The old journo’s adage says, “no one cares about 6 million deaths but give me the story of one child’s suffering and it will make front page.” The bottom line is that, as humans we battle to comprehend scale. As a “hick” from the bottom of Africa it was difficult enough to comprehend scale in US terms, let alone Chinese terms. Statistics about 350 million and 1.4 billion people, respectively roll off our tongues. But in the same way as the numbers in a lead story, we don’t know how to process or understand them. We academically get it, but we don’t really...until you see it, in action.
As an example, when we booked Walt Disney World, we academically understood there were 5 parks and 30 odd hotels but even then, that didn’t prepare us for the scale of it. The bus from our hotel to Magic Kingdom went onto a turnpike larger than anything we’d seen before and took 25 mins to get to another part of the park, i.e. Magic Kingdom. I would hazard a guess that the Disney’s bus infrastructure moves many more people than Cape Town’s myCiti busses in a day! The combined Walt Disney World parks have a capacity of just under half a million people, (including staff) which is larger than the population of Christchurch, New Zealand. Spare a thought for the turkeys, Disney serves up 1.5 million turkey drumsticks each year!
Now move into China where the combined populations just two cities, Beijing and Shanghai, are equivalent to that of the whole of South Africa. Nowhere was this reality brought home more to us, than in our site-seeing. Whether on the Great Wall or visiting the Panda’s in Chengdu, the queues (a polite word for the scrummaging required to get into places) was almost incomprehensible. Maybe this was because the China I visited 15 years ago was impressive but it was a manufacturing hub for the world. It was based on cheap labor and the mass of humanity was migrating aspirations from a bicycle and a watch to an apartment and a car. The bottom line was that there wasn’t as big a middle class, competing to consume the things I liked, or see the things I went to see. Fast forward to today. However loosely one may define “middle-class”, at 20% or 30% of the population that is somewhere between 300 million and 450 million people. That is bigger than the entire population of the USA, who’s scale we battled to comprehend just a few months prior. This means more people than the entire population of Europe who now shop, buy ice-creams and sneakers and many of whom travel to see and discover their country and its rich history.
As a result China has had to create the infrastructure to support this movement of people. As I write this we are on a bullet train from Xi’an to Beijing. My beer is barely moving on the table but the speedometer reads 306km an hour. This means we will cover a thousand odd kilometers, including some stops in a little over 4 hours. It doesn’t matter which way you look at it, that level of development is truly amazing. But to continue the theme of my last blog, that’s not the same as saying its all good. This is our 3rd train trip in China, covering much of the landmass, which is the size of the U.S. The view out the window has, with one or two exceptions, remained like footage of the World at War, constantly coloured by the grey palour of smog. This duality is noticeable everywhere. In China, there is an understandable pride in what has been achieved but there is also grudging acceptance that this is often as a result of quick fire-solutions that have to be regularly pasted over, lest the cracks, both physically and metaphorically, start to show.
If the local press is to be believed, the focus has started to shift to the environment. Every second or third article makes mention of initiatives both private and public to clean up and green public spaces and reduce pollution. Putting aside my cynicism for a moment, like the person with a steaming coffee at his or her first AA meeting, at least they have recognized the problem. The difficulty, like the alcoholic, comes in staying off the juice that has made them so successful, i.e. rapid infrastructure development. Thankfully, there is also good economic reason to believe that the change in behavior may well happen. China has excess capacity, particularly in infrastructure businesses. Continued supply without demand will be a death knell for the Chinese economy and one gets the sense that the authorities understand this. The policy response has been to direct this excess capacity into the “One-belt, One road” initiative and onto the African continent. In short, subsidizing infrastructure in China’s neighbors and trade partners that will ultimately benefit Chinese exports and businesses. It’s smart, very smart.
The question remains, given how the Chinese treated their own environment during their own expansion and given that this is now, less of a domestic issue, how will environmental issues be dealt with? Is it a case of out of sight, out of mind or will some of the lessons learnt be taken on board? In short, I think that Africa has much to learn from China. Infrastructure has been the big enabler or platform on which the rest of the rapid economic transformation has happened and can happen on the continent. That said we have to be the guardians of our environments and eco-systems both real and economic. We need to be wary of the aid-mindset. Like the Sihanoukville example a previous blog, large subsidized projects may seem like a gift but can also be a poison chalice. Only we can ensure that we don’t allow wholesale destruction of precious natural resources, and that we take on only enough debt, however it may be couched, so that our children’s future is not crippled.....
Oops... it seems I tripped over my soap-box again.