Wednesday, November 16, 2011


My wife - The Lovely Cynthia - and I recently completed a four city whirlwind tour in China. I will not bore you with the incredible sites we saw but bore you with some snippets of what China is really like.

We had a two section trip so we had two guides - “Johnny” in Beijing and “David” in Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai. Johnny and David were their Americanized or Western names which is a common practice among the Chinese when dealing with Westerners.

Johnny has been a guide for five years and holds a MA in political science and David was a former high school teacher who has been a guide for ten years since it is a far more lucrative position than teaching. Johnny was 31 and his wife is the editor of a gossip magazine along the lines of US or People. David is about 15 years older and - like Johnny - has one son. His wife is a teacher. Johnny has never been to America but David has led several tours to our country where his favorite city is Las Vegas. David - like many Chinese who come over here - treat it as a shopping trip usually for high end electronics.

Both David and Johnny were party members - a requirement - and Johnny’s parents had been incarcerated during the Cultural Revolution. Johnny was far more political and displayed the usual semantics regarding Chinese expansionism into Tibet and Mongolia and noted that his government uses its ties to North Korea as a bargaining chip for our ties with Taiwan. Johnny did recognize that China has a dismal human rights record but the government has become more cautious for as he said “It is not good government to piss off a billion people.”

China is also a nation with virtually no experience with democracy. Their introductions to the West have by and large been negative. This is a nation that was carved up by the West and occupied. They have a long history of serfdom that can match Russia. They have been ruled by invaders, Emperors who were good and bad, devastated by the Japanese and fought a bitter civil war. For most of their existence who ever could put food in their bellies was “The good guy.” The 19th and early 20th century trading houses along the Bund in Shanghai are a stark reminder of a not too distant and brutal past.

My impression is China is less of a socialist nation economically than the United States at first glance. It is not a government run economy but a government monitored one. Businesses understand there are lines you just don’t cross and if you do the penalties can be excessive. One businessman was convicted of 9M in bribes and graft - tried and sentenced to death. Think about that, Bernie Madoff. They deal harshly with anything that may destroy foreign investment and foreign consumer confidence.

If a business violated the government standards say in environment the result is usually a minor fine and a program developed to meet those standards. Continual failure means an increase in punishment. The government also controls energy, water/sewer, transportation and other infrastructure but it is a mutual partnership. Think of the MBTA owned by the government and private enterprise with a 50/50 split. Some instances it is pure government control. Some it is not.

The Shanghai News and NY Times were virtually indistinguishable. The Shanghai News would report the good, bad and ugly. Government fraud, police brutality, strikes, excessive business practices, poor environmental control by the government, lousy safety standards and on and on. Was some highly critical articles regarding government policy and I found that impressive since my knee jerk impression was one of a repressive communist country.

Their economy is very service oriented since you do have 1.3 billion folks and many barely surviving. The poverty level is $90 and that is for a year. David made 10K as a high school teacher and that is an excellent salary and - get this - you have to pay for high school. Folks can’t afford it? Good luck! The working age is 18 but that obviously is a national joke as the government just can’t control what goes on. Same as here. Occasional bust and that is about it.

Their middle class is rapidly expanding. Very similar to our numbers when adjusted for national income differences. But the big difference is just imagine the good old USA having one billion poorly educated and trained peasants dropped into our laps. That’s China. They still have 20 million living in caves. About 80% of their population would considered a rat infested inner city dump Beverly Hills.

Our politicians - especially the failed president and war mongering right wing - like to point out the rapid economic expansion and especially the infrastructure. Well - Mr. President - they had little to begin with! In China they have 442 airports with paved runways. The U.S. has 5,600. I saw farm after farm using nothing but manual labor. Their rail system is fantastic for what there is of it and the safety has become fodder for jokes. With 1.3B Chinese it doesn’t take a Bogo or an Einstein to figure out why industry is growing. Upward fiscal mobility circa post WWII U.S.A.

Both guides emphasized the one child policy. I asked if there was a deliberate attempt at this and my suspicions were confirmed. There are certain talking points that are suppose to be highlighted and they understand that reproductive freedom is an issue that seems to burn with us. You can have more than one child but unlike the U.S. where you are rewarded with a deduction the opposite happens. Without a stringent population control program they would be India or Somalia.

I did discover that life is considerably different in the rural areas. Some of the customs that we consider weird still exist. There is a reason why China has 50M more males than females. The government also has policies that are far more what we would consider textbook totalitarian out in the sticks. The rural areas are also festering points for clandestine manufacturing and drugs that are funneled into the city and foreign countries. Close down one operation and two more start up. One of our guides compared it to how we tried to eliminate stills. Also a bundle of prejudice against the rural folks. They actually have their own term for “Pink Eyed Village.”

As far as the military what struck me is the lack of military presence even in Tian An Men Square. I really don’t buy into the military expansionism or threats to us for the simply reason nether the U.S. or China really are colonials but more capitalists and it is bad - very bad - for business when you kill your customers. I saw far more military presence in South Korea a few years ago. David wrote off Chinese expansionism in Tibet and Mongolia as adventurism. Others were quick to point out that when a carrier task force does exercises with Taiwan off their mainland coast they realize the potential fire power could devastate the entire country in a few hours.

China has a abysmal human rights record. They are quick to execute - like Texas only much larger. But what we fail to understand is that the advancements that have been made over the last sixty or so years. China changed dramatically in 1989 and again with the open economics of the acquisition of Hong Kong. The Chinese will quickly point out that you cannot compare their development to the U.S. of today but to the U.S. of the past. Just as we had a struggle and still do for ethnic/race/gender equality so do they. It is changing and changing rapidly. I just saw a rather open society and not as repressive as I expected. Folks I talked with were open and honest about their opinions of their economics and government. They will quickly point out our own failures of the past and consider it a template for guiding them. I talked to a group of Chinese businessmen who were adamant that economic differences could be eliminated if Obama and Hu (their premier) were locked in a closet and CEO’s from both countries were allowed to negotiate differences. As one said “You would get 60% and we would get 40% or the other way around. Maybe both would get 50%? But we know what we are doing and they don’t in Beijing and Washington.” Another businessman said to me “I would hate for us to be #1. Always more difficult when you are on the top. Even if we were #1 I would suggest we keep our mouths shut.”

While we were I China the election process had begun. Like Tip O’Neil said “All politics are local” and that applies to China. They will over a period of months elect 15,000 representatives to the various provincial and national legislatures. They are all party members (many in name only) but with stark contrasts just like in this country. Think of our Congress as all Republican ( frightening) but with various factions from moderates to conservatives to religious fundamentalists to representing just one issue such as abortions rights would be in our country. From talking with our guides I got the distinct impression that the powers to be have let the barn door open and it will be quite difficult to instill any repressive measures. Still the specter of a return to stricter methods is always present. I am not nor are many of the Chinese disillusioned to that fact.

American presence is everywhere from KFC to Wal-Mart. After several days of horrible Chinese food we were at a mall in the Bund section of Shanghai and I gorged myself on a DQ banana split, McDonald’s fries and Diet Coke and a cheesecake at Starbucks. Some stores have sections of American and Western goods which are prized for their workmanship and quality. Even the Chinese realize they produce a pile of low end crap. Also a big problem is the rip-off goods that are passed on to both tourists and especially the locals.

The food. OMG is it just awful. Every day we’d have a lunch and dinner that was almost all the same. Similar to our Chinese food but not even close to the variety and virtually nothing fried. White rice and some type of noodle concoction with every meal and greasy soup. For breakfast we had an American breakfast with a variety of Chinese food available and those breakfast buffets were something. The entire trip was five star hotels (in one room we had five phones) and the buffets were spectacular. Never seen better. Piles of fruit, meats, cereals, juices and just about anything else that once had a face. Service was impeccable.

In China they have health care but it is a conglomerate of self pay, government and private employer. The cost is quite reasonable but the real unusual thing is you have no primary care physician. You keep your own records in a blue book so you may go to the doctor thirty times and see thirty different doctors. Yep, Doc, I need more Oxycontin - says in right in my book! There is also Chinese and Western medicine. The Chinese is a preventive approach using herbal medicines and the Western is the same as we practice.

Basic services in the city are handled by district. Imagine Middleboro having each precinct responsibly for its water/sewer, trash removal, parts of the electric grid and parts of any natural gas. Some places you really do not drink the water.


Suo Mynona said...
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Suo Mynona said...

Nice synopsis.
Learning about freedom:

In 1984 I had a Chinese professor, Dr. Who (not joking), while studying in Japan. He was the first in a cultural exchange program between China and Japan.
He was in his 80's and was imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution for being an intellectual.
One evening 8 of us European and American kids invited him an apartment for dinner. He spoke to us for several hours, telling what it was like growing up in China during the 1900’s.

At the end of evening I truly learned what it means to be free. He sincerely asked us not to repeat his stories. He was afraid he may be punished in China for talking to western kids in a Japanese apartment!


"Folks I talked with were open and honest about their opinions of their economics and government"

Yeah but see what happens if they organize their candor into a group protest.


Japan went from a feudalistic to an industrial society at warp speed. China is on a somewhat similar, thought flatter, trajectory.


Sanjay Gandhi tried forced population control (via sterilization) in India. It really backfired. One of many differences is that India is a democracy.

bogofree said...

They are still a repressive communist government. What I look for is change. How were they 50 years ago and maybe ten years ago? Has there been significant change? IMO certainly so.

There was also a strike at a Shanghai factory for a sudden closure of a plant that was highly profitable (reported in China Daily). The strikers were being joined by sympathizers.

Still a bundle of animosity towards the Japanese. I spoke to one of our guides about "The Rape Of Nanjing" and he was really shocked that I knew about it. Burns deep.