musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Friday, August 30, 2013

中國: Decoding the People's Republic

It's a catchy title, but alas, I have no magical decoder ring. After spending 2 weeks in China, I find myself asking more and more new questions... but somehow (as a former expat aid worker with magical powers) I kinda sorta understand the Chinese marginally better. Ok, so it's more like:

中國: Understanding (Slightly Better) the People's Republic

China. 1.35 bazillion people in roughly the same geographic area as the US of A. Commu-capitalism. Unprecedented modernism and economic growth. Over 160 cities with a population greater than 1 million.

Sure, it's is all of those things on the surface. But what most of us don't realize is the depth and complexity behind the mind-boggling statistics. If viewed from a western perspective, China makes little sense. How can such a massive non-democratic country rise to be such a global superpower?

When viewed from a more Chinese perspective, it's a wonder such growth didn't happen sooner.

For the sake of full disclosure, I had the distinct honor and privilege to be a part of an amazing group of graduate students (let's just call me the butler) sponsored by a Chinese company, who rolled out the red carpet in unbelievable fashion (pun intended). Starting in Beijing, we saw temples and pandas in Chengdu and the beautiful environs of Hangzhou, ending our trip amidst the bustling modernity of Shanghai (for my Top 11 from the trip, click here). We met with fascinating experts and ate unbelievable food. In other words, my impressions were undoubtedly skewed by our style of tour-guided travel and there is so much more of China (mainly the poorer/rural/minority areas that are all crucial pieces to the puzzle) I have yet to discover.

But enough with the caveats...

The Why Nations Fail fellas will tell you (my apologies to Acemoğlu and Robinson for butchering/paraphrasing your thesis) that China has succeeded so far by creating inclusive economic institutions but will fail in the long run if those are not supported by similarly inclusive political institutions. Although only time will tell, I'm not so sure I agree. Seen from a western lens, inclusive political institutions seem to be the key to long-term success, as shown by post-industrialization UK versus say, Mobutu's Congo.

But there's something different about China. Something that makes the western lens blur until one swaps it out for an eastern one (want to make a zillion dollars in today's global economy? Bifocals.). There are certain things about China that are not easily understood and certainly won't be explained thoroughly in a blog...

Challenge. Accepted.

I'll attempt to explain 2 aspects of China that (1) I found fascinating and (2) illuminate to some degree why China is what it is today despite our western perceptions.

(If you're tired of reading and want to skip to the photos and/or the Top 11, I won't hold it against you)

First off, it's important to realize the Chinese culture pre-dates most of western culture and - unlike the Romans, the Ottomans, the Incas, the Phoenicians, etc. - has changed comparatively little from century to century. Sure, modernity and economic prosperity has arrived to much of China, but they have arrived on distinctly Chinese terms with a level of nationalism that puts the Turks or Ethiopians to shame. The best illustrations (literally) of this were presented to us by an American man in Shanghai who had lived in Taiwan or China since the early '70s. Using drawings from East Meets West: An Infographic Portrait, he explained concepts of punctuality, waiting in line, ego, self-expression, etc. that are crucial to understanding what makes China tick.

Of these, the most informative to me was a picture of a line of employees all in a row. In the western view, the boss is slightly bigger than the rest i.e. slightly more important. In China, the size of the boss dwarves that of his or her employees. The boss is king, emperor, omniscient supreme leader, etc. To me this symbolizes a number of things, chief (again, pun intended) among them the deferential nature of Chinese culture. In the US, we are taught to respect our elders but challenge authority if not in line with our moral, ethical, religious, etc. underpinnings. In China, the boss rules. Period. Whether you agree with him or not, you do not challenge his authority. A political system whereby the entire country is strongly ruled by a few can only thrive in a culture where figures of authority are practically deified.

My second point is a slightly more technical one: internal migration/urbanization. With 160 cities number 1 million or more people, China must grapple with providing urban services (trash removal, health care, sewage, etc.) to a daunting amount of people. No matter how many iPhones you produce and how large government revenues are, this is a monumental task. Nevertheless, the parts of the cities we saw were clean and had a manageable amount of people/traffic (especially compared to Mumbai). The head of the China Center for Urban Development explained this to us by comparing internal migration in his country to external immigration in the US. Sure, rural Chinese can visit the cities and many do. But to settle and, more importantly, receive services from the city (or federal/state/local governments in the US immigration example), one must register with authorities - a process that is anything but easy. For a whole host of reasons, Chinese mayors often choose modernization and beautification projects over increased services to rural migrants. Essentially, a farmer from the western provinces will have a heck of a time settling in Shanghai.

Brutal? Unjust? Just plain not right? Perhaps. But it's also a way to facilitate rapid economic growth (though admittedly not holistic growth) in a more manageable way. In the US we have the "American Dream" to guide us; we're rarely satisfied with or even cognizant of our place in society. Social, economic and geographic mobility is our right as Amrrcans, damnit. It's engrained in our culture. But what if our population was 5 times the size of what it is now in the same geographic area? How open to a pluralistic system including such unfettered mobility would we be then?

Our American friend in Shanghai put it best (again I paraphrase)... Whether they are intrinsically happy with their lot in life or not, the Chinese (excluding Tibetans and other minority groups outside the majority Mandarin/Cantonese about whom I sadly know even less) always know where they stand in society. They understand their role, how their tiny piece of the puzzle is part of a larger, millennia old experiment that has adapted over time while still maintaining some fundamental tenets of what it means to be Chinese. They are promised little (other than peace, access to some services, etc.) by their government and they expect little. But... at the same time have a reputation for being hyper competitive and enamored with luxury goods that, in theory, signify a great social stance and the possibility of mobility......

Forget understanding or decoding it, apparently I'm still trying to define the enigma that is the People's Republic of China. Sheesh.