This is my first visit back to China in 20 years. The last visit was a vacation with my wife and her parents. This visit focuses on establishing exchange programs with first tier Chinese universities. Two of the cities that I visited during this trip are the same cities that I visited twenty years ago. Some things have stayed the same. More importantly, many things have changed dramatically.
Twenty years ago, among the cities we visited were Xi'an and Beijing. Xi'an is famous for its terra cotta soldiers, and I am pleased to report they are still spectacular the second time you see them. And there are even more soldiers visible today together with reconstructed chariots, acrobats, an administrative bunker and many of the trappings an emperor would want for eternal life.
Beijing, a city of 20 million, of course houses the Great Wall courtesy of the same emperor who ordered the building of the terra cotta army. Also totally spectacular. Both cities have many more important historical places and artifacts. Even though I didn't have the time on this trip to revisit most of them, they vividly demonstrate the long term important history of China, a country that is not only a great power today but also has a history of greatness.
Twenty years ago, the China I visited was clearly a still developing nation struggling to move forward. The China I visited now is an economic super power with cities that have been transformed with massive and still ongoing construction. Xi'an even more than Beijing has been totally transformed. A really dull city with important artifacts and an important history has become a vibrant fashionable youth oriented city that exudes energy.
But not every change is positive. Traffic, especially in Beijing, is a tremendous challenge. Roads are clogged with cars where twenty years ago bicycles were still dominant. Fashionable stores are plentiful now and shopping malls are readily available. But many of the brands are the same brands I see every day in New York. Globalization has also led to homogenization. Teens look exactly as they look almost all over (except for the umbrellas carried by young women to protect them from the sun). And cars are also now virtually identical as auto manufacturers create cars for a world market. iPhones are also visible all over and I enjoyed going to Häagen-Dazs when I was in the mood for ice cream. I know this homogenization is more efficient economically, and as an economist, I recognize the importance of this efficiency but I don't necessarily like.
I loved being in China twenty years ago and I am glad to be back cultivating exchange programs. And now when I say that I am right at home in China, it isn't only that I am comfortable; many things are exactly the same as they are at home and I for one miss some of the differences.