Winston Churchill described Russia as "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma". Having recently returned from China, it is clear to me that contradiction is China's middle name. These contradictions pop up repeatedly as you travel around the vastness that is China.

For example, one of the first things that you will notice about China is how clean the streets and public places are. Whether you are visiting the Forbidden City or merely walking down a broad boulevard in Beijing, the streets, sidewalks, and parks are spotless. Even the sides of their expressways are free of debris. Speaking of expressways, while driving from the hotel to the airport in Chengdu, I noticed an old woman dusting the metal railing along the side of the expressway out in the middle of nowhere. Apparently, her job was to start dusting the railing early in the morning and to continue to walk along the expressway dusting it until quitting time. Unless one had car trouble, one would never come close enough to appreciate her miles of dusting duty.

However, what you do notice as quickly as the cleanliness of the public places is how dirty and smoggy the air is. The air pollution is atrocious throughout China. You can't believe how bad the air is whether in big cities or in small hamlets. I've been back in the States for several weeks and still have a hacking cough. The central government needs to be as concerned for the lungs of their people as it is for the railings on the expressways and public places.

Another contradiction that that amazed me was the absolute reverence that the people hold for Chairman Mao, the Great Helmsman. This great leader was responsible for the death of millions, the imprisonment of still more, the destruction of the economy, and wanton obliteration of countless pieces of Chinese antiquity-both small objects and large buildings. No one could catalog the cost in human lives and money that the Cultural Revolution cost China. The loss of people and things ranks at or near the very top of the list of senseless and meaningless annihilation of a nation's very riches in people and culture. To make Mao's legacy even worse, his Cultural Revolution was an utter failure. And yet, despite the Great Helmsman's massive failure of leadership, Mao is viewed as political and economic saint of China. Having guided the Chinese ship of state upon the shoals of chaos, Mao remains first in the hearts of millions of Chinese.

Still another contradiction has to do with the Cultural Revolution desire to purge China from all foreign vestiges and from all remnants of decadent Chinese feudalism. Therefore, off the Red Guard went destroying anything that seemed tainted with non-orthodox Chinese values. I cringe at all that China lost as a result of this cultural purge. However, what I can't grasp is that Mao allowed the Forbidden City to go unscathed. Acres of buildings constructed as a result of feudalism and class consciousness of emperors. I would have thought that the Forbidden City would have been one of the first things to go-especially since it is located just around the corner from Mao's offices. Even more ludicrous is the fact that the gateway to this example of cultural decadence carries his picture looking out upon Tiananmen Square.

(This is also a good example of the air pollution in China. This photo was taken approximately 50 yards away from his portrait.)

This brings me to another glaring contradiction which is seen clearly from the eyes of an outsider. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, call the bird a duck. I'm referring to the contradiction over capitalism and communism. Aside from the occasional references to the Communist Party of China on buildings and in the media, communism doesn't exist in China! Capitalism is thriving though. No matter where one looks, free market capitalism is the operative word. Gone are the days of dull and dab communism. Here to stay is the glitter and glitz of consumer-driven capitalism.

It is remarkable what capitalism has done for China. It not only reversed Mao's misguided economic blunders, but it has raised the standard of living of millions. Over lunch, I mused over this point with a well-educated Chinese woman. I asked in a friendly way where communism could still be found in this immense nation. She looked at me like I was the incarnation of deaf, dumb, and blind Tommy. She couldn't believe how naïve I was. Waving her hands in wide disbelief and pointing to everything that was within eyeshot, she said, "This is all communism."

Contradictory or not, China is a vast and an amazing land. It would take a lifetime to begin to grasp the history and culture of the civilization that goes back many millennia before the Roman Empire. We would be well-advised to learn about this great nation and its people.