I visited China during the Olympic Games, a period during which the entire nation was completely elated, showcasing itself to the world. While there, I journeyed through Southern China, including the cities of Shanghai and Suzhou.
Given previous travel experience in Asia (Japan, Singapore and Thailand), we knew we’d be in for an enormously enriching experience. And one can safely say that the visit exceeded all expectations, providing memories that will endure for many years.
China is a land of mystique and, as international economic sands continue to shift, will become of even greater significance and curiosity to the west.
The country, some for justified reasons and others not entirely deserved in this visitor’s opinion, has suffered a bad press for a litany of reasons – such as Tibet, its human rights practices and its death penalty laws.
But, despite outstanding deficiencies by our standards, China, by virtue of speaking to many people during our stay, has improved.
Many told us they are aware of what is going on in Tibet, but given how difficult it is to speak out against the authorities in China, there are good reasons as to why internal dissent remains reasonably small.
Some intellectuals we met felt that change was gradually taking place. One very optimistic government supporter, who worked as an Olympic volunteer said that democracy should be realised within the next decade. The immediate goal, however, was to achieve further economic success.
The internet has certainly opened things up a lot for young people who can now access what was previously banned information when it comes to regional problems. Considering the vastness of the web, even totalitarian China cannot possibly police it all.
While there, I could access the BBC, RTE and the Irish Times online, and many American websites for sports and news, along with CNN and BBC World on TV, as well as stations owned by Rupert Murdoch.
We noted that a BBC world programme on Sudan (heavily connected to China economically and militarily) was replaced by a nature programme when a reference was made to Chinese arms supply to Sudan.
Doom and gloom wasn’t pervasive on the many city streets we frequented. The Chinese are very self-confident, work hard and feel they have earned a right to progress in the world.
Top-line consumer goods are available to the public if you have the money, from high fashion brands like Armani to cars like Mercedes or BMWs.
But like many a nation, China has wildly varying income strata – from the humble earnings of street traders to the country’s ‘nouveau riche’ of millionaire factory owners.
This is a country whose ruling party has long championed equality as an official state policy.
And, unlike many Asian nations, it is clear that women are treated on an equal basis in this emerging economic giant. This is widely considered one of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s great social achievements.
English, as we and the world noted during the Olympics, is firmly established as the second language. This, of course, is not the only evident manifestation of east meeting west in the new China.
Those standard western high street staples – McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Hooters, Irish bars, Italian ice cream shops and Viennese cafes, were endemic during our visit.
Travelling with two young Chinese people, we boarded many local buses and met lots of locals who proved thoroughly compelling company, and politely answered our many questions.
This is a fascinating country, full of fascinating stories, people, food and customs, more of which we’ll share with you in forthcoming editions.