Twenty years ago this month I left China under less than ideal circumstances: I was one of a handful of reporters expelled during a crackdown on the incipient student democracy movement. After a dozen years of close involvement with China, first as a student, then as a tour guide, and finally as a journalist, I was suddenly cut off from the country, unable to return.
Today I am back in Beijing for the first time in two decades, attending the conference of the Global Development Network. The trip has enabled me to see first hand the remarkable changes that have occurred since I left. Nothing that I have read or seen in the media could fully prepare me for the breadth and depth of these transformations. A quick weekend trip to Shanghai, and a daylong tour of Bejing in the private car of a Chinese friend (this, an impossibility 20 years ago) brought one astonishing revelation after another.
At CGD and in the development community more broadly we talk and write extensively about development, analyzing endlessly the many obstacles and the relative importance of the various ingredients of success. Our own Rich World Poor World briefs are part of this effort, explaining why development matters, and the potential leverage of sound rich world policies and practices.
But what does development look like? How does it feel? In a partial answer to these questions, I offer these random Rip van Winkle observations from a week in two of China's most vibrant cities.
The extent to which the state has withdrawn and a booming private sector has grown up in its place is the most remarkable feat of all, and cuts across everything I have seen. It reminds me of the ancient Jewish mystical belief that after creation God decided to become less-than-all-powerful to provide space for creation to flourish. In China the state has withdrawn, and the private sector is booming in ways unimaginable when I left.
- Twenty years ago all large buildings were state-owned. Today there are hundreds of privately owned multi-story buildings: office towers, apartment buildings, shopping malls, theaters and entertainment complexes. The few state-owned buildings are mostly small and shabby by comparison. (Exception: the new Ministry of Public Security in the heart of Beijing, which is large and gleaming.)
- Twenty years ago there were only a handful of small, privately-owned restaurants, mostly stalls selling simple street food. The few large state-run restaurants catered to cigarette-smoking senior cadres in Mao jackets, and to foreign tour groups. Today both Shanghai and Beijing boast thousands of private restaurants offering a huge range of cuisine to ordinary people who walk in off the street, seemingly with enough money in their pockets to order whatever they like. All types of regional Chinese cuisine are represented; McDonald's and Starbucks can both be found. Friends in Beijing took me to a trendy loft-like restaurant that offered organically-grown Japanese cuisine. In the center of the two-story restaurant sat an ice sculpture Buddha lit with blue light. I was told that the sculpture is made from purified water, and a new one is put in place each day.
- Twenty years ago there were fleets of bicycles at every intersection. Today the bicycles are nearly gone. It's rare to see more than a dozen at a time, and these mostly on the smaller side streets. Beijing has three million private cars, and 100,000 more appear on the streets each year. In the side lobby of the Beijing Hotel there is a showroom for Chinese-built SUVs. Around the corner on a side street is a Mercedes dealership. Taxis, available only at the big hotels twenty years ago, are now ubiquitous. Busses seem to be relatively few but there are hundreds of kilometers of subways. The weather is warmer and the air is dirtier.
- Twenty years ago, Mao coats were still much in evidence. In nearly a week here, the only Mao coats I have seen are in nostalgic (or perhaps ironic kitch, it's hard to tell) reproductions of Cultural Revolution propaganda posters featuring Mao and the Red Guards. Young people favor the same tight-fitting, pre-distressed jeans that are popular in my daughter's high school in Arlington, VA. (The baggy hip-hop jeans favored by my middle school-aged son and his pals seem not to have caught on.)
- Twenty years ago the intrusive presence of state surveillance was common. Novelists and film makers could be pilloried in the state media for such infractions as espousing "Bourgeois Liberalism." Ordinary people were often nervous in their interaction with foreigners, a possible source of contagion. Today that pervasive anxiety seems to have vanished. People seem generally happy and more relaxed, although busy making money. A well connected old friend tells me that despite the façade of one-party rule, China has become a nation of interest groups, including such groups as motorists, who have so far successfully pressed to avoid a national tax on gasoline.
Of course, China faces many challenges. Chinese economists I talked with were among those who pointed out possible sources of trouble. Businessmen and officials worry that appreciation of the yuan could undermine China's export boom. Rising inequality is clearly a problem in a nation where 100 million people subsist on less than a dollar a day while others, like a young woman I saw last night, stroll marble-walled shopping malls with a Gucci bag in one hand and a Prada bag in the other.
Likely the biggest challenge by far will be global warming. China did not cause this problem. Although it is poised to surpass the U.S. in total emissions in 2008, most of the doubling of atmospheric CO2 that has occurred since the start of the Industrial Revolution came from today's rich countries, most notably the U.S., which leads the world in per capita CO2 emissions. But China, with its long coastline and hundreds of millions of people directly dependent on agricultural production will surely suffer the consequences of intensified droughts, rising sea levels, and more frequent and intense typhoons. Half of the coast, and a huge share of the population and manufacturing capacity, lie in the southern typhoon zone.
While China didn't cause the problem, as the fastest growing source of greenhouse gasses, it has both an opportunity and a responsibility to play a leading role in pushing for a more effective international response. It is a huge challenge, with nothing less than the fate of civilization as we know it hanging in the balance. There is a real possibility that the international community will fail this test; grounds for hope are badly needed.
China is a different country from the one I knew 20 years ago, with a less intrusive state presence and booming private sector. China's huge achievements are a valuable reminder that with the right policies in place, astoundingly rapid improvements are indeed possible.