Changes in China

Posted on Jan 18, 2017
Shangri-la, PRC

I studied abroad in Shanghai, China from 2007-2009. Actually, I was supposed to stay only a year, but enjoyed it so much that I decided to stay for the second year. I hadn’t returned to China since leaving, partly because I was tired of having the same types of interactions with people that typically centered around differences and similarities between Chinese and foreign cultures (they were interesting the first twenty times that I had them), and partly because I had to return to UNC to finish my undergraduate degree.

After nearly eight years I went back to China again. I had planned to return earlier but something else always came up. Yet as I finish my last semester at Harvard Extension School, I realized that another mid-semester break was probably not in the pipeline, so I purchased tickets and went on a nearly one-month trip to Shanghai, Shaanxi, Yunnan and even got a stop over on Jeju Island in South Korea to visit an old friend. After such a long time, I wasn’t sure what I’d think about China. I doubted it would look as I remember it, after all, everything is always under construction here. But would walking around the streets and interacting with people feel as I remember it feeling eight years ago?

Shanghai is larger and slicker than I remember it being. Many of its rough-edges have been knocked-down and bulldozed-over, and in their place new skyrises and malls have been constructed. In just eight years, the subway system has grown from eight lines to twenty two lines. That’s a line-and-a-half a year. Yet the growth has not been without its problems. I don’t remember Shanghai ever being a smoggy city, but when I looked out of the top of the second tallest building in the world I couldn’t even really make out the Bund, not half of a kilometer away. People from Beijing say that smog there is much worse. Whereas years ago I recommended unreservedly Shanghai as an exciting place to move to, now I think the negative consequences on health should weigh heavily on any such decision.

Another change I noticed was that people are now much calmer getting on and off trains, whereas eight years the doorways to trains were always a mash of people. Most people are very much glued to their cellphones, too. Sitting at restaurants, it’s not uncommon to see entire groups of people at tables just staring at their phones. Most remarkably, high-speed rail crisscrosses the country, carrying passengers at a normal speed of 300 km/hr. Nearly ten thousand kilometers of high-speed rail has been laid, and tens of millions are using rail as a way to get around. As far as I know, this infrastructure was just starting to be built eight years ago.

Credit cards were never really a thing in China. While the past eight years hasn’t seen an increase in usage of credit cards, the Chinese electronic payment system has leapfrogged credit cards directly to using smartphones as mobile payment systems. WeChat and Alipay transfer money immediately between two different parties using cell phones, with one cell phone providing a QR code for the other cell phone to scan. Since almost everyone has smartphones, this appears to be a frictionless method of payment, and is used by nearly everyone nowadays. I saw street fruit vendors, people who are making very little money, providing QR codes to their customers to pay for even their small fruit purchases.

Visiting Xi’an in Shaanxi made me feel like I was back in Shanghai eight years ago. The streets weren’t as crowded, the advertisements not quite as bright, and a scent of burnt-coal for home furnaces never left my nostrils. Yunnan was also as beautiful as I remembered it, though both Dali and Lijiang have become overly touristic, Lijiang has done a better job of managing it by charging a fee to enter the ancient city during the day. Shangri-la has changed least, perhaps because it’s much more difficult to get to, though there is a lot of construction happening on the outskirts of the town.

Police are everywhere on the roads now. I traveled by bus around Yunnan, and on every bus between cities there was at least one police checkpoint where the bus was pulled over, the driver questioned, and the passengers eyed-over. On the trip from Dali to Lijiang, one of our fellow passengers was pulled off the bus rather forcefully by the police, though he returned five minutes later with an unhappy look on his face. What happened between the police and this young passenger one can only imagine.

Overall, one gets the sense travelling around China that growth is everywhere and everywhere people are engaged in improving their lots. It’s a tremendous demonstration of collective willpower and a topic worthy of study to understand just how entire societies can be engaged in national renewal. In thirty years we may be looking at a society as technologically advanced as Japan, as patriotic as the United States, and with the collective willpower of North Korea. That would truly be an interesting sight to see.