BEIJING -- On Jinbao Street, the Starbucks has to compete for attention with the Ferrari, Lamborghini and Bentley dealers. A giant Apple store beckons pedestrians to come in, after they've finished their Haagen-Daz, and try out the latest iPad. Farther down the busy boulevard is the Hong Kong Jockey Club, an elegant, members-only dining palace where corporate chiefs cut the big deals over plates of Peking duck.
Welcome to the People's Republic of China. Mao Zedong would hardly recognize the place.
The fabulous wealth, economic growth and material goods that have exploded in the capital have spread to other urban zones as well. Here the midday streets are choked with cars, the air is soupy with smog and, in December at least, hotel and office lobbies are adorned with giant, sparkling Christmas trees. Road and shop signs are bilingual, to assist English speakers, and at night Beijing's shopping districts pulse with as many watts and consumers as a top-tier American city.
In the rural outposts, though, farmers still water their plots with wooden buckets balanced on medieval yokes and shoppers go to market in horse-drawn carts. Millions of them have flocked to the cities for opportunity -- work, income, a car -- but many first end up in grim migrant slums, far from the glow of nightlife, like modern-day invaders kept out by some Great Wall.
It's impossible for the first-time visitor to China to comprehend it all, other than to say that this country of 1 billion-plus is a maze of contrasts and contradictions. Does the once-in-a-decade leadership turnover mean new Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping will bring more change? Does the recent public protest defending a newspaper editorial calling for constitutional reform mean Western-style rights are in the offing? Forty years after Richard Nixon's great "opening" with China, Americans know much more about the country but probably understand far less.
Last month I was one of five U.S. journalists who visited China as part of a two-week fellowship sponsored by the East-West Center in Honolulu and the Better Hong Kong Foundation. Our group received briefings -- most of them off the record and through interpreters -- by government officials at the ministries of defense, foreign affairs and commerce. We visited the cramped and cluttered headquarters of a nationwide bloggers' network. We inspected a community center outside Beijing that serves children of migrant parents. We explored a neighborhood of the Yi people, an ethnic minority in Yunnan province, who were relocated to make room for construction of a new reservoir. And we met with financial leaders in Hong Kong, the former British colony that remains a key point of entry to China for Western business.
Although none of these stops could tell the whole story of today's China, each offered its own window into the lives, hopes and possibilities of its people.
The view from on high
At the government ministries, each of them in sleek, modern buildings, officials strived to put the best face on the nation's leadership turnover and the 18th Communist Party Congress held in November.
At Defense, military officers pointed to a convergence of interests with the United States on global issues such as anti-terrorism, Pacific region stability and Israeli-Palestinian peace. They were not boastful about the first landing, days earlier, of a jet on China's sole aircraft carrier, a less-than-modern vessel purchased from Ukraine in 1998. Said one officer: "Our aircraft carrier development is at a very initial stage. It is for training and research. We have a long way to go to catch up to the U.S., Great Britain and others." Although American hawks might disagree, the same assessment was given 10 days later in Honolulu by officers at the U.S. Pacific Command.
At Foreign Affairs, the emphasis was on cooperative ventures with the United States: joint earthquake rescue training, joint diplomatic training and the interdependence of the world's two largest economies. "China and the United States are just like a married couple," one minister said. "They may quarrel, but they don't want a divorce. The unspoken thing is we have much more common interests."
At Commerce, the focus was on China's robust economy, including some of its ill effects, like air pollution. Beijing has been suffering some of the worst air in memory, and it's easy to understand why. China is the world's top polluter, with 10 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year, almost twice as much as the United States. General Motors also sells one car every six seconds in China, and the streets of the capital are clogged with them.
Adding to the burden on Chinese lungs is pervasive cigarette smoking. Beijing's lung cancer rate has increased dramatically over the last five years. While smoking is on the decline in the United States, Beijing's incidence of lung cancer in 2010 was 56 percent higher than in 2001.
That's a high price to pay for prosperity, but Commerce officials hope new U.S. partnerships will bring solutions. They want to attract more American companies in the pharmaceutical, environmental protection and renewable energy industries. "First, we wanted electricity," one minister said. "Now we want cars. We want what Americans have, but if 1.3 billion Chinese lived that way, it would be unsustainable."
Including the poor
Among those who want a share of China's galloping economy are the 14 million who move to the cities each year. Although three decades of rapid urbanization have lifted 600 million Chinese out of poverty, the country still has the second-largest number of poor in the world.
Some of them live on the outskirts of Beijing, an hour away in the Chaoyang District. In a neighborhood where bricks are hauled by horse-drawn wagon, migrant families live in meager cinder-block dwellings heated by coal. At dusk, when the U.S. journalists visited, the air was acrid and gray with soot.
A non-governmental organization called Included serves children there and in five other cities by operating community centers where they can stay after school, playing or doing homework, until their parents return from work. The classrooms are not in a building but in one-story, recycled steel shipping containers that have been painted in primary colors and have doors and windows cut into their walls.
Jonathan Hursh, the American who is executive director and founder of Included, said his organization serves about 8,000 children a year at its centers. The migrants in Chaoyang typically work as street sweepers, trash collectors, house cleaners or waitresses. Despite the primitive quality of their accommodations, they pay a premium to live in one room that holds everything.
"Conditions vary by city and community, but they will often have one light bulb in the room," he said. "Usually, you will find up to 50 families sharing a public water faucet and toilets."
China has been slow to respond with policies that assist migrants. "Smart cities will embrace migrants as an asset and build transition pathways to allow and encourage them to integrate into the formal society, instead of allowing them to bounce back onto the informal edges of their cities," Mr. Hursh said. "Cities in the developing world which recognize this will be the New Yorks and Londons of the future in their regions. A smart city is an inclusive city."
Bringing up the countryside
In the countryside, government has the challenge of creating jobs that will sustain rural life. Of China's 31 provinces, Yunnan, which borders Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, is the second poorest. But with majestic mountains, emerald lakes, historic temples and ancient marketplaces, the region whose name means "south of the clouds" has the makings of a strong tourist industry.
On the same green hills where farmers till the land along scenic terraces, the ridges are topped with dozens of wind towers. Hotels in the major towns have all the conveniences, including wi-fi, but at roadside rest stops foreign travelers are stuck with "crouch" toilets. You're not in Beijing anymore.
A potential asset for building a tourist economy is Yunnan's assortment of ethnic groups. It is home not just to the Han, China's majority, but to minorities representing Yi, Bai and Muslim people. During a walking tour of her Yi village, Li Dexiu described how she and her neighbors had been relocated from a place 9 kilometers away so that a new reservoir could be built. There were 78 households and 380 people.
"Today most of them do migrant farm work or plant pear trees," she said. "Some raise livestock -- goats, oxen, chicken, pigs. Every villager also has 500 square meters to farm for themselves." She said her community's per capita income was 500 yuan (about $80) in 1995, compared to 5,200 yuan ($837) today. U.S. per capita income is $41,663.
Although the Chinese government likes to showcase minorities who have no complaints about their treatment, others such as the Tibetans and Uighurs generate less flattering headlines. Nearly 100 Tibetan monks and lay people have set themselves on fire in the last three years to protest Chinese rule, while the Uighurs, a Muslim group in the Xinxiang region, have used riots and bombings to show their resistance.
Testing the limits
Whether individuals or minority groups will gain more freedom in the new China is hard to say. An economist for a major bank in Hong Kong believes change is coming. He cited a study of the Internet in China that showed a significant increase in use of the word "reform." In 2011, he said, the word came up fewer than 1 million times per month. Now it's used more than 7 million times per month. That rising desire for change, he said, will be too hard for China's new leaders to resist.
If anything is sowing the seeds of freedom and democracy now, it is BLSHE.com, the Blogger United Community. Based in a modest office in Beijing not far from Tiananmen Square, where a very public bid for freedom was quashed in 1989, this nationwide bloggers network was founded by Ma Xiaolin, a correspondent who resigned in 2007 from the state-run Xinhua News Agency. The whole enterprise walks a fine line. Funded by businesses and subscribers, BLSHE.com requires each of its 30,000 bloggers to use their real names.
"When you blog with no name, there is no trust," Mr. Ma said. "Because we use our real names, we can develop more understanding and exchange common values." No one in the blog, which is heavy on politics and features writers from media, education, business and government, has gotten into trouble with the government.
"They know the limits of the law," he said, "so everybody practices self-censorship. Sometimes our editors have to delete some words, as in political rumors." A blogger also cannot call people to a demonstration, he said. Just about everything else, including government actions, is fair game for comment. "One blogger got 120,000 clicks for criticizing China's foreign policy," he said.
"After six years at this, I think I'm still a journalist. This blog network has created new columnists, new opinion authorities. The traditional media is now getting more information from bloggers. And in some places where people don't have a chance to get newspapers or magazines, they now have access to blogs."
Such an independent chorus of voices would have been impossible in China prior to the age of the Internet. This quiet but steady proliferation of information gatherers and online commentators may be proof that, a generation later, the spirit of Tiananmen Square lives.
Tom Waseleski is the Post-Gazette editorial page editor (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-1422). First Published January 27, 2013 5:00 AM