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Some thoughts on China.

CHINA | Thursday, 30 October 2008 | Views [730] | Comments [4]

I definitely don't feel that I know much about China. I have been here 5 weeks, I don't speak the language and I was in fairly touristy places and only barely in the countryside. But I have a few comments anyway, just take them with a grain of salt.
I had a great time here. I found the locals friendly and helpful. Whenever you greet someone with a Ni Hao, with a smile or with a nod, they reciprocate. I think its genuine. They almost all seem very hard working. Most of them did not want to cheat you, although some will routinely overcharge westerners (although in Shanghai, beware). Things were pretty effecient here. Buses and planes left ontime.  I found it pretty easy to travel here despite a complete inability to communicate.
It definitely was weird for me being the only Caucasian in many places. In the US, we are such a melting pot that no one stands out. In California and Texas (and a few other states) whites make up under 50% of the population. In California and Hawaii especially there are large numbers of Asians. There are neighborhoods in LA that many people only speak Chinese.
There is something truely remarkable about a culture that survived for thousands of years. Twice china was conquered by foreign powers, and both times the foreigners adopted chinese culture. Amazing. Perhaps they liked the food. :)
Language was a major difficulty here. In addition to the characters being totally incomprehensible, the 4 tone system is pretty tricky, and the words do not transliterate well into english. (and the english and chinese names for places, have no relationship to each other whatsoever). For some reason, the great breakthrough of an alphabet eluded the chinese. Maybe they don't think it was a breakthrough, but I doubt it.
Furthermore, for whatever reason, the Chinese do not seem to be very good at charades. In most of the world, you can act out what you want, the people will understand, but here they almost never understand. I have a theory about this, which I will get back to.
Ordering food was especially difficult for me do to me being a vegetarian, since if I did not order an item from the menu (or multiple items), the waiters just looked paralyzed , and will not serve you anything until you tell them something specific. It seems like initiative is completely lacking here. I suspect that people do not want to make a mistake, so would rather do nothing. (So perhaps they do understand the charades, but are unwilling to officially guess what it means, because they don't want to be wrong). Any Chinese speakers want to comment? I am probably wrong, but I am willing to make a guess...
As I have mentioned before all the men smoke (sometimes they offer me a cigarette, I hope I am not offending them by declining). The driving is terrible, and like Israel and to a lessor extent Italy, but unlike everyplace else I know, the Chinese do not believe in waiting in line, and will cut in front of you, or grab a taxi when you were getting into it. I wonder if they at least will let old folks go first, but even that doesn't seem to be true. Also, unlike the west, everyone spits on the street. They didn't really bother me, but its worth noting.
As to economics,  this is an interesting time here in china. The growth rate has been phenomenal (over 10% a year for quite a long time), and some people are getting quite rich. I have seen porsche's and maserati's. And yet its still a pretty inexpensive country, and most of the country is fairly poor. I think this country is setting its self up for some trouble if it does not solve the income inequality problem. There really are 3 classes here. A wealthy urban class. A working poor in the cities. And the poor farmers who average about $600 a year in earnings. Housing in the cities cost more than in the cheap US cities (Beijing for instance is 50% more expensive for housing than Houston is, although very good deals on apartment rentals can be found ), and that is well beyond the reach of most citizens (while some own multiple houses in all the nice places). How is the cab driver who gets $2 for a 30 minute ride, or the barber who get $1.50 for a 30 minute haircut ever going to buy a house, or raise there standard of living? Instead they watch part of the population get wealthy as they get left behind (this really is more extreme than in the US, where it is also a problem, because the poor in america are much wealthy than the poor in china. Also, having said that, I do think conditions here are better for everyone than they were 20 years ago, its just that the improvements are not distributed very equally.  There especially is demand for housing since many families will not let their daughter marry someone who doesn't have a house...
The country really is not socialist any any sense as far as I am concerned. There is almost no guaranteed health care, and education is only free through elementary school. Maybe that is a deliberate attempt to have all the different stratas of society occupied, but I think that those two factors, more than anything else, is what enables people to reach the fullest potential (education) without the worry of something really bad happening to them (health care). The price of food, I think, is kept artificially low. I am not certain about the mechanism, but I think its by keeping too many farmers (all working inefficiently), to make too much food. Unlike the US, the farmers don't get a kickback from the government to offset this.
I do think the Chinese government recognizes many of these problems. Just recently they made changes to help improve farming (by giving the farmers the rights to sell their farmering rights to others, hopefully allowing larger farms to occur, economies of scale to occur via the use of machinery and specialization of labor). They also made tax changes to lower the cost of housing, but I do not think that addresses the fundamental problems.
Microlending, and using homes (which most farmers have) as colateral to buy machinary  will  help the farmers, but the fundamental problem is you do not get enough benefit from a piece of equipment (relative to its cost) if its only used on a small plot of land (the economy of scale issue). So farmers sharing equipment, or combining farms, really is a prerequisite for improving the efficiency of farming.
One of the great modern debates in political theory is the relationship between personal liberties (political and economic) and the form of government. It has been argued (most famously by Francis Fukiyama) that the inevitable form of government is a liberal democracy. And in particular, democracy, political liberty and economic liberty (aka free markets) are inevitably linked. Well I have never been so sure. The Chinese model is a highly centralized government which allows for great coordination of individual behavior (solving some of the classic market failures), few political liberties, but a great deal of economic liberty. This is almost more like a corporation than a government. I think this works pretty well as long as
a. the government truely is bevevelent, acting in the best interests of the country, without too much corruption
b. the government can maintain legitimacy among the part of the population that  does not benefit from its policies
A Government's main function is the police power: to protect the "health, safety and welfare of the people." Yet, there is no "the people "out there since different people have different needs. So inevitably, governments must adjudicate  between competing interests, and the losers must be satisfied that the decision was at least done fairly. Democracies solve this problem by letting the people vote for officials, and thus makes the implicit argument that majority opinion can be used as a proxy for fair (since what the hell does fair really mean). Here, a central unelected government makes the decisions. But as long as the people defer to there decisions as being wise, or at least as taking all factors into account, then the losers, if they are not starving, seem to be happy enough.
In western thought, Plato (who leaned toward benevolent dictatorships) and Aristotle (who had much more faith in the people) provide competing underlying schools of thought. The Confucian tradition here in the east has many similarities to Platonism in my opinion,  but there was no eastern version of Aristotle. Instead Taoism and Buddhism are the closest thing to a countervailing tradition, but their central ideas do not really deal with political organization. So having said all that, I have no idea what impact these old ideas still have on thought in modern china. But if they have any impact, its certainly toward giving a centralized authority, who claims to be acting for the good of all, a great deal of latitude. And like I said, the poor are better off then they were 20 years ago. Its just that others are really getting rich.
In any case, there certainly have been a great deal of peasant led rebellions here in china, so there certainly is a breaking point where the poor are not satisfied. And for most people, that standard is relative to what they see around them, not absolute. So hopefully, the chinese government will be successful in its attempts to improve the life of all its citizens.
Anyway, time will tell. The chinese economy has been growing rapidly, and materialism is being felt here. In the past, children stayed in the town they were born, and cared for there parents when they got old. Now they move all over the place. Ideas are disseminated from the internet and many other places, so this is not a closed society in any sense. The two really rich dynasties in chinese history (the Tang and Song dynesties) were the societies which most looked outward for trade and ideas, and this is happening again. So now that the economic genie was let out of the bottle, the question is what else will come out as well.

Tags: china



You have made interesting observations. I have to admit that the Chinese is unwilling to risk to be wrong. They would rather be silent if they are not 100% sure. That has a lot to do with the culture and education system.
Anyway, it's good to see you have time to put down your thoughts. Hope to see you back soon!

  John L Oct 31, 2008 3:09 AM


Josh, you need to find a vegeterian restaurant !
Or, if you consider trying non-vege / non-fish,
You will not be disappointed in Hong Kong ;-)

Try and ask for recommendation in an Italian restaurant when one is allergic to wheat .. Or ask for Fish at a BBQ joint .. what do you expect !?

  Joanna Chau Nov 3, 2008 4:45 AM


No, the point is, if I go into a resturant, and they had 1000 veggy dishes, and 1 non-veggy, I could not order anything. I have gone into resturants with a beautoful display out front of there ingrediants, and I can eat almost every one, so I don't think I should starve in that resturant...

I did eat very well in Hong Kong. I actually also ate very well in Shanghai :)

  jsherdc Nov 4, 2008 7:12 PM


Josh - just getting around to catching up with your adventures. I really enjoyed your thoughtful, analytical insights into China as it is now. It's interesting hearing from one who has been delving into the culture for multiple weeks. Hopefully, this will be the basis for a chapter in your book about taking a sabbatical and hitting the road....Take care...

  Harold Taylor Nov 20, 2008 8:32 AM

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