One week in the life of the Chinese miracle
For months the world's attention has been focused on the White House race but, while we weren't watching, a quiet revolution has been gathering pace - transforming the earth's most populous nation from stunted giant into aspiring superpower. In an attempt to capture a snapshot of this dizzying change, 15 Guardian journalists will be reporting all this week on every aspect of Chinese life from the stock market to sex and shopping. Here, foreign reporter of the year James Meek asks if China has found a third way between capitalism and communism
Monday November 8, 2004
You can learn a lot about the future of the world by stepping into Zhang Bin's tiny room in a postgraduate dormitory at Fudan University in Shanghai. It's about the size of four phone boxes knocked through, but it's very new, and shinily neat and bright.
Zhang, an only child of factory workers whose own educational ambitions were crushed by Mao's cultural revolution, has grown into a bright, open, inquiring man in the new China, with possessions and tools his counterparts would not have dreamed of a decade ago: he has his own laptop, and a high-speed internet connection provided by the university - although his access to websites is limited by state censorship.
Hanging from the top of the wardrobe in the corner is the dark, glossy, tactile soundbox of a guqin, the seven-stringed Chinese lute, which has accompanied Chinese songs for thousands of years. This is a China about more than moneymaking and militarism, which venerates its culture enough to pay Zhang's tuition fees for three years while he studies, not microcircuitry or genetics, but the relation between poetry and music in the medieval Song dynasty.
There's something else about this cheerful, friendly, laid-back young academic, who could so easily be a doctor-in-the-making in London or LA, this representative of China's new generation: he's just joined the Communist party of China, the body which, for 55 years, has held a monopoly on political power and sanctioned truth in this country, and shows no sign of giving it up.
What, it seemed fair to ask Zhang, did this fizzing metropolis of 20 million people have to do with the implementation of Marxism?
"To be honest, I don't think Shanghai has any relation to Marxism," he said. "Before I joined the Communist party, we needed to learn Marxism, but most commonly I look at this book." Zhang reached up to the shelves over his desk and took down a volume called Principles of Economics by N Gregory Mankiw. Mankiw is chief economic adviser to President George Bush.
China is both capitalist and communist, ravenously inquisitive and strictly censored, and the world is beginning to wonder if this strange equilibrium can be sustained. Can it be that China has found a new third way, neither the Soviet-style, totalitarian planned economy, nor western-style democracy and a free market? Can the world's most populous country really go on indefinitely combining censorship, a rigidly controlled media, and an authoritarian, secretive, one-party state with a dynamic, entrepreneurial culture and technological progress, and not suffer some economic or political crisis?
It is no longer an obscure question about a far-off country. What happens in China now affects us all. The signs are everywhere, whether it is the 32,000 Chinese students studying at British colleges and universities, more than from any other country; the likelihood that next year China will overtake the UK as the world's fourth largest economy, and in less than a generation overtake the US as the world's largest; the "Made in China" stickers on something you are wearing or using or have within reach, right now (last year, Britain imported £8.3bn-worth of goods from China, more than from Japan); the Chinese blockbusters beginning to nibble at the edges of Hollywood's action films monopoly; China's running the US close in the medals table at the last Olympics; or the Chinese thirst for oil which is raising prices at the rest of the world's petrol pump.
For the past few weeks, the European and US media have been focusing on two issues, the US presidential election and the war in Iraq. Yet the main answer to the question: "How could the Bush administration afford to fight two wars, cut taxes for the rich and run up massive trade and budget deficits, all at the same time?" is "China".
It's only because over the past few years China has joined Japan in lending America hundreds of billions of dollars that the US government and US consumers have been able to indulge in their staggering spending sprees. The US is, in effect, borrowing from China the money its own consumers have already spent on Chinese goods.
There is no better measure of the new power of China in the world, and the nature of that power, than the fact that its central bank has acquired the means to alter the course of the US economy in a way terrorists, or the still-feeble Chinese military, would find difficult.
Extraordinary economic changes like that China is going through, no matter how vast, rapid and world-changing, are hard for newspapers to capture, lacking the momentous intensity of a president's assassination, the first foot on the moon or the first bomb of a war. Who remembers where they were when postwar Germany first became richer than postwar Britain?
None the less, to see the Shanghai skyline today is to be struck by the intensity of an architectural moment. There is something frantic, impatient and striving about the strange proportions and harsh protuberances of these scores of huge new towers of concrete and glass on either side of the broad brown Huangpu river, as if they were put up in haste the day before you arrived and could easily be pulled down again tomorrow in the city's scramble for profit and modernity.
Ambitious people come to Shanghai from all over China to pursue wealth. Fang Min, deputy director of Shanghai's superbly equipped Yueyeng hospital, where patients can choose integrated treatments from a palette of western and traditional Chinese medicine, came to Shanghai in 1993 from his native Xinjiang province, in China's far west, time zones away geographically and decimal places away financially. It took him three years to get Shanghainese "citizenship". Shanghai doesn't embrace migrants easily. But he loves his new life.
"Everything I own now is from reform," said Fang, speaking of the opening of China to the market economy declared by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, and the subsequent decision in the early 1990s by Jiang Zemin to engineer the city's growth as East Asia's new financial centre.
"The changes in material and spiritual life have been more revolutionary than I could have imagined 10 years ago. When I graduated from university I got just 100 yuan (£6.50) a month. If I'd saved for 10 years, I would have had enough to buy a Shanghai watch. Now I own my house, and I can own a car if I want to. My salary is 20 or 30 times what it was then."
Fang knows well the harshness of the new ways - the inequalities, the division of society into winners and losers. And he accepts it as necessary. He, too, is a card-carrying member of the Communist party; and he accepts the official, entirely un-Marxist party line that, if a minority is allowed to grow rich, the majority will eventually benefit.
It was in the vicinity of Shanghai, 162 years ago, that western modernity thrust itself on China in the shape of a Royal Navy flotilla, led by the steamer Nemesis. The ships bombarded the fort where the Huangpu meets the Yangtze as part of Britain's war to force China to let Scottish merchants sell hard drugs - opium - to the Chinese.
Though China has neither forgotten nor forgiven this and subsequent western humiliations, Shanghai has been the entry point for western ideas ever since - including the idea which has defined Chinese politics since 1949. Western visitors remark on the ubiquity in Shanghai today of foreign chains such as Starbucks and McDonald's. Yet the biggest western-sourced franchise in China remains communism. China's population - 1.3 billion - is so vast, and has grown so much, that despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and the democratisation of eastern Europe, there are now more people living under communism than there were at the height of the cold war in the early 1980s.
It's not something that seems to bother successful foreign businessmen, given that China can be so accommodating to investors. There's a museum in Shanghai on the spot where the Chinese Communist party was founded in 1921, with a tableau showing the young Mao addressing his comrades like Christ at the last supper. Right next door is Shanghai's ritziest restaurant, T8. Over a starter of saffron tagliatelle, poached oysters, champagne sauce, asparagus and beluga caviar, its Swiss manager Walter Zahner - rather distracted by Ralph Fiennes and Natasha Richardson having popped in the night before and Victoria Beckham due that night - argued that China required authoritarian rule.
"The Chinese need strong leadership," he said. "I see it in my restaurant. To run a successful business here you need to be a strong leader. To make China successful, I think they have to keep this kind of strong leadership."
There is no shortage of sceptics about how solidly-founded the explosive growth of Shanghai, and China, really is. For Shanghai, they point to the electricity shortages which blight the city in summer; the darkness of many of the city's brave new towers after night falls because apartment blocks, built speculatively with soft loans, haven't found tenants; the extent to which Shanghai's glitz and bustle has been artificially and often irrationally created by China's leadership, at the expense of taxes and savings from other parts of China.
For China itself, there are prominent sceptics such as Joe Studwell, author of the influential book The China Dream. Studwell argues that China's apparent economic prowess is based on Hong Kong and Taiwan entrepreneurs and the use of cheap labour to assemble western, Japanese and Korean products which are then reassembled under the "Made in China" badge. The domestic Chinese market, Studwell claims, is a surreal, archaic, corrupt place, largely closed to foreigners and dominated by state companies propped up by loans based on cronyism rather than success.
Even if the sceptics are overplaying the weakness of China's economic boom, their most persuasive argument that all is not well remains the distorting role played by the Communist party's monopoly on power. Insulated from media scrutiny or political competition, the Communist leadership busily knits together a privileged oligarchy of businessmen and government officials. A quarter of the names on the 2004 EuromoneyChina list of the country's 100 richest people - combined worth, $30bn - are "communists". The party has withdrawn from its socialist commitments to equality, but has yet to enforce a new set of rules for the capitalist age where all Chinese can feel equal before the law.
"It is almost impossible for a country to sustain a situation of being westernised, or modernised, in the economy, but Sovietised politically. So political reform is, perhaps, inevitable," said Dr Zhu Xueqin, dean of Shanghai University's Peace & Development Institution. "Political reform has been suspended for 20 years and it may be suspended for another 20. But I believe that at the end of my life I will see such a change, that political change will catch up with economic change."
Dr Zhu dismissed those who argue that China's undemocratic history makes it more likely to emulate other authoritarian regimes in East Asia. "China is now in the post-authoritarian era," he said. "At the end of 20th century, in Chinese Taiwan, there is a liberal democratic regime. And in Hong Kong there are quasi-democratic structures. So although China does not have a long democratic history as Britain, that doesn't matter. It doesn't prevent China establishing a democratic regime in the future."
You wouldn't expect Han Zheng, Shanghai's mayor since 2003, to concede that the days of one-party rule in China are numbered, and sure enough, he didn't. But he made clear how important it was for China's leadership to fulfil its implicit pact with the country's hundreds of millions of rural and urban poor: trust us, and the rich will pull you out of poverty in their wake.
"China is a country with a huge population and a large territory," he told the Guardian. "In such a country, it is impossible to achieve fully balanced development. That's why Mr Deng put forward the principle that allows some people to get rich first, with the ultimate goal of common development and common prosperity."
An overnight train leaves Shanghai at 10pm and arrives in the city of Wuhu, in the relatively poor province of Anhui, at 4am. In Wuhu, one of those numerous Chinese cities of two million people you've never heard of, they like to eat congealed duck blood in garlic and aniseed broth. As a wan crimson sun rose over Mirror Lake in the centre of town, before 7am, thousands of pensioners were carrying out synchronised exercises in teams, some of them with ceremonial swords and giant fans; others massaged their calves and had their blood pressure taken, or walked and gossiped. They seemed very happy.
The younger people in Wuhu look to Shanghai rather as north-west Africa looks to Spain. Behind the plane trees on Duchun Street, dozens of small private agencies offer a treble service: estate agent, employment agency, lonely hearts. Signs read: "Flat - job - marriage." According to Yun Xiaoxia, one of the agency bosses, many Wuhu girls want to take advantage of China's gender imbalance - there are more boys than girls - to seek husbands in Shanghai.
One of Yun's clients, a tall young woman in a canary yellow jacket, stalked in, eating crisps. "Yes, I'm looking for a husband in Shanghai," she said. She pressed a crisp sulkily between her red lips and crunched it. "Because it's not easy for a girl to get by. It's so complicated. Shanghai is a beautiful city and a dream. Everybody in China wants to go to Shanghai."