PERSPECTIVE: A first-hand look at China’s new glitter and glitz

Jan 25, 2018
  • By Merle Wilberding

I remember that big international breakthrough when President Richard Nixon went to the People’s Republic of China and met with Mao Zedong in 1972. After almost 25 years of complete isolation, that meeting was a major success, although real change and real progress did not occur until after Mao died in 1976. Mao literally wore his peasant sympathies on his sleeve, as he and virtually all Chinese wore what became known as “Mao tunics” while he was alive, even when he met with Nixon.

A few weeks ago I was in Shanghai and Beijing and saw firsthand the enormous changes that have transformed China to a modern commercial center with glittering skylines. By way of illustration, our guide Bain shared his personal story of that transformation. He grew up under Mao; when he was in an elementary school, he read every day from Chairman Mao’s book. There were no other books, just Chairman Mao’s.

Consequently, they never learned any history, literature, geography, or even any religion or philosophy. Instead, after a few years of elementary school, they were all sent to the country to live as peasants and help support the communal society. (He shared that being sent to live as peasants in the countryside without family or education led to widespread smoking, drinking and gambling, all habits many Chinese still endure.)

It was only after Mao’s death that the government re-opened the schools with a two-year window for people like him who had not earlier had an opportunity to take university entrance exams. This enabled Bain to get an education and he now serves as a tourist guide.

While the guides officially recognize that Mao did some good things for China, they also make clear that the enormous development and commercialization occurred only after his death. Skylines in Shanghai and Beijing now rival New York. Indeed, the 128-story Shanghai Tower is the second tallest building in the world. Shanghai has five million more people than New York.

Shopping is first class. In Beijing a 30-minute walk down the famous pedestrian street, Wangfujing, reminded me of walking around Times Square, except that this shopping Mecca went on for six blocks. Luxury retailers, such as Rolex and Louis Vuitton, are there. There was a gigantic Apple store with a three-level glass staircase filled with people. There was an Aston Martin dealership in our hotel. Luxury cars were everywhere. We noted that there are no used or old cars, because 10 to 15 years ago there were virtually no cars in Beijing, just bicycles and rickshaws.

Yet despite all the glitter and glitz, it is also clear that President Xi Jinping and the Communist government still impose strict controls on citizens’ lives. The Chinese people are routinely denied basic human rights that we expect and accept as our birthright. There were many other restrictions. We could not access a number of sites on the internet — a number of sites are blocked in China, such as Google, YouTube and many commercial and private websites, including my own law firm’s.

We learned two lessons in China. First, there is a large professional class that lives somewhat like their counterparts in many highly developed countries, at least in Shanghai and Beijing; second, despite vastly different histories and cultures, as human beings, we are more alike than we may think. The lasting impression we had was the glitter of the skylines, telling us that capitalism is alive and well. Indeed it was. There was not a Mao tunic in sight.