(or) How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Accept China
China’s rapid modernization and the rise of its powerful new economy is a topic of deep anxiety for many Americans. The Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” had everything to do with China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia and its economic strength. For now, the US economy is still the largest economy in the world, a position it has held since the late 19th century. According to the IMF’s World Economic Outlook Database, the U.S. still far exceeds China in per capita GDP, but a country with a population approaching 1.4 billion will likely eclipse the U.S at some point. On the other hand, China’s male-centric, one-child policy has left it with a bloated population of elderly citizens and a lopsided population of young men who are without marital prospects.
What I think really scares Americans about China, especially in the face of our own ineffectual government, is the way it quickly completes immense projects. China has a historical obsession with size: The Great Wall of China is still the world’s longest wall. China’s terracotta army “defends” the world’s largest burial complex, and the Leshan Grand Buddha, carved into a Sichuan cliff, is both the world’s largest Buddha and the world’s largest pre-modern statue (photos).
China also has the world’s tallest Buddha, a statue completed in 2002 in Henan. It makes sense for a country that has the world’s largest population and its most spoken language to take pride in building the biggest things. There is even a Chinese expression, “four big things,” used to denote affluence and success.
Just how often is China going big? Here’s a short list: China has the top four highest airports in the world, and the world’s largest airport will be completed in Beijing in 2019—and it will be stunning. China built the world’s largest supercomputer and just completed the world’s largest floating solar farm. China has the world’s longest bridge and 17 of the world’s 19 highest bridges, including the top five. It also has the world’s longest and highest glass bridge. It built the world’s fastest trains (photo), has the highest recorded levels of robot and automation sales, and owns the world’s largest money market funds—a product of the world’s largest and best mobile payment services (WeChat and Alipay, which make Apple Pay look like a medieval clunker). China plans to be the world’s first cashless society. Located inside the world’s second tallest building (The Shanghai Tower—designed by an American firm) are the world’s fastest elevators and highest observation deck. If aliens inhabit the universe, China wants to find them first with the world’s largest radio telescope signal receiver. China has the top two most populous cities in the world, Shanghai and Beijing respectively.
This competitive tendency to build the “biggest” things (including companies) is why a wealthy Shanghai businessman recently said he thought he was witnessing the end of American dominance. “America cannot even take care of its own citizens right now, how is it going to compete with us?” Hmmm. I’m not yet convinced that bigger necessarily means better. China’s projects make me think of Utah’s Golden Spike National Historic Site—a monument to one of America’s biggest failures, the transcontinental railroad. In fact, the implication of this businessman’s statement is one of China’s biggest problems: The government views its citizens as children who need to be “taken care” of, and China achieves this end by restricting access to global information, manipulating its currency, and protecting itself from foreign competition.
Here’s something to cheer Americans up: China’s broadband speed and connectivity rank between 91st and 134th in the world (depending on your source). This is by far the most difficult aspect of life for expats who live in China. According to Netflix, there are only four countries in the world without any access to its services: Syria, North Korea, Crimea and China. You won’t find any of the world’s greatest libraries in China either. In fact, after a period of increased openness, China is currently clamping down. It believes it doesn’t need what the rest of the world has [Google] because it has its own [censured] version: Baidu. China is constrained by the modern vacuum it created after the Cultural Revolution. As long as it remains a closed society, it will never really “take over the world” because it cannot export soft power–values, ideas and cultural artifacts–that compete with those already exported by the West, especially the United States. China is certainly trying to export soft power through investment in Africa and Southeast Asia, but its financial soft power is not yet accompanied by cultural soft power. If we’ve learned anything about people in relation to politics, it’s that people are emotional, not logical. China does not yet have a value system or a cultural narrative that rivals western democracy. I still think many countries might take the money and run–and China could find it has overextended itself.
On my morning walk recently, I noticed a man repainting a restaurant near our apartment. The building’s white façade was streaked, as so many are in China, with dirt, soot, grime and mold. The guy was painting directly over it without first washing the grunge off the building. And that’s kind of what China is like. Every apartment we’ve had, at first glance, looks like an upscale hotel. But underneath the shiny exterior, the construction is consistently shoddy. Granite floor thresholds chip off regularly, the grout and tile are slapped on artlessly, the plumbing and electrical fixtures are crooked and the appliances installed incorrectly. There is no question China will create some of the best clean energy solutions in the world—it has some of worst pollution problems to solve. After living in China, its world record infrastructure projects begin to look a little like lipstick on a pig.
Let’s put it this way: Our Chinese driver listens to American music all day. No one in the West listens to Chinese music. Pirated American DVDs are still wildly popular as are American labels like Coach, Nike, New Balance, and Starbucks. The Chinese are banging down the doors of European and American universities and private schools. More Chinese citizens than ever are visiting and being educated in the West. Without soft power to export, China has no choice but to approach the world coercively. Two recent incidents come to mind: China’s attempt to punish UC San Diego for inviting the Dalai Lama to speak, and its attempt to pressure Cambridge University to censure books, journals, and research about China’s history. China’s increasing need to control and censure the internet, and even more unnerving, its attempt to restrict information access outside its borders, suggests it has a growing anxiety about its ability to hold itself together as a country through the process of modernization.
None of this is meant to take away from China’s astonishing technological, engineering and economic advancements. I still own stock in some of China’s biggest companies, and increasingly I’ve noticed that Facebook has plagiarized some new features from Chinese social networking apps such as WeChat. Apple Pay, described as the “next Apple revolution,” lags far behind the streamlined Alipay and WeChat pay that I use in China. The Financial Times reports that the Chinese mobile payment industry is already 50 times larger than its U.S. counterpart. Yet, I won’t really be worried about China until the whole world is knocking on its door and China decides to open up.* I still believe that when it comes to human beings, the desire for freedom, not infrastructure wins the long game.
* Just to drive home my point, I’m posting this from the U.S. the day before I head back to Shanghai. We’ve been informed that due to the October meeting of the 19th People’s Congress, our internet access and vpn service will be blocked for most of October. At least I can still text! See you in November.