Of Marilyn and Mao—Travels in China

Like so many places, as much as you read about it or as many pictures as you see, it’s never a substitute for being there and absorbing it, and China is no different. You notice the scale on your arrival, as after the longest taxi to the gate ever, we pull into gate 522 at Beijing International Airport, the world’s second busiest airport. The new, modern, architecturally impressive Terminal 3 alone is the third largest building in the world by area. We head out the first day to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. What strikes me first is what a complete dichotomy it is. It’s early in the morning, and hundreds of people are already lined up at Mao’s memorial waiting to glimpse a look at his preserved corpse. In line, the younger Chinese wear Marilyn Monroe and Micky Mouse t-shirts (and, somewhat inexplicably, Life Cereal and Nestle “Chocalate Melk” shirts as well). The city is a blend of young and old, modern buildings and centuries-old palaces, and Western and non-Western culture.

Beijing is the political and cultural center of the country. It’s full of Chinese tourists who have made the trip to visit their nation’s capital just as we’d visit DC…think of the national mall but with 10 times as many people. We are a sight to be seen in Tiananmen. Almost immediately we notice people taking our pictures, though most surreptitiously. Some are more bold about it though: a guy took my picture with a SLR, equipped with what seemed like a foot-long lense, as I read my guidebook sitting in Tiananmen. The city is dense, but not like I’d expected—it’s a sprawling city of more than 20 million people and few really tall buildings (we’ll see plenty of those in Shanghai). The city seems to have no edge—it just expands. The streets are busy, often packed, but it’s not like other massive cities I’ve seen. It’s downright tame compared to the streets in Mumbai. Also unlike other cities I’ve visited, there is little visible poverty. Chicago has far more. Later in the trip, I think to myself, “Is this the trade-off between India and China? Democracy for food? Is this the trade-off, social liberties for the ‘iron rice bowl?'”

We spend the days hitting all the major attractions—the Summer Palace, Great Wall, Temple of Heaven, Forbidden City, and Olympic Park. We walk down the old “hutongs,” which translates to small streets or alleys, that are tree-lined and busy with small shops and houses. We check out the 798 Art District outside the city. Here among the factories used to build machinery and weapons in the 60s is a bustling art scene. It’s packed with galleries, cafes, and artists. The industrial buildings, some with slogans about Mao still written on them, create another dichotomy as artists with the courage to speak out, do. It’s one of the few places that addresses their history from 1912-1978, which it seems most would rather black out. It’s as if they have replaced their history with a simple icon—Mao—he’s every where.

We get around easily enough—the subway system is well marked and the overall the infrastructure some of the best in the world. It’s more modern then you’d think—BMWs and Audis on the street, high-end shops everywhere. Though there are many reminders of the Western world, outside of large Western hotels, no one speaks English. We have to present cards that state in Chinese that we are vegetarians to get food. We leave each day with the address of our destination written on a card in Chinese to hand the taxi driver like kindergartners on the first day of school. We hope it really says the right place—luckily, it always did. I can only describe traffic in China as a high-stakes game of chicken. Cars often drive between two lanes as they make up their mind where to go. On the way to the Great Wall, our driver passed on hills and curves, at one point bearing down on two women with strollers. If you are in the far right lane but want to be in the far left lane, you just go—you don’t signal, you don’t check your blind spot, you just go.

We pass the exit for “Future Technology City,” an entire city being built to compete with Silicon Valley, currently unoccupied. At times you look at the construction and can imagine an “asset clock” that moves dollar for dollar with the debt clock in NYC—you can feel the transfer of wealth moment by moment.

Leaving Beijing on Sunday night, we cover the 120 kilometers to Tianjin by high-speed rail in 30 minutes at a speed of 210 miles an hour. As you get miles outside the city, the industry starts. As far as you can see on both sides of the train, it’s warehouses, apartment buildings for labor, and smoke stacks. The buildings are built in groups of 3 or 5 at a time (4 would be unlucky). City blocks erected all at once stand empty, and there’s a constant haze over the city. The sky is gray, and the sun burns orange against it, creating the effect of a post-apocalyptic movie set.

Tianjin is in a race with Dalian to be the leading industrial city in China. It’s home to the new Airbus factory and many others. It’s growth is staggering—GDP growth this year in the city is 16.5%, and the massive modern convention center where the conference is located was built in less than 9 months. I’m in China to attend the World Economic Forum’s Meeting of the New Champions (Orwellian enough?), and the city is geared up for the conference—we’re escorted to and from the hotel with sirens, signs are everywhere, as are special sections in the paper and people in the streets waving to the buses of conference attendees. We speed by the Home Depot and Dior store on the way to the conference one day while passing a packed public bus, faces pushed against the glass. The side of the bus reads, “Feel delighted in public transportation.”

At the World Economic Forum, Wen Jiabo, the Chinese Premier, speaks the first night. He delivers a 45-minute speech focused on multinationals in China, economic growth, and their environmental efforts. The speech is packed full of stats—this is a man that has a deep understanding of economics and engineering. He started his career attending one of the best engineering schools in the country and working in hydropower. There are few sound bites—it’s a speech packed with data about long-term trends. It’s a speech you would not hear in America—it would be called boring, stiff, or wonkish. What it really is though is a plan based on data. It occurs to me that he really has one focus—running the country—and he goes about it as an engineer. There is no election cycle, no four-year turnover of government, no campaigning—just numbers and plans. That’s the thing—this is a country with a plan, several, in fact. They constantly cite their twelfth five-year plan. This is something you never hear here—we have no long-term plan for large parts of our economy and government. It’s counter to our political structure.

I start to see another side of the country as the week goes on. A student asks a minister on a panel in a full room about “two Chinas,” the rural one that looks like a frontier market and the cities, which are a developed market. He gets scolded by the minister: “There is one China, and that is an internal issue that we will deal with and solve. If you want to discuss, we can, but this is not an issue for the rest of the room.” There are lively debates about China and innovation—can they be innovative or should they be the manufacturers and systems engineers of the world? Has their history and political system dampened their ability to be entrepreneurs (personally, I don’t think it has)? You see the occasional soldier standing at attention in a corner of a parking lot with no one around. The smog is so bad one day, you can see it in the long halls of the convention center, and we’ve become used to constant mild headaches and sore throats. I plug in my laptop that night in the hotel and can’t log in to Facebook or Twitter. I Google “Tiananmen Square” and click on the Wikipedia entry to find that the site appears “to have been moved or the address is wrong.”

After an Italian dinner described as “an intimate encounter with Italian cuisine” featuring a “well-endowed” red wine (we see many amusing English signs throughout our trip), we try to depart Tianjin to Shanghai. We sit on the runway for two hours on a packed Air China flight because, as well as we can understand, there are birds on the runway. But after the two-hour wait and an hour-and-a-half flight, we reach Shanghai late in the evening. If Beijing is DC, Shanghai is Manhattan. The city glows with modern skyscrapers and billboards. The city’s growth has been staggering. One of the most interesting things we do in Shanghai is The Urban Planning Museum (seriously—I highly recommend it). It highlights the past and predicts the future for Shanghai. Most of the city was built basically in the last 30 years—the photos of the changes from the 1980s to today are mind-boggling. Shanghai is a microcosm of the rest of the country; its history is an expedited history of the rest of the country. It industrialized in 20-30 years…what took us over 100, by the way. We visit art museums and the famous Shanghai museum in People’s Park. People’s Park sits on what used to be a racetrack, which was closed when Mao came to power and decried as a symbol of Western decadence. We chuckle when we pass the Starbucks inside the park itself.

We attend the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. It’s huge, like most anything else in China, and sprawls across both sides of the river. Some 200 countries are represented with different pavilions—part World’s Fair and part global chamber of commerce. We have passes to the China pavilion, bypassing the typical 6-8 hour wait to get in. The introductory video shows their history, starting with the ancient and through the emperors, quickly fast-forwarding to the reform and opening up of the 80s. There is no mention of Mao. It’s clear from the video the impact the Sichuan earthquake had on them—in a way, it’s their 9/11, a time for the nation to rally around a cause, and they are proud of their rescue and response efforts, which are featured predominantly in the film. The Expo is packed beyond belief; we hear that they’ve given out free passes to meet their attendance numbers. The architecture of the pavilions is awesome, and we spend the afternoon walking around and appreciating the pavilions’ exteriors, forgoing the 2-3-hour, sometimes up to 8, wait in line.

We walk the Bund, a river walk full of European buildings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, on one side, looking across to Pudong, a modern architectural marvel, on the other. This is one of the neatest things in Shanghai—it’s full of influences from around the world. There’s the French Concession where we walk tiny alleyways in between the shops, and the Old City center where we visit markets and the Yu Gardens. We zigzag along bridges (which block the evil spirits—they can’t turn corners apparently) to old temples corralled by KFC and Dairy Queen and shadowed by modern skyscrapers. We pass lines of people buying moon cakes for the upcoming end of summer holiday.

The city—indeed, the country—is greener than you’d think. There are little parks everywhere. On the topic of green, while being vegetarian is a bit mind-blowing to the Chinese, there is a lot of talk of “green,” and you even find organics in the super market. As a recent New York Times article describes, “There is really no debate about climate change in China,” said Peggy Liu, chairwoman of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy, a nonprofit group working to accelerate the greening of China. “China’s leaders are mostly engineers and scientists, so they don’t waste time questioning scientific data.” The push for green in China, she added, “is a practical discussion on health and wealth. There is no need to emphasize future consequences when people already see, eat and breathe pollution every day.” While the US uses their inaction as an excuse not to act ourselves, they are laying out massive clean-tech plans. They will soon be the largest manufacturer of solar panels and wind turbines in the world, if they aren’t already. They are also one of the only sources of funding for large-scale clean projects, along with the Middle East. In conversation with clean-tech entrepreneurs, you learn that China is doing things in a year that take the US three. Wisely, they see the environmental situation as a chance to lead in a developing industry. At the World Economic Forum, many speakers from around the world praise China’s fast actions since Copenhagan on a variety of issues on climate change. However, to put the problem in perspective, if they hit all their goals for renewables their energy balance will shift from 91% fossil fuels to 86% fossil fuels by 2025—this if things go well.

They do face challenges—geography coupled with income inequality sets the stage for social unrest. There is a real estate bubble; the impact just depends on how large the bubble ends up being. I was in Dubai in the spring of 2008, and China doesn’t feel that way—that felt like a bubble, and everyone you met was there opportunistically. China feels different, but they have an incredibly delicate balance to maintain. While there were cranes everywhere, few were moving; it feels like they’ve hit the brakes. While the size of the economy may pass Japan’s this year, you have to keep in mind what this means per capita. It will be decades before income on a per-capita basis comes even close to that of developed countries. Pandora’s box is open, and there’s no turning back from a market economy in China. The trick is going to be in keeping it not too hot and not too cold—they need to be goldilocks. In a country of 1 billion people with soon to be the second largest economy in the world, small changes can have huge effects. Whether it be environmental or political issues, though, it’s naive to think they haven’t thought about all this. They have, and they have plans to address each in time, but these are hard problems.

If I had to sum up China in three words, they would be scale, which you can’t appreciate until you stand in it (the people, industry, construction, and buildings are vast, and the cities and people have hustle), dichotomous, as I imagine few places in the world are so many opposite things at once right now, and the future because it just feels like the future in so many ways, both good and bad. This is a country that engineered the weather for the Olympics. All in all, this is a deeply national, incredibly practical, and very ambitious country.

I leave slightly overwhelmed by the scale of it, depressed by the environmental effects of rapid industrialization, excited about a country run by engineers focused on data, disappointed in the lack of discourse here in the US on issues that seem so front and center to all of China, embarrassed by our infrastructure (not to mention political paralysis), but most of all, excited about the future. In a globalized and connected world, we’re more interdependent and alike than you think, and that’s a good thing.

Various photo sets: Shanghai, Beijing, 798 District, Olympic Stadium, Great Wall, and Tianjin

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