First, a disclaimer: Anyone who follows news from China knows the only certainty is change. And anyone who has traveled there, even briefly, knows that the “facts” vary from one speaker to another—as they do, I suspect, in any country on the globe. Here, I’ve decided to go with the facts as they were told to us by Allen (our tour director), local guides and others we met along the way. Please bear in mind the facts may have changed, the speaker may have been misinformed or may have mixed fact and opinion, or (oh, horrors!) I might have misunderstood and misinterpreted. Nonetheless, here’s some pretty interesting stuff, learned during a tour in 2013.
Population: There are 1.5 billion people in China. Ten million of them live in Beijing. Both Shanghai with 23 million and Chonquing, the most populous with 30 million, are even larger. Because cities are so crowded, Allen warned, people don’t honor the western concept of personal space. "If you leave space between you and whoever's in front of you in the checkout line at the store, it's quite likely someone will step in and take that spot," he said. Pushing and shoving is considered acceptable, and Chinese aren't expected to say “excuse me” when that happens. If they did, quipped Allen, “they’d be saying 'excuse me' all day.”
Education: Children are required to attend school for grades 1 to 9. Home schooling is illegal. At the end of their 9th grade year, all take a 3-4 day exam which determines where they may go to high school. There is ongoing debate about the fairness and wisdom of using a single exam as the exclusive determiner of a student’s high school fate. Upon completing 12th grade, students take another exam to determine whether and where they can advance to college. High school tuition is $500 per semester and college, $5,000. The top 20% of students receive scholarships, however, and others have access to no-interest student loans.
Schools are closed during July and August. Students are discouraged from participating in sports or being involved in music or hobbies, however, because these take time from academics and are not tested. Many blame this for what they see as a lack of creativity in Chinese society, and in order to broaden children’s experience, some parents pay to send their offspring to special schools which encourage activities beyond academics.
The study of Russian was mandatory from 1960 to 1983. Since 1983, however, students have been required to study English. English spoken with a heavy Chinese accent is called “Chinglish.”
Employment and Retirement: All adults are expected to work unless disabled and, in fact, some factories are designed to accommodate workers who have a variety of physical and mental challenges. A worker who loses a job may draw unemployment for a maximum of 12 months. Though there are a few beggars, there are no homeless; simple shelter and food are provided for all. Most workers have three weeks off each year—one week for Chinese New Year, another in early May, and a third in early October. The normal work week is five days.
“Experienced People:” Those we call “seniors” in the U.S. are called “experienced people” by the Chinese. Male factory workers retire at 60; females, at 55. After retirement, because apartments are so small (some only 400 to 600 square feet), retirees spend much time in parks or community centers, where they sing, dance, exercise, and pursue other interests. In Shanghai, we visited the Cao Yang Activity Center where many experienced people were engaged in dance, singing, pingpong, computer instruction, and crafts. We were told it was one of 250 such facilities in the city, all government supported. Each center serves a neighborhood—the “neighborhood” of Cao Yang consisting of 95,000 people!
Death: Many Chinese believe that when you die, you go to heaven, and death is regarded as a happy occasion. They often dance around the coffin all day and all night before cremating the body. Cremation is the law of the land because of the large population and shortage of space. However, we saw marked graves as we traveled through the countryside and were told farmers don’t practice cremation. The government generally turns a blind eye to that rural practice.
The One-Child Policy: The infamous one-child policy, currently being phased out, didn’t actually forbid more than one child, Allen told us, but in most cases only the first child born to a couple under that policy received free medical and educational benefits (pre-school to grade 9) from the state. If a couple had more than one child, they were fined the equivalent of six months’ salary and had to pay that child’s medical and educational expenses themselves. Exceptions were made in the case of twins or other multiple births. Couples also were permitted to have a second child if their first was mentally challenged or died before the age of 18. In addition, farm families were routinely permitted two children.
Without this policy, the population, which now stands at 1.5 billion, would be twice that number. Thus, the policy achieved the aim of controlling population growth and limiting the stress on resources. However, there were also negative consequences.
As a result, the government is moving towards a two-child policy and couples are expected to be penalized only for three children or more.
Money and Income: The current exchange rate is approximately 6.1 yuan for $1 U.S. Average middle class income in Beijing is $100,000/year. The current unemployment rate is 4.5%, up from 2.1% in 2008. While the political system is still carefully controlled (see Government and Laws below), the economy is much freer; people are not starving and life has improved greatly over the past 30 years.
Private Property: Before the 1970’s Chinese were not permitted to own apartments and had to rent from the government. Now, ownership is allowed, but apartments are quite expensive. A 600 square foot apartment in Shanghai could cost as much as $360,000, and a small dwelling in a Beijing hutong, the old traditional neighborhoods, as much as a million.
Farmland remains under the control of the government, which assigns land to farmers every five years at the rate of ½ acre per person in the family. Each farmer decides what he wants to grow, how much he wants to keep for his family, and how much he wants to sell. Farmers earn approximately $3-4,000 per year; the government provides housing.
Medical Care: In the government-run health care system, doctors are allotted only 2-3 minutes per patient, and many wait in long lines to get attention. Doctors in the public health system are poorly paid, and tipping prior to surgery in order to ensure quality care has become the norm. “Tips” can run several thousand dollars. The alternative is to purchase expensive medical insurance or pay out of pocket at a private facility. Physician-assisted suicide is available but is rare; only three cases have been reported in the past 10 years. There is no public dental care, and according to Allen, many Chinese have poor teeth as a result of neglect.
Government and Laws: While Chinese leaders claim to have free elections, only the names of communist party members appear on the ballot and other parties are not permitted to run candidates. There is greater freedom of speech, however, than there has been in the past. As recently as 10 years ago, a party member would have been with us on the bus to monitor what we were being told; that is not the case today. Inhabitants also are much freer to leave the country now than in the past.
Pollution Control; China is planting millions of trees to combat pollution, mitigate the heat, and capture some of the dust blowing off the Gobi desert. (We left windows open in our Beijing Hotel one windy day and returned to find a fine layer of dust on everything.) In Beijing, trees have been planted in about 10% of the available space; in Shanghai, the figure is 17%. China doesn’t harvest trees and, in fact, imports chopsticks from the U.S.
Ethnicity and Language: There are more than 50 ethnic subgroups in China, and many of them speak distinct dialects. The official language is Mandarin, a tonal language in which words change meaning depending on the tone in which they’re spoken. For instance, the word ma means “mother” if spoken in a flat tone; “numb” if spoken in a drawn-out tone; “horse” in a rising tone, and “to curse” in a sharp tone. Peking, the original name of China’s capitol city is a Cantonese word. In 1949, Mandarin-speaking leaders changed the name to Beijing.
Customs: In such a diverse and evolving country, inevitably customs vary somewhat from place to place. A smattering of those we encountered . . .
And Finally: . . . China is a sprawling, vibrant country made up of diverse people and cultures. Sometimes it’s frustrating, when visiting a distant land, to know that we’re seeing only a tiny bit and absorbing a meager amount of what there is to know. However, just being there, soaking in the sights, the smells, the sounds, the sensations of the country is reward enough. At any rate, it will have to do.