China: 10 Months Later


by Dr. George Kostopoulos


Ten months ago, I was in Beijing during the events in Tiananmen Square, and then in Shanghai, where the atmosphere was equally tense. I had left a China in turmoil and uncertainty, and. after a certain period of time. I was eager to return to assess the impact of these events on the people and their way of life.


Early last month, I was in China again, looking forward to a walk in Tiananmen Square and standing at the place where I saw the Goddess of Democracy in June 1989. Her image was still in my mind. A lifeless statue that filled millions of Chinese with life—a life they had never before experienced.


My 26-hour segmented flight to Beijing originated in Miami, and, as before, I flew into China from Tokyo. Even with reduced flight schedules, the plane was carrying only 50 percent of its passenger capacity. As we approached the airport, I recalled previous arrivals in Beijing, a long taxiing on the runway, a long delay at the passport-control booths, and an even longer delay at customs. I mustered the energy to go through it one more time.


This time however, my fellow passengers. mostly citizens of the Peoples Republic of China, and I found the airport all to ourselves. There must have been no other international arrival for hours. In a few minutes, we were already inside the terminal building. As I left the passport-control officer and stepped into the baggage-claim area, my luggage was waiting for me. From touchdown to the terminal sidewalk was a 15-minute affair.


On previous arrivals, the baggage-claim area was a zoo. with only a square foot of floor space per traveler. This time there were no Western ladies with countless pieces of luggage, nor overseas Chinese who used to struggle with their oversized cartons filled with appliances and entertainment equipment for their families. Nor was there the equal mix of Orientals and Westerners.


At the airport, a good friend of mine received me. After a warm welcome, he suggested that I avoid political discussions with more than one Chinese at a time. I told him that this sounded like 1984, and he confirmed that certain things, indeed, had reverted to 1984. He told me once again to forget about a visit to Tiananmen Square, since it was cordoned off with a rope - actually six miles long -  and surrounded by armed police.


Despite his advice, I drove by the square later, only to see a two-square-mile empty space under siege. But in that empty space, I could "see" the ghost of the Goddess of Democracy in chains, a ghost that will haunt China until brought back to life. Also under police siege were the various university campuses around Beijing, which precluded the formation of any peaceful marches.


The next day, I presented, at one of the universities, the results of my Chinese text processing research, and met with old and new colleagues and friends.

As I was talking to them, I could observe a restraint. The relaxed atmosphere of previous years was definitely not there. In a one-to-one conversations a professor, referring to faculty gatherings, said to me, "We used to talk to each other freely and praise or criticize our government without any reservations. But after the massacre, we only talk about our tea, whether it is hot or cold. We do not trust each other, Maybe we are all trustworthy, but we have no way of knowing."


As in the West, exchanging business cards is a Chinese ritual. When it came time to exchange my card with that of a good friend and university president,! was surprised to note that his card carried only the title of "professor." I was told later that he, too. was a victim of  the Tiananmen Square massacre. What hurt me the most was to see a highly respected academician—who had spent 10 years feeding pigs during the Cultural Revolution, and who, since then had presided at a very prominent university — punished because he had formally advised his government to seek a peaceful solution to last year's confrontation in Tiananmen Square. He had lost the presidency, but he did not lose his dignity and the high respect of his faculty.


At meetings with a number of professionals. I could sense a lack of enthusiasm and faith in the future, which were so predominant before the events of last June. Today, the young Chinese want to leave China, while the old bear witness to a China that is politically and economically moving back to square one.


Yet, I could see that the talent was there. The potential to turn China into a giant-size Hong Kong of busy bees was there. If China could put its act together, it could drive Taiwan, Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia out of business and significantly enhance the standard of living of the Chinese people. But the Chinese government bureaucracy and controls, typical of totalitarian regimes, are suffocating what they are exactly supposed to serve: progress. In addition, the artificially high exchange rate of the Chinese currency has paralyzed the economy, adversely affecting imports.


Tourism is also suffering. The 20 or more billion dollars that have been invested by international capital in beautiful hotels are now liabilities. The hotels cannot possibly cover their expenses with a 10-percent occupancy rate, especially with the armies of personnel that they maintain.


I was repeatedly asked why Western tourists and businessmen do not come to China anymore. I tried to explain that neither the Great Wall nor potential monetary gains alone can attract business or tourism. It also takes a climate of political, economic and social optimism, which China presently lacks. Adding to the economic difficulties are the developments in Eastern Europe, which will pose an unprecedented problem in the competition for international investments and foreign markets for Chinese goods.


I visited several manufacturers of exportable consumer electronics and asked," How is business?" One manager said to me, "Three of my assembly lines are idle. My products have a few imported parts, and I cannot find hard currency to buy them."


Another manufacturer said, "I have government orders to export a certain amount of my production to bring hard currency into the country. To be competitive and make a sale, I export each unit for $ 100, and what I get back is RMB470, which the government bank gives me. But my cost for that unit is RMB600. How can I operate?"


(RMB, or Ren Min Bi, is the name of the currency used internally by the Chinese, as compared to the Yuan, which is script issued to foreigners visiting the country.)


It is obvious that domestic sales or government subsidies will have to pay the difference between the manufacturers’ cost and the selling price.


Also obvious is that the Chinese economists do not know the art of progressive currency devaluation, so well mastered by Mexico. They do not realize that there is no national pride associated with a currency exchange rate; it is merely a rate identified through successive approximation that maximizes exports and minimizes unemployment.


After a short stay in Beijing, I proceeded to Shanghai, with its European appearance and a more open lifestyle. My hosts took me to a beautiful new hotel with 300 rooms, where I joined another 30 or so hotel guests.


The next morning as I was sitting in the coffee lounge, I noticed decorations hanging from the ceiling. They were paper cutouts of animals and crosses. I thought it was a randomly cut design, but as I turned around I saw a sign in English wishing the visitors a "Happy Easter." As I examined the decor I noticed, at the most prominent place in the lounge, two big representations of the crucifix. I could not believe that in China, the perceived last stronghold of communism, I would see such an openly religious display, a display that I would not see in the predominantly Christian Western world.


As I get to know the country better, I long for the development of a free China and the unfolding of the modem Chinese civilization.


Until then, I will be prepared to experience the unexpected.


Dr. George Kostopoulos is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida. He has done extensive research in the field of computer electronics and has been responsible for engineering research for a number of international manufacturing firms, including IBM, Raytheon Company, and Textron Corporation. In addition, he has lectured at many foreign universities. He is also the inventor of a new Chinese language dictionary Structure that classifies characters by their ideographic composition rather than their pronunciation. His invention is being considered in China for the production of Chinese word processors, electronic typewriters, and desktop publishing systems.