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Notes From My Trip to China

China overwhelms you -- in a positive way. There is the history, the culture, and the food. There is the size of its cities and the presence of so many people. There is the natural beauty of its mountains, lakes, and rivers. It's hard to convey everything we saw, so I'll focus on some of the broader themes of our experience (as compared to a travelogue).

You say you want a revolution ...

Construction cranes filled the sky of the Chinese cities we visited, adding ever more high rises to the seemingly endless vista of apartment buildings. How could Beijing (population 22 million), Xian (8.5 million), and Chengdu (14 million) become any denser?

Arguably the most influential revolution in China was not the communist one led by Mao Zedong in the first half of the 20th century, but the opening up of China's economy to the West by Deng Xiaoping a little over 30 years ago. It was Deng who paved the way for high speed trains, modern highways, designer stores, and, of course, McDonald's.

Despite China having made large strides economically by tilting more toward capitalism, the authoritarian regime ushered in by Mao still remains. The government strictly limits free speech and the right to assemble. Political dissension is not tolerated and religious freedom is highly circumscribed. And -- horrors! -- Google and Facebook are blocked.

But our guides, likely portraying the party line, don't seem to mind what most Americans would find intolerable. The reason may be best illustrated by the 100 year old grandfather of our guide from the beautiful walled city of Pingyao. "Grandpa" lived through wars that saw the end of the reign of the emperors, the brutal occupation by Japan, and the rise of the communist party. He endured extreme poverty throughout, including the deadly bungling of the economy by Mao. Now, however, Grandpa and his extended family have a decent place to live and food to eat. Life is suddenly much better for a lot of people.

Our guides argued that freedom is a luxury and strong rule is needed to govern 1.4 billion people. As an American, it's hard to shake the belief that freedom is a fundamental right, not a luxury. Other Asian countries, such as South Korea, seem to be functioning quite well as a democracy.

But if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao ...

I found it difficult to see the rehabilitation of Mao as an avuncular, George Washington figure. (A number of our drivers had busts of the Chairman sitting on their dashboard.) Mao's actions, after all, led to the deaths of tens of millions of people via the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Our guides excused this away as "mistakes were made" or "he was influenced by other people." This view was advanced even though our guides have heard stories from their relatives who had suffered through these years.

Our guides focused on what they saw as the positive aspects of Mao -- the one who helped unify a weak China and to create a strong nation that stood up to the West. Traveling affords you the ability to hear different perspectives. In this case, it was a story of a powerless China controlled by foreign interests such as Great Britain and then subjected to the barbarous treatment of Japan before and during World War II. The Chinese are proud of their rapid modernization and their strengthened position on the world stage.

Very superstitious, writings on the wall ...

We found the Chinese people to be very friendly, except in a line. Actually, there is no such thing as an orderly queue, only crazy scrums where the most aggressive prevail. You never quite get used to being elbowed by elderly women as they cut in front of you to get on a train. You know you have begun to adopt the culture when you have thoughts of shoving back.

I was not particularly comfortable with the lack of personal space. It's more than being in crowded cities. It's just odd having total strangers get pretty close to you for no apparent good reason (as if one exists).

My cultural bias caused me to have difficulty dealing with the role of luck in China. Feng shui, astrology and lucky dates and numbers play an ever-present role in daily existence. Every aspect of life seems to influence a person's fortune. Architecture, for example, is not just an aesthetic endeavor, but a way to ward off bad spirits and retain the good ones.

And in the end ...

China's economy has grown dramatically in a very short time, raising millions of people out of poverty and into the middle class. Of course, millions more remain in need. But other countries, even developed Western ones, face similar problems. The growth has not been without a cost though. Consider the incredible pollution mess that China must solve.

There is no assurance that China's economic success, upon which the world economy has begun to rely, can maintain such a steep trajectory. Demographic changes due to the one child policy may inhibit growth. Overcapacity in housing and manufacturing are starting to occur. Central planning and the government control of major industries may work for a while, but they inevitably lead to inefficiencies that sap the strength of an economy.

Every country must constantly deal with a myriad of problems. You never know which ones are equipped to adequately handle them. In the meantime, it's well worth enjoying China's unique culture and sights.