The Mystery of the Missing Penny
Reflections on an educational voyage to China
My first impressions of China were formed in the mid-1950s in a small, enigmatic Chinese shop with faint wisps of green tea and tobacco and rows of densely spaced shelves crammed with little surprises to entrance a ten-year-old boy. The soft-spoken, graying Chinese proprietor gave me a small wooden box that made a penny magically disappear. The black lacquered gizmo kept me concentrating for an hour, attempting to uncover its secrets while my dad browsed through the rare Chinese art books in the connected bookshop.
China is approximately the geographic size of the U.S., with more than four times the people. If you doubt that we live in a shrinking globe, picture this: Last October a colleague and I flew sixteen hours and 7,500 miles from Madison to Chicago to Shanghai. As we headed into the city from the airport, one of the first buildings I noticed along the multi-lane, smooth-as-Chinese-silk superhighway displayed the Kohler Company logo. Kohler and Johnson Controls are ubiquitous given that there are more ultra-modern skyscrapers in Shanghai than in our four largest cities combined. It was as if I had flown more than halfway around the world and landed in Milwaukee, but for the dramatic contrast that Shanghai is a city of nineteen million people.
Originating in the eleventh century, the city is today reminiscent of Chicago on steroids, a massive international megalopolis interspersed with charming ancient Chinese parks, museums and hidden old neighborhoods. And it has all transformed in the last twenty years. Shanghai’s rapid modern development is astonishing in contrast to the slow pace that we are used to in Madison. In the time it has taken to debate the renovation of the Edgewater Hotel, the 2010 Expo was built and is now being torn down to make way for a modern, sustainable urban village. You can travel the twenty-seven miles from the airport to the city in seven minutes in a state-of-the-art technological marvel. Sadly, high-speed rail connecting Madison to other regional economic centers has been rejected by our political leaders who cannot envision the future.
Madison and Wisconsin educational institutions and businesses have broad and deep ties with China. More than 1,200 Chinese students, along with over four hundred visiting scholars and students, teach and study at UW–Madison. An approximately equal number study at other state universities and colleges. Wisconsin businesses, ranging across agricultural, industrial and consumer goods and scientific products, represent a rapidly growing—now at $2 billion—trade relationship. China is Wisconsin’s third-largest export destination. In 1987, Larry Landweber, emeritus professor of computer science at UW–Madison, helped establish China’s first email connection to the world that enabled the economic expansion that we witness today. Several Wisconsin businesses have established subsidiary manufacturing and sales offices in China, including, for example, Promega Corp., Franklin Fueling Systems, the Manitowoc Co. and Mercury Marine. Flying into the Beijing airport a few days later, I noticed Oshkosh Trucks brand fire-rescue vehicles and felt a proud connection to home.
Walking out of the historic Park Hotel located in the exact city center is like stepping out of a Miracle Mile luxury hotel onto a broad tree-lined sidewalk, except there’s a sea of seemingly thousands of mostly young, highly fashionable Chinese, the women beautiful and attractively dressed, chatting in Mandarin and laughing excitedly to each other or on cell phones or both. The curb is lined with Mercedes, BMWs and Audis, just some of the one million private cars registered in Shanghai. Exhaust from another five million vehicles chokes off the air in Beijing. The Chinese middle class now exceeds the total U.S. population. Almost 50 percent of the population now lives in urban areas, estimated to reach 75 percent in 2030. In fact, China has twelve cities with more than five million people.
A five-minute walk takes us to the Nanjing Road pedestrian mall—as long as State Street and four times as wide, with no vehicular traffic, sandwiched by the world’s most fashionable stores as far as the eye can see, with five-story digital advertising displays beckoning me to spend my relatively cheap yuan on Coach, Nike, Burberry and other things I don’t need or want. The shoppers clutching their purchases and children or boyfriends jam the entire space shoulder to shoulder, oozing in a collective shuffle from one end of the mall to the other between the Huangpu River and the People’s Park. Capitalism is evident everywhere you turn. Many young hucksters on roller skates approach me (the lone visible Caucasian) selling cheap neon yo-yos, spinning toys, kites, pictures of Mao and several offers for a good time, in limited English: “Hey, mister, where you from? Want a drink?” My Chinese colleague shoos away the young rural girls trying to make a living in the big city, like pesky flies off a fresh, hot sticky bun. I feel alternately paranoid and safe as I observe uniformed police and soldiers observing me and the crowd. The sites and sounds are literally dizzying, especially after a thirteen-hour time-zone change. I remember spotting a Chinese guy wearing a Green Bay Packers T-shirt, but that could have been jet-lagged delirium.
Every meal is a literal feast. Not like the inexpensive, suspicious meals served in my youth at Yee’s on King Street or the bland, Chinese-American chop suey special at the Cathay House on East Washington Avenue. My warm and welcoming hosts ply me with multiple heaping platters of beautifully prepared and mostly recognizable food. I can’t adapt to the goose feet in thick brown sauce, an expensive and coveted Chinese delicacy. Lots of Chinese beer accompanies lunch and dinner, although I’m not offered a Spotted Cow. And if I become hungry and homesick I spot several KFC’s, Golden Arches, Sizzler’s, Starbuck’s and, best of all, DQ!
China is literally everywhere in our homes and lives. Most computers, including Apple’s Mac, iPod and iPad are made in China, as are flat-screen televisions and other electronics. I’d guess that at least 50 percent of the stuff in our homes is made in China. After two-thirds of a century I have solved the mystery of the disappearing penny. China is a gigantic magic box that we’ve put our pennies into by buying most of our stuff and borrowing one hundred trillion pennies (estimated U.S. debt to China) to buy more stuff (like government bank bailouts and tax breaks for the wealthy). No wonder, when I asked my dad to tell me the secret of the magic penny box, his evasive answer to me was that the Chinese are very clever.
Martin A. Preizler is the dean of the School of Business at Edgewood College. He traveled to China with his colleague and friend, Professor Binbin Fu.