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Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Emerging China speeding ahead


Nation’s developing network of bullet trains is a reflection of the country’s remarkable transformation and the growing technological prowess built on strong historical and cultural foundations.

I WAS in China a few weeks ago. As it happened, I needed to travel from Hangzhou, where I was staying, to Shanghai.

The most practical option was by train, which was how I ended up aboard the CRH380A bullet train at Hangzhou Station.

I had booked a premium seat, only to discover that it was the train’s first day of operation and there were camera crews and journalists hovering around.

Settling in, I noticed a neatly-placed power socket as well as a sheaf of glossy magazines stuffed in the seatback pocket in front of me.

I pulled out one of the magazines at random. The cover revealed an alluring image of Italian movie star Monica Belluci baring a naked shoulder.

Mmm ... clearly, this was not going to be your average train ride.

Completed in just 20 months, the 202km high-speed rail line links the ancient imperial capital (currently China’s premier tourism destination) with the bustling cacophony of Shanghai – made all the more raucous, at the time, by the soon-to-be-closed World Expo.

I was travelling with an artist friend who had studied at the prestigious China Academy of Art, located on the banks of the West Lake in Hangzhou, back in the early 80s.

As a Shanghainese, he remembers, in those days, the same journey took six hours. That morning on the bullet train, we were promised a 45-minute journey.

My friend added that there were slower and less expensive options – the slowest of which took 78 minutes.

As the train pulled out of Hangzhou, I leaned back in my reclining seat, keeping an eagle eye on the speedometer located just above the carriage-doorway.

The acceleration was slow and steady. We quickly reached 150kph, by which stage the scene outside appeared to be passing only moderately swiftly.

However, as the train started touching 250 kph, most of the action appeared to be inside the carriage, as various passengers leapt up to have their photos taken beneath the flickering speedometer.

At 350kph, there was a small line of people waiting to have their photos taken. We were, after all, on the world’s fastest bullet train – yes, way faster than Japan’s Shinkansen.

Glancing outside once again at the suburban sprawl, I marvelled at technology.

Here I was, travelling so fast, and yet it was almost impossible to feel or discern the speed at which I was moving within the hermetically sealed train.

Forty-five minutes after we departed from Hangzhou, we pulled into Hongqiao Station in Shanghai – alongside the domestic airport of the same name.

Recently rebuilt, Hongqiao Station was another colossal structure of marble, glass and steel.

Vast, soaring and cathedral-like, it provided an overwhelming conclusion to our extraordinarily swift rail trip.
China’s fast emerging network of bullet trains is a reflection of the country’s remarkable transformation.

The moniker “Made In China” no longer evokes a sense of inferiority; Chinese technology continues to evolve and improve.

Furthermore the growing technological prowess is built on strong historical and cultural foundations; institutions that have survived and prospered since the Cultural Revolution’s depredations.
Hangzhou encapsulates these forces.

The city combines Southern Song Dynasty era marvels along with trading and manufacturing expertise. On the one hand there are the quintessential Chinese tourist sites – the West Lake, the pagodas and the teahouses – while on the other are vast industrial estates contributing to a GDP that has trebled in the past decade to reach over 520 billion renmenbi (RM243bil).

A culture of scholarship, learning and the arts – embodied in the startlingly lavish China Academy of Arts’ campus – provides a firm foundation for innovation as traditions are both honoured and updated.

Indeed, China’s rise is made all the more complex and indeed resilient because the Middle Kingdom is both increasingly modern and rooted.

The level of self-confidence is drawn from history, culture and contemporary commercial might.

But, as China progresses economically and “spiritually” – with the emphasis on culture and talent, a few questions remain. Can the ruling Communist Party hold off the call for greater civil liberties?

Is prosperity alone enough to satisfy the people? What does the recent furore over the Nobel Peace Prize tells us about China’s current leaders’ state of mind of?

However for the smaller nations of South-East Asia, the challenge is more profound. Indeed the future can look quite harrowing. Where do we fit in?

What is our role vis-a-vis the behemoth that is modern China? Are we going to be little more than a modern tributary state?