China Today: Beautiful, Stressed, and Optimistic
August 20, 2010
I am returning from three weeks in Chinese cities, with a sense of optimism about this thriving country—strained by its rapid economic growth, urbanization, and environmental challenges. China stands a good chance of creating a vibrant future for itself and contributing to the world.
My family and I were impressed by the kindness of Qingdao, the rage of Nanjing’s and Hangzhou’s future leaders at its corruption, and the indefatigable commitment we saw in Shanghai to preserve the past while pursuing the unique opportunity China faces today.
Qingdao, a city of eight million, is a village, even though it is the size of New York. Visitors and strangers are welcomed with a warmth reminiscent of America’s small towns. So many people took care of us. For example, we had arranged to rent bikes for a week; when we arrived in our hotel lobby to pick up them up, we learned that each bike rental would cost 160 RMB a day, or $24. The bell captain told me that we could buy bikes for $75 each, so we decided to rent for only a day.
The next morning when we came down at 5:45 a.m. to go to our daily Tai Chi class, a bellman raced over to us and said, “I came in early so you could use my bike,” as he gave the handlebars to my teenage daughter. He was not angling for a tip; they are prohibited by law. He was taking care of us. He said, “If you want to use it tonight, I will walk home. It is important that you enjoy your visit to Qingdao.” That afternoon, we returned the bike to him. The next morning, he was waiting for us again at 5:45.
Another example: I was waiting in a park as my daughter was busy working with the Tai Chi master. An elderly woman was stretching nearby in Music Square, a large paved area on the shore. She saw me watching and came over to invite me to stretch with her. She spoke no English. Over the next few days, I stretched with her every morning. On our last morning, I said goodbye and she said, in English, “Keep stretching—important.” She had found someone to teach her that phrase so that she could take care of me.
Yet another example: We were taking Mandarin lessons for a week. I was quoted a price and asked if I would pay in cash. I calculated the amount in RMB and brought it with me the next morning. The third day, our instructor told me that his price had been in RMB, not dollars; I had overpaid by a factor of six. He gave me a cash refund and urged me to put it away. After class, he escorted us to a taxi and paid the driver.
These acts of kindness happened many times every day. The people of this city, act like villagers. It is a beautiful village. The kindness so many people showed toward us, and their comfort and confidence with helping us as Americans made me hopeful that China could one day be our country’s partner, rather than our rival.
As we sense from the U.S. media, China is not universally rosy. The rapid change that has so benefited the economy has also put traditional morality to the test, and in some instances it has failed. Corruption is now rampant. In both Nanjing and Hangzhou, I had opportunities to sit down with 24- to 30-year-olds, China’s future leaders, and ask about their lives. They were all proud to be Chinese and clearly excited to be part of a growing country. Yet they spoke angrily about corruption and the threat it poses to China’s survival. One doctoral student decried the corruption in the academic world, the one place she had hoped would be corruption-fee. She explained that except for professors over age 70, the faculty sold grades: on every exam, in every class. They wanted money.
A computer engineer who worked a second job as an on-line instructor, described with tears in his eyes the day he took his father to the hospital with pneumonia. He said that, had he not brought a wad of cash every day to pay the hospital staff, his father would have died. He described with show the doctors who refused to treat other patients because they did not have that extra cash.
One articulate 27-year-old explained to me, “It is a balancing act. Our job as citizens is to collectively push the government to do the right thing.” He added, “ In your country, the government regulates the corruption in the population. Here, the population regulates the corruption in the government.” He gave me an example. To get government support for hemophiliacs, citizens published reports comparing China to Taiwan in the treatment of hemophiliacs. The reports embarrassed the government, and they rapidly corrected the problem in the biggest, most visible cities. He continued, “We cannot push too hard, on too many places, or as individuals. ”
These future leaders expressed the fear that the corruption may encourage young talent to flee. Each one described friends who do not live in China because of the corruption, and will not return. They all said that it is not clear that China can rid itself of corruption in critical sectors such as education and healthcare. I heard that many government employees have sent their children to other countries or obtained for them alternative citizenship, so if corruption destroys China, they will have an escape route.
Despite the dark clouds, China retains a rich heritage and fundamental values that may well carry it through. The message was clear when I visited several companies, then wandered through the Chinese Pavilion at the World Expo. The message: China’s past and future are in harmony. Its economic gains since it began opening itself to the world are its greatest pride. The exhibit begins with a short video on the last 30 years—the shifts in living conditions, sizes of homes, and people’s optimism about their lives and those of their children. It then moves to a hall of historic art. A wall 100 yards long displays a screen that looks like the Marauder’s Map from the Harry Potter films.
It is an image of an ancient scroll displaying village life on the day of the Qingming festival, which honors ancestors; but here, the characters and animals are moving. The images are projected from behind the wall, using state-of-the-art technology. Other exhibits of Chinese treasures, also strove to integrate ancient values with current technology. I continued to “The Land of Hope,” which emphasized homes, families, and communities. One film showed an apartment building with a basketball bouncing from home to home. I saw hundreds of children’s drawings of their hopes; extensive material on creative education; a dialogue on urban planning—architecture, transportation, landscaping, and more. The last hall displays a vision of China’s future. It is loaded with inventions and ideas for a sustainable future: a fully functioning car that runs on photosynthesis; urban plans for streets beneath streets, with no stop lights; sustainable living with plants on the outsides of buildings, geo-thermal heating and cooling, rainwater collection on the roof and so on. At the exit is an artwork that defines “harmony,” like a symphony with, many instruments playing a common melody. In harmony – socialism and capitalistic enterprises have resulted in one of the most sustained expansions in history.
One cannot leave China without optimism. It is now the world’s second largest economy, having passed Japan while I was blissfully doing Tai Chi in Qingdao. China leads the world in exports, having outstripped Germany this year, and has a military operation that is second to the United States in size. It is easy for Americans to fear China as an up-and-coming competitor. Yet I departed feeling optimistic that China will continue to be a great neighbor and friend, as well as a leading force in creating our common future. The best thing we can do is help the individuals collectively challenge corruption while encouraging China’s harmony.