OBSERVATIONS IN CHINA
Miscellaneous Observations During a 17 Day Tour
FUTURECASTS online magazine
Vol. 4, No. 11, 11/1/02.
A guided tour:
China is a huge and
complex nation - a whole world unto itself. Simplistic views about it are
bound to be wrong. There are vast differences between urban and rural living
conditions and between those living modern lives and those still living in
traditional ways - between those working in government owned enterprises and
those employed in the private sector. Complicating matters further are differences between the
There is much of more or less interest that can be seen as a tour proceeds through major cities and various stretches of countryside - much that can be seen of things that seldom if ever find their way into western print media.
A 17 day guided tour of
the standard tourist attractions in China is hardly likely in itself to
provide profound insights into this vast nation. Nevertheless,
there is much of more or less interest that can be seen as a tour proceeds
through major cities and various stretches of countryside - much that can be
seen of things that seldom if ever find their way into Western print media. This
article thus is limited to providing a few otherwise generally unavailable
pieces of the huge puzzle that is China, plus a few narrowly drawn conclusions. There is no pretence herein of larger
China is full of mega-projects. It is now clearly as notable for where it is heading as for where it has been.
| However, the primary impression is not of
a scarred and backwards nation, but of a nation on the move - energetically
playing catch up with numerous infrastructure projects, and new
office buildings and apartment buildings. Major river cities sport a wide
variety of modern bridges. China is full of construction cranes and mega-projects. It is now clearly as notable for where it is heading
as for where it has been.
| China is full of "must
see" attractions for the tourist. There are things - both man made and
natural - that neither words nor even pictures can do justice to. These are
things that have to be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Familiar natural
locations in the United States include Yosemite, Niagara Falls and the Grand
Canyon, and man made locations like the New York skyline (even without the World
Although those working at all levels in the tourist industry are invariably pleasant and eager to be helpful, China has not yet had time to recover from its past - and that past still presents many unpleasant experiences.
The cities are full of graceless "urban renewal" type architecture. There are vast numbers of office buildings and apartments that only a bureaucrat could love. They present weathered and grimy facades to the outside world, apparently from lack of maintenance.
There are many
such attractions included in the standard tour of China. There is the
Great Wall, the Terracotta Warriors at the Qin tomb, and the spectacular mountain
landscapes along the Li River and in the Yangzi River Gorges. There are also many lesser
but still interesting destinations. These make China a required part of anyone's
World travel plans.
Building exteriors have now become thoroughly pockmarked with room air conditioners. TV antennae and satellite dishes sprout from their roofs.
The local farmers markets are full of a vast variety of produce. There need be no worry about how China will be fed. China is clearly capable of feeding China.
The progress that China
has made in the last two decades is clearly visible everywhere. Even in the countryside
- at least
along the major roads - electric service is widely available. While the hoards
hastily thrown up in recent decades until recently provided for few creature comforts, their
exteriors have now become thoroughly pockmarked with room air conditioners.
TV antennae and satellite dishes sprout from their roofs.
| In Beijing and Shanghai, the
people are fairly well dressed, although still far from Western standards. They go about their business in a purposeful
manner by day and throngs of people clearly enjoy themselves when out for the evening. While
Western style clothing is widespread, many people prefer to wear shirts and
blouses out rather than tucked in. Dress is generally plainer in the interior
There is no evidence of an aging population in the cities.
Whatever the limitations of the blocks of graceless apartment buildings, they represent a major step up for those living in them, and those who have them feel fortunate.
Even those employed in the modern private economy still maintain their associations with the government agencies that previously employed them or their parents. They look to these agencies for such favors as allotment of scarce apartments and mortgage financing.
The streets are full of young people in
the major cities - both during the day and during the evenings. Young
couples strolling hand in hand or riding two to a bike are frequent sights.
There is no evidence of an aging population in the cities. This may be because
it is the young people - especially those with some education - that most
frequently migrate to the cities in search of a better life.
The revival of religion in China is
readily visible during tours of the major Buddhist temples. Crowds of worshipers
throng the temples during significant religious days, and nearby street vendors
do a thriving business in the sale of incense and various other religious
objects. While most were older, in Beijing there were a significant number of
young people. However, all the Buddhist temples on the tour are similar. It would
suffice to see just the temples in Beijing and the remarkable carvings at
Baoding Mountain near Dazu.
The service in Shanghai was in English, with many foreigners and many young
Chinese in the congregation. It did appear to be fully affiliated with Rome, but
the sign outside identified it as the "Catholic Intellectual Association of
China," and the mass itself was held on the third floor, above what looked
like offices and other assembly rooms.
| Small business has sprouted
everywhere in China. However, everywhere, it seems to remain largely at the simplest
levels. While major businesses make impressive progress, there is as yet no
evidence of any widespread ability of small business to expand and begin employing substantial resources and labor beyond those of
family or inner circle.
In order to sell wares or services, the outside walls have been widely opened up to make small room sized shops - literally "hole-in-the-wall" sized shops - accessible to the public. Along major streets and down both sides of long twisting narrow alleys, a vibrant commerce is conducted out of such shops.
Why this should be - after two decades of economic
transition - is a legitimate question. What weaknesses in the economic
environment remain that hold back the creativity and power of the small business
engine of economic development and prosperity? Lack of property rights (land
is typically leased from the government for up to 70 years rather than owned), weaknesses in applicable
aspects of contract and commercial law, and a credit mechanism not accessible by
small business are the most obvious limitations that can retard the expansion of
successful small businesses.
Incredible effort has been expended to recreate architectural treasures damaged or destroyed during Mao's widely destructive Cultural Revolution. Here is Chinese craftsmanship of the highest order - supplemented by competent maintenance.
The Chinese themselves are on tour everywhere - crowding all the attractions to see and enjoy what their country has to offer. Ninety percent of all tourists in China are the Chinese themselves
The quality of construction work done in
China, and the adequacy of maintenance, is brought into question not only by the
weather-beaten walls of relatively new buildings, but also by disagreeable
experiences on a few ostensibly modern roads where the bus has to slow to a
crawl over washboard like surfaces. Major urban projects frequently result in
the displacement of entire neighborhoods of traditional homes (the government,
after all, owns the land), and the people have understandably responded with a
minimum of maintenance in these neighborhoods. The little homes are dark and
grimy. One can only wonder at the extent of deferred maintenance accumulating in
There are almost no old trees anywhere. China was stripped of its trees to fuel the pitiful little backyard steel furnaces during Mao's disastrous Great Leap Forward, and has been feverishly engaged in reforestation during the last two decades.
There is a
total lack of natural landscape in the lowlands and on all but the steepest
hillsides of the eastern half of China. Every inch of the countryside is intensively cultivated or otherwise in
use. Riversides and borders and steep hillsides are thick with trees - but there
are almost no old trees anywhere. China was stripped of its trees to fuel the
pitiful little backyard steel furnaces during Mao's disastrous Great Leap
Forward, and has been feverishly engaged in reforestation during the last two
Vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians in Beijing and some other cities move through and across streets at a leisurely pace with a studied disdain for each other.
Upwardly mobile Chinese who have obtained bicycles, TVs, apartments and air conditioners now aim next for automobiles.
China is clearly on a collision course
with the automobile. In Beijing and many other major cities,
traffic is anarchic. Vehicles, bicycles and pedestrians move through and across
streets at a leisurely pace
with a studied disdain for each other. Remarkably, no crumpled fenders were
observed in any of the cities, until arrival in Shanghai, where traffic moves in
a more orderly manner on the freeways - and at higher speeds. However, in the
central city, Shanghai traffic, too, is an anarchic nightmare.
And money is clearly flowing into the
countryside. Small two story western style brick homes - many owned by party
functionaries - appear here and there
in a countryside still dominated by traditional single story clusters of dark
courtyard facing homes. Inside even the traditional homes, one or two light
bulbs hang from exposed wires, there is a small TV set, increasingly a room air
conditioner and even a satellite dish in addition to the TV antenna.
The potential for economic growth and production from just the rational employment of China's vast labor pool is truly impressive.
| The potential for massive further
economic development and prosperity is evident. Unemployment is not
something that is readily visible but is reportedly quite high, and underemployment is evident everywhere.
Labor is still very cheap in China, and overstaffing is apparent in everything
from the work gangs on the numerous construction projects to the numerous clerks in the
Even before China develops a truly modern economy, the potential for economic growth and production from just rationally employing its vast labor pool is impressive. Should China's economic transformation ever reach a level where it truly facilitates profit driven, market directed commerce, there is clearly no limit to its economic potential.
| The controversial Three Gorges
Dam on the Yangzi River is now almost complete. This month (November, 2002), the diversion
channel is scheduled to be closed, and the first stage of filling the lake is
scheduled for next Spring during the season of heavy rains. Amazingly, the vast
lake is expected to be filled to its first level in just a few months. The lake
will be completely filled at a later date after a period of evaluation.
There are highways and railroads serving the same route - much straighter and faster. Only the heaviest bulk cargo need go by river - and there is surprisingly little of that on the currently navigable stretches of the river.
Unsurprisingly, both the
criticisms of and supporting arguments for this vast project turn out to have been grossly
overstated. In ideological battles as in physical wars, truth is always the
The Chinese have successfully operated the smaller dam in that area for more than 15 years, with little sign of the problems feared for the higher dam.
The lake will enable and improve access to regions not readily accessible at present.
The larger lake will stretch beyond Chongquing, with its much heavier and polluted industrial concentrations along the river.
There is already a dam near that point
in the river. While it is much smaller than the new dam, it still backs up a
considerable lake with a lake head beyond the Xiling Gorge. The Chinese have
successfully operated this dam for more than 15 years, with little sign of the
problems feared for the higher dam.
Please return to our Homepage and e-mail your name and comments.
Copyright © 2002 Dan Blatt