Thursday, June 7, 2012
Tom Block: Second trip to China illustrates again the common bonds between two nations
During May my wife and I took our second trip to China. Our real motive was to visit our eldest son who is the executive chef at an American restaurant in Hong Kong. Last year after visiting our son, we went to Beijing and the Great Wall – fantastic. This year we decided to see the famed terra cotta warriors, some classic Chinese gardens and cruise the Li River, and we used Shanghai as our base.
I guess the first thought when traveling to China is that it is a Communist nation that has some severe issues with human rights. As a young man I had traveled to Franco’s Spain and Tito’s Yugoslavia, and it both cases, especially Spain under Franco, I knew I was in a country that operated under the threat of a totalitarian ruler. Not the case in modern China. There was no more police presence than in any American city, and with the exception of Tiananmen Square we never saw a military presence. People we met talked freely and were able to express critical opinions of their government. Our routine, however, did not include a visit to Facebook, which is not accessible in China.
As an American you are immediately struck by the sizable presence of American firms in China. In the urban centers it is difficult to walk more than a few blocks without seeing a KFC or McDonald’s. Kentucky has a special place in the heart of many Chinese as the Colonel’s smiling face is everywhere, and every consumer in China knows what the “K” in KFC stands for. But American penetration is not limited to fast food. American clothes, cars and technology are everywhere, and there is widespread admiration for Americans and American goods.
The people we met, and spoke to in English, were obviously among the most educated in China. One of the many aspects that are building a bond between our two nations is the fact that nearly every young person we spoke to had a friend in the USA either working for a technology company or going to school. When added to the large Chinese-American population, there is clearly a special connection between us.
People … everywhere there are people. You really appreciate the challenges of governing more than 1 billion citizens. Everywhere you go there are crowds, and the building boom for housing is difficult to explain in words; it must be seen. Every city we went to, the skyline was full of construction cranes, and high-rise apartment buildings were rising like corn in a field. It was unbelievable! We went to a private home of a family with one child, and the housing was very comfortable. The construction seems to be built to reward the one child policy, but the housing seems well suited for small families, and generally the people we spoke to were understanding of the need to limit population growth.
The size of the cities is almost beyond the comprehension of an American mind. We went to Xi’an, the ancient Chinese capital where the terra cotta warriors were discovered. We had heard and read of how Xi’an was the capital thousands of years before Beijing, and we had pictured something close to Williamsburg with quaint old buildings and the archeological site with the warriors. But there is nothing quaint about Xi’an with a population of 8.5 million people
Tourism in China has made great strides. I can remember 20 years ago as China started to really open up that many would say tourism needed to wait for China to develop the infrastructure to accommodate Western tourists who were used to the niceties of modern life. Well, with the exception of the occasional toilet that required a squat position (a phenomenon we have also encountered in France), China delivered a first-class tourist product.
Visiting the Great Wall was one of the highlights of my life; it is really hard to believe that you are standing on a spot that has famously been spotted by the American astronauts circling the earth, and an engineering marvel. The dig in Xi’an of the terra cotta warriors is similarly a fantastic experience, often mentioned as the newest wonder of the world. While we had seen many pictures of the main pit where the warriors are being unearthed, there is no picture that does justice to the scope of the site.
Another surprise highlight was the day cruise up the Li River. We joked with our guide that the hills coming out of the riverbanks had a Kentucky name, knobs. They were in fact much like the knobs that are in Central Kentucky, though while no expert, I suspect from their shape the ones in Kentucky are in fact much older, worn from time. The Li River hills/knobs are the subject of many Chinese watercolors and it is magical to go down the river and see them majestically rising from the banks.
My wife is a garden designer so we went to Suzhou that is the center for classical Chinese gardens. There is something very peaceful about a Chinese garden and it makes a visitor a believer in the principles of Feng Shui. We also saw the Yuyulong Garden in Shanghai that creates a beautiful and restful spot in the middle of urban sprawl.
Bottom line is that our two nations will be the leading powers in economics, trade and global politics for decades to come. The role the Chinese play in our debt financing is but one leading indication of our interrelated worlds. From my limited experience there is a lot of good news as our two nations have much in common and I believe in many respects a shared view of the global future and roles our two nations will play.
Tom Block is a public policy consultant who had a 21-year career with JP Morgan Chase where he served as head of government relations in NYC and created a Washington research product. He also created the bank’s EU Government Relations program and developed a new position as U.S. Government Policy Strategist focusing on how U.S. government policy impacts capital markets. He has an extensive government and banking background, has worked on political campaigns and as a speech writer. He is a family trustee of Bernheim Aboretum in Louisville and holds a B.A. degree in political science from American University. He and his wife make their home in Kentucky. He is a regular contributor to KyForward. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org .