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Travelogue: Governor Snyder's Trip to China (with photos)

I'm on assignment in China following Governor Snyder's trade mission, and I'm sharing my thoughts as I travel. Feel free to write me back in the comments below.

Nearing the end - Friday, September 30

The Governor's trade mission is coming to an end, and so is my trip to China.

I won't miss the smog and pollution, either in Shanghai (bad) or Beijing (worse).

But it has truly been too short a trip to get more than a glimpse of everything that is happening with China's economy, its auto industry, and its cultural and population shifts.

Frank Langfitt in Shanghai and Louisa Lim in Beijing surely have two of the biggest, most exciting beats in public radio.  This fly-in reporter leaves the country in their incredibly capable hands.

Adventure travel

My adventures with taxis continued.

I am starting to take this a little personally.

Arriving back in Shanghai from Beijing, I got in the long queue to get a taxi to my downtown Pudong hotel.

I decided I'd be a discerning and demanding customer this time around.  I rejected several taxis that had no seat belt in the back.  But when I found a taxi that was suitably equipped, and showed the driver the address to which I wanted to be taken, he shook his head, and drove up to grab the fellow who was behind me in the line.

The next taxi cab driver whose cab had seat belts did the same thing.  I asked  the airport employee who was in charge of the queue to help, but he spoke no English.  Nor did the first ten or so people in line.

Paying it forward

Finally, however, an angel arrived at the queue.  Deserine Lim, fluent English-speaker and rescuer of helpless American travelers.  She looked at my hotel address and explained that the taxi drivers didn't want me because it was too close, and they wanted a bigger fare.  Ouch.

Then, without my even thinking to ask, she suggested I split a cab with her.  She'd drop me off at my hotel, and continue on to her destination.

I'm not a Tennessee Williams fan for nothing.  I, too, have always relied on the kindness of strangers.  I got in the cab gratefully.

My rescuer is a native of Singapore, she told me, visiting Shanghai just for a day on business.  But she knows the town well, and told me what shops to go to near my hotel, what restaurants to haunt.  We discussed American politics.

When we arrived at my hotel, I paid the fare, and since it was clear her favor to me was going to cost her, both in terms of time and money, I tried to give her some money to cover the extra distance.

She adamantly refused to take it.

So, I shall have to content myself with paying it forward some day.

Ms. Lim is Assistant General Manager of OSIM, a global provider of personal, health and convenience products headquartered in Singapore.  OSIM is a co-owner of Brookstone, a company that provides such products in the U.S.

Thanks, Deserine.  You're a peach.

Next stops before home

Next stop for me:  Shanghai Jiao Tong University, where I'll visit the Joint Institute between SJTU and the University of Michigan.

I also plan to go to a shopping mall with my SJTU interpreter, Paul (Kang Yiping) to ask people about transportation issues.

Then, another interview with a Ford China official, to learn more about the company's strategy to ride the next wave of demand for vehicles in the country.

And tomorrow morning, I'll be on a non-stop flight from Shanghai to Detroit.

They say the jet lag is a lot worse coming back.

Michigan Radio, don't call me.  I'll call you.

Arrived in Beijing - Wednesday, September 28:

I am in Beijing.

I arrived on the fourth consecutive day of a smog health advisory in the city.  Children are not supposed to play outdoors, and people with chronic health conditions are being urged to stay inside. Even if you are healthy, the smog is very irritating to your eyes and throat.

Michigan has never seemed cleaner. Even the worst Ozone Action Day in Michigan in August can't hold a candle to this.

Shanghai was windy while I was there earlier in the week. We need a good strong breeze to get this stuff out of the city, so people can breathe.

The Chinese government knows it has a potential crisis on its hands, as more people move into the cities, and more of them purchase cars.  That's why the government adopted a five year plan to vastly increase the number of electric cars in China.

The big problem with that is infrastructure.

In Michigan, and other places in the U.S., one can envision lots of people being able to charge their electric cars in their garages, but in China, most people live in high-rise apartment buildings in the cities.

Somehow the country will have to find ways city residents can plug in these hybrid and electric cars.

I attended the Governor's reception, sponsored by Amway, at the Park Hyatt Beijing this evening.

After a long international flight from Detroit, another flight from Tokyo to Beijing, and three days of morning until late-evening meetings in both cities, I can report that our governor has considerable stamina.  He looked refreshed and collected, and his day is not done.

Many of the rest of us on the trade mission are complaining about how exhausted we feel.  And we're only half-way through the trip.

My own Barney Oldfield in Shanghai

Shanghai does have a mandatory seat belt law, but it's almost uniformly flouted.

Several Shanghai residents told me they feel seat belts are unnecessary in the city, and they only buckle up when they go on the highway.

In the U.S., a decade-long Click It or Ticket campaign has cracked down on this behavior.  For most years, Michigan is in the top three for best seat belt use rate in the nation, thanks to strict police enforcement.

I had no intention of doing as the Shanghainese do, even though I was in Shanghai.

Unfortunately, many of the city's taxi cabs have no functioning seat belts in the back.

The taxi that picked me up to take me to Shanghai Pudong Airport for my flight to Beijing was no exception.

No seat belts.  No problem, I thought.  It's just this one time, right?

I began to think twice about my cavalier attitude once my driver got us on the highway.

This was a man on a mission, a mission to get his fare to her destination in as little time as possible.  I am not sure getting her there alive was a top priority, however.

Back in the days of Henry Ford, there was a famous race car driver with a rakish grin, renowned for his risk-taking.

Barney Oldfield was the dashing fellow's name.  I know this because my grandmother, born in 1896, remembered his exploits from her youth.  Whenever my father would drive incautiously, she'd bellow from the back seat, "Slow down!  You're driving like Barney Oldfield!"

Oh, Nana.  I could use you now.

Weaving and dodging, my new friend Barney got us up to speeds approaching 80 miles per hour.

Pretty remarkable for rush hour.

I tried not to imagine what would happen to my body if someone in front of us slammed on the brakes suddenly.

I furtively squeezed my fingers into the seat back, hoping against hope I'd find a seat belt buckle lodged down there.


Had someone actually cut that part of the belt OFF?  Why?  Why would someone do that?

As often happens in these kind of situations, you start imagining how your death will go over amongst those who might care.

What would the below-the-fold headline read?

"Auto industry reporter killed in ironic high-speed traffic accident while reporting on car industry in China" ?

I supposed people would say things like, "she died doing what she loved." And I wouldn't be around to say, "Um, no, not really.  I wasn't actually having that much fun right at that particular moment."

At any rate, my story has a happy ending.

Barney Oldfield actually finished more races than not, you know.  And my Barney, well, he was, in fact, a very adept driver.

During this ride, which couldn't have lasted more than 30 minutes, his intense focus on the perils in his path was quite remarkable.

Only at the end, when he dropped me off and accepted my ridiculously large tip, did he grin.

And it was a rakish grin.

The auto market in Shanghai - Tuesday, September 27:

I visited two dealerships in Shanghai today, a Chevrolet dealership and a Ford dealership.

With me was engineering student Kang Yiping, a sophomore at the University of Michigan/Shanghai Jiao Tong University Joint Institute, to act as interpreter.

It was the first time "Paul" (his adopted English name) had translated for someone and he was a natural at it.  First time I've used a translator, too, and it went a lot better than I expected.  The only real difference is your interviews take twice as long.

I was told to expect some customers to bring in cash to pay for their purchases, but I did not witness that.

The customers I spoke with put down about 30-50% of the purchase price, and financed the rest with a loan, from the finance arms for GM and Ford in China.  It may be a reflection of the fact that the auto market in China is rapidly changing, and conforming to what we see here in the U.S.  (Although it would be unusual to find someone in the U.S. paying as much as 30 percent of the car as a down payment.)

Maturing car buyers

One of the Chevy dealership executives told me that Chinese customers are becoming more mature and sophisticated.  Whereas in the past they would fixate on the appearance of the car, and the flashier the better, now they increasingly want what customers all over the world want - fuel economy, a good price, high quality and safety.

I asked customers whether they were concerned about Shanghai traffic congestion and parking problems.  A common theme emerged:  If you think Shanghai traffic is bad, go to Beijing.  You'll never complain about Shanghai traffic again.

Both cities' population is huge - about 20 million each.

The difference is, city officials in Shanghai ten years ago began controlling the number of vehicles they would permit to be sold to city residents, with a license plate lottery.  But Beijing waited.

This year, for the first time, Beijing will actually auction off the license plates.  But it's a matter of too little, perhaps, too late.

I am about to see for myself the reputed horrors of Beijing traffic, when I fly to Beijing to join Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.  I have been told to allow three hours to get from the airport to my hotel.

The universal language of duct tape

I had some time to walk through some side streets near Ford headquarters in Shanghai today.

In some ways, Shanghai is one of the most modern cities in the world.  In particular, car ownership is so new, that all the vehicles on the street are far newer than any you'd see in Michigan.  But people hang onto their bicycles and scooters as long as possible.

Another universal truth I discovered:  Duct tape can keep just about anything going.  Bob Skon, our Chief Engineer at Michigan Radio, will appreciate this.

Be careful with that concept car!

I was also permitted a take a brief ride in GM's EN-V.  This is a two-wheeled pod-like concept vehicle that envisions a time in mega-cities like Shanghai perhaps 20 years from now, when traffic congestion and parking problems are much worse than they are now.

In the future, you might be able to call up your EN-V from the parking garage down the street.  It drives itself to your front door, and delivers you to your workplace, while you sit back and read and catch up on email.  Car connectivity will keep you safe, preventing other vehicles from crashing into you.

Now, keep in mind, concept vehicles are often one of a kind.  GM has built only three of these so far.

They are very, very, very expensive.  Extremely expensive.  So you can imagine why, after my kind GM hosts exhorted me to not scratch the EN-V as I got in, there was a gasp of fear when my big clunky shoe loudly struck the side of the EN-V as I got in.

GM CEO Dan Akerson may have heard the sound waves in Detroit 12 hours later.

Perhaps I should have forewarned them that I am to "clumsy" as Anna Pavlova is to "graceful."

In my defense, I didn't break the thing.

However, I think the e-mail has already gone out among GM communications staff.  I don't expect to get within striking distance of another GM concept vehicle in the foreseeable future.

Arrived in Shanghai - Monday, September 26:

I have arrived in Shanghai after an uneventful flight.

I have seen only a tiny fraction of the city so far, but as far as I can tell, everything here is geared towards international commerce, with English as the international business language.  All the signs in the airport are in English and Chinese, and to my surprise, all the major highway signs are in English and Chinese too.

A good half of the people I have encountered thus far speak English, from a little, to fluent.

Cars in Shanghai

As an auto beat reporter, I couldn't help taking a rough inventory of the brand names on the cars on Shanghai streets.

Volkswagen appears to have the corner on sedan taxi cabs in Shanghai.

There are many cars with the Buick brand on them too, although Buick China makes vehicles, like vans, that it does not make in the U.S.

I saw quite a few Mercedes, some Chevys, a Honda, and a Ford Fiesta.

Traffic notes

People in Michigan who support a repeal of the state's motorcycle helmet law take note.  Shanghai streets are truly the home of the free and the brave.   People on motorcycles and scooters fearlessly zip in and out amongst big trucks and taxis.

Most wear no helmet.

I saw a father riding a scooter with his toddler son propped in front of him, something that would be a rare sight indeed in the U.S.

No surprise that the taxi drivers in Shanghai are just as aggressive and quick to lay on the horn as any in New York City.

A smart room with a view

My hotel has a fine view of a number of factory smokestacks in my far-from-downtown suburb.

Also no surprise for a city renowned for its smog.

The outskirts of Shanghai have more greenery than I expected, however.  Lots of trees and vegetable gardens next to apartment buildings.

My hotel has a very smart energy-saving feature: if you don't have your room key in its slot next to the door, all the electricity shuts off in the room automatically. If you forget to turn off the lights when you leave, no matter.

The hotel is also not overly air conditioned, as many in the U.S. are.

Tomorrow, I'll visit a Chevrolet dealer and a Ford dealer in Shanghai, and interview GM China officials.

Delays at the Start - Sunday, September 25:

My trip to China has started, not with a bang, but a whimper.

Delta canceled my direct flight to Shanghai due to a maintenance problem with the plane.

When Northwest Airlines (now merged with Delta) began a non-stop flight to Shanghai from Detroit in 2000, it was a big event.

So much so, the Governor of Michigan, John Engler, flew to Shanghai for the celebration.

But there is still only one non-stop flight to Shanghai from Detroit every day.

So if it's canceled, it means big headaches for travelers like me who planned to attend meetings and events in Shanghai directly upon their arrival.

I'm now in Atlanta, and will fly to Shanghai from here in the morning, 18 hours later than originally planned.

Atlanta's airport is very well-organized, with lots of people to help you find your hotel and shuttle.

And the staff at my hotel are cheerfully working overtime, checking in lots of extra Detroit guests like me.

But I'd rather be in Shanghai.

The plus side - Delta gave me meal vouchers in Detroit and meal vouchers in Atlanta, too.  I think by mistake.  But of course I couldn't waste them.  So I ate dinner twice.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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