The Size and Scale of China

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In writing about China, it is easy to use superlatives. The People’s Republic of China has the largest population of any country, of course, but it is the largest electricity producer and consumer, the largest consumer of rice, the largest photo-voltaic panel producer, the largest exporter of goods by monetary value, the largest steel producer, the largest cement producer, has the largest army, is the largest producer of motor vehicles, has the longest length of high-speed railway, has the largest foreign exchange reserves, and is the largest carbon dioxide producer. There are many more.

From the moment we arrived in China, we now had an immediate understanding of how large China was. When we arrived in Shanghai past midnight and drove to the hotel, my gaze was fixed outside the window. We drove for an hour in the rain from the airport in Pudong to our hotel in the center of the city, and the whole landscape was built-up with skyscrapers, malls, highways, and railways. All of this is because Shanghai is the largest city proper on earth, and one of four cities in China which receive the same level of representation in the government as an entire province. One of the other passengers noticed that not all of these buildings were lit up – we guessed these were still under construction.

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Our second stop on the trip was Nanjing, a smaller city than either Beijing or Shanghai, but it was still large by any standard. The metropolitan area of Nanjing has over 6 million people, more than Los Angeles and almost as much as New York. The city itself had large tracts of green space within it – historical parks, lakes, and the enormous complex of the Ming Tombs.

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Our last stop on the trip, Beijing, was also vast in a different way. Beijing was the capital of China not just during the People’s Republic Era, but also during the Qing Dynasty. As such, many of the older buildings were built to accommodate state functions and as a demonstration of political and economic mobilization. The famous Tiananmen Square could reasonably accommodate hundreds of thousands of people, and the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, not too far away, was a symbol of China’s economic and political growth. The buildings around Tiananmen Square were all vast, built in the old Soviet style of granite blocks and identical rows of columns and windows – the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum – all of these were massive concrete structures designed to handle functions on a large scale – almost to impose that everything is big instead of only carrying out their functions.

It is one thing to say that China is big – but it is not at all the same everywhere. The country is vast in different ways, and that is something I am still understanding after visiting only a small part of the country for the first time. There is so much to do and see, and this visit was only the first glimpse of it.

-Adrian Carney, MPP/MA ‘17

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