Lessons from China for the rest of us

20141116-Shanghai
Air pollution haze in Shanghai, where new-age capitalism fights for coexistence with old-line communism.

SHANGHAI, China - Once known as the Paris of the East, Shanghai has long been a setting where European style comfortably cohabited with Asian sensibilities. But in this new China, where capitalistic fervor is barely contained by a communist regime whose velvet glove still knows how to strike harshly, this city's resemblance to a Western metropolis seems even more pronounced.

But it's not just the Vera Wang boutique we passed by on the way to my hotel that makes me think this way. It is the confident stride of Chinese shoppers and workers on the street, it is the tone of their voice as they relate with pride what they have built and are building, it is the confidence in which they talk about their country's future.

I'm in China to learn how to be less arrogant. No, really. A People's Daily editor among a group of Chinese journalists who visited Philadelphia in September said arrogance was the reason Americans know so little about China. So, I'm here to learn.

Actually, making this trip as one of several American journalists participating in a program sponsored by the China United States Exchange Foundation was planned months before I knew how arrogant I was. But the timing couldn't be better.

You see, I don't totally disagree with the newspaper editor from Beijing. Americans should know more about China. We don't because we didn't believe we needed to be concerned about a lesser power. But with China now seemingly poised to challenge America's world economic dominance, it's time we paid closer attention.

Most Americans, I think, realize that today's China isn't the uniformly dressed collective of worker bees that Mao Tse-tung presided over more than a generation ago. But, how China has been able to embrace the same market economic principles that propel capitalism, while retaining a rigidly communist grip on all other aspects of Chinese society, is a mystery to us.

Chairman Mao wasn't around to see the transformation. He died in 1976. Three years later, Deng Xiaoping began engineering the change. But as pointed out by New Yorker reporter Evan Osnos, author of Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China, the movement began at the grass roots.

The collective approach to farming ordered by Mao had led to famine throughout China, including the village of Xiaogang, where 18 farmers decided to ignore government edicts and try something different. They divided the land, followed their own planting and harvesting schedules, and produced enough crops to sell the excess for profit.

Rather than crack down on the farmers, communist officials not only let them continue, with Deng's assent, they also let the idea spread, creating a "birdcage economy" in which the market was given only enough air to thrive without encouraging further independence. But the entrepreneurship genie was out of the bottle. Finally, in 1979, Deng declared, "Let some people get rich first, and gradually all the people will get rich together."

The next year was pivotal, Osnos said, with China creating special economic zones that offered tax breaks to attract foreign investment. In 1985, the government lifted restrictions on where people could live and rural residents began leaving the farms for jobs in the cities. An accompanying shutdown of state industries pushed more workers into the private sector.

Such rapid changes propelled a movement for independence beyond work, culminating in the 1989 mass protests in Beijing at Tiananmen Square, which began after the death of dissident leader Hu Yaobang. The government sent in troops. Protesters were killed. An iconic photo of a lone demonstrator confronting a tank has since served as an enduring symbol of the Chinese quest for more freedom.

That quest, despite efforts to suppress its presence, hovered like a rain cloud over the 2008 Olympics. The world paid attention as dissidents were rounded up before the Beijing Games. Journalists covering the Olympics had to overcome restrictions on Internet access enforced to keep the Chinese public from learning too much too fast.

Six years later, I'm in China to learn how much has changed and how much is yet to occur.

Every nation is a contradiction. America, the land of the free, leads the world in the number of people in prisons and jails, 2.2 million when last counted; too many of them African Americans like me. China's contradictions, though, may be even more untenable.

The people in America's prisons know they are not free. There is no pretense. In China, pretense seems crucial to individual success. But I don't know that for a fact. It's what I want to find out.

I want to know whether the Chinese believe being free to make a profit off of your labor is fair compensation for not having full access to the Internet, or not being free to speak your mind about your government. I'll try not to let my arrogance get in the way of what I want to learn.

 


Harold Jackson is editorial page editor of The Inquirer. hjackson@philly.news.com