Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Adventures on the Streets of Shanghai

Written By: Miringu Kiarie
Program Intern, World Affairs Council of Atlanta
Student, University of West Georgia
Published: 4/5/2016

Prior to this year I didn’t quite know what to expect of China. I didn’t want to go into the country with a ready-made rubric of experiences to be contrasted and checked off, I wanted to arrive in China with an open mind and a lot of curiosity. Of course, the study abroad classes I took this semester gave me interesting insights into the condition of China’s population and economy. I found out that China had the 2nd largest economy in the world behind the United States. I learned that the Communist State is home to 1.3 billion people. I also come across numerous reports that pollution was one of the biggest challenges China faced. By the time we were set to leave I had formed some ideas of what China would be like. I can sum them as follows: heavily populated, modern, and aesthetically pleasing.

As the plane descended into Beijing I was able to make out the dull, yellow haze of smog trapped within a city by surrounding mountains. Through the smog I could just make out some of the architectural patterns of the buildings and natural aesthetic of the surrounding landscape, it was at that point that I realized the renowned beauty and infamous pollution of China weren't just present but subtly striking. I’ve been in some poor air environments before but nothing like the sort in Beijing. Still, I didn’t mind it, I was more concerned for the long term health of the city’s residents. It was striking to see face masks litter the crowd throughout the day, it put the air quality of most American cities into perspective. That being said, even in the smog the splendor of China’s architectural feats were a sight to behold.

I had the opportunity to visit India a few months earlier and my first observation was that the streets were overflowing with vehicles. India appeared to be overpopulated and since China has even more people than India I was expecting a similar experience. However, I found both Beijing and Shanghai to be fairly spacious. When we arrived at the airport in Beijing it seemed as if we were the only ones there; the streets were similarly sparse at night. In both cities daytime traffic was often slow and backed up but oddly comparable to rush hour traffic on 285 in Atlanta.

I expected both cities to be heavily industrialized and skyscrapers to fill their horizon. This turned out to be true for the most part, more so for Shanghai than Beijing. The scope and depth of those cities was absolutely astounding. Starting from the center, it could take us 2 hours to travel to the outskirts of either city. This was especially impressive in Shanghai as most of the city was constructed in the last 25 years.

One thing that stood out to me while in China was the passion and drive students have for education. Our group had the opportunity to visit Shanghai University of International Business and Economics and talk with some of the students. Every student I talked to showed a deep desire for getting the best education they possible could. Some of the students I talked to took twenty classes a day. In addition their enthusiasm and the number of classes they took was the respect and gratitude they showed their teachers and facility.

Of all the business related visits we had the opportunity to take I would have to say that my favorite was our trip to Elee Logistics. It had neither the esteem of the U.S. embassy nor the rhythm of the Mercedes production floor but what it lacked in prestige and clockwork it made up for in insightful experience. The CEO’s talk on the dynamics and operations of his logistics company was a fascinating look at the role logistics plays in the transportation sector of China’s economy. 

As an economics major, the inner workings of China’s economy are of particular interest to me. As it turns out transportation may very well be the foundation upon which China builds its road to prosperity. The CEO mentioned the strides China has made in transportation infrastructure since his business began in 2001. China currently has 49,000 miles of expressways and 2.6 million miles of roads, double the amount they had in 2002. They are also investing heavily in their trains, planes and shipping lines. In 2007 China didn’t have a high speed railway, today it has the world’s fastest and largest network.