December 14, 2007

Twenty-five years ago, I spent ten days in Beijing, China on an engineering mission. I recently revisited China for the first 25 years, this time on a commercial mission., I can only express my reaction with one word.

WOW! The changes are spectacular, phenomenal, in fact almost unbelievable,

Twenty-five years back, there were hardly any cars on the road. Those I saw were primarily government vehicles. Substituting for automobiles were tens of thousands of bicycles. Today, there are still plenty of bicycles, but the streets of Beijing, Shanghai and other major Chinese cities now suffer from the same curse as other major world cities, namely traffic jams.

Twenty-five years back, virtually all adults wore the same type of tunic-like clothes —either dark grey or blue. Colored clothes could only be seen on children. Today, every color variety and style can be seen on the streets, in restaurants and in shops. Many of the best known haute couture designers — Gucci, Armani, Comme Des Garcons, Hanae Mori, Hermes, Hugo Boss,Vivienne Westwood, Louis Viton, Chanel, Calvin Klein, Yamamoto, Karl Lagerfeld––these and many others now have outlets in China.

Twenty five years ago, I stayed at the Beijing Hotel. It was the best hotel in town though, while the public rooms were impressive, the private rooms were small and spartan. Still, it was by far the best of the five or six hotels Beijing boasted at that time. Today, there are hundreds of new hotels all over China, with numerous ultra-modem 4-star and 5-star hotels in major cities. Many are branches of U.S. and international hotel chains and comparable to branches in major cities worldwide.

Twenty-five years ago, in the evenings, almost all hotel residents gathered around the bar, never leaving the  hotel. Understandable, since there was literally no night life in the city, no entertainment and a very limited m number of restaurants. In addition, most visitors were fearful of leaving the hotel after dark. This is amusing, since Beijing was then one of the safest cities in the world. I personally spent many evenings taking long walks, encountering few pedestrians except for a number of youngsters who approached me to practice their English. One exception. Wandering through a lane connecting two roads, I passed a grassy area which was obviously a lover’s lane, with two bicycles leaning together near their intertwined owners.

Another change may seem small but is highly important. Twenty-five years ago, I wasaccompanied by a “guide” wherever I went. I was not allowed during the day to wander anywhere on my own. And, of course, the use of cameras was strictly forbidden. Today’s visitors to China are free to go almost anywhere, to traavel between cities on their own, and to take as many photos as they wish. I feel certain that there are spots where photography is not allowed, but they are few and far between.

In short, there is relative freedom. I had been advised that conversations about’ democracy or about Taiwan are unwise but, other than that, visitors are aware of few constraints.  Sounds great, and it is. But not all is peaches and cream in China. Westerners will be fascinated by Shanghai, now a glittering, modern international city. As one U.S. Consulate member told me, “You can buy just about anything here. Well, you might not be able to locate a Jewish deli for a pastrami on rye, but almost everything else is available.”

Shanghai is the star of the cities along China’s coast. And that coastal area is where you will find almost all of China’s successful entry into the 21st century. Great prosperity, a happy work force, foreign investment coming in, –– development, development, development. However, once you travel 100 miles into the interior, everything changes. There is unquestionably some improvement in people’s lives, but on a far, far smaller scale than on the coast. Still plenty of poverty, with all the problems that poverty provides.

On a happy note, the direction is upward and onward. Still, China still has a long way to go.

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