MORE FROM THE MIDDLE KINGDOM:
After three weeks in China — my first visit — I came away wondering: is this really a communist country?
A more thriving capitalist culture could hardly be imagined, at least in the big cities. The broad avenues are lined with stores of every description, stocked with all manner of consumer goods, high-end and low, imported and locally-made. The skyscrapers springing up in Shanghai and Beijing are crowded with new business enterprises, from Chinese start-ups to western banking giants. And, as all the world knows, China makes everything …and sells it to the rest of us.
After the hardships of the early years of the communist party’s takeover in 1949, the famine of the Great Leap Forward, and the suffering and shortages of the Cultural Revolution, the former leader Deng Xiaoping shattered socialist orthodoxy and famously declared: “To be rich is glorious.” Today’s Chinese, especially the young, have taken him at his word.
Huang Guangyu, a smiling, crew-cut 37-year-old is a case in point. The son of a peasant, he moved to the big city and founded an electronics retailer, Gome Appliance Holdings. Today he is worth an estimated $1.7 billion dollars and is considered to be China’s richest man. To the generation coming behind him, he is a hero.
His is not the only success story. China is now said to have seven billionaires, some 400 entrepreneurs worth $60 million or more and 300,000 garden-variety millionaires. Its economy has expanded at a white-hot average of 10.1 per cent annually for the last 15 years. The accounting firm Price, Waterhouse, Cooper recently forecast that China will outstrip the U.S. and become the world’s largest economy by the year 2050.
And yet the inequities are as glaring as the glitter. The income gap between urban and rural Chinese is large and growing. Some 200 million Chinese still live on less than $1 a day, according to the World Bank. Corruption is endemic at every level and the pollution that is choking the big cities threatens the whole country’s economic future as well as its health.
Frankly, it all seems pretty capitalist to me. I recognize that the CCP, or Communist Party of China controls the purse strings and cracks down hard on any signs of dissent. Just ask some of the Chinese journalists who have stepped out of line.
So the country is arguably authoritarian, and undeniably socialist in some respects. But communist? Not in any fashion that Marx or Lenin or even Chairman Mao would recognize. Not China. Not today.
SOME NOTES FROM THE MIDDLE KINGDOM:
To a first-time visitor, China is simply amazing.
With its 1.3 billion people, it is so huge, so crowded, so frantic, so energetic, so driven, so confident, so determined to take its place in the world that it overwhelms your senses.
I lived in Asia for three years during the Vietnam era when China was inaccessible to an American, especially an American journalist. The best we could do was to sit in Hong Kong and speculate about what was happening on the other side of the frontier. “China watching,” it was called.
Today, of course, the doors are wide open to American tourists, American businessmen and American dollars. A three-week visit opens your eyes about the world’s most populous nation and stretches your imagination about what the future may hold.
An Australian tourist I encountered summed it up as he gazed across West Lake at teeming Hangzhou, one of China’s smaller cities with a mere six million residents. “Watch out world,” he said, “here comes China!”
Shanghai is an example of the future as envisioned by China’s planners. It is home to 20 million people. The colonial architecture of its famous waterfront, or Bund, is all but lost in a forest of new skyscrapers that have mushroomed on either side of the busy Huangpu River. Riding along the elevated freeways among the clusters of skyscrapers is like sweeping through a video game. The future seems to have arrived.
But then, take the fast elevator ride to the top of the Jinmao tower, currently the world’s fourth tallest building, and look out from the observation deck and suddenly, China’s future seems less certain. Looking west on a recent, sunny afternoon, Shanghai’s vast stand of skyscrapers faded and then disappeared in a dreadful, thick smog. The city of the future is literally choking on its own success.
Travel around the country, and there are contradictions at every turn: McDonalds and KFC outlets hard by the ancient city walls in Xian… a rice farmer standing in a paddy outside Guilin in a conical hat with a wicker basket over his shoulder. He looks like a figure out of a traditional Chinese scroll, except for the cellphone in his ear. And the billboard advertising new apartments for sale that touts them, in English, in this allegedly classless society, as “upper class.”
There are contradictions as well in the U.S. approach towards China these days. We like doing business there, but politically, does Washington see Beijing as an ally or an adversary? A trading partner or a competitor? It seems to vary from day-to-day. It is a relationship that deserves high-level attention, because, as my Australian friend put it, like it or not, “… here comes China!”