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LAST WORDS: Constant Change: A Paradox
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Harmony.  Internet management. Poverty.  Micro blogs.  Free-market Socialism.  Billionaires.  Sustainable development. Superpower.

In light of reaching my three-year anniversary of living in China, I decided to play a game of word association, thinking it would be a useful way to generate some ideas about my impressions of the country thus far.  However, this exercise only complicated matters – describing my feelings is about as difficult as finding the continuity between the words listed at the top of the page.  

China is a country of contradictions – it’s not easy to describe because of the polarity that exists – it wouldn’t be considered odd to see a bicycle-drawn cart filled with pineapples sharing the same road as a Porsche.  The country is sometimes regarded as a poor, developing nation and other times as an international heavyweight. Chinese people themselves debate which identity they’d like to assume.  

When I first arrived, admittedly I didn’t know much about China – one can only glean so much from articles in the New York Times or Newsweek.  By reading those publications, it would be easy to think of China as the “boogeyman”.  I shouldn’t have been surprised that my friends and family were reserved in expressing their excitement when I announced I would be moving here - certainly they would’ve reacted differently if I had told them I was moving to Madrid or Tokyo.

I’ve had several visitors from the States – their reaction is often the same – they’re surprised how free and open it is.  I think the expectation is of an iron-fisted totalitarian state with an abundant police or military presence.  They’re shocked at how metropolitan it is – perhaps they had preconceived images of streets lined with tattered buildings, rife with rickshaw drivers and dragon dancers – what they come to find is a place where Toyota’s and Audi’s cruise down wide, well-paved roads, Starbucks and 7-11’s are available on nearly every corner and slick, modern architecture ascends from a backdrop of construction cranes.

Interestingly, the way I view China has evolved since moving here in 2009 – upon arriving, my observations were sensory.  I was impressed by the sights – I’m not a stranger to living in big cities, but I found the crowds and the way strangers interact with one another to be equally fascinating and absurd.  The constant beeping of horns and the raucous sound of the language could put Times Square to shame – and smog to the likes of which I had never witnessed, even after living in LA for six years.  I remember my roommate showing me the route from our apartment to work, telling me without remorse, “Take a left here, I call this ‘Smelly Street.” – He wasn’t joking.  The food was probably my saving grace – the variety and intensity of the flavours astonished me. Additionally, the humility and warmth of the people helped ease me past some of the unsavoury elements that were putting my culture-shock into overdrive. 

Although I haven’t become immune to these sensations, now perhaps the filter through which I view the country has become more as a spectator of fascinating geo-political theater.  I’m constantly reminded that I, along with the other one billion plus people living here, am witnessing arguably the single most radical transformation any country has ever seen. 

Why is this important?  Given the circumstances of the world today, it’s very relevant - the power shift to the east is happening at a rate that established western powers are not quite ready for – and perhaps China itself is not prepared for either.  

Most people know that last year China surpassed her rival Japan as the second-largest economy in the world.  If expansion continues at its current rate, she will pass the United States sometime around 2027.  A few other noteworthy statistics: China is now the world leader in terms of automobile consumption and manufacturing, mobile telephones, internet users, carbon emissions and consumption of steel, coal and concrete.  When you think about those numbers along with the fact that 100-150 million people still live below the poverty line, there are huge swaths of land in the countryside that remain undeveloped, and that the country is a single-party state that encourages government spending to fuel economic growth, one can assume those numbers will continue to grow.  In other words, China will soon dominate most important statistical categories by which an economy is judged. 

This is where things get tricky.  The growth/social challenges matrix is a lot for any nation to handle, but perhaps particularly so for a government that is notoriously resistant to change.   

One doesn’t have to look any further than the decades old One-Child Policy to find an example. The success of the policy can be debated, but the outcome will likely be irrefutable – in thirty years, China will possess an aging population with a diminished tax base to pay for the increased expenses incurred with old age.  The policy is being relaxed in special cases, but some argue that reforms should have been made a decade ago. 

Additionally, in an article from Project Syndicate that touches on entrepreneurship and the aim of increasing domestic spending, Minxin Pei suggests, “The impossibility of sustaining growth in the absence of the rule of law (…) presents the Chinese Communist Party with an existential dilemma. (…) The investment boom and the globalisation dividend of the last two decades allowed the Party to (…) rule on the basis of economic prosperity, while failing to establish the institutions critical to sustaining such prosperity. Today, this is no longer possible.” 

Managing rapid urbanisation, finding alternative energy sources, and shifting from a manufacturing and export based economy to an economy focused on R&D, high-end manufacturing and service are among the challenges outlined by the CCP in the Twelfth Five-Year plan.  The country must find a solution to these challenges while experiencing hyper-economic growth and managing a staggering population.  It’s akin to watching an octopus on roller-skates and makes for compelling, high-stakes drama. 

Some can easily turn a blind eye to the “big picture” and simply enjoy what life has to offer for an ex-pat residing in China – I too, can get caught up in the minutia of day-to-day life, but in just three years living here, it’s not hard to see that massive changes have occurred.  Now, when people in the States ask me, “So, what’s China like?” – I tell them they’ve got to come see it for themselves – because it might have changed by the time I’ve finished explaining. 

By Christopher Ribeiro

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