This last fall I visited China for my 20th or 21st time – I am losing count. China is a different country each time I visit it. When I first went to China 20 years ago I thought I understood it. It seemed to be a new country emerging from a backward past. In my first visits in the early 1990s the country was incredibly backward. All seemed to be in chaos and shambles. Yet, all around, one could see the signs of a new China emerging, bursting forth with new hotels, new buildings, new restaurants.
The above picture was taken 2 years ago in Shanghai – it shows the new emerging China, which today is changing every day, every hour, every minute. And already this picture is outdated. Since this picture Shanghai installed the world’s fastest train, since this picture Shanghai has added numerous new buildings to its endlessly changing skyline. Today, many people think Shanghai is the most dynamic, the fastest changing city in the world. I disagree, I think Shenzhen deserves that title, although I am sure there are others that would suggest other cities and maybe even other countries.
It is hard to translate what China looked like when I first started coming to China. Roads were unpaved, cars drove in whatever direction they desired, paying no attention to traffic lights, pedestrians or oncoming traffic. Along the side of the roads were shanties made of tin and spare lumber with hordes of bicycles and people – some of the people were seated around inside or outside, some were standing, some were playing pool or ping pong, some were drinking beer, some were smoking cigarettes. If it was raining, the people would huddle inside under the limited protection of open shanties. If the weather was good, people would be outside crowding some shanties to the point of no space and leaving others forlorn, empty, dead.
Inspersed between groups of 20 or 30 people were stores and small businesses selling various goods, stamping machines, videos, t-shirts, food, wood for fires, sheets of metal, tampons, tea, cell phones, TVs, clothes, pots and pans. There seemed to be no order to the different enterprises and each seemed to be in different stages of use or disuse…some crowded with people, others cluttered with goods…some new, others ancient.
In the first several years this was the story of the China that I saw. I must say that my view of China is really centered around coastal China and that is the part of China that is the most advanced, the fastest growing, the most modern. It is my understanding that the inland parts of China are far more backward today, perhaps even more backward than the China I first visited in in 1990.
One thing is true for sure – coastal China is changing at an explosive rate. Where there were dirt roads now there are paved highways. Were there were paved highways with thousands of shanties along the higway, now there 3 lane, 4 lane and 5 lane interstate type highways, all brand new, with exotic manicured gardens on all sides of the highway and new exotic bridges stretching miles over open water.
I am fond of saying that China has been gardenized and marblelized in the last 15 years. This impression came to me after multiple visits to China and seeing hotel after hotel install marble throughout their hotels and seeing intricate gardens spring up along highways where once there were tin and wood shanties.
As time went on, the factories of the suppliers I visited also changed. From dirty, chaotic, haphazard factories where injuries and pollution were a real concern, they evolved into new, state of the art mega factories, clean, new, with open areas for the workers to play basketball, an on-the-premises temple, a company garden to plant vegetables and flowers, a rock pool for multi-color Chinese goldfish. Inside these factories the offices also became marblelized and mahoganized, with vast spacious tables and offices far larger than many American companies.
The vast plume of pollution that hangs over all Chinese cities has persisted through the 90s right up into the 10s. The air outside is so thick that you can feel it every time you go out. It hangs heavy in your lungs and upon returning from China I often felt it would take several weeks to expunge the damage caused by my 3 or 4 week visits.
It seem to me that China is a country trying to go from the 19th century to the 23rd century. They are in a big hurry and they are not satisfied with just catching up with the West. No, their goal is to surpass the West and in many ways they already have. Again, I must state that I am speaking of coastal China which has always been the fastest growing and the most dynamic part of China. I will say that more and more I hear that inland China, the land of traditional small family farm communes, is also being transformed at lightning speed, hurtling out the past and into the future.
I mentioned earlier that I thought that I understood China after visiting it a few times, but the more I visited it, the more I realized I did not understand it. I started reading Chinese histories. I now have read 4 so far and I cannot say that I am that much wiser. To this day, I am still trying to figure how the Chinese government works. I am guessing I will never figure that out. The one thing I am sure of is that my initial impression – that China was a backward country becoming an emerging country – was wrong.
Over time, with repeated visits, I have developed a new theory. And that is that China is like a tulip bulb. It has been planted in the ground for some time and now it is just re-emerging into the landscape. Unlike a normal tulip bulb which comes up every 4 years, China, in my theory, is a tulip bulb that comes up every several hundred years. But like a real tulip bulb, it is re-emerging as its real self – a fully developed flower sprung from the ground with its roots carrying the memory of what it always was.
One of my suppliers told me as we drove through downtown Shenzhen that all this was useless farmland 30 years ago. Well, as you can see from the above picture taken at night, Shenzhen is no longer useless farmland. I think of it as the fastest growing, most dynamic city in the world. Where 30 years before there were rice paddies and farmers, now there are 14,000,000 people and a vast expanse of city going in all directions.
Some years ago a French guy I met in Shenzhen said “It is a strange city…there is no center.”
At the time he was managing a French restaurant recently opened in downtown Shenzhen. It was truly opulent restaurant with large chairs, elegant umbrellas, featuring a wide selection of reasonably good French food and a wide array of French wines and liqueurs. My brother and I would visit it at the end of a long Asian trip and try to recoup after 3 weeks of Chinese food.
Two years ago I passed by this restaurant and had a long enjoyable meal and the same French guy came by my table and took up our conversation as if we had last spoken yesterday.
“You know, I can now say, after living here for 10 years that it is quite an interesting city. Yes, it still has no real center, but the people are quite modern and life is improving and now the city has many centers. It is quite a good place to live. I visit France once or twice a year, but it seems an old place to me. My life is here now and I doubt that I shall ever return to live in France.”
This November I went looking for the French guy and the French restaurant in the giant mall where it was located. It was gone. In my hotel, just a few blocks away, on the 32nd floor, was a new French restaurant, even more opulent and more ‘tres cher” (expensive) than the last. Perhaps, it put the other restaurant out of business. But no doubt the French guy is still in Shenzhen, perhaps managing the new restaurant I found, perhaps opening his own restaurant in another part of town. The city, as he said, has many centers. He could be anywhere.
What’s going on in China today. I can tell you it is a moving target. China is evolving, developing, changing, growing, being reborn, being torn down. Highways are being laid down where there were no highways. Trains are being constructed where there were no trains. Mountains are being blown up in order to provide concrete and in order to get rid of mountains – it is easier to build buildings on flat surfaces. Factories are going up everywhere, factories are closing down everywhere.
A classic example of the new China is the 3 Gorges Dam project where China has built a vast dam complex to inundate millions of square miles, displace tens of millions of people and cover over villages, town and cities that have existed for hundreds or thousands of years. The purpose of this project is to generate electricity for the new China, to create less problems from flooding and to bring new prosperity to this part of China.
All of this is being done by decree of the government. There was no ballot for the people too consider if this was a good thing. Some government officials got to together and said this is what we are going to do and you tens of millions of people, you got to move. That was that. One can only hope that this project does provide the electricity it is supposed to, that it does bring new prosperity to China and it does help China’s eternal problems with flooding.
To have some idea of China and the ways they do things, several years ago there were huge floods covering large parts of China – actually, each year there are large floods covering many parts of China, but this particular year the floods were particularly severe. At the time, even the 3 Gorges Dam Project was threatened and there many other dams in danger of collapse.
What was the solution? It was really simple. The Chinese government sent over 1,000,000 soldiers to where the floods were particularly severe and said, you one million guys, you walk across that river and you holds hands and you diivert the course of the river that way. And that’s what those one milliion guys did, they walked into the flood waters, they held hands and they made a human dam that diverted the course river.
I will tell you another story. A few years ago I was in Qingdao staying on the 23rd floor of a hotel. Outside my window, across the street, was a large construction site. There were several giant Caterpiller tractors and trucks, hauling giant quantities of earth and rocks. There was also 50 or 100 guys with jackhammers chipping and blasting away at what seemed like a giant wall of rock while a giant crane hovered over the site lowering a huge basket to pick up rocks.
Between the giant tractors and the giants trucks and the 50 to 100 guys with jackhammers and the huge crane were hundreds of guys, each carrying 2 smaller baskets of rocks on long pole suspended across each guy’s shoulders. These several hundred guys were all walking in a kind of uneven circle…some guys were walking with the baskets empty towards a huge pile rocks that was having more rocks added to it by the huge tractors which were scooping up rocks and motoring them over the huge pile of rocks. Other guys were walking with their baskets full of rocks towards the huge basket being raised and lowered by the crane. And still other guys were picking up rocks and putting them into their two smaller baskets – I would guess each of these baskets weighed close to 100 lbs. when loaded with rocks.
After watching for some time I came to understand what they were doing. The guys with jackhammers and the giant tractors were making and moving the rocks, the guys with the baskets were then carrying baskets of rocks to the huge basket and dumping their small backets into the very large basket. The crane was then picking up the huge basket of rocks once it full, swinging it over to another location and dumping them away from the site. Essentially they were digging a hole in the ground in order to make room for the new foundation of the new new building, perhaps the way worker ants would, with tasks clearly divided.
In the States this would never happen – there might be some guys with jackhammers and there surely would be some giant tractors and giant trucks and a giant crane, but there would not have been the several hundred guys carrying the rocks from a big pile to a big basket. The process, the way it was done, was actually much faster using the Chinese system. I doubt the same technique could be used in the States. For one thing, American workers would not agree to carrying rocks in baskets on their shoulders.
Whatever you think of this process, it reflected on the way things are accomplished in China.
If you look at the picture at the front of this blog, you will see what looks like a very nice house. I had the opportunity to visit this house on the inside and I can confirm that it is just as nice on the inside as it appears to be on the outside. Inside the a wonderful Chinese sculture and Chinese furniture and a collection of wierd beautiful rocks surrounding a very exotic fireplace. The house literally clings to a cliff and the waves of sea break below and are visible through a glass floor. You can walk down a stairway and be on the beach in seconds where the is a secluded beach that muwst be wonderful to swim at. I was told that it was illegal to build this house where it was situated, but somehow, someone was able to have it built. That is another aspect of China – things are illegal unless you happen to know a local party boss, then, if you are polite and accomadating and perhaps spread some of your wealth, you can have your house built. And so it goes in China.
What I Learned From Reading Several Histories of China
As I have mentioned earlier in this blog, I have read several histories of China in an effort to get a better understanding the places I was visiting. I do not by any means consider myself well read on this subject – quite simply, there is too much history to read and I am guessing it would take reading hundreds of Chinese histories to come to some real understanding of that country. And even then, I am not even convinced you would, after reading several hundred Chinese histories, come to a real understanding of the place.
It seems to me, by its very nature, to be a place beyond the understanding of Western minds. Not only do I not have a real understanding of its long culture and history, I do not have a clue how its government works. I have the impression that it allows businesses to operate pretty much any way they wish as long as they do not break the cardinal rule of interfering with the government of the country. And I suspect that Chinese people accept this as long as the Chinese government provides a prosperous and growing economy.
I have met, of course, many Chinese people. I find them to be open, curious and very intelligent. They have strong opinions and they have great pride about China. Bring up the subject of Tiawan and every mainland Chinese person, be they young or old, male or female, will say one simple thing – it is a part of China. When the unfortunate fact that it actually operates separately from China is mentioned, they will say, to a person, that it will soon again be part of China.
Bring up the subject of Tibet and they will all get rather agitated – Tibet is and always has been a part of China, they will tell you. Therefore, the people of Tibet should accept that. Mention the fact that Tibet has, from time to time, operated as a separate country with separate ideals and thoughts and Chinese people will say that the real truth is that Tibet has always been part of China and that any time it happened to be separate was just a simple aberration not reflective of the true state of affairs.
Rudyard Kipling said East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet. I suppose this is true. Certainly, I do not think another 20 vistis to China will suddenly elighten me and let me understand really what the country and its civilization is.
If I could come to any conclusion or any judgment about China, I would like to again suggest my Tulip bulb theory. I believe China is re-emerging from its past greatness into its future greatness. This does not necessarily mean that it will end well – China is just learning to deal with its new and its old greatness. There could and probably will be some misteps along the way.
The history of China is generally a series of cycles. A dynasty emerges and in its youth and vigor all goes well. Then the inevitable takes place. The dynasty becomes lazy, immobile and corrupt. And then it falls and is replaced by a new dynasty which in turn goes through the cycle of growth and decay only to be replaced by yet another dynasty.
There are those that believe that China is run by the Communist Party. There are others who think people in the Communist Party are adapting Confucian principles of government and that they are really just the latest dynasty. Whatever is the case may truly be, I am grateful that I had the opportunity to visit this enigma of a country.