GUIYANG, CHINA – Before planning for and making the trans-global trek to the most populous country on Earth, I knew mainland China mostly through television and movie screens. My sinologists were Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Egg Shen, the crotchety shaman from “Big Trouble in Little China” – a Cabinet of advisers who left me, ahem, unprepared for my recent voyage east.
Thus, I was thrilled when, upon arriving here, a Peace Corps volunteer handed me a 1997 tome called “Red China Blues.” Written by Chinese-Canadian journalist Jan Wong, the book tours a nation on the verge of superpowerdom, and it ends by suggesting the country’s industrialization means “the future of China may be the West’s past.”
One excursion hardly makes me a China guru, but I can report with some confidence that when it comes to economic growth, Wong is right. China is walking in our shoes – and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
On my trip (which you can read more about at Openleft.com), I’ve seen America circa 1900: coastal metropolises of towering wealth hemming in a polluted and destitute heartland. Two Chinas, as John Edwards might say – one you constantly hear about and another hidden from view.
In Hong Kong, I gaped at the sleek office towers, fine restaurants and nouveau riche – the “miracle” endlessly celebrated by the New York Times’ Tom Friedman (China is a place of “wide avenues, skyscrapers, green spaces, software parks and universities”), Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria (“China’s growth has obvious and amazing benefits for the world”) and most of America’s Very Serious Commentators. Indeed, according to MIT’s Yasheng Huang, China’s most famous cities are known for tricking incurious observers into portraying the entire country as “sanitary … largely free of grotesque manifestations of poverty (and) one of the most successful countries in tackling income inequality.”
Of course, in Guiyang, a coal-mining town of 3 million in China’s poorest province, I found exactly the opposite – the darker side of the “miracle.”
Here in the countryside is the soundstage of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi flick – filth-covered tenements slapped together with crumbling cement and kitchen tile; limbless paupers with burned faces begging for food; an atmosphere choked by soot, exhaust and the stench of human excrement.
Scholars insist this is the unavoidable consequence of a country being run by the Chinese Communist Party – an extreme version of the Republican Party that couples Genghis Khan’s intolerance with Hank Paulson’s authoritarian capitalism. Pundits assert that China’s inequality, which according to World Bank data now rivals our own Gilded Age, is just a necessary evil – the obligatory pitfall of nonetheless positive Western-style development. And while some Americans may lament international poverty, many are too distracted or unsympathetic to care about seemingly far-flung tragedies.
But, then, the challenges China poses aren’t about Save-the-Children altruism, and they aren’t distant triflings. As none other than “Big Trouble in Little China” presciently warned, China is here – and we cannot simply cite inevitability as reason to ignore its metastasizing problems.
We’re not talking about the United States in 1900 – a country of only 76 million people pigheadedly despoiling its way into the 20th century. It’s 2009, the planet’s already on the brink of resource exhaustion and climate catastrophe, and China is 17 times more populous than America during our industrial era.
If we just sit back and listen to those who pooh-pooh “necessary evils” and celebrate supposed “miracles”; if governments refuse to strengthen international environmental policies; if the world merely hopes for the best as 1.3 billion Chinese pursue old-school smokestack industrialization, then there’s not going to be much of a world left.
Our future won’t be that gleaming Hong Kong skyline we keep being told about – it will be downtown Guiyang.