I would like to preface this discussion by reminding the reader that this is my perception of Chinese society and is not necessarily to be taken as factual. Throughout my trip, I have interpreted China’s society through a lens of economic history.
My brief stay in China has simply amazed me. A developed country, so similar to the US in many ways, is so astonishingly different. The origin of these differences, however, has left me enamored. Of course, China has an old and rich cultural history, still prevalent in today’s society. Yet, that is not quite the answer I am looking for; the severe schisms between contemporary Chinese and American societies cannot merely be a cultural phenomenon. It is my belief that the cause of China’s differences from the United States contradicts many Americans’ common understanding of China. China is, it seems, not a developed nation, but in many ways is still a developing economy. Evidence of this hypothesis lies all around me:
My first and most lasting impression of China was driving about an hour from Pudong International Airport to my apartment. Along the way I witnessed limitless miles of business complexes and apartment high-rises. The city was not “beautiful” – the sky was grey (as it has been for most of my stay in Shanghai), construction was everywhere, and laundry dangled from the windows of miles of apartments. The drivers were aggressive and the traffic unimaginable. Begging is officially illegal in China, but that does not mean people are not poor. China maintains one of the largest class disparities in the world. Although this is most extreme between the east and west, poverty still exists in develop cities. Although much of the city is modern, much of it is still far from wealthy.
Knowing China’s economic past, this reality is not surprising at all. China’s modern political structure was only solidified in 1949 when the Communist Party of China came to power. Additionally, China’s first Five Year Plan did not begin until 1953, just 63 years ago. Although this plan was a great economic success, it was followed by the Great Leap Forward in 1958, the most wreckless government blunder in recorded history, killing 45 million people from famine. The disastrous effects of the Great Leap Forward did not begin to mitigate until 1961, only 55 years ago. This has created a distinct generational gap present between youth and older generations.
Since recovery in 1961, China’s intense industrialization has not ceased. Millions of people migrate east in order to find low-skilled employment to support their families. Concurrently, China devalues its currency, and therefore, lowers the prices of its exports. Although this system creates cheap manufactured products, China’s purchasing power parity is low relative to other nations, so Chinese citizens cannot afford to purchase imported goods. The sum of this information is that China has experienced decades of incredible economic growth, yet maintains the lowest GDP per capita of any developed nation.
I do not wish to convey through this discussion that I am not enjoying my semester in China, because I am immensely. The country is beautiful (even the cities, though unconventionally), and the culture is rich and fascinating. My simple ambition is to reflect upon the causes of the unexpected oddities I experience while in China, and that the country is, in many ways still very young. As a further disclaimer, the information detailed above is not meant to suggest that China is not an economic giant. On the contrary, China seems to be just in the middle of its growth, both economically and socially (and dare I say, politically). Not only will the economy not begin to experience significant diminishing returns for a number of years, but the social order of the nation retains serious potential for change.
The contemporary Chinese society is young, and has developed fast than any nation in modern history. I am eager to see what China does next, because although the nation faces significant challenges, China seems to be at the forefront of limitless growth (at least for the time-being).
The world awaits…discover it.