After booking my tickets to arrive in Hong Kong the day before my girlfriend left for China, my botched surprise visit to see her meant that I went on their family trip to Guangzhou as well.
Hong Kong is immense. This was my second visit, which again revealled more of the layers which add to its standing of world truly great cities (along with London, Paris and Tokyo). I’ve love to travel and would have done a lot more if I didn’t get so utterly addicted to snowboarding for 10 years of my life. So far I’ve been to 35 countries but can’t wait to increase that list a lot. What I consider a “truly great city” is not exactly set in hard measurements, but things like: its place in history resonating through it, feeling the current status of global power, a unique sense of place and design influences, having so much to do you know you will have to return, and being safe and secure through sheer power of numbers.
Hong Kong is a city set on so many more levels than any other city. On the ground level you are among a market place of street traders selling anything you could ever imagine, the middle floors are bars and restaurants again filled with anything you could imagine, and at the top you get pools and bars and places to watch the world. It is a hot and sweaty place that at first seems dauntingly higgldypiggldy, but whose charm unravels as you begin to learn your way around. What initially seem like endless piles: containers, tower blocks, shop goods, become a manifestation of a human hive with intricate structures and cultures that simply cannot be held back. It fills you energy and a sense that you are free to make anything happen, as has happened time and time again. I’ve seen that there is at least one startup accelerator program in Hong Kong – I think looking at property tech. It’s an obvious starting point for entering the Asian market with western business incubation concepts. The way Asians do business is often different than the UK, they defer innovation for trends. If they see someone having success they move faster to follow that concept. When launching un-tested products, rather than taking the trendy lean or agile approaches of tech startups, they launch 8 or 9 products at once and if any of them take off, they plough their resources into that product.
The people of Hong Kong are friendly. Randomly, the twice I’ve been there, they’ve done an occupy march – once for the anniversary of Tianomon Square and the second time against the Chinese government handpicking the candidates they can vote for in the up-coming elections. Each time they fill up Victoria Park with hundreds of thousands of people showing solidarity. The Chinese government censored the media for the remembrance of Tianomon Square. Watching the world news a lot on tv, there was not much mention of the second protests either. How that situation will play out is interesting – will China risk another annex by arrogantly refusing democratic principals, or will it become more flexible with it due to its newly integrating position? With democracy seemingly at a low point due to its ineffectiveness for dealing with well balanced elections and prompt or well supported decision making, it is worth keeping an eye on Hong Kong and its struggle to re-integrate with mainland China.
I then went up to Guangzhou, China for a few days. We stayed in the Sofitel hotel which was a 5* plush (and relatively very cheap) hotel. When we arrived there was a Russian delegation inside the whole place was filled with huge men with ear pieces before we were ushered to the side and the main convoy went through. I don’t know who any of them were, but one of the women looked like she could of punched a hole through enforced steel.
Guangzhou is way more developed than I expected. It was modern. It had places of real architectural beauty. It’s huge! It has a population of about 20million people! But it is well organised and actually didn’t feel too crowded. The jewel in the crown is a very new part of the city that contains a sports arena shaped like a yacht, a new opera house and a huge, beautiful tower that is 600m high – massive. We went to the top for a look and Guangzhou just went on and on into the smoggy distance.
I read a newspaper article when I was there, which outlined the 5 richest people of China. The new richest guy was Jack Ma, following the Alibaba floatation. 3 others on the top 5 list were from technology backgrounds: 1 from renewable power, 2 from web products. This new techno-elite are replacing the property tycoons who are falling down the list and often being arrested for corruption too. Obviously, you notice not being able to access google services when in China. And Soundcloud and Twitter and others (can’t even remember if I checked facebook so much it has declined to me). I found my own website, TimeMaps, on there, which was nice as it certainly pays reference to Chinese history . I was surprised to see Wikipedia available and also any Apple service. Most people think that blocking of these websites is due to censorship, and maybe it is as I didn’t dig deep in to Wikipedia. But I began to think that it was more for economic steering that some of these websites were being blocked. Almost any search on Baidu had Alibaba flooding the first page (to raise its value before going public?).
I really can’t comment too much, I am only basing this off my own limited experience rather than a lot of research, but surely if people really wanted to communicate, they could via VPN servers or using Whatsapp (facebooks way into China?). And with Google taking over the on-line world and making a lot of money as well as developing advanced technology and keeping massive datastores about people- for an inward looking country such as China, why would they want Google in there? I would of thought it was more for economic competition than for censorship that this was happening. I wonder what is our own media casting shadows over their censorship and what is the truth? Now that Snowdon has revealed the extent of Western governments spying on its citizens, and leaders, online activity, is there any difference between the 2 systems in their keeping the truth from their citizens?
On the train back to Hong Kong, through Shenzen (which is touted as being “the next Guangzhou”), a 2 hour fast-train journey, I was surprised to see that at no real point did we ever leave built up areas. It seemed like a constant suburb interspersed by the odd large city. I can understand where the 1.2 billion people of China are now.
And I am now writing this from Jakarta. Another huge city of around 11-12 million. Its hot here, and there is a lot of traffic. Too much traffic. This is due to decades of corrupt government lining their own pockets rather than helping their people. There is a barely started MTR (underground) line currently being built very slowly and a mono-rail supposedly in production too. These will turn Jakarta into a mega city – the powerhouse of South East Asia. I say this because already you can see the wealth and investment here: it is already growing at a faster rate than Beijing.
It has everything it needs to be a great city apart from transport links and green areas. There is also a massive gap between the haves and have nots. There needs to be a higher minimum wage and better transport. Once people can move more easily, and safely, both physically and up the social ladder, then it is ripe for growth on a huge scale. Currently, the working classes drive on motorbikes or the very poor public bus service. They rely on this to get to their £125 a month minimum wage jobs. They cannot afford to purchase the motorbikes outright, so they have to use credit. This makes them cost twice as much and ties them into their job. Most of the jobs are soul-sapping service jobs with limited room to progress up the ladder. I hate to think that the next Einstein is out there, working in a Seven Elven.
The difference between the working and middle classes is huge. The middle classes have money to burn and enjoy the abundant and cheap luxury that is available. Many (/most) middle classes have maids and drivers to support them, again offering a stable environment for their staff, but with little opportunity to invest heavily in their families future.
I would like to see cheaper credit or alternative finance schemes for the motorbikes. I would also love to see these be made electric with very cheap electricity provided by their employers. This would get rid of the need for the current subsidies on fuel which are only for the poor, but which is open to gaming of the system. The price of fuel could rise significantly for the affluent middle classes – the environment would also benefit.
The incoming President has a tough job to turn Indonesia’s promise of success into a reality. Not only must he overcome the legacy of a violent incumbent political elite, and a cabinet that is out of his favour currently, but he must win the confidence of the people with sound policy and reduction of corruption. I wish him all the best as he is a symbol of change in a great nation held back by the greed of its previous rulers.
In summary, my trip to the East has been amazing and would recommend any of these places to people. Anyone who was ever in doubt about the potential of the east to overtake the west needs to come and understand that, yes, it might take time (in the case of Indonesia), but often it has already happened.
Now to forget about all this people stuff and head to Bali to the beach :)