Back to the Motherland: First Thoughts on Nanjing

It is a truism to say that “the only constant is change”. I was reminded of this when I arrived in Nanjing on a hot summer’s day in July. The last time I visited my birthplace was January 2010. I can’t be bothered to rattle off important events that have happened in the intervening period, maybe you can think of some.

The city has changed a lot — what else is new?

Welcome to Nanjing

My uncle (mum’s older brother) picked my dad and I up from the airport. Trudging through the outside car park under the piercing sun, I noticed that all the vehicles were covered in a fine layer of dust. Nanjing’s dirt is fine, light and oft-disturbed by the unceasing construction taking place all across the city. Looking above I’m heartened to see that the sky is (relatively) blue.

On the way into the city I caught portions of the conversation as my uncle filled my dad in on what’s been happening here. Here are some things I found noteworthy:

1. The looming demographic crisis

This is something that’s been spoken about for a long time and we’re on the cusp of seeing it unfold. In the post-WWII years, China had a baby boom like many other countries. My mum is one of four siblings and my dad is one of five. Faced with a burgeoning population and a poor agrarian economy the central government instituted the one-child policy. Most families complied and had only one child, subject to some exceptions. And now those mums and dads are into their 50s and 60s. Whereas you had 4, 5, 6+ children taking care of their parents in the previous generation, for the most part a single child now bears this burden today. Unless you’re in the top one percent, this is hard.

Retirees engage in water calligraphy at Xuanwu Lake Park.

Retirees engage in water calligraphy at Xuanwu Lake Park.

My uncle made an astute point: since government policy made this happen, then it should be only fair that the government steps in to take care of the baby boomers. But fairness is in short supply in the PRC. I think this is one of those stealth topics that people will either brush off or ignore until it’s too late. Is this going to be the Chinese century? It won’t be unless they adequately address the demographic crisis.

2. Pollution

We all know China has a major problem with pollution. Here are some reasons:

i) The mass exodus of the rural population into urban areas invariably leads to more pollution in the cities. However, I wonder whether this is also a good thing, at least for the country as a whole. Less poor people in the countryside = less deforestation, less burning of dirty coal, less reliance on backward, dirty machinery.

ii) For the most part, the population lacks an environmental consciousness. They simply don’t have the same standards of behaviour and cleanliness as Westerners. I think this is changing — anecdotally, there’s less spitting and littering and other unsavoury behaviour. I also encountered more garbage bins, street cleaners and public toilets in my time here than ever before.

A goose tied to the post in my neighbourhood street market. Next door, pigeons and geese are housed in cramped cages ready for slaughter. These outdoor vendors have been making a comeback since the crackdown several years ago when bird flu became a major public concern.

A goose tied to the post in my neighbourhood street market. Next door, chickens and geese are housed in cramped cages ready for slaughter. These outdoor vendors have been making a comeback since a crackdown several years ago when bird flu became a major public concern.

People are also much more aware of pollution; it’s in the air, in the water, everywhere. The Communist Party is probably most acutely aware of this. They know that environmental disaster = social unrest, which must be Avoided At All Costs.

iii) There are so many cars everywhere. Nanjing is a relatively wealthy city in the relatively wealthy Jiangsu province. Traffic is getting worse. It’s going through the growing pains of every other modernising city. Hopefully they can transition quickly beyond reliance on cars. The good thing is that the city has solid foundations: a long tradition of cycling, the proliferation of electric motorcycles, decent road infrastructure and a shiny new metro system that is set to expand from the current two lines to a whopping 17 lines by 2030. And of course, the CPC will to Get Things Done.

The main roads of Nanjing are well designed, with separate lanes for cars, buses, (motor)bikes and pedestrians.

The main roads of Nanjing are well designed, with separate lanes for cars, buses, (motor)bikes and pedestrians.

3. Keeping up with the Joneses

Materialism is the national religion. We all know of Tiger Parent Syndrome and Little Emperor Syndrome. For those in the aspiring middle class and above, they have the means to spend lavishly on their children’s education. My uncle’s daughter married a wealthy businessman. They coughed up 70,000 RMB to send their daughter — my niece — to a ‘good’ primary school. For those who can afford it, this is the new norm.

We drove past a lot of new-ish apartment blocks along the highway. Apparently it costs ~AUS$200K for a home, which is considered quite affordable. That’s a definite sign of (urban) China’s increasing wealth.

Old and new: the 450m tall Zifeng Tower rises up behind traditional Chinese architecture.

Old and new: the 450m tall Zifeng Tower rises up behind traditional Chinese architecture.

More pictures and thoughts to come…

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