It is seven-thirty on a Sunday night. I have just completed the last leg of my trip home from Guilin, China. As I travel across the Arkansas River bridge from the Little Rock airport, headed for the bedroom community of Maumelle, where I live, I notice something conspicuously absent from my drive: Horns; nobody is honking! In China, both in Shanghai and in the smaller city of Guilin, every vehicle has a horn. Every driver is damn proud of their possession and uses it liberally. In fact, I am convinced it is likely the first mechanical device on their vehicle which will wear out.
The streets of any highly populated Chinese city are but a microcosm of the culture which lurks beneath. They are totally chaotic. Though I have lived in Houston and Kansas City and traveled to New York repeatedly in an earlier life, my town is incredibly slow paced. It took me a few days in China to recognize the chaos of the traffic for the real beauty it represents.
Almost every intersection has left turn signals, red lights and, "Walk-Don't Walk" lights for the benefit of someone. However, the Chinese people treat those traffic control devices as mere suggestions. At the outset, the noise, confusion and what could surely qualify as a system which promised certain death to a pedestrian or a scooter driver drove me crazy. I found myself thinking like an American, "How in the world do these people function with so little adherence to the laws and so little oversight by the local authorities?"
But, after being forced to live in that day to day reality, I began to appreciate the larger lesson: The street functions–despite Its shortcomings. People, get to and from work and provide a living wage for their families — honking incessantly at every turn. Government is present, but because of the sheer numbers of citizens it would be forced to control, the authorities are in deep background at best. I seldom ever saw a police officer and when I did, they were occupying some ceremonial location in an intersection and appeared little interested in offering assistance to anyone.
Traveling to China is the first international adventure I have made in my sixty-five years. I have been to the Bahamas and Mexico, but those trips were the farthest cast I have made from my home in the South, where I have lived for three decades. Not because of stellar planning, but just due to dumb luck, I saw China from the inside out — at least for three weeks.
I was hosted by a middle class woman named Han Yu. She lives in Guilin which is located in the south central part of China. Guilin is a metropolitan area of five million people and is somewhat touristy with a climate like Miami. It is not plagued with the poor air quality found in Shanghai or Beijing. Yu has a pre-teen daughter who attends a private school. My host's friends share the same lifestyle and reside in her same economic strata.
Looking back on my visit, I consider the time I spent with her and her friends as a total luxury. I missed the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square, but I was fortunate to see Chinese life from the ground up.
The single biggest driving force in China: Own your own business. The best I can tell, after having been an entrepreneur for thirty-five years and observing the business climate there, China has the most aggressive small business incubator in the world. Maybe someday the Chinese government will try to control the millions of small businesses they have fostered by their ambivalence; but, like the streets of Guilin, I doubt they will have the power to do so.
I attended the grand opening of a new restaurant, largely the dream of Han Yu's best female friend, Zeng Cheng. Zeng Cheng already is a major player in a Guilian tea company which packages and sells tea throughout south central China. The Guilin city/county government is openly enthusiastic about new enterprise. Their motto seems to be, "Stay out of the way". For $50 US, and three days of process time, a new entrepreneur is set on "Go" to risk everything he or she has to succeed. The government's approach: Come, join our community, risk what you wish and enjoy the benefits of an unfettered business adventure.
In China, to mimic the redneck comedian Larry the Cable Guy, the motto seems to be, "Get u2018er done". Whatever it takes to make life happen, they can accomplish it.
There is no better example than their transportation schemes. I was a passenger in every kind of vehicle you can imagine. From a three wheel motorcycle powered two person cart, appropriately called a "Bomb Bomb", which is programmed to search out and experience every rut and pothole in the China streets.
At the top of my list: The Bullet — a mass transit train that cruises along quietly and effortlessly at 200 mph and has beautiful classy Chinese concierges traveling through the cabins offering refreshments.
In a recent article on LRC, titled, The New Steel Silk Road, Rick Mills reviews how China is choreographing the future of trade with India, Russia, the Balkans, Europe and Africa using the concept of high speed rail to speed cargo back and forth along the Silk trading routes in use for thousands of years. As I read the article, it occurred to me, the Chinese follow the advice of our Founders in a way we in the US haven't done for the last one-hundred years: They are busy learning to trade with people, talk to people and travel to countries to make friendships and economic joint ventures, rather than deliver their dogma at the end of a Cruise missile.
Han Yu's daughter, Ran (pronounced like it is spelled) studies math, science, art and English in private school. It takes a major chunk of Yu's income, about 2500 Yuan RMB each month — $400 US. I met several parents of her classmates who were quite eager for their children to learn English. The overarching desire of the Chinese is to come to the US for economic opportunity. Though I never said so, my trip was teaching me that American mothers should be obsessed with their school aged children learning Chinese, so they can travel to the future economic Mecca of the world and enjoy the impending prosperity of China.
As a final sad commentary: When I landed in Shanghai from San Francisco, I had to clear Chinese Customs. The form required: Three lines; the customs inspector asked just a minute of my time at his window. In contrast, while clearing customs in San Francisco on my return: Fifty minutes, a two page form and paraded through a chute like a cow at a livestock sale. Welcome back to the land of the free and the home of the brave.
Skip Cook [send him mail] is a general manager of a construction company in Maumelle, Arkansas. He is active in citizen driven efforts to change the ways of government in his state.