Dateline Shenzhen: Hu Wants My Wallet
Despite the country’s astounding recent economic success, how is China living in the years 2010 and 1980 simultaneously?
- Economically, China's urban population very much lives in 2010. And yet politically, it still feels like 1980 — at least in the eyes of a visiting Westerner.
- For any Chinese, it is a remarkable event to be in the presence of their top leader, even if it is as one of another 1,500 or so people.
- Hu Jintao's speech recited shopworn language about continuing dynamically on the path of reform — and everything having "Chinese characteristics."
- Thirty years ago, the vast metropolitan area of Shenzhen was but some rolling hills covered with lush green trees and bushes aplenty.
- That once-bucolic locale has become the manufacturing capital of the universe, with every inch of flat area covered by a seemingly never-ending sea of concrete.
It was all very secretive. Stay at a specific hotel in Shenzhen, be ready to board a bus at 7:15 a.m. — and pack lightly. Those buses will take the foreign journalists to a location where top officials, names to be announced, would deliver a significant policy address in celebration of the 30th anniversary of the Shenzhen SEZ, or special economic zone.
Thirty years ago, the vast metropolitan area of Shenzhen was but some rolling hills covered with lush green trees and bushes aplenty. The climate feels like that of far-away Miami, with palm trees to boot.
But that once-bucolic locale has become the manufacturing capital of the universe, with every inch of flat area covered by a seemingly never-ending sea of concrete. The city itself hustles and bustles to the point of becoming a machine, in which humans are caught up in a cobweb of relentless motion.
No civic "heart," or center, can be made out in what has rapidly been transformed from a fishing village to a metropolis of over 14 million people in just three decades.
In this sea of busybodies and concreted humankind, we had received instructions that items such as "mobile phones, digital recorders" would be "prohibited in the venue." As would be "laptops, satchels, knapsacks, purses" and — here is where it gets really strange — wallets.
When the foreign press asked what on earth could justify the taking of the reporters’ wallets, the guide — friendly, but nervous given the high rank of the expected guest — said, "As I have just explained…"
Alas, there was no explanation, just a statement of fact. Leave your wallet behind — or don’t cover the event. End of story.
Having parted with our wallets, we arrived at a stadium facility by 8 a.m. All the media buses parked inside a new stadium, erected for the "Universidad," a kind of Olympic Games for universities from around the world, to be held in Shenzhen in 2011.
We had been told that we shouldn’t worry about breakfast, given the early start from the hotel. The organizers would provide it — and they did. What was strange, however, was that the choices offered for our 8 a.m. nutrition intake were all from a local McDonald’s.
This was no move to please the traveling Western, or U.S., press, since most of the journalists seemed to hail from the "Stans" and other Asian countries. Having a dark brown chicken filet on a bun for breakfast, or alternatively a cheeseburger, in the intense morning heat was an astounding choice. If nothing else, it was an evident display of the power of American brands.
Having fought back thoughts of turning vegetarian, we were ushered toward an indoor facility by our guides. The big hall was near-empty when we arrived, but was decked out with big banners highlighting the 30th anniversary — and gazillions of flowers were placed around the stage.
Soon after we sat down, the bench areas to the left and right of the stage were filled with policemen, and Navy soldiers entered the hall in formation and sat down in unison.
Then another strange thing began to happen. The Navy soldiers would all of a sudden break into frenetic applause — even though the stage was empty. Soon after, it was the police battalion's turn. Then again the Navy’s, then the police’s.
Mesmerized by these completely manufactured displays of popular enthusiasm, we saw a boom camera at a high elevation across the hall zeroing in on the groups.
(It was not until much later, after we returned from our excursion and heard that the event had been broadcast live on national television, that we discovered the purpose of the tapings. Apparently, they were spliced into the broadcast, with close-ups of uniformed audience members being completely excited by the speech.)
A dark mood settled over the journalists when we were told that the event would not start before 10 a.m., still well more than an hour away. The only thing helping the scene along was that dignitaries — business leaders — were beginning to stream in.
There was, for example, a true icon of contemporary China — Jack Ma, the founder and CEO of Alibaba.com, a business-to-business trading site for small businesses, with his inimitable face.
Eventually, the hall was full — except for the stage act. There had been speculation that President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao would both be there to underscore the importance of the event. Shenzhen’s stunning success and its underlying utter industriousness, after all, had launched China onto the rapid path toward economic superpowerdom.
Alas, we would not be blessed with a doubleheader. Instead, to rapid and rising applause, it was Hu Jintao alone who walked onto the stage, leading all the other party officials and other Chinese dignitaries.
Hu’s presence clearly gripped his audience. For any Chinese, it is a remarkable event to be in the presence of their top leader, even if it is as one of another 1,500 or so people. That day, and at that moment, everybody present was given a rarefied privilege — each statistically representing about a million other Chinese.
To U.S.-trained eyes, Hu’s appearance had a familiar feel to it. Not because one knows his face from TV, but rather because his looks and demeanor have the same starchy elegance that characterizes Mitt Romney, the erstwhile — and likely future — Republican presidential candidate.
Hu’s speech, advertised by the local party head and master of ceremonies as a major policy address, was a disappointment in that it recited shopworn language about continuing dynamically on the path of reform — and everything having "Chinese characteristics."
This was especially disappointing because just two weeks before Hu’s address, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao had been in Shenzhen — and, considering the Chinese context, had made some pretty pointed remarks about the need for political reforms, not just continued economic reforms.
No repeat this time. Apparently, Mr. Hu was none too pleased about the courageous waywardness displayed by his inferior.
What was of note, though, was that among the private sector speakers commemorating the big occasion was also Li Ka-shing, the Hong Kong-based billionaire, who is much admired for his business acumen in Shenzhen circles.
His speech, warmly congratulating the Chinese on their reforms, was very well-received — and indeed, if memory serves correctly, the only one (other than Hu Jintao’s) interrupted by applause.
Soon enough, the event was over. Before we returned to the buses and rode back in a long convoy in streets completely cordoned off by traffic police, the main impression resulting from the festivities set in.
For all its stunning achievements over the recent decades, and despite all the barely contained excitement among the people striving for an even brighter future, China has not exactly traversed a path from 1980 to 2010 — as the big banner hanging over the stage in the convention hall made one believe.
Rather, in many ways, the Chinese are living in both of those years simultaneously at the present time. Economically, the urban population very much lives in 2010.
And yet politically, it still feels like 1980 — at least in the eyes of a visiting Westerner. It was reminiscent of the feel Eastern European countries like Czechoslovakia had back then.
Nevertheless, it is an amazing journey to witness.
Editor’s Note: The author traveled to China at the invitation of the Washington-based Institute for Education.