This report of the current highlights and lowlights of Chinese society has been paraphrased from the US State Department web site and is tempered by my own observations from the two months I was there. Unlike most travelers to China, I was not a tourist, I was working in a factory with a group of locals, driving to work with them, and eating in local restaurants with them.
China is a world apart from the U.S. As soon as you get off the plane, it's obvious you're not in the U.S. any more. These differences make this a captivating place to visit, where you're guaranteed something unusual and exciting around every turn. For those who are planning an extended trip to China, these differences can take some getting used to, but a lot of the problems aren't much different from the same problems in the U.S.
Guangzhou (near where I'm staying) is one of the world's mega-cities, comparable in size to New York. The huge population sprawls across hundreds of square miles of the Pearl River delta. Guangzhou (called Canton by westerners) has been a foreign trade zone for hundreds of years because of it's strategic location and the demands of foreign powers. This has made it both foreigner friendly and capitalist friendly for a long time, making a lot of locals and foreigners rich in the process.
The huge wealth has also caused a massive influx of humanity from the poorer provinces. This migration of ultra-low wage laborers has swelled the already huge city to mega proportions in recent years. Living conditions can be rather poor for those who don't get a job right away, and those who do get a job often stay for only a year then return to their villages with a big bag of cash.
Job conditions aren't nearly as cushy as in the U.S., but they're not oppressive either. Business leaders and owners can make good money (even by American standards) but common labor and technical staff are lucky to get a tenth of what those same jobs pay in the U.S. This is partly offset by low cost housing, food and transportation, but disposable income is still a fraction of ours. In addition, laborers don't have employment protections of OSHA, EPA, unemployment comp, medical comp or minimum wage. It's common to see employees working with no safety equipment, and if they get injured they could be saddled with the medical bill and lose their job.
China has had mandatory birth controls in effect for quite some time. They've been greatly critized throughout the world, but those critics have apparently never been to Guangzhou. China doesn't have the agriculture, energy or infrastructure to support it's current population, let alone the hundreds of million more it would have without these controls. In the last century China has had numerous mega-catastrophies, with earthquakes, floods, and famines killing millions. With their ballooning population, a broken levee on the Yellow, Yangtse or Pearl rivers, or another nationwide crop failure, could easily kill tens of millions, as it has in the past. A ballooning population is no longer an option for China, other countries in a similar situation will be forced to follow before too long.
There are a lot of mega-cities in the world and they're all mega-busy. What sets Guangzhou apart is the traffic lawlessness and density. Guangzhou its self isn't as bad as the outer reaches where rural bicyclers have no idea how to drive in a city. Drivers in the U.S. are content to sit in gridlock and wait their turn, but not in China. In this caotic swarm of motorcycles, bicycles and pedestrians, you'll find drivers will constantly change lanes, drive on the wrong side, run bikes off the sidewalk, and whatever else it takes to keep moving. It's quite common to see city buses driving into opposing traffic as they run the red light. Don't even think about renting a car until you've been here a few months and fully understand these new rules of the road.
Even walking and biking can be dangerous. The U.S. State Department reports that most traffic accidents are of the car-pedestrian type. In China pedestrians don't have the right-of-way, and cars don't care if they do - they're required to wait their turn like any other vehicle. There's a good reason for this. In China there are vastly more bikes and pedestrians than in the U.S. If they had the right-of-way it would bring a million cars to a dead stop with no hope of ever moving again. This is compounded by the pedestrian's wreckless disregard for the law and their own safety. It's common to see mom's bicycling with the baby right in traffic.
China is fairly crime free. There's a lot of petty theft and scams, but very little violent crime. Guide books (and the state department web site) warn of a lot of opportunistic thefts, but it's no worse than in the U.S. In China, it's very easy for someone making a dollar an hour to scam you out of ten dollars. That would be a whole day's wages for him, but an American isn't going to waste two hours filling out a police report for a half hour's wage. So it's a low risk activity with a huge payoff for the thief. The most common scam is probably the jacked up rates of taxi drivers. Rather than using the meter they'll try to gouge you for a whole month's wage in one shot, and coordinate between each other so your only other option is the bus.
The State Department reports that scams are also common, where someone will set you up and then you're saddled with an exorbitant bill of some kind. Slash and run attacks are also mentioned but I've never heard of that happening my self. The police are very good in China, but they love red tape and aren't symphathetic to rich Americans. So if you've been robbed, your stuff is pretty much gone for good. In addition, if you're involved in the wrong side of a crime or dispute, the police could require you to stay in town until the trial. For example, if the hotel owner claims you broke a window, you can either pay up or stay in China for a few months until you can prove your innocence.
Health care is also a bit of a problem. Most of the people in my group got sick soon after they arrived here. Nobody knows quite why, but it probably has to do with sanitation at the restaurants. A lot of them are obviously in need of cleaning, and it's common to sterlize the utensils in hot tea before using them because they were cleaned in dirty water. Most restaurants are also choked with smoke, which doesn't help much either. If you do get sick, health care can be a real problem. Big city hostipals are modern and presumably very good, but elsewhere it can be a real gamble, and most require a payment in advance. When one in our group was close to death (or so he thought) they took him to Hong Kong (two hours by train) instead of a local hospital.
U.S. State Dept web site, China page
WorldAtlas.con lists Guangzhou, China as the number 43 largest city in the world, and 10th in China, with a population of 5,162,000.
Professor Ronald Knapp of the State University of New York has an interesting history of China's population web site.
The Wikipedia has a gigantic listing of worldwide disasters throughout history, including a fare share in China.
Dongguan China 2007
A summary of the culture and socitey of China.