Dystopian Progress in China

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I just returned from my first visit to China—13 days of a typical tourist itinerary: Shanghai, Wuhan, Yangtze River, Chongqing, Xian, and Beijing. But even as a tourist, I was expecting to learn much about China—by reflecting both on what I saw and what I didn’t see. Whenever I visit a new place, I pay attention to what may seem like little things that I nevertheless believe can have great significance.

  • What types of products are advertised? Matches in a poor country. Deodorant and other personal hygiene products in a developing society.
  • Are there organized markets for used merchandise, such as cars? This ended up not being a good indicator for China but more on that later.
  • What’s the ratio on the road of luxury automobiles to more modest cars? I see it as a reliable indicator of how wealth is distributed.

But I think the first takeaway any visitor has from China—and one which is NOT a little thing—is the monumental pollution. I never did see a true blue sky there, although one bright morning in Beijing held some fleeting promise. My resting heart rate as measured by a fitness app was 15 percent higher from my second day in China until I returned to the U.S. But the pollution must have not been unusually bad for China, as I saw only a few locals wearing face masks.

The environmental conditions of course are the result of China’s rapid and often reckless industrialization and modernization. All major cities are belted by acres upon acres of new, high-rise apartment blocks—many apparently still largely vacant. (I wondered how social and family life was changing as a result of these new ways of living. It struck me that a significant percentage of Chinese now lived a kind of dormitory life—whether as factory workers or as residents of cookie-cutter urban towers.) Tour guides would boast that every city now had a major chemical plant. Dystopian progress is the phrase that came to mind.

And yet through the murky haze you could see less ambiguous signs of real progress. Everywhere I looked I saw indicators of middle-class led economic growth. Unlike other developing countries I’ve visited, where the ever-present luxury car signaled the enrichment of a few at the expense of the many, in China, the modest family sedan was ever present. Only in Beijing did I see numbers of vanity cars and limousines. A popular shopping street in Beijing was lined with locally-owned shops—not international chains. The strolling shoppers were young—almost all millennials—and suggested a growing consumer economy in China. Another booming sector of the Chinese economy is domestic aviation. We took three internal flights involving five different airports—all recently built and even some of those already being replaced with newer facilities. The flights and airports teemed with Chinese citizens; on every flight I saw someone who looked like a first-time flyer.

When you visit a new place, you can’t help but see it through the template of your assumptions. For Americans, that template is personal freedom. One of my traveling companions had studied Chinese in university and lived in Taiwan in the 1970s to improve her language. She was surprised by her own conclusion that China today felt much freer than the Taiwan she lived in 40 years ago. She had expected to see much more authority presence on the streets, but in fact, we saw very little.

As some Chinese said to us: What is freedom anyway? No one is ever 100 percent free! Another said that he was not as “free” as he could be in other countries, but he was willing to sacrifice personal freedom for the necessary advancement of China. This Chinese argument apparently was persuasive for some of my fellow travelers on the tour, mostly Brits and Americans. I heard them marvel at how, unlike their governments, the Chinese could actually get things done. “I feel particularly sorry for the Americans!” I heard one Brit say. Perhaps we underestimate just how many people like to be governed!

I wanted to understand how the Chinese Communist Party reacted to popular opinion. Did it matter? I thought so. How did the CCP take the popular pulse? That wasn’t clear to me. But it did strike me that the different cities and regions were more autonomous—responding more to local conditions—than I had assumed before coming to China. In Shanghai, for example, our guides told us that the local government controlled the growth of automobiles through market mechanisms—car license plates, which an owner kept for life, were expensive. In more egalitarian Beijing, there was a lottery system for license plates, which meant that you might wait years for one. (And it’s this scarcity of license plates that has killed the used car market there; given that they can only own one car at a time, the Chinese prefer to buy new cars.) In a further attempt to control pollution, the Beijing government ordered cars off the road one day a week based on their license plates number. When rich Beijing residents began buying second cars to get around the regulation, the government announced that individuals would be limited to one license plate. The one-child policy has been replaced by the one-car policy.

China faces many challenges but perhaps the most important is whether it can peacefully evolve its system of government. I think it’s naive for the West to assume that China will somehow transform into a liberal democracy. But I wonder whether China has the potential to evolve new political processes that might someday challenge liberal democratic orthodoxy. A necessary building block is already in place—the universal use of smart phones and other digital technologies in China; by many measures, China is the most advanced nation in its use of the Internet and, of course, in its efforts to control it. One guide told us about a smart phone app the Chinese use to upload pictures of official corruption. Our guide said that some prosecutions had already occurred. I can imagine China developing other apps and processes to encourage more individual participation in digital governance. Just as digital technology allowed the Chinese to leapfrog landlines to create a modern communications infrastructure, I can envision Chinese leaders using digital technologies to leapfrog artifacts of liberal democracy—such as elections and political parties—to develop strikingly different political processes and institutions. Given the recent history of politics and elections in the West, that might not be such a bad thing.

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