Sarah Jacobs

Major: International and Area Studies

Hometown: High Point, NC

Study Abroad Program: Transforming Urban China

Driving to Hong Kong from the airport on Lantau Island I marveled in what had just been accomplished.  I had traveled to the other side of the world.  A feat that at one time took months I had accomplished in a single day.  Our world in the 21th century is a global place increasingly connected through the free exchange of people, technology and ideas.  It is this global world that allows me to travel through China for a month and study the development that has occurred there over the last 5000 years and that has accelerated over the last 25. 

Studying urbanization at Hong Kong University for six days with 14 fellow Tar Heels was an experience unlike any other that I could find in the cities of North Carolina.  High Point and Hong Kong are on opposite sides of the globe with cultures that seem equally as distant.  From the eight suitcases bouncing on a bungee cord in the back of our taxi to the seemingly endless skyline, there was no doubt that I was on the other side of the world.  The thick pollution swallowed all the stars in the city yet the twinkling lights below from the buildings were a sparkling mass like a fallen sky.  It looks as if the city is on its head.  In many ways it is an upside-down city a world away. 

Hong Kong is a small island of only 1,042 square kilometers yet it has a population of 7 million, nearly the population of all of North Carolina.  The buildings are so close together and dense that they create a solid block of concrete and steel built up on a mountainous island.  The industries and manufacturing of Hong Kong and the surrounding area have created so much pollution that the tops of the skyscrapers disappear into a cloud of humidity and smog. 

Hong Kong has only been a part of The People’s Republic of China for a decade when Britain’s colonial lease on part of the land ran up in 1997.  Hong Kong’s raison d’etre was as a global city and for a long time, the only connection of China to the outside world.  The PRC is a communist nation although in Hong Kong, capitalism is practiced and perfected.  China operates under the motto “Two Systems, One Nation”.  We visited several businesses in Hong Kong, one of which was the Esquel Group, a textile company that produces one of seven shirts in the average American closet.  Hong Kong’s economic influence on the world is great and growing.  Hong Kong is constantly increasing and they have the land resources to do so by expanding west into the entire Pearl River Delta. 

Hong Kong as a capitalist hub is matching the United States in many ways and far surpassing us with growth rates.  The United States needs to be continually aware of Hong Kong’s capitalist and economic strengths and learn from their successes to improve our own businesses at home.  Ignoring this part of the world would be a huge error because at its current growth rate, China, with Hong Kong leading the way, will soon become the world leader in all its efforts.

My biggest surprise this week came from my transition from Hong Kong to Shenzhen on mainland China.  Though the physical distance apart was conquered by a simple commuter train we encountered stark differences once we crossed into “real China”.  Not only did we have to go through an ordeal of screening and questioning in crossing, but once we finally entered mainland China we experienced a different language and landscape from Hong Kong.  Mandarin is spoken in Shenzhen more widely than in Hong Kong, where Cantonese is prevalent; however, there were no helpful English translations on which I had found myself relying in Hong Kong.

In the southern areas around Hong Kong, economics is the main focus in daily life.  As a Special Economic Zone, Shenzhen is a hub of international economic activity including nearly 80% of the world’s electronics in production or shipping.  Shenzhen hopes to compete with Hong Kong in manufacturing and development but despite the similarities, Shenzhen is a cog in the communist machine.  The difference comes from urban villages similar to factory towns in the United States.  Stores, schools, medical centers are all located in this mini-city.  We visited one plant that employed 300,000 people.  They live in compounds and are promoted by the amount of time they spend with the company.  Skill and talent has little or no effect on success. 

A large difference I observed was a subtle one, local outlook on national politics.  At Shenzhen University I took classes with other local students who were eager to try out their English skills with me and even more excited to talk about America.  The students were in the Urban Planning department, a field of growing importance in a place where entire skyscrapers go up in ten months and a city like Shenzhen can turn from quiet fishing village to center of global economic activity in 20 years.  Most of the students had not left the Guangdong province where Shenzhen is located in southeast China let alone seen cities around the world.  It is hard to imagine going to college to study cities when the only one that they had ever experienced was Shenzhen.  But they were bright and eager to learn more.  When I showed interest in anything other than their school or economics or karaoke, they spoke in hushed tones or politely skirted the topics of the government and State politics.  The question of how Chinese people, particularly students, feel about the government and its policies is an issue that I have wanted to understand more about during my time in the People’s Republic of China.

I am in a city in northern China called Xian and have had a great deal of time to spend with students.  It is always interesting to learn of their cultures and their views on certain things, particularly with politics.  In Shenzhen the students were reluctant to talk about the government or politics so I assumed that it was a pointless exercise to try and get a dialogue going.  This week in Xian I attended an "English corner" where students at the local technical university get together to practice their English skills.  Needless to say they were all delighted to practice with us, we drew quite the crowd.  Xian is the former capital of the Middle Kingdom so we were discussing places to see and relicts to visit.  On their own accord they began talking rather freely about how Xian's culture was robbed of them during the Cultural Revolution.  It was the first time I had heard anyone speak of the topic so candidly.  When I asked how it made them feel, in unison they replied, "It’s a pity". 

In Xian we sat with a group of architecture students from a polytechnic institution for a time of open discussion.  The questions they had written for "The Americans" were biting.  One student stood up and read off a 5 minute question, it was translated in about 30 seconds so I am sure that some things were lost.  The basic point of his comment was that he knew everything about American history including the names of most of the Presidents.  The student accused Americans of being on a platform and not willing to learn about China and its culture. 

We asked the Chinese students if they thought it was possible for the governments of United States and China to work together despite the vast differences in communism and democracy.  Once translated the entire group of Chinese students let out a nervous laugh.  They laughed because they knew that they were not going to be able to answer in full honesty.  If we are committed to educating Americans en mass about China, our countries must figure out a way to be completely open with one another.  One reason that education about China is so sparse is because we cannot take what is said at face value most of the time, we have to read against the grain and separate what is being said from what is meant and cannot be said.  We must be able to have an open and honest conversation about the currently unspeakable issues such as Tibet and Taiwan and the revolution if we ever hope to be at the level of working together on anything else.

There are many issues of trust that must be broken down for there to be hope of China and America ever viewing each other as partners.  The first step is in connecting to each other on an individual level, not viewing each other as a group of American students or those Chinese kids but attempting to understand the experiences of the individual and cultures and committing to educate each other about them.  It is less likely for this to happen at a national level when leaders' places in history is at stake.  But we all have an amazing opportunity to connect one on one with people on the other side of the world in an attempt to influence how our countries will one day relate to one another.

After three planes and more than thirty hours in transit, I am back safe from China.  The last few days of unpacking and getting over intense jetlag have been filled with reflection of what I had seen and done in the last month. 

Something that I did not expect was the culture shock that coming back home to the United States would bring.  I was only gone for a few weeks but the differences I have found in our nation and the one on the other side have made me stop and adjust. 

I don’t know if it’s just an availability perception but everywhere I look, there is China!  On the cover of two magazines this week I saw places that we visited this month. After experiencing it first hand, I am really glad that the US media is paying attention.  China is a big deal, and getting bigger!  We can’t afford to ignore their influence.

The first, and most obvious, thing that I noticed on getting back was the air quality.  I had forgotten what it meant to take a deep breath without the heavy pressure of pollution on my lungs.  Seeing the stars in the Carolina sky as I landed in Raleigh made me appreciate the quality of life we have (and take for granted) here, but it also made me think back to the place I had just left.  China has more than a billion people and its population is increasingly moving to the cities.  The pollution and overuse of resources is going to continue and worsen.  It is easy to think that we can focus on our own pollution issues in the United States.  That is not enough.  Pollution does not see the artificial barriers of national borders; what happens in China affects the world.  It is important that we encourage China to adopt green business practices and ensure that they do not rob the world of its finite resources.

China’s density issue is something that I now find unnerving in its absence in North Carolina.  Everywhere we went in China was crowded with people moving about; quite a different scene from rural Davidson County.  Since I was studying urban planning I visited many public housing urban villages which house hundreds of thousands of people in each city.  The structures are so close together that they are referred to as kissing buildings and they are indeed that dense.  Entire families live in a single room.  Such a living situation creates an entire generation of young people with no privacy.  It has encouraged the use of cell phones as an outlet of connectivity to create personal space.  Young people are forced out to internet cafes or other public spaces for social interaction.