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, that was something else.

When I was there for the first time two years ago, people told me stories of fast-paced changes, and while I listened, couldn't fully comprehend it. It is like when a baker tells you how to bake 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 on earth, 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 the rapid progress already over? I was thinking... As it turned out, it is still running strong. Here are some observations of the changes that I noticed:

  • People's rules: Two years ago, queues were a disorder at best. People were skipping, and nobody cared about that "discrete zone" line, it was hard to digest. When a metro train arrived and doors opened, people wanted to get in and out of the train at the same time. This formed a big 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. There are still areas of improvements though - like, when I boarded a plane for one of the domestic flights I took this summer, a guy was sitting on my seat. I pointed out that I booked that seat, but he quickly responded that he was there first and he like that place. Planes, that is a chapter on its own:
  • Flights: Commercial aviation in China experiences its golden age now. 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 normal user, this translates into many new destinations to fly to, lesser delays, cheaper travels, and other improvements. 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. These announcements turned out to be entertaining, as every operator has slightly different messages to deliver: two of my favorites from this summer were a warning to not use drones on board, and that if you drop your phone, you should ask the cabin crew for help.

  • Recycling: In 2017, there were bins for recyclable items already. However, no one knew what are they for and how to use them - therefore, they were absolutely useless. In 2019, many people already recycle well. In big cities, residents are interested in the scheme, and kids are being taught it in schools. In some areas of Shanghai, which leads the ecologic movement, you get a fine if they catch you not recycling. This might seems 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? So while the current ecology state of China is still far from being good, they are making steps in the right direction.
  • Photos of white foreigners: Two years ago, the number of people who took a picture of me was mental. I had no issue in taking photographs with people who asked me, but the majority 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.
    In 2019, people have a very different approach to it. The situation got into the attention of local authorities, and they ruled it as a "not a cool thing to do." In some public places, there are even signs saying "don't take photos of strangers." So, while many people stopped, some adapted a stealth approach to take that picture. They took the photo 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 then sharing that pic of me to their social media. So, while there is clearly progress in this matter, ummm.
  • 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 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.

  • Tech's everywhere: This is perhaps the most staggering sight, it is futuristic beyond belief. It is common to see doors, or even mailboxes in condos with fingerprint locks, for example. Payments, that's another big one: Plenty of countries haven't moved to the contactless debit cards yet, but in China, I spoke with people who didn't see cash in years. Everyone has a smartphone glued to their hand these days, so most of the payments are through that. But. there is another method emerging, that leaves the cellphone payments to look like stone-age spectacle - certain vending machines allow people to pay with their faces. For real, you come to the machine, press a touchscreen that you want, say, a can of pop, then you smile at the thing, which will recognize your face associated to your bank account. Transaction done, and the screen will then write a personalized "thank you for your business" line with your name. Seriously, when I saw it the first time, I stopped and just watched it for a while.
    The facial recognition in China is on a whole different level. I am still unsure of what to think about that. It is fascinating, but I can't escape that Orwellian feeling, too.

This attitude of accelerated evolution inevitably comes with some side effects:

  • Infrastructure is changing quicker than people. The adaptability of locals is respectable, but some things just take time. Driving, for example. The traffic in China is a bizarre scene: their roads, 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.
  • Not everything is changing at the same speed: While their tech is like a window into the future, some of the other fields offer a window to the past. Such combination produces surreal scenes, like when super modern trains are cleaned by workers using brooms from bamboo, and markets with raw meat hanged in hot outdoor air, where no one uses cash:

    Notice that hook in the middle - it holds a qr code, which gets scanned by customers to make the payment (as described above).

  • Quality levels: When building so many things at once, chances are that you miss out on some details here and there. For instance, some subway stations had 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 might not be all gold, but overall, it is impressive.

Going back to the name of this article, "republic of progress," it follow up on the fact China is said to be "people's republic." It made me think, as 1) the population of China is massive, and 2) I met plenty of great people there. But as a republic, 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.

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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