I woke up this morning to discover the temperature had plunged 15˚C during the night and there was a light dusting of snow on the trees and rooftops. It was suddenly very cold in our apartment. But we cannot switch on the central heating, though once the system is switched on we can regulate it ourselves. Why, I hear you ask, can’t you switch it on?
In the last twenty years China has changed almost beyond recognition, industrialising and modernising at a dizzying pace. However there are still some vestiges of what one might call the ‘ancien régime’ when this was still a very rigid collective society, and one of these is the government control of central heating.
It seems anomalous that here in Beijing – a vast city with a population of 22 million, glittering shopping malls, 80 storey skyscrapers, 16 metro lines, umpteen eight-lane highways – we cannot have central heating in apartment blocks, schools, offices etc. until the official date when winter is deemed to start and the local authority switch the system on – November 15th. And it is not just in Beijing, it is the fixed date for the whole of northern China. The south of China doesn’t have this probem as they don’t have any central heating at all. Anywhere south of the river Yangtze (aka Chang Jian) is deemed to be warm enough not to need it. So too bad for them if there is a cold winter in Shanghai.
The converse of this is that the air-conditioning system is also government controlled and it cannot be switched on until the official date for the start of summer which is May 15th each year.
So every year there are a couple of weeks where you could either boil or freeze because you can’t turn off the heating and yet the weather has warmed up or you can’t switch on the heating despite snow on the ground.
China doesn’t do approximations when it comes to the seasons!