Revisiting China

"Revisiting China: What a Difference Nine Years Makes." with photographs taken by me and Marcia Jacobson, The Syracuse Post-Standard Sunday STARS Magazine, April 20, 2003, 7,11.

"Call me Jevons," our guide said, when he met us at our hotel at 11:30 p.m. Sept. 22, 2002 in Beijing, not realizing the resonance with the opening of Moby Dick or the sharp contrast between his ebullient personality and that of the isolate Ishmael. Our guide was a talented 24 year old who accompanied us the entire trip: Beijing, Xian, Chongqinq, the Yangtze Cruise from Chongqing to Wuhan, and Shanghai. Among the tour guides we have had he was certainly the most personable. (On our more exotic trips like Egypt, India, and one that focused on Thailand and included Hong Kong and Singapore, we have been buying a full tour package and those packages includes a tour guide who accompanies the entire trip upon landing and sometimes even accompanies the group to and from the USA.

Dapperly dressed with a proclivity to jewelry and something of a dandy, Jevons's English was excellent. Indeed, he was a crystallizing image of the New China I confronted upon my return nine years after my first visit and an indication of how Deng Xiaoping's pragmatism, economic reforms, and willingness to accept some Western influences--but not democracy, free speech, free press, and freedom of religion--have gradually succeeded Mao Zedong's ideological communist dogma; this dogma lingered well after his death in 1976 even as his successors tried to dismantle much of it.

Returning to China, I encountered a vastly different country from the one I visited in 1993, close to the fourth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square uprising. At that time I hadn't yet visited India, but I felt that China was as different from anything I had ever seen--and I had been to some relatively exotic places. While the last time, especially at Beijing University where the uprising had originated was a time of elegiac gloom, this visit took place at a time of public celebration. For we were there during the period celebrating the Oct. 1, 1949 official establishment of the People's Republic. To be sure many of the tourist highlights were the same as when I had visited Beijing and Shanghai nine yours ago: the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, The Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, and the life-size Terra Cotta Army that was rediscovered in the 1974 but dates from the Qin dynasty 220-206 BC.

The Yangtze cruise with the overwhelmingly stunning gorges was new experience. But perhaps the most amazing sight to me was the economic modernization, especially in Shanghai--even as China continues eschew the democratization that most Westerners assume must be the counterpart of a free market economy. Even though my reading prepared me for McDonald's and Starbucks, this economic westernization was still quite a shock to see. I still cannot believe that as one exits Mao's tomb in Tiannaman Square --a kind of shrine to recent Chinese history--one encounters, virtually at the exit, a free lance group of young entrepreneurs selling Nikes or Nike imitations as well as other imitation brand products and trinkets. While the Chinese authorities brook no protest and, indeed, jumped in seconds upon someone who unfurled a protesting placard, they have infinite toleration for commerce, no matter how sacred the ground or bad the taste.

China's major cities, especially Shanghai and Beijing have become centers of commerce and industry. Capitalism has never found a more comfortable home than in the People's Republic. Everything is for sale and the entrepreneurial spirits stalks the land. At times it seems as if everyone has something to sell, and everyone is hustling. Put another way: If we have capitalism in America, China has it to the third power. We need remember, however, that there was a time when China was the most prosperous and advanced country in the world. As Nicholas Kristoff reminds us, although it stagnated about 1450, "even as late as 1820 China amounted to 32 per cent of the world's G.D.P--and then it utterly collapsed" (NY Times, Dec. 3 2002, A31).

At a time in 1993 when the Olympic Committee was deciding on the appropriate venue for the 2000 Olympics, I visited China and Sydney within a few months of one another. While the major factor in the 2000 decision was the suppression of the students in 1989 at Tiananmen, surely the committee realized, as I did, that the lack of foreign language speakers, the cumbersome nature of travel arrangements, the lack of a transportation infrastructure to move people from city to city, and the dearth of quality hotel space would have made for a most difficult Olympics.

During my first visit, a Beijing University Professor purchased my ticket to Xian at the only office where domestic tickets could be purchased and when I went to the airport, it turned out I had a ticket for a different city. All this has changed and one can see how the Chinese has made large strides in eliminating the foregoing problems. If this progress originated in part to convince the Olympic committee that China could host the Olympics and fulfill the commitments made to the committee, it now far transcends that and is part of the transformation of China into a world class tourist site and economic player. For example there is no comparison between domestic air travel on old military planes in 1993 and the current domestic air system.

In 1993 one saw occasional tourists. Now China is a major tourist mecca and expects to become the world's #1 tourist site in the a handful of years. In 1993 most of Chinese wore dowdy clothes, featuring the Mao jacket and loosely fitting pants, while resembling men's pajamas, and women eschewed makeup and styled hair. Now many urban Chinese, especially the younger generation in their twenties and thirties, wear stylish and often form fitting Western clothes. Attractive and dressed in trendy fashion, many of he young people look no different from our Asian and Asian-American students at Cornell. With exposed midriffs, makeup, curled and sometimes tinted hair, and tight jeans, some teens mime their Western counterparts at malls. To see women in Shanghai shopping in crowded upscale fashionable clothing stores for expensive and revealing western underwear was for my wife a surprising touch of sexual globalization.

Notwithstanding Mao Zedong's own rather frisky sexual history, he imposed a strict Puritanism on his followers. In 1993 heterosexual couples walking with arms around one--or even another holding hands in a manner approaching intimacy--would have feared being denounced as decadent Westerners. This time it was not uncommon in Beijing and Shanghai to see couples kissing and embracing in public. Another change is the change in language. Those who spoke English well in 1993 used polite and controlled understatement and now one hears words like "amazing" and "greatest" resonating in the Chinese rendition of English speech as if the Chinese were trying to outdo Americans in English hyperbole.

My wife and I bought a tour package from Ritz Tours, a Los Angeles based company that specializes in China and seems to have a large clientele. Our dates were Sept.21-Oct. 8, 2002. For us the Yangtze sights were a trip highlight. The downstream version of the Ritz cruise took four days, but one can do a five night upstream version on the fifteen day tour or a longer seven night version and more extended tours. We were correctly instructed that within the four days one can see the Three Gorges and the lovely Lesser Gorges (which one does on power operated sampans) and the incredible but unfinished Three Gorges Dam. Some friends on other tours felt that for the Yangtze cruise seven and even five days was a bit too long.

We took our Yangtze cruise at the extraordinary time when people were moving from the lower towns and cities to be flooded to above the line marking the water level where brand new towns and cities had been built. While not luxurious, the Victoria Cruise boats used by Ritz Tours--and supposedly among the nicest cruise lines on the Yangtze-- was in terms of accommodations surprisingly comfortable. Although, as we have learned on our travels, river cruise ships are rarely to be confused with ocean cruise ships, all the rooms had an outside view, air-conditioning, and a small but comfortable bathroom area with a shower, sink, and toilet. On balance, the meals were adequate on ship, although the meal portions allotted at dinner for tables of ten guests could have been more generous.

One reason that we booked with Ritz is that within the fifteen day trip (the first two and much of the last of which are taken by travel to and from the US) were the two free days when we could go off and explore on our own. My wife and I get tired of the regimentation of getting on a bus at 8am every morning--even on the river cruise we left the boat daily for touring-- especially because every day included one mandated shopping stop. One reason these tours are relatively inexpensive is that the Government requires the guides to take the tours to a variety of cloisonné, silk, carpet, and jade factories or to a Government owned "Friendshp" store. Because the guides get a cut of the take from each tour, the group stays until the last shopper ceases shopping. Some of our group, including us, had to remind our guide somewhat sternly that we didn't come to China to shop. But we had others in the group who reveled in every opportunity to buy merchandise that often could have been purchased home for the same price or less.

Inexpensive packages abound; ours was tad more expensive than the lowest price tours, but included five star or luxury hotels--although within the category "five star" our hotels were not always the most expensive. The basic cost per person was about $2200 plus a $200 add on from Syracuse to San Francisco. But consider the value when the air ticket price on our ticket was $1904 and that did not include domestic flights from Beijing to Xian, Xian to Chongqinq, or Wuhan to Shanghai! When travelling in Asia on tours, fine hotels are less than an extravagance than one might expect, after a day of boarding buses for twelve of fourteen hours of touring, being stuck in traffic jams, fighting crowds, and breathing polluted air. Our hotels all had exercise facilities, often including swimming pools, and knowledgeable concierges who could give us directions in English when we ventured out alone.

Among other things, the hotel concierges could direct taxi drivers in Chinese when we wanted to make forays on our own, something which we did more than most of our group. Taxis in China are inexpensive and a good way to supplement the tour. A necessary prelude to an efficient return taxi journey is to take hotel cards to give to your drivers--a good idea in any country where English is not the primary language and where you are not conversant with the national tongue. While the taxi drivers do not know any English and knew we were tourists, only once were we taken on anything other than a direct route and that cost us only another dollar or so. What is different form 1993 is the traffic; in 1993 virtually the only cars were taxis and one could move from one place to another in a matter of a few minutes. Now, even with new roads in place and others under construction, Beijing and Shanghai are overwhelmed with an assortment of trucks, buses, private cars, and taxis.

Our tour director, Jevons not only was informative about China in 2002 but generally gave us more valuable information about the local sights than the local guides; the guides on the ship were also helpful in discussing contemporary China. But most of the local guides were capable, even if they varied in quality, attention, and English skills. The local guide in Xian, whose English name was Frank Lee, was more a comedian than a guide and his favorite joke was "Frankly [Frank Lee] speaking." The local guide in Chongqing did little but show us the town hall building and take us shopping. A few of us visited the wonderful sculpture park outside, but we found that ourselves.

The shortcomings of the trip: too much shopping, sometimes at the sacrifice of major sights such as the Provincial museum in Xian which I saw in 1993 and which is one of the great museums in China, on the level of the Shaanxi Lishi Bowuguan (Shanghai History Museum) which was also not on the tour. I counted nine shopping ventures, many of which took three hours when one included the bus detours through traffic. With the omission of the Beijing Zhongguo Lishi Bowuguan (Museum of Chinese History), the tour missed all three of the great museums in China. However, on our own, Marcia, and I did spend several hours in the Shanghai History Museum and the Beijing Museum of Chinese History.

Most meals during our land stay were included and the quality ranged from quite fine--some of the hotel buffets--to adequate minus (a few of the lunches). The group tour Peking Duck dinner and Dumpling dinner were fun but hardly world class dining. The J. C. Mandarin hotel in Shanghai, rather than giving us the same breakfast buffet as other guests, had a tourist breakfast buffet that was notably less exciting than the more lavish breakfasts at other hotels; these breakfasts often included a choice of Western, Japanese, and Chinese items. The Chinese breakfast at the New Otani Hotel in Beijing was elegantly served in a separate room. The best meals we had in terms of food and service were the few nights we went off on our own to recommended but not very expensive restaurants where Marcia and I were the lone Westerners. Meilongzhen, one of Shanghai's oldest and most famous restaurants, is excellent.

When I visited China in 1993 the university professors were humiliatingly asked to show identification every time they walked through the gates of the university compound. I was told that the university was run by government factotums, and that what was done there came under Party scrutiny. As the fourth anniversary of the 1989 uprising approached, Tiananmen was closely watched by soldiers and lacked the throngs of tourists--Chinese and foreign--that wander about now. Although a few colleagues whom I knew from their having studied at Cornell were more open in private than in public, one had the sense of their anxiety about who was watching and listening.

While our guide and our ship guides were more revealing about politics than some of us expected, information was limited or distorted. Certainly questions about China's drug and AIDS problems, its rampant pollution, or how China dealt with dissent were met with obfuscation. And it took a while to get Jevons and the ship guides--who led seminars on China on board ship--to acknowledge that the private schools in the city for which families pay tuition are not available in most of rural China and, in fact, that illiteracy is still a problem there. We were told China had too many people for democracy, although, of course, India with a similar population has a thriving if imperfect democracy--albeit a much less effervescent economy. The Government has banned the search engine Google, does not allow the International Tribune to be sold on the streets, and does not allow CNN in private homes. (Both the Tribune and CNN are available in the better hotels). Nothing crystallizes how decisions are made arbitrarily from above better than the Yangtze Dam project where entire cities below the flood line are simply moved above the line without the input of the citizens and where flooding and huge silt deposits will affect the ecosystem for generations to come in ways that are not fully understood. Touring the Lesser Gorges in small boats, we saw monkeys at water level. Will they know--and have time-- to go up over 550 meters when the dam is flooded? What about the flooding not only of antiquities and but of the felt life of human history within the towns and villages?

Despite my reservations, I was exhilarated during my return to China by the sheer beauty of the gorges and the mountainous views from the Great Wall (at Badaling Changcheng outside Beijing) and around the Ming Tombs in Xian. I was impressed by the effort in Shanghai to replicate the stunning views of Hong Kong. But I what I most remember is the invisible hand of friendship epitomized by Chinese wishing to talk to us, in part to test their English but much more to learn about the world beyond. These encounters usually took place when my wife and I went off by ourselves into museums and restaurants frequented by Chinese. This gregariousness was different from the wary and cautious Chinese--and I include even most of the students with whom I interacted-- in 1993. Upon returning to the US, I had emails waiting to me from people we had met casually, wanting to continue our conversations.