Author: Isabel de Sola is currently on leave from the Foreign Service as a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum. Isabel manages several Global Agenda Councils in the domain of security, including terrorism, conflict prevention, organized crime and weapons of mass destruction.Isabel de Sola is currently on leave from the Foreign Service as a Global Leadership Fellow at the World Economic Forum. Isabel manages several Global Agenda Councils in the domain of security, including terrorism, conflict prevention, organized crime and weapons of mass destruction.

It is a little known fact that my home country, El Salvador, does not maintain diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China. The reasons made sense back then, but are clearly outdated. For how, nowadays, can you get around China, especially if you are from El Salvador?

On a recent visit for the Global Leadership Fellows Programme of the World Economic Forum, I was introduced for the first time to the cities of Tianjin and Beijing. A whirlwind agenda and an oversized tour bus took our group from high-tech production sites run by Nokia, Siemens or Hyundai to a Master Kong restaurant, the Silk Road shopping mall, headquarters of CNOOC and the gates of the Forbidden City. In between, we heard from several of China’s foremost academics at CEIBS on the future of state-owned enterprises, China in the economic crisis, a crash course on branding and e-commerce in modern China.

The several hours of traffic we faced per day in that loyal tour bus gave me ample time to mull over what I had heard about China, and what this China, bustling outside the windows of the bus, seemed to be. Or not to be at all.

I saw scenes of overwhelming gridlock and a sea of cars, interrupted only by thin and nimble bicycles weaving in and out of the smog. I heard a sharp critique of official economic policy and SOE strategies, with hard data to back them up. I saw high-tech production lines staffed by young Chinese women, who giggled as they sneaked curious peeks at our group. I heard Chinese young and old gabbing into mobile devices of all kinds, their eyes glued to the news items coming up on Weibo. I learned that e-commerce in China has taken off to unimaginable levels and that the shop ladies in the market will negotiate, seduce, cajole and even beg with you to ensure a good deal. I tasted “Bacteria-fried mushroom” and found it delicious. The radio station on our taxi ride home played pure American pop.

What I didn’t see was telling as well. Nowhere to be found were:

  • Mao’s Little Red Book (except as souvenirs being sold for US$ 4 in the Silk Road kitsch shops)
  • Red Army parades, soldiers, generals or any military personnel
  • Poverty (we simply did not see any signs of it where we went)
  • Women in positions of authority (though I learned women are 30% of the market for Maseratis in China, compared with less than 10% in Europe)
  • Young children

Clearly we were shown the brightest side of China. This was evident during many of the company presentations we received. Inevitably, two to three final slides outlined said company’s environmental or social policies. We Westerners pushed our (patient) hosts with tough questions on human rights, carbon footprints, unfair competition and more. Watching our hosts respond calmly and confidently, I realized they understood the West and our priorities – recycling, freedom of speech, women’s empowerment – much better than we understood them or their priorities.

On my way to the airport – coincidentally, 18 September– I could not get a taxi cab as traffic was even more gridlocked than usual due to large protests commemorating China’s occupation by Japan during the Second World War. Two bellhops from the hotel and I jumped up and down on the street, waving wildly at the few taxis that indifferently passed by. I must have looked desperate enough that one of the bellhops felt compelled to say in broken English, “No worry lady, you miss plane to Salvador, you welcome in China.”

 Image: Vehicles drive on the Three Ring Road and Jianwai Street in central Beijing REUTERS/Jason Lee