Just read his excellent piece entitled The Cleveland of Asia: A Journey Through China’s Rust Belt. Funny, with many good insights.
I mentioned to Tom that the whole time we’d been on the mainland I’d hardly heard the Tiananmen massacre of 1989 mentioned.
“That’s no surprise,” Tom said. “Tiananmen Square is where the abdication of the last emperor was proclaimed in 1912. It’s where the student demonstrations, which led to the formation of the Chinese Communist Party, were held in 1919. It’s where the Japanese occupation government announced its East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, where Mao declared victory over the Kuomintang in 1949, and where a million Red Guards swore loyalty to Mao during the Cultural Revolution. When the Chinese see a bunch of people gathering in Tiananmen Square, they don’t go all warm and fuzzy the way we do. The Chinese think, ‘Here we go again.’”
I also recently read a very good review in Quadrant Magazine, which makes much the same point: China is big and complicated. Do not accept simplistic explanations.
In response to the Quadrant piece, I got a good response from my old pal Singapore Pundit.
He wrote as follows:
I think that the author has a number of very good points, especially the need to be on the ground in China to understand what is going on.
Recently, I have been in China job hunting and I am struck on how fast things change physically and socially/politically. In Beijing, there are huge districts were I knew the basic street geography four years ago, but today I am completely lost in a forest of new skyscrapers (not two or three buildings but twenty or thirty! And not in one or two places in the city but ten places). Four years ago, I was thinking about the building near my office being constructed and wondering who was going to rent them. Know there are countless more building and I still wondering. Some people say that there is a real estate bubble. That could well be, but I heard that the Vice Minister responsible for finance (who is the ex-Minister of Finance) has said that the Government is not going to bail out any of the developers if things go south.
I touched a little on political change with the above comment, but more striking is the governments reaction to the Sichuan earthquake in contrast to SARS. The coverage in China on TV is almost gory. All the newspapers list the number of dead, injured, homeless, etc. on the front paper on a daily basis starting almost on the first day and are packed with photo essays of the rescues and destruction.
I have to say that when I see the speed and scale of development in China (you should see the new terminals in Beijing and Shanghai, gigantic and of very high quality. Beijing’s new terminal absolutely dwarfs O’Hare, and I am not exaggerating), I wonder if US is starting to fall behind, so that in twenty years we won’t know what hit us. The new terminal is Beijing took three years to build, were as the Heathrow BA terminal took six years and didn’t work right on launch day (took couple of weeks to get it right).
Having said all that, I was speaking to my cousin you teaches mandatory political classes to college students and he says that Chinese colleges are crap (science text books are twenty years old and the teachers are all way behind the state of the art, so that graduating students are hopelessly wrongly educated and unable to apply the latest knowledge to their new jobs). His daughter got into one of the top schools in China (Fudan University), but instead she took a scholarship to go to school in Lyon in France because of his concerns.
On the local political scene in Shanghai where he lives, he told me that if you have a complaint about traffic or street sign, there is a hot line number you can call and the local government is very responsive. There are even some people who make a hobby of pointing out things that the local government as to improve and the government not only tolerates them, but also encourages this. Of course, Shanghai is arguably the most advanced city in China, but nonetheless this is an interesting trend.
Another interesting thing out of the earthquake is that I heard from NPR that the comments from the people (victims) in Sichuan were that they are very disatisfied with their local government (because for example of all the school building falling down which they attribute to poor construction resulfing from corruption), but very happy with the central government.
As I have commented to you before, China is so complex and dynamic it defies easy description and analysis. Change is the only constant it seems. So the author is right keep collecting data and learning more to try to keep on top of what is going on in China.