Grasping the Reality of China

The human mind finds it difficult to comprehend and visualize the reality represented by large numbers, vast spaces, and systematic change.  This is why, when thinking of China, perceptions and attitudes tend to focus on symbols and abstract labels.  The symbols include the Great Wall and the portrait of Mao Tse-tung in Beijing¡¯s Tiananmen square.  The labels include communism and ¡°market socialism.¡±

As a longtime resident in China, I can assert categorically that the simple labels of communism and market socialism are no guide to the dynamically changing reality of China.  Indeed, they are gross misrepresentations.  But how can today¡¯s China¡ªan ancient country that is home to one fifth of mankind--be represented and explained without overloading the imagination?

I would offer that the key to understanding China is think about individual Chinese people¡ªtheir recent history, their daily lives, and their dreams for tomorrow.

For the last 20 years China¡¯s economy has been growing, and the standard of living of its people has been rising, at a pace and on a scale for which there are no parallels in human history.  How has this happened?  It has happened through the release of the energy and imagination of individual Chinese as the system of central planning and collective ownership has been dismantled, and progressively replaced by markets and private ownership. 

Today, every day, Chinese individuals in virtually every city in the country start their own businesses, often with the active encouragement of local authorities.  They buy and sell at market prices with few or no restrictions their personal property, including, increasingly, cars and houses financed by bank loans.  Young Chinese find jobs, often with foreign companies, according to their skills and abilities.  High school graduates compete in a merit based examinations for increasingly plentiful college and university positions.  In Shanghai some 70 percent of high school graduates continue in a local college or university, where they are free to choose from a vast variety of practical majors.   Universities offer numerous M.A., MBA, and PhD programs, often in cooperation with leading foreign universities like Rutgers, MIT, and Cornell. 

The material and spiritual damage done to Chinese society by Mao Tse-tung¡¯s utopian socialism was on a catastrophic scale.   The bleakness and despair that shrouded the country only twenty-five years ago is now hard to imagine.  Indeed, for the generation that has grown up since the late 1970¡¯s that past is unfathomable.   Moreover, they feel that this past is irrelevant to their lives.  They are not entirely correct in this belief, as it the society is still seeking to rediscover, reinvent, or rebuild a moral and ethical order.  But the fact that they harbor this belief is itself testimony to the choices they see for themselves in the future and their untrammeled sense of their own potential.

It is, then, in the minds of individual Chinese, that the reality of today¡¯s China is to be seen, and tomorrow¡¯s China to be shaped.  This is a reality that defies labels, but that is easily understandable at a human level.  China is a land of 1.2 million human beings, filled with hope.

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