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China: 5-year plan

Past meets present meets future in downtown Shanghai

Kai Ryssdal Jul 11, 2011
China: 5-year plan

Past meets present meets future in downtown Shanghai

Kai Ryssdal Jul 11, 2011

Kai Ryssdal: Our series this week, the Five Year Plan, takes us to China, and the live broadcast we did from there in 2006. We went back last month, to see what’s changed for them, and for us.

One of the things we kept saying to ourselves when we were in China last month was, ‘Hey, the Chinese — they’re just like us.’ You’ve got parents, like me, pushing their kids to learn the language, because it’s the smart thing to do. Turns out that 7,000 miles and 15 time zones away, at just about the same time my kids were being tormented, a couple of Chinese kids were having almost exactly the same experience — because their Dad told ’em to. Just like us, they want a better life for their kids.

Li Yong Qin: I hope their lives are better than ours. I hope they can make more money, have a better job than me, and I want them to go to university. I hope they can find a better employer, make money easier.

We’ll meet Li Yong Qin and his family a little bit later this week. But what better place to start our trip back to China, than with a look at the future?

Jim McGregor: They’re trying to race past a lot of years and look towards tomorrow because they can’t look back.

Jim McGregor’s been in China going on 25 years, first as a journalist, now as a businessman and observer. We talked to Jim when we were here in 2006 about what China’s amazing economic performance — even then — was going to mean for us. So when we decided to come back to see what’s changed, we called him again and went out for a walk at a place called Tomorrow Square.

McGregor: Even though it looks like a clock tower and a school, this was the British raceclub and the stands were right behind it, and this whole Tomorrow Square area and what’s west of it used to be the racetrack and the park.

That’s where our hotel was: the Marriott at Tomorrow Square. Nice marketing, right? A futuristic hotel with a wraparound lobby up on the 38th floor. It is aspirational in the extreme.

Kind of like the Ferrari dealership just around the corner.

Ryssdal: See this is good, they’ve got Maseratis here too.

As I chat up the sales lady — who can’t drive, by the way — I learn they sell 15 or so cars a year at $650,000 apiece — mostly to Chinese. Though she does tells me more people buy the Maserati, because it’s better for families.

So as my walk with Jim McGregor continues, I ask him to square that picture of China with the one that most Americans have of this country.

Ryssdal: Last time we spoke, you had a line that has stuck with me in the past five years: it’s an accident of history, you said, that these people are living in a Communist society. Because they are the most daring, ambitious and cutthroat — I think you said — entrepreneurs and business people you’ve ever, ever seen. So you better be ready, youbetter bring your game.

McGregor: Remember, these guys have been doing this for a couple thousand years. This is a country that came out of 150 bad years and is coming back, that’s their view of the world. They look at us as an accident of history. In one way, it’s feeling like it’s back, like they have really come through it and now they’re on top of the world. On the other hand, they are still very insecure about their place. They know what they have here is very fragile.

Ryssdal: If you look around here, you see unbelievable — the second-tallest building in the world, you can see from where we’re standing. You can see an unbelievably modern subway system that works and is clean. We’ve been riding it for two weeks and it’s great. How can they be insecure? How can they be nervous?

McGregor: Well because I think they know at the core, the contradictions that they are living with. It’s run by a Communist party that has modern planning. It’s kind of like part GE and part the mafia.

Ryssdal: Let’s stop for a minute in front of the Park Hotel here, this amazing Art Deco building that faces Tomorrow Square, it faces the old racing club. All these folks walking by — those who aren’t staring at us because we’re doing a radio interview — and as they go about their daily lives, which are, you know: life is life is life. Are they thinking about their place in the Chinese economy? And China’s place in the global economy?

McGregor: I think people here are just starting to think. They have been on a treadmill. They all came from nothing and it is a very competitive society, and now they’re starting to think about quality of life. They’re thinking about work-life balance. They’re thinking about their health. You know, psychology has all of the sudden come alive here and people are going to counselors. They’ve now been wealthy for a while and they’re thinking about, ‘what is life all about,’ as much as they are, ‘how do I get rich really fast?’

Before anybody gets rich, there’s business to ‘tend to. Five years ago, right up the road from where McGregor and I are walking, there used to be a great little dumpling place. I went back to try to find it again. ‘Course, it was gone.

Now it’s a hotpot restaurant. Scorpion Sheep Hotpot, the boss says — famous all over the country. It was a pure business decision, she tells me: changing menus in a changing market.

Ryssdal: Even from five years ago, it just seems to me that there are a lot more foreigners here, you know, and that it’s not special almost, being a foreigner in China who knows their way around.

McGregor: You know what: that is a profound chance and I think it’s unsettled a lot of the long-time foreign community. And it’s also changed the way they treat foreign business. I was at a dinner the other night with six China-hands, all been here 25 to 30 years. Some of them were people who could see no wrong in China for many of those years; they really drank the Kool-Aid. And to a person, they’re worried sick about this place right now. Because that’s the big question: how does it last? Because of these contradictions we’re talking about.

When we were here five years ago, you could see that China was a work in progress. Physically, first of all. In Shanghai, there were construction cranes all over the place. Now you stand on the riverfront and look out to the new section of the city — it could be Hong Kong for all the neon and steel and glass towers.

But there’s a mental aspect, too. People are ready. They’re ready for consumerism and middle class wages and a better life. So, tomorrow, what we found when we went looking for that better life.

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