It was delightful to be able to escape the stressful euphoria of Hong Kong study and tour promotions for a brief respite in China’s largest city, Shanghai, for the festive season of Chinese New Year. Never had I realized prior to living in China just how highy regarded Chinese New Year really is; it would be an understatement to describe it as the Eastern equivalent of Christmas because, in retrospect, it seems much more significant in the minds and hearts of the people. It is by no means a tradition “in name only”, an empty shell with its contents hollowed out by the vainities of commercialisation and selfish gain, but it is one which holds its own in having serious social and cultural significance. Chinese New Year is a festival built on the notions of family, home, unity, national identity and ties with ancestors. Despite the opening up of China’s economy and exposure to market influences, those traditions have for now, remained largely intact.
Of course, I took the time in Shanghai not only to experience the feel of these festivals but also to ponder and reflect upon China’s future as a nation, in particular its “rise as a superpower” and its prospects for “taking over America”. Traditionally, I’ve been an advocate of this particular theory, especially having read Martin Jacques’s award winning “When China Rules the World” and of course, there is no better place to reflect on China’s rise than Shanghai itself. It is a city which has experienced a rapid and breathtaking transformation into a seemingly vibrant, booming and thriving metropolis, with a growing glistening skyline which will eventually rival that of Manhattan. I often wondered after my first visit there in January 2015, could Shanghai be the city of the future?
However, my visit co-incided with a dramatic change of impression, I left with a deep abiding cynicism of China’s future. Whilst it can be said that endless negative (and not to mention biased) coverage on China and its economy do not add to my esteem, it was above all what I saw with my own eyes which truly changed my impressions. China may well be rising, but if we are convincing ourselves that this country will overtake America in the next 15 to 20 years, then I think we are riding on false hope. Simple observation alone, not to mention deep analysis, highlights that Chinese society still suffers an overwhelming number of social problems which do not just put it behind America, but any Western nation. Shanghai is a paper tiger, an empty shell. A number of flashy skyscrapers do not erase the drastic poverty and low incomes considerable numbers in the city still experience. Whilst poverty is of course everywhere, you gain the impression that Shanghai has seemingly developed and left many of its own people behind, it’s brought in many super rich businessmen, but what about everyone else? The city is still plagued with “developing world cliques“, such as touts, scammers, rip off merchants and retailers who sell with an aggression as if their very life depended on it. That does not spell prosperity. China may have the 2nd largest economy in the world, but it has more than 4 times as many people as America, average incomes are not lucrative.
But that is just one factor, whilst it would be unfair to call Shanghai “filthy” (and it is spotless compared to my experience in India), there are enormous hygeine and even sanitation problems persisting. In addition, there are also considerable cultural problems; the scars caused by the insanity of the cultural revolution and Maoism ride deep in the lives of the people, things which contributed to the uttermost destruction of all social order and cohesion in the 1960s. The experience of living in Hong Kong provides a startling contrast to it all, you truly realize what China is missing, you also come to the recognition of what China could have become had history itself taken a difference course. Whilst I am no fan at all of Hong Kong’s arrogance and bare faced snobbery towards the mainland Chinese, it is very easy to see how these prejudices have been developed, persisted and entrenched over the years.
Nonetheless, I love Shanghai and would truly recommend anyone visits, but the message is clear: China has further to go to obtain its leading role than meets the eye. It is not a “first world nation”, it is not close to becoming one. It sits deep in the memories of poverty, backwardness and disorder. It is light years behind America, education, science, technology, society, hygeine and infrastructure; it is only considered “close” because it has managed to establish an economy somewhat close to it, yet even then, how many times do you hear people and the media cast doubt upon the prospects of that? Every day. Yet given where China is now and where it was 30 years ago, the CCP have done a fantastic job despite the horrible conditions in which Deng Xiaoping inherited from Chairman Mao.