I guess all of us ex-expats eventually get to the point where they've been long enough out of the country that it no longer quite resembles the country they lived in. Having been out of China for a few years since my last visit there, I visited Chengdu and Beijing on a whistle-stop tour whilst on business, here's my Tom Friedman-level analysis of what seemed to have changed:
- Pollution. The distance from my hotel in Chengdu to the largest mall in the world was roughly half a mile (i.e., about a kilometre), yet for large parts of my stay it was completely obscured by dust and smog. Despite my three years in Nanjing and two years in Shenzhen, I have never seen pollution as bad as the pollution I saw in Chengdu during the four days I was there. I used to be one of those assholes who would inwardly smirk when someone complained to me of getting a sore throat and sore eyes because of the pollution in China, but this time round it was me on the receiving end. Not nice.
- "Pollution Control". My visit to Beijing coincided with that of a prominent international figure, and surprisingly enough the skies were very clear indeed. Cynical minds try to draw a connection between these two facts. Whilst obviously there was no evidence of any connection, the idea that the government is basically ordering pollution-producing enterprises to do a stock-take during VIP visits to the capital is now widely-believed. Back in my Nanjing days, when Fidel Castro or Lian Zhan came to town, such thoughts wouldn't have entered our minds.
- Inequality. It used to be, at least in Nanjing, that you'd be able to identify the well-connected and corrupt by their driving of black Audis with military plates. Nowadays you're more likely to see them drive past your 8 kuai taxi in a Maybach, a Ferrari, or a Rolls Royce. You'll see fancier cars being driven through central Chengdu than you will even in central London. In Beijing, however, this trend was far less apparent.
- Prices. Many things, mostly those that rely on low-level labour, haven't changed much - the 8 kuai minimum taxi ride in Chengdu was about the same as it had been in Nanjing ten years previously, the rou bao I bought outside the hotel were about the same price I used to pay on my way to classes in 2005. What you do see some crazy increases of price in are the things that fall into the "conspicuous consumption" bracket - the price of a bottle of super-average Qingdao at one bar I visited was more than 70 RMB, up even from the ridiculous 40 RMB it had last been when I had been to the same bar three years previously.
- The Defensive Posture. There were police on every street corner of central Chengdu, with People's Armed Police brandishing automatic weapons in the area around the main square. Almost certainly this is a result of the recent Xinjiang-related terrorist attacks in China. All the same, it is likely to become a permanent fixture as these attacks don't seem likely to stop any time soon. Beijing was, surprisingly, far more relaxed and basically China as I remembered it in this regard.
- Street Food. For many China expats this is one of the great joys of living in China, however Street food seemed to have been banished from the centre of Chengdu and scarcely available elsewhere. Beijing, again, hadn't changed nearly so much in this regards, and you can still buy jian bing outside the Worker's Stadium.
- Low-Level Crime. The pirate DVD stores and "Barbershops" that you used to see on every street in the entire country seemed to have almost totally disappeared. I saw not a single one in Chengdu, and only a few DVD shops that may even have been selling genuine DVDs in Beijing. I'm told that outside the centres of big cities they are more apparent, but this is still a big change even compared to 2007.
Visiting this time I felt the contrast between Chengdu and Beijing to be almost as stark as the difference between the old China of seven years ago and the China of today. Beijing was largely familiar, China as I knew it, but Chengdu seemed almost to reflect a different idea of what the country should be.
A friend of mine, resident in China since the 90's, describes Chengdu as an example of "development at its least sustainable", and I feel tempted to agree with that, though I remember similar statements being made about China as a whole when I first arrived in-country. The fact that the area of Chengdu in which I was staying was already suffering from massive traffic jams and over-full subway trains without most of the buildings there even being completed yet, or without there even being an obvious user for such buildings, certainly backed up the idea that it was unsustainable.
[Picture: Taken at the Beijing Silk Market during a visit with colleagues. Just what on earth is the point of visiting the market if you can't even haggle any more?]