Vi and I have just returned from Chengdu, a Chinese village of seventeen million and the gateway to Tibet. Since China is of some interest to the US these days, I thought a description of sorts, actually more in the nature of a disordered travelogue, might be of interest. I hadn’t been to the country for twelve years and, before that, not since living in Taiwan in the mid-Seventies. Each time, the changes were astonishing. Herewith some notes:
A caveat: we never got more than three hundred miles from the city and do not pretend to describe the country beyond what we saw.
Despite Trump’s trade war we had no problems in getting visas in Guadalajara or getting through customs in Chengdu. Nobody showed us the slightest hostility. Although China is assuredly a dictatorship and vigorously represses dissent, we saw virtually no police. A friend who lived in Chengdu for several years until recently asserts that there is close to zero street crime. (White collar crime is a very different matter, he said, and seems built into Chinese culture. There are books on this.)
China is often described as a developing country. Well, sort of. Chengdu is decidedly of the First World, modern, muscular, appearing to have been recently built because it was. The downtown is beautiful, at least as cities go, and livable. In many hours of walking aimlessly we encountered everything from elegant high-end stores selling upscale Western bands to noodle shops. It is not a poor city. A considerable number of people wear worn clothes and clearly are not overly prosperous, but nobody looked hungry and most appeared middle class. We saw no beggars or homeless people of the sort common in the US. Whether this is because there aren’t any, or because the government doesn’t allow them on the streets, I do not know.
For anyone who knows what China was before Deng Xiaoping took over in 1978, after Mao made his greatest contribution to his country–he died–the growth of prosperity astounds. Many criticisms may be made of the Chinese government, some of them valid, but no other government has lifted so many people out of poverty so fast.
When I lived in Taiwan, I wondered why the Chinese, especially the mainlanders, were so backward. They seemed to have been so almost forever, certainly since well before Legation days. At the time Taiwan had a Five Year Plan for development, but so did all sorts of dirtball counties, mostly consisting of a patch of jungle, a colonel, and a torture chamber.
I noted, though, if the reader will forgive me a digression: Taiwan was actually meeting its Plan. In the Third World of the time, this was a novel idea. The Jin Shan reactors were going in, the new port, the steel mill, the highway. I interviewed the head of the nuclear program for the Far Eastern Economic Review–Harvard guy. Other officials were from MIT. Idi Amin they were not.
Young and dumb as I was–the two being barely distinguishable–I thought Hong Kong looked like Manhattan with slanted eyes, hardball financial turf, and I knew Taiwanese students in America were excelling in science courses. I concluded that Mousy Dung was the greatest American patriot who ever lived since, if he ever stopped holding these people back, what has happened might.
But back to Chengdu.
The first thing we noticed in the city was the enormous scale of everything. Buildings downtown were huge. The elevated highways everywhere were huge. The numbers of people were huge. There were literally hundreds of hugely tall apartment buildings. The principle seemed to be that if you have too many people to spread them out, stack them up. Said a Chinese guide we hired, they weren’t there twenty years ago.
Conspicuous to both Violeta and me was evidence of Intelligent Design. Chengdu clearly did not evolve randomly as cities do in the West. Somebody thought about things beforehand. The overhead highways kept heavy traffic flowing. Very wide sidewalks downtown made pedestrianism pleasant. The subway was nothing special but well designed to be easy to use even if you don’t know how. (Well, it does have sliding glass doors to keep you away from the tracks until the train comes. This way, you can’t throw things onto the tracks, such as your mother-in-law.)
A characteristic of the Chinese is that there are lots of them. The photo is deceptive since only in a few old, narrow-streeted market regions do you see this. But I liked the picture, so you have to look at it. (Due to a camera missetting, I got video, but it seemed descriptive, so I kept it.)
In a country that thinks it is communist, or pretends it is to save face in case you notice that it isn’t, you might expect horrible architecture. You know, like the awful Stalin Gothic of Moscow. Or Franco’s mausoleum that looks to have been designed by someone channeling Albert Speer. Actually no. (Except maybe sorta for the huge apartment buildings, mentioned above, that cluster together in sometimes groups of twelve that could hold the population of Guatemala).
Thing is, the Chinese have a well-developed aesthetic sense, at least in the visual realm (not so hot musically, and Beijing opera is a crime against humanity). Somebody, which means the government, said that considerable green space would be left, and it was. Planters with (unsurprisingly) plants in them are everywhere, and patches of what look like manicured forest. The result is curious. You can sit in cool shady woods a few yards from an enormous overhead highway.
Communism, which China once had, pretty much forbids religion, so I wondered what we would find in the faith line. Buddhists. We visited Buddhist temples, meticulously maintained, with worshipers, mostly women, obviously worshiping. How was this, I asked my round-eyed friend. Well, he said, Christianity was strongly disapproved as being Western, but the government was nervous about public reaction to a crackdown on Buddhism. So they decided that Buddhism wasn’t a religion, see, but Chinese culture, and thus OK. I don’t know whether this is true, but thought it a nicely practical waffle.
Huge. Here we go again. Chengdu has what it says is the world’s largest building, 1.5 million square meters. This is the Global Center. It is the damndest thing I have ever seen, maybe. I suspect it was built to overcome an international short-man’s complex. I bet it did, too. It was like going into the VAB at Canaveral, unlimited space, with hotels, stores, offices, wide open space. But–the aesthetic thing again–it was wonderfully colorful and just–“gorgeous” comes to mind. It was not designed by corporate in New Jersey.
The Chinese conception of wide-screen video, at the Global Center. Note the man just to the left of the video button. I am not sure why the blonde is there. I think it a good idea, though. Violeta thinks it has to do with Victoria’s Secret. It isn’t clear where she could hide more than a very small secret.
To prove that China has reached American levels of mild lunacy: we passed an Alienware store–high-end gaming computers–with a crowd of Chinese looking at a screen on which, somewhere, a video game was being played. The announcer sounded as excited as a Latin American covering a hotly contested soccer match: “Womenhau…wangjile!..wangjile!mijyou!MIJYOU!woshrhenhau!..YANGGWEIDZE….” in a rising shriek. I couldn’t understand a word of it, but the involvement reminded me of when Mexico beat Germany in the World Cup.
More traditional, in the suburbs. Good food, nice people. Shamelessly showing off, I dredged up the decaying corpse of my ancient Mandarin, “Ching ni, geiwo liang ping pijyou, hau bu hou.” Ordering beer is the main purpose of any language.
Next time bullet trains, WeChat, other neat stuff.