“Chinpressions” – Impressions from my China visit – Part : 2

The last time I visited China which was incidentally my 1st visit to that country was a trip to Shanghai and Shanghai is what Mumbai is to India – a commercial and financial capital.  This trip from the 9-12th Oct, 2012, however was to Beijing – the capital of the People’s Republic of China – again a very short business trip to the “Delhi” of China.

On top of my mind was to see how the “Olympicsization” of Beijing was holding up 4 years hence.  This week was the 1st week after the “Golden Week” holidays and there was a good chance that I wouldn’t have made this trip at all.  Just managed to get my visa few hours prior to my departure thanks to some intervention of my college mate.

The airport which makes the 1st impression of a city was bit of a disappointment.   On alighting out of the plane after a 6 hour flight had to scramble to find a rest room!!!  The Beijing airport though good, didn’t seem great.  The airport wore a deserted look on my return in the night that too just at 9.00 pm! The Duty free shops had pulled their shutters and finding a food court or a restaurant in that not too late hour of the night turned out to be a nightmare.  Beijing had failed my 1st test.

Beijing has all the trappings of a large global metro city – super highways, bumper to bumper traffic, big cars, ..,.. Surprisingly I could hardly sight small cars!! Unlike Shanghai, which has a lot of skyscrapers, Beijing has more of medium tall, uniform buildings constructed with aesthetics as seemingly last priority.   The whole city resembles a town ship with uniform buildings.  Police presence that too quite aggressively armed is omnipresent.  Time and again we were alerted of the bad traffic scene in Beijing. But I must say that the traffic though very high was quite organised and was moving quite smoothly even during the morning rush hours. I was told that we were lucky on that count. Well we seemed to be lucky all the while we stayed in Beijing.

The Beijing Traffic

I was not so lucky on the food scene though. Being a vegetarian, my gastronomic needs have become frugal over the years while travelling abroad. I’m happy if I get something vegetarian to eat – pandering to the taste buds was really secondary. Beggars can’t be choosers you see!  When I had my local colleagues around during meal times, I had no problems with the food. However couple of times when we had to fend for ourselves, putting it across to the hotel staff on the “Vegetarian” needs turned me to a “Sridevi”.  In fact a short course on “Mandarin-Vandarin” before the trip would have been a great idea.  I was told that for the Olympics, China really went on an “English” overdrive to take care of the visiting guests. Well, one trace of that was not visible during my short stay. Even in a 5 star hotel, the staff struggled to comprehend our “English-Vinglish”!  There are hopes though. I was told that in the schools now, English is a mandatory language for the children. Maybe a trip to China after 10 years would throw up a different experience on the English front.

We were told that we would need more than half a day to cover the “Great Wall of China” which I was quite keen on. Since we didn’t have that kind of time, we had to settle with other tourist spots close by. A drive to Tiananmen Square was made possible.  For the local Chinese Tiananmen Square is a place of great cultural connect.  It houses a war memorial like monument, a mausoleum and one can see 2 gigantic visual displays today.  For the ‘Golden week’ the previous week, the entire square which can house I guess thousands of people, was well decked up and could see the sense of tourist importance.  However for visitors like us Tiananmen Square only brings memories of the 1989 killing of the students by the Chinese military.  There is obviously not one shred of evidence of that event around.  When I asked my local colleague what was the exact number of people killed in that massacre, the answer I got was “Secret”.  Having read that the number could be in thousands, while spending time in that square I couldn’t help spare a thought for the young lives which were taken away by their own protectors.  I also couldn’t resist thanking our stars and our founding fathers for guiding our nation in the path of democracy where we have freedom of expression as a fundamental right.

Tiananmen Square,1
At Tiananmen Square

The Chinese economy is in the news these days.  Well it has been in the news for more than a decade now. But just that this time the news is not good.  The GDP growth rate expected at 7.5 % this year will be lowest in the decade.  The transformation of China since the 90’s has been unbelievable. The government over the years has invested heavily for the growth and has helped lift people from poverty and raise income levels across the board.  About 25 mn. I-Phones are  expected to be sold in 2012!!! And I-phone is not a cheap product. With all this, what about the “General Happiness Index”?  Are people in general happier than before with the overall growth and all that jazz? Well, surprisingly or may be not so surprisingly the answer I got was on the negative.  With the growth tapering, there is a feeling that China must have gone for an overkill in terms of investment which is now not sustainable.  China also is on the cusp of a leadership change sometime in November.  Though it is not expected to bring any paradigm shift, uncertainties do exist I thought.  All these and the raising costs have brought their own insecurities in the minds of people.

The Giant Screens at Tiananmen Square

While in the taxi driving back to the Beijing Airport at the end of the short trip, comparison between India and China was obviously on my mind.  And I concluded that comparisons were odious.  In my formative years I was always of the opinion that in a country with very high population like India, it is almost impossible to solve its basic problems. China proved me wrong. It showed that it is possible to have world-class infrastructure, alleviate poverty in short times even in a populous country if a country shows political will to do so. Having said that, if I’ve to choose between a pot hole free express highway and freedom of expression, my choice will be for the latter.

P.S : A forceful break from social media thanks to the block of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress,… in China eventually proved that I was a confirmed “Likeaholic”!!!

You may like to read my earlier post on China : Chinpressions – Part 1.

0 thoughts on ““Chinpressions” – Impressions from my China visit – Part : 2”

  1. Nice one – Anand. A decade ago, China watchers armed with scant information about the next crop of Chinese leaders predicted that the Hu era would usher in political reforms to match China’s economic liberalizations. Today, China is much better positioned that it was in 2002 due to their investments in infrastructure. The middle class size in China is exponentially booming. Instead of liberalizing, the political control is more centralized – which is a challenge China will fight hard to overcome.
    More than six decades of Communist party and still there is dire need for political reforms. Maybe the Chinese situation needs a third front outside the princely and Communist Youth League is the way forward. Did you come across Sina Welbo? (China’s social / microblogging platform).

    As usual – an excellent post.

      1. Dear Anand, The conundrum is one of executing a long term reform vs start stop Vikas Yojnas…. People’s memories are (usually) short. I’ve been carefully reading Meg Whitman’s comments to the press over the last few weeks. She firmly believes to turn around HP, it would take no less than 5 years – which is a boring statement to the shareholders for example. However, that is the reality.
        Now, if you map that to what a country our size needs to overcome – the problem super-set itself is mind-boggling. If we need to turn things China’s way infrastructure-wise, we need to give the authorities a much longer time-frame to work this. No easy answers here.. but we’ve gotta put our foot down and make this a priority. At the end of the day we need a massive one time investment and a backing Central power that can at least stay in power as long as the project is finished. Reminds me of the Russian revolution when the common man sacrificed a meal to bump food exports. That would almost be impossible for any country today. However, what got you here (’47) won’t get you there.

        1. Hi Ramesh, Thanks for chipping in with your thoughts. We have to get politics out of the way of development and that seems a pipe dream for now ! 5 – 10 years of uninterrupted high economic growth can help reach some where. Do read my post on the “Politics of reforms” when you have the time. It’s an utopian solution though !

  2. I read your article with interest. I have not visited China but I feel their central planning with all its shortcomings is the way to go developing a a very large population. India , on the other hand has democracy and freedom of speech, yet freedom of speech and democracy has not led to a corruption free governments. Look at the scale of scams… While I may personally choose freedom over development like you, but if India needs to catch up with China.. it needs a strong central form of government… which Chinese communism has provided (good or bad depends upon the relevance with respect to time).. I feel Chinese communism is better .. it has at-least disciplined people…. a simple look at traffic in “MAD”ras will suffice….

  3. Really enjoyed reading the ‘Chinpressions’, narrated so well that I almost went in trans and found myself somewhere in the pictures you depicted. I enjoyed most the parts where ‘Mandarin Vendarin’ and ‘Political Will ‘ appeared and at the end I can say only one thing Freedom of Expression really takesover anything else. I thought Happiness is linked to it more than any thing else.
    Thank you Anand San for such a nicely crafted article.

  4. “…Beggars can’t be choosers you see! … Having said that, if I’ve to choose between a pot hole free express highway and freedom of expression, my choice will be for the latter.”…

    Sorry, but come again?

    On the other note, assuming that beggars do have a choice, then obviously they would choose to reject any food in exchange for “freedom” of speech that even the US doesn’t enjoy nowadays (never heard of “Politically correct” or wikileaks?) ?

    Have to conclude: many saintly spectacular beggars here then?

  5. Its laughable that you consider India Free. In what sense?
    Politicians and Bureaucrats determine your life – even without your knowledge.

    In China, you may not have the freedom to speak against establishment, but it is otherwise free from Crooks, Illiterate Politicians, Self-Serving Bureaurcrats and Poverty.

  6. Nice read, Anand.
    I was on an exchange semester last year at Peking University, and was surprised to find I was the only Indian out there, of the 1000s, there were 100’s of Germans and even as many Swedes (a country with only a 9 million population).
    I was repeated asked about the situation there from back home, and wondered why. And then I began skimming through TimesNows before my calls.

    I must admit I felt really good while in China, Chinese hospitality, the culture learning, and the friends I traveled with played a big part. We Indians must look (& even at time think) east as much as we look up to the west – after all jobs & growth’s happening there – and in unique ways.
    As a former web-journo I believe our Indian media, in its effort to entertain & compete, has not played a constructive role in bringing together ideas & learnings from different parts. Ask teenagers in India what comes first to their mind, when they think different parts of the world – Middle-East, China, for instance. So traveling around, especially to the neighborhood, isn’t probably the best learning experience, and definitely enriching.

    1. Hi Vinay, Thanks for taking your time to read the post and comment in detail. Mine was a short visit and my post is purely based on the impressions during that period. A longer stay may give different impressions. Thanks for your insights – certainly helps in getting a perspective.

  7. And oh about freedom, most if not all nightclubs in Beijing have Facebook, etc. We, the international students all had VPN and so access to all websites, even most Chinese students I knew of had access. All along I thought they wouldn’t be as news-savvy as us but they seemed to know all the latest, just as everyone else around the world – more so on the economy and the investment side. I find punishing the corrupt to be possibly their biggest challenge.
    However on the ‘freedom of speech’ front I felt completely free to speak my mind out. Infact right after Beijing I was a trip to Boston & NYC and had to think twice about freedom of speech there.
    So the 1989, 62, or any of the past years, didn’t have any effect on my freedom of speech in China, while there’s still the ghost of 2001 hanging over travelers traveling to the US.
    It’s time to think beyond incidents and stereotyping, and to move on with learning from each other.

  8. Granville Thevenin

    I like the helpful info you provide in your articles. I bookmark your blog and check again here frequently. I Best of luck for the next!

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