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Coal Trucks and Consumerism in Inner Mongolia

July 5, 2008

Last night I returned to Beijing after two weeks of scientific research in the “autonomous region” of Inner Mongolia, China. I won’t bore anyone with details of my roamings, but during the trip I did notice a couple of things that got me thinking about China’s rapidly changing role in the world and the implications for Canada.

First, the signs of increasing prosperity were obvious. I spent part of my trip in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia. With a population of over one million, Hohhot is hardly inconsequential, but it’s remote from booming eastern cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Nevertheless, there are probably more cars than bicycles, and the city has a small but bustling westernised shopping district (see photo) where neither the goods nor the prices would have seemed far out of place in Beijing or even Toronto.

Second, China’s astounding economic growth requires astounding resources. Driving around the rural hinterland of Inner Mongolia one afternoon, some colleagues and I passed a line of coal trucks. They weren’t huge, but we guessed that each was probably carrying at least 20 tonnes of coal. I started counting trucks after the first few had already passed us, and stopped at one hundred. That’s two thousand tonnes of coal right there, on one Chinese road on one afternoon.

For Canada, China’s growing wealth and thirst for resources present both challenges and opportunities. Their cheap labour may pose a threat to our manufacturing sector, but demand from China should push up the prices of the raw materials, especially oil, we have in such abundance. Politically speaking, China’s newfound prosperity is already leading to a more prominent international role. Canadians will have to think carefully about how to respond to China’s growing influence, particularly when their interests clash with our own.

This brings me, however, to my final observation. My big nose and pale, sunburned face stood out much more in Hohhot than they do in cosmopolitan Beijing, and I got plenty of incredulous stares. However, the people showed no hostility towards the foreign devil in their midst. Many of them shouted “Hello!” as I walked by, and one taxi driver even proclaimed “Canada, China, friends!” in passable English. It’s worth remembering that whatever difficulties may arise between Canada and China exist against a background of fundamental goodwill – which, as China’s power waxes almost by the month, is rather fortunate.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 7, 2008 7:21 pm

    Nothing beats an eye witness account, and they’re a real treat to those looking to understand the world.

    Thank you.

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