Things I Learned in China

Our China trip is what I’d call the “TV highlights tour.”

If my count is correct, I’ve visited seventeen countries, so far.  There’s no better way to learn about a country than being on the ground in that country.  First-hand knowledge cuts away the spin, partial news coverage, opinion, conjecture, half-truths, urban legend, and other forms of information we carry as “truth” about our fellow travelers on this planet.

Visiting foreign countries is also an exercise in adjustment.  There’s jetlag, and the obvious language barriers to overcome (even in countries with English as their official language).  There are differing customs, different transportation rules and systems, differing levels of sanitation, new foods, new spices, hardly any ice (what’s up with that?), and living conditions that range from squalor to opulence.

Each country has its own rich history.  The local people we’ve met are proud of their country and their way of life.  They’re always curious about how we live in the US, our customs, our landmarks, our system of government.  They, like us, have a sprinkling of knowledge about the world outside of their country and are eager to gain a deeper understanding through their visitors’ perspectives.

Our China trip is what I’d call the “TV highlights tour.”  If you were to queue a video montage of famous cities and landmarks in China, our tour hit many of them:  In Beijing, we visited The Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, Lama Temple, The Great Wall, and the Olympic National Stadium (Bird’s Nest).  In Xi’an, we visited The Terra Cotta Warriors, and The (leaning) Wild Goose Pagoda.  In Shanghai, we visited The Bund (waterfront), The Shanghai Museum, and Nanjing Road.  We also took a river cruise on the Huang Po River that runs through Shanghai.  We rounded out our tour with a road trip to Suzhou (the “Venice of the Orient”).  We attended some dinner shows, featuring traditional music and dance, and incredible acrobatics.

China’s airports are awesome.  I dreaded the idea of taking two in-country flights in a seven-day period.  That wouldn’t be a picnic in the US, and I assumed (incorrectly) that it would be worse in China.  The customs process, the flight and baggage check-in, and the baggage claim processes were incredibly efficient.  Shanghai has two airports.  We flew into one, and out the other.  Both were huge, efficient, and well-planned.  It probably helps that all the airports we visited were built within the last 15 years, so they have all the latest design and technology concepts built-in.

We have over 400 photos and a couple hours of video, showing nearly every angle of the places we visited.  The lessons from our China trip run much deeper than what’s captured in our photos.

The massive urbanization that has occurred in China over the past twenty years is amazing.  Nearly 400 million people have moved from the countryside and into cities across China (that’s about 80 million more people than we have in the US).  Billions of square feet of real estate, massive new roadways, tunnels, bridges, railway systems, subway systems, sewer systems, electricity generation, and all the other infrastructure required to support this massive migration have been developed over the past two decades.  More accurately, all of it is still a work-in-process, since the migration continues.

In each city, the skyline is filled with skyscrapers and tower cranes.  I stopped counting tower cranes at about 50 (on our first day in China).  Everywhere we looked, commercial or residential skyscrapers were under construction.  Single-family houses are a rare sight, something we only saw in a small section of Shanghai.  People live mostly in high-rise apartment buildings.  “Pods” of 25 high-rise apartment buildings, spanning many city blocks, are common.  Imagine the entire Los Angeles basin filled with 30-plus-story buildings, instead of just the skyscrapers in the downtown section, and you start to get an idea of how massively sprawling Beijing, Shanghai, and even Xi’an are.

Some statistics may help illustrate just how massive China’s cities are.  The total population in China is 1.35 billion.  The total population in the US is 317.5 million.  The population in Beijing is about 21 million; Shanghai, 23 million; Xi’an, 9 million.  The population in New York, NY is 8.4 million; Los Angeles, 4 million; Chicago, 2.8 million.  One other interesting statistic:  there are more people in China who speak English than there are in the US.

Our guides in each city told us about the huge growth of their cities, and the dramatic improvements in the standard of living across China.  Their apartments average 500-700 square feet.  Our guide in Xi’an talked about how her first apartment, in 1990, didn’t have a bathroom or a kitchen, and yet she and her husband found a way to raise their new son in that environment.  Now she and her husband, and their 24-year old son, live in a 1,000 square foot, 3-bedroom apartment, with two bathrooms.  She beamed with pride while describing such a luxurious apartment and said that she hopes her son will be able to keep living there after she and her husband die.

The government owns all land in China.  Long-term leases allow people to make use of the land.  The lease duration is dependent upon the type of use.  For instance, for urban residential real estate development, lease durations of 75 years are available.  This allows a developer to build a residential apartment building, and then rent or sell the units to private parties.

Citizens used to get annual vouchers strictly allocating the amount of meat, butter, and other products they could buy per year.  Goods and services can now be purchased without government vouchers.  China’s huge economic growth makes goods and services much more readily available to its population.  The only requirement is having enough money to make the purchases.

Car license plates are rewarded by lottery.  If you are lucky enough to win the lottery, you then pay the fee (in the thousands of dollars) for the license plate.  Once you have the license plate, you can shop for a car.  A Canadian ex-pat in Shanghai told us there is a healthy black market for license plates, and that it isn’t uncommon for the plate to be as expensive as the car itself.

March, 2014 is a happy time across China.  The one-child policy that has been the law of the land since about 1979, is being softened.  Violating the one-child policy brings heavy fines to the parents, equaling about 2 ½ times their annual salary.  With the new, softer policy, if you or your spouse are only-children in your parent’s family, you can apply to have a second child, 3-4 years after your first child is born.

We heard consistently about one of the many unintended consequences of the one-child policy.  Consider that each child has two parents, and two sets of grandparents who make that one child the center of their universe.  That one child carries the hopes and dreams of their parents, and their grandparents.  With no siblings and very few (if any) cousins, sharing isn’t part of the child’s upbringing.  Spoiled, un-sharing children is the result, and represents the newest generation of young adults in China.

Ironic that a Communist system that purports to be about fully-shared (communal) ownership created a new generation of citizens who have little experience sharing anything, communally or otherwise.

On our first full day in Beijing, we visited Tiananmen Square.  Our guide pointed out that Tiananmen Square is similar to The Mall in Washington, D.C.  It’s where their government officials from around the country meet for two weeks each year.  The square has numerous monuments to the history of new China (since Chairman Mao rose to power in 1949).

As we prepared to exit the bus, our guide’s voice changed tone.  She told us that there are cameras and listening devices everywhere in the square, and that many of the tourists we’d see are actually undercover police or government officials.  She asked us not to ask her where the tank was, or about the protest that took place there.  She officially doesn’t know anything about the protests.  She only knows about it from tourists like us, talking about what happened in 1989.

It’s true.  There are monuments and flags in Tiananmen Square, similar to our Mall in Washington, D.C.  But, that’s where the similarities stop.  As I looked at the monuments, mostly depicting Chairman Mao and the government’s control over the people of China, I couldn’t help contrast that theme to the theme of the monuments in Washington.

We have monuments to many of our Founders as well.  Each monument is not only a tribute to the person, but to a belief system that our greatness comes from freedom and liberty.  Ours is a government of the people, by the people, for the people…not a government whose greatness comes from its control over the governed.  Tiananmen Square is vast, treeless, and austere.  One can’t help but feel insignificant in comparison to the government buildings surrounding the square.

We asked about traveling outside of China.  Two of our three guides had done so.  Both had traveled to the US.  They aren’t allowed to travel with their family.  At least one family member must remain in China while the other is traveling abroad.  They are required to put about $15,000 in an escrow account prior to leaving China.  The funds are returned when the traveler returns.  They are warned that if they choose to remain in another country, their family members will be punished financially, and could lose their jobs.     

I learned quickly what it means to use a restricted and censored internet.  Email worked, but FaceBook, Twitter, YouTube, and Google are all heavily restricted, especially if accessed via a Wi-Fi connection.  I found that if I randomly flipped my phone out of airplane mode while in the cities, FaceBook would “work” about half the time.  I had 90 seconds to post an update or a quick photo.  Then, it would stop working.  Apparently, 90 seconds is the amount of time it took for the censoring protocol to find my phone and shut down the app’s update capability.

China is amazing.  The sheer scale of their development over the past two or three decades is unbelievable.  The people are warm and friendly (as long as they aren’t driving a car, motor scooter or bicycle where you’re trying to walk…pedestrians apparently do not have the right of way, even if your light is green).  The locals we met have the same hopes and dreams for their future that we do.  They want to have a rewarding job, enjoy their life, spend time with their families, and see their children (child) have a better life than they’ve had.

I’ve never visited a country that lacks most of the basic freedoms I take for granted.  China has rapidly “westernized” their economy and their culture, on the surface.  However, they are fundamentally walking a tightrope between the freedoms required to drive their economic growth, and the strict controls and structures of a Communist state.

I can’t help wondering what China will look like twenty years from now.  Will their urbanization continue at the same pace?  What will the “softer” one-child policy mean for the next generation of Chinese?  Will the quasi-freedoms associated with capitalist economic expansion propel the country toward real freedom in the future?  Can China continue to operate one way on the surface, while controlling its population with a velvet-covered fist, beneath that surface?

These questions about China’s future make me think of similar questions for the US.  What will we look like twenty or thirty years from now?  Will we enjoy the same freedoms and liberties that we have today?

Full story of Tank Man from a PBS FrontLine episode in 2006:

No travelogue would be complete without some photos:



Tiananmen Square



The Great Wall


View from our hotel in Beijing


Terra Cotta Warriors


Panorama of the Shanghai Waterfront (The Bund)


Old and New in Shanghai (second tallest building in the world nearly completed)


Suzhou (Venice of the Orient)…branding is a little ahead of reality

%d bloggers like this: