By Katie Ross, Breck School
Bicycles, pollution, and rice paddies - those three elements defined my memory of China prior to this trip. My parents and I went to Hong Kong in 1997 and Mainland China in 2000, so while I didn’t remember much about the country, my perspective was shaped by what I took in as a 5- and 8-year old. I remembered streets where bikes far outnumbered cars and where entire families piled onto a small, one-gear bike. I remembered the grey haze that seemed ever present in the cities. And I remembered lush, green rice paddies of the Guilin countryside farmed by a single farmer maneuvering a steel plow behind a water buffalo. That is how I remembered China, but now after 10 years, another trip, and immense changes in China, I have a new impression of China.
I’m not the only one who has noticed changes; China’s progress over the past decade has caught the attention of many including NPR’s Rob Gifford, who wrote about the developments in his book, China Road. According to Gifford and many other analysts, China has undergone immense changes in its economic, political, and social systems in recent years that have changed the face of the country and its role in global politics.
The economic changes that have occurred in China are astonishing. Even though China is not a democracy, it is very much a capitalistic society, and over the past 10 years, that characteristic has become much more pronounced. Small farms are being combined to form larger ones and the job once done by a man, his plow, and his water buffalo is now done by high-tech equipment. According to a report in Architectural Record, the Chinese consume 54.7 percent of the concrete and 36.1 percent of the steel produced in the world. I witnessed the immense usage of these products as I saw countless cranes and buildings in the process of being built in every city we visited. China’s economy is no longer dominated by agriculture; it’s become a booming industrial superpower.
Politically, China has transitioned from a reclusive Communist country to a nation that is now seeking the limelight on the global stage. This week marked the twenty year anniversary of the student protests at Tiananmen Square. In 1989, student protestors voiced their disapproval of the government’s authoritarianism and calls for economic change. The Chinese government violently put down the protest killing over 7,000 people. Little has ever been published about the massacre that is available to Chinese citizens. However, China is beginning to move away from this isolated approach and rather is thrusting itself into the global spectrum. The 2008 Beijing Olympics were a perfect example of China’s desire to break from its long-term hermitlike existence. China spent billions on its own “coming out party” with the 2008 Olympics where it invited the world to see it as a clean, beautiful, stable country ready to compete with the rest of the world’s superpowers. China is now a powerful global force to be reckoned with.
Since Mao’s attempted leveling of society during the Cultural Revolution, China has resumed a course of social stratification. Where once bikes may have taken up space on the street, now there are BMWs, Audis, and Mercedes. Ten years ago, expensive European cars were commonplace in Hong Kong, but not in Mainland China. Since then, many hutong communities have been leveled. The communities are now fewer and farther between and serve as tourist destinations rather than examples of a typical Chinese way of life. A new status-aware upper middle class has emerged and huge emphasis is being put on prestige and appearance. People long for exclusivity: expensive cars, nice apartments, designer clothes, and membership at private golf clubs. China seems more Western than I remembered it before. Often on the trip, I felt like I could have been in a large United States city with the designer shops, nice cars, and huge skyscrapers. The Chinese social sphere is moving away from the farmer-based majority of Mao’s time to a competitive, materialistic one where exclusivity and prestige are top priorities.
China has undergone immense changes over the past decade, but then, I’ve changed a bit, too. I’ve gone from a wide-eyed, white-blond haired girl who happily smiled in countless photos with Chinese strangers to a young adult more fully able to appreciate the Chinese language, culture, history, food, and people. I look forward to returning to China again someday to witness its further evolution.