A short bike trip today again reminded me of just how many worlds can exist alongside each other in China and how excited I am about this heady mix. Unlike the worlds in The City & The City of China Mieville which are a bit like oil and water, the worlds here are fast evolving and often touch and mingle. But there are big rifts, and the rapid pace of development widens the gaps between the different worlds.
From revolutionary to consumer
Firstly there are the vastly different worlds of the different generations, often living under one roof. The grandparents of today have lived much of China’s tumultuous history. As a result of difficult circumstances they are often very short but also tough, friendly and despite their advanced age active members of society. If they are not still working or gardening vegetables they are looking after their grandchildren. Unlike in Western society they are very visible in daily life which is really nice. They (and the generation of their children) provide evening entertainment by performing Chinese opera, water calligraphy or dancing in the park.
Their children had a lot more opportunities to thrive when China recovered from the Cultural Revolution. But, between 1979 and 2015 families could only have one child, resulting in today’s generation of privileged children. The focus of a whole family is on this one child, and as such, they have to work their little butts from a young age to become successful. They might not have a lot of free time but they do have a lot more money and love to spend it on smartphones, smart clothes and international travel. Their life is a world away from what their grandparents lived.
The wealth divide
The second division of worlds is determined by wealth. The newly wealthy Chinese middle classes are rich and growing fast. In 2000 only 4% was considered middle class. Now, if the idea of classes in a communist state is a bit odd, that is because China is not communist. It is ruled by the Communist Party, and as such it is a one-party state, but communist it is not. Joshua Cooper Ramo’s Beijing Consensus theory offers one explanation of China’s economic and political model: ‘the pragmatic use of innovation and experimentation in the service of equitable, peaceful high-quality growth, defense of national borders and interests and the use of stable, if repressive, politics and high-speed economic growth’. As it is different classes with huge differences in income exist. They are often separate (city vs countryside) but also often existing alongside eachother (garbage pickers and gardeners in rich neighbourhoods).
But, I digress. So, I am cycling today. It is raining hard but I am happy to be out and about on my day off. My legs are pumping and so is my heart. I feel fresh and even though the views are not spectacular I enjoy looking around. Along the bike lane many gardeners in Vietnamese conical hats are working to maintain the green borders and parklands between bike lane and lake. The hats are great in the rain; I have one as well and when I wear it I feel like being in a small bamboo hut, rain pattering on my one-person roof. On my left hand the shiny new SUV’s are whizzing by. Two worlds, only separated by a bike lane. Uniformed traffic wardens with big flags make sure everyone obeys the traffic lights. All around me new high-rise apartment blocks are shooting out of the ground and huge poster walls are advertising the brave new world of living in these stacked suburban paradises: (white) children are playing with a kite in a park, a shiny new train takes the commuters into town, happy minority people are dancing hand in hand, and the benevolent state shines down on its industrious citizens.
I keep cycling. As I get closer to home the rain clears. I come by a huge and brand new convention center. Nearby a new housing project is nearing completion, and a beautiful gate invites potential buyers to come in and purchase a part of this dream. There are guards at the gate: white-gloved young men in dazzling crispy white shirts. This world is not for everybody, only for the shiny SUV owners. More workers in Vietnamese hats are busy here, decorating the high wall that surrounds the housing project with astroturf and butterflies. A truck with new plants to decorate the projects gardens is blocking my way on the bike lane.
As I try to get around I almost crash into another world. An old man in dark blue Mao suit is shuffling towards me and I wait to let him pass. He is a bit shaky but lifts a hand in greeting. His face shows as much surprise as mine: 1950’s China meets a laowai on a bicycle who maybe teaches his grandchildren, on the doorstep of gated community for rich people. The Vietnamese hats keep working. Different worlds almost literally collide, and I am happy with this fleeting and courteous interaction with the China of the past. I am once more confronted with how rapidly things are moving here and how much has happened in the last 100+ years. Here’s to many more paths crossing and many more moments of mutual wonder, bridging the rifts and crossing the rapids that separate the different worlds.