Wednesday, August 04, 2004

China : Travel and Economy

I was visiting china after almost 6 years. First visit to Shanghai in 98 shattered the image of China- a city of bicycles, poverty and communist propaganda. Mind-boggling Statistical figures 1998: US $ GDP 924 Billion, GDP /capita: US $ 750 to 2004: US$GDP 1.4 Trillion, GDP /capita: US $1,090 made me more curious to be ready for second trip to Shanghai.

A mere glance at these figures shows that in 1998, China was ahead of India by just US $200 per capita and now it has raced ahead !!!. As an Indian, it is easy to get disappointed but being perennial optimist, I feel there lays enormous potential for India. When we look at fabulous growth of Singapore and Dubai, they look like a block in Shanghai city. Shanghai with population of 20 million, Chongching with 30 Million is workhorse of China economy. In India, we complain when cities cross 10 million.

In first few days, I heard an interesting story about Chinese entrepreneurial spirit. When Chinese economy in 90’s exploded, International travelers not being very familiar with Chinese Currency, fake currency notes became a brisk business. As Chinese Bankers realized the danger – this was followed by huge boom of currency scanning machines which could detect fake notes – but this industry in no time was overtaken by Fake machines!! Sounds a bit of exaggeration but there lay ingenuity of Chinese ability to produce anything at short notice. Not just Hollywood movie CD at US $ 1piece but pirating car designs of Honda and Toyota .From fake notes to bigger things. China seems like factory for the rest of the world. It is evident from the fact that worlds shipping lines are all jamming China Sea and containers are in short supply even in a country like Japan. Now all this crazy manufacturing is taking toll. China never realized the huge infrastructure that was planned is now appearing to be woefully short. Electric power is first casualty. No office is allowed to use AC after 7.00pm. Factories have been asked to shut for a week in a month.

From Shanghai to Beijing is transformation of character of city. From a Shanghai which looks like missiles standing all over to another one to Beijing with open spaces, well laid blocks and green belt. Beijing is not claustrophobic as Shanghai. But Shanghai was breathtaking in its pristine days with night view that will pale even Manhattan and Hong Kong. Now with power cut, Shanghai at night is not electrifying as it used to be.

I wonder how this sudden change of economic gear took place. Was it pre-planned move by Chinese authorities to embrace capitalism after years of social reforms practiced by Mao Tse Tung or was it just fright of seeing behemoth of USSR getting disintegrated by it’s own social, economic contradictions. Whatever it is: China which overzealously practiced communism started opening doors to capitalism and when they did open, they didn’t do it grudgingly. By then, Govt ensured that social reform became a pre-requisite to capital reforms. One can see this across the breadth of China. Controlling population with one child policy, land reforms with all property is owned by Govt and given only on lease, literacy rate with 90 % plus ensured that capitalism does not create social chasm. But only time will tell if this would be so.

Either case India is in enviable situation of seeing pros and cons of jumping into economic bandwagon. Can we wipe out social class divide that is prevalent in Bihar, UP? Bombay represents Shanghai and Delhi Beijing. But can our federal structure and legislation let Bombay grow in manner of Shanghai?

My impression of Chinese woman was germane from character of The Good Earth- classic story of the honest farmer Wang Lung and his selfless wife O-Lan. In Good Earth, O Lan was a woman for whom husband, family meant everything and her limits of joy was bound only by unbounded enthusiasm for caring towards everyone around her. In my tour to Great wall, I was hobbling with my peeled skin on my foot which was rubbing against new bought Chinese slippers. This lady in a tour bus – which I had not even noticed comes running with two band-aids and offering it to me. On lunch table with German, Japanese and Indian, she takes charge and start filling up the bowls. She cannot communicate but her eyes beam with confidence and impress her 9 year old son to learn English. In the entire melee, quiet and diminutive husband who works in Kazakhstan in oil field is mute spectator. It was as if Dining Table and Kitchen brings her very best in herself in serving her family and guests. It seems that this family come from Northern China and visiting Beijing first time. However across the table were a group of youngsters wearing colored hair with flashy shoes, clothes and howling on cell phone. Contrasting behavior between generations born in economic boom against rural china was evident.

Tian En Man square is as huge and expansive as shown in pictures. Standing on the erect podium under backdrop of huge portrait of Mao, one can feel the enormous might of Chinese army as they parade through the gates. But such fear gets slowly dispelled as one sees in artistic kites in all shapes being flown. Kite flying is benign compared to India’s. What if India was to introduce competitive spirit of kite flying to them and we get their ingenuity of making kites in spectrum of designs. Great Wall of China can only be compared with Pyramids. Both make a stamp of human endeavor stretched to limits. But I feel great wall is more pleasing to eye amidst backdrop of lush green mountain range than rough desert of giza pyramids
It is so difficult to encompass China in mere words. By 2008, when china hosts Olympics – they sure will present a modern face of china to the rest of the world. But it would be interesting to see if rural china would still have replica of Wang Lung and O Lan.

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