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From cells to bells, 10 things the Chinese do far better than we do

A comparative list compiled by JAN WONG

Globe and Mail Update

BEIJING — Ah, those clever Chinese. First they invent gunpowder and a few other essentials of modern civilization. Now they're gunning their economic engines. Yet who would have thought that, after a millennium of poverty, they'd already do so many things better than we?

In fact, compiling a Top 10 list of what China does better than Canada isn't easy. There are so many items. To whittle it down, let's assume it's unfair to count anything related to cheap labour.

So we won't include the wonderfully thorough mop-ups of supermarket spills: The staff don't plunk down those yellow you-can't-sue-us caution signs. They actually fan the floor with a broken sheet of Styrofoam until it is dry.

Nor will we mention the exquisite, free head-and-shoulder massages that come with every shampoo and haircut.

And we will only sigh with envy over bicycle couriers speeding theatre tickets to you the same day -- free.

Frequent travellers will love this one: Even remote rural hotels in China, not previously known for world-beating hygiene, now routinely slip blankets, quilts and coverlets into freshly laundered duvet covers. No more puffy bedspreads and nasty polyester blankets that cover guest after guest without being cleaned, which is still the practice in most of our hotel chains.

Considering how cheap labour is, it's astonishing that so many Chinese facilities offer free automated lockers now, the way European airports and train stations do. No more old-fashioned keys to form a lump in your pocket -- just a slip of paper with a randomly chosen number that lets you retrieve your belongings. Stores like them because they cut shoplifting; customers like them because they reduce schlepping.

Not all progress is good. Taxis, subways, trains and elevators barrage you with non-stop ads on flat-screen videos. Some city buses feature live television. Who wants that? Pickpockets, probably.

For this list, we won't count minor things, either, like the narrow plastic bags that department stores and offices offer on rainy days to sheathe your dripping umbrella. Or the invention of the electronic fly swatter, which electrocutes without squishy messes (and is now available in dollar stores in Canada).

On this list, we won't count mega things, either, like the soaring architectural wonder of China's airports -- even in provincial capitals like Fuzhou -- awash in natural light. (Not to mention that you can understand the public announcements, and the restaurants are much better.)

We won't include the vast subway and highway systems and huge underground garages that Beijing, Shanghai and Canton have built in astoundingly little time. Or Shanghai's magnetic-levitation train, the first in the world, which accelerates to 431 kilometres an hour in 2 minutes and 53 seconds. Even the Germans who designed it can't afford one for themselves.

No, for this list we were looking for truly brilliant ideas, the forehead-slapping kind, the ones that make you say: Now why didn't we think of that?

1. Cellphones

By any standard you can think of -- coverage, price, ubiquity -- China's cellphone practices beat ours. You can use them in elevators, subways and parking garages. They work in Tibet, at the Great Wall, in remotest rural China, which is more than you can say for Ontario cottage country. Patients, doctors, nurses and visitors use them in hospitals, too, with no apparent ill effects.

It's a cheap, pay-as-you-go system, with no stupid monthly contracts or credit checks. The phones are so cheap -- even sidewalk cabbage vendors have them -- that China is now the biggest cellphone market in the world. With 300 million in use, each one telling time, wristwatch sales have plummeted.

"We're a nation of thumbs," a young Shanghai woman told me, meaning that Chinese use cellphones like BlackBerries, text-messaging friends 24/7, at 1.6 cents a pop. The Chinese never got used to voicemail or answering machines; installing home phones was equivalent to two years pay in the 1980s, so the country leapfrogged over landline technology right into cellular.

Chinese author Qian Fuchang even plans to transmit a novel -- about an extramarital affair -- via text-messaging, one 70-word chapter at a time.

2. Informative stop lights

In Tianjin, a city of 13 million people, traffic lights display red or green signals in a rectangle that rhythmically shrinks down as the time remaining evaporates. In Beijing, some traffic lights offer a countdown clock for both green and red signals.

During a red light, you know whether you have time to check that map; on a green light, you know whether to start braking a block away -- or to stomp on the accelerator, as though you were a Toronto or Montreal driver. (That's probably why Montreal has a few lights with countdown seconds for pedestrians.)

3. Transit debit cards

Wouldn't it be great to have a single debit card for buses, subways -- and taxis? That's how it works in Shanghai. Passengers don't have to fumble for exact change on buses and subways, or line up to buy tokens or tickets. Taxi drivers don't have to make change, or get ripped off by counterfeit bills, a real plague in China. And they aren't loaded down with cash, which would make them tempting targets for robbery.

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