I just spent a couple of weeks in a second-tier city in Hunan province, China. As usual, I went home with the idea that the planet is indeed going to hell. Unlike cosy Belgium that feels not only  peaceful and tranquil but even a bit provincial, compared with the emerging Asian superpower, China forces you to focus on the issues and challenges that currently matter in this world. Climate change is already a clear and present danger in the country, with now also heavy rainfall in North-Eastern China (with Beijing hit by the worst rainstorm in 60 years on July 23), in addition to the usual flooding and typhoons in the South-East. Chinese citizens need no more convincing of the climate threat. To my surprise even the gloomy 2012 “end of the world” predictions are a bit of a ‘running gag’ in Chinese conversations these days, and that in a country that consistently scores high in comparative surveys when it comes to ‘optimism on the future’.

Ongoing geopolitical shifts (the tension in the South-China sea was covered extensively while I was there), a growing Chinese middle class enthusiastically embracing American-style consumerism and trying to live the ‘Chinese dream’ (even if the posh upscale department stores are still nearly empty), ‘green economy’ pilot cities (Hefei for example, in Anhui province), … but also rising labour costs, the increased cost of living (how about 200 Euros for electricity charges in an average apartment for a two-week period, admittedly, turning the airco on at night? As usual, I wondered how on earth the Chinese have managed double-digit growth in the sweltering heat that seems all too common in Chinese cities in summer), …

Obviously this is still a country in transition, and we will all feel the consequences of the Chinese growth and development path. A recent book, ‘As China goes, so goes the world’, summarizes the situation aptly, in my opinion, although I don’t want to imply that the US, Europe and other BRIC countries will play no role at all in this century. For one, if ‘Romney Hood’ gets elected in November, it’s probably also ‘game over’ for the planet.

Facing the many (ugly) skyscrapers, I also realized again that this is a country with a huge population, with all the problems you can expect related to this. Combined with the rapidly rising expectations of people, and the glaring inequalities, I understood the Chinese political leaders’ focus on ‘maintaining stability’ somewhat better than at home.  Yet, I agree with China-watcher Kerry Brown when he argues that, after 30 years of Mao leadership (till ’76) and 30 years of reform (gaige), opening up (kaifang) and focus on maintaining stability (weiwen), if the communist party wants to continue at the helm for another 30 years, it will have to change – again – its leadership and governance style. Profoundly. China is once again at a crossroads. Having said that, western-style democracy is currently not very appealing to many Chinese, given the mess in Europe and the US.

In spite of the vast domestic challenges, China still seems able to implement a long-term vision, unlike the West (for example through massive investments in public transport (subways for example), the green economy and social security schemes), even if there are widespread complaints about corruption (fubai) of officials and the ‘bling bling’ culture of bureaucrats.  African countries should no doubt learn from this Chinese example: how do you sustain development and maintain a long-term focus, while accepting a certain level of corruption? Of course, in the West, we have a much ‘superior’ form of corruption, with the ‘revolving door’  between investment bankers and ministers of finance, the massive lobby machines in Washington and Brussels, and more in general the disproportional leverage of multinationals and the financial sector over our so-called democracies. (Good we can still feel smug about something in this new era.)

It was also interesting to notice, in a country where Confucianism has traditionally emphasized the teacher-student relationship, that some Chinese editorialists now proclaim that ‘the student has at last overtaken the master’, commenting on the Europeans who can boast many well-known economists (Keynes, Smith, …) but seem to have forgotten how to manage the Eurozone economy – presumably, unlike the Chinese, who do a good macro-economic job in difficult circumstances. We will see whether that remains true in the coming years. There is obviously some similarity here with the end of ‘donor-recipient’ terminology in the development and aid world. We are all partners now, and everybody can and should learn from everybody. The more so as also Africa stands at a crossroads, now that the continent has once again the opportunity to capitalize on its enormous natural resources to develop and grow (hopefully the growth will be people-oriented, sustainable and job-creating). Even better, this time there are plenty of interested partners.

While enjoying the airco, there was also more than enough time to watch Chinese television. CCTV 9, the English channel catering to expats and now also to the rest of the English-speaking world, looks more professional (and also more slick) than before. The channel also seems to pay quite some attention to Africa – Hillary Clinton’s speech in Dakar was extensively covered and discussed, for example. I enjoyed watching the channel.

The news bulletins of CCTV 1, aimed at the Chinese population, are anything but slick, though. In fact, they are still in the stone age, for some mysterious reason (but I have to admit that even after three cups of instant coffee, the Mandarin of the news speakers still went way too fast for me). Bottom line though: I don’t know how CCTV 1 can still get away with this sort of very formal news, in an increasingly competitive media environment, with many commercial tv channels and the pressure of social media – the micro-blogging site Sina Weibo, a hybrid of Twitter and Facebook, is probably the most influential one.

I also had time to read a couple of Chinese newspapers and magazines on the plane, such as  ‘China Daily’, ‘Global Times’ and ‘China Today’. As expected, there was some positive reporting on the rural medical insurance scheme NCMS (by Chinese journalists), and, perhaps more surprisingly, a very positive account of Traditional Chinese Medicine by an expat writer in Beijing.  Eat that, BMJ.

One thing that struck me again in Changsha, a city of about 7 million people, was the absolute lack of ‘foreign faces’ in second-tier cities. Even in places where you’d expect them, like Starbucks or Carrefour, I hardly came across other ‘laowai’. That only changed at the airport. The Chinese interpret globalization in another way, it seems.

The other thing you can’t help but wonder about, while wandering in the crowded streets, is what the impact of the new generation will be in China, the generation of so called ‘little emperors’. The post-80s generation – virtually all ‘only children’ –  is perhaps not as hardworking as the generations before them that turned China from a rural society into the ‘Factory of the world’, but – at least according to an article in China Today – they are less spoiled and have more skills, assets and stamina than one might expect. Of course, if some of the kids nevertheless want to take it easy, there’s always the whip of the merciless Chinese education system (until the age of 18, that is), pushy ‘Tiger mom’ parents and, for the more materialistically-oriented ones among them, the irresistible appeal of capitalist gadgets and Chinese ‘bling’ to spur them on.  I have to say though, after baby-sitting two (very) selfish post-2000s kids for a couple of weeks, and watching endless quarreling between them: I seriously despair about this generation. If they’re the ones who have to deal with the planet’s predicament, we’re truly fucked.

Finally, Chinese media duly covered their ‘evergreen’ issue – the cross-strait relations with Taiwan – but it was the coverage of the Olympics that was all over the place, of course. The daily ranking of gold medals featured prominently on screens in airconditioned buses for example. Chinese athletes did a great job, like in Beijing four years earlier, for example in table tennis, badminton and diving. Some patriotism was to be expected and can be forgiven, as even the Brits got carried away. It was insightful though to witness the (social) media buzz around Olympic badminton champion and sex-symbol Lin Dan (aka China’s ‘bad boy of badminton’), or the conspiracy theories, anger and grief over hurdles star Liu Xiang’s injury, the disqualification of a Chinese female badminton team, and the treatment of female swimming prodigy Ye Shiwen in a part of the western press.  The Chinese media obviously had a point in some of their criticism on western journalists. Understandably, disparaging comments by some English media on the Chinese athletes and the Olympic disciplines in which they seized gold, as compared to the ones in which the British excelled, also didn’t exactly go well with the Chinese public. Finally, it did hurt that the Americans finished on top with 46 gold medals.

More importantly though: in this multipolar world of ours, it now seems almost a must to watch, read and digest other countries’ perspectives and media, whether they’re Chinese, Indian or African. The BBC seems to understand this – it provides now a daily media roundup of Chinese newspapers. Even if foreign media might feel ‘streamlined’ to some extent, taking into account other angles and perspectives appears increasingly vital, if we are to make sense of this complicated world. The problem is: where will we find the time and energy to do so?

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