The four cities of China
This is the first in my series of articles on China. These are my own personal impressions of four Chinese cities – Beijing, Shanghai, Xian and Guilin. I have tried to compare them to Indian cities. I will be happy if you add your own impressions to the article.
This particular piece has become very long but I didn’t want to break up the post into several posts on different cities. My other write-ups on China will be shorter.
The first thing that hits you when you visit China are the well laid out cities, their sparkling cleanliness, the tall buildings and the absence of crowds! It was all unexpected, at least the lack of crowds. China has the highest population in the world at 1.3 billion but clearly the people are not concentrated in the main cities and anyway, the country is so huge, and the cities so spread out that the large population can probably be absorbed.
India, with its billion strong population seems vastly crowded as compared to China. All our cities are choc-o-bloc with people due to migration from the rural areas. In China there is rural migration as well, but I heard that the Chinese government controls it. People are not allowed to put up their shanties on pavements or on government or private land. In fact I read a news report which said that Beijing will be enforcing a population growth of an annual rate of 1.4 per cent, half of what it is now, and the population will not be allowed to cross 18 million. There are even suggestions to build communities for the old outside the city!
All the four Chinese cities that I visited were fancy – to my Indian eyes. The picture above was taken in Beijing, which is a beautiful modern city. I had had the impression that only Shanghai was modern, but no, even Beijing the capital is so. And not just Beijing. The modernity and westernisation is visible in the other cities too. Xian and Guilin. True, all these four cities are tourist cities, and it could all be an eyewash…but I don’t think so. The modernity was there to see and the cleanliness was real. Evident even in the poorer quarters. Cleanliness and discipline seem to be qualities well ingrained in the Chinese people.
The iron hand of the government was evident everywhere ofcourse. People dare not litter. People dare not break the traffic rules. People are careful here. And patient. All cars wait patiently in line at the toll booths. And no horns! They don’t need signs to tell them don’t use horns, people just don’t – not even in a traffic jam. This was so unlike India! Wasn’t China at least a little like India? Well, not in the looks and the sounds of the cities.
Beijing, in the northern part of China, is a cold, shiny city, kind of brand new. New buildings being built everywhere and not just apartment blocks but hotels and large complexes. But hey, the ugliness of construction is invisible to people on the roads. Every single building under construction (in all the four cities) was wrapped in blue and if there was any debris I didn’t see it even though we walked on the pavement right outside.
In India, ugly constructions are visible everywhere and builders don’t bother to remove debris even after the job is done. I couldn’t help feeling a little sad. Why can’t we enforce rules on the developers and builders? I know there is a law which imposes heavy fines on builders who leave debris lying around…but it doesn’t seem to work.
I liked the fact that when the Chinese authorities build flyovers, they make sure to protect residents living in nearby buildings from sound pollution (these were seen in all four cities) as seen in the picture below:
Beijing is preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics and the stadium is being built in the shape of a bird’s nest:
In Beijing there is not a speck of dirt anywhere, not even in the tourist areas which were thronging with people. I looked. And looked. They clean everything constantly! Considering that the city hosts over 15-16 million people (China’s second largest city), I thought this was pretty good show. Fines for littering are strictly enforced.
A taxi driver told us that just about 15 years ago Beijing was nothing, it was poor. All the flyovers, the buildings, in fact everything has been built recently. You can see the newness of it all. Old buildings pulled down. New ones built. I do not know what Chinese cities were like 20 years ago, but the fact that most of the buildings in all the cities look new, I guess everything has been rebuilt. If China has achieved all this in just about 20 years hats off to them.
I guess the speed with which China has achieved this cannot be replicated in a democracy like India. Pulling down even one old building creates a lot of protest and several court cases. Also poor tenants are given a lot of importance, they have to be re-housed. Even if one tenant protests there are legal complications and delays.
One good thing about the Chinese cities – in the hectic building spree the Chinese have left plenty of open public places for people. Several public gardens, wide pavements without hawkers, places outside malls with benches to sit on. And look at these buses. These are the government buses for ordinary people. At first I couldn’t believe my eyes. These buses seemed so first world but they were in China. And not just in Beijing and Shanghai – but in other cities too.
It’s the pollution that took me aback. Beijing is so polluted that my eyes started to smart. The smell of it is strong in the air. An article in a recent issue of the Economist says that the Chinese government is taking cars off the roads (cars with odd and even numbers allowed on alternate days) to reduce the pollution levels in Beijing – all to impress the hordes that are going to descent on the city next year during the Olympics. Well, when the government decides to do something, they succeed. But the truth is that China is growing so fast that pollution control measures have not been put in place. There were newspaper reports of growing cancer rates.
To a limited extent one can compare Beijing to Delhi. Wide roads, flyovers and the general impersonal and formal atmosphere. Wealth and power seemed to matter a lot here.
We traveled by train from Beijing to Xian. And got an opportunity to see the countryside. The villages we saw on the way were clean and neat. Even the distance between houses was equal, they were all built with a design in mind. These people were poor but they were hard working. In the early hours of the morning we saw men and women out in the fields – exercising!! Never seen anything like that in my life. There was poverty, but poverty doesn’t necessarily mean dirt. That is what we in India seem to believe. That poverty and filth go together.
I liked Xian (pronounced Shian or Sian) the best, inspite of the pollution. In the picture you can see the haze over the city. Xian has a power plant in the city and the city also happens to be the largest industrial centre in that part of the country. It lies west of Beijing, in the interior.
It is a cultural centre, with a history of 3000 years. The city has character. Plenty of old buildings and quaint architecture. It’s not crowded – just over 8 million people. There are a lot of students from other parts of China in Xian as it is known for its academics. Not as many colleges as Beijing and Shanghai’s ofcourse, but its a place thats cheaper to live in. There was a lot of new construction happening in this city too and the new apartment buildings coming up are expensive, similar to Indian real estate prices.
If one has to compare this city to any in India, I guess I would say maybe Bangalore, maybe Pune. Not the looks of the city ofcourse as Xian is not crowded and nor does it have traffic problems. In sheer beauty it wins over most Indian cities. The comparision can be made purely because of the feel of the city, its history, and the fact that it’s an industrial and academic centre. Software is coming up here too.
This city, in the south east of Xian, is a place of scenic beauty as it is surrounded by hills but at the same time is as modern as the rest of the cities. It is the least polluted of all the cities we visited. It has a population of less than 1.3 million, and is on the bank of the Li River. It is a beautiful well planned city. Wide roads, open spaces, big gardens, tree lined avenues. The picture below is that of a mall and the tables outside are for the public to sit on..it is not a restaurant. Its for the poor and the rich alike but as you can see there are hardly any people there. We sat there for a long time, looking at the people. In India such a place would be too crowded to be in.
I couldn’t think of any Indian city that Guilin could be compared with. Chandigarh maybe?
On the banks of the Yangtze River on the eastern coast of China, lies Shanghai, China’s commercial capital. It has awesome buildings and all seem to have unique designs:
The city is crowded and dirty if one compares it to other Chinese cities, but not crowded by Indian standards and certainly not dirty. Its just that by now I was looking around to see some kind of litter and actually managed to see scraps of paper lying about! No real dirt though. No open drains, no shit and urine on the roads like in Mumbai even though this city seems to contain a fair amount of poor people. Even the shanties which dotted the city were cleverly barricaded from view. I peeped into one narrow gully which housed some so-called slums. Yes, there were unpainted and shabby rickety houses with clothes hanging out of the windows (the picture on the left is not an example of that) but there was cleanliness. No stink at all. The paths which led inside were clean and well swept. The fact is that no one, absolutely no one uses the city as a toilet. Waste is thrown into dustbins. Fines are strictly enforced.
I guess a westerner will take all this for granted, but we Indians can’t. After all Shanghai is is China’s most populated city, with about 20 million residents, the ninth largest in the world. But its been kept clean.
However, the city reminded me instantly of Mumbai. The scurrying people, the general buzz. Some of the architecture reminded me of Mumbai too, but ofcourse most of the buildings in Shanghai are plusher. I did see some hawkers in the inside lanes but they were few and far between. But looking at Shanghai I can why our politicians compare Mumbai and Shanghai and can understand their desire to turn Mumbai into Shanghai. I am not sure how this is possible because there is no strict enforcement of anything here.
The warmth, the friendliness of the people in Shanghai is in contrast to the cool atmosphere in the other cities. People smile more easily here and wear more casual clothes. Its the people which give a city its personality and Shanghai is warm, friendly and helpful.
Written a few hours later: I forgot to add something. There were no stray dogs in China! Not a single one! And in these four cities we were driving from one end to the other, and in smaller lanes too, for shopping and for meals. And what was really strange was that there were no birds! Not a single one except in Guilin where one heard a distant chirp. I am still trying to figure out the complete absence of birds. It wasn’t cold out there. It was summer and the skies were blue and the weather superb.
(All pictures have been taken by me in the last 8 days)
Related Reading: The Chinese people
Food in China
What tourists can expect in China
China and India – an inevitable comparision
China’s claim to an Indian province is preposterous
Ex-Governer of Hong Kong (Patten) talks about the future of China ten years after it was handed over to the Chinese.