May 10 2006

A Different View of China – Part 3

Following is the final email from my friend who just spent a month in China with his wife and 11 year old daughter.  If you missed the first two entries, the first one is here and the second one is here.

Well we are leaving China after almost a month. Off to Rome then LA and maybe to Paris to hook up with you guys.

Some amazing sites in China – out of all of the cities we visited Shanghai was by far the most interesting. On the surface it is as cosmopolitan as any major western city – skyscrapers as far as the eye can see and shopping that can make any girl happy. Since it is so modern, full of life and more diverse with a large western expat community – it didn’t feel like the rest of the country.

We visited 7 major cities (5 million people or more) and a few smaller ones. Outside of Shanghai and Beijing people stared and smiled at us – especially our daughter – several even asked to take pictures with her. We thought that maybe she looked like some kid star – but it was more simple than that – for many Chinese Marlo was the first blond haired westerner they ever saw. For the most part the Chinese were very welcoming and tried hard to please us tourists – which was different than our initial observation after visiting just Beijing.

The Three Gorges Project is amazing and cruising through down the Yangtze and through the dam locks was a worthwhile experience. It is so hard to imagine the scope of this project as an American – I can’t remember any public works project of this scale in my lifetime. Some basic stats as I remembered from our trip: 16 years to build, $25B in costs, 1.13 million people resettled due to the change in the river height, 99 new bridges and almost 10 times the power generating capacity of the largest dam in the US. When you see wonderful cities like Shanghai and mind blowing public work efforts as the TGP you get a sense of why many assume that China’s economy will surpass the US.

That said the extremes still strike you everywhere you turn. Most business people are young and some are very rich – all the street sweepers are old and very poor. We had a full and tasty meal from a street vendor for 30 cents (10 dumplings a 3 loafs of bread) and the guy made a profit – this was 30 meters from the hotel front door where a meal inside for 3 would cost $60. It seems that the staff for any effort is 5 times what it needs to be – walk into a small shop selling cheap shirts and you’ll find 6 people working in 250 sq ft. On several occasions we just ask ourselves “How can these guys stay in business with so many employees?” On top of that most people we interacted with were under 35. Apparently the older generation did not have the same access to education as the 20 to 30 year olds. It’s no wonder everyone we talked to about life in China said generally the same thing – it can only get better.

There are lots of challenges that educated Chinese will freely talk about with you such as: the government may not be able to make the transition to a true market economy, widening economic gap may grow to the point of civil unrest, pollution, over crowding of the cities, inflation – just to name a few.

Overall it was a great trip – China seems more accessible to me for travel but I couldn’t tell you how to make a buck here if you weren’t Chinese. In that sense for the startup entrepreneur like me it’s closed for now.