Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Change in China

Tom Grimmer, who has worked in China since 1985, wrote an insightful op-ed piece for The Globe and Mail (Toronto). He reflects on changes in China since the days of Deng Xiaoping.

I'd suggest you assign this article before students look at their textbook chapter on China. The examples Grimmer cites are vivid illustrations of how China has changed in the past 30 years. Of course, that might mean that adults who remember the past have a harder time understanding the "new" China than younger students who know only that new China.

Grimmer reminds us, "China has now been longer in the Deng mode than it was in the Mao mode. Is this communism? Yes, but let's call it Communism 2.0. That... leaves open the tantalizing prospect of the upgrades to come."

Life after Deng

"Thirty years on, we know what Mr. Deng set in motion. By now, we can almost recite the gee-whiz statistics: the world's third-largest economy, 40 million new Internet users every year, 600 million cellphones, $2-trillion (U.S.) in foreign-exchange holdings and — my own favourite — the planet's biggest consumer of cement. This country has seen the greatest poverty-alleviation effort in history. Yes, yes, we've heard it all. But somehow, knowing this does not quite do this place justice...

"The Economist asked a few weeks ago: "Can China save the world?" It was an economic basket-case 30 years ago, but we're now counting on China's engine to keep the global economy ticking over. Its recently announced four-trillion-yuan ($72-billion) stimulus package has everyone hoping.

"Despite the saturation coverage that China gets, what I hear from most first-time visitors is 'I had no idea.' That normally refers to China's pockets of affluence, its stunning infrastructure and just what a simply cool place it can be. For whatever reason, after 30 years of China's open door, people don't fully get it unless they've been here...

"China has an image problem, and that old communist tag doesn't help. Of course, the Chinese Communist Party runs the place, but it could just as easily be called the Chinese Pragmatist Party these days...

"Of course, China has many deep-seated problems, too. For starters: a paucity of human rights, a growing gap between rich and poor, the environment, Internet censorship, a crumbling social-safety net that isn't being repaired quickly enough. Pretty much anyone you talk to in China these days will frankly acknowledge all these points; that's the difference between now and when I arrived in 1985...

"Politics and economics are the two areas where there's the greatest disconnect between foreign hopes and Chinese reality. For 15 years, various commentators have been saying China is ripe for political change. It hasn't happened. In any event, China is not going to be a liberal democracy in our lifetimes and whatever system does evolve here will probably never suit Western tastes. Get over it..."

If you would like some images to accompany Grimmer's essay, I suggest you look at the photo blog, Xiboy. Wen Ling, a Beijing photographer, takes pictures on his trips around Beijing of his family and friends. If you look through the archives of the blog, you'll find photos of the "pockets of affluence" as well as middle class neighborhoods, art galleries, punk rock concerts, and the Olympic stadium. (You'll also see photographs from his trips to New York, New Jersey, Boston, and Vancouver.)

Photos by Wen Ling.

A middle class hutong in Beijing.

Punk rockers in Beijing.

Middle school students still "learning from Lei Feng."

Re: Lei Feng -- see Lei Feng at Stefan R. Landsberger's web site of Chinese political posters.

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