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USCPF China Trip, 2001

USCPF China Trip, 2001:
Personal and Informal

by Leo A. Orleans

After visiting China every few years through the 1970s and 1980s, almost ten years had passed since my last trip in 1992. So, when members of the Executive Board of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation were asked to participate in an International Hi Tech Forum in northern Anhui Province in mid-October, I took the opportunity to visit China again and see for myself some of the many tremendous changes I have been reading and hearing about. An added bonus would be the increased credibility that comes after a recent visit to China. What follows, then, are some very personal and informal impressions about what I saw in my eight days in the country where I spent the first fourteen years of my life.

Huaibei City and the Forum

I must admit when I first heard that "The International Forum of High Technology in China's Second-Rank Cities, 2001" was to take place in Huaibei, it seemed a most unlikely locale for such a meeting. Although no one I asked seemed to have heard of this city, I eventually did find it on a map in northern Anhui, at the intersection of Jiangsu, Shandong, and Henan provinces. The nearest airport is 50 km. away in Xuzhou in Jiangsu Province, but we took instead an eight-hour train ride (via Nanjing) to Xuzhou, giving me an opportunity to see some of the countryside. After an official greeting at the railroad station by Huaibei's vice-mayor and his entourage, we were off on a police-escorted drive to our destination.

Under the circumstances, I don't think any of us were prepared for Huaibei. Proud of its history which goes back thousands of years and located adjacent to a recently unearthed "lost" section of the Grand Canal, this city of almost two million people is thriving in every respect. A six-lane divided highway (in anticipation of future development) brought us to a modern hotel with large dining room, luxurious meeting rooms, and all the amenities one would expect in a major city. Huaibei's location in an area of both fertile land and mineral resources, its buildings (and the many that are still under construction), its transportation facilities (despite the absence of a local airport), energetic people, historical sites, and some unique museums, all suggest that there is a good basis for the optimistic future envisaged for this city. This optimism is perhaps best exemplified in the development of a beautiful complex of villas now being completed on a lake front and priced, as I recall, at between $200,000 to $300,000 each. Most of them have already been sold. And, of course, a golf course is part of the plans. I might also mention that the old abandoned coal mines are now filled with water, providing a beautiful setting for a park that has been developed around these very deep lakes. And very conveniently, some of the adjacent ponds are now raising impressively large fish.

The forum itself was the brainchild of Mr. Dato' Joseph Chong, a successful businessman and CEO of a large Malaysian corporation (among other enterprises). Chong, the Huaibei City government, and the China International Culture Exchange Centre in Beijing were its sponsors. While the international representation was very small, the forum was attended by some 200-300 representatives from the large number of growing cities located at this intersection of the four provinces. As suggested by its title, the main purpose of the Forum was to promote the development of "second-rank cities" by displaying their achievements and potential, provide an opportunity for them to seek additional foreign investment and, at the same time, provide useful information to representatives of towns that have not yet achieved Huaibei's level of success. Since it held center stage, Huaibei promoted its locale, existing infrastructure, trained labor force, and the surprisingly favorable investment policies dealing with land and taxes. Through additional foreign investment, the city hopes to further develop not only its light industry, metallurgy, telecommunications, pharmacology, and agricultural processing, but also tourism.

It was an interesting learning experience for all concerned. The USCPF was ably represented through the much-appreciated presentations made by Board members Don Anderson, Chas Freeman, and Chi Wang.

Shanghai and Beijing

Because many readers of this newsletter are themselves frequent travelers to China, they are well aware of the transformations that have taken place there. There may be others, however, who will find some amusement in my unabashed wonder at the changes I saw after a ten-year period. I will be very brief.

It is difficult to imagine another city anywhere in the world undergoing the type of growth experienced by Shanghai in the past decade. Most striking are the city's new towering offices, apartments, hotels, and government edifices and the many that are still under construction. They are incredibly creative and surely a unique experience for the architects that worked on them. During the day, the Pudong district sitting across the Huangpu River from the Bund looks like lower Manhattan, and when lit up at night, like a giant Disney World. While the traffic on Shanghai's streets tends to be bumper to bumper (with seemingly more BMWs, Audis, and Buicks than seen on Washington streets), the intersecting freeway overpasses above the center of the city are a sight to behold, especially at night when a solid blue glow (invisible during the day) reflects the headlights of the passing cars. The new building of the Shanghai Museum of Chinese Art and History and the just completed Museum of Science and Technology are spectacular must-see sites. It would appear that every up-scale American and European store has an outlet in Shanghai and, as I walked the streets, I did not see one store without customers. As for the masses of people, whether on the main avenues or the side streets, they all seemed well dressed, engaged, and on the move. Only one Shanghai sight has not changed since my first trip in 1973: smooching lovers on the Bund.

Beijing is more horizontal and "Chinesey" than the glitzy vertical Shanghai, but it too has experienced great changes in the past decade. Once again, the most obvious are the new and imaginative buildings, many still under construction. As in Shanghai, the city streets are a mass of cars, but the traffic would be impossible without the freeways, three of which ring the city. As everywhere else in China, traffic lights are for the timid and certainly not for pedestrians or bicyclists. Jianguomen, the very broad boulevard with beautifully tiled sidewalks that runs through the middle of the city, can be crossed only by way of some most attractive underpasses, many of which also serve as entrances to the subway system. My guess is that more than 90 percent of the tens of thousands of tourists who crowd the streets of Beijing are Chinese from other parts of the country. Although there are too many McDonalds (no egg McMuffins) and Kentucky Fried Chickens (filled at 10am) throughout the city, Beijing's fancy stores, incredible malls, and large department stores (all of them crowded) match those in Shanghai in every respect. And in all three locales we visited, the streets were spotless, the parks were populated by grandparents herding their little "emperors" and "empresses," and flowers, not only in green spaces but in front of buildings and in hanging baskets along the major streets, bloomed in proliferation. What has not changed over the years is that almost all Beijing women continue to wear pants, albeit more stylish and perhaps seasonal.

Some Personal Observations

Clearly, my latest impressions are based on a short stay in just three cities. On the other hand, my impressions are superimposed on a long career of China-watching and China-writing. And they are also based on talking to some Chinese and American friends, as well as conversations in English and Chinglish with many people in a variety of settings-from some government officials to a long discussion in a book store with a Chinese doctor unable to get a visa despite an invitation to do cancer research in Salt Lake City, to many Chinese youths eager to talk to a foreigner, to two attractive "students" on the Bund anxious to pursue our discussion in my hotel room. I will therefore try not to stray too far from what I could conclude from my observations and painfully limit it to just three points. In all fairness, however, I will quote an Indian saying I heard the other day: "He who controls the assumptions, controls the conclusions."

When appropriate, its leaders may say that China is a communist state, but there seems to be no awareness that Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong thought are major influences in their policies or actions. Their priorities are obvious: economic development, stability, and international respect. In private conversations with U.S. officials, they have admitted that they will hold on to power not for ideological reasons but primarily because they genuinely believe that at this time any other form of government will result in chaos and a serious setback for China and its booming economy. The loose hold that Beijing has on local governments was clearly evident in Huaibei, where incentives for foreign investors are most imaginative and surely locally concocted. As for freedom of expression, while certain topics, well known to the few who might raise them, are taboo, there seem to be very few restrictions placed on the country's increasingly diverse media and seemingly no restrictions on what individuals are willing to discuss in private conversations, even with foreigners.

The Chinese with whom I talked found it difficult to fathom how a notion of China as a serious threat to the United States could receive serious attention in Washington. In effect, what they were asking is: are we so stupid that we would risk everything we have achieved in recent years, ruin the chances of reunification with Taiwan, negate our hard-gained entry into the WTO, forfeit the 2008 Olympics, and lose the good will of the world community? There may be some in the People's Liberation Army hierarchy who want to assume a more confrontational stand toward the United States. But a serious threat? Not likely.

Finally, although the Chinese government does indeed make stupid decisions that provide human rights activists with fodder for their cause, as I already mentioned, the people are now experiencing unprecedented freedom of action and expression. More rapid human rights progress will occur only when the Chinese people become more concerned about human rights as visualized in the West than with continuing to improve their living standards and assuring a good education for their children. It will not come by cajoling the Chinese to play by American rules, but through gradual changes in the leadership and China's success in managing its trade and economic issues.

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