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July 03, 2008

A quick trip to China

Today I leave for Beijing China, where I'll be giving a few lectures as part of the 2008 China / SFI Complex Systems Summer School (CSSS). It should be an interesting experience for many reasons. I'm also looking forward to seeing a few of the touristy sights, such as Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Great Wall, and the new Olympic pavilion.

Update 18 July 2008: My lecture notes are now online on the Beijing CSSS wiki here. I gave two lectures on the basics of complex networks, and one lecture on power laws in empirical data.

Update 18 July 2008: It's hard to summarize the overall impression I had of Beijing in particular, and China in general; but, I'll try. Beijing is a city bustling with life. A wide zone of feverish development and heavy air pollution (but not trash - the city was surprisingly clean except for the dingy-ness the heavy smog left on all surfaces), it's also a study of different aspects of Chinese society modernizing at different rates. Beijing is knocking down the traditional hutongs (the traditional, one or two story residential and light commercial buildings that used to blanket the Beijing landscape), often over the protests of their residents but not always, to build the skyscrapers and apartment towers of a modern, dense city. The exchange rate, and government policies, made taxis very affordable, and while riding around, I spotted both the ugly concrete towers as well as the beautiful glass and steel constructions that would look at home in Zurich or New York. There were also several buildings most notable for their striking architecture [1]; most of these are for the Olympics, but not all of them - some were simply upscale residential, office or hotel buildings.

It wasn't clear to me that the regular Beijinger was excited about the upcoming Olympics (starting in just three weeks), but certainly the government is. Olympic decorations and advertisements were everywhere, and the mascots (the five Fuwa) were ubiquitous. And yet, when I walked through the Olympic pavilion area, there was obviously still a tremendous amount of work left to be done. I'm told that Athens was even further behind schedule for the 2000 Olympics, so maybe it will all work out. The Olympic areas were also some of the places where the military presence was the strongest, with lots of fences and guards. Oddly, there was even a military installation (with tanks) just to the south of one of the sports complexes.

My favorite picture of the 300 odd that I took (many of which are now on my Flickr photostream) while bouncing around the city is of a man on a traditional bicycle yakking away on his cell phone. A lot of people still ride bicycles, but apparently cars are increasingly popular. Owning one is now a status symbol, as it used to be in America [2], and many Beijingers are taking to it with enthusiasm, even though the traffic is already terrible. I'm told that some American car makers are doing very well in the growing Chinese market, to the point that their recent growth was driven almost entirely by Chinese sales [3]. Designer goods that are fashionable in the West are also popular in Beijing, but surprisingly, they don't cost any less. So, a well-to-do Beijinger will spend $300 on a Coach purse even though it costs 2000 yuan, enough to buy a nice dinner every night for a month. Another interesting observation about Beijing is that most of the commercial stores (not the small businesses, but rather the larger enterprises) were overstaffed. At several restaurants, I noticed at least three or four times as many waitstaff as were necessary to actually run the place. I'd like to think this is indicative of the larger problem China faces with a burgeoning labor force, but who knows.


[1] Coincidentally, the NY Times put up an interactive graphic that discusses five of these, mostly built in prep for the Olympics. I saw all of them, from a distance, except for "Big Shorts" (the new national television building). The New Yorker also has a short piece about these buildings, and the Beijing skyline in general. I highly recommend both of these.

[2] Owning a car in the US is no longer enough to show everyone else that you're rich and know it. Now you have to drive a big car, preferably something like a Hummer or an FJ.

[3] Someone told me that Buick, of all brands, is very popular in China because it was the brand that the last Emperor favored.

posted July 3, 2008 11:09 AM in Travel | permalink