As we drove through the hills of Henan on our way to Luoyang, we passed a steady stream of trucks moving east and west; the eastward trucks were moving in our direction, spreading goods to the major and middle cities, and the westward trucks, heavily laden, were taking supplies to earthquake victims in the center of China. We are drowsy from our large lunch at the Xi’an Cultural Theater and long bike ride atop the city’s wall; the Arnold Schwarzenegger film Eraser plays on our coach screen, with the gubernator occasionally slipping into Mandarin. Around us tremendous concrete pillars thrust into terrace-farmed hillsides, preparing for new highways and rail lines; tunnels and trenches smooth our journey through the hills.
I can’t help feeling I’m witnessing a drama, one of a nation in transformation, a nation growing. And growing often involves pain. After Dr. Zha of Peking University pragmatically suggested that higher oil prices compel change, Lu Xia, our guide, told me that she didn’t like his ideas, that she wanted to keep prices down.
The dilemma is complicated. China’s economy itself is flux. A bottle of water is one yuan at a supermarket, three yuan for most hotels and coaches, and five yuan at the city wall of Xi’an. Markets respond in price and product to the consumer’s buying habits. Growth for China means change of product. Robin, our Xi’an guide, tells of his new home theater system with a 50” LCD flat screen TV and subwoofer speakers.
Several blocks away, a group of neighbors collect bricks from an abandoned demolition project.
Why shouldn’t Lu Xia wish for low prices? And why shouldn’t Robin want his LCD TV? Yet these consumptive desires too clearly build from the modern, the Western, even the American ideology.
Does the end-game of modernization always look like the US, consuming 25% of the world’s resources with 5% of the population? If China’s 20% of the world population reached this point . . . .
But of course it cannot. The simple math is that if China alone on the planet lived the ostentatious lives of Americans, it would consume 120% of the global markets. And this, I think, is where China’s opportunities are greater than those of the US, if it’s careful.
If China, as Dr. Zha implies, fails to define a values system which identifies itself culturally, subjectively, it must along with India and the other emerging markets collapse the global supply system. But if China can show the US and the West how to live with modern sustainability, we might all endure.
It’s a hard road, filled with automobile fantasies, feng shui gardens, and thwarted city planning. It’s a larger unemployed population that the US has workers, and it’s a system which creates any job it can for any wage it can support (witness the distributor of paper towels at the airport restroom or the endless army of moppers and cleaners throughout Beijing). But make no mistake: China is building everywhere and everything.
It’s a country four times as populous as the US which is building IMAX theaters and LCDS TVs eight times as fast. Beijing alone adds 400 automobiles onto its roads each day (1200 per month or over 140,000 per year). Is this what Oprah meant when she simple-mindedly declared, “Everybody gets a car!” Such a gift.
Fortunately for China—and I hope for us if we take note—I believe Dr. Zha is wrong to suggest China has no self-identity, or that the absence of one will last.
The youth of China (under 30) are not unaware—they see what the want, but I trust that they are not so simple as to trade a corrupt system for an imperial one. Old-school politics is not for them.
Lu Xia looks across the aisle of our coach and mocks my Chinese zodiac sign with rabbit ears. We laugh and share bits of language trivia with each other, and then an old Jackie Chan movie comes on and we all watch together.
Emerging with China’s markets and roads, pragmatism and coal plants, Mao lighters and “KF Cats” will be something new. And we won’t have to wait long to see what it is.