Not Quite What I Expected

Travelling the Silicon RoadBEIJING — Just a few days into this trip, I’ve met with two government officials here, and I have to admit, they were not what I was expecting. And I was a little surprised at what they had to say.

This is probably as much, if not more of a reflection on me and my culture than on them and theirs. What was the title of the previous blog post? This Isn’t Your Father’s Communism? Indeed.

Being 36 years old, I’m old enough to remember the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. It seemed like when I was a kid, there were headlines every other week in the newspapers about nuclear missiles and tensions between the God-fearing, democratic West and the godless, oppressive totalitarian communists of the Soviet Union.

I remember the headlines spawned by the SALT missile treaty talks, and asking my parents to explain what was going on, and coming away with the impression that nuclear Armageddon was imminent. I don’t remember the Korean War, but I remember Vietnam, and my father trying to explain the domino theory to me.

We were the good guys, communists were the bad guys. There was a reason James Bond was always tangling with Soviet agents back then. Ah, the simplicity of youth and propaganda.

Of course, while the Soviet Union was the No. 1 U.S. bogeyman in our collective consciousness back in the day, Red China was certainly No. 2. And even though the world has changed a lot since I was kid, and me along with it, I suppose I still carried some of those preconceived notions with me here to China.

Probably like many Americans my age and older, I have a certain view of what a communist country should look like. And it is true that Beijing does have its fair share of sprawling, gloomy, non-descript tenement buildings that seem to be a hallmark of institutionalized communism. And yet, Beijing is so much more than that. Perhaps it fit the stereotype I have in my mind once upon a time, but if it ever did, that was obviously a long time ago, judging from what I’ve seen in just a few days.

And I also carried preconceived notions of what government officials would be like. I’m not sure what I was expecting, to be honest; I suppose I expected stiff and formal government automatons and bureaucrats spouting the party line. Well, to be frank, that notion got shot to hell in short order here in Beijing this week.

Now bear in mind, I’ve only spoken with two officials, one of them in the municipal government here in Beijing, and one a long-time official involved in the Ministry of Information (MII). I’ve also met two private businessmen and entrepreneurs (!) who once worked in the forerunner government organizations that were merged to create the MII.

Hardly a representative sample, to be sure, and I’m sure those mindless, doctrine-spouting officials exist somewhere in China; after all, we have more — much more — than our fair share of those in the U.S. But as I started out saying, the government officials I’ve met so far were not what I expected at all.

Far from the grim party members I think I had expected, these men were passionate and eager to talk openly. In fact, Liang Sheng, a city official, made it clear that he wanted to skip — and I quote, albeit through an interpreter — the “blah blah blah” of government officials and have a frank discussion. Liang is the section chief of the Department of Information Industry of the Beijing Municipal Government, as well as the deputy director of the Beijing Semiconductor Industry Association.

Nope, no not quite what I had expected. In fact, both Liang and Yang Xue Ming, an analyst with the Institute of Chinese Electronic Industry Development, both reminded me much more of senior executives in Silicon Valley — they’ve glimpsed a bright future and they see a way to get there, and they are determined to follow that path.

But the one common thread between my discussions with both Liang and Yang was that China right now is interested in helping China — it doesn’t really care about becoming a super power, at least in the chip industry, nearly so much as it is concerned with managing its growth in the coming years.

China has such a huge, vast domestic market, that it needs to be able to help itself, and yet it realizes that it is going to need private — and foreign — investment to do that. It can’t go it alone, and that is what is behind the changes in China in recent years, and the motivation to a more market-based economy.

There is other evidence, too, that this isn’t the communist nation of our parents’ generation. The Chinese government recently approved its next economic five-year plan, and in it he government acknowledged that one of their goals was to improve the gap between rich and poor. If there is one negative thing I’ve seen here so far, it is that gap — in fact, it seems as wide, perhaps wider, than it is back home in the States.

And on a personal note, while walking down a famous boulevard here in Beijing yesterday — streaming with natives on their way home from work, and foreign tourists perusing the shops and the ubiquitous street vendors hawking watches, DVDs and the like — I was talking with a native of Beijing. She was asking me why some people in the West view China as a threat. She genuinely didn’t seem to understand why; Chinese people are peace loving, she said; they just want to help themselves. That seems to be a common theme on my trip so far.

Electronic News Travels to ChinaOur conversation swung around to Mao Zedong. My friend suggested that Mao was great leader in many respects; a simple farmer who happened to be a brilliant tactician when it came to guerrilla warfare and inspiring his people. But that when it came to economics and social engineering, “he was not so good.”

Nope, this is not what I expected. And I’m beginning to think that China isn’t what most people in the United States would expect.


Editor’s Note: As explained at length elsewhere on this site, this is a blog entry of mine that originally appeared on the now-defunct Electronic News’ website, which is long gone. While its former sister pub Electronic Design News (EDN) currently holds the copyright to all Electronic News copy (to the best of my knowledge), as far as I know, this blog content isn’t hosted anywhere else on the Internet, hence my reproduction here.

Original Comments

at 10/12/2005 1:39:57 PM, Kay said:

Absolutely agree…..

at 10/12/2005 2:40:33 PM, Bob said:

These people are indeed hard-working and when they do get out from under opression by the regime their sheer productivity and innovation will likely easily surpass that of the U.S.. Thus this is what we may now have to fear about the “communists” of old. They have not yet been spoiled to expect everything to be given to them on a platter like some of those “poor” folks in the West and the rest around the world that our tax dollars keep rising to support.

at 10/12/2005 2:55:40 PM, unbelievable said:

Yet another useful idiot referring to a communist (Mao)responsible for the death of millions (via terror famine) as an agrarian reformer. And you say THEY’RE not spouting the party line. You are spouting the party line! When the Chinese recognize Taiwan as an independent state, hold free elections WITH party opposition, and no longer shoot demonstrators in Tienemen square, then I’ll believe their not same China.

at 10/12/2005 3:29:28 PM, jeff said:

JEFF, GOOD LUCK ON TRIP AND KEEP WRITING. It is clear your horizons are getting broadened every day. As we found out on a recent trip, those Capitalistic Communists in China get a big kick out making money.

at 10/12/2005 4:24:57 PM, Clayton Werner said:

Jeff, Its good to see the blinkers coming off. Sure there’s lots to be scared about – the whole of the future. But if we can recognise our common humanity with the Chinese, the Africans, the middle easterners and all – we’ll all be a lot better off. Tis a well learnt lesson from Dawkins “The Selfish Gene”, its the genes that can cooperate with other genes that share a slice of the future! Regards Clayton

at 10/12/2005 4:41:55 PM, G. S. Soriano said:

Well said, Jeff. I’ve been to China (Beijing) myself and worked for two weeks in MII building with other Chinese telecom vendors for Interoperability testing of our equipments. My first time in China was a real surprise. What I long thought, read, seen on TV news, documentary, and so on about China were not really that accurate. I’ve so far travelled to the big cities in China in 6 occassions and never had issues with the locals – day and night. I just came back from a 2 week trip from Venezuela where a co-worker and I got mugged – by the police. The way I saw it, China will be on top pretty soon if they keep doing what they do. I am talking about the Government and its people.

at 10/12/2005 5:30:50 PM, DrASK said:

Your remarks about “sprawling, gloomy, non-descript tenement buildings that seem to be a hallmark of institutionalized communism” made me think of the train ride into Tokyo that passes hundreds of these buildings, or driving on the highway towards Manhatten past the Bronx and seeing the very same sructures, all the same, indistiguishable save for the big numbers on the side. I always remarked to friends that these were examples of “gulag housing”. Remember it’s not just China, they’re everywhere.

at 10/13/2005 1:25:26 AM, Wmay said:

I have to say that the writer has got a sharp sight. It is really not easy to find some stuff like this, which is sth. true, instead of out of mere imagination or prejudice. I just hope more western people come and have a look at today’s China with their own eyes, before making any comments on China.

at 10/13/2005 8:01:23 AM, Jeff Chappell said:

Dear Unbelievable … I’m not going to get in a flame war with you, but yes, the officials I talked to did not spout the party line. And nowhere did I say or claim that China’s government did not have a miserable record when it comes to human rights … let me ask you this: would you judge 1 billion people on the actions of their government? I know I don’t want to be judged on the actions of my government right now … and I may be an idiot, but at least I’m not afraid to put his name above what he writes. If you’re going to flame people, at least don’t be a coward and hide behind anonymity.

at 10/13/2005 9:49:06 AM, Jeff in China said:

Glad your trip has been an eye-opening experience so far. Having lived on the mainland for over a year now, it’s always interesting for me to hear about the first impressions people have about China. However, what I have also found is that China tends to be so far from many Westerners’ expectations, as it is developing so quickly, that they latch on to that and ignore the ways it hasn’t changed.

Might I point you, for example, to the recent Newsweek article, Guilt By Association. Usually though, it’s more subtle than that. The somewhat recent resurgence in tensions between the Chinese and the Japanese is fueled by the government. On September 18th of this year, for example, I awoke to screeching air raid sirens that sounded for a full ten minutes in celebration of the 60th anniversary of end of the War Against Japanese Aggression (you might know this war as WWII).

Let ‘s just say that blaring sirens make it hard to forget the Japanese. And this is just one topic of many where you will find the majority of people touting the party line. Perhaps when it comes to business endeavors, things are different. One final note, if there is one thing I’ve learned about China from my experiences here, it’s that its obsessed with facade. A building might look nice and new, but upon closer examination you’ll notice that there is no indoor heating, no hot water, no caulking anywhere, big gaps in the door frame, etc.

People are the same way’if you ask someone in Shanghai for directions, they might point you in a direction, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have any idea how to get there. They just don’t want to lose face. My suggestion, then, is to always look closer, and try not to get carried away with the momentum of quick development.

at 10/13/2005 12:56:56 PM, You’re really killing me! said:

I am sorry! Jeff I am sorry too (two)! I am sorry three! Jeff What are you sorry for (four)? I am sorry five!

at 10/14/2005 4:53:58 AM, buck hyre said:

Most American’s ideas about China are based on what we see, hear and read in the media. I envy you being there and getting to know the real China, it’s people, culture and government. I spent the early Seventies in England and came away with a much different opinion of the English than I had going there. It also made me appreciate more growing up in the U.S.. More Americans should go abroad for extended periods of time to see what really is going on in the world instead of believing the evening news on tv. Thank you.

at 10/14/2005 6:23:12 AM, Walter Duranty said:

While I think much of the market reforms underway in China are good things, I do understand Unbelievable’s concerns. It is a dictatorship, after all. Some survivors in this world are more than a little touchy about correspondents who, perhaps having harbored cartoonish delusions about the behavior of thugs, become seduced by schmoozers who smile and extend a warm welcome to them.

Maybe it is time to Google on “Walter Duranty,” (if the Chinese Government hasn’t blocked searches) who when accepting his Pulitzer prize in the 1930’s stated: “Despite present imperfections,” he continued, he had come to realize there was something very good about the Soviets’ “planned system of economy.” And there was something more: Duranty had learned, he said, “to respect the Soviet leaders, especially Stalin, who [had grown] into a really great statesman.”

I’m not equating you with Duranty, just trying to explain the raised eyebrows. To this reader your blog projected a kind of naive honesty as in “Jeepers, I met some folks who worked for Mr. Capone and they seemed really friendly and generous –not at all like those gangsters I see in the movies. Heck they just want what’s best for their kids…” Of course there are millions of fine folks in China — as there were in 20th century Russia and Germany.

Let me ask you this: would soft-peddling Stalin as an Agrarian Reformer so as to not be seen as ‘judging 1 million people on the actions of their government” have been the right thing to do? Certainly, the discovery that there were millions of good hearted, decent Russians would not have been an argument for promoting the policies of Stalin. I think that was Unbelievable’s point. I read his post several times and did not see any negative “judgments” of the Chinese people.

It struck me that, very likely , he is one of them. Before you start calling people cowards you might understand that , if he is a citizen of China, he may be wise to remain anonymous when criticizing his government. -Walter P.S . FYI, I believe the term “Useful Idiot” was a term coined by Lenin when asked about the value of American Socialists who argued that the Communists weren’t so bad. It’s about naiveté, Jeff.

at 10/14/2005 5:45:19 PM, Jeff Chappell said:

Dear “Walter Duranty:” Hmmm … why do people always insist on reading what they want to see in something, rather than just taking what it says at face value? Nowhere in this blog or my stories have I defended the Chinese government or its policies, nor did I suggest for one second that just because the officials I met seemed warm and sincere, that this justifies the policies of the Chinese government.

I didn’t, and it doesn’t. And is it naiveté, “Walter,” or is it an open mind? Have you traveled to China? Have you met the people that I have met?

As for “Unbelievable” being Chinese, or yourself, for that matter, that would be the only excuse I would accept for hiding behind anonymity. Otherwise, if you are going to post insults accusing me of being an idiot, naiveté and — this is my favorite, imply that I’m a pawn of the Chinese government, unwitting or otherwise — have the courage to stand by what you have to say and put your name to it. I do it every day, after all. Aside from fear of becoming a political prisoner, which is still a real, valid concern here in China, there is no excuse.

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