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We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Airplanes, our first look at Beijing


We saw:  Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Peking Duck


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Great Wall, rickshaw ride, Beijing hutong


We saw:  Beijing school, Big Wild Goose Pagoda


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  Terracotta Warriors, Shaanxi Museum


We saw:  World Financial Center, downtown Shanghai


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Jade Buddha Temple, the Bund, Chinatown


We saw:  Airports ... and too much of the Shanghai tarmac

In China, they have Rolex and 'special price for you'

Debi turned the mahogany-colored laughing Buddha upside down, pointed to the little hole in its base and asked me disapprovingly, "How much were you going to pay for this?"

I had talked down the proprietor of this little shop in Shanghai's A.P. Plaza — known colloquially as the Knock-Off Market — to 60 yuan, and he was going to throw in a small reclining Buddha, too. But now Debi had joined in the negotiations.

Her brow furrowed, and the corner of her mouth turned down. "This thing isn't even made of wood," she said, turning to the proprietor. "This is resin."

Unimpressed by neither his Buddha nor my bargaining prowess, Debi lead me slinking out of the shop. We headed for a kiosk down the way, where Debi did the talking and I purchased two large, faux-jade Buddhas for 10 yuan less than I would have paid for inferior goods in the other shop.

When I passed the proprietor again on our way back to meet our tour group, he looked at me as if I had just shot his puppy, served it to him on a plate and told him it was beef broccoli.

All I could do is shrug.

After seven days in China, one thing was clear: I do not drive a hard bargain. This too was abundantly clear: This a big problem in a country where every price is negotiable and every sight-seeing experience ends with a sales pitch.


To be clear, some goods in China bear price tags. They indicate how much an item will cost someone too stupid to bargain. Call it a tax on the ignorant.

If you haggle a bit, you'll discover there also is what the vendors call "a special price for you." Keep at it, and you can talk them down to the "I'm-walking-away-now-because-your-junk-is-over-priced" price. The only place this system seemed not to apply is Shanghai's swanky Nanjing Road, where trying to haggle is as stupid as paying the sticker price in the Knock-Off Market. Nanjing Road is more akin to Madison Avenue than Skid Row.

Say this about most places you go in China (except a hospital): If you go there expecting to stand in Soviet-style bread lines, dodge Yugos as you cross the street and never see a building taller than two stories, well, you're in for a shock. Perhaps the People's Republic was once like this. I cannot say. But I will tell you that today, China's urban centers are one giant construction zone, where capitalism swamps ancient ways and where streets throb with entrepreneurial zeal.

China, my friends, is open for business.

Over the past 30 years, China's has been one of the world's fastest-growing economies. That's in no small part because statesman Deng Xiaoping ushered in market reforms, allowed limited private competition and dismantled the commune farming system. And when he said (reputedly, anyway), "To be rich is glorious," he might as well have said, "Gentlemen, start your engines." The Chinese are hellbent on catching up after decades of a command economy and centuries of imperial and colonial rule.

This is why you cannot step off a tour bus without hearing the familiar serenade, "Rolex? Rolex? You want Rolex?"

Of course, "Rolex" is a loose application of the term. China is in too big of a hurry to be impeded by trifles such as copyright and patent law. "Buyer beware" is the new national motto.

And I learned it the hard way.

My first major purchase was from a street vendor in the Summer Palace, who showed me a Chairman Mao wrist watch with an arm that waved in sync with the second hand. A treasure such as this was not likely to appear before me again (pffft; only every third step!), and I was covetous. Now, I'm no rube. I knew to talk down the price. I just had no idea how much to talk it down.

Moreover, I feared offending this young man, who clearly needed the money, and didn't want to give Americans a bad name with an impolite, low-ball offer. So after a moment of deliberation, I offered the equivalent of $15 American, and for all of five seconds, he humored me by pretending that was still too low. Then, he held out his hand and asked for my money.

Predictably, the watch stopped running before we had even returned to the tour bus. That's OK — I expected as much and bought it purely for the novelty. But before I was back in the States, I would discover two of the kids on our trip scored identical Chairman Mao watches for 20 yuan each, or about $3.

This is a scenario that would play itself out all over China. At the Great Wall the next day, I paid twice as much as my wife for a T-shirt purchased from the same vendor. I also dropped $150 at the state-run pearl factory, then watched hard-bargaining high school students cart out twice as much loot for half the price.

So the mahogany-Buddha incident was only the topper to my week of shopping humiliation.

China's street vendors might be emblematic of the nation's newfound entrepreneurial spirit, but American knees do not knock because Wei Long is hawking imitation Nikes at A.P. Plaza. Rather, there are 1.3 billion Chinese, and the Communist Party, the government and a small but formidable cadre of businessmen are willing to pay 1.299 billion of them pennies for work that would fetch a dollar in the United States.

So China has cheap labor going for it.

And an utter disregard for environmental protection.

Not to mention a zest for inflating the yuan and manipulating world currency markets.

Right now, some of my smart-ass leftist friends — armed with a semester's worth of high school economics in most cases — are wearing smirks above their Che Guevara T-shirts and mumbling to themselves, "The Chinese sound a lot like the capitalist pigs in this country." I'll grant them this: Western industrialists, including many in the United States, have engaged in such ruinous practices, too. However, I also will point out that capitalism is not the source of China's poverty, nor its food and water shortages. Those things not only existed but were clearly worse when the People's Republic was dogmatically communist. I also will point to Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe and argue the maniacal pursuit of industrialization as a means to national prestige and securing one-party rule are more predictive of environmental degradation than a free-market economy.

For all of China's warts — and there are many of them — an infusion of capitalism has put chickens in pots, money in banks and Volkswagens in garages. For that matter, it has put garages on those houses.

Just not all of them.

Ironically, capitalism also has kept communists in power.

China might have boiled over in 1989 when the government sent its tanks into Tiananmen Square to crush student protesters there. But you could argue that what followed — economic prosperity, fueled in no small part by the Clinton Administration's decision to restore China's most-favored-nation status — was a better relief valve for growing discontent than any show of force.

Moreover, Chinese commies stopped being so damn communist where economic matters were concerned and started heeding another well-known Deng quote: "It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice."

Not that the Communist Party has let all of this reform go to its head. The People's Republic still does repression exceptionally well. Witness its disappearing dissidents.

This makes modern China difficult to peg. It is neither the shining city on the hill, nor the worker's paradise.

"In China, we have new policy," said our tour director, Robert, in reply to some probing question or another. He must have said this a bazillion times.

Evidently, China changes its mind a lot.

The nation's barbarous one-child policy — and the abortion and infanticide it suborns — is still in effect. However, it has been relaxed in some provinces, and exempted are non-Han minorities, city-dwellers, those who have had children abroad, parents of the severely disabled and only-children who marry.

Similarly, China embraced the automobile, but in cities with tens of millions of people, when even a fraction of the population purchased them, traffic became a huge problem. In Beijing, the solution was to ban some automobiles from its streets — you cannot drive on certain days, according to the last digit of your car's license plate number.

Farmers can now own land and use it as they see fit … that is, unless the government wants to run a highway across their cornfield or flood an entire valley with yet another hydroelectric dam. In such cases, the farmers might be equitably compensated for their losses. Then again, they might not be.

Constant policy shifts are anathema to free markets. Nobody knows what to plan for. (Incidentally, graft is one way for a businessman to buy cost certainty.)
China's urban areas, for instance, are now studded with expensive, high-rise apartments. Though modest by American standards, apparently there are some Chinese who can muster the $700,000 to purchase one. But it wasn't long before the government decided it didn't want people to have indefinite control of a commodity so valuable as a dwelling with its own bathroom. So in some areas of China, the new policy is to make people buy their homes all over again after 70 years — which means you don't really own your home at all; you simply have a really long lease on property you can't leave  free and clear to your heirs.

It is along such fault lines that the melding of "socialism with Chinese characteristics" is likely to fracture. Everyone in China seems preoccupied by the lust for wealth — from the "Rolex" peddler outside the Summer Palace, to the buttoned-down executive working the upper reaches of a Shanghai skyscraper.

But they'd be well-advised to hide their spoils.
The Communist Party is down with all this striving because economic progress glorifies the state, and money in pockets keeps peasants off the leaders' backs. But the state reserves the right to cut you off at the knees whenever it wishes.

After all, in China, they're always coming up with a new policy.

Stylish, no?

This elevator is faster than my car.

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