After finishing the Peace Corps, I stayed in China as a writer, eventually spending more than a decade in the country. During that time I witnessed a number of major events: the death of Deng Xiaoping, the return of Hong Kong, the successful bid to host the 2008 Olympics. Occasionally the old anger flared up, like the massive demonstrations that followed NATO's bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999. That same year, protests by Falun Gong practitioners made headlines; a few years later the outbreak of SARS briefly occupied the world's attention.
But these incidents were most remarkable for how little they affected the lives of average Chinese. It was different from the narrative of the 20th century: After 1900, when the Boxer Rebellion swept across Beijing, every decade included at least one major political upheaval. Usually these events were violent, ranging from the Japanese invasion to the Cultural Revolution to the massacre around Tiananmen Square in 1989. Together they made for a troubled century, which was why my students wrote so delicately about the past.
Perhaps this awareness of a painful history was also why the 1990s turned out differently. It became modern China's first decade without a major upheaval, and thus far the 21st century has also been peaceful. And yet despite the lack of political change, the nation has been radically transformed. For three decades the economy has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent, and more people have been lifted out of poverty than in any other country, at any other time. China has become home to the largest urbanization in human history—an estimated 150 million people have left the countryside, mostly to work in the factory towns of the coast. By most measures the nation is now the world's largest consumer, using more grain, meat, coal, and steel than the United States. But apart from Deng Xiaoping, it's difficult to credit these critical changes to any specific government official. The Communist Party's main strategy has been to unleash the energy of the people, at least in the economic sense. In today's China, government is decentralized, and people can freely start businesses, find new jobs, move to new homes. After a century of powerful leaders and political turmoil, Chinese history has become the story of average citizens.
But there are risks when a nation depends on the individual dreams of 1.3 billion people rather than a coherent political system with clear rule of law. China faces an environmental crisis—the nation has become the world's leading emitter of carbon dioxide, and there's a serious shortage of water and other basic resources. The gap between rich and poor has become dangerously wide. The difference between urban and rural incomes is greater than three to one—the largest since the reforms began in 1978. Each of these problems is far too broad to be solved, or even grasped, by the average citizen. And because the government continues to severely restrict political freedom, people are accustomed to avoiding such issues. My students taught me that everything was personal—history, politics, foreign relations—but this approach creates boundaries as well as connections. For many Chinese, if a problem doesn't affect them personally, it might as well not exist.