I paid my first visit to mainland China a couple of months ago while attending the African Development Bank annual meeting in Shanghai. My first reaction was astonishment. Although hardly a day passes without some reference to China’s economic boom in the media, I was unprepared for what I saw.
I should have guessed what was in store as soon as we landed at the international airport. It is ultra-modern, sparkling, well signposted and did not feel cramped or crowded despite the large number of passengers arriving.
Attractive, bright red posters welcomed delegates for the ADB meeting – indicating in no uncertain terms the high prestige with which Africa is held in that country. A small army of student volunteers, all speaking either English or French, or both, greeted us politely and led us painlessly through immigration, customs and onto our transports. There were smiles and friendly greetings everywhere – not just for us but for all incoming passengers.
On the drive from the airport to the city, I was amazed to see the verges, all along the motorway, beautifully decorated with carefully tended hedges and flower beds. Behind these were trees so we felt surrounded by greenness. Somehow I had expected China’s second city to be dusty, industrial and brown.
We were riding in a luxury bus made in China. If someone had told me it was a top of the range Mercedes, I would not have argued. My student interpreter told me the bus had been specially constructed for ‘long peoples’ like me and my African and European colleagues.
The skyline of Shanghai could have been a major metropolis in the US; few European cities, with the possible exception of London’s docklands, can match it for the elegance of its buildings. The roads are wide, the pavements spotless and there is greenery and water fountains everywhere.
Traffic was heavy but orderly and, to my slight disappointment, there was an absence of the brigades of cyclists that one associates with Chinese cities.
The citizens and workers all looked very young. They obviously took great pride in their appearances and most were smartly dressed. They were very efficient even if some were struggling with foreign languages but, to my relief, had not lost their Asian politeness and courtesy as some of their fellow citizens in Hong Kong appear to have done.
Banners and flags announcing the ADB meeting were everywhere in town, reinforcing the special relationship that is growing between the two peoples. In a world in which Africans are often relegated to the back of the queue, this public embrace, equal meeting equal, made us feel proud to belong to the continent.
It is now a cliché that the Chinese work all hours of the day and night, but until you see them in action it is impossible to gauge what that means. No one says ‘no’ or ‘it cannot be done’. The only question you get is ‘when do you want it done?’. You can get a made-to-measure suit finished and delivered to you overnight and at a price which is less than one tenth of what you would pay for perhaps the same suit in a European store.
Pull, don’t push
“These people are not working as hard as they are simply to fend off hunger as is often portrayed; they are working to make their dreams come true,” said Mr Tang, a businessman from Hong Kong I had started a conversation with. “All around they can see people who have made their dreams come true – all those men and women driving shiny new cars, living in ultra-modern apartments and spending money like water.”
“But isn’t China supposed to be communist?” I asked. “What makes you think that poverty is a virtue under communism?” he retorted. “The whole point of communism was, and is, to eradicate poverty. What communism rejects is the idea of a few making money at the expense of the many; or a capitalist growing rich on the sweat of others but contributing nothing to the production process except his capital. Under communism, we want all to be rich. Some will be richer than others but that is alright,” Mr Tang insisted. “These bright young things enjoying wealth have created it from their own sweat and their own ideas. They are an example to the others – and that is why they will cheerfully work day and night. The pull factor,” he added, “is far more powerful than the push factor.”
I thought his explanation a little too glib for my liking and I had a number of counterpoints to offer, but I decided not to argue. I was not there to discuss politics but to watch the modern miracle of our time unfolding.
It is also difficult to argue against established facts. China has pulled 300m people out of poverty in a little over a decade. The process began much, much earlier – perhaps going back to Mao Tse Tung’s Long March and many mistakes were made along the way. But the aim of the country’s leadership had not faltered and now they have brought their people to the edge of the promised land.
Will the progress be sustained? Will there be a more equitable distribution of wealth? Will the average Chinese ever earn as much as the average Westerner? No one can know the answer to these questions but what is clear is that if there is a burning desire to uplift one’s people, nothing is impossible.