Visiting China imparts a visceral understanding of what’s going on with this nation geopolitically. Go to Beijing and you see vistas of modern high rise buildings – as far as the eye can see, in all directions. The same in Xian, Chongqing, and Shanghai. Chongqing (formerly Chunking, but pronounced “Chongching”) in particular had the feel of an imagined metropolis in some Star Wars type movie. This has come about with really astonishing rapidity. Less than 20 years ago, the main business area of Shanghai, with all its glitzy towers, was nothing but rice paddies. And the country is still very much under construction. The joke that China’s national bird is the crane is very apt – you cannot look anywhere without seeing giant construction cranes.
For a written language that is uniquely challenging, they sure use it a lot. One of China’s biggest industries must be production of all the big fancy Chinese characters festooning building facades everywhere.
National wealth is ultimately a function of people being productively employed. If so, China still has a lot of upside potential. That labor still has a relatively low value in China was evident from all the overstaffing observed. Everywhere, we saw people whose job appeared to be standing around, much in contrast to many U.S. stores where it can be hard to find a salesclerk (labor being more valuable and hence more costly to employ). If China can find ways to employ more productively all this under-utilized manpower, it can improve economically even more.
More impressive to me than China’s building spree was the human dimension – people in their thousands, everywhere, enjoying lives that we’d consider normal – nicely dressed, with nice cars, ubiquitous advanced phones, eating well, and generally enjoying life. It was hard to remember that just 35 years ago, this was a nightmare land. As if to remind us, Mao’s portrait is still on all the currency; but his ghastly legacy was happily and thoroughly undone by Deng Xiaoping, at least in the economy. Throughout my two weeks in China it hardly occurred to me that this is a “Communist” country – I use the quote marks because China is actually one of the most free-market nations in the world. And the results are dramatic. Touring China, I never had the sense of being the privileged American in a Third World country. At times in Shanghai it almost felt as though I was the Third Worlder.
But China is still frankly a dictatorship, with no real accountability of government to the people, no transparency, no real freedom of press or expression, and no rule of law. China’s economic growth in the last few decades has not come about thanks to this kind of political system, but in spite of it. How long a population of rising affluence will continue to tolerate such a political system remains to be seen.