Reflections on a belated first trip to China

River in China in urban environment   

Jeremy Peat OBE

Jeremy Peat
Visiting Professor, International Public Policy Institute

16 June 2017

Way back in the first half of the 1970s I spent a great deal of time travelling around Asia, from India in the west to Japan and the Philippines in the east; and from Nepal to Vietnam further north to Indonesia in the south. My work there involved providing economic input into the UK Government’s aid programme to SE Asia. That included two years living in and travelling from Bangkok.

But I never went to China. I looked across the river border from Hong Kong, over the duck farms, so I saw China; but actually visiting China was at that time forbidden.

In late May I at long last paid a first visit to this remarkable country. But I went as a cynical 70+ old man rather than the bright-eyed and idealistic young fellow I was 40 odd years ago. I also went when so much has changed, when China is set to become the largest economy in the world; and after decades in which so much has changed in political, economic, social and environmental terms.


Panda business

I also went primarily in my role as Chair of Trustees of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland. So the main topic of discussions was Giant Pandas and our role in working with the Chinese authorities on their conservation; and my visit was restricted to Beijing, Chengdu and the rural areas around Wolong, close to the border with Tibet.

Nothing that I saw or noted would be novel to those who have visited in recent years, but I hope that a few, essentially anecdotal, reflections from an ‘old Asia hand’ who has waited so long for such a visit may be of passing interest to some.

The first reaction is simply scale. Greater Beijing has a population of some 34 million; nearly 7 Scotlands. Chengdu is just one massive city among many to have emerged in recent decades – amounting to a mere three Scotlands. The urban areas stretch on seemingly forever. Traffic is ceaseless and pollution ever-evident. In place of the one or two tower blocks you would see in London or Manchester there are 20 to 50 in Beijing. There is not one M25-type ring road but 5 or 6, and all clogged for much of the day and night. And Katie Melua will have to re-write her hit song. There must be far more than 9 million bicycles in Beijing!

Cyclists in China

One remarkable sight was that of Chengdu airport (which is simply huge) when we arrived at 1am. The airport was busier, in terms of arrivals, taxis and general hubbub than terminal 5 at Heathrow at peak time. Inevitably there were major traffic jams as we made our way into our (excellent) hotel. Drivers in China are limited in the number of week days on which they can drive into cities – odd numbers on number plates for certain days and even numbers for the rest. Goodness knows what impact this has had, but the traffic is horrendous.  I gather than many folk now, despite the high cost of cars, buy two with different plates so as to be able to drive in on all days.

As expected there are still idyllic rural areas, with crop-growing terraces and tea pickers looking very much as in ancient prints. But these rural areas are not untouched.

We drove up to Wolong, a major site for panda breeding but one which, along with the surrounding hills and valleys, had been severely damaged in an earthquake nigh on a decade back. The roads had been totally destroyed and re-construction is not yet complete. This is unsurprising even in China given the scale and complexity of the task – numerous tunnels of 20 km or more. After a slow trip up our driver decided we would return by the back roads. This meant braving more road works and more half-completed tunnels, still with delays albeit probably less than if we had followed the ‘express way’.

But most remarkable was the incredible volume of heavy goods vehicles. We must have seen approaching 10,000 such vehicles in our 3-4 hour trip in late evening, all heavily laden and all at least as large as the largest permitted on UK roads. It transpired that there is a huge amount of hydro power in the area, and easy access to many raw materials. So this area, just alongside a great national park, is a major centre for new manufacturing industries, with a massive scale of associated construction work. This rapidly evolving area will be just one amongst so many.

Before the visit I knew in theory about the massive rural/urban shifts which have been going on for decades. I knew in theory about GDP growth rates of 10%+ per annum and many times that growth in manufacturing and exports. But that did not fully prepare me for what is evident from even a brief and superficial visit. As an economist I would be fascinated to learn more about how this scale and speed of change is being managed. My understanding is that private/public partnerships thrive. The economy must be both market and managed.

Change in China

Finally, let me mention two elements of change of which I became aware. First, China appears wholly committed to environmental objectives. Our visit coincided with the Trump decision on the Paris Treaty, so China will have wished to be seen as the world’s new leader on this front, but the commitment to hydro power and as two other examples) planting unimaginable numbers of trees and building major rail networks is clear.

But given the pace of change, the scale of construction and manufacturing growth and the ever-growing volumes of road traffic can greenhouse gas emissions be controlled let alone reduced in the near future?

Second, the one child policy has departed. Its impact is widely visible, with groups of mother, father and adored child everywhere. First the policy was weakened to allow those couples who were both single children to have a second child; and now effectively all couples have that option. This must make sense given the impact of a rapidly ageing population, but there will be other impacts as family units expand from three to four. Social change is underway.

My apologies if this appears old hat and simplistic to many; but to me there was so much to take in and endeavour to comprehend. On my return to Scotland I found an invitation to a lecture entitled ‘Will China’s Economy Collapse?’ My simple answer is ‘no way’, but the ramifications for us all can never be overstated.