First impressions from the Middle Kingdom

First impressions from the Middle Kingdom

First impressions from the Middle Kingdom Nope, I have not smoked anything to make me feel like I am in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Zhongguo, which means Middle/Central State and is often translated as Middle/Central Kingdom, is the most common Sinitic name for the country I arrived on Friday.

I am here to attend my friend Umut and his Turkish-Palestinian-Jordanian fiancée’s wedding. They are both pursuing a Ph.D., Umut in international relations at Peking University, Aniseh in nuclear physics in Tsinghua University. Umut has arranged some serious sightseeing before and after the wedding on Aug. 1. I will have detailed observations about China’s economy in the next couple of columns, but I wanted to share my impressions after my first 24 hours.

I actually got my first look at China two days before I set foot in the country. “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” which I caught two days before my flight, is probably the worst movie I have seen in years.
It is also on its way to beating “Avatar” to become the all-time top-grossing movie at the Chinese box office. I am suspicious it owes its success in China to the fact that it was partly shot there, depicts the Chinese government much better than the CIA and casts two Chinese stars in minor roles. It probably also owes its decent IMDb score, which duped me into seeing it, to Chinese viewers.

I am staying in Haidian, an upper-middle class suburban area home to many universities and headquarters of domestic and foreign companies, such as Microsoft. The city with narrow streets and cramped apartment buildings portrayed in the movie is nothing like what I’ve seen in my first full day in Beijing on Saturday. Haidian is characterized by wide roads and sidewalks as well as many shopping malls. Sound familiar? And by the way, I found out in a mall that alla turca is also alla sina, at least in toilets.

As in Turkey (and unlike in other BRICS such as Brazil or South Africa), the first-time visitor is bound to be impressed by the infrastructure. Umut told me that the building boom started in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. Only two of the metro’s 20 lines currently in service were operational in 2002. But it has not lost pace: Nearly as many new lines are planned in the next six years.

Most Chinese still never go to church, as ping pong player (and gridiron football star, Việt Nam veteran, entrepreneur, investor, inventor and above all philosopher) Forrest Gump told John Lennon nearly four decades ago, but it is not true anymore that “people hardly got nothing at all.” On the contrary, I was surprised by the abundance of brand-new luxury cars. However, different from Turks, the Chinese save a lot. China has the highest savings rate in the world, whereas a lack of savings is Turkey’s Achilles’ heel.

First impressions from the Middle Kingdom

Another similarity to Turkey is the prevalence of corruption in the upper echelons of government. However, unlike Turks, they seem determined to eradicate graft. I guess it makes a difference when the president or prime minister is not under suspicion.