China's Coming-Out Party
The summer Olympics are coming to Beijing. Having gone there for work, it's a no-brainer to say, "This is going to be interesting." How interesting is more difficult to say, but here are some culinary previews: donkey is the most popular meat in China, all of the donkey, and deep-fried ducks' heads are their pork rinds. It is considered polite to blow your nose by placing your finger over one nostril and expelling the contents of the other runny chamber onto the ground, and a campaign to end the practice of spitting on classroom floors continues.
By merely driving through Beijing one sunny day, I knew the United States had met its geopolitical match, and was being bent under by superior leverage. Lao Tzu said the best victory was the one not fought for, and an immense faith in that notion filled all my vision. The skyline of the city was crowded with brand-new skyscrapers, beautifully built, new and straight as shining nails, at least 20% of them still empty. The scale of construction which had gone on was massive. I would estimate that, by 2001, Beijing was closing in on Manhattan as an office capitol. Not necessarily in square meter volume, since the buildings were only 20-40 stories on average, but in endless density. Perhaps it amounted to 7 or 8 square million meters, a significant bite in the Big Apple. The drive through the new office honeycombs took 30-40 minutes without pause, and not one tall building had been there 10 years before.
Foreign corporations could come, form an enterprise and own up to 49% of it. The ultimate arbitrage: come take advantage of our labor, cheapest in the world, we'll make it easy for you, and you'll keep half the money. What capitalist could resist? None did, the skyscrapers filled, and China and its new princes can build memorials like Beijing airport's opulent new airport terminal. Terminal 3, pictured above, just opened this week.
Their Olympic stadium is jaw-dropping, bold, and gleaming. Yet I have petted the heads of kittens being raised for roasting on spits, have seen coolies shoveling coal dust into wheelbarrows to dump them into a glass furnace which may have been operating for the past 400 years--the back end of which abuts the eastern wall of the Forbidden City--and I have been attended by servants of their government. It was all very innocent--at the time, I worked for Kai-Fu Lee, who had been called in to settle the diplomatic dispute over a crashed American spy plane, a cause celebre for him, with some small reflected glory on me. He now heads Google's efforts in China.