October 23, 2009
I had a Warholian moment in Beijing today. It’s my first stop on a pretty long business trip that will take me from here to Kuala Lumpur for a golf industry conference, then to Calcutta chasing business, then on to Rome to look at possibly sites for golf courses and to see my good friend, Luca Valerio, who built the first “American” style golf course in Italy and is now advising various factions in the Italian development world on golf and tourism.
Anyway, I met an American friend for coffee the morning after I had arrived in Beijing, flying in from Narita near midnight. He had a copy of the Wednesday edition of the Global Times, published in Beijing, one of two official English language newspapers published by the Chinese government.
Here’s what Wikipedia says about the Global Times:
“Established first as a Chinese language publication in 1993, an English language version was launched on April 20, 2009 as part of a Chinese campaign costing 45 billion yuan ($6.6 billion) to compete with overseas media.
This business model suggests that if he ever leaves publishing, Mr. Hu could may well have a future in the golf industry, with his insouciant attitude toward losing money.
So my friend, Kirk, hands me his copy of the Global Times and points to the right hand column on page 7, a Lifestyle/Fitness piece by Tong Ting entitled “China tees up for 2016.” All of us in the golf business are acutely aware of the importance of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, because it’s about the only good news the golf business has heard in the last two years. Jim Litke of the AP interviewed me for a piece on the global significance of golf getting into the Olympics, and Ms Ting culled a juicy quote that referenced China, to wit:
“’When you travel across China, you see basketball courts and soccer fields everywhere, because they are now Olympic sports. Now countries like China and India will use the Tiger Woods model—stressing things like his fitness and dedication—and change the perception that it’s a non-athletic hobby for rich people,’ said John Strawn, the president of Hills/Forrest, a golf architecture and design firm that has completed projects in over 20 countries, in an interview with the Associated Press.”
So there I was, having coffee in the Crown Plaza hotel about fifteen minutes by foot from Tiananmen Square, and reading my own words in a Chinese newspaper. Kirk said this would have a big effect on potential Chinese clients, “proving” that I am in fact a world-renowned expert in golf design and development.
I have always read the China Daily with some delight when I am in China, not because of its “news,” which adheres to the party line and is predictable, but because of its miscellany, called “From widely read Chinese media,” which lead with headlines such as:
Woman lies flat on road after quarrel with lover, from the Qianjiang Evening News. �
The story in full reads:
‘A woman laid down on a busy crossing in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, for more than half an hour after a fight with her boyfriend on Sunday.
The woman got up from the middle of the road only after her boyfriend apologized.”
Now this is a newspaper read almost exclusively by foreigners, and we have to take it on faith that these stories were in fact printed in regional papers. But it makes us wonder, what’s important to know about to the average Chinese person?
Here’s another example, headline in bold with the entire story following:
“Drunk biker imagines tree on road, falls in canal
A heavily intoxicated biker rode into a dirty canal after hallucinating there was a tree in the middle of the road in Tianjin municipality last week.
The man said he was only trying to avoid a crashing into the tree when he swerved and fell into the canal.
He was pulled out by nearby residents who heard him scream for help.”
Now I think I know what happened to Jack Handy, who used to write for Saturday Night Live. He’s editing the most important English-language newspaper in China.
There are important issues of public policy in China—resource management, environmental stresses, hundreds of millions of people still living in poverty. But those damn trees in the middle of the road!
China is now the biggest car market in the world—over a million vehicles sold in July, more than in the USA, which has been the world’s automensch for nearly a century. 1,500 new cars are sold in Beijing every day, most to novice drivers who are immediately put onto the road system in front of my taxi. I have yet to take a cab ride in Beijing without seeing at least one accident, often involving a car and a truck or a car and a motorcycle, which speaks to the principle at work here: small challenges big. Any mode of transportation in a Chinese city is a test of wills. After all, this country is officially committed to equality—I mean, it’s a communist country. But of course they made a different deal from the one prevailing in the US: freedom to pursue economic gain as long as you don’t challenge the party’s authority. Our hobby is more or less the opposite: denigrating the government, and for that right we’re willing to practice transferring wealth up—Wall Street takes the risk, the people endure the downside. Capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich. The culture wars are a perfect cover for this dodge. Keep the folks mad at all those grasping politicians while the money, unlike water, flows up.
It’s impossible not to appreciate the vigor and vitality of the Chinese people. America and China have so little in common, and yet for an American the Chinese—inheritors of the world’s longest continuous high civilization, as opposed to the “new” American—have a familiar liveliness. I rode in a taxi today whose driver was listening to a western classical music station. When we stopped at a traffic light I give him a wordless thumbs-up. It was nice listening to familiar, serene melodies amidst the mad thrum of Beijing traffic. Otherwise we could not communicate, a situation that I always find very distressing. I mean, I talk to people on elevators. Spending a half hour in a car with someone I can’t talk to is distressing to me. I want to know, where did you come from? Did you grow up in Beijing, or did you come from the countryside in search of a better life? Why is it so hard for you to find your way around this city? (I always have the hotel translate the addresses of the places where I am going, but it is always a long discussion first, and very often I have to call once or twice and hand the phone to the driver for someone where I am going to act like an air-traffic controller and guide him in.)
So I don’t know China at all, but I love its mad energy. My hotel in Beijing is near the center of the city, and along a famous pedestrian shopping street, and in the early evening as I took a stroll, there were countless pods of tourists, all in identical bright hats, following the flags of their guides in obedient good cheer. These were not foreign tourists, but Chinese people, from the countryside by the look of them, visiting the grand capital, posing for pictures, smiling at their good fortune in being at the vital center of the celestial city. I’m happy to be here, too.
More tomorrow, God willing….