Monday, January 24, 2022

Reflections on China



This is the first of a short set of articles comparing glimpses of China 30 years ago with today’s China. In 1980 I began a series of business/pleasure trips to Asia centered on obtaining U.S. aviation rights to serve China. The first articles are condensed from extensive notes taken in 1980. The later set is based on a trip in April-May 2010.

Beijing – 1980
April 13, 1980

The clouds break shortly after we passed over the coastline. Below us we see the flat, rather dull face of Northeastern China. It looks like the Midwest during late fall. The ground is brown, and the only relief in the landscape is a large river and a number of canals. As the aircraft continues its approach we can see that most of the roads are dirt. We’ll be in a country that is virtually the same size as the 48 contiguous states. However, we learn that roughly one billion Chinese inhabit an area equivalent to the U.S. landmass east of the Mississippi River. The rest of the country is desert, mountains and other not-very-receptive territory for settlement.

We land at Beijing’s new airport that has been open only for a month or two. The only aircraft in sight are those of CAAC, the state owned airline. There are a few Tridents, some Russian Ilyushins and Antonovs, an old Viscount and a shiny new 747. The terminal building is large and fairly austere. The entry procedure is very easy – one of the easiest I have ever experienced.  It takes some time to connect with Mr. Gung who will be our guide for the entire stay in Beijing. He speaks English fairly well.

Mr. Gung tells us that we may visit and take photographs anywhere we choose. We simply tell us what we want to see and whom we want to meet, and he will arrange it. Only later do we discover that it’s not quite true

Our drive into Beijing is about 30 kilometers. Along the way we pass various farm communes, an apple orchard, a rice field and several factories. There is virtually no automobile traffic on the road, which is the principal route into Beijing. Traffic mostly consists of buses running to and from the airport, some taxis, hundreds (maybe thousands) of bicycles, horses and carts, military vehicles, motorcycles with sidecars, and strange looking machines apparently powered by lawn mower size engines. There’s no grass or greenery anywhere.

As we approach Beijing we begin to see more people.  They are all dressed either in green fatigues or dark blue or medium gray Mao suits. There’s very little color anywhere. All the clothing is shapeless. The people are on bicycles, and Mr. Gung tells us that only high-ranking party officials have the use of automobiles.

Construction is everywhere, and there are bricks on all sides. We see no buildings more than ten stories high. We reach the Beijing Hotel, the tallest building. It is 17 stories high, and consists of three wings, one of which was seemingly built by the Russians. There is no check-in procedure at the hotel. I simply pick up the key to my assigned room and off I go. The rooms are large and in various stages of disrepair. The Chinese seem to have a slip cover fetish, and the furniture looks like it’s left over from a Thirties movie. The water is not safe to drink, but there is a thermos in each room, which apparently has “safe” water. Each room has a television set.  It’s not clear why, since there are virtually no programs.

There are little touches in the hallways that are quite unusual. On each floor there are the obligatory spittoons. There’s an ironing board for guests near the elevator on each floor. A rather large lady was doing her ironing.

After dumping luggage we walk to Tiananmen Square, the largest square in the world. It was originally built in 1651. It quadrupled in size in 1958, and now covers 100 acres. Each stone in the square is numbered, so it’s relatively easy to stage a ceremony. On one side of the square is the Gate of Heavenly Peace, which was built in 1417 and restored in 1651. There’s an enormous portrait of Mao Tse-Tung, and this is the area where the leaders review parades and such. In the center of the square there’s a 118 foot-high obelisk, a tribute to the heroes of the Chinese Revolution, and behind the obelisk is the Memorial Hall where Mao has been interred. (We were able to get into the memorial later, and the old boy was there – looking a bit waxy). On the eastern side of the square is the Great Hall of the People. When President Nixon visited in China in 1972, 5,000 guests dined in one of the banquet rooms. There are also two museums of Chinese culture and the Revolution on the other side of the square.

Back to the hotel, and the fun of money changing. At the hotel the hotel “bank” is a large room with a counter and two tables perpendicular to the counter. At the end of each table sits a man with a large wooden box stuffed with newly printed scrip (for foreigners only). There’s another man who receives the triplicate forms completed by the foreigner, along with foreign currency and/or traveler’s checks. The man takes the forms and the money, places all in a large binder clip attached to a long string. He and flings it to the back of the table, where an outfielder neatly catches the clip, confirms everything, counts out the monopoly money (scrip), re-clips everything and flings it back to the infielder who then takes care of the customer. All counting is done with an abacus. They seem to have fewer breakdowns and errors than the new computers in U.S. banks.

We have an appointment at the U.S. Embassy, and go by taxi – very inexpensive. I have an unforgettable, tingling feeling seeing the Stars and Stripes in the heart of this austere city. The compound itself is fairly small; it’s in an area that seems to consist entirely of foreign embassies. There are two Chinese soldiers on guard outside the embassy. The street is eerily quiet, and there is very little apparent activity in the entire area. Inside the building there are some military looking guys in civilian clothes. It turns out that they are the Marine Corps guards who serve in uniform in other embassies I have visited around the world including Paris, London, Rome and Tokyo.

Our meetings are brief and, since there is no delegation meeting for a few hours, we’re on our own. So, we pick up Mr. Gung and head over to the Forbidden City, one of the most prominent tourist sites in China. It’s huge, covering 250 acres, and completely surrounded by a large moat. The City is just adjacent to Tiananmen Square, and features a huge likeness of Mao over the main entrance. There are six main palaces and over 9,000 rooms… many for concubines.

Major construction was completed in 1420, and many of the buildings are still in their original state. Almost everything is wooden. The structures are in various shades of blue, red, green and some yellow. The art treasures are magnificent. Among other things there is a jade funeral suit of one of the emperors of the Han Dynasty (about 2,000 years old). It has 2,600 pieces of jade all exquisitely, but simply, put together. There’s a clepsydra, a water clock, that is 2,500 years old. It goes on and on.

The Forbidden City is an amazing contrast to the Beijing of 1980. Beijing is drab, dull and treeless. Mao had the trees removed, supposedly to get rid of the rats, which had infested the city. Most buildings where workers live are filthy looking. Since the people dress alike it’s very difficult to distinguish one from another.

The people are very curious about us and very friendly. They stare at us, follow us, and obviously talk about us. Mr. Gung politely tells us that many of them have never seen a westerner before. And we seem very big; we smell funny; and we have big noses. When we run into a group of middle school students they seem fascinated by us, and even try a few words of English. “Nee hao” (hello) is all we can say in Mandarin at this point.

We conclude our first day in this intriguing country, and look forward to Day 2 and important business.

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