Last May students of the dual degree programme between Sciences Po and the University of British Columbia landed in Chongqing, China to participate in the first edition of the UBC - SWUPL (Southwest University of Political Science and Law) Global Seminar. Zachary Pascaud shared his account of this futuristic month-long experience.
The fact that most people in the West have never heard of the Chinese city of Chongqing, which on a technicality holds the title of the most populous city in the world, speaks volumes about our understanding of the Asian superpower. After three days in smoggy Beijing, I landed in the massive, futuristic Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport, where I was greeted by two extremely kind (and just a little bit intimidated) students who insisted on carrying my bags although they were about half my size. One of them, who went by the English name Theresa, had been assigned as my ‘buddy’ for the trip and would routinely take me out for meals and check in on me throughout the trip. Each of the 20 UBC students received a similarly warm and attentive greeting from the SWUPL students in our programme, and most of us had never been exposed to such hospitality - least of all in a university setting.
Our schedules in Chongqing were absolutely packed. On weekdays, we would wake up at 8, have breakfast, and head towards our assigned classroom for a 9am lecture. Each lecture was delivered by a different SWUPL professor (except those delivered by Yves Tiberghien, the programme’s organiser on the UBC side and a Sciences Po alumnus) on topics ranging from Urban Planning in Chongqing to Chinese environmental protection policy. The classroom was filled with equal parts UBC and SWUPL students, and students from both schools were strongly encouraged to participate. Prior to our departure, we had been warned of a line in the sand regarding what could and could not be discussed in class regarding certain political and historical topics. To be clear - that line did exist, but to our surprise, the SWUPL students generally seemed more willing to cross it than we were (likely because they had a better understanding of exactly which topics were off-limits).
After lunch, we would board a bus for our daily afternoon excursion. We were able to visit such diverse places as an Intellectual Property courtroom in session, an electric vehicle manufacturing plant, an ancient rock carving and an Anti-Japanese War Site Museum. A personal favourite was our outing to Chengdu, a city most famous for its panda reserve, where we spent a very heartwarming day.
Chongqing is a unique administrative division
When I say that Chongqing is only technically the world’s biggest city, it’s because Chongqing isn’t really a city. The Chongqing metropolitan area, with its area of 82,000 km2, is roughly the size of Austria. The urban area of Chongqing (known as central Chongqing) hosts about 9 million people but represents only a fraction of the municipality. There is a good reason behind Chongqing’s special administrative status - it is one of four municipalities under the direct control of the central government, and the only one away from the coast. The municipality was placed under direct government control in 1997 as part of an effort to develop the country’s SouthWest region, which for a long time has lagged behind the East. Now a major manufacturing center and transportation hub, Chongqing is a testament of the success of China’s decentralization policy.
Technology is omnipresent
Chinese cities such as Chongqing are virtually cash free. Those that have visited China within the past several years are well aware of this but for newcomers it remains a shock to see an elderly woman paying a street vendor for her meal by scanning a QR code with her phone. In fact, most of the students I spoke to hadn’t used cash in years and didn’t even carry a wallet. Most of China’s digitally literate population depends on platforms such as WeChat, a sort of mega-app with almost 1 billion monthly users which is probably best described as a combination of facebook, venmo, whatsapp and instagram. Technological progress has already disrupted the Chinese workforce - many restaurants and coffee shops have entirely replaced waiters and cashiers with digital kiosks. Unemployment, however, remains low: the Chinese government expends significant resources in its Public Employment Service System and has made curbing the impact of technological unemployment a priority.
The various ways in which technology is used in Chongqing go from the very practical to the extravagant. Every evening a dozen of massive buildings on the bank of the Yangtze river in Chongqing’s massive downtown area would light up as one, forming an animated canvas on which a handful of exotic fish could be seen swimming around. At times things verged on the bizarre: like when we were escorted into a private karaoke room by a very slow, human sized robot on wheels.
There are a million more things that I could add, but in the interest of brevity I’ll finish by thanking UBC, SWUPL and Sciences Po, three schools without which this incredible experience would never have been possible.
Zachary Pascaud graduated from the University of British Columbia in the dual degree programme with Sciences Po in June 2018.
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