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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 1, Issue 28



A Note from Andrew Singer


This Issue is the second installment of trying to better understand the issues between China and America beyond the headlines. From the Chinese perspective.

  • Walking a Mile in China’s Shoes, Part II Summary

  • Part II: China’s Perspective on China

  • One More Thought (China’s Shandan Horses)

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Walking a Mile in China’s Shoes, Part II Summary


What do the Chinese think of China? As a general rule, they think pretty highly of their motherland. China has arisen from many decades of turbulence and pain. China has pulled itself up and is a wealthy nation, powerful domestically, regionally, and globally. China is an innovator, a hi-tech hub, a place to be admired (and feared). In a word, the Chinese are proud. They are self-confident. They wear their history, culture, and society with distinction.


At the same time, many Chinese are worried. The country is plagued with an enormous wealth disparity between the have’s and have-not’s. A multi-decade, debt-laden economic expansion and shockingly high living expenses are running into recent government edicts intended to curb excesses. The resulting economic and social shocks in 2021 have been swift and severe. Nationalism and ultranationalism are often outcomes of over-amped patriotism combined with angst and insecurity.


After forty years of explosive growth, the Chinese are satisfied, yet not. Success breeds expectations.


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Part II: China’s Perspective on China


Shanghai, China


What do the Chinese think of China? I ask this recognizing that China is not a monolith and setting aside the government until the third installment in early January, 2022.


For those older than forty-five, they remember a time when China was mostly agricultural, poor, less developed, and battered. They vividly remember chaos, suffering, and want.


For the younger generations, they do not recall a time when China was not predominantly stable, urbanizing, growing, and awash in money. They know peace, comfort, and plenty.

China is a cauldron of everyday people who want a good today and a better tomorrow. In this, they are like us. They dream of health, wealth, happiness, and a safe and secure life.

China’s one-point-four-plus-billion population today lives in a truly new China that provides the attributes of a better life to many.


China is rich. China is second on the world list of millionaires. Urban China has grown from 39% to more than 60% of the country in twenty years. A Chinese friend recently commented that China now has all that the U.S. has and more in terms of technology and infrastructure. China is home to cutting-edge technology (AI, bio, digital, nano, meta, and more). Much of China is a virtually cashless, automated society that is a leader of the early twenty-first century.


Hundreds of millions of Chinese now lead a consumer lifestyle. In. A. Big. Way. China has traveled far in four short decades and particularly since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.


Shenzhen, China (Alamy)


For the three decades prior to 1980, the Chinese people had little. During this era, radios, bicycles, sewing machines, and wristwatches were considered luxury items. These Four Big Items were the signs of material wealth and success.


During the 1980’s after the launch of the Reform and Opening Movement in the late 1970’s, the stamp of luxury became color televisions, refrigerators, washing machines, and tape decks. In early 1987, I traveled to southern Hebei Province with a Chinese friend to visit his family. My friend lugged a fourteen-inch, color, Chinese-made Mudan television onto the train. The tv was on the small side and a domestic brand, and therefore not as thrilling as a larger and foreign-made set would have been, but it was a sign of progress and status nonetheless.


And now? Now, the sky is the limit in terms of material prosperity for many. Teslas, Bentley’s, and Beamers. The latest hi-tech gadget. Designer jewelry, handbags, and products. Elaborate travel (pre-Covid), stock portfolios, and real estate holdings. E-shopping holidays and Web Influencers peddling products and ways of life dominate online throughout China.


Line of Bentley’s at a wedding, Shanghai


If we strip away Communist/Socialist/Marxist ideology, propaganda, and posturing, what is left is a fundamental commonality among the vast majority of the current Chinese population. They are proud. Proud of being Chinese. Proud of Chinese history and culture. Proud of a strong China that commands respect and attention. This pride swells to self-confidence. Self-confidence bursts forth in patriotism.


Pride manifests itself in a growing re-appreciation, promotion, and yearning of and for traditional culture. Over the past several years (and until recently), a young woman named Li Ziqi amassed tens of millions of subscribers and followers throughout the world to her video portrayals of a pastoral and idyllic Chinese lifestyle. The Hanfu Movement, a promotion of traditional dress and comportment associated with the predominant Han ethnic group, is popular. There is renewed interest in domestic tourism to places, sites, and landscapes that are representative of China’s beauty and bounty. New discoveries in Chinese archaeology add meat and distance to China’s long history.


Hanfu Clothing


There is pride at some 24,000 miles of high-speed rail tracks that connect not only every Chinese Province, but also now reach internationally from Kunming in Southwestern China to Vientiane in Laos. These rail lines have been built across and through diverse and in many places inhospitable terrains. The Chinese government has long been trying to unite the country through the common language of Mandarin. High-speed rail physically unites the country.


There is chest thumping at China’s newfound stature. The new China harkens back to an old China and a time when China was one of, if not the, most powerful country in the world based on the metrics of the eighteenth century and before. China has a blue water navy. China is establishing military bases in far off countries. China is an international leader in economic investment.


Xi Jinping, United Nations, Geneva, Switzerland, 2017 (Reuters/Denis Balibouse)


To the Chinese living their improved and much more stable daily lives, what happens in far-off Xinjiang, the Sino-Indian border, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and elsewhere does not directly affect them. As in most countries, the Chinese by and large learn what the government and media want them to know. If they are told that terrorists, separatists, and agitators threaten to disrupt China’s stability and tear at China’s success, the Chinese rally around to prevent these from harming the nation.


Pride, however, can also be expressed in ways not as positive. When patriotism slips toward nationalism, pride in self is frequently coupled with anger at other. The most volatile situation is when nationalism falls into ultranationalism because then anger at other becomes an end in itself. In China today, nationalism and ultranationalism are potent forces, forces that are cultivated, but which can easily take on barely-restrained lives of their own. China’s domestic sense of self is forceful. It is seen in official and internet-based hypersensitivity to perceived slights of China’s honor and to any unwillingness to support China’s interpretation of its world view.


Economic and social angst and insecurity often drive such ultranationalist sentiments. But they are also reflected in a broader worry among an otherwise mostly satisfied populace. China faces one of the worst wealth disparities in the world. Several decades of capitalist excess have resulted in unsustainable mountains of business and personal debt, sky-high real estate prices, and spiraling living expenses. Though China declared earlier this year that it has eliminated extreme poverty, poverty itself still plagues hundreds of millions of people. Plummeting birth rates are foreshadowing a future, unsupported aging population. The Chinese government has announced many edicts this year to try and curb excesses. While necessary is some places (and overreaching in others), they have resulted in rapid and deep economic and social shocks to Chinese society. In just one example, the sudden swoon in the real property market may be the most significant because so much of middle- and upper-class wealth is tied to land.


It remains to be seen if the winds buffeting this cauldron of everyday people ultimately shake the underpinnings of pride.


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One More Thought (China’s Shandan Horses)


Herd of Shandan Horses, Gansu Province, September 2019 (Xinhua/Ma Ning)


1,900 kilometers west of Beijing in the Hexi corridor along the Qilian Mountains is the oldest royal horse breeding farm in the world. Shandan horses have been raised here in the Damaying Grassland since a general of the Western Han Dynasty began the farm more than 2,000 years ago. The tradition remains strong today in the postcard-perfect pastures of far Western China.


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Endnotes


Photographs:


A. Shanghai — author photograph


B. Shenzhen — www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3023330/beijing-unveils-detailed-reform-plan-make-shenzhen-model-city


C. Bentley’s in Shanghai — author photograph


D. Hanfu photographs — https://ziseviolet.tumblr.com/post/179297235197/


E. Xi Jinping at U.N. Geneva — www.reuters.com/news/picture/xi-portrays-china-as-global-leader-as-tr-idUSKBN1522OS


F. Shandan Horses — www.xinhuanet.com/english/2019-09/12/c_138386607.htm


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