Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Comparing China Visits – 1997 and 2008, Lee Stout

In 1997, my wife Dee and I were able to spend a week in Beijing as tourists. This 2008 archival trip expanded our appreciation of China and also provided a new professional dimension to our experiences. Given all the TV coverage of the Beijing Olympics, and the excitement of our trip, I thought it might be of interest to reflect on a few areas of comparison we saw over the eleven years between our trips.

Bicycles - Cars

In 1997, there were tens of thousands of bicycles on the roads in Beijing, and relatively few private cars. In fact, the mass of cyclists trying to share the road with pedestrians, trucks and buses made us sure then that we would see at least one fatality a day. Surprisingly, with careful observation, we noticed the pecking order of vehicles yielding to one another to ensure a constant flow of traffic with few if any problems. In 2008, there are vastly greater numbers of private cars, traffic jams, and expressways (some with toll booths – unheard of in 1997). In Shanghai, there were divided lanes for the bikes, separated by fences which certainly appeared to help with safety. The car has also reached an important level as a social marker. One of our guides told us a young man’s marriage prospects were very limited without owning either a car or an apartment! Even the smallest city we visited – Kunming with about three million people – had fewer cars, but large numbers of electric scooters instead of an extensive bicycle fleet.

Construction and Growth

Of course, our 1997 visit was limited to one city, while this time we saw four (including Xi’an and Kunming on the extension), but the story was similar in all four. Everywhere we looked there were cranes and construction in progress. New buildings, roads, apartments, houses, stores, etc., were seen everywhere. Most of us had heard of the clearing away of old one-story hutongs in Beijing to make room for new buildings and Olympic venues, but the progress continues. In ’97, we saw a lot of relatively new buildings, but now growth seems to be in overdrive. I asked one of our guides about it. He remarked that America has had decades of peace in which to grow, while China has only been at it for twenty years or so, they have a lot of catching up to do, hence all the activity.


In ’97, the Beijing attractions, the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, etc., were busy, but not crowded as they were on this trip. The major difference we noticed this time was the presence of Chinese tour groups. Before, the Chinese we saw were largely locals, out on a Saturday afternoon excursion, much like city-dwellers anywhere spending a day off in the park. This time we saw large numbers of tour buses with Chinese groups seeing the sights. Some may have been overseas Chinese, but most I suspect were from other parts of China – further evidence of a growing middle class with disposable income and the time for leisure to appreciate their history.


On our previous trip, the street vendors were more or less confined to the tourist attractions and there, to their own stalls. Now, at least in Beijing and Shanghai, they seemed to be everywhere. It was hard to walk outside the hotels without being approached repeatedly. This difference seems to parallel the greater presence of modern retail stores and western brands. In ’97, we were struck by the presence of McDonald’s and KFC restaurants in Beijing, this time it was the Ferrari, Porsche, and Maserati showrooms in Shanghai. Virtually any upscale western brand we can find at home now has stores in China. Stopping in a Starbucks or Häagen-Dazs ice cream shop now was the taste of home that a Big Mac and a Coke provided eleven years ago.

I’m sure there are many other examples, but overall the growth, modernization, and westernization was dramatic to us. China has always been a proud country, but it shows now more than ever.