Our Center’s Director of Global Practice Preparation, Kathleen A. Doty, is a World Affairs Council Young Leaders Fellow just completing her tour of China. Traveling with her have been eleven others, many from globally minded businesses. This is the last dispatch in Kate’s series of posts on her travels.
BEIJING – The people of China are warm. They love babies. I quickly found the best way to make a friend was to coo at the child in her arms. They love long meals and good toasts, and have spent centuries mastering the art of hospitality. Being a guest in China is wonderful.
Beijing is a vastly different city than Shanghai. It is old, gritty, artistic. I heard many people say that Beijing was like Washington, D.C., and Shanghai was like New York. I think that it is a shallow comparison, and having lived in both U.S. cities, I disagree.
New York is much more than high rises; Beijing is a city alive and rich in a similar way. Of course, this impression has much to do with the organization of our trip; in Shanghai we were taken primarily to government developments, while in Beijing we were taking primarily to private companies and cultural sites. We visited the sleek showroom of Huawei, the Chinese version of Apple, and iQIYI, the Chinese version of Netflix, which exudes a hip start-up vibe. I sipped exotic tea as I strolled through galleries in the profoundly cool 798 Art District, wandered back alleys in Old World neighborhoods, and saw a palace that has been grand since before my own country was founded. When the lights went out in a restaurant at dinner, the servers calmly brought candles to the table and we kept on with the toasts. Beijing was much more what I expected to find in China: a mix of the modern and the historical, of wealth and underdevelopment.
Cultural heritage was a theme I pondered throughout the trip. China is old in a way that I, a woman from Colorado, a place young even in the history of the United States, find mind-blowing. Beijing is a huge city. The several ring roads surrounding it put the Beltway or the Perimeter to shame. The city has been developed and redeveloped countless times, replacing so much of what once was. Walking the Great Wall (which is covered in scratched graffiti, in Chinese characters so foreign to my eye) and seeing the Forbidden City provided just a taste of an incredibly rich history that, little by little, is lost with improvements to modern life. I commented to a friend, an American expat living in China, that I found this sad. He responded that the history in China is too long to preserve the physical – you just can’t save every 5,000-year-old building – the cultural heritage of China lives in the language. Having mastered only four words in ten days – “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Cheers,” and “too expensive” – I have to admit that this is lost on me. But it emphasized the importance of intangible cultural heritage work as a means of preserving at least some of an ancient way of life.
Sitting alone in a public park one day, I marveled at how a parent or grandparent needed only to speak a word to a child and he or she behaved. Meeting times were given at strangely precise intervals (for example, 1:25) and taken very seriously. I heard more apologies for tardiness than I thought reasonable given a city of such size and with such congestion. Our guides shared their views that much of Eastern culture derives from Confucius’ thought, and emphasizes hierarchy and respect. This consideration to others was surprising given our pre-trip prepping that people push and don’t stand in line or respect your space, but it just reinforced the cultural difference in the meaning of “consideration.” In so many of my reflections about Communism and the economy, I couldn’t help but wonder how much of the attitudes I picked up on were born of pre-existing Eastern philosophy and culture, or from the current economic and political systems in the country.
I also couldn’t help but wonder about the tension between the incredible feats of the state and human rights. Much has been written about this topic and I am no expert, so I won’t belabor the point. But I found myself reflecting, much as I did during my studies in Cuba, on the tension between the social benefits of a Communist system – universal healthcare, education, and in the case of China, the elevation of an extraordinary number of people out of poverty in a short time frame – with the profound lack of freedoms.
During our visit to the Great Wall, we were standing in an epically long line to take a shuttle bus from the base of the Wall to the parking lot where our bus was waiting. Our guide, a young man in the employ of the University who spoke nearly perfect English, sighed as we inched forward. He said:
“Thank God for the family planning policy.”
I was surprised because the one-child policy so deeply offends our Western concept of individual choice that I simply expected someone of roughly my age to concur; yet in such a populous country, a limit on the number of people is sometimes welcome. I relayed my surprise at his comment to another young Chinese woman I met, and she said,
“Oh yes. The problem with the family planning is that we now have a China that is out of balance, with too many old people and not enough young ones.”
I was so amazed; again, it was a comment totally focused on the macro. Is that Chinese culture? Is that the effect of a Communist system of government? Is it both?
These are the questions that will for me remain unanswered. After studying in Cuba, my takeaway was that they don’t have it right, but neither do we in the United States. The “right” is somewhere in the middle. My impression of China is that it is inching closer to the right balance than Cuba. I have far more context about Cuba to make that statement; this trip showed me, more than anything else, how much I don’t know about China. But standing in Tiananmen Square in the rain, I couldn’t help but think that an inch is terrifically small.