The International terminal at SFO

by francine Hardaway on November 22, 2005

The International terminal at SFO is not very busy on a Sunday afternoon, which is surprising to me. I guess Shanghai, my destination, is not the number one place Americans go for Thanksgiving. My flight’s only half full, which is also surprising after all the publicity I’ve been reading about China, and hardly any of the passengers are American.

We land four movies, three meals, and thirteen hours later. The Chinese government has a sign at the airport: “Implementing seriously the government policy on preventing fraud in re-entry and development”…or something like that. Puts you on notice right away that China’s first industry isn’t tourism.

The English on many of the signs that are supposed to be helpful is tortured. “Your transaction has been rejected for ambiguous reasons,” the ATM machine told me; “Police advice is not to follow profiteers off the market site,” says the sign at the entrance of the “knockoff market” where I shop for Christmas gifts (major brands) that cost more to ship back to the US than I paid for them. I guess the policy on piracy of luxury brands is not one the government is “seriously implementing.”

Shanghai is a first-world city in a third world country. 15 million people live here, mostly in 40-story apartments, where the average rent for an expat working for an American corporation is $8000/month. Why? Because the corporations whose American operations are now subsidized by their Chinese markets (Intel, Dell, Carlson) will pay those rents just to have “feet on the street” in Shanghai. There are over 100,000 expats in this town. Many of them live here because they have servant, drivers, and luxuries they could not afford if they worked in the US.

Over lunch in a classic Chinese restaurant (lazy Susan in the middle of the table, family style dishes of food we only partially recognize), my host tells us a story of his friend whose business was just ruined by a Chinese manufacturer who thought her order was too small to bother with in time for Christmas delivery. Apparently, stories about the vagaries of Chinese manufacturing are quite common; many foreign businesses are at the mercy of their Chinese producers. China’s in the driver’s seat when it comes to manufacturing.

After lunch we walk down to the Bund, where the old and new Shanghai are separated by the river. Never again will I think the San Antonio River Walk is worth talking about. Even the Left and Right Banks of the Seine pale before the dramatic differences between the Pudong side of the Huang Po River and the old Shanghai side. Built by colonial companies in the 19th and early 20th century, the older buildings have incredible mosaics, tile work, and marble inside, and house merchants like Cartier and Georgio Armani. Many of them were taken over by the Cultural Revolution and recently renovated to reflect China’s new economic goals. On the other side of the river rises an army of skyscrapers built within the last twenty years.

Between the banks runs the river with its traffic jam of barges, reminding me how Shanghai grew in the first place — as a center for international trade.

Even though I’ve been in many third world countries, the air quality in Shanghai seems about the worse I’ve experienced. It’s a combination of thermal inversion, cars, and particulates. Everyone coughs, despite the efforts they make to get out every morning before work to the many public parks, where they practice Tai Chi and Qi Gong.

I like it here. It’s a happening place, like Hong Kong, although you never forget the influence of the government, whose uniformed representatives seem to be everywhere.

I know many of us are familiar with the stories of China’s growth, and feel we know all about it because of people like Thomas Friedman. But just as many of us are also still stuck in our former perceptions of China as a country where unpaved streets and outdoor markets barely support peasants who raise chickens or grow rice for a living.

But honestly, until you see it you can’t understand how threatening China is to the arrogance of the United States. China is the largest cell phone market in the world, it’s going to be the largest Internet market in the world, and it opens new universities every day. There are just so many PEOPLE in China. And if you want to know how sheer numbers influence economics, think of what the Baby Boomers have done to America.

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