“China is the most unresolved nation of consequence in the world,” Orville Schell began. It is defined by its massive contradictions. And by its massiveness— China’s population is estimated to be 1.25 to 1.3 billion; the margin of error in the estimate is greater than the population of France. It has 160 cities with a population over one million (the US has 49). It has the world’s largest standing army.
No society in the world has more millennia in its history, and for most of that history China looked back. Then in the 20th century the old dynastic cycles were replaced by one social cancellation after another until 1949, when Mao set the country toward the vast futuristic vision of Communism. That “mad experiment” ended with Deng Xiaoping’s effective counter-revolution in the 1980s, which unleashed a new totalistic belief, this time in the market.
So what you have now is a society sick of grand visions, in search of another way to be, focussed on the very near term.
These days you cannot think usefully about China and its potential futures without holding in your mind two utterly contradictory views of what is happening there. On the one hand, a robust and awesomely growing China; on the other hand a brittle China, parts of it truly hellish.
How can such contradictions be reconciled? The best everyone can hope for is steady piecemeal change. For the Chinese the contradictions don’t really bite so long as they have continued economic growth to focus on and to absorb some of the problems. But what happens when there’s a break in that growth? It could come from inside China or from outside (such as a disruption in the US economy).
It’s hard to look at the China boom now without thinking about the Japan boom in the 1970s and ’80s, remembering how everyone knew the Japanese were going dominate the US and world economy, and we all had to study Japanese methods to learn how to compete. Then that went away, and it hasn’t come back.
The leadership of China is highly aware of the environmental problems and is enlightened and ambitious about green solutions, but that attitude does not yet extend beyond the leadership, and until it does, not much can happen.
That’s China: huge, consequential for everybody, and profoundly unresolved.-- by Stewart Brand