In the Red



"We like to collect his picture."
So here it is! Money, cash, dosh or RMB, as we say in the Middle Kingdom. RMB stands for “reminbi”, which in Mandarin means “the people’s money”. Here, on my desk is a 100RMB banknote, proudly displaying the portrait of Chairman Mao. (It is mostly printed in red ink, just in case there are any ghosts around.) Before coming to China, I heard lots of stories about all of the counterfeit 100RMB notes that are supposed to be in circulation here. You could tell if they were genuine because the red ink would either stay on or come off. I cannot remember which! Anyway, so far I have not come across any fakes. Well, maybe I did have some, but I did not know that they were fakes and so I must have given them to someone else.

Of course lots of people in the West have heard of The Little Red Book, aka The Thoughts of Chairman Mao. But why do they still have Mao on their money? Yes, yes, in theory China is meant to be a Communist country, but just about every other car on the roads of Shenzhen is either a new-looking Mercedes or a BMW. And if China is a Communist country, then why are those standard-bearers of western capitalism and consumerism, KFC and Starbucks, on almost every street corner? And how come, all over China, there are private schools springing up like mushrooms after the rain? Let’s get back to Mr Chairman for a minute. A wise Chinese friend once smiled and said to me, “We used to read his thoughts, but now we just like to collect his picture.”
Clueless laowai on SZ's MTR

Another strange misconception that people have in the West is that China is cheap. No, it isn’t. Yes, public transport will only set you back a fraction of what you will pay in most countries in Europe. In Shenzhen the metro (MTR) system is so much better than the London Underground in every way: price, cleanliness, efficiency and ease of use. There are plenty of signs in English everywhere on the MTR, so that even a clueless laowai (foreigner) like me does not get onto the wrong train. But that is just the public transport.
A lot of things seem to be expensive here in Shenzhen, maybe even more expensive than in the UK. While locally produced food is usually cheaper, imported stuff is not. Yes, cheap clothes and plasticky shoes are available, but anything of reasonable quality will be a lot more expensive. Cars, mostly imported, have 100% duty slapped on them. Electrical goods and apartments are pricey.  A modest apartment in Shenzhen will cost you at least a million RMB, while a nicer one in one of the better areas might be three or four million. Okay, these are still not London prices, but then again most Chinese people do not earn London salaries.
I took this photo just along the street from my bank.
Another thing that seems to be happening more in Shenzhen (and probably in the rest of China too) is that the gap between the rich and the poor seems to have become bigger in the four-and-a-bit years that we have been here. Yes, I daresay that is happening in the UK, in the US and in other countries too, but then again they are not supposed to be Communist countries and they do not have Chairman Mao's portrait on their banknotes.      

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