The capitalist engine is running at full steam and the consumer culture is in high gear. There are huge construction projects all over the country -- superhighways, city skyscrapers, countless housing and commercial development projects, as evidenced by the myriad construction cranes in nearly every city.
At the moment, many of these projects seem to be in a state of suspended animation -- the cranes mostly stand idle over partially finished buildings, due undoubtedly to the worldwide economic downturn. But you sense that when things turn around, these projects will restart where they left off. And China seems to be poised to lead the recovery.
We haven't seen the sprawling ghettos that surround so many large cities around the world; there are plenty of extremely wealthy families here, a strong middle class and a huge working class that seems to be getting by -- we haven't seen much abject poverty at all -- a few homeless people on the streets, but not as many as in Seattle or San Francisco.
Commercial advertising is intense. The big public squares of Xian have giant LED video screens blasting messages to stimulate desire to purchase flashy cars, fancy clothes, perfume and liquor. There are hundreds of shopping malls hawking products of international brands. The only category "missing" relative to current American-style advertising is the class of pharmaceuticals that you should really ask your doctor about.
While the theme song of today's youth may seem to be "Material Girl," there is another trend we discovered in talking with a 26-year old girl and a young man of similar age who came to attend a week-long workshop on Buddhism at the Fourth Patriarch's Temple near Huangmei. She and her friend agreed that while their courses at the university provide them with a huge amount of information, it's difficult to find instruction on how best to live one's life. This is why the summer workshops at several Buddhist temples around the country are in such high demand.
While many temples were in disrepair for much of the 20th century, and huge numbers suffered further destruction during the Cultural Revolution, since the 1990's there has been a surge in reconstruction of temples driven entirely by donations by wealthy patrons and a hands-off policy by the government.
The government tolerates worship and encourages tourism in temples, especially as entry fees provide a revenue stream to the department of tourism.
There is much greater openness now than there was 25 years ago. Then we had to be kept under the watchful eye of a "guide." Now we can travel relatively freely on our own. There still are clear indicators of a heavy-handed central government trying to control the media.
The most aggravating example is the way the government blocks certain web sites. For example, you cannot get to Facebook or Twitter or most of the social network sites via an Ethernet connection. [I can still get to Facebook using my BlackBerry via the cell phone network, however.] Even Google's blogspot site is blocked. This means that none of the photos I post to our blog can be viewed on computers in China.
The English language newspaper, China Daily is an interesting mixed bag. There are plenty of articles bemoaning corruption of government officials, but on the other hand, there is no tolerance for printing the views of the Uygur separatist leader, Rebiya Kadeer whose film has caused so much controversy at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
The strong central government and the fact that all land is owned by the state makes it possible to bulldoze huge neighborhoods and turn them into development projects without much resistance. There is some talk in the paper about compensating people for the loss of their homes or providing them "better" living conditions, but obviously there is a lot going on behind the scenes that is not finding a public forum.
Education is valued highly. Universities have hired many professors from the West, especially in the areas of science and technology. English seems to be the main medium of instruction in these fields.
According to a French student studying aerospace engineering in a Chinese university, it is sometimes difficult to ask questions of his Chinese professors as they tend to take this as a sign of disrespect.
Chinese universities crank out 6 million graduates a year, but as in America, a college degree is no longer a ticket to a good paying job, as least right away. Youth everywhere seem to be facing strong challenges after graduation.
An article in today's paper says that China plans to launch a robotic rover to the moon in 2012 and a manned lunar landing mission as early as 2025. A recent editorial in Sky and Telescope magazine suggested that the first manned mission to Mars will be by the Chinese. I won't be at all surprised if that turns out to be the case.
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