Today I celebrate the 7th anniversary of my arrival in China for what was to be a 3-month work assignment. Such is China. Things change.
Despite the passage of so much time, however, my curiosity about China has yet to be satisfied. I’m still trying to figure it all out.
Part of the challenge in figuring out how an inductive-reasoning, holistic-thinking society works is the simple fact that there is nothing to figure out from the Western perspective. Definitive and finite answers belong to the world of deductive, linear thinking, where there are beginnings and ends and discernible steps in between. The holistic, inductive world, however, is both seamless and without borders. Logic is a continuum extending infinitely in all directions.
Which is why I believe it is fortunate that China has chosen the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics. While the Chinese excel at business and making money, I don’t believe their worldview would work in a capitalist, democratic context. The result, I fear, would be sheer and utter chaos and anarchy.
Not a single Chinese person that I have ever met has voiced the desire to vote in a popular political election. Not one. And that reticence is not a function of fear that Big Brother is listening. People here complain about their government in much the same way people everywhere do. Whatever the political process employed, governing is tricky business. You’re never going to keep everyone happy.
The difference here is that the governed do not expect to be happy. They accept some degree of political and personal suffering to be inevitable. What they want more than anything else is a government that is going to make every citizen’s life equally inconvenient.
Part of the reason, of course, comes back to their yin-yang worldview. Happiness cannot exist without suffering any more than suffering can exist without happiness. (Most major religions, it may be noted, share the same perspective. How else could a benevolent God allow bad things to happen?)
Chinese culture, turning as it does on the obligation of personal relationship, is a village culture. It promotes harmony in small settings where there is substantial social interaction (e.g. within families, small towns, etc.) and mutual obligation.
But China is no longer a village. It is the most populous nation on the planet and an increasing number of its citizens live in the über-urban jungle. (Boston would be a tier 3 or 4 city in China.) Personal space is nonexistent. There is, in fact, so much personal interaction that it couldn’t possibly be personal. There simply isn’t time. Were China to function as a village it would quickly grind to a halt.
I have lived on both the East Coast and the Mid-West of the United States and I can tell you that they are very different places with very different cultures. Both, of course, have their pros and cons. The one thing I did learn with certainty, however, was that neither culture would work in the other place. Each is ideally suited to its setting and neither is universally applicable.
Which, in a way, explains what happened during the Cultural Revolution. In many ways, China was trying to return an urbanizing China to its pastoral rural roots. A worthy ideal, perhaps, but a challenge comparable to putting the now square peg back in its historically round hole.
The current government has no such agenda. It has, in fact, embraced urbanization as the surest and quickest way to improve the quality of life for all Chinese. Social infrastructure (e.g. water, electricity, medical care) is easily leveraged by scale. One big pipe is relatively cheaper and quicker to lay than thousands of smaller ones.
The culture, however, retains many of the characteristics of a traditional village society. Obligation is personal, not institutional. Face is important. And where you are from is an important ingredient of your personal identity.
One of the inherent drawbacks of the village culture, however, is that the villages tend to fight, or at least treat each other with suspicion. Like the Hatfields and the McCoys of Appalachian legend. When your personal identity is closely aligned with your village, the people from other villages are, by definition, strangers (i.e. foreigners).
Chinese history is certainly testament to that. The founding emperor of the first Chinese dynasty (221 to 206 BC), Qin Shi Huang, did not unify China at the ballot box. He did so through the conquest of six other states. China, as we know it today, was quite literally born on the battlefield. China did not, in other words, come to be in the same way that the 13 colonies of the United States did. (The U.S., of course, was born through the War of Independence, but the 13 colonies did not unite through conflict. Virginia was not conquered by Pennsylvania.)
And despite the shared Chinese culture and national identity that has emerged in the centuries that followed, China remains a largely regional entity. Everything from the food they eat, the alcohol they consume, and even the dialect they speak, varies greatly from one region to the next. When a foreign colleague asks me to define this or that characteristic of China, I must first determine which China they’re interested in. (I sell simple beverage glasses and you would be amazed at how both the functional purpose and the style of glasses we sell vary by region.)
Which is precisely why every Chinese person I’ve ever discussed the topic with has shared the opinion that China must have a strong central government, even if that means the sacrifice of some personal liberties and choices. As one colleague put it, “If we had the American political system nothing would get done. We would just fight.” (Perhaps in this regard it is America that is becoming more like China than the other way around.)
I grew up at the height of the Cold War when American school children were taught to huddle under their desks in the likely event of a Soviet nuclear attack and that liberal democracy was the only path to both economic advancement and social enlightenment. Whether or not that was true in a different time and place, I am certain it is no longer true today. In part, ironically, because the world is smaller. It’s a different version of the long tail of culture that I’ve referred to in the past. Simply put, people are in a much stronger position to decide for themselves.
I believe, therefore, that the biggest risk facing China today is not socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is the potential loss of political legitimacy. Which is precisely why the current government is going to such great lengths to maintain it. It fully appreciates it is a matter of survival.
We live in a diverse world. China is not Denmark, or Croatia, or even Germany. China is China. Massive. Dynamic. A village culture trying to cope with a level of urbanization the world has never experienced before, where cities are expected to exceed 50 million people in population in the lifetime of today’s children.
The days of the developed world leading the way for the developing world are over. Nor is the reverse true either, of course.
But the truth remains that we live in a shrinking but diversifying world with an extremely long tail of culture and ethnic identity. And perhaps it is the holistic, inductive worldview, rather than the deductive, linear Western worldview, that is ideally suited to the increasingly urban landscape that is modern China. (And will be the future of many developing nations across Asia and Africa.)
As Westerners we needn’t – nor should we – mimic the Chinese solution. Nor, however, should we condemn it. That is ultimately for the Chinese to decide. I can tell you for now, however, what the government already knows. All political unrest in China is social, not political. And all social unrest, in the end, is economic.
It is the pivot to consumption, and its success or failure, not the West or the ballot box, which will determine China’s political future.
President Xi Jinping, I believe, understands this better than anyone.
Next week: Back to some lighter fare – Summer in the City
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Notice: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity. They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.