I spent over 12 months in China during the period 1989-92, mostly in Nanjing, but also in Beijing and traveling throughout the southwestern part of the country. When I first visited China as a student in August 1989 (a couple of months after the May and June events in Tiananmen Square), I found a country dominated by bicycles, with few foreigners and few foreign products. McDonalds would open its first China outpost that year. English was not spoken. The only motorized vehicles on the roads were tractors, trucks, public buses and the occasional government sedan. There was no highway system. There were no subways. (Beijing had a limited system from earlier years.) The cities were dark at night; devoid of street lighting. In the winter a haze of smoke from locally burned coal (for heating and cooking) hung in the air.
What a difference 20 years can make. China is on the move and has been since I left in December 1992. There have been huge infrastructure improvements to roads, trains and subways; communication improvements that come with cell phones, the internet and computerized train ticketing systems; and changes to consumption patterns that come with the creation and growth of a middle class. If you want to see where most of the world’s steel and cement are ending up, visit China.
In terms of the physical landscape, I would put the advent of the personal automobile at the top of the list of changes. The streets that were once designed for more bicycles than motorized vehicles are now dominated by cars. Bicycles have been sidelined. The “bike-only” lanes are narrower than they were and bicyclists now compete with motor scooters in those lanes. Parking bicycles on the sidewalks was a common practice, now it’s cars on the sidewalks. And the chaos of bicyclists bending traffic rules pales in comparison to the chaos and hazards that come with automobile drivers bending those same rules.
In terms of the non-physical, I find the biggest changes in the service industry. First, there is one now. The tender shoots of entrepreneurship were just breaking the surface in the early 90s, but the idea of customer service was still dormant. “Mei you” (which translates as “can’t do it” or “don’t have it”, but which really means “piss off”) was the common response to any question at a train station ticket booth, hotel front desk and even at restaurants. During our recent two weeks in China I did not hear “mei you” a single time. Hotel staff were courteous, and the train ticket sales people (although they never smiled) were very helpful. Still, I’m happy to report, China’s service sector retains a certain “Chineseness” that those of us who’ve spent some “quality” time there have come to know, and, if not to love, at least to expect.
For those who have not yet visited China, but who want to see one possible version of the future, visit China. For those who want to appreciate what the US Environmental Protection Agency and our Clean Air and Clean Water Acts have done for our environment, visit China. For those who want to witness growth that took us 100 years unfold before their eyes, visit China. For those who want to see what living under Big Brother feels like (internet censorship, license plates photographed at every opportunity), visit China. Just be careful crossing the street.