All text and photos © 2008 Peter Newbury.
I'm about to leave China, again. In a few hours, I'll be winging away from Asia, lofting over the Pacific to North America. My first visit here was over a year ago and at this culmination of my third trip I'm still struggling to create coherent thoughts that explain what I've experienced.
When I was a child, I had the perception that Asia was one giant culture. Japan, China, Vietnam, etc. I thought that all the countries were peopled with a single society that valued rules, extremely controlling codes of conduct and an almost automaton lack of personal identity. Decades of education later, I now know that Asia is an insanely complex network of many cultures with a wide variance in world and cultural perspective. In particular, the Shenzhen SEZ (Special Economic Zone) is a heady mix of the truly ancient and frightfully new. It also harbours overtones of North America in its highways, construction, land area, style of cars, ethics and desires of the population. A mind-bending combination.
"Peter, are you getting pictures of this?" "Dude, I don't know where to start."
The cliché is that China defies description. I don't think so. There are patterns. There are cultural characteristics. The refrains of an ancient culture are evident. All of these serve to describe China. I think my attempt to define what I've seen of China has been hijacked by its similarities to reference points that western cultures have long taken for granted, but with subtle twists. China is currently a land of change, being swept from an 'early developing country' to full-fledged member of the consumer economy. The contradictions, the solutions, and the energy are overwhelming. China isn't chaos, yet it is barely controlled chaos. It is modern, yet it is only another new empire precariously constructed over ancient traditions. China is building a staggering amount of infrastructure, yet there are millions of people who have only the meagre possessions they can carry on their back. In less than twenty years, a small fishing village in China can turn into a 50 kilometer long city inhabited by fifteen million people. And that is just one city of tens or hundreds doing the same. China is a land of small streetside noodle houses eking out an existence close to exquisite restaurants catering to new and old wealth, BMWs sharing the road with ancient hand drawn carts, faux concrete trees surrounded by acres of raw dirt and jungle. All roadways, be they streets or highways, are inhabited by the expected cars, but also by bicycles, carts, and pedestrians - going with or against traffic as their destination demands. Construction happens at a blazing pace, and yet with agonizingly labourious methods. And the list can go on...
The impact of my first visit to Shenzhen (March 2007) was rather... awakening. I normally don't sleepwalk. My third night in Shenzhen I found myself sleep-tucking-and-rolling out of bed, landing in a chair on the far side of the room with the blankets dragged off the bed and wrapped around my adrenaline-vibrating body. Big reaction for a small dream about sleeping in a corridor floor and 'waking' to see a crowd of Asians running towards me. But, given my experiences there, it seemed fitting. I've come to grips with the dream and no longer sleep-tuck-and-roll when I'm in China, but it certainly does not mean each visit does not have a large impact.
I'm not an economist or political commentator so I can only guess at the causes for the overwhelming contradictions, solutions and energy, but I'll guess... In short, population density, globalization, extremely rapid (and localized) growth, a 'fast and loose' theory on congestion, the increase of commuting, an acceptance of utter incongruity, and the massive scale at which China has maintain balance are seem to be major factors. There are very likely others (politics, population migration, etc.) but from my vantage point in Shenzhen, they were not as obvious.
China has over three times the population of the States, but is only slightly larger than the US at 9.6 million square kilometres of land - the real question being what percentage (of both the US and China) is arable, workable and livable. The interesting thing is that even defaulting to a population density three times that of the States, China still likes big things. American-style cars drive on American-sized freeways and streets. Grand courtyards sprawl before buildings, official or not. Public parks are spacious. And the never-ending buildings. All indicate that space is not a constraint. This is such a contradiction to all the other Asian (and European) lands I've seen, especially near big cities (Tokyo, Taipei, Hong Kong) where space is usually precious. Are they planning ahead to increased population and more cars, or is the grand boulevard just a way of being?