Everything you have ever read about the rapid change in China understates the case. China is hotter, more polluted, and more crowded than ever, as famed taxi-driver interviewer Tom Friedman might say. Despite (or because of) this, Chinese have a surprising amount of money. The upper and middle class are increasingly large and well-off. In larger cities like Nanjing, the middle and upper classes have what appears close to a European standard of living, but for the pollution levels. In contrast with its iconic and trademarked communist branding, China is more capitalist than almost anywhere else I have been. The social welfare system is not at western levels, and the disparities between rich and poor are larger, so despite official reports, one can observe some homeless.
Still, food and services are so cheap, I am not sure “purchasing power parity” really captures it. Real estate, on the other hand, soaks up the profits, and is very expensive in the neighbourhoods with good schools. People seek to be in the most expensive neighbourhood they can afford.
Families who can afford it move to the neighbourhoods with the “best” primary schools, so their children will get into the “best” middle schools, so they will go to the “best” high schools, so they will score well on the national exam, so they will go to the “best” universities. I think “best” largely refers to richest, as schools with the richest kids will have the “best” peer group for later networking, as well as the “best” resources, and score well on the annual standardised exams ranking schools because the kids comes from educated families. The national exam is considered a great equaliser, as rich kids are too lazy to study hard for the exam, and don’t score as well. Admissions to university is done on a quota system, so students are ranked by state, and the top X% of each state get admitted to the best schools (school applications require a high amount of game theory here, as if you don’t get your first choice, your second choice might be full on round two, so you wind up placed lower than if you picked your second choice first).
However, unlike the social services, a huge investment has been made in public works. The subway is first rate, better than anything in North America, and growth suggests it will be more extensive as well. (A GIF of the growth of Chinese metros has been going around, and is well worth viewing). The university I visited in Nanjing (Southeast University) has a brand new campus on an enormous tract of land for future growth. Overall, the museums are impressive. Feeling guilty at destroying so much of their heritage over the past centuries, the Chinese seem to be rebuilding a lot (the Porcelain Tower, for instance, various Buddhist temples) and preserving what remains. What can only be called “The Buddha Show” at Niushou Buddhism Mountain competes with the Beijing Olympics opening for grandeur. All the better since they are tourist attractions where you exit through the gift shop.
Traffic in Nanjing is bad, but not Beijing (or Wuhan or Shanghai) level bad. Drivers are aggressive, but so are bicyclists, motorcyclists, and pedestrians. The safety rate is worse than Australia or the US, and the statistics don’t capture it, but not as bad as you’d think. And most major roads here have protected bike lanes, which are protected except at the very confusing traffic lights (it seems traffic signals generally have 4 phases: NS Through, NW/SE LT, EW Through, EN/WS LT, and the bike lanes move outside of the car lanes, but there is lots of violations by vehicles, especially non-motorised vehicles). Right-turn on red, across heavy pedestrian, bicycles, and traffic flows is common, and enforcement of traffic laws is largely absent. The only enforcement I saw was against bicyclists going the wrong way down the one-way for bicycles (two-way for pedestrian) shared lane.
In fact, puzzlingly, right turn vehicles have a green right arrow simultaneously with a green pedestrian phase. This would (or at least should) get a traffic engineer stripped of their license in the US. Alternatively, you might think of it as signal-controlled, temporally allocated shared space. [Which is not at all what the originators of the shared space concept had in mind].
Still given the game of chicken when lane changing or at intersections, I am surprised the crash rate is not higher. I am not surprised that many people at more than one University tell me not to trust the official statistics, though. Basically there are too many lanes for cars (relative to person-throughput, but as I said, they are congested in the peak). On some roads there are lanes for buses. Motorcycles and mopeds use either the motor vehicle lanes or the bike lanes, and bikes and motorcycles park on the sidewalks, so pedestrians walk in the bike lanes with bikes, mopeds, and sometimes motorcycles (including cargo bikes, cargo mopeds, and cargo motorcycles whose loads are often as wide as a truck). There is a lot of honking. Oh, and the high-occupancy vehicle diamond symbol painted on the road apparently means slow down.
The traffic lights have long cycle lengths, but all have countdown timers on both red and green phases.
Bikesharing is the new hot thing here, it’s everywhere, and apparently all of a sudden in the last year. People get an app, deposit 300RMB and can find a bike anywhere, and leave it wherever they want, no stations required. There are lots of companies doing this, each with different colored bikes. E-bikes are also increasing in popularity, but it is still a smaller mode. Bike parking is still chaotic, and designated bike parking is not standard. Fortunately Nanjing has many street trees, and bike parking between the trees keeps bikes out of the way of pedestrians. If only this was universally adhered to.
Walking surfaces are very uneven, steps are at irregular heights, and tripping seems like it should be common, or maybe that is why everyone is always looking at their feet. The Chinese have historically been good engineers, and though settlement can explain some of the unevenness, I suspect there is a deeper reason, some version of Feng Shui to defeat invading zombie ghosts perhaps?
Also there are food delivery services are everywhere, like Sydney, but more so, and not like most of the US. Mostly bike delivery of course. Standardized lunchtime delivery is getting popular, like in India.
So much in Nanjing is about relative status, not absolute standards. Rankings matter way more than the US, and the educational system is highly sorted. The advantage of relative vs. absolute status is that the rat race drives productivity which further improves absolute status. The disadvantage is the rat race and the dissatisfaction that ensues.
A collection of Photos about Nanjing can be found here: https://www.icloud.com/sharedalbum/#B0n5ON9t3OVSlE