Posted by: ginalazenby | January 20, 2009

China on wheels

I watched a very interesting documentary on the plane here to Hong Kong.  It talked about how China has been going through an industrialisation process at warp speed. Once a country where individualism was frowned on, the Chinese are now apparently fascinated by western consumerism. While only 2% have cars, car ownership shows status and is the pinnacle of desire. Hong Kong has long been an outpost of western trends so this really applies more to cities like Beijing; somewhere I visited back in 1995 and would have loved to have re-visited now.
Back to the influence of the car on the Chinese psyche: Cars are largely bought by men to reflect their advancing position and identity.  During the reform years of the 1990s most people were too busy making money, now they seemingly have the chance to enjoy their money for the first time. 150 million Chinese jobs are now car related! Everybody working in the auto industry feels they are working to the advancement of the country by making cars literally putting it on wheels!.  They are paid twenty times less than western workers so the word is that it will be a WHEN not IF the Chinese expand their manufacturing overseas.  The programme talked about the people’s devotion to their work as they believe it will drive their economy faster. Twelve of the 16 most polluted cities in the world are in China. 400,000 people a year now die from respiratory disease. The USA’s Environmental Protection Agency says that 25% of the particulate pollution in California is from China.  If the Chinese continue to consume at the rate of the USA then four planet earths will be needed to resource this hunger.
Apparently history is being stripped from the ancient chinese cities to make way for wider roads.  The residential Hutongs are being demolished. Chinese officials, in partnership with profit-oriented development companies are dismantling neighbourhoods with 600 years of cultural history being wiped out.  Local activists feel impotent as they cannot sue local officials and are unable to march in protest.  In the last three years, one third of old Beijing has been destroyed, some of it replaced by gated communities with mock Italian and Roman architecture.

The film showed scenes where men were returning home to the mountains to see their families. Originally some of them had left their villages in a tractor with a single dollar in their pocket. Now they are returning in beautiful gleaming cars so the respect they are getting from their fathers and neighbours is huge. That is sad enough news and yet the programme also pointed out that this relative “sudden” wealth is sabotaging society as the men are not growing spiritually at the same rate as they are materially. The young men have got rich so quickly that life feels like a dream to them – they no longer believe in anything anymore and prefer to live their lives around their cars.
It’s like witnessing a rise and potential fall at warp speed; watching a generation grow up and make the mistakes we made and wanting to tell them to do things differently but we get told to “shut up”. We know the pitfalls, we have been there. It’s a pity that society has to go through this ‘deaf ear phase’. They are not listening to the words of the older, wiser “been-there, done-that” western community and who can blame them?

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