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The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome.

“Why do we want to go to China?” my husband asked me earlier this year.

“Because I want to see what all the fuss is about,” I replied.

China has not been on our bucket list. A Botswana safari, trekking to Machu Picchu, seeing giant tortoises in the Galapagos, riding the rails across Canada, hiking New Zealand—these are on the bucket list.

China? Not so much.

However, our son is living in Japan, and as part of our annual visit to see him, I figured we might as well continue on to China to “see what all the fuss is about.”

I’m glad we went. It was enlightening (and the food is off-the-charts good).

It’s one thing to be told that China is big, with 1.4 billion people, the world’s second largest economy, planning to create a dominant military, political and economic presence beyond Asia.

It’s another thing to be there, to meet the people, to see the massive scale of everything and realize the Chinese have specialized in “massive” for over 2,000 years. The government is now literally building its way into the future, with miles and miles of ugly, empty condo towers rising up in the smoggy distance. Families scrape together money to buy a piece of these properties, even though they will never own the land beneath. I was told about “happy farmers” who were moved into far-flung suburbs as urban creep took over their farmland. The government put them in housing which has appreciated, well, appreciably. Nice, except you don’t get to be “happy” and appreciate that appreciation until you sell. Nobody is selling. Everybody’s buying into the abundant supply of new housing, counting on eventually cashing in. It’s a big gamble, but then, it’s not exactly a free market. If there is a housing bubble and it pops, I doubt the state will let millions suffer.

But what do I know?

I was only in China for nine days and barely scratched the surface. Among the places I visited were Beijing (22 million people), Shanghai (24 million people), and Xian, a “second tier” city of about 9 million people and 8,000 terracotta warriors from 210 BC.

It was a great time to be out of America and gain a little perspective. Inside the U.S. we have been busy turning on each other in an uncivil war, inflating every disagreement to the same level of outrage.

Meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping has methodically laid out his plan for the next five years, and probably beyond, because I get the feeling he’s not going anywhere when his term is up. He’s overseeing a government which is slowly reasserting more control over private enterprise and promising a fully developed China which will prosper and dominate.

The late great President Deng Xiaoping believed China should hide its strength and bide its time, a tortoise versus the developed world’s hare. Under Xi, the tortoise is coming out of its shell, and it won’t be distracted from the race.

Here are my quick takes on a country which cannot be glibly summarized in a blog after a short visit. China is too big, too complex, too dynamic to understand quickly. However, I have a better understanding than before.

Surprise #1: People in the People’s Republic

As soon as we landed at the airport in Beijing, we were accosted by a very drunk man in the gate area who wanted to talk about Trump and North Korea. He wouldn’t let up, and it seemed everyone around us stiffened. My husband—not a shrinking violet—nodded and smiled, and I stayed mostly silent. Was this a test? Who was this guy? The man disappeared in the baggage claim area. I still don’t know if he had an ulterior motive, but he was one of the few people we encountered in China who spoke good English.

He was also the only jerk we met.

I’d been “warned” that Chinese people can be very conservative and curt to the point of rudeness. That was not my experience. I encountered a friendly, open people prone to smiling and laughing. Yes, a lot of people spit in the street. Yes, we were occasionally caught off guard by someone barking orders, but barking is understandable when you’re trying to herd millions of passengers/commuters/visitors from point A to point B. In general, the average person we met was helpful, looked you in the eye, and smiled. The vast majority of Chinese do not speak English, but that didn’t stop locals from wanting to try to communicate, and in Tiananmen Square, visitors from rural areas wanted their pictures taken with us.

In each city we had a local guide, and I was surprised how forthright the guides were about China’s political history and current situation. Instead of parroting the party line, guides openly talked politics with humor, though we were advised to save any questions about the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square until after we’d left the actual site. The only coldness we encountered was at the Shanghai Propaganda Poster Museum, tucked in the basement of a housing complex, where the non-English speaking proprietors were a throwback to the days of Mao. It was weird, and I loved it.

Surprise #2: The Pollution is Worse than You Think

It’s hard to tell whether the weather in China was hazy or smoggy, or some combination of both. All I know is that the sky always looked like someone had put a special grey-brown Instagram filter over it. “Soylent Green” is what my husband called it. When we were driving from the airport to our hotel in Xian, we passed what appeared to be a nuclear power plant, until we realized it was actually using coal. Choking smoke poured out of the smokestacks. I went for a walk after a gentle rain in Beijing, and my lungs hurt as if I’d run a marathon through the smoking section of a local restaurant. I’m from Los Angeles. I know smog. This was on another level. All the cap and trade rules in California to improve air quality won’t add up to a hill of polluted beans until China moves significantly to cleaner energy.

Surprise #3: The “Big” Picture

We know China is big, we’ve seen the pictures of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors, Tiananmen Square, the crazy New York-meets-Paris-meets-Las Vegas skyline in Shanghai, but until you see it with your own eyes, you can’t really imagine what “big” is. It’s not just the fact that China has been doing everything big for a couple thousand years. The Great Wall doesn’t disappoint, older government buildings have a Soviet-style muscularity about them, while new office complexes, hotels, and the endless columns of housing seem built to dwarf the Earth, to impress, to stun. I thought, “How can they fill all of these huge buildings?” Then you realize that Beijing and Shanghai combined have a population larger than the entire state of California. If they build it, it will get filled. At least that’s what everyone is betting on (see housing bubble concerns above).

Surprise #4: Don’t Forget Where You Are

Everything in China seems “normal”...until you try to go on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Youtube. Or try to Google anything (let alone connect to your Gmail account). I only got around the official censors once, though many locals do it through special apps. It was a reminder that China is not, in fact, “normal” by democratic standards. One evening, after a wonderful day walking down the Bund in Shanghai and having a cocktail at the Peninsula Hotel, I felt as though I was relaxing in a typical cosmopolitan mecca, like New York or London, Paris or Buenos Aires. I turned on the television in my hotel room to watch the news on BBC. A reporter just happened to be doing a story on the Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim minority group in China’s west who have clashed with the government, sometimes violently. Suddenly, in the middle of the story, after the reporter said the word “violent,” the screen went black for ten seconds. Government censors had decided whatever she would say next would not be said in China. Seconds later, the video returned, and the story continued.

“You’re not in Kansas anymore,” I said to myself. The TV screen going to black was a good reminder that China is still a place where the state has more power than the people, which makes it both stronger and weaker than the U.S.

What happens between China and America in the next few years in the South China Sea or North Korea, with trade, foreign investment, education, and political prestige, will be a battle of two different yet successful visions. One favors the rule of law. The other gives nearly all power to the state. I asked two people in a country of 1.4 billion if they’d voted in the most recent elections. They both gave me the same answer: no. “Why should I vote?” one man laughed. “There’s always only one candidate. No point.”

Good point.

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