6 Myths Vs Realities of Living in China, Written by an American Expat

by Whitney Shindelar May 3, 2016

1. Myth: Chinese citizens wear masks on a daily basis due to high-pollution levels.

Although this should be a reality, spotting a Chinese citizen going about their daily life while wearing a mask is rare. For a few days out of the year when pollution levels are breaking new records, it’s common to see a street full of masks. For instance in December 2014, when Bejing had its first ever ‘red alert‘ resulting in schools and construction shutting down along with a large amount of car use and factory production.

In the United States, a particle pollution concentration of 12 µm/m3 is deemed acceptable. In 2015, there were 18 cities in the United States with an average particle pollution level above 12 µm/m3, but that did not surpass 18 µm/m3. In China, the world’s biggest polluter, the scale begins at 15 µm/m3 with most cities hovering around an average concentration of 75 µm/m3. When Bejing had its red alert, there were 291 micrograms of tiny particles per cubic metre — The World Health Organization advises that 25 micrograms per cubic metre is the safety cut-off.

The smallest pollution particles in the air are the most dangerous. These microscopic particles easily bypass the body’s natural defenses going straight to the lungs, and possibly into the blood stream. To further exacerbate the situation, most masks that are worn on the street are nothing more than ordinary surgeon’s masks which offer zero protection against the tiniest, most dangerous pollution particles.

2. Reality: Popular Western websites are blocked in China.

In China, there’s nothing more annoying than the internet. Expats in China worship Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) because they allow access to websites that we’d be able to see, if we were anywhere else in the world. As the VPN connection spikes up and down in bright blue and red, it mimics a heart monitor — except that it often falls flat for no particular reason. VPN access is even blocked when important political meetings are taking place in Beijing, or when China is in the global news, or whenever the hell the Chinese government wants to block it.

Even Fan Bingxing, the mastermind behind China’s Great Firewall, was recently forced to use a VPN during his speech on nothing other than internet safety. Blocking social media websites such as Facebook and Instagram seems logical, I guess, for a country that doesn’t promote free speech. But maybe it’s all gone too far when the mastermind himself can’t get through a speech without logging into his VPN.

3. Reality: China is full of giant, congested cities.

There are 40 cities in China with a population of more than 2 million people. In the United States, there are four. Imagine having seven New York City’s. Then, triple one of those New York City’s in order to contemplate life in Shanghai.

4. Reality: There are surveillance cameras everywhere.

These surveillance cameras exist in order to maintain social stability, or so they say. The estimated 3 million surveillance cameras between Beijing and Shanghai alone is roughly 1 surveillance camera per every 11 people. But apparently that’s still not enough. The 100 million cameras throughout China is expected to grow by 15% in the next few years.

5. Reality: The social gaps are extreme.

As of 2014, in the United States, 88% of citizens have a high school diploma. In China, high school is not required nor provided by the government. The Compulsory Education Law of the People’s Republic of China implemented in 1986 requires only nine years of formal education. By China’s own statistics, 99% of the population is educated through junior high school. With a stressful exam and tuition required to continue on to high school and university, many people in China don’t have the necessary resources pursue education past junior high. The 40 largest cities, with populations of more than 2 million people, account for less than 20% of China’s 1.3 billion. The lack of high quality educational resources available to the 80% living outside the large cities creates an extreme social gap.

6. Myth: Everything is made in China because the labor is so cheap.

Just ten years ago, this was still a reality. Since 2010, an aging population and increasingly productive workers have pushed manufacturing costs up by 16% per year. Now, manufacturers are looking toward Thailand, Indonesia, Mexico, and India. Further compounding the shift of the Chinese population, Western consumers are tending toward customization, which cannot be supported by China’s highly optimized mass production of one item at a time.

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