By Todd Carrel
Over the past two decades the facades of many of Chinas 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. Its all part of a calculated, visceral makeover to give China a modern face.
Of course, its the kind of change that pleases outsiders and Chinas elite powerbrokers. Yet its been built on the spoils of foreign investment and an economic boom that enriches a select fewthe children of the Communist Party and the new rich. For them, its been a heady period.
But not for Chinas massive class of new poor. For many of Chinas
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 jobsand hence security, familiarity, and predictabilityis 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 peoples thoughts and associations, changes little. So the nation is riven between the old way of doing thingsthe rigid cult of inefficiency, which still dominates state-run businessesand 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 authoritynurtured by both Confucian traditions and 50 years of Communist dictatorshipfights 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. Chinas 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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