China Revisited

October 17, 2018

Caroline and I are on vacation in China. Yesterday, we visited the government stuff in central Beijing: The Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square.

It's been 17 years—half a lifetime—since I visited Beijing. Some changes since last time:

  • Relative prices have come up a lot. We haven't specifically gone for "cheap", but at market exchange rates (about 6.5 RMB/$), Beijing has reached San Francisco-level prices: ¥15-20 for a mall coffee, ¥10-15 for a Snickers bar, ¥35-45 for single dishes at midrange restaurant, ¥60 each for Forbidden City museum tickets.
  • The street vendors selling knock-off "Rolexes" are gone. I don't know whether it's because China is getting serious about IP protection, or they just think it's trashy to have that in their capital; maybe both. The quintessential "China street haggling" has all but disappeared.
  • No surprise, but it's a police state: security cameras absolutely everywhere (10 on a single pole in Tiananmen Square, 100+ in every subway station), tons of police presence, the Great Firewall blocking most Western media. People don't seem to mind; it doesn't affect them much day-to-day.
  • Perhaps because of the pollution, dirty two-stroke vehicles have vanished; small scooters and bikes are 90% electric now. Even small cars have gone plug-in electric.
  • Dental care has gotten a lot better. 17 years ago, peoples' teeth were pretty bad, not anymore.
  • There are free-to-use outdoor public toilets everywhere. Caroline thinks it might be because not every dwelling has indoor plumbing. In any case, they're clean, free, and open.
  • There's still a lot of cash, but Alipay, WeChat, and Apple pay are the preferred electronic payment systems. Payment cards aren't widely used.
  • Overall, you'd be excused for thinking you're in a developed (rich) country; the population is well-dressed, with high-end Xiaomi and Apple phones, and nice watches and glasses, making the overall feel that of a well-dressed, conservative capital city, somewhat like Washington, DC.

Being here has really underscored San Francisco/Oakland's dysfunction; unfathomable tax revenue of every sort, and yet, transit doesn't work, there's trash everywhere, and we can't keep our homeless off the streets.

How has this place done what we in the Bay Area, seemingly can't? I wonder.