Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Reflections on China 2009

Grest Wall, Tower 4
Snow Day Beijing, November 9, 2009
Forbidden City, Beijing
Looking North to Qianmen Gate
Cable car to Great Wall
Great Wall
Strolling on the wall, 15 degrees and 20 mph wind.
The past two weeks my wife and I have been visiting her parents in Beijing, China and the blog has been silent. I am back now with thousands of impressions of China and how much she has changed since my last visit 6 years ago. The best way to narrate my travels is to describe our first days and what turned out to be the earliest winter in recorded Chinese history.
When we arrived the sky was leaden and the temperature hovering just above freezing. Our driver whisked us from the airport along a modern expressway that soon slowed to a crawl typical more of Los Angeles Monday morning traffic than what I had last experienced in Beijing. The one thing that had not changed was urban travel which reflects every person for themselves; be they autos, bikes or pedestrians. Our driver threaded and honked his way to the hotel near my in-laws home in the Hadrian District home of dozens of universities. We settled in and after visiting my wife's parents turned in early to get a head start on the next day. We awoke find the city gripped in the worst snow storm in recent history. We laid low for a day and then set out the next day to visit the Forbidden City by taking a subway system that is as efficient as any in the world today. Two yuen, (28 cents) allows you to ride to your destination amid the crowds that saw over half the riders wearing surgical masks as a caution against contacting Swine Flu.
The Forbidden City under a blanket of fresh snow is even more spectacular than it's summer livery. The contrast of white snow on the gold roofs and red palaces is amazing and serves to give an even more mystical aura to the home of two dynasties. The palace take all of a day to visit and absorb and is worth every penny of the entrance fee and the cost of a audio guide that does much better and is more accurate than the guides who offer their services outside the gate.
The impression of Beijing is a city with part of the population in the 21st century and the rest deposited in each century going back hundreds of years. The contrast is stunning and ever present in all parts of the city. BMW's and Audi's share the road with thousands of taxis and pedi-trikes caring gross amounts of product balanced on their thin tires and bicycles who turn a deaf ear to the constant blaring of horns warning of an approaching car. Amid this chaos is injected millions of pedestrians who dart between the cars heedless of traffic lights. Amazingly I saw no one struck, and only one small fender-bender in two weeks of urban travel. I marveled that the road rage we are used to in America seems to be an unknown commodity in China. Part of this may be that people understand if they are hit it is their fault for not getting out of the way of the car or truck.
I would strongly concur with fellow blogger Thomas Barnett that he has never met a Communist in his travels to China. Those who can, are earning money hand over fist and are more adventurous capitalist than most Americans. Consider this from a report from China Daily Newspaper, there are over 440,000 millionaires in China with Beijing home to 143,000 millionaires and over 8000 billionaires. Of course this is in Yuen, but in dollars, China now counts 143 billionaires, second only to the United States. Chairman Mao's dream to find equality has been dashed on the rocks of Chinese history that now sees the rise of what can only be described as a new Mandarin Class who live a super rich lifestyle. The difference this time is that the common man now thinks that it is possible for him to reach that level via hard work and entrepreneurship by either building a better mousetrap or by being the guy who can market it.
The problem that glares out, is what to do with the rest of the country, approximately 800 million strong, who are just barely past the subsistence level of farming. If you bring them all on board and raise their lifestyles, they would make the over consuming United States look like monks in a monastery.
One stunning contrast is the line or lack of lines at Chairman Mao's tomb. My wife remarked that nobody cares about him except visitors who want to pretend to the communism still has the answers. Just south of Mao's tomb and beyond the Qiamen Gate lies a street that is lined with shops from every major brand. The street rebuilt to resemble an upscale Qing Dynasty channeling Disney's Main Street is separated from the squalor of small shops that border the back walls of those stores. Here you will find China in it's raw form, small shops on crowded narrow lanes hawking every kind of product imaginable. Turn left and a walk of fifty feet brings you back to upscale shopping. Again the contrast is stunning and not lost on this traveler.
Over the next week or so I will write more about my travels and what I saw and learned about China from being down in the street with the people and not on a tour bus or shepherded about by as a VIP. Before I close this post I want to note a bit about the hotel and many of our fellow guests. The Xijao Hotel caters to providing accommodations to many visiting foreign students who are attending either seminars or sessions at one of the 12 universities within walking distance of the hotel. Every day we took breakfast and found the dining room filled with students from the Middle East, Africa, Russia and Europe. We encounter no Americans, although they are present in small numbers. Most of the students staying in the hotel were there attending the Beijing language and Culture University learning to better their Chinese before moving on to other universities in the area.
If Americans are going to compete in the global market place we need to get them out into the world and build bridges before we find our nation surrounded by a rapidly gaining world that views us as having caused most of the environmental problems. The hype of Global Warming has rung like a gong in the ears of the rest of the world who now see America as the big consumer and driver of pollution and over consumption. It is ironic that China is now the #2 polluter and if their economy keeps up the pace they will overtake us in less than a decade for that title.
I have just scratched the surface of my impressions of China in 2009. As the days unfold I will continue to write about my experiences and share they on this forum.

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