It seems each time I go, just about everything looks better than it did the last time. The driving’s getting more civil (slowly but markedly), people are less horrified of forming a line, the litter is less ubiquitous, and people simply look, in general, a lot happier. At least in the prosperous coastal cities where I hung out this trip.
As I walked along the plushest and liveliest section of Shanghai’s Huaihailu on Saturday night, it struck me just how easy it is to forget all about Hao Wu and corruption and pollution, and to be swept up to giddy heights of near limitless optimism. So many smartly dressed, smiling people, up and coming in a world of staggering possibilities, knowing they are seen as the new fulcrum of the world’s economic engine, cheered on by one rosy economic forecast after another, with no end in sight. Why would anyone bother for even an instant to look at the darker and gloomier side of things? What’s to be gained? Why throw sand into the vaseline?
Underneath it all, the ugly truths persist, of course. The government still lies and covers up and admits no wrongdoing, much like the Bush hooligans, but what’s the impetus nowadays for anyone to stop and take notice, let alone stand up and protest? It’s morning again in China, and we won’t have anyone raining on our glorious parade. I can’t blame them for feeling this way, and if the same successes were occurring in America, I suspect we’d see the same reaction by most of the population, basking in the good news and quietly pushing the bad news under the carpet. Maybe it’s human nature. In any case, as long as the prosperity continues, expect no significant outburst of social conscience. The grand success and the way the Chinese people are responding has many historical precedents. In all honesty, I can’t blame them a bit, and seeing America in today’s pathetic and demoralized state, I can’t deny I am actually jealous of the upbeat feeling that pervades so much of China today. Is is real and is it sustainable? Those are separate questions that can only be answered over time. But there’s simply no denying that at this moment, things look damned good on the surface.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.