Asia | China – The Middle Kingdom of the 21st Century
The distance from summer to autumn was bridged in 18 hours in the relative comfort of a sleeper bus, which, for the record, is a surprisingly civilized way to travel as long as the frequent hairpin turns don’t find you rudely awakened after a hard drop in the aisle.
From Jinghong the mountainous landscapes were sculpted into an endless sea of carefully maintained terraces of tea and harvested rice; a stereotypical image of China, and one of the few that can still be found in the rapidly changing realities of 21st century China. We rose into the misty terrain as the scent of harvest and falling leaves tapped into distant memories of scarlet forests and indian summer. As the day bowed to darkness I carried the fragrance into a light sleep that defied the curves in the road until we arrived in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.
Arrival was damp and, at 1900 meters above sea level, much cooler than we had expected. Like the arrival in Jinghong the first impressions hit us like a falling brick. Surrounded by high-rise buildings and wide avenues it was if we had stepped into a European metropolis. Gone were the fascinating side streets and old neighborhoods that had enchanted me 9 years before. In their wake were miles of sterile, but orderly, facades, dancing in neon and luring consumers to ride the waves of modernization. None of the western world’s toys and comforts were to be excluded from the ‘new’ China, save perhaps democracy. Motorola, DVD, MP3, Ralph Lauren, Snickers, Coca-Cola, Kentucky fried chicken: the signs were speaking a language that I vaguely understood but had not expected to hear for another several months. Yes, much had changed and the effects were familiar and yet somehow unpalatable, similar to making a blind grab in the fridge expecting the sweet taste of juice and getting a mouthful of milk.
While somewhat disappointing, there was no denying the fact that the race was on and the general feel was that anything the west could do, China could equal or even improve upon. The majority of the western products that were available were in fact made in China and I doubt it will be long before the hefty profits from the transcontinental mark-ups will remain almost completely in China. The visitor to metropolitan China is now met with jaw-dropping reflections of the capitalism and commercialism previously isolated in the Lands of Milk and Honey…and the world becomes smaller still.
We spent several days wandering around the city and not a single sojourn was without awe and wonder. Even during our retreats in the hotel room the amazement continued. Thirty odd channels of exclusively Chinese programs mimicked their western counterparts to a tee. From the Chinese version of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” to the glitzy special effects used in western advertising, nothing was missing except for any tell-tale signs that we were in fact in the midst of one of the oldest civilizations that world has known. Not surprisingly, music had also taken a wide detour from the ancient tones of dynastic serenity and was now mirroring the west with local versions of top 40 ‘boy groups’, rock, reggae, and even latino salsas and merengues. It is almost as if the powers-that-be have realized that there is no turning back and before the Chinese youth looks for their ‘heroes’ in the cliched ‘glamour’ of western stars, they have quickly developed their own strikingly identical versions.
We rolled out of Kunming on a less-than-civilized, dilapidated sleeper bus that hadn’t seen a cleaning crew since the fall of the Tang Dynasty, or was it the Ming…? Either way, it was the only option as the trains to Chongqing were booked solid for days, and no self-respecting semi-modern bus would venture into the rough, mountainous terrain that lies between Yunnan and Sichuan provinces. We made ourselves at home amidst the refuse of countless journeys, sweeping the moldy egg shells and sunflower seeds onto the floor, where they remained unmoved for the duration of the trip, glued as they were by the centimeter-thick accumulation of ejected phlegm.
All that our rickety bus was lacking was made up for by the landscapes that it pulled us through; rural China, the agrarian dream of Chairman Mao was reassuringly, still alive and well beyond the urban sprawls. It seemed such a contradiction that the cities, as superficially modern as they appear, should be surrounded by fields worked with medieval technology. While there was the odd tractor to seen, the majority of the farm work was being tended to by ox and hand. I tossed the black and white around for a while until I found a somewhat satisfying grey truth.
1.3 billion people.
10 percent of which are unemployed, or in politically correct terminology, part of the ‘surplus labor force’. It seems that every tractor introduced to the backwaters would quickly translate into an eviction notice for 50 families, sending them to the coastal cities and further compounding the problems of an already over-burdened infrastructure. But as the need for more and more skilled workers increases in China, modernization will begin to infiltrate the rural fields, slowly shifting the population from peasant to professional. The massive work force remains China’s greatest resource and if it can ever be used to its full potential the West could find itself in a desperate ‘run for the money’.
Where this is all leading is anyone’s guess, but as long as China can maintain it’s iron grip on the third largest plot of real estate in the world, Mandarin Chinese might just become a useful, if not inevitable, second language.