China then and now: a whole new cup of tea

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Cancer rates are now 80% higher than they were before economic reforms 30 years ago and cancer is the nation’s biggest killer. Indeed, the domestic media is increasingly filled with reports of up to 400 “cancer villages” – clusters of the disease near dirty factories. And there is no end in site: another 350 million citizens are expected to move to urban areas in the next 20 years. The impacts of this growth in China and globally are only just beginning.

As we strolled the streets of China, what’s not as obvious are the social changes taking place. While the political elite remains almost exclusively male, women are flexing their collective muscle in universities and workplaces. Traditional Chinese values of family, harmony and saving face remain strong, yet sexual attitudes are evolving quickly to the point that sexual freedom and experimentation are blossoming.

We saw sex shops in Shanghai and Beijing with a jaw-dropping array of toys and tonics, and learned that Chinese citizens now hook up online with other swingers through the uniquely Chinese QQ.com social network and text messaging, while gay men patronize bathhouses and bars. This is a new kind of revolution for China considering that the government classified homosexuality as a mental disorder until 2001. 

All of this newfound sexual freedom is unfortunately fueling an HIV/AIDS epidemic, particularly within the “men who have sex with men” community. In Chinese society, being gay is still largely taboo, with few ”out” gay men and many more married ones who are often gay but get married to placate their families, friends and co-workers.

In some cities, infection rates are approaching double digits within this group. No one really knows how large the problem is since these men live in the shadows and are reluctant to get tested for fear of retribution. The government’s statistics are typically suspect anyway.

Also of concern is the fact that the income gap is widening significantly. Ominously, an Asian Development Bank (ADB) report indicates that this gap is threatening stability, most notably in China and India. According to the Sunday Times of London, bankruptcies, unemployment and social unrest are spreading more widely in China than officially reported, “painting an ominous picture for the world economy.” Furthermore, strikes and protests are also spreading, as are government efforts to suppress them.

Many challenges remain for China. So what’s the prognosis for the future?
 
As China grows, it still faces many hurdles – from access to raw materials and rising labour rates to environmental degradation and an aging population. Young people, with a taste of Western glitter and consumption, won’t “do” with the road their parents and grandparents have traveled.

Chongqing of old (credit: Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing)
The former "stick people" of Chongqing who carried goods up to the city from the riverside don't have as far to haul goods today. The river is 15 metres higher 200 km upstream from the Three Gorges dam.  Funiculars have also taken over from manual labourers in recent years.

The people we talked to said that one of its biggest challenges is China’s regimented two-class system of urban versus rural life. Citizens in urban areas have seen their quality of life rise to western standards while some rural communities labour under 19th century conditions. Mobility for rural residents is restricted, institutionalizing their lot in life. When they do make it to the city, they are classified as migrants and denied many of the services documented urban residents receive. It has created an uneasy tension ripe for upheaval. 

Similarly, there are concerns about the lack of an independent judiciary. Money and connection trumps justice, most of the time. Transparency and good governance are also in short supply. For example, the chief judge of Beijing reports to the city’s mayor, creating an unhealthy dynamic. It remains to be seen how long the country can continue to operate as a one-party state. 

While there have been attempts at bringing some democracy to the village and township level, cronyism and privilege still are defining characteristics of the system. Many of the people we’ve talked to on this trip are relatively happy with the country’s economic progress, proud of its achievements and not overly concerned with political reform. To many, the idea of change from the system they know is almost unimaginable, perhaps the result of hard discipline and swift punishment of stepping out of line.

That jives with other media analysis suggesting that China’s approach to “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” is not necessarily seeking to emulate our western model. It could also be that the dizzying rate of change is turning the country inward, making it more nationalistic.

Having seen China “then and now”, one thing is certain as far as I am concerned. China has clearly found its footing and is rising to the pre-eminent position it held many centuries ago. As an ancient culture, its path forward will be on its own terms and according to its own values. That’s something we’ll definitely have to get comfortable with in the West.
 
What a difference 20 years makes, indeed.

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