No country for old men

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I am currently making my eighth trip to Beijing, 25 years after my first trip. In my previous seven trips I visited as a middle-aged man, and now I’m an old man. If you are an old guy considering your first trip to Asia, I’d suggest Japan.

While China is not an easy country for a foreigner to travel in, it is full of interest. And for the locals it’s definitely getting better. I expected the old people I spoke with to grouse about how much better things used to be (as old people do), but instead they were as enthused as Silicon Valley millennials gushing about their newest toy. “We Chat is so easy to use.” “You can get things delivered right to your door.” “There are many more trees in Beijing and you are again seeing animal life, especially birds.” “There are so many subway lines now.”

It’s been 7 years since I was last in Beijing, and the city has changed about as much as I would have expected. I am staying with in-laws in an apartment in the university district (Haidian). From the front door I see this in one direction:

These are kind of depressing looking apartment buildings, as you’d see in middle income countries. But don’t be fooled; the units are extremely expensive. (Roughly $10,000 per sq. meter, I believe.) It’s in an area with good schools, which is gold.

Turning in a different direction from the exact same spot, you see a typical high income country apartment complex (much more expensive), where my mother-in-law lives. The price/monthly rent ratios are insanely high (maybe 1000X?) as the Chinese prefer to own property.

This summarizes modern Beijing. Today, it’s basically a 1st world city, with lots of legacy buildings from earlier decades that look more like what you see in a developing country. But the proportion of modern buildings is significantly higher than in 2012.

Update: That’s not to say there aren’t still plenty of “middle-income country” neighborhoods, especially in outlying suburbs.

I find it hard to compare Beijing with cities in developed countries, as it’s always “apples and oranges”. Beijing is often very messy looking, and with your eyes closed it smells like a developing country. They seem to want to build lots of things quickly, without much thought to the detailed amenities that the Japanese are so good at. But it’s also pretty high tech, with the “We Chat” payments system being more advanced than American payments.

There’s also a huge distinction between indoors and outdoors. Where I live in Orange County, both indoors and outdoors are equally “nice.” In Beijing, the outdoors is dirty and messy, while the indoors are often the other extreme, especially in newer places. If you went from an American department store to one in Beijing, you’d feel like your vision suddenly jumped from 20-30 to 20-20. The white marble floors are polished, the goods are artfully arrayed and so well-illuminated as to appear almost hyperreal. In the inside, Beijing seems almost an order of magnitude more economically advanced than the street scenes.

Like many Asian cities, Beijing is a nightmare for pedestrians. But they are now developing European-style neighborhoods like Dashilan, which goes under the acronym “FUN”. This area has the most impressive Starbucks I’ve ever seen (including lots of alcohol drinks, although I tried a citrus iced coffee with ice cream for $10), and a really neat bookstore. Sebastian Edwards will be pleased to note that his book on the gold clause Supreme Court case was prominently displayed, but alas, no “Midas Paradox.” Overall, it had a nice mix of restored old buildings, fake old buildings, and ultra-modern buildings.

Ironically, “globalization” is making China turn from soulless western corporate monstrosities to quaint, 19th century-style, walkable Chinese neighborhoods. The Chinese travel to Europe, and then want to create the same thing at home. (Recall the T.S. Eliot line about seeing home again for the first time.)

Overall, it remains a mostly unattractive city on the outside, but with many places of high interest. The historical places have been nicely restored. (Fortunately, Asians care less about “authenticity”.) Unfortunately, right now those famous places are overrun with tourists. The Chinese tourists now completely dominate western tourists, perhaps by 100 to 1. I gather that tourist overcrowding is becoming a big issue all over the world.

Don’t be misled by the $10 coffee I cited. Two days ago, I bought an egg McMuffin and a cup of coffee for a total of 8 yuan at McDonalds. That’s about $1.12. Beijing is still very cheap; 42 cents for subway trips up to 6km and $2 taxi rides. In PPP terms this is relatively high income place. BTW, I only do stupid things like visiting McDonalds when out alone; with my family we go to spectacular Yunnan restaurants. China still has great food at very good prices. Later I’ll get my hair cut at the place I always go to, which I use to estimate PPP. It was $1.20 in 1994 and $4 in 2012. I predict $6.

Soon after I got off the plane I sensed that the western articles about the “social credit” system were probably misleading. China’s too vast and messy for the government to pay much attention to ordinary people. Yes, they can monitor you via your We Chat purchases if they choose, but so can our NSA. China’s government is a big problem if you are an activist on controversial issues (or a Muslim in Xinjiang), but otherwise I suspect it’s not really a 1984-type society for most people.

So far, the air has been unusually clear (see picture above), but of course there are still plenty of bad days (especially in winter). September and October are the best time to visit. I see lots of “e-bikes” and “e-scooters”, indeed most of them now seem to be electronic, not gas powered. So there’s a real effort in Beijing to reduce pollution (including noise pollution; these scooters are really quiet.) I believe the air will be much clearer in 20 years.

Later, we plan to visit relatively poor Guizhou, which will be an interesting contrast. But even Guizhou has spectacular infrastructure:

Infrastructure investment in Guizhou has grown 20 per cent annually over the past five years with the state adding high-speed railways, nearly half of the world’s 100 tallest bridges and a motorway network to rival France’s.

PS. The Chinese property market is complex. Many “owners” in the building where I am staying do not have the legal right to sell their unit, but can rent it out and can also bequeath it to their children. The public spaces (halls and elevators) in buildings with $1 and $2 million condos aren’t much better than what you’d see in a public housing project in Chicago. But the condo fee is only about $50/month.

PPS. China is now quite unequal, but in death there is still a lot of egalitarianism. In a large cemetery that we visited almost all the tombstones were the same size and shape.

PPPS. Lots of Chinese people ask to have their picture taken with my daughter. No one asks for a picture with me.



36 Responses to “No country for old men”

  1. Gravatar of policy_wank policy_wank
    23. August 2019 at 18:48

    “PPPS. Lots of Chinese people ask to have their picture taken with my daughter. No one asks for a picture with me.”

    Well, you’re no Yao Ming but surely your height is still pretty anomalous?

  2. Gravatar of xu xu
    23. August 2019 at 18:52

    WeChat has been around a long time….
    If you go to Shanghai you will see even a bigger gap between the technology in China and the Technology in the West, particularly the US. The US is way behind….and in so many ways. And it will only get worse and worse because you cannot keep your service jobs either. Finland, Norway, Russia & China lead in blockchain, robotics, and quantum computing which will dominate the future. Almost 80% of whitepapers are coming from outside the US. VC’s are actively looking for foreign companies now, because innovation in the US has slowed due to higher entry barriers and incredibly high taxes & regulation.
    You should have listened to Noam Chomsky in the 80s, because he was right about state owned companies. More research & investment, and control, equals higher prosperity for everyone. 95% of western economists are just wrong. And it has led to high debt and disaster in the job markets. It is just sad that your ego will not allow you to admit it. But regardless of ego – as they like to say here: “facts don’t lie”.

    Chinese system is better — a lot better!

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    23. August 2019 at 23:58

    Policy, There are more tall Chinese people than you might expect.

  4. Gravatar of Wavez Residence Wavez Residence
    24. August 2019 at 02:41

    The white marble floors are polished, the goods are artfully arrayed and so well-illuminated as to appear almost hyperreal.

  5. Gravatar of George George
    24. August 2019 at 07:43


  6. Gravatar of George George
    24. August 2019 at 07:46

    Could we invite this one guy to America and ask that all California/Oregon communist sheep go to asshole China?

  7. Gravatar of George George
    24. August 2019 at 07:51

    Chairman Xi PROMISED to stop the exporting of deadly Fentanyl into the US, which kills 100,000 PEOPLE EVERY SINGLE YEAR.

    He never did.


    Do you see why fake news is so evil?

    They create NPCs like this.



  8. Gravatar of BJH BJH
    24. August 2019 at 13:49

    Interesting observations (as always), and makes me wish that I had visited China this summer!

  9. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    24. August 2019 at 16:50

    Does your daughter look European? I am trying to figure out why no pictures with you but pictures with her? Maybe it is age, as I do have people asking to take a selfie with me, although only occasionally.

    Also, the cheap delivery I consider a part of China being a developing country. Those couriers don’t make much per delivery, though by working a ton of hours, they can make a decent income. It also probably helps that the capital, maintenance, insurance, and fuel costs for a scooter are pretty low. That said, if they were making $10/hr like an UBER driver, I believe that would be a huge raise for them. I still have no idea how Didi drivers afford basic necessities, given the low fares I see, even on long rides. Maybe they don’t own the vehicles?

  10. Gravatar of P Burgos P Burgos
    24. August 2019 at 16:59

    Given the frugality of Chinese folks, why don’t more take advantage of the skew between rents and property prices?

    Also, why the restrictions on sales of condo units?

  11. Gravatar of David Pinto David Pinto
    25. August 2019 at 07:02

    My daughter visited China around 2006. The soldiers all over Beijing wanted to take their picture with her.

    The number of soldiers she saw was jarring to her. Her comment on returning was “I guess this is what a police state looks like.” Do you still see a lot of soldiers as you walk around?

  12. Gravatar of Luis Pedro Coelho Luis Pedro Coelho
    25. August 2019 at 07:18

    I have explained Shanghai by saying that most economies can be placed on a scale that goes from Zimbabwe at the bottom to Copenhagen at the top, but in Shanghai, you can go from one to the other by turning the corner. I’ve only spent a little time in Beijing, but it seemed to have fewer of these extreme contrasts to be honest. A lot more heavy police presence in Beijing (in Shanghai, it’s mostly traffic cops and nobody respects them).

    Housing is still generally subpar. This is a mix of (1) it just takes time for the housing stock to turn over and (2) many high earning Chinese individuals are still fine living below their means, while directing their spending elsewhere (I first stayed at a definitely-not-impressive apartment in the centre, but the parking lot was full of very high end cars). Point 2 is, to some extent the sociology and mechanism of (1).

    I have been impressed at how developed second tier cities are too. Tbh, they have impressed me more than China having a couple of developed cities.

  13. Gravatar of anon/portly anon/portly
    25. August 2019 at 07:35

    The interesting thing to me is the claim about so many new tall bridges. When you bing “Guizhou bridges” and look at images you see what it means – massive bridges over deep gorges. You should report back on how scary it is to drive over some of those – do they have special double-decker buses, by any chance? Or walk, a couple of walking bridges over deep gorges came up also. Don’t wimp out on us.

  14. Gravatar of Luis Pedro Coelho Luis Pedro Coelho
    25. August 2019 at 07:40

    Compared to Europe, I also find the US to have a big difference between indoors and outdoors, mostly because there is a big difference between the private and the public sector in the US that is less pronounced in Europe (I also think that the American distrust of public provision of goods compared to Europe is just a rational response to how bad the American public sector is).

  15. Gravatar of Sunday assorted links – Marginal REVOLUTION Sunday assorted links - Marginal REVOLUTION
    25. August 2019 at 08:50

    […] 1. Scott Sumner visits Beijing. […]

  16. Gravatar of Mark Mark
    25. August 2019 at 08:54

    My main takeaway from a trip to China a few years ago was also that China does not feel like the 1984-style society it is portrayed as in the US. Life there is probably tough for certain dissidents (just like life is tough for the people in the US border camps or on US government watch-lists), but it did not really feel like an authoritarian society to me and probably does not feel like one to the average Chinese person. The only two things that really stood out were not being able to access certain US websites (which the average Chinese person not used to using those websites probably wouldn’t notice any more than we notice not using WeChat in the US), and having to put your stuff through an x-ray when getting on the subway. The security and immigration people were nicer and more polite than I usually expect when coming back to the US, and I saw a big protest right in the airport arrivals lounge (I was told by a Chinese-speaking person I was with that it was about a local environmental issue). In fact, during our trip, we even heard people complain that the government is not authoritarian enough by failing to crack down on corrupt officials and shady businesspeople. Even Trump sometimes complains that the Chinese government is not authoritarian enough by failing to crack down on fentanyl, keep up the value of their currency, etc. So this is probably why our accusations of authoritarianism often seem to fall flat on Chinese people.

    Some other countries I have been to have actually felt more authoritarian than China, for example Israel (where our tour was delayed for hours while our tour guide tried to track down a Muslim member who was disappeared at the airport, and later a soldier in full combat armor, face-covering helmet, and assault rifle boarded our tour bus to check passports) and Ecuador (where there were billboards with a picture of their former president Correa saying “tenemos patria”/”we have a country” everywhere).

  17. Gravatar of Cloud Cloud
    25. August 2019 at 09:18

    Would you also stop by Hong Kong? 🙂

  18. Gravatar of Ray Lopez Ray Lopez
    25. August 2019 at 09:45

    SS: “Roughly $10,000 per sq. meter, I believe.” – sounds cheap. I own (inherited) a four story apartment in Athens that goes for, assessed value, 12.5k Euro/m2, and at the peak was three times that; you’d think that a “gold” area of Beijing would be higher. Bonus trivia: I attended Peking University once as a guest lecturer.

  19. Gravatar of Chip Daniels Chip Daniels
    25. August 2019 at 10:17

    FWIW, police states don’t usually “feel” like police states to the majority of people.

    Whether is it the late Soviet Brezhnev state, Pinochet’s Chile, Argentina during the “Dirty War” or any other run of the mill repressive state, the state maintains power by keeping life for a protected majority relatively pleasant, but harsh and painful for a targeted minority.

    The lines around what is forbidden to discuss or think or do are kept clear, and for those who comply, life is usually pretty normal.

  20. Gravatar of Hoosier Hoosier
    25. August 2019 at 10:35

    “My main takeaway from a trip to China a few years ago was also that China does not feel like the 1984-style society it is portrayed as in the US. ”

    My question is this: do people in China self-censor themselves for fear of reprisal via the social credit system? If so, then it’s a problem (for me at least). And yes, it could be a problem in the US too. But I don’t know too many people who are doing it. (do you know many people who are? maybe I live in a bubble…)

    For example. I’m not personally worried about the US government cracking down on me because I’m against bombing Yemen. I also get a daily barrage of FB posts on my timeline of people in the USA ripping Trump left and right. Do people in China fear speaking openly about the situation in Xinjiang? Is it even that well known?

  21. Gravatar of Bill Markle Bill Markle
    25. August 2019 at 11:00

    China is huge and fascinating and it is easy to fall in love with the culture and people. As Professor Sumner points out, there are surprising similarities with America and surprising differences. The socialist state provides most people a libertarian society – remember Michael Harrington, capitalism for the poor, socialism for the rich? Assumptions we make in econ 101 do not always apply; you can do wondrous things when labor is very cheap – but then capital is expensive – unless you are an SOE. CCP is the vanguard of the proletariat – but like in Animal Farm, some citizens are more equal than others.

    It takes a while, and some contacts, to get behind the facade. Chinese in their forties still remember the end of the Cultural Revolution, but everyone hopes that their children will never have such experience. But many of my Chinese government students from Chicago see a new cultural revolution happening now. Bright, shiny things attract all of us foreigners, especially when compared with subways and trains in New York and Chicago; but those come at a cost for many farmers and at some point, just as in the US, material rewards are not enough. I have been writing about “chineseness” at

    For a somewhat advanced perspective on the new China, I suggest the Ci Jiwei, Moral China in the Age of Reform. He provides analysis of the current malaise – not unknown in the US, either – based on inability to express human dignity beyond material well-being. Don’t just pass this by – it is worth reading a couple of times.

  22. Gravatar of Gurevise Gurevise
    25. August 2019 at 14:29

    Great post. Please keep sharing your observations.

  23. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    25. August 2019 at 16:01

    China’s government is a big problem if you are an activist on controversial issues (or a Muslim in Xinjiang), but otherwise I suspect it’s not really a 1984-type society for most people.–Scott Sumner

    This gets uncomfortably close to Chinapology. It is the same in every repressive government.

    Shopping malls in Asia are otherwordly.

  24. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. August 2019 at 17:00

    David, You asked:

    “Do you still see a lot of soldiers as you walk around?”

    Only in some areas, not in most.

    Burgos, She looks European, and seems far more glamorous than an old guy like me.

    Good point about the Didi drivers. All the hard work in Beijing is done by low paid people from the countryside—although even they have seen big rises in real wages.

    Luis, Good points.

    Anon, I doubt I’ll be able to.

    Mark, Good points. I’d say China is authoritarian, but not totalitarian (as it was under Mao.)

    Ray, That was for a run down unit. A nice unit is closer to $20,000/sq. meter.

    Chip. That was actually my point. See my reply to Mark. But many people do claim that the social credit system makes China totalitarian.

    Hoosier, My hunch is that only a few people fear to speak their mind about Xinjiang, because the vast majority either don’t care or support the government. For most people in China, Xinjiang seems very far away.

    People are not afraid to be mildly critical of the government in ordinary conversations. The people who get in trouble are political activists. In contrast, even ordinary conversations were very sensitive when Mao was in power, and could get you in big trouble.

    On your other point, Americans certainly have more freedom to express political dissent.

    Bill, Thanks for the link.

    Ben, Misreading me again.

  25. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. August 2019 at 17:09

    Xu, So when China was 100% state owned the people were starving, and now that 80% work in the private sector it’s booming, and that proves that . . . .

    . . . The SOEs are the key to China’s success? If you say so.

    Cloud, I wanted to, but was outvoted.

  26. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. August 2019 at 17:11

    Burgos, Many Chinese got their units in sweetheart deals (they had lived in the for a long time.) They can’t turn around and cash in.

    I seem to recall that my mother-in-law paid something like $1/month rent on the old days (1970s)

  27. Gravatar of V. Wong V. Wong
    25. August 2019 at 17:23

    Everybody you talk to on street do not dare to tell what they really think. I have a lots of classmates in China; they pick words super cautiously now. I guess even you censor yourself subconsciously in this blog.

  28. Gravatar of Garrett Garrett
    25. August 2019 at 18:58

    I always enjoy these posts. I find it difficult to find “feet on the ground” accounts like this on China from writers I respect. If you have any recommendations on blogs you follow I’d be interested.

  29. Gravatar of Charles Fox Charles Fox
    25. August 2019 at 21:01

    “The price/monthly rent ratios are insanely high (maybe 1000X?) as the Chinese prefer to own property.”

    Are apartment to condo conversions common? Is land super-valued the apartment building owners too or is it primarily occupant owners that drive the valuation?

    “Many “owners” in the building where I am staying do not have the legal right to sell their unit, but can rent it out and can also bequeath it to their children.”

    Do the children get to depreciate the property too?

    “It’s in an area with good schools, which is gold.”

    Does address determine school assignment or can students commute in if the parents want an out of district assignment?

  30. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. August 2019 at 23:21

    Wong, I agree.

    Garrett, I don’t have time to read many blogs, but Michael Pettis is very knowledgable about China.

    Charles, I believe many of these rentals are condos being rented out. But I’m not sure. I’m also not aware of the depreciation situation.

    I believe that address plays some role, as parents work hard to get a house in an area with good schools.

  31. Gravatar of Eamon Eamon
    26. August 2019 at 09:35

    “Lots of Chinese people ask to have their picture taken with my daughter. No one asks for a picture with me.”

    LOL! I live in Haidian, may I have a picture with you?

  32. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. August 2019 at 20:09

    Eamon, Sure. Where in Haidian are you?

  33. Gravatar of SeaMoney SeaMoney
    27. August 2019 at 12:15

    An interesting post on Chinese urbanism you might like:

  34. Gravatar of Bill Markle Bill Markle
    29. August 2019 at 01:26

    Regarding the “condo” discussion – the government owns all land in China, except for farmer land. When individual Chinese buy an apartment, they are buying use rights for a period of years, depending on the prior use of the land and the province. Think of it as a long term rental that can be mortgaged, sold, leased, or passed on to heirs but with a final expiration date. What happens when the expiration date comes is now being adjudicated in some places, as in Wenzhou in Zhejiang. Apartment “ownership” is very inexpensive once past the purchase price, since there are no property taxes, no one buys any insurance, there is very little maintenance, and management fees to pay for elevator maintenance and landscaping and guards are pretty low.

  35. Gravatar of Rob Rob
    29. August 2019 at 16:04

    What area are you staying in? Having lived in Beijing for the last nine years I will agree that it is very far from a homogeneous city, which also means depending on what kind of atmosphere you like, you can probably find it. There are actually a lot of fairly empty parks and museums btw, but if something is famous enough to be known, it is typically too crowded to visit (enjoyably).

  36. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    29. August 2019 at 17:13

    Seamoney, Thanks, that’s very accurate.

    Bill, Yes, but that’s a separate issue. Many Chinese condos can be sold, and many cannot.

    Rob, Haidian district.

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