After nine weeks and nine provinces, I left China on October 15. I spent the following week in Japan – a short vacation in Tokyo and at a ryokan in Hakone – before returning to the US on October 21. Just in time to vote early in my home state of Massachusetts (I was the first in my small town to vote on the first day of early voting in Massachusetts, October 24), before heading on to South America for the last two months of my sabbatical.
So now, settled in at the Hotel Ibis on the waterfront of picturesque Valparaiso, Chile, and gearing up for two weeks of statistics research with my colleagues Ronny Vallejos at the Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria here in Valparaiso, and Hannah Buckley and Brad Case from Lincoln University in New Zealand, I thought I’d set down a few semi-final reflections about China. If you’re not into reading, though, you can skip over the text and go right on to my favorite photos from my time in China.
I had an outstanding time in China. I loved the energy, the excitement, and the food (while simultaneously loathing the air pollution, the living-in-the-construction-site-that-is-China, and the insane traffic); I daily appreciated the commitment to science and respect for scientific research, its data, and its findings that I encountered everywhere I went (while simultaneously realizing how hard it is to teach the creative side of scientific thinking); and I am sincerely grateful to the hospitality and friendship extended by my colleagues and their students (no downsides there at all!). It’s been an unforgettable few months, and I look forward to many more visits to China and visits by my friends and colleagues and students from China to the US as we continue to work together on interesting projects.
One of the aspects of Chinese society that is entrancing and enticing but that can be unsettling to western (US/non-Asian) visitors is the emphasis on community over family over individual. The photograph above, of one of the ubiquitous yellow stripes found on sidewalks throughout China, is a poignant illustration of community support. I remember asking one of the post-docs in Xi’an about them, and being told, as to a child, that they are so blind people can navigate more easily. The stripe is slightly raised, and is of a different texture from the sidewalk tiles on either side, so a hand holding a cane can sense it easily. An obvious and thoughtful design innovation that I hadn’t understood and that I’d never seen before in any US or European city (but which I later saw in Japan). Why not, I wonder. Did I just not see it in the US or Europe, or is it not there? I’ll look, that’s for sure (and they’re not here in Valparaiso – I’ve looked).
But the stripe is emblematic of something larger – the idea that design, and the built environment (in its broadest sense)—and by extension, everything we do day-to-day—should serve all members of society, no matter how disadvantaged or privileged (and this sh/could be extended to other species, ecosystems, etc.). That the welfare and well-being of society comes first, and that self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment should play second or third fiddle. It’s an antiquated, utopian, socialist dream, I know.
And so one of the tragedies, for me, of contemporary China is that in pursuit of unbridled economic growth and in the drive to become a “player” on the world stage, China has allowed individual self-interest to drive its hyper-capitalist engine. It is not surprising to see motorbikes or Rolls Royces parked on the sidewalks’ yellow stripes, nor is it surprising to read daily of new revelations about astronomical individual fortunes derived from corruption in business or politics. The wholesale movement of people from tight-knit rural communities into the anonymous apartment towers ringing China’s meta-cities encourages self-centeredness and fractures interpersonal, communitarian bonds. At the same time, the heavy-handed crackdowns by the current Chinese central government on corrupt individuals will not stem the hyper-capitalist tide; something much deeper is at work, in China, in the US, and throughout the world.
As an ecologist, I am schooled in ideas of limits: resources, including fundamental nutrients for metabolism and growth or space in which to live, grow food, and build shelter, are finite. The Earth’s large human population—nearly 3-fold larger than when I was born just over half a century ago—now uses more of these resources than all other species combined. With more than half of us living densely packed and packaged in cities, it is increasingly difficult for the majority (the aptly-described 99%) to make ends meet, much less live comfortably. In such circumstances, the necessary Darwinian focus on the survival of oneself or one’s immediate family takes priority over any concerns of the broader community.
As a more-or-less self-aware species, we’re not likely to shrink our population anytime soon, and if all of the 99% had even 10% of the amenities of the 1% we’d have even fewer of the planet left for any of the other species with which we share it. Although I don’t know how to solve this problem, China looks like the go-to real-world laboratory for exploring a wide range of potential solutions.
And before you go, check out my favorite photos of China!