China – A Country of Contrasts and Contradictions

Typical Chinese residential block-building
Colorful clothes hanging on the balconies behind prison-cell resembling bars

China is by no means monotonous. As you take a stroll in its streets, a typical Chinese city presents you with a unique, contradictory experience. The ‘old’ and the ‘new’ is intricately interwoven into the landscape and architecture. On the one hand, there are breathtaking historical sites that attest to the country’s majestic imperial past. Palaces, temples, monuments compete with each other for tourist attention. On the other hand, there are Soviet-style block-panel houses that resemble matchboxes. These shabby looking residential buildings are unbecomingly ‘adorned’ with air conditioning units on the outside and colorful clothes hanging out of windows and balconies. A few neighborhoods past and you find yourself surrounded by modern, high-tech buildings, glitzy skyscrapers, and a myriad of urban architectural marvels.

Shopping experience was equally paradoxical. The traditional Chinese local markets resemble a typical Middle Eastern ‘bazaar’ or ‘souk’, while western-style massive shopping centers are also in abundance. As I was walking nonchalantly in the streets of Guangzhou, I passed by a local meat market that immediately caught my attention. For a moment, I thought I stepped into a ‘time-machine’ and was taken back to my childhood in my hometown. Now a reminiscent of the Soviet past, meat markets in my country used to be an open-air display, where butchers would sell freshly-cut meat on the hanging racks, fully exposed and coveting for the attention of flies. It is near-impossible to witness such an experience in the United States, where meat is usually sold in a refrigerated form in air-conditioned supermarkets. Although the range of meat that are sold in Chinese meat markets is definitely broader than those in my childhood hometown, the external resemblance of the market stalls and displays was quite striking. On the same day, just a few blocks away, I came across a modern food supermarket that looked like an exact copy of Trader Joe’s.

Chinese open meat-market


Finally, a word about Chinese restaurants. Chinese people seem to be very fond of U.S. fast-food chains, like McDonalds, KFC, and Burger King. Not only were they located in every corner, local people treated an outing to a fast-food place as an invitation to a fancy dinner at a glamorous restaurant. For the very first few days spent in Beijing, I started to think fast food chains were the only place people went to grab a bite. My thirst for a nice dinner at a ‘real’ restaurant was finally quenched when one evening a group of us decided to explore a different neighborhood for better tasting options. Chaoyang District of Beijing and the Sanlitun area offered a vast array of dining options along with entertainment.

The night before leaving China, we took an unforgettable night boat tour in Guangzhou. As I stared at the calming waters of the Pearl River at night, I thought of the two weeks spent in China and how I could cap it in a few words. Unexpectedly, in the murky water I saw the reflection of the magnificent Canton Tower and a barely noticeable silhouette of an enormous block building. As I said, ‘a country of contrasts and contradictions…’

Canton Tower view on the Pearl River

Educational Innovation at the Forefront of Chinese Development

One of the most interesting sightseeing trips we had in China was to the city of Shenzhen where we visited the Shenzhen Virtual University Park (SZVUP). Shenzhen is one of China’s few special economic zones, and as such, attention to innovation and technology is visible in every step of the way. As the “Silicon Valley” of China, the city boasts an annual growth rate that far surpasses that of many urban centers. At the core of Shenzhen’s strive for becoming an innovation hub is the Shenzhen Virtual University Park.

The SZVUP was founded at the initiative of Shenzhen Municipal Government in 1999 with the aim to promote development in high-tech sectors. The distinguishing feature of the SZVUP from a regular education institution is its impressive reach. The campus looks like an amalgam of a business conglomerate and an Ivy-league institution. This feeling of stepping into an all-encompassing entity is not surprising given that the SZVUP brings together 58 prestigious higher educational institutions, including seven international universities. More than 260,000 students have been trained in roughly 265 Research and Development Centers of the University Park. A number of international and local large-scale business enterprises have opened up their bases in the park, including the ‘Great Wall’, ‘Huawei’, ‘ IBM’, ‘OLYMPUS’, and etc. Serving as a common platform for cooperation among universities, industry, and government, the SZVUP inevitably sets research and teaching in the front and center of Shenzhen’s development.

Round-table with the representatives of the Georgia Tech University Program at the Shenzhen Virtual university Park.

At the meeting with the representatives of the Georgia Tech University, which has a M.S. degree program in Electrical and Computer Engineering housed at the SZVUP, one of the professors mentioned how the abundance of multinational corporations in Shenzhen shaped the success of the SZVUP and contributed to the overall economic miracle of the city in the past decade. Students from neighboring countries, such as India and Russia, find the educational opportunities at the SZVUP as a more convenient and affordable alternative to similar degree programs in the United States or Europe.

Doraboot – a robotics start-up thriving as part of the Shenzhen Virtual University Park initiative.

The highlights of the visit to SZVUP were the meetings with two tech start-ups – a cultural and a technical one. It was particularly striking to see how the women were placed in leading positions both within the university structure and at the companies involved. Both the CEO of the robotics start-up and the founder of the cultural company highlighted the particular interest and collaboration of local governments in their projects. In general, the Chinese government, in an unusual manner, seems to have a less imposing and a more collaborative presence in the city.

China’s rapid economic rise and the subsequent technological innovations are a source of pride for the country. Without a doubt, Shenzhen will prove to be the key region in this economic transformation. Once a very quaint, small town of fishermen, [1] Shenzhen is now a home for more than 15 million – locals and migrants alike, a gem in the Pearl River Delta region’s economic future, and a rising star in the world of technology and finance.


[1] Holmes, F. (2017, April 21). China’s New Special Economic Zone Evokes Memories Of Shenzhen. Retrieved May 14, 2017, from Forbes:


Getting the big and the small things right

Before our arrival to China, my impression was that the Chinese government was focusing on getting a lot of the big things right.  Indeed, the economic reforms that started nearly 40 years ago under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping have entirely transformed the country.  With an average GDP growth rate of close to 10% over that period, the tremendous development that China has experienced in these years is a testament to that vision.

The Sanlitun commercial area in Beijing is an example of the redevelopment and modernization observed in China.

In the cities that we visited –Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen–  the results of the modernization process brought about by this economic success are immediately palpable.  Redeveloped neighborhoods with state-of-the-art buildings, particularly in financial and business districts, are knit together by modern and well-run underground transportation systems.  While there are zones that require further investment, with some old infrastructure still lagging behind, it is clear that large scale urban planning will continue to transform the landscape of these cities, as well as the lives of its citizens.

Small urban spaces have been renovated in many cities, including Guangzhou.

However, despite the big impression that all these changes cause to any first-time foreign visitor, what really caught my attention is that the Chinese government is also encouraging its citizens to get the small things right.  From the beautiful flowers and small gardens that embellish local streets and highways, to the carefully crafted videos shown in subway trains inviting users to adopt basic courtesy habits, there is a clear effort to remind people that the small details are as important as the big picture.  With public attention concentrated in landmark initiatives as the One belt, One road –which aims at defining the country’s future and global impact–, it is remarkable that the government is also prioritizing these other somewhat smaller initiatives.

“He that would perfect his work must first sharpen his tools”, said the great Confucius.  By reinforcing the attitude to get the small things right, the Chinese government will certainly hope that their countrymen have the right tools to sustain their push for economic development.  I, for one, will also take notice of this simple but powerful philosophy of life.

Business Meets Welfare.

Migration due to economic reasons has led to over 60 million children left behind by their parents in China. The Center for Child Rights and Corporate Social Responsibility (CCR-CSR) works with companies in around seven countries in Asia, including China, to solve some of the well-being issues for young workers and children of migrant workers. Apart from financial aid from the Swedish government, the fact that CCR-CSR is not an NGO but a social consulting enterprise also places it in an advantageous position in China. In addition to parent workers who have left behind children or children left unattended in factories, juvenile and young workers who lack job stability as well as line managers supervising these workers come within the organization’s purview.


We were at their office in Beijing to learn about their projects. The organization’s motto is clear, they see a win-win when business embraces child rights. While it is obvious how workers will benefit, CCR-CSR relies on increased labor retention, improved employee satisfaction, more motivated workforce, reduced compliance risks and enhanced reputation to sell the idea to companies. Their services include reviewing hiring policies to minimize compliance risks arising out of child labor, training programs for young workers and line managers and ensuring child-friendly spaces in factories. However, it is not as easy as it sounds. Currently, CCR-CSR teams up with a working group consisting multinational companies, mainly American or European companies. Owing to differences in working culture especially in terms of how differently corporate social responsibility is viewed in China, the organization is aware that it may be more challenging to engage Chinese factories. Their impact assessment surveys (snapshot below) conclude generally positive results, particularly in improving children’s safety, workers’ engagement and reducing compliance risks.


Image Source:

One of the biggest risks is the engagement of child labor in industries in the lower tiers of the supply chain, where monitoring is less than common. In fact, the organization points of that it is these industries tend to give more honest responses during audits since they are not always aware of the high compliance risks associated with employing children. While contractual stipulations will only sway the bigger companies from doing business with the smaller factories in the lower tier temporarily, CCR-CSR is striving to bring awareness of these issues to the MNCs they work with to reduce child labor exploitation. It is commendable to see how CCR-CSR has begun to take on the complex supply chains to resolve the problem from its roots. My most important learning from this presentation was the pragmatism in their approach and their ability to balance well-being needs of left-behind and corporate’s compliance risks.

Guangzhou’s Revolutionary History: Huanghuagang Monument

Guangzhou’s Revolutionary History: Huanghuagang Monument

On our second day in Guangzhou, the class walked from the city subway to Huanghuagang Park which is the site for a historical monument from the early twentieth century.



The Huanghuagang Martyrs Monument captures a turning point in China’s history during a time when the country was undergoing a period of political turmoil. Revolutionary leaders like Sun Yat-sen directly challenged the ruling imperial dynasty, the Qing Empire to reform the government and put the country on a path to modernization. Guangzhou was the site of revolutionary activities organized by organizations like the Tongmenhui. The first major uprising in Guangzhou was planned in 1895 but the Qing Empire captured the revolutionaries who were involved before it could take place.  The Second Guangzhou Uprising, also known in Mandarin as the Yellow Flower Mound Uprising, took place fifteen years later in 1910. Close to 100 revolutionaries stormed the residence of a local Qing official but imperial soldiers quickly moved in and killed many of them. Although the uprising failed, their efforts would help lead to the Xinhai Revolution which would successfully overthrow the Qing Empire in 1911. In 1918, a monument for the martyrs was built with donations from Chinese immigrants who were involved in international chapters of revolutionary organizations. The Huanghuagang Monument was completed in 1921. The monument was made with 72 limestone blocks representing the martyrs who died in the uprising. Each limestone block was carved with the name of a martyr and an overseas organization that donated to the memorial such as the Chinese Nationalist League of Kingston, Canada.


On top of the Huanghuagang Monument, the builders also placed a Statue of Liberty, holding a book and a mallet, to symbolize that the revolutionaries in China shared the same ideals as revolutionaries in other parts of the world including the United States and France. Over the years, this feature of the monument has undergone a number of changes, reflecting the current political situation. In 1937, the statue was removed by the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and replaced with the government emblem. In 1949, the statue was reinstalled. The mallet in the statue’s hand was replaced with a rifle, reflecting Mao’s quote: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” In 1961, the city government took initial steps to reconstruct the area and make it accessible to residents and visitors. The statue was reconstructed in 1981 and redesigned to hold a law book and a torch.

The grand entrance of Huanghuagang Park leads to a tree-lined path that directs the visitor towards the Huanghuagang Martyrs Monument.

Visitors can read about the site’s history in Mandarin on panels along the pathway. Although the monument is the central focus point of the park, visitors can also visit other points of interest such as the Yellow Flower Garden and the Silent Pool. Locals and visitors alike walk through the park to enjoy the scenery. Sitting in the park, it is easy to forget that one is in the middle of a major city with bustling streets full of activity.


The monument also provides visitors with the opportunity to learn more about a period in China’s history that led to major political changes in the country’s government structure. A visit to the park can help visitors better understand the current political context and the revolutionary figures that played a role.



WeChat Moments

Everyone in our group downloaded WeChat before our trip, and I initially thought of it only as a convenient, unblocked texting service for travel in China. But when we arrived, I began to understand how popular WeChat really is with locals. Nearly every phone-starer I passed on the street or subway seemed to be fixated on it. Having just seen “The Circle” in theaters before leaving, I realized the Chinese-developed app had practically achieved the same goal as the fictional tech company in that film: a unified online identity for every task imaginable. Chinese of all ages use WeChat for texting, voice and video calls, file sharing, in-person payments, online shopping, gaming, business communications, and social networking. While we didn’t scratch the surface of these capabilities during our trip, we loved the easy group chat interface and still find ourselves sharing pictures and using the app daily.

Wherever we went in China, we saw QR codes encouraging patrons to follow businesses on WeChat, from tiny fruit stands to traditional restaurants to international brands. Chinese businesses of all types also take payments through WeChat Wallet, which has propelled the country into a largely cashless society leapfrogging past the credit card era the United States is in today. Since WeChat replaces several apps popular in other countries, it’s already reducing market share for iPhones; China’s large population can rely on WeChat for everything regardless of what device they access it on. It will be interesting to see how this China-based app–which has no counterpart on the other side of the firewall–will change the global tech market.

Having just completed a course on how technology can improve communication between citizens and governments, I found myself most curious about how WeChat could impact civic engagement in China. I noticed some state agencies promoting their WeChat accounts as sources of basic information, like transit updates or safety campaigns. I also noted that the Wallet includes a tool for “Public Services,” perhaps reflecting a shift toward citizen-oriented transactions that many U.S. governments are making as well. I plan to follow WeChat’s development to see whether the app incorporates any other civic tech elements, like a form for feedback on proposed public projects.

We also heard from many of the NGOs we met with that WeChat is a primary channel for communicating with potential donors, clients, and partners. Our speakers gave examples of left-behind children keeping in touch with their migrant worker parents, of women’s advocacy groups connecting and sharing their messages, and of workers learning more about their rights from one another–all via WeChat. Even with government censorship of posts and comments on Moments (WeChat’s newsfeed), I think the app’s pervasiveness and expanding list of functions mean it is bound to help shape the way Chinese communities interact with government agencies, social service providers, and each other.

Can China be both be actively engaged and non-interventionist in the Middle East?

During our trip, we were able to attend an off-the-record briefing with Chinese experts on the outlook for China’s policy in the Middle East. The event was an excellent forum to witness how China sees its changing role in the Middle East, and how this view differs from the assessment of Western foreign policy commentators and analysts.

A common view is that China’s growing economic and commercial ties in the Middle East will force it to abandon its longstanding policy of non-intervention in other country’s internal affairs. The unstable geopolitical climate in the Middle East, coupled with China’s growing energy interest in the region, make non-intervention an even harder policy to maintain. In an article for “The Diplomat”, Scott Romaniuk and Tobias Burgers write that “the prospect – a rather unfeasible one – of [building political, economic, and commercial ties with states abroad] and moving forward without consenting to the necessity of military capabilities to defend those interests is omnipresent”[1]. They conclude that China will have to assume a more active role in the region, with military involvement being one of its central pivots.

The Chinese experts on the panel presented a starkly different view. First, they highlighted Beijing’s commitment to neutrality and to the principle of peaceful coexistence. Second, they acknowledged that China’s growing dependence on Middle Eastern oil, the larger trade volume with the region, and China’s new position as a world power all imply a changing role in the Middle East. This change, however, need not manifest in military intervention or the abandonment of the principle of non-intervention. Rather, it translates into more closely engaged diplomacy, involvement in regional negotiations, and the adoption of multilateral deals in the region. This changing role, moreover, reflects China’s historic approach to the region and is simply its continuation: it began with strategic partnerships with specific countries, grew into the establishment of larger institutions and mechanisms for cooperation (such as the China-Arab Cooperation Forum), and is now continued through the One Belt, One Road Initiative. In other words, China’s growing role in the Middle East need not deviate from its commitment to economic cooperation and diplomacy.

In my opinion, while it is true that China’s involvement in the Middle East has followed a consistent approach, with commercial and diplomatic ties growing in parallel, its growing economic interests in the region might force it to depart from merely diplomatic engagement. However, as in other policy realms, any changes in foreign policy in the region will be subtle and provide enough room for experimentation and adaptation. If military intervention in the region is eventually called for, it will most likely be following global rules of military engagement and in cooperation with the UN, rather than defined unilaterally.  China has demonstrated its commitment to the global order and the international system, and while growing economic interests in the Middle East might signal the end of non-intervention as it has been known, China’s economic interests worldwide are too important for it to simply abandon the current global world order.

[1]  Scott N. Romaniuk and Tobias J. Burgers, “China’s ‘Arab Pivot’ Signals the End of Non-Intervention“. The Diplomat, 12/20/2016. Accessed 05/15/2017.