The Cleveland of Asia: A Journey Through China’s Rust Belt

P. J. O’Rourke – World Affairs

Copyright World Affairs
The Cleveland of Asia: A Journey Through China’s Rust Belt
For years I’ve been active in Freedom House, the oldest of the private organizations advocating for international freedom and democracy. We’ve seen progress, especially since 1989. We’ve seen backsliding. And we’ve seen stasis, notably 1.3-billion-persons’-worth of stasis in China. Freedom House rates China as “Not Free.” On a scale of 1 to 7—where 1 is as free as human nature allows and 7 is completely otherwise—China scores 6 on civil liberties and 7 on political rights.
Yet we at Freedom House cannot be exactly right. A mere increase in China’s prosperity must mean that more Chinese have greater wherewithal to exercise some aspects of free will. Certainly the Chinese are more free now than they were during the Great Leap Forward, when millions were constrained by starving to death. And the Chinese are freer to go about their business than they were during the Cultural Revolution, when there was no business to go about.
Freedom and democracy are abstract. Daily life is concrete. This is not to denigrate the importance of the abstract. God himself is abstract, until he strikes us with a bolt of lightning. The monks and nuns of political science may be overwhelmed by abstraction, as are the victims of such abstractions as Mao Thought. But, mercifully, quotidian existence is conducted mostly in the world of things and stuff.
I went to China for a month in 2006 and ended up taking a tour of the world of things and stuff. I didn’t mean to. I was just sightseeing. I’d only been to the mainland once and then only to Shanghai. I wanted to visit the Three Gorges before the new dam turned the Yangtze into a cesspool. I wanted a look at the Terracotta Warriors. And that sort of thing.
I was traveling with old friends from Hong Kong, whom I’ll call Tom and Mai. Tom has spent decades in the mining and metallurgy business. He was breaking ground on an ore-processing plant in Nanjing. He seems to know everyone in China who has anything to do with iron, steel, coal, or beer. And Mai and her brothers owned a company in Hong Kong that brokered textile machinery. When China initiated its “Open Door” economic policy, Mai would take mainland clients to Europe (where they’d encounter their first fork) and arrange for the purchase of used spinning and weaving equipment.
I took a lot of notes, with Mai doing most of the translating. But I didn’t know what to do with the notes when I came back. It took me almost two years to realize that what I have is a survey of “the tacit consent of the governed.” Not that the Chinese I talked to were taciturn. They were forthcoming enough about their government, but they didn’t care much about the political theory of it. Tom said, “Their attitude is, ‘Shhh, politics is sleeping, don’t wake it up.’”
I talked to people who worked in private enterprise and people who worked in government and people who worked on furthering cooperation between the two. That is, I talked to the kind of people who are necessary to the advocating of freedom and democracy but who, so far, aren’t advocating it. We need to listen to what they don’t say. Here is a record of what Chinese think of politics when politics isn’t what they’re thinking of.
I had been to Shanghai in 1997, and it looked like a knock-off of a great city, a sort of Made-in-Hong-Kong Hong Kong. Everything had been built yesterday. And they’d built a lot of it—more than they seemed to have any use for. There was a marsh called Pudong on the far side of the Huangpu River, where the ground was so low-lying the water and sewer pipes had to be laid above the pavement. Pudong was dotted with empty office complexes and buildings full of unrented apartments.
Now Pudong is some of the most expensive real estate on earth. Mai, Tom and I stopped at a condominium where the sale price was $10,000 per square meter. Despite arriving in a chauffeured car wearing our corporate boardroom clothes, we were turned away at the gate. An attractive but severe young lady in black Prada told us we’d need to make an appointment days in advance.
From Pudong, I took a train with Tom and Mai west a couple of hours to Wuxi, a city of five million people that I’d never heard of. It’s the size of ten Clevelands. And if you wonder what happened to Cleveland, Wuxi is where it went. Industrial parks spread for miles, with neat, sleek, enormous buildings set in swaths of lawn and landscaping—Volvo, GE, Panasonic, Sony, Westinghouse, Nikon, Bridgestone, Bosch, and The Nature Factory (I’d wondered where that was made).
We were given a tour by Mr. Chen, a manufacturer of fleece and plush fabrics. He was proud of Wuxi and so proud of his own fabrics that, although he’s the CEO of the company, he carries samples in the trunk of his Audi Quattro.
Mr. Chen sent us on in his car to Nanjing, where Tom took me to a steel mill he used to run. The company that Tom used to work for bought the mill from the Chinese government for $1 on the understanding that it would be kept in operation. The mill was eventually sold, for considerably more than $1 to Mr. Liu and Mrs. Sung.
The mill’s 150-pound ex-PLA guard dog, Shasha (“Killer”), was extremely glad to see Tom. So were the employees. Although there were some steel mill employees who presumably wouldn’t have been so glad, such as the two or three hundred “ghost workers” who didn’t exist at all and were on the mill’s payroll when Tom took over. Plus the thousands of workers he’d fired because they didn’t do anything. Tom also needed to get rid of the local family that had the “theft rights” to the factory. They once stole an entire railroad train from the mill and would have gotten away with it if the train didn’t have a track that led directly to them.
“Here’s where one guy threw a wrench at me,” Tom said as we climbed the tower to the blast furnace.
“What’d you do?”
“I tossed him down the stairs,” Tom said. “Rule of law is the cornerstone of capitalism.”
Tom’s worst problem with the proletariat, however, involved one of his mill hands who was having an affair with a woman who worked at the chemical factory next door. They conducted their trysts in an electrical equipment closet. Amidst the throes of passion the mill hand backed into some high voltage circuitry and fried. (His paramour, with hair a bit frizzier than is usual in China, survived.) The man’s widow then brought her entire ancestral village to block the steel mill’s gates. As compensation for her husband’s death, she demanded his salary in perpetuity, a job for their retarded daughter, a new house, the payment of her husband’s gambling debts, and that her grandmother be flown to the United States to have her glaucoma treated.
“I had to call in the Communist Party officials,” Tom said.
“Did they ship everybody off to prison camp or something?” I asked.
“They didn’t do anything. They said it was my problem. I settled with the widow for a couple of hundred bucks.”
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