China – first impressions

Just before Xmas I went with a group of seven MPs and one peer from the All-Party Group on China to visit Shanghai, Chengdu and Beijing. [The APPG’s activities are funded by sponsors; no taxpayers money involved. It was mostly during recess, and we didn’t miss any votes. And as Shadow Minister for China I simply don’t think it’s possible to do the job unless you’ve seen first-hand what a mind-boggling country China in the 21st century is. Yes, the trip was fun, but it wasn’t a “jolly”, it had a serious purpose to it. There, that’s the self-justification over.]

The focus in Shanghai was on trade and investment, and we met with a number of UK companies doing business there, including Arup, the construction engineers, who gave us a fascinating insight into the development and construction of China’s many, many skyscrapers. I’m a huge fan of modernist architecture and a supporter of the Modernist Society, but most post-modern architecture leaves me cold. A lot of the buildngs look amazing at the design stage; they’re bold and imaginative, but there’s something missing, which I can only describe as soul. They’re being built because everyone wants something bigger and better and a bit more striking than their competitors. They’re not built to be beautiful.

By contrast, the art deco buildings along the Bund, eerily similar to those in Liverpool, evoke a real sense of history, as do the boats and barges, laden with timber and coal and other goods, going back and forth along the bustling Huangpu river. One of the MPs on the trip represents Macclesfield, the other end of the Silk Road, and is putting together an event next year to mark the trading links between the town and Shanghai.

Despite the soullessness, the sheer scale of construction and development in Shanghai is still mind-boggling, and the extent to which infrastructure has kept pace is hugely impressive. Shanghai’s eight lane roads are busy, but not congested; they built a superb metro system in time for the 2010 Shanghai Expo; and the Maglev to and from Pudong airport takes about 8 minutes with a top operational speed of 431 kph.

The Transport Secretary (Hammond, before the reshuffle) was out in China a few months ago to try to convince them to invest in High Speed Rail. The Chinese have built 8,500 kilometres of it in the past five years and plan to build another 5,500 in the next few years, so our measly 300k HS2 isn’t a particularly enticing investment opportunity for them.

What’s also striking about Shanghai is the extent to which capitalism has well and truly taken hold. All the Western brands are there: Starbucks, McDonalds, KFC, H&M, Gap, but also massive designer stores – Gucci, Prada, all the big names, ten times the size of those in Bond Street – as well as showrooms for Ferrari, Maserati, Aston Martin. People on the street are well-dressed; the girls in particular look great, in cute little boots (Uggs are everywhere), belted coats and tunic dresses. Not a Mao suit in sight.

It’s important to remember though that this affluence only represents part of the real China. Shanghai may be a city of 22 million people but that’s still only a microcosm of China as a whole. In fact one of the phrases we heard often while we were there was that it’s wrong to think of China as a country; it’s a continent.

Whilst in Shanghai we also met a great guy from Tesco (yes, sorry, but he was…He was a Chinese guy who’d jumped ship from working for the Communist Party to go into the private sector, really interesting to talk to). I didn’t get round to telling him that we had riots in Bristol over the opening of a Tesco in Stokes Croft, which I think he’d have found quite amusing. They’ve only got 100 stores in China with a population of 1.3bn, so some way to go before they reach the Bristol ratio, which is getting on for 1:10,000.

Incidentally, in China they rank their cities in tiers, tier one being the mega-cities, tier two being around the 7 million mark, tier three being around 2 million… so, much amusement when I tell them I represent a ‘city’ of 400,000 or so. Chongqing, out west, is commonly cited as the biggest city in the world, with a population of 35 million although locals say that’s actually a distortion, and is the population of the province not just the city. Shanghai has 22 million but its land footprint is the same size as Sydney’s, a city of 4 million, because most of the building is upwards.

Chongqing’s phenomenal growth has been triggered by the Chinese Government’s Go West strategy of the 1990s, which was aimed at spreading some of the wealth to the poorest parts of China, from the affluent East. By 2013 Chongqing will produce one-third of the world’s laptops, from a standing start in 2008, though this is partly due to the transfer of production to Chongqing from the east coast of China, because labour costs are cheaper out west. They do have a minimum wage in China, though, which was due for a significant rise, but as ever it’s a bit difficult to assess how generous that is without reference to local purchasing power.

Here are two pics of the Pudong financial district, by day and by night.

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