November 16th, 2006


I arrived in Guangzhou late Tuesday night. The flight from San Francisco to Tokyo was a little over eleven hours, and from Tokyo to Guangzhou about five and a half. The security checkpoint at Narita struck me as somewhat surreal — it was staffed completely by women, about twenty of them all wearing identical red vests, red hats, and white gloves, bustling and twittering in ultra-polite Japanese.

My parents are living in an apartment in the Clifford Estates, a suburban residential development. The scale of this thing is huge and a bit scary. There are about a hundred thousand residents here, living in high-rise apartment buildings that all look the same, surrounded by walkways and landscaped lawns with perfectly cylindrical trees and ellipsoidal bushes. The buildings are clustered onto little streets, which are grouped into gated sections with poetic names like "The Breeze" or "Spring Garden" or "Dancing Butterflies." Everything is fenced off, with locked gates, checkpoints, and uniformed security guards everywhere. All the residents have ID badges that they have to show to get into the complex. It feels like an cross between Disneyland and a military base.

With such a large population, there's a need for all kinds of services. And it has them: Clifford Estates has its own private bus system, emergency vehicles, roads, hospital, playgrounds, elementary and high schools, restaurants, and shopping malls. It is, in effect, a completely privatized municipal government. Or perhaps you could call it a corporate monarchy — the company owns the land, and all the residents are charged a monthly "management fee" to pay for all the services.

I've noticed a few other things about life here that aren't specific to the Clifford Estates. Prices are different. The exchange rate is about 7.8 Renminbi to the U. S. dollar, and consumer products sell for comparable prices (¥700 for a stereo, ¥4 for a bag of chips). But wages are drastically lower: labour earns about ¥3 an hour or ¥800 a month, with meals usually provided; specialized services like private music lessons run more like ¥80 an hour. So going out to eat is cheap by U. S. standards (around ¥40 or $5 per person for a moderately fancy dinner) yet expensive by local standards (5 to 10 hours of work). Only very well-off folks can afford to buy a car. Rent is similarly low by U. S. standards and high by local standards (¥1500 to ¥3000 a month); an apartment here sells for about ¥800k or $100k. All this seems consistent with a poorer economy where labour has low value. But most surprising of all, Internet service is much cheaper here than in the U.S. — only ¥100 (less than $13) a month for 2-megabit ADSL!

Everybody does business in cash. It's difficult to get a credit card here, and hardly anyone accepts personal cheques. So lots of people carry around great wads of cash. It's normal to see people walk into banks and pull out stacks of hundreds of bills. Buildings look run-down and dirty even if they were only built recently. Cellphone networks and rate plans are arcanely complicated. Everything in supermarkets is over-packaged, even the produce. Nutritional information is only occasionally present on food labels, and not presented consistently. Sizes of products are sometimes labelled in metric and sometimes in archaic Chinese units. Napkins do not exist in restaurants; everyone is expected to carry around their own little plastic packages of tissues. It is customary to answer phone calls at the dinner table. And apparently the ultimate luxury at dinnertime — provided in fine restaurants if you are special enough to get a private room for your table — is a television blaring commercials throughout your meal.