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China Journal: Last Days

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Will have spent two and a half days in Beijing, which, according to our guide (we will call him John) is the size of 24 Hong Kongs, has 81 McDonald's, 70 Kentucky Fried Chickens, lots of Pizza Huts, Subways and Starbucks. The permanent population is 16 million and an additional 7 million called "floaters" who are the migrant workers who do not have any social safety net.

Approaching the city from the airport, it feels as if we have landed on a new planet. Large clusters of exciting architecture designed by world-class architects is startling, innovative, and bold. There is so much new construction (not all of it good) that every time I think I have seen the final family of high-rises, I discover a new one that has sprung up on the next street.

This is a city which hasn't just grown; it has exploded and taken great risks and without a doubt, experienced "a great leap forward," a phrase coined by the Communists for an earlier time.

The virtue of one party rule, John explained, is that once the party decides to do something, it gets it done, moving full speed ahead without the cumbersome obstacle of public input or debate. That is how they prepared for the Olympics, and much of the new city was created to become the showcase to the world. The downside, of course, is that by moving so fast without the usual brakes provided by public input, they may move in the wrong direction.

The variety of the architecture here was made clear to us when we entered our hotel, oddly named The Opposite House. We can just guess that it is opposite of what one might expect. It was designed by a Japanese architect, Kengo Kuma, but Chinese owned. The government owns all the land in China, but hotels and restaurants generally are privately owned, contrary to my first assumptions. Developers, government officials, and the families of government officials are the rich people. There is a market here for Lamborghinis and Ferraris, owned by the children of government officials. "Connections" are very important.

The hotel lobby is spacious and minimalist in its design. Our room is made almost entirely of bamboo, including a wooden sink and bathtub, which I had to try out. The effect is that the room smells of fresh wood and the gauzy white drapes allow a soothing light to filter through the floor to ceiling windows. The staff is everywhere, standing in the entrance and ready to respond to every request. With such a large population it is clear that restaurants and hotels employ a lot of people, most of them "floaters."

Some observations continue to surprise me. I happily discovered solar panels attached at the top of lampposts on the way to the Great Wall and some solar hot water heaters on three- or four-story houses. If they could have them everywhere (including the U.S.), think of what a difference this could make.

Good luck and bad luck seem to dominate much of daily life. In every temple and most homes, one must step over a high threshold, "to ward off evil spirits." When I received a red tassel as a gift after having bought things for my grandchildren, I was told that means "happiness forever." Two lions guard the gates of most restaurants and hotels, and of course the temples. It is their roar which keeps bad spirits away. One can distinguish the male from the female lion easily. He has his paw on a round ball, symbolizing the world. She has her paw on a cub lion, lying down.

On these hot days, the streets have been dotted with pastel colored umbrellas, some decorated with lace and sequins. The material is special to protect women against the sun. Almost all the women carry them, in part because pale skin is considered beautiful. Estee Lauder, Oil of Olay do a big business here, promising good skin, (the models are always ivory white) evidenced by the billboards and TV advertisements.

The streets of Beijing are spotless. Street cleaners in orange jackets clean the streets three times a day, according to John. The effect of the Olympics are still visible, flower lined streets and newly planted trees.

The sign in the back seat of the taxi we took to a restaurant said in both English and Chinese: "Over 3 million people ride taxis in Beijing every day. That's over 90 million a month. No wonder I am so busy!"

Our first stop Sunday morning was The Great Wall, built by soldiers and farmers during a period of 200 years from 1368–1644 to protect China from Mongolian invaders. About 25% of them died in the construction process, some because of lack of food. Often they were buried inside the wall.

The mentality behind this gargantuan undertaking is what is so striking—to conceive a project on such a grand scale—it is 3,500 miles from east to west. Fear was the motivation. Anything to keep the enemy out. And it seemed to have worked. Advanced as we think we are, we are not far removed from that concept.

We have built sections of a wall (more recently converted to a virtual wall) along the U.S. Mexican border and Israel has constructed its wall for self-defense. Only Robert Frost observed that there "is something" in us that does not like a wall.

Who do we keep in and who do we keep out?

How to describe it? It is a winding wall that goes up and down mountains, curving gracefully, forming its own calligraphy. It is high. In this section of the wall, they built a gondola lift, just like the gondolas in Stowe. We walked up and down many steps. There are watchtowers about every quarter of a mile. Each time we thought we had walked far enough, we were enticed to walk further.

The crowds were mostly Chinese and visitors from other Asian countries. Groups of tourists from the country side, some wearing all red caps, others yellow caps, crowded the wall. Families with a child, parents and grandparents were having a picnic on the wall. I heard a bit of Russian from a young threesome, some British English from a group of middle-aged women, but Westerners were a small minority. The Wall is revered by the Chinese themselves.

I was surprised to be asked to have my photo taken with one of the Chinese tourists. It happened again in the Forbidden City. I tried to figure out why. In some areas of China they still have not seen many Westerners, and probably not white haired elderly women like me.

Up on a hillside, next to the wall, some large white Chinese characters have been painted on flat rocks. It looked like graffiti. "What do they mean?" I asked our guide.

"Long Live Chairman Mao."

On the other hand, when we took the gondola back down, these words were printed on the window, "President William J. Clinton took this car down the Great Wall on June 28th, 1998." Of the 100 gondolas going up and down, we happened to catch the right one.

The Chinese proclivity to give people instructions sometimes does not translate well. While waiting for the gondola I read the notice. "No drunkard and people who are insane. No smoking, setting off firecrackers. No monkey around in cable car. Culprits should be punished."

The Great Wall is the most important site for Chinese tourists. Next on their list is the Bird's Nest built for the Olympics.

Driving to and from the wall we passed beautiful green fields and fruit orchards. Farmers were selling their produce by the roadside. The sky was blue here and the sun was out, in contrast to the city. All of this area, however, was still Beijing.

Driving to and from the Wall we had lots of time to talk. I asked about the preference for boys. I learned that 65% of the population ages one to twenty is now male. "If I want a girlfriend, I will have to come to America," our guide joked.

John talked quite freely about not believing in Maoism (he was revered like a God and his large portrait dominates Tiananmen Square), but instead he believes in capitalism, though he said he could not say that publicly. His parents were members of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. "But they have changed their thinking."

Some of the older people who were in the Red Guards are nostalgic for those days when salaries were equal and they knew what to believe in. Possibly that is why the horror stories of the Cultural Revolution have not been addressed because not everyone is willing to condemn them. It also would mean that Mao made a terrible mistake, something that is impossible for the government to admit.

But when we toured a small section of the Hu-Tong, the old Beijing of narrow streets and one-story buildings that is now a tourist attraction, we spoke to a woman in her home who talked freely about those days. She was a student of 15 when she was sent away to the countryside and was persecuted because her father had been on the wrong side when the Communists took over. "I remember those days as if they were yesterday," she said.

It is still unacceptable to talk about the Cultural Revolution and novels that have been written about it, like Wild Swans, are banned.

But John supports the Communist Party because "it has helped me improve my life. They did something for ordinary people. We live so much better." As for the student protests in Tiananmen Square—another taboo subject—he believes that some of the students were motivated by people "who wanted to conquer China."

He thinks that China may move to Democracy in 20 or 30 years, but not now. The wall that China is not capable of building is around the Internet. There was a story in The Financial Times this morning about the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang, the former Communist Party head during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. He had opposed the government crackdown and was then put under house arrest for 16 years. He secretly recorded his memoir.

I asked John if there was any mention in the Chinese press about this. He said no, but he had learned about it on the Internet.

I asked him what the most important thing was for young people today. Without hesitation he said, "To make money." At the age of 29, he already is distinguishing himself from the younger generation in their teens.

"They are just interested in going to bars, music, sex, material things. They reject things Chinese and do not even like to eat Chinese food."

Perhaps that is one explanation for why the Pub bar in our hotel was hopping, the Italian restaurant was crowded, and the Asian fusion restaurant where we ate was almost empty.

This morning we visited The Forbidden City. I had been there on two previous visits to Beijing, but the sight of this huge, beautiful palace struck me with amazement all over again. For the first time I learned that the marble terraces which lead up to the Emperor's palaces are clouds. He is the dragon above the clouds.

The fealty paid to great power, privilege, and wealth (10,000 people served the Emperor here, including 3,000 concubines) exemplified by the Forbidden City is one dramatic indicator of the plight of ordinary people. The city was forbidden to them; they could not walk through these gates or have any hope for a better life. Perhaps this was the fertile soil in which communism was able to take root.

It is impossible to draw firm conclusions about China because there are so many contradictions. There is a love of nature and a veneration of harmony, yet nature has been desecrated here ruthlessly. There is great respect for family, and yet families are being uprooted on a grand scale by migration and by relocation. There is great pride in China's great and long history, and yet it is moving into the future faster than any other country. There is political control, but entrepreneurial freedom on a scale that democracies would not permit.

One conclusion is inevitable. This is a great country, which by virtue of its population and its ambition to continue to grow and prosper will be an increasingly powerful force in the world that will affect everyone on this planet.

 

Addendum

This morning, before heading to the airport we had time to visit the Lama Buddhist temple known as the Yonghegong Lamasery. It was once a royal palace of count Yong and was converted to a Lama Temple in 1744. It is now both a museum (displaying some extraordinarily beautiful and impressive Buddhas) and a holy place of prayer.

One brass inscription placed before an exhibit talked about "the religious nexus connecting inland, Qinhai-Tibet, plateau and inner Mongolian Grassland of China." Another plaque boasted that the temple displays "exquisite techniques, elegant arts and rich culture connotations."

Next to one gold Buddha sign read, "all of them show you a kind of joyance from the feeling of the men who have conquered the perplexity."

Perhaps that is the point of all religions, "conquering the perplexity."

The official party line in regard to the Temple was spelled out at the first gate.

"Since the founding of the PRC (People's Republic of China), the government has attached great importance to this ancient temple and allocated large sums of money to renovate major historic site under state protection. The Yonghegong Temple has survived the Cultural Revolution from 1966–1976 thanks to Premier Zhou Enlai. In 1981 it re-opened to the public."

Is this their public response to the destruction of temples and repression in Tibet?

It may very well be, but what I had not expected was that this is a holy site for prayer. Iron incense burners were placed throughout the outside series of structures and people purchases sticks of incense, knelt on a cushioned slab before them, and bowed their heads, again and again, in prayer.

A young mother, holding her one-year-old baby, was bending him back and forth trying to teach him to pray.

Those praying were mostly young, and predominantly women. As they knelt, their shoes formed a row of every type of heel, from stiletto, to sneaker, to sandal.

Children accompanied aged grandparents, one couple carrying their aged grandmother up the steps. But most of those praying were young and Chinese.

Another mystery. On one hand, China is notoriously known for suppressing religion, but here at the Lama Temple, it is freely expressed. I have only begun to understand this country.

This was originally posted at Chelsea Green.

Madeleine M. Kunin is the former Governor of Vermont and was the state's first woman governor. She served as Ambassador to Switzerland for President Clinton, and was on the three-person panel that chose Al Gore to be Clinton's VP. She is the author of Pearls, Politics, and Power: How Women Can Win and Lead from Chelsea Green Publishing.