The View from There

James Fallows – The Atlantic

Copyright Atlantic
A very quick excerpt from the latest of Jim’s China dispatches. Highly recommended read.
Superficially, Japan’s boom of the 1980s seems like China’s today. Yes, both happened in Asia, both led to mammoth trade imbalances, both arose from combined governmental and private-industrial efforts, and both unnerved the United States. But the differences are more numerous than the similarities, and more important. Japan was and is rich; for China, that is decades away. Japan’s debut as an international host with its Olympic Games was already 20 years in the past (Tokyo, 1964); China’s is still ahead. To me the most striking difference was cultural and moralistic: specifically, Japan’s cocksureness. Japan and many neighboring nations saw its rise as a challenge to the American idea, and they didn’t care who knew it. No one thinks that today’s China lacks cultural confidence. By now I should have programmed auto-text keys to use when transcribing interviews, so that I can plug in the rote passage about “our 5,000 years of history” or “the world’s longest continuous civilization” with one stroke. But I have encountered virtually no lecturing from Chinese friends, officials, students, passersby, or interviewees.
People inside China have a vivid sense of the whack-a-mole challenge they face at every level. For rural people, staying alive. For the urban-employed class, finding enough money to pay for an apartment (with prices soaring), get kids into school (also expensive, with fees required even at public schools), fend off health emergencies (ditto), plus somehow save enough for retirement (in the midst of a huge demographic shift, driven by the one-child policy, toward a society with many more dependents and many fewer active workers). For company officials, managing China’s current “brand image” disaster, plus the soaring costs of water, energy, and raw materials, plus the competition from thousands of other companies just like them. For regional officials, fending off complaints about pollution and corruption while still bringing in jobs. For the national government, managing all this and political and international crises too. Based on their record over the last 20 years, Chinese at all levels will probably find a way to stay just ahead of these disasters. But the situation doesn’t leave many people I’ve met sounding boastful.
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