My first trip to mainland China made me curious as to what I might find. After all, this country was supposed to be one of our Cold War enemies. How much has really changed? Unfortunately, I only spent a few days in Beijing. But even that was instructive — a lot has changed.
The Chinese capital is huge, with 26 million people and the worst traffic I’ve ever seen. Every conversation about planning ended with “depending on traffic.” It contained a lot of buildings you would expect to see in a socialist dictatorship — identical high-rises, and judging by the number of visible room air conditioners, without central air. But there were a lot of very modern skyscrapers, too. We stayed in a Western-style hotel in the Renaissance chain; the photo was the view from my window.
We had a guide that I would call realistically loyal. She described Mao Tse-Tung as a great hero who made mistakes. When we toured Tiananmen Square, she didn’t hesitate to talk about the 1989 massacre. How many were killed? Official Chinese media said no one, BBC and CNN said 2000, she didn’t know. Interestingly, she said the man blocking the line of tanks in the iconic photo was actually a young lady. She was a student at Beijing University, survived to run a computer company, and is on good terms with the government today. (Unfortunately, I can’t find any confirmation of that version.)
Our tour included stops at two government shops, one selling pearls (pictured is a freshwater oyster) and the other peddling silk. We were told the difference between freshwater oysters, which can produce many pearls, and saltwater oysters, which can produce only one. Pearl colors come from minerals, and you can tell if a strand is real by rubbing them together — real pearls are rough. Pearls are also used in skin cream. We got to see silkworms eating their mulberry leaves (pictured). And we were offered “good deals” on both jewelry and silk. This proved the Chinese are adapting well to capitalism.
One thing is sure, China has changed radically over the last 50 years. According to our guide, priorities in the 1970s were to own a bicycle, watch, and a sewing machine. That progressed to a motorcycle, furniture, and a TV. Today, it’s a house, a car, and a diamond ring.
But, as I said in an earlier post, this visit confirms my belief that no matter what country you visit, we have more in common than we have differences. But of course, China is not a democracy. Just count the number of surveillance cameras and speakers on this light standard in Tiananmen Square.