Today, an old business friend sent me an e-mail from China. He wanted to alert me that he and his wife had just published a combined memoir, travel guide and compendium on Shenzhen, one of China’s four major cities and its first Special Economic Zone. Ted Rule (a regular contributor to Quadrant on matters Chinese and other topics) and his wife, Karen, have been watching Shenzhen grow from a sleepy village amid the rice paddies to a throbbing city of 14 million people in forty years. They have now documented every aspect of it – its history, language, industry, resorts, culture, as well as the opportunities for shopping and eating, plus a step-by step guide for intending visitors.
Five minutes after opening his e-mail, with its link to the Amazon Kindle listing, I had charged it to my account with one click, and was reading the book on my Samsung Note phone/tablet.
I don’t know which is the more staggering, the most difficult to comprehend – the transformation of raw Chinese peasant countryside to a thriving industrial city set in tropical gardens, or the development of modern communications. I wrote back to Ted making the comparison.
When I was born, my father, a PMG technician, was installing plug-board telephone exchanges in Queensland country towns. By the time I was five, he was working on Brisbane’s first automatic exchange, which boasted rotary electro-mechanical relays that eliminated the telephonist. What would he have thought of the personal computer, the internet, online shopping and instant delivery of libraries?
What conclusions are we to draw from the Chinese example as we simultaneously take for granted the tools that the microchip, the LED screen, and wireless telephony have given us? Early adopters of innovation, yes we are, and there can be no denying the pleasure and convenience they have brought to modern lives. But progress? Australia has built the most efficient mining industry in the world in those same last forty years, but what else?
Geoffrey Luck was an ABC journalist for 26 years