It's been two years since I last set foot on the homeland, so it was with eager and curious eyes that I observed the country on the recent 3-week trip. Here are some impressions that stood out.
1. Bad news first: the environmental crises, especially the air quality, are even worse than I expected. The APEC-blue did just a little to clear the skies. Driving from Inner Mongolia all the way to Shanghai, we were submerged in dense smog the whole way, except for a few rare relief in the mountains.
Talking to people in the government, business and the legal system provided some clue to the cause of the eco-crises. The systems (political, economic, and social) incentivize pollution, and provide no check-and-balance. The fragile moral fabric does not withstand the pounding force of state capitalism and greed. Many people are getting sick, and dying of cancer. It is heart-breaking. I used to think that I will bike across China in the next few years, but now it seems suicidal to do it to the lung.
2. On the positive side, I see electric bikes everywhere, and even a few tiny electric cars -- the size of a fridge. Within 5 years, electric bikes have overtaken bicycles as the main 2-wheel transportation all over China. It shows the enormous potential of change, without political campaigns, when the right incentives are aligned.
3. I am surprised by the number of people who smoke, and how pervasive smoking is in public areas -- including hotels, restaurants, etc. There is still no social stigma around smoking, and the society is paying a heavy cost in health and money. Equally surprising/disturbing is the ubiquitous spitting. I wouldn't have noticed the spitting/smoking epidemic before I left China. How quickly one's benchmark (of what is normal) changes!
4. Most people we talked to are supportive and optimistic of the new(ish) government leadership. The anti-corruption campaign, the "Chinese Dream", the beautiful First Lady, and the charismatic President Xi all helped to give hope to the ordinary Chinese. While I was in China, APEC was underway where President Xi received other heads of state like the Emperor of Middle Kingdom -- the media did a good job of portraying the magnanimity and grace. The President's tour in Oceania and to the G20 Summits were also highlighted by the state media. Overall, the sentiment is: China is back on the world stage.
5. The economy has evidently slowed, and wasteful construction abounds. The coal-hauling trucks on the road are fewer in number than previous years, and real estate constructions are slow. It was shocking to see the wasteful real estate and infrastructure construction all over the country. We visited the famous "ghost town" of Ordos -- ghostly indeed: magnificent, grandiose, and empty. I got serious heart-burns thinking about the wasted resources and human efforts. And Ordos is not alone.
But the high speed rail and the internet boom are at least two of the bright spot. Tech start-ups grab headlines on a daily basis, and have quickly changed the way people do almost everything. Everyone is glued to their smartphones in the subway -- a scene similar to San Francisco. The high speed rail is truly impressive. My 800-mile train ride from Shanghai to Beijing took less than 5 hours, with the train traveling silently and smoothly at a speed of 200 MPH.
6. Retirees are happy and free; school children are in hell. The retirees (who have good pension and supportive children) are the most happy and free people in China. If they enjoy good health, they have little to worry about, and lots of free time to do things they like. The school children are probably the most tortured group, with endless homework and tests and fierce competition in school, and little light in their tired eyes. For anyone who are able, they have sent their kids abroad to study.