Posted by: Brian | April 26, 2009

Why China’s Future Can’t Escape Its Past

For the past few months, I’ve been living in China, trying to make sense of everything around me. I’ve watched workers demolish dozens of apartment buildings down the road from me in preparation for building newer, more efficient structures as part of a movement toward sustainability and making China “green.” From what I’ve gathered, the people living there were given perhaps one or two weeks’ notice to vacate the premises before a wrecking ball came smashing through their living room.

Demolition Site

As the Chinese government inexorably pursues its long-term development goals – various “five year plans” and pieces of legislation dictating how, where, and at what speed China should develop – I can’t help but get the feeling that people are being left behind. The current mindset of the government is this: first and foremost, everyone should have the opportunity to improve themselves financially. While it’s an admirable goal, and as close to a declaration of capitalism as I’ve heard from them, other details are not dealt with.

First, poverty is not only common in China, for many it’s a fact of life. Most Chinese citizens would argue to the contrary, bringing up the oft-quoted number 400,000,000. That’s how many people the World Bank estimates have been lifted out of poverty since China began a series of reforms in 1978 under the direction of Deng Xiaoping. It’s an incredible number, certainly, but judging China’s progress by that metric alone ignores the approximately 80 million still in poverty by World Bank standards.



The real concern here is that this isn’t poverty as it exists in the United States, where social services like food stamps and Medicaid are available. This is the sort of poverty where you can’t even afford to eat, where scrounging through garbage is one of the more viable means of sustenance. It can’t be argued that this doesn’t happen – I live in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province, and I see it on a regular basis. I’ve seen greater economic disparity in the streets of Kunming than I’ve ever witnessed in the United States. This is to be expected, to a certain extent – urban opportunities are always more diverse than in rural areas. That being said, it’s gut-wrenching to see a crippled man dressed in rags beg for alms while Porsches and BMWs with dark-tinted windows drive past.

Many westerners are horrified by China’s flippant dismissal of the concept of human rights. We see activists jailed for promoting democracy, the beloved Dalai Lama declared a despot, prisoners and those awaiting trial often tortured and abused. We cry foul, and demand that China align it’s values with ours. Herein lies the problem: from the Chinese perspective, this isn’t a matter of human rights, though admittedly it’s still something of a foreign concept here. It’s whether or not China should succumb to the demands of the West.

Even more recently, as the price of oil rose (pre-economic crisis) and our wallets grew thin, we looked to China’s increased consumption as the cause of our hurt. We look at their pollution, which billows out of a country that produces the vast majority of it’s electricity from coal and has more lax emissions standards for vehicles, and worry for the planet. Time and again, the West has called for China to reduce their dependence on coal and oil. Most of us see their actions as irresponsible when better technologies are available.

The Chinese see these things as so many examples of the West trying to impose its will on China, similar to what happened in the 19th century with the so-called “spheres of influence.” They see a West that is jealous of their progress and fearful of losing its dominant position in the world. They see a West that is trying to hold them back. It is understandable, then, when calls for human rights reform or reduced oil consumption are met with icy stares and harsh replies.

These are the growing pains of a country that is advancing with greater speed than it knows how to deal with. China demands equality on matters of a fiscal or political nature, but the amnesty of a developing nation when human rights or environmental issues are raised. As it edges closer and closer to the same economic standards and comfort enjoyed by the western world, China cannot continue to ignore its shortcomings. Deng Xiaopeng is famed for having said, “To be rich is glorious.” Those Chinese who are fond of quoting him on this would do well to remember his previous sentence – “Poverty is not socialism.”

Imperfect though it may be, the Communist Party still wields vast amounts of power, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Better for China to stick with the high-minded ideals that the modern People’s Republic of China was formed on than to embrace the worst, most self-serving elements of capitalism. As China rockets toward its future as one of the top world powers, it is imperative that it not forget the lessons learned after so many years under dynastic rule or later under the iron fist of the KMT. To do so would invite a repeat of history, one in which the development of a new, repressive regime, this time controlled by the ultra-rich, seems all but certain.



  1. “It’s Past”? Shame on you! 🙂

    Fantastic post, though, beyond anything else. It’s always a delight to read an informed outsider’s opinion on something distinctly un-American.

    I remember reading an entire magazine devoted to China a few months back. A major point it focused on was China’s rapidly aging population. I won’t try to remember the exact numbers, but the mag claimed that a majority of the population was nearing 40 or 50.

    The mag noted that older populations are typically less aggressive (an important point when America views China as warily as it does). The people might be less likely to reach for a gun, sure, but I imagine too that they’ll only grow more steadily entrenched in their cultural ideals as the years pass by.

    Considering the point you made about China being reluctant to allow Western influence, and considering a middle-aged population, something tells me the political situation in China might not change as quickly as its cities (and economic plans!) rise and fall.

    Any thoughts on this?

  2. *Fixed*

    For some reason I’ve never been able to keep those straight 🙂

  3. […] to its ideals in the face of modernism and change. My favorite piece of his still has to be this one, a discussion on China’s reluctance to adopt the ideals and beliefs that we’ve come to […]

  4. @Matt

    Here’s your delayed reply:

    It’s a complicated issue, really. On the one hand, yes the population is aging. It’s readily apparent in every part of China that I’ve visited so far. So in the sense that the overall population will become less aggressive and more entrenched in their ways, I would agree with you. On the other hand, this isn’t a democracy – the will of the people doesn’t count for anything here. Even when people do have dissenting opinions, they’re rarely vocalized.

    Combine that with the fact that most of the CCP’s leadership is approaching retirement age and will soon be replaced by younger officials, and you’ve got a very interesting situation. The leadership will by and large be younger, better educated, more open, more capitalistic, and more idealistic than most of the population. Whether that will translate into a marked change from their current course is anyone’s guess. Personally, I things will change, but slowly and gradually instead of a huge change. Most people I’ve talked to here are of the opinion that there isn’t any need for democracy, or implementation of human rights governance, or anything else along those lines. They feel like their lives are fine right now; why bother with change when the current system does the job?

    As with anything, there’s obviously much more going on than I mentioned, but I hope that helps.

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