As I walked through the old port of Canton, the contrast between Old China and New China became readily apparent.
The port, which traces its history back to the Song dynasty (960-1279), served as the only place open to foreign trade from 1757 to 1842. Today, the village surrounding the old port revels in its ancient heritage, with ancestral buildings dating back centuries, including the genealogy of each important family. Nearby these ancestral halls, bricks and mortar lay scattered throughout the small streets as cheap apartments are being built for the thousands of Chinese laborers who have come to the city from the farms for work.
Nearby, a man in a coolie hat, an old representation of the stereotypical Chinese, turned over the soil in his vegetable plot just a few blocks from the business capital of South China, Guangzhou, a city of nearly 14 million people. Guangzhou, which is representative of New China, is known for its high-tech companies, such as TenCent, which created one of the most successful Internet apps, WeChat. Condominiums along the Pearl River can cost as much as $40 million for the high rollers in Guangzhou, which hosts the world’s largest trade fair every April.
But here in Huangpu, pronounced Whampoa, the remnants of Old China persist. Immigrants pack into the newly built apartment houses, where the rent runs about $500 a month, which is still expensive but about a third of the price only a few miles away.
China isn’t the most complicated country I have lived in. Egypt, Italy and Lebanon were immensely more confusing in the 1970s and 1980s when I resided there.
Nevertheless, China is far from simple. I am far from an expert on China. After teaching at Jinan University this summer and traveling throughout northern and eastern China, I can offer a few observations.
China understands the United States far more than we understand it. That’s true of most countries, but the nature of the relationship between the superpowers is far more important.
China plays the developing nation card quite effectively. Although it is the world’s No. 2 economic power, China often bows to the prowess of the United States. Nevertheless, President Xi Jinping has traveled extensively since he took power in 2012 and has consolidated his power domestically.
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article about his political moves, including the sentencing of his predecessor’s right-hand man to life imprisonment only this week. See
President Xi has cracked down on the media in recent months, urging news organizations to promote the party line to the people. But most citizens I met—clearly limited by my elementary Mandarin—regularly jump the Chinese firewall to read about events outside of the country. These people have money to afford a virtual private network, or VPN, to see what’s going on outside of China. The firewall limits access to Google, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and news organizations like The New York Times. The Washington Post and CNN are readily accessible for the most part.
But it’s difficult to get people to talk about politics. When they do, they compare the country’s leadership to the panda: coddled and lazy.
While I was in China, the country’s leadership decided not to celebrate the anniversaries of the beginning of the Cultural Revolution (1966) and its end (1976). Students generally resent having to study the philosophy of Mao, which is a required course in college.
The students I taught tended to have more enthusiasm for their studies than those I have in the United States. They spend nearly double the time in the classroom as those in the United States. My impressions may be somewhat skewed since my students were studying in English as part of the International School at Jinan University. Placement at Jinan University is determined by the highly competitive gaokao, or the nationwide examination that all high school students must take. You can see some of my students’ reporting at www.writingforjournalism.com
The older Chinese I met don’t like to talk about money, but it’s clear that many of them have amassed a lot of it during the economic expansion. Expensive cars clog the roadways of major cities, including Guangzhou, making it difficult to get from one side of the city to another. Fortunately, Guangzhou has an excellent and cheap subway system.
A parenthetical insert: The Chinese are terrible drivers. They make New Jersey motorists seem downright pleasant and sane. Moreover, it is relatively dangerous to be a pedestrian because automobiles have the right of way, and stop signs often serve as suggestions only.
Many Chinese I met want to visit the United States if they have not already done so. Many are learning English as a means to get a job with an international company. I didn’t get much of a chance to practice my Mandarin because most people wanted to practice their English.
One final note: Guangzhou, which is the third-largest city in China after Shanghai and Beijing, isn’t a huge attraction for foreigners except for business people. That’s unfortunate because the city offers a multitude of wonderful attractions: arguably the best food (Cantonese) in all of China, a night cruise along the Pearl River, a fascinating old market with everything from tea and vegetables to virility supplements and live scorpions. And the old port brings into full view the contrasts that are China.