When we left for China I got several comments from people along the lines of : “I’m afraid of China”; this was amidst coverage in the US news comparing the economy of US and China, much of which pointed out that China’s economy was bigger than that of America. I’ve also had inquiries regarding what its like to live in the worlds largest Communist state.
These comments provide a general setting for me to reflect against relative to my own personal experiences. First a note that much of the commentary and pontifications regarding China are reductionist in nature and meant to attempt to make a very complicated set of circumstances which are “China” into an approachable and referencible entity. In the end there is no China that you can meet, experience and understand as a single thing any more than there is a single America. These singular words are constructs that represent an amalgamation of individuals and circumstances. And my experience is no different, I’ve never met China and I’ve never really lived in China. I lived in one small, albeit large, apartment in a very large city albeit the capital of China. And I’ve interacted with a very small subset of individuals among billions so I can no more accurately represent China than can anyone else writing upon the subject. And yet here is what I think and it in many way is just as reductionist.
The Chinese have had for the past several hundred years intense feelings of internal conflict; hand wringing over what it means to be Chinese. What it means to have a civilization of 5000 years and yet be so weak and ineffectual. They have a long history of being the center of their known universe and all that come under the influence adopting Chinese civilization. Two examples are the Yuan Dyansty when Ghengis Khan conquered China and his son Kublai Khan ruled and the last dynasty of the Qing that was actually established by conquerers from Manchuria. In the end both the Mongols and the Manchu’s became Chinese, speaking and acting in their ruling. And yet in the 1800s when the West came knocking and shooting and occupying China found themselves unable to withstand. After almost 50 years of strife, war and civil war, Mao Zedong stood on the top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen) and before a massive crowd of supporters declared that : “This day the Chinese people have stood up!”. And while there were many missteps along Mao’s dangerous experiments in state ruled economy and political rule where millions died today China has truly stood up. And the Chinese people are proud of that. There is a very palpable sense of pride and Chinese nationalism. In the same way that many American’s have undeniable sense of privilege from saving the world in two world wars and being the worlds largest military and economic super power. We shouldn’t be surprised by China’s attitudes after all we’ve had one for quite some time, but its easy to ignore when your seeing things from the inside and when God’s on your side.
In China communism is all but dead. There are 80 million party members who make up the ruling elite in the government and yet the ideals of communism and their strict and rigid enforcement is non existent. The party does govern but not based on an appeal to the principles of communism but the continuation of being in power. They maintain the current government out of a fear of making any change rather than belief in communist ideals. Any pronouncement of communist principles is hollow and justifies the current power structure rather than representing a real active state of thinking. More than anything those in power crave stability and fear chaos. This is in many ways an ancient theme in Chinese history that predates the current party rule. Yes those in power I am sure desire the perpetuation of their power, and yes there is corruption, as there is anywhere you have bureaucracy and organization. And yet there is no absolute power, the state no longer holds power over all resources. With Deng Xiaoping’s statement in the 1980s : “To get rich is glorious” economic advancement has been open to all and there have been substantial economic advances. There are now many many who are very rich indeed and they are all outside the immediate control of the party.
The Chinese economy is big and its booming. There are many ways to look at the statistics. There is for sure a huge GDP in China and its larger over all than the US. Yet individually there is less buying power per person than the US, more people in China means less for each one. There are for sure many wealthy elite in China. I’ve seen countless BMW and Mercedes Benz on the streets of Beijing with the occasional Lamborgini, Mazarati and Rolls Royce. But adjacent to them are day laborers who pedal bicycles and ride busses who earn the equivalent of $10 US a day and this is more than those in the countryside who are farmers and make even less. It is also important to remember that more people live in the cities in China than in the entire United States. Likewise economies are never isolated, ours exists because of them and they because of ours. And just as those developing economies of Japan and Taiwan China’s once emerged, the production power of China is still not as sophisticated nor is their consumption and yet its growing. There are huge malls all over China full of Chinese products that are bought and sold daily. China has come into its own and their appetite will continue to grow. Sadly in some ways these rising expectations are also shared by those in the countryside. In a village outside Guilin where there was no running water, but wells that pumped. Where there was no central heat but coal. Where streets were lined with stones too narrow but for those that walk. Every house had electricity and a television. Chatting with several old men after lunch one afternoon I commented on the beauty of where they lived and they disagreed saying : they had nothing and no money. By comparison they were poor and yet they lived in a beautiful location with all of their basic needs met including the one that enabled them to see they “needed” more.
All of this growing though has its limits, there are restrictions; For example the internet is not freely available, yet no one really cares. Why do you need Youtube when you have Tudou and Yokou. Why do you need Facebook when everyone is on RenRen? Why do you need twitter when you have weibo. Why do you need google when you have baidu. Any site or service available in the US that is blocked in China is available in a Chinese form and I rarely heard anyone (who wasn’t foreign) complain about the internet restrictions. Yes there is also scrutiny and oppression of elements of society that are deemed to be a threat to the stability and rule of the party. The same leader (Deng Xiaoping) who opened up economic reform ordered in the tanks on Tiananmen. These oppressions are more regarding the fear of the destabilization than due to zealous belief in communist ideals. Dangerous thinking is persecuted whether it be the language of democracy or of the religion Fulan Gong. Yes these acts are cruel and I am sure have been and are violent, and while I don’t want to minimize them nor excuse them these are generally isolated; Most important there is not a general state of fear. I’ve never felt oppressed, or watched or restricted. And I never saw any restricted behavior or fear in anyone else I have interacted with. The largest communist state in the world feels like any other developing nation full of individuals who want the same thing : job, security, family, associations, entertainment.
Yes there are things I miss about America. But how many of those are the result of my own familiarity vs. the way things must be. I’ll admit I love the fresh mountain air of Northern Utah. And turning on the tap to get a cold glass of water. I also miss sitting the in the grass in the park. But I would imagine someone from China in the US misses squatting outside their stoop chatting with friends in their local dialect. And so despite all my own reducing, remember things are complicated and a layer below any statements there is a whole other level of detail and reality and another way of thinking about things.