Beijing high rises

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.

4 Responses to “China”

  1. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    From Frank’s wife Therese — I find it hard to generalize about China from my one and only trip there (with Frank and our daughter), a trip carefully organized by a tour company. From my admittedly VERY limited exposure to the Chinese way of life in a few big cities, I conclude that the Chinese — unlike me, the American who sometimes takes precious resources for granted — waste nothing. They don’t waste water for making ice cubes. They don’t waste morsels of food. They don’t waste their health on desserts or other foods packed with sugar and useless calories. They don’t waste tea (Starbucks should be ashamed of their absurdly large servings). They don’t waste living quarters (three generations reside in apartments much smaller than most Americans would tolerate). They don’t waste jobs (people must retire at age 55 so the next generation can find work). They don’t waste evenings watching stupid TV shows when they could be out on the sidewalk playing board games with their neighbors. They don’t waste toilet paper; indeed, their “squat” potties may be more environmentally sustainable (and less germy?) than America’s public flush toilets, handles, and seats. My visit to China has chastened me in many ways. Compared to the few Chinese people I met, I am coddled by a decadent lifestyle. What little can I do to change my habits? Save precious resources — take shorter showers, cut back on sweets, consume smaller portions of everything. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Good common (community) sense, whether Chinese or not.

    [Frank’s comment: Most of these “don’t wastes” are echoes of past extreme deprivation, and still today Chinese affluence is generally well below U.S. levels. For example, living quarters are tightly packed because, for all the forests of high-rises we saw, housing in China is still packed, and Chinese pay a much higher proportion of their incomes for it than do Americans. It’s not “waste” that Americans have more square footage per person, if they get a benefit from it, which they do. Nor is it clear to me that playing board games on the sidewalk is a more virtuous and less “wasteful” activity than watching TV. I tend to be cautious before opining that the pleasures other people choose for themselves are somehow lesser than, say, attending opera or reading Shakespeare. I don’t think Therese is “coddled in a decadent lifestyle.” It is a lifestyle we can afford, because we have earned the ability to afford it; we do what we do because it makes our lives better to do them. No apologies here.
    Incidentally regarding Starbucks, I recently read that although it’s not on the posted menu you can order a “short,” equivalent to a conventional cup of coffee, and that this is actually a richer brew too.]

  2. Therese L. Broderick Says:

    From Frank’s wife Therese — I forgot to mention what seemed to me to be a terrible tragedy: the great numbers of Chinese people (men primarily?) who were smoking cigarettes with English (American?) brand names. So sad to see this poison exported to China. So vile on the part of tobacco companies. At least I saw evidence, too, of a public relations campaign against cigarette smoking. The campaign seemed to be aimed at young people who would raise their hands in a “V” victory gesture if they were pledged to fight against cigarette smoking. I saw at least three young Chinese people gesture a “V” sign when having their photos taken.

  3. Steve G. Says:

    We have an daughter who is a graduate student in Chinese studies and who lived there 2004-2005, and we visited. Back then we saw the same things: an incredible amount of building in the cities. The countryside that we visited was more backward, with fine cars vying for roadway space with animal herds. Nevertheless, the economic vitality was amazing. Your observations come across very similar to ours, and yes, a lot of smoking! China has much to reckon with internally, but it will be a huge player on the international stage in this century. Of course, much depends upon its continued mastery of its internal dynamics.

  4. Oliver Kenen Says:

    Your description of the current conditions in China agree with all that I have heard recently.
    I dream of taking a trip to China myself and going into the countryside and mentioning that I an interested in old coins and having peasants come out with strings of old cash coins. I suspect that the reality is that 99.9% of what you can find is new. I remember a trip to the Netherlands a while back and having my wife look for Delft pottery. All that we found was new, of inferior quality and overpriced.

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