February 2010
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Nanjing Snapshot

By Rita Payne

China is a country in a hurry where people seem to be driven by a common goal: build bigger, better and faster. The slogan could well have been - anything the West can do we can do better. The airport in Nanjing was huge and sparkling with acres of highly polished floors and shiny glass panes. I was amused to find that one of the first sights to greet us was a poster on the wall of the British actress and model, Liz Hurley, featured on the cover of a Chinese glamour magazine. There was no escaping the impact of globalisation.

The roads into Nanjing were wide bordered by flowers and plants contorted into weird and wonderful shapes; the pavements were spotless with neat, separate lanes for cyclists and pedestrians. At various points along the road, rows of trees stood at attention like well-trained soldiers. We drove past shopping malls, hotels, restaurants and offices - all the buildings huge, sprawling and gleaming. Familiar names beamed out from every direction: KFC, McDonalds, Starbucks, Chanel, Gucci and every other western brand imaginable.

My husband and I were in Nanjing for the UN World Urban Forum and the authorities had pulled out all the stops to make the more than seven-thousand delegates feel welcome. Our Chinese hosts had organised hundreds of young, eager, English-speaking students to help, advise and show us around. We would have been lost without them since few people on the streets and hotels speak English. The Volunteers were easy to spot in their distinctive red and white tea shirts emblazoned with the WUF slogan. They dealt patiently with a welter of queries: what time do the coaches leave for the conference centre? Where can one change money? Which is the best shopping area?

Compared to India, language is the biggest disadvantage for most Chinese since few of them speak English. Without a Volunteer around it was almost impossible to direct a taxi driver to take us to even the most obvious destination such as the railway station. It soon became apparent that the Volunteers’ grasp of English was extremely limited. Beyond basic questions it was difficult to engage them in any meaningful conversation about their lives and aspirations. What was clear is their shared dream to study in the west.

I did manage to get beyond superficial chit-chat with one of the Volunteers, let’s call her Jennie, who spoke about the effects of China’s one-child policy. She acknowledged that without siblings young Chinese were spoilt. She said this became most noticeable when they went to university. The experience was a rude awakening for them, having to learn to fend for themselves for the first time without access to home comforts and learning to share facilities with others their own age.

Jennie also admitted that another downside to being an only child was that expectations were enormously high and the pressure to succeed could be overwhelming to the extent that cases of suicide at universities were becoming a fact of life. According to Jennie the suicides and the names of universities where they occurred were seldom reported to protect the image of the institutions.

There were other unexpected nuggets of information. Another Volunteer we were informed was learning Japanese. This came as a surprise given the bitter legacy of the infamous Nanking Massacre in 1937/38 when the invading Japanese Imperial Army slaughtered tens of thousands of men, women and children. Noting my surprise Jennie said, “I know the Japanese did cruel things in the past, but we are now in the present and must move on.” This was both encouraging and contrary to what I had been led to believe was an entrenched hostility towards the Japanese.
Since our visit was so brief there was little opportunity to see the real China but I gained a few insights during a brief visit to Shanghai for a few hours where I met two British friends who had both lived in China for around ten years. Both were married to Chinese women and were fluent Mandarin speakers. David was a journalist and Roger was a writer who also ran an advisory service for overseas investors. Roger said the Chinese government had done a good job in “re-educating” young Chinese growing up after the pro-democracy rallies and killings in 1989. “Today’s youth have bought into the whole thing of national pride and their duty to promote their country. After the events of 1989 there was a tacit understanding: the government saying ‘we’ll give you economic growth in return you shut up.’

David had a different take and bemoaned the fact that people in Britain had lost this sense of pride in their country. “A little bit of patriotism could be a good thing,” he commented wryly on how negative he found people to be when he made his annual visits home. He said research had shown that most young Chinese knew little about the tragic events at Tiananmen Square. When questioned in a recent survey, many thought a small group of people were responsible for causing trouble at the instigation of some western countries. At the same time David thought the Western media tended to exaggerate the impact of the Chinese government’s controls of the Internet and the influence of dissidents. He said from his observation most Chinese were not too agitated by the restrictions and were more caught up in their day to day concerns. 

Both David and Roger agreed that the main passion for most Chinese these days was shopping with few other interests.  David said young Chinese he came across didn’t seem to be interested in photography or any hobbies which he found disheartening. Roger had an interesting view of Chinese who had returned after a stint studying or working abroad. “I never employ them, they just cause trouble. They think they’re better than those around them and expect rapid promotion, just because they’ve been abroad.”

Both believed the real test for the Chinese government would come when the effects of the financial crisis began to be felt more widely. There were layoffs but not on a large enough scale. If the pain of unemployment, rise in prices and the general cost of living led to significant protests and civil unrest it was difficult to predict the   consequences. 
There was not much free time for sight-seeing and exploring Nanjing’s historic and tragic landmarks. The city has always held a prominent place in Chinese history and culture. Located on the banks of the Yangtze river, Nanjing has served as the capital of China during several historical periods. With an urban population of over five million, it is also the second largest commercial centre in the East China region, after Shanghai.
Finding ourselves with a few hours to spare my husband and I decided to visit an old palace behind our hotel. Having been struck by the absence of birds in Nanjing we were delighted to hear the most beautiful birdsong as we approached the palace gardens. We hurried over only to find that instead of birds flying freely among the trees we found groups of men surrounded by rows and rows of cages with tiny birds singing their hearts out. The scene was indescribably sad and made one reflect on whether there was an analogy with China’s form of democracy. Were the Chinese trapped in their own little cages, fed, watered and looked after to but not free to fly?

When the time came for our return I shared a cab to the airport with a Chinese journalist now working with UN radio in New York. When he discovered I was originally from India he spoke about his visits there. Almost apologetically he commented at the poor state of roads and the general infrastructure in India. “Why is this,” he asked, “is it because India is a democratic country?” This was a question I found difficult to answer. Then another thought crossed my mind. Yes, the Chinese are in a hurry but do they know where they want to go?
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