Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Old (Oct 2005): Chinese Capitalism - Beijing 2005

(This article was written in October, 2005.)

Chinese Capitalism - Beijing 2005

By: Michael Anthony Lawrence*

The times they are a-changing in China, to the point where the Great Helmsman himself - Chairman Mao - would be spinning in his grave (or tomb, in fact) if he could see the shape his revolution takes, and the private enterprise it makes, in the 21st century.

The fact is that in the last several decades the Chinese have embraced capitalism with the zeal of converts. From the time of opening-up in 1979, when then-Communist Party Chairman Deng Xiaoping encouraged all Chinese people to become entrepreneurial and make money, there’s been no looking back. Now, hardly a week passes without descriptions and analyses in major national and international newspapers of China’s booming economy and its dramatic effects both inside and out of China.

The New York Times recently reported, for example, that this year alone, “Shanghai will complete more towers with space for living and working than there is space in all the office buildings in New York City” – a rate of development “on a scale we’ve never seen before,” according to experts at the London School of Economics. Shanghai’s more than 4,000 skyscrapers of 18 stories or higher already far exceed the number in New York.

This growth has some of the same downsides faced in the West during its eras of rapid industrialization and modernization - not the least of which is choking pollution in most large cities and elsewhere. The level of air quality on a “bad-air day” in Beijing, for example, would raise cries of alarm if it occurred in any American city, and China now has 7 of the world’s 10 most-polluted cities, according to the World Health Organization. Moreover, “China has spent much of the last decade demolishing millions of old homes and buildings and relocating tens of millions of people, many against their will,” according to the Times.

But from a quality-of-life standpoint for the individual Chinese citizen, it is a long way indeed from the Cultural Revolution of just thirty years ago where education was discouraged and often punished, and where a person could hardly frown without the Man cutting him/her back to size. The Cultural Revolution’s modus operandi was brought home on a personal level in a conversation with a like-aged Chinese faculty colleague, who upon graduation from high school was sent to the country for three years to be re-educated among working peasants; whereas my own typically American concerns at that age involved graduation parties, moving away to college, etc.

To be sure there are still many freedoms the Chinese people lack – free speech remains a dangerous enterprise – but from an individual economic perspective, the impact of China’s move to capitalism and the free market is nothing short of staggering, with vast improvements to the standard of living for hundreds of millions of people. (The very scale of China is almost incomprehensible – 1.3 billion of the earth’s 6 billion people in a geographic area half the size of the United States (the western half of China is relatively uninhabited), but with four times as many people.)

It’s no wonder that businesses salivate at the prospect of tapping this market – and they are tapping it. To give an idea, Starbucks C.E.O. Howard Shultz estimates that the number of Starbucks stores in China will soon exceed the number in the United States - no small feat given the ubiquitous presence of Starbucks’ green and white sea goddess in communities large and small across America. Indeed, one of the most jarring of personal impressions in this land of weird juxtapositionings of Confucius, Lao Tse and Yao Ming is passing from Tiananman Square under the mammoth picture of Chairman Mao Tse Tung and through the South gate, where Mao declared the revolutionary Peoples’ Republic of China in 1949, and coming upon, within the walls of the Forbidden City itself, – a Starbucks. Chairman Mao and Starbucks - who would’ve imagined….

* Professor Lawrence spent six months earlier this year on a Fulbright Scholarship at the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing.