Sunday, July 2, 2017

Hong Kong

This is yet another continuation post to the two previous, detailing some of my impressions about China stemming from our recent vacation there. Specifically, I'm interested in the special case of Hong Kong.

Though obviously a Chinese city, it was a part of the British Empire--governed and administered by the British--for a hundred years until being handed back over to Chinese control in 1997. And so it's always had a hybrid feel, a city of (mostly) Chinese people living under British ideas. And under that working arrangement it has attained an iconic status, like New York or London.

But my sense is that there has always been some tension there between West and East, and the handover of the territory back to Chinese control was the subject of much angst: China felt the territory was rightfully theirs (taken from them by unfair treaties) and most of the residents did not consider themselves to be Chinese and were very happy governing themselves. As an airline person, I remember reading about Cathay Pacific's concerns that Communist China would not honor the sovereignty of the profitable and thriving business at handover, and I believe serious consideration was given to moving the headquarters of the airline out of the region.

I found myself lounging on my hotel bed in the Tuve Hotel in Hong Kong reading a New York Times article about just this subject the day before we left to return home. The gist of the article was that Chinese authorities promised to honor Hong Kong's independence after control was returned to China--what China calls "one country, two systems"--but that, unfortunately, is not really how things are unfolding 20 years on.

I've always held Hong Kong in special regard, but this is based on my visitor's impressions rather than any scholarly expertise. On this trip we spent five days in Beijing and a couple days in Xian (another Chicago-sized city of which I've barely heard), and like all other major Chinese cities these places are abuzz with construction and growth and activity and change. Hong Kong is too, of course, though in that case it doesn't represent a change from the status quo. The larger sense is that China is a country massively on the move. And so Beijing very likely thinks it can manage growth and business quite well, thanks, and perhaps that there's no need or justification for Hong Kong's special status. More than this, to acknowledge Hong Kong's special spark--to acknowledge that its differences contribute to its spark--is to imply that other Chinese cities could follow the same model. That's clearly not immediately in the cards--although modern China is hardly recognizable from what was here 50 years ago. The NYT article says that some in China feel that HK suffers from "too much democracy." Residents of the city, naturally, resist this characterization.

So where does that leave Hong Kong? Right now, kind of stuck. Beijing has actively removed several democratically-elected politicians of whom it does not approve, and even gone so far as to abduct under cover of darkness those--liberal booksellers, for example--it considers to be threatening. All of this is a nightmare for residents who having let the fox into the henhouse are really left with few options.

Meanwhile, several massive projects are on hold because the two sides cannot agree on how to proceed. One has to think this all leads inevitably toward their not being "the two sides."

Much as I love HK, I find I'm torn. As a socialist, I think putting the reins on capitalism is sensible and utile. And I'm unqualified to see how much of HK's brilliance is due to laissez-faire economic policy--and I certainly don't KNOW that HK will be a different or less attractive place when Beijing gets its way. But OTOH I feel like people ought to be able to determine their fates, and it's hard for me to see how Beijing's control will benefit HK or its citizens. In any case, Beijing seems unlikely to back down--especially when they're doing so well in other places. I fear--and I'm obviously not alone in this--a place I love will be snuffed out and turned into something much less vibrant.

At the very least one feels that Beijing cannot be taken at its word, and that no success in HK will shake the elite of the Communist Party from their positions of power.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


(This post kind of continues on from the previous post--and is followed by a kind of Part III about Hong Kong.)

We’re on a two week vacation in China.

I’ve been here often before. Well, I’ve been in the country many times before, but I’ve only visited a handful of cities in what is after all a vast and diverse place. Most of my time has been in the Pearl River delta—Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Hong Kong—and further North in Shanghai. And I’ve spent a little time in Chengdu and now, recently (upon changing airplane fleets) a couple new places: Zhengzhou and Qingdao.

I’ve been in love with Hong Kong since my first visit, and I’ve been trying to get Susan to come here for a decade. (She does not inherently share my fascination with the country, and she’s needed time and persuasion to take on the 13-hour flight.) She finally agreed provided we also spend some time in places I had not previously been. She suggested Xian (to see the Terracotta Army) and I suggested Beijing. And the trip would end with five days in Hong Kong.

And so it has gone. We’re currently on Day Three of five in Hong Kong after having a spectacular visit to Beijing and, after a delay, Xian. These places have been all we could have asked for. In Beijing we saw the Summer Palace and looked around Tiananmen Square and the outside of the Forbidden City, made a trip to Mutianyu and the Great Wall, toured the National Center for Performing Arts, wandered the 798 Arts Zone, explored the subway system (the largest in the world after Shanghai, which is only fractionally bigger), wandered the famed hutongs. Weather cooperated brilliantly, and our only snafu was getting out of Beijing at the end. Everything canceled due to bad weather and we ended up having to spend an extra night at a roach motel at the airport—which after all gave us one of our best meals in a cafeteria-style hotel restaurant.

This left us a day short in Xian, and we debated whether we shouldn’t just head straight to Hong Kong. But we didn’t want to miss the Terracotta Army, and China Eastern was not very accommodating about changing our tickets. So we got out the next morning, about 20 hours late. But everything then went like clockwork and we were at our (extraordinarily swanky) hotel in Xian by 10:30 that morning. We suggested to the hotel that we still hoped to see the army, and we were told it was no problem at all. Turns out, it may have been better to go around noon (as we did) then to go at 8:AM as we originally planned. It was a hot day and the place was only moderately busy at lunchtime. We immediately met up with a guide who took us through in a couple hours. Afterward, we spent the afternoon walking along the ancient and immense stone wall surrounding the city—some 60’ high and 60’ thick and some nine miles around! Absolutely immense, and one could land an airplane on much of it. We got a great vibe from the city, and I could see spending time here.

The next day we had a three hour flight to Hong Kong and were at our (strange, uber-modern) hotel by about 16:00.

My little bits of exposure to China and Hong Kong continue to kindle my enthusiasm but leave me far from being any kind of expert. I don’t speak a word of the language—something that’s more challenging away from the Southeast where English is fairly common. In Beijing and Xian people’s grasp of English was much more tenuous, making it very hard to communicate at times. And I fear the lack of language keeps everything at arm’s length for a visitor, even a repeat one. Either because of this language limitation or from my natural keep-to-myself travel mien, I’ve visited these places for years without every really talking to a local or seeing any but popular tourist sites and what you can see walking the streets.

Consequently, I don’t really know what life is like for the average Chinese. How are jobs arrived at? Does everyone receive a basic monthly income and can one supplement that by working in a free enterprise setting? And what does the government get out of that free enterprise in return? How do people decide to work in hotels or in little art boutiques or coffee shops or as tour guides? Is the process different from that in the US? And living arrangements: does the government still assign housing? We saw numerous real estate brokers in Hong Kong and the prices perhaps exceed even Manhattan’s. Who buys these? And where do you live if you can’t afford them (that is, how do MOST people find their housing)? I don’t imagine the answers to any of this are especially interesting or intricate, but they play a role in what life must be like in these bustling places for so many of the people with whom we interfaced.

A couple observations: All the Chinese subways I’ve been on have been things to envy. They’re relatively new and constantly growing (virtually every Chinese city I’ve been in except maybe Hong Kong is actively digging subway lines), spotlessly clean, utterly reliable. Trains seem to run (like London) as often as the tracks will allow—one is always leaving as we approach the platform, and the signs never say more than three minutes for the next train—and signage and ticketing could hardly be easier or more comprehensible. How fortunate for us that there’s always an “English” button on the ticket machines and that announcements are always made in English after the Chinese.

Beijing particularly was striking. The system, which is now up to 19 lines and growing (from, I believe, two lines in 2002) carries 10 million passengers per day, for a yearly ridership of almost 3.7 billion. That’s more riders than any other subway system, more than twice what NYC’s subway carries. (Shanghai's numbers are almost identical.) And the Beijing system is being aggressively upgraded and expanded to carry about twice its current numbers.

To me, this seems like but one example of immense spending for the public good. And I can't help noting that it’s exactly the opposite of what we're doing in this country. Rather than pursue aggressive public benefit--since such things are castigated as "progressive" (the *horror!*)--we’re dismantling the federal government and trying to farm its functions out to for-profit concerns. A quick visit to this part of the world shows that in comparison we’re failing at almost everything (except defense spending; I guess that's not an accident). 

Every single subway station we were in when in Beijing (maybe 10 stations overall) had 1) functioning, clean bathrooms; 2) uniformed traffic directors / helpers; and 3) a pair of uniformed military personnel monitoring the entrance. There was often a military guy at the main boarding platform on a raised box keeping an eye out. We never saw the military people interacting with anyone, and they didn’t seem there to hassle or discipline anyone. But there is a clear sense that the transportation of people was an important thing that was managed and carefully overseen.

And these things continued in other spheres as well. The National Center for Performing Arts ("the Egg") is maybe the most impressive single building I've ever seen, all in support of the arts--the same programs, more or less, that we're cutting from every school curriculum Republicans can get their hands on. There are public bathrooms all over the place, every two or three blocks, and there are usually people there keeping things clean and picked up. There were no tip jars that I could see when I visited the facilities, so these folks were working for wages paid by someone and not relying on handouts. And it’s hard to overstate how lovely it is to always have a nice bathroom handy as you roam the city. There are people making the rounds of most blocks picking up trash and cigarette butts—I’ve seen this in every Chinese city—and the subway stations were typically being mopped and picked up. There is almost no graffiti, and none at all in the trains or stations (that I saw). Buses are numerous and reasonably new and clean (though we rode them only in Hong Kong).

So what to make of this? All these jobs require money and people. With 1.4 billion citizens--over four times our own population--people seem to be a resource they have well in hand, and many tasks that might be automated in the US (roadwork, say, or manufacturing jobs) are here done by armies of people. But keeping walkways weed- and trash-free is honorable work and very much to the public good, and these armies of workers can be turned toward any task imaginable: building a subway, driving trucks, shipping, manufacturing, construction. But there are some concerns attached to all this: where is the line between functional oversight that, say, makes it possible to have public bathrooms in the subway system and, on the other hand, Big-Brotherism? Surely to some degree everyone here behaves and celebrates the brilliant transit system because punishment for misbehavior is swift and merciless. Vandalizing a public bathroom or public transit has always seemed self-immolating to me, but at what point does preventing that vandalism become oppressive? I suppose this is the age-old exploration of the liberal and conservative mind.  This is an authoritarian society, though one which has loosened considerably in the last 40 years, and it's not until I'm here in person that I begin to formulate these questions.

It’s hard for me to have a sense of what life is like for a citizen of Beijing, especially one with worldly ambitions. Hong Kong seems to straddle these two worlds—Communist East and Capitalist West—and it seems to fall in the center of many scales: more public services than we see in the West, but fewer than in Beijing; more oversight / public scrutiny than in the West but less than in Beijing.

For as long as I’ve been coming here I have the feeling that we underestimate China at our peril. They may not do everything well; they may not have everything figured out; their citizens may not top every poll; their culture may not dominate the world: but I cannot put anything past them. They seem well positioned to call the shots in the future—about everything. They are playing a long game, and they have time and sheer numbers on their side. If they don’t yet have the best schools, they soon will; if they don’t have the biggest or most capable military, they soon will; if they don’t dominate business and finance, they soon will. I just don’t put anything out of their reach. And this at a time when the US is clearly and obviously on the decline. Our budgets are perilously out of control, our educational system is only semi-functional, and our popular democratic politics are clearly and obviously dysfunctional. One of our two parties is a disorganized rabble unable to keep its eye on any common good and the other is actively malevolent and corrosive.

It seems like a good time to be Chinese.

Some pictures:

(PS: A couple days after writing this I came across a New York Times article talking about the difficulty Hong Kong is having straddling exactly these worlds. That'll lead to another post.)

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Builders

My new airplane is exposing me to a bunch of places I've not seen before. (New airplane? That's a post I began about six months ago and never finished. Perhaps I'll finish and put up here out of order.)  Osaka, Japan; Tokyo (I've landed but not laid over); Qingdao, China; Zhengzhou, China--these on top of a bunch of new places in Europe over the last few months: London; Nottingham; Budapest; Prague; Stockholm; Malmö; Madrid. And more to come.

But at the moment, Asia. I made it to a few destinations in China regularly on the MD-11, but the 767 goes to all those same places and twice as many more. My takeaway from this present trip is a reinforcement of what I've long felt: that we underestimate people in this part of the world at our peril. The populations are staggering and there is building and change going on here on a massive scale--everywhere I've been. Especially in China (Tokyo and Osaka are of course huge and well-established places) subways are being dug everywhere, and both Qingdao and Zhengzhou are in the midst of a building boom like I've never seen. Huge structures are going up everywhere, and flying over Zhengzhou one can see elevated railways being built and huge freeways being laid out. Zhengzhou city is surrounded by what appears to be a massive man-made (that is, entirely concrete-lined) river. Not a canal, but a full-fledged river. Miles of it. Huge housing blocks are newly-built (with many more underway) and there is a gorgeous new airport with an immense and eye-popping terminal--like every other Chinese airport I've been to. New industries--sometimes measured in the square mile--are everywhere.

China is in the midst of tectonic societal change, historic changes, and it's clear that it doesn't just involve people riding trains from the country to the city. The whole ancient society is changing radically, along with the economy and the social lives of the citizens. All this can be readily sensed, if not really understood, from our short visits.

I'm currently in Incheon, a Southwest suburb of Seoul. Korean society has maybe undergone a similar transformation from urban to rural in the last 100 years, but my sense is that the change has been underway here longer. Seoul is an established place. But Incheon has always struck me as something odd. It's clearly a planned community, one which might one day hold a million people; but why is it here? Why would people congregate here? I can see the need for an overflow airport to Gimpo, so I get the Incheon airport and all the surrounding infrastructure. But I don't see where the citizens of Incheon city--Songdo International Business District, as it's formally known--are coming from. Maybe because we don't ever see anything but our immediate surroundings, I can't see how all these people earn their livings--especially for what must be very expensive living quarters. There must be industry (and hence, jobs) here somewhere, but not nearly enough in Incheon to support all this housing--not that's visible from here, anyway.

On my walks this week I've become taken with a new housing complex being built a mile North of the hotel. It consists of 10 or 15 huge concrete towers, each of which must hold a few thousand people. The whole complex is in process, so one can see the towers being raised while others are being finished on the interiors while yet others are getting their exterior painting done. It's an immense project--one for which an army of workers is brought in and housed on site for the duration (I'd love to know the details of that arrangement, which seems to exist everywhere here)--but only one of a dozen similar projects underway on this little island.

As always, I get a little glimpse of something without really being able to get inside it. Our short layovers combine with my heads-down approach to walking thru strange places to keep me at arm's length to the real story. But not to complain; I'm very happy to see what I can.

Photos from around Incheon:

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Not Sir Robin's Hood

(Sorry. Written in December and never posted. I have several of these to catch up on.)

I've changed airplanes. After seven and a half years on the Mighty Mad Dog--the MD-11--I decided a change was in order and I've moved over to the Boeing 757/767. (I've been fiddling with another post exploring this move, so I'll save that discussion for that other post.)

One of the benefits to this new position is that the fleet visits many more places than the MD-11 did. The MD-11 is a log-haul heavy jet, a cargo ship of the air that circles the globe but stops in only a dozen or so places. The 767 by contrast goes nearly everywhere. And because the fleet type is really two airplanes--the 757 and the 767, the latter being nearly twice the size of the former--it fulfills every mission, long-haul and short-hop. My company has about 250 airplanes, and nearly 2/3 of them are of this Boeing type. The fleet has extensive flying in the US, of course, but also throughout Europe and Asia and Canada. So my choice of layovers has probably tripled. Given that my fleet change was at least partly motivated by a desire to see and do some new things, this is a most happy turn of events.

This is my first trip after completing the two month rigmarole of training, and my priority was to explore more of Europe. This first schedule is full of places new to me: Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Malmö, Helsinki. And today's destination: Nottingham.

Susan and I were in London for a week a decade ago, but that is the only visit I've made to England. About three weeks ago for my last bit of training we stopped twice in Stanstead (just North of London) and made a quick trip to Birmingham from Germany. Now I have 48 hours in Nottingham.

My initial plan was to just catch a train into London--since, like NYC, I seem unable to get enough of that place. But after a little exploration I decided there is enough to see here that I'd stay put for my layover instead of burning half the day getting to and from London.

One of the first movies I fell in love with when in High School was The Lion In Winter, a loosely historical story of the tumultuous life of Henry II and his three scheming sons and one scheming--and imprisoned--queen. One of the chief attractions of Nottingham is the Castle. It's now an art gallery and history museum, and the building is relatively recent. But the location has figured prominently in English royal history for centuries. Henry II put up one of the first substantial castles on the property, and his squabbling sons, John and Richard the Lionhearted, practiced taking it away from each other after Henry's death. There's virtually nothing of the original structures, of course--it was over 800 years ago, after all--but it's fascinating to stand on the same hill overlooking the town where they and every other British monarch have stood.

I spent several hours wandering the town, including a really lovely section of old and stately homes below and West of the castle (called, I believe, The Park--or more specifically Lincoln Circus).

Here are some photos from the morning's wanderings.