Stop me if you’ve heard this before…

Howard French has a new piece on the contradictions of modern China. These are all familiar themes, mostly of the “beneath the glittering surface lurk serious problems” variety, but French summarizes them well. The key graphs:

The intent here is not to slight China’s economic achievement, which in the past quarter-century has truly been all but miraculous. The point is to say that so much remains to be done here, including most of the hard work.

China’s outstanding tasks tend to be of the kind that evade quick and simple measurement and will certainly not loom large in the calculations of the graph paper and ruler gang.

The people who inhabit the world’s oldest unitary state have a common nationality, but they have yet to construct commonly held bonds of citizenship, which allow for the sharing of other people’s problems and of each other’s dreams.

The road thus far for China has been built on an official religion: the cult of GDP growth. China has built roads and buildings in dizzying quantities. And at the individual level, Chinese people are acquiring things just as fast as they can, but there seems to be little other rhyme or reason to life here for the time being.

The predominant reason for this is the government, which reserves for itself the right to proclaim causes and strikes down anyone who insists on articulating a different agenda too loudly. Similarly, it tightly controls the right of association, meaning that any group of any size must be organized under the government’s aegis.

The result is an atrophied sense of the individual and of civic participation, from which the country and its people are just now awakening, and not a moment too soon.

Sounds about right to me.

The Discussion: 16 Comments


French is a good writer in the sense that he does a good job conveying images, but I am so sick of the New York Times rehashing a China story as if it is the first time simply (because they are of the view that the first time is when the NY Times does it) I could scream!

Please don’t feed them.

January 4, 2007 @ 5:32 pm | Comment

I’m with Dan on this one, don’t feed them. As far as the Times Beijing Bureau goes, I have time for reading Yardley or Buckley, but French just drives me nuts.

Pointing out that Shanghai has poor people too is fine. There enough bubble expats and businesses who project China as a perpetual growth machine and kinda forget that, oh, you know, there are 700 million or so “peasants” who are at the very bottom of the curve. But beggars ignored on the street? How is this a Chinese thing? The only difference between this and Times Square is that China used to make these people disappear, whereas New York started doing that under Giuliani.

French also asserts that the “predominant reason” for an apparently anchorless society dominated by rampant consumerism is that the government won’t let anybody have their own organizations, which leads to an “atrophied sense of the individual”?

Hang on. Why is it necessarily the government that’s involved in this “atrophy”? What about the familial pressures to do what’s best for the family, not what the individual wants? What about the sheer population pressure that makes being successful in any small measure difficult, given the enormous competition? Just look at how many universities there are versus demand for a degree. Finally there’s the question of what it means to be “Chinese”, and that identity crisis goes back way before 1949. Between family, population, traditions, and a modern history that left China without a sure compass long before the Communists, I find it hard to say the government is the “predominant reason”.

I’m reminded of Brad DeLong’s comment:

“I don’t know what I’m going to say in fifty years when my great-grandchildren ask me, “Great-grandpapa, what were newspapers?” Perhaps: “Well, they were big buildings located in cities, where managers paid people to be ignorant and write about things they did not understand…””

January 4, 2007 @ 6:11 pm | Comment

I’m a little troubled by French’s assumption “The people who inhabit the world’s oldest unitary state have a common nationality.”

Where do I start? I wrote about some of these issues recently, but they are relevant to French’s statement:

1) I know many Chinese like to talk about 5000 years of continuous history and that makes a certain amount of sense if we’re talking about such ambiguous things like “culture” or “civilization,” but to project any kind of political unit back five millennia doesn’t really work. Not even 80 years ago, China was a failed state, divided among squabbling warlords. And that’s just the more recent example of disorder.

2) Unitary–well, which unit? The contemporary borders of the PRC? If so, those borders date back only as far as 1644 and the consolidation of the Qing empire by a combined government of Manchus, Han, and Mongols: A set of borders that the “anti-imperialist” CCP conveniently decided to adopt. (Though it lost the MPR and obviously the status of Taiwan continues to annoy.)

3) “Common Nationality,” is the rub. The Qing tended to be pretty relaxed about how people identified themselves so long as their ultimate loyalties were to the Qing throne. This contrasts sharply with the demands of modern nation-states, like the PRC, which require citizens to identify with the nation-state first and foremost. The challenge for the PRC is how to create a definition of “zhonguoren” that transcends ethnic identity. Nation-states are tricky things, and trying to forge a “common national identity” without the consent of the governed even trickier.

I’m surprised that Howard French made these kinds of uncritical assumptions.

January 4, 2007 @ 7:55 pm | Comment

These kinds of articles are a logical reaction to the continued “1 billion customers” and “world’s biggest potential everything” hot air from global fortune 500s looking for disposable, almost free work forces and no anti-capitalist consumer protection, labor or enviro laws.

January 4, 2007 @ 10:48 pm | Comment

Hah! Yeah. It’s the new counter-“1 billion customers” meme!

January 5, 2007 @ 1:19 am | Comment

I don’t see how this negates the idea of China’s large consumer market.

I also would like nanheyangrouchuan to elaborate on a course of action to correct the problems he so helpfully outlines.

January 5, 2007 @ 5:41 am | Comment


Which problems would you be referring to? The billion customers thing is even laughable to chinese, as 1 billion of china’s population is hopelessly poor and neglected…making them so frugal they don’t even spend money on tissue to wipe their mouth after eating or blowing their nose. They just use their sleeve, and I’m not poking fun, I’m pointing out what lengths some people will go to save money.

And these same billion people will buy western products? Drugs are bad, mkay?

January 5, 2007 @ 7:20 am | Comment

Yeah, but certain consumables in a similar market, India, have been sold in spite of the difficulties you mentioned (for example, P&G sells one-use toothpaste tubes and small bars of soap for very cheap and ships billions of these every year.)

And don’t tell me that Indians aren’t frugal…

January 5, 2007 @ 2:20 pm | Comment

A bit tangential, but hey…

Much as I like to go on about the problems, challenges, and ugly things in China, that’s getting to be a really old story to me. Consider a couple of things that could possibly lead to even more unimaginable progress in China in the next generations:

The current surge of growth – economic and social – is being led by a generation in which there were about 200,000 per year getting college degrees (late 70’s). NOW there are about 5 million per year in university! They may have only just begun.

Financial and property reforms are making transactions of all sorts easier and more transparent. I won’t go into why, but this sort of increase in the velocity of money almost always pushes and accelerates social change as well. I’ll leave it to others to speculate how and what kind of social changes will occur, but when I can get a few more thoughts together, this will make an interesting few posts on somebody’s blog….maybe mine if I get over a fit of inertia and bad internet.

January 5, 2007 @ 2:21 pm | Comment

I actually look at things that seem trivial on the one hand but are an expression of both individual rights and common causes on the other – like, the protests over the treatment of dogs. Okay, it is a sort of middle-class issue and about dogs, not political rights or land reform, but the fact is that these people have certain expectations of what they are entitled to, and they are forming associations to advocate for their rights.

And I totally agree that the more transparent business and legal transactions become, the more this tends to lead to political transparency as well.

January 5, 2007 @ 2:33 pm | Comment

@Jeremiah: Thank you, I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Maybe Shanghai has an all glitter no soul problem. Where I live in Fujian, we’ve got religion and local tradition coming out the wazoo. It’s like going to New York and saying 34th Street shows Americans have no faith, tradition or culture.

People here will get all maudlin about Chinese identity if you’re talking about the nation, since the vacuum is felt on that level, but ask them about local identity and they can go on forever. Unfortunately, some seem a bit ashamed that they do things like feed ghosts – that’s the real problem! There are vibrant local Chinese identities that are considered second class cuz they’re superstitious, and superstitions unfortunately got blamed for getting Summer Palaces burnt down. Never mind all the superstition about somebody getting nailed to a plank of wood that went on in the foreign concessions. The lesson that China seemed to have so much trouble learning in the 20th Century was that it doesn’t matter what your spiritual/cultural convictions are, rather how much conviction you have in them. So all that Weberian talk of learning the Christian/European secrets to success (or how about all those books on Youtai Business Secrets in Xinhua?) is barking up the wrong tree. What’s messing them up is their shame in their own traditions. And those traditions are local specific, as they ought to be. Any national identity to ought to address those local differences, instead of papering over them.

I also diagnose Howie as being on the first virgin plunge of the Cycle of Funk. (TalkTalkChina is dead. Long live TalkTalkChina.)

January 5, 2007 @ 2:58 pm | Comment

the first virgin plunge of the Cycle of Funk.

Okay. you got me here. Huh?

January 5, 2007 @ 3:53 pm | Comment

It was a post at TalkTalkChina that always rang true with me. The Cycle of Funk was a sine wave that decreased in amplitude the longer you stayed in China. So your first year, month, week, depending on how your mood swings, involved the highest high (Wow, China is so cool! Cheap DVDs!) and the lowest low (Everyone here is a lying nationalist who can’t queue!). I think French, based on his writing, is either on his way to the bottom of his first wave, or just coming out of it. He was posted to Africa before China, he’s only been out here a couple of years.

January 5, 2007 @ 7:39 pm | Comment

I never thought of it like a cycle or sine wave, more like a steam valve. Each time I’m in China for an extended period, I come in with a clean slate and an empty DVD folder. But as I collect DVDs and “experiences,” the pressure starts to build, leading to the inevitable “Expat moment,” where a seemingly trivial thing causes you to go all Travis Bickle on the poor counter girl and her manager who has just told you that, “No, you can’t pay your electric bill today because it’s Thursday.”

Then you feel better and move on with life.

January 5, 2007 @ 8:51 pm | Comment

HAH! Oh yeah, I remember that one. Funny because the only extended period of time I was in China was in 79 and things were VERY different (duh). But the phenomena was much the same.

My meltdown came over a shirt.

When I go now, everything seems like a breeze by comparison, but I’d probably start the cycle all over again if I stayed for any length of time.

I had the impression that French had been in China before though, maybe I’m wrong?

January 6, 2007 @ 3:32 am | Comment

When I go back, its usually taxi drivers and middle aged people who managed to find a way to piss me off. Sneezing on my change before giving it back to me seems to be a new trend.

January 6, 2007 @ 5:32 am | Comment

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