I just returned from two weeks touring the People’s Republic of China. The Great Wall, 2,200-year-old Terracotta Warriors, the Forbidden City—what an experience!
The size of the place is mind-boggling. Shanghai alone has almost as many people as the entire state of Texas. Most of the cities I visited are unattractive in that old communist way, with mile after mile of nondescript and decrepit-looking high-rise apartment buildings. But the architecture of the newer downtowns was strikingly modern, particularly in Beijing, and even the plainest cities and their bridges are so beautifully lit at night that they almost become works of art. The streets are spotless and graffiti-free — even in the poorer areas — putting world-class cities like San Francisco to shame. The crime rate is very low (with the exception of pickpockets and associated con artists in tourist spots). My wife and I felt safer walking alone at night in China than we do at home.
I was also surprised by China’s extravagant commercialism. “Communist China” has become a misnomer. The socialist vision of “Chairman Mao,” as he is reverentially called by the Chinese people, is as dead as he is.
State-controlled socialism has been replaced by state-controlled capitalism, and that shift is paying off “big league,” as a certain president-elect might say, leading to dramatic economic growth and concomitant improvements in living standards. Commenting on the dramatic shift in economic policies of his country, our fortyish-year-old tour guide quoted Mao, saying pragmatically, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black so long as it catches mice.” I was tempted to point out that that was not how the monster had ruled, but I managed to hold my tongue.
China has adopted many of the features of Western consumerism. Indeed, if you had blindfolded me and placed me in downtown Shanghai or Beijing, but for the Chinese signs, it could have been Beverly Hills. All of the highest-end brand-name stores were represented — Prada, Armani, Versace, and even Maserati dealerships. On our tour bus heading for the Great Wall, my wife and I were stunned to see a huge discount outlet shopping center, complete with full parking lot.
China’s unexpected economic vibrancy almost masks its authoritarianism — but after a few days, the authoritarianism is plain to see. It is evidenced, for example, by the many families doting over their single child, a result of China’s tyrannical “one birth” policy. (We dined one night with friends from America who were vacationing there with their three children. They told us of being mobbed and photographed by people stunned to see such a “large” family.) China recently loosened family restrictions to two births, not for the benefit of families but to manage the country’s demographic problems.
On the freeways — during the few times they were not choked with gridlocked traffic — everyone drove at the exact same speed, perhaps because flashing cameras photograph cars every kilometer or so. It seemed to be a weird metaphor for the country’s regimentation. (Riding in a Beijing taxi one night was another matter.) And though there were no soldiers patrolling the streets, as I half-expected (other than in airports and Tiananmen Square), the state’s authority was visibly represented by a strong police presence and ubiquitous uniformed security guards.
There is no free press. The China People’s Daily, the one readily available English-language newspaper, is a boring propaganda sheet. We were able to access the Internet, but it was heavily censored. The Chinese government clearly understands that unrestricted social media empowers dissenters. Facebook and Twitter were both blocked. Google could not be used to search, and my wife’s Gmail came to her cell phone only erratically. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal were also unreachable. However, I was able to read the San Francisco Chronicle online and watch CNN International and BBC News at our hotels. (A joke about common bedfellows comes to mind.)
The people we met were so far from having any power over their political lives that they had adopted an attitude of distinct passivity. Political matters were discussed distantly, about what “the government” had decided. Having just experienced the most emotionally contentious presidential campaign in my lifetime, I found this social numbness hard to get used to.
China’s authoritarianism was, unexpectedly, most evident in the stunning success of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. The structure is jaw-dropping, an engineering wonder of the world. At 7,661 feet, it is nearly as long as the Golden Gate Bridge. It is the world’s largest hydroelectric generating facility and has ten locks to raise and lower vessels between the river and huge lake the dam created. Rising water flooded the homes of millions of people, for whom entire new cities were built — all completed in a shorter time (1994–2015) than it took California to rebuild the new eastern span of the Oakland Bay Bridge (1989–2013) — using Chinese steel, necessitated by the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.
As a few fellow Americans and I contemplated the sweeping vista of the dam, we looked at each other with widening eyes and I uttered a crudely expressed thought that roughly translates to, “We are so significantly challenged!” Such a magnificent project would be impossible to complete in the United States. The lawsuits alone would take a hundred years! But then, the brutal suppression of dissent allows such sweeping decisions to be implemented without regard for the people affected or the environmental impact.
China is rising. But for how long? Dictatorship stifles innovation and breeds corruption. While we were there, an easily avoidable industrial accident took the lives of more than sixty workers. CNBC reported that the tragedy was the latest in a string of such accidents caused by a culture of graft infecting the private building sector. Rule by fear is not the same thing as the rule of law.
The Chinese are wonderful and industrious people, and I am happy they are enjoying improved fortunes. But that is not all that makes for a thriving society. China is a significant competitor and potential threat, but — my comment at the Three Gorges Dam notwithstanding — we shouldn’t be too worried. The West isn’t history’s most successful and strongest civilization because it is prosperous. We are prosperous, successful, and strong because we are free.