The about quoted article from guancha.cn talked about a movie crew wanted to shoot a historical drama of Yellow River loess plateau and unable to find location of arid scenery described of China’s upper Yellow River from the 1930s. They were forced to use CGI as background scenery. I visited Yenan 3 weeks ago and can sympathize with the movie crew as greenery covered all the hollows and hilltops as we traveled on highway from Xian to Yenan. Even Yellow River no longer is as muddy and yellow, and the cave dwellings that Mao and his comrades lived are green even when temperature hover around freezing. Local markets teem with fruits like persimmons, pomegranates, and dates. The deserts which encroach Inner Mongolia and Shaanxi are being pushed back. We did want to visit those areas in the forefront of pushback against desert farther north, but have to forego due to scheduling conflict. Still we can see with our own eyes the changes. Premier Zhou would be very pleased as he look down from heaven at the changes in China.
As I read the 5 parts NYT stories and reactions I can’t help but say Americans still don’t understand China. China maybe still a long way to go to be in parity or pass U.S. in per capital basis, but in many ways she is already way ahead and pulling farther away. On our way to visit Mao’s family home we were in a taxi equipped with China’s own GPS system BeiDou combined with AI that obeys voice command for the song we wish to hear, but periodically interrupted with advices that we are in a accident prone zone, so drive carefully, that 700 meters ahead is a traffic camera and we are 20% over speed limit. That bus fares are 2 yuans (less than 30 cents), major cities all have subway systems costing about $1 to travel more than 30 miles to the center of the city. The subway trains are crowded but arriving in constant streams in intervals of less than 5 minutes. Consumer prices are from 10 to 30% of here except with luxury goods like cars and I-phones. In high speed trains you are startled with vibrations when opposing trains pass which are gone when you turn your head toward the noise in 1 second, and it occurs in intervals or less than 10 minutes. We visited my wife’s uncle and aunt in their 80s in a nursing home which cost 14,000 yuans per month, but with their combine retirement income of 10,000 plus the apartment which they sold for millions they can afford it easily. Of course they belong to elites as they worked for China’s NASA and their apartment was giving to them. My wife’s father was in nursing home here for 2 years before we pull him out for home care because of bad care and it costs bundles for Medicaid. We have a cousin who lived in the center of Shanghai told us her apartment will never be demolished as it will cost developer millions to relocate her and her government owned apartment cost her less than $10 rent. We did talk to a street cleaner in Hangchow who is making less than $400/month of income inequality and nostalgic of Mao when everybody was poor but equal.
So I will not be naïve and proclaim as Sinclair Lewis did that I have saw the future and it works. But I have lived in China in 1950s and knew of rationing and shortages, and coming back to NY I have to adjust to countercultural shock when I have left only a month ago. I went to Manhattan yesterday and returned on subway to Queens. While drowsing on the train I was awakened 4 times with people begging for food or playing music asking for donations. While I hate Trump I can still sympathize with him on the decline of American Empire. He can shut the border and with charity starts at home slogan. The liberal Americans want to save all the refugees yet their policies are the ones generating all the chaos and refugees like Iraq and Libya, while China is raising the standard of living for people in Africa which NYT deplores as new colonialism.
One thing you need when entering China is you need to immediately get to a major China Mobile Office to obtain a temporary SIM card for your smart phone. There is no such thing as disposable phones you can purchase. You need identification to purchase SIM card and start communicating with others in China or internet. The temporary SIM card cost less then $5 for 2 months normal usage, but it is a must. I noticed that even with the temporary SIM card there is limitations. I attempted to use WiFi in a Starbuck coffee shop with my I-Pad and unable to sign on because Starbuck sent you a code to verify your identity, and the temporary number will not do. Once I used my relative’s phone number I immediately received the code and able to surf the net. Of course you can use WiFi in any hotel with their code. The implication on reflection was obvious. You are responsible for your communications on phone and internet. It would be impossible to spread rumors on line or influence elections like Russia did in U.S. without alerting security apparatus. There are constant reports of punishments of 5-15 days detentions for spreading unfounded rumors or disturbing social harmony.
I remember reading from news that CIA searches for a mole that resulting dozens of agents disappearing in China a few years ago. They surveilled a suspected former agent for years without getting any evidence, and finally decide to arrest him for keeping secret from previous employment as a scapegoat. I suspect they could charge any former agent with that but he satisfy the criteria of being a Chinese-American, as were many false arrests by FBI of Chines-American scientists doing normal scientific exchanges. I suddenly have an epiphany that instead of spending millions of dollars searching for a mole, I could have give them a plausible answer. Remember China started to build supercomputers a few years ago as did U.S. IBM used it to demolish chess grandmasters and Google used it to defeat world champions in Go. Meanwhile China was probably perfecting the AI for large data and cloud computing to search abnormalities any spy will generate no matter how careful they pretended. China built the “Great Firewall” that allow some hackers to claim success in penetrating with VPNs, not realizing it was intentional and they can crack down any time they wish. I guess the joke is on us.
One thing when we look out the window from the high speed trains is the ubiquitous cranes from the top of unfinished 30+ stories of buildings sprouting like bamboo shots when we approach any city in China. I remember the same feeling 3 years ago when I visited China after reading about the ghost cities from the Western presses. Yet now all those ghost cities are teeming with people and the constructions of buildings, highways, subways, and rail tracks remain unabated. NYC with her skyscrapers is dwarfed by all those megacities or even provincial ones. Another thing I notice is the electric transmission lines crisscross any landscape interspersed with towers for mobile communications. The efficiency which China moves her people, be that be in airports, train stations, or subways astonish me. I knew about the smart phones used for payments in everyday transactions, but with trains schedule to move in the same tracks every 10-15 minutes, any deviation from schedule will be disastrous. It does required AI to route the trains accurately, and people disciplined enough to not cause delays unnecessarily, and that’s when we traveled not on the busy season of summer or national holidays.
Another thing I noticed is the new trees and older trees planted alongside any highway and train tracks. Xi’s slogan that “Green mountains and clean waters are the gold and silver treasures” are becoming the realities in China. China plans to plant trees about the size of Ireland this year alone. Even in the headwaters of Yellow River and loess plateau, new fruit trees generate incomes for the poor areas, as we bought fruits by baskets very cheaply. Since the revision to 1 child policy, we saw young children age under 3 with their parents ride in trains with their healthy and cue demeanor contrast with the pictures we saw of refugees in Middle East or Africa. Internal tourism is booming in China. It fills us with optimism and hope for the future.
On my first day returning to New York, NYT started to run articles about China and I have a sense of dissonance after away from U.S. for a month and away from Trump and American politics. After reading some comments I find Americans still do not get China and still live in a dream world. So I’ll start right on the question the liberals here will harp on, the question of surveillance and privacy. It’s true once we left the plane, we got to passport control, we have our pictures taken for facial recognition and electronic fingerprints taken. The photographing will continue in every hotel front desk. There are as many cameras everywhere as in Times Square though not as well concealed as in U.S.. Yet we do not feel any privacy were violated. We did not have any contact with security personnel and walked everywhere at any time. We feel complete safety in cities as well as rural areas in day time and midnight, which is impossible in U.S.. We were informed by our relatives that pickpockets in Shanghai are vanishing as the police is very efficient in arresting them. Our personal spaces were well protected from any crime until we returned to U.S. and watched TV news with a sense of vulnerability returning. I myself very much prefer Google over Baidu because their search engine is so much better with less advertising. Google and NYT probably regret their exit from China and opportunities lost with their arrogant stance of superiority. I read Washington Post on WIFI there with 2 articles criticizing China on her Xinjiang policy toward Uighurs within a week. I am sure there are people who prefer no camera on them and free from dystopia like in “Blade Runner”, but for average citizen its a bargain well worthwhile.
I just returned from a month long visit to China which is both exhilarating and exhausting. I last visited China about 3 years previously, but decided this time to visit areas I long wanted to see and managed to see all except Beijing and Tsinghua University which require applying to the university ahead of schedule. 3 years may not be a long time, yet China is always changing and surprising.
I, my wife, and her brother together traveled through China by the high speed trains, joining local tour groups which comprise Chinese from many different parts of China, from Xinjiang, to Northeast, from Honan to Hunan, from Sichuan to Shanghai, with the exception of us from U.S.. We started from Shanghai to Changsha and visited Mao’s family home in Shaoshan, then traveled to Guiyang to see FAST radio telescope, then traveled to Chengdu to visit Dujiangyan, where the irrigation system made Qin the empire she was. Onward to Xian and Terracotta Army, with a trip to Yanan where the Red Army managed to hold off both the Japanese and KMT armies. In Beijing we visited Yuanmingyuan (Summer Palace) where relics of ruins from the Second Opium War where the finest cultural relics were looted and destroyed. Back to Shanghai to tour the house where the first Chinese Communist Party were formed and hold their first Congress there.
It’s a trip with memories and histories from the past. The Qin dynasty which unified China with a common language, Mao with his revolutionary bands against all odds succeeding in building a new China, the humiliation of the Second Opium War, and now the megacities of Beijing and Shanghai facing the future, with new technologies and sciences reaching out to the universe.
It will take more than a few days for me to gather my impressions. Yet the high speed rail systems are definitely more than a transport system. it is binding all China together whatever dialect they speak into a coherent whole. People travel all over China for better understanding of each other. I think it will act for China what Continental Rail and Interstate Highway System did for U.S.. It will act as an accelerator for modernity and minor problems like Uighur or Tibetan will fade away in a short time. I will try to give more context and details later.