China's infamous bureaucracy has bedeviled people for ages, but in recent years, daily life in some major Chinese cities has become far more efficient.
For instance, when I worked in Beijing in the 1990s, many reporters had drivers. It wasn't because they didn't drive, but because they needed someone to deal with China's crippling bureaucracy.
I had a man named Old Zhao, who would drive around for days to pay our office bills at various government utility offices. Zhao would sit in line for hours, often only to be abused by functionaries.
I left China in 2002 and returned two years ago to work as NPR's correspondent in Shanghai. These days, I just walk across the street with my bills and pay them at a 24-hour convenience store. It takes about three minutes, and the clerks are unfailingly polite.
Another area where efficiency has improved is rail travel. In the old days, I would ride from Beijing to Shanghai on an overnight train that took 12 hours.
These days, I rarely fly to Beijing from Shanghai, because the bullet train is more convenient. It travels at about 190 miles an hour; the journey takes about five hours. I can often get a signal on my wireless card, and write stories and transcribe interviews along the way.
The bullet trains are certainly not flawless. China's Railway Ministry has been riddled with corruption, and in 2011, a pair of trains crashed, killing nearly 40 people. But generally, the bullet trains have so far proven to be fast and reliable.
Progress That Was Decades In The Making
China has become more efficient for a number of reasons, including the adoption of new technology, more market competition in the economy, and more exposure to other countries with different ways of doing things.
Jim McGregor is an American consultant and author who has lived in China for the past quarter century. He has witnessed a lot of progress, especially in the private sector, but he says some government-run operations are still stuck in the old ways, including some airports.
Recently, McGregor was stuck at the Beijing airport — an enormous, state-of-the-art government showpiece — during snowfall.
"What was crazy is there's no information," McGregor recalls. "There'll be a cardboard board saying go to Gate 42. You go to Gate 42, it says go to Gate 20. So you gotta kind of stay awake and run around to see where they've changed your gate. These are the airports run by the government."
In other parts of daily life, efficiency runs the gamut. For instance, McGregor says it took 18 months to close his daughter's account at the flagship state-run Bank of China.
"We couldn't do it until she was here on vacation and standing in front of them," he says.
But at China Merchants Bank, which emphasizes customer service, the staff go out of their way to help me fill out forms. If I mess up a transfer slip, they will rewrite it for me. When I made those mistakes in the 1990s at a different bank in Beijing, they would scowl and shove the form back.
The sector that probably best illustrates how efficient China has become — and how far it still has to go — is the Internet. On websites like 360buy.com, it's possible to order everything from a piano to cosmetics and have it delivered to your door the next day for free. And although I've never used this service, Burger King and McDonald's also deliver.
But because of the Communist Party's cyber controls, surfing foreign websites — even using Google — can range from slow to impossible. Sometimes it's so bad, I can't even log onto my email.
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