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My Return to China—After 18 Years


I spent three weeks, September 9th to 29th, in China with my wife Rosie (who was born and raised in China, of Chinese ancestry). This month’s diary consists of random observations I made during the trip.


This was my first visit to mainland China since 2001, eighteen years ago. By coincidence, that 2001 visit was my first since 1983, also a span of eighteen years.


I brought a nice fat book to read: Robert Merry’s account of the Polk presidency. Got sixty pages in but dozed off.


Tuesday, September 10th: Arrive in Peking.


One less minor travel chore


At half past six in the Peking evening, actually. On Eastern Daylight Time, New York is twelve hours behind Peking, so no need to adjust watch. Cool … except that we are looking at maximum jet lag.


Laoyi and Yifu


Rosie’s aunt and uncle are our hosts in Peking, as in 2001. Uncle has checked us into a good upmarket hotel less than two miles south of Tiananmen Square. He and aunt live in a small apartment a few blocks away.


Neither of them speaks any English, so my Chinese is going to get a stress test. The first thing is forms of address, which I’d forgotten and had to be reminded about.


If you walk north half an hour from our hotel you hit Chang-an Avenue, the main east-west drag through central Peking. If you then hang a right and walk east a few hundred yards you’re opposite the entrance to Zhongnanhai, the big park-compound where China’s senior leaders live. Keep walking east and the avenue goes right across the front of Tiananmen, the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” with Tiananmen Square at your right.


We decide to take this walk. When we get to Chang-an and hang the right onto the avenue, however, we come to a security checkpoint. October 1st is National Day, and it’s a big one this year: the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic. There are to be huge parades and displays, and this whole central area is being secured in preparation.


The checkpoint guard wants to see our passports. We didn’t bring them; but Rosie turns on the charm and he lets us through. We walk east along Chang-an and take pictures outside the Zhongnanhai entrance gate. At this point we decide we’re tired of walking. We have to catch a train mid-afternoon, too. So we pass on Tiananmen and head back to the hotel.


On this outing I’m pleased to see that a lot of the old hutongs—narrow alleys characteristic of the old city—have been landmarked and preserved.

在这次远足中,我很高兴地看到许多老 胡同——具有旧城特色的狭窄小巷——都被标记并保存了下来。

The Installed Base problem


Mid-afternoon we go to the railroad station for a six-hour ride up to Siping in northeast China. It’s 470 miles as the crow flies, so six hours is not bad. This is in fact a gaotie, a high-speed train, that can reach, depending on the line, over 200 mph … but there are a lot of stops.


There’s a unxized workforce and an entrenched management/patronage bureaucracy—a lot of iron rice-bowls that can’t be broken. The Installed Base.


For thin consolation, we can reflect that a hundred years from now all these spiffy gleaming Chinese transit systems will be Installed Base. They will be as crappy, ill-maintained, and ill-managed as today’s New York subway or La Guardia airport. Probably a lot worse, in fact, given what we know about Chinese quality control.


Everything looks great when it’s new, duh.