What do you think you know about China? Are your ideas about
China and Chinese people outdated or even ignorant?
Over 20 percent of the world's population are Chinese, and by economic standards, China's ascent is only just beginning. The Chinese nation, culture, economy, and language are going to get more and more important in the world during your lifetime. But how much do you currently know about modern China?
What you learned at school about China, and what you read in the newspapers or see on the TV news may not be true any more.
Have a look at the following generalizations about China and see if you ever heard or believed something similar. Can you open your mind and change your preconceptions about China?
Misconception 1. *China is an ancient culture*
What? Of course Chinese culture is ancient! One of the world's oldest actually. Yes, but what's modern China all about? China nowadays is a vibrant modern society, with unique pop culture, fashions, arts, tastes, and habits. Chinese people are proud of their heritage, and there is always an awareness of "old China" inside people's habits and tastes. But the real China of today is a fast-moving modern place: the old continues to give way to the new, and and Chinese people are all looking to their future, not resting on the laurels of the past.
Misconception 2. *China is backward and poor*
By 2050 it's estimated that 50% of China's population will live in the cities, and this is where the focus of national policy is at the moment. Chinese cities are being built up at an astounding rate: every city in China is currently a dazzling scene of infrastructure change - new roads and flyovers, new skyscrapers, new stadiums, new hotels and resorts, and of course new massive ostentatious government buildings. The word "developing" has come to have connotations of 'third world', but in the developing cities of China you can only marvel at the pace of improvement all around.
If you travel to the countryside in China, you certainly might have the impression of a 'developing nation': people are still farming the land using pre-industrial-revolution tools and techniques, and people's lifestyles certainly couldn't be described as cosmopolitan. However, what you may not see is that these people's children may well be smart professionals in the city, sending home ever increasing paychecks to their family. Chinese people are ultimately loyal to their parents, and will routinely save and send home large proportions of their salaries. Even if the youth who move to the Chinese cities aren't managers or entrepreneurs, city salaries for even basic jobs are enough in comparative terms to make everyone happy. Everywhere you go in the Chinese countryside, you can see previously lowly families buying cars and building new houses. So the wealth of the cities will filter to rural areas through private channels, regardless of the urban-focused investment policies of the government.
Misconception 3. *Chinese people eat Chinese food.*
Yes, of course Chinese people eat Chinese food! But do you even know what Chinese food is?
Forget what you think you know from your local "Chinese" takeaway. Unless you've spent several years living in mainland China, it's unlikely you have even a clue about Chinese cuisine. The variety is mind-boggling and almost certainly unrivalled in any other country. Expatriates in China will all tell you that every day they are still trying new dishes, even after living there for years. (And since we're on the topic of myth busting, sorry to be politically incorrect, but actually you can find dog meat restaurants everywhere in southern China and people really enjoy eating it in the winter. On the other hand, in case you are getting a bit worried now, dog is a pricey specialty so it's impossible that you will ever receive a meat dish which is dog meat unless you explicitly ordered it!!)
Modern Chinese people in the cities also eat pizza, burgers, spaghetti, sandwiches, chocolate, and all sorts of real international cuisines, not only junk food. Visitors to China who can't use chopsticks, or have a phobia of rice, will have absolutely no problem feeding themselves! (But if you visit China, please be a little more imaginative than to go straight to one of the hundreds of Starbucks springing up in every city.)
Misconception 4. *China is a communist country.*
Politically, China is still a one-party state and the Chinese people do not elect their leaders. How much does this matter? For a start, China was never the same style of 'communist' government that we associate with Soviet Russia. And the days of Mao are loooong gone!
Government in China nowadays is actually much less centralized than in most other countries, with an amazing amount of power in the hands of provincial or city-level governing bodies. These local governments are increasingly competing with each other to improve and enrich their domains, and the effect is a lot more positive than controversy-hunting western journalists' usual portrayals.
Are the Chinese people oppressed? Hardly! Chinese society is, any observer would be forced to admit, remarkably free and progressive. In point of fact, most Chinese people couldn't be described as particularly agitated about "freedom" or political change, being more concerned about getting a piece of the GDP pie and improving their lives and their children's lives. The political sentiment which most Chinese people share is a desire for stability, safety, and prosperity - and basically anyone would have to admit the government in Beijing is currently doing a really good job at that regardless of any abstract criticisms of their "communist" political identity.
Economically, what is China? People always laugh at the phrase "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" but it's true it's hard to find any description or comparative model for the Chinese system these days. In many ways the Chinese are more capitalist at the moment than anyone else, perhaps because the system has lagged behind in regulating and taxing the explosion of private commerce in the last twenty years. The name "The Wild East" has a certain truth about it at the moment, but things are getting more standardized, the RMB (Chinese Yuan - the currency) is now open to trading, and of course China is in the WTO now. Expect the China pages of your newspaper to get ever more prominent as businesses and governments wake up more to the economic power of the Chinese market.
Misconception 5. *China is closed and difficult to visit.*
Anyone from almost any country in the world can easily obtain a Chinese travel visa from a travel agent and book a flight to any of China's growing list of international airports. Once in China you can go and stay where you want. It's just as easy as visiting any other country. The only reason your travel agency isn't packed with brochures about visiting China is because those travel companies just don't get it yet... Don't worry - the travel agency will soon wake up!
"Yes, but Chinese people don't speak English!" Pssst - can you think of any other popular world travel destinations where the local people, maybe, possibly don't speak English as their first language? Seriously, in the cities a lot of people can help out clueless travelers, and even if you're trying to be independent or adventurous, you'll find Chinese people friendly, tolerant, and generally not scary at all.
In terms of other traveler fears about safety, security, and cleanliness, China is already in the top tier of countries in the world to live in or travel to. Frequent travelers to China will back this up: even in the inner cities of China, you can walk around as a highly visible foreigner, and although you may be stared at, you will never feel in any danger or discomfort. (Unless you expected a 'normal' western style toilet - oh dear! - but that's an experience you'll have to find out by visiting China yourself!)
Wake up and smell the tea! You need to visit China and experience it yourself: there is no way you will break through the misconceptions and prejudices about China from your armchair.
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