Beijing Diary - Part 4
By Bill Moore
Zhao Shan has to be one of the most fortunate men in all China because he 'owns' a piece of the Great Wall.
Now, of course, you can't actually own property in the People's Republic, not yet, at least. But what my host during my most recent trip to Beijing does have is pretty much the next best thing. But let me first tell you a little about the 47-year-old, Beijing-born, US-educated Zhao.
I didn't actually get to meet the spare, youthful entrepreneur until the evening after my arrival in the capital city. He was convalescing from painful sinus surgery. What had begun as a mild head cold had, in Beijing's polluted environs, deteriorated into a chronic sinus infection that required surgery, just three days before I was slated to arrive.
He was recovering at his parents apartment, just a block from the hospital in central Beijing. Although he was clearly still experiencing some discomfort, he graciously offered to take me out to dinner with his finance, Shen Limei and Eddy Lai, his VP for marketing and finance.
They took me to another of their favorite Chinese restaurants near the heart of the city, this one specializing in Manchurian-style cuisine. Each of us was provided with a small cooper cooking pot filled with hot water and heated by a small can of Steno. You would boil your strips of meat in the cooker and then dip them in various sauces. It was delicious.
After dinner we walked along the river that runs through the middle of the city. It was a wonderfully memorable experience, especially as I got to know Shan better.
I should pause here a moment and explain something about Chinese names that has always confused me. In China, the family name is always given first. Thus, Zhao is his family name and Shan is his given name. However, in Eddie Lai's case, he chose to retain his western-style name.
One other thing that I found fascinating is the Chinese name for the United States. They use Chinese sounds to pronounce the word "America." So they say, "Meiguo", which when broken into its two Chinese characters means "beautiful country."
Wednesday, Eddie and I drove outside the city to see Beijing Institute of Technology's prototype electric bus. Later we'd have lunch in one of the Institute's faculty dinning rooms. We'd visit the lab that was testing Beijing Continental's lithium ion batteries and wrap up the day with a small, but very special dinner in my honor at the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology.
Zhao Shan continued his slow recovery, but by Thursday he was ready to show me the Great Wall.
That morning CNN's Asia news channel forecast overcast skies and developing drizzle all through the day. It didn't seem the best day for a trip to the Wall, but it was the only time we had available. Originally, I'd been scheduled to be interviewed on Chinese television Thursday night, but was re-slotted for Friday evening, my last night in the city. We'd have to make the trip on Thursday or miss the Wall entirely. As it would turn out, we couldn't have asked for better weather, as I would come to shortly appreciate.
Zhao Shan and Eddie Lai picked me up at my hotel a little after 10 am. They told me it would take a hour and a half to get to the Wall. We merged unto the Third Ring Road going north and quickly exited unto the 8-lane expressway that links Beijing to its international airport about 12 miles northeast of the city.
As Zhao drove north, we chatted about property rights in China. Basically, there is no individually-owned property anywhere in the country. Farmers, Shan explained, lease their land, paying an annual rental. The same goes for city dwellers and even giant corporations.
For both Zhao and Lai, this is one of last remaining vestiges of the Communist system that needs to be revised. Since both are US-educated (Zhao holds a MS in economics, Lai an MBA), they appreciate the opportunities private land ownership can offer. Yet, there seems little chance this holdover will be changed anytime soon.
We turned off the airport expressway and wound our way through a developing suburb and past a new gated community where two-story, stucco and tile-roofed homes looked like they would have fit in anywhere in Southern California, Arizona or central Florida.
We skirted the outer boundary of the airport grounds and eventually joined a four land highway that led north towards the distant mountains.
Zhao shared a little about his background. He had grown up in Beijing and attended university here. When China normalized its relations with the West, he was one of the first group of students to study in America, eventually getting his MBA from the University of Idaho in Moscow, just thirty miles from my wife's home town.
He spent a total of eight years living in the States, spending several years in China between his two stays. He returned home again in 1997 to seek his fortune in the new China.
His first business endeavor was Beijing Continental Gas company, which he founded to install residential natural gas service in the city, a large part of which is heated by coal or district heating. The company, which has since merged with a Hong Kong firm, has some 30,000 customers.
In 2000, Zhao and his partner Yang Dongping started Beijing Continental Battery to develop lithium ion batteries, initially for electric buses that will see service in the 2008 Summer Olympics. The company currently has some 120 employees and is ramping up for full scale production within the next 18 months.
But somewhere along the way of this remarkable personal journey, Zhao Shan also took an interest in real estate management, a pursuit that would lead to a secluded and verdant valley hidden among the dragon's teeth of mountains north of Beijing.
It began to mist as we drove through a sprawling resort area for the masses of the capital and then turned off the main highway onto a two lane macadam road that lead up into the hills. As we wound our way through a narrow valley, we passed under a two-tiered, arched aqueduct that looked straight out of ancient Roman Italy. To our left was a gently flowing, boulder-strewn stream, along sections of which the locals had built numerous fish farms for raising pale gray sturgeon and brightly speckled American rainbow trout. At that moment, we could have been in mountains of Pennsylvania or Montana.
We drove deeper into the valley, stopping for 20 minutes as road crews resurfaced the highway ahead of us. Here we also picked up Xiangdong Li, Zhao Shan's local property manager. He looked distinctly Mongolian with a warm and reassuring smile. Shan told me Li had been raised in the country, but spent a good part of his life in Beijing. Now he was back overseeing Shan's property business and loving every minute of it. He got along well with the local farmers, I was told.
As we were waved through the construction zone, we passed peasants on well-worn bicycles with long bamboo poles and gunny sacks full of chestnuts precariously over their rear wheels. They were harvesting the crop from the trees that lined the road. A small gray donkey also carried four of the bulging sacks. I should also note that most bicycles in China look well worn. Unlike America where they are use infrequently for recreation, the bicycle is the main means of transportation here, and the slim bodies of these people show its done them no harm.
Shortly after noon, we pulled off the road and into a gravel parking lot of a wayside restaurant built on a narrow patch of ground between the road and the stream. There was a damp chill in the air so the hot tea the waitress brought us was much appreciated. So too was the little bottle of liquor that followed. We ate outside under a thatched canopy. Eddie and Shan debated what to order, ending up with six or seven different dishes including rainbow trout. As usual we all shared the meal. By this time I was getting fairly adept at chop sticks, which allow you to politely reach across the table while taking only modest amounts of food at a time. It is interesting to compare Western and Chinese culture in this context.
We in the west have this ritual of passing food around the table, left to right, of course, each person taking what they want and putting it on their own plate before passing it on. Here we think it impolite to reach for something.
The Chinese, however, find nothing objectionable about this. Instead everyone shares from the common meal. If you have an individual plate, it is nothing more than a saucer on which you might pour a hot sauce for flavoring that one piece of food. When you want more, you simply use the decorum of the long, but delicate chop stick. It really is a delightful way to eat that also happens to bind people closer together.
We polished off the rest of the beer, downed the last of the fire-in-the-belly liquor -- Shan abstained because he was driving and still on antibiotics -- picked the trout clean and paid our bill.
Soon we were winding up a series of switch backs towards a narrow pass over the mountains. Shan explained that the road we were on had been built with Chinese forced labor by the Japanese during the Second World War. The Chinese, I was discovering, have long memories.
As we crested the ridge and dropped down the other side, we entered a remote valley of scattered farming communes. The view was breathtaking. Veils of clouds shrouded nearby mountain slopes, across the top of which were visible segments of the Great Wall. My pulse quickened.
I had been to the "tourist" part of the Wall at the Badaling Pass northwest of Beijing in 1999. Here the Chinese government had taken great pains to "restore" the wall for the millions of Chinese and foreign tourists who come every year to see this monument to classic military/government boondoggles, something I would soon come to appreciate more than I could ever have imagined.
The Great Wall is actually a series of walls built by various ducal warlords over two thousand years ago. These independent military structures would eventually be consolidated into a single defensive complex during the Qin Dynasty around 200 BC. Over the course of Chinese history it would be revamped and expanded to the point it stretched some 6,700 km from the desert in the far West to the Yellow Sea coast in the East. What most tourist see today are the works of the Ming Dynasty in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
We meandered through the valley, the bottom of which was planted with ripening fields sweet corn. I hadn't expected to see this fixture of middle America in the heart of a remote valley in Northern China, but then the climates are similar. We entered the edge of tiny village, crossed a concrete bridge and turned left up a gravel road. We were entering Shan's valley, some 16 square kilometers of bottom land encompassed by steep granite cliffs, along the top of which are 22 kilometers of the Great Wall of China.
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