Visiting China Part 1

Returning to China after a decade was an amazing experience of rediscovery. In a country whose growth rate requires a new city map to be printed every three months, the landscape is constantly evolving for both the casual tourist and the native resident. That speed of development manifested in ways that were both incredibly inspiring and at other times deeply troubling. It seems that China has the ability to get whatever it wants done when it comes to taking on new challenges but it also has the reckless sense of individual capitalism that makes that growth fraught with potential problems as the divide between the upper and lower classes inevitably grows.

When an American visits China I think it is valuable to take the time to reflect on our own history in this relatively young nation and consider those lessons learned and the time and work that went into the achievements and rights that we have today. America progressed through its own growing pains over a course of two hundred years and we experienced some very dark periods of worker rights, voters rights, and great failures in environmental foresight and protections. Despite the bold and universal claims that our Bill of Rights made so many years ago many of those rights failed to be realized for several generations and required the near destruction of the nation through civil war to impress their importance upon the citizenry. The industrial revolution saw brutal abuses in our steel, meat/agriculture, and coal industries with at times violent suppression of workers rights and organizations. It would take a hundred years for all the citizens of our country to achieve the right to vote, over a hundred years to establish security for our senior citizens, and nearly two hundred years for the protection of the National Parks and the development of the Environmental Protection Agency to mature.

China is going through this whole two hundred and fifty year process in just sixty years since the Cultural Revolution ended and reform began. At this moment in their growth it seems that they are right in the midst of our industrial revolution, with a nation many times larger than ours, populated by vast numbers of business tycoons like our Rockefellers, Carnegies, and JP Morgans of the last century. China is building and growing on a scale that is unprecedented in the world’s history. 3,000 new drivers licenses per day in Beijing, 39 National Universities in the single city of Xi’an which requires a entirely new subway line built every 2-3 years. A new Three Gorges Dam which created a reservoir 400 miles long and generated the electrical capacity of over a dozen nuclear reactors. 33 Million people moving to a rural agricultural city named Chongqing because the government declared it a new center of growth for the country. Of course, along with all the growth comes vast and horrible levels of air and water pollution, the relocation of over a million people, and the increased potential for environmental disaster and disease epidemics. The clear blue sky of Tibet was so beautify because of its contrast to the dense and foul air of Beijing. The renewable beauty of the vast solar fields of the north is tempered by the bitter sight of the country’s rivers and streams. The Yangtze’s level of pollution was staggering, in both sight and smell, and the sound of dredging and mining at the factories ran through the night as the river’s valuable silt was removed to feed the ever hungry cement industry.

There are constant reminders that the government is aware of the problems it faces and the individual people in China are aware that their growth is perhaps moving faster than they or the leaders of the country can sustain. Costs are constantly rising and a downtown apartment in Beijing or Shanghai has become just as out of reach as owning a home anywhere here in San Francisco. Despite the view we are given of China as a Communist country it has enormous and visible signs of problems it shares with it’s neighbor across the Pacific. Chinese people my age worry about rising health costs, rising day care cost for their children, having to work two jobs to feel stable, the burden of paying for education after 9th grade and the necessary after school tutors to prepare for college entrance exams. Like here, there is increasing difficulty of getting into a good college and the stark difference in opportunities for those who have a university degree and those who do not is constantly apparent.

I hope that as the country moves forward that education will begin to show people the risks of pollution and waste before there is nothing left to save. It is easy to take so much for granted living here in the Bay Area of California. Clean air and organic food did not come without many years of work and strict legislation that seems to many to limit the business growth and attractable locations of our area to big companies. How much longer, I wonder, can the people of Beijing walk down streets where visibility fades away after four blocks and you cannot ware anything white in the winter because of the coal dust in the air. We may not envision China as the land of free speech but they have a powerful and effective online community of bloggers who feed real news and opinion to the youth that is often in discord with the official government run news agencies. What gives me the most confidence about China is that point I made at the start, that when China makes a five year plan, you can bet that they are going to get it done. Let’s hope that the next five year plan will provide goals that will slow and reverse the level of damage being done by the amazing rate of growth they have been enjoying. Incidentally, the current plan is for 15% of ALL energy output in China to come from renewable energy by 2020. That is the same percentage as the United States, except they are producing 15% of all power for 1.5 Billion people instead of 300 Million. America could learn a great deal about priorities when we face a goal like that from our primary competitors.

Next month will be part two of my China blog about my experiences this last month in China. I will talk about the cities I visited and their unique characteristics within a country with thousands of years of tumultuous history.




  1. Hi Ryan,

    Really fascinating articles, great content. If you care to share it, I’d be interested in your reflections in a future article about your experiences in Tibet and your perspective on China’s occupation of it, like your critique of some of China’s policies, alongside your admirations of it. I share your admiration for many aspects of China’s culture, especially the spiritual parts. It seems, like Japan, that much of what is valuable in the traditional culture and the wisdom of the ancestors, has been lost, because they are aping the West, ironically. It does seem to me that China can be very black and white. What is good about China can be very, very good. And what isn’t can be incredibly bad. I’m about as big a leftie as it gets, but I can’t look to China or the Soviet Union or even Cuba as examples of the superiority of socialism. It’s interesting that you started your journey as a student of history; I’ve always been fascinated by it, and my favorite genre of fiction is historical novels, even contemporary ones. History is often written by the “winners”, so it’s interesting and important to see many perspectives, and one that can see both the beauty and the shadow.

    • Thanks Jai! I should write something about Tibet to round out the story of my travels China/or the Semi-Autonomous Region of Tibet as they prefer to call it in mainland China. I went over there with ideas of what Tibetan Buddhism was going to be based on the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying so it was really interesting to see the religion in person and how it is practiced under Chinese rule. I tried to talk to local Tibetans about their feelings and read between the lines of what they were saying without allowing myself to take liberties and imagine more than I could clearly see with my eyes and hear with my ears. I will write a article on this topic soon. Thanks for the feedback.

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