(By Richard L. King)
In a few hours, China will host its first heads-of-state G20 summit in Hangzhou, the fabled lakeside city just south of Shanghai. In the 13th century, Marco Polo rhapsodized about the natural beauty of Hangzhou, which happens to be my ancestral home.
The last time Hangzhou was on the world stage was in 1929, when the West Lake International Expo, was held there. It was organized by my paternal grandfather, a prominent banker and civic leader.
The world of China and Hangzhou in late 1920s was dramatically different from today’s China. The country had just emerged from the overthrow of the last dynasty. Although a republic had been declared in 1912, it had a shaky start. No sooner was it established by Sun Yat-sen than the republic was hijacked by the self-declared and short-lived new emperor, Yuan Shi-kai. The country was thrown into chaos with no effective central government. Warlords took over many parts of the country.
In 1926, Chiang Kai-shek whose Northern Expedition defeated many warlords more or less unified China. Given that the nation was so fragile at the time, it amazes me that grandfather and his associates managed to pull off the 1929 Expo.
Today’s China is, of course, very different. It’s stable and united. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, it has steadily re-built itself. The Chinese renaissance is now in full swing. President Xi will welcome other world leaders to Hangzhou as the head of second largest economy in the world.
The list of China’s accomplishments over the last 30-plus years is staggering. It has the world’s longest network of high-speed rails at more than 12,000 miles, more than all other countries’ networks combined. During my childhood, the trip between Hangzhou and Shanghai, just over 100 miles away, took four hours. Today that same trip takes 40 minutes on high-speed bullet trains that are fast, efficient and affordable.
China has built some of the longest bridges in the world, including the Hangzhou Bay Bridge, near the site of the upcoming G-20 gathering. It now has the world’s fastest computer and its largest radio telescope.
These and other stunning accomplishments are domestic projects, but China has begun to share its knowledge and capital with the rest of the world. Through its One Belt, One Road initiative, China will be re-connected to the West via land as well as by the sea along ancient Silk Road. Hangzhou was and is one of the leading centers of silk producing centers in China.
The China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) promises to transform the Eurasian region. This fits well with the theme of this year’s conference: Innovative, Integrated, Interconnected and Inclusive.
The choice of Hangzhou is a perfect metaphor. Its ancient beauty has been the subject of art and verse for centuries. Today, it is also the city of many modern industries including Alibaba, the world’s largest e-commerce company, and Geely, the owner of Volvo.
When Alibaba went public in 2014, it was the biggest initial public offering (IPO) in history. The founders became instant billionaires. But, even more important, many of its employees became millionaires because the company had taken an unusual step early on by giving them shares in the company. With their newfound wealth, many chose to start their own ventures, a phenomenon well known in the U.S.
No wonder, some call Hangzhou the Silicon Valley of China. Like Silicon Valley, Hangzhou is blessed with an abundant supply of highly educated scientists, engineers and business managers. Its Zhejiang University is one of the finest in China—the Stanford of the East, one might say.
Zhejiang, the province whose capital is Hangzhou, is well known for its citizens’ emphasis on education and entrepreneurship. It produced many bankers, including my two grandfathers, both of whom were founders of the Bank of China.
Some of the largest shipping companies in the world were founded by natives of Zhejiang province, including Orient Overseas Container Line (OOCL), founded by C.Y. Tung, father of Hong Kong’s first chief executive, C.H. Tung; and World-Wide Shipping Group, founded by Y.K. Pao.
If one were to stand on the shores of the West Lake gazing west, the view could be a scene from a classical Chinese painting with arched bridges and abundant causeways lined with willow trees dipping into the lake. In the distance through the mist rise mountains dotted with pagodas. In the other direction is a modern city of millions, with towering skyscrapers and bright neon lights. The ying and yang of modern and ancient China are all in full view, and side by side.
Hangzhou boasts historical sites which I commend to anyone visiting, for business or for pleasure. A walk along the West Lake, a bike ride on the causeway, or gliding through lotus flower fields in a gondola-like boat are the perfect antidote to modern stress. A visit to Lingyin Temple, one of the largest and richest Buddhist temples in China, will perhaps surprise: throngs of worshippers fill the temple and its gardens in search of the transcendent.
Hangzhou is blessed with some of the finest Chinese cuisine, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel is said to favor. Perhaps she will savor Hangzhou’s West Lake vinegar fish, beggar’s chicken, Dongpo pork or a simple noodle dish called pian er chuan, my grandfather’s and therefore my own favorite soul food.
These should be accompanied by Dragon Well tea, considered by many the finest green tea in the world. And if one were to wish something stronger, the best rice wine in China comes from Shaoxing, not far from Hangzhou. The wine should be drunk warm, as was the custom of my grandfather, who always saved the last sip for me.
In the coming days, in Hangzhou, the eyes of the world will glimpse a blending of the ancient and modern, of the beautiful and the cutting-edge: a microcosm of a nation continuing to come into its own 5,000 years into its storied civilization.
Richard L King, PhD, is a retired investment banker and venture capitalist. He received his PhD in nuclear physics from New York University and also attended Stern Graduate School of Business at NYU. He was an instructor of Nuclear Physics at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY, a Trustee of the China Institute, member of the Science Advisory Board at NYU and a Director of the Committee of 100. Originally from Shanghai, Dr. King is a grandson, on both sides of his family, of two of the founders of the Bank of China.
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