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China

 

 

Ürümqi

 

 

 

 

Part of the Ürümqi cityscape
A partial view of the Ürümqi cityscape - see the album for more images

 

Ürümqi is in the far north west of China and in the first millennium of the Current Era became an important trading post on the Silk Road, particularly under the Tang Dynasty, around 700 CE so we spent several hours in the Xinjiang Regional Museum, a large integrated museum and centre 'for the collection and study of cultural relics discovered in the region' that has an extensive exhibit dedicated to the Silk Road.  Like other Chinese museums it's free and the curation is excellent, with many labels and explanations in English in addition to Chinese and Uyghur, and with close attention to recent scholarship. Among the most interesting objects in its collection are a number the of mummified bodies serendipitously preserved in hot sand, one dated to 1800 BCE but others more recent.  The condition of the mummies, that are complete with clothes and in one case red hair, compares favourably with those we saw in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in both preservation and antiquity.

 

Xinjiang Regional Museum
Xinjiang Regional Museum Xinjiang Regional Museum

Xinjiang Regional Museum - there are more images in the album

 

Today the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, of which Ürümqi is the principal city, is troubled by social unrest. Despite very rapid economic development and modernisation, or because of it, the Uyghur traditional peoples have felt disenfranchised, claiming judicial discrimination. At one time the (Muslim) Uyghur made up about half the population but now 75% are Han Chinese as a result of: economic development around oil and gas; and deliberate Government policy to secure control of the rebellious region.

Interestingly, religious and racial tensions are not new to Ürümqi. During the Tang Dynasty it was the Buddhists who became the victims of suppression. Later the Mongols invaded, restoring Tibetan Buddhism and supporting Confucianism in the court of Kublai Khan - more of that later.

In May 1989 Uyghur activists perpetrated a series of bombings against Han businesses and in 2009 Uyghur riots resulted in the murder of Han Chinese. In retaliation Han vigilantes took to the streets and in total around two hundred people were killed.

Thus in every underpass police, usually a man and a woman wield hand held metal detectors and may check bags. And every retail store, even a coffee shop we patronised, has a security barrier, most with metal detectors and an X-ray machine. In the evening teams of patrolling police were seen carrying 4 foot long balks of ‘3 by 3’ timber (lumber) shaped to an handle at one end. They always very polite to us, relatively rare, European tourists. The number of men and women employed as security officers must make up a substantial part of total employment.

 

Ürümqi retail
Ürümqi retail Ürümqi retail

Ürümqi retail - security clearance required.  Note the wines - many were from Australia
Despite the widespread use of English words and signage very few people speak English
Here many signs and labels are in three scripts: Chinese, Latin and Arabic - it facilitates pointing to what you want.

 

The coffee shop was very good as are most in modern China, in competition with the usual US fast food franchises like Starbucks; KFC; Maca's; and Pizza Hut; that now flourish despite the high quality of the traditional cuisine, attracting a young, well dressed clientele, China's privileged youth, a product of the one child policy.

Yet on paper the average mainland Chinese person is still relatively poor, close to the world average and only a third as wealthy as those in Hong Kong, where GDP per capita exceeds that in the US, although GDP per capita is not everything.  When walking in the street it's hard to believe that the average person in Hong Kong enjoys a higher standard of living than, say, an average person in Wells in England or in San Francisco in the States, yet that's what the numbers say.

Critics of China say that mainland people could be better off because the Government deliberately sacrifices the personal wealth of the average worker, for example by manipulating a lower than natural foreign exchange rate, to cover up inefficiency; poor resource allocation; and corruption. Not to mention curtailing his or her freedom of expression and discent in a dictatorial pseudo-democracy where they are confined to voting for officials within the single Communist Party. They point to growing inequality in a so-called socialist state, made very evident by the number of luxury sports cars in the streets, driven by privileged young people, and all those Chinese tourists flaunting their new-found wealth overseas. They say that hidden away in the countryside are exceptionally poor peasants who are effectively enslaved.

Uyghur activists apparently agree with them.  Although their objections also have a religious element, not assuaged by the building of new mosques.  

More sympathetic observers point out that religions that seek to impose their beliefs and practices on others can be socially destabilising in this huge and ethnically diverse country and even the poorest are much better off than they were a decade ago.  So few, if any, are as badly off as the poor in democratic India across the border.

India is a valid comparison.  Observers note that India would long ago have held title of: 'The most populous country in the World', were it not for Partition in 1947, separating off a third of a billion Muslims now in living in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Nevertheless, after Partition things went quite well for India and by 1965, when I was at University, five hundred million people in India had an economy roughly equal to China's seven hundred million.  So the average Indian was much better off than a Chinese. Western commentators, like the Hudson Institute (I still have their report) confidently predicted that India would continue to surge ahead and continue to dominate their larger neighbour economically, because Indians were more European (so obviously smarter), many speaking English to boot, and India was a democracy. 

They were wrong. Fifty years later the population of India had grown over two and a half times. Yet the economy was less than one fifth the size of China's where, thanks to the 'one child policy', the population barely doubled.  Today, although India's economy is now growing marginally faster than China's, it's off a much lower base and the difference is mainly due to population growth, as the Indian population continues to surge ahead. Starting from 47% behind in 1947, India's population is now projected to overtake China's by 2024.

The average personal wealth gap, already over fivefold in China's favour, grows inexorably greater.  As we have seen first-hand, the vast majority of India's 'extra' people are literally dirt-poor.  As a result, educational resources have been stretched beyond the limit, so that despite great improvement 37.2% of Indians remain illiterate.  But I'll add a caveat:  as we've also seen firsthand, illiteracy is by no means uniform across India.  It's only 6% in Kerala and not bad (16%) in Himachal Pradesh (Shimla district).  So with the right social policies it is possible to overcome it - region by region.  Read More...

In contrast, China has among the highest literacy and numeracy rates in the world. 3.6% of the total population remains illiterate.  But among the 'one child population' this has dropped to 0.6%, as even the poorest families enjoy free education for their 'one child' all the way to tertiary level.

Time is an issue in Ürümqi. By decree of Chairman Mao, China has only one time zone. Yet to avoid spending a good deal of the day in the dark the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region has a working time zone two hours behind the official time. Thus locals set their watches to local time and breakfast in the hotel; business opening and closing times and so on use local time whereas the airlines use so called ‘Peking Time’. This can cause serious confusion when using ground transport or catching a plane.

Otherwise Ürümqi is like any other modern Chinese city with: wide roads; very well-cared-for parks and public spaces; high-rise office blocks and hotels; and new apartments; but challenged by poor air quality. In part this is due to advent of the motorcar in place of the once ubiquitous pushbike, many of these well-known German and Japanese brands, mostly locally manufactured. 

China is now the largest car maker in the world and has more automobiles in total than the United States. This number is on track to double in the near future as they achieve the goal of one car per family, like children.

A negative aspect of the 'one child policy' has been that, due to abortion and infanticide, particularly in rural families, there are many more boys than girls.  Now young women can take their pick and many of those young men will never be chosen as life partners. So they have no prospect of a family and later no one to accompany them or support them in old age.  Some have even resorted to kidnapping a wife.  In response the policy was softened to allow a second child if the first is a girl.  Even if abandoned completely the policy is bound to have ongoing impacts, not the least on genetics, long into the future.  The younger generation is already noticeably taller than their grandparents.

 

Private cars in Ürümqi
It's commonplace for cars to be parked on building forecourts - or almost anywhere
There are more images in the Northern China Album - click on the picture above

 

China's economy is now the second largest in the world, behind the United States and over twice the size of the next largest economy, Japan.  China has 120 companies on the Fortune 500 list, most State owned;  compared to 126 US companies, most if not all all, publicly listed.  Comparing China with Russia I find it hard to understand the American Neoconservative's preoccupation with attacking Russia, which is, partly as a result of American sponsored sanctions, very likely to become an economic vassal to China during this century. See the 'New Silk Road' above.

The Chinese economy has in part been fuelled by a construction boom that is the greatest the world has ever witnessed, with numerous high-rise office blocks, some architecturally very innovative and spectacular, in every new city. Apartment construction has also been rampant, sometimes without an actual demand, and the Chinese already enjoy more domestic living space per capita than people in the UK (now one of the lowest in the developed world). Suppliers of modern bathrooms and kitchens abound.

Thanks to a massive engineering effort China now has the world’s largest metros (underground rail) and by far the longest high speed rail network, featuring the world’s fastest trains. China also has the highest and longest modern bridges. Having exceeded a million bridges they are also the newest and most numerous, a great market for Australian iron ore and metallurgical coal.

Pity about the air quality!  But it's better here than in Beijing or Guangzhou.

 

Comments  

# Richard 2018-09-23 01:50
Richard

Interesting to hear your update on China’s Silk Road. In 2007 we travelled from Beijing to Kashgar then down the Kakoram Highway to Tashkurgan [less than 30Km from Pakistan border]. Whilst travelling we also visited Xiahe [with its large monestry] and noted the Chinefacation of this area. In fact recent photos of Kashgar seem to show that much of the old town has gone.

Interaction with the Uyghurs.indicat ed that they were not happy with the Han invasion.



A very interesting part of the world.



Richard Walker
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