I was quite excited about the prospect of going to Beijing. I had been to China 20 years previously in Guangzhou, which was a major culture shock for me. Yet, at the time, it was so exciting because it wasn’t a common destination for tourism. In fact, China had only recently opened up for tourism (I visited in 1996) so they were not equipped for people to visit from the rest of the world (let alone Africa!) and the people were totally fascinated by us. Returning 20 years later, I was really curious to see how China had changed and wasn’t quite prepared for what I was going to experience.
The first thing that hit me was the size of the city. More than 25 Million people call Beijing home. This is equal to half of the population of the whole of South Africa all squashed up in one city! How do they live? All in high rises – tall blocks of flats wherever you look. I didn’t see one house. Not one – just miles and miles of blocks of flats. A mix of old dilapidated buildings, contrasting with beautiful modern structures. All the buildings were tall – maximising the space vs population ratio.
One would think that this city would be cramped, but it never gave that impression. Wherever you went, there was a feeling of spaciousness. The Chinese make a priority to create beautiful gardens for their citizens to walk, run, play with their model planes and kites. Their attention to detail is phenomenal. And yet they are not really concerned with health and safety issues. The conundrum of their society is mind-blowing and fascinating at the same time.
I expected to see a nation oppressed by the strict controls put in place and restrictions on their access to information and the outside world. Anything Google is banned in China, along with social media like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – what was I going to do? There is a list of approximately 3,000 banned websites in China. How was I going to survive?? And they block VPNs as well, so unless you know someone who is able to hack on a regular basis (or you are a hacker), you are stuck (pretty much).
In contrast, what I did find was an extremely happy society. People make an effort to walk their dogs, have a run, spend some time in nature and they are laughing, smiling, friendly. The people of China are happy and have absolutely no idea that they are restricted in any way. In fact, they don’t need the outside world at all. They have created their own economy with huge companies that don’t exist anywhere else. Whatever we have and whatever we can do, they have figured out for themselves. They are an extremely resourceful nation. And that is extremely inspiring.
It did remind me of Africa every now and then, though – especially when it came to health and safety. And sometimes they just don’t seem to understand the meaning of “urgency”. But somehow they have managed to become a powerhouse internationally, while creating a balance of peacefulness. At no time did I experience or feel any atmosphere of stress – anywhere! China seems to be a nation devoid of stress. How do they get that right?
Beside the fact that I was there for work, and I couldn’t access my email or my Facebook, I was determined to experience the city to the best I could, given the limited time and resources that I had available to me. Our delegation comprised 7 endocrinologists (super specialists) plus two of us conference organisers. Our sole objective was to encourage people to travel to South Africa to attend the international congress in Cape Town in December 2018. So we organised a complimentary exhibition stand, produced some marketing materials (including bookmarks, post cards, baseball caps, beaded keyrings, button badges and bracelets). And we lugged around a super heavy banner wall (3m wide x 2.25m high).