A Travellerspoint blog

Sometimes you just have to see for yourself

Beijing, China

View Around the World! - Part 2 on Where2FromHere's travel map.

You may know the image - my wife and my mother-in-law shown below. At times, our preconceptions "color" our thinking and we think we know, from what we've heard, what we're about to "see." Such was the case for me, expecting what Beijing would be like through my "American" eyes, only to find the totally unexpected!


After navigating the tedious and thorough Chinese immigration process, we were met by your guide, Jason. Our grandson, also named Jason, might be interested to know his name is an acronym. Our guide told us his Chinese name was long and meant "Soldier" which he didn't care for, so he "picked" the name Jason out of a book, and found it interesting that it could stand for: July, August, September, October, November.

As it turned out, we were the first large contingent of American visitors to return to Beijing since the COVID-19 pandemic. Jason was a mature Chinese national, well-traveled, fluent in English, and had a sense of humor. Despite the pervasive presence of cameras on the buses and throughout the city, he was surprisingly candid in his commentary about communist China. This openness was somewhat unexpected, given the typically guarded nature of discussions around sensitive political topics. Jason began the tour by discussing what he called the five "T's" - the key factors that have caused conflict between the Western world and China. Can you name them?
Trade: This includes disputes over trade policies, tariffs, and economic competition between the West and China. As a major topic in the news, this was an easy one for the fellow Americans to guess.
Taiwan: The Taiwan Strait remains a source of ongoing tensions and potential conflict between China and Taiwan, with the U.S. playing a role in trying to maintain stability in the region. This is part of the disagreements over territorial claims in regions like the South China Sea.
Tiananmen Square: The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests were a pivotal moment in modern Chinese history, as the government brutally suppressed a large-scale pro-democracy movement, with lasting political and social consequences. For those readers, perhaps not alive at the time or too young to be aware, the uprising began in April with students who gathered in the square to call for greater democracy, free speech, and an end to corruption. By May, the number of protestors grew to an estimated million. Premier Li Peng, decided to impose martial law and use force to end the protests. On the night of June 3-4, the military moved in and opened fire on the protesters, killing hundreds if not thousands of civilians. Troops also crushed protesters with tanks and armored vehicles. The crackdown was a major turning point, crushing the pro-democracy movement and reinforcing the Communist Party's authoritarian control.
Tibet: China invaded and occupied Tibet in 1949, leading to ongoing tensions, conflict, and human rights abuses against the Tibetan people. The Chinese government tightly controls and represses Tibetan culture, religion, and political expression, making it a highly sensitive topic.
Technology: There are conflicts over technology transfer, intellectual property rights, and the race for technological dominance between the West and China. This last point was recently emphasized with the meeting in March between Chairman Xi and businessmen from the US and around the world. Beijing is trying to revive confidence and stabilize foreign trade and investment as the country faces its biggest economic challenges in decades.
My "western" vantage point remains skeptical and this was further reinforced by the article I recently read in Harvard Business Review, What the West gets wrong about China. It's attached in case you're interested. https://hbr.org/2021/05/what-the-west-gets-wrong-about-china#
One additional "T" was hinted at, but not mentioned (perhaps because it was just too political) relative to our upcoming election, and Presidential candidate, Trump.

While the "T's" - Trade, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square, Tibet, and Technology (and Trump) - represent the key areas of tension between China and the West, our recent two-day visit to Beijing revealed some unexpected observations that went beyond these well-known points of conflict.
Specifically, we were surprised to encounter the vibrant cultural traditions of Buddhism on Tomb Sweeping Day, as well as the phenomenon of China's "ghost cities" - vast, modern urban centers with very few actual residents. Additionally, we were struck by the sheer beauty, cleanliness and grandeur of Beijing itself, with its iconic landmarks and meticulously planned cityscape within a country of 1.4 billion people.

Tomb Sweeping Day, also known as Ancestors' Day, is an important traditional Chinese festival centered around commemorating and honoring one's ancestors. The key activities include visiting gravesites, cleaning the tombs, making and burning ritual offerings, and engaging in ancestor worship. The festival is celebrated 15 days after the Spring Equinox, so its exact date varies each year but always falls in early April. This year, it was observed while we were there. As we drove from Tianjin port into the city of Beijing, a 3-hour journey, we were struck by the prevalence of tomb sweeping rituals throughout the landscape. Mounds of dirt covered in flowers were visible not only in sizable cemeteries, but also in fields, along major highways, and in wooded areas.



What we expected was a smog-ridden country. Our guide joked that since it was tomb-sweeping day when burning of paper ritual, it was bound to be hazy. Yet we were greeted with a beautiful, spring day with clear sunny skies and trees bursting with flowering buds.

As you may already know China is the world's second most populous country. It has experienced rapid urbanization in recent decades, with the urban population now accounting for 64.6% of the total population. Beijing, the capital city of China, the country's second largest city after Shanghai, is home to a staggering 22.19 million people. Given the immense size of Beijing's population, one might expect to encounter a city plagued by slums, homelessness, and unsightly graffiti. Additionally, the fact that China is a communist-governed country gave me the previous impression that the people live under the oppressive "thumb" of the government. It is true that Beijing has an extensive network of surveillance cameras monitoring the movements of both locals and visitors. This pervasive use of technology for security and control purposes is a well-documented aspect of life in China.


However, beyond the omnipresent surveillance, we also observed the ingenuity and adaptability of the Chinese people. For example, we witnessed the local version of "door dash" - a creative system of food and goods delivery that has flourished in response to the city's dense urban environment and high population. Additionally, we were struck by the innovative ways in which Beijingers have found to keep warm and clean while navigating the city on motorcycles. They have developed unique solutions to ensure their comfort and hygiene on the go, with blanketed handlebars and skirted fronts on their cycles.


Perhaps the most striking and unexpected finding during our visit was the sheer scale and sophistication of China's infrastructure, even in the most rural areas. As we traveled through the countryside, we were amazed to encounter massive cities seemingly materializing out of the landscape, connected by wide, well-paved roads and an expansive network of highway bridges.


Interestingly, most of the buildings are vacant as a result of the combination of overbuilding, debt-fueled development, real estate speculation, (90% of the population owns property compared to only 7% invested in the stock market) and uneven urbanization patterns which has resulted in the proliferation of these "ghost cities," remaining largely unoccupied despite the massive investments in their construction.

What was particularly remarkable was the incredible cleanliness of the environment. Not a speck of litter could be seen anywhere, even along the highways. Furthermore, the roadsides were adorned with magnificent plantings of trees and shrubs, showcasing the country's commitment to large-scale landscaping and environmental preservation. The level of development, connectivity, and environmental stewardship that we witnessed far exceeded our expectations. Other than the fact that China has a large workforce and a huge population to house, It was truly beyond comprehension how China had managed to construct such an impressive and well-maintained infrastructure, even in the most remote rural areas. This challenged our preconceptions and left us in awe of the country's remarkable achievements in urban planning and public works (especially in light of the lack of results in the USA from programs such as "build back better", etc. whose massive financing was intended to improve roads, bridges and urban areas across our country.)

We had an interesting discussion with fellow travelers of the differences as a result of our country's economic policies vs. China. Much has to do with the differences between China's approach to quantitative easing (QE) and the approach taken by the United States:

  • China's central bank (PBOC) has a much smaller proportion of government debt on its balance sheet compared to the US Federal Reserve. Chinese government debt is only 3.8% of the PBOC's balance sheet, while it is 55% for the Fed. This gives China more flexibility to use monetary expansion through QE to support financial stability and structural reforms, rather than just stimulating the economy.
  • China is still running a current account surplus and has a net investment surplus of over $2 trillion (10% of GDP). This provides China with ample space to use monetary expansion through QE. In contrast, most major central banks, including the Fed, are now having to tighten monetary policy aggressively to combat high inflation.
  • While the Fed and other major central banks have used QE primarily to stimulate the economy and support financial stability, China was able to use a more targeted "QE with Chinese Characteristics" to support specific policy goals like making vast infrastructure improvements and environmental beautification.

One thing that remains constant, no matter whether we are in Asia or America, is that kids will be kids. This universal truth was on full display during our visit to a local shopping mall, where we stumbled upon the most amazing "Playland" within a store. This vibrant, interactive space was filled with an array of engaging activities and attractions. From live bunnies and chicks to goldfish and race cars, there was something to captivate the imagination of children of all ages. A go-cart track, a platform for practicing dance moves, and bins of toys to win through games - and every imaginable form of entertainment offered a wonderland of fun!


Although I would never trade the personal freedoms and civil liberties granted to all U.S. legal citizens, I have to admit that our visit to China challenged some of my previous perceptions. What I witnessed with my own eyes was incredibly different from the image I had envisioned.
Stay tuned for my upcoming blog with more insights and reflections on this surprising part of the Asian world.

Posted by Where2FromHere 04:51 Archived in China

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