September 30, 2019

Republic of Progress

Reflecting on China's evolution between 2017 and 2019.

The transformation that took place in China since the '80s has been covered by many outlets. The theory is well-known, but experiencing it on my own was something else.

When I visited China for the first time in 2017, people told me stories of fast-paced changes, and while I listened, I couldn't fully comprehend them. It is like when a baker tells you how to make bread – it gives you an idea, but until you try it on your own, it is difficult to appreciate the craft of it entirely. I had no previous experience of this place, so I couldn't make a personal comparison of different periods. That, however, changed earlier this summer. But really... how much of a difference can two years make? And, isn't the phase of rapid progress already over? I was thinking... As it turned out, it is still running strong, and plenty of the changes are making steps in the right direction.

But, not everything is changing at the same speed, which produces surreal scenes, like when workers use brooms from bamboo to clean platforms for super modern trains. Or markets with raw meat hung in hot outdoor air, where no one uses cash anymore:

But while something feels like a window to the past, other fields offer a glimpse into the future. Notice that hook in the middle of the picture above – it holds a qr code, which gets scanned by customers to make the payment. That brings me to perhaps the most staggering part of the change that I observed:

  • Tech's everywhere

China can be futuristic beyond belief. Super-tall buildings covered with led lights have doors, or even mailboxes with fingerprint locks, for example.

But going back to the payments I mentioned, while plenty of countries haven't moved to contactless debit cards yet, in China, I spoke with people who didn't see the cash in years. Most of the payments are through smartphones, but another method is emerging that leaves the cellphone transfers looking like a stone-age spectacle – I saw certain vending machines allowing people to pay with their faces. They came to the machine, pressed a touchscreen with what they wanted, and then smiled at the thing. It recognized their face, which is associated with their bank account. The transaction was done, and the screen wrote a personalized "thank you for your business" line with their name. When I first saw it, I stopped and watched it with a fascination for a while.

While I watched the tech, I couldn't escape the Orwellian feeling, too, because the tech was watching me back. I am still unsure of what to think about all that.

Never mind urban areas; cameras are even in woodland parks.

There's no doubt that all the smartwatches, smart houses, smart cars, and smart-everything that is slowly taking over the world bring convenience, but privacy and independence are slowly vanishing. Then, it is up for debate whether it is better to have private companies or the governments know all your personal details.

  • Transportation

Every part of it is evolving crazy fast. In those two years, several new metro lines opened. It is not all 100%; when building so many things at once, chances are that one misses out on detail here and there. For instance, I saw some subway stations having a roof leak. But then, cities receive entire subway networks in such a time period that wouldn't be enough to build one station in some other countries. It is impressive, and it brings the mentioned convenience to users.

An area of transit that is especially gaining in China these days is commercial aviation. It is experiencing its golden age now, as new airports are being constructed, and local airlines are buying planes like hotcakes. To put it in numbers, Beijing's new int'l airport that opened earlier this month cost over $10bn, and earlier this year, Airbus scored a deal to deliver $33bn worth of planes to China.

Where the money is just now.

For a regular user, this translates into many new destinations to fly to, lesser delays, cheaper travel, and other enhancements. In 2017, there were no phones allowed during flights at all. No flight mode, nothing. This year, I was happy to hear the announcement that phones are okay, and should you drop yours, you can ask the cabin crew for help. Then, they warned not to use drones on board.

Many things are rapidly improving. For me, the following one made a big difference:

  • English

Two years ago, there would be many signs in English, but most of them were like if they used the first generation of google translate – the grammar and meaning often suffered. Same with clothes, many locals wore t-shirts with weird writings such as: "A ideal again tired also," "Happy in your heat," and even some offensive language. There are still some odd shirts and signs to be seen nowadays...


..Overall, however, the level of English improved significantly. Navigating through is easy, and the chances of having a good chat with locals increased too. Local people changed a lot:

  • People's behavior

For instance, queues two years ago were a disorder at best. People were skipping, and nobody cared about that "discrete zone" line; it was hard to digest. When a train arrived and doors opened, people wanted to simultaneously get in and out of the train. It formed a significant gridlock where only the strongest won. It was like watching rugby scrum. Fast forward to 2019; most people seem to get that rules for movement can actually work.

Another big leap I saw in recycling: In 2017, there were bins for recyclables already, but no one knew what are they for and how to use them - therefore, they were useless. In 2019, many people have already recycled well. I met many residents interested in the scheme, and I was told that kids are being taught it in schools. In some areas of Shanghai, which leads the ecologic movement, one gets a fine if they catch them not recycling. This might seem a bit harsh at first, but actually, why not? When people text while driving, they get a fine – and the public accepts it as a meaningful reinforcement. Recycling has been proven as a useful thing to do, so why not reinforce that as well?

The next example of people's behavior might sound strange. While many western countries are quite international, it is still somewhat rare to see white folk in many places in China. And a white folk who's tall, dear me. As a result, the number of people who took a picture of me two years ago was mental. I had no issue taking photographs with people who asked me, but most didn't. At first, I took it as a bit surreal experience and didn't care. But after a month or two, this got exhausting. Imagine that you are trying to catch a bus, and suddenly, 20 people swarm you to take a selfie with you. One day, a lady holding a baby came to me, said nothing, and tried to give me the baby while taking her phone in an attempt to take a photo of me holding it. I remember that by the time I was leaving the country, I thought that if I ever go back, I should print a t-shirt with a sign like "One photo = 10 yuan" or "Only if you'd photograph endangered species instead."

Of course, I didn't. But apparently, the situation got the attention of local authorities, and they ruled it as not a cool thing to do. And so, people had a very different approach to it in 2019. In some public places, there are even signs saying, "don't take photos of strangers." Many stopped, but others still couldn't resist and took the photo. The difference is that people adapted a stealth approach to do so. They took the picture from their waist or pretended to call someone while clicking that phone shutter like mad. Mainly in the public transformation, this was pretty awkward, as I could see many of these people's screens.

There are things that still need time. When I boarded a plane for one of the domestic flights I took, a guy sat in my seat. I pointed out that I booked that seat, but he quickly responded that he was there first and he likes that place. Still, it is incredible to experience such a change in just two years, considering the number of new things locals need to adapt to. One area where I could tell that the infrastructure was changing quicker than people was when I saw them driving.

The roads in China offer a bizarre scene: the signs and cars look like those in the west, but the drivers' behavior is very different. It is because plenty of Chinese drivers are the first generation to drive. Unlike most of the western population, they didn't see their relatives and neighbors drive while they grew up. And so, the mentality reflects that. Instead of the driving habits we are used to, they treat roads more like walking on a sidewalk: You don't use a signal when you want to pass the pedestrian in front of you, there are no road lines, and you don't have mirrors. Applying that on the road, oh man – often, it is pure chaos. I didn't have a chance to drive a car there, but even riding a bike on those roads was a heart-pounding experience. But I can imagine that in a generation, this will be a different story.

Going back to the name of this article, "republic of progress," it follows up on the fact China is said to be a "people's republic." It made me think as 1) the population of China is massive, and 2) I met many great people there. But as a republic of people, well, coming from Scotland, I am not sure about that. In China, one has to pay a fee to enter museums, national parks, gardens, and even to get drinkable water. In that aspect, Scotland is far more of a "people's republic," as those things are available free of charge here. But as of republic of progress, I can't think about a competitor.

I wish them that they keep the good changes coming.

If you want to see my previous posts about China, click here. And if you enjoyed reading this, you might also like my other long reads. You can also follow my Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter to keep updated about the upcoming articles. Thanks for visiting.

Published by: Jakub Stepanovic in Essays

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