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  • Tiago Costa

CHINA Part I: Mao's land of pollution and disorder

Before you judge this article by its title, let me tell you that every story have a good and a bad side. As a human being who is a supporter of interculturalism and humanitarian for many causes, I try as much as I can to be out of the assumptions upon different cultures. But, assumptions are part of our human defensive behavior and prepare us for risky treats.

While talking with some friends about China, I got several negative advices. I was told walk alone or I would lose myself. I was told to don't exercise, because the pollution is heavy. I was told that Chinese people are rude and they would not care about myself. I was told that China is a form of dictatorship, even if it's not recognized as that. That Chinese people hate Japan and Korea. That I shouldn't eat in the streets or I would have a diarrhea. I was told to consider the Chinese mafia, among some other things.

In our planet-earth, China leads the list of population with more than 1,380 billion people, representing almost 20% of the entire world. So I questioned myself and I doubted that a country with all these people and more than four-thousand-year of existence would not be culturally rich, but rather just a place for negativity. The advices were useful and useless at the same time. I saved them in a place, in my brain, where I keep irrelevant information. That means that it's not a priority. My real priority was to discover China with my heart opened.

The end of the day in Kaiyangli, 6th District, Beijing City. During three days I slept in this local

neighborhood. During this period, I didn't see a single non-Chinese person in the streets or

in the hotel. I knew then, I was living deep in the Chinese culture. © Tiago Costa

I arrived in China with three important goals on my pocket: study the Chinese language, the culture, and make friends that would belong for future years. Although I wanted to explore the city by myself, this was not a trip organized by myself. This was a trip provided by the Confucius Institute, a non-profit public educational organization affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education, and which its aim is to promote the learning of the Chinese language and its culture. The Confucius Institute establish partnerships between Chinese universities and universities overseas, giving the opportunity for foreign students to travel to China and learn more about this ancient country.

In my case, for being a student at Southern Utah University, an institution well placed into this cooperation, I got the opportunity to travel to China for the first time and visit three Chinese cities. China is part of my infant imaginary, and for that reason, it was placed at the top of my worldwide list of curious cultures.

Tourists at the Forbidden City, Beijing. This ancient palace served Chinese Emperors

and it's today one of the most touristic attractions in China. It counts with around 15

million tourists per year and it's on the top-20 of the most visited worldwide. © Tiago Costa

At the Tiananmen Square, visitors take pictures with the portrait of the Chairman

Mao Tse-tung in the background. Chairman Mao, leader of China from 1949 to 1959,

is today considered by many Chinese people as one of the greatest men of the Chinese

history. However, there's a lot of controversy in this topic. Chairman Mao is also blamed

by his aggressive reforms. He imposed "no criticism" to his policies, and

persuaded who did not respect the policies. © Tiago Costa

My first impression when I arrived in Beijing was not so positive. Even being already expecting the amount of people, I feel this is something I would never be prepared to live. And I mean, I'm from a big city. I'm from Lisbon, capital of Portugal. However, Beijing is a different conversation. There are a lot of people, too much people, millions... MILLIONS! Beijing is considered the second most-populated city in the world, with around 22 million residents, just under other Chinese city, Shanghai, which have almost 25 million residents. The truth is: Right after I gave my first breath in Chinese territory, I felt the consequences of the uncontrolled population.

Right after arriving in Beijing, this is the traffic situation in the way from the airport to the

hotel. During this record, I have a brief conversation with a Chinese guide. © Tiago Costa

Cars are culturally important and necessary to an infinitive number of people who don't stop for nothing. In a city with almost 6 million cars, one-hour drive is a fast drive. Two-hours drive is a normal time for a normal day in Beijing. A study by Jiawen Yang at the Georgia Institute of Technology refers that in China, the traffic is highly concentrated in the center of the city, contributing a lot for the high density of pollution in Beijing. The same study refers that in other countries, the traffic occurs in suburban areas, making this polluted air be more widespread.

In my opinion, all of this reflects a lack of driving regulation by the government of China. In cities like London, Amsterdam or Paris, you better be rich if you want to drive in the center of the city. There, the fees imposed by the government, to drive or own a car in the city center, are "ridiculously" high. In China, there's also a lack of control by the traffic police. In United States, for example, it's normal to see traffic officers with a great presence to make sure there is order and safety. However, in Beijing I barely saw traffic officers. Besides this, I feel Chinese drivers have no ethical concerns. To drive in China, you have be selfish or you'll be in traffic forever.

According to a Chinese news-article report, not stopping in the red light is a norm, but the government of Beijing is trying to stop this acts. In Portugal, if I don't stop in the red light I'm committing a serious offense to the law. But in China, the idea is simple: each driver needs to be faster by their own, without thinking that all are driving with similar objectives. This makes all the traffic be ridiculously confused, slow and stressful.​ And there are also motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians; all of them in a worry to get to the destination. It's a nightmare!

All this confusion is consequence of the Chinese culture for demanding professional life. Chinese labor is negatively well-known for the inhuman conditions and working schedules given to many people. I bet you heard at least once in your life: Your clothes are made in China? So probably they were produced by Chinese slaves. On my first walk in Beijing streets, with all stores yet closed at around 5 a.m., I saw people--that I expect were employees--sleeping inside some tiny stores and food businesses. I didn't talk with any of those people, but I imagined that some of those employees would work more than 14-hours-per-day. Then, by living far in the city, I taught they would prefer to stay in the place they have to work the day after. It's all about practicality and necessity. At 6:30 a.m., I returned to my hotel and saw the security-guy sleeping on the lobby's couch. Right on my second day, I felt interesting that this situation was apparently normal. Employees sleeping in their working place was normal in this culture. I found out, this is a pattern.

Ok, let's put this clear... China is a country with big contrasts. Because of the high number of non-educated workers, who accept low salaries and work during long periods of time in terrible conditions, China turned an attractive place for factory investment by top international brands. These brands gain in production, making then a huge amount of profit in international sales. This reality made China have a fast economical growth from the 1990s to 2011 and the country become the most-powerful economy worldwide. Today, Chinese businessmen are facing a shift, because they are struggling with a strong internal debt. However, there are other predictions saying that China will continue being a powerful economy and even besides all the negative conditions, China will be the #1 in 2050.

The high-speed train in Changsha, capital of Hunan Province. The Chinese bullet-train

network is considered the world's largest one, serving thousands of citizens every day. © Tiago Costa

During my trip in china, I had the opportunity to visit three cities and in all of them the people's routines were similar. Right after I left Beijing, I traveled south to Changsha, capital of the Hunan Province, in a high-speed train, where the Hunan Normal University (partner of the Southern Utah University) is located. During this trip, the several stops in different Chinese cities made me see similar patterns. The most notorious one was the tall buildings filling the landscape and obstructing the horizon. I knew, Chinese construct companies are today, leaders in construction and invest in all over the world. I heard from Portuguese people who work in Angola, that Chinese people are constructing entire neighborhoods; I heard from Congolese people that Chinese people are active constructors in Democratic Republic of Congo; and I read that Chinese businessmen invested something like $46 billion just in United States in 2016.

On the list of the top-20 highest buildings in the world, China have 14 and

gets the first and second place. This is a graph by

At the top of a high-building in Zhuzhou, city in Hunan Province, with a view to

Shennong Tower, considered the ninth-tallest tower in China. © Tiago Costa

In China, the city grows in altitude and the challenge is to construct even higher. This makes more people concentrate in the same area, instead of spreading around in a bigger territory. Everything will ended up in the same consequence, the high increase of pollution and unhealthy life conditions. But China is an interesting country for many reasons. In Changsha and Zhuzhou, I met wonderful young people who made look to the Chinese future with a different eye. Most of them, new generations that are committed to work for a social change and turn the country a better place to live. A country more organized, healthier and prosperous.

Part II of the Chinese trip can be seen here.

article re-edited on March 8, 2018.


The "Weekly Journal" blog is updated every Sunday.

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