The clock says 03.15 and here in Shanghai it is pretty quiet. The elevated freeway that stretches away into the darkness is almost empty. There are only 30 cars at the intersection below my hotel window where normally there are 200. It is all 21 floors beneath me but I can still hear the occasional hooting, the sonar of Chinese driving. I find it amazing that the people do not think that hooting at three in the morning is a selfish thing to do.
Even in the darkness the city is still hazy with pollution. As I am up and unable to sleep I decided to read up on the Chinese car markets (lack of sleep does funny things to people). The country accelerated through 20 million sales last year, up nearly 14 percent on 2012. China has been the leading global market for cars for the last five years and continues to extend its lead over the United States, which registered only 15.6 million sales last year.The Chinese Passenger Car Association says that sales for the first three months of the year (the quiet period) are up 9.5 percent to 4.6 million. As a result of this boom, more and more cities are clothed permanently in smog. Six big Chinese cities now have laws to curb sales, with number-plates allocated by auctions and lotteries. The latest is Hangzhou where at the end of March the government announced plans for just such a restriction. The following day 70,000 vehicles flew out of the showrooms in the city. One need not weep for the car dealers of Hangzhou.
For those of us who travel a lot, one trend that has been obvious in recent years has been the number of Chinese and Russians travelling the world. Perhaps there will be fewer Russians now that President Vladimir Putin has donned his black hat and gone out to meet the West, with his six-guns loaded. He is pretty isolated politically but he clearly thinks that he can be a Clint Eastwood-like figure in a world that is now filled with men in white hats.
On the way over here I was reading at some point remarks made by Russia’s Finance Minster Anton Siluanov, who was warning that Russia is in a very delicate situation at the moment. In the first three months of the year the country has seen $63 billion fly out of its economy as currency traders dump their roubles.
“Continuing capital flight lowers the opportunities for economic investment and creates risk of an unbalanced budget,” Siluanov said. “The main reason for capital flight is instability in the way the geopolitical situation is developing.”
By that he means the Ukraine Crisis and he reckons that Russian GDP growth could hit zero this year as a result. And that is the crazy thing. More than anything else, Russia needs to move away from its dependence on oil and gas and yet messing in the Ukraine is driving away foreign investment in diversification – and costing Russia more money. The only kind of sense it makes, is that it gets nationalistic feelings going in the country. And maybe that is what this is all about. In theory a strong government keeps everyone under control and that allows for growth. The trouble is that a punchy government pisses off the money men.
In recent days I have been wondering more and more about the logic of holding a Russian GP in the wake of the Ukraine Crisis and I have reached the conclusion that it is best for F1 that the race does not happen because an event will upset western sponsors and will add to the unfortunate image that F1 is willing to do anything for money. One might even argue that it is also better for Russia not to have a race because all it will achieve is to promote the man who is harming his country’s economy with his actions. I know that some Russian readers will probably get upset by that suggestion and there are always going to be those with odd views such as the concept that the West is somehow to blame because it was encouraging Ukraine to do more business with the EU. What’s wrong with that? It is called the market economy. Still, I guess it is all about subtlety. If the West is the bad guy then he is a very subtle bad guy, whereas Putin’s pushing back is about as subtle as a juggernaut through the window. I think it would be better if we could all learn to live together without needing to get into such fights. It is simply a question of giving people their own space.
Oddly, I encountered the same basic problem on the plane from Dubai to Shanghai as I found myself sat next to one of those people who cannot sit in an airplane seat without spilling over into the personal space of the people beside them. Maybe he cannot help the fact that he is fat, but he should know the rules of aviation etiquette. You keep yourself in your own space, even if it uncomfortable. You do not have the right to invade the space of others. I had to bite my tongue to stop myself saying: “Excuse me, but I don’t believe you bought two tickets for this flight.” In the end, being English, I indulged in a little appeasement and made an allowance for him rather than making a scene. No doubt he will go on spreading himself around too much until someone tells him how to behave. I know that I would be embarrassed if I was spilling into someone else’s space, but I guess it goes back to the hooting thing. Some people just don’t think.
We all like getting more than others, don’t we? I am a little old-fashioned in that I think we should earn our perks. That is my philosophy and now and then it actually works. When I got the airport in Paris there was a vast queue at the check-in. I was delighted. Why? Because endless travel means that I have earned gold card status, so I can check in quickly and efficiently. And a big queue means a full plane and a much better chance that I will be kicked upstairs. It is the reward one gets for being loyal to an airline.
If you haven’t yet flown upstairs on an Emirates A380 I do recommend it highly. It really takes the sting out of long haul flights. It gives one the chance to relax and think about Vladimir Putin, rather than wasting energy wondering if one should tell the fat bloke to shift his leg…