Journalist struck by the contrasts of China

Amanda Cropp, Christchurch business bureau chief for Stuff, travelled to China in September to cover a New Zealand trade delegation and find out how New Zealand businesses are making out in our biggest trading nation. The Foundation supported Cropp to travel to China with a media travel grant.
Amanda Cropp on a bike on Xi'an's city wall

Amanda Cropp getting a view of Xi'an from the top of the the city wall

In 1985 my parents visited the Goose Pagoda on a tour of China.

Thirty-five years later, attending Opening Doors to the West business forums in Chengdu and Xi’an, I find myself beside the stone lion where my father photographed my mother, listening to the tinkling of bells hanging from the eaves of the historic tower at the end of Grand Tang Mall.

My  week-long visit was full of new experiences: seeing Giant Pandas and the Terracotta Warriors, eating duck intestines at a traditional Sichuan hot pot dinner (despite sitting at what was supposed to be a “no guts” table), communicating via WeChat, and using a VPN (very private network) to  circumvent the Chinese Government’s blocking of Google and Facebook.  

A highlight was the Tang Dynasty welcoming ceremony at the Old City Wall in Xi’an for the China New Zealand Year of Tourism. Like everyone else, I was knocked over by the sumptuous costumes and the spectacular staging.

Members of the Haka Experience Group are mobbed by selfie takers at Showcase Aotearoa in Grand Tang Mall Xian

A Kapa Haka group proved a big hit with the locals in Xi'an

The desire for new experiences drives much overseas travel, and as the tourism reporter for Stuff my most recent trip was a reminder of why New Zealand attracted more than 400,000 arrivals from China last year.

In Chengdu, I met Cao Xiao Wei, her husband Li Yang and their five-year-old daughter Li Ai Xiao at their apartment, along with their friends and extended family members (three generations) making up the party of 11 who travelled New Zealand together last year.

Communication was a challenge, even with the assistance of an interpreter, but holiday photos speak a universal language, and their images of Lake Tekapo, an empty Muriwai Beach, and a table filled with Ferg Burgers from the famous Queenstown eatery helped tell the story of their trip.

Back home the 100% Pure tourism advertisements featuring pristine New Zealand landscapes can seem such a cliché, especially when you know the level of contamination in some of our waterways.

Packets of Chinese milk powder for sale in a Chinese supermarket

New Zealand's clean green image means products from New Zealand can command a premium price

But after a week of  perpetually white and grey Chinese skies, I appreciated anew our clean air. As we drove into Xi’an a fellow passenger showed me the air pollution forecast for that evening on his phone – it was 160, four times the World Health Organisation recommended safe level.

Although pollution hides the stars, one of my favourite things about Chinese cities is the night lighting. Xi’an was no exception, with buildings, pavements and trees all getting the illumination treatment.

When people ask me what China is like, I find myself constantly talking about the striking contrasts of a modern society that embraces technology with fervour, but at the same time seems very traditional.

At Tencent’s towering modern headquarters, we got a run down on the multi billion company behind WeChat, followed by a visit to its staff leisure centre complete with cafe, supermarket, nail salon, barber shop, karaoke booth, and a small jewellery counter where Tencent couples who got engaged were eligible for a massive discount on their rings.

Outside the building, legions of labourers were weeding the gardens with hand hoes and sweeping the paths with traditional long-straw brooms.

Some of those contrasts were distinctly uncomfortable. The forum in Chengdu was held at the five star  Jinjiang Hotel, an enormous 3000-plus room complex that has welcomed many foreign dignitaries.

At a banquet in a lavishly decorated function room, I couldn’t help thinking of the book I had just read by award-winning journalist Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia; Tiananmen Revisited.

In it she described how in 1989 protestors who had taken to the Chengdu streets over the Tiananmen Square killings in Beijing were reportedly beaten and killed in the hotel courtyard, acts witnessed by foreign guests.   

It was a particularly sobering read when set against the mounting street protests in Hong Kong and constant speculation about if or when Chinese authorities might intervene.

But despite my reservations about human rights and censorship issues, China remains for me an endlessly fascinating country, and one I would visit again in a heartbeat.

 Articles published by Amanda Cropp stemming from her China trip: