‘It really feels like I am stepping into the past’.
She had recently arrived in Australia, with part of a family in tow to spend a year overseas. ‘You don’t have so many things we are used to now in China’.
‘And every time I return to China’, I said, ‘I feel like I am stepping into the future’.
Our observations surprised us both, since it seemed a reversal of the usual assumptions. ‘Advanced’ economies like Western Europe, North America and even its erstwhile satellites are supposed to set the benchmark for what a place like China would like to become. From the time in the not-too-distant past when it was one of the poorest countries in the world. China would slowly and – in bursts – more rapidly ‘catch up’ in the long run.
Instead, China had already leapt ahead in so many respects.
At first it was the little signals. For example, the Chinese online map system, Baidu, has integrated a whole series of possibilities on a reliable basis. If one looks up a place and wants to travel there by train, then you can link to the standard train booking location. If by plane, then a link takes you to flights and tickets. If by taxi, then the available taxis and ‘dididache’ would appear on your map. Indeed, the taxi companies and uber-like operators had themselves simply become integrated. If I go to a place where one can use ‘google’ maps’, then none of this applies. Or, if there are indeed bus or train options, the information is so chaotic and unreliable, one is hardly able to trust them (and I leave aside the unreliability of ‘google’ maps itself).
This approach to maps is but one of an increasing range of examples. Mobile payments? Enmeshed instead of willy-nilly offerings by private companies that will not share. Accommodation? Every imaginable form appears with ease as part of a larger whole. Electric vehicles? Almost overnight, charging stations have appeared throughout China, so much so that petrol-driven vehicles will be phased out before long. Internet? More powerful and seamless than elsewhere.
But these are all symptoms. Other items point to a deeper pattern. Last year, 1.3 million patents were lodged in China, which is more than the United States, Europe, Japan and South Korea combined. An increasing number of students identify China as their first country of choice to study. Indeed, since the emphasis of Mao’s time on education, Chinese students and scholars know far more about the rest of the world than the world knows about China. Job-seekers increasingly find that a direct comparison between employment in one of the so-called ‘advanced’ countries pales by comparison to the opportunities available in China.
What in the world has happened and is happening?
China has not ‘caught up’; it has leapt ahead in a classic dialectical leap.
This is a long story, but I will have to keep it brief. The assumption a while back was that by and large one main path led to industrialisation and prosperity. This was the classic capitalist path mapped out in Western Europe and then spread sporadically in other parts of the globe through colonialization. Such a path included neo-classical economics, the rampant individualism of liberal ideology and the peculiar political form known as liberal or bourgeois democracy. Adopt this path, many countries were told, and you can be like ‘us’. Global institutions were set up after the Second World War to enforce this path on every country, with very mixed results
For a while, even some in China believed this approach was the only one. I used to find more of them about a decade ago, but now they pretty much fall into the group of ‘dissidents’, a euphemistic label for colonial-minded people with treason on their minds.
But those with wiser heads in China realised already a while ago that it was not for them. Each country, each location – they continue to insist – has its own history, tradition and culture. You cannot simply impose a system bred elsewhere into a foreign environment. Instead, the Chinese have developed a distinct path at the creative intersections between Chinese culture and Marxism, where tradition actually means creative adaptation.
It is far more integrated and enmeshed, as one sees at so many levels from the very local activities of ‘start-ups’ and blogging (individual blogs really don’t happen), to the macro-level of state and private enterprise in a way that breaks down the very distinction itself – a socialist market economy, they call it.
This path, with a distinct social framework, a fostering of innovation that is so different from private individual ‘start-ups’, a level of public security that is the envy of the world, an overwhelming confidence among the general populace that China is on the right path, a government that is in the very pores of society, or indeed a society that is in the very pores of government – this path has provided the conditions for what can only be described as a leap into the future.
That said, I must admit to being somewhat ambivalent about the amazing times in which we live. Let me explain.
On the one hand, I am all for the most powerful socialist country in human history leaping ahead and showing an alternative path to the future. I am all for the disintegration of the United States and its ‘allies’ as their social fabrics tear asunder. I cheer on the real story of the twenty-first century, which is Eurasian integration. I understand why more and more countries blighted by the colonialist myth of ‘development’ are looking to the Chinese model as an alternative.
On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoy losing myself in – for example – the countryside and mountains of Germany (not the USA!). Here many a village is barely on the internet, a pension or a guest-house is to be found upon pedalling into the village in question and knocking on the door. A place to eat must be located by asking the locals. And one pays only by the age-old anonymity of cash.
Currently, I immerse myself in both worlds, seeking to understand the former and losing myself in the latter.