Seven Amazing Days in China

China in a Hurry

China is in a hurry.  The impression was inescapable everywhere we went during our brief 7-day tour of Zhejiang province.  Everyone from the heads of Universities and businesses to the folks rushing to and from work on bicycles and mopeds are in a hurry.  The sense of urgency was pervasive.  Everyone is working urgently to get ahead, to provide for their families futures, and to build China into an unquestionable first-world power.

They have some catching up to do.  China is running in a come-from-behind position in the race for world leadership.  The country suffered dearly during the second world war.  Their own revolution and a series of internal struggles culminating in the 'cultural revolution occupied much of their internal focus during the fifties and sixties. The cultural revolution significantly crippled the country's intellectual capabilities much as the practice of foot binding crippled generations of Chinese women in past centuries.   But China is moving quickly forward now and the signs of building and progress are everywhere.

I was very fortunate to have the opportunity last week to tour Zhejiang Province with my friend Jim Querry, GIS Manager for the City of Philadelphia, his wife Kathy, and Julia Jia, one of Philadelphia's lead GIS technologists.  We gave a series of presentations on Enterprise GIS to Zhejiang University, The City of Hangzhou, and the Zhejiang Province Electric Power Company (ZPEPC).   It was an amazing week and a wonderful opportunity to learn a little bit about China and how they are using GIS.

China is a pretty complex place and I don't pretend to be able to draw any revelatory conclusions after spending only one week in one of China's many provinces.  That said, I was left with a number of striking impressions after our whirlwind tour.  Our first few days in China were spent in the City of Hangzhou, and our hotel for the first couple of nights was on the shores of West Lake.

West Lake

West Lake is long famous for its beauty.  Marco Polo opined that it was one of the most beautiful places he had visited in the world and I would have a hard time disagreeing with him.  There is a wonderful park on the sores of West Lake that gives a glimpse of some of China's rich history.  The artistic traditions are much revered there and the statues and monuments around the lake are of poets and artists rather than of generals.  How refreshing!  On the shores of West Lake we were able to get a sense of tremendous cultural history of China and the great respect that their society shows to the older generation.  The older generations are much valued in China and grandparents often have an active, even primary role in the raising of their grandchildren.  In the eyes of the older generations you can see the reflections of the many struggles that have marked China's history in this century.

The younger generation could hardly be more different.  The teenagers and twenty somethings would be difficult to distinguish from any tech savvy generation around the world.  They wear hip western clothes, are constantly texting on their cell phones, and have have that rebellious look of any teenager that knows more than you do.  The sound of Chinese (and often American) hip-hop is everywhere in the urban scene.  As we traveled through the province, the tension between the young and old generations was something that I often sensed.

In terms of GIS use, our hosts with ZPEPC were very sophisticated users of GIS.  Their modeling of their electrical transmission and distribution systems was very complete and quite sophisticated.  They are using mobile GIS and field force automation in much of their operations and seemingly have very sophisticated capabilities to model their entire distribution network.  The municipal implementation of GIS is hampered by the practice, common in many parts of the world, whereby agencies that develop GIS data attempt to recover the costs of that data development by selling the data to anyone outside the agency, including other agencies.  This practice results in practices of some agencies making do with out of date data, and other agencies developing duplicate layers in order to avoid inter-agency payments.  This lack of open data sharing within the government has somewhat limited a potentially broader and more effective use of GIS across the government.

One of the many paradoxes that we encountered in our travels was the apparent haphazard nature of land use planning.  It was not at all uncommon to see industrial, retail, high-density residential, and traditional agriculture land uses in the same quarter mile.  In a country that prides itself in the abilities of its central planners, it was ironic to see such random land use.  It was impossible to tell whether this was a function of the increasing urgency for development of the urban areas or whether other forces were at work.


If there was one experience that epitomized my impression of China it was the day that we spent in Shanghai.  There are no words to properly convey the experience of Shanghai.  Imagine for a moment a population of 25 million people (New York has about 14 million) crowded into a space about 1/3 the footprint of the New York metro area and you start to get a sense of density.  But there is no way to express the energy.  The city is jumping!  Barge and freighter traffic up and down the river is constant day and night.  And the pulse of the city is incessant.  Some of the most expensive real estate on the planet is now in Shanghai as more and more people press in to be a part of the action.  If West Lake represents some of the cultural history of this great country certainly Shanghai represents the urgency of the present.  A cab ride is taking your life in your hands, but the city must be experienced to be believed.

A week after departing Shanghai, I am still trying to make sense of the experience.  I am left with the feeling that China has a very promising but potentially perilous future ahead in the next twenty years.  China's leadership will have a very delicate path to tread in the next decade to meet the hopes and dreams of the younger generation.  They have been very successful in navigating a transition to a more open and entrepreneurial economic model in the past twenty or so years.  Political reform has been much slower.  The Great Firewall approach of trying to control the population's free and open access to information and communication is unlikely to hold back the rising flood of communications technology for very much longer.  And if the younger generation can not be made to feel that they are fully trusted, respected, and invited into full participation into the country's future the potential for political unrest will become stronger.  A return to the revolutionary tendencies of the past would be an enormous tragedy.