I recently had the good fortune to travel to China for the first time. My itinerary took me to Shanghai, Beijing and Nanjing. The first has long been familiar to Westerners as a locus of trade and international interaction; the famous Bund pedestrian mall along the Yangtze River has numerous architectural styles on display that result from the different European origins of their designers. The names Beijing and Nanjing share the commonality that their second syllable is the Chinese word for “capital”; Bei means “northern” and Nan means “southern.”
Nanjing cannot compare with the size and power of Beijing, with the awe-inspiring Forbidden City and its many imperial buildings. Instead, Nanjing impressed with its plane-tree lined boulevards and an extraordinary imperial garden, nestled behind a museum devoted to the Taiping Rebellion. The trees along Nanjing’s thoroughfares made the city reminiscent of Paris; as it turns out, I am told by a China hand that they were, in fact, planted by the French. Be that as it may, the trees provided a greenness and canopy that offered a pleasant alternative to the endless glass-and-steel towers for which everything elsewhere seemed to have been bulldozed. The difference was striking in a country that seemed inclined to stop at nothing to modernize.
I recall thinking explicitly about Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s famous remark about the capitalist-socialist rivalry, “We will bury you!” That proved totally untrue for the old Soviet Union, which was not good at technological innovation and hence fell apart under the weight of the competition with the United States and with the West more generally. But it’s hard not to feel as though the Chinese will, sooner or later, bury us. There are four times as many of them as there are of us, and they are using an approach that Michael Ignatieff has recently called “authoritarian capitalism.”
In contrast to our private-sector oriented way of doing things, state enterprises are central to the functioning of the Chinese economy. The results are dramatic. I was whisked from city to city in high-speed trains traveling nearly 200 miles an hour — and you could hear a pin drop. There were no “quiet cars”; that would have been entirely redundant. Pre-departure announcements were posted on digital signs in Chinese and Arabic numerals, so it was easy to negotiate even for someone without benefit of the Chinese language. Trains left when they were scheduled to leave and arrived impeccably on time. The amenities were clean and comfortable.
I don’t need to outline the differences between this scenario and the parlous state of our own infrastructure to anyone who rides Amtrak, New Jersey Transit or the New York subway (all of which I do). Prophets of American demise, such as the former Pennsylvania governor, Ed Rendell, and the former US transportation secretary, Ray LaHood, have been quoted as saying that our infrastructure is “a joke,” and a visit to China should confirm that in spades for anyone who makes the trip. Meanwhile, in contrast to China, where such projects are ordered from the top, we cannot get Congress to appropriate funds to keep the federal highway system going.
Aside from my comparisons with the United States, I was constantly comparing what I saw in China with observations from a trip to India a couple of years ago. Although gradations of wealth are growing pronounced, China presents a facade of immense and overwhelming homogeneity. Bearing in mind that my perspective was that of a visitor to three of the country’s major East Coast cities, I saw little of what one could describe as poverty. Indeed, the idea that this was a “third world” country was hard to sustain; the poverty I encounter in New York on a daily basis is far more apparent. There is a reason that extreme poverty has fallen dramatically in recent decades around the globe, and it has a tremendous amount to do with China and the proclamation attributed to Deng Xiaoping: “To get rich is glorious.”
The 1978 opening to “socialism with Chinese characteristics” (better known as capitalism, if state-led) has helped raise the country’s standard of living but has also brought with it inequalities unknown during the Maoist period. Young tycoons and their wives (possibly tycoons themselves) glide around in new BMW SUVs, but inequality is also generating considerable unrest in the country (so I am told). Yet the chief impression is of a country on the move — “going places.”
As for the downside of all this — the pollution — I was told to expect a scratchy throat in Beijing but that never happened; on the other hand, during a 10-day stay I never really saw the sun, other than as a disk obscured by haze. Still, China burns almost as much coal as all other countries combined, and its appetite for coal is growing steadily, so expect bad air there for some time to come. All that modernization has serious consequences for the environment. India had presented an utterly different tableau. There were signs of wealth, much of it connected to the British colonial past and its legacy; latter-day Indian pashas enjoyed the pleasures of fancy Western hotels along with the foreign visitors. But the chief image — based on travels by mini-van, not by train — is one of grinding poverty, rural backwardness and a lack of any real expectation of equality. The shadow of the caste system, supposedly abolished, is long, indeed.
Yet, the people and landscape in India offered lively splashes of color and aesthetic diversity; China seemed bland and monotonous by comparison. The Chinese emperors’ stress on unity and the fabled continuity of the polity since the pre-Christian Han dynasty have fostered a certain aesthetic homogeneity in people and the built environment. The Indians were far more varied in dress and appearance, which simply made the country (or what little we saw of it) more pleasant and interesting to look at.
Aesthetically speaking, India won hands down. Culinarily, the situation was much the same; the food in China was excellent, but if your enthusiasm for Chinese food is limited and that for Indian food greater from the get-go, there is no competition. Then there were the differences in religion. Max Weber saw India as a veritable garden of religious virtuosity. Holy things are everywhere in India, along with people to worship them. As many have observed, China is overwhelmingly “this-worldly” by comparison. People are superstitious; numbers, colors and the layout of homes and villages reflect choices believed to conduce to wealth and longevity — arguably the central preoccupation of the Chinese. Indians, by contrast, seemed almost to revel in their poverty; it appeared part and parcel of their religious devotion. In China, “religion” as we in the West tend to think of it, is not much in evidence.
Moreover, the Chinese have developed a form of religious intercourse alien to and at odds with the forms of religiosity that arose elsewhere; they feel no compunction about practicing Confucian ancestor worship, Buddhist marriage rites and various forms of folk religion. Those outside of China generally think of their religion in exclusive terms — you can’t be a Christian and a Muslim, a Hindu and a Jew. Religion outside of China isn’t a mix-and-match affair, but it is in the Middle Kingdom. China presents the visitor with an image of immense size, energy and prosperity, the like of which one cannot find anywhere else. In the US, the political and economic situation is such that it is difficult to muster the means and the political will to maintain our standard of living, not to mention our global dominance.
Compared to a country more its own size and, until recently, at roughly the same economic level, namely India, the Chinese are now in another league. Then again, China makes no pretense of being a democracy, and its gains come at the price of considerable repression, including more executions annually than the rest of the world’s countries combined. Whether they will ever offer a picture others will emulate remains to be seen, but it’s not clear that it matters much to them.
As they reach out from the Middle Kingdom into other areas of the world, such as the seas beyond their borders and in Africa, we will have no choice but to deal with them. Economic historians now argue that the Chinese were at least as prosperous as Europeans as recently as 250 years ago. Based on what I saw during my travels, it’s not hard to imagine that they may pass us by again.
John Torpey is the director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is also a professor of sociology and history. He has written or edited eight books: “Intellectuals, Socialism and Dissent: The East German Opposition and Its Legacy” (1995); “The Invention of the Passport: Surveillance, Citizenship and the State” (2000); “Documenting Individual Identity: The Development of State Practices in the Modern World” (edited with Jane Caplan; 2001); “Politics and the Past: On Repairing Historical Injustices” (2004); “Old Europe, New Europe, Core Europe: Transatlantic Relations After the Iraq War” (2005); “Making Whole What Has Been Smashed: On Reparations Politics” (2006); “The Post-Secular in Question” (2012); and, with Christian Joppke, “Legal Integration of Islam: A Transatlantic Comparison” (2013).
Torpey is on the editorial board of Theory and Society and the Journal of Human Rights and edits a series for Temple University Press, titled “Politics, History and Social Change.”