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.)

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