China looks outward and upward — but for how long?

As I sat entranced by Tchaikovsky performed by Russia’s Gergiev and Mariinsky Orchestra at Beijing’s sprawling and ultramodern National Center for the Performing Arts this weekend, I was struck again by the country’s stark contrasts. By the thousands, people here delight in orchestras, dance troupes and theater companies from across the world. Demonstrating its scientific prowess, China just last week launched a rocket carrying the Tiangong-1 lab module into orbit, a step toward a manned space station. And, economically, China’s robust growth is making the rest of the world pale.

And yet, China is also a place where indoor plumbing is a dream for squatters and the poor who live in ramshackle houses, including some still scattered about the Tsinghua University campus. For all its openness to people and companies from around the world, the country still shuts out such powerful communication tools as Facebook and Twitter and muzzles its own knockoffs of such social networks. And university graduates who go to work for foreign companies in their offices here – whether media such as Bloomberg News or global manufacturers such as Procter & Gamble – can’t get needed Beijing residency permits, crucial papers that give them to right to do everything from buy cars to send their kids to public schools.

I suppose such contrasts – and contradictions – are nothing new here. Emperors and empresses lived in opulence so lavish that long canals were built to let them travel in comfort between palaces (this weekend, we visited one such canal linking the Summer Palace with a central Beijing spot). At the same time, peasants starved in the countryside. More recently, as a middle class has surged into prominence, residents in Beijing, Shanghai and other cities have been able to snap up spacious gated-community apartments, cars and other amenities they could scarcely imagine when they were young. Flashy shopping malls, many stocked with pricey western goods, fill architecturally fascinating towers that have risen by the hundreds in the last decade in Beijing. And yet, some of the poor in rural areas attend schools with cinderblocks for seats, no books and no real hope for the future.

Economists measure disparities in income in societies, and China’s ranking is surprising. While the U.S. looks worse, at 39th place in terms of distribution, thanks to all those zillionaires President Obama wants to tax, China isn’t far behind, at 52nd place. This ranking, the Gini index, is based on fairly old data (from 2007 in China’s case), and I suspect the measure will worsen when newer numbers come in. But already it suggests that China’s flood of new wealth hasn’t lifted all boats. Indeed, China’s leaders are so concerned about disparities that they have banned certain words in advertising – “supreme,” “high class” and “luxury,” for instance – apparently believing that such terms only spawn dangerous envy.

As for its ambivalent dealings with the West, China has long alternated between periods of openness and times of circling the wagons. Its leaders have adopted Western ways only to shrug them off. They have shut the borders when they felt the contacts were hurting them. These days, China is pushing its promising youngsters to learn English – teaching it from the earliest years – and facilities from the subway here to signs on school buildings, in stores and on major locations boast English. I am teaching in the Global Business Journalism program, an example of China’s openness, as Western journalists teach their techniques to Chinese graduate students. This sort of openness would have been unthinkable only a few decades ago.

Like any developing economy, China’s system has a long way to go. It has come remarkably far since it set out on the once-reviled capitalist road in the early 1980s. Even as it pushes ahead technologically – as symbolized by Tiangong-1, its gleaming towers in Beijing and the bullet trains that zip around the country – it will continue to grapple with problems spawned by income inequality. Growing – and sharing — the wealth, and opening the doors more to the outside are unlikely to proceed evenly. The march forward may be marked by occasional steps backward – as with the government’s attitude toward Facebook. But, unlike earlier times when China’s leaders sought to close the country off from the rest of the world, it may be that such insularity proves impossible in a globally integrated economy. For hundreds of millions of Chinese, the open door will lead to a dazzling future.

China: land of contradictions

As we walked to lunch with faculty and a couple administrators the other day, we passed demonstrators holding a sit-in outside the Tsinghua administrative offices. Their placards told of how they wanted more money for the destruction of their homes, which was planned to make way for faculty housing. Our hosts, chagrined by the protest, nonetheless noted that this was an example of free speech. These people, it seemed, had a right to make their grievances known.

It seemed a lot like home. But, then at lunch, we got some friendly advice from a Party official who is a fellow academic. Be mindful of what we say in class, we were counseled. Chinese students, especially those from the countryside, give teachers enormous deference in this Confucian society. Moreover, with social media alive and well in China – through local knockoffs of Facebook and Twitter – anything we say may find an audience well beyond the classroom. Privately, say what you want. Publicly, be discreet. There’s a difference in China between the private and public realms.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But, what a perplexing country this is. On the one hand, it has embraced so much about the West. Just look at the soaring skylines in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And consider the recurring 10 percent-plus annual growth rates that put the U.S. and the rest of the economically turbulent West to shame. The Chinese are setting the pace for the world.

School of Economics and Management
Their passion for capitalism is obvious. The school of economics and management here is a towering modern compound fronting on the strip of stunning buildings that adorn a stretch near the main gate. Inside one of the several buildings, portraits of Nobel Prize-winning economists make a long line in the lobby – seemingly, all are Americans, including New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. By contrast, the university’s school of Marxism is tucked off in a less impressive quarter of campus, housed in a small, older building. I’ve heard Marxism is regarded as a matter of philosophy, nothing quite so practical as economics and management. Certainly, there’s no doubt who these folks want their students to look up to.

Merit is also prized here, whether in school or in government. To join the Communist Party, our colleague explained, one must be in the top of one’s class academically. The Party is for the elite, those who can lead the country, and getting through the application process is tough and time-consuming. Only about six percent of the 1.3 billion people in the country qualify for Party membership (a surprising share, even if that amounts to 80 million folks).

Indeed, the Party leadership is composed of practical men with impressive academic backgrounds. Some have graduated from Tsinghua, with degrees in subjects such as water engineering. The current president, Hu Jintao, is an alum. The children of some of these men now study at Western institutions such as Harvard. These are bright people who, it seems, take seriously the need to intelligently manage a country where vast numbers still live in poverty a world apart from privileged city-dwellers. They seem to want to spread the wealth and manage the growth of their country well.

And yet, there is a limit to how far western approaches go here. I bumped up against it the other day, when I wanted to shoot some photos at a central athletic field on campus. Large numbers of students paraded about the sprawling field in military uniforms. Military training, a student here told me, is required of all freshmen. Indeed, days earlier I saw similar troops of students marching around campus and singing songs of loyalty to the nation. It was reminiscent of years ago in the U.S., when students had to go through ROTC training on many campuses.

Struck me as interesting. But a fellow in a black athletic outfit thought otherwise. “Delete,” he told me politely — but firmly — as he appeared out of nowhere. This was arguably a public place, and certainly would have been considered so in the U.S. Further, he was not in uniform and didn’t say who he was. But I was in no position to argue. I am, after all, a guest in this country and must behave as one. I certainly don’t wish to offend my hosts, whose graciousness has gone above and beyond.

School of Marxism
Odd thing is, other military events on campus seem to be fair game. For instance, I was able days before to photograph a flag-raising ceremony conducted by young people in front of the main administration building. Chinese people were similarly taking photos. That, it seemed, was acceptable even as the larger parade was not.

So, every once in a while, I expect I’ll run into reminders that the rules are different here. As long as I am a guest, I will comply. Anything else would be ungracious, to say the least.

An American in Beijing

Each morning, I hop on my bike and trundle over to the journalism school at Tsinghua University. The ride takes me a bit over a mile through what may be the prettiest campus in the world. Streets lined with tall trees, dazzling colorful gardens, striking sculpture and stunning modern buildings that loom hard by hovel-like worker quarters and sleek dorms. Depending on the time, I may be joined by hundreds of other cyclists, mostly students rolling along silently to class. For an American, it’s an alternate universe.

Like much that I’ve experienced in my two weeks in China so far, my daily routine here is by turns delightful, intimidating and fascinating. When the sky is blue and the sun shines, little could be more intoxicating. When it’s smoggy and my chest feels heavy in the haze that sits just a few hundred feet away, it’s something else – LA in the fifties an LA native here told me. The tai chi practitioners doing their meditative ballet in a garden spot near a pagoda-like park building are hypnotic. So, too, is the guy playing a Chinese flute in the trees nearby. But spending 90 minutes in a bank trying to make a deposit is anything but charming – and neither is the bank guard striding up and down with a menacing baton (and this is at the center of campus!). And showers when the hot water goes out are, well, bracing.

Then there’s the food. So far, I’ve eaten fish that has stared back at me (mackerel, actually) while avoiding donkey meat and black fungus (a mushroom, I’m told), and I’ve downed lots of odd vegetables (who knew cabbage could be spiced so well that it’s actually good?) For an omnivore, this would be a delight. They put lots of everything in everything, and there have been a few things I’ve downed that I haven’t quite been sure of. For my picky tastes, it’s a challenge – though I have found much pizza, Progresso and Campbell’s soup and the sugariest cereals around at the grocery store. My teeth would not survive a year of this stuff.

It’s an adventure getting around this city of 17 million or so souls. The broad boulevards lined with towering glass-and-steel office buildings and condo complexes here do have red lights at the intersections, but they seem only advisory, especially to the hordes on bikes. It’s a wonder that there aren’t injured cyclists and furious motorists everywhere, since it’s a battle royal everywhere on the crowded roads. Yet somehow the natives are comfortable with it; everywhere, girls sit sidesaddle on specially built seats behind their pedaling boyfriends, How they stay on, looking quite contented, is a mystery to me.

Communicating with people has been surprisingly easy, though. Somehow, the shopkeepers know how much to charge me and I know how much to pay. I know now how to order hot black tea – “hong cha” – and I can understand when they say “here” or “to go.” Pointing works just fine for the pastries at Starbucks, a haunt of expats since it has free Internet and pricey tastes of home. I have even managed in the Subway sandwich shop to get tuna subs with the fixings I like. And moving about town on the real subway here – an ultramodern graffiti-free system – is easy, since it sports lots of English, including in the announcements of stops. The only problem is that the crowds would make a New Yorker feel claustrophobic. And the scents are, well, unusual.

Beijing is cosmopolitan in a way that no other place is, I think. It seems like a city eager to open itself to the world. Lots of expats. Lots of shops, including very pricey ones, that cater to them. Apple is huge here and Adidas has a big shop. There’s a high-rise mall loaded with such places. Grocery stores here stock goods familiar to westerners (though the Wal-Mart here is like no other I’ve seen, with shouting butchers and fishmongers hawking their wares, which are spread out on counters in the multistory store). A honcho with Wal-Mart China, a friendly former U.S. Foreign Service guy I’ve spent a little time with, told me the outfit is designed to serve the local markets and I did have to look elsewhere for food I wanted. Still, there is Pizza Hut (nearly fine dining here, with long queues to get in) and French bakeries.

I am looking forward to getting a better handle on this place, which can be overwhelming at times. My students – probably the most diligent and eager I have ever encountered – will teach me a lot about it. I am keen to see the journalism they produce. And I’m thrilled about the prospect of seeing more of this at-times magical place. Forbidden City, Ming Tombs, Summer Palace – all await me once the students go on a nine-day holiday in early October. Already, students are lining up for precious railroad tickets home. The trains will be jammed and, I hope, I may have the Beijing sights to myself and just a few zillion others.