I took a week-long trip to China with a few of my colleagues at the University of Florida in mid-January. The group was headed by Dr. David Sammons, Dean of the UF International Center, and we went to discuss various issues of interest to the University---exchange programs, technology licensing, developing training modules for Chinese officials and businessmen. UF has an office in Beijing, and we based our visit there. We also took an overnight trip to Yingkou to sign a cooperative agreement between the University and the city. It was exhilirating, fascinating, and exhausting. Day 1. We left the Gainesville airport, bound for Atlanta, at 7:00 a.m. on January 13. I'm not a nervous traveler, but I hardly slept the night before, out of anxiousness more than anything. I fell asleep on the plane. We had a three-hour layover in ATL, which was uneventful (of course). We were waiting on Korean Air 36 to take us to Seoul on a 747. About an hour before boarding, like something out of the glamorous days of 1960s air travel (if those ever existed), a phalanx of Korean flight attendants clad in silk robin egg blue blouses with matching scarves tied around their necks swept through the terminal, ready for duty. They gathered in a circle to discuss their responsibilities and went on board to get things prepared.
The flight was uneventful, and interminable. It's fifteen hours from ATL to ICN. I will say this about Korean Air: it is the nicest airline I've ever flown. There was sufficient legroom (in coach!), something I'm unaccustomed to at 6' 2". The food was excellent (Bibimbap for lunch!); the in-flight personal entertainment system had more than enough movies to keep me occupied (I watched Extract and 9 (the animated movie, not the musical)).
After a dazed, sleepy, two-hour layover in Seoul, we took the two-hour flight to Beijing, arriving at 8:20 p.m. on Thursday, January 14. After clearing customs and getting to our hotel (the Beijing Friendship Hotel), we finally got to our rooms around 10:30 p.m. All I could do is go to bed.
Day 2. Beijing gets into your lungs. From your hotel window you can see the haze of pollution, sometimes so thick you can't see 100 yards. And this is in January. I was told that summer days are worse, the smog so thick you can barely see the sun. As you leave the hotel lobby and venture outside you feel the sting in your nostrils. Sometimes you can smell it, too.
Parts of town are sleek and modern; others are dilapidated remnants of old Soviet influence. Glittery shopping malls with Western brands (and Western prices to match) stand in stark contrast to the run-down offices and apartment buildings. Cars clog the streets, jockeying for position, defying rules of traffic etiquette, and rarely crashing. Pedestrians do not have the right of way and crossing the street becomes a life-threatening activity.
On the other hand, the subway is clean and easy to navigate. The one-way fare from any point in the system to any other (except the airport) is only 2 RMB (that's less than 30 cents). Taxis are incredibly cheap---fare to the airport was about 100 RMB (15 dollars); an equivalent trip in the U.S. would have cost at least $50. Hotels are the same---our five star hotel cost about $110 per night (including breakfast), about a third of what a similar place would run at home.
And the food, abundant and cheap, is incredible. Chinese food in the U.S. is ok, but it's heavy-handed, designed for American palates. The real deal is much more subtle. Everywhere we went we were treated to fantastic feasts.
Our first day in Beijing (Friday) started with a visit to the University of International Business & Economics. We discussed exchange programs, and also their interest in tapping UF's expertise in Latin America. China has increased its activities in the region in recent years, and they need as much information about the business climate as they can get. This was discussed in more detail during our afternoon meeting at CCPIT (China Council for the Promotion of International Trade). We were all getting sleepy by that point (jetlag), so my most vivid memory of the visit was the meeting room itself. Very formal, with two chairs at one end for the heads of the delegations (Dr. Sammons in our case) and rows of chairs on either side for everyone else. Tea is always served at any meeting in China, with someone coming in every few minutes with additional pots of hot water to recharge your brew (aside: I'm not a tea drinker, but I do like the green tea they serve most places in China; I even brought some home for my wife). From CCPIT we went to the airport for our side trip to Yingkou.
(Additional remark about the day: we ate lunch back at our hotel, in a TGI Friday's. You heard me. I don't even eat there in the U.S., and there I was having a bacon cheeseburger and fries at one in Beijing. It was convenient; we're not proud of it.)
We flew China Southern airlines from Beijing to Dalian (a one-hour flight), where we were met at the airport by a representative of the Yingkou foreign affairs office. He had brought a van for the two-hour (!) drive to Yingkou. I fell asleep on the ride through the dark, deserted countryside. We finally arrived at our hotel around 11:00 p.m., and our escort had been kind enough to phone ahead to the hotel to have some dumplings ready to be sent to our rooms.
Day 3. Yingkou. After breakfast at the hotel (excellent), we were taken on a quick tour of the new industrial zone in the city. I'll say this for China: they think big. They decide to develop an area and they do it, no wasting time. It's still mostly empty fields, but at the local development agency, they have a scale model of how it will all look, along with a 3-D movie presentation showing how awesome life will be for everyone who lives there. The model fashions the city into a new Seattle. Maybe. Here's the view from my hotel room:
The pollution is pretty bad. Smokestacks belch filth into the sky (thanks, Sting). The wide, Soviet-style boulevards are lightly traveled (in contrast with Beijing, where traffic is awful). We were taken to city hall for our meeting with the director of the science and technology bureau, a young, dynamic man with big plans for turning the city into an industrial hub. After that, we went to the city's formal meeting room, where Dr. Sammons signed a cooperative agreement between UF and the city. Exchanging of gifts followed (this happens at every meeting in China; I got lots of swag). Then lunch back at our hotel.
A formal Chinese lunch is a strange affair. Everyone sits around a big circular table equipped with a large glass lazy susan on which the wait staff place the food. There's lots of toasting. I'm not used to drinking at lunch, so I took it easy, but after a few toasts it does take effect. The food was incredible; I can't remember everything I ate, but I will say that you should imagine the best Chinese food you've had in the U.S., and then think of something 10 times better.
After lunch we visited a solar panel manufacturing plant. One of our colleagues is an engineer who has invented a new technology for increasing efficiency of this process, and so there's a real licensing possibility there. From there, we drove back to Dalian for our flight back to Beijing. Excellent noodles at the airport snack bar. Back to the hotel in Beijing. In bed at a reasonable hour for a change.
Day 4. Sunday. We took a day trip to Tianjin, about 120 km from Beijing, to visit Florida International University's campus at the Tianjin University of Commerce. This used to be a two-hour train ride, but not anymore:
This modern bullet train travels at over 210 mph, making the trip from Beijing to Tianjin in 30 minutes. A first-class ticket costs 69 RMB (about $10) each way. The seats are comfortable, the ride is smooth, and you can have all the bottled spring water you want.
Our meeting with the FIU folks was interesting. The university has set up a program in hospitality management there, in cooperation with TUC. FIU faculty go over to teach for a couple of months at a time, and TUC splits the tuition with FIU. Everyone seems happy with the arrangement. After our meeting, we were again treated to lunch at a very nice restaurant by the university's Party Secretary. It's easy to forget that China is an authoritarian state when you're just going about your business. But then you try to open up facebook on your laptop, or google "communism", or watch a video on youtube, and you're snapped into reality in a hurry.
After our train ride back to Beijing, we were all wiped out and still full from lunch. For once, we were in our rooms by 8:00 p.m. I watched a little Chinese TV (believe it or not, kung fu movies and their version of MTV), and went to bed.
Day 5. In the morning, we visited the China Scholarship Council to discuss ways to get more excellent Chinese students to UF. Pleasant conversation, and I scored a very nice tie, too. They have tons of money to support their students; are you listening Congress?
The afternoon was actually free for me. Dr. Sammons had some business to attend to regarding the logistics of the UF center in Beijing, so I and a couple of my colleagues took the opportunity to visit the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. We had to pass through security to get onto the Square; I guess the government doesn't want anything to happen there again. There are barricades all around it, so you can't just walk onto it from the street without meeting a guard. There are security cameras on every pole, pointing in every direction. My colleague, who is Chinese, was a little melancholy about it. He told me that most Chinese citizens have more or less forgotten the 1989 uprising since their lives have improved dramatically since then. I guess Marx was right after all: the government just needs to give the masses an opiate (religion in Marx's time, money and entertainment in ours).
The Forbidden City is way too big to see in a couple of hours. It's all the more impressive when you realize it was built in 15 years in the early 1400s. Every building is ornate, filled with thrones and lavish living quarters. Of course, that's tempered by the huge portrait of Chairman Mao on the front:
The temperature dropped while we were there so that by the end of the visit, we were chilled to the bone. We took a taxi back to the China Agriculture University (where UF's office is located), and had dinner at the swanky hotel adjacent to campus. Righteous Peking duck, among other delicacies.
Day 6. The penultimate day began with a visit to the Beijing Foreign Studies University, China's top language school. Over 370 alumni have gone on to be ambassadors. They've recently added international business to their curriculum, and are turning out exceptional graduates. We discussed exchange programs, Latin American training programs, etc. A very fruitful conversation.
The rest of the day was consumed with getting ready to leave---checking out of our hotel and traveling to the airport. We left Beijing at 9:20 p.m., bound for Seoul, arriving after midnight. We checked into a hotel near the airport, ready for the return flight to Atlanta.
Day 7. As long as the first day. Flight from ICN to ATL only takes 13 1/2 hours instead of 15, but it's still way too long to sit in one place. Two more movies. As much reading as I could take. Lots of music listening. But mostly anticipation for being home. A week is a long time to be gone anymore. I miss my family after a couple of days.
Overall, a really good trip. I learned a lot about higher education in China, and I hope to expand opportunities for UF students to visit there in the future. I think this was one area where Richard Nixon got it right: we ignore China at our peril. Plus, it's a nice place to visit.