China: The Growing Giant

Prosperity and Poverty

Chinamerica The Uneasy Partnership that Will Change the World

Arriving in China through the airports of Beijing or Shanghai, you enter a spacious and ultramodern terminal. The building is clean. There are large open spaces and soaring ceilings. Everything appears efficient and contemporary-no different from terminals in Zurich, Tokyo, or New York City. It’s easy to get through baggage claim and customs fast. Gateways have always been important in Chinese culture as a way of protecting the interior as well as impressing visitors with their splendor, and these portals to modern China initially impress you as well-planned, twenty-first-century hubs.

Yet driving into the large cities, another less-favorable impression intrudes. The traffic becomes heavy. Gridlock, or the threat of it, looms at a lot of intersections. Many vehicles are old, spewing black smoke. The air is heavy with pollution. There is a small truck filled with cages of squawking chickens. There is another truck with cages of young pigs. Suddenly, you are not hungry.

A confusing picture begins to develop. China seems modern and efficient but also filled with people suffering with poverty, ignored in plain sight in the workday traffic of the upwardly mobile. Although some of the vehicles are antiquated, they are making deliveries to large new department stores like those in New York City or Los Angeles. Off the main roads, there are many low houses that are not old but are in poor condition. They were built in a hurry, cheaply. The side streets are narrow and clogged with people. Some are walking and some are on bicycles. The clothes of many are torn and dirty. There are drying clothes hanging all over. There is a lot of movement. It appears chaotic.

Arriving at the hotel, the feeling of orderliness resumes. The lobby is clean, and it has high ceilings. Service is efficient. There are smiling, comfortingly English-speaking people at the reception desk. Again, everything is reassuringly contemporary. In a short time, there has been a transition from order to chaos to order.

Settings change rapidly in China. It’s as if unseen stagehands were switching the backgrounds and props as directed by an invisible stage manager. China is 5,000 years old. Confucius lived and taught more than 2,500 years ago. There is a picturesque and impressive exterior that China wants you to perceive. The Chinese want visitors to think that the picturesque and impressive sites are indicative of the entire country, instead of just being a pretty façade masking a crowded and once-impoverished country. Famous sites, such as the Forbidden City and the Great Wall, overwhelm visitors with their beauty and size. But there is another reality, clamorous and struggling, that we have to go offstage and into the back alleys to see and touch.

China is complex, and its moods can change rapidly. It can be sunny and positive, but also dark and hard to interpret. A lot depends upon location. Approximately 700 million 1 people live in the countryside. There, people appear more relaxed. They’ll stop to talk to each other. In the cities, people rush, and their purposeful hurry creates a wake of isolation in the midst of a crowd. They think they are in control of their destinies.

However, in China, the government exerts very strong control. Even with the relaxation of restraints that happened lately, the policies of the government affect almost every aspect of life. Those policies are as ubiquitous as the weather. The one-child-per-couple limit imposed beginning in 1979 is the most famous of government restrictions on individual rights.

In addition to the government, there are many other forces driving change. The young are adapting to the changes, but many of the middleaged and older population are resisting or ignoring the changes. (The Chinese people have a great aptitude for sidestepping change.) Because of the large number of people, the Chinese have developed skills to shut others out. They also shut out foreigners unless there is a need to interact. China is like the body of a person, where the arms and hands and fingers and legs can move at different speeds. The countryside of China is the torso, and the cities are the arms and legs. China’s brain is the central government. China also has a heart, which is the underlying warmth of the people.

When traveling to the north, to cities such as Beijing and Tianjin, one can sense a feeling of high-energy aggressiveness. Much of the unrest and fighting in China throughout its history occurred because of invasions from the north. There is a wariness of outsiders there. In the south, in Shanghai, for example, people have welcomed outsiders and developed the ability to trade with them. There is a greater disposition to be hospitable, and greater prosperity because of it.

China is going through a world-renowned, perhaps unprecedented industrialization. Although its economy is only 30 percent of the U.S. economy (the GDP of the United States in 2008 was $14.44 trillion 2),

China is building factories on a monumental scale to produce goods for export as well as for local consumption. In 2008 China’s GDP was $4.404 trillion.3 China’s exports that year amounted to $1.43 trillion4, or roughly one third of its GDP. Around a fifth of China’s exports-more than $300 billion 5-were to the United States in 2008. While China is depicted as a voracious consumer of natural resources and commodities, almost a third of its GDP is exported: merchandise that is bought for use, ultimately, in other countries.

The country operates with five-year plans that set many of the government’s economic goals. The government appears strong, but its top-down control is coming under increasing stress as the number and financial clout of entrepreneurs grow. More and more the factories in China are owned by businesses whose managers do not want to be controlled by the central government. Nor do these managers want to pay the central government’s high taxes. China’s entrepreneurs, small business owners, and farmers want to operate without constraints. They want to start the businesses that they conceive, plant the crops they know how to grow, and negotiate prices on their own. The government, however, keeps a tight rein on industrial policy. Priorities are based on the need to sell an enormous amount of exports, even if that emphasis limits the amount of goods available for local consumption, and therefore limits the citizens’ standard of living. Not surprisingly, the government feels that only it sees the big picture. It presumes that it alone knows what’s best for the entire country.

Beauty and Ugliness

China is like a kaleidoscope. Twist it and a new image appears. Some regions are beautiful, such as the mountains and rivers of the Yunnan province in the southwest and Guangxi in the southeast. The temples and historical buildings, such as those in the Forbidden City in Beijing and the buried Terra Cotta Warriors near Xi’an, are awe-inspiring. But rivers elsewhere are being choked with pollution, and there are millions of rundown buildings in the older cities, where the population of rats appears as numerous as the human population.

Yet China is a proud country, and its growing success is fueling this pride. The Chinese are willing to submit to government control as long as they feel that their country’s wealth is growing. They take great pride that China appears to be succeeding. That growing pride and the reassurance that their national wealth is accruing has tempered the people’s restiveness.

The Chinese are deeply superstitious and skeptical of outsiders. Winning their trust requires a lot of effort. Whether China is a friend or an enemy of the United States depends on how the goals of China and the Chinese are being met. China can be an ally or an opponent. Understanding the growing might of China is indispensable to building a working relationship that endures.

Source: Handel Jones, “ChinAmerica: The Uneasy Partnership that Will Change the World,” McGraw-Hill, 2010

Republished by Kajian Internasional Strategis


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