On Monday night I returned to the U.S. after my latest visit to China. The atmosphere in Beijing seemed quite different from the pre-Olympic frenzy that gripped it when I left last July. There is far less construction in evidence and concern about the impact of the global economic slump is pervasive. Chinese students seem far more concerned about the job market than they were when I was last there.
I spent December 15-19 in Hong Kong, my first visit there since 1981. Not surprisingly, Hong Kong has changed quite a bit in the last few decades. One of the most striking changes is that Victoria Harbor is far less congested with boat traffic now that highway and subway tunnels provide alternative means for crossing it. I took the Peak Tram, a funicular that has been in operation since 1888, to the top of Victoria Peak, as I had done in 1981. The view from the Sky Terrace atop the Peak remains spectacular, though now it is marred by numerous, cheesy commercial enterprises that one has to pass through before emerging on the Sky Terrace. After descending from the peak I had a great lunch at M at the Fringe, a restaurant located in an historic part of Hong Kong that has the same owners as Shanghai’s great M on the Bund. Earlier in the week I met my Maryland colleague Professor Shruti Rana for lunch in Kowloon where I stayed. Shruti was in Hong Kong to do a site visit for a new clinical externship that Maryland is establishing there.
Hong Kong seems so different from Beijing. In Beijing the vast majority of taxis still do not have working seat belts for their passengers (most taxis drivers have removed either the belts or the buckles). In Hong Kong the taxis not only have seat belts that work, but they also prominently display a warning that the drivers can be fined if any passengers are discovered not to be wearing seat belts. While I certainly do not advocate a nanny state (and I still rail against the outrageous French regulation requiring male swimmers at public pools to wear bikini briefs), seat belts have become fundamental to public safety. Today is the anniversary of the day in 1970 when I was in an auto accident that killed my best friend and debate partner and another acquaintance because they were not wearing seat belts. I feel distinctly at risk in Beijing whenever I am in a taxi without working seat belts, particularly when the driver seems to be auditioning for NASCAR.
The Hong Kong press is distinctly freer than the press in Beijing. The Hong Kong newspapers carry reports about criticism of the Chinese government, demonstrations on the mainland, and books banned on the mainland that one would not expect to see in the Beijing press.
On Friday December 19 I flew back to Beijing and then spent the weekend in Harbin, a city of four million people located more than 600 miles north of Beijing. Harbin is the city where the December 2005 benzene spill in the Songhua River forced the authorities to shut off local drinking water supplies for an extended period. Harbin is close to Russian Siberia. Historically it has had a large Russian population and St. Sofia’s Russian Orthodox Cathedral is one of the major tourist attractions in downtown Harbin.
I arrived in Harbin the day after a snowstorm had hit the city and the temperature was as low as -24 degrees Centigrade (-11 degrees Fahrenheit). While the extreme temperature and a chill wind made it uncomfortable to expose any flesh to the elements, Harbin residents were reveling in preparations for the city’s annual Snow and Ice Festival. The festival, which features hundreds of elaborate snow and ice sculptures along the river, does not officially open until January 5, but many snow sculptures already have been completed. Locals were skating on the frozen Songhua River, roaring down ice slides, and a few were even diving into the freezing water through holes cut in the ice to demonstrate to tourists that they were unfazed by the cold.
I visited the Siberian Tiger Park outside Harbin where a captive breeding program has produced more than 400 of these magnificent animals. Tourists tour the park in specially reinforced vans and can watch the tigers feeding. Unfortunately, the precipitous decline in suitable habitat for Siberian tigers in Northern China has made it impossible to reintroduce them into the wild where it is estimated that a population of only approximately 200 remain. Photos of my trips to Hong Kong and Harbin are available online at: http://gallery.me.com/rperci/100366. Videos are available online at: http://gallery.me.com/rperci/100381.
Back in the U.S. for the holidays I noticed that the price of gasoline in Baltimore is now as low as $1.59 a gallon, less than 40% of what it had been in July when gasoline prices exceeded $4 per gallon. The precipitous decline in the price of oil since July may once again kill the incentive for expanded investments in renewable energy, as occurred when oil prices declined during the 1980s and 1990s. In China the government controls gasoline prices, which were among the lowest in the world until they were increased in the first half of the year when global crude oil prices soared. On December 19 the Chine government responded to the decline in global oil prices by reducing the price of gasoline by 14 percent. However, China also will increase its tax on gasoline five-fold effective January 1 from approximately 3 cents to 15 cents per liter (or roughly from 11 cents to 56 cents per gallon). Many believe that a similar strategy would make a lot of sense for the United States, see Thomas L. Friedman, “Win, Win, Win, Win, Win . . .”, New York Times, Dec. 28, 2008, p. 8 (Week in Review), though it is widely viewed as politically impossible.
While I was in China the Chinese press put a somewhat positive spin on the Poznan Conference, while stressing the importance of poverty alleviation and greater financial aid to developing countries as elements of any post-Kyoto regime to control emissions of greenhouse gases. They also reported on a largely symbolic auction of carbon credits that occurred on the China Beijing Environment Exchange on December 11. The credits had been “earned” by 81,670 commuters who opted to take public transportation from July 20 to September 20. They were calculated by scientists from Tsinghua University and Environmental Defense. Si Tingting, “Symbolic Efforts,” China Daily, Dec. 22, 2008.