While it’s only been two years since I was here last, it’s a different China in 2019.

Trump is in the White House, Xi is president for life, there’s a trade war going on and China thinks its winning. The view from here is that the U.S. is in decline. The American visiting professor is not welcomed with as much warmth as before.

Our two countries are adversaries once more — respectful for the most part — but confrontational none the less. Gone is the pre-2016 sense that mutual growth, development and accommodation could be achieved. China’s pride has collided with America’s arrogance. It’s difficult to see how this ends well. Perhaps the best one can hope for is what Kissinger called “a state of ambiguous equilibrium.”

To that end, I try to stay positive and do my work here.

 

“They’d commit suicide”

What else has changed in two years? The alarming degree to which this society is wed to technology — and I would opine — completely addicted to their smart phones.

In any random crowd of average-looking Chinese (20 people waiting at a bus stop) every single person will have his or her phone in hand, bent over the glowing screen, no conversation between the bus-stoppers.

And I thought American college students were addicted. Nothing close. China is not just a digital society — it is a phone-dependent society.

I’m not making this up: the very moment I wrote that sentence in my journal at the hotel cafeteria, a young professional woman asked if she could join me at the table.

Great, I assumed. I get to have a conversation with a new friend.

Silly me.  No sooner than she had sat down, the woman whipped out her phone, and hunched over it, soup spoon in her left hand, phone in her right, face inches away from the screen, completely absorbed.

Surely this can’t last. But 15 minutes went by, and she never looked up or said a word to her tablemate.

I might as well be the salt shaker.

Welcome to the new China, Mr. Joke.

When I ask one of my Chinese colleagues about this newly observed phenomenon, I wanted to know, what would Chinese do if the power grid went down or if they lost their smart phones…to which my host replied, laughing darkly, “They’d commit suicide!”

 

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