Two looks at modern China

Two recent articles provide an excellent look at the bundle of contradictions that is modern China.

First, the Atlantic‘s James Fallows, currently residing in China, presents his “Four Cautions and Two Mysteries” about rapidly changing China. His look is largely limited to urban China, but it is still worthwhile, because Fallows also was on hand when Japan emerged in the 1980s as a contender, and has a number of useful comparisons with Japan’s period of explosive growth. The picture that Fallows paints is of a China that has more in common with the United States than any other country — a point I made in my contribution to this book. China, like the US, is a continental country, and like the US in the heady days of its industrialization in the late nineteenth century, its rise is profoundly impacting its own society, the surrounding region, and the world. A continental power has unleashed its boundless energy, and the world is being remade. That is why I defy anyone to predict what China will look like in the near-future.

Accordingly, in time the US and China may look across the Pacific and see a close friend in the other. At present, beyond the Taiwan Straits, there is no issue in US-China relations that could result in war between the two. There are points of friction, certainly, but nothing that would unleash the “guns of August,” so to speak. In fact, as Fallows implies, culturally speaking the US and China may be far more natural allies than the US and Japan:

One reason why Americans typically find China less “foreign” than Japan is that in Japan the social controls are internalized, through years of training in one’s proper role in a group, whereas China seems like a bunch of individuals who behave themselves only when they think they might get caught. As I took an airport bus from downtown Tokyo to the distant Narita International Airport for the trip to Shanghai, the squadron of luggage handlers who had loaded the bus lined up, bowed in unison, and chanted safe-travel wishes to the bus as it departed. When I arrived in Shanghai, I saw teenaged airport baggage handlers playfully slapping each other and then being told by the foreman to get back to work. In Japan, the controls are built in; in China, they appear to be bolted on.

There’s a lot to unpack in this quote, but, to be brief, Fallows points to a fundamental cultural divide between Japan on the one hand, and China and the US on the other. Japanese institutions have been shaped by limits — of land, of resources, of people. While this argument is perhaps overexaggerated, not least by the Japanese (an example of Nihonjinron), it is significant when comparing the Japanese experience to that of China and the US, both of whom have been shaped by bigness and plenty (Maoism aside, which for China was a masochistic ideology that essentially entailed renouncing China’s continental advantages). The Chinese people, in general, strike me as more entrepreneurial than the Japanese, which is hardly surprising because to me entrepreneurialism is a natural reaction to seemingly limitless possibilities.

As such, the more the Communist Party steps out of the way, the easier China and the US will be able to cooperate, a scenario that has kept many in Kasumigaseki up at night ever since Nixon and Kissinger sprang the opening to China on Tokyo without prior warning.

The second essay worth reading is from the London Review of Books, by Indian writer Pankaj Mishra (hat tip to a correspondent in Beijing). Mishra’s view is more nuanced than Fallows’, and in many ways more grim. For example:

The old heart of the city has been razed to meet the needs and desires of this new elite. Luxury villas have sprung up to accommodate expatriate businessmen, senior Party officials and the nouveaux riches. With their bewilderingly mixed facades – American colonial-style decking, neoclassical columns, baroque plasterwork, Tudor beams –they symbolise a city under fresh occupation by the transnational elite of the rich and powerful.

Others make do with what they have. One afternoon, soon after arriving in Shanghai, I travelled on one of the elevated expressways that lead from downtown to the clusters of high-rise housing estates built for those expelled from their neighbourhoods of longtang alleys and lanes. Rust and grime have already tainted these buildings, the lifts don’t work, there is no water pressure, the residents walk up and down the gloomy stairs carrying plastic buckets, but the inhabitants of this premature decay still seemed privileged, compared to the residents of the remoter suburbs, crammed in subdivided houses with enclosed balconies and a view of oil-blackened dust lanes and exposed drains.

Much of the essay comes from a conversation Mishra had with liberal Chinese intellectual Zhu Xueqin, and the picture that emerges is of a China that, loosed from the moorings of Maoism, is now adrift on a (polluted) sea of ideological rootlessness, with a number of pretenders to intellectual “hegemony” (to use a favorite word of one of my Cambridge chums) but no clear winner, meaning that soulless consumerism has filled the void. Arguably, this is not all that different from Japan, which turned to world-beating economic growth and consumerism after emerging from its own romance with a murderous ideology (although, to split hairs, Maoism was much more coherent as an ideology than that of Japan’s militarist government). But it is not pretty, and its consequences for the world are far greater than those of Japan’s postwar modernization ever were.

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