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Thirty years after the late Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” policy allowed foreign travelers back into China, the country remains largely as mysterious and undiscovered as it was in the 19th century, when gunboat diplomacy by foreign superpowers forced the last tottering dynasty to open up the country to foreign trade and exploration.

Drawn by this air of mystery, the number of visitors to China has been rising rapidly. Not one visitor will fail to be impressed by the splendor of China’s greatest sights.

The Great Wall has been completely rebuilt in parts in modern times, but its dizzying loops across the horizon still leave most visitors lost for words. The Forbidden City, at the heart of Beijing, draws crowds that make its original majesty hard to imagine, but the labyrinth of side passages still leaves the more inquisitive visitor spellbound. Although images of Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors are familiar, nothing prepares visitors for coming face to face with an army of thousands. China may not be quite the rapidly modernizing economic success of investment fable, but nor is it the medieval backwater of travelers’ tales – the truth lies somewhere in between. Not far from the excitement and wealth of the shiny, high-rise cities, water buffalo pull the plow, and donkey carts are still a popular form of transport

The success of the 2008 Olympics was a defining moment for China in terms of presenting the results of its economic development to the world and the ability to host a huge global event. The legacy of the Games was given added poignancy by the global economy crashing just weeks after. In the years since, China has emerged as a bona fide commercial pillar, not just for Asia but for the world, and a geo-strategic player that is edging ever closer to superpower status.

Modern China

China’s vast population, despite famines and civil wars, has grown from 400 million to approximately 1.35 billion in less than a century. This increase has driven a boom in consumerism, most evident in the cities where advertising hoardings for coffee, computers, and the latest fashions line streets of shops selling fast food, phones, and face-lifts

Shanghai is said to represent the new entrepreneurial China, and visitors will immediately notice the billboards, the towers, and the giant HDTV screens on the sides of shiny malls. Urban Shangai received a massive facelift in preparation for the 2010 World Expo, and scores of office blocks, roads, and metro lines were built. However, Shanghai is only one city, 70% of the Chinese people work in agriculture, and the majority of commercial enterprises are still in state ownership or have state majority shareholdings.
There has been obvious, rapid economic development – luxury hotels, convenient public transport, and excellent restaurants. However, these welcome refinements have been tempered for the visitor by the destruction of traditional housing for the construction of highways soon choked with traffic. And yet for some people this commercialism has provided the disposable income to fund a return to traditional hobbies and pastimes.

Today, former occupants of crumbling courtyard houses may find them selves exiled to unfinished towers in the suburbs, but in the spaces between the blocks, they’ve revived the tradition of walking their snuffling Pekinese. Song-birds flutter and call from delicate bamboo cages while their owners sit and chat. On bridges over ring roads, old men gather to fly colorful kites – now made from supermarket shopping bags.

Growing Too Fast?

 As population growth drives a con sumer boom, China’s energy needs are fast outstripping its capacity and a major expansion of its network of coal-fired generating stations is planned. But China is already the planet’s biggest polluter – in many cities the atmosphere is thick enough to touch.

With few opportunities for work in the countryside, tens of millions are moving to the cities in search of a better life. Living in poor conditions and often left unpaid after building the new towers, they send whatever they can to families back home. Others staff the restaurants and run a million small businesses from shoe-shining to knifesharpening. If your taxi driver doesn’t know where he’s going, it’s often because he hasn’t been in town long

Those better off in the city blame the migrants for the rise in urban crime (although most countries would envy China’s crime figures), but complain when the services they provide vanish at Chinese New Year due to the workers returning home for the holiday.

Family Life

 Eight out of ten of the parents of the current generation of twenty-yearolds had their spouses chosen and approved by their work unit, but today’s urban youth experiment early, live together outside marriage (until recently still illegal), and try a few partners before settling down. Divorce, unheard of until the end of the last century, is now common, and is attributed to an increase in work demands and extra-marital affairs. Attitudes to children, too, are changing.

There are hints that the one-child policy, long breached by anyone with connections or cash, may be relaxed a little. And there are signs that many members of the urban middle class, although still a tiny percentage of the total population, wish to enjoy the treats they can now afford rather than have children. While 20 years ago it was considered fortunate to own a bicycle, now aspiring, young urbanites can work towards owning a car and an apartment.

Unified by Language

The whole nation may have felt proud when Yang Liwei became the country’s first astronaut in 2003, heralding China’s entry to the exclusive club of space nations. The government likes to use such occasions to promote Han unity – “Han” is the name the Chinese majority use for themselves, as opposed to the 50 or so officially recognized minorities within China’s borders . There’s been a tendency to treat these minorities as unpredictable pets, and their mostly colorful costumes and traditional festivals have been put at the forefront of tourism promotion in recent years. It may not be ideal but it is a great improvement on the forced assimilation of past times.

Almost everyone is educated in Mandarin (Putonghua), the official language of China, but there are five completely different regional versions of Chinese, and a strong sense of local culture and tradition goes with them.

The Chinese people’s common love of food also helps differentiate them, with preferences for spicy, vinegary, sweet, and other flavors being distributed geographically. Visitors to Sichuan and Yunnan will find the locals rightly proud of their uniquely fiery cuisine, while those visiting Guangdong and Guangxi will be astonished at the subtlety and delicacy of Cantonese food.

Culture and Religion

While traditional opera is now largely confined to shows for foreign tourists, modern art, films, and popular music have all flourished. Not all of it is good by any means but art galleries now feature on tourist itineraries, resident students crowd bars to hear Chinese punk bands, and millions around the world flock to see big-budget martial arts epics. Religion and superstition are making a small come-back which the government regards warily – it fears organizations of any kind not directly under its control. Many people are still struggling to cope with the end of government-organized

everything, and for some the structure of organized religion provides a substitute. There may be many more opportunities to start businesses and make money, and all kinds of employment that simply didn’t exist before Deng Xiaoping’s reform policy kick-started the economy, but jobs no longer come with housing, healthcare, or any guarantees they’ll last

But the Chinese are used to turbulence, and are incredibly stoic about it. Their attitude to visitors varies from the studied indifference of the smart metropolitans, to the close interest in foreign wallets of the tourist touts, via frank curiosity, and the casual warmth and generosity of everyday folk.


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