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 Where is China Headed?


By Todd Carrel

Over the past two decades the facades of many of China’s big cities have changed. In Beijing and Shanghai, for example, high-rises jut skyward from the once somnolent sprawl of low-slung buildings. Now you can see vast tracts of office towers, many adorned with glassy storefronts and festooned with the neon glow of advertisements. It’s all part of a calculated, visceral makeover to give China a modern face.

Of course, it’s the kind of change that pleases outsiders and China’s elite powerbrokers. Yet it’s been built on the spoils of foreign investment and an economic boom that enriches a select few—the children of the Communist Party and the new rich. For them, it’s been a heady period.

But not for China’s massive class of new poor. For many of China’s citizens who farm the fields and fuel industry, the flurry of development has many downsides. Some complain that their tightly knit social fabric, which once provided housing and medical care and jobs—and hence security, familiarity, and predictability—is unraveling. Some are despondent, and hungry. Many workers have been laid off. More will follow. Millions of farmers have left the land to search for jobs. The social costs of economic reforms have spawned a backlash. Some of those raised on the Maoist promises of equality as a reward for sacrifice feel bewildered and betrayed.

So farmers riot and some laid-off workers march on the streets to seek unpaid wages, just to survive. Because of the enormous gap in wealth between the new rich and the new poor, tensions mount. And many families just invest what they can in their children, hoping the young might find a niche in the newly emerging economy.

The Communist Party, which came to power persecuting capitalists, now embraces private money. Yet the mentality of the party, which is fixated on controlling people’s thoughts and associations, changes little. So the nation is riven between the old way of doing things—the rigid cult of inefficiency, which still dominates state-run businesses—and the quest for new, more flexible ways of working.

Many people are not asking for Western-style democracy, just government accountability and the right for ordinary people to express their thoughts and shape their destiny. But many say that their cultivated dependence on authority—nurtured by both Confucian traditions and 50 years of Communist dictatorship—fights against the idea of a society led by the innovation and creativity of its people. Some Chinese wonder whether being modern demands changing their culture. They ask whether they can strip away the deep strains of corruption and lying from their culture.

They ask whether they can go beyond matters of face to matters of fact.

But the Communist Party fears seekers of fact and seekers of faith. It tightly regulates any marketplace for ideas.

Now it looks as if China is becoming both richer and poorer, both better and worse. China’s relative poverty, its scarcity of resources, its scarring by pollution, its struggle to deliver education, its overcrowding, and the raw determination of many of its people to improve their lot and make their country strong are among the complex factors that will help answer a simple question:

Where is China heading?

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