I was prepared for smog when I landed in Wuhan, the industrial heartland city dubbed the Detroit of China, but I hadn’t expected it inside the airport terminal. Of the 199 cities tracked by my iPad’s air-quality app, Wuhan ranks as the most polluted by some way. On a day when the readings for Beijing and Shanghai are 112 (“lightly polluted”) and 152 (“unhealthy”) respectively, Wuhan gets the maximum score of 500 (“beyond index”). The Pm2.5 reading – reserved for particularly pernicious particulates – is almost 900.
I can taste the pollution in my throat and feel it in my eyes. As we drive around under a milky red afternoon sun, the smog, the traffic and the spectacular – but spectacularly empty – developments with names such as Future City make the other Detroit seem almost appealing. I am here on a China-United States Exchange Foundation tour, in part to learn more about China’s economy – but I don’t see much evidence that a slowdown in its breakneck growth has eased the pressure on the environment.
As we head to dinner, our Ministry of Foreign Affairs chaperone, who invites us to call him Elvis, says the reason for the particularly bad pollution is not the city’s steel and car plants but because farmers in a neighbouring province have been burning wheat stubble. (Somehow, it is always a neighbouring province.) Sitting down for a meal involving stewed bullfrog and “Chairman Mao’s favourite fish”, I wipe my glasses, then realise that they are not smudged: the haze is visible even in the dining room.
The restaurant is near the spot where, in 1966, an ageing Mao reassured the nation of his vitality by swimming across the Yangtze. A couple of years ago my colleague John Gapper took the plunge too, but today I can barely see the far bank. I resist the peer pressure and decide that an after-dinner dip in the muddy current would not do much for my vitality.
Wuhan University is one of several in a city that counts 1m students among its 10m inhabitants. Amid the smog and humidity of summer in one of China’s “oven cities”, it still has the prettiest spot in town, stretching up wooded Luojia Hill from a lily pad-filled lake. After watching a soft-focus promotional video, where the sun is always shining on cherry blossoms, we talk to 18 students about their lives and aspirations.
They are, in the words of one, “passionate about China’s bright future”. That student, dressed in a green T-shirt bearing the misspelled brand Rpada, turns out to be an eager party apparatchik. He is the keenest of the group to speak up, and, after telling us how China loves peace, he abruptly turns the discussion to Edward Snowden.
Did we think, he asks pointedly, that the former agent had been right to leak NSA documents? I hesitate, acknowledging the debate over whether the leaks amounted to treason, but reply that, as journalists in a country where freedom of the press is a constitutional given, we have a bias towards the free flow of information. I turn the question back: does he think Snowden was right? “Maybe,” he says hesitantly, as if torn between horror at the idea of leaking state secrets and the pleasure of seeing the US embarrassed.
We’d already heard that the Netflix series House of Cards has become a hit in China and, at the end of the meeting, another student approaches me to ask about Kevin Spacey’s Machiavellian drama. “How much is Washington really like that?” she asks. I reassure her that the show is an exaggeration, but have the feeling that her generation may be watching it as an explainer of a superpower gone astray, and as a playbook for how to outwit it.
In our meetings in Beijing about Chinese-US relations, officials had given America pretty short shrift. “The US is so nervous about its ‘leadership’,” one says, using air quotes to signal the disdain.
“China followed the US until 2008,” a financier adds: “The leader got lost and now suddenly the world wants China to take responsibility.”
Going over my notes in the hotel, I see that the same three words crop up repeatedly about the US: hubris, hypocrisy and – the favourite – hegemony. China has an H-word, too – it just wants harmony, we are told.
The US has long thought of its media output as a “soft power” tool to counter such views, but I find myself wondering how many people in DC realise that China’s American TV diet revolves around House of Cards, Scandal and Homeland.
The flip side of China’s urgent urbanisation has been the emptying out of its rural areas, so we head in search of a village within driving distance of Wuhan. This is no easy task. There is not a moment on our hour-long journey when I cannot see someone rolling a new road, operating an unimaginably tall crane, landscaping the approach to a new development or throwing up another forest of tower blocks or a bridge to it’s-not-clear-where. Wuhan, we are told, has 10,000 building sites and is adding one subway line a year.
Finally, we reach a collection of whitewashed buildings with elegantly tiled roofs, manicured wild flower displays and bilingual street signs. The village, it emerges on our humid tour, is part of an “auspicious four seasons demonstration zone” – a destination for “flower tourism” – and has been landscaped and airbrushed for the benefit of visitors from Wuhan and beyond. The iPhone-toting head of the community leads us around, grabbing residents to tell us how much their annual income has soared since it was purged and packaged up for tourists (you know a country has a middle class when it has a thriving pick-your-own-pomegranates business).
By this stage, I am starting to wonder whether there is anything left in China that hasn’t been scripted and scrubbed. It is not until we are travelling at 300km an hour on the train to Shanghai that we see real countryside, with only the occasional farmer or cow to interrupt the green rice fields.
The tail-end of a typhoon keeps the red flags flapping on the rooftop bars on Shanghai’s Bund. Here, century-old trading houses recall an imperial era that the city’s museums record as a humiliation for China. In Wuhan I had become less sure about China’s chances of eating the west’s lunch but Pudong’s ever-expanding cluster of illuminated towers could have been designed to symbolise the country’s chances of humiliating the rest of us.
Eric Li, a US-educated venture capitalist, tells me that 20 years ago Pudong looked much like Wuhan does now. China is still just an adolescent, he says, echoing a phrase used by his fellow TED talker, Peggy Liu. Liu is the dynamic head of a non-profit called JUCCCE (Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy), and worries that China is building faster than it can teach its people to go green. But she has faith that its centralised political system offers the potential solution to its pollution problems. “We’re not just any teenagers, we’re a teenage Yao Ming,” she says, alluding to the former NBA basketball star. You don’t know at that age that he is going to sprout to 7ft 6in, so “you can’t tell Yao Ming to eat one bowl of noodles when he needs to eat three”.
China may make for an unusual teenager, but like most adolescents it has little time for people who would tell it what to do.
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s US news editor
Illustration by Luke Waller