western democratisation. The pace of change is so rapid that there are inevitable tensions between the pace of progress and traditional culture and values. These might flippantly and patronisingly be termed “growing pains” but like a body builder on steroids China is very obviously bulking up and likes showing off its new physique.
So, will we be wearing jet-packs or travelling in rickshaws? My guess is that it will be jet-powered rickshaws.

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