Guangzhou’s 30-Year Journey

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- I hadn’t been to Guangzhou in more than 30 years, and I wanted to see what I would remember. The answer: basically nothing. Few places have been transformed so thoroughly in such a short period of time.

Back in July 1988, there were very many bicycles and motorbikes and very few cars. My tourist group rode in a large bus, which could not easily thread its way through the crowd of cyclists. I frequently saw, and could sometimes smell, pig carcasses flapping from the backs of the bikes.

These days, the impressive subway system — one which my own Washington would love to have — is the main means of transport, and the streets are filled with cars. Residents use the Didi app, the Chinese version of Uber, to call for rides. Bicycles have reemerged in Guangzhou — in the form of an app-driven bicycle rental service.

It’s not just the economy that has changed. Couples in Guangzhou can be seen kissing, hugging or holding hands in public about as often as in many Western cities. On my last visit behavior was far more circumspect, and most people were dressed in a kind of white and black uniform, in contrast to today’s far more diverse fashion styles. Mandarin, now simply called “Chinese,” has gone very far in displacing Cantonese.

My visit to a kindergarten 30 years ago prompted the children to stare at the Western tourists and to want to pull on the hair on my arms. Now no one seems to notice my presence at all. There is an African quarter in Guangzhou — Xiaobei — full of Turkish and Middle Eastern restaurants as well as African entrepreneurs, and that too does not attract too much attention or cause much surprise.

To understand how so much radical change is possible, consider the logic of compound economic growth. If an economy is growing at about 10 percent a year, it doubles in size basically every seven years. Even now, with roughly 7 percent annual growth for China, the economy doubles in size about every 10 years. Play that out over 30 years, and in a region that has grown at rates above the national average, and you have a ready story about the obliteration of the past. (The town’s river, however, remains in place.)

In 1988, with memories of Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 by no means out of mind, I viewed the prospect of a trip to Guangzhou as an improbable novelty. Not until I arrived in Hong Kong and saw advertisements did I book my four-day tour.

Nowadays I go to China every year and have an entire “China routine” for choosing my hotels, restaurants, and how to communicate with the taxi drivers. (It’s not complicated: I use a translation app on my smartphone.) China has become a loved and familiar destination rather than an exotic one. And rather than being confined to a captive tour group in Guangzhou, I traveled with a Russian acquaintance and a Chinese-Canadian friend.

How about the train ride between Hong Kong and Guangzhou? In 1988 I saw lone farmers plowing the field with their oxen. These days the journey brings you through Shenzhen, China’s tech capital, where many iPhones are assembled and which has eclipsed Guangzhou as a source of economic dynamism.

And yet I cannot conclude that Guangzhou is altogether a story of change and change alone.

In 1988, tourist behavior was controlled by state-run or state-regulated tours, as we were shuttled around to approved sites and touristy “group table” restaurants with mediocre food. In 2018, tourist behavior is controlled by, among other tools, fingerprinting upon entry, facial recognition technology, a possible monitoring of internet communications and a database on visitors. The technologies are new, but the government’s unwillingness to give up control is not.

It is also striking how few notable buildings were erected in Guangzhou for much of the 20th century. Cities and nations can stagnate for very long periods of time, and China’s recent burst of growth is far from normal. In fact, its living standards in 1740 were only about 70 percent of what they had been in 980, hardly an indicator of progress. Arguably my two trips bracketed the most revolutionary 30-year period in Guangzhou’s history.

Thirty years ago, as a newly minted economist, I came away from my first visit to Guangzhou quite optimistic about the future of China. Yet at that time I didn’t imagine half of the positive changes that have come to pass. Which raises the question: Which surprises I am clueless about today?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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