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Emma Moore: China - Just A Pile Of Stats?

China: Just A Pile Of Stats?


By Emma Moore

There is no shortage of inches devoted to China in the New Zealand media. China’s economy, top companies, financial institutions, trade surpluses, trading relationships, savings and spending rates… Are you detecting a theme? Yes, all of these stories appear in the same section – the business section.

Are New Zealanders really only interested in “China the Emerging Economic Giant”? (or “Waking Dragon” if you really must). I like to think not. This narrow focus on the financial aspects of our fourth largest trading partner is narrow sighted and unfair to both Chinese and New Zealanders. There are more fascinating stories to be told about China than there are Chinese trees left to chop down and print them on. And that’s not just because of the environmental havoc being wreaked here in pursuit of an ever-higher GDP.

After six months in Beijing, everyday things like getting in a taxi or reading the paper still amaze me. Two days ago I jumped in a taxi and found myself looking at an ad extolling the vitamin virtues of Zespri on the back of the driver’s seat. I’m sure the Zespri people are aware that China is the home of kiwifruit by any name. Maybe Eskimos do buy ice after all. That evening I picked up the China Daily, the largest English language newspaper in China, and read that pollution caused NZ$100 billion worth of damage to the nation’s GDP in 2004. That’s just a couple of billion more than New Zealand’s total GDP for the same period.

All right. I admit it’s not easy to ignore the gee whiz statistics generated by a country with over 1.4 billion people and a land mass 37 times that of New Zealand. Yes, I know. I just did it again. But my point is there more to China than startling statistics. Or perhaps my point is there is more to the statistics than just the figures themselves.

The China Daily also reported this week that per person consumption of cooking oil has leapt from one to 17 litres per year over the last two decades. Foreigners in China often complain about the excessive use of oil in cooking. At least two kilos of the solidified stuff now fills out my clothes. At many restaurants it’s practically impossible to eat anything not served in an oil-based sauce. Even ‘healthy’ dishes like broccoli almost invariably come drowned in MSG flavoured oil. The star of the lazy Susan at a recent lunch I went to was a crock-pot of fish heads cooked and served in a piquant soup. The soup appeared to consist entirely of oil…

Naturally the diabetes and obesity stats for China are eye-popping (button-popping?). A study by the British Medical Journal published in August reports almost one in five Chinese are overweight or obese. But very overweight people - locals and foreigners, are still enough of a rarity here that they are openly stared at. Where are all these chubby Chinese? Probably indulging in one of China’s favourite pastimes – eating enormous meals.

Westerners still ponderously noting that China has changed dramatically from the heyday of Chairman Mao, standard issue two-piece grey trouser suits and an almost blanket ban on overseas travel need a hard slap. Today there are mutterings about whether Mao Zedong’s preserved corpse should remain on public display, people dress like westerners - with a touch more vinyl and nylon, and Chinese are set to top overseas tourist numbers by 2020.

Many urban Chinese now face problems familiar to people in developed countries – skyrocketing tertiary education costs, work-life imbalance, health problems arising from a sedentary lifestyle, rising house prices, workplace sexual discrimination… But others – the vast majority - are still grappling with third world problems: Limited access to education and healthcare, incomes below the UN-recognised poverty line, unemployment and poor nutrition. This is the unglamorous China. The anti-Shanghai you might say.

While New Zealand pundits anguish over our increasing wealth divide, one of the first things to strike new arrivals in China is the wealth chasm. In northwest Beijing where I live, Mercedes and BMWs vie for supremacy over tricycles and the occasional horse and cart. So much for Mao Zedong’s dream of a classless society. Deng Xiaoping sounded the starter’s gong for a hasty conversion to capitalism with his famous words, “To get rich is glorious”. But it’s taken almost two decades for the world to sit up and take notice of what this means. Whether you view China’s “peaceful rise” with admiration or trepidation, the 2008 Olympics will not be the last you hear of the Middle Kingdom.

*************

Emma Moore is a Kiwi expat journalist living and working in China.

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