The China Scene
With the Shanghai 2010 Expo opening and early summer weather arriving, two officials from a major international luxury hotel chain were overheard talking business in the executive lounge of their Beijing flagship near Tiananmen Square late last week-"We like all the security here, it´s good for our business." In contrast, they harrumphed over recent violence in Bangkok, which had taken a toll on Thailand bookings.
Indeed, China seems like the place to be despite another sharp run-up in real estate values, which locals expect will result in a near-term correction before escalating again. The government is poised to launch a REIT market before the end of the year to help rein in commercial property prices and stanch private speculation-limiting initial offerings to domestic (mostly institutional) investors.
Capitalism has taken hold in this tightly controlled country- Chengdu and Beijing (cities I visited) have the hustle and bustle of any western capital with the Hermes and Tiffany stores mixed into the upscale shopping mix. Stores, emporiums, and restaurants are packed. New office and apartment high-rises crowd out old courtyard neighborhoods which get bulldozed to make way-eminent domain is no issue here (although local papers last week took to task a government official who ordered a truck driver to run over a man protesting the demolition of his home.) The streets are jammed with new cars pushing aside bikes and motor scooters.
New infrastructure leaves U.S. systems behind in the mid 20th century-gleaming and efficient airports, subways, toll roads and high speed rail help keep people and business moving. You get through airport security lines quickly and efficiently, bags always beat you to baggage claim (at least on my five flights through the country). The Beijing metro certainly supersedes any mass transit we have in any U.S. city with expansive new stations, large open interconnecting cars and on-board digital displays that let you know where you are at any time within the system-not to mention reliable and frequent service. For people like my guide, who can´t afford to live near the city center, the extensive subway system makes possible working in town and residing around the fifth or sixth city ring road.
In the countryside, most of the agriculture is still done the pre-mechanized way-farmers toil by hand on terraced plots they "own" (70-year lease terms from the government). But local markets brim with delicious looking produce and freshly butchered meats-a far cry from 40 and 50 years ago when Mao literally starved his people, using crops from farm collectives to buy arms and nuclear technology from the Soviets.
But let´s not get carried away. You can´t drink the tap water and newspapers reported last week that cancer rates are rising (about a quarter of deaths stem from the disease)-no doubt contaminated reservoirs and foul-polluted air take their toll. My friend in Chengdu, Sichuan´s industrial and high tech center, says she has experienced two clear days since she arrived in August and has been able to see stars in the sky only once-briefly when a winter cold front pushed away enveloping smog. But that´s part of the price they pay "for catching up" with the rest of the world.
And the typical Chinese shies away from discussion of politics-centuries of authoritarian control (emperors, warlords and communists) have worn down any interest in trying to influence the system. People are happy that their individual financial situations have been steadily improving-that´s where they choose to focus attention. Topics like Google censorship, government corruption favoring the high lifestyles of party elites, and the Tibet crackdown don´t merit much engagement. And for just about everyone Mao was a good guy-in every city and many towns there´s a large beneficent-looking statue of him gazing down in the public square.
Except around government buildings and major sites like Tiananmen police presence doesn´t appear over the top. Sure there are plenty of surveillance cameras, but we now have those too. The army guards and police look plenty serious, but are friendly and helpful enough, and most don´t wear weapons-Chinese aren´t allowed to keep guns and crime rates are low.
And as we know that´s good for business.
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