We met Jackie, our 26-year-old tour guide to the Great Wall, at our hotel lobby on Sunday morning. Jackie was dressed in jeans, sneakers, a pink button down shirt and a pastel blue sweater vest. Needless to say, he was dressed well but not appropriate for an all day hike along the Great Wall.
Above is a picture of Jackie, smiling as we literally “climbed” up to the Wall.
Jackie (of course his “western” name; all Chinese pick western names when they start English in primary school) is a jovial, bright fellow who grew up in rural China, like the majority of the Chinese people, to farming, illiterate parents. He has witnessed firsthand the dramatic changes that China has experienced over the last twenty-five years, while China has emerged as a leading economic powerhouse fighting for the center stage in the world order.
Per Jackie, there used to be only three colors worn in China: Blue, Gray and Black. Now the Chinese wear any color under the rainbow.
Jackie is a chatty, intelligent guy. He had a lot to say about China – where it once was and where it is headed. He talked the entire hour and a half ride to Jiantou, the entire climb up to the Wall (in between breaks) and the entire way back to Beijing. I, of course, asked tons of questions and took tons of notes. I found our conversation fascinating and it was great to get an inside view from a young, educated Beijing tour guide who has over ten years of experience and is quite knowledgable about what is happening now in China.
This post is a summary of the “World (aka China) according to Jackie”. (Note: I haven’t confirmed all the figures and statistics. This kind of information is hard to get out of Communist, censored China. I have discovered that many things are a mystery in China and it is hard to get accurate, hard data. Thus, I am just going with what I heard from Jackie (whom I feel is an excellent, intelligent source of information) as well as some of the research I conducted myself (see below for links to the articles). So, here goes nothing: The World (aka China) according to Jackie!
Picture above of Confucius from the Wikipedia Commons. Confucius was one of the greatest Chinese thinkers of all time. His influence can still be felt today, thousands of years later.
Jackie had a lot of opinions on what China is like today, especially in Beijing, China’s political and historic capital. For the most part, Jackie feels gratitude for how far China has come over the last twenty-five years. China has literally taken most people, including the Chinese by surprise, in their unheard of industrialization and economic advances, which have brought millions and millions of people out of poverty. China has industrialized in a matter of years compared with the centuries it has taken most countries in a similar situation. When you visit China, the proof is in the endless amount of new buildings, apartment blocks and skyscrapers reaching for the stars. It is said that the crane is the national bird of China. The building crane is as well!
Yet, none of this rapid change has not been without problems and mistakes. As most people know, China is still ruled by a dictatorship of hardliners that slam their iron fist down on many basic freedoms of their people. While China is growing and expanding at insane rates, basic human rights and needs of its people are being left in the dust*. Hospitals are old and dingy. Doctors are scarce and expensive. Social services are lacking. Good education is hard to find in the countryside. Good jobs for educated graduates are becoming harder to find. Small and Medium sized factories are closing down at alarming rates. Housing is becoming increasingly unaffordable. Pollution is out of control. Traffic is maddening. Freedom of Speech is denied. Speaking out against the government comes at a heavy price with imprisonment, financial difficulties and abandonment. And the list goes on.
With all these paradoxes and complexities, I found my conversation with Jackie to be incredibly interesting. Here are some of the main points he raised:
Decrease in opportunities for new university graduates:
Last year, 6.6 million students graduated university in China. Yet, over one million of them can’t find a good job. Most are holding off and not accepting the lower-paid jobs in hopes that there will be a turnaround. Jackie believes that China is good a “making” things (i.e factory level) yet not “creating” them. I found this to be an interesting point and wonder what it will hold for the future.
Education is central to Chinese mentality. Look at Confucius (551-479 BC) whose ideals were paramount in Chinese thinking for over 2,500 years. Education became a priority in China yet was briefly and tragically interrupted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) which pushed everyone out to the countryside and created an entire decade of uneducated peasants. Nowadays, all Chinese parents realize the importance of education and dream of giving their children a better life, out of poverty, through education. Rural and urban parents alike strive to provide the best education possible for their children so they can head out to the big cities to find a better life. If there are no good jobs to be had, this creates a big problem.
Pressure on the lower wage jobs: Made in China to stay?
Everyone knows that almost everything these days are “Made in China“. China’s enormous population has provided one of the greatest means to pull itself up out of poverty by its enormous labor force. However, rising costs have been difficult on these very factories that provide low-paying, low-skilled jobs. Many small to medium-sized factories are having a hard time competing and are forced to shut down, creating higher unemployment and unrest among many migrant workers. **
Economists have differing opinions on what the future will hold for China and whether or not these low-paying, low-skill jobs will migrate elsewhere where the labor costs aren’t as high and the supply costs are lower. Per the Financial Times article, “A workshop on the wane” (10/16/11):
“Slowing global demand for cheap Chinese exports, rising production costs and unsustainable levels of debt have combined to crush some of the country’s most savvy entrepreneurs. China’s economic success over the last 30 years has been built on cheap capital, cheap labour, cheap energy and cheap land but this has now produced huge imbalances and inefficiencies that are causing more and more problems.
But having drastically raised the living standards of almost a fifth of humanity, the formula is increasingly seen as defunct, and a contributor to serious problems including environmental degradation and rapidly rising social inequality. Time is running out for a model that has served it so well. ….but this does not mean that the end is nigh for the world’s second-biggest economy”.
China needs to adjust and adapt its market, what it is doing. Most economists predict a soft-landing for China, yet not without problems.
As the economy has boomed and China has been seduced like others by an enormous gains in the real estate market, many argue that China is also facing a real estate bubble. Per GMO***, “Property construction accounts for some 13% of GDP in the world’s second largest economy. Construction has been one of the most important drivers of economic growth” (Jonathan Anderson, UBS, March 16, 2011). Although it is hard to get a true and accurate picture of the Chinese real estate market since the government tends to hide unpleasant statistics, it is said that “there’s little doubt, however, that many Chinese feel they have been priced out of the property market. A 100 square meter apartment in China currently costs around 17 times average disposable income, according to Deutsche Bank”. I assume this must be what Jackie was referring to when he told us that the cost of apartments in Beijing has quadrupled since 2006.
Daily Life in Beijing becoming harder, more congested:
Jackie told us that China purchases 20 million cars and trucks per year. There are currently about 20 million citizens and 10 million migrants living in Beijing. There are 5 million cars. Last year, there were 2,000 new cars added every day in Beijing. Thankfully the government decided to put stricter controls on the huge increases in traffic and pollution. Now if you want a new car, there is a lottery system. This year there are 600 new cars added per day in Beijing. Traffic is also controlled by the numbers on your license plate.
Marriage and Family:
The average age of marriage in urban China tends to be 30 years old for men and 27 for women. In the countryside, it is generally around 20 years of age. The year 1979 represented the start of China’s famous “One Child Policy” as a way to control China’s massive, growing population. Over the last few years, the policy has changed a bit. In the countryside, if the first-born is a boy then a family is done. If the first child is a girl, then the family can try one more time for a boy. In the city, a family can have two children now (if they pay) yet it is very expensive and most families today have only one child.
Social and Political Change:
This is a very tricky question. While most Chinese are thrilled to have food on their plates, a job and a much better life than their parents, there are still huge inequalities and disparities among the people. Like many other young people, Jackie shared the opinion that as long as people’s lives are improving that there will not be any major “Asian Spring” or push to oust the strong-armed Chinese rule.
As an American, I found this so hard to believe and tried my best to examine everything with my “thirdeye”. I found China to be a confusing, frustrating yet fascinating place. So much has changed. Yet so much more needs to change. I will be highly interested in seeing what the future holds for China and whether or not such a brutal government can remain in power. It all remains to be seen, doesn’t it?
For further reading, please refer to the articles below which I used in my research:
(Note: The Financial Times online requires a free password. Some require a paid password for the premium service. I get the paper at home and only occasionally read it online. If you want to access the free parts, it is definitely worth doing as these articles are excellent, and the FT is a fabulous paper to learn about what is going on in the world).
*”Cautious Beijing keen to avoid domestic unrest” – Financial Times 11/21/11 (click here for article)
**”A workshop on the wane” – Financial Times 10/16/11 (click here for link to article).
***GMO “The Real Estate Cycle —September 2011.
Financial Times (print version):
“China labour costs soar as wages rise 22%” – 10/25/11
“Reshoring jobs from China won’t happen” – 11/13/11
Plus, for a fabulous book that I am in the middle of reading about 1990’s China, “China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn“.
Stay tuned…..more China coming up! I still have a ton of photos and stories to share!