I recently finished up a short but hectic trip to China, specifically the Yangtze River Delta region, China’s most prosperous and most populous area, and where one half of my grandparents are from. The tour went to several cities of which the most well-known are Shanghai, Hangzhou and Suzhou.
Of course, going on a travel tour, a Mandarin-speaking one where I was the only non-Taiwan person, meant that there were many things that could have been better or avoided such as the frequent trips to boutiques selling stuff like pearls and silk. This was a staple part of the tour because this is how our Chinese guides earned the pay, from commission and not from salaries. Waking up at 5.30 am and leaving in the morning and coming back at 9 or 10 at night to a different hotel in a different city every day was also something that was seriously less than enjoyable. The amazing price of this tour was what made us choose it, it being so low that it was almost as if the hotel accommodation and restaurant meals were free, because ideally I would have preferred to just go to the key cities and spend a few days in each each. I didn’t spend more than a day in each city, so my views below are based on brief and fleeting observations and that certainly misses a lot of stuff.
It’s no secret that Shanghai and the Yangtze River Delta, which includes the provinces of Zhejiang and Jiangsu, have become amazingly developed in the past decade, and this was borne out by the amazing skylines, the amount of fancy apartment and office buildings, the massive construction projects, the proliferation of cars on the roads, and the general appearance of the people. In some ways, Shanghai and Hangzhou and even Wuxi are better off than Taipei. Their streets were larger, straighter and cleaner, and they had side lanes only for motorcyclists and cyclists, unlike Taiwan’s free-for-all. These cities were also more attractive than Taipei, though one can also say that some Taiwan cities are also more attractive than Taipei. The people weren’t dressed too shabbily too, and some of the women certainly match up to or exceed those here in terms of attractiveness.
But before people think that I must be getting drunk on the Communist Party’s Kool-aid, there were definitely some noticeable deficiencies. First is that, the apparent large number and immense size of construction projects may be good for economic growth rates and gives the impression of progress and wealth, but the question remains whether these projects can be fully utilized. I went to a huge mall in Suzhou on a weekday night and it was largely deserted though the stores were all open. I also noticed for many of the restaurants in all the cities except Hangzhou that we went to for lunch and dinner, there was a noticeable lack of patrons and many empty tables.
In Hangzhou, my mother and I broke away from the tour to have dinner with relatives and stroll along Xihu. This pleasant evening ended with a half-hour’s wait for a taxi to take us back to our hotel, that included seeing lots of taxis driving past but with passengers inside. The driver said that because it was a Friday, it was the busiest day of the week for taxis hence the long wait for a free one, but I thought such a major tourist destination and a wealthy city should not have such a scarcity of taxis. The street lights along Xihu were quite dim, though maybe this was to keep down light pollution along the lake, but so were the lights along some of the streets we drove past, suggesting maybe inadequate electricity or really serious electricity-saving measures.
China has the world’s largest population and this is reflected in its cities where little-known ones can have populations over one million. Hangzhou has over 3 million in its metropolitan area so it’s not surprising that transportation, especially public transit, can be insufficient. The most serious concern has to be whether all these new construction projects can really benefit the people or instead be large, fancy malls or office towers that may seem impressive but don’t have enough occupants or business.
This doesn’t take away from my feeling that China is becoming stronger and more prosperous, but it still has a long way to go to being considered a developed nation.