I first went to China on a lark. In 1982 I was in Hong Kong with some time on my hands so I arranged a 3 day tour of Guangzhou. I made the trip on a ferry sailing up the Pearl river that was boarded by several nervous PLA sailors brandishing AK47s when we crossed into Chinese waters. I don’t much care for organized tours but when China first parted the bamboo curtain that tentative first crack after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 Americans were only allowed in as part of tour groups. My second trip to China in 2005 was on another lark. I wanted to go somewhere exotic, but not so exotic that the language rendered me functionally illiterate or where I’d be confronted by a strange kind of toilet. I’m an American after all, I have my standards. Hong Kong was just what the doctor ordered. Although Hong Kong became the Hong Kong SAR (Special Administrative Region) in 1997 when the British handed it back the Chicoms in Beijing it has maintained many of its differences from the mainland under the “one country, two systems” policy. That means that unlike on the mainland cars in Hong Kong still drive on the left and have the steering wheel on the right British Empire style. Even though it isn’t widely spoken English is still one of the official languages in Hong Kong, which keeps occurrences of Chinglish down.
Hong Kong is a spectacular world city, for me it was China on training wheels. I enjoyed Hong Kong but I was restless to see what was on the other side of the border. Because even though the Hong Kong SAR is now part of the PRC proper the old pre-handover border remains. Hong Kong has its own customs and immigration services that are separate from those on the mainland. Getting to the border is as simple as boarding a KCRC commuter train and getting off at the last stop, Lo Wu. But I couldn’t cross the border without a visa. In another “one country, two systems” quirk American citizens need no visa to visit Hong Kong, just fly into the airport with a valid US passport and you’re in. But Americans do need a visa to cross the border from Hong Kong to the mainland, even to visit for just a few hours. Lots of inexpensive goods come from China but for American citizens a Chinese visa isn’t one of them. I arranged one through my hotel that cost me more than 800 Hong Kong dollars, that’s more than $100 US. But I wasn’t going to turn up my nose at a day trip to Guangdong province because of the cost. I wanted my all day pass to Chinaland. There are times in one’s life where you just have to open the wallet wide and do what needs to be done. The city on the PRC side of the border is Shenzhen, a bustling metropolis of 5 million that was just a fishing village at the time of Mao’s death. Deng XiaoPing used Shenzhen as a test bed for China’s economic liberalization that in retrospect was wildly successful. Unlike the rest of the mainland, Shenzhen lived economically under communism-lite and its industrial buildup was bankrolled by investors from Hong Kong looking to expand somewhere close to home and attracted by a cheap, Chinese speaking workforce. Wages were low by Hong Kong standards and labor and environmental laws were lax. Shenzhen stoked China’s economic expansion and made the then common “made in Hong Kong” label rare today. I passed through Chinese immigration and out of the train station into Shenzhen and was immediately almost hit by a car. Welcome to Chinese driving where use of mirrors or even eyes is optional and pedestrians have no rights, except maybe to be targets. I passed through Chinese immigration and out of the train station into Shenzhen and was immediately almost hit by a car. Welcome to Chinese driving where use of mirrors or even eyes is optional and pedestrians have no rights, except maybe to be targets. I found the place fascinating. Chinese buses with strange insect antenna-like mirrors plied the streets loudly belching out black exhaust. One Chinese bus manufacturer has the unusual name of “King Long”, which to me sounds better suited to a male porn star than to an outfit that makes mass transit vehicles. Look, here’s Deng Xiao Ping and one of the new businesses in booming Shenzhen:
Because China is the wild, wild east and anything goes, except anything contrary to the edicts of the Communist Party. Just ask the Falun Gong.