07/24/2008 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

An Awful Competition in a Changing China

I can't forget an incident in China that seems almost unreal. And with the world scrutinizing every aspect of this country as the Olympics begin, now is a good time to write about it.

I first visited in 1984, a few years after China had been opened to the West. I ferried from Macau to the Canton area, saw the house of Sun Yat-sen, the country's modern founder, and observed children studying intently in a dirt-floored schoolroom. The only modern hotel around was a Holiday Inn with a gift shop filled with schlock, a restaurant with terrible food, and dirty toilets with black lacquer seats.

At a rural market a few items were displayed on the dusty ground: a cage of chickens, a few eggs, not much. An old man with a wispy beard came right up to my face and perused me slowly. No offer was made.

The scene was vivid: Two-lane highways were clogged with walkers and bicyclists in Mao caps and olive-drab clothing. Farmers in cone hats, trailed by ducks, bent along rice paddies in cliché China scenes as old as history. People worked the land with oxen and plows, and some swarmed like beetles on distant mountainsides, seemingly breaking them down with hammers and chisels. What were they doing? I thought of the Egyptian pyramids, and realized the incredible potential of a mighty work force. What would the future hold for this reawakening giant ? I couldn't even conceive of computers.

The air was clear. The past was evident, the future still uncertain.


Fast forward twenty years to a new millennium. I was rendezvousing in Shanghai with a doctor who was lecturing on livers. (How romantic.) The highways were jammed with cars, and we boarded a magnetic levitation (Maglev) train, the world's fastest, from the airport to city center at 431 kilometers an hour. A total of eight minutes.

Yes, I still found glimpses of the past by the peaceful West Lake at Hang Zhou, and the elegant gardens and pavilions of Suzhou. I taxied to the canal-laced town of Tong Li, filled with Ming and Qing architecture.

But in the industrial areas rimming Shanghai, filled with hundreds of new factories, the thick air smelled like it could ignite at any minute. The city was spiked with miles of skyscrapers, their tops and sides lighted at night in bold, moving color. Extreme seemed the norm: an acrobatic show climaxed with several motorcycles circling in a death-defying blur within a caged wheel.

The most disturbing thing I saw on either of my China trips was in the shadow of Shanghai's Bund, the waterfront boulevard lined with art-deco buildings. A crowd of up-and-comers, many on cells (the students who were studying so quietly twenty years before?) surrounded a teenage boy. His cap was filled with coins on the ground in front of him.

The boy stood on a box, choking himself with a rope. His thin face became redder as he slowly tightened the rope around his neck. Nobody stopped him. When he seemed close to passing out, he gasped and let the rope go, then bent over and rubbed his neck as the bystanders clapped and threw coins into his hat. His life was his capital.

I walked on in disbelief and disgust. And then I saw something even more shocking. On the next street, another boy was doing the same thing. Some in the crowd spooned gelato and texted as they watched him choke.

For the Olympics, the air no doubt will be cleaned. The choking boys will be kept out of sight. But glimpsing twenty years of changes in China I can only wonder what direction this huge, complex country will take twenty years from now.

Lea Lane is founder/editor of the lifestyle Website