As I sit here at home on Sunday morning, I am still somewhat frazzled by the jet lag incurred from flying east for nearly 20 hours. I want to wrap up this series of articles about our trip to China by writing about the lasting impressions that China made on our family. There is no way to write it all in detail. The patient and generous editor of the Local could not possibly give me that much space!
Impression No. 1: The crane should be the new national symbol of China. No, I don’t mean the long-legged bird. The mechanical crane, the one used for building huge buildings, is seen everywhere you go in China. You can hardly take a picture of the skyline of Shanghai without getting a crane in your shot. We hear, read and see news about China’s incredible economic growth but you can’t understand until you have seen it with your own eyes. Shanghai, Beijing and Xian were all filled with cranes, scaffolding, partially built high rises and old buildings being torn down to make way for even more development. I read in a National Geographic article that China is essentially compressing the Industrial Revolution that took place in the West over 150 years into something like 20 or 30 years. I believe after observing the country first-hand that it has to be true.
For a country that still calls itself communist, there sure is a lot of capitalism taking place. The reality is that China, like most other countries has gone to a mixed economy while leaving the political restrictions of communism in place. The combination of authoritarian government and capitalism is allowing for the phenomenal growth. China artificially controls the value of their currency which keeps inflation down and encourages continued growth. Meanwhile, countries like ours who want access to a market of 1.4 billion people, suffer the economic consequences. The other advantage of Chinese style capitalism is that builders don’t have to worry about pesky problems like private ownership of the land. If the government wants something built and people are living in the space where they want it built, they just move the people, lock, stock and barrel to another location. Even if it means moving millions! The huge dam on the Yangtze River is a prime example of this.
Finally, China has a huge workforce that is eagerly buying into the capitalist system after decades of poverty and economic suffering. Everywhere you go someone is trying to sell you something. From huge new department stores to little food stands to men on the street with armfuls of watches you are constantly aware that the whole nation is hustling to get in on the new Chinese Dream.
Impression No. 2: China is a World Civilizations teacher’s dream vacation. Everywhere you go there is evidence of China’s rich and glorious history. From the Great Wall in the north to the ancient silk making center in Suzhou, history buffs can get their fill of historical sites. We spent three days touring at breakneck speed in the modern capital and two more in the ancient capital and only saw a smattering of the historic sites that these two great cities have to offer.
Impression No. 3: The food gets a bad rap in China. I gained at least ten pounds while on this trip despite the fact that we did a lot of walking at all those historic sites. However, the water earns its reputation. Nobody drinks tap water if they can help it. Bottled water is everywhere and is expensive in most restaurants, yet, all Westerners are willing to pay the price for a little health security.
Impression No. 4: China still has a way to go in catching up to the West. There are many reasons that this is true. First of all the pollution is staggeringly bad. I think it will be a while before my respiratory system recovers from the pollution. I have had a nagging cough since the middle of the second week of our journey. The air in Xi’an is literally brown and even on a rare “clear day” in Shanghai you could barely see the tops of the biggest skyscrapers.
Secondly, despite the economic freedoms enjoyed by the masses, human rights are still an issue. Tibetans are still denied their independence, commoners can still be moved miles away from their ancestral homes for the latest building project, and the water shortage in the north is reaching crisis level. People can still be jailed for speaking against the government; pro-government propaganda dominates state run television and corruption in local governments is rampant.
Having said all this, one must remember that many of these problems faced Western countries during their industrialization period. The hope is that China will address these problems in the immediate future, because a healthy, thriving China will benefit not only the Chinese people but all the people of the world.
I would like to thank the Henry County Local for allowing me to share our experience with its readers. I feel incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity. I will cherish it for the rest of my life.