On the 4th of July, I embarked on a 21-hour journey (a quick trip by relative standards) to Shanghai, China. I had been selected to participate in a month long summer school, which focused on the role of BRICS in global governance and on the foreign policy of China itself. While I was quite nervous about traveling to China, I was equally excited by the prospect of exploring what was, to me, a truly ‘different’ place. I have been fortunate enough to travel fairly extensively for my mere twenty-two years and in that time, I had never gone to a place which I did not know this little about.
With this in mind, it was also difficult for me to form an opinion of the country before visiting, despite my efforts to reach out to those I knew had visited before. What I did learn was that China appeared to be a very polarising experience, with most people either having had a very negative experience or a very positive one. This only exacerbated my nervousness due to the fact that for the first time I did not know what to expect when I arrived. I think this feeling defined most of my time in China where, for a month, I was continually moved along a ‘known-unknown’ continuum and somehow pushed further outside of comfort zone every time I began to feel at home.
In this report, while I will give a general overview of the programme itself as well as some special events to which we were invited, I also thought it would be interesting to talk a little bit about the city itself and the cultural norms and values to which I was exposed.
In terms of learning about societal norms and values, I naturally learned a lot through mere observation and experience, but I also noticed some interesting (possibly unintended) assumptions and/or perspectives throughout our lectures.
Many of us have an image of obnoxious, overbearing Chinese tourists as our reference point for Chinese social behaviour, but it is easy to see how this may be more of a reflection of their own norms and values rather than a deliberate attempt to annoy Westerners.
Not much regard is given to personal space in China and, with a population of 25 million in Shanghai alone, it is not difficult to imagine why. Trying to use any form of public transport during rush hour is truly an exercise in survival. From running from station to station, to maneuvering one’s body into tight spaces to elbowing fellow commuters in order to get onto the right bus; it is not a mission for the fainthearted.
And all of this is considered normal. There is no time to be polite or to pay attention to ‘normal’ conventions of queues – which can be quite shocking at first – but as one soon realises, this is the way it’s done and the only way to actually get around.
Another norm I found quite challenging was that of spitting. Shanghai (and China in general) is infamous for its air pollution. Shanghai is supposed to be one of the better cities in terms of pollution, but it is still a prevalent issue. Many citizens make use of facemasks, and they can be found in a variety of styles and colours to go with any outfit one may have in mind.
One of the unfortunate side effects of this pollution is that many people (especially those who are not used to the air) develop chest colds, coughs and a build-up of phlegm. In order to ‘manage’ these ailments, it has become incredibly common for people to spit on the streets at random. The only warning one may have is deep throat-clearing sound (which will haunt you for weeks to come). At one point I thought I had become accustomed to spitting, I had rationalised it as something that happens outside and that I should just watch where I am walking and remain vigilant.
Unfortunately, while I was unsuspectingly shopping at the local Walmart, I heard the unmistakable sound of someone clearing their throat. I turned around just in time to see a little old lady (who was sitting in one of the display chairs in the Camping section) spit directly onto the floor. I could not hide my incredulity, and proceeded cringe in the aisle.
A norm which was much easier to get used to was that of hospitality (at least in formal settings). Upon attending a dinner with one of my friends, she taught me some traditional Chinese dining etiquette. This revolved a lot around the notion of treating everyone as if they are a guest and making sure that everyone felt served. For example, no one should pour drinks for themselves – rather, you should offer to pour a drink for someone which would then indicate that they should do the same for you.
Chinese dishes are also usually quite large due to the fact that they are designed to be shared, aided by the lazy Susan which is a common feature in Chinese dining establishments and dinner tables. This process of sharing is something which I thought really improved the dining experience and created the platform for bonding as opposed to the quick-dining phenomena which is common in many fast-paced, global cities.
Coming from South Africa (one of the most diverse countries in the world) it was very strange for me to be in such a physically homogenous society. It also appeared that the Chinese were not used to seeing such different-looking people, as myself and my friends were asked on many occasions to pose for photos or would sometimes catch strangers randomly snapping photos anyway. This was quite a strange experience and, over time, became quite invasive. It was yet another phenomenon that was understandable, but not any less challenging to adapt to.
Another interesting observation that I made was in how the Chinese government managed its enormous population. Due to the sheer size of the country, local government plays an increasingly important role and citizens are classified according to their provinces; meaning that Chinese from other provinces are considered immigrants.
This was especially shocking to me as in South Africa we have a historical attachment to the idea that a South African is a South African no matter where they are from within the country, especially due to our oppressive past. In the Chinese model, one can only claim welfare and other social benefits in the province in which one is born and need a special permit to work, live or study in another province. While I still think this model entrenches patterns of inequality, it is interesting to think that maybe a population that large, necessitates different approaches to governance. It is something that Africa (as a collective whole) may need to keep in mind for the future.
Fudan University – BRICS Summer School
Going into the summer school, I admittedly knew very little about the university and gave it a quick Google before I left. I was quite impressed to find out it was ranked within one of the top 100 universities in the world and ranked in the top 3 universities in China.
The summer school dealt with two major courses: China’s public diplomacy & foreign policy and BRICS in global governance. Our class consisted of 31 students, with a total of 13 South Africans – making us the largest represented group. Other students came from Brazil, Russia and India and having a BRICS-only summer school was a very interesting experience.
Many summer schools and exchange programmes are dominated by students from countries in Europe and North America, so having an entirely emerging-market perspective was a very refreshing environment to be in.
The days were long, with us have classes from 9am-11.30am and then again from 1.30pm-4pm. Our lectures were also structured in a 3-days-on-1-day-off schedule with no real regard for when those days fell. This meant that in the first week, we had class on Saturday, Sunday and Monday – a very strange timetable for most of us! The lectures themselves were quite different as we would cover one topic over a single day, with different lecturers presenting every day.
My favourite classes were those dealing with Chinese public diplomacy as I had never formally studied China and its policies before. I also enjoyed conversations around global financial governance reform as it has become more and more apparent that the development needs of emerging markets are not being met by traditional financial institutions (evidenced by the support and praise for the New Development Bank).
Engaging with my fellow students also provided an incredible opportunity for networking as not only were they academically interesting, but also appeared to be very well connected in and of themselves. As an example, many of them will be completing semester abroad studies in Europe at the end of this year and we have already been planning a mini-reunion for those of us who will be traveling.
One of the closest friends I made during the trip happens to be the son of the CEO of the largest energy company in Brazil. I always find it so surreal to think of the achievements and connections of those I consider as friends and, well, if it’s true that one is the average of the five people you spend the most time with, then I think I have a lot to look forward to in my life.
Due to the prestigious nature of Fudan University, they in turn have many connections and play host to a myriad of events. During the time that we were in Shanghai, the New Development Bank (NDB) was scheduled to host the first Annual Meeting and we were invited guests, managing to secure seats right behind our very own finance minister, Pravin Gordhan.
We were also invited to a follow-up meeting at the NDB itself where we engaged in an intimate round-table meeting with one of the five VPs. The Y20, a youth summit which precedes the official G20 summit, was also hosted by the university and we were invited to attend the closing ceremony where we got to meet other young changemakers from an even more diverse set of nations.
The university did its best to charm and impress us, and this was further confirmed when, at the end of the summer school, they informed us that we should apply for future programmes at the university. While, Shanghai may not be my first choice, it has definitely given me a lot to think about in terms of my future path.
For all the media reports and global opinion about the role of China in international politics that exists, it is surprisingly difficult to really know what to expect when one goes to China.
Given the sheer geographic scale of the country, it would be alarmingly ignorant to believe that a vague understanding of one city might give one a genuine understanding of the country as a whole (as well as its ‘satellites’ – Taiwan, Hong Kong and Tibet). That is why, despite my time spent there, I can only ask for the report to be viewed for what it is – a mere snapshot into the reality of a singly city in one of the most complex countries in the world.
I strongly encourage those who can to visit China. Whether one is motivated by historical interests or entrepreneurial interests, China is currently dealing with problems that many other countries will only be facing in decades to come. There is much to learn from China and, given its financial prowess and dominant aspirations especially in Africa, there is much to be gained from partnership with, and deeper understanding of, the nation.
As someone interested in development studies, it was doubly interesting for me to experience the sheer market prospects of a nation like China, where due to the vast population and impressive consumer culture, there is a market for almost anything – even the most exorbitant of luxury brands. This prompted me to think a lot about the nature of development itself and whether or not a country like China can be lauded as such an incredible development ‘miracle’ if its people are not necessarily benefiting in an equitable way.
Whatever one’s motivations (or not) to visit, I do believe that China will continue to play a decisive role in the future of the global sphere, which makes it critical for everyone to understand it on some level.