China: Behind the great firewall

I left home late Tuesday night and landed early Thursday morning in China. Shanghai met me shining bright, moving fast and boasting buildings previously imagined only in futuristic comic books.  Arriving in China, time truly jumps ahead. A few hours before descending I took my ritualistic aspirin to insure I passed the upcoming temperature check at the border. It was prescient.  It’s been three years since I was in Shanghai and my head’s exploding with stimulation.

In a three hour speech at the 19th Communist Party Congress, President Xi detailed his plan for sustainable modernism based on five principles: innovation, coordination, green development, openness and inclusion.  How can a country proclaim a readiness to engage with the world while blocking its denizens from using Google, Facebook, and Twitter with The Great Firewall? Turns out that it doesn’t need these international giants.  By restricting access to Western platforms, domestic alternatives that better serve the market were created that, in many cases, are better than their competition.

English speaking Chinese know how to access Google—most foreigners bypass the wall with a VPN or an international cellular plan—but why bother? Baidu can answer your queries, Alibaba has better prices than Amazon and some incredible discounts, especially on Singles Day, November 11th (1111—get it?) when $1.51 billion was sold in just over three minutes. Why use Snapchat, Facebook or Twitter when you have WeChat, which allows you (and its other 850 million users) to chat with pals by phone or text, call, leave voice messages, share pix and videos, attach super cute stickers, send your location coordinates, download documents and pay for just about anything.  Wallets are so retro—China is way ahead on mobile pay.

QR codes are everywhere.  Entire sides of skyscrapers become towering billboards. What on first glance appears to be pointillist art is actually a scannable advertisement.  We’re all products. When people scanned my WeChat QR code, I felt more like a box of cereal at the supermarket checkout counter than a colleague. Once you have a chat group, WeChat assigns you a QR code.  Paper business cards, they also come with a QR code.  Even the key chain I received at a local charity had its QR stamp, should I be moved to donate or keep up with their actions on WeChat.  All your payments, movements and moments are captured in one place.  The dominance of online activity is perfect for a Communist regime.  The government can catch you being good and has introduced a social credit plan. It’s voluntary until 2020 when it becomes mandatory.  The system is pitched as a desirable way to measure and enhance “trust” nationwide and to build a culture of “sincerity.” Those with high scores receive preferred rates on mortgages, better seats at restaurants and early options on concert tickets.  In the Netflix show Black Mirror, friends scan each other’s faces, enter a rating and thus influence the privileges of the people around them. It’s a dystopian prediction of our digital future that’s been actualized.  In China, or at least in Shanghai, the future is now. Granted, my Uber driver already rates me so the U.S. isn’t far behind.  Well, actually it is.  Assertive China challenges the world at a time when the West looks weak with Trump as president and the EU becoming increasingly unstable.

Xi Jinping’s tenure to date has been characterized by, among other things, a return to the basics of Party rule as established by Mao. These include a renewed emphasis on United Front work, which Mao called one of the “three secret weapons” (along with the armed forces and Party-building) that helped the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to power in 1949. In a country the size of China, civic unrest is the greatest potential threat.  Cultivating distractions is part of the Party’s plan.  For example, United Front activities include the mandate for China to become a football and entertainment super power to engage the attention of urbanizing Chinese who might be tempted by the evils of political participation.  There’s also a scheme to install the next Dalai Lama from outside of Dharamsala as a means of undermining belief in the religious leader who has previously promoted Tibet’s separatist status. A database has been created of more than 1,300 officially approved living Buddhas who may be called on when the time comes to endorse Beijing’s choice. What makes someone a living Buddha you might ask? I inquired before being introduced to one.  The answer? He’s alive.  (I know, I know, I felt the same way when I heard).

Controversial as the means may be, the 100-year plan is taking form.  Since the time of Mao Zedong, China has been engaged in an effort to establish itself as the world’s premier superpower by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the Communist Revolution. Stand up, get rich, and get strong.  Getting strong includes protecting the environment and promoting the arts. The newly developed West Bund now has multiple museums and huge exhibition spaces.  The Shanghai Center of Photography (SCôP) was conceived with the intention of becoming China’s equivalent of the NY International Center of Photography.  It was founded by Liu Heung Shing at the request of Shanghai‘s mayor. Heung Shing won a Pulitzer Prize for his iconic Tiananmen Square pictures.  The government underwriting the photographer of repressed images?  This is China!  Build it and they will come.  Walking around the West Bund on a Sunday I could have been in Paris or NY (except that in Manhattan you don’t see so many people still smoking).  The expansive modern terraces were filled with well-dressed twenty somethings.

The urban population skews young, generating a vibrancy and intensity befitting a city that includes a Hi-Tech park which houses hundreds of R&D institutions and hosts 360,000 employees but, because this is China, that’s not enough. When I met with the administrator for Zhangjiang Hi-Tech Park, I learned that they are planning to further develop the area into a science city that will include residential and entertainment facilities.  And, because this is China, we know it will happen.  Unlike Silicon Valley, the buildings in the innovation hub are drab Government Issue on the outside—exterior glitz is still reserved for financial institutions. But once inside the labs I felt like Jane Jetson, seeing with my own eyes the expression of the Party’s plan to transition their country from imitator to innovator.

Some of the innovations in China are surreal and others are adaptations of previously released concepts with a local twist.  For example, two bike sharing apps have exploded on the scene.  Of course you pay with WeChat. Unlike other urban bike sharing I have seen, Ofo and Mobike don’t require you to park or retrieve bikes from docking stations.  You use your app to unlock and then later leave your bike.  Riders naturally cluster where they deposit cycles (because this is China).  After a long ride through the French Concession I was relieved to surrender my cycle as the seat didn’t raise high enough (because this is…) and I was knocking my knees into my teeth.

The return of bike riding is one of the many examples of how China re-embraces its heritage after it’s been metabolized by the West.  There’s an emporium that always makes me smile. At street level it’s a pharmacy filled with recognizable western brands.  The next floor sells new age alternatives and the top floor is filled with traditional medicine—pots of mushrooms, barrels of odd bones—essentially the ingredients used on the floor below without the fancy packaging.

The old and new intertwine in other curious ways. I visited the ancient river town of Xitang with wooden boats floating on Venice-like canals. Lanes were filled with food vendors selling delicacies like fermented tofu and Chicken Feet Cooked Ten Ways. There were serene tea houses and a street of reclaimed warehouses with one disco after another.  Even during the day young woman wore headbands with flashing ears or other floral attachments.  It’s a look I am not sure will go global despite other trading successes. “One belt one road” which is the new system of high speed railways, is the modern day silk road.   It connects 20 Chinese cities to Europe by direct rail links.  The volume of freight sent this way has quintupled since 2013. Routes such as Chengdu to Prague and Wuhan to Lyon have been established.  Now China is Germany’s biggest trading partner.

While you may not want a front-loading carrying case for your monkey like the one I saw a man wearing  (complete with monkey) at a roadside food stand, what you can expect from China is growing confidence and dominance. The determination and focus is electrifying and terrifying.  How will I keep up? What are the prospects for my children? What should America be doing in response?  After a long week of hard work and anticipatory anxiety, on our last night in town the team rented a private karaoke room at Haoledi.  Everyone was singing and being silly, a staff member dashed in, dumped a bag of feathers on everyone, and (if that wasn’t enough) returned to toss glitter on our crowd.  Then a nice lady came in and hoovered the mess while everyone kept singing.  Because this is China there is just that extra bit of sparkle and, yes, service.

As I prepared to land in NYC I turned my watch back and was reminded that the sun sets in west.