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China Commentary: Beyond Words

Posted by Keith on July 21, 2007 at 8:10 pm  

How do you describe a nation so vast, with so many unique locales and peoples, all engaged in every conceivable occupation — from subsistence farmer to engineer, from small merchant to government minion to international tycoon?

A nation that drips of totalitarian intrusion into every aspect of people’s lives, yet that projects permanence and power — from the Great Wall to Tiananmen Square, to the marble foyers of its public buildings to the immaculate uniforms and confident demeanor of its military personnel; but with the world’s worst pollution, and with grinding poverty just beneath its powerful façade; and yet still with a population genuinely enthused about the progress that has been made here these past 30 years?

I interrupted one trip of a lifetime aboard The Global Adventure to meet my family in Hong Kong and to embark, with them, upon another trip of a lifetime: A 12-day excursion into Mainland China.

It’s been days since our return to Hong Kong and my family’s subsequent return to the states. But the task of describing what we saw, what I learned, has seemed overwhelming, because China itself is overwhelming.

Here is a quick summary of our experience, including references to the dispatches, radio shows, videos and photos of the trip I have already posted for you here at

I will address the topic of China’s investment markets in another article.

Shanghai and Hangzhou

Please see my July 6 dispatch, and our videos and many photos regarding this portion of our trip, for a full accounting of this portion of our trip. The July 6 article also includes my account of what happened in Hangzhou when I lost my passport.


For hundreds of years Beijing has had at its heart the goal of impressing – indeed of overwhelming – visitors. It’s boulevards are so wide, its public buildings so impressive, the foliage along each major roadway so perfectly manicured, that the uninitiated might easily conclude that China is a nation wealthier, stronger, and far more stable than it actually is.

We stayed at Raffles Hotel within an easy walk of both The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Both are impressive, but Tiananmen struck me as particularly vast. I learned that it easily holds two million people. There is a saying in China that on holidays half the people of China are on the square, and the other half are across the street at the Forbidden City.

As you exit the south gates of The Forbidden City you face Tiananmen Square across the wide boulevard there. Immediately you are struck by the location of the giant ellipse on the Square celebrating China’s “Heroes of the Revolution”. It is precisely centered on the massive south gates of the Forbidden City, arrogantly implying that China’s past was but prelude to the current communist regime.

And the government’s arrogance is not confined to what you see as you exit The Forbidden City. As you enter its south gates you pass beneath a giant poster of Mao Zedong.

After visiting Tiananmen Square and The Forbidden City our first day in Beijing, I spent the entire second day there obtaining a temporary (one year) passport from the U.S. Embassy, and obtaining a visa from the Chinese Bureau of Entry and Exit (more appropriately described as the “Bureau of No Exit”).

Please listen to my July 8 radio show regarding how the Chinese make it impossible for ordinary citizens to come near the U.S. Embassy. Also, on the show I describe how at the Chinese “Bureau of No Exit” I spent five-hours standing in, literally, 15 different lines in order to receive my visa. The show is posted right here on the site – as are all our recent radio shows.

We spent our third full day in the Beijing area touring the Great Wall and The Summer Palace. The Wall was one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. You’ll find a fascinating narration of its history by our guide on our July 10 Great Wall video. You’ll also find photos of the Wall and of The Summer Palace right here at

Remember: You can access all videos from the “Keith’s Blog” column on the home page, or you can click on “Videos” in the menu on the upper right hand corner of the home page. Photos can be found by clicking on “Photos” on the menu, and selecting the “China Album”.

The Yangtze River

We traveled for three days on a riverboat along the Yangtze River from Chongqing to Yichan. It was the highlight of our trip.

Our videos and photos best describe the massive changes occurring along the Yangtze River as a result of the Three Gorges Dam project: The relocation of entire cities, the inundation of ancient artifacts and an entire way of life, and the virtual-overnight construction of densely populated “relocation” cities — all along a river where live 450 million people. I also offer commentary in our July 8 radio show about the political factors that empower the government to undertake this massive project regardless of the consequences to millions of people.

Our Escape from China

On our final day in China we were scheduled to fly from Yichang to Guangzhou, and from Guangzhou to Hong Kong. When we discovered that some family members had lost their tickets, we asked the ticket agent for China South Airlines (state owned) to check our reservations in the computer. Instead, the agent shook us down for nearly U.S. $500 in cash. The agent then re-ticketed the family members only as far as Guangzhou.

We wound up renting a van from Guanghzou to the Hong Kong territories border (about a two hour trip), and then taking a ferry from the border to Hong Kong.

At the final customs checkpoint at the ferry terminal, customs officials tried to delay our departure over a cast-iron mass-produced Buddha they found in our luggage. We had purchased the Buddha for about U.S.$6 at a tourist market in Shanghai. There were countless such heads available for purchase throughout China, but the customs officials decided to treat ours as a possible ancient artifact.

You’ll find a full account of this debacle on my July 22 radio show (posted tomorrow).

Fortunately, we did finally escape The People’s Republic of China (The irony of that name!). I had originally planned to return to the mainland to investigate certain businesses when my family left Hong Kong for home. But while I loved China, I hated it also. I’m in no hurry to return.



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