By Chet Yarbrough
21 Days in China
Written by: Chet Yarbrough
Three thousand years of history are compressed into a twenty-one day tour of China. Aside from dramatic images of China’s economic growth, one of the most interesting political observations made by our tour guide is the 70% rule of leadership.
In a self-limited group of 15 American tourists, Overseas Adventure Travel produces a personalized tour of Zhonggou; a.k.a. the “Middle Kingdom”–so named because China grew from a number of small provinces into a singular nation; i.e. a nation the size of the continental United States. Like all maps drawn by a nationalist country, China became the center of the world (a self-identified “Middle Kingdom”).
Our professional guide introduced himself as “Jason” (on the left). “Jason” is born and raised in China. He is educated and trained as a natural-medicine pharmacist like his mother. However, he chooses to abandon that career to see the world. He applies for a position with O.A.T., and after extensive interviews, training, and testing he becomes an independent, licensed tour guide. Being a guide is no easy task. When guiding 15 people, and seeing sites only read about in literature and the news, things get complicated.
In many ways, tourists are like ostriches. Ostriches are known to bury their heads in the sand when scared. As tourists, we often do the same, not out of fear, but in astonishment.
China’s great wall, giant cities, panda parks, public monuments, landscaped byways, and city parks overwhelm the senses. O.A.T. guides are charged with gathering, and managing 15 tourists while directing and telling a cultural history of the country in which they live.
This is a panda reserve in Chengdu, China. As with many indigenous species around the world, the panda is endangered and restricted to sanctuaries where they can reproduce without fear of poachers who covet their fur.
The immense surroundings of an awakening political, and economic giant arrives in a rush of cityscapes, bullet trains, and water ways. China is a country of 1.3 billion in a land the size of America. The difference is in population density with America at 327 million people. Instead of big cities of 8,000,000 citizens, China’s big cities have 20,000,000.
China is the country that thrills, and some suggest, intimidates the world. Intimidation is borne in the monumental display of human precision by multitudinous Chinese at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
While explaining China’s complicated history, “Jason” juggles arrangements for traveling cross-country. He assigns rooms at hotels, arranges meals, schedules meetings, and offers lectures prepared by local historians and residents. At the same time, “Jason” prepares 15 people to board trains, boats, and planes for the next city.
A constant refrain from our guide is “don’t forget your passport”. Sometimes, a passport is forgotten at the hotel; other times personal luggage exceeds air-travel weight limits. “Jason” smiles, calms fears, and explains how problems can be overcome. He says he has a “cousin”. He doesn’t, but somehow problems are solved and the group moves on.
China is a closely watched country. The government requires surrender of your passport at hotels, and often insists on presentation of passports at particular sites like Tienanmen Square. Two areas we visited (Tibet and Hong Kong) are called autonomous (actually they are, at best, semi-independent) provinces in China. These “autonomous” regions have a different set of rules but the influence of main-land China is obvious in conversations with local residents.
A famous Tibetan monastery (Depung Monastery), originally designed to house Dali Llamas in life and death–is converted to a government building during the cultural revolution. It falls into disrepair but is renovated by President Xi as a museum. The current Dali Llama (forbidden to return to China) is unlikely to be entombed, like former Dali Llamas, in this monastery.
Tibet requires a passport, a special visa, and security checks. All interior China flights have security stations to x-ray baggage and inspect passports when you board. Wi-fi is generally available at hotels but an unsettling feeling comes with use of wi-fi because of a feeling everything you do is monitored.
Some hotels have only Chinese stations and those that have CNN or BBC seem to limit coverage of any news that is critical of China
Additionally, it seems certain information is not available on the internet. These anomalies do not change one’s interest in China but “Big Brother” seems ever present.
Of course, the same is true in America but “Big Brother” is more likely a private company like Facebook, or Google. Government surveillance is restricted by “rule of law” in America. America retains “checks and balances” that mitigate autocratic decisions by singular leaders.
“Jason” notes–in his experience, people all over the world are the same. People love; people hate; people believe and disbelieve, but cares and feelings of individuals are the same.
However, there seems a distinct philosophical difference in views of freedom. Freedom seems more feared in China than America. National coverage of Tibetan, Uighur, and Hong Kong independence suggests great concern over ideological differences between ethnic groups, provinces, and the government; particularly differences that encourage public demonstration against government policy.
As “Jason” unfolds Chinese history, one thinks about how important powerful, and singular leaders have been in governing China. Three cultural constants in Chinese history seem to be:
- great care for familial relationship,
- pursuit of higher education, and
- autocratic rule.
Through generations, China relies on strong leaders who are able to unite disparate interests of provinces, religions, and ethnic groups.
From the great dynasties of ancient history to the eras of Mao, Deng, and now Xi, our guide suggests many Chinese believe “…great leaders must achieve 70% of what is right for the Chinese people” to advance the country. Those leaders that do not achieve that level of public good, are failures.
In other words, Mao and Deng may have made mistakes, but they were at least 70% right. President Xi seems in the process of proving himself. Ancient China’s lead in the world of science and economic growth suggest some truth in a 70% rule–after all, no one is always right.
China, like all surviving nations in history, have fallen and risen. In the 1940’s and into the 50’s, Mao overcame, what is considered by some, a corrupt government with a revolution that advanced the economic and political strength of China. Mao eliminated feudal farming that enriched the few at the expense of the many.
In the 1950’s China rapidly improved farming production of the country. On assuming power, Mao’s goal is to eliminate landed gentry who fail to make their farms produce what they were capable of producing. Redistribution of land became a primary goal of the communist revolution.
Mao’s means were to split the land among the peasants and allow them to own their own land. Individual small land owners formed collectives to improve farming productivity. In the 50’s that plan worked magnificently. China advanced rapidly in the early years of Mao’s reign.
However, with the initial success of small farm-collectives, Mao made the mistake of increasing the size of the collective with communist overseers. Mao’s intent is to advance productivity more quickly. The overseers undermine productivity with an economic program titled the “Great Leap Forward”.
Communist bureaucrats begin saying production is steadily increasing when it is not. Individual farmers no longer control productivity.
Farmers lose their passion to improve productivity as they become smaller cogs in a bigger machine. The bigger machine is layered with bureaucrats that want to look good on paper, but as overseers they overstate the productivity of the collective.
The communist party overestimates its ability. The “Great Leap Forward” replaces farmer’s with Communist bureaucrats. In the late stages of Mao’s “Great Leap Forward”, millions of Chinese die because of bureaucratic lies about farm production. Presumably, this falls into the 30% failure of Mao’s leadership.
Nearing the end of Mao’s life, he may have recognized his error but a cabal, called the Gang of Four (which included his wife), seized control of the government and continued the failed policy of communist control of agriculture. Mao, or this Gang of Four, started the cultural revolution (1966-1976); causing the death of millions. With the question of Mao’s intent, and the usurpation of power by the Gang of Four, the mistakes of the cultural revolution seem less attributed to Mao than the “Gang of Four”.
After removal of the “Gang of Four”, Deng Xiaoping, a pragmatic leader during Mao’s reign, opened the door to a form of capitalism. The door is nearly shut with the Tienanmen Square slaughter. At Deng’s order, a massive protest in Tienanmen Square, is to be ended by “any means necessary”. An unknown number of Chinese men, women, and children are murdered by the military.
Some suggest that Tienanmen Square is a turning point in the history of China. Deng did not apologize for the Tienanmen decision, but he overcame his mistake by arguing that “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice. …. “ Deng seems to have listened to some of what the Tienanmen protesters were saying. Undoubtedly, many protesters were attempting to make communism better; not to destroy what works for the masses. but to focus on what enriches their lives.
However, the principle of the collective in China remains. Land is largely owned by the State. However, a version of a free market is created which allows private sale of vertical construction (particularly space within buildings) in China’s cities. (This is somewhat misleading because the sales price in a private transaction requires approval by the government, but the government does allow profit to the individual on the sale.)
Small farms are still owned by some Chinese, but the trend is for continued collectivization. Additionally, the growth of cities changes the desirability of farming. Older Chinese may stay on the farm but their children migrate to the city. When aged farmers die, the land is retained by the family but often as tenant farms; unless the government makes an offer they cannot refuse. The tenant farms still operate as a part of a collective. Produce is determined by individual farmers but brokers sell farm product to retail stores for purchase by the public.
A construction boom began with Deng’s pragmatic solution that seemingly combines communist oversight with capitalist ambition. Chinese entrepreneurs work hard, become wealthy, and live a better life. Small farms are steadily re-acquired in China through a process of payment to farmers in the following way:
- families are offered (collectively owned) small-parcel farms equal in size to their parent’s land. They become absentee landlords that receive rent in the form of farming profits,
- various incentives are offered by the government to families for their move; sometimes, a pension or medical insurance policy, and
- the government offers a condominium or house in a different location.
In using this method of acquisition, the government is able to build new condominiums, shopping centers, and infrastructure projects–like the “Three Gorges Dam” that controls flooding. Infrastructure work is ubiquitous in China.
Roads, bridges, and rails are being built to influence and connect Chinese provinces. The most recent monumental evidence of this practice is a high-speed train connection over a bridge between the mainland and the “autonomous” province of Hong Kong.
The process of government acquisition of privately owned farmland is complicated. A team of Chinese bureaucrats measures the house in which a farmer lives, the size of the land the family owns, the product they produce, and the livestock they have. The government determines the price that will be paid. The land owner must accept the decision. In return the farmer may be offered an equally sized piece of land in a collective that is farmed by others; personal incentives like a pension or medical insurance, and a condominium or home in which to live.
State acquisition of land allows massive infrastructure projects to be built. These projects offer jobs to Chinese farmers and their children who are migrating to the city. In some cases, the small farm is retained while the farmer’s children go to the city for a job. With payment from a city job, some call on their farmer parents to help them with a down payment on a condominium in the city. The price of condominiums rises. They rent the condo they have, and make a down payment on a second condo. With each transaction, they become wealthier; i.e. at least, wealthier on paper.
Construction activity is endemic in every city visited. A striking observation is that many of the condominiums seem unoccupied. The question becomes whether construction is too far ahead of real economic growth.
However, retail businesses appear to be booming in China’s cities. Shopping centers are full of residents, and travelers. Restaurants of every kind compete with each other in high-rise shopping malls. Our local guide in Hong Kong notes that the original street markets are disappearing because of conventional retail construction.
Another striking difference between big American and Chinese cities is that you see few homeless citizens in China. In China, government subsidizes housing for the poor. It is not luxurious. It is small and crowded. But, it appears to keep the poor from being homeless.
There seems an underlying fear of the effect of the tariff war (started by President Trump) on the local economy. An example of the consequence of the tariff war is a new 90% tax on purchase of a new Tesla in Hong Kong. There was no tax when Tesla first entered the market. Before the tax, Musk’s cars were widely purchased in Hong Kong. One doubts that continues with a 90% tariff.
Another great surprise is that air pollution in Beijing, when we were there, seems no worse than it is in America. However, we were there during the African conference which may explain why the air seemed relatively clear. China successfully cleared the air by limiting polluters during the Beijing Olympics.
Environmental degradation is a concern in China. Over 60% of their energy comes from coal. The largest Hydroelectric dam in the world, the Three Gorges Dam, only produces 2% of China’s energy needs. Three Gorges is considered a dam for flood control more than energy. Interestingly, the Yangtze river shows a lot more debris and garbage below the dam than above it. Generally, water ways seem polluted with debris like plastic and other human debris. In an effort to abate pollution around Hong Kong, sampan life is discouraged. Much fewer sampan are licensed in modern Hong Kong.
Tap water is considered undrinkable throughout China; which means nearly all water for daily consumption is bottled. Hong Kong is vitally dependent on the mainland for water. There are 21 treatment works in Hong Kong but treatment changes the taste of the water so much that Hong Kong residents drink bottled water.
As noted in a previous blog, President Xi, the current leader of China, is determined to reassert the dominance of the Communist Party in China. Strong centralized rule has been a hallmark of rapid economic and political advance in China’s history.
PRESIDENT XI’S CENTRALIZED RULE CONTINUES TO BE CHALLENGED BY HONG KONG DEMONSTRATORS–NEW YORK TIME’S ARTICLE 6.14.19.
Time will tell if President Xi is a 70% or 30% leader. Xi’s decision to initiate a China’s “Road and Belt” program for the world may the a harbinger of great success or abject failure. The worry may be whether Xi is like an early Mao, and pragmatic Deng, or a singular version of “The Gang of Four”.