And probably on your mind as well.

When there isn’t a hot news story about an election, a scandal or a disaster, it seems that China is the constant background music we all hear.  China’s incredible growth.  China’s incredible wealth.  China’s growing need for oil that will soon exceed world production capacity.  China as the manufacturer of everything.

I’m sure you’ve heard the same.

I’ve been to China only a few times so I can’t claim to be an expert.  I will be returning in May, and I’m greatly looking forward to the trip.  So far I’ve only visited Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen – all incredible cities – and I’ll be going to Xi’An in May.  I’ve also been to Hong Kong and Taiwan numerous times, but I won’t enter the debate about whether or not those are “China” ;)

That doesn’t qualify me as having seen a genuine cross-section, but I’ve seen enough to have some strong impressions.

Beijing is filled with a staggering number of bicycles, yet the number of European luxury cars (especially Audis) is remarkable.  The “hutongs” (small alleys) are filled with homes and food stalls, and seem to have not changed for centuries, yet a few steps away there are boutique stores that I personally can’t afford to shop in.  (Was this really a Communist country?)  On the way to see the Great Wall I saw barefoot men carrying goods in wheelbarrows.  On that same day China sent men into space.

The Great Wall defies description.  I’ve been to many places and have seen many things, so sometimes I feel a bit jaded.  But the sheer size, grandeur and human effort that went into building this ancient structure is mind boggling.  And yes, I arranged with my travel companion that in case we got separated we should meet at the Starbucks coffee shop next to the front gate.

Shanghai is filled with tradition – both Chinese and colonial.  I have a photograph of a beautiful Temple (one of many).  The background is filled with a huge poster advertizing the latest electronic gadget.  And then of course there is the “new” skyline, an area of the city that was pasture less than a generation ago.  I stared in amazement at the futuristic skyline, thinking of “The Jetsons” cartoon that I watched as a child and admitting that it made the skyline of my home town of New York look a bit old fashioned.

If you want to get an appreciation of China’s amazing history of technology and cultural sophistication (and be humbled at the same time), I recommend reading “1421: The Year China Discovered the World”.  I cannot comment on the accuracy of the scholarship, but it is a fascinating read.

There are endless statistics about China, but here’s a personal experience that’s one of my favorites…

On my first visit, about 7 years ago, I arranged for a meeting with a Chinese government official.  I had a long list of questions about market demographics, import/export procedures and so forth.  I was interested to know whether university students in China would be a market for my software.  Did they have access to computers?  Would they, or their schools, buy software?

My host, a Minister in a government agency whose name I have forgotten, told me that China is sparing no expense to develop a tier of “world class” universities that would be “the equal of MIT, Stanford and Oxford”.  I asked how many universities there would be of that kind, expecting a number like five.  His answer was “four hundred”.

In late 2005 I had the opportunity to participate in a presentation to the Chinese Academy of Mathematics.  There were over 50 members of the Academy present, as well as several visiting scientists from America and Europe.  I asked how many people in the audience had heard of Maple.  Every hand went up.  Then I asked how many people had ever used Maple.  Every hand went up.  Finally I asked how many people were currently using Maple.  Every hand went up.  Well… we hadn’t actually sold that many copies into China at that point, but the opportunity was clear ;)  And Chinese scientists clearly had a taste for the best!

I’m sure I’ll be trying to figure China out for years to come, as many of you will, and I expect to enjoy more visits and many more startling impressions.  China will be a big part of our futures – economically, politically and socially, and we’re just beginning to get to know her.

I’m very happy that while I’m trying to figure China out Maplesoft has a strong local partner in CCA Engineering Simulation Software!

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