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China's changes through Western eyes

Updated: 2014-03-11 10:00
By Colin Speakman (

This will cover the decade since I first set foot in China in 2003 and went on to live in Nanjing, Shanghai and currently Beijing. A lot of changes but I'll focus on what I directly connected with.

2003 itself was the year China battled the spread of SARS, or Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome. It delayed my visit. China conquered that enemy and went on to handle outbreaks of various strains of bird flu since. The big change - in 2003 there was much concern over transparency of information. China learned, and with subsequent health issues, reported fast and won praise from WHO (The World Health Organization).

By 2003, China had known for two years that it had won the right to hold the 2008 Olympics. The next five years here, I saw a huge swell of expectation and excitement. I loved buying those 5 mascots of the Olympics - my favorite was Fire. I went to the Games, and it is a permanent memory. Some of my Chinese friends got to be volunteers. China hosted a great Olympics and Paralympics and won the most gold medals. So now the big change is all that has come and gone. China has had its coming-out party. The Olympic connection lasted a long time, the official souvenirs have gone, but there are still vendors at Olympic Park. It never felt really over until Beijing passed the torch to my London. In 2012 I went to Beijing's pre-London Games party, complete with Bootleg Beatles, then on a plane for London's Games. They were great too, but it did not feel quite the same.

China also knew as the decade progressed that it would host the World Expo in Shanghai, which it did from May to October in 2010. I lived in Shanghai then and went seven times with friends and student groups. It replaced the Olympics as the source of mascots – Haibao (Treasure of the Sea) and lots of Expo bags and other souvenirs. In the end it proved to be the highest attended Expo ever – 73 million people. Both these events showed the world that China could handle global events, and now I feel China is looking for the next big thing like that.

A very big change has been high-speed trains. In 2003, I traveled from Shanghai to Nanjing in a soft seat on a train that took over 4 hours. Fast forward and I regularly took D trains that could make the journey in 2 hours. Then the super-fast G trains arrived, cutting the journey in half again. So nowadays just 1 hour to connect Shanghai with Nanjing and 5 hours to connect Beijing with Shanghai by train (before, around 11 hours) – and China now has the largest network of high-speed trains in the world - amazing!

Of course, in the last decade, China has risen past Germany and then Japan to be the world's 2nd largest economy and the manufacturing workshop to the world. Wearing my economist's hat, I see the last decade as the one where the world finally got China's economic importance after it entered WTO in late 2001.

With that success and stellar growth came another important change. The decade saw China lift millions of its citizens out of poverty and open up new opportunities for its citizens. Rather than a bit over 2 million Chinese students going to university each year, it has risen to around 7 million. Many megacities have developed and migrant workers have seized the opportunity to leave a rural life behind. A couple of years ago, for the first time, more Chinese mainlanders live in urban than in rural areas. Did we see that coming all those years ago?

It has not been all good, but there have been a lot more good things than not so good. However, I share a few problem changes with you. Housing prices have soared in the last decade, and this has caused severe problems for the younger generation in large cities. Pollution in the cities has worsened, partly because of traffic congestion, itself a problem. Inequality has significantly increased for a socialist country and reflected in what economists call the GINI Index. Inequality in China is worse than in many capitalist-based countries. With Westernization in cities, eating patterns have changed, and China is heading to the top of the league of citizens living with Type-2 diabetes. These are the prices Western countries pay for affluence, and we know that Chinese authorities are trying to address them.

I feel privileged to have been here to see all the many positive changes. The future could be even more exciting, as China surely still has many changes ahead. Go, China!