Thoughts on China

My friend and colleague, Godfrey Harris, recently wrote a piece on China that I found so important that I wanted to republish it in my own blog.  Mr. Harris was gracious enough to grant permission for republication. Without further ado, here is his fine contribution.

I have just spent a week in China to discuss presenting the Da Vinci Exhibit in China and creating one or more exhibits of Chinese art for Western museums. Beyond the business dealings, my first trip to Mainland China yielded the following thoughts:

•    Los Angeles has always been renowned for the spectacular sprawl of the city, especially noticeable during nighttime airplane approaches. Nothing, however, compares to a nighttime arrival at Beijing Capital International Airport — still using the symbol PEK, a reminder of when the British heard the city’s name as “Peking.” We glided for perhaps 40 minutes over a huge urban area before touching down. What better way to feel the immense size of a country enjoying the efficiency of one time zone and early sunsets without daylight “savings”? Want an easy way to categorize different types of Chinese food? I learned that it is related to geography and climate: Fatty in the cold North, spicy in the hot and humid South, salty in the arid west, and sweet along the cool coast. I don’t know about humid in the south. You could feel the oppressive cling of the humidity from the moment of deplaning. Because of air pollution, the humidity seemed more intense than in Panama — moisture hanging in the air, graying the sun nearly every day and yellowing the streetlights at night. Despite China’s enormous appetite for energy that has continued to push up U.S. gas prices, we experienced no shortages or outages.

•    Traffic in Beijing would confound anyone who has driven in Caracas where he who is in front has the right of way. In China’s capital, the rule seems to be he who hesitates will be frozen forever in the middle of a lane change or corner turn. Despite the unrelenting giant game of chicken, we saw only accident the entire trip. To reduce traffic in Beijing, all cars are prohibited from driving one day during the workweek depending on the last two digits of their license plate. But give the Chinese credit. Ring roads around the city are freeways with brilliant maps before every major interchange showing drivers the state of traffic in all directions by coloring roadway indicators in green (light), yellow (normal), or red (a parking lot).

•    To go from the hotel to Tian’anmen Square and a tour of the Forbidden City required a two-change metro ride. It was 9:30 on a Thursday morning and absolutely teeming with humanity. I was fascinated by the clean stations, nice cars, and the American-accented recorded English language announcements before each stop (a British announcer is used in Frankfurt) as well as the electronic maps above each door that not only showed the route, but colored the past stops in red and those to come in green. Every stop prompted a tremendous surge toward the doors with not a word said — no Chinese equivalent of “out, please” or “sorry” or “excuse me.” It must be a cultural thing. No horns ever sounded to protest the outrageous maneuvers on the roadways, either. The same kind of serious pushing could be felt from all sides at various prime photo spots in the Forbidden City as people jockeyed hard to get better angles. Another myth to dispense: The Chinese of the north are neither small, nor timid. When they push, they mean to get through. I didn’t see any Yao Mings, but I saw a whole lot of guys who could be his teammates along with some very tall women. Moreover, the most surprising thing to me about the people in Beijing was that that most people seemed to go beyond casual to somewhere between sloppy and shabby — a dress code that applied equally to both men and women, in business situations and on the street.

•    The Forbidden City, as well as the Great Wall, were thronged by mostly Chinese tourists, their pilgrimage to see and experience the glories of China’s past. The Forbidden City is a two mile straight line trudge to see the exteriors of some 900 buildings occupied by the imperial family and serving various governmental functions from around 1410 to 1910. The Great Wall is a 25-foot wide imposing wave of brick, stone and mortar battlements undulating between huge corner redoubts set along the spine of a 3000 foot mountain range that runs for a thousand miles. For a foreigner, they are lessons in a particular Chinese equation: Huge size plus great distances from high up equals immense power.

•    The first lesson in dealing with China in the 21st century came when our local host noted we had appointments in the market economy and the controlled economy. Nothing big, he pointed out, can happen in China unless the private and government sectors see the advantage of a project and can find mutually satisfactory ways to benefit. The second lesson is that most Americans need to adjust their thinking about China. Forget that you still consider China the world’s manufacturing center with a bubbling real estate market and an authoritarian regime perpetually nervous about the Internet. We need to remind ourselves that this is a very sophisticated, scientifically capable country with a thirst to understand how their society is changing, how the world works, and how it could be made better in their terms. It is managing complex economic sectors and social demands, has satellites in orbit, nuclear weapons ready to use, a zillion kids in US universities, an aid program to Africa that shames the U.S., and a future that is as rich as its long past. In short, China is not to be dismissed as a giant factory turning out inexpensive goods, but as a country that has to be understood and appreciated. Point: The Chinese rating agency downgraded U.S. debt to AA days before Sandard & Poor’s because the debt and deficit agreement did not reverse the trend of U.S. public debt growing faster than the economy. No one in the U.S. thought it significant enough to note. But the Chinese, holding $1.4 trillion of our debt, paid attention. Final lesson in dealing with China: Go to the bathroom when you can, not because it is Russia with a paucity of public toilets, but because the Chinese are a match for Marco Polo’s camels—they never seem to pause for bodily functions. While meetings stopped for cell phone chatter, secretarial interruptions, refreshments, and side conversations, no one ever interrupted a meeting for a bathroom break — or even asked if one were needed.

•    Modern Chinese architecture, at least in Beijing, is all curves; huge high-rises come in round, ellipse, oblong, and undulating. Even basically square buildings are shaped as hexagons and octagonals with round balconies and turrets. It is such a contrast to the rectangular boxes that dominate the office and apartment structures we see and the stolid Beijing brick and concrete buildings built during the years of Soviet influence. One of my great finds was an outdoor playground for adults — filled with colorful, tubular apparatus that allows a senior citizen to exercise by twisting, spinning, turning, pedaling, and walking in place on simple mechanical devices that put all the fancy computer driven, speed-rated, electric-controlled exercise machines in U.S. gyms to shame. They do the same job without electricity and for free. Need a phone? Everyone is on a cell phone — on the street, during meetings, at the theatre, in elevators. Nonstop talking and texting, yet every street corner still has back-to-back payphones in working order and never in use.

•    You read about the masses of people in China’s cities, and you get a sense of the numbers by how many are available to pour tea in a restaurant, attend to customers in a store, or keep order in the streets. Everyone seems to have a place, a tiny function to fulfill. It isn’t teeming masses—a feeling I well remember from Sao Paulo and Kolkata. It is just lots of people everywhere doing at least one thing that needs doing. You get the feeling that everything is managed in China with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It may be corrupt in one way or another — illegal, privileged, or unnecessary — but it all seems to have a purpose for someone in control somewhere, even if hidden to outsiders.

•    Start learning about all things Chinese — you are going to need it in the next 20 years. This isn’t Europe where everyone learns English and can speak it competently; this isn’t Germany, the Philippines or Japan where American occupation made speaking English mandatory; this isn’t the Caribbean or Mexico with massive interchanges of populations. This is China— growing in many ways at a phenomenal pace, building confidence by the day, and accepting its growing role in the world with equanimity. Practice a phrase or two; listen to the pronunciation of words and letters. Start learning a little Chinese history to match your knowledge of Western civilization. Realize that husbands and wives, since the 1949 Revolution, keep their individual names in marriage, but the children carry the father’s surname. If the father marries a wealthier or high social status woman, he changes his surname to hers and the kids then have a “better” last name. No hyphens in Chinese. Surnames appear first in Chinese practice. Xiao Min is legal head of a company I was dealing with. Ms Xiao (she-ah-o) is a lovely, gracious lady. While 80% of names are known to Chinese as either typical male or female, there is no hidden key for Westerners to learn. You have to ask or observe.

•    Remember the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics? After seeing a dazzling performance at the Red Theatre, I learned that the beautiful precision of the drummers and dancers comes from the huge number of people who learn the discipline and physical movements of kung fu. We saw 90 minutes of a display of demanding rhythms and incredible acrobatic tumbling that makes Cirque du Soleil look like amateurs. You want spectacular? I can lend you a DVD of the performance.

I had been to Taiwan a few times before as well as Hong Kong. But that was a few years ago. Going to China’s capital today was a revelation. It was a look at how the 21st century is likely to unfold. Even if some of us won’t be here to see a lot of it, it is important to begin the transformation of our attitudes toward this country so that our grandkids will be on top of a changing world.

Godfrey Harris is a public policy consultant of some 40 years and a former U.S. diplomat.
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