Jul

22

 For 20 years, I've been hearing nothing but accolades for China, from Jimmy Rogers and many others. So when I finally had the opportunity for a visit, I went prepared to be wowed.

I was wowed, all right. As in, "Wow, this is the most depressing place I've ever seen. When can I go home?"

Aubrey and I spent 20 days in China. We signed up for a typical, plain-vanilla tour sponsored by Harvard Alumni Association: Beijing, Great Wall, Xian, Chongqing, Yangtze River cruise through Three Gorges, Shanghai.

In Beijing, pollution was so severe that the city was dark all day. A Chinese friend who showed us around said that a sighting of blue sky is a noteworthy event. I saw entire cities of giant public housing projects, as unimaginative as any in Russia or Manhattan. I heard over and over of the central government's plan to move farmers into cities, where they are expected to build more public housing projects and hundreds of dams to keep the economy going. I heard of educational quotas designed to keep provincials in the provinces and out of the universities of Beijing and Shanghai. I walked miles along a Shanghai shopping street entirely devoted to Western brands at 100% markups. I experienced the airport delays that result from the military's control of 90 percent of China's airspace. Everywhere I went, I saw unimaginably wasteful public spending.

The happiest people I saw were a family with a farm just out of reach of the water that submerged tens of thousands of other farms in the Three Gorges area after the construction of the dam. They were grinding corn with a wood-and-stone appliance, and allowed Aubrey and the other children on the tour to have a turn. Bunches of sweet-smelling medicinal herbs and food were drying in the courtyard. A fruit tree provided shade.

Among their neighbors was one of the 1.3 million people displaced by the dam project (that "Damned Dam," as people call it.) Mao, 76, received money in compensation for his lost farm, and the government built him a three-story villa large enough to make a Manhattanite envious. A large magnolia tree provides some shade, and a grape arbor is on the rooftop. We sat in his spacious, almost empty living room with an electric fan running. Yes, he has electricity supplied by the dam's hydroelectric power, for 30 yuan a month (about $5). But he doesn't have running water. Why not? "He says the water tastes bitter," our interpreter told us. "He prefers to draw the water from a well." So this elderly man fills a pail with water when he wants to make a cup of tea, or flush the privy. He is alone most of the time, because his family members work in distant cities.

The Three Gorges power project was supposed to supply 6% of the China's power; it now supplies 3%, and silt is clogging the river.

The most out-of-control development I saw was in Chongqing, where the now-disgraced governor Bo Xilai spent tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars on public works and housing projects. He also led a revival of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution. His trial was supposed to begin this month, and dozens of reporters showed up only to be told that there was no trial. Bo was a demagogue who represented a throwback to China's dark days. American leftists liked Bo Xilai because he talked about narrowing the gap between rich and poor. Wikipedia has a good summation.

In sum, I saw everywhere evidence of pharaonic power making moronic decisions. The Cultural Revolution officially ended in 1976 with the death of Mao, but I believe it continues. I have never seen a country destroy its own past quite as effectively as China has done. As a result, it is a country without charm, with a likely future that bears much more resemblance to the post-industrial nightmares of William Gibson and "Blade Runner" than to a shining city on a hill.

I was therefore astonished to find Jimmy Rogers extolling central planning and the one-party system in in "Street Smarts." I have regarded Jimmy as a kindred spirit since first hearing him back in 1994, and I was delighted to meet him at Vic's libertarian junto. I have enjoyed reading all of his books, and his determination to have his daughter learn Mandarin inspired me to enroll Aubrey in Chinese lessons. As much as I admire him, I suspect that he has, incredibly, committed the trading error of falling in love with his investment. I'm not privy to information about his financial holdings; I mean the investment he made by selling his New York home and moving his family to Asia. He writes that he did so because he wanted his daughter to grow up speaking Mandarin. Jimmy doesn't just defend Singapore's one-party system; he rates it superior to American democracy. The Rogers family lives in a nice villa in Singapore. Has Jimmy visited a Singapore family in their cramped public housing apartment, as I did when I visited in 2004?

As owner of a retail glassware business, I trade with Chinese suppliers. I find that the people I work with are hardworking, responsive and willing to experiment with new designs and ideas, unlike some of their American counterparts. I wish them a better future.

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