When I look at
today, I worry about the toll the rapid urban development, and the emphasis on getting rich, is taking on the social structure. I am also concerned that China is pursuing many economic policies that are basically a dead end. There have been quite a few posts on this blog related to these topics – Confucianism, coal and oil etc, some by guest blogger Larry Mongoss. China
Some of these issues did not come out very clearly in Koppel's series, and it is worth reflecting why that might be.
First, many of the people who worry about these things in
are in academic pursuits. They are not engaged in the economy at the top (i.e. owners and bosses) or at the bottom as laborers. They are, rather, in the middle and largely ignored by the two ends. They have also not seen as dramatic a change in the lifestyle (and even though they have interesting ideas many are boring to listen to), and thus are less attractive as interview candidates. China
Second, not many people are publicly critical of rapid economic development. Some are talking about the environment, but not really in a way to suggest changing the path. This is not so much out of fear of government reprisal. Self-interest strongly motivates people to go along, and speaking out in the contrary would not be popular. Still, it is worth reviewing the content of Koppel’s documentary as a platform for discussing whether the economic path
is pursuing is a right one. China
The First Episode
The first episode deals primarily with globalization and the movement of goods and jobs. This episode was especially interesting to me, because when I left
in 1988, almost everything was locally produced. And by local, I mean really local. I worked in a bus factory after I graduated from college – buses for Chongqing from Chongqing . In stores, which had a limited variety of goods, almost everything was made in Chongqing . Even within Chongqing , very little moved to or from China . It was quite a surprise to come to Chongqing and find out my vegetables were coming from Boston . Today, globalization is with us and it definitely has good and bad things – as Koppel pointed out by showing the job fairs and disenfranchised workers. California
The Second Episode
In the second episode, Koppel was trying to highlight some of the troubling things – prostitution, drugs and drinking, that are now prevalent in
. Unfortunately, without any real historical baseline, he had little to say about whether this was new, or had always been. Sure some people talked about the good old days of the Cultural Revolution, but it was really just middle aged people reminiscing about their youth. I find myself doing the same thing sometimes – and all of my friends love to sing the songs from that time just for fun, for being young again. It is also the wrong period for comparison. The golden age of Communism in China was short lived – basically the 1950s before the anti-rightists movement and the Great Leap Forward, and then an even shorter rejuvenation in 1963-64 after the country recovered from the three-year famine. During that time there was little corruption among party members and significant improvement to the lives of the poorest people. Chongqing
Still, to be a poor farmer in
is hard. My mother was born into such a family in 1929, the only one of 13 children to see a second birthday. I also lived with very poor farmers for several years as a 知青 ("sent-down youth" as sometimes referred, but I prefer to translate the term as "insert") in the 1970s, and know what they go through. Hard rural life has been part of China for thousands of years. It is not something attributable only to Communism, as Koppel offhandedly suggested, though the three-year famine from 1959-61 certainly was. Improving that life is a worthy goal indeed. China
Koppel repeatedly presents the idea of bootstrapping 300 million people (not sure what this number is referring to) out of poverty. He talked to some of the poor peasants, and found that they preferred now to then – when "then" was any time in the past. While that does suggest economic development is working for them, for most the local improvement in rural conditions is more the result of land reform and de-collectivization in the 1980s – 90s than urban economic growth. In fact, the emphasis on urban development has been the source of many of the bitter rural protests that Koppel refers to. To my mind, the link between urban economic growth and improvements in rural conditions is not as clear as the series suggests.
The Chinese government remains very strongly focused on urban development, and seems to think the way to help farmers is to make it easier for them to get to the city. To me, it is not at all obvious that this is true. It seems like redirecting just a small amount of the urban investment to rural areas could have a much more profound impact. This is clearly not a simple topic to come to grips with, but I do think it should have received more attention in the series.
The Third Episode
Cars and roads are what the third episode is all about, and I feel uncomfortable that so many people seem to buy into a single vision. I can still remember a conversation I had with a government planning official in
about ten years ago. I had boldly stated that Beijing has an opportunity to avoid the mistakes made in the China and develop more effective public transit, which was the topic of my Ph.D. dissertation. He absolutely bristled at my suggestion and furiously proclaimed that Chinese had every right to the same life that Americans enjoy. To him, and apparently many others, that means cars. US
In the early 1980s, when I was a university student in Chongqing and China was newly opened to the outside world, once-prohibited Western thoughts began to be introduced in great quantity. At the time the books from the "20th Century Series" were most popular among us hungry students and scholars. Among those translated books, The Limits to Growth was most talked about. Three decades after the book's first publication in 1972, its many prognostications (of the negative consequences of population and economic growth) based on a system dynamics model have come true, yet the government and business people, both in the US and China, continue to ignore it. I highly recommend this book to everyone.
There are clear signs that oil won’t continue to be cheap, that carbon is having a significant global climate impact, that urbanization is destroying ecosystems and that many of the negative environmental impacts are actually reinforcing themselves.
seems to be trying to emulate China – big roads and big cars (along with the business practices of the railroad barons). If America , with four times the population, matches the current American lifestyle, the implications are enormously frightening. At the same time, my red faced friend is correct – Chinese have as much right to the good life as anyone. China
That is a dilemma that would make a very interesting follow up to this series. It seems to me a more reasonable model would be to really slow down the urban development while pulling resources together to help improve the rural life and developing mass transit and alternative transportation (such as electric bikes) instead of a car-oriented life style.
Just to digress a little bit: From this point of view, the Beijing Olympics really are a big waste of resources and destructive to the environment. I understand the Chinese government and people who take the event as a way to boost
's international image and view it as a matter of national pride. But, while I was disgusted by those violent attempts to damage the torch relay, one good thing I learned from twenty years of living in America is a practical attitude over vanity. To me a better life for people is the ultimate way to improve a nation's image. China
The Fourth Episode
The fourth episode explores corruption and business. It came as no surprise that these often go hand in hand. The main case discussed involved a lot of land, and lot of money. In a high-profile corruption case, the government official who accepted big bribes was sentenced to death (though delayed), while the business people who provided the bribes were not punished. Troubling, but it is no surprise given that the Chinese government is so vocally pro business. This case was highly publicized, but it is the widespread, but smaller scale corruption that should be given more attention. Koppel did allude to the discussion of the schools that collapsed in the earthquake, but that was not his focus. As the adage goes, 天高皇帝远 – when the sky is high and the emperor is far, people do whatever they want. And when offered many years salary to look the other way, it is no surprise that some can’t resist. With all the focus on the cities, very few will hear the cries of those suffering in the countryside.
I do applaud Koppel for his diligence and persistence in creating this series. I was very impressed that he was willing to go down into a coal mine – I admit I would be very afraid to do that. I hope that he will follow up on it, and perhaps address some of the threads that I have pointed out in this post. There are interesting times ahead.
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