Friday, July 18, 2008

The People's Republic of Capitalism = Chongqing (3)

In my previous post on Ted Koppel's documentary, "The People's Republic of Capitalism," I focused on the interesting differences, mostly on political issues, in opinion between Koppel and people he interviewed. When it came to economics, however, there was only one dissenting voice: a man being forced to move out of his home because of new construction - and it really looked like he was just holding out for more money. Environmental and safety issues were raised, but they did not seem to damp anyone’s optimism about economic growth.

When I look at China 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.

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 China 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. 

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 China is pursuing is a right one.

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 Chongqing 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 China, very little moved to or from Chongqing. It was quite a surprise to come to Boston and find out my vegetables were coming from California. 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.

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 Chongqing. 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.

Still, to be a poor farmer in China 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.

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 Beijing about ten years ago. I had boldly stated that China has an opportunity to avoid the mistakes made in the US 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.

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. China seems to be trying to emulate America – big roads and big cars (along with the business practices of the railroad barons). If China, 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.

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 China'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. 

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.

Previous post:
The People's Republic of Capitalism = Chongqing (2)


Rocking Offkey said...

It's funny that China not only focus on the cars, but also on big cars - the good old Buick gets the nod.

That official was right. China has every right to the life style of America - for a proportion of it's population. That is, .3 of its 1.3 billion people. And many of those .3 have already had an American life style lo-and-behold.

Taking 1.3 billion though, there is no way they can sustain that life style, but that's not what the current government cares. If the policy was for all 1.3 billion, it would made much more sense to develop the light-rail system, and focus more on smaller cars - the European style more or less. And it makes more sense because of the comparable population density of China to the old Europe.

Capitalism though, when it picks up steam, has a way to expanding itself until it hits the bumps, unless there are political force to reign it in. So I don't expect the current model to switch anytime soon. After all, the 0.3 billion currently has much more political power than the other 1 billion. The solution for ordinary joe in China is try to join the club when the engine is still going.

The most shocking thing I get by watching the series is that how poor the neighboring rural area still is, not how glistering ChongQing is. Funny that the biggest agricultural productivity increase is laid foundation in the 50s, with large gov organized irrigation projects and water management engineering.

One key to understand current China, or America for that matter, is capitalization. You capitalize on the assets that was not moneterized, or vaguely defined of its property rights, and then use the generated capital to get more power to other areas. The sooner you capitalize the bigger clout you have, be it google in American IT, or land development in China. But because the political balance was so poor in China, future efficiency and externality are often neglected.

I should stop here, otherwise I run the risk of developing a long ranting post.

Robert Burnham said...

It occurs to me that migrant workers in the cities are funneling a portion of their pay -- small amounts in each case perhaps, but money all the same -- back to their home towns and villages in the hinterlands. I wonder what the size is of that private, urban-to-rural transfer of funds.

I also wonder if this transfer is happening in channels that are beyond the everyday control of corrupt bureaucrats.

This might be a way -- a slow way, to be sure -- of putting money directly into the hands of rural Chinese. And what will be the effects of this transfer if it goes on for a couple decades more?

alfaeco said...

I very much fear that if China follows the US development style they will end in a dead end.

Why is CH fixated in the US? They see the US as the great superpower, an image of what they once think they were, and also an image of what they want to be.

But there is no way the land can sustain that development model. They should concentrate in other growth models, or develop a new one.

Xujun said...

Thanks Rocking – very interesting comments. I like your comparison between China and Europe. Perhaps China needs to even lead Europe - not follow it. In a sense Europe would be between the US and China. Also, if the government is into it, there are ways to control the engine of capitalism. This is where whatever is left of the planning economy can still come into play. Leverage such as tax can be deployed to slow down urban development, for example.

Robert, a good question worth looking at. I don't know about the size of that private money flow either, though it certainly helps (I know it helped a lot for my rural relatives). I was just thinking if the government and business people could switch the development focus from urban to rural, that would make a lot bigger difference. Another utopian scheme perhaps.

Alfonso - I think you are right: the US is both the place to hate, and the place to be the same as. It seems pretty ironic to me.


Shoe June,
I read that your new book AF was partly inspired after the 911 terrorist attacks in NYC on the World Trade Center. And that you got back into fiction writing after that. It's a very interesting idea.

Congrats on your book. Am looking forward to reading it. Just ordered it today.

Did you know, vis a vis the Twin Towers, that there is a theme park in Beijing, even now, even today, called Beijing World Park, just a few km from the Bird's Nest stadium, that still shows the Twin Towers standing in a replica of a model of Manhattan that people can float by on a tourist boat? Yes, even today, now, China still shows the Twin Towers standing. Is this an insult to the USA, or is this sensitibity to the USA, or are both questions not valid here? The park's twin towers were built in 1995, long before 911. But they were never taken down, so tourists can still see them standing there. Is that odd, or surreal or shocking? To you? Or is it just par for the course, and has nothing to do with China or the USA? Wonder how you feel about this? Some blogs in NYC have discussed this already. Most people don't care.
Here is blog and images:


Tufts 1971

Now living in Taiwan, a separate country from communist China, as I am sure you know and agree with. SMILE.

Anonymous said...

@ dan You seem to make a lot of the WTO twin towers and have many questions to ask relating to them.
"Is this an insult to the USA, or is this sensitibity[sic] to the USA, or are both questions not valid here?"

"Is that odd, or surreal or shocking? To you? Or is it just par for the course, and has nothing to do with China or the USA?"

Personally I don't find anything particularly odd, shocking, surreal or insulting about the model towers; they are just part of a Disney-esque tourist attraction with no meaning or purpose other than to make money for someone. But regarding your questions, yes they do strike me as a little surreal.

Xujun said...

Dan, I'm with 克莱夫 on this. I have not visited the theme park in Beijing. But in a logical sense, if the Manhattan model was built long before 9/11, why would the Chinese destroy the twin towers in the model as the terrorists did to it in reality? Had they done that, I'm sure, the Chinese would be in bigger trouble.

By the way, thank you very much for your interest in my book. I'm curious, how do you order it from Taiwan?


Thanks Xujun, and 克莱夫 chambers of the 1000 flowers, for your comments:

I will try to explain how this pic came to me. I was reading the local paper in Taiwan, the CHINA POST (sic), it's not a newspaper in China so why it's called the CHINA POST is beyond me, it should be called the Taiwan Post, but there's history here, I guess, Commie China vs Chiang Kaishek's CHINA, so THE CHINA POST it is, even today, and the national airlines is called CHINA AIRLINES, but it's not in China, it's owned by Taiwan, but hey, this is a surreal part of the world...

anyway, Xujun, I was reading the CHINA POST a few weeks ago and on page 7 there was a color photo of a theme park in Beijing, WORLD PARK, and the photo by a Reuters photographer named Reinhard Krause, a native of Germany now working in Beijing for Reuters photo agency, his photo was of a Chinese family floating by the Twin Towers replica in a theme park for a Manhattan skyline exhibit, all mini bldgs, of course, and it just struck me as ODD, SURREAL, that now, in 2008, the Twin Towers would still be shown to tourists in a Chinese theme park.

Of course, I agree with you, China should not have destroyed the twin towers. That would me worse. But as a PR idea, I guess, maybe, the theme park should have quietly gently removed the twin towers, at night, taken them down quietly and left a notice maybe saying the towers were destroyed in a terrorist attack on the USA on Sept 11, 2001....something like that, OR, maybe left the Towers standing but put a notice in front of the exhibit telling tourists that the towers were indeed destroyed in 911 and what an awful tragedy it was for the families and family members who died in the attacks that day.....SOMETHING, to show some understanding of what happened....

just my PR two cents worth....

i mean, at some point, the towers will have to come down when the new Freedom Tower goes up, in 2050 or so, but to leave them standing now is just just just, what is the word.....Yes, it bothers me. But if it doesn't bother you or others, that's cool too. I can see both sides.

But given the fact that many Chinese people inside China were happy about the 911 attack, saying on BBS chat rooms that the USA deserved it, and celebrating the destruction of the towers on 911, it seems that maybe the PR people at the theme park in Beijing would have been more sensitive to world history. Esp with the Olympics coming soon and Bush visiting Beijing.

But not everyone agrees with me. In fact, most Americans at blogs in NYC, gothamist and do not agree with me and told me to get lost. HAHA

I was and am just asking the question. I have no answer. Did enjoy reading your answers there, thanks.







FYi here, Xujun,
see POLL results below. 569 to 6!

WTC Redevelopment Going Just Fine ... in China

Tuesday, July 8, 2008, posted by Joey Arak
at in NYC

On the official website for the Beijing Olympic Games, one of the "scenic spots" listed for tourists is World Park, a 117-acre park that contains miniature replicas of some of the world's most famous cities and sites. World Park opened in 1993, and as it prepares for a wave of new visitors thanks to the Olympics, some may be surprised to find that the attraction still features the Twin Towers, which—as some may know—were destroyed in 2001, leaving behind a pit of despair and confusing timelines. We know this because, A) Reuters recently ran a photo of the replica towers, and B) We received an e-mail from someone who is very upset about this, and he has set up a blog with the catchy title "Beijing Theme Park Still Shows Twin Towers. Why?" We can't answer that question, but c'mon China, even Legoland has already put in the Freedom Tower, even if it's an outdated design. But World Park does have one thing going for it. According to Wikipedia, "they have the yummy mickeymouse chocolate fountain." And isn't that, friends, what freedom is all about?
· Beijing Theme Park Still Shows Twin Towers. Why? []


July 8, 2008
by Jen Carlson

Twin Towers Still Standing in Beijing's "World Park"

Photo of the Twin Towers in Beijing's World Park.

Infinite emails (all from the same source) flooded inboxes citywide last night (following a Reuters photo that was published) with messages pondering "how Americans would feel if they knew that just before the Olympics start, a theme park in Beijing still shows the Twin Towers standing in a NYC exhibit of mini models?" With many Americans already protesting the Olympic Games, this might not help the Chinese government's boffo P.R campaign.

The World Trade Center is still depicted in many things, however, and this particular model went up in World Park in 1995. Should the memory of the past skyline and all trinkets from the pre-9/11 era be destroyed by now? Think of all the snow globes, old photos and t-shirts out there. On the flip side, Curbed notes that even Legoland has replaced the Twin Towers with the Freedom Tower. Maybe now Bush will join in on the Olympic boycott, unless he sees this as an opportunity to reinvigorate his presidency by visiting the park and staging a miniature "Never Forget" ceremony, with a miniature bullhorn.

Should the model of the Twin Towers in Beijing's World Park be taken down? (Poll Closed)

Yes - It's disrespectful. 6% (39 votes)

No - The model was put up in 1995, and wasn't meant to insult anyone. 94% (566 votes)

Total Votes: 605

Xujun said...

I hear you, Dan.