Beijing: May, 2012

Travelled to Beijing with the Asia Foundation and to meet again with my Chinese friends in FPSB-China.

First, I must acknowledge the great hospitality of my FPSB colleagues in China.  As before, a party of officials greeted Penelope and me at the still awe-inspiring new Beijing Capital Airport, handled our baggage and drove us to the hotel.  For the next several days, we were treated to car, driver (Mr. Wang), and guides/interpreters to make sure we had a great time and didn’t lose precious time in navigating Beijing’s sometimes horrifying traffic.  Many thanks, again!

May 19, 2012, Beijing.  My translator, at left

I had the opportunity once more to address a group of about 100 financial planning practitioners and officers of banks which furnish most of the wealth management services in China.  I also again had the pleasure of interviews with financial planning trade press.  As my hosts confided to me over dinner, the Chinese may sometimes pretend that they care little about what others think of them, but in fact they care greatly, and especially, about what the Americans think of them.  This was meant to be a comment about geo-political relations, generally, but it applies especially in China’s ongoing development of the financial planning profession..

Speaking of dinner, Beijing now boasts some of the world’s most beautiful restaurants, serving truly outstanding cuisine.  While guests of FPSB and, later with our friends in the Asia Foundation, we ate at four of the most spectacular restaurants we’ve ever seen:  DaDong, Duck de Chine, Temple (in an ancient-looking building next to an authentic Ming Dynasty temple near the Forbidden City that had been converted into a television factory during the Cultural Revolution), and finally, on our last night there, the best of them all: brand new Cuisine Cuisine.  No expense seems to be spared in the finishes, the art, the spacious private rooms (seating from about 6 to maybe 20, at single round tables; these are customary features of the high-end restaurant scene in China), the number of servers, and the quality of the food.  We observed the same thing in Hong Kong and Shanghai in recent visits.  And the diners are no longer mostly rich, older Westerners, but Chinese…young, and rich.

Jillian Schultz, Paul Slawson, Mary Slawson
The art scene in Beijing is vibrant.  With our friends, Paul and Mary Slawson, with FPSB-China provided guide and driver, we ventured to the Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, run by a young American woman, Jillian Schultz, friend of our Jewish “god-son” and renowned music director, Doug Peck.   In the CaoChangdi community of art galleries, some designed by the famous (now, especially, for being repressed) artist, architect (the “bird’s nest” stadium of the 2008 Olympics), and dissident Ai Wei  Wei, we found graphic art, sculpture, photography, and video to rival anything in volume and interest one can find anywhere  It was a weekday and, besides some school children playing in one of the grassy yards, we had it almost entirely to ourselves.  Despite confusing, unmarked streets, Mr. Wang eventually managed to find our target restaurant for lunch, filled with 50′s American kitsch, and then insisted on picking up the bill.  A few days later, I decided to fill an unscheduled morning with the short walk from the hotel  (home to the Beijing Bentley and Rolls dealers…next door to the newly opened Maserati dealership) to Tien an Men Square and the Forbidden City.  Almost immediately, a young Chinese man approached me asking where I was from.  They often do this to Westerners as a way of practicing their English.  Quickly I learned that he was an art student and his school was on the way that I was headed.  Eventually, I purchased a four scroll depiction of the four seasons that he had done and a piece by one of his teachers.
Nearing the entrance to the Forbidden City.
This lavish landscaping is found everywhere in Beijing.
One of the poorer air quality days
With these inexpensive treasures slung over my shoulder, I continued on to what must be the greatest man-made tourist attraction in the world.  If only the Chinese come to marvel at the works of their imperial past, the numbers would be huge…but they come, from everywhere, in unimaginable hordes, to view what was always intended to be seen as the center of the universe.  Long before the British placed the “prime meridian” at the observatory in Greenwich, the Chinese measured everything under the heavens in relationship to the center line of the majestic imperial compound…directly bi-secting the perfect symmetry of the palace grounds and sequence of buildings.  Even though it was my third visit, I was quickly overwhelmed again by the subtle grandeur…it’s intended impact, I’m sure.

Beyond the dining and sightseeing, of course, the meetings of the Asia Foundation assembled an extremely accomplished group of senior foreign service professionals, academics, and a handful of Western and Asian business people to consider social, economic, and political developments in China.  Among the most interesting for me was the rise in private philanthropy in China.  Niall Ferguson, historian/economist/philosopher, whose recent book, Why the West rules…for Now,  I had just read, would align this trend with the more general growth of “Christian” adherence and the rapid development of a “Protestant Ethic’ in China.  He sees this as one of the unrecognized keys to China’s otherwise notorious economic success.  Caring about the welfare of society beyond the family, being able to trust in one’s fellow business relationships, and a having a high propensity to save…to defer gratification…has, he argues, helped to create the most rapid advance in economic growth in all world history.

And with that growth, continuing still today at quite rapid rates, the wealth of currently developed nations…especially the US…will likely decline, on a relative basis.  Before too long, China’s economy may even surpass America’s in absolute terms…the numbers, multiplied by 1.2billion and counting, have a relentless impact. Still,  it will be quite a long time, perhaps never, before the Chinese, on a per capita basis, will forge ahead of their American counterparts.  If you see yourself as a world-citizen, it may not matter much if they do.  And, for the Chinese, by the time they may get there, it also may not matter much.  I hope it does turn out that we all approach it with that non-chalance.

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