Do I dare trying to make sense of China?

Our trip to China was a mind stretcher on several fronts. We had underestimated nearly everything about China, except for Internet access which we had greatly overestimated. Immaculate airports. High rises. Cars. Capitalism. Individual ownership. Pride. Energy. Beauty. Soldiers. Police. Fear. Caution. Whispers. Not now.

It was a truly exceptional trip, leaving our heads spinning with new curiosity about what we saw and heard. The amount of new development in booming Beijing, glitzy Shanghai, illuminated Xi’an, pristine Guilin and other cities we saw was simply jaw-dropping.  Of course, we were taken to a well-tested tourist route that does not necessarily represent the whole of China.  Poverty is acknowledged and was visible to us on a five-hour bus ride in central China, through small towns, past rice paddies, and scores of other crops .  (I remind myself that poverty is also visible in countless parts of the U. S. and most of the rest of the world.)

The Communist government’s recent embrace of capitalism has unleashed an energy in China that seems to even surprise and mesmerize its own citizens. Skyscrapers and high-rise condos continue to spring up in astonishing numbers, with forests of construction cranes too numerous to count in passing.  Home ownership began to be promoted by government officials about thirty years ago, and building has proceeded unabated as hoards have crowded into cities from rural areas. Cars have displaced millions of bicycles, although bicycles still have a visible but secondary presence. We were told that Western medicine makes up about ninety percent of medical practice in Chinese hospitals, exploding a big misconception of mine. Young urban Chinese adults dress like those in New York, London, and Paris.

We traveled over 4,000 miles in China, including about five short in-country flights, bus tours in cities and long stretches of countryside, dazzling cruises on the Yangtze and Li Rivers, and numerous walks into cultural gems that were impossible to imagine. Reading about China and watching films about it are a far cry from first-hand observations. Of course, this is one of the major reasons we travel in the first place, to see for ourselves what can’t reliably be imagined.

The Great Wall — A Tiny Bit of Its 4,000 Miles

Armed with our smart phones and assurances from our service provider about how to make the most of them in China, we soon learned that our fancy phones (really pocket computers) were next to useless in China. We could use them to check the time and date, but not much more.  After several days of frustration, I took a Beijing subway from our hotel to the retail outlet for my smart phone to find out why I could not get a sustained Internet connection. An employee about thirty years of age explained to me in a matter-of-fact way, in the privacy of a noisy crowd of customers in the store, that the government had blocked Facebook and Twitter, and that Internet connections themselves were unreliable.

No kidding!  In eighteen days in China I had succeeded in sending only four super-brief e-mails to family and making only one Skype call without video capability. Wi-Fi connections in our otherwise upscale hotels were available only in hotel lobbies, not in our rooms, and many attempted e-mails “timed out”  or just disappeared into the ether. Even text messages, assured to be easy by our Austin service provider’s pre-trip instructions, failed on every attempt.  Several of our travel mates, more technically astute than I, had similar problems with their smart phones. Misery does love company, giving a very low level of compensation.

More disheartening than the suppression of information channels in the various places we traveled, though not surprising, was the response to a question I put to one of our local guides as we strolled the massive Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I asked, knowing this would be a sensitive question,

“Where is the spot that the famous photo was taken of the protester who stood in front of an oncoming tank during the 1989 uprising?”

The guide, normally open and informative, flinched as if I had jabbed him with a sharp stick. He leaned over toward me, looking around nervously, and said in a very low voice, almost a whisper,

“We can’t talk about this here. We can talk later.”

He moved away quickly.  We never did talk about this later. I could have raised the question in a more private setting later in the trip, but I did not. It seemed to me that if our guide did not bring it up later, then he probably didn’t want to and I should leave it alone. This example of the suppression of free speech left me with an icy feeling.  What must it be like to live in such a society?

Numerous members of the police and military were milling around the huge crowd in the Square. We were warned at the beginning of the stop not to take pictures of any of them up close, especially with them looking toward the camera. It would be alright to photograph them from the side, in profile, but to be discreet about it and not get too close. What did those fudge words mean?

Moments later, as our group made our way slowly past the Great Hall of the People toward the Forbidden City, where much of the story behind the movie, “The Last Emperor,” took place, a member of our tour group pointed out two soldiers who grabbed a man out of the crowd about thirty feet from us and lead him in handcuffs toward a nearby van. Did he not get the word about taking up-close pictures of soldiers? Did he ask an “offensive” or barred question?  Was he intoxicated?  We don’t know.

A few days later we were cruising on the misty and majestic Yangtze River, a four-day float on an American-owned boat with stops along the way and side trips on smaller boats up some of the beautiful tributaries to the Yangtze. The landscape of steep, wooded mountains, sharp peaks, and cliffs was breathtaking. We toured and cruised through the massive Three Gorges Project, a vast system of dams and locks that eleven years ago flooded hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland and displaced hundreds of thousands of people to higher ground. Due to a serious drought over much of China, the water level was about twelve feet below the normal water line. There were murmurings of trouble ahead as a result of this massive environmental shake-up.

A final two days in Hong Kong provided a time to depressurize and reflect on the whole trip a bit.  Here, recent building has been astonishing as well, but Hong Kong also got a head start under ninety-nine years of British rule. The city sparkles. China agreed to protect free speech in Hong Kong and to preserve its institutions and culture as a “Special Administrative Region” when it resumed control after the handover by the British in 1997. Hong Kong citizens can travel freely to other countries, while average citizens on the Chinese mainland have no such freedom. Our local guide observed that Hong Kong is changing China more than China is changing Hong Kong.  That appears to be an accurate assertion based on our necessarily brief observations.

So we look ahead and wonder if China’s embrace of capitalism, or the continuing evolution of the Internet and social media, or environmental degradation, or other factors combining with these will one day lead to a new birth of freedom for its people. Will an upstanding Chinese citizen in the future be able to openly answer a tourist’s question, while a soldier calmly looks on, about where exactly did that 1989 protester walk out in front of an oncoming tank in Tiananmen Square and stand bravely there for whatever was to come?