Yesterday it was exactly five years since I started my career as a foreign correspondent in China. To dwell upon this accomplishment and to figure out for myself what it has meant to me I wrote a blogpost for my newspapers website. But since that is in Dutch only and the observations are not exclusively Dutchie I hereby provide to all my non-Dutch speaking friends an English translation. And no, it’s not (yet) a “why I am leaving China”-piece.
That piece eventually will come probably, but not right now. I’ll be in China for at least another year.
Living in China is in so many ways different from living in Holland or any other country for that matter. I always brag about how more dynamic and fast paced living in Shanghai is, but it’s hard to really let people who are not living in China understand or feel that notion. What does dynamic mean? How do you explain what it is like to live in a country where the economy grows about eight times as fast every year compared to the economy in my home country The Netherlands?
Growth percentages in itself don’t tell much. But someone once told me the best way to illustrate it, is by realizing that people in China are experiencing changes in one year, that people in low-growth countries experience over a period of many years.
Let’s take Holland. According to figures of the World Bank the average annual growth between 2007 and 2011 was 1,2%. China over the same period reported an annual growth of 9.1%. The Chinese economy expanded by about 50% in the last five years, compared to just 6% for the Dutch economy.
That would mean that I saw changes around me in the last five years that would have taken about 40 years to take place in Holland. And I think that is about right. The most visible changes were the expansion of infrastructure-works and the construction of a huge number of tall buildings, shopping malls and hotels, but change was not restricted to these kind of hardware. The last half decade also yielded new policies and changes in social development in China and Shanghai.
Three Apple Stores
But let’s take a look at the hardware first. Today I can book a hotel room in five star hotels like The Peninsula, The Waldorf Astoria, The Puli, Park Hyatt, Hyatt on the Bund, numerous Marriotts or The Ritz Carlton in Pudong. Five years ago, none of these hotels existed in Shanghai.
I now can buy an iPad in Shanghai in one of three official and huge Apple Stores, a Nokia-phone in the Nokia flagship store and luxury items at flagship stores of Louis Vuitton, Prada or Gucci, all of which weren’t there in 2007.
For my clothing needs I have a choice between among others stores of C&A, American Eagle, Uniqlo, Gap and Marks & Spencer, which also weren’t there five years ago. If I one day would win the lottery I then could spoil myself in two Aston Martin-dealerships or buy a Rolls Royce, Bentley, Ferrari or Lamborghini.
The last five years in Shanghai two new large airport terminals were built (at Pudong International Airport and Hongqiao International Airport), as well as Asia’s largest train station, six new subway lines, numerous road tunnels, a two kilometer double deck tunnel underneath the historic Bund, an international cruise terminal, the biggest bridge-tunnel combination in the world and a large expansion at the Yanshan Deepwater Port. Disneyland is under construction.
I now can take an elevator to the 100th floor of the 492-meter tall Shanghai World Financial Center to gaze at the city. The building wasn’t there in 2007. When I’m standing in the highest observation deck in the world I can see at least fifteen skyscrapers taller than 200 meters, that were not there when I arrived in Shanghai five years ago. The Shanghai Tower, to be completed in 2014, is already past the 300 meter-mark, almost half of its final height of 632 meter.
Biggest underground theatre in the world
If I want to go out at night and enjoy some culture, I can buy a ticket for a musical in the world’s biggest underground theatre or I can have drink in one of many international wine bars or (Belgian) beer cafés, that have been opened in the last couple of years. I never lit a cigarette in my life, which I guess is good since Shanghai now has a smoking ban in restaurants and pubs, although enforcement is another thing.
Plastic bags now cost money and the taxi fares today start at 14 yuan, compared to 11 yuan in 2007. There is a bit more attention for food safety in Shanghai and monitoring is more intense now. There’s also a bit more care for animal welfare I think and the number of crimes that you could get the death penalty for has been reduced. Change is not only happening in buildings and concrete.
Most dynamic city in the world
Of course, the changes I describe only represent a tiny portion of all the changes that have taken place. In no way did I try to provide a full or complete picture. There are undoubtedly more new skyscrapers, five star hotels, sports stadiums and infrastructure works that I ‘missed’. Furthermore, apart from all the positive changes a lot of things didn’t change at all in the last five years or even took a turn for the worse, like the growing inequality, moral degradation, traffic jams, etc.
But in any case the last five years in Shanghai have been like a whirlwind to me. My blood pressure probably is a couple percentage points higher now than it was five years ago. My hearing is less, thanks to the constant honking and shouting all around me and my lungs are a bit more black. But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Today I happily start my sixth year in China.