These days, it's quite jarring to walk around parts of old Beijing. Although old women can still be seen pushing cabbages in rickety wooden carts amidst huddles of men playing chess, it's not uncommon to see them all suddenly scurry to the side to make way for a brand-new BMW luxury sedan squeezing through the narrow hutong (a traditional Beijing alleyway). The same could be said of the longtang-style alleys or a bustling marketplace in Sichuan. Modern China is a land of paradox, and it's becoming increasingly so in this era of unprecedented socioeconomic change.
Relentless change—seen so clearly in such projects as the Three Gorges Dam and its relocation of more than 1 million of people—has been an elemental part of China's modern character. Violent revolutions in the 20th century, burgeoning population growth (China is now the world's most populous country) and economic prosperity (brought about by a recent openness to the outside world) have almost made that change inevitable. China's cities are being transformed—Beijing and Shanghai are among the world's most dynamic cities. And the country's political position in the world is rising: Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics, despite widespread concern about how the government treats its people.
China has always been one of the most attractive travel destinations in the world, partly because so much history exists alongside the new. The rice paddies may have sprouted cities and manufacturing centers, and the streets may be clogged with cars and pollution, but the people remain rooted in a rich cultural heritage. They still burn joss sticks for good luck in an enterprise—even as they iron out the details of that enterprise on the Internet.
China's rapid rate of urbanization is matched only by its pace of social transformation, which is driven in large part by the government. As recession grips the globe, the country has shifted its export driven economy toward a consumer driven model, upturning the typical communist model as shopping malls now dominate most major cities. Late in 2013, the government announced a relaxation of its decades-old one-child policy, allowing 10 million people to have a second child, while pledging to limit the number of people sent to labor and re-education camps as an attempt to clean up its human rights record.
China's growing economic clout, cultural juxtapositions and growing status as major world player makes this a fascinating time to visit. Now more than ever, as the old adage goes, when China sneezes, the whole world catches a cold.
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