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Awakening the Sleeping Dragon

2011 June 3
Beijing, China

A clash of old and new: Beijing, China.

It’s no surprise that China is on everyone’s mind these days.

With a booming economy, the world’s largest population and a highly educated workforce, China is a force to be reckoned with. Since liberalizing economically in the late 80’s, the country’s cheap and highly efficient manufacturing base has made it the largest exporter and second largest economy in the world. Look around and you’ll probably see something that’s made in China: it could be the t-shirt you’re wearing, the laptop you’re using or the iPhone you’re carrying. In lockstep with it’s increasing economic clout, Chinese politics are also taking center stage as many of its governmental policies indirectly resonate throughout the rest of the world. China’s growth and modernization is the last couple of decades is nothing short of a modern day miracle.

But like any industrializing nation in the world, a price has been paid for this growth and prosperity.

A sense of what has been accomplished in China cannot be judged by one visit or a singular snapshot in time. Seeing its jungles of scaffolding and skylines of construction cranes without context is akin to reading a random page from a novel. To really understand and appreciate the changes, a viewpoint over time is needed. And as luck would have it, I’ve been fortunate enough to experience that.

– – –

I recently returned to Beijing for the first time in nearly two years.

Prior to my June 2009 visit, I also visited in 1995, 1998, 2000, 2005 and 2007. Beijing is a second home to me as I was born there and immigrated to the States when I was three. In these past 16 years or so, Beijing, like me, has grown quite a bit.

Faced with the demands of the burgeoning middle class, Beijing is showing signs of strain these days. More visible now than ever, a struggle between old and new is taking place in this city of 3,000 years. The idyllic scenes from yesteryears Beijing of bicycling commuters, low roofed-traditional buildings and piping hot street food have been replaced by noisy cars, glass skyscrapers and fast food joints. Old “hutongs” are being demolished to make way for new buildings and the pancake-flat city once perfect for walking or biking has been paved over with highways, bridges and on-ramps.

In 1995, I marveled at the number of bicycles I saw in Beijing. I had never seen so many in my life and they seemed to be everywhere at all times. Bicycle lanes had more traffic than the car lanes and carried as much, if not more people. But as the years went on and the people grew wealthier, this centuries old tool was gradually replaced by VW’s, Audi’s and Hyundai’s. Along with cars came traffic, congestion, and an ever increasing amount of smog.

Blue skies are few and far between now, to the point where China made them a priority during the Summer Olympics of 2008. But while cars are a contributing factor, the constant construction certainly doesn’t help. In 2007, there was a running joke that the national bird of China had become the construction crane. As far as the eye could see, these metal leviathans worked day and night constructing high-rise apartments, office buildings, super-sized malls and everything in between. And not only did the city build up, it also sprawled out in every direction.

Beijing, China

A newly remodeled/constructed shopping street in Beijing

The urban areas in China benefited most from the developing economy and as people saw the opportunities arise in the major cities, a nationwide migration began. Millions from the countryside flooded into Beijing and other cities, looking for better work, better schools and a better life. The old Beijing consisted of three concentric roads that expanded outwards from the ancient Forbidden City. But to accommodate the new population,  a 4th, 5th and even 6th ring roads were built and the land between developed as more houses, shops and schools.

What was once countryside is now residential, commercial and industrial districts. Beijing, like Los Angeles or Houston, has succumbed to the dreaded urban sprawl.

– – –

Modern Beijing is a crowded place.

A constant stream of people spilling on and off buses, in and out of malls, shops and restaurants. The subway cars are packed like a tin of sardines and the broad plazas filled to the brim with young and old. Many from these crowds are the young, educated and in a strikingly sobering way, unemployed.

Despite the economic “miracle”, many of China’s college graduates find themselves jobless. How is this possible in an economy that has grown at a near double digit rate? While the number of jobs has certainly increased, the economic boom has also drastically increased the number of qualified, college educated graduates. These graduates, most of them single children, have been raised in an environment where success in school and the workforce is not only desired, but expected.

In a twist of irony, China’s extensive education system has inadvertently increased the unemployment rate by creating a glut of white-collar workers. Driven to succeed by family and societal pressures, these graduates are often unwilling to take lower paying or “blue collar” jobs. It may seem selfish and pretentious to shun the blue collar jobs but in a culture where having “face” is just as important as how much you earn, the decision seems a bit more justified.

This lack of jobs, even more so than the crowding or pollution, is an enormous challenge going forward in China. Many of the newly grads have no choice but to return to school in search of post-graduate degrees. Two to three years later, they are back out in the workforce looking for the same jobs. Essentially, this is creating a vicious cycle where ever increasing educated people end up looking for the same crop of jobs.

It’s a well documented fact that high levels of unemployment leave to societal unrest so something must be done to combat this situation.

– – –

The Beijing of today is charging ahead into the 21st century.

Despite the communist government, there are signs of a Westernized and capitalistic society everywhere you look in the city: nice cars, shopping malls filled with name brands, flashy billboards and advertisements. It may seem selfish for me to wish for the “old Beijing” but who am I to judge when I am not living there?

People in China now have more access to goods and service than ever before, a growing middle class is leading a generation of wealth creation, and general quality of life has increased substantially.

But in the rush for riches, sometimes the long-term view is overlooked for short-term gains. It is important for the people of China to occasionally take a step back and ask themselves, “Is all of this sustainable?”.

Beijing and China will be an fascinating story in the coming years. And like the last 16, I’ll be watching intently.

Great Wall of China

China’s future is not so clearly paved like its Great Wall.

Last minute holidays to Beijing.

3 Responses leave one →
  1. skopes permalink
    June 3, 2011

    Good points Paul, with economic prosperity comes pollution. You only have one sentence about it, but it is a major cause for concern, in China and in the rest of the world too. Even just today in the news- “China Faces ‘Very Grave’ Environmental Situation, Officials Say” :
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/04/world/asia/04china.html?_r=3

  2. June 24, 2011

    Nice post. We went to the same section of Great Wall and loved it!

    • Paul permalink*
      June 24, 2011

      Thanks Kris. Yes, that climb was definitely one of the coolest things I’ve done in China. I’m glad I did it while it was still somewhat “undiscovered”.

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