Civilized Kunming 昆明, China 中国
Imagine your country has a USD $1.8 trillion trade revenue* surplus annually from selling manufactured goods to hungry consumers overseas - computers, smart phones, cheap clothing, plastic bins, etc. Imagine what can be done with that kind of money... hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into the government piggy bank not by taxing domestic middle class worker incomes** but by assembling and producing the things people around the world want to buy at a price they want to pay. I'm not judging Chinese tactics or American policies in this post; I simply want to emphasize the revenue that China receives from shoppers around the globe - it pays for some wonderful quality-of-life amenities.
"Civilized Kunming" is the city's motto. As I roam around spic-and-span, sparkling clean Kunming, I can't help but think that American consumerism is partially paying*** for Kunming's exceptional public transportation network, manicured parks, electric motorbike and cycling lanes, multiple universities, and high speed internet access. This is the kind of city I want to live in - fresh air, blue skies, safe, walkable, powered by renewable energy sources. Did I mention that the average retirement age in China is 57?
In Kunming, we never waited more than 5 minutes for a public bus. At major intersections, we crossed above the traffic on pedestrian walkways designed for efficiency and safety. We took the brand new metro to farther-flung points of interest, paying pennies. The city is runner-friendly; in the evenings, we joined a throng of exercisers at the park. There is an extensive public bike-sharing network for anyone with an e-pay method (cost for unlimited daily use is 16 cents). We shopped the local markets (and Walmart), where food is unbelievably inexpensive. The city is also quiet. There is no noise pollution because 100% of scooters are electric, car honking is socially discouraged, and roosters reside only in the rural countryside.
What stands out most in my mind, however, is the sense of community in Kunming. People socialize all day long: grandparents entertain their grandkids, members of ethnic minority groups lead nightly dancing, impromptu karaoke and jam sessions resound throughout the park, retirees teach calligraphy to students and tourists, men play chess and women gather for a round of mahjong, sipping tea. Every day, all day, people of all ages relax and enjoy one another's company. Even as obvious foreigners, local people invited us to join in their activities and share in their experiences.
I remember a conversation I had with a woman in Leesburg, Virginia a few years ago. She had immigrated from India to the United States a couple of years earlier but was excited to be moving back to Mumbai. She said that she was lonely and depressed in America. She said people in Northern Virginia were always too busy to smile, chat, or sit for a cup of tea. She missed social interaction. Let's not keep bowling alone, my fellow Americans. Put down your phones (and opioids), introduce yourself to neighbors, move your book club outdoors, and smile at strangers.
Any post mentioning trade, economics, and "capitalism with Chinese Characteristics" has to include tons of footnotes. This is a travel blog, not the Financial Times - feel free to comment, but keep it civil. I am happy to discuss and debate the pro's and con's of Chinese and American policies in more depth over happy hour drinks. I am not a Sinophile per se, but believe there are things we can all learn from each other.
*China has roughly a $1.88 trillion global trade surplus annually (exports minus imports). The largest portion of that trade surplus (roughly $250 billion) comes from United States' consumers; other major trading partners include Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Germany.
**Workers in China must pay into the government's social security system, just as we do in America. They also pay personal income tax. Unlike America, personal income taxes account for less than 7% of government revenue. In America, personal income taxes account for almost 50% of government revenue (47%).
***In fact, much of China's trade surplus ends up outflowing to international investments. But $1.8T is a lot of money and some fraction of it is obviously spent on domestic quality-of-life initiatives: infrastructure, education, environment, sanitation.