I had the opportunity to visit China shortly after it began to open to the West in 1987 (Hebei [Beijing] and Gansu [Lanzhou and surrounding area] Provinces) and return some 30 years afterwards (Jiangsu [Nanjing] and Xinjiang [Turpan, Jimsar, Shanshan] Provinces). The contrasts and transformation between both the cities and rural areas are stark reminders of how the country has changed in a mere period of only a few decades. Where my coming to Beijing airport signaled the arrival of a single, international jet that morning, with the departing passengers shepherded by security personnel alone in the airport, the interior of Nanjing’s Lukou International Airport in 2018 rivaled the complexity and luxury of any major international airport of today.

In 1987, our airport taxi was, literally, the only vehicle on the road surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of bicycles; just the opposite was true in Nanjing in 2018. Here, automobiles crammed the motorways and city streets, electric bicycles outnumbered pedal pushers, and the cities showcased very different cultural attitudes and attires. Rural areas during our time in Xinjiang Province in 2019, though, remained eerily similar to many of the conditions witnessed 30 years ago.

The late 1980s saw many tourist sites strictly guarded as to what, if any, pictures (think 35 mm negatives and/or diapositives) could be taken as opposed to the “slide sets” that could be purchased “exiting the gift shop.” Periodically, security personnel would confiscate 35 mm cameras from tourists who attempted to photograph Xian’s Terracotta Army Museum (a new UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987), open the camera back, and pull out the film to expose it and render it useless. In contrast, online images abound of Emperor Qinshihuang’s Mausoleum Site and any regulation of cellphones and selfies, today, would require another full army of sentries working overtime to keep up with the tourists’ photographic zeal. A few other stark contrasts include, but are not limited to:

  • steam locomotives traversing a rather limited, for China, rural railway system versus the universal high-speed rail system that crisscrosses all provinces;
  • the limiting of foreign travelers to stay only in government-approved hotels along with the prohibition and preventing Chinese nationals from cohabiting those same accommodations;
  • rice being served as a separate, last course of a meal (if one were still hungry) rather than as part of the main entree dishes;
  • grain-filled pillows in higher-class hotel rooms (Gansu Province) versus soft, western-style ones in all accommodations;
  • all laborers attired in the same blue coveralls during the day that contrasts to the adoption of western European/American t-shirts and jeans now seen nearly everywhere;
  • road construction techniques that morphed from four workmen physically tamping down asphalt using a trapezoidal block of concrete affixed to a wooden shaft with four handles to highly sophisticated and mechanized construction equipment;
  • the level of personal wealth and daily amenities of the average city-dweller which contrasts with that of colleagues who, at the time, were proud to have afforded, acquired, and shown off a small, in-apartment clothes washer;
  • awakening at 06:00 to the sound of the megaphone system announcing (blaring) the beginning of a new workday, followed by a chorus of expectoration and exercise classes in the city’s streets; and
  • a thick layer of yellow (not purple) haze covering each major industrial and provincial capital city which, to some extent, now is less common depending on governmental dictates.

What hasn’t changed, though, is the oversight and surveillance of foreign nationals, and the stories we can tell. The available sidebar links are but a very limited window into a very few locations of a China then and China now. After all, it is a very large country.