A Photo Essay
Wuhan- A city more than 1100 kilometres away from Beijing. It is the capital of the Hubei province in central China. My short visit to the city in the month of April 2018 left a deep imprint on me both of Wuhan as a city and China as a country.
The city of Wuhan has the distinction of being called the ‘Happiest City of China’. In a survey conducted by CCTV, the city came on top of the list
The happiness index took into account factors like governance, urban infrastructure, expenditure on education and recreational facilities apart from the economic status of the city. The Survey covered more than 1 lakh household and 800 million internet users across the country.
Well, I am sceptical of such indexes. I don’t believe one can really look for proxies for happiness. What are the elements of happiness? Is it the same across individuals? Can we really avoid the element of subjectivity in the choice of measure for happiness? Last year the survey found the Tibetan capital Lhasa to be the happiest city in China. You can think of the obvious. Tibetans may be prosperous. They may have better infrastructure. Life expectancy may have gone up. But did the survey take into account factors like religious freedom? Democracy?
However, I must admit, the city truly looked a happy place. Wide roads, high level of cleanliness, lakes, waterbodies, greenery. Even intersections of roads were resplendent with colourful flowers. People seemed to be well dressed. Happy and smiling. Going about their daily business of life cheerfully. Prosperity of the city was showing everywhere.
The Chinese girl, a student of translation studies in Wuhan University who worked as interpreter for us told me that the city of Wuhan can be compared to Detroit in US. It is centrally located and serves as the transportation hub of the country and thus known as ‘Thoroughfare of China’. Its geographical location invests the city with great commercial and strategic importance.
The history of the city goes back to more than 3000 years. It is located at the confluence of Han and Yangtze rivers and thus known as the River City (Jiang Cheng) also.
Wuhan is actually three cities merged in one in the year 1949- Hankou, Hanyang and Wuchang.
In 1938 it became de-facto second capital of China.
Great leaders of China like Mao, its first premier Zhou En Lai and Sun Yat-Sen who is known as the Father of Modern China stayed in Wuhan for considerable periods of time. After 1949, also Mao stayed in Wuhan quite often. He loved the food of this city especially the Wuchang fish.
Celebrities such as W.H.Auden and Isherwood also stayed in Wuhan.
The city has witnessed destruction many times. It has been rebuilt many times. Taiping rebels destroyed it in the 1850s. Qing troops overran it in 1911. Japanese bombed it in 1938 followed by American bombing in 1944.
Not just wars, nature too was not kind. It suffered a devastating flood in 1954 by the Yangtze River or Yellow river which is the longest river of China. We had grown up reading about the Yangtze River as the ‘Sorrow of China’.
WH Auden wrote in his verse Commentary, ‘And when the Yellow River shifts its course, they learnt / How to live well, though ruin threatened often.’
In 1954, flood in the river Yangtze devastated Wuhan. Close to 30,000 people died. The memorial above stands as a tribute to people who fought to save lives in the flood and those who died.
Wuhan as a city is often compared to Chicago. The prosperity of the city is evident to any visitor. Its tall buildings often have outstanding design. It compares favourably with any developed western city. Often the western cities show tell-tale signs of poverty in the middle of affluence. Homeless people begging on the street corner can be seen in cities like San Francisco, New York, London, Moscow but not so in Wuhan. No part of the city looks like an area for the poor people. Yes, there are differences between various areas but these are not stark.
Most of the tall buildings in Wuhan are actually Steel and glass structures. But the Chinese have a great fascination for lighting. In the night, the entire city looks like it is celebrating Diwali without of course the crackers. You can see how the hotel Wanda Reign looked splendid with light work in the night-
Han Street- the Upmarket Shopping Plaza
This is how the brand Marie Dalgar promotes itself:
‘Marie Dalgar was founded by Cui Xiaohong, the new artistic makeup leader in China. Since 2006 she had insisted on her dream target: Help Chinese ladies find their own unique beauty.
After long time observation, she found that many women were not happy with the fact “why my eyelashes are only 3mm?” How to make eyelashes thick and long as feather fan, had been always her target.
Cui Xiaohong did many researches on improving Asian women’s eyelashes, finally in 2006 she found out the passport to perfect eyelashes effect——Marie Dalgar brought the world’s first grafting Mascara!
This mascara was for the makeup effect of “300 percent length,700 percent thick, 45° natural curl”, made the Chinese ladies crazy, and kept a record of 1 sale in 15 seconds!
From then on, Marie Dalgar continued her legend, helped more ladies find their own beauty.’
Here the ordinary folks come for shopping
Socialism with Chinese Characteristics?
Both the hotels- Wanda Reign and Wanda Realm are owned by one of the richest persons of China Wang Jianlin. The billionaire real estate and entertainment mogul Jianlin, who according to one estimate, has a real net worth of over $ 30 billion. His Wanda Film Holding operates one of China’s largest movie theater chains.
He served in the Chinese military from 1970 to 1986. In 1989 he entered business of real estate by turning a government real estate venture profitable. Wang Jianlin has also held important positions in the Chinese Communist Party.
China has 10 percent of the the world’s billionaires. A vast majority of them- close to 95 percent- are self made which means they have not inherited the billions which they own today.
He also owns properties in the Han Street Shopping area.
Huateng Ma, CEO Tencent holdings, Jack Ma, Executive Chairman, Ali Baba Group, real estate baron Hui Ka Yan, Yang Huiyan and Wang Jinalin are some of the billionaires of China.
Clockwise from top left corner- Top 5 billionaires of China- 1.Huateng Ma, Chairman Tencent Technologies 2. Jack Ma, Executive Chairman, Alibaba Group 3. Yang Hui Yan, Vice Chairman, Country Garden Holdings-richest women in Asia (2015) 4. Wang Jianglin, Chairman and President of Dalian Wanda Group Co. 5. Hui Ka Yan, Chairman, Evergrande Real Estate Group
Indeed ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ has proved quite successful if you go by the number of billionaires, the prosperity and the development over the last 30 years in China. It has been remarkable by any standard.
Of course inequality has increased. Perhaps there is unemployment too. Surely, democracy remains an issue in China.
Did I say Democracy?
Many Chinese scholars would ask me ‘Is Democracy a goal in itself or is it a means to achieve something?’ What defines Democracy? Could there be no other form of democracy than the multi-party system with every individual having the voting right to chose their representatives?
What about Liberty?
Isaiah Berlin has given two concepts of liberty- positive and negative.
The positive liberty, in its simplified form means the freedom to an individual to lead his life the way he or she may want to. The individual is free to eat what he wants to eat, he is free to wear what he wants to wear, he is free to take on the profession he wants, marry the person he or she wants and so on.
Negative liberty is more or less the freedom to form association, groups and other forms of solidarity. Negative liberty allows people freedom of speech and expression, freedom of association and all the other things that we associate with liberal democracy.
In nutshell, Negative liberty is freedom from outside interference while positive liberty is freedom to act upon one’s will. Indeed the two liberties are intimately linked. One may not survive without the other but they have their distinct spheres of existence.
It is argued that the Chinese system allows for the Positive Liberty to be enjoyed even while it restricts the negative liberties of people. Good? Bad? Ugly?
I would rather have a little less economic prosperity to enjoy surfing my loved websites or go on a rant on Facebook and Twitter against my own government or a political party I don’t like.
The old man above was writing something on the floor in front of the Yellow Crane Tower. I was curious. The brush with the long handle was wet at its end. It was some kind of oil. When I asked him what he was writing, I was told it was some ancient Chinese script.
I wondered why he is doing so. Was it because there is no freedom to use ancient script now and his act of writing was an act of rebellion? Defiance of the system? Was it the whim of an old man who has nothing more to do in his life? There are endless possibilities.
Positive liberty, negative liberty. I don’t know. The debate continues. Let us not get too much into intellectual debate. Just enjoy the beautiful Yellow Crane Tower-
Yellow Crane Tower is the identity of the city of Wuhan. From ancient times dating back to 7th century AD, it served as the seat of Ministry of various dynasties and kingdoms. The new structure which is more than 50 metres tall was constructed recently in 1981. In ancient times, it was also the centre for artistic talent of some of the great Chinese literary figures and artists. Authentic work of these people in the form of stone tablets and carvings are still stored in the tower.
My visit to the city of Wuhan was short. But it left a deep and lasting effect on my mind giving me a first hand experience of a political and social system that has defied the more powerful liberal democratic capitalist system.