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China—Reality Versus Outdated Preconceptions

By Oleg K. Temple, November 2019.

What comes to mind when you think about China? What is your first go-to thought? The Great Wall? Kung Fu? Pandas and tigers? Overpopulation? The Communist Party? Let me know in the comments below. My personal knee-jerk association used to be: overpopulation. I just returned home after a conference in China on tourism management, where I was part of a delegation representing Latvia. So today, following an extensive tour of some of China’s largest cities, the word I would associate with China the most is progress. Progress on an unprecedented scale.


The saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words… well, our hosts understood that seeing is believing and that a memorable, first-hand experience is worth thousands of pictures and countless words! So rather than just tell us about China’s great advancements and achievements of the past few decades, they took us on a whirlwind sensory smorgasbord tour of China’s technological and travel powerhouses. During the course of our blitz visit, we were introduced to the amazing 海南省(Hainan) Island, 杭州市 (Hangzhou), 苏州市 (Suzhou) and 上海市(Shanghai) cities, as well as travelled through the scenic Zhejiang and Jiangsu Provinces. Both Hangzhou and Suzhou are metropolises housing about 10 million residents, while Shanghai, with its population of over 24 million inhabitants (making it the second largest city in the world), is what one can only be describe as a ‘megapolis’. In the coming weeks, I will share my impressions with you and endeavour to charge your imagination with at least a modicum of the wonder my group and I experienced during our brief stay.

One of the first misconceptions to fall away was that these cities are overcrowded, with the elite echelons of society floating among the clouds in their ‘ivory skyscraper towers’ and the rest of the population living in abject poverty in sprawling favela-like slums. In reality, the middle class in China is robust and gaining more and more traction through numerous governmental incentives and development programmes. Indeed, China is on track to eradicate poverty completely by 2021—between 1978 and 2018, extreme poverty has fallen by about 850 million people. Extreme poverty refers to people subsisting on an income below $1.90/day—the World Bank reports that the number of people living below the poverty line crashed from 756 million to 25 million between 1990 and 2013 and continues to tumble. 

Shanghai by night

“While all regions have made progress, the most significant was in East Asia and Pacific, which recorded an extreme poverty rate of just 3.5 percent in 2013, a dramatic fall driven largely by China.”—World Bank.

It was remarkable to witness first-hand the soaring living standards of the healthy, flourishing middle-class segment of society. We saw for ourselves how those who work to make the country great by growing crops, building infrastructure and innovative technologies are welcomed at the table of prosperity and encouraged to enjoy the fruits of their labour. This fair approach fosters high morale, satisfaction and the desire to keep the country’s economy booming. Who knew? People are happier and buoyed by hope for a bright future when their contributions are acknowledged, appreciated and when they are treated with respect and dignity, as valuable, contributing members of society.

Prior to our visit, some people had expected endless go-slows and throngs of hollow-eyed workers scurrying about their menial tasks—like worker bees in a hive, practically fanatical about serving the system and not deviating from the official doctrine. Nothing could be further from the truth. We encountered satisfied people enjoying their lives. The domestic tourism industry is enormous, as China has everything from snowy mountains to tropical beaches and we met people from all over the country just having fun. Although few people speak English outside the major cities, the locals we encountered were all friendly and willing to go out of their way to be helpful, generous and welcoming. I was born under the Soviet Communist system and have experienced the good and the bad—the free medical care, housing and education, as well as the bread lines during the acute food shortages. Take it from me, there is absolutely no rational parallel that can be drawn between Socialism that flourishes within healthy, contemporary China and the final throes of Communism during the twilight of the undermined and corrupt Soviet era of the late 1980s.

As soon as we landed in China, I was taken aback, as there is no congestion on the streets, which would cause flagging productivity and take a heavy toll on the overall economy. This was one of the most amazing revelations to me personally. Yes, the big cities don’t sleep and there is moderate traffic around the clock, but the cities have been carefully planned and infrastructure foreseen to enable the traffic to move in an efficient way without clogging up the cities’ vital arteries. I live in a city of barely 700,000 people and the go-slows in Riga’s centre are much more formidable and time-consuming than those we encountered in Haikou, Hangzhou, Suzhou or even Shanghai! In the coming articles I will regale you with stories of our adventures and impressions of these amazing cities in turn. Do keep the conversation going—share your thoughts with us and in your circles, as it is only through the exchange of ideas and by comparing opinions that we can grow as a society.


J. Summers:

06 Nov 2019 08:23

Excellent! It is amazing how far China has come in such a short time... I plan to visit Shanghai in spring 2020, I am sure it will not disappoint.

Rob Stevens:

10 Nov 2019 08:52

China always seemed to be so far away and out of reach, especially with the language barrier, but now it seems to finally be opening up. I hope to visit some day in the future... I don't see how the streets can be clear with so many million people living in one town--maybe you happened to visit the 'right' side of town at the 'right' time (residential area during the working day or business district at night)? I've lived in Paris and Tokyo (both much smaller than Shanghai) and traffic there is no picnic! ;)

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