From the two days I

by francine Hardaway on April 6, 2004

From the two days I spent in China, I�m convinced the entire country is going in one direction only — world economic dominance. It had been nearly twenty years since I last was in Hong Kong, and in that time the city had gone from being a British colony to being a part of China. Last time I was there, I remember the fearful way the newspapers portrayed the coming change in government: the end of the city’s cosmopolitan dominance. But from my perspective, that hasn’t happened. Rather, Hong Kong has had an influence on the mainland.

The Kowloon area of Hong Kong is full of new, large developments catering to an international clientele. There are at least half a dozen new world-class hotels in a three block-area. All around the Ocean Ferry Terminal, in the venerable shopping district known as Tsim Sha Tsui, the new hotels and new underground arcades gather the best shops from around the world and offer a selection unequalled anywhere. It stunned me then and it stuns me now how Hong Kong gets the best clothes, the best perfumes, the best consumer electronics devices before anyone else. I saw 1 megapixel cameraphones, and a JVC ultra-portable that is smaller than my Vaio. I walked through four miles of underground mall, all with marble floors. Hong Kong sells everything; it is the 21st century version of the Asia trading company.

Anything in Hong Kong that is not a hotel or a shopping arcade is a bank or a restaurant. The food reflects the influence of generations of tourists from all over the West, but there are surprisingly few franchises. I did, however, see Starbucks and MacDonalds�s.

Hong Kong, however, is not the biggest surprise. For me that was Shen Zen, an hour away by TurboJet ferry, but a world away politically. Twenty years ago, Shen Zen had open markets, bazaars much like those of India, and unpaved streets. I remember mud huts inside which little kids stamped out plastic soldiers, working on huge metal machines. This was factory life in Shen Zen, even then an “outsource” for the plastics industry.

I remember ducks hanging upside down to drain outside a butcher shop, their carcasses surrounded by flies. And I remember eating in a restaurant where I didn’t recognize the ingredients in the soup.

Everyone who goes to China comments on the pace of change. There are construction cranes all over the place. There are still a few junks in Hong Kong Harbor, but they are fast being replaced by large container ships and barge. So I expected some difference in Shen Zen, but I wasn�t prepared for what I saw.

Now when you get off the Ferry at Shen Zen, you are immediately taken by shuttle to the airport, which has been built in the past twenty years. The city of Shen Zen has skyscrapers, bank buildings, multi-family housing. It’s not on the scale of Hong Kong, with its miles and miles of 60-story buildings, but it is clearly going that way.

On the Ferry I sat next to a guy from Michigan, the tools manager for a plastics firm. He comes to China about once a month, because his tool vendors are there. He has been sourcing tools in China for a year, and is still building relationships with new vendors and suppliers. Just an average Joe, he’s now a world traveller. He may arrive in Hong Kong, but his relationships are on the mainland.

There are still some problems with Chinese cities, however. For example, almost no one at the Shen Zen airport spoke English, and they don’t take American Visa cards in the ATMs. It’s painfully obvious that Shen Zen is a Chinese airport, rather than an international airport, and that it doesn’t see many Western tourists. But the changes over twenty years have been more than dramatic: they’ve been world-shattering.

The only thing keeping China back is the population�s knowledge (or lack of it) of English. Everyone is trying to learn it, however.

The Chinese are energetic and entrepreneurial. They move quickly, work quickly, talk quickly. Chinese society seems to be very intense � the same impression I have gotten from watching Chinese movies. When I got off the Ferry, I had to have a landing Visa. My last experience with Communists was in East Berlin before the wall fell. The bureaucracy moved at a snail�s pace. But I got a landing Visa in Shen Zen in fifteen minutes, from a woman who ran back and forth behind her desk, effortlessly juggling ten applicants at a time. Not the mindset you would expect from a Communist country. China may be politically Communist, but it is economically as capitalist as it gets.

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