Chinese hostesses greet patrons at a restaurant in Beijing.
Colin Steer, Associate Editor - Opinion
Chairman Mao Zedong, whose large iconic portrait overlooks Beijing's famed Tiananmen Square, which reportedly can hold up to one million people, had visions of a classless, property-less society in the communist China of the 1940s and '50s.
Thirty years ago, chairman of the Chinese Communist Party Deng Xiaoping's declaration that "it was glorious to be rich" signalled an intention to open up China to Western business.
Today, this vast country of over 1.3 billion people is caught in a struggle to enjoy the benefits of material success brought on by the mushrooming of private enterprise and entrepreneurial initiative, and maintaining some kind of social equilibrium that does not leave millions of its people behind or mired in poverty.
While relatively few make and flaunt their newly acquired wealth, the slogan for officials these days is: 'Creating a harmonious society'. Perhaps this is easier said than done.
Yet, for a group of Caribbean and Latin American journalists on a recent familiarisation tour of four of China's cities - Shanghai, Hangzhou, Xi'an and Beijing - there is no obvious social tension. In fact, there is a generally relaxed pace with which many people go about their day-to-day business. Of course, it would be easy, during the first hour's drive from the Pudong International airport in Shanghai, to fall for the stereotypical image of the hard-working Chinese labourer with his nose to the grindstone.
After all, work crews were spotted along the main highways doing repairs at 9:45 on a Sunday night. In the heart of the city, a few men were spotted on construction sites a little after 10:00 p.m. But the hustle and bustle and mad dash associated with Tokyo or Osaka in Japan for example, seemed less intense in Shanghai, the expanding commercial capital of mainland China. On the other hand, in Beijing, the political capital, after-work, peak-hour traffic jams between 4:30 and 6:30 in the evenings provide a different pictur>Climbing high
But for the Chinese, perspective is everything. A yoghurt and ice-cream factory in Xi'an has a slogan that is somewhat close to the Jamaican saying "the higher the monkey climbs, the more heis exposed", but with a more positive outlook. Theirs is: "The higher you climb, the further you can see." The Chinese are climbing high.
With preparations on in earnest for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the World Business Expo in 2010 in Shanghai, the skyline of both cities is littered with construction cranes and round-the-clock work crews.
Make no mistake about it, the Chinese mean business. There is an unmistakable seriousness and commitment to five, 10 and 15-year medium- and long-term planning. There is pragmatism as well.
English-language training is becoming a fast-growth industry as more people seek to improve their skills to be better able to deal with foreigners; and there are reports of families hiring private tutors to teach their children the language. They have their eyes fixed on a wider world.
Even at the street level, there is a certain mastery of a few stock phrases. You are offered 'a Rolex' for the equivalent of less than US$10. You shake your head meaning you're not interested. The response typical is: "How much? You say." To tell a persistent and sometimes persuasive vendor bu, or for emphasis bu ya, meaning absolutely 'no', is to subject yourself to a prolonged period of haggling. He or she goes lower with the price, assuming you mean you will not pay that price for the product. Of course, you would be nave if, in the end, you think you got away with a bargain. Mass-produced goods of suspect quality are available on the cheap.
And despite recording impressive economic growth - at the equivalent of an annual rate of just over 11 per cent in the first three months of 2007, which was significantly up on the 10.4 per cent rate in the final three months of 2006, according to official figures, by United Nation's assessment and their own insistence, China is still a developing country.
Shanghai's and Beijing's towering skyscrapers and luxury vehicles notwithstanding, there are still vast areas that remain mired in poverty. The traditional water villages of western Shanghai, with their 800-year-old houses and the run-down appearance of large pockets of Xi'an - despite the latter's strong tourism attraction - are testimony of the unevenness of the economic boom.
So, the challenge for China is to manage its society as a mixed economy, allowing for private initiative and protecting the most vulnerable through social intervention from the State. There is subtle diplomacy, too, that seeks to encourage cooperation with other countries but with a firm grasp of self, not easily pressured by demands from Western governments for changes in accordance with their expectations. As one Chinese Communist Party official said recently in quoting current President, Hu Jintao: "They are entitled to their views and we are entitled to ours." With a history going back 5,000 years to guide them, their self-confidence is not easily eroded.
The renovation of historical sites - such as the Forbidden City (the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties), or the Great Wall, which are subject to erosion and the excavation of thousands of terracotta carvings from centuries-old graves for museum display for domestic and foreign tourists - speaks to people's keen interest in preserving their history and making some money at the same time.
Jamaican tourism officials would do well to learn from the Chinese how much more money there is to be made outside of hotels - from organised tours to heritage sites to the sale of souvenir items, to restaurants offering local fare.
So much has been said for years about the pirate/sea-faring mystique of Port Royal, and yet so little has been done. It still goes abegging. Thematic bars, restaurants and souvenir shops using the historical lore of the old port could yield millions more dollars for the country each year annually.
In the meantime, while Chinese state officials are trying to keep a firm lid on Western influence, there is a sense of an inevitable erosion of once firmly held perspectives. Older folk observe that younger Chinese in urban centres are increasingly acquiring a taste for Western-style food - KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut; fast-food joints abound. The famed Peking duck, camel-foot stew, duck tongue and shark-fin soup will perhaps become more of a novelty in a few decades.
The globalisation of culture is also much in evidence. A few young men were seen with orange or bleached hair and sporting earrings; girls were coiffed and dressed like their counterparts in Western societies influenced by fashion magazines; and television pro-gramming had its fair share of talent shows and game competitions. However, international media - CNN and BBC - are available in hotels or apartment complexes, occupied mainly by foreigners, subject to, blackouts occasionally as 'sensitive' subjects are aired.
Party officials bristle at suggestions of censorship, arguing that government officers are subject to the most intense criticism from their own people in local media, as well as at conferences. What they will not allow, they argue, is Western distortion that blows "negative incidents" out of proportion.
There was clear discomfort in discussing the crackdown on student dissidents in Tiananmen Square in 1989 that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of people. As the head of one news agency said when asked about it: "That's not a topic that can be discussed in this forum." So, even while there is increasing access to the Internet, it is not unrestricted.
The transition continues.