To a first-time visitor, China is simply amazing.
With its 1.3 billion people, it is so huge, so crowded, so frantic, so energetic, so driven, so confident, so determined to take its place in the world that it overwhelms your senses.
I lived in Asia for three years during the Vietnam era when China was inaccessible to an American, especially an American journalist. The best we could do was to sit in Hong Kong and speculate about what was happening on the other side of the frontier. “China watching,” it was called.
Today, of course, the doors are wide open to American tourists, American businessmen and American dollars. A three-week visit opens your eyes about the world’s most populous nation and stretches your imagination about what the future may hold.
An Australian tourist I encountered summed it up as he gazed across West Lake at teeming Hangzhou, one of China’s smaller cities with a mere six million residents. “Watch out world,” he said, “here comes China!”
Shanghai is an example of the future as envisioned by China’s planners. It is home to 20 million people. The colonial architecture of its famous waterfront, or Bund, is all but lost in a forest of new skyscrapers that have mushroomed on either side of the busy Huangpu River. Riding along the elevated freeways among the clusters of skyscrapers is like sweeping through a video game. The future seems to have arrived.
But then, take the fast elevator ride to the top of the Jinmao tower, currently the world’s fourth tallest building, and look out from the observation deck and suddenly, China’s future seems less certain. Looking west on a recent, sunny afternoon, Shanghai’s vast stand of skyscrapers faded and then disappeared in a dreadful, thick smog. The city of the future is literally choking on its own success.
Travel around the country, and there are contradictions at every turn: McDonalds and KFC outlets hard by the ancient city walls in Xian… a rice farmer standing in a paddy outside Guilin in a conical hat with a wicker basket over his shoulder. He looks like a figure out of a traditional Chinese scroll, except for the cellphone in his ear. And the billboard advertising new apartments for sale that touts them, in English, in this allegedly classless society, as “upper class.”
There are contradictions as well in the U.S. approach towards China these days. We like doing business there, but politically, does Washington see Beijing as an ally or an adversary? A trading partner or a competitor? It seems to vary from day-to-day. It is a relationship that deserves high-level attention, because, as my Australian friend put it, like it or not, “… here comes China!”

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