Thursday, December 03, 2015


Shenzhen - November 2015.
My first Shenzhen visit was October 1986.  Relatively vacant and flat, it was a fishing town located within the newly decreed so-called "Special Economic Zone."  
We landed in Hong Kong a few days earlier and then traveled by bus and crossed a small simple border station building to lunch at a hotel restaurant.  Across the waters more "town" was visible.  Skies were blue.  The air was fresh.  Inside the hotel sat samples from the Terracotta Army displayed for foreigners (us) to admire.  Bicycles and three-wheelers were the norm in those days.
Twenty-nine years have passed.  How many China visits and names of all the cities visited?  I can't say.  But as for Shenzhen, in place of the fishing village sits towering offices skyscrapers (mid-range / thirty floors), shopping centers and residential buildings, theaters, sports centers, and banks, banks, banks. Construction is constant.   A million cars and trucks (my guess) replace the bikes and trikes, now rarities.  Eighteen million people (fact) live within this one large spot.  Here ... Shenzhen ... only a part of China, immersed in the largest capitalist and market driven experiment the world has ever known.  It runs day and night, full force countrywide.  
Chengdu - January 2014.
Eight hundred thirty three miles north and east of Shenzhen rests Chengdu, home of the giant panda.  Administratively, fourteen million (people not panda) live here tucked against Longmen Mountain and the Qionglai Mountains that rise above central Sichuan province.  My first visit to Chengdu - January 2014.  No prior reference points: only the towers of 2014 attesting to modernity.  Over half of the world's Fortune 500 companies host offices in Chengdu.  Mixed into the swirl of humanity are disenfranchised Tibetans - contained, my description, by the energy of watching eyes: a government that wonders what would happen ... if ... if... if....  Chengdu - the birthplace of the world's first ever widely used paper currency.
Wenzhou - 2007.
Two hours forty minutes (current flight standards) due west of Chengdu sits coastal Wenzhou.  My visits: by now a few; with the first being August 2007.  I recall from that time.  Grey.  Industrialized.  Flat.  Hot.  Stale.  During the entire trip I saw only one star (actually, a planet).  One striking '07 memory: a lone woman gawked and laughed as she peddled past me on her bicycle.  Me, a strange-looking foreign outsider.  My experiences of that visit were recorded in a poetic piece "This IS China".
"This IS China" began:
This is China.  Yes, so are the other cities I've been to over the past few months - Beijing, Shanghai, Haining, etc.  But this IS China.  Large, urban, constantly moving. Not "getting ready for the Olympics".  Gritty city China.  Right now the sun is a large hot smog-screened ball burning through the haze scorching the skin.  I don't know it, the scorch, but I feel it.

Mid-course it read:
What do I notice?  Old men and women ... maybe not as old as they look ... walking underneath the freeway (I don't think it's called "freeway" here) scavenging wood into pots and bowls.  And I wonder, what will become of the wood?  What will become of them? Probably, the same thing.  What do I notice?  A man peddling a three-wheeled awning covered taxi cab (they are everywhere) and placing his right foot on a break attached to the frame above the front tire.

It ended:
After "star gazing" I went to a teahouse. Taken there by two of the students from the Samurai (Warrior) Game.  Both are business owners.  Wenzhou is a business/manufacturing center in China.  The teahouse was a magnificent and quiet place (and very un-Chinese) filled with valuable artifacts from all over Tibet.  All for sale, and some items priced as high as US$12,000.  The place is owned by a woman and a guy.  He's a devout Buddhist.  See comment above about "Higher Power".  We talked about peace.  I see what I get to see, when I get to see it and enjoyed the moment. An interesting trip.  Too bad it had to end so soon.
My last visit Wenzhou, 2013.  Susan Hammond joined me to successfully deliver our aikido-based program, The Art of Practice: an interesting undertaking considering the anti-Japanese sentiment within China.  Wenzhou, 2013, architecturally magnificent, with structures towering above the above, making for a skyline unrecognizable these six years later.  Look here, look there:  Bentley - Porsche- Rolls Royce - Lamborghini.  And then: Mercedes and Audi all so commonplace as to be, well, prosaic.  And then:  Buick, Buick, Buick.
Back to today.
From where the now-time Shenzhen and China have come in three decades is both breathtaking and breath taking.  On one hand - inspiring: people magnificently transforming a region in such a short amount of time.  On the other hand - disturbing: a rampant smog here in Shenzhen today is elsewhere, everywhere everyday.  There's always more than one side to every coin.
Hard to imagine the "was" of 1986, when our plane landed between the buildings of downtown Hong Kong - entry point to Shenzhen.  Today's Hong Kong airport outclasses most of the worlds.  Yes, Hong Kong retains its decades old Star Ferry, but the buildings and those of Kowloon and the expansive stretch of the "Special Economic Zone" with new cities, e.g. ShaTin, these define the physicality of "transformation".  Today most outsiders (including friends at home) have no experienced "real" clue about this place ... only clothing tags boasting "Made in China", with newsprint and talking heads proclaiming "the world's second largest economy."  Ask an average person on the street in Shenzhen, "Who is Obama?", and you'll get an accurate answer.  Ask an average American on the street, "Who is Xi Jinping?", and you'll probably get the same answer as if you asked, "Who is Ashton Carter?"  Well maybe.  To the latter question, instead of hearing "I don't know", you might catch "Jimmy Carter's brother(?)" - not "Secretary of Defense".
What is this China?  Where is it going?  Who knows.  Yes, problems loom, including some with serious health and medical implications that could possibly strain and drain the massive economic machine it's grown to become.  But the answer to the "where" question is: We shall see.
One thing for certain, China 2015 is anything but static.
© Lance Giroux, November 2015

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