This opinion is purely based on my own stint in Guangzhou; I did no background research to write it; it is merely an impression — albeit, a very good one.
I’ve been all over China. I’ve seen the modern cave dwellings in Shanxi and the peacock-capped houses in Xishuangbanna. I’ve drank with the underground folk musicians in Beijing’s hutongs and debated political theory with Nanjing University’s best professors. I’ve been devoured by the crowds in Mong Kok and blessed by the crisp air of Tiger Leaping Gorge.
Every issue I read or hear about in China almost always stems from a lack of a stable and enforced constitutional legal system. This is the ugly result of many factors which I will not get into here, but suffice it to say many government officials do not have traffic safety or gutter oil at the tops of their priority lists. The longer I’ve been in China, the more skeptical I have become that China’s democratization is the inevitable eventual step in the rise of this nation.
In Guangzhou now, I have encountered several wonderful bits of information that give me hope.
1. Seatbelts. The taxis’ recordings exhort the front passenger to buckle up. It’s required! Not here will you have a taxi driver who waves a hand at you when you try to fasten your seat belt, saying “You don’t need that.”
2. No Smoking in Restaurants. I know this one has plenty of exceptions, but the dim sum restaurant I went to the other day was the first restaurant in China I’ve ever been in where they enforce this rule (as of May 1, 2011, smoking is “banned” in all public areas in China). Nice to see.
3. Local democracies? I am in no position to confirm this, but one Chinese friend in Guangzhou had just come back from spending the New Year in her home town of Pingyao, Shanxi. She said that the county was gearing up for its first democratic election — as were the majority of local governments across the country. Another friend said that he say campaign posters in his apartment. Local elections have been set up in thousands of counties since the 80s, but to varying degrees of non-corruption. My Pingyao friend’s excitement about her own local election was palpable — a refreshing change from the usual disinterest or disbelief in the efficacy of local democracy.
4. Treat people the same. I know this definitely has exceptions, but again, this is a rarely-encountered anecdote. An old man came into the dumpling restaurant, bee-lined for my table, and rattled his pan at me. I looked over at the boss, who then got into an argument with him about harassing foreigners. “They’re Westerners!” he cackled, “They have money! What’s the problem?” — “Because you aren’t harassing any of the Chinese customers. People are all the same. If you’re going to be treating foreigners like that, you can go somewhere else.” I’ve never been defended for being a foreigner before — especially not in public and in this manner. Granted, she knew I spoke Chinese and may have been putting on a bit of a show. She also had no interest in appealing to this man, who was just a local beggar. Nonetheless, she said it so that everyone in the restaurant could hear, and I was grateful for not being “foreignized.”
In my short time in Guangzhou, I have enjoyed many pleasant encounters, and these few have left an impression on me. Yes, Guangdong is the richest province. Yes, it has long been influenced by international cultures. It is not like the other provinces in many ways. Either way, it has been a pleasure, and I hope that other cities follow in the footsteps of enforcing basic health and safety laws, to start.