DAVID GREENE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm David Greene.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
When Westerners who study or chronicle China take a look back, this is what you'll hear.
ORVILLE SCHELL: You know, when I first went to China in 1975, if somebody had been able to show me China today, just for five minutes then, I would have thought they'd lost their mind.
MONTAGNE: That's China scholar Orville Schell. And we'll hear more from him in just a few minutes. First, someone else who has witnessed China's evolution.
GREENE: It's NPR's Anthony Kuhn. He has been a regular visitor to the country over the last three decades and he's seen Beijing transform from a provincial capital into a megalopolis of 18 million people. Anthony reflects on the changes he's seeing now. He's just returned to the city after being away for several years.
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ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: The first thing that strikes me right off the bat is: Who the heck are all these 20-somethings and how did they get to be driving all these Ferraris and Maseratis? Now I'm standing outside of a shopping mall full of clothing stores, and it just so happens that there are two Ferraris - one red and one white - parked outside it. And sure enough, there's a very young looking guy who's getting his handbag out of the trunk of the Ferrari. Let's go talk to this guy and see how he got this nice set of wheels.
What kind of car have you got here, I ask.
ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: It's a 458 Spider, he says. Where are you from, I say.
ZHANG: (Foreign language spoken)
KUHN: Inner Mongolia, he replies.
OK, so I learned that this guy's family name is Zhang and he builds roads in China's Inner Mongolia region. And at age 25 he can afford a Ferrari, which he says cost him $912,000 - all taxes and fees included. That's about all he'll tell me, so I've got only a sketchy answer to my questions.
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KUHN: Not far from the Ferraris, a blind man plays his musical instrument for spare change. It reminds me of the old Beijing neighborhoods where I used to live. Now I'm living another life in a new part of the city. I hear very few Beijing accents here. There's probably more Thai food and sushi than Beijing-style dumplings and noodles. It reminds me of Manhattanites complaining that before you know it you'll have to go to Brooklyn to get a slice of pizza.
Out in the suburbs, I met a violin maker named Guan Zheng. He was born in Beijing in 1959. Some residents have been exiled to the city's fringes and their homes demolished by developers. But Guan says his life is much improved since he moved from a crowded old courtyard in the city's center four years ago.
GUAN ZHEN: (Through translator) Now we have more than 2,000 square feet for our family of three. I feel that's already pretty good. But we don't have the same atmosphere. Neighbors don't ask after each other in the same ways: Have you eaten yet? How are you? People are cut off from each other, living in these concrete shells.
KUHN: Beijing's Academy of Social Sciences researcher Qi Xin says that younger, richer people are moving into Beijing's center, while older, poorer residents move out. He also explains that for most of the second half of the last century China's cities didn't really have neighborhoods based on income levels. The state decided where everybody lived.
QI XIN: (Through translator) At that time people did not have the freedom to choose their home. Everyone belonged to work units and that is what determined your work and life.
KUHN: Qi says that in recent years Beijing's population has been growing at an unprecedented rate of more than 10 percent a year. But like other great cities, Beijing has always been able to absorb and assimilate the newcomers.
So just as there's still plenty of pizza left in Manhattan, I'm not too worried that I'll have to go to the suburbs just to buy a plate of dumplings.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing.