Monday, June 2, 2008

China Visit – Part 1

I've visited China multiple times over the last 25 years and speak serviceable Mandarin. I've seen vast transformations in the socioeconomic system practiced there. When I first arrived in Beijing in the early 1980s the Beijing Airport was straight out of Casablanca and we drove into the capital on a long, straight single lane road through the Chinese countryside, which eventually flowed into Chang'an Ave and past the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. There were hardly any cars on the streets, and men and women dressed in plain, austere, monochrome clothing whizzed past on a blizzard of bicycles. The Friendship Hotel where I stayed was one of the premier hotels in town and would have been considered rather dingy by Soviet standards of the time. Being married to a Chinese woman I eventually arranged to stay at the family residence in the section of Beijing reserved for members of the Academia Sinica. It was a spacious yet non-ostentatious apartment. Life was very quiet and serene, the daily routine almost bucolic. Socialist morality prevailed. If you left a hairbrush behind in your train compartment it would be returned to you at your next hotel room. Food stables, health care, apartments and most everything else was subsidized and unbelievably cheap. I could get by in China on a few dollars a month. Consumer goods were very utilitarian but readily available. Socialist ideology was still spoon fed on the 2 or 3 broadcast stations that were available, although the excesses of the Cultural Revolution were quickly receding. Over the next decade and a half, China slowly began to change as it opened up to the West. By 1989 there was foment in the air. The Soviet Union and the Communist bloc were disintegrating. The status of China as a communist led nation hung in the balance. Reforms had begun but many half measures only whet the appetite for more substantive change. I was in Beijing to witness this and was staying at the Xiyuan Hotel with colleagues from UC Berkeley, just blocs away from the location of the most severe actions taken during the Tiananmen incident. China slowly recovered from the shock of those days, eventually leading to the initiation of a full-fledged market economy and the vast growth and modernization seen in its urban areas. I hadn't returned to China for a decade, until last month. The China I saw was totally transformed. The Beijing Airport is a massively efficient, ultramodern edifice that seems to engulf the countryside. A multilane superhighway connects the airport to a network of expressways that gird the city. We drive by row after row of high-rise apartment buildings. When I arrive at Zhongguancun (the Academia Sinica zone) I can't recognize the area, its full of glittery, new office buildings and thoroughfares. I also get to see similar changes in Wuhan the capital of Hubei province in central China. We travel from Wuhan, at the confluence of the Han and Yangtze Rivers in eastern Hubei, to Yunxian, the archeological site in the Chinese countryside towards the provinces far west, not far from Sichuan where the recent earthquake struck. The last time I traveled there, over a decade ago, it took nearly two days over a single lane highway, similar to a back country road here in the U.S. Now we travel along a multi-lane superhighway, identical to an Interstate and make the same journey in six hours. China is now crisscrossed with similar expressways, stitching together the country’s length and breadth. While China in the 1980s and early 1990s was characterized by the break up of the communes, the “responsibility system” and a rural resurgence, the more resent trend has been for the cities to outstrip the farmlands in the pace of development, with a widening urban/rural income gap and the migration of tens of millions of itinerant workers to China’s cities. Nevertheless, new two and three story farmhouses are seen throughout the countryside and county-level towns are thriving. This is all reflected in the recent tragedy surrounding the Wenchuan earthquake in Sichuan. I’ve been in many similar areas in China and construction standards are not uniformly adhered to. Especially during the early boom years of the late 1980s and 90s many corners were obviously cut. China builds with brick, concrete and tile. In the rugged, mountainous region of Sichuan, where towns have populations in the tens of thousands, vs. the few hundred you’d find living in similar areas sate-side, it’s no wonder that casualties were high. For China is no paradise. There are inequalities and abuses that occur. And the citizenry can be scathing in their criticism of authorities in power. Many schools that cater to the less privileged collapsed during the earthquake, killing thousands of China’s daughters and sons. This should never have been allowed to happen. But China responded as one. The whole country rallied and troops and other first responders rushed to the rescue. State leaders, especially Premier Wen Jiabao, took personal command and were camped on the scene, consoling the victims. Concerts were held nationwide to raise funds and a lively competition ensued as China’s newly wealthy celebrities were challenged to contribute large sums of money to aid the relief effort. Foreign help was solicited and welcome. This was truly the New China functioning at its best.

To be continued…

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