– In my third book released at the beginning of 2011, I predicted that China’s economic growth will continue, albeit at a slower pace (6-8% per annum), through 2030; and urged western multinationals to “Go (to China’s) West!” – where the bulk of China’s economic growth in the coming decades will be based.
– Over the past three decades, while based in the USA (1981-1992), Hong Kong (1993-1997), and Shanghai (1997-2013), I’ve traveled extensively throughout China, including many of China’s remotest corners. But never have I undertaken a trip focused entirely on China’s West.
– On July 2, I left Shanghai（上海市）for Xi’an（西安市） – eastern terminus of the Silk Road, capital of over a dozen of China’s dynasties since Zhou – dating back two and half millenium – and the gateway to western China. On July 30, I returned to Shanghai（上海市）. In between, I traveled through six provinces (and their equivalent): Shannxi（陕西省）, Gansu（甘肃省）, Qinghai（青海省）, Sichuan（四川省）, Yunnan（云南省）, and Guizhou（贵州省）; dozens of cities, counties, townships, and villages along the way; and conversed with many dozens of traveling companions, college students on summer vacation, recent college graduates, police officers, recent government retirees, restuarant and shop owners, tourist business operators, train conductors and bus drivers, motel operators, and other local residents, everywhere I went.
– From Xi’an（西安市）, I rode a train to Xining（西宁市）, Qinghai（青海省）, stopping at Longxi（陇西县） and Lanzhou（兰州市） on the way. From Xining（西宁市）, I went to Qinghai Lake（青海湖）, China’s largest salt-water lake, and Taer Temple（塔尔寺）, one of the largest Tibetan centers of worship. I then back-tracked to Lanzhou（兰州市） and, from there, continued the rest of my trip on long-distance bus, first to Xiahe（夏河县）, where Labrang Temple（拉扑楞寺） – site of some of the recent reported Tibetan self-immolations – is located, and from Xiahe（夏河县）, to Langmu Temple（郎木寺）. From Langmu Temple（郎木寺）, my next stop was Ruoergai（若尔盖县）, Sichuan（四川省）, followed by Maerkang（马尔康县）, Seda（色达县）, Luhuo（炉霍县）, Xinduchiao（新都桥镇）, Litang（理塘县）, and Daocheng（稻城县）. This vast territory I covered between Xiahe（夏河县） and Daocheng（稻城县） is all “Tibetan country.” From Daocheng（稻城县）, Sichuan（四川省）, I rode a bus for thirteen hours to reach Shangrila（香格里拉县）, Yunnan（云南省）. From Shangrila（香格里拉县）, I bused to Lijiang（丽江市） and, from there, rode a train to Kunming（昆明市）, Yunnan(云南省); followed by Anshun（安顺市）, Guiyang（贵阳市）, Kaili（凯里市）, and Xijiang（西江镇） of Guizhou（贵州省）.My footprint is shown in the figure below.
II. TRIP OBJECTIVES
A. To address a few of my own ECONOMIC questions facing China: Can China sustain 6-8% of GDP growth through 2030, while pressing for major economic, and financial, structural reforms in the rest of this decade? Can China’s West become a, if not the, lead engine behind this growth? Can China gradually reduce the (huge) economic gap between the East and the West, and between Urban and Rural China?
B. To address a few of my own POLITICAL questions facing China: Will ethnic unrest, particularly in light of dozens of reported self immolations in the past two years by Tibetans in southern Gansu（甘肃南部） and northern Sichuan（四川北部）, create a headwind strong enough to disrupt China’s future economic development, even social stability?
C. To enjoy some of China’s most fascinating cultural/historic relics, and pristine natural beauties; and to assess the extent of environmental damage done in recent decades due to economic development, and the chance of recovery.
D. To visit the family of a young lady who was born into poverty, and grew up in a peasant family in southeastern Gansu（甘肃东南部）. Through her own talents and hard work, she is now pursuing graduate education in Shanghai Tongji Graduate School of Engineering Management. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing her since her first arrival to Shanghai Tongji University in the fall of 2008 and, since then, coaching her and watching her grow into a leading member of her university class.
III. FACTS AND CONCLUSIONS
A. ECONOMICS. At the end of my month-long tour of western China, based on what I’ve seen with my own eyes, I concluded that western China will – in fact, has begun to – become a leading engine for China’s economic growth through 2030.
– Nearly everywhere I went, I saw construction projects of many varieties: apartment buildings, tunnels, roadways, railways, rail stations, bus terminals, airports. Many of these construction projects are intended to build up transportation infrastructure, which are required for further economic developments. In some of the cities and counties, entirely new zones – constructions of new and extended communities adjacent to an existing city, such as the western zone of the city of Xining（西宁市城西区） – are being created, no doubt as part of China’s overall grand scheme for urbanization in the coming decades.
– In the newly-built, western zone of Xining（西宁市城西区）, I saw dozens of new apartment buildings under construction, each of which stands thirty, maybe forty, stories high. I couldn’t help but to wonder: are these new apartment buildings Xining’s（西宁）version of China’s purported real estate bubble? I asked the tour operator who arranged my trip to Qinghai Lake（青海湖）, a recent immigrant from Shenyang（沈阳市）, Liaoning（辽宁省）. According to her, all of those apartment building units have been sold, many to Tibetan herdsmen, and women, who plan to spend only the winter season in their city dwellings in order to avoid the harsh winter on the high plateau.
– Speaking of infrastructure build-up, at almost every far corner I reached on this trip, my cell phone remained in operational mode. I find this fact astonishing. It took the Bell System – with which I served as a market research analyst back in the late 1970s in Bedminster, New Jersey – nearly one hundred years to reach “universal franchise.” It took China less than ten, a clear illustration of a late-comer’s competitive advantage! Taken together, these infrastructural investments are the necessary prerequisites to further economic development in western China, which is well on its way.
– In every city, county, township, and even village I passed through, I saw endless economic energy, vibrancy, and activities, day and night. In each provincial capital city: Xi’an（西安市）, Lanzhou（兰州市）, Xining（西宁市）, Chengdu（成都市）, Kunming（昆明市）, and Guiyang（贵阳市）, I saw commercial districts full of skyscrapers, each comparable to Shanghai（上海市）, Beijing（北京市）, or Shenzhen（深圳市）. The same can be observed in many of the lower-tiered cities and counties such as Longxi（陇西县）of Gansu（甘肃省）; Anshun（安顺市）, and Kaili（凯里市）, of Guizhou（贵州省） – one of China’s poorest provinces. Streets are full of shoppers nearly everywhere I went. In Guiyang（贵阳市）, provincial capital city of Guizhou（贵州省）, I was surprised to find Cartier, Gucci, Mont Blanc, and other international luxury brands.
– Almost every inter-city train and bus I took during this four-week period was full, or nearly full, indicating near-capacity flow of people. Ditto, my flight from Shanghai（上海市）to Xi’an（西安市） on July 2, and my return flight to Shanghai（上海市） from Guiyang（贵阳市） on July 30. Although there is no direct, proven correlation between the flow of people and the flow of goods, active flow of people is a good indication of exchange taking place, some of which are bound to be economic in nature. In addition, flow of people is an indication of exchange of ideas, and exposure to a world beyond the physical constraint of mountains and rivers, thereby opening up people’s sights, hopes, and aspirations for a brighter future, which might then lead to positive actions and programs for change, over time.
– In Daocheng（稻城县）, Sichuan（四川省）, I listened in on the conversation of a young couple, operators of a local hostel, with a guest. Both of them quit well-paying jobs in Chengdu（成都市）to pursue their entrepreneurial dream in this county seat surrounded by high mountains, blue sky, white cloud, and fresh air; gateway to Yading National Park（亚丁国家公园）. The young couple was discussing their plan for expansion, in anticipation of rising level of tourists after Yading National Park（亚丁国家公园）re-opens on August 1.
– With each train and bus ride, I deliberately chose to do so under broad daylight, so that I could observe, even from a distance, the physical appearance of each city, county, township, and small village of a few dozens, or hundreds, of dwellings – and the condition of fields surrounding them. Many, if not most, of those physical dwellings appear relatively new, of good size, and built with bricks within the past few years. Not at all tiny huts made of mud, which I’d anticipated to find in much of western China. Such physical appearance of economic prosperity within the farming communities along my path is especially apparent when farmers have converted from growing traditional crops such as wheat and corn, to growing fruits.
– As I crossed the provincial borders, one after another, I began to be awed not only by the energy level and volume of activities, but also by the size and the scale of each province, and the combined, sheer mass of close to thirty of them all across China, modelling after one another, cross- investing in each other, sharing knowledge, experience, material resources, and human talents with each other – all under one central government, with clearly-stated national goals and objectives. Come to think of it, maybe the rapid rise of China as a world economic force during the past three decades is not a “miracle” after all.
B. TIBETAN UNREST. I find the probability of Tibetan unrest becoming a significant source of social instability in China’s future to be extremely low.
– I was told, time and again, by proud Tibetan parents in Maerkang（马尔康县）, Xinduchiao（新都桥镇）, and Daocheng（稻城县）of their sons’, and daughters’, enrollment in various universities in Chengdu（成都市）, thus fulfilling every other Chinese parent’s dream since Confucius. These university students are studying business management, Chinese literature, foreign language, tourism, teaching, industrial craft, etc. – just like their Han peers. In fact, most of them sound like, some even look like, their Han peers. At least, I can not tell any difference. In other words, they are pursuing the same common dream as their Han counterparts: pursuit of happiness, owning their home, living in comfort, sending their son or daughter off to the best university, becoming a part of the great homogenizing, social stablization mechanism called “the middle class.”
– One thoughtful Tibetan young lady, a recent graduate of Sichuan Normal University（四川师范大学） in Chengdu（成都市）, whom I met at the tourist office of Zhuokeji Tusi’s（卓克基土司） ( head of a Tibetan tribe, dating back to the olden slave society ) Residence in Maerkang（马尔康县）, told me that those self-immolated Tibetans are, by and large, “poor and un-educated Tibetans who (foolishly) hope to become heros.” She also told me that, thanks to tourism, some of the local residents are able to generate “hundreds of thousands RMB per year of income per family.” In fact, many of them have completely given up farming and animal stocking as a source of their livelihood, in favor of restaurant, and bed-and-breakfast, operators.
– From Xinduchiao（新都桥镇）to Litang（理塘县）, I rode in a tightly-squeezed mini-bus with eight other passengers and a driver – all of whom Tibetan men – for eleven hours. I did not understand a word they said, but by the end of the bus ride, I came to know them – young and old – as a group of deeply religious, innocent, fun-loving, happy-singing group of people. I refuse to believe that any of them will choose to resort to devious, leave along violent, means to sabotage the Chinese government or, for that matter, their Han neighbors.
– The Chinese government, for decades, has gone out of its way to appease the Tibetan populations by raising their standard of living through economic incentives, and through special treatments such as extra credit at college entrance examinations for students of Tibetan descent. When these “soft” measures of appeasement and integration fail, immigration of the Hans in huge volume and, when necessary, military presence, are brought in. In Ruoergai（若尔盖县）, I was told that all internet access had been cut off for the past six months, in order to avoid pictures of self-immolations being widely circulated on-line. Nevertheless, I did see one of those pictures, shown to me by one of my younger co-passengers on the way to Litang（理塘县）.
To be fair, America has its own share of dissidents who choose to resort to violent means. Witness the Black Panter Movement and the ghetto riots in the streets of America during the 60s, the native American Indian revolts, the (tiny, but still, real) Puerto Rico independence movement, or the more recent Boston Marathon blast. When necessary, the American government uses extreme force to put down those instigators, as most governments would.
– Bottome line: due to Tibetan people’s good nature, and common human desire to seek a comfortable living; coupled with Chinese government hard at work on both soft measures of appeasement and, when needed, hard measures of suppression, Tibetan source of social instability in the future of China is highly improbable.
Not only is wide-spread Tibetan unrest inside China’s “Tibetan country” highly unlikely, in the end, I concluded that an independent Tibet（西藏） is not safe for the Tibetans, the Chinese, nor people in any of the surrounding countries – including India and Nepal. After touring the Zhuokeji Tusi’s（卓克基土司） Residence in Maerkang（马尔康县）, I realized that Buddhism as practiced by Tibetans has a number of different sects, far beyond the more commonly known differentiation between the “Red” and the “Yellow”. Da Lai, for example, is not the ultimate religious leader for all Tibetans, Far from it. As such, given the ultra importance of religion to the Tibetans, an independent Tibet（西藏） is likely to lead to a divided Tibet（西藏） which, in my opinion, is a less preferred alternative to the current scenario of, arguably, a peaceful Tibet（西藏） under China’s strong rule. At the same time, an independent Tibet（西藏） is likely to lead to the breakup of China, with far more disastrous regional, even global, consequences. Last time I counted, there are 16 countries which border China on all sides. In the unlikely event that China breaks up into chaos, the world will feel its impact.
Instead of an independent Tibet（西藏）, the future of Tibetans lies in the preservation of their traditional way of life while, at the same time, enabled to cross over into the 21st Century with comfort and ease. It’s a difficult balance for any minority ethnic group around the world. Already, in nearly every place I stayed overnight between Xiahe（夏河县）and Daocheng（稻城县）, Tibetan children have a choice of attending Tibetan schools, all the way up to senior high school, in which both Tibetan and Chinese languages are taught, with the majority of their teachers being Tibetans, instead of Hans. Still, the Chinese government can, and should, do more to help Tibetans preserve the essential elements of their heritage, beginning with their language, and their religion.
C. CULTURAL, NATURAL, AND ENVIRONMENTAL. China has as many awe-inspiring cultural, historic, and natural landmarks as any country I know. Sadly, due largely to the lack of environmental awareness among many of China’s citizens, littering literally follow the human footprint everywhere I went. Fortunately, since many of these remote corners remain largely “off the beaten path,” damage caused so far is not so severe as to be deemed irreversible. At least, not yet.
– I visited every provincial museum along my path, a total of six, and learned a lot from every single one of them, some more than others. In addition, I visited two imperial tombs in Xianyang（咸阳市）, near Xi’an（西安市）, one each dating back to Han, and Tang, Dynasty. In Qinghai（青海）Provincial Museum, I was surprised to find a small display section carved out in the name of Lin Zexu（林则徐）, a Qing Dynasty government official who burned British opium at Humen（虎门）, Guangdong（广东省）, which led to the First Opium War, and China’s century-long decline at the foot of western (and eastern) powers. One scroll written by Lin caught my eyes. Judging from the Taoist sentiment reflected in his phrases, I surmised that he must have written it during his year in exile in China’s then far-west. Nearly two hundred years later, I was still able to trace the strength of his character through his handwritings.
– At Xinduchiao（新都桥镇）, inside a small roadside restaurant, I learned from a few young men passing through town that, in recent years, every day during the summer, thousands of student cyclists take advantage of their summer vacation, and spend one month riding (one way) from Chongqing（重庆市）, Chengdu（成都市）, Kunming（昆明市）, Xining（西宁市）, etc. Their destination？Lhasa（拉萨市）, Tibet（西藏）. Their path is one of extreme hardship. On the day I traveled from Xinduchiao（新都桥镇） to Litang（理塘县）, I lost count of how many young cyclists, their entire face masked in order to avoid heavy dust stirred up by the stream upon stream of passenger cars and hauling trucks on Road 318. Each of them, young man and woman, peddling hard, up and down mountain dirt road, on their way to Lhasa（拉萨市）, a long way away. It reminded me of the long road ahead of China, in its pursuit of a dream, challenging, and inspiring at the same time.