After spending more than a week in Shanghai and Beijing, I conclude that the Chinese are friendly and gracious though little inscrutable due to the language barrier. Also, India is far behind China in almost any visible benchmarks of progress: infrastructure, cleanliness, public transport and managing urban spaces, especially the cities. It does make one wonder whether democracy and development can ever co-exist. And also question whether democracy and basic civic sense is compatible. One advantage that Indians have over the Chinese is speaking English that makes the country better placed to service the world, though President Donald Trump is trying to make this as difficult as possible, writes Siddharth Srivastava.

Plenty of thought has gone into the making of China into the manufacturing powerhouse it has become. Running factories does not require the population to know English. And so it has been.

Bollywood is universal

The two countries that India has fought wars against are China and Pakistan. Paradoxically, it has been my experience that the people of these two nations are extremely warm towards Indians.

Goes to show that individuals are always above the politics of the land that is often fanned by vested interests. Folks anywhere in the world tend to be kind when one is accompanied by kids, as we were, by our two daughters, 15 and six. There are advantages of traveling with a six-year old. It helps in jumping queues, especially at airports and railway stations, where the wait is always long. Beijing MRT commuters instantly offered us their seats.

I have not figured this out fully though. There seems to be some kind of tradition in China of clicking pictures with folks from another country or culture. There were several occasions that we were asked to pose for photographs. Maybe, it is believed that such an act contributes to longevity, virility, well-being, I do not know.

The Chinese were cordial and affable even when I happened to be on my own, sometimes a little too friendly. At the pedestrian-friendly shopping paradise Nanjing Road, Shanghai, I was accosted on several occasions by pimps who seem to have picked up relevant English sentences to ply their business. Overseas visitors, perhaps, are the preferred clients, as I did not notice locals being solicited.

“Massage, sex with young Chinese girl. Can send to your hotel room,” the pimps offered. On another occassion a young Chinese girl clutched my arm and insisted on massaging my body at her shop nearby or the hotel. “Next time for sure, this time with my wife and kids,” I told her, but she would not believe me. Luckily, my children were in the vicinity exploring a M&M store. I pointed them out to the girl, who quickly departed, but only after making sure the two kids were indeed Indian and mine, by glancing and them and me several times to compare features and nationality.

To be fair, popular shopping areas Nanjing Road in Shanghai and Wangfujing Street in Beijing are pedestrianized, safe and child-friendly due to absence of traffic and fumes. The street-markets around Yuyuan Garden located in Old City Shanghai is a rinsed and cleansed version of Chandni Chowk. Good place to pick up local artefacts, that can otherwise be expensive, at throwaway prices.

Food is great too. China can be expensive and cheap. One can exercise the choice of paying 100 RMB for a pizza or 10 RMB for a big bucket of meats dipped in soup. Either can serve as a full meal. Entry to Disneyland, like anywhere in the world is expensive.

While Starbucks, McDonald’s, Zara or H&M maybe the common capitalist themes around the globalized world, Bollywood is pervasive as well. My elder daughter stuck a conversation at the all-weather hotel pool in Shanghai with a Chinese girl her age, with a passion for Hindi movies, with, subtitles, of course. A big fan of Shah Rukh Khan, she was effusive about Dangal, a big hit in China.

No English in China

Language can be a barrier in China, especially with Taxi drivers and at smaller mom and pop stores. Though most folks do not know or understand English, they try to communicate to the best of their ability, apologizing at the same time their failure to do better. At a well-stocked convenience store in Shanghai, my wife requested a young gentleman, who seemed like an executive on his way back home from office, to translate a few prices labeled in Mandarin.

“My English too good,” he apologized profusely, while unsuccessfully trying to locate the translation online.

The concierge at our hotel in Beijing organized our trip to the Great Wall of China. She was sharply dressed, courteous and wished me a crisp good morning which did raise my expectations about her ability to converse in English. Soon, I discovered that her answers to most questions were permutations of the same, with a signature shrill “oh yeah” to start any sentence. Her standard lines were:

“Oh Yeah! Great Wall, two hours from hotel, two-three hours there and then back. Children enjoy, weather good. Enjoy.” She became a source of some amusement. Everyone tried to mimic her. It went something like this. What if we were to ask her whether she has a boyfriend or loves her grandparents. He reply would be: “Oh Yeah, Great Wall..two hour from hotel, etc. Enjoy” She, however, did clarify one doubt very clearly, without the usual “Oh Yeah,” which is “No Passport” needed at the GWC, unlike the Forbidden City or even Disneyland in Shanghai. Carrying a valid official document for entry into the Forbidden City, managed by the government and close to Tiananmen Square, I do understand, but not Disneyland.

On the other hand, Americans anywhere perhaps fret about security and terror attacks more than any other population in the world. Just to be on the safe side and after watching a few YouTube videos, I did download an app that translated English to Chinese.

The only occasion I tried using it, the Taxi driver understood English words and we managed a functional conversation. I said, “hao” and he said, “okay.” To avoid confusion, it is useful to have the concierge to write out in Mandarin the destination one is headed as none of the Taxi drivers we interacted, except one, knew any English. Not a single word. And, we hired Taxis on quite a few occasions. It is equally, perhaps more critical to note down the address that one needs to return to save time and confusion.

Actually, it is not so difficult to navigate cities such as Beijing and Shanghai as it is made out to be in some of the YouTube videos I watched. Directions at airports and railway stations are in English too. Menus have a translated version. Shopping is not a problem as most products at branded stores display an English price tag.

Payment counters are equipped with large calculators to display the amount due in English numerals, with the sales force like anywhere in the world very quick with the calculations, lest the customer change his or her mind. The local stores can be a problem, but manageable. The many ATMs and automated money changers offer a choice of multiple languages. Accessing the local RMB currency anywhere is not an issue. Surprisingly, the best rate for forex was at the hotel, which is usually not the case in most other countries. The worst deal we got was at the Shanghai airport.

Meeting Mr. Wong

I got talking to an English-speaking Chinese co-passenger, a rarity, during the domestic Beijing-Shanghai flight; the gentleman was reading a translated version of Dominique Lapierre’s O Jerusalem! I never asked his name which I would have not recalled I am sure.

For convenience of this piece I am calling him Wong for no special reason. The soft-spoken young man very kindly translated my multiple beverage requests to the cabin crew who otherwise smiled sweetly and blankly at me. They did not know any English.

“Buy this book at the airport. Translation not good,” Wong said to me, adding he is familiar with India as his company has business interests due to which he had made trips to Gujarat and Bangalore.

“Chinese companies interested in India which is funny country. Urinating and spitting in public; it is very shocking. Why not go to toilet? Never happen like this in China,” he smirked.

I am usually vehement about defending my country, but I do find our national ethos of relieving in the open quite indefensible.

Wong was not entirely happy with his country’s rulers. He asked me about the Beijing pollution to which I replied that I found the sky to be quite clear and the city air reasonably clean contrary to several critical reports in international media. Wong said the pollution had been artificially brought down by the authorities for a few days due to a global conclave that was taking place in the city.

“They play with the clouds to create artificial rain to bring down pollution. Factories, all shut. When foreign visitors leave, Beijing sky will back to its normal self, very dirty pollution. You lucky, you are here when the Beijing air is all clean and weather nice in May.”

“No government is perfect. There are problems with ours too, like the way the issue of cow slaughter has been politicized,” I said.

“Wait,” Wong asked. “Why should Indians have a problem eating cow meat? Religious sentiments to do with pork, not beef.”

I explained to Wong that pork has significance for Muslims, while most Indians are Hindus who worship the cow. He promptly informed the air hostess that I was okay with pork, not beef.

“Thank you. But, I am okay with beef too,” I told Mr. Wong.

“You told me, Hindus no beef,” he said, looking nonplussed.

“I am not so religious. So, beef okay with me,” I said.

After the flight landed, we parted with a tight hug. “Hindi-Chini bhai bhai,” I said to myself. I asked Wong for his business card, which he seemed reluctant to share. I could think of no other reason other than the fact that he had criticized his government, so did not want to reveal his identity to me. One does not need to be in China to know that nobody censures or questions authorities there. People do as they are told. All news is positive and great.

Internet works, Google may not

Internet has been a controversial subject in China as the biggest fear of the authorities is a repeat of Tiananmen Square. Communist rulers of China have always been very touchy about any negative news emanating from foreign TV channels or print media, which has extended to the online space. Strict control over information seeks to insulate the local population against any adverse publicity about the government. The VPN at our Shanghai hotel allowed speedy access to Google, Facebook and Gmail, but not at national capital Beijing. Wong told me that crackdowns on VPNs happen so that the service providers know that the authorities are not fools unaware of the misdemeanors. But, that does not mean that the Chinese are not on social media. WeChat is extremely popular.

During our four-and-a-half-hour bullet train ride from Shanghai to Beijing, three young girls sitting next to us were mostly engrossed in shooting and uploading videos of what seemed to be a local version of Snapchat with similar filters and special effects.

Trains are world class

Let me add here that unlike trains, air services in China are not of the same standard. We were told by our Indian friends that planes are invariably late. And they were right. We missed our connecting flight on our way back and were routed through Singapore that turned our journey into a 24-hour voyage. Security at the Beijing airport was unnecessarily obtrusive. The young girls manning the X-Ray machines could not figure out that multiple medicine options are necessary when traveling with kids, especially a little one. They sniffed the various bottles and asked us to sip a few.

I did Crocin and the cough syrup while my wife tasted the anti-vomiting and loose motion vials. The process was irritating.

During the physical pat-down one of the girls kept jabbing her long fingers under the elastic of my underwear. She was dead serious about her job, but I could not help but feel very tickled.

The trains in China, on the other hand, are superb, comfortable, on time and world class. We opted for the Maglev from Shanghai airport and bullet train from Shanghai to Beijing. Speed over 300 km/h meant the distance to Beijing was covered in less than five hours. A similar journey from Delhi to Mumbai by Rajdhani Express is an overnight trip. Maglev tickets can be bought over the counter. For bullet train, better to book in advance as lines at the station are long. I got the concierge to procure our tickets couple of days before the journey. Online option exists, but I believe to get the actual smart ticket one has to stand in line at the station anyway. And, all queues in China are long, but nobody complains, unlike in India where people are habitual whiners if made to wait.

Another Tiananmen Unlikely

Based on feedback of a couple of Indians who have been based in China for a while, it is not as if the authorities are not sensitive about the needs of the people. The Communist party is run like a corporate entity, with local office holders responsible for the well-being and upkeep of their area. There are confidential forms filled by local residents based on which governance is regularly assessed.

Negative reports are taken seriously and officials are regularly pulled up and promotions delayed. No doubt, the Chinese have been insulated from the rest of the world as that is the way the rulers of the country want it. We were told there is a huge machinery, called the ministry of propaganda, that keeps tabs on rebels, critics and activists. Though voting rights or freedom of expression do not exist, the establishment has delivered on good quality of life and rule of law. This is very important. Or else, there is no stopping another Tiananmen Square from happening, with students at the forefront. Such an uprising seems unlikely, though.

People who are doing well will resist moving out of their comfort zones; others who have not scaled up the economic ladder know that there are ways and means within the system to do so.