How Deep Are the Changes?

I was disoriented when I arrived at the shining new Beijing Capital International Airport. The digital signs of the sleek facility are more modern than most of the world’s largest airports and the floors gleam. But after my luggage failed to arrive and I was forced to use my rusty Chinese skills to investigate the matter with airport officials, I began to suspect China has not changed as much as the American media would have one believe.

Like the airport, much of Beijing has been or is in the process of being refurbished in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games. Among our group of correspondents, my perspective is unique because I spent over a year here as a student in the late 1990’s. After one week in the field, it’s apparent that progress of economic and physical development is at once both superficial and substantial.

Although towering skyscrapers and a massive campaign to restore the central district of the city to Old Beijing style have overwhelmingly transformed the face of the city, a quick jaunt off the beaten path reveals that the true gritty character of the ancient city hasn't changed much. The city's daily symphony is much like it was 10 years ago. In the hutongs, older residents are up early for morning walks and tai qi exercises, the fragrance of steamed meat buns permeates the air, and the sounds of men clearing their sinuses and throats of phlegm echo through the alleyways.

It only took a few short minutes of banter with my cab driver on the way from the airport on the hazy muggy day to realize that economic growth and building restoration is only a small part of this transforming nation, and that some things will never change.