Observations of Old and New China

This weekend, I was able to take a welcome break to see some sights with my family while in Beijing. The traffic here is like any other big city -- they say it is second only to Sao Paulo!

While waiting, I was reminded of my bus rides when I first visited China 25 years ago. One rainy day, I sat in a bus that had a big hole in the roof, so we were all holding umbrellas! Another bus kept stalling. All the passengers would get out and push the bus for a jumpstart!


Although the Chinese have not solved their traffic problems entirely, today getting from one city to another no longer requires an overcrowded train ride or climbing aboard an antique Antonov propeller plane. In fact, China will soon have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined. And the current plan is to build something like 40 more airports. No one is surprised that Beijing International Airport just became the world's second busiest.

This all bodes well for the travel business. China already boasts more domestic trips than any other country. Our hotels here used to cater primarily to Western travelers, but today, more often than not, our guests are Chinese. And with another 300 million people expected to migrate to the cities in the next 10 years, there will be plenty of demand for more hotels.

This urban migration is also leading to changes that are less obvious from afar. For instance, China is becoming less regionalized, more one country. Let me explain: when I backpacked my way around China 25 years ago, Chinese identity seemed more ethnic than national. My attempt to use basic phrases was stymied by the myriad of dialects. It wasn't just the difference between the throaty, cropped sounds of Cantonese, to Beijing where every other word sounded like the English 'SURE.' Each location had its own idiom.

Fast forward to today. I met a dozen associates at our Westin in Shenzhen. Each of them was from a different province, but their common language was Mandarin. They share a resounding pride in China emerging on the world scene.

As I walked the bustling, gritty streets of Zhongshan -- one of more than 100 third-tier cities in China -- it's a great example of how development is spreading out across China. Here, 'old' China and 'new' China still run together. The Sheraton is a world-class hotel, the first of its kind on the hotel scene here. Outside you see street vendors around the corner from luxury stores, and dilapidated structures next door to high-end apartments. In the first-tier cities, 'old' China is increasingly hard to find.

During a visit to the St Regis Shenzhen construction site, from the 100th floor, you look down on Shenzhen and Hong Kong. What is striking to me about that view is that in the "old" days, Hong Kong's Western cityscape was such a sharp contrast to mainland China, but today, the Chinese side is every bit as modern.