Friday, June 30, 2006

Dispatch from China: Wuhan in the Heat

I have a moment to catch my breath in the back room of Wendy's grandparents' apartment nestled on the campus of Wuhan University. Sitting underneath an air conditioner that spits out misty coolness into the room in which I am sitting, I am trying to avoid the 40 degrees Celsius (roughly 108 degrees Farenheit) heat and stifling humidity that clings to everything that finds itself outside. The body becomes infused with sweat and stickiness after days of this condition and acquires a slight immunity to the resulting discomfort upon a few days of acclimation; there are not blast furnaces of central air conditioners firing up billows of cool air into buildings. What one finds in various buildings and residences are relatively lightweight units dotting walls around various rooms where foot traffic is most dense, neatly dispersing cool air as necessary with a lilting hum of efficiency; I sit in such an environment collecting a few thoughts.

What I have discovered in my brief time in China is a country that the world has failed to fully appreciate in its ascendence to global prominence. Over the past thirty years, China has opened its doors with policies followed by the governing communist party to offer a new kind of economic program - call it a capitalist head with a socialist heart. From what I have seen in a few days in Wuhan as well as a quick trip out to Xi'an to see the Terra Cotta Army, it seems to be working; as far as I can tell, there is nothing but progress and growth and optimism. If I compare this trip to a brief sojourn that I had to Delhi and northern India in 2004, China is definitely a big step ahead in terms of infrastructure, accomodations, general development, and overall wealth. As far as I am concerned, China is already "developed" and competitive with the best that the G7 economies has to offer.

That being said, some interesting notions come to mind. China has reached its current levels of economic activity from a small base back in the 1970's, meaning that every doubling of GDP over that period has come from a slight starting point, albeit increasingly bigger in these days after such a period of sustained growth. Now China has a full head of steam, which will make the next 10-15 years of sustained growth more challenging in reaching the same levels.

But growth brings along other complications, namely the vibrancy and chaos of markets that lead to growth. This chaos is tied up with notions of freedom and transparency which indirectly lead to regulated market activity and price-setting - but also information that leads to disruption that spurs the future growth opportunities. This all tends to occur within investment and boom-bust cycles that typically follow a peak-valley curve, oscillating through time as the economy trajects upward. Considering these dynamics, China seems poised somewhere along the peak-valley continuum as perhaps its own greatest ally and worst enemy in itself, depending on the state of the government.

Sitting in this air-conditioned room in Wuhan today, it appears that China is its greatest ally - notwithstanding reports regarding human rights, political dissent, and other nuances of societal friction; you can see this clearly when compared against seeming peers such as India and Russia. But with all the optimism and aspiration that I feel here (you can see it in the billboards, modish branding efforts, and general feel of shopping districts and family gatherings), there is an unknown point where the potential ruptures that I listed above will come to bear. In the meantime, it is literally and figuratively hot here - and nowhere more than Wuhan. I will bask in the scaling temperatures as much as I can bear to get a better sense of what today's China is all about.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Go East

Finally, I am heading to China. Of all the countries that I had recently been able to visit (thus crossing off my "to-do" list) - India, Korea, Russia - I had still not visited the country with the biggest myths of them all. Until now.

After meeting my girlfriend 1.5 years ago, I figured at some point that I would make it back to her homeland. Wendy was born in Wuhan in the Hubei province of China and lived there for the first 7 years of her life; now, we are going back to visit her family, the majority of whom stayed behind to witness firsthand the economic miracle that the country has experienced ever since the Open Door Policy of the 1970's turned the economy towards quasi-capitalism. It will be my first experience of this country whose breathless media reports shroud it in industry and mystery.


Studying last year at IMD, I was constantly reminded of the economic growth that the Asia Pacific region had been experiencing firsthand over the last decade - and in particular, China. With estimates of 5-8% annual growth into the forseeable future, the prosperity that was hauling millions of people into the middle class on a yearly basis was just beginning. The counsel our professors gave us, being a global business school, was to go east and join in the greatest prosperity of our time. I played with the notion for a quick moment before heading back to the US. Still, the idea lingered from last year...

So, with tourist bags in tow, I figured it was time to experience it firsthand. With all the wide-eyed wonder of a child's first experiences, I will go and discover Wendy's homeland through the eyes of the modern Chinese. From Wuhan to X'ian (the first imperial capital of China) to today's capital of Beijing, I hope to put those breathless media reports into context. Go east, I shall, for a couple weeks of myth-busting.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Connected

I should have known that at some point I would be "found" online. Over the past few months, friends far and wide have showed up again through the miracle of the internet, finding various tidbits online of my comings and goings over the last couple of years. Granted, I have not been all that diligent in getting back to everyone - I'll blame my own work ethic in too many hours at the offic and dealing with the loss of personal time and the gain of a wonderful girlfriend - but I have appreciated the discovery of each person along the way.

In this brave new world (I seem to hear this more often these days - would Mssr. Huxley be smug in his grave?), we can run only so far as our access to the internet allows. Perhaps the future will bring us closer together - going forward, it seems that we will all be connected.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

World Cup Fever

I suppose that I am somewhat lonely in the US. Sitting on my couch and watching the climactic finish to the Germany-Poland match with my girlfriend, I had a strange tingling sensation at the nape of my neck - and no, it was not the touch of my girlfriend. It was the harrowing experience of watching two shots go off the cross-bar in the final minutes, punctuated by an offsides call against the Germans who were desperate for a goal to break the 0-0 tie. After 90+ minutes of action, finally a strike broke through from substitute Oliver Neuville, whose well-footed sliding kick made all the difference in the World Cup for Germany.

Captivated by the action in Germany's first round victory, I was engulfed a world so far away from where I was sitting, far away from my day-to-day life outside of Washington DC. Not so long ago, I was close to the action, living in the middle of Europe and engaged in the global discussions that surrounded what the rest of the world was talking about. Now, I am engaged in a quasi-insular American life, driving to work with NPR turned on and turned off by the machinations of senatorial proceedings in the Capitol building within the Beltway.

Still, I am connected, even if it is just through the television. And although I cannot share my excitement with many other people, by virtue of the fact that my workplace is about as American as it gets and far removed from the world's greatest sporting event, I can celebrate the joy with everyone else outside of the US of the world's best players vying for supremacy. I am caught up in the great art of this game called futbol, and I have World Cup fever.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Imagine Technology

As I work in wireless and spend my days exploring the potential of new applications and services for a virtual mobile world, I am learning to stay up on new developments in technology. One of these areas is the concept of "always-connected" applications that give you the ability to be in touch with others from almost anywhere on any device. Case in point: I am testing the posting of blog entries from my email application. I will have no idea if this makes it to the pervasive OpenRoadworks blog or not, but presumably it will end up there with more conventional posts. Also, in the process, I should be receiving the same posting to my mobile phone where I can read anything that I post moving forward wherever I might be with my phone.

Imagine that - always being connected to everyone and everything (including yourself, for that matter) wherever you might be. Imagine life with these new tools - imagine technology.

Friday, June 02, 2006

What Days May Come

Tonight, the muggy air of the DC outskirts where I live is charged with the clean scent of nitrogen trails from the lightning bolts that earlier sparked through the sky. As the night blossoms into an envelope of hanging humidity, I tread lightly from my apartment to the common rubbish bin; my steps bring struggle as suck in this air. In that moment, I am transported in mind to thinking about my loved ones who are far away from here as well as friends that are even further scattered across the globe. Here am I, wonting to reach out again to a life that I once lived and once struggled through in making sense of the kaleidoscope of experiences rushing past me. Now, I am domesticated and contented with the knowledge that I have what I want and know what I need.

Yet something tells me that this is a temporal experience, a fitting segue between the life I used to lead and the life that lays ahead. Just like this humid envelope engulfs my senses, I am also choked by the lethargy of this moment and subdued from fighting the next great fight of life. Dramatic, I know - but hyperbole is warranted as I try to scrape the cobwebs away from dreams that lie dormant and waiting for my curiosity and attention. I can use my next great trip to China in a few weeks as wake-up call to emerge from this night into the days of summer's imminent promise of searing heat and bold colors. What days may come when such moments carry dreams again.