China After 32 years

Thanks to a series of peculiar accidents, I was granted a visa and allowed to visit China under government supervision for 25 days in November of 1974. Nixon had opened the country with his visit to Mao in 1971, the US ping-pong team played in Beijing in 1972, but generally “Red China” was as closed to visitors during the reign of Mao as North Korea is today. My visit occurred during the waning years of the sociopathic spasm known as the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

I am presently a return visit to China after almost 32 years. This post is a series of travel notes on what I see.

Several important caveats. First, I eat Chinese with enthusiasm but I speak no Chinese at all. Second, I have visited mainly cities and China is still predominantly rural. Third, I am American down to my DNA, which means that I very often misinterpret what goes on here. I Americanize my observations about China just as Chinese occidentalize their views about America. Finally, China defies description and in many respects defies exaggeration. It is not a single place or a single social experiment, so it is not only me who runs the risk of drawing conclusions based on far too little data. The Chinese themselves run this risk – as the most thoughtful among them readily acknowledge. Nobody really understands this place, although at least a billion people understand it better than I do.


A Maoist would declare my social consciousness to have been forged by the Three Great Struggles: the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-(Vietnam) war movement, and the women’s movement. By the mid seventies many twenty and thirty somethings were disillusioned with progress in America and intrigued by what we saw in China – a poor country that had seized its own destiny away from the west and appeared to be making impressive strides in providing health care, education, and opportunity to its citizens.

Our ideals were naive – which is pretty much what made them ideals. Much like the young people who turned a blind eye to the gulag during visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s and returned home singing the praises of the New Soviet Man, we turned out to be naive about China, about Communism, and about the nature of economic and social progress.

In part, this was due to the badly slanted nature of contemporary writing about China. Writers like Norman Bethune (Away With All Pests), William Hinton (Fangshen and Shenfan), and Han Suyin (A Many Splendored Thing and a number of others) were, like their hero Edgar Snow, writing detailed books on the glorious achievements of Maoism that turned out to be nothing more than a rehash of CCP propaganda. You will search very hard among any of these writers to find a hint of thinking not in line with Mao’s personal views – which changed periodically, thus requiring especially adept writing. Even the lions of serious western Chinese scholarship, John Fairbank, Roderick MacFarquhar, Stuart Schram, Orville Schell and others often got it wrong despite a deep knowledge of Chinese history, language and literature. There was simply very little information coming out of the Middle Kingdom in those years.

Like North Korea today, China was an isolated garrison state — although its leaders did not sport the oddball hairdos. Visits were very restricted, closely managed, and granted only to those with a local sponsor and a reason for a visit. I was able to see Mao’s work first-hand thanks to the work of one of his fellows in patriotic homicide, Norodom Sihanouk. Sihanouk was the former Crown Prince of Cambodia and the descendant of two lines of Cambodian kings. He had been overthrown in a 1970 coup led by one of his lieutenants, probably with the help of the CIA. He was beloved by the Cambodian people an easily the most popular political leader in the country.

Unlike Mao, Sihanouk loved all things western. He had a taste for fine French dining, American jazz, beautiful women, and the high life of western cities. When we met with him in China, an an exceedingly poor and in many places starving nation, he received us at his home in Beijing (address: Norodom Sihanouk, Mussolini’s Son’s Mansion, Beijing, China – you can’t make this stuff up). I recall counting twelve pieces of silverware at each setting, five wine glasses, and seven courses of elegant French cuisine. — a level of sumptuousness that I have yet to exceed despite three decades of trying. The food proceeded from subtle broths to a terrine of something no doubt wasted on my young palette. The wines went from Dom Perignon to lovely French whites and rich reds. After desert and coffee, the Prince entertained us with his clarinet, signed copies of “My War with the CIA” for us, and showed us his radio room, where he bragged of his ability to communicate with the guerrilla group he had endorsed. He called them the Khmer Rouge — the first time any of us had heard the term. It turns out that Sihanouk’s endorsement was the key to their rise to power — and imprisoned in exquisite exile, the King appeared to have no idea what a monster he had unleashed.

The Khmer Rouge took their cue from Mao.They emptied Cambodia’s cities, subjected “intellectuals” (defined as anyone with more than a grade school education) to torture and death, usually with their families. Sihanouk learned of the true nature of the Khmer Rouge the hard way — they slaughtered his children while he played clarinet in Beijing. The Khmer Rouge carried out their own Cultural Revolution, killing one in five Cambodians and nearly allowing Vietnam to annex the country. Many of my professors, free to think critically thanks to a grant of lifetime tenure by the state, concluded that the whole thing terrific because it was revolutionary and anti-imperialist. Although In the years that followed our visit, 1.7 million Cambodians their lives, at the time none dared call it genocide.

It was Sihanouk who got us visas thanks to his personal physician, a Frenchman named Bernard Pate, who gave them to his son, who ended up working with my school to set up the trip. It fell to me to fly to Washington to obtain visas. I had to submit passports to the Chinese “interest office”, since there was no consulate. It was Tom Clancy stuff (“stand at the phone booth across the street on Massachusetts Avenue at 1pm. The phone will ring and tell you which door to approach”). Again, think North Korea.

So we spent several months preparing to travel. We were: a mix of students – some Chinese-American, mostly white. One or two were campus Maoists, most of us were kindly disposed before the trip. Among the faculty, only one – a grumpy Russian – had the requisite skepticism. We thought him hopelessly jaded — until we returned, when he suddenly seemed much wiser. The group of visitors returned with a far more diverse view of China than when we left but all of us were deeply affected by the experience. It was one of those touchstone events that changed forever how we looked at the world.

Shanghai, China
By November of 1974, Shanghai was down and out. The Great Leap Forward with its backyard steel mills and mass starvation and the Cultural Revolution with its rejection of culture, breakup of schools and families, and utter disruption of remaining Chinese economic life had left the city looking like an aging rock star after a decade on heroin.

The Bund, the once bustling European facade along the Huangpu River, was dowdy and crumbling. At its center stood the Friendship Hotel, literally the only civilian hotel in town. The Friendship Hotel housed “Soviet Advisors” (who were until about 1960 actually Soviet bosses) were by then welcomed only to help with large technology projects.The city was cold and smelled of burning oil. People moved slowly on loaded down Flying Pigeon bicycles – indestructible fifty pounders. The few city buses were jammed. Cars were for government officials only and they, like our tour bus, never stopped at traffic lights because a soldier stood at each intersection making sure that anyone privileged enough to have a motor vehicle got a green light.

Meetings had a ritual that never varied: we were shown to chairs with grey slipcovers, then served Jasmine tea in covered mugs. Sullen officials with bad suits recited the virtues of Mao Zedong thought with a fervor that would put any Jehovah’s Witness to shame. They all smoked (“a disease of the upper elements” Mao termed it.). Questions to our handpicked hosts were invariably answered with reference to Mao’s brilliance, his courage, his artistry. Red painted signs on white cloth were common, as were the occasional wall posters from the “speak bitterness” sessions in which children denounced their parents or their teachers, who were then humiliated, tortured, and killed or sent to the countryside to enjoy the salutary effects of peasant life on political consciousness.

There was not enough food — people were invariably thin. Not trim, yuppie thin, but the kind of raw thin that comes from small, monochromatic meals. Men with belts wrapped twice around their waist thin. Food was rationed: rice and cabbage were barely adequate in the cities, but meat was scarce. Peasants stacked their greens on the sidewalk. In November, it was plenty cool.

What do you show a bunch of tourists in this tired, dying city in 1974? The state travel agency had an inspired answer: Shanghai People’s Hospital #9. There we were treated to young women in the mandatory blue standing erect and shouting the praises of Chairman Mao and his revolutionary achievements: a state of the art hospital that specialized in re-attaching severed fingers.

Well, if you need your fingers sewn back on, this was your place. They claimed, and I was in no position to argue, that they were able to reattach digits that in the US would have been left in the trash since, as greedy capitalists, we didn’t really care much for our workers.

The hospital symbolized for me the essential dilemma of China under Mao. The country had a few really smart doctors and Russian technical advisors who had learned how to reattach human fingers. They also built a nuclear bomb. But for what? The economic and spiritual poverty of the place was heartbreaking, the fear in the eyes of the people we met palpable, and the proposition that this was an empowered population preposterous. The New Communist Man (and he was a man, except in a few posters about women holding up half the sky) was made new by a state that could reattach his fingers. But the things that give meaning to most lives: ideas, social or economic initiative, art or music outside of propaganda, families – those were things that were severed, wrecked, and suppressed — and hard to reattach.

A child in Shanghai in 1974 — or even in 1984 — could not, in his or her wildest dreams and deepest hopes, have possibly imagined the future that emerged once Mao died, the Gang of Four were defeated, and Deng Xiaoping repudiated Mao without saying so. Like a freed prisoner determined to make up for lost time, China has transformed itself more quickly and more fundamentally than any country in human history. We hardly have words for a social and economic revolution this profound. Indeed, the Chinese can barely describe it and at times they can barely believe it.

Shanghai and Beijing are once again among the great cities of the world. They need concede nothing to Tokyo, Paris, Berlin, London, or New York. Both cities feature hundreds of bustling hotels – the fanciest rivaling any in the world. We stayed in the St. Regis in Beijing (rated a “super five star”, meaning among the finest anywhere on the planet). These cities have earned their swagger. They are real cities, with spectacular wealth, visible poverty, obvious corruption, avant garde fashion, intense and compelling work, nightclubs, bohemians, occasional freaks, deep reserves of art, culture, education, and media all blended into a frenzied intensity that make a town into a city. In both cities you can still find the old neighborhoods with people working out of impossibly small and specialized shops. One sells only rusted gears. Another offers electric drills – nothing else. Street vendors still steam buns. Housing is now a dense forests of high rise apartments, but the quality and style of these is improving with each passing year. Apartments built in the seventies after I left are being demolished — no real loss.

You don’t see fear. You see intensity, you see rampant commercialism, you see massive, unbelievable optimism – but you do not see fear. Frankly, if China had accomplished nothing else, that would have been enough. But they have achieved much more. Things I saw that surprised me:

Dancing. Ten middle aged couples dancing western swing in a Shanghai shopping area at 8:30 on a Sunday morning. Another dozen couples dancing in the dark at a small pocket park across from the US Consulate. A frenzied outdoor disco on the Pudong side (which was wetlands and rice paddies during my earlier visit). Frenzied disco dancing is hardly unusual – but it was pouring rain and the dancing continued beneath umbrellas! Thirty couples dancing on a Friday night in a park that runs along the Tienanmen Wall in Beijing and a huge crowd in downtown Shun Yi, a northern suburb of Beijing.

No smoking. Shanghai has fewer smokers than in many parts of the US — no kidding. Beijing seemed about like France — smoking dramatically reduced but not nearly eliminated. You could see people huddled for smokes outside of office buildings, just like in any city, and restaurants are not San Francisco strict – but in Shanghai hardly anyone smoked. And unlike Mao, smoking is now a disease of the lower elements – it is definitely not cool for those in leadership to smoke.

Active Christian churches. I ventured into two services on the Sunday I wandered Shanghai. Both were jammed. In both cases the ministers were women, the tone remarkably calm, the worshipers deeply attentive and reflective, not fidgeting. One of the churches (no clue as to denomination or message – remember that I speak not a word of Chinese) was set in a park-like setting with worshipers invited to sit outside on park benches and listen on loudspeakers. Families with restless babies made frequent use of this.

Jaw-dropping architecture. Recent buildings have more style, creativity, and assertiveness than any constructed of late in New York or Los Angeles. Communist countries are not noted for their sense of style — but you gotta see this place. The Shanghai City Library is not only beautiful, not only huge (13 million volumes, with a million circulating — that’s enormous), not only jammed with people reading and studying — but the city is building another one just like it. The 2008 Olympics will reveal Beijing architecture to the world — and the world is not going to believe it.

The Recovery of History. Mao’s respect for deep history ranks right up there with the Taliban. Chinese civilization dates to 30,000 BC. The country invented paper, movable type, porcelain, gunpowder, all sorts of navigation and mathematics centuries before my ancestors figured it out. China’s centuries-old cultural heritage of ceramics, bronze, paintings, furniture, and calligraphy has been profoundly jeopardized in recent decades. Chaing Kai-Shek took literally boatloads of artifacts when he fled to Taiwan in 1949 — and it’s a good thing he did. Private collectors protected vast collections in Hong Kong. But much of what remained in China was smashed during the Cultural Revolution. It is still easy to spot traditional buildings with the scars of certain artifacts having been torn off during the seventies or see where they have been more recently replaced (just as in London you can often see the newer reconstruction to repair damage caused by the Nazi blitzkrieg — although in London the damage was not self-inflicted). Many of these artifacts have been returned and they are on magnificent display at the Shanghai Museum — a beautiful, modern facility that compares nicely the Museum of Natural History in New York and is a much more pleasant visit.

Informality. Dress is confidently casual. I met with senior Communist Party officials including a general in the army and a Vice Mayor of Shanghai responsible for the lives of two million people. Both wore polo shirts to work and to dinner. Not only are the bad suits gone, but people don’t much bother to wear good suits. It reflects an extraordinary confidence. Coming from California, I figured that I needed to do a bit of wardrobe renewal before this visit. Mostly I wasted my money. In Beijing, only the senior nomenklatura wore suits — as if to broadcast how out of touch they are.

Luxury brands. The Chinese are brand fanatics — one reason that rampant counterfeiting is so profitable. You would think that selling authorized Rolexes was impossible here — but thriving legitimate stores with the real stuff are more common than in New York or Los Angeles. Shanghai Tang has become China’s first global luxury goods brand — and I think that much of it is very cool. I found two T-shirts for my boys featuring neo-Stakhanovite drawings that were phenomenal, but at $75 each, the kids can wear Gap. (Alexi Stakhanov was a Russian John Henry, a Hero of Soviet Labor who inspired socialist big muscle art).

Hyperaggressive vendors, beggars, and ladies. Serious and persistent hawking of fake Rolexes, light up skates, and temporary companionship. Desperately poor provincials panhandling at tourist locations — something you never saw back when everyone was desperately poor. Downtown Shanghai is denser than Beijing and features hookers from hell — working in teams, descending repeatedly on fifty year olds guys with big noses and paunches. Absolutely unwilling to leave you alone- even if you are with a group of people. One pair of lovelies joined me on Nanjing Road (bit of a Fifth Avenue style shopping area), followed me into two stores despite vigorous assurances of non-interest (OK, I was flattered. The only thing worse than being asked in these situations is not being asked).

Over the course of an hour, I got a life story (Sichuan, rural, high school education, worked textiles for a year, now in an office. Wants to improve English and get out but has no chance at a passport. Decent English already, had the darkish skin and high cheekbones that comes from Southwestern China). I refused the offer of “coffee” (two guys at my hotel ended up with a bar tab of $700 courtesy of the corrupt deals between the ladies of the evening and their coffee shops). I finally went to the top of a large, busy department store and ushered them on to a long escalator heading down- except that I did not get on.I got quickly lost in the shoulder to shoulder crowds. Mind you, I am easily flattered – just not quite that easily.

Growth is the New Opium

China today still claims to be a communist country but bears absolutely no resemblance to Marxism-Leninism, to Maoism, or to any other known flavor of communism (well-placed rumors even have the CCP discussing a name change. I’d be happy if they just took Mr. Genocide off of the currency). To be sure, China is an authoritarian country with a government that frequently tramples human liberties — a cartoonist was suspended for sixty days during my visit — his treatment of Hua Guofung apparently touched a nerve. This and far worse examples are, chronic, appalling, and stupid. On the other, the cartoonist wasn’t shot and senior party officials are very comfortable discussing China’s “transition to democracy” — at least in private.

To my eye, China is run like it is one giant state owned enterprise. Hierarchies abound: city managers sort of report to county managers who sort of report to provincial managers who sort of report to national managers. Every level overseas a very wide range of activities: infrastructure, education, health care, industrial development, security, housing, and a lot more. At every level, management is the Chinese Communist Party — and they train and promote their own, even if each level continually tests the limits of its autonomy.

At the moment, they are doing a phenomenal job and would, no doubt, be elected in a landslide if people were given a choice. The scope of the economic achievement is stunning. During the past twelve months, Beijing (population ~14-18 million) has added more office space than was added in all of the European Union (population 450 million). I suspect that this is not unusual — not only has Beijing has been doing this for many years, but Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzen and others have as well. Zhengzhou, the capital of Hunan, perhaps China’s poorest province, has spent $35 billion US dollars on its downtown five star hotels and trade show facilities — to the apparent horror of the National leadership. The construction boom has created a veritable army of migrant construction workers from the interior provinces. What, precisely, happens to them as China’s boom slows is a matter of no small concern to the new Mandarins.

Constant construction provides some amusing moments. Drivers suddenly shout — “but last week the road went through!” or end up taking shortcuts through the countryside to circumvent road construction (watching a jet black Mercedes 550 negotiate the pitted roads and amused looks of a tiny village whose name we translated “Buzz Cut” was pretty funny — but it added an hour to a drive because the local freeways were not yet fully stitched together). During my first night in China, my hotel placed a small note on my bed advising me that the hotel would be bombed at 6:00am the following morning. Sure enough, my block in Shanghai greeted the five year anniversary of the September 11 attacks with an enormous, sharp explosion as the three star hotel next door was demolished to make room for a five star hotel. The constant construction is just one expression of palpable optimism, energy, and vitality — the country itself is on a slightly narcotic buzz.

The effect of this unprecedented growth dwarfs the feeble and in most respects retrograde achievements of Mao in 1949. Since the 1980s, China has lifted more than 400 million people out of poverty — roughly equal to the population of North America. During the same time, 120 million Chinese have moved to cities — requiring new housing for a population twice the size of France. At current rates of urbanization, Chinese cities need to accommodate another France — 60 million more people — every 2-3 years as the country moves from being two thirds rural today to two thirds urban by 2020. And the housing is not just forests of monolithic Stalinist dreck — although plenty of that was put up in the sixties and seventies. The housing is attractive and at its best includes planned communities, sports facilities, parks, lakes, shopping districts. For those of us who had a full taste of China in the seventies, this is shocking.

For the most part, this is capitalism, not communism.- as the Chinese readily observe. I never heard anyone speak of demolishing social classes or eliminating the power of capital — indeed, the goal appears to be roughly the reverse. China has developed sharp social classes, including a very wealthy political class. This system operates quite efficiently but absent checks and balances, it is only natural that leaders will tend to reward themselves first and foremost (absent checks and balances, American CEOs do the same thing — as many Americans have noticed).

Not surprisingly, corruption is endemic and institutionalized. Mind-boggling corruption is now routinely disclosed in the hysterical prospectuses filed by Chinese banks (“Mr. Wang Xuebing, our former chairman and president and the former general manager of our New York branch, was convicted of accepting over 1 million renminbi…”). Construction projects are often awarded without bids (in one case I learned about directly, a huge building contract was awarded to a professor with the understanding that a certain percentage will be rebated to the government officials behind the deal). A wonderful, garrulous, and hard-drinking general took us to dinner across from the US Consular Office in Shanghai. We were treated very well and it emerged that in addition to his economic interest in several modern office buildings in Shanghai, the good general owned the restaurant.

Corruption drives the Chinese political elite and enables top scholars and entrepreneurs to amass significant wealth. In Beijing, friends gave us a tour of a housing compounds that were built like traditional Beijing hutong — the courtyards and alleys designed by the Mongolians when they laid out Beijing. These were stunning compounds (30 spectacular rooms, with modern amenities, traditional Chinese styling, and accommodations for a chef, kitchen crew, maids, drivers, and bodyguards). Asked who they expected would buy these residences, the answer quickly came: “only senior party members” can afford these. Our host, who was retiring as CFO of one of China’s largest department stores, had purchased a lovely five bedroom townhouse that cost about 5% of what a retired party member would spend on such a compound. Needless to say, scholars and entrepreneurs offered this level of financial reward tend to be very uncritical of the government’s policies on human rights, independent press, or independent judiciary.

Entrepreneurs do very well in China so long as they share their fortune with senior Party members. Successful businesspeople are often the classmates and always the friends of senior party members. We met several successful businesspeople. A developer of high end hotels invited us to his restaurant — one of the most exclusive in Beijing, built in an enormous, fully restored Hutong. He also had us out to his ranch where he raises German Shepherds and rare birds. The dogs live in a well-staffed house-like building that is about 150 feet long; they are shown and sold around the world. The rare birds enjoy a spectacular aviary. The developer travels the world with bodyguards and a private jet. Aside from the dog and bird ranch, he has several homes around China and a lot of friends in high places.

Talented westerners are returning in very large numbers (as my wife was among the first to observe in her terrific book, The New Argonauts. Did I mention that it was a terrific book?). In ten days in China, I met four Yale graduates who have returned to China from the US because the opportunity to contribute to the reconstruction and transformation of their homeland is extraordinarily compelling (they advise me that both Shanghai and Beijing have large and active Yale alumni clubs). During a lunch in the private dining room of the Secretary General of the Overseas Chinese Scholars Association (founded in 1914) one advised me that China has more than a million graduates who have studied overseas and some 300,000 overseas at present.

Many returnees make more money than they did in the US, but some make less. One Wall Streeter put a fortune in the bank before returning home, now plays a very senior role designing China’s future banking system and the legal systems that are needed need to underpin it. He earns less in dollar terms than my part time babysitter — but he is shaping the future of his country and is proud to do it). Investment bankers, venture capitalists, overseas corporate managers, gunslinging entrepreneurs have all arrived in large numbers. Few object to authoritarian government so long as the money is good.

I was honored to spend a day with a man who was one of America’s preeminent graphic designers and an early employee of Adobe. Also a Yale grade, he returned to China to serve as both the Dean of the prestigious School of Design at Beijing University and as Director of China’s Central Academy of Fine Arts, which will be responsible for the much of the design, graphic and otherwise, for the Beijing Olympics. He began his graphics career painting pictures of Mao as a very young Red Guard (“it was actually a lot of fun for students”). He is deeply thoughtful about the current situation in China and like all returnees I have met, very hopeful about the future of his country.

He had just turned fifty years old, and confirmed for me something that I had begun to suspect: China today has very few leaders who are in their fifties. This is odd, of course, since at fifty, many professionals have acquired the skills, relationships, and perspective that make them (OK, us) effective leaders. But in ten days in China, I met with more than a dozen senior leaders from a general, to several senior ministers and vice ministers, a vice mayor, and the secretaries general of several important associations and businesses, mostly related to publishing. Few appeared to be in their mid or late fifties and the reason is clear: — if you were born between 1945 and 1955, your education was irreparably damaged when Mao closed China’s schools for a decade — roughly from 1965 to 1975 — to conduct the Cultural Revolution.

When I visited Beijing University in 1974, the campus was still “closed for political struggle”. Students who were denied elementary and secondary educations in the sixties and seventies generally never made it to college.They have little opportunity to lead the creation of a new China and today make up a “Lost Generation” in China. As in the US, students compete fiercely to attend the Beijing University and other top colleges (about one applicant in ten achieves test scores high enough to be considered for the Design School at Beijing University. About half of these are offered admission based on their demonstrated design talents. 90% of these students must pay the full cost of their education, which is expensive).

But if you are under fifty and educated — and especially if you have overseas experience and relationships, China is the new El Dorado — the closest thing to a corporate wild west since Silicon Valley in 1998. China’s new mandarins may be Robber Barons in a bubble, but like all bubbles, it’s a great ride while it lasts, especially for insiders. For these folks, life ain’t bad. They enjoy the country’s finest homes, they eat its finest food, and are educated in its finest schools. They know each other personally, often from college, and they often intermarry. Positions are not inherited — each generation needs to pass rigorous exams in order to obtain the education necessary to remain part of the mandrinate — and given the head start they receive, they generally succeed. They run the country — all of it. Think Harvard Business School on steroids.

China has a famous word for the ties that bind this and other groups together: guanxi. The word roughly means “influence” and it is something that professional Chinese consciously cultivate. Building and using guanxi is the key to success in China (actually, it’s the key to success in the US as well, although the rules are different). One way that Chinese build guanxi is through generosity that is absolutely extraordinary by the standards of the non-Chinese part of US culture. The Chinese shower visitors with gifts, they sacrifice their evenings and weekends to show visitors or potential business partners a good time. They pay for sumptuous banquets without hesitation. Guanxi or not, I owe dozens of people for the trip I just enjoyed — and I will eagerly repay their generosity. The challenge, and it is one that many businesspeople fail, is to not let gratitude towards hosts cloud business judgement or democratic principles.

Professors and government officials enjoy a special status among the new Mandarins of old as well as new China: . This mirrors the structure of the ancient Han Imperial court — an inner court of royalty (top party officials) and an outer court of elite bureaucrats and court mandarins who run the country. In part this reflects Chinese and Confucian respect for learning and academic achievement.

In both cases, this status is conferred for life — which makes it slightly strange to visit China as a former senior government official. I would occasionally arrive at a hotel or office building for a meeting and would receive a stunning reception. One one occasion cameras flashed, TV cameras rolled, officials rushed to shake my hand, and two beautiful women pinned roses and kisses on me. I was introduced with enormous and solemn ceremony to local officials, the hotel director, and small children by people who appeared to have me confused with someone famous or important. I smiled, shook hands, accepted gifts with what I hope was graciousness, and attempted to look impressed as people handed me business cards that I could not possibly read (not that mine were any more intelligible to them). All this fuss because more than a decade ago I spent two years in the Clinton administration. In China, mandarin is for life.

Beijing, China
Bikes. Some people pay instinctive attention to buildings; others notice sounds, hemlines, or textures. I always notice bikes. My kids tease me because I often notice the make and model of oncoming bicycles while driving. I clearly recall the black Flying Pigeons and Phoenix beasts that dominated Chinese cities and countryside in 1974. They weighed about 50 pounds and were often loaded with twice that much. Brakes were often worn off – people just steered or used their feet to stop (this has not changed). In cities, sidewalk mechanics would patch a tire for a dime (still true).

In China, bikes have fenders, racks, and baskets because people actually use bikes instead of just them riding for sport. You see an increased number of folding bikes — obviously practical in cities. Unfortunately you cannot easily rent bikes — – this is a low trust environment and the rented bike would not come back. Lots of young people on bikes with iPods, but I never a helmets or lights. Traffic is arguably getting better for bikes, since the cars are often jammed so tight that bikes move faster. Motorcycles are very common, along with motorized bicycles.

Slow train to heaven. Fast train from hell. I spoke with two people who have taken the new train from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet. One was a young and talented PLA colonel who specialized in logistics, the other a book exporter. Both found the 48 hour trip exhilarating, since the train passes through some of China’s most beautiful countryside. To get to Tibet, the train climbs to 15,000 feet (!), surely the highest train on earth. Passengers are not only given oxygen once the train passes about 10,000 feet, but all passengers must undergo a minor physical exam in order to get tickets. I am not, as it turns out, a huge fan of PLA colonels in Tibet – but making it easier for Tibetans to visit greater China and the reverse is a good thing for economic opportunity and cultural understanding, both of which need the help. Add that train to a list of things to do.

Shanghai has a train of a different sort – a maglev beauty that flies between a remote subway stop and the International terminal in Pudong. The train hit speeds of 431 km/hour (266 mph) and is dead smooth, as maglev trains tend to be. It may be the fastest train in the world, but it represents a waste of money. The train mainly serves tourists in need of a Disneyland ride because it is too expensive for most Chinese. Worse, travel privileges are still used as social control. Ordinary Chinese assured me that they cannot get passports, even though the apparatchiks say they can. A professor who supported the students at Tienanmen in 1989 is denied travel to academic conferences. Expensive but empty maglev trains are a bad joke – even if the ride is a hoot.

Soldiers and soap opera. In Shanghai I was given an army driver courtesy of a generous general who was a friend of one of the guys I traveled with. The car we drove was a regular made-in-China Buick with a DVD player, which our soldier driver used to watch soap operas. Frequently he would become so involved in the soaps that he would leave them on while driving.

This would be distracting enough, but soldiers in China drive cars with special Army plates. These plates have a special red character on the left that effectively means “above the law”. These vehicles can do u-turns mid block, drive the sidewalks, ignore speed limits, or drive while watching soap operas — a privilege that our driver exploited more than once. These plates are universal among the senior military and Party members and are a highly sought after status symbol.

So, this being China, people counterfeit these plates. I don’t know what miserable prison you land in for pretending to be a member of the elite in China, but evidently it is not miserable enough to deter counterfeiters. But when it wants to, China can get perfectly serious about counterfeiting. And in this case, we are not talking about ripping off hundreds of millions of dollars of IP from American music labels or movie studios – we are talking about the serious crime of fakers getting privileges! So China requires that anyone driving a car with these plates has to carry a special license and a special identification papers. Grim MPs periodically pull over cars with these plates and ask to see the goods.

Our driver was a young soldier, bored and a bit careless like young soldiers everywhere. So naturally he forgot his paperwork and we got stopped. Major goat rodeo ensues, with frantic phone calls, lots of hand waving and solemn reprimands. We jumped a cab after an hour of this silliness and later learned that our soldier earned a dressing down by the general. I bet he isn’t watching his soaps any more – I just hope that the poor guy isn’t breaking rocks somewhere.

Urban development. Xintiandi is a famous upscale bar and restaurant scene in a revived Shanghai neighborhood. I ate a killer lunch there one rainy afternoon. Xintiandi was developed by Shui On Land, a high profile and innovative property developer whose CEO Vincent Lo shared his development vision at a dinner I attended in Silicon Valley just before I left for China. Xintiandi represents the modern face of high tech communism – the government provides direction, focus, and some funding. Smart developers plan the real estate, restaurants, bars, and high end condos. If you are well-placed (and Victor Lo is both smart and very well-placed), you make a lot of money (Shui On Land filed for an IPO two days ago, although the stock is being priced at a steep discount to the net asset value of the real estate, suggesting that outside investors don’t want to bet on China’s real estate bubble).

An equivalent to Xintiandi has appeared in the neighborhoods along Beijing’s northern lakes. A major development anchored by Starbucks (ubiquitous in Chinese cities) created an upscale bar and dining area. It was successful enough that property owners further up the lake started developing property themselves – and the difference is dramatic because it is much less uniform. A colorful and hip Vietnamese restaurant sits
next to an Islamic Chinese restaurant (common in China) sits next to a bar with late night outdoor dancing. The area has been a huge success and development on the next stretch is even more eclectic. I still think that China needs more freaks, but it is definitely developing a hip subculture, although a very affluent and commercial one.

A great deal of the success in these neighborhoods and others is happening because of, not in spite of, communist government leadership. The CCP has done an outstanding job of co-opting scholars and entrepreneurs — especially returning westerners. They pay them well and provide the resources and the direction for a great deal of very creative development. In so doing, they give the impression of deep competence that is not present in every government that one encounters.They also stifle criticism of China’s retrograde (and in some places, appalling) human rights record. This government is accountable of course only to itself. And as to where the money goes, the government follows the same failed approached that Bill Clinton used with gay soldiers: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

Press control: “So You Think that China is Too Sensitive”

While I was in China, the government announced that all foreign press would have their reports approved by Xinhua, the state news agency. A furor rightly ensued, and I was not always kind in discussing this issue with my Chinese hosts.

I used the example of the Falun Gong – a silly and slightly loony sect of quasi-Buddhist old people who do meditation exercises for hours on end. The Chinese government has jailed and tortured adherents and, if you believe recent reports from Canada, murdered andharvested organs from more than 40,000 Falun Gong practioners. The press denounces the Falun Gong at every opportunity. I pointed out that nobody would have every paid the group any attention at all except that the leaders of a great country seemed so obsessed with them. Truly the Falun Gong would have disappeared in obscurity but for the spotlight the government generated by suppressing them. After hearing my views, my hosts said “So you think China is too sensitive?”.

No, actually I think that the senior ten people in the government are way too sensitive. I had the opportunity to point this out to Minister and Vice Minister level officials, who generally responded with descriptions of how the Chinese are used to having an emperor tell them what to do. I reminded them that the Chinese Communist rose to power by denouncing these and other feudal practices. One senior minister smiled, patted me on the back and said “Don’t you worry about China” – a phrase that can be interpreted as “kindly mind your own business” or “believe me, things here will continue to progress faster than you can imagine.” Ideally he meant both.

I found that an interesting test with Chinese is how they respond to the subject of the slaughter by the Chinese army of the demonstrators for democracy at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Everyone knows about the event, some people admit to being there, but I met only a few people willing to discuss it openly. When I pointed to the southwest corner of the square and mentioned that the army had entered from that direction on the night that they cleared away the estimated two million demonstrators who had occupied Tiananmen for several weeks, one friend smiled and said “we should talk about something else”. Others however, were more candid about their views.

Tiananmen Square today is one of the most controlled places in China. Police are everywhere and in large numbers. Groups may not assemble and only approved busses can pass through the enormous square. A butt-ugly mausoleum to Mao now dominates the center of the square and the local taxidermists are reportedly running out of ideas for keeping his three decade old corpse presentable. During our visit, preparations were well underway for the October 1 National Day celebrations. Two small monuments were being erected in the square to celebrate two of China’s signature achievements for 2006 – the train to Tibet (symbolized by a re-creation of the beautiful Jokhang Buddhist Temple in Lhasa) and the opening of the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River. Three Gorges is the largest hydroelectric dam in the world and has displaced millions of people.The decision to feature Tibet and Three Gorges in Tiananmen on National Day strikes me as the political equivalent of George Bush celebrating the invasion of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina on the fourth of July. It is simply not the behavior of leaders who expect to be held accountable.


Outside of Tienamen and the national currency, Mao Zedong has now been reduced to a cultural relic. Mao ashtrays are the height of Beijing kitsch, available in the local flea markets. Mao statuary, posters, and Little Red Books are available as well, but these sell mainly to tourists.

Vendor: “Get Little Red Book! You need Little Red Book. Very good price!!”

Me: “Have you read it?”

Vendor, blushing: “Just a little bit. This book not for reading”

Mao is not yet officially a political relic, but this seems certain to come. Occasionally my hosts would make mention of the “Gang of Four”, the ultra-leftists who rose to power during the Cultural Revolution and were purged for it following Mao’s death. The gang included Mao’s wife, the much-despised Jiang Qing. I would refer to them as the Gang of Five, which always got a smile — but never a laugh.

Widespread publication of Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story will help that cause along. The book, the result of a decade of careful research including exclusive access to Chinese and Soviet archives, is a devastating account of the level of deception and thievery carried out by Mao and his cronies. It is the political counterpart to Jung’s earlier personal story as told in Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China, the international bestselling account of three generations of Chinese women. Jung tells of her grandmother who lived under warlords, her mother who lived through the revolution, and her own life as a daughter of the Cultural Revolution in Sichuan Province. Wild Swans was available in English in China and Mao: The Unknown Story was available in Hong Kong. Although I would not give Jung or her husband high points for dispassionate scholarship, the research is credible and the findings important even if the book reads like Jung’s best shot at sweet revenge for her undoubted suffering. Both books are compelling and highly recommended.

While we are at it, two other books published in the last year served as excellent updates to China. The first was John Pomfret’s Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. Pomfret studied Chinese as an American at Nanjing University in the 1980s and tells the story of his classmate’s lives two decades later as he returned as a Washington Post correspondent. Pomfret loves China, speaks Chinese well, and was kicked out of the country for his fact-based coverage of the massacre at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Fine and touching account of his classmates and the five very different lives they ended up leading.

I also enjoyed James McGregor’s One Billion Customers: Lessons from the Front Lines of Doing Business in China. McGregor is not only a China hand, having served as a journalist for the Wall Street Journal in China for more than a decade, he also helped start and advise dozens of businesses in China as an investor and venture capitalist. It’s a great combination because he knows business, knows China, and writes well. Much of his experience was gained in a business environment that was more savage than today, so the lessons ring as a bit stark and over general (example: “Chinese live all over the world, but the only place you will find poor Chinese is in China”). Ultimately the book is a great read and McGregor has the battle scars to back up his grim business outlook.

As China consigns Maoism to the flea market, the country is at risk of losing something – as a few Chinese are starting to acknowledge. At his best, (1945-49?) Mao gave China something to be proud of and he gave the country a noncommercial soul that is now completely gone. Despite his obvious pathologies, he promoted health care and education more heavily (albeit less effectively) than the current government.

Mao gave visible priority to the status of women (although like most emperors, he kept a stable of them handy). He declared that “Women hold up half the sky” — even though Chinese sexism was not significantly reduced in practice. A woman executive confided to me her complete exasperation at seeing less competent men promoted over her and expressed amazement that not only could women become both CEO and chairman of Hewlett-Packard, but both could be fired when they screwed up just like men were. I assured her that that we had a ways yet to travel before women in the US did not share her concerns, but that women in the US have made steady progress and that we expect and hope to see progress in China as well.

The current regime would do well to set high and measurable standards for itself to make sure that government effectively serves its least powerful citizens, since the powerful don’t need government services, except to protect property. The same is true, of course, of our own government. Hear that, President “Bu-Xing”?

Hong Kong, China

Veterans of Beijing business travel early on coined a term for the experience of being received by Chinese hosts: “walling and ducking”. Calvin was right when he told Hobbes that “verbing weirds language”, but there is a good case for an exception here.

We did our share of walling and ducking — a pleasant pasttime, actually. We did not try every place that claimed to serve the best Peking duck, but we tried three of them and never did learn why it isn’t called Beijing duck — but it isn’t. All were delightful and left us with sympathy for the ducks, since our group knew the feeling of being forcibly fattened.

The best places slice the bird at the table in a highly ritualized manner reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell Thanksgiving. The cooks are reportedly trained to get an exact number of slices from each duck – and in any case the ducks themselves are frequently numbered. One place that sported pictures of Nixon and other worthies served us duck number 147 thousand and something – 20 ducks a night for 20 years, or thereabouts.

Walling also has its pleasures. We drove a long ways out to see the GWOC and hiked a good deal on it, ending in the dark. The Great Wall is, I can faithfully report, entirely unlit and not all that smooth after ten centuries. In places, you climb up hand over fist and come down ass over teakettle.

A lot of tears dried on those walls. Hundreds of thousands of lives were made nasty, brutish, and short in order to build it. The wall is gorgeous, enormous, inspiring — and ultimately kind of sad because it was basically a waste of effort, as all large walls are. The wall never once stopped the Mongols. Indeed, it didn’t appear to even slow them down.

There are two other walls in central Beijing known well to every resident. The first is the Forbidden City, which is really a city and, except for the main stretch which is packed with tourists, really forbidden. It housed mandarin scholars, court officials, concubines, servants and all of the folks who made the palace interesting. It consists of hundreds of buildings over a huge area and most of it is either being painstakingly restored or quietly neglected. In either case, you won’t see most of it – although the bit you can see is pretty amazing.

The second wall is Zhongnanhai- the really forbidden city. This is the exclusive neighborhood that surrounds the lake next to the palace and is where all of China’s top leaders live. The neighborhood is hidden from view behind a two-story brick-red wall that is guarded at all times by big guys with no sense of humor. Mao lived within this compound as have all recent senior Chinese leaders (Mao reportedly retreated to the island you see
in the middle of a lake in the Google Earth view). The effect is to wall off the top political leadership from the daily life of China – which can’t be a good idea. It also ensures a high rate of intermarriage between senior CCP members – also not a recipe for long term success.

These Forbidden cities rest on the North/South axis of Beijing laid out by the Mongols. The 2008 Olympics will extend this axis out towards Beijing University. More than a million people have been moved by the government during the past two years as Beijing engages in an orgy of construction. Some of this is offices and housing to accomodate the demands of businesses locating in Beijing, some is subways and infrastructure to ready the city for the 2008 Summer Games. The scale of the architecture and development underway is truly Olympian, to judge from the scale models and the buildings now going up. The 90,000 person National Stadium has already been dubbed “the bird’s nest” because of it’s interwoven steel external framing. I suspect that the opening ceremonies held there will be spectacular (the Chinese have engaged Steven Spielberg, among others, to plan the festivities).

The Chinese are visibly excited about the Olympics – more than we were in Los Angeles prior to the 1984 summer games and more than San Franciscans are about the prospect of 2016. Since I was in China last, the country has become more focused on sports. Ping pong and basketball as are popular as ever and the country appears to have a serious passion for tennis and soccer as well.

Among many other challenges, the Olympics present China with a big signage problem. Most freeway signs are being redone to show English as well as Chinese. You see far fewer goofy translations than before, although I did spot a few: a sign for an upscale “Beauty Saloon” struck several women as an excellent concept – as did the “Take Care and Be Gentle” sign on the bullet train. The worst use of a dictionary award goes to the translator who used a well-known sexual vulgarity on a bottle of hair conditioner to describe how well the product “penetrates”. Lots of folks skipped the conditioner in that hotel.

Finally a word on Hong Kong – a city I have visited a few times and enjoyed for only 24 hours at the end of this trip. Hong Kong remains a gorgeous, magical city – but it is hard to avoid the feeling that it is the only city in China that is past its prime. Like many of us with more yesterdays than tomorrows, the city takes longer to get pretty in the morning and is starting to droop and sag.

It has also become the global center of scary diseases. When you arrive at the Hong Kong the airport, two guys in rubber gloves and surgical masks aim a laser at your forehead to take your temperature as you walk by. The airport itself advertises itself as “sanitized every two hours” – which I seriously doubt, although the elevator buttons are covered with plastic that gets sprayed often. Hong Kong is at the center of SARS and world influenza, including H5N1. Nearly all flu starts in this part of Asia, where geese, pigs, and people intermingle closely and frequently enough that influenza viruses can reliably transmutate. (Which means that nearly all flu is “Hong Kong” flu just as, for that matter, it is “avian” flu – although the two strains that bear these names are especially lethal and virulent).

But Hong Kong is still China — so when you board the airport for your trip home, they check for liquids and gels, but not for viruses.