A Rare Foray Into Deeper Waters
Shanghai Travel Blog› entry 95 of 115 › view all entries
Hmm Shanghai... on the surface here's a city that's charging headlong into the future, fuelled by China's economic muscle, a freshly-minted middle class and rampant consumerism. Amongst a bounty of cars, holidays, kitchen appliances and electronic gadgets; a significant chunk of the population of Shanghai, along with much of urban Eastern and Southern China, have woken to find themselves rich, and they're more than happy to show the rest of the world that they're ready to join the purchasing party. Shanghai, with it's high rise revolution, is heralded as the symbolic heart of Boom China.
But what strikes me as much as the middle class hordes filling the fume-choked streets around the tourist sites of the city, is the less than happy lot of those who have been left behind.
I've not seen so many people openly begging since South America. It's a clear sign, if it were needed, that the gap between the Haves and the Have Nots in China is widening rapidly, creating a sizable urban underclass, shut out from the privileges of their newly wealthy compatriots.
Now, I'm not about to point the finger at the Chinese government and say: “How can you allow this divison to happen?” To do so would be rank hypocrisy; they are, after all, only treading the same capitalist path as the Western world that I call home.
What I will point out however is that, whatever your stance on the Chinese government and their checkered human rights history, there is no doubt that in looking to the future, this country faces problems that are not going to go away.
These include: a rapidly aging population (caused by the one child policy); the wealth divide between the urban centres of the South/East and the more rural inland West; the lack of female partners for some 37 million men by 2020 (another product of the one child policy and the preference for male children); food production cock ups (e.
And let's not forget that these issues affect an enormous population of something like 1.3 billion. It's difficult to even vaguely get your head around how many people that is. My lasting impression upon entering each Chinese city is that of a swarming mass of humanity; it's a lazy simile - but they really do leave me with images of ants' nests. There are people everywhere, jostling for position, always on the move. It's easily the most consistently overcrowded nation I have been to on this trip.
The point I'm labouring over is that any kind of Chinese social, economic or environmental issue is multiplied by the sheer numbers of people that it encompasses.
But they will have to act. The problems I have listed are becoming increasingly well-known amongst the population. Despite attempts to conceal and play down issues, signs are that information is becoming more freely available in China: The Olympics appears to have softened the previous approach of dogging the steps of any Western journalists allowed into the country; more sites are available on the internet (The BBC for one); there are more internet cafes nationwide; higher numbers of foreign visitors are making their way to many parts of the country - bringing ideas and news with them to ever-increasing numbers of young people who speak good English.
This communication thaw can only mean that the government's responses will come under increasing scrutiny. This is a state founded on the ideas of Communism, something that is still celebrated in terms of tradition, but today's China is only nominally a People's Republic. The prosperous urban middle classes may be prepared to accept the one party elephant in the room for the moment. But they are not the only people in this country; the less-prosperous majority have been silent to the world for a long time. Freedom of information is anathema to a non-democratic political system and the waters being tested at the moment may prove deeper than many in the outside world realise.
Before you get the wrong idea, I'm not suggesting that a new revolution is imminent - far from it.
It seems that for both China and the world, there are interesting times ahead...