I’m in Beijing for a conference organized by the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. We have a short but intensive program, with several American and Chinese scholars as well as Chinese political officials. I just hope I will be semi-conscious, since the 12-hour time difference means a flip of day and night.
As we drove into the city I was reminded how much the country has changed over the last two decades or so since my first trip here. We flew in on Air China, which is fully competitive with Western airlines. The airport is modern. Some of the passport clerks actually smile.
Once clearing passport control, there are no further barriers to entry. No one questions you as you head out of customs on to your next flight or into the Beijing. A freeway leads into what looks like a modern city. Colorful advertising showcases Western as well as Chinese products and styles. Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut make their appearance.
Some of the office buildings sport their names in English as well as Chinese. We are staying at an older hotel, the Wanshou, which was originally built in 1966 to house foreign guests. It retains the overall feel of old communist construction but has been refurbished, making it quite comfortable. The Wanshou passed my test of serving Diet Coke, but the gym opens at 9—which suggests it doesn’t have a lot of Western guests.
However, quibbles aside, Beijing is a modern city. It was moving in that direction 20 or 25 years ago, but it’s now there.
Perhaps the most dramatic and obvious change is the traffic. Chinese cities once were renowned for their swarms of cyclists, who weaved in and out of what appeared to be constant chaos on the roads. Today the swarms are made up of automobiles. To reduce traffic, Beijing actually bars residents from driving certain days depending on their license plate numbers, but, noted one of my hosts, more Chinese are wealthier and therefore can afford a second car—and thus a second license plate.
Rural China remains poor and underdeveloped, but even that is changing. China poses a serious geopolitical challenge to America, but it is important to keep two basic factors in mind.
First, hundreds of millions of people who once would have died in immiserating poverty now enjoy much better lives. Second, while one should never underestimate the appeal of nationalism, all Chinese now have much at stake in a peaceful regional and global order. While the future remains uncertain, there are good reasons to hope for, and even expect, a productive and cooperative future.
On to the conference!