Following our Japan trip in May 2017 we all returned to Hong Kong, after which Craig and Sonia headed home and Wendy and I headed to Shenzhen in China.
I have mentioned both these locations as a result of previous travels. They form what is effectively a single conurbation divided by the Hong Kong/Mainland border and this line also divides the population economically and in terms of population density.
These days there is a great deal of two way traffic between the two. It's very easy if one has the appropriate passes; and just a little less so for foreign tourists like us. Australians don't need a visa to Hong Kong but do need one to go into China unless flying through and stopping at certain locations for less than 72 hours. Getting a visa requires a visit to the Chinese consulate at home or sitting around in a reception room on the Hong Kong side of the border, for about an hour in a ticket-queue, waiting for a (less expensive) temporary visa to be issued.
With documents in hand it's no more difficult than walking from one metro platform to the next, a five minute walk, interrupted in this case by queues at the immigration desks. Both metros are world class and very similar, with the metro on the Chinese side a little more modern. It's also considerably less expensive. From here you can also take a very fast train to Guangzhou (see our recent visit there on this website) and from there to other major cities in China.
There are several pictures taken on the metro in Guangzhou in that album. Both the Shenzhen Metro and the Hong Kong MTR are similar from a commuter's standpoint. Everything is very modern with: good lighting and air-conditioning; platform glass barriers; lots of shiny metallic surfaces; lifts; and escalators.
The Guangzhou Metro (with 186 stations) is technically very similar those larger networks in Shanghai (364 stations)
and Shenzhen (with 199 stations). Hong Kong MTR has 93 similar rail and 68 integrated light rail (tram) stops
More about Trains - for those interested
All China's trains use 'Standard Guage', unlike Australia's farcical differences between States. Most Mainland metros use 1,500 V DC, as do the majority of Hong Kong MTR tracks, while the older but also huge Beijing Subway (with 345 stations - growing steadily), employs only half that voltage, like the MTR light rail. 750V is safer in public streets but puts a limit on top speed, like Melbourne's trams on only 600V DC.
Thus the newest and longest MTR lines, like the partially completed Hung Hom line, employ 25,000 V AC, in harmony with China Railway High-speed (CHR) services.
These were originally based on Japan's Shinkansen (see Japan) and initially the train sets were imported from Japan but in 2004 public outrage over using Japanese manufactured rolling stock led to increased domestic production, in turn to independent technological development (still in cooperation with Kawasaki Heavy Industries). Now the 'China Standardized EMU' train-set, introduced in 2016, has a regular operational speed of 350 km/h (217 mph) but the CRH380BL train-set has attained a test speed of 487.3 km/h (302.8 mph), a considerable improvement on the Japanese train-sets.
With eight horizontal and eight vertical lines, totalling 12,000 km, forming a rough grid over the map of China and regular operating speeds of up to 400km/h China's is by far the most extensive and advanced high speed rail network in the world.
Hong Kong is one of those places that most Australians seem to be familiar with. Not only is it a convenient stop on the way to somewhere else but many Chinese Australians, going back as far as the gold-rushes, have their ancestral roots here or close by. Cantonese, spoken in Hong Kong was the dominant language of origin. In spite of a new wave of Mandarin speaking people arriving in Australia from further North, in the Mosman Fish and Chip shop we still say: 'mm gai' or 'do jai' - not the Mandarin: 'sez sez'. Actually, everyone speaks Australian English so we more often we just say 'thanks', when carrying off our (polyunsaturated) oily treat with its over-generous helping of chips.
On paper, the general standard of living is much higher in Hong Kong than in China. Household final consumption expenditure per capita in Hong Kong is third highest in the World, on a par with the United States. Mainland China comes after 110 other countries in that race, with only one ninth of the nominal Hong Kong buying power per household.
Until recently, well, during my recent memory, Hong Kong, comprising Hong Kong Island, Kowloon and the New Territories, was a British territory. But China was unhappy about the treaty arrangements. Under the Thatcher prime ministership there was a stand-off with China threatening to invade. Then, with discretion being the better part of valour, Britain began preparations for a planned withdraw. Thus in 1997 under the Blair prime ministership, Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China.
As more recent visitors have noticed, even under new management, Hong Kong continued to develop rapidly. Perhaps not as much physically as Singapore, the other once British territory in the region, but sufficiently to have long surpassed their Imperial progenitor in nominal wealth per capita, based on international purchasing power.
Hong Kong Financial District
As indicated above, household purchasing power in Hong Kong is on a par with the United States. Mind you, a visit to the actual city or country confirms what many are more inclined to believe. Purchasing power isn't everything. For example to me, a middle class life in an English village is a vastly more attractive proposition than life in a high rise tower in Hong Kong.
We all base our choice of home on many more factors than material purchasing power. This has been somewhat bizarrely demonstrated recently in Australia where we are discovering that an extraordinary number of our parliamentarians are dual citizens. A parliamentary discussion paper estimates that up to a quarter of all Australians are entitled to dual citizenship. Based on my acquaintances I'm surprised that it's that low. This cultural ambiguity no doubt contributes to a very high propensity to international travel. We dual citizens could choose to live somewhere else but have chosen our homeland with our feet, irrespective of Australia's ranking in international tables.
I first visited Hong Kong way back in the British days when I went with some Australians to a very nice British sports club frequented by expatriates convinced of our collective superiority. Those days are gone but much remains the same: the Peninsular Hotel still has a fleet of Rolls Royce limos; the tram still runs up Victoria Peak; the ferries still run; as do the double-decker trams in town. But now there are many more modernist skyscrapers in the financial district and a forest of very high apartment blocks along the harbour side.
Old and New
A metro has been added and continues to grow after each visit. It's a commercial and financial powerhouse full of billionaires. As they say in real estate there are three rules: location; location; location. It's the gateway to China.
A couple of years ago, again with Craig and Sonia, we did most of the things on the tourist agenda: the peak; the ferries; Macau; the markets. Nevertheless the siren call of the latter still called to Wendy, so I decided on the museums. These are very good and reminded us of how Hong Kong came to be here at all. Like Singapore; India; and some argue Australia, it was all part of British commercial enterprise based on trade and the corresponding Empire building necessary to protect that commerce.
The British arrive
The Naval Museum details with some pride early Chinese seafaring achievements and the Museum of History records both prehistoric and more recent culture. There are many selected pictures in the album from our trip (linked below).
Although people are obviously less wealthy the nominal one tenth of the Hong Kong's standard of living is not immediately evident when crossing the border. The population density is far lower and this is in some ways more pleasant than much of crowded Hong Kong, that still has some really slummy apartments and depressing streets.
We both like Shenzhen. Wendy because she can pick up some 'bag bargains' in the markets and I because the Hotel Intercontinental Shenzhen is the best we've stayed in; so it's a nice place to stop over to recover from other travel stresses; and it's excellent value for our trip budget dollar. In it's park-like setting the hotel's conscientious commitment to luxury is very pleasant and because we're repeat customers we are treated very well, with access to the Club Lounge and so on.
Hotel Intercontinental Shenzhen
Because there's a Metro stop at the hotel and it's quicker, we typically use the Metro back and forth to town, in preference to a cab, and feel perfectly at home with our fellow passengers. In China one doesn't feel unduly privileged as one does in India. Chinese people are often tall and everyone is healthy looking. There is no obvious difference in well being to commuters in Hong Kong. Shenzhen's a special economic zone with a number of technology parks specialising in information technology and electronics. Many people are professionals and no doubt brighter and better off than in less developed parts of China.
Shenzhen is not somewhere people come to from the country, unlike Beijing or Shanghai where in the metro one sees poorer people from the provinces often carrying their belongings in those large striped woven plastic carrier bags in lieu of suitcases or in Guangzhou where in places it's amazingly crowded and there are even a few street beggars who look like the stereotypical Chinese often depicted in the West - poor field workers. Presumably they've come to to the city in the vain hope of finding their fortunes, only to find themselves begging and being studiously ignored by a throng of business and trades people going about their busy lives.
In Hong Kong living space is probably the smallest in the world at just 4.6 square metres per person. Across the border in China there has been a sustained building boom so that average urban residential area per person is now claimed to exceed 36.6 square metres. Of course area is not necessarily a measure of quality. Features like modern bathrooms and kitchens air conditioning and in high rise apartments adequate lifts are also important.
In rural areas Chinese living space is larger at 45.8 square metres and it is tempting to imagine a large wooden barn-like structures that I saw in the 1980's. Yet according to the Ministry of Public Security 64.4% of rural dwellings in China are now modern concrete and/or brick structures. In a recent monograph on housing standards the World Bank seems sceptical of these official statistics as this puts housing in China ahead of a number of otherwise developed nations. These include Hungary and Poland and having been to all three I'm quite prepared to believe it.
Shenzhen residences are almost universally in apartment blocks built in from the 1970s forward. Some of the older ones now look a bit shabby, hidden by surrounding greenery, I hesitate to call it parkland. Petty crime must be an issue as lower windows frequently have security bars, added by householders some time after construction. Even the larger towers are lower and more communal that the huge skyscraper towers in Hong Kong. They are also much more spread out, so that in addition to the once ubiquitous pushbikes there's growing car culture that's not possible Hong Kong.
Typical dwellings - and cityscape
A common material wealth comparison between countries is motor vehicles per capita. On this measure the mainland is way ahead of Hong Kong. In China overall, car registrations have been growing at around million new cars per year so that vehicle ownership now exceeds 290 million, the highest in the world (total US vehicle ownership comes in second at around 30 million vehicles less). In Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Beijing car ownership is approaching one car per household. Even the national average in China is higher than that in several developed nations at one car per three households. This leads to horrendous traffic jams during peak hours.
Off-peak traffic - note the proportion of cabs - at peak times these roads can be bumper to bumper
In Shenzhen most cars are quite new but tend to be modest Japanese or compact size German vehicles that are locally manufactured. This differs from Shanghai or Beijing or Hong Kong where it's not unusual to see Rolls Royce, Bentleys and Maserati in the mix. By comparison, car ownership in Hong Kong is around a sixth of this rate whereas car ownership in Australia is much higher, similar to the US. Australia's six million families average 1.8 vehicles per household.
There is other evidence of rapidly growing wealth. Shenzhen boasts a number of modern shopping malls, typically with the usual European chains Zara; H&M and so on and several American chains like Victoria's Secret and Calvin Klein. Not far from the Intercontinental there's a large and very well patronised Wal-Mart, in addition to the ubiquitous McDonalds and KFC's.
One of many large shopping malls
The rise of a Chinese middle class is obvious to those of us who live in Sydney or who travel elsewhere, like Japan, or Italy, where Chinese tourists frequently outnumber the once all pervading Americans.
Chinese literacy and numeracy are similar to those in other low population growth countries like Korea and Japan that have the best educated children in the world. Fertility levels are low in these countries due to economic and geopolitical issues. In China low fertility is due to 'the one child policy'. Low fertility encourages families to lavish more of their resources on their children's education and on their children in general. Some have called it 'the spoilt child policy'. One can't help but notice that Chinese people are often academically smart. Our competitive entry (selective schools) and our Universities are dominated by Asian faces. If it wasn't for the Indians in the cricket team, my old school wouldn't have any sporting victories at all any more.
This compares to the US the UK, and some high unemployment communities in Australia, where secondary education has failed many children. The US now has the largest percentage of innumerate 16 to 19 year olds in the OECD with nearly 40% having trouble with maths, and the third highest rate of poor literacy, behind Spain and the UK, where over 20% of young adults have difficulty reading and writing.
Chinese education has a great emphasis on new technology and this is feeding into China's rapid technological advance. Near the Huaqiang Road Metro stop, on the green line to our hotel, there are half a dozen or so multi-level shopping malls filled with electronic components of all descriptions. Young people come and go with cardboard boxes laden with everything from pre-assembled cables and connectors to tiny surface-mount integrated circuits and strips of LED's. Where on earth are they going and where are they coming from? Presumably local factories and IC foundries. I had been here two years ago and went back with the idea of picking up an inexpensive micro camera I'd seen. But they were gone. As were the cheap memory cards, they no longer sell finished consumer goods here, just components. For finished goods one goes to a shop in a retail mall or on-line to a retailer. I wandered about like a pirate in Aladdin's cave - there were jewels everywhere I looked - but they were out of reach - unless I wanted a thousand.
Electronic component sellers around the Huaqiang Road Metro stop
The most remarkable thing was that in just two years a lot of the components had changed too. There's now a lot more emphasis on LEDs and lighting in general. Next year it will be different again.
With a compound annual growth rate still around 7%, doubling the Chinese economy every decade, the domestic product per capita in China has already reached that of Russia.
Thus the continuing US preoccupation with Russia, the old ally/enemy, seems odd. There's a much bigger elephant in that room. There are ten times more Chinese than Russians and they are now equally wealthy per capita.
China already spends three times more than Russia per year on military development. A few years back they bought their first half-finished aircraft carrier from Russia. This required a 'carrier group', an assortment of other warships in support, and they ran into all sorts of new logistical and crew training challenges, much to the amusement of western defence analysts. Particularly as America has eleven carrier groups. But they've quickly added a second carrier group, built from scratch, and the analysts are less amused. It turns out they they may have developed superior aircraft to launch from their carriers. But rest assured, say the analysts, they have too few pilots and the few they have are amateurs, none of them have the US or Russian style combat experience, acquired over the middle east and elsewhere.
Have the analysts not noticed that China has a population over four times larger than the US. Have they not noticed that in the critical 16 to 19 year age group, their population is significantly better educated? Has no one noticed that Chinese weapon design is already surpassing that in the west; or that in another decade many, if not all, aircraft will be pilotless and will be flown by 'gamers' on the ground? And where does one see the greatest number of skilled Gamers?
On the bright side, based on gross domestic product committed, China is no where near as preoccupied with expanding their military as is the US.
In other scientific areas, as we have seen at anthropological sites and museums, China has committed resources to world leading research, particularly in the natural sciences; renewable energy; nuclear power; and medical research. It also has one of the most active and successful independent space programs, that although still put in the shade by NASA and RKA (Rosaviakosmos) has already successfully put a Luna-Lander and a Rover on the moon and has launched; docked with; and manned; their first space laboratory. These are in preparation for a permanently manned space station planned for 2020, followed by a manned moon landing within the next decade.
Indeed Chinese scientists now provide so much of the brainpower in US research institutions that when US President Donald Trump suggested closing the doors a Chinese spokesperson told South China Morning Post that "scientists had the freedom to choose where they worked and for whom... Even Trump can do little about it..." And: "If he bans foreign scientists, most US research institutes will shut down immediately because not many Americans are interested in becoming scientists.”
The arts also attract modest government support. Almost next door to our hotel are two art galleries, both with free entry to seniors. The Hua Art Museum is much beloved by architects and features in several journals.
The Hua Art Museum
Last time we were there it featured and exhibition from Japan possibly to offset propaganda in the larger establishment, the He Xiangning Art Museum almost next door.
The He Xiangning Art Museum
This is the first national art museum in China to be named after a woman; or a man. He Xiangning was revolutionary, feminist, politician, painter, and poet and was one of the earliest members of Sun Yat-sen's revolutionary movement. There is an educational theatrette that tells her early revolutionary story and the subsequent split with Chiang Kai-shek but mainly concentrates on her organizing resistance against the Japanese during the second Sino-Japanese war and on Japanese atrocities. See both Guangzhou and Taiwan elsewhere on this website.
Of course we are constantly made aware that China is a Communist State. Not that true Communism of the Zionist style or even Leninism proscribes their political processes nor that Marxism has much to do with their 'new economy'. 'Communist State' originally implied a Russian style command economy. But since that failure it's now shorthand for a country in which power resides in the hands of a single political party, controlled by an elite, who allow only so much individual freedom as is consistent with social stability and their own survival. Thus, like the British for over a hundred years, they clamp down on some socially disruptive religions, like Falun Gong, and more disturbingly, on people democratically demonstrating or speaking out against the State or the Party.
As most people know, access to the international Internet is restricted in China by the Great Firewall of China. This makes transactions with Australia slow and some foreign sites, particularly Western social media, are unavailable. Yet I've been pleased to see on various trips that my website can be seen in China and hopefully will remain so after I publish this.
But you would be seriously mistaken if you think that social media is banned. China has one of the most active social media and gaming environments in the world. There are Chinese equivalents of everything we or our kids have access to. With 1.4 billion potential users that's a lot of possible 'friends'. China now has the largest number of Internet users and fastest-growing e-commerce markets in the world. Three years ago Forbes Magazine added its first ten Chinese Internet billionaires to its Billionaires list. Back then a woman Ma Huateng, founder and CEO of Tencent Holdings, topped that list at only US$13.4 billion. Now there is even an Australian girl aspiring to become a Wang Hong. She was filmed here making a piece about her home town of Sydney for her Chinese audience. As she explained on the ABC's Lateline, 'Wang Hong' refers to an internet celebrity: 'Wang' means net and 'Hong' means famous.
In other areas too the Party apparently sees no harm in allowing a few radical ideas. The ground floor galleries of the Museum house artworks by He Xiangning, mainly traditional style ethereal landscapes, several of which have featured on Chinese stamps.
He Xiangning Art Museum - level one
Yet upstairs are exhibition spaces featuring regular exhibitions of international contemporary art. Some of these I found quite confronting. And there was one AV called 'Disappearance of a Tribe' that documented a Lithuanian Communist revolutionary's youthful enthusiasm turning to disillusionment and despair as the events of the Soviet Era unfurled. It's anticommunist or at the very least anti-Soviet. Several other installations were no less 'edgy' in subject matter. I was also surprised by the bookshop and art library that had little evidence of the sexual censorship I had imagined might apply in China.
He Xiangning Art Museum - upper level
At the adjacent Hua Art Museum, that two years ago hosted the Japanese exhibition, the current exhibition was of rather boring graphic art. Yet it too included some edgy images and an AV about love involving David Bowie.
If you were staying elsewhere and considering a visit they are both close to the OTC stop (华侨城) on the green line.
On a less exalted plain, the Intercontinental hotel, in addition to featuring reproduction Spanish art and having its own lake with a large 'Spanish galleon restaurant', is bracketed by two theme parks. To the East is the 'Chinese Folk Village' park, now a bit rundown due to an apparent lack of patron enthusiasm; or vice versa.
Chinese Folk Village - from the monorail
To the West is the much more popular: 'Window on the World' where you can see everything from the Eifel Tower to the Tower of Pisa and the Pyramids - at least in miniature. The park offers the 'KFC Window on the World Restaurant' and later you can visit the Brazil Congress Mansion, presumably to learn about a new position.
Window on the World
There's a monorail that travels above each if, like us, you would like an overview without committing too much time on the ground to such ersatz pursuits.
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