Anyone who has traveled periodically to China over the past 25 years (as I have) will remark upon how rapidly and profoundly China has changed over that time. In my most recent trip (from which I returned yesterday), however, even I who have been acculturated to the extreme dynamism of the new China was amazed by how drastically it has changed in the eight years since I last visited. Prosperity has advanced in China to a degree that would have been difficult to imagine when I first set foot in Beijing in the winter of 1987.
The first inkling we had of this transformation was on our first full day in Beijing, on a visit to the Forbidden City. The site was overrun by a throng of tourists one would not encounter anywhere in the U.S., with the possible exception of Disneyland. These were people from all over China. In casual conversations we encountered families from Shandong, Shaanxi, and Fujian, and I am sure if we had taken the time we could have found someone from every province and autonomous region of the PRC. Even accounting for the summer season, the crowds of leisure travelers signified the rise of a new middle class that simply had not existed at any other time I had visited China in the past 25 years.
That new socioeconomic reality was made more dramatic on our excursion to Beijing's most famous roast duck restaurant, Quan Ju De. In 1987 I and my other college friends used to roll up to the door on our bicycles and be escorted promptly into the half-empty (and prohibitively expensive, from the perspective of most Chinese citizens) restaurant to dine next to party cadres. This time my family and I arrived at the front door to find a crowd of at least 150 people perched on small plastic stools, each clutching a number and waiting to hear it called over a megaphone by a hostess in a beautiful silk qipao. Such culinary democracy was unknown in the China I had seen in the past.
These were only two instances of the enormous rise and spread of prosperity that we encountered on this trip. To be sure, there was still real poverty, and the limits of the new prosperity could be observed. New buildings were under construction everywhere, but certain key resources were poorly maintained. In Chengdu my mother suffered a laceration that required stitches, and the trip to the emergency room of the local hospital was like a journey to 1988. Vast sums have been spent on assets that have a high international profile, such as the Chengdu airport (which is tripling in size), but Chengdu's hospitals do not seem to have benifited as significantly from these capital investments.
Even acknowledging these shortfalls, the rising tide of prosperity in China is astounding and impressive. I do not know the hard statistics, but I would be willing to bet that, in either absolute or proportional terms, the PRC government has overseen the largest expansion of wealth in human history. This fact has forced me to reassess my expectations regarding China's short-term future.
I have felt in the past, and continue to believe, that China's political system is in dire need of democratization and decentralization. Indeed, this trip was not without signs of political trouble. In the Forbidden City we saw a policeman carelessly scatter a poor peddlar's wares with his nightstick, and on the walk back to our hotel we encountered a battalion of police who had cordoned off a one-block perimeter around a disturbance and who refused either to let us pass or to answer questions about what was happening. Beyond this, in every city but Hong Kong to which we traveled we saw ubiquitous political slogans, which had been almost totally absent from the urban landscape eight years ago. Everywhere banners, billboards, and posters exorted citizens to be "civilized 文明" or praised "the unity of the party and the people." Such insistent propoganda smacks of political insecurity.
While this is true, and while I remain convinced of the need for real political change in China, my latest visit makes me less confident that it will come in short order. The impact of the sheer magnitude of wealth China has generated in the last twenty years is difficult to assess or anticipate. On the one hand, rising prosperity will most likely lead to rising expectations, which will produce agitation for change. On the other hand, the government's success in overseeing rapid economic expansion must contribute in some measure to its legitimacy, and might understandably make the populace reticent to disturb the status quo. In any case, what I observed on this visit convinces me of one basic truth: if its leaders and people can take the steps necessary to make the rising tide of prosperity ecologically and politically sustainable, the future belongs to China.