It is 8:30 am on a brisk Saturday morning in November and we are walking through a city park on our way to The Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Even at this hour, throngs of people are out enjoying the day: dancing, singing, laughing, playing instruments, reading, and exercising. The energy everywhere we look is amazing, especially since most of the people are seniors. A couple in their seventies or more catches my eye. They have obviously danced together forever. They are floating to the music, totally unaware of others around them. A darling old man is sitting on a wall with his purple crocheted cap. He is hard at work on his next crocheted item and enjoying the detail of his work. Since we are unable to communicate directly, we interact with each person using gestures and smiles.
Suddenly, a man appears next to my husband, he is holding something in his hand and writing madly on it. Within seconds he holds up a small plate on which he has drawn a reasonable image of Phil's face. We are all entertained by this and by his insistence on Phil taking it home with him. The incessant bargaining has begun.
China's Race to the Future
China, as ancient as it is modern, is a country containing one–fifth of the world's population with a life energy (qi in Chinese––pronounced "chee") that is sweeping it into the 21st century with such vigor that it takes your breath away.
How can this country, for all its 5,000 year old traditions, be swallowing 100,000 new cars a month; have one–half of all the world's building cranes at work; have 7,000 new buildings under construction in Beijing alone; and still keep its sense of calm?
The answer lies in the nature of the Chinese people themselves––a most patient and disciplined people, a trait we saw clearly even during our short whirlwind tour of this country. What struck me the most was the yin and the yang of China––a country that is as old as civilization itself, but in places as new as any modern city. The traffic in the cities is horrendous, but it all moves in a very "tai chi" sort of way. The cars, trucks, buses bicycles run uncomfortably close to each other, but we saw nary an accident, no one shaking fists or displaying rude gestures, and no one blasting their horns––only modest honks of warning.
Certainly the coming of the Beijing Olympics is a large impetus for the change, but it is larger than that. The Chinese are out to become a world super–power and, by the look of what is happening there, they will get there.
The very trip that we were on is indicative of their determination. Billed as "business delegation" tours and sponsored by Chambers of Commerce around the country, the Chinese government is underwriting the effort by millions of dollars, and every week thousands of Americans are spending the paltry amount of $1,300–$1,500 each to experience a carefully planned 10–day trip: deluxe five–star hotels as nice as anything in the States, all meals, all tours, and airfare. They want us to come and see what is going on there, then go home and tell our friends.
There is ample opportunity each day to purchase Chinese goods at bargain prices. We suspect it is a way for them to make up for the cheap initial trip price and for us to be dazzled by the array and quality of their products. They didn't miss a detail, down to providing inexpensive suitcases at each major shopping destination to haul our "loot" home in!
Controlling the Shiny Side We were shown the "shiny" face of China. We were taken everywhere from early morning until late at night. Fitting for a government that thrives on micro–management, there was virtually no time to go anywhere that was not prescribed. We saw old buildings coming down in favor of brand new ones right next door. We saw freeways being built everywhere. We saw old customs mingling with new, young, hip interpretations at every turn. Their desire to understand American ways and claim our standard of living on very small wages was strikingly evident at every turn.
Other than our tour guides, we were unable to communicate with most people. The market vendors were able to speak limited English––only enough to bargain and take our American money. A young girl was videotaping our various excursions throughout Beijing. She was warm and engaging with a shy smile. She was trying to earn money to continue her education. She loved practicing her English with us and we enjoyed helping her. On the afternoon that she ended her assignment with us, we decided to give her a tip, maybe something that didn't often happen. Each of us threw in a couple of dollars and we ended up with something just over $40. As she hugged us good–bye, we slipped her the bills and resumed our activities.
Within minutes, she was back amongst us, crying and thanking us profusely. We were a bit puzzled by her reaction, but it felt genuine. Our guide told us that our money, given almost without a thought, was more than she made in two months.
The patience and determination of the Chinese people comes, we suspect, from their long history of Imperial rule, of having their government tell them everything about how life will be lived. There are limits on property ownership and relatively little outright business ownership, other than what's in the hands of the government. When you can dictate where people live, how they live, and when things will change, it makes it much easier to control the outcome.
While we were there, the African Summit was underway in Beijing and they were being catered to many ways, both seen and unseen. Tiananmen Square was closed––just in case. It was reported in the U.S. news media that one million cars had been ordered off the roads during the summit, to improve the air quality for the visiting dignitaries. Hotel temperatures had been moderated in all the hotels in order to make sure the African leaders were comfortable. With their form of government, they can do that.
We saw a China that knows exactly how much time they have left (down to the second!) to get ready for the Olympics. We have no doubt that they will be ready.
As part of the massive preparation for the Olympics, all road signs are now in both English and Chinese, and English–language lessons are being encouraged of all citizens so that they can communicate with the hoards of people expected to come in 2008.
Cracks in the Foundation
But not all is well in China. They have tremendous air quality problems, with seven of the world's ten most polluted cities. Their use of coal–fired everything and the new surge of automobiles are both making breathing difficult for many people. They point to the new Three Gorges dam as their "savior" from a coal–fired future. But is the loss of the treasures along the Yangtze River worth the price? And is it enough?
The westernization of China has also brought age–old policies into question. As an example, with the government owning all real property, development and investment by foreigners has been challenging and great pressure is being brought to bear on changing that policy. That change would, of course, over time, reduce the income to the government and make some of their massive projects less affordable, such as freeways, dams, and public housing. Is that in the best interest of the country, of the rulers? Can and will the government give up that ultimate control?
The energy throughout the country for their coming future is palpable and the contrasts between old and new are stunning, but what did we enjoy the most? Without a doubt, it was the people themselves. In the populated areas where we were (Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou and Hangzhou), the locals are used to seeing American tourists, and are warm, friendly, and eager to please. The street vendors are overwhelming, but also a fun part of the experience. It will be those people who will determine the success of the new China and if our experience was any indication, they are well on their way to superpower status, but on their own terms. One foot in history, one in the future––the yin and the yang both guide the way.
Carol White is co–author (with her husband Phil) of the award–winning RV book Live Your Road Trip Dream: Travel for a Year for the Cost of Staying Home. See more at RoadTripDream.com.
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