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Tour du monde en autostop - Jeremy Marie

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 Travel Diary : Thoughts of a savage in China

Everyone is staring at China nowadays. Announced as the next first world power, its economic growth

and its development are wished by most of the current politic leaders. I visited China during the advent of its “Great Moment”.

Once again, I have been surprised from what I saw. Its development is literally visual, me who was thinking that an economic growth was often only numbers on a piece of paper. What does it look like then? How is that possible that China develops that fast? Are there any consequences to it?

China is the most populated country in the world. The labor is cheap and almost unlimited. “Made in China” is a brand that we can find everywhere in the world. How is the government can deal with such a great number? How the different minorities succeed to get along with?

I wondered about those subjects while traveling this huge country. The China of today is surely very different from the China of yesterday, and obviously from the one of tomorrow. So, let's have a tour there now, before it changes once again.

 

A economic development that is visual

A show
Everywhere, absolutely everywhere. Everywhere, towers rise, new buildings appear. Concrete, everywhere. This is the most recurrent sight I had from China. As if a country was rebuilding again after a total destruction linked to a war or an earthquake. Except that in this case, it hasn't been any disaster. China only built to make it better, bigger, greater.

Everywhere, towers rise, new buildings appear, as here in Jinghong

I was surprised by the level of the transport infrastructure in China. The road network is unbelievable. I wouldn't be surprise if it was better than the one of the United States, which was for me the reference until then. Bridges, viaducts, tunnels, highways... China controls its territory by connecting amazingly its cities.

A four-lanes highway near Nanjing

A huge suspension bridge in the province of Guizhou (which is quite similar to the Golden Gate in San Francisco)

Another common point with the United States is the size of the buildings. Contemporary China could use the Texan saying « The biggest, the greatest ». The towers are very high, the roads are wide and large, the cities are absolutely huge. As if China was preparing its place of number one by “monumentizing” each one of its infrastructures.

The financial district of Pudong in Shanghai

The economic development of China leads to the appearance of a wealthy middle class. Although this one is far to represent the majority of the Chinese population, it is still widely visible. On the highways, I often got ride from the drivers of SUV or brand new sedans.

Hitchhiking a BMW SUV near Guilin

There are even luxury car dealers, especially in the big cities in the east of the country. I had, once, the opportunity to get a lift from the driver of a Porsche Cayenne.

A Lamborghini dealer in Nanjing

Otherwise, you can move with the train. China has now high-speed railways connecting several of its main cities.

A high-speed train between Beijing and Tianjin

China is indeed developing very fast. The infrastructures are blossoming at every level in the country, as if China wanted to catch up with his competitors and overtake them in the same time. I felt that this dynamism was lived as a source of pride for the Chinese people. To be the best in everything, to have the bigger this, the largest that. That reminded me the constant will of showing off that I witnessed when I travel around the United States. But as often with this kind of mentality, there are limits.

The pollution
China is the country is the world that sends the most greenhouse gas. In most of the cities of the country, it is impossible to see the sky. The locals like more and more to wear a mask so the pollution doesn't affect as much their breathing.

The Pearl river in Guangzhou. The vision in the Chinese cities is often blurred by an opaque cloud of pollution

The protocols aiming to diminish the emission of those gas are not respected. The main reason is that it would slow down the economic growth.

I have seen in China an impressive number of plants sending non-stop their toxic reek, especially in the provinces where they extract coal as in Inner Mongolia.

Some plants near the city of Yinchuan

Money at all price
This is a feeling I had when I was in China. Money seemed to be the most important thing for the Chinese people. Any mean is good to make money, but the border between opportunism and abuse was difficult for me to define.

Money is stuck in the mentality in China, even in the game with the well-known Mah-Jong

Sometimes, this will to gain a maximum of profit in the minimum of time creates problems, at every scale.

One day in a park located in the province of Guizhou, I have seen a group of Chinese arguing loudly against the people offering a service that was obviously a scam.

A crowd gathers after a scam

Also, the economic development mainly concerns privileged people. The differences between the rich and the poor are huge. I can imagine that satisfying a population of 1330 millions people can be a challenge for the People Republic of China.

 

The population

The overcrowding
China has a population of 1,3 billion people and 90% of them are from the Han ethnic group. This is, by far, the most populated country in the world. As the population is unevenly distributed, it happens that some situations go beyond any common sense.

During the Mid-Autumn Festival, I went in two different tourist places. Chinese people usually go in the same place in the same time.

A hiking trail in the Guizhou province during the Mid-Autumn festival

A street of Yangshuo, still during the Mid-autumn Festival

The cohabitation
There are many ethnic groups that are in minority in China. The Huis, the Tibetans, the Mongols, the Uighurs. The cohabitation with the main ethnic group Han is more or mess difficult. The results are sometumes surprising, like in Xi'an, where the mosques has been built in a mix of Islamic and Chinese architecture.

The Daxuexixiang mosque in Xi'an, built during the 8th century, is the result of an interesting mix between Islamic and Chinese architecture

I could cross some areas populated by minorities, as the Tibetans, the Uighurs and the Mongols. The signs were usually written in sinograms, but also in the alphabet of the ethnic group that was populating the area

However, for those ethnic group, I wouldn't say that the cohabitation is a success, and especially with the Tibetans. Today, it is by the way forbidden to the foreigner to travel in Tibet.

I only could see the Tibetan chörtens in the Qinqhai province

You might have heard of the Tibetan Buddhist monks who were immolating themselves to revendicate their right to independence. Those information are mostly known outside of China, as the Chinese government take good care to control the news, to then brainwash its population.

 

Propaganda and consequences

The Chinese Communist Party rules the People Republic of China. This one has been founded by chairman Mao Zedong, who the Chinese population still worships. Thirty-six years after his death, Mao is still omnipresent. I found him on banknotes, on posters, as statues...

A statue of Mao in the city of Guiyang

The government, centralized in Beijing, is strong and ubiquitous. To be strong, the Chinese Communist Party obviously enforces propaganda. I was surprises by how they use it and the consequences that it had on its population.

Ways to spread propaganda
The Chinese Communist Party uses different ways to convince the population of its greatness.
In the school, every morning, the students sing the national anthem during the raising of the flag.

The national anthem in a school in Kunming

The information are very controlled. Internet is monitored by cyber-censors who select what can and cannot be said according to the government. Some call ironically this cyber-censorship as the “Great Firewall of China”.

Also, almost all the media belong to the government and I could experience this fact during a quite surprising situation.
« In Xian, the main newspaper of the city interviewed me on my journey. This one lasted two days so the journalists had more than enough to publish a detailed article. After few days, I contact the journalists to know on which date they will publish the article so I can get a copy of it. Those ones tell me that the Editor in chief refuse to publish it, accusing me in the same time to have lied on my story. “This is impossible”she said."

I can imagine that spread a message of tolerance and open-mindedness between the people is not really a concern for the Chinese Communist Party.

The hammer and sickle of the Chinese Communist Party in front of the Olympic stadium in Beijing

Another surprise happened when I went to look for a place to spend the night. It has indeed happened that I got refused the access to many hotels because I wasn't of Chinese nationality. In the other hand, some hotels only accept foreigner. It is not difficult to understand that the goal is to restrict the interactions between locals and foreigners.

Consequences
During my conversations with the Chinese people, I noticed that most of them had an opinion of the world that was limited to the official version of the Communist Party. Only few knew that Tibet was forbidden to the foreigners and many thought that sending massively the “Hans” was a good solution to develop this Chinese province.

What surprised me a lot was that the Chinese were not critical at all. There is not a lot of questioning about what the government does and say. Moreover, I felt it would be unwise to do so.

This propaganda creates a seclusion of the Chinese people. This is one of the reason why I found it difficult to communicate. In the other hand, the Chinese culture remains unique by not being influenced by other cultures.

 

Zhongguo

China, during the centuries, certainly had interactions with the neighboring civilizations. The Silk road, for example, opened the door to commercial exchange between different people. It has been wars, invasions, empires, dynasties. Different ethnic groups fought together, cohabited, or have been assimilated. The China of today is a consequence of the China of yesterday.

Empires
China had strong leaders that influenced their society at their time.

More than 2000 years ago, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang from the Qin dynasty has been buried with an army of several thousands soldiers in terracotta, near the city of Xi'an.

Invasions
You probably know the Great Wall of China. Long of 6700 kilometers, it has been built to counter the barbarian invasions.

The Great Wall of China in Badaling

An old concept was saying that China was considering itself as the Middle Kingdom, so “Zhongguo” in Chinese. It means that China was located at the center of the Chinese world. Everything that was out of its borders was supposedly populated of “barbarians”, of “savages”. I found a sentence near a portion of the Wall that explains quite well this idea.

“Located on the border of two cultures, the Great Wall was built to defend themselves”

There is indeed an established relation between the difference of culture and the conflict. What is different is barbarian, so dangerous.

Some might say that it can't be true today. However, the Man still build walls to protect himself from his neighbors. France and its Maginot Line between the two World Wars, or even the United States with his wall on the Mexican border.

 

History helps sometimes to understand the present. Is the old vision of the barbarians strangers a logical step to the current Chinese cultural remoteness? Is this old self-statement of Middle Kingdom, of center of the world, helping to understand the contemporary wish to become the first power of the world?

I imagine the China of tomorrow very powerful. Its population is huge and his economic growth is impressive. However, each great power has great responsabilities.

China will certainly have many challenges to face. Maybe China will have to take care of its environment, to tolerate its minorities or to let its people the opportunity to think by themselves.

Because the population of China is almost 20% of the world population, its choices will influence the future of the planet. I only hope that money and power will not overtake everything.

About myself, I am following the road. I recently arrived in Central Asia, after having changed a bit of my itinerary that I will explain in the next article.

See you soon,

Merry Christmas and happy new year 2013!

Jeremy



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