While sailing down China’s Yangzi River this summer, I witnessed the strange spectacle of entire towns carefully being deconstructed. Brick by brick, they are being relocated to higher ground in anticipation of the waters rising upstream of the massive Three Gorges Dam. Ways of life have been broken apart and put back together a few hundred yards up the bank in a way reminiscent of the old but not quite familiar.
The experience of those living along the banks of the Yangzi is, I think, representative of the nation as a whole. Modern China is a nation very much in transition. As in the flooding of the Three Gorges, something beautiful and historic is being lost in the rush to modernize and develop. China is a land of sharp contrasts and occasional contradictions, like the villagers of the Three Gorges who live from day to day selling trinkets to rich tourists from China’s urban centers and abroad. Eventually, the waters will reach their full height, concealing the beautiful peaks and historic sites under meters of brown murky water, and just as the villagers will need to figure out a different way of life when the stream of tourists dries up, China as a whole will have to come to grips with its own challenges of development.
Before China began its opening to the West, you could say communism was successful at least in ensuring that everyone (except the government elite, of course) was equally poor and miserable. Today, China’s economy has grown by leaps and bounds, but while few would say they are worse off for the free-market reforms, progress has by no means treated everyone equally. Downtown Xi’an has the largest, most impressive department store I have ever seen. Inside, you can shop for the latest model plasma-TV with surround sound and a leather sofa to match. Step outside, however, and you’ll likely find a poor mother breastfeeding her baby while she begs passersby for enough money to survive. Take a short drive into a rural area and one would never suspect this is the same country that boasts Shanghai’s magnificent skyline.
I’ve found opinions of America to be likewise polarized. Two cabdrivers (who, as tipping is not expected in China, are especially free to be candid) serve as a ready example. A Wuhan cabbie told me in Chinese that America was “the best country in the world” and “the number-one country,” followed, he said, by Britain. A Xi’an driver, by contrast, has a general policy of telling Americans to get out of his cab and demanded of me an explanation for the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia during the Clinton administration.
China’s proud history and culture span five millennia. Indeed, while here I have sampled such culinary delights as fried silkworm cocoon, duck intestine, fish skin (as its own dish) and corn-flavored ice cream. Yet today, KFC, McDonalds and Pizza Hut dot the street corners of large cities, typically full of patrons paying ridiculous prices just to eat Western food. Anything Western becomes inexplicably cool: coffee, American movies and music, T-shirts bearing English words (sometimes amusingly misused) and, incredibly, even your humble correspondent. Only the future will show how Chinese culture bears up under the influence of globalization. I sincerely hope that the next time I come to China I will be able to enjoy duck intestine again.
Mainland China is only now experiencing true capitalism for the first time. China went from an agrarian, semi-feudal nation ruled by a foreign dynasty, through decades of war, straight through the looking glass into the bizarre world of a communist planned economy. In the bad-old days, China’s “uniqueness” in having achieved a “socialist worker’s paradise” without first experiencing a capitalist period was a point of pride, but today it seems more a handicap as China competes with countries more experienced in free market economics.
Today, as China strives to fulfill its potential, the nation longs to take a place in the world commensurate with its size and population. That position has seemingly eluded the nation since the Tang dynasty, the unfortunate result of centuries of bad government and foreign rule (both dynastic and colonial). The government today is less ideologically communist so much as simply authoritarian, carefully balancing the liberalization that development demands with its own interest in retaining power.
China, like the rest of the world, faces the challenge to retain its own cultural identity and national characteristics despite the homogenizing tendencies of globalization. However, China will also face the additional challenge of meeting demands that political liberalization keep pace with the economic liberalization already underway.
No country should observe the development of China as a superpower with more interest than the U.S. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the history to be written about this century will depend a great deal on the path of Chinese development and Sino-U.S. relations. Americans should wish China all the best as it makes its journey toward wealth and, we can hope, democracy.