What's China Really Like?
Now, students can see for themselves.
Ken Del Rossi
By Kevin Cool
This is China: a slouchy teenager with orange hair leans against a light pole across the street from Tiananmen Square, beneath a giant portrait of Chairman Mao. His t-shirt reads “Speak Your Mind.”
And this is China: on a sharply angled driveway surrounded by hawkers of Great Wall souvenirs, a van driver begins to pull away from a parking space. The gears grind horribly. Suddenly a man emerges from behind the van lugging a giant rock—the parking brake. His cell phone rings. He puts down the rock, answers the phone. Finishes the call, heaves the rock into the back seat, clambers in.
And this is China: on a rainy afternoon in the Forbidden City, a few steps away from the Palace of Eternal Harmony, a gaggle of tourists lines up at the door of a 600-year-old building to buy coffee—at Starbucks.
One week in Beijing and Shanghai doesn’t qualify me to comment on the country, but after being there with a Stanford entourage in late May, I can say this much: there is no easy way to describe the place. You see contradictions everywhere—rich and poor, ancient and modern, East and West. China feels like a wild experiment, and perhaps that is just what it is.
Even a casual visitor notices that this is no longer a society of dreary authoritarianism. Repression still exists, and China remains a country with hundreds of millions of dreadfully poor people, yet the climate of openness and possibility is almost palpable in these major cities. Some of this stems from the more superficial aspects of a growing market economy—buying and selling creates an energy all its own. But perhaps more revealing is the collective body language of the Chinese people. They seem relaxed, unguarded.
The only time I noticed an army presence was while on an early-morning walk in downtown Beijing. Hundreds of soldiers jogged in formation while their drilling officer shouted instructions in short, clipped tones. It might have been a little chilling, except that just above their heads on a nearby storefront loomed the beatific visage of Ronald McDonald.
Stanford’s connections in China run long and deep, and we’ve tried to highlight a few of the most influential in this issue, beginning on page 36. This fall, a 21st century pioneer class—the first Stanford students in the University’s new Beijing program—will mark an official re-entry into the country where Stanford academics and policy analysts have long been involved. More than 10 years in the making, this new program—a collaboration with Peking (Beida) University—allows students to see for themselves the profound changes under way in China. You might call it China 101.
A new China is emerging, some previously unseen hybrid of a modern, sophisticated nation informed by one of the world’s oldest civilizations. It’s messy and slippery and scary and fascinating, and for the people who are there to witness it, transformative. I can’t wait to go back.
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Data is from the past two weeks.