Having spent a little time in China (very little – three days in Shanghai) this article rang a mnemonic bell or two. Have a read: Unlivable Cities. Excerpt:
A modern European ruler listening to a visitor from China describe the country’s fabled rise would be better served with the opposite approach: As the traveler exits a train station, a woman hawks instant noodles and packaged chicken feet from a dingy metal cart, in front of concrete steps emptying out into a square flanked by ramshackle hotels and massed with peasants sitting on artificial cobblestones and chewing watermelon seeds. The air smells of coal. Then the buildings appear: Boxlike structures, so gray as to appear colorless, line the road. If the city is poor, the Bank of China tower will be made with hideous blue glass; if it’s wealthy, our traveler will marvel at monstrous prestige projects of glass and copper. The station bisects Shanghai Road or Peace Avenue, which then leads to Yat-sen Street, named for the Republic of China’s first president, eventually intersecting with Ancient Building Avenue. Our traveler does not know whether he is in Changsha, Xiamen, or Hefei — he is in the city Calvino describes as so unremarkable that “only the name of the airport changes.” Or, as China’s vice minister of construction, Qiu Baoxing, lamented in 2007, “It’s like a thousand cities having the same appearance.”
Shanghai, at least the newer, financial/industrial Pudong district where I spent some time in 2009, reminds one of a beehive; a constant bustle of activity, a mass of humanity always on the move. The locals were learning the fundamentals of capitalism well in a country that is still nominally Communist; vendors of everything from confections to “sexy massages” worked every block. A short walk from the hotel there was an enormous shopping district boasting, among other things, a Victoria’s Secret and a Best Buy. I later informed Mrs. Animal that I almost bought her what one young man assured me was a “genuine Versace handbag,” but I didn’t, as the thought occurred to me that if it was by chance a fake, I’d be out twenty bucks.
And, like most places in the world, American dollars are enthusiastically accepted for any transaction. Sure, the dollar isn’t all that strong these days, but it’s still stronger than most other currencies – maybe any other currency.
But dirty – oh, boy, was Pudong dirty. The air was thick, and litter filled the streets.
China may be learning the fundamentals of capitalism, but the environmental concerns that characterize wealthy, capitalist Western republics are quite a long ways off yet for the Middle Kingdom.