Back to China: April `97

As everyone knows, China is changing really fast. Two years after my first trip to China, Wen and I went back. As a vacation, it was a boring trip, because we went back to visit Wen's family and there was no time to play tourist. But as a second look inside a changing China, it was a facinating trip. Keep in mind that these are the ramblings of an American who has only travelled in the U.S. and China.

Hong Kong for an Afternoon

Our plane touched down in Hong Kong late in the morning, and we only spent a few hours in Hong Kong. I expected to find a city that had slowed down, cautiously waiting for the impending merger with the mainland. What I found instead was a city moving full steam ahead, with construction everywhere and a great deal of optimism. Hong Kong's modern business atmosphere has certainly influenced it's mainland neighbor, Canton, but Canton's feverous pace of construction has infected Hong Kong no less.

On the Bus

We took the bus from Hong Kong to Canton. This was a fortunate choice because it took us through Shenzhen, one of China's best-known "special economic zone" cities. A special economic zone is a region where China experiments with freer economic regulations, and cities like Shenzhen rise in the middle of nowhere. One can imagine a goverment official pointing at an empty field, declaring the foundation of a new city, and - poof! - high rises appear spontaneously out of nothing.

The roads have gone from narrow and mostly-paved in 1995 to full concrete highways in 1997. It was a smooth ride and I took a nap. I was very surprised to wake up beneath the flourecent lights and friendly orange tiger of an Exxon station, complete with mini-mart. We could have been anywhere in the U.S. (except that it was a full service station). This was the outskirts of the new Canton.

Return To Canton (Guangzhou)

During half of the trip, we stayed with Wen's father and stepmother in the city. Like everyone, they live in a medium-sized apartment with a living room, a couple of bedrooms and a small kitchen. It was quite comfortable. Air-conditioning has become common and they keep it cold inside (just like Houstonians), so everyone wears long pants and long-sleeve shirts, even in hot weather.

High rise aparments under construction.

At first, Canton seemed to be under much less construction than during my last visit. After a while, I realized that construction hadn't slowed down, it had just moved skyward. Canton's new skyscraper --- Sky Palace Plaza --- is just one of several new super-tall buildings in the city. Ten-story blockish apartment buildings are being replaced with modern-looking 30-story high rises. In 1995, everything new was square and covered with white tile. The new architecture is modern and varied, essentially what you'd expect to see in any new American downtown development.

During the rest of the trip, we stayed with with Wen's grandparents in White Cloud Mountain. Not much has changed at the Foreign Languages Institute. Wen's youngest uncle, the director of the institute's publishing wing, has a nice new apartment, but Wen's grandparents have resisted attempts to remodel their house (presumably because they're used to the way it is). The kitchen has been modernized, anyway.

Chinse photos are invariably posed.

My Mandarin had improved considerably since our first trip, so I was able to communicate with everyone. Still, my communication was limited: I could survive without a translator, but I couldn't carry on a conversation. Speaking was rarely a problem, but listening was hard; I had difficulty getting past Cantonese accents and keeping up with normal-speed conversation. Perhaps the only person in China who thinks I understand Chinese is Wen's oldest uncle; he acquired his accent before the family moved south and happens to speak more slowly than most people.

On the whole, everyone seemed happy with life in the new China. Deng's death had been announced months before, but newspapers and television stations continued to run glowing eulogies. There is very little public political discussion in Canton, but people will speak frankly in private (except perhaps to reporters). The government claims that Mao was 70% right and 30% wrong; most people claim the reverse. As for Deng, everyone I talked to genuinely admired him. On the other hand, I talked mostly with people who were hit hard by the Cultural Revolution. These same people are now on top in the new economic order.

Of course, this new economic order is not quite the same as the one Americans are used to, because personal contacts are still supremely important. This makes a huge difference for companies operating in China, but it's hard to say whether "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" really plays out differently for individuals. After all, everyone knows someone.

Food is still very cheap, but the price for most things is now about the same as in the U.S. --- except cars. Cars are still very expensive and a driver's license is hard to obtain. But more people can now afford the outrageous cost, and there are now a lot of cars. Trees are cut down and buildings are razed to make room for wider roads. And, happily, there are now traffic lights at intersections!

Despite the increase in cars, Canton will never be a "car city". The city is still very compact, and quickly gives way to empty fields at its edges. (A restaurant on the edge of the city even has room for a parking lot.) The Cantonese people like living in a city, and the near-completed subway, better buses, and copious taxis make it easier to get around. I expect the future Canton to look increasingly like a northeastern U.S. city --- more like the area around Sky Palace Plaza and the sports stadium, with wide roads, tall buildings, big sidealks, and ATM machines.

Sky Palace Plaza is the flat-topped building in the back. It was still under construction, so we couldn't go to the top.

Back Home

We flew back through Hong Kong and then back to the U.S. via Seoul. It was a long trip, but there are now international flights going directly into Canton, so our next trip will probably be much easier. Despite a great deal of planning to avoid excessive baggage, we again brought back a lot of stuff (mostly books, which turn out to be very cheap). And along with all this stuff, I brought back the feeling that China will survive the coming changes and its people will continue to be happy. Thu Jun 5 14:14:22 CDT 1997