by Alec Ash
As with dog years, so is it with China years – one here is equivalent to several in America and Europe. When it comes to pace of change, no one else holds a candle really. The Chinese just fit more in. (The velocity of change is evident everywhere, as per the above photo taken inside one of China’s new superfast trains.)
I returned to China after two years away. It’s like leaving London shortly after the millennium and coming back for the Olympics. Recognizable, but look closer and you notice all the new things.
It’s the same with people. In two China years someone will have moved town three times, burned through as many businesses, got married, had a kid, got divorced and become incredibly fat. Meeting old Chinese friends feels like like lunch with a schoolmate after a decade.
I studied Chinese in Beijing from 2008 to 2010 (where I wrote this blog). Now, after a stint as a literary interviewer in London, I am back in town as a writer and LARB bloggespondent.
Blessed with this time-traveller’s freshness of perspective, here are my first impressions of what has changed, and what hasn’t. There are five of each, and the list is entirely arbitrary and shockingly subjective.
So … what’s changed?
1. Yes, there are lots of new buildings
Let’s start with the obvious. If you leave a Chinese city for two years, the skyline is going to look very different when you come back. There’s nothing like walking down a once familiar street to realize the fact that China’s growth rates are a physical thing, not just a percentage number. Even more striking than Beijing’s new high-rises was a return trip to Xining, capital of China’s Western Qinghai province. When I emerged from a newly built train station out to the west of the city, the taxi ride into the centre took me past row upon row of huge orange housing blocks, all glisteningly alike and no more than plans on a developer’s table two years ago. There must have close to a hundred of them. It was, frankly, awe-inspiring.
2. Higher prices
Twelve yuan for a haircut! Four yuan for a bottle of beer! You cannot be serious! Alright, it was only eight yuan and three yuan two years ago, but there are more punishing price hikes than paying a dollar more for a bowl of noodles. An apartment in Beijing costs 50,000 RMB per square meter and rising. The price of petrol, gas, water, electricity are all going up faster than salary hikes, while taxes are as various and burdensome as ever. Unsurprisingly, when I ask “the man on the street” (yes, taxi drivers) what he thinks has changed in the last few years, this is the one he moans about first.
3. Higher expectations
Along with a higher price of living come higher expectations of what to get back from your society and government. This is noticeable on a large scale – “n.i.m.b.y” or anti-corruption protests like in Wukan last year are only getting more frequent, bold and urban – and on an individual level, where a new middle class and online commentariat is versing itself in the jargon of rights and democracy with a small d. This might sound vague, because it’s an impression more than an observation – especially among China’s young generation, whereas their parents grew up learning only what they can give to their nation, not what their nation can give to them.
4. People are getting angrier
Tempers are running higher along with skylines, prices and expectations – partly as a result of the last going largely unmet. Take the anti-Japan protests last summer, in the wake of the Diaoyu islands curfuffle. What began as nationalist outrage at Japan’s gumption ended with Chinese trashing Hyundais on the street, regardless that they were driven by other Chinese. That’s not focused protest, that’s directionless anger finding a pressure valve. Without political representation, and with certain topics off limits, flash protest, hopeless petitioning and the ever-ubiquitous Sina Weibo are the only outlets for a population increasingly mad as hell and not going to take it any more.
5. Yunnan food is in
And Sichuan food is out. Long time ago. Honestly, get with it. Yunnan food is possibly also out by the time this is published. Maybe baby cucumbers from Guangxi are hot now. Has Beijing (and presumably Shanghai) always burnt through trends this quickly? Quite possibly. Part of it is that before I was living in an “uncool” student area, and am now in the heart of the hutongs, where sports bars and wifi cafés sprout and die like snowdrops. But it’s clear that China’s international cities are only getting trendier and more modern, attracting foreigners – they’re everywhere! – and creating ever more Chinese hipsters.
… and what’s the same?
1. Internet control
Again to begin with one of the first things you notice having been out of the country – getting onto Facebook is still a pain in the ass. In fact, this could sit in the first category, as it’s become even harder. Many of the VPNs (virtual private networks) that are the easiest way to “climb the wall” have themselves been blocked, especially during the 18th Party congress – and incoming propaganda chief Liu Qibao is talking of further tightening the noose, making a morning’s procrastination a real ordeal. Still, internet control is just one symptom of the next big thing not to have changed.
2. Erm, the government
By which I don’t mean the Party still being in power, but that its character is unaltered. The same instinct towards suppression over candour. The same tin ear for public communication. The same bureaucratic mindset. More officials who take bribes and keep mistresses than you can count. Also the same steady, technocratic and efficient approach to improving conditions in China – albeit with certain no-go areas that might threaten the Party – against a rack of challenges. For those who think China’s new leadership might bring new things, including political reform, there isn’t much to base that hope on.
3. It’s still all about me
It might strike you that between rising public anger, the intractability of the system and new communication platforms such as Weibo, something could be brewing. Indeed, all it would take is one of those thousands of mass protests to take place in Beijing and it’s suddenly a nationwide crisis. But listen to people’s complaints and they are all solipsistic – unaffordable property prices/miscarriage of justice/corruption/local environmental degradation is a bad thing if it affects me, but if it doesn’t why should I worry about it?
4. People still spit in the street
And drop trash anywhere. And smoke inside where they’re not meant to. And cut queues. And jostle others aside in a crowded bus. And bike the wrong way down the street. And drive the wrong way down the street. And (while we’re here) the air pollution is just as bad. And the food can be just as unsafe. And attitudes in the countryside can be just as backwards. And life in the city can be just as merciless. I could go on. Don’t be fooled by the bright lights of Shanghai’s skyline – most of China is as much a messy smorgasbord of unlivability as it ever was, and will be for a while as it continues to develop.
5. But we still love it
Or I do at least. China as it goes into the twenty teens feels as much a new frontier as ever. It’s precisely this pace of change that makes it such an exciting place to live in and write about – which is why it attracts such a vibrant community of foreign journalists, bloggers and authors. It’s a cliché, but a true one: there’s a story around every corner here.
And yes, the noodle soup and dumplings around the corner are as tasty as they always were.
Alec Ash (twitter handle @alecash) is a freelance writer living in Beijing whose work has appeared in venues such as The Economist, Salon and FT Magazine. He edits and is a regular contributor to The Anthill (www.theanthill.org ).