What We Can Learn From China

I was recently afforded the opportunity to travel to China. I have been studying the Chinese language (Mandarin or 普通话 (putonghua)to be specific) for the past year and a half, and so have become interested and enthralled by the Chinese people, their history and language....

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I was recently afforded the opportunity to travel to China. I have been studying the Chinese language (Mandarin or 普通话 (putonghua)to be specific) for the past year and a half, and so have become interested and enthralled by the Chinese people, their history and language.

In the 21st century, China is a country ever present in political dialogue, particularly if you live in Africa. It has the world’s largest population and has one of the few communist governments to have survived the Cold War (although today it has embraced free enterprise and international trade to a larger degree than some ‘capitalist’ countries) and in the space of a generation, it has achieved a kind of economic growth that is the stuff legends.

At the same time, it is constantly the subject of criticism. China often gets called out on topics such as freedom of speech, internet censorship, political prisoners, and the issues surrounding Taiwan and Tibet. As someone deeply interested and involved in politics, the trip to China would be a great way of seeing what the country was like for myself.

A Brief overview of the trip

I travelled as part of a tour with other Chinese students of the Confucius Institute of Rhodes University, as part of a study tour. For The majority of the trip we would be staying in the Guangzhou (广州,sometimes called ‘Canton’ in English), the 3rd largest city after Shanghai and Beijing. For three days later on in the tour we would be in staying in Beijing. In Guangzhou, we stayed at the student dormitories of Jinan University (暨南大学). This is Rhodes University’s partner in China and it is where Rhodes’ Chinese lecturers come from.

The cities


Guangzhou is situated in Guangdong province in China’s southern region. It was previously known as ‘Canton’ in English from which we get the name of the language Cantonese. It is absolutely enormous, with a population of over 14 million – far more than any city in South Africa. Despite this, it is only one city in the absolutely enormous urban area that is the Pearl River Delta which also includes the cities of Shenzhen, Donguan, Foshan, Zhuhai, Zhongshan, Huizhou, as well as Hong Kong and Macau. Altogether, this single urban conurbation has a population of about 63 million – more than the whole of South Africa. The scale is absolutely massive and space is severely limited.

Guangzhou has historically been a very important city for trade in China’s history. It’s location is right on the river delta, and having a navigable body of water close to the ocean has made Guangzhou a leader in China’s international trading. It is home to many foreigners, in particular, about 500 000 Africans are currently living in Guangzhou. Jinan University, where we stayed, boasts having the largest number of foreign students of any university in China. While staying there, I met students from a multitude of African countries and many from nearby South-Asia.

To foreigners, the name ‘Guangzhou’ just doesn’t have the same name recognition that ‘Beijing’ and ‘Shanghai’ do, which is a real pity as I found the city simply outstanding. The sheer number of shops, people and places to visit made it like being kid in a candy store for someone like me. Even the quality and cleanliness of the city in general was (from my experience) very good, considering the densely packed population. It’s no secret that many Chinese cities have serious issues with air quality, but Guangzhou’s air seemed no different to any other South African city I have been to (although it should be noted that I visited in summer which is known to be the best month for air quality.)

Guangzhou is an absolutely exquisite city situated over a labyrinth of rivers and islands. While it may be lesser known compared to the big names like Beijing and Shanghai, I highly recommend Guangzhou and Guangdong province in general.


The capital city of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing is a monstrous but legendary metropolis with a name recognition up with the likes of London, Paris and New York City. It is the 2nd largest city in China by population and on an administrative level, it stands as its own municipality huddled between Tianjin and Hebei province.

The most notable thing about Beijing is that it holds a kind of legendary status in China and abroad. There are a few reasons for this: naturally, being the seat or government in China is one of them, but Beijing is also home to some incredibly old monuments which Chinese all across the country hold dear as symbols of their country and culture.

The most famous of these would certainly be the Great Wall of China which, while stretching thousands of kilometres from the Yalu River on the border of North Korea right into Xinjiang province in the west, is accessible from Beijing. The Badaling Great Wall has since become an enormous tourist attraction, not just for foreigners, but also many Chinese people from other parts of China. It was Mao Zedong who once stated ‘不到长城非好汉’ (bu dao changcheng fei hao han), a phrase which roughly translates to “He who has never been to the Great Wall is not a true man.” The trip to the Great Wall is therefore seen as a kind of rite of passage for many Chinese. This monument, which took centuries to build, has come to symbolise China to a whole to a certain extent, even being included in China’s national anthem

But the Great Wall is not the only monument Beijing has to show off. There is also the renowned Forbidden City is an enormous palace complex first used by the Ming Dynasty in 1420, and the Temple of Heaven, a religious monument which had historically been used by emperors and still stands today very well preserved.

Probably the most famous of these in the Western world, however, would be Tiananmen Square. To the Chinese, Tiananmen square is special as it is the place of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao Zedong. This stands in stark contrast to the West’s view of the square which might be more likely to be associated with the Tiananmen Square Massacre, an event in which the Chinese government under Deng Xiaoping declared martial law due to student protests and killed anywhere from a few hundred to thousands – little is known of the exact numbers. The protests were immortalised in the famous photograph named ‘Tank Man’ which shows an unknown protestors standing in front of a line of tanks on one of the streets adjacent to the square.

So with that said, here are a few things we could take away from China,

Hard Work

The Chinese work hard! (and I really mean this).  One of the common scenes in a big Chinese city (I will speak here about Guangzhou) is to see endless towering apartment blocks with their bottom level all converted into some kind of shop, restaurant or other business. It was from seeing the people work at these thousands of little shops that I personally saw the kind of work ethic which the Chinese have.

In densely populated cities like Guangzhou, space is extremely limited and so often little restaurants and convenience stores are no bigger than a few square meters, yet the best is made out of them in order to turn them into a business.  Many times shops will stay open late into the night with many open 24/7. The streets of Guangzhou and Beijing would often remain busy with people even late into the night, so for shopkeepers, staying open might mean earning a few extra yuan. If COSATU could see the hours these people worked, it would take them about 3 seconds to complain about exploitation, but in China with its massive population and big competition to succeed, working later means earning more.

To this day, I will never forget walking down a road in Beijing at about 10:30pm and seeing a shoe shop open. The store still wasn’t closed when I walked past it again at 11pm. If only they had my size…


Another area in which China reigns supreme is the use of technology in business. The richest man in China is Jack Ma who is CEO of the Alibaba Group, a firm which owns Taobao, an online marketplace and what one could think of as the Chinese version of Amazon or Ebay. Taobao has become so efficient and advanced that, as we were told, ‘In China, you can buy anything online and get it the next day.’ Online purchases have, as a result, become very commonplace because of their ease and convenience and it has made the process of shopping easier and less time-consuming.

In addition to shopping online, the use of cash in China is slowly being phased out in favour super-convenient electronic payment methods which take seconds. One of the most common sights to see is for any shop to have a QR code which can be scanned on either WeChat or Alipay (a cellphone banking app also owned by the Alibaba group). This has reached a level of convenience like I have not seen with transactions sometimes taking a second. It has been a brilliant innovation in China and while South Africa also has apps like Zapper and Snapscan, there simply have not reached the same kind of level as WeChat or Alipay in China.


Guangzhou is a city the size of half of Gauteng, with a population the size of Kwa-Zulu Natal and Mpumalanga combined. With such massive density, driving a car everywhere ceases to be an efficient means of transport. As a result, big Chinese cities have built vast and extensive networks of public transport.

The underground commuter trains in Guangzhou were incredible convenient for us to use with a new train arriving almost every five minutes. Above ground, a multitude of buses drive various routes and, should you need to travel to a whole different city, one can simply buy a ticket for China’s high-speed rail which travels at 300km/h and can make the trip from Guangzhou to Beijing in 8 hours!

I was amazed by the speed and efficiency of China’s transport systems. It appeared that in such a vastly populated city, gaining efficiency in transportation is less of luxury and more of a requirement. With millions of people using public transport in Guangzhou every day, the success or failure of transport might literally be the difference between someone being able to go to work and missing their shift.

South Africa’s public transport systems are relative dinosaurs, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The fact is that South Africa doesn’t have even have a fraction of the demand for public transport which a city like Guangzhou has. Things like the Gautrain may be very convenient to get to and from the airport, but there are ultimately expensive luxuries. In China, necessity is what has driven them to develop their transport network. Should South Africa gain a big demand for metro networks of high-speed rails, we could learn a great deal from China.


There is a very distressing trend in the Western world of a protectionist, nativist economic policy. In America, Donald Trump has spoken multiple times about laying huge tariffs on US companies who have factories abroad, promotions of ‘buy American, sell American’ and, as we famously heard in his inauguration address, ‘America First.’ In Europe, the rise of right-wing nationalists have often times not been friends of free-markets, but had similar nativist economic leanings. South Africa too has not been immune to this, with our politicians continually derisively dismissing foreign investment, regardless of what good it might bring to our country.

China, on the other hand, seems to have a completely different attitude. Their government constantly tries to make economic agreements and investments in foreign countries, particularly in Africa. There are similarly in an age of being vigorously pro-trade with the outside world.

I could be wrong on a factual basis here, but the impression of China which I got was that they really wanted foreigners there. We were told by staff of Jinan University that we should consider studying there one day. We were shown videos about the Canton Fair, an international trade convention held in Guangzhou. Even in everyday interactions, I felt a friendliness and curiousness from the Chinese which I’m not sure I would have felt if I had travelled to Europe where some places like Venice now get more tourists every year than they have local residents.

It is true of course, that you can never become a naturalised citizen of China. It remains as an incredibly nationalistic country on not just a civic but an ethnic level; however, this has not resulted in them closing their doors to business.


This article is not intended to be some kind of statement of fact, but rather just my own impressions of China, as someone who visited it for two weeks. My travels there were some of the greatest and most enjoyable experiences of my life and saying goodbye was very difficult.

Prior to visiting China, I had a similar view of it to many South Africans. I was used to hearing rhetoric about its ‘neo-colonialism’ of Africa through investment. The denial of a South African visa for the Dalai Lama was a huge story at the time in South Africa when it occurred, rhino poaching is ostensibly linked to the east Asian countries like China where the demand for rhino horn lies, and I distinctly remember president Jacob Zuma affirming the One China Policy in his state of the nation address recently. I think this has given many South Africans a sour view of China. The response has been to become increasingly nativist and protectionist of our economy. Too often we see people dismissing any sort of foreign investment simply because it is foreign, regardless of what good it might provide to South Africa.

If there is a moral I took from my visit to the East, it’s that we need to trade internationally and do so as much as possible. South Africa should make it as easy as possible to do business with the rest of world but not be so friendly as to cede our foreign and domestic policy to governments with a political axe to grind. If we do these two things, I think we could seriously grow our economy and simultaneously continue to support freedom worldwide.

China is an absolutely brilliant country. I was immensely privileged to have the opportunity to go there, and I hope to return very soon indeed.

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  1. Mo Haarhoff Reply

    About 10 years ago, a friend of my son’s went to China to study medicine (in English), because no medical school would give him a place, due to the quotas. He’ll never come back, now being qualified and acceptable to any country in the world. SA did it all wrong and still is. And now we are so short of doctors we don’t know which way to turn.


    “This article is not intended to be some kind of statement of fact”. Adequate summary of the article. No statement of fact. Drank the Kool-aid. By all means, go back.

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