Good Life

Seeing Shanghai | China in perpetual state of growth: Government unafraid to step in, guide economy

The joke goes something like this:

What’s the national bird of China?

The crane — the construction crane.

The joke only works if you know what a constant presence construction cranes are in China. In the cities, it seems like whichever direction you turn there is always a crane or two, or more, on the horizon.

China’s economy has been growing at a breathtaking speed for the past couple of decades. Many people didn’t think China could do it without democratic reforms. And some people today don’t think China can keep it going without democratic reforms. They think an open, transparent government is needed for capitalism to thrive.

I believe in democracy and transparency, but let’s face it: China has been growing by leaps and bounds for a while now and there is a good chance that will continue.

But how has China been able to do it? How is such rapid growth possible and sustainable without the protections of individuals in a democracy?

The key, according to Hua Yu in “China in 10 Words,” is revolution (pronounced ge ming in Chinese).

Hua writes that after the Communists took power, they worked hard to preserve the spirit of the revolution; to sustain that energy but direct it into political movements.

In the 1950s, there was the Great Leap Forward. Such an emphasis was placed on increasing steel production in a short time, to “leap forward” into the status of an economically developed nation, that food production was ignored and millions starved to death.

In the 1960s and ’70s, there was the Cultural Revolution. Ideological purity was pursued with such fervor that thousands were publicly “corrected” and millions lived in fear. A significant consequence was the collapse of the education system, as professors were sent to the country to pick potatoes.

And then, in 1978, the economic reforms began to transform China into the powerhouse we know today. Some would say this latest movement has been pursued with as much furor as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.

I’ve only traveled outside of Shanghai a few times, but my impression from our train has been of farms and countryside broken up by residential high-rise towers. The growth of the economy can be mostly seen in the growth of the infrastructure. The new buildings, ports, highways and trains are often useful, but more importantly they are a source a pride. Why build small when you can build big?

For example, Shanghai has an excellent maglev train, connecting the city with the airport. The train levitates on magnets, can go up to 286 mph, cost more than $1 billion to build — and only goes about 18 miles.

The whole ride only takes about 10 minutes. It’s a technological source of pride, as it should be, but its usefulness seems secondary.

And now cracks are appearing in China’s economic picture. Growth has surpassed the West for a number of years, but it has flattened out a bit — and this could cause problems.

And so the Chinese government has begun a massive plan to move 250 million people from rural areas to urban areas, so that they can be consumers, too. And even though the economy is growing, the number of university students graduating is growing faster (about a million more each year) — as was the government goal. All the while tuition costs continue to rise, as does the debt carried by the universities, accommodating all the new students.

Not only does Hua deny that democratic transparency is necessary for China’s economic growth, but he believes its lack has facilitated China’s growth.

The passion for growth can reach such a fever pitch that nothing is allowed to stand in the way — especially not the people who own houses and apartments where the new developments will be built. And so, stories abound of police detentions that occur while the contents of a home are moved out and the bulldozers are moved in.

Where all this will lead, I don’t know. My impression is that China will continue to grow as it has been growing, even without a Western-style democracy. I worry that there are those who might not think a global economy is big enough for the United States and a fully developed China.

I read an article recently about China that kept using the cautionary phrase “state-sponsored capitalism,” much as “state-sponsored terrorism” has been often used. I think we are likely to see more of this alarmist language in the future, though I hope we don’t.

Personally, I’m still more impressed and hopeful than alarmist about China. As goals are achieved, and China settles into its role as an economic superpower, maybe the day will come when its pride comes not only from skyscrapers and bullet trains, but also from the transparency of its government and the freedoms its people enjoy.