Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Welcome to Beijing

Ellen and I are in China now. It's the middle of the night here, which reflects my insomnia as well as some lingering jet lag. I can't sleep, so I'm blogging.

We're here with a group sponsored by Global Publishers Alliance, and this past morning we visited the Great Wall. It's a vast understatement to say that it’s rather impressive. How often do we walk on a structure that is two thousand years old? Much of the wall dates from the 13th century or so, with many places having being restored and repaired in the last fifty years. It’s quite a hike, with steep stairs as the wall winds up and down the mountains. We got to the top using a ski chairlift, and we came back down the mountain on a toboggan slide. Now my legs are sore; going to the Great Wall is an alternative to a StairMaster workout. I can't imagine the magnitude of what it took to build the wall; the work was done by hundreds of thousands of slave laborers over the course of centuries, in the midst of mountainous regions without roads or easy access.

The hosts for our trip have provided quite a bit of info about China and especially Christianity’s presence in China. They gave us a thumbnail history of Christians in China, from the Nestorians to the Jesuits to Hudson Taylor to the twentieth century. The church has grown the most during the periods when foreign missionaries have been kicked out. Less than a hundred years ago, there were about half a million Christians in China. Today, depending on what numbers or estimates you use, there are anywhere from 80 million to 120 million Christians in China, making Chinese Christianity one of the largest renewal and evangelistic movements in the history of the church.

Something that emerged was that just about everything we’ve heard about the church in China is true, somewhere. Lots of Christians are being persecuted in China – that’s true. Christians are able to worship and gather publicly – that’s also true. China is such a vast country, with a landmass about the same size as the United States and four times the population. So conditions vary widely based on local governance and situations. In some places, especially in the east and along the coast, house churches meet publicly and have signs in their windows advertising their meetings. Other areas, everything is completely hush-hush and underground. And it’s not as clear-cut a distinction between the “registered” and “unregistered” churches – our host tells us of situations where church leaders lead underground house churches during the week and also serve in Three-Self churches on the weekend.

I bought a T-shirt at a local market and paid more than I should have. I didn’t quite bargain it down as much as I could have, and I’ve been kicking myself about it. Our guide told us that we can often get things for a tenth of the initial stated price; something that is offered at 100 RMB (about $12.50) could be bargained down to 30 or even 10 RMB. But then again, if I end up paying “tourist’s prices” for things, that may not be all that bad a thing for the local merchants and economy. One of our guides estimated that these vendors make maybe a thousand dollars a month. And that’s much more than the most impoverished areas, where an income of two hundred dollars a year is standard. Even college-educated workers might only make a few hundred dollars a month, depending on where they are. Beijing, which has a population of about fifteen million, may have anywhere from one to three million migrant workers that try to find work as day laborers, maybe making $2 a day, if that. But China’s shift to a market economy has also meant that there are many people who are becoming very wealthy. Like other societies around the world, China is experiencing a polarization between the really rich and the very poor.

China is in the midst of massive renovation in preparation for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, and there’s new construction everywhere. When our plane landed, we could see an entire new terminal being built. Cranes dot the landscape, with new buildings going up all over the place, including some we saw that might be for the Olympic Village. The resort we’re staying at is charging $500 a night for the Olympics, and people must stay the entire 19 days. They’ve already booked half of their rooms, and they’re building more rooms to accommodate more guests. There are billboards all over the place with the Olympic logo; every partner and sponsor is featuring the games.

But we have not seen many American or multinational companies or businesses, at least in the areas where we've been staying and visiting so far. In one commercial district we saw a McDonald's, and there are occasional signs for Coca-Cola and Budweiser, but most businesses that we pass on the streets are Chinese. There was a Starbucks at the airport, but not on the streets. It's quite a contrast to Seoul, which had American companies everywhere.

As our plane was landing, I could see dozens and dozens of apartment buildings and high-rise complexes, all in orderly formation. It looked like a Legoland. Not surprising, considering that just in the past few decades China's population has grown from one billion to 1.3 billion, meaning that it has increased by the size of the entire U.S. But surprisingly, the roads are not clogged with traffic. The highways are wide open and move swiftly. I had envisioned high densities and masses of people everywhere, but many of the places we've been feel quite rural, even though it's still technically Beijing. We'll probably see more of the high-density areas when we head downtown for the book fair.

The food is great. A dozen or more dishes at every meal, with everything from Peking duck to candied apples. I've been thrilled to have access to authentic Chinese food, and I've seen several things here that I've not had in years, or since visiting Taiwan when I was a teenager. Most Chinese restaurants in the U.S. usually tone things down a bit for American eaters - not so here. Dinner was Szechuan, terrifically spicy stuff that freaked out many of the folks in our group. I loved it. More later.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this fascinating blog, Al. China and India seem to be riding the wave of the future.

P.S. "Budwiser" = "Budweiser"

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for the correction! I fixed the typo.