Going to China is a wake-up call on the best and the worst that capitalism has to offer. Its larger cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Xian are all bustling, with new construction reaching to the sky. The only problem is that often, you can't see the sky.
As part of a tour sponsored by the Turlock Chamber of Commerce, we visited China to see the changes of the last 20 years. It's evident that its open-door policy has raised the standard of living for many Chinese, primarily those in urban areas. Now they can move beyond the basic necessities to make choices on spending extra income on the latest computer equipment, a vacation or the ultimate dream, a new car.
The thousands of bicycles we picture when we think of China are gradually being replaced by new cars. In Beijing alone, 1,000 vehicles are being added to city streets every month. By the time the Olympics are held in August, there will be 3.3 million vehicles in the city.
The air quality is so poor that many people wear white masks to limit their intake of emissions. The entire time we were in Beijing, we never saw blue sky. The sun only appeared as a dull, milky blob behind the gray haze.
Our tour guide, Peter, an eloquent history buff in his early 40s, addressed our questions on pollution with the canned reply that "official efforts were being made" to make sure it's under control by the Olympics. They plan to cut the number of vehicles on city streets by half. As an afterthought Peter added, almost wistfully, that he could remember the sky being blue most of the time when he was a boy in Beijing.
One tour took us past the new Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium on the outskirts of the city. Although it was only an eighth of a mile away, the air was so bad that we could only see the outline. Many athletes have expressed concern about their ability to compete in such a setting, and some have backed out.
But China is busy -- busy trying to catch up to the rest of the world, particularly the West. A successful economy takes precedence over everything, including the environment. People seem driven to do whatever it takes to have a better life for their families. Peter does tours on the side. His regular job is trading mutual funds. He said it's common for people to have two or three jobs.
The work ethic is thriving in China. We saw almost no trash along the roads and no graffiti or homeless people. Everybody was busy doing something, even if it was sweeping the streets.
The emphasis is definitely on attaining wealth. We were taken to state-owned stores to see silks, rugs, statuary, art, furniture, jewelry. Granted, it was a business exchange, and our role was to be buyers. But we came away feeling that there is an inordinate emphasis on acquiring "things."
China seems to be appeasing its citizens by allowing them to buy things as though they were in a democracy, which they are not. Perhaps their theory is that if people can live more comfortably, they will be less likely to complain about not having a say in their government.
Exchanges such as this can teach us something. When we're out of our safe little sandbox, the strengths and weaknesses of how we live stick out. Sometimes we even see them reflected in the country we're visiting. China's strong work ethic is admirable, but it's struggling to get to where we already are.
Have we lost our work ethic because it's not needed anymore? The Chinese sense of duty to extended family is strong, but will it be compromised in the drive for financial success? Has ours already been compromised?
If we don't get involved in solving our community's problems because we're too busy acquiring things and expect someone else to do it, will our air in the San Joaquin Valley someday be as bad as in Beijing?
Lewis, a resident of Denair, is a commercial insurance agent in Modesto.