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Impressions of China

Here’s a reproduction of the article I wrote on my trip to China for the Arthur newspaper.

I recently spent six weeks in China as part of a trip focused in part upon gaining an understanding of the current state of communist China. Since returning, various people have asked me for my impressions of China, and so I have undertaken here to sketch some of what I learned about the country, based upon my own study and observations and upon conversations with various people, ranging from party officials to academics to working people.

One thing that I’ve learned about China is that any discussion of its politics, society and economy quickly elicits controversy and strong opinions. In sketching my impressions here, though my remarks will undoubtedly fall on one or the other side of various heated debates. I aim simply to present China as I experienced it, and to attempt to encourage understanding of a fascinating country which is rapidly resuming its historic position as the world’s leading society.

Where the dictators at?

The elephant in the room, when it comes to China, is communism. As such, I was surprised about the level of consumerism present in China, particularly in the cities. Billboards large and small are everywhere, advertising mostly foreign brands. Ipods, computers, cameras, designer clothing, and many other products are sold from new, fancy-looking stores. The stores are full of people, especially young people, who are clearly excited by these products and by shopping in general.

China’s embracing of capitalism and consumerism has happened gradually over the past thirty-five years, following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. Since then, the ideas of Deng Xiaoping have been the driving force of the policies of the Communist Party of China.

Where Mao focused on the establishment of China’s independence as a state, the building of an industrialized socialist economy, the redistribution of land, and other tasks oriented towards building a socialist society, Deng changed the course of China dramatically, embracing the capitalist economic and social ideas that have resulted in growth of both wealth and inequality in China over the last thirty years.

Interestingly, the Chinese people have a deep appreciation for both Mao and Deng despite their ideological differences: for Mao because he “helped the Chinese people stand up” after centuries of oppression by emperors and foreign imperialists, and for Deng because he helped people become wealthy and have more possessions.

The Chinese political system, with the leadership of the Communist Party of China inscribed in the constitution, seems dictatorial to outsiders. Legitimacy in the eyes of many Chinese is typically based on the fact that communists have brought to the Chinese people what no ruler had previously delivered: an end to the domination of the majority of the population by fascists, tyrants, landlords, emperors, and foreigners.

The Booming Economy

After the consumerism, the most omnipresent feature of China is the pace and scale of construction, of buildings, of subways, of trains, of roads, of bridges. The skyline of every city is marked by dozens of large cranes, working from dawn till dusk. The adventurous architecture of many of the new tall buildings is astounding and is especially present in Shanghai. In Chengdu, we rode the subway to the stop called “Financial City” only to discover a half-built collection of new office towers that will dwarf Toronto’s financial district, and will help to absorb some of China’s rapidly urbanizing economy.

Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province and a city of 11 million, opened its first subway line recently and there are three more under construction, and a further three planned. Similarly in Chongqing, a brand new subway was recently opened and fifteen more lines are planned. Not to be outdone, Beijing is building or expanding eleven lines, many of which will be completed ahead of schedule, bringing its total to nineteen lines. Impressive bridges are also a frequent sight and cruising down the Yangtze River, I passed under several of these bridges. I learned later that until 1957 there were no bridges across the Yangtze; trains would have to be ferried across. Now there are sixty bridges across the river, almost all of which were built in the last twenty years.

The Environment

China’s record on the environment is mixed. From the window of one China’s numerous long-distance trains, I observed numerous massive coal-fired electricity plants pumping out large clouds of smoke, while nearby a factory produced reams of solar panels.

I also saw a few very large solar energy and wind installations built on the edge of the Gobi Desert, surely a sign of China’s energy future. And, more impressively, household rooftop solar hot water heaters were present on most buildings, from the most humble homes to the newest condos.

Car ownership is a major problem in China, and one that the government seems to be devoting increasing attention to. There are strict rules about who can own a car, and where it can be driven. And, as noted above, transit infrastructure is being built at a frenzied pace, including new roads to absorb car traffic, but also new trains that will provide an alternative to car travel.

Public Life

Returning to Canada, the first thing I noticed was a sense of absence, that the airport, then the subway, then the city streets, seemed somehow empty of people. It is hard to find yourself alone any place in China; even the smallest cities seemed to have a few million people.

People practice their hobbies in the public parks, playing instruments, singing loudly, practicing calligraphy with water brushes on stone walkways, dancing waltzes and folk dances in groups, practicing martial arts, flying kites, exercising, and a host of other activities. This appreciation for and engagement with art and beauty must, I think, be deeply rooted in China, and is certainly reflected in the centuries old bureaucratic system that rewarded intellectual and scholarly competence. Someone remarked to me that while Japan was ruled by warriors (the Samurai), China was ruled by poets.

What China has accomplished in the past sixty years is by any measure incredible. Life expectancy has risen from thirty-five years to over 73 years, and the economy has grown dramatically over this time as well. Marx once wrote that capitalism cannot abide a limit. Having visited China, it seems that China cannot abide a limit either. The interesting question will be how, as opposed to whether, the Chinese government, and the Chinese people, confront and overcome economic and social challenges like safe working conditions, inequality, and democratic reforms.

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