Sunday, July 11, 2010

A trip to China - random observations

Lily and I, along with our children, visited China from June 23 to July 8, for the first time as foreigners. During the trip, we visited Shanghai - the biggest city and financial center of China, Wuhan, the biggest city in central China, and Beijing, the Capital.

We entered the country from Shanghai, which I last visited 24 years ago, and Lily and the kids had never been to before. The change in the 24 years is dramatic! The changes in Wuhan and Beijing are impressive as well though we visited both cities only 5 years ago.

It is huge!

As we walked out of the airplane at Pu-Dong international airport around 3pm local time, we were amazed by the size of the terminal it feels like that it is more than 10 story tall, and 100s of meters long. It turns out that the Tian-He Airport at Wuhan, and the international terminal of Capital airport at Beijing are equally massive.

The biggest change at Shanghai occurs along Huang-Pu River and the east side of the river. The green belts along the river are replaced by a concrete forest of high rises and skyscrapers - Tower of Oriental Pearl, World Financial Center ... and the 100 meter wide century boulevard.

Considering that urban dwellers used to have 60 square meter apartments, now they are more likely to have apartments the size of 120 - 160 square meters. It is o wonder that old or traditional residential areas such as Li-Nong in Shanghai, Hu-Tong in Beijing have been demolished for 16 - 24 story apartment buildings.

In Beijing, there are several significant architectural additions, notably the Egg (i.e. The national center for performing arts) near the Tian-An-Men Square. We went into the Egg for a concert by national Orchestra the first night we were at Beijing.

The other significant and attractive new addition is the Olympic Park, which includes The Bird Nest (National Stadium ), and The Water Cube (National Swimming Center) for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. We happened to visit the park on the hottest day of the summer so far, it was worthwhile to take the heat.

The ground transportation

The traffic in the three cities is horrific, it is not only that there seems to have traffic jams all the time, but also that drivers, bikers and pedestrians do not treat traffic rules seriously. I saw 4 vehicles driven side by side in two lanes, left turn cars did not yield to through traffic, of course there is no way that a car would yield to pedestrians and vice versa. I also frequently observed that cars turn left from right most lane or turn right from left most lane! I did not observe lane changing signals from any vehicles. I believe that many off rush hour jams are due to the fact that drivers are not following traffic rules. Most people just drive by guts, cross streets by guts. I dare not to drive in any of the three cities but can cross a street gingerly.

Amazingly, despite the disorder, I only witnessed one small traffic incident in the 15 day stay in China. I guess that it is because that people are used to the situations and the traffic is slow in the cities - speed limit 25mph (40kmph). Among the three cities, traffic wise, Shanghai is the best, Wuhan is the worst.

A positive change in Beijing and Wuhan is that the smog is not as bad as it was 5 years ago.

Subways/light rails

Fortunately, both Shanghai and Beijing have highly developed subway and/or light rail system for us to avoid the mess on the surface roads. Shanghai has 10 subway/light rail lines, Beijing has 13 subway lines, in addition to their massive bus lines. I was told that Wuhan is to build its subway systems soon. We enjoyed Shanghai's light rail right off the airport terminal. It cost us just 28Yuan in a air conditioned rail cart, with one transfer to arrive at our hotel. It would have cost us 200Yuan if we took taxi.

Subway/light rail is my preferred means of transportation at these cities. It not only provides safe, inexpensive transportation, but also provides me chances for a closer observations of the general public .

The sea of People

A major event at Shanghai when we were there was World Trade Expo. Daily visitors to the Expo was numbered at above 400,000; during weekend or holiday the number rose above 500,000! We were told that one has to wait in line for 8 hours to get a ticket to visit an attractive exhibition hall, e.g. that of China or Saudi Arabia, and 2 more hours in line to get in to the exhibition the next day. Because of these, we did not even try to visit the Expo.

Subway trains are typically full most of the time; at rush hour, not only the trains are packed, the subway stations are packed. Fortunately we were vacationers, we could avoid the rush hours.

The day we visited Nanjing Road - the shopping magnet of Shanghai, despite rain, the street was full of people. The huge summer palace in Beijing was packed on the relatively cool, sunny day we visited there. As a matter of fact, it does not matter where we went, any interesting place would be full of people.

Despite the large crowd everywhere, the main streets and attractions in all three cities were basically free of littering and reasonably clean and tidy - a huge improvement over the past; though not quite so at minor/side streets. Again Shanghai is the best of the 3 for cleanness, it is clean even at side streets.

Under the surface

People seems to be busy to make more money and enjoy the prosperity. But I did sense some sort of tension and discontent beneath the surface from two small observations.

In Beijing, after a dinner of our extended family at Quan Ju De - the famous restaurant for roasted Beijing duck, in-laws went home, we strolled along the famous Chang An Je road to Tian An Men square. We were surprised to see SWAT teams were deploying at every Major intersections along the road at dusk. When we reached Tian An Men square, we were told by security that it was closed at dusk. I was not aware of any special event or terrorist alert.

The tour guide for our Shanghai-in-a-day tour, while marveling the most expensive apartment buildings in Shanghai, told us about the new 5 classes in urban China - grey collar - non-skilled migrant labours, blue collar - skilled labours, white collar - professionals, gold collar - executives making over 1 million yuan a year and then she stopped and quizzed the group - what is the name of the fifth and top class? Platinum? I guessed. No, it is black collar! Who belongs to the class? "public servant", a.k.a. the government employees - they may make much less than gold collar - but most powerful - may be better labeled as people's masters. The group laughed and to tone down her most political comment of the tour, she jokingly said those in the group reacting to to her comments with a straight face must be black collars.

Coincidentally a guy named Wen Qiang, a former police chief of the City of Chong Qing, whose death penalty for corruption was upheld by Chinese Supreme Court, was executed on July 7. People in Chong Qing celebrated the execution.

The still deepening huge chasm between rich and poor and the prevalent corruptions of government officials are among the most serious issues facing the Chinese government.

I pray for my relatives and friends that China will continue its economic growth while making peaceful political reform.

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