In the soft-seat waiting room of the Chengdu North railway station, and damn glad there were no hard seats available on our T888 to Chongqing. Chengdu was a good place to relax, to save money, and to eat good food. We saw the two main things we planned to see, and had the good sense not to run around too much. Sim's Cozy Guesthouse was our oasis - it's bar especially - and given that the city itself had nothing much to recommend it, and the cloud of pollution (or was it really fog?) made it even less attractive, we felt no pressure to leave Sim's without good reason.
In the last few days we have seen a very different side of China. We've taken more public transport, got much further outside the city limits, and seen the countryside, through a dense cloud of ever-present smog. The tidiness we noticed in Beijing remains - there is no shortage of people who can be employed to sweep the streets clean. But Beijing now appears relatively organized compared with here in Chengdu. When you hear about the increasing inefficiency of the Chinese economy, and the fact that it needs more and more investment to extract the same level of growth, you feel you can almost see the physical manifestation of this on the streets. The country is creaking under the weight of its own success. It clearly needs some period of consolidation to concentrate on doing things smarter, laying the way for future, more sustainable growth.
(In software terminology, the country needs some time to refactor itself. It has rushed headlong to meet its deadlines, but the economy has probably lost so much of its shape as a consequence that it cannot be further built upon for much longer without losing its ability to return on any investment.)
Some ideas and practices will have to be thrown away (how can entrepreneurs feel secure about their efforts if basic issues like private property are so nebulous?) and others will have to be modified (can the one-child policy be sustained in the face of an aging population and a widening gender imbalance?). It's hard to change the behaviours and mindsets of even a modest-sezed group of people - I have no idea how you go about doing it with 1.2 billion people.
Here's some concrete signs of an unstable economic platform that, for want of a better term, I'll call sino-sprawl:
1) The traffic:
It's not that there aren't any rules - it's just that they're not the same as the ones that are presumeably written down somewhere. You get the feeling that the roads have outgrown the old rules and have evolved new ones. The result is a kind of intelligent system, but one which is firstly not amenable to any kind of further planning or rationalization, and secondly is teaching a new generation of road users all the wrong things. I will never EVER complain about Italian drivers again. Their somewhat ambivilant attitude to lane discipline is just a change in accent compared to the indecipherable language of Chinese driving.
I haven't seen a blue sky since our first day in Xi'an. "So what" say the Irish readers, "we haven't seen one since September". Well, let me put it differently: I haven't seen more that 5 city blocks into the distance in these past few days. Some locals here have defended the situation by saying to me "What about the famous London fog?" Well I think it might still have been around in Sherlock Holmes' time, and I suspect that this is why it's so famous. But I seem to remember that even this 'fog' was a product of England's industry rather than its climate. Suffice to say that certain part of China seem to be choking themselves, and there are surely kids around here who have never known anything else.
In Beijing we marvelled at the newness and the growth. In Cork, the tallest building in the Republic of Ireland is nearing completion,but it would be lost in scale, and long forgotten in construction time, if it had been build in Beijing. All very impressive, until you look at the skyline of Chengdu. There are a great many successful large building projects underway here, but there are also some skeletal remains of buildings that have run out of financing - and some eyesores that you kind of wish had suffered the same fate. China is building fast, yes, but also loose.
This is only a superficial observation (well of course all these observations are), but if I were a foreman on Shopfloor China, I'd like to ask half my workers what the hell they were doing. A lot of jobs seem to involve hanging round a lot, or playing cards waiting for something to happen. I wouldn't like to get up on the scaffolding I saw being erected in downtown Xi'an by 4 lads, 2 of whom were blindly banging their spanners against joints, looking at the passing city crowds instead of concentrating on the job in hand. I've never worked on a building site, so perhaps I've got it all wrong. Maybe it wasn't dangerous - just inefficient. But I think this is the whole point. When you have enough people available to work at low wages, you can afford to be inefficient. China has appears to have allowed herself to go this way.