By Soni Daniel, Harbin City, Heilongjiang, China
We had more than we bargained for. That is just the best way to describe what happened to three African journalists earlier this week. The trio of Nassir Kingu from Tanzania, Igho Akeregha and I both from Nigeria, made a brief ‘escape’ from the rest of the journalists (no fewer than 45) currently attending a training programme in China, to buy a few stuffs outside the city centre and then stop over at the historic Tiananmen Square, now a tourist centre.
Although significantly transformed by the Communist administration of China from a bloody demonstration square to one of the world’s largest public squares complete with alluring architectural designs and monuments of immense stature and with millions of visitors daily pouring in, the history of the arcade still reminds people of blood, tears and sorrow, to borrow the words of Fela, the Nigerian music maestro.
But a visit to the square appears to confirm that most of its visitors, especially, the millennials, are either ignorant of the antecedents of the place or have decided to forget the sad episode related to it and enjoy the beauty and spectacle associated with its new status.
As was in the days of the students’ protests, more Chinese security operatives are on duty at Tiananmen, while visitors stream to and from the centre as if there is a compelling force drawing people of all tribes, gender, creed, colour and tongues towards the place. It was in this atmosphere that we entered the square that afternoon, struggling with the surging crowds to gain a foot at the historic site and take some pictures because as one of us, asked jokingly, how would you tell someone you’ve entered China without visiting ‘Tiananmen’?
The next thing was mayhem! We must have made a grave mistake by even taking the decision to enter the square as people of colour. Blacks are a rare sight in China and Chinese love seeing blacks and Africans in particular, in their midst. They were pushing at us as if we had done something wrong and we were sorely afraid for our lives. Ni hao! Ni hao; meaning how are you?
The chorus continued as more and more whites continued to shove towards us. ‘’We are very happy to see you here”, one of the Chinese managed to say in English, as most of them don’t speak English at all and even those who can, still prefer Chinese language. That was how our blood pressure began to come down. Can we take pictures with you?, a young woman asked politely while a man took position with three us and his young son for a pose, handing over his phone to another Chinese to snap the shot.
Before we could ‘rescue’ ourselves from the crowd, we had posed with no fewer than 100 different persons and families who felt a sense of ‘accomplishment’ by standing with rare-to-find black men from Africa. And as we managed to break through the thick crowds of white men, children and women and a colonnade of soldiers, national guards, policemen and other Chinese security agents, we heaved a big sigh of relief and disappeared into one of the tunnels and headed to Shunyi District where our training base is located.
‘Zai jian’: Meaning bye bye, we managed to say to the crowds!
The 90-minute flight that ferried us from Beijing Airport to Harbin, China Southern, was smooth as it sliced through the early morning fog and landed at Harbin, one of China’s most developed and historic cities. Harbin City, a district in Heilongjiang Province, occupies a strategic place in China apparently because of its position as a leader in power production, high tech breakthroughs, scientific innovations, manufacturing and agricultural productions. In short, even though Harbin is a district, the equivalent of a state in Nigeria, it has everything that a modern system needs to propel itself, create and spread wealth, sustainable development and add value to its citizens to live well and inspire hope and confidence.
Just a few of the breakthroughs by Harbin, a border city with Russia, speaks volume about its strategic position in China: It was in Harbin that the first beer manufacturing plant, was established in 1900, barely two years after the Eastern China Railway had birthed there. Today, Harbin Beer leads the market in China and some Asian and European markets, with a huge museum with floating theatre seats that rock the visitors as the story of the beer is being told. When we visited the Museum on Wednesday, BRI journalists savoured some freshly brewed draught beer and declined to stand down even after consuming more than a big jar in a jiffy. Some of the visitors paid more attention to the beer consumption than the history of the beer as we were being conducted round the massive compound.
It is also in Harbin that we visited the Heilongjiang Broadcasting Station, which is reputed to have the tallest building and tallest mast with 190 metres high. We actually viewed all the skyscrapers in Heilongjiang, which appeared as bungalows from the roof of the building and also had lunch it its revolving restaurants. The city is also hosts to the Harbin Steam Turbines Plant, which produces both normal and nuclear turbines for many countries around the world. It is one of the agencies that have made China to be self-sufficient in power production and steady supply. Harbin also houses legendary Harbin Concert Hall with rare architectural masterpiece of modern history and the world’s largest Skiing Centre as well as a bonded Free Zone that promotes the flow of trade with other parts of the world with ease. It is a massive wonder as operations are conducted via e-commerce to eliminate bottlenecks associated with analogue transactions.
But of all the places we were taken to in Harbin, none excited us like the ‘Wisdom City Operation Centre’ in Pingfang, which also hosts The Curling House. The centre uses artificial intelligence to create and store a database of all the people living, passing through or coming into the District and uses same information to plan for the wellbeing of the inhabitants. As demonstrated by the officials of the district the Smart Operational Centre is a city brain which helps to improve governance by taking information from the citizens and using same to work for them.
According to the officials, the data collected also helps to prevent crime as it captures any new face, driver or any object moving into or outside the district in real time. The centre which provides for face recognition of every citizen in the district, serves as a control and command post and can aid in managing emergencies effectively as each citizen is assigned a number. “What this means is that it is possible to track down any person who commits any crime at any time and we also use this data centre to register pupils for school. The parents only need to register online and everyone is captured in the database,” the official explained.
Harbin is littered with manufacturing entities that produce at full capacity; providing jobs and opportunities for growth and development; and the citizens are very happy with their lives. Skiing and curling have therefore become very popular in the city. As a matter of fact, the world’s largest skiing ground, which we also visited, is located at Harbin a few metres behind Wanda Realm, one of the tallest hotels in China, where we stayed and enjoyed fresh Chinese cuisines for two nights.
Overall, Harbin natives, like their counterparts in most parts of China have since overcome the basic needs of life with constant power supply, water, health and educational facilities readily made available by the state. As a result, the state nkw focusses attention on the wellness of the citizens by providing for general and special sports like skiing and curling with state of the art facilities scattered in many cities.
One outstanding features that define leadership in Harbin and China as a whole is the simple lifestyle of the officials. The mayors of Qingfang, Harbin and Xiangfang districts who control huge entities and wield enormous powers being top leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, CPC, entered and left the hall where they addressed without any notice or fanfare from any quarters.
The only sign that these people have ever seen money is the immaculate white short sleeved shirt they wear upon dark blue trousers with well polished black shoes to match. The neither use siren nor deploy any state paraphernalia to intimidate other citizens in the discharge of their duties. In fact, in ine of the scheduled events at Xiangfang, some journalists had taken up the front seats before they were politely asked to give up two for the mayor of the city and another top official from the Chinese Radio International, who came with the mayor. The simplicity and humility of Chinese state functionaries are a lesson in themselves for Nigerian and African officials.
But going through these places in Harbin and other Chinese cities triggered both tears of excitement and disappointment. I was excited to see machines and men operating maximally and producing results for a better society. But each of those successes reminded me of the systematic and contemptuous destruction of every public institution and asset in Nigeria and the dubious transfer of key national assets into private hands under the guise of privatisation and commercialisation, which merely create enormous unmerited wealth for a few at the detriment of the majority. Too bad for a country like Nigeria!