I visited China twice, the first time in December 1985, and recently in June 2014. The vast and deep changes overwhelmed me. It was like compressing a century of development into 30 years.
My biggest impressions are: crowds everywhere in the urban areas, massive commercial and apartment buildings, giant airports and railway stations, and modern infrastructure but still with traffic jams.
Where do the crowds come from? China used to be an agrarian country with 90% of its people living in the countryside. Today, urbanization has reduced this rate to 52%. With a population of 1.3 billion, this translates to about 500 million peasants having become city dwellers. According to official sources, another 230 million country folks are floating around in the cities looking for factory work. This presents a great challenge for the cities to cope in the areas of food, housing, water, electricity, education, transport and environmental quality.
Our visits to all the famous tourist sites were partly spoiled because of the large crowds despite high admission charges. No wonder some friends of mine complained that visiting China was no longer fun. Today, foreign tourists have to compete with the locals for space and service depending on how much money they can afford. However, during our first visit in 1985, we were treated like honored guests by the State Tourist Office because the country was just beginning to open up to the world. We enjoyed the special privileges granted to foreigners that the local people were not entitled to. This has totally changed nowadays.
Despite all the disappointments, I think large crowds with money to spend is a good thing for the country. It signifies the strength of the middle class rising out of the poor masses in the countryside. With regard to the tourist sites, it is up to the Chinese government to manage and maintain their national treasures and scenic places so that both its own citizens as well as the foreign tourists can enjoy.