Saturday, April 29, 2006

'These BMWs Look Abandoned'


The weather in Shanghai is pleasant, mostly between 13 and 20 degrees celsius. And its great to walk around, particularly if most of what you are doing is in one part of the city. At one junction, after seeing our nth street-corner parked BMW, my friend remarked, "The way these BMWs are lying here, it looks like people have abandoned them."

Actually that's true. The number of BMWs, Audis and Mercedes cars on the road are just staggering. Remember, this is a communist country that espoused equality not too long ago. Not to mention Volkswagen Passalts. The most common car is the Volkswagen Santana. Most of the taxis here are Santanas as well.

The interesting thing is that it was not just me and my friend who gazed in amazement at another BMW 5 series that whizzed past on a busy Shanghi intersection. Our Taiwanese-Chinese associate Lee seemed to concur. "That car will cost at least a million RMB (1 RMB = Rs 6 approx)," he would say, as an Audi A8 would slow down in front of us. Or, "That one will be 1.2 million RMB," he would point at Mercedes S 350.

I Can't Figure It Out !

Lee lives in downtown Shanghai in a office cum apartment and faces one of the two major elevated roads in Shanghai - translated, a flyover that runs all around and through the city. Lee says despite knowing of all the opportunities, he himself is amazed by the amount of money people have made here. "I just can't figure it sometimes, actually most of the times," he says.

China does not have much of a stock market so this is real money then ? Yes, both my friends think so. For the early settlers, including Indian traders, China has been like a gold mine. The sheer manufacturing and production opportunities have created thousands of entrepreneurs who in turn have created maybe millions of prosperous young Chinese, who working in these very enterprises or deal with them. Like Lee.

And there are the other, state funded opportunities. The massive public cum private infrastructure spend is a strong GDP kicker. China is adding expressways like there is no tommorrow. And realtors are erecting skyscrapers like they are going out of fashion. Indeed the first thing that hits you as you enter Shanghai are the umpteen skyscrapers. "When did they build this ?" you wonder.

Living In Balance

Yet, mega cities like Shanghai live in balance. Because the transition is still on. On the way to an industrial estate on the outskirsts of the city, we drive past the equivalent of an urban slum. Brick houses with `Mangalore' tiles and narrow roads with people walking briskly, dodging cyclists. And little shop cum garages with old men frying dumplings in large cauldrons. And people standing around, buying, eating. Like the guy you might buy samosas from back home.

And there is urban poverty too. Step out of the ornate Peace Hotel and you are accosted by beggars. Ditto with Bar Street in Beijing as I discovered during my last visit. Foreigners are preferred. Despite the trappings of a somewhat tough state, beggars survive. Its pretty clear that they can be dispatched, if the authorities really wanted. Perhaps that's China's own way of reminding itself of the task ahead. And being fair. And while the BMWs and Audis may multiply, so will the beggars. Unless the growth miracle truly envelops everyone.
 

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