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Getting your head around big numbers

Everything in China happens on a big scale. This should be no surprise when bearing in mind that one fifth of the world’s population live there, but this snippet of information usually slips past without our accepting or realising its implications until we come face to face with it.

Some of the most arresting features of the world are located in China, the Taklamakan Desert, one of the coldest and driest deserts on earth, the Karst Mountains, one of the most stunning scenic spots in existence, the Changjiang, the third longest river in the world [Yangtze to most of the world] but it is when we get down to looking at some of the man-made features that we really start to sit up and take notice. The trend started many centuries ago when the ruling dynasty decided to build a wall to keep out the uncouth louts from the North. It took a while to build the wall and it was redesigned, re-jigged, re-hashed, restored and rebuilt many times before we finally ended up with the Great Wall of China, a fortified structure extending 6,400 kms from Shanhaiguan in the east to Lop Nur in the west. Qin Shi Huang, the emperor who brought all the little bits of China under one rule [bashing people around doesn’t quite equate with the word ‘unite’] liked to do things in a big way and planned and built the biggest mausoleum for himself, ever. And the trend has continued ever since. The world’s first long distance canal, the Grand Canal, coupling Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province with Beijing was started in the 5th century BC but was not extended into its modern day form until the 6th century AD. It is 1,770 kilometres long, contains 24 locks and is still in use for carrying commercial traffic. By comparison canals in Britain were not built in a serious way until the 17th century and the difference in scale is striking. For example the Grand Union Canal, connecting London with Birmingham, built in the 18th century, is 220 kilometres in length, contains 166 locks and on average is only 6 yards wide.

In more modern times the structures built in China are even more ambitious. Earlier this year, after less than 5 years construction work, the Hangzhou Bay Bridge 36 kilometres long, connecting the cities of Shanghai and Ningbo was completed and opened. This will be the world’s longest sea bridge and the second longest, overall. The Chinese people love tall buildings and they are to be found in every city, some are quite likeable, some grotesque and others just a little quirky as every architect tries to leave his mark on the world. Probably two of the best known modern buildings in China are both found in the Pudong district of Shanghai, the Oriental Pearl Tower, the third tallest TV tower in the world at 468 metres high, and the Jin Mao Dasha, the fifth tallest building in the world at 420 metres high, but one of the strangest is the new CCTV Headquarters in Beijing, still under construction – it looks as if it will never stay upright. While we are on the topic of tall buildings the very tallest in the world, at the moment, is the Taipei 101 building, built in Taiwan, with 101 floors – and also rated, by some, to be one of the ugliest buildings of the world, click here. When I first visited Shenzhen, a very modern city in the south of China, it had no subway or metro system, but when on returning only two years later a system was in use and was being extended further. Some things take a while to build, such as the Great Wall and the Grand Canal, but other things in China can be done on a scale and at speeds which most of us are just not familiar with.

One of the best known projects to be built is the Three Gorges Dam which was started in 1993 and will not be fully complete until 2011. The dam, which is 2,300 metres long, 101 metres high, 115 metres thick at the base will produce a lake 660 kilometres long, approximately 1.5 kilometres wide and holding 39.3 cubic kilometres of water. To do this more than 4 million people have been relocated so they don’t go under the water; many small towns and innumerable villages plus over 1,000 sites of archaeological or historical interest will be lost. But navigation through the Three Gorges on the Changjiang will be easier and the power station will generate 22,500 megawatts of electricity. Before we leave this item and glibly skip forward to the next wonder of the world, just imagine trying to persuade 4 million people to move house in the UK; that’s more than the population of Glasgow, Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Manchester and Sheffield all rolled up together – think about it for a moment.

How many people in China live in big cities? Visiting any city in China you might be excused for thinking that everyone lives there, the streets are so busy with people, and most Chinese cities seem big by comparison with western counterparts but it isn’t quite as might be expected. The Chinese definition of a big city is a population centre of 5,000,000 people or more – and there are more than 10 of these in China! Although there has been a substantial shift in the population the majority still remain in rural areas, towns and small cities. Actual population figures vary according where they are obtained and how they are calculated in the first place, but possibly the largest of the municipalities, of which there are four [Beijing, Shanghai, Chongqing, Tianjin], is Chongqing which is reputed to have a population of approximately 30,000,000 and an inner city population of between 4,500,000 and 12,000,000; this figure varies according to where the boundary between the urban area of Chongqing and the rural area is set and no one seems to agree on where that is.

On the sporting front it seems that if you give any game or activity to the Chinese it will come back twice as big and complicated as it was before, if not more. Take a simple tug-o’-war, stage it in a Chinese city and it isn’t quite so simple any more as we saw earlier this year when an event, involving two teams of 10,000 people each, a rope 1 kilometre in length and weighing 3 tons, was held in Changsha. Or a simple track event. I’m sure everyone knows what a 3-legged race is, a feat of cooperation between pairs of runners performed at a moderately quick pace. Not content with that the Chinese have come up with a 21-legged version of the race, which transforms a relatively sedate activity into something with the potential to break several limbs simultaneously should anything go wrong.

Returning to natural events, the recent disaster in Sichuan has involved some figures which are quite numbing. The number of people dead and missing is bad by any standard but these are small when compared with casualty lists and the numbers who are now homeless – more than 300,000 injured, and more than 5,000,000 people displaced. Five million; that is more than the population of the Republic of Ireland. One of the problems to be dealt with during the aftermath was the danger posed by earthquake-lakes and in one instance approximately 1.9 million people had to be moved to safer ground – that’s the population of Dublin plus a few more, shifted in one move to solve one small part of the problem. Last year the UK was beset by floods unseen before. No one doubts it cost a lot of money and was a real disaster for those directly affected. There was certainly a lot of noise made about it but I’m not sure it ranks the same as a disaster on a Chinese scale; 8 people died and 55,000 homes and other properties were damaged. If things were bad enough for 8 people to die and the population to get hot under the collar about it, how bad must it be for more than 60,000 to die and 5,000,000 to lose their homes? For up to date figures on casualties and how things are progressing, click here.

When China was an enclosed and inward looking nation none of this mattered to the rest of the world but now that it has chosen to interact what goes on in the Far East starts to matter a lot – and in a very personal way too. While China remained self-sufficient it made very little impression on the rest of the world but now there is a demand from within China for imports this has an effect. Remember, this is 20% of the world all under one government. Importing enough rubber boots to keep the population happy would have a big effect on everyone else i.e. no one else would have rubber boots for that year, there simply isn’t enough rubber in the world; but this is hypothesis, how about sticking to reality? In the days before China began importing oil the price of petrol was relatively steady, now that China is buying up supplies the price is rising. There are other factors involved too, but undisputably China is one of the major influences. This year, 2008, will probably be the last year that China is self-sufficient in food, this is due to rising expectations of the Chinese population and an increase in demand for higher living standards. Dietary shifts in China have been quite modest and the average Chinese person eats far less meat than any westerner but when that average change is multiplied by one fifth of the world population an overall world change becomes inevitable. If the squeals were loud when petrol prices started to soar, how loud will the noise be when food becomes expensive.

 

Related articles –

More Wealth, More Meat

From Poverty To Fast Food

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