Impressions of China in 2000
China is building everywhere or rather it is rebuilding at a frantic rate that was never equaled anywhere except perhaps in Europe, rising from its ashes, after the second world war. The Chinese are investing massively in this effort and are consuming less than a third of their GNP. Everything is changing. Old districts are being systematically replaced by new buildings, not only in big cities everywhere but also in remote villages in southern Yunnan where the colourful wooden Dai houses are being replaced by more comfortable modern brick homes covered with white tiles in the new Chinese style.
This transformation of the visible environment cannot fail to influence the mentalities and the values of everyone, including the old.
The image of China that I retain from this fourth visit here is that of a whirlwind of change fed by an irresistible yearning for the material advantages of modern times. The locomotive of this movement is not the government but rather the urban third of the population and more particularly the younger generation that aspires to the consumer culture whose image has traversed all censorship a long time ago. The older people and the peasants are going along with the movement without much resistance for the time being.
We are witnessing a veritable explosion of private initiatives. New businesses are popping up everywhere like mushrooms after rain. In that context of greedy social ebullition, I think that a sudden relaxation of government controls and an integral application of the charter of human rights would lead to chaos before the establishment of the legal framework and institutions that could make the rule of law possible in China. Were it not for the extreme violence of the present repression of corruption and of criminal enterprises, which do not fail to appear, a large part of the economy would quickly fall into the hands of the Maffia as it did in the ex-USSR.
Today's China is like a stagecoach without brakes careening wildly across a trackless plain whose driver is doing his best to moderate the out-of-control team of horses hoping to avoid the impending catastrophe. In other words, they've got a tiger by the tail!
It is important not to underestimate the destructive force of this ground swell of ambition and greed in a country traditionally subjected to the arbitrary rule of mandarins and recently of the Communist Party. The framework provided in the west by the rule of law, by the courts and by a number of independent structures such as the media, does not exist in China. Without this moderating influence, the whirlwind could become a tornado.
The Chinese have seen the results of the shock therapy of the radical reforms that were applied in the ex-USSR following the advice of western consultants and the pressures of the IMF. It is unlikely that they would risk adopting that model.
I hold the opinion that China is in the process of aiming for the rule of law, not by ideology, but because it has understood that it works and that it is in her interest to do so. Chinese businessman are the first to request modern commercial law and impartial courts that have the means of enforcing their decisions. We should expect that it will take at least a generation for China to implement the structures and legal traditions that the west has taken centuries to develop.
Those who would wish that Paris be built in a single day and who scream about human rights in China are paradoxically the same who supported Augusto Pinochet in Chile yesterday and who still support many such dictators today.
In practice, it might be preferable for all that China have a frankly authoritarian government that is steadily evolving at its own pace towards a greater liberalisation than to have the hypocrisy of a government that adroitly manipulates the rituals of democracy to maintain extreme social inequalities for the benefit of a corrupt oligarchy like in India and the Philippines, to name only two of many. (I had mentioned Mexico in my first draft but took it out to see if Fox will really make a difference!)
To understand today's China, it is very useful to compare it's recent evolution with that of its two great neighbours the ex Soviet Empire and India. To be fair, the evolution of the quality of life of the average citizen in China during the last five decades, must be compared to that of a comparable population such as that of the quality of life in India during the same period.
This positive sketch of China does not look much like the one that the "politically correct" media are showing in the West but that's what I saw in the winter of 2000. The sleeping giant is waking up... and much faster than we thought possible!