Comparing China with rest of the world – Part 1

There are lots of negative news on China from the main stream media. Reading some of the reports make one wonders whether the sky will fall on China. The Western propaganda machine is just unrelenting.  Even China’s own media and other non-Western media are influenced by the Western reporting habits on China.  Zhang Weiwei recently wrote an article which compares China with a number of countries in the world based on seven criteria that  try to reveal conditions in China when compared with other countries. Following is the first part of my translation of Zhang’s article.

(Zhang Weiwei : Comparing China with rest of the world using seven indices)

I have said previously that China experiences considerable problems in her development path. If the problems are not actively addressed, China could fail ultimately. But again if we just look at problems as if the sky is falling upon us, then it is self-defeating.  China may have many problems, but China is also in the best of the situation since 1949, and also perhaps the best shape in her last 300 years history. Using international comparison may help understand our situation better, by allowing us to view our achievements and problems on relative international scale, as well as gearing us towards a higher level.

Most international comparisons are compiled in a variety of ways, though most scholars like to use  polls findings and authoritative data. But the more one travel to different countries, the more one realises that criteria based on common perceptions can also be used to express the situations just as clearly. This reminds me of the British “The Economist” magazine which published Big Mac price index in 1986. The per capita GDP (gross domestic product) is widely used to compare the level of economic development of countries around the world, but the comparison is questionable because it is based on official currency exchange rate, which does not truly reflect the true purchasing power of individual country. Thus, The Economist uses  the  “Big Mac” prices as basis of  the real purchasing power. For example, in the first half of 2007, the magazine announced the “Big Mac index”, where in US the Big Mac is priced at $ 3.22 and  $ 1.41 in China.
On the surface, this assessment seems to be a laughable, but on careful thought, “Big Mac” price is really a series of comprehensive reflection of coefficients of different prices (beef, flour, cooking oil, cheese, staff wages, and store leasing price factors). As McDonald restaurants are found in more than 100 countries, the “Big Mac index” is frequently cited.

Inspired from this, I make observations certain phenomena on many countries I have visited over the years, and compare them with the situation in China,  using my own assessment method.  Of course, this is purely based on my personal impression and observation, and not trying to be authoritative at all. It’s like when you meet a stranger, and from the exchange of conversations and observations, you can always draw some conclusions of the person. I have been to many countries, and prefer to rely more on the knowledge accumulated based on my own experience and then form judgments based on it. I have chosen 15 countries and 7 indices.  The maximum point is 5. These indices are:

(1)   Idlers – referring to people that appear to be idling in the street

(2)   Slum

(3)    Bookstore

(4)   Military personnel

(5)   Taxi

(6)    Security

(7)    Queue


Idlers refers to young people in the streets doing nothing, the “index” can roughly reflects a national employment and unemployment situation, and even the potential development of a nation. In China’s big cities with fast pace of  life, “idlers” are few, as it seems everyone is busy with something. Switzerland’s unemployment rate is low, giving the impression that everyone has something to do. The U.S. has fast pace of life in big cities as well as social competitions but in   black ghetto areas, there are lots of idlers. India has surprisingly many idlers  and this illustrates the weakness of national population policy, as  well as high unemployment rate. France, and Greece have many unemployed, especially in the outskirts of Paris where many North African immigrants live. Here is my comparisons:

5: China, Switzerland

4: U.S., UK

3: France, Israel, Brazil, Argentina, Vietnam, Russia, Turkey, Greece

2 points: Egypt, India

1 min: Kenya


Slum does not really mean generally ugly old houses, but refers to cluster of shabby shacks with no basic sanitation and piped water facilities. Most developing countries have slums due to the large number of rural to urban migration. Many poor people cannot afford proper homes, and thus they simply built sheds near the road or river, or on hillside or anywhere, and over the passage of time the cluster of huts grow to become slum. The living conditions are hard to imagine; the shed are made from scrapped corrugated zinc sheet and plastic coverings, garbage and dust everywhere, and the open drainage ditches are overflowed with dark filth. India has the world’s largest slum, and in major cities more than half the populations live in slums. Slums in Africa are the world’s most terrifying, visitors without close police escort are likely to be robbed. In developed countries, slums have basically disappeared. China through the 30 years of reform and opening up, has seen significant reduction of slums and shantytowns, which is an amazing achievement of China’s reform and opening up.  Slums also reflect a the number of destitute poor people in a country. My impression of slums are as follows:

5: Switzerland, UK, USA, France, Greece

4: China, Russia, Argentina

3: Turkey, Israel

2 points: Vietnam, Brazil, Egypt

1 point: India, Kenya

Bookstore :

Wherever  I go, I like to drop  at local bookstore. Bookstores reflect a nation’s cultural literacy. I pay more attention in observing the size of bookstores, type of books available, quality and the number  of customers. Developed countries on the whole do better in this regard. The large bookstores of London, Paris and New York provide comfortable environment and comprehensive services. In additions there are a number of used bookstores and specialty bookstores that cater for diverse interests. Bookstores in African countries are on the whole pathetic, as there is limited range, the shop fronts are narrow with few customers and in general mostly stocked with school textbooks  and   stationeries. There are also bookstores owned by a few white people with books imported from Europe, which most of the locals cannot afford. How to improve the people’s standard of education and culture development in Africa is a daunting challenge. Without progress in cultural literacy, the African revival will be hard to realize. . Chinese bookstores have achieved rapid progress. Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen and other major cities have seen many large bookstores and specialty bookstores thriving. Overall though, the humanities, literature or  arts-based bookstores are  still few, and the personalized bookstores and specialty services have yet to be developed. In most emerging economies, practical books are very common, and it is the same in China too, where  books on college entrance examinations, computer technology, stock trading account for most of the books displayed in the stores. This also reflects the characteristics of emerging economies, where most people are busy learning skills, trying to upgrade themselves. But with the economic development and improvement of living standards, people’s cultural and spiritual quest will become increasingly rich, and books and bookstores for different requirements will appear more frequently. When bookstores become more popular, it also indicates country as moving up in status. A nation that loves books has hopes. My bookstore “index” points are as follows:

5: UK, USA, France,

4: Switzerland, Greece, Argentina, Israel

3: China, Russia, Turkey, Brazil

2 points: Vietnam, Egypt, India

1 min: Kenya

Military personnel:

I like to observe the military, whether it is looking at a guards of honour performances, or to see the interactions of soldiers on the street. I always feel the way the military personnel behave. can reflect some of the characteristics of a nation, or even a national spirit. Soldiers displaying strict military discipline give the impression of formidable fighting force, whereas the easy going type usually represents weak fighting force. For example, the uniformity of  march of Turkish soldiers, gives solid  impression  while the casual demeanor of Greek troops does not. If the two armies are to fight, I predict the Greek army will be defeated. I had opportunity to talk with number of young Israeli army officers that can speak some English and have technical expertise. They seem to be dismissive of surrounding Arab armies.

I had accompanied a Chinese delegation that visited the U.S. Pacific Command in Hawaii, and also visited the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, where I saw many highly skilled professional military servicemen. I have been to the Red Square in Moscow, the Russian military changing of the guard were very professional, good looking, but I have also seen on the bus slightly tipsy Russian military officers that led me to feel that Russian military discipline is somewhat lax. Chinese soldiers always give people left a deep impression. I know foreigners praised the Chinese army is the most well-known American writer, the late Salisbury (Harrison Salisbury), in 1984, he was walking along the road again the Red Army, wrote the “Long March: unprecedented  story ” and it has become China’s best-selling book that year. Later, he visited China, I accompanied him for more than a month, he repeatedly said to me: the quality of the Chinese army was one of the world’s best in terms of military discipline as well as training. I am moved every time I watch TV to see PLA soldiers’ dedication on disaster reliefs. I have often heard in Geneva on criticism of the United Nations peacekeeping forces by NGOs, because the UN peacekeepers from around the world have mixed quality, but on the Chinese peacekeeping force, all I hear are praises. Here is my impression that the military 15 countries:

5: China, United Kingdom, United States, Turkey

4: Russia, France, Israel, Switzerland, Vietnam

3: Greece, India, Brazil, Argentina

2 points: Egypt

1 min: Kenya


Wherever I visit a country I always take taxi, and observing taxi service has become one of my hobbies. I believe that the management of taxi service reflects local governance service to some extend; including level of governing capability and degree of local corruptions. One can observe quality of vehicle and driver, standard of service, whether the taxi is equipped with a meter or whether the meter is used, whether the driver is reckless and so on.  In short, careful observation allows one to be aware of the local conditions and avoid pitfalls.

One feature of taxi in developing countries is the rampant pirate or illegal taxi service found at the airports. The moment that you are just outside the airport, the sight of people trying to get you into taking their cars is common, with little regards to regulations.

In US, a “Charter of passengers ‘ rights” notice is placed behind the taxi driver’s seat;  you will be reminded that you are in a place with high number of lawsuits and plenty of lawyers in the system. If you forget to tip US taxis, the drivers will slam the doors hard in protest. You realize then that after all you are in epicenter of capitalism, where tips are important component of drivers ‘ incomes.

In India the taxis do have meters installed, but are rarely used. The driver will tell the fare price first. And if you tell the driver to use meter, he will ask for the  air-conditioning costs, baggage fees, and so on to reach the price he wants. It’s like India’s political reality, nominally a well-established legal system, but one can always find 10,000 reasons not to comply.

In some African countries, taxis are just unsafe as cases of passengers being robbed by in taxis are rather rampant.

If you are on the street, you can easily flag for taxi in the competitive and dynamic Asian countries like China and Vietnam. In countries with restricted competition, local taxi service requires advance booking. Thus this feature is found mainly in societies that have high social welfares found in many European countries. In the former group of countries there is focus on consumer convenience and rights, while the latter group of countries focus more on protecting the interests of taxi drivers. Which is better really depends on the perspective that you are standing on. In Kazakhstan, any vehicle on the road can be used as taxi, as long as you a wave your hand, the car will stop and the two sides will negotiate a price. This shows that the country has underdeveloped market economy, but also shows the simplicity and high degree of trust between people.

Of the Chinese big cities, I feel that Shanghai taxi services seems to be the best regulated and should receive top marks. But the overall level of  taxi service  in China is probably in the middle rank; significantly better than most the developing countries in general, but still not as good in comparison to developed countries. The following is my taxi brownie points:

5: Switzerland, United Kingdom

4: United States, France, Greece

3: China, Turkey, Israel, Brazil, Argentina

2 points: Vietnam, Egypt, India, Russia

1 min: Kenya


Whether the local security is good or bad, I use a most simple way to determine:  how safe it is to walk on a street a night. In China, most places seem safe to walk, where girl walking alone at night in large city basically will not have problems. However, it is not the same in most countries around the world. The U.S. hypes her own system, but the security in US  is the worst in developed countries. Basically one just can’t walk freely at night in any of the large US cities without police presence. In 2010, the U.S. Cable News Network (CNN) lists the ten worst cities in the world order, the United States accounted for two. The ten cities are in Iraq, Venezuela , Pakistan, Detroit (US), New Orleans (US), Mexico, South Africa, Russia and so on. In France and other Western countries, the security situations apparently have declined in larger cities, though  the overall security situation is still  decent. In Egypt,  the security situation has deteriorated sharply after the Arab Spring. Large gap exist between rich and poor in Brazilian society in the cities. Security is one of Brazil’s biggest social problems. There is extraordinarily high crime rates in some African countries; a South African friend of mine who  visited Shanghai said the deepest impression he felt was that girls can freely wave a taxi to go home. In South Africa that would be  tantamount to “suicide “. It’s not just the girls, even the men dare not take the  taxis at night. The following are the countries I visited and the security brownie points:

5: China, Switzerland, Turkey

4 points: Israel, Vietnam, the United Kingdom, France

3: United States, Russia, India, Greece, Argentina

2 points: Brazil, Egypt

1 min: Kenya

(… to be continued )


About kchew

an occasional culturalist
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