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A World of Change in China : In Place of Dreary Lodgings and Drab Food Are Gleaming Hotels and a Liberated Cuisine

July 11, 1993|ROBERT ELEGANT | Elegant is a former Times foreign correspondent and author of several novels, including "Dynasty" and "Bianca." He lives in London

BEIJING — Before returning to China for the first time in four years, I stopped over in Hong Kong last fall. The then-general manager of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel there, Gian Carlo Balanieri, gave me a preview of what I was about to see. "Michelangelo would be right at home if he came to China today," he said. "There's more marble in the new hotels of China than there is in Carrara!"

Well, not quite, but damned close.

The Chinese have given a very high priority recently to providing luxurious surroundings and excellent food for travelers bearing coveted foreign currencies (the U.S. dollar is still the standard of value). Since marble represents the height of luxury to them, they have decked out all their new hotels in it, inside and out.

Every lobby, indeed every restroom, is a gleaming grotto. The lobby of The Palace in Beijing, owned largely by the Chiefs of Staff of the People's Liberation Army, run by the upscale Peninsula chain and touted by China's government travel agency as "the best hotel in China," even boasts a four-story marble waterfall. Crystal cataracts tumble from floor to floor in the lobby atrium.

Only four years ago, traveling in the People's Republic was a test of strength, nerve and patience. But having visited several cities recently--Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Nanjing and Haikou, on the resort island of Hainan, among them--I found the pattern substantially changed. Travel in China can now be a pleasure . . . and the food can be wonderful.

Under the slogan "Visit China 1992," Beijing exerted itself strenuously to attract tourists. Last year, about 6.25 million visitors came in organized groups, and the Chinese government reported in June that a record 37 million foreigners visited China in 1992, up from 31 million in 1988. (Many of these "foreigners" are residents of Hong Kong and Macau who cross the border casually and for brief stays, as they did before the Communists came to power.)

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Experiencing a roughly 25% annual growth in tourism since 1978 (except for the post-Tian An Men years, 1989 and 1990), China had difficulty providing adequate facilities to meet the demand. The recent mushroom-like sprouting of hotels has gone a long way toward solving tourist housing problems, although traveling in China is still not an experience for the fainthearted. Visiting the vast country can be an adventure, which may well be an inducement to the jaded traveler.

On this trip, my first since 1988 (the year before the Tien An Men massacre), I was again struck by the phenomenon I had seen in the past: How contacts with foreigners--even the short visits of often misled tourists--help the Chinese people break down the crumbling walls of totalitarianism.

To the Chinese, the mere presence of tourists they meet, however glancingly, testifies to China's gradual opening. New hotels require an open door for foreign managers and foreign goods. Tourists themselves require not only transportation and accommodation, but information. They need guides, waiters, receptionists, bellhops and chamber maids who speak a foreign language (usually English) and thus learn foreign ways.

It is, as the Communists now know, impossible to open up just a little. The government-controlled press periodically rails against "spiritual pollution by foreign bourgeois ideas," and "foreigners' attempting to foster a peaceful transition to capitalism." But the old bosses can do little. They cannot block the development of the country that now boasts one of the world's fastest economic growth rates.

So the leaders strive to stimulate development, with its unavoidable foreign contacts, while preserving authoritarian rule. That balancing act can go on just so long. Controls over independent thinking and exchange of information are already fraying; the provinces are asserting their autonomy. Every tourist visit aids that process. Those Americans who are deterred from visiting China by the horror of Tian An Men, or the continuing campaign to expunge dissidents, might bear this in mind.

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I traveled by train, car, airplane and ship for a fair sampling of what is to offer. The cruise vessel on which I lectured provided a remarkable contrast to the China outside the porthole. The ship was, of course, a peripatetic womb, but, ironically, it was not as luxurious as some of the new hotels.

Recent changes in China are marked. Not only is the little world of the tourist utterly altered, but the life of the Chinese people is also much improved. The countryside of Guangdong province, which borders Hong Kong, has been transformed by the new prosperity, as have coastal cities like Fuzhou and Xiamen in Fujian province, where money and talent from Nationalist Chinese Taiwan are heavily invested. I spent most of my time in areas along the China coast, where foreign presence and investment is greatest and daily life is today much better materially than it has been for many decades.

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