Americans Discover China -- Old and New

Deborah A. Kuhn

The Cambridge Center for Chinese Culture, in cooperation with the China Travel Service, has given us an enjoyable and enlightening tour of five cities in two and one-half weeks. We started in Beijing, toured Xian, Hangzhou, and Suzhou, and ended in Shanghai, one of the most exciting modern cities in the world. We are already planning our return for the 2008 Olympics. Seeing is believing!
[图: 作者在国子监(北京孔子庙)]

It is hard to summarize our rich experience, but a few key lessons stand out.

Modernization. The American press does not cover China very well. Although we have read of the economic reforms, we had no idea of the scale of these changes. When we arrived in Beijing, our jaws dropped. The new city literally grows every day. This was also true in Xian. And when we got to Shanghai, we felt as if we were seeing the future rather than the present. The spread of new construction and the size of the government investment in infrastructure were amazing. In Boston, we have a $15 billion USD project to build a one-mile underground highway that has taken 20 years and is still not complete. In Shanghai, China has completed 2400 new skyscrapers in just ten years. Through our tours of China emperors?palaces, we learned that China thinks big, and this approach continues into modern times. For thousands of years, the Chinese people have been hard-working, disciplined, and patient, accomplishing many feats of engineering like the Great Wall and the Terra Cotta Soldiers. These valuable traits are still very visible in modern times, making China a very good place for investment.

Organization. Throughout our tour, our travel was exceptionally smooth. Our Chinese planes were on time, our train from Hangzhou to Suzhou was clean and prompt, our buses were comfortable. Our hotel rooms were always ready. And most important, our tour guides from CTS were always knowledgeable and courteous. In fact, our trip was delayed on only one occasion, and that was when our American flight was cancelled because of mechanical failures. Overall, the organization and efficiency in China was remarkable. This outstanding ability to provide reliable service differs sharply from Americans expectations about centralized economies, and enhances China appeal for investment.


旅游团在长城合影

Entrepreneurial Spirit. We were deeply impressed by the ability of so many of the Chinese people to respond vigorously to the private enterprise initiative launched barely 20 years ago. It seems that almost everyone in China is a businessman, and this strong entrepreneurial spirit is surprising to see in a country where the feudal history was long and the models for private enterprise are so new. We asked our host in Shanghai how the Chinese people learned to establish private businesses so quickly. She told us that for thousands of years, Chinese people have worked hard and creatively, and those skills are now directed toward building the new economy instead of building temples for emperors. Our quick study of Chinese history helped us understand what she meant.

Unification. When we began our trip, the U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell, was visiting Beijing. Taiwan was a central issue in his discussions with President Jiang. Initially, we felt that both countries were a bit stubborn on this issue. By the time we completed our tour, however, we had a new understanding of China position on Taiwan. Our history tour taught us that the drive for unification of China has been intense not for decades or even for centuries, but literally for thousands of years. We also learned of this deep-rooted desire for connection from our Chinese-American traveling companions. Even those whose families left China decades ago felt a strong attachment a desire to study Chinese history, teach the culture to their children, and support China development. We learned that the primary investors in the new Chinese economy have been Chinese people living in Hong Kong and abroad. We understand much better the Chinese determination to have one country that includes Taiwan, and we are sure that the economic changes in China will be an important force in resolving this problem. Perhaps instead of spending just one day in Beijing, our American leaders should take the CTS history tour. History makes the present much more understandable.

Preservation of History. We read in the U.S. press that many of China ancient relics were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. Although that is largely true, we found that China is now working to restore and protect antiquities, investing heavily to preserve significant examples of ancient art and architecture. Given the number, size, complexity, and beauty of these historic places, we were awed by the size of the continuous investment required. The Terra Cotta Soldiers are truly a wonder of the word (though we would put them ninth after the Great Wall); however, the reconstruction of the soldiers in modern times may someday be another wonder of the world! It would seem fair that all of the world梟ot just the Chinese people梥hould bear the costs of preserving the ancient relics. American businesses working in China should be asked to adopt various sites. Such private support is common in the U.S.


在西安参观兵马俑

Similarities Overcome Differences. We traveled in a mixed Chinese and American group and we met the families of some of our Chinese friends. Our children played together easily despite the lack of a common language because children everywhere play the same games. Some of us who work in real estate investigated Beijing real estate system and found that the structure is similar to ours. We went to a Suzhou nightclub and found American rock and roll mixed with Chinese folk music. We discovered that many of the stereotypes that the West has developed about Chinese culture do not reflect reality. For example, women in China are far from invisible, and hold many key leadership positions in government and business. As another example, it is clear that the central government is not inefficient, but rather has been very effective in promoting rapid economic change. And we saw that China faces many of the same problems the U.S. has: how to plan comprehensively for development while allowing private businesses to respond to their individual economic needs; how to preserve historical architecture in the face of rapid development; how to invest enough in infrastructure (especially water) to support continued growth; and how to improve the air quality without unduly slowing industrial expansion. We Americans have always learned that China is different, but we found a great deal of similarity.

Opportunities for Investment. China has made a great deal of progress since the economic reforms and opening policies were adopted in 1978. Still, a great deal more investment will be necessary to continue the improvements in the east and spread the progress into the western provinces. The preparation for the Olympic Games in 2008 will also require a massive new investment in sports, housing, hotel, and retail facilities in Beijing as well as transportation infrastructure in the entire eastern region. A great deal of new housing will need to be constructed in order to improve living conditions in the cities, and the construction materials and techniques will need to be of the highest quality in order to ensure that new structures are attractive and durable. Air pollution was a significant problem in all of the cities we visited, and water problems were clearly visible in many places. All of these challenges present opportunities for investment in China. Everywhere we went, we found that local officials were anxious to have American involvement, technological know-how, and business investment in order to help China continue its economic progress and meet the challenge of the 2008 Olympics successfully. We found Chinese officials eager to learn about American business techniques and open to making reforms that will improve the climate for foreign investment.

Some Suggestions from Travelers. We found our tour of historical sites invaluable, but we urge that future tours include modern sites and events. With the opening of trade in China, tourists are interested in the modern business environment, the methods of economic change, and the prospects for foreign investment. We visited a real estate office in Beijing, Overseas Affairs offices in Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, the Suzhou Technology Industrial Zone, the Shanghai Planning Department, and the Shanghai Volkswagen plant in the Pudong district. Americans do not know very much about modern China, and their stereotypes about China are very strong. These can be broken down only if tourists and potential investors are given direct experience of the new, modern reality in China.

Some improvements would make travel and business in China more attractive. The hotels should have larger business centers - one computer for an entire hotel in simply inadequate. Eventually internet access should be available in the hotel rooms themselves. Credit cards need to be more widely accepted. More traffic signals are needed to make pedestrians feel safe crossing major streets. Visas will need to be available in more U.S. cities with less processing time. (We had to go to New York from Boston and plan several weeks in advance for our trip, but business commerce will need more fluid visa systems.) Thank you, Cambridge Center for Chinese Culture and China Travel Service, for an important learning experience. There are many opportunities for investment in China, and the climate for business partnerships is improving rapidly. We are convinced that the more Americans learn about China by seeing it, the more likely it is that the problems between our countries will be solved and economic cooperation will advance. Seeing is believing!

September 8, 2001


Author: Deborah A. Kuhn received her A.B. in government from Smith College (Massachusetts, USA) and her M.P.A. from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She served as Deputy State Budget Director for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (USA) under Michael S. Dukakis, and she now holds the position of Director of Strategic Projects under the Vice President for Administration at Harvard University, where she has managed more than $400 million of major real estate acquisition and development projects over the past ten years. Ms. Kuhn studied modern Chinese history in college and became affiliated with the Cambridge Center for Chinese Culture because of her continuing interest in China's development. As a result of her recent trip to China, Ms. Kuhn, CEO of JK International, LLC, will focus her business on investment in China.