A Tronkie Travellogue
Day 18: Beijing, China
The entrance to City Golf Greenery at Jiangzhuanghu, the community where my uncle's family lives. "Fifty-five North American villas" reads the street-facing side of the above arch. The contrast in architectural styles makes this development a microcosm of Westernization, an enclave set apart from the surrounding city - but not as sharply as you might think.
Dinner is at a Shanghai-style restaurant called Lulu. We are joined by a VIP family: a bureau chief of the Communist Party of China (CPC) whose wife is a state media journalist, and whose son, recently graduated from university with a computer science degree, is one of the principals of a small internet media startup.
Communism in China
I have not mentioned Chinese communism much, but a few things are certain: the imagery and cultural expression of socialism is omnipresent. In some ways this is highly incongrous with the evidence of successful capitalism permeating the whole socioeconomic fabric of China. The continuing economic boom has doubled the size of the economy nine times (i.e., multiplied the GDP by a factor of 29 or about 512) in 25 years, according to a 2005 Time cover article. However, like the banners strung out at intersections and on buildings exhorting people to respect the state and love it fervently, one can see constant reminders that communism is still the seat of political power and prestige.
As much as Chinese businesspeople and consumers have embraced de facto capitalism through this unbridled growth, it is nominally still a communist country, with trappings of Marxism: public ownership of property, socialized health care and education, et cetera. "Trappings" is the operative word. On Chang An Da Jie (the Great Avenue of Everlasting Peace), a central boulevard that passes through Tiananmen Square, you can still see a "long live the glorious Chinese Communist Party" banner. The CEO of Haier, one of Wal-Mart's top suppliers of refrigerators, HVAC units, and home appliances, makes a few tens of thousands of RMB per year on paper - meaning that all of his personal luxuries officially belong to the state and are provided to him as a reward in recognition of his service.
I am just beginning to understand the barest minimum about the history of communism and democracy in China, a study to which my late grandfather, Professor Tien-Min Li, devoted his later life. As a child, I heard excerpts or read translated passages from his books on Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. For those of us born in the USA, though, hearing bits and pieces of the story just scratches the surface. If you have never studied Chinese cultural history to comprehend the roots of its social, political, and economic changes, it really takes seeing these changes in motion to develop even a glimmer of understanding of what is happening today.
Understanding what can and is likely to happen tomorrow is yet another story. My colleague Shing I Chang in the K-State IMSE department has recommended Thomas Friedman's The World Is Flat to me several times, and as you may know, it is on my short list. Seeing my uncle give a copy to the young entrepreneur who dined with us tonight reminded me that I definitely need to read and think carefully about it, as soon as I go home and get my own copy.
A digression on dinner and state-owned wineries
My uncle tells them some of our family's personal history and we hear a bit of theirs. Meanwhile, I discover that cabernet wines in China are extraordinarily dry, and not in a good way. If you visit China and have occasion to try Changyu, I recommend something other than their cabernets. Having tried only one wine, I won't hazard a guess as to why the vintage produced by this state-owned winery is so below par compared to Californian red wines, but it is not going to change overnight.